Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (9 page)

Advertising Download Read Online

I
walk into Treasury’s underground parking garage with my head angled downward, hands in the pockets of my blue jeans, my leather shoes moving softly along the asphalt. I am not the only person down here at this hour, so my presence is not conspicuous by any means, though I’m dressed more casually than the departing employees of the Treasury Department, with their suits and briefcases and ID badges. It’s easy to hide among the sounds of heels clicking on pavement, car remotes beeping, automatic locks on cars releasing, and engines turning over, especially when the departing employees are more concerned with their weekend plans than with the guy in the cotton button-down and blue jeans.

I may be in hiding, and this is no joyride, but I can’t deny the small thrill of release I feel while moving about in public without being noticed. It has been more than a decade since I’ve set foot in a public place without being on display, without feeling like someone might snap a photo of me at any moment, without seeing dozens of people wanting to approach me for a handshake or a quick hello, a selfie, a favor, or even a substantive policy discussion.

As promised, the car is the fourth from the end on the left, a nondescript sedan, an older model, silver, with Virginia plates. I hold out the remote and push the Unlock button for too long, causing every door to unlock and then a series of beeps to sound. I’m out of practice. I haven’t opened my own car door for a decade.

Behind the wheel, I feel like someone fresh out of a time machine, transported into the future by this mysterious contraption. I adjust the seat, turn the ignition, gun the gas once, throw it into Reverse, and turn my head to look back, my arm over the passenger seat. As I slowly back out of the space, the car emits a beep that grows more urgent. I hit the brakes and see a woman walking behind the car, on the way to hers. Once she has passed by, the beeping stops.

Some kind of radar, an anticollision device. I look back at the dashboard and notice a backup camera. So I can drive in Reverse while facing forward, watching the screen? They didn’t have that ten years ago, or if they did,
my
car sure as hell didn’t have it.

I navigate the sedan through the garage, the lanes surprisingly narrow, the angles sharp. It takes me a few minutes to get the hang of it again, jumping forward too abruptly, braking too harshly, but then it feels like yesterday that I was sixteen, driving that beater Chevy off the lot of Crazy Sam Kelsey’s New and Used Autos for twelve hundred dollars.

I watch the cars in front of me in the line to leave the garage. The gate lifts automatically as each car reaches the front. No need for the driver to reach out the window to press a card against some reader or anything like that. It occurs to me that I didn’t even think to ask about that.

When it’s my turn at the front, the gate rises, letting me leave. I pull slowly up the ramp, approaching daylight, wary of passing pedestrians, before I pull into the street.

Traffic is thick, so my urge to gun the car, to feel the freedom of this temporary independence, is stymied by the congestion at every intersection. I look up through the windshield at the bruised sky, hoping it won’t rain.

The radio. I click a knob to turn it on, and nothing happens. I push a button, and nothing happens. I push another button, and the sound blares out, sending a shock wave through me as two people are arguing, talking over each other about whether President Jonathan Duncan has committed an impeachable offense. I push the same button, kill the sound, and focus on driving.

I think about where I’m going, the person I’m about to see, and invariably my mind wanders back…

P
rofessor Waite strolled across the well of the lecture hall, hands clasped behind his back. “And what was the point of Justice Stevens’s dissent?” He returned to the lectern, looked over his name chart. “Mr.…Duncan?” He looked up at me.

Shit. I’d thrown a lump of Copenhagen in my cheek so I could stay awake after a night of getting my paper done. I’d only skimmed the case for today. I was one of a hundred in this class, after all, so the odds of my being called on were slim. But this was my unlucky day. I was on the spot and unprepared.

“Justice Stevens…disagreed with the majority in…with…” I flipped through the pages, feeling the heat rise to my face.

“Well, yes, Mr. Duncan, dissents do typically disagree with the majority. I do believe that’s why they’re called dissents.” Nervous laughter rippled through the lecture hall.

“Yes, sir, he…he disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment—”

“You must be confusing Justice Stevens’s dissent with Justice Brennan’s dissent, Mr. Duncan. Justice Stevens’s dissent did not so much as
mention
the Fourth Amendment.”

“Well, yes, I am confused—I mean confusing…”

“I think you had it right the first time, Mr. Duncan. Ms. Carson, would you be so kind as to rescue us from Mr. Duncan’s confusion?”

“Justice Stevens’s point was that the Supreme Court should not intervene in state court decisions that, at worst, would have the effect of raising the floor of the federal constitution…”

Burned for the first time by the notorious Professor Waite, this being only the fourth week of my first year at UNC Law, I looked across the room at the woman in the third row who was speaking as I thought to myself,
This is the last time you come to class unprepared, you maggot.

And then I fixed my gaze on her, seated in the third row, confidently, almost casually giving her answer. “…It is a floor, not a ceiling, and so long as an adequate and independent state ground exists for the decision…”

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

“Who…is that?” I whispered to Danny, seated next to me. Danny was two years ahead of me in school—he was a third-year—and he knew pretty much everyone.

“That’s Rachel,” he whispered back. “Rachel Carson. A 3L. The one who beat me out for editor in chief of the law review.”

“What’s her story?”

“You mean is she single? No idea. You’ve made a great first impression, though.”

  

My heart was still pounding as the class ended. I jumped out of my seat and hit the door, hoping to catch her in the hallway amid a sea of students.

Cropped chestnut hair, jean jacket…

…Rachel Carson…Rachel Carson…

There. I spotted her. I navigated the crowd and caught up to her just as she was breaking away from the forward movement of the masses and angling toward one of the doors.

“Hey,” I said, my voice shaky. My voice was shaking?

She turned and looked at me, liquid green eyes, eyebrows raised. The most delicate, sculpted face I’d ever seen. “Hi…” she said tentatively, trying to place me.

“Um. Hi.” I hiked my backpack over my shoulder. “I, uh, just wanted to say thanks for, y’know, bailing me out in there.”

“Oh. No problem. You’re a 1L?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Happens to all of us,” she said.

I took a breath. “So, uh, what are you…I mean…what are you, y’know, doing right now?”

What the hell was wrong with me? I’d taken every smoke session Sergeant Melton could dish out. I’d been waterboarded, beaten, strung up, and mock-executed by the Iraqi Republican Guard. Suddenly I was tongue-tied?

“Right now? Well, I…” She nodded to one side. For the first time, I focused on the door she’d been about to enter—the ladies’ bathroom.

“Oh, you were gonna…”

“Yeah…”

“You should, then.”

“Should I?” she said, amused.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s not good to—to hold it in, or—I mean—if you gotta go, you gotta go, right?”

What in holy hell was wrong with me?

“Right,” she said. “So…it was nice meeting you.”

I could hear her laughter inside the bathroom.

  

A week after I first laid eyes on her, I hadn’t been able to get her out of my mind. I scolded myself: the first year of law school is the year to buckle down, the year when you establish yourself. But no matter how hard I tried to focus on the minimum-contacts doctrine of personal jurisdiction or the elements of a negligence claim or the mirror-image rule of contract law, that girl in the third row of my federal jurisdiction elective kept popping into my head.

Danny gave me intel: Rachel Carson was from a small town in western Minnesota, went to Harvard undergrad, and was at UNC Law on a public-interest grant. She was editor in chief of the law review, first in her class, and had a job waiting for her at a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to the poor. She was sweet but quiet. She kept a low profile socially, tended to hang out with the older people in school who didn’t come straight from undergrad.

Well, shit,
I thought to myself.
I didn’t come straight from undergrad, either.

I eventually mustered my courage and found her in the library, sitting at a long table with several of her friends. I told myself again that this was a bad idea. My legs had a different notion, though, and suddenly I was standing by her table.

When she saw me coming, she put down the pen in her hand and stared.

I wanted to do this in private, but I was afraid that if I didn’t do it now, I’d never do it.

So go on, you dumb ass, before someone calls security.

I removed the piece of paper from my pocket, unfolded it, and cleared my throat. By now I had the entire table’s attention. I started reading:

The first two times you heard me speak, I sounded like a fool.

I made about as much sense as a top hat on a mule.

I wasn’t sure a third attempt would do me any better,

So I decided that I’d put my thoughts down in a letter.

I peeked at her, an amused smile flirting with her face. “She hasn’t walked away yet,” I said, getting a chuckle from one of her friends, a good start.

My name is Jon. I come from here, a town near Boomer.

I have good manners, listen well, a decent sense of humor.

I have no money, have no car, no talent as a poet,

But I do possess a working brain, though I often fail to show it.

That line got me another chuckle from her friends. “It’s true,” I said to Rachel. “I can read and write and all that junk.”

“I’m sure, I’m sure.”

“May I keep going?”

“By all means.” She swept her hand.

You’re here to study, says my buddy. Remember Professor Waite?

But for some reason I just can’t concentrate.

I’m reading the section on equal protection, the law and racial quotas,

But instead I’m thinking of a green-eyed girl from Minnesota.

She couldn’t suppress her smile, her face coloring. The rest of the women at the table applauded.

I bowed at the waist. “Thank you very much,” I said, doing my best Elvis imitation. “I’ll be here all week.”

Rachel didn’t look at me.

“I mean, if nothing else, the fact that I rhymed
Minnesota
…”

“No, that was impressive,” she agreed, her eyes closed.

“All right, then. Ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pretend that this whole thing went well, and I’m going to leave while I’m ahead on points.”

I walked slowly enough for her to have caught up with me if she wanted.

I
snap out of my reverie and slide into the parking space, just where I was told it would be, not three miles from the White House. I park the car and kill the ignition. No one else is in sight.

I grab my bag and get out. The back entrance looks like a loading dock of some sort, with steps up to a large door that has no outside knob.

A voice through an intercom squawks at me.
“Who is it, please?”

“Charles Kane,” I say.

A moment later, the thick door pops ajar. I reach in and pull it open.

Inside is a freight area, empty of people, cluttered with UPS and FedEx boxes, large crates and wheeled dollies. A large elevator is to the right, the doors open, the walls covered with thick padding.

I press the top button, and the doors close. I draw a sharp breath as the elevator reacts clumsily, dropping for a moment before lifting me, the grinding of the gears audible.

Another moment of light-headedness. I put my hand against the padded wall and wait it out while Dr. Lane’s words echo in my head.

When I reach the top and the doors open, I step out carefully into a well-appointed hallway, the walls painted a light yellow, Monet prints guiding me toward the only door on the top floor, the penthouse.

When I reach the door, it opens without my doing anything.

“Charles Kane, at your service,” I say.

Amanda Braidwood stands inside the penthouse, her arm fully extended as she holds the door open and appraises me. A thin sweater hangs loose over a fitted shirt. She’s wearing black stretch pants and nothing on her feet. Her hair is long these days, courtesy of the movie she wrapped a month ago, but tonight it’s pulled back into a ponytail, with a few strands hanging down to frame the contours of her face.

“Well, hello there, ‘Mr. Kane,’” she says. “Sorry about the subterfuge, but the doorman at the front entrance is a little busybodyish.”

Last year, an entertainment magazine named Mandy one of the twenty most beautiful women on the planet. Another dubbed her one of the top twenty highest-paid actors in Hollywood, less than a year after she took home her second Oscar.

She and Rachel lived together all four years at Harvard and stayed in touch over the years—as closely as a North Carolina lawyer and an international movie star can manage. The code name Charles Kane was Mandy’s idea: about eight years ago, over a bottle of wine in the backyard of the governor’s mansion, Rachel, Mandy, and I agreed that Orson Welles’s masterpiece was the finest movie ever made.

She shakes her head as a smile slowly blooms on her face.

“My, my,” she says. “Whiskers, scruff,” she adds as she kisses my cheek. “How rugged. Well, don’t just stand there looking all outdoorsy—come in.”

Her scent, the smell of a woman, lingers with me. Rachel wasn’t much for perfume, but her bath gel and body lotion—whatever you call all those creams and lotions and soaps—were both vanilla. I will never smell that scent again, as long as I live, without seeing the image of Rachel’s bare shoulder and imagining the softness of her neck.

They say there’s no manual for overcoming the death of a spouse. That’s truer still when the survivor is the president and all hell is breaking loose, because you have no time to grieve. There are too many decisions to make that won’t wait, constant security threats that, with even a momentary lapse in your attention, can have catastrophic consequences. As Rachel hit the end stages of her illness, we watched North Korea and Russia and China more closely than ever, knowing that the leaders of those countries were looking for any hint of vulnerability or inattention from the White House. I considered temporarily stepping down as president—I even had Danny draw up the papers—but Rachel would have none of it. She was determined that her illness would not cause any interruption in my presidency. It mattered to her, in an intense way that she never fully explained and I never fully understood.

Three days before Rachel passed—by that point, we’d returned to Raleigh so she could die at home—North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile off its coast, and I ordered an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea. The day we buried her, as I stood at her grave, holding hands with my daughter, our embassy in Venezuela was attacked by a suicide bomber, and I soon found myself in our kitchen with generals and our national security team considering options for a proportional response.

In the short term, it’s probably easier to deal with personal loss when the world around you constantly demands your attention. You’re too busy to be sad and lonely at first. Then the reality drops in—you’ve lost the love of your life, your daughter has lost her mother, and a wonderful woman was denied the chance to live a long, rich life. Now you’re grateful for the demands of your job. But there are moments of intense loneliness, even when you’re the president. I’d never felt it before. I’d had plenty of tough decisions to make in my first two years, plenty of times I could do nothing more than pray that I’d made the right call, times when it didn’t matter how many aides I had because the buck stopped with me and me alone. But I never
felt
alone. I always had Rachel there with me, giving me her honest opinion about how I was making the decisions, telling me to do the best I could, then wrapping her arms around my neck when it was over.

I still miss Rachel all the time, in every way a man can miss his wife. Tonight I miss her uncanny sense of when to dress me down and when to back me up, make me believe that no matter what, everything will turn out all right.

There will never be another Rachel. I know that. But I do wish I weren’t alone all the time. Rachel demanded that we talk about what would happen after she died. She used to joke that I’d be the most eligible bachelor on the planet. Maybe. Right now I feel like a clueless nerd about to let everybody down.

“Drink?” Mandy asks over her shoulder.

“No time,” I say. “I don’t have very long.”

“Honestly, I don’t even understand why you want to do this,” she says. “But I’m ready. Let’s get to it.”

I follow her into the apartment.

Other books
El misterio de la Casa Aranda by Jerónimo Tristante
A Debt Repaid (1) by N. Isabelle Blanco, Nyddi
Bittersweet by Loth, Kimberly
McNally's Trial by Lawrence Sanders
Christmas Catch: A Holiday Novella by Cameron, Chelsea M., The 12 NAs of Christmas