The White House, Washington, DC
Friday, 21 May 17:18:59 GMT -0500
The two Marine guards snapped open the side-by-side doors, allowing Tucker to enter the West Wing without breaking stride. It was one of those little perks he would miss, all the bowing and scraping to his position. Tucker Stark, Director of Central Intelligence, he would miss that too. The job, the title -- everything.
Christ Almighty, how did it come to this? What if the President hadn't made that one slip of the tongue -- his acute interest in oil leases off the coast of Alaska -- and what if Tucker hadn't started to investigate? What if he hadn't found the offshore corporations, the hidden accounts, the bearer bonds, and the foreign depositories the President used to hide his ownership and illegal profiteering? Accounts buried so deep, hidden behind so many shell corporations and false names that no official investigation -- one that would need to abide by international regulations of confidentiality -- would ever uncover.
The young woman behind the reception desk, a uniformed Secret Service agent, grinned with chirpy enthusiasm. "Good afternoon, Mr. Director."
Tucker forced his thoughts back to the here and now and somehow managed to conjure up a smile. "Good afternoon." If only it was.
"You're looking very good today."
He knew better. Beneath his easy-fitting, summer-weight Armani suit, his six-foot, four-inch athletic body had started to go soft, a consequence of too many take-out meals since the death of his wife and children. For the first time since puberty, he looked older than his age -- fifty-six -- his hair having gone from black to steel gray in less than two years. "Thank you."
He scratched his name into the logbook and started down the hall, still questioning what he was about to do. But how could he not? Like it or not, he knew too much. And now that he understood the pattern, he could see how the President made financial decisions based on legislation he would either sign or veto. And worse, how he pushed for legislation simply to benefit his portfolio, even when it hurt the country. That was too much. Way too much! The man was a menace and had to be stopped.
Bette Ann Collins flashed an irritated scowl, just enough to let Tucker know this unscheduled late-afternoon visit was not appreciated. Though her title -- Personal Secretary to the President of the United States -- came with no special powers, Bette Ann was guard dog to the most powerful man in the world and wasn't shy about expressing her feelings, not even to the Director of Central Intelligence. "He's waiting."
Tucker didn't bother to respond -- if he had his way the old bitch would be working for an ex-President soon enough -- and pushed open the door to the Oval Office. John Paul Estes, the President's Chief of Staff, an unattractive man with more nervous tics and twitches than a hyperactive two-year-old, was pacing impatiently back and forth in front of the desk. The President was slumped in his chair, looking bored and anxious to escape his gilded cage. Tucker purposely ignored Estes -- it was a game they played, one of mutual disrespect -- and focused on the President. "Mr. President, thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
The President -- tall and urbane in a perfectly tailored bluish-gray worsted suit -- stood and extended his hand across the desk, a rosewood showpiece containing a stylish array of mementoes and photographs, and not a single file or scrap of paper. Just like the man, Tucker thought, all flash and facade. "No problem," the President said, showing his perfect and freshly whitened teeth. "No problem at all. The people's work must be done."
"I hope this is important," Estes said, "I've got a shit pile of reports I need to get through."
That Tucker believed. For all practical purposes, John Paul Estes ran the Executive branch of the government while the President campaigned, something he did sixteen hours a day, 365 days a year, election year or not. "When I call, Mr. Estes, you should pray it isn't important."
Estes smiled without humor and motioned toward one of the chairs facing the President's desk. "What's so critical it couldn't wait until morning?"
Tucker ignored the question and kept his eyes focused on the President. "I'm afraid it's a Red Issue, sir. Your ears only."
The President nodded with great solemnity -- the perfect visage of Presidential concern and attention -- and turned to his Chief of Staff. "I'm sorry, JP, you'll have to excuse us."
Estes expelled a long breath, letting Tucker know exactly how he felt about private conversations with the President. No one understood the man's intellectual limitations better than John Paul Estes, a secret he had diligently tried to protect for more than twenty-five years. "Is this really necessary?"
"I don't make the rules," Tucker answered. "If the President wants to share the information, that's up to him."
Estes recognized the trap immediately. If the President made such a decision before hearing the information he would look stupid, and if Estes insisted on sitting in, it would make the President look weak. "I'll be in my office." He gave the President a look, a secret exchange only the two of them understood. "Please call me when you're done." Despite the "please," it sounded more like an order than a request.
Tucker waited until the door closed before speaking. "I think we should move to your private office, sir."
"Oh?" A momentary look of confusion spread across the President's face, the time it took for him to grasp the implication, that this was not an Oval Office discussion, where conversations were routinely recorded. "Of course." For the first time he looked half interested, as if he expected Tucker to expose some juicy bit of political scandal. "Excellent idea."
That the President would assume it was "an excellent idea" only confirmed what Tucker now knew to be true: in addition to being an avaricious profiteer, the man had a room-temperature IQ -- and the sooner he was gone, the safer the country would be.
Though Tucker had been Director for nearly two years, it was his first visit to the small room where Clinton had his infamous tryst with Monica Lewinsky. That history and the voyeuristic image it conjured up was more interesting than the room itself, which was rather plain and unimpressive, the walls decorated with photographs of the President and world dignitaries.
The President circled around behind his desk -- a mahogany Chippendale style partners desk with drawers on both sides -- and settled into his chair, a tufted leather wingback. "Okay, Tuck, what's up?"
"It's bad news, Mr. President." Tucker opened his laptop, wanting to check his countersurveillance scanner before saying too much. "Very bad."
The President frowned, apparently realizing that when the Director of Central Intelligence said "very bad" he wasn't referring to some innocuous bit of political scandal. "I'm listening."
Satisfied there were no active listening devices, Tucker activated the recorder and positioned the laptop on the edge of the desk, where the microphone could easily pick up their conversation. "It's North Korea."
"Again! I thought we settled all that."
"Yessir, but I'm afraid we dramatically misjudged the situation."
The furrow between the President's perfectly plucked eyebrows deepened significantly. "We?"
Exactly the response Tucker expected -- the political response -- the only language the President understood. Not how or why, but an immediate attempt to distance himself from the epicenter of any problem. "The Agency, Mr. President. Contrary to all the assurances we've received, and what we believed -- " Tucker paused and took a deep breath. "We've now confirmed their nuclear program is not only active, but is much further along than we ever anticipated."
The wrinkles tightened around the President's eyes. "Define 'further along.'"
"Their efforts at miniaturization have been successful."
It was obvious from the President's expression he understood the ramifications. Without miniaturization America was relatively safe; a nuclear weapon was useless to any country without the missiles to deliver it, but once a bomb was miniaturized, it could be hidden and moved without limitation. "You're absolutely sure about this?"
"Yessir, we should have caught it earlier." Tucker tried his best to look appropriately contrite. "Much earlier."
"This is very bad news, Director. Very bad."
Tucker noted the shift from Tuck to Director, but that too was expected. "It gets worse."
The President rolled his hand impatiently. "Continue."
"It's on the street."
"On the street? You mean they're actually trying to sell the damn thing?"
"To anyone with money. And I mean anyone. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah -- "
"They wouldn't dare."
They both knew that wasn't true; North Korea was one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, and they didn't get that way by judging the moral standards or intentions of their clients. "Yessir, I'm afraid they would."
The President shook his head angrily. "Christ Almighty, I guess we all knew it would come to this eventually."
"You're absolutely sure?" he asked again, clearly hoping for a different answer.
"Yessir. One hundred percent."
"That's what you said about Iraq and WMD."
"That wasn't on my watch, sir."
"A distinction I doubt the UN will find convincing."
"The UN, sir?"
"Of course the UN," the President answered without any hesitation or doubt. "They're the ones who will have to handle this thing."
Tucker nodded, being careful to show only the slightest disapproval. "Yessir."
The President opened his mouth, then hesitated, a look of uncertainty creeping into his eyes. "You don't agree?"
"You said it yourself," Tucker answered, trying to make his disagreem...