Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (6 page)

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“Lester, this is the job you signed up for. Whether you knew it or not, whether you like it or not. You’re right. There are no promises here. No sure things. I am the commander in chief, looking you in the eye and telling you that the security of this country is in jeopardy and I need your help. Are you going to help me or not?”

It doesn’t take him long. He works his jaw, looks at his hands. “Mr. President, I’d like to help you, but you have to understand, we have a responsib—”

“Damn it, Lester, put your country first!” I push myself out of my chair too fast, feeling wobbly, the anger consuming me. “I’m wasting my breath.”

Lester rises from the couch, shoots his cuffs again, straightens his tie. “So we’ll be seeing you on Monday?” As if nothing I said remotely registered with him. The only thing he cares about is returning to his caucus and telling them he stood up to me.

“You think you know what you’re doing,” I say, “but you don’t have the slightest idea.”

I
stare at the door after Speaker Rhodes leaves. I’m not sure what I expected of him. Old-fashioned patriotism? A sense of responsibility, maybe? A bit of trust in the president?

Dream on. There is no trust anymore. In the current environment, there’s no gain in it. All the incentives push people in the opposite directions.

So Rhodes will go to his corner, leading a charge he can’t really control because his caucus twitches at each tweet. Some days, my side isn’t much better. Participation in our democracy seems to be driven by the instant-gratification worlds of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. We’re using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sells—conflict and division. It’s also quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps evidence. A sanctimonious, sneering one-liner, no matter how bogus, is seen as straight talk, while a calm, well-argued response is seen as canned and phony. It reminds me of the old political joke: Why do you take such an instant dislike to people? It saves a lot of time.

What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting? That’s hard to even define anymore, as the line between fact and fiction, between truth and lies, gets murkier every day.

We can’t survive without a free press, dedicated to preserving that fine line and secure enough to follow the facts where they lead. But the current environment imposes serious pressures on our journalists, at least those who cover politics, to do just the reverse—to exercise their own power and to, in the words of one wise columnist, “abnormalize” all politicians, even honest, able ones, often because of relatively insignificant issues.

Scholars call this false equivalency. It means that when you find a mountain to expose in one person or party, you have to pick a molehill on the other side and make it into a mountain to avoid being accused of bias. The built-up molehills also have large benefits: increased coverage on the evening news, millions of retweets, and more talk-show fodder. When the mountains and molehills all look the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, we’re often drowned out by the passion of the day.

There’s a real cost to this. It breeds more frustration, polarization, paralysis, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. But with no incentive to actually accomplish something, more and more politicians just go with the flow, fanning the flames of anger and resentment, when they should be acting as the fire brigade. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but the immediate rewards are so great we stagger on, just assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault without doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life.

I ran for president to change that vicious cycle. I hope I still can. But right now, I have to deal with the wolf at the door.

JoAnn walks in and says, “Danny and Alex are here.”

JoAnn used to work for the governor I succeeded in North Carolina. As he was leaving office and I was on my way in, she ran the transition with an efficiency that impressed me. Everyone was afraid of her. I was told not to hire her because she came from “them”—the opposing political party—but JoAnn told me, “Mr. Governor-Elect, I just got divorced, I have two kids in middle school, and I’m broke. I’m never late, I’m never sick, I can type faster’n you can spit, and if you’re acting like a donkey’s ass, I’ll be the first to let you know it.” She’s been with me ever since. Her oldest just started in the Treasury Department.

“Mr. President,” says Danny Akers, White House counsel. Danny and I were next-door neighbors in Wilkes County, North Carolina, growing up in a tiny town all of one square mile in area, nestled between a highway and a single traffic signal. We swam and fished and skateboarded and played ball and hunted together. We taught each other how to knot a tie and jump-start a car and string a pole and throw a breaking ball. We went through everything together—grade school through college at UNC. We even enlisted together, joining the Rangers as E-4s after college. The only thing we didn’t experience together was Desert Storm: Danny wasn’t assigned to Bravo Company, as I was, so he never saw action in Iraq.

While I was trying, unsuccessfully, to overcome my injuries from Desert Storm and play pro ball in Double A in Memphis, Danny was starting law school at UNC. He was the one who vouched for me to Rachel Carson, a 3L when I entered UNC Law.

“Mr. President.” Alex Trimble—the barrel chest and buzz cut practically scream out “Secret Service” when you first look at him. He’s not exactly a laugh a minute, but he’s as straight and strong as they come, and he runs my security detail as efficiently as a military operation.

“Sit, sit.” I should go back to my desk, but I sit on the couch.

“Mr. President,” says Danny, “my memorandum on title 18, section 3056.” He hands me the document. “You want the long or the short version?” he asks, knowing the answer already.

“Short.” The last thing I feel like doing is reading legal-speak right now. I have no doubt the memo was prepared with precision. I always loved the battlefield of the courtroom as a prosecutor, but Danny was the scholar, combing over new Supreme Court opinions for fun, debating fine points of law, and prizing the written word. He left his law firm to be my counsel when I was governor of North Carolina. He was great at it until the then-president nominated him to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He loved that job and could have held it happily for life had I not been elected president and asked him to join me again.

“Just tell me what I can and can’t do,” I say.

Danny winks at me. “The statute says you can’t decline protection. But there is precedent for temporarily refusing it as part of your right to personal privacy.”

Alex Trimble is already leveling a stare at me. I’ve previously broached this topic with him, so this isn’t coming completely out of the blue, but he was obviously hoping Danny would talk me out of it.

“Mr. President,” Alex says, “with all due respect, you can’t be serious.”

“Serious as a heart attack.”

“Now, of all times, sir—”

“It’s decided,” I say.

“We can do a loose perimeter,” he says. “Or at least some advance work.”

“No.”

Alex clutches the arms of his chair, his mouth slightly agape.

“I need a minute with my White House counsel,” I say to him.

“Mr. President, please don’t—”

“Alex,” I say. “I need a minute with Danny.”

With a heavy sigh and a shake of the head, Alex leaves us.

Danny looks back at the door to ensure we’re alone. Then he looks at me.

“Son, you’ve gone crazier’n a March hare,” he says, a hint of the old twang in his voice as he invokes my mama’s favorite saying. He knows them all as well as I do. Danny’s parents were good, hardworking people, but they were away from home a lot. His dad put in a lot of overtime for a trucking company, and his mom worked the night shift at the local plant.

My father was a high school math teacher who died in a car crash when I was four. So when I was a kid, we lived on a grade school teacher’s partial pension and what Mama earned waiting tables at Curly Ray’s by Millers Creek. But she was always home at night, so she helped the Akerses out with Danny. She loved him like a second son; he spent as much time at our house as his own.

Normally when he triggers those memories, it brings a smile to my face. Instead, I lean forward and rub my hands together.

“Okay, you wanna tell me what’s going on?” he tries. “You’re starting to freak me out.”

Join the club. I feel my guard slowly lowering, being alone with Danny. In this job, he and Rachel were always my ports in a storm.

I look up at him. “We’re a long way from catching brookies at Garden Creek,” I say.

“Good. Because you could never cast a line to save your life anyway.”

Again, I don’t smile.

“You’re right where you’re supposed to be, Mr. President,” he says. “If the shit’s hitting the fan, you’re the guy I want in charge.”

I let out air, nod my head.

“Hey.” Danny gets up from his chair and sits down next to me on the couch. He lightly punches my knee. “Being in charge isn’t being alone. I’m right here. Same place I’ve always been, no matter what your title is. Same place I’ll always be.”

“Yeah, I—I know.” I look at him. “I know that.”

“This isn’t about the impeachment bullshit, is it? Because that’ll work itself out. Lester Rhodes? That boy’s so dumb he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were on the bottom.”

He’s pulling out all the stops, dusting off another of Mama Lil’s greatest hits. He’s trying to take me back to her, to her strength. After Daddy died, she cracked the whip as hard as any drill sergeant I’d later meet, smacking me in the head if she heard a double negative or an
ain’t,
telling me I’d go to college or she’d tan my hide. She’d go to work early and come home in the afternoon with two Styrofoam cartons of food that would be dinner for Danny and me. I’d rub her feet while she checked our homework and interrogated us about our day at school. She always said,
You boys aren’t rich enough to afford not to pay attention
.

“It’s that other thing, isn’t it?” says Danny. “That thing that you can’t tell me, that’s had you canceling half your schedule for the last two weeks? The reason that you’ve suddenly become so interested in martial law and habeas corpus and price controls? Whatever it is that’s kept you quiet as falling snow about Suliman Cindoruk and Algeria while Lester Rhodes beats the snot out of you?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s that thing.”

“Yeah.” Danny clears his throat, drums his fingers. “Scale of 1 to 10,” he says. “How bad?”

“A thousand.”

“Jesus. And you have to go off leash? I gotta tell you, that sounds like a terrible idea.”

It just might be. But it’s the best one I have.

“You’re scared,” he says.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

We are quiet for a long moment.

“You know when the last time was I saw you this scared?”

“When Ohio put me over 270 electoral votes?”

“No.”

“When I found out Bravo Company was deploying?”

“No, sir.”

I look at him.

“When we were getting off that bus at Fort Benning,” he says. “And Sergeant Melton was calling out, ‘Where’re the E-4s? Where’re the goddamn frat-boy maggots?’ We weren’t off the damn bus yet, and the sergeant was already sharpening his knives for the college boys, who got to start at a higher pay and rank.”

I chuckle. “I remember.”

“Yeah. Never forget your first smoke session, right? I saw the look on your face when we were walking down the aisle of that bus. It was probably the same as the look on mine. Scared as a mouse in a snake pit. Do you remember what you did?”

“Piss my pants?”

Danny turns and looks at me squarely. “You don’t remember, do you, Ranger?”

“I swear I don’t.”

“You stepped in front of me,” he says.

“I did?”

“You sure as hell did. I’d been in the aisle seat, and you were by the window. So I was in front of you, in the aisle. But the moment the sergeant started going off about the E-4s, you elbowed your way in front of me so you’d be the first one off the bus to face him, not me. Scared as you were, that was your first instinct, to look out for me.”

“Huh.” I don’t remember that.

Danny pats my leg. “So go ahead and be scared, President Duncan,” he says. “You’re still the one I want protecting us.”

A
s the sun warms her face, as her earbuds fill her with the music of Wilhelm Friedemann Herzog performing the full set of Johann Sebastian’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Bach decides that there are worse ways to spend time than sightseeing at the National Mall.

The Lincoln Memorial, with its Greek columns and imposing marble statue perched atop a seemingly endless staircase, is inappropriately magisterial, better suited for a deity than a president revered for his humility. But that contradiction is quintessentially American, typical of a nation that was built on the premise of freedom, liberty, and individual rights but that tramples freely on those principles abroad.

These thoughts pass only as observations; geopolitical policy is not what drives her. And, like the country itself, this memorial, for all its irony, is no less magnificent.

The reflecting pool, shimmering in the midmorning sun. The veterans’ memorials, especially the Korean War memorial, move her in a way she hadn’t expected.

But her favorite attraction was the one she visited earlier this morning—Ford’s Theatre, the site of the most daring presidential assassination in the nation’s history.

It is bright enough outside to force one to squint, which makes her oversize sunglasses a natural. She puts to good use the camera around her neck, making sure to capture multiple shots of everything—the Washington Monument, close-ups of Abe and FDR and Eleanor, inscriptions at the veterans’ memorials—to cover herself in the unlikely event that anyone should happen to inquire how Isabella Mercado—the name on her passport—spent her day.

In her earbuds now are the soulful cries of the chorus, the dancing violins of the
Saint John Passion,
the dramatic confrontation between Pilate and Christ and the masses.

Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!

Away, away with him, crucify him!

She closes her eyes, as she often does, losing herself in the music, imagining herself sitting inside the Saint Nicholas Church in Leipzig when the passion was first played, in 1724, wondering how the composer must have felt hearing his work come to life, observing its beauty wash over the congregants.

She was born in the wrong century.

When she opens her eyes, she sees a woman sitting on a bench, nursing her child. A flutter passes through her. She removes her earbuds and watches this woman, looking down as her infant feeds from her, a soft smile on the mother’s face. That, Bach knows, is what they mean when they say “love.”

She remembers love. She remembers her mother, the feeling of her more than a visual image, though the latter is buoyed by the two photographs she managed to escape with. She remembers her brother more clearly, though unfortunately it’s hard to remember anything but the scowl on his face, the look of pure hatred in his eyes, the last time they saw each other. He has a wife and two daughters now. He is happy, she thinks. He has love, she hopes.

She pops another ginger candy in her mouth and hails a cab.

“M Street Southwest and Capitol Street Southwest,” she says, probably sounding like a tourist, but that works just fine.

She stifles the nausea brought on by the greasy smell and the jerky movements of the cab. She puts her earbuds back in to prevent conversation with the chatty African driver. She pays in cash and breathes in fresh air for a few moments before proceeding to the restaurant.

A pub, it’s called, serving all manner of slaughtered animals on massive plates with an assortment of fried vegetables. She is invited to
TRY OUR NACHOS!
—which, from what she can tell, consist of a plate of fried tortillas and processed cheese, a few token vegetables, and more meat from more slaughtered animals.

She doesn’t eat animals. She wouldn’t kill an animal. Animals never did anything to deserve it.

She sits on a stool fronting the window at a ledge intended for single customers, looking out over the street, massive vehicles lined up at a traffic light, scrolling advertisements on billboards for various beers and fast food and “auto loans” and clothing stores and movies. The streets are crowded with people. The restaurant is not; it is just now eleven in the morning, so the lunch rush, as they call it, has not yet begun. The menu offers almost nothing she could stomach. She orders a soft drink and soup and waits.

Overhead, clouds the color of ash have begun to appear throughout the sky. The newspaper said there is a 30 percent chance of rain.

Which means there is a 70 percent chance that she will complete her assignment tonight.

A man takes the seat next to her, to her left. She does not look at him. Face forward, her eyes glance only at the counter, waiting for the crossword puzzle to show.

A moment later, the man slaps down the newspaper, folded open to the crossword, and enters letters into the squares on the top horizontal line of the puzzle.

The letters say:
C O N F I R M E D

Looking down at her map of the National Mall, she uses a ballpoint pen to write in the white space on top:
Freight elevator?

The man, pretending to be considering another clue, taps his pencil on the word he already wrote.

The waiter arrives with her soft drink. She takes a long sip and savors the carbonation’s settling effect on her roiling stomach. She writes,
Backup?

He taps the same word again, confirming once more.

Then, in a “down” column on the crossword puzzle, he writes:
Y O U H A V E I D

I have it,
she writes. She adds,
If it rains, meet at 9?

He writes,
I T W O N T

She seethes, but she will say nothing and do nothing but wait.

Y E S A T N I N E,
he writes in a lower horizontal column.

He gets up before the waiter can take his order, leaving the crossword puzzle on the counter next to her. She slides it over and opens the newspaper more fully, as if interested in one of the articles. The map and the newspaper will be destroyed and discarded in separate trash bins.

She is already looking forward to leaving tonight. She has little doubt that she will perform her task. The only thing she can’t control is the weather.

She has never prayed in her life, but if she did, she would pray for no rain.