artine Connor hung up the phone. Her eyes burned with unshed tears. She slid off her chair onto her knees and hugged the dog, which was looking at her expectantly. She had come to love this dog more than anything in the whole world, more than her absentee brother and sister, more than her job as president. And the dog loved her; she was sure of it. She was at her side twenty-four/seven, even in security meetings. She slept at the foot of her bed. Cleo was the first thing she saw in the morning when she opened her eyes and the last thing she saw at night when she closed them.
The tears she'd been trying to hold in check trickled down her cheeks and fell onto the big dog's shoulder as the president cupped Cleo's head in her two hands. She wanted to say something, but the words just wouldn't come.
The big dog suddenly stiffened. She looked around, turning her head this way and that, then ran to the door. The president sighed and got to her feet and walked over to the door. She opened it, and Cleo moved like lightning, shrill, happy barks filling the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The president swiped at her tears a second time. She waited as she remembered all she knew about Master Sergeant Gus Sullivan. A remarkable man in all ways according to what she'd read. A career soldier. He'd called himself a foot soldier. When she met him, he'd already put in twenty-six years, which made him forty-six years of age, and now, a year later, he was looking at retirement, something that hadn't been in his plans. What was it he'd said? “My life is the military. It's the only home I've ever known.” How was a wounded soldier, possibly handicapped for life, going to make it when he was suddenly thrust into a world he hadn't lived in for twenty-seven years? The president shook her head to clear her thoughts.
Master Sergeant Gus Sullivan could be seen guiding his wheelchair down the hall, with a marine on each side of him, Cleo frolicking and dancing ahead of the trio.
“Welcome home, Gus,” the president said as she held out her hand.
“Thank you, Madam President! And thank you for seeing me on such short notice. They let me out of Walter Reed to come and see Cleo. I hope that was okay. You did say when I got back to stop by
The president struggled to make her words light even though her heart was breaking in a million pieces. How could she keep this returning hero's dog? She couldn't, and she knew it. “I did say that, and I meant it. Please, come in and make yourself at home. Looks to me like Cleo needs a few hugs and some Gus Sullivan love.”
The moment the door closed, Gus rolled his chair to the center of the room. The president gingerly sat down across from him. A second later, Cleo was in his lap. The president fought her tears again. Not so, Gus Sullivan. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he nuzzled the huge dog. “I missed you, girl,” he said in a choked voice. Cleo whimpered.
The president looked on. She didn't know what to do. So she did nothing. She rang for a steward to bring coffee. God, she wanted a cigarette.
It took a good ten minutes for man and dog to calm down. “It looks like it worked out for the two of you. I knew it would. And thank you so much, Madam President, for sending me all those pictures over the Internet.”
The president swallowed and nodded. “Everyone loves her. She visits all the offices, and I think it's safe to say that everyone here is her friend. She loves romping on the South Lawn. She likes Air Force One, and she absolutely loves the helicopter. She adjusted well, but she did miss you. We talk . . . talked about you every single day. I promised you I wouldn't let her forget you, and it looks to me like you're front and center.” Her eyes started to burn again.
Gus finished his coffee, motioned for the dog to jump off his lap, which she did. “I have to get back. My nurses are waiting for me outside. I promised I wouldn't . . . they just let me out because I . . . Never mind, it's not important.”
“You're not taking Cleo with you?” the president blurted.
“Oh, no, ma'am. Is that why you thought I came here? I'd cut off my right arm to take her, but I can't. I've got two more operations to go, then months and months of therapy ahead of me. Right now, I am so full of pain pills that I can hardly see straight. There's no way I could take care of Cleo and these are her retirement years. She certainly doesn't need to be taking care of me. I have way too much on my plate right now. The doctors told me that if there was a way for you to bring her by from time to time, they would allow it.”
The president's insides turned to mush. “Consider it done. Would three times a week work for you?”
“Yessireee, that would work for me, Madam President. Lord, I can't thank you enough for that.”
“Listen, Gus, how about if I leave you two alone for a few minutes? I think you might want to explain the situation to Cleo, although I think she already knows.” The president literally ran to the small powder room off the sitting room and closed the door. Her shoulders heaved as she tried to stifle her sobs of gratitude now that Cleo was going to stay with her. She dropped to her knees and offered up a prayer, a very short one but straight from her heart. Though her eyes were dry when she walked back into the room, they still burned.
“Gus, I know this is short notice, and I don't know what kind of restrictions your doctors have you on, but I'd like to invite you to Camp David for Thanksgiving. Since this is August, I'm hoping you will be well on the road to recovery by then. If, for whatever reason, we can't make that work, how about we plan for you to join Cleo and me over the Christmas holidays at Camp David?”
Cleo pranced and danced around Gus, urging him to comment. “I'll see what I can do, Madam President, and I thank you for the invitation. Thanks . . . thanks for everything,” he said, suddenly shy.
“Don't mention it. In here we're just two people who love this dog. I'll have my secretary make arrangements for Cleo to visit. You take care of yourself, you hear?”
“Cleo, I want you to give Gus a presidential escort out of this glorious building. Can you do that?” She hated seeing the look of pain on her guest's face. She wondered if his medication was beginning to wear off.
Cleo looked first at the president, then at Gus before she dropped her head and her two front legs and bowed. Gus laughed. “I taught her that little trick in Iraq.”
“And she remembered.” The president opened the door. The two marines who had escorted Gus to her quarters fell into line until the president said, “No, Cleo will do the honors, gentlemen. She can find her way back.”
The president waited in the open doorway for a full ten minutes, until she saw her best friend trotting down the hall. Cleo let loose with a joyous bark and bounded into the room. She stopped in the middle of the sitting room, threw her head back, let out a loud howl, and flopped down and rolled over. She was on her feet in an instant as she waited for the treat she'd just earned. The president laughed and handed it over.
“Time to go to work, Cleo. We've got some serious business to deal with this morning. I think we're going to be able to make it work. I am the president, so it better work.”
Cleo made a short, high-pitched barking sound that said she understood perfectly, and it was time to get their respective shows on the road.
Martine Connor wondered if she'd made a mistake in holding this meeting in the Oval Office instead of the Situation Room. She could still change her mind. Actually, if it hadn't been November, she could have held the meeting outdoors, under one of the arbors. While it was brisk outside, the temperature, according to the weatherman, was in the high fifties. Definitely not too cold for a stroll around the grounds with no prying eyes and ears. And, Cleo needed to be walked. The more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea of an outdoor meeting. She hated recording devices. No matter how many she dismantled, there would still be that one that would somehow find a way to come back and bite her.
Okay. She was going to switch plans. A nice brisk outside walk. Then a nice warm early lunch to take the edge off a meeting that wasn't going to be recorded in any logs. She rang for her secretary, issued clipped orders in her best presidential voice, then broke the connection.
Fifteen minutes later, the president's chief of staff escorted nine people, four men and five women, into the Oval Office. Martine was already wearing a lightweight jacket, her guests carrying either coats or jackets over their arms.
The formal greeting over, the president looked at the curious faces as they wondered what this unorthodox summons out of the blue was all about. She smiled. “I thought a nice brisk walk in the fresh air would do wonders for us all. Then, when we come back in, we'll all have lunch.” She almost laughed aloud at the startled expressions she was seeing. “Follow me, please.”
As they walked along, the president began to rethink her plans yet again. Maybe this little meeting outside wasn't such a good idea, after all. How could she talk to nine people unless she rounded them all up in a circle and stood in the middle? Cleo, sensing her dilemma, headed to the president's own personal gazebo, which was lined with benches and contained a round wooden table. Weather permitting, she often had her meals served out there. She patted the big dog's head as she stood aside to usher her guests into the gazebo. How did this magnificent dog know instinctively what she was thinking and wanting? She wondered if she would ever figure it out.
The president's thoughts wandered for a few moments as she tried to figure out why she hadn't told Gus Sullivan she'd agreed to mate Cleo next week. Did she forget on purpose? Or did she feel she'd overstepped her bounds and should never have done it without Gus's permission? Regardless, it wasn't going to work. The vet said that Cleo, in his opinion, was too old to have pups. So there was no need even to bring the subject up. If it wasn't good for Cleo, then it wasn't good for Martine, either.
Someone coughed, feet were shuffling. Her guests were getting antsy.
In a very unladylike, unpresidential move, the president perched on the table and looked around at her guests. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for coming to this meeting that never took place. What we are going to discuss here today never happened, either. To show you how serious I am about this, I am going to ask you to put your hands on this little Bible that I carry with me at all times. It was given to me when I was seven years old by my mother. It belonged to her and to her mother. As you can see, it is tattered and well worn, to the point that some of the pages are loose and held together with tape and a rubber band. I cherish this above all else in my life.
“Having said that, I now want you each to place a hand on my Bible and swear to me, the president of the United States, that not one word of what is spoken here will ever pass your lips. Anyone who can't see her or his way to doing this is free to leave.”
No one moved to leave. One by one, hands reached out to touch the small, tattered white Bible.
Twenty-seven minutes into the meeting, much of it heated, all of it loud and angry at times, the assembled guests finally agreed to the president's demands to form a new agency among the many others in Alphabet City.
“Taxpayers will not be funding this agency. There will be neither a temporary nor a permanent address for this agency on record anywhere, because this agency does not exist. The new agency is to have carte blanche. It will report directly to me. And I want to personally assure all of you that the
which has been the White House's nemesis, is on board with all of this. By four o'clock this afternoon I want the twelve special gold shields, which I believe are in your care, Director Yantzy, on my desk. Do we understand each other, Director Yantzy?”
The director of the FBI nodded. “There are only eleven shields, Madam President. One went missing. There is no proof. Well, actually there is proof, but we thought, as a matter of discretion, not to make an issue of it. The
would have gone nuclear with that information if it got out the way they threatened to make it public. Jack Emery and that thug, Harry Wong, confiscated it from our agent.”
The president looked Yantzy in the eye and said, “I heard about your agent, who beat reporter Ted Robinson within an inch of his life, and Mr. Emery and Mr. Wong felt duty bound to protect their colleague. Harry Wong is not a thug. Bear that in mind, Director. Seems like a fair trade to me, the gold shield for Mr. Robinson's missing spleen. You will have all eleven shields on my desk by four o'clock this afternoon. And make arrangements to have the twelfth one made up.”
“Why?” the national security advisor asked.
“Do you want the long or the short version, Mr. NSA?”
The national security advisor looked sheepish. “The short version, Madam President.”
Martine Connor slipped off her perch and went to stand behind him. She clamped her hands hard on his shoulders, Cleo at her side, looked around at the group as she said, so quietly the others had to strain to hear the words, “Because when the FBI, the CIA, and the entire Secret Serviceânot to mention the DOJâon their own couldn't find the head of the Secret Service when he was kidnapped, I had to ask seven very talented ladies, also known as the vigilantes, to step in and do your damn job for you. Which, by the way, they succeeded in doing with absolutely no fanfare and no publicity. No one but me, my chief of staff, and all of you here know about it. Not one word leaked out. I also ask you to recall, Mr. National Security Advisor, what happened to your predecessor, Karl Woodley, when he went up against the vigilantes. Unless you're totally stupid, I think you will all agree that we would rather have the vigilantes working for us than against us.