Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (3 page)

“It’s still happening tomorrow?”

“As far as I know, Mr. President.” She nods in the direction where Jenny and Danny just left. “They’re right, you know. This hearing on Monday is a lose-lose.”

“We’re done talking about the hearing, Carrie. I agreed to do this mock session. I gave you one hour. Now we’re done. We have more important things on our minds right now, don’t we?”

“Yes, sir. The team is ready for the briefing, sir.”

“I want to talk to Threat Response, then Burke, then the under secretary. In that order.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Carolyn leaves me. Alone in the room, I stare at the portrait of the first President Roosevelt and think. But I’m not thinking about the hearing on Monday.

I’m thinking about whether we’ll still have a country on Monday.

A
s she emerges from the gate at Reagan National, she pauses a moment, ostensibly to look up at the signs for directions, but in fact she is enjoying the open-air space after the flight. She inhales deeply, pulls on the ginger candy in her mouth, the whimsical first movement of Violin Concerto no. 1, featuring Wilhelm Friedemann Herzog, playing softly in her earbuds.

Look happy,
they tell you. Happiness, they say, is the optimal emotion to project when under surveillance, the least likely to arouse suspicion. People who are smiling, who are content and pleased, if not laughing and joking, don’t look like a threat.

She prefers
sexy
. It’s easier to pull off when alone, and it’s always seemed to work for her—the lopsided smile, the strut in her walk as she pulls her Bottega Veneta trolley behind her down the terminal. It’s a role like any other, a coat she puts on when necessary and sheds as soon as she’s done, but she can see it’s working: the men trying for eye contact, checking the cleavage she’s made sure to reveal, allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable. The women sizing up her entire five-foot-nine-inch frame with envy, from her knee-high chocolate leather boots to her flaming red hair, before checking their husbands to see what they think of the view.

She will be memorable, no doubt, the tall, leggy, busty redhead, hiding in plain sight.

She should be in the clear by now, walking through the terminal toward the taxis. If they recognized her, she would know by now. They wouldn’t have let her get this far. But she is not free and clear just yet, and she doesn’t let down her guard. Ever.
The moment you lose focus, you make a mistake,
said the man who put a rifle in her hands for the first time, some twenty-five years ago.
Dispassionate
and
logical
are the words she lives by. Always thinking, never showing.

The walk is agonizing, but she only shows it in her wincing eyes, concealed by Ferragamo sunglasses. Her mouth retains its confident smirk.

She makes it outside to the taxis, appreciating the fresh air but nauseated by the vehicle exhaust. Airport officials in uniforms are yelling at cab drivers and directing people into the cars. Parents are corralling whiny children and rolling luggage.

She moves into the center aisle and looks for the vehicle with the license plate she has committed to memory, the roadrunner decal on the car’s side door. It’s not here yet. She closes her eyes a moment and keeps time with the strings playing through her earbuds, the andante movement, her favorite, at first rueful and longing and then calming, almost meditative.

When her eyes open, the cab with the right license plate, with the roadrunner decal on the passenger door, has entered the queue of cars. She rolls her luggage over and gets inside. The overpowering odor of fast food brings her breakfast to her throat. She stifles it and sits back in the seat.

She kills the music as the concerto is entering its final, frenzied movement, the allegro assai. She removes her earbuds, feeling naked without the reassuring accompaniment of the violins and cellos.

“How is traffic today?” she asks in English, a midwestern accent.

The driver’s eyes flash at her through the rearview mirror. The driver has surely been advised that she does not like people who fixate on her.

Don’t stare at Bach.

“Pretty good today,” he answers, measuring every word, uttering the
all-clear
code she was hoping to hear. She didn’t expect any complications this early on, but you never know.

Now able to relax a moment, she crosses one leg and unzips her boot, then repeats with the other boot. She moans softly with the relief of freeing her feet from those boots and the four-inch lifts inside them. She stretches her toes and runs her thumb firmly under each arch, the closest she can come to a foot massage in the back of a cab.

With any luck, she won’t need to be five feet nine inches for the rest of the trip; five feet five will do just fine. She unzips her carry-on, folds the Gucci boots inside it, and pulls out a pair of Nike court shoes.

As the car pulls into thick traffic, she looks out the window to her right, then glances to the left. She drops her head low, between her legs. When she reemerges, the red wig is in her lap, replaced with ink-black hair, pulled back mercilessly into a bun.

“You feel…more like yourself now?” asks the driver.

She doesn’t reply. She steadies a cold stare for him, but he doesn’t meet her eyes in the rearview mirror. He should know better.

Bach doesn’t like small talk
.

And it’s been a long time since she’s “felt like herself,” as Americans would say. At most, she has an occasional window of relaxation. But the longer she stays in this line of work and the more times she reinvents herself—replacing one facade with another, sometimes lingering in shadow, sometimes hiding in plain sight—the less she remembers her true self or even the concept of having her own identity.

That will change soon, a vow she has made to herself.

Her wig and boots now changed out, her carry-on zipped up and resting next to her on the seat, she reaches down to the floor mat at her feet. Her fingers find the edges of the mat and lift, freeing it from its Velcro moorings.

Beneath it, a carpeted floorboard with latches. She pops the latches on each side and lifts open the door.

She sits up again, checking the speedometer to make sure the driver isn’t doing something stupid like speeding, to make sure that a police cruiser isn’t happening by at this moment.

Then she bends down again, removing the hard-shell case from the floorboard compartment. She places her thumb on the seal. It takes only a moment for the thumbprint recognition to pop the seal open.

Not that the people who have hired her would have any reason to mess with her equipment, but better safe than sorry.

She opens the case for a quick inspection. “Hello, Anna,” she whispers, the name she has given it. Anna Magdalena is a thing of beauty, a matte-black semiautomatic rifle capable of firing five rounds in less than two seconds, capable of assembly and disassembly in less than three minutes with nothing but a screwdriver. There are newer models on the market, of course, but Anna Magdalena has never let her down, from any distance. Dozens of people could confirm its accuracy—theoretically—including a prosecutor in Bogotá, Colombia, who until seven months ago had a head atop his body and the leader of a rebel army in Darfur who eighteen months ago suddenly spilled his brains into the lamb stew on his lap.

She has killed on every continent. She has assassinated generals, activists, politicians, and businessmen. She is known only by her gender and the classical-music composer she favors. And by her 100 percent kill rate.

This will be your greatest challenge, Bach,
said the man who hired her for this job.

No,
she replied, correcting him.
This will be my greatest success.

I
wake with a start, staring into the darkness, fumbling for my phone. It’s just past four in the morning. I text Carolyn.
Anything?

Her response comes immediately; she’s not asleep.
Nothing sir.

I know better. Carolyn would’ve called me right away if something had happened. But she’s become accustomed to these early morning communications ever since we discovered what we were up against.

I exhale and stretch my arms, letting out nervous energy. There’s no way I’ll go back to sleep. Today’s the day.

I spend some time on the treadmill in the bedroom. I’ve never—not since my baseball days—lost the need to work up a good sweat, especially in this job. It’s like a massage before the stress of the day. When Rachel’s cancer returned, I had a treadmill installed in the bedroom so I could keep an eye on her even while exercising.

Today it’s an easy stroll, not a run or even a brisk walk given my current physical condition, the relapse of my illness, which is the last thing I need right now.

I brush my teeth and check my toothbrush when I’m done. Nothing on it but the slushy remnants of the gel. I do a wide smile in the mirror and check my gums.

I strip off my clothes and turn around, look back at myself in the mirror. The bruising is mostly on my calves but is also on the backs of my upper thighs. It’s getting worse.

After a shower, it’s time to read the President’s Daily Brief and hear about any late developments not covered in it. Then on to breakfast in the dining room. That was something Rachel and I used to do together. “The rest of the world can have you for the next sixteen hours,” she used to say. “I get you for breakfast.”

And usually dinner. We made the time, though when Rachel was alive, we didn’t eat either meal in this dining room; we usually ate at the small table in the kitchen next door, a more intimate setting. Sometimes, when we really wanted to feel like normal people for a change, we’d cook for ourselves. Some of our best moments, in the time we shared here, were spent flipping pancakes or rolling pizza dough, just the two of us, as we did back home in North Carolina.

I cut through the hard-boiled egg with my fork and look absently out the window at Blair House, across from Lafayette Park, the hum of the television serving as white noise in the background. The television is new since Rachel.

I’m not sure why I bother with the news. It’s all about the impeachment, the networks trying to bend every story to fit this narrative.

On MSNBC, a foreign-affairs correspondent is claiming that the Israeli government is transferring a high-profile Palestinian terrorist to another prison.
Could this be part of some “deal” the president has cut with Suliman Cindoruk? Some deal involving Israel and a prisoner trade?

CBS News is saying that I’m considering filling a vacancy at Agriculture with a southern senator from the opposing party.
Is the president hoping to siphon off votes for removal by handing out cabinet appointments?

I suppose if I turned on the Food Network right now, they’d be saying that when I let them visit the White House a month ago and told them my favorite vegetable is corn, I was secretly trying to curry favor with the senators from Iowa and Nebraska who are part of the bloc itching to remove me from office.

Fox News, over the banner
TURMOIL IN THE WHITE HOUSE
, claims that my staff is sharply split on whether I should testify, the yes-testify crew led by the White House chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, the don’t-testify faction headed by the vice president, Katherine Brandt.
“Plans are already under way, as a contingency,”
says a reporter standing outside the White House right now,
“to claim that the House hearings are a partisan charade to give the president an excuse to change his mind and refuse to attend.”

On the
Today
show, a color-coded map shows the fifty-five senators in the opposing party as well as the senators from my party who are up for reelection and who might feel pressure to be part of the twelve defectors necessary to convict me at an impeachment trial.

CNN says that my staff and I are calling in senators as early as this morning to lock them down as not-guilty votes in the impeachment trial.

Good Morning America
says that White House sources indicate that I’ve already decided not to run for reelection and that I will try to cut a deal with the House Speaker to spare me impeachment if I agree to a single term in office.

Where do they get this crap? I have to admit it’s sensational. And sensational sells over factual every day.

Still, the wall-to-wall impeachment speculation has been hard on my staff, most of whom don’t know what happened in Algeria or during my phone call to Suliman Cindoruk any more than Congress or the media or the American people do. But so far they’ve rallied while the White House is under assault, considering it a source of pride to stand together. They’ll never know how much that means to me.

I punch a button on my phone. Rachel would kill me for having a phone at breakfast, too. “JoAnn, where’s Jenny?”

“She’s here, sir. Do you want her?”

“Please. Thank you.”

Carolyn Brock walks in, the only person who would feel free to do so while I’m eating. I’ve never actually said that nobody else is allowed in. It’s one of the many things a chief of staff does for you—streamlining, acting as a gatekeeper, being the hard-ass with staff so I don’t have to think about such matters.

She is buttoned-up as always, a smart suit, dark hair pulled back, never letting her guard down while on camera. Her job, she has told me more than once, is not to make friends with the staff but to keep them organized, praise good work, and sweat the details so I can focus on the hard, big stuff.

But that’s a dramatic understatement of her role. Nobody has a tougher job than the White House chief of staff. She does the little things, sure—the personnel issues and the scheduling. She’s also right there with me on the big things. She has to do it all because she’s also the go-to person for members of Congress, the cabinet, the interest groups, and the press. I don’t have a better surrogate. She does all that and keeps her ego in check. Just try to pay her a compliment. She brushes it away like a piece of lint on her impeccable suit.

There was a time, not long ago, when people predicted that Carolyn Brock would one day be the Speaker of the House. She was a three-term congresswoman, a progressive who managed to win a conservative House district in southeastern Ohio and who moved swiftly up the ranks of House leadership. She was intelligent, personable, and telegenic, the political equivalent of a five-tool player. She became a hit on the fund-raiser circuit and built alliances that allowed her to move to the coveted position as head of our party’s political arm, the congressional campaign committee. She was barely forty years old and poised for the pinnacle of House leadership, if not higher office.

Then 2010 came. Everyone knew it was going to be a brutal midterm election for our party. And the other side fielded a strong candidate, a former governor’s son. A week out, the race was a statistical tie.

Five days before the election, while blowing off steam with her two closest aides over a bottle of wine at midnight, Carolyn made a derogatory comment about her opponent, who’d just released an ad viciously attacking Carolyn’s husband, a noted trial lawyer at the time. Her comment was caught on a live mike. Nobody knows who picked it up or how. Carolyn thought she was alone with her two aides in a closed restaurant.

She said her opponent was a “cocksucker.” The audio made its way around the cable news networks and the Internet within hours.

She had options at that point. She could have denied it was her voice on that recording. Either of her aides, both of whom were women, could have assumed attribution for the comment. Or she could have said what was probably the truth—that she was tired and a bit tipsy and furious about the negative ad targeting her husband.

But she didn’t do any of those things. She only said this: “I’m sorry my private conversation was overheard. If a man had said it, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

Personally, I loved her response. Today it might work. But back then, her support cratered with social conservatives, and she lost the race. With that
c
word forever glued to her name, she knew she’d probably never get another chance. Politics can be cruel in the way it treats its wounded.

Carolyn’s loss became my gain. She started a political consulting firm, using her skills and brains to navigate victories for others around the country. When I decided to run for president, and I needed someone to run my campaign, I had only one person’s name on my list.

“You should stop watching this garbage, sir,” she says as some political consultant I’ve never heard of says on CNN that I’m committing a
serious tactical blunder
by refusing to comment on the phone call and letting the House Speaker
control the narrative
.

“By the way,” I say, “did you know that you want me to testify before the select committee? That you’re leading the pro-testify forces in the civil war going on in the White House?”

“I didn’t realize that, no.” She wanders over to the wallpaper in the dining room, scenes of the Revolutionary War. Jackie Kennedy first put it up, a gift from a friend. Betty Ford didn’t like it and took it down. President Carter put it back up. It’s been up and down since. Rachel loved the wallpaper, so we put it back up.

“Have some coffee, Carrie. You’re making me nervous.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” says Jenny Brickman, my deputy chief of staff and senior political adviser. She ran my campaigns for governor and worked under Carolyn on my presidential run. She is petite in every way, with a mess of bleached blond hair and a mouth like a truck driver. She is my smiling knife. She will go to war for me, when I let her. She would not merely dissect my opponents. If I didn’t rein her in, she would slice them open from chin to navel. She would rip them to pieces with all the restraint of a pit bull and slightly less charm.

Carolyn, after my victory, turned to policy. She still keeps an eye on politics, but her bigger role now is to get my agenda through Congress and push my foreign policy.

Jenny, on the other hand, just focuses on politics, on getting me reelected. And, unfortunately, on worrying about whether I will even make it through my first term.

“Our caucus in the House is holding steady right now,” she says, having conferred with our side of House leadership. “They said they’re eager to hear your side of the Algeria story.”

I can’t suppress a smirk. “It probably came out more like, ‘Tell him to get his head out of his ass and defend himself.’ Is that closer?”

“Nearly a direct quote, sir.”

I’m not making it easy on my allies. They want to defend me, but my silence makes that nearly impossible. They deserve more, but I just can’t give it to them yet.

“We’ll have time for that,” I say. We are under no illusions about the vote in the House. Lester has the majority, and his caucus is itching to push a button to impeach. If Lester calls for a vote on it, I’m toast.

But a strong defense in the House will make it much more likely that we’ll prevail in the Senate, where Lester’s party has fifty-five votes but needs a supermajority of sixty-seven for removal. If our caucus in the House holds together, it will be harder for our people in the Senate to defect.

“What we’re hearing from our side in the Senate is similar,” Jenny says. “Leader Jacoby is trying to lock down a caucus position of ‘presumptive support’—her words—the idea being that removal is an extreme remedy and we should know more before such important decisions can be made. But they’re not willing to do anything more than keep an open mind right now.”

“Nobody’s rushing to my defense.”

“You aren’t giving them a reason to, sir. You’re letting Rhodes kick you in the balls and not fighting back. What I kept hearing was, ‘Algeria looks bad, really, really bad. He better have a good explanation.’”

“Okay, well, that was enjoyable, Jenny. Next topic.”

“If we could stay here for one more—”

“Next topic, Jenny. You got your ten minutes on impeachment, and I gave you an hour last night for that mock session. That’s the end of impeachment talk for right now. I have other things on my mind. Now, is there anything else?”

“Yes, sir,” Carolyn interjects. “The issues layout we were planning for the reelection? We should start it now with the issues we know the American people care about and support—the minimum wage, the assault weapons ban, and tuition credits. We need positive news to counter the negative. That will give us a counter-narrative—that in spite of all the political shenanigans, you’re determined to move the country forward. Let them hold their Salem witch trial while you try to solve real problems for real people.”

“It won’t get drowned out in all this impeachment talk?”

“Senator Jacoby doesn’t think so, sir. They’re begging for a good issue to start rallying around.”

“I heard the same thing in the House,” says Jenny. “If you give them something to sink their teeth into, something they really care about, it will remind them how important it is to protect the presidency.”

“They need a reminder,” I say with a sigh.

“Frankly, sir, right now—yes, they do.”

I hold up my hands. “Fine. Talk to me.”

“Start with the minimum-wage increase, next week,” says Carolyn. “Then an assault-weapons ban. Then tuition credits—”

“An assault-weapons ban has as much chance of passing the House as a resolution to rename Reagan National airport after me.”

Carolyn tucks in her lips, nods. “That’s correct, sir, it won’t pass.” We both know she’s not pushing for an assault-weapons ban because we can pass it, at least in this Congress. She goes on. “But you do believe in it, and you have the credibility to fight for it. Then, when the opposition party kills it and the minimum-wage hike, both of which most Americans support, you will show them for who they are. And you’ll jam up Senator Gordon.”

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