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Words reached the Secretary's ears in a matter of minutes: the prisoners had arrived and had been placed in lockup.

His Praetorians had done wonders. They had nabbed not only the renegade Lockheart but two of the Cerberus operatives as a bonus. The other two had escaped overboard.

The elation was short-lived. Balkan twitched nervously, sweat beading his scalp, his heart galloping all day. He couldn't shake a nagging foreboding that at the moment of triumph — he was about to fall. The powers could still turn him into a scapegoat.

The ominous feeling, like the Ides of March, continued to needle his brain.

No telling how the White House would react if this sideshow was discovered. Have him arrested? Dallas-Austin had assured his protection, but that was no guarantee. The PIP would cut him loose just as they did with the incumbent, and twice as fast. Balkan was desperate to bury Carnivora, Cerberus, and Caracas, all the cancers that were plaguing him -- before Conclave. He was so close now, the last hurdle before his nomination by the PIP. In six months, none of this would matter with him installed in the new Oval Office. President Balkan -- it rang right.

Lisbeth was right all along: he who has the spears makes the rules. With his Praetorians, he would take back Executive power from Dallas-Austin and be as powerful as any Chairmark. The plans were coming to fruition, the dreams tickling his belly. But I have promises to keep . . . The White House has spies in the Bureau as well as in Oz, don't kid yourself. So the faster this is over, the faster I can sleep.

Balkan summoned a dozen of his Praetorians and set about for Oz.

It was nearing 10 PM and the correctional facility was in nightly lock-down. Most of the day personnel had gone home. The guards' night shift was a skeleton crew and General Population was in their cells. Balkan hoped his entry wouldn't raise any alarm, and if it did, his men would take care of that.

The trip to Oz-Reston took a little less than five minutes by air, which was too long for an anxious Balkan, his fingers tapping with nervous energy.

Upon landing onto the rooftop of the block-long building dotted with red blinkers and dish antennas, he led the way to the elevator, trailed by his bodyguards.

They stepped into an Otis lift and pressed G.

The chief administrator, a sort of warden rushed from his office to meet the Secretary.

"We've held questioning until you've arrived," the warden reported, keeping up the quick gait astride Balkan.

"Good," the Secretary said. "You have them in a secure area?"

"They're in the isolation wing."

"No prisoner manifest, I hope?"

"The admission was off the books, sir."

"Let's see them, then."

The warden snapped his fingers at the attending guards.

The pace of the entourage was snappy, moving along the subterranean Correctional Facility via an underground conveyor walkway.

Coming into the first security stratum through the jail lobby, the group took a second elevator down to B1, then B2. It stopped at B3. The warden placed his palm against a biometric wall scanner. A green horizontal light rose from the panel, engulfing his thick fingers; the distinct swirl patterns verified against security records logged in a clearance database.

ID confirmed, the lift freed itself and continued to the underworld.

"We're now in the facility's heart, sir," the prison official explained as he led the entourage onto a wide catwalk thirty feet above the hard floor. "Down there is General Population."

Below them was a courtyard furnished with bolt-in aluminum tables and metal seats. Rows of multi-unit cells stood against the back walls, their doors closed, prisoners secured in their cells.

Two guards with tasers came out of the over-watch fishbowl to meet them: Tweedledee and Tweedledum, bald and portly security men in black police uniforms with DOC patches sewn onto their left breasts.

"Send them away," Balkan instructed the warden.

The prison administrator intercepted them. "Officers, turn in your badges and go home. No questions. You will have full credit of hours worked."

The guards complied.

Another elevator took the group lower until they emerged into a short hallway where they faced an arresting set of gates. Beyond that, the wet room.

The Praetorians ushered Balkan into a dark room filled with electronics. And through the long silver-glass mirror, he saw a connecting room with two people strapped into dentist chairs. The man he recognized with dripping malice, the woman with indifference.

"Appreciate the assist," Balkan said to a man sitting in a corner shrouded in shadow who hadn't gotten up when the VIP appeared. "Couldn't have done it without you."

The shadow said, "We have a bargain, I expect you to honor."

"That depends on the results," Balkan said, then to the inquisitors waiting. "Let's get this madness over with."

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