Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (4 page)

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Lawrence Gordon, a three-term senator from my side of the aisle who, like every senator, thinks he should be president. But unlike most of them, he’s willing to consider running against a sitting president from his own party.

He’s also on the wrong side of our party and our country on both these issues. He voted against a minimum-wage hike, and he likes the Second Amendment, at least as the NRA defines it, better than the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments combined. Jenny wants to take out his knees before he even considers lacing up his shoes.

“Gordon won’t primary me,” I say. “He doesn’t have the balls.”

“Nobody’s watching the Algeria story more closely than Gordon,” says Jenny.

I look at Carolyn. Jenny has sharp political instincts, but Carolyn has instincts plus institutional knowledge of DC from her time in Congress. She’s also the smartest person I’ve ever met.

“I’m not afraid of Gordon primarying you,” says Carolyn. “I’m afraid of him
thinking
about primarying you. Privately encouraging speculation. Allowing himself to be courted. Reading his name in the
Times
or on CNN. What’s there to lose for him? It gives him a leg up down the road. He gets a nice ego stroke, too. Who’s more popular than a challenger? He’s like a backup quarterback—everyone loves him while he’s sitting on the sidelines. Gordon will get nothing but a nice vanity tour out of it, but meanwhile, your credibility is undercut every second it happens. He looks bright and shiny; you look weak.”

I nod. That all sounds right.

“I think we should float the minimum wage or the assault-weapons ban,” she says. “We make Gordon come to us and ask us to sit on them. Then he owes us. And he knows if he screws us, we’ll shove a legislative item or two up his keester.”

“Remind me never to piss you off, Carolyn.”

“The vice president is on board with this,” says Jenny.

“Of course she is.” Carolyn makes a face. She has a healthy suspicion of Kathy Brandt, who was my chief opponent for the nomination. She was the right choice for vice president, but that doesn’t make her my closest ally. Either way, Kathy would make the same calculation in her own self-interest. If I’m removed from office, she becomes president, and she will almost immediately be running for election. She doesn’t need Larry Gordon or anyone else getting any ideas.

“While I agree with your analysis of the problem,” I say, “I think your proposed solution is too cute by half. I want to come out strong for both measures. But I won’t back off for Gordon. We’ll force the opposition’s hand. It’s the right thing to do, and win or lose, we’ll be strong and they’ll be wrong.”

Jenny pipes up. “That’s the person I voted for, sir. I think you should do it, but I still don’t think it will be enough. You are seen as really weak right now, and I don’t think
any
domestic policy move can fix it. The phone call to Suliman. The Algeria nightmare. You need a commander-in-chief moment. A rally-around-the-leader mo—”

“No,” I say, reading her mind. “Jenny, I’m not ordering a military strike just to look tough.”

“There are any number of safe targets, Mr. President. It’s not like I’m asking you to invade France. How about one of the drone targets in the Middle East, but instead of a drone, escalate it to a full aerial—”

“No. The answer is no.”

She puts her hands on her hips, shakes her head. “Your wife was right. You really are a shitty politician.”

“But she meant it as a compliment.”

“Mr. President, can I be blunt?” she says.

“You haven’t been so far?”

She puts her hands out in front of her, as if trying to frame the issue for me, or maybe she’s pleading with me. “You’re going to be impeached,” she says. “And if you don’t do something to turn things around, something dramatic, the senators in your own party will jump ship. And I know you won’t resign. It isn’t in your DNA. Which means President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan will be remembered in history for one thing and one thing only. You’ll be the first president forcibly removed from office.”

A
fter talking with Jenny and Carolyn, I head across the hall into my bedroom, where Deborah Lane is already opening her bag of goodies.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” she says.

I pull down on my tie, unbutton my shirt. “Top of the morning, Doc.”

She focuses on me, appraises me, and doesn’t look happy. I seem to have that effect on a lot of people these days.

“You forgot to shave again,” she says.

“I’ll shave later.” It’s actually four days running now that I haven’t shaved. When I was in college, at UNC, I had this superstitious routine—I didn’t shave during finals week. It tended to shock people because, though the hair on my head is probably best described as light brown, my facial hair doesn’t follow script: somehow, an orange pigment creeps in to give me a fiery auburn beard. And I can grow a beard fast; by the end of finals, everyone was calling me Paul Bunyan.

I never thought much about that after college. Until now.

“You look tired,” she says. “How many hours did you sleep last night?”

“Two or three.”

“That’s not enough, Mr. President.”

“I have a few balls in the air right now.”

“Which you won’t be able to juggle without sleep.” She puts her stethoscope on my bare chest.

Dr. Deborah Lane is not my official doctor but a specialist in hematology at Georgetown. She grew up under apartheid in South Africa but fled to the United States for high school and never left. Her close-cropped hair is now completely gray. Her eyes are probing but kind.

For the last week, she’s come to the White House every day because it’s easier and less conspicuous if a professional-looking woman—albeit one with a not-very-well-disguised medical bag—visits the White House as opposed to the president visiting MedStar Georgetown University Hospital on a daily basis.

She puts the blood-pressure wrap on my arm. “How’ve you been feeling?”

“I have a gigantic pain in my ass,” I say. “Can you look and see if the Speaker of the House is up there?”

She shoots me a look but doesn’t laugh. Not even a smirk.

“Physically,” I say, “I feel fine.”

She shines a light inside my mouth. She looks closely at my torso, my abdomen, my arms and legs, turns me around and does the same on my other side.

“Bruising is worsening,” she says.

“I know.” It used to look like a rash. Now it looks more like someone has been pummeling the backs of my legs with hammers.

In my first term as governor of North Carolina, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder known as immune thrombocytopenia—ITP—which basically means a low platelet count. My blood doesn’t always clot as well as it should. I announced it publicly at the time and told the truth—most of the time, the ITP isn’t an issue. I was told to avoid activities that could lead to bleeding, which wasn’t hard for a man in his forties. My baseball days were long over, and I was never much for bullfighting or knife juggling.

The disorder flared up twice during my time as governor but left me alone during the campaign for the presidency. It reemerged when Rachel’s cancer returned—my doctor is convinced that an overload of stress is a significant cause of relapse—but I treated it easily. It returned a week ago, when the bruising under the skin on my calves first started appearing. The rapid discoloration and spread of bruising tells both of us the same thing—this is the worst case I’ve had yet.

“Headaches?” Dr. Deb asks. “Dizziness? Fever?”

“No, no, and no.”

“Fatigue?”

“From lack of sleep, sure.”

“Nosebleeds?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Blood in your teeth or gums?”

“Toothbrush is clean.”

“Blood in your urine or stool?”

“No.” It’s hard to be humble when they play a song for you every time you enter the room, when the world financial markets hang on your every word, and when you command the world’s greatest military arsenal, but if you need to knock yourself down a few pegs, try checking your stool for blood.

She steps back and hums to herself. “I’m going to draw blood again,” she says. “I was very concerned by your count yesterday. You were under twenty thousand. I don’t know how you talked me out of hospitalizing you right then and there.”

“I talked you out of it,” I say, “because I’m the president of the United States.”

“I keep forgetting.”

“I can do twenty thousand, Doc.”

The normal range for platelets is between 150,000 and 450,000 per microliter. So nobody’s throwing a parade for a count under 20,000, but it’s still above the critical stage.

“You’re taking your steroids?”

“Religiously.”

She reaches into her bag, then gets to work rubbing alcohol on my arm with a swab. I’m not looking forward to the blood draw, because she’s not great with needles. She’s out of practice. At her high level of specialty, somebody else usually performs the rudimentary tasks. But I have to limit the number of people in this world who know about this. My ITP disorder may be public knowledge, but nobody needs to know how bad it is right now,
especially
right now. So she’s a one-person show for the time being.

“Let’s do a protein treatment,” she says.

“What—now?”

“Yes, now.”

“The last time I did that I couldn’t string a sentence together for the better part of a day. That’s a nonstarter, Doc. Not today.”

She stops, the swab in her hand trailing down to my knuckles.

“Then a steroid infusion.”

“No. The pills mess with my head enough.”

Her head angles slightly as she considers her response. I’m not the usual patient, after all. Most patients do whatever their doctors tell them. Most patients are not leaders of the free world.

She goes back to prepping my arm, frowning deeply, until she has the needle poised. “Mr. President,” she says in a tone I heard my grade-school teachers use, “you can tell anyone else in the world what to do. But you can’t order your body around.”

“Doc, I—”

“You’re at risk of internal bleeding,” she says. “Bleeding in the brain. You could have a stroke. Whatever it is you’re dealing with, it can’t be worth
that
risk.”

She looks me in the eye. I don’t respond. Which in itself is a response.

“It’s something that bad?” she whispers. She shakes her head, waves her hand. “Don’t. I—I know you can’t tell me.”

Yes, it’s something that bad. And the attack could come an hour from now or later today. It could have happened twenty seconds ago, and Carolyn could be rushing in to tell me about it right now.

I can’t be out of commission for even an hour, much less several. I can’t risk it.

“It has to wait,” I say. “A couple of days, probably.”

A bit rattled by what she doesn’t know, Deb just nods and plunges the needle into my arm.

“I’ll double the steroids,” I say, which means it will feel like I’ve drunk four beers instead of two. It’s a line I have to straddle. I can’t be out of commission, but I have to stay alive.

She finishes in silence, packing away the blood draw in her bag and getting ready to leave. “You have your job, and I have mine,” she says. “I’ll get the labs back within two hours. But we both know your count is cratering.”

“Yes, we do.”

She stops at the doorway and turns to me. “You don’t have a couple of days, Mr. President,” she says. “You might not even have one.”

T
oday, and only today, they will celebrate.

He must give them that. His small team has worked day and night, with purpose and devotion and with great success. Everyone needs a break.

The wind off the river lifts his hair. He pulls on his cigarette, the orange tip glowing in the dim early evening air. He savors the view from the penthouse terrace overlooking the river Spree, the city bustling across the water—the East Side Gallery, the entertainment center. The Mercedes-Benz Arena is hosting a concert tonight. He doesn’t recognize the group’s name, but the muted sounds, audible even from across the river, tell him that the music involves heavy guitar and a thumping bass. This part of Berlin has changed considerably since he was last here, a mere four years ago.

He turns back to look inside the penthouse, 160 square meters, with four bedrooms and a designer open-plan kitchen where his team is laughing and gesturing, pouring Champagne and probably already halfway drunk. The four of them, all geniuses in their own right, none of them over the age of twenty-five, some of them probably still virgins.

Elmurod, his stomach hanging over his belt, his beard unkempt, wearing an insipid blue hat that reads
VET WWIII
. Mahmad, already with his shirt off, showing off his decidedly unimpressive biceps in a mock bodybuilder pose. All four of them turn toward the door, and Elmurod goes to answer it. When the door opens, eight women walk in, all wearing teased-up hair and skintight dresses, all with bodies of centerfolds, all paid princely sums to show his team the night of their lives.

He steps carefully along the terrace, wary of the heat and pressure sensors—deactivated right now, of course—rigged to detonate the entire terrace should anything heavier than a bird land on it. It set him back nearly a million euros, these precautions.

But what’s one million euros when you’re about to earn a hundred million?

One of the prostitutes, an Asian who can’t be over twenty, with boobs that can’t be real, with a sudden interest in him that can’t be sincere, approaches him as he walks back into the penthouse and slides the door shut.

“Wie lautet dein name?”
she asks.
What is your name?

He smiles. She is just flirting, playing a part. She doesn’t care what he tells her.

But there are people who would pay anything, or do anything, to know the answer to her question. And just once, he’d like to let down his guard and answer the question truthfully.

I am Suliman Cindoruk,
he’d like to say.
And I’m about to reboot the world.