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“Are you ready?” The man with the headset turned to Catherine and gestured toward the stage. “It’s just about your time.”
“Yes. I’m ready,” she said.
“Um…Mom?” Lily, standing beside her looking uncharacteristically formal in navy and pearls, was making a face. “You’ve got a smear of lipstick on your front teeth.”
Catherine reached up and ran her index finger across her teeth. “Better?”
“Much,” Lily said.
“Thank you, honey,” Catherine said. She waited in the wings, feeling breathless, sensing the energy from the crowd as it sizzled around her. She couldn’t see the thousands out there, but she could feel them, and she knew many more were watching live.
Her throat was dry, but she knew she would be okay. She wanted this.
The Senator from New York thrust his arm stage left and the crowd roared to its feet, making a sea of blue signs bob in tune to the applause. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next President of the United States!”
“Young! Young! Young!” the people spread across the huge convention floor chanted, echoing the name on the signs. The collective force of rising bodies and breath created a human wave of excitement.
Vice President Young moved across the stage to the oak podium, striding against the current. The television lights were so bright that it was difficult to see through the shimmering circles they formed. The heat was intense. A trickle of sweat started down the Vice President’s back, under the tailored jacket, sliding from hairline to collar to bra strap.
Stand up tall. Smile. Look presidential.
Whatever happened, the next President of the United States was going to be a woman.
Catherine gripped the lectern at the D.C. Convention Center and thrilled in the sensations as thousands of clapping, stomping delegates rocked the stage floor. She had been to hundreds of rallies; made hundreds of speeches. But this was the big one – the Democratic National Convention.
She was now just one election away from the White House. So close she could taste it.
And her feet were killing her.
Catherine raised her arms for quiet. She smiled and nodded, mouthing thank you’s over the din. Gradually, the applause slowed and then stopped.
“Mr. Chairman, my fellow Democrats, and my fellow Americans: I thank you for honoring me with this nomination, and I humbly – and proudly – accept.”
Cheers and brief applause flowed through the crowd. The people in the hall smiled back at her. Round ladies sporting crocheted vests with donkey designs, gray-haired men in straw boaters. Buttons, flags, red, white, and blue bunting. A picture of political America having a party. A party for her.
“I accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, and I look forward to charting the course for America during the next four years.” Pause. Beat. Smile. “I’m glad you agree that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.”
Whoops of approval. Applause. Stamping of feet.
“Today, with this great country only now recovering from difficulties on many fronts… with our economy at last showing robust improvement…with domestic issues from health care to immigration reform revealing dramatic rifts in our national will…and with the ongoing threat of terrorism never far from our minds…we are at a turning point in our history.” Catherine watched the teleprompter as the speech she had carefully honed flowed by, the words feeling familiar and right on her tongue. Her voice rose and fell in the practiced cadence of a master politician.
The rhythm of her speech moved like a current through the audience in the hall. Shoulders hunched and bodies leaned forward, rocking in agreement. Catherine’s voice rang into the microphone.
“You are my brothers. You are my sisters. As your president, I will seek equality for all people – black, white, male, female, able-bodied and challenged, young and old, straight and gay.”
The crowd roared its approval. The people were on their feet, nodding, clapping, cheering. She was preaching to the choir. Catherine spotted her campaign manager Zane Zarillo sitting in the third row, a smile lighting up his handsome face. A political wunderkind in his early 30’s, Zane had masterminded the strategy that put her over the top. His people smarts, combined with her years of government service and the power of the incumbent president, had catapulted her onto this stage.
She gathered her voice for the big finish.
“And so it is time…for America to move forward from the greatness in our past…to the greatness in our future!”
Waves of applause washed over Catherine, and she felt the adrenalin of relief flow through her body. Her face was hot. She made herself smile despite the cotton in her mouth.
She was dying to wipe her upper lip, but the cameras were still rolling, and her children were walking onstage to stand beside her. She put her arms around Lily and her tall son Mike. Catherine felt a quick pain at the thought of how proud Paul would have been – had her husband lived to see this moment. But perhaps, somehow, he knew.
The audience was on its feet. “Happy Days Are Here Again” boomed from the speakers. Balloons drifted out of nets on the ceiling in red, white, and blue flocks. People clutched each other and swayed. Her face was blown up to a hundred times life-size on the multilevel screen behind her.
* * * * *
In the middle of the crowd, a woman looked on with a pounding heart. She had waited years for this moment. She had saved, and planned, and arranged her life so that it would happen.
And now the moment had arrived. Soon, she would be face to face with the woman she had come to see.
The Vice President of the United States.
Her palms were slick, and the pulse in her neck fluttered like a wild bird desperate to be freed.
* * * * *
Catherine Maguire Young personified the ideal presidential candidate – female pioneer category. She was tall enough, at five feet ten inches, to look powerful even when standing in the middle of a dozen dark-suited men. Her hair was a graying chestnut, and her eyes were copper. She was attractive, but not so attractive as to invite the dismissal which unusual beauty often warrants. Her clothes were impeccable. Today she wore a royal blue suit that had been custom-made to accentuate her shape without being the least bit seductive.
She was in the right place at the right time – ten years a respected member of Congress with a record as a fiscal moderate and social liberal, now a well-liked Vice President under a popular Democrat who had presided over eight fairly tumultuous years which had ended in prosperity. A 56-year-old widow with two grown children, Catherine was coming to political maturity at a watershed moment when the country was ready to accept a woman in the top spot.
Catherine made her way slowly through the tight clusters of people eager to shake her hand after the acceptance speech. She kept moving, smiling, clasping the reaching hands.
Keeping a close eye on the hand shakers were the ever-present Secret Service agents, who stayed directly behind her shoulders. She could hear their quiet reports as they whispered her position into the tiny microphones hidden at their wrists. “Firebird is in the hall. Dense crowd conditions.” Firebird was her code name, which made her smile.
Finally she and the agents reached Zane in the middle of the smaller room where they were having a reception for invited guests. She put her arms around his tall frame and gave him a hug. Usually she was cautious about physical demonstrations. As a woman running for a job that had so far been filled only by men, she watched every public move. But tonight was so full of the sweet taste of victory that she didn’t care.
“Zane. We did it.” Up this close, she could smell his cologne, and feel the richness of the fabric in his suit.
“You were brilliant, Madam Vice President,” he said. If he was surprised by the hug, he didn’t show it.
“I couldn’t have done it without your help, Zane,” she said.
“It’s been a pleasure and an honor. And it will be a particular thrill to be able to say I worked for the first woman to claim the Oval Office as her own.”
Catherine grinned. “That would be one fine day, wouldn’t it?”
“It will be one fine day,” Zane said, his voice thick.
A small group of campaign staffers had gathered around them. Zane gazed down at the device in his hand and spoke in the just-between-us tone of teammates huddling in the middle of a game. “Our poll numbers are in good shape. You’re 12 points ahead of Jerusha Hutchins, and that’s after the Republicans got their convention bump.”
Catherine turned to him, shaking her head. “Zane, were you watching the numbers on your iPhone the whole time I was making the speech?”
“Of course not…I waited until the balloons dropped.” He smiled like a man who knew his smile was irresistible.
Camilla Jamestone, who helped with logistics for the campaign throughout the country, pushed a strand of long red hair behind her shoulder as she leaned over to see the screen. “Governor Hutchin’s numbers keep moving, I see.”
“Every day,” Zane answered. “Their convention got wall-to-wall coverage in the political blogs, and the video of Hutchin’s nomination speech has gone viral. Over ten million hits, as of this morning. You know how they love to cover her – the more provocative the better.”
Catherine nodded. “How does she find time to do all that Facebooking…that Twittering?”
“Oh, she doesn’t do it all herself,” Zane said. “She has professionals to do it.”
“There are professional Twitterers…?” Catherine smiled. “Does that make them twits?”
Zane laughed, and Camilla leaned in for privacy.
“Last I saw, her positives were high but her negatives were higher,” said Camilla. “Too many people find her not sufficiently serious to consider as presidential material. And I think they’re in the majority.”
“Exactly. She went up, but now she’s down again,” Zane said, keeping his voice low. “Hutchin’s numbers are tracking at 36 percent among those likely to vote. She’s entertaining – but not much else. If she weren’t married to Quigley Hutchins, with his evangelical power base, she wouldn’t be the governor of Georgia.”
Camilla shook her head. “I don’t know how she finds the time. My lord, the woman has eight children. One would think she has her hands full without taking on a presidential campaign.” She reached for a glass of champagne as it floated by on a tray. “Word is that Reverend Hutchins is the mastermind behind her candidacy – which I can believe, because this kind of strategy is clearly not coming from a political neophyte like Jerusha.”
Zane nodded. “Quigley’s planning to be the power behind the throne. With Jerusha as the new face of the GOP, the Republicans figure they’ve reinvigorated their base and aligned themselves with the Liberty Party folks at the same time.”
Catherine smiled. “And a very pretty face it is. Although, if Quigley Hutchins thought he could get elected, he’d probably be running himself.”
“You’ve got that right. He’s a good ol’ boy from way back.” Zane gave one more glance at the iPhone and tucked it into his pocket, then nodded toward the harsh brightness of the news lights at the side of the room. A reporter was speaking into a mobile camera with the crowd as backdrop. “Your acceptance speech tonight will lead the evening news, and be the main topic online,” Zane said. “Based on past years, we can count on a post-Convention bump of at least five percentage points.”
A young woman with long black hair stepped out of the crowd to stand beside Zane. Her skin was mocha-colored and her eyes were an arresting gold. She wore a black dress that skimmed her tall, youthful body with perfectly respectable but utterly alluring understatement.
“Ah…here you are,” Zane said. “Madam Vice President, may I present my friend Maria Flores-Jenkins. She’s been looking forward to meeting you. Maria, this is the Vice President.”
“It is an honor to make your acquaintance,” Maria said. She had a melodious voice with a gentle accent and spoke in precise but cautious English.
Catherine held out her hand. There was a painful vulnerability about the young woman, who gazed at her with unusual golden eyes for a long moment before looking away.
“Maria’s from Brazil,” Zane said. “She’s the assistant to the Cultural Attache at the Brazilian Embassy.”
He tucked the exotic beauty’s arm under his own, making it clear that she was more than simply a friend. Catherine hadn’t missed the fact that women found Zane attractive – it was easy to see why – but he seemed to cycle through companions rather quickly. And he had rarely invited a woman along to one of her political events. There must be something special about this one.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Maria. Have you been in this country long?”
“For three months only,” Maria said.
“And have you been enjoying Washington?” Catherine asked.
“She has been since she met me last month,” Zane said, grinning at his beautiful companion.
* * * * *
Zane beeped the lock on his silver Porsche Panamera, opened the door, and slid in. Leaning back and loosening his tie, he glanced in the rearview mirror and jumped when he saw a familiar face. “Jesus, Devon, what the hell are you doing here? I just about – ”
“Zane. How lovely to see you again.”
Zane felt fear ping at the top of his skull. Devon, wearing his usual elegant clothes and perfectly lightened hair, was covering his right hand with his jacket and the bulge underneath it looked dangerous.
“The boss says it’s time for you to pay up, Zane dear.” Despite the fluorescent smile, the voice was cold and the eyes were even colder. “I regret to say that you are overdue.”
“Devon, I can pay with no problem after the election. My job prospects with the new administration – ”
“The boss is not concerned about your job prospects. It’s due now, as you well know. A hundred thousand bucks. I am informed that you will be granted one more week.”
“A week? You’re joking. I can’t raise that in a week.”
“Actually, Zane darling, no. I don’t joke.” A flat laugh.
“But – ”
“You’ll find it somewhere, I am quite sure. An intelligent, educated man like you.”
“Where am I going to get a hundred thou in a week?”
“That is a challenge, I agree. But you’d better get right on it. Otherwise, you won’t be around to see who wins the election.” A saccharine grin preceded the click of the door opening, and Devon was gone.
Zane felt his stomach start to do sit-ups. What the hell was he going to do? A hundred thousand dollars? It couldn’t be that much.
He had borrowed a little petty cash from Catherine’s ad budget a while his credit card was temporarily maxed out. It had added up so fast. He would pay it back, of course. Zane wasn’t a thief. It was tough to cover the damn lease payments on the Porsche. And then he spent a bit on coke, not much really – just enough to keep the edge off while he was working 24/7. He would quit just as soon as the campaign was over…he’d kicked it before, and he could do it again. But suddenly a few thousand dollars had become twenty, and twenty had turned into fifty plus.
The man Devon worked for, a lobbyist who was definitely a fan of Catherine’s, had offered him cash, discreet and quick. Zane knew he could pay it off, once the campaign was won. Just not yet! Not now.
The voice in his head that was always mocking him spoke up again.
You’re a fraud. They think you’re smart, but you know the truth. Every step higher you go, you just make the fall harder. And this time, when they catch on to you….
Zane put his hands over his ears to stop the voice. He needed some coke. But not here. The Secret Service was all over the place. He had to be very careful. They weren’t stupid. He had to play the part just right.
Man, he was tired. Up every night till 3:00 a.m. Meetings, strategy, ads, press releases. He shoved the car into gear and straightened his tie. Play the part, Zane.
Zane Zarillo, part of the first generation of Zarillo’s to be born in this country, the first to graduate from Harvard Business School and certainly the first to work on a presidential campaign, was a symbol of success for his family and for his community. He was counting on a plum spot after Catherine was elected. And after that, the rest of his life should flow in predictably wealthy and prestigious directions. This campaign was his ticket to the big time.
He was damned if a stupid thing like the loan was going to wreck his future.
It was just his luck. He was the kind of guy who always did things for other people – it was Catherine he was protecting when he borrowed the money from these sleazoids – so that no one would point any fingers when her war chest was missing funds. Well, he wasn’t going to be the fall guy.
His stomach lurched, and he looked for a spot to pull off the road. Bile washed his throat and tasted like fear.
Zane jerked the wheel toward the shoulder and shoved the car door open just in time to lose the Democrats’ fine pre-speech supper into the dirt beside the road.
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Catherine flopped down on the worn leather couch in a very unpresidential way, flinging her sensible navy pumps into the air one by one. She lifted her hips off the cushion to shimmy out of her pantyhose, wondering if the new code of bare legs was ever going to make it all the way up the food chain to the executive branch.
Wiggling her toes, she gave a sigh and punched the remote. The large blonde hair of Jerusha Hutchins filled the TV screen and her perky voice filled the room.
“It’s more of the same, isn’t it? We’ve had the Democrat Party…yes…four years now. Where are we? I ask y’all. Taxing and spending, the usual. Folks barely making it. Me and my family…the ten of us…beautiful children… so many…and we are proud! Being fruitful and multiplying. Celebrating the culture of life. The country – y’all know it – going in the wrong direction!” The crowd cheered, and Jerusha nodded vigorously, her arms spread.
“Going away from what our forefathers – the God-fearing founders of this nation – fought for. The American people – the good people, the Americans from way back – have had enough. We have the memento…the momento… it’s our moment now! And we’re takin’ the country back! Am I right, y’all?”
The phone rang, and Catherine hit the mute button on the television.
“Catherine? Are you still up?”
“Nancy. Yes, I’m still up. Winding down from the convention. I wanted to veg out in front of the TV, but guess who’s on sharing her latest wisdom?”
“From your tone of voice, I’m going to go with Jerusha Hutchins.”
“Correct.” Catherine punched the power button and the television went dark.
“Listen, I wouldn’t waste your energy worrying about her,” Nancy said. “She’s not in your league in terms of political experience.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to like that lack of experience these days.”
“Well, a lot of people are fools. She’s only governor because her husband wanted a puppet so that he could pull the strings. I mean, come on Catherine – the woman doesn’t even seem to think clearly – she sure can’t string a coherent sentence together. How could she run the country?”
“Well, I don’t think she could. And that’s what I’m worried about. I don’t want to be any part of giving her that chance.”
“By the way, you were brilliant tonight, you know.”
“Thank you, Nancy. It felt good.” Catherine reached down and massaged her sore feet. “It was pretty cool being up there.”
“Well, get used to it. You’ve got a lot of campaigning ahead of you.”
Catherine groaned. “Don’t remind me. Ten straight weeks of talking and smiling and shaking hands before Election Day. I’m off to California tomorrow – L.A., San Fran, and then…another stop somewhere. Nevada? I don’t know.” She laughed and switched the phone to her other ear, removing an earring as she did so. “And somehow I still have to find time for my day job.”
“Hey – I don’t want to hear you complain…you get to travel around in a private jet. Not like us little people who have to wait in endless lines.”
“It’s not as glamorous as it seems, Nance, believe me.”
“Oh yeah, I pity you, surrounded by all those hot young Secret Service guys….”
“Good night, Nancy. You’ll have to keep your Secret Service agent fantasies to yourself. I have to work with them!”
* * * * *
Zane roared his Porsche down the narrow Georgetown streets and pulled up tight against the curb, startling a couple strolling arm in arm on the warm August evening. He led Maria to the door and took out his key, pushing it in and turning the lock with an angry shove.
The Federalist entrance way and ornate balustrades of his historic row house normally gave him a rush of pride – knowing that he lived in a building with which his ancestors would have been awed – but tonight he felt nothing but anxiety. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” he said.
He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink and noted with a grimace that there was a spot on the $180 Hermes tie bought new for tonight’s speech. At least the tie – a perfect reminder of where the damn cash had gone – had been unsullied when he gave his comments on the candidate to reporters from CNN and NBC. He untied it and tossed it in the wastebasket, then turned back to the mirror and gave himself a wide smile, inspecting his teeth for food.
Zane was a handsome man, and he knew it. He looked as good in nothing but a smile as he did in a thousand dollar suit. His body was tall and lithe, and he carried himself in a way that took a little something from both Exeter and the seamier side of New Jersey.
His face featured dark, amused eyes, generous lips, and a smile that flashed across a room straight to any desired target. Zane had no trouble finding companionship when he wanted it.
He opened the medicine cabinet and took out his emergency stash of cocaine. He knew Maria didn’t approve, so he didn’t bother asking her to join him. He set up a small private snort. If he had ever needed it, tonight was the night. That surprise visit from Devon had jangled his nerves.
Whoosh. Cleared his head right up.
Zane splashed cold water on his face and dried it off with a towel. He felt pretty damn good. Pushing the bathroom door open, he saw Maria sitting in the living room.
“Maria.” He walked over to her. His stomach muscles ached from their earlier vomitous spasms. “I hope you’ve forgiven me for sending you home from the reception on your own. I had something to attend to. I’m really sorry. But I’ll make it up to you.”
“It is okay.” She turned to him with the shimmering eyes that had first bewitched him at an Embassy Row party six weeks ago. Tonight, though, there was something hidden in them.
“You pissed at me for some reason?” he asked.
“You’ve been so quiet since we left the convention.”
“I am just…thinking,” she said, pushing her curly dark hair behind her shoulder.
“Are you thinking about me?” His libido had kicked into high gear and he was eager for the pleasures in store.
“Perhaps,” Maria answered. She looked at him with a coy smile that was at the same time tentative. Maria’s politically-connected family in Brazil had kept her carefully sheltered, and sometimes it was easy to see that her youth had been spent in convent schools. From what she said, he didn’t think he was her first man, but he figured he was on a very short list.
She was a sweetheart; an innocent. Sometimes Zane thought she might be, finally, the woman he could fall hard for. But not right now – not in the middle of a campaign, and with everything else that was going on in his life. He knew he owed Maria more of his time and attention. He also knew she would have to wait until after the election to get more of anything from him.
They walked together into the bedroom. The elaborate green and gold swags over the windows matched the linens on the unmade king-size bed, whose tasseled pillows lay in disarray on the floor. Expensive clothes were draped over every available surface. Papers and books were piled against the wall.
Zane peeled Maria’s clothes off slowly while kissing her warm brown neck. She had a magnificent body, well-matched in height to his, and the combination of the coke and her nakedness had an instant effect on him. He dropped his pants to the floor and pulled her down on the bed, devouring her mouth with kisses. Her hair was so long that its curly blackness covered her breasts, and Zane pushed long strands aside to find her nipples. He lapped at them hungrily, feeling his hardness against the soft skin of her leg.
“God, I want you,” he said, his right hand running down the length of her smoothly undulating hip.
He swung his body over Maria’s and slid into her, feeling her sweetness wrap around him. Her honey skin had a warm fragrance and the sensation of her hips moving under his drove him to an exquisite and torturous pleasure.
Zane gave a final push. “Oh Jesus,” he said, almost a moan. “Oh yes.”
He rolled off Maria. “Thanks, baby. You’re incredible.”
* * * * *
Maria lay beside Zane as he slept, her eyes wide open, hugging the sheet across her breasts.
Her thoughts were a wild tangle of wishes, dreams, disappointment, anger. She had stood directly in front of the Vice President – Catherine – and looked into the older woman’s eyes. And she had seen…what?
Nothing beyond polite interest. A bright smile, genuine but preoccupied. A direct look that could have passed for sincere, but was the same look bestowed on every potential voter. Catherine had shown her, in short, her politician’s face.
And what had she expected?
A small sob escaped her. Zane turned his head on the pillow, looking groggy and surprised.
“What. What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. It is nothing.” She was crying now, rivulets running down beside her eyes, which were squeezed closed to no avail.
“Nothing? What’s going on?”
“I…I am sorry.”
“Maria. What the hell is going on? Was it the coke?”
“What coke? No. No. This has nothing to do with you.”
“Well, either tell me, or let me go to sleep. I’ve had a hell of a day.”
More sobs escaped her. She felt foolish, but she couldn’t stop. Great gulps of air alternated with yearning pain that came out as cries. Briefly, she thought of ways to end the pain. A speeding car. A bullet. A razor.
It was too much. All the planning. All the waiting. All the hope, building up slowly over the last four years.
Everything leading up to meeting Catherine. And now this. This feeling of…nothingness.
“I can’t help you, Maria, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
Should she tell Zane? Could she trust him?
Of course she could trust him. He loved her. A man who would introduce her to his colleagues and to the Vice President of the United States, making it very clear that they were a couple – surely even in America this meant something.
He would ask her to marry him, at some appropriate point. When things slowed down for him with his whirlwind job. It was only a matter of time.
Zane passed her a box of Kleenex and she soaked up some of the tears. With difficulty, she choked off the sobs that still pounded deep in her rib cage.
He sat up. “Come here.” He got another tissue and wiped the tears. He took her in his arms. The warmth of his embrace squeezed more tears out.
“Sugar – what is this?” he asked. “This isn’t like you…you’re my hot Brazilian babe. The most beautiful girl at every party. I’ve never seen you cry.”
“That is because you do not really know me. You do not know me at all.” She covered her face with her hands.
“Okay, then. Tell me. What don’t I know about you that would make you cry?” Zane kissed her neck. “Tell me, baby.”
“No, I…it is nothing. I just…do you love me?”
Zane pulled away for a moment and looked at her, sleepy but smiling. “Do I love you, Maria? Baby, don’t I love you over and over?” He ran his hand down her neck and lowered the sheets to expose her breasts. “Let me show you just how much I love you.”
Catherine watched the clouds go by the windows as the jet rose with a powerful roar. Nancy was right about one thing – travel on a private plane with door-to-door service and personal security was a lot easier than flying commercial. Not to mention the convenience of being able to take off on her own schedule.
Outside of the private flying office she had created for herself sat the press entourage that came along for the ride. There was also Zane, Camilla, and a couple of other folks who travelled with her regularly. Now that the nominating convention was behind them, the campaign was in full swing, and her first big speeches would all be on the West Coast.
Looking down at the draft on the laptop in front of her, she thought about the challenge of saying something both true and interesting – one of the reasons the Liberty Party got so much attention was simply that it was something new. New and rowdy and out of control much of the time. But one couldn’t deny that it was better fodder for the pundits than talking about the same old speeches being given by the Democrats and the Republicans. And now that the Liberty Party had thrown its support behind Governor Jerusha Hutchins, they were in the bigtime.
Catherine flipped her browser over to the front page of the Buffington Beast. There she was, smiling on the stage of the Convention Center with Lily and Mike on either side of her as hundreds of balloons rained down around them.
Not a bad photo, she thought. Thanks to the talents of her stylist, Chloe, who managed to cover up a multitude of middle-aged lines and shadows with some kind of cosmetic magic. But her skirt was wrinkled – it was fine behind the podium, and not so fine once she got out into the middle of the stage.
Catherine skimmed the article about the reaction from the GOP and the Liberty Party to the Democratic convention. Senator Everard Lutfisk of Minnesota, one of the most supremely boring men in America, had said that the Democrat message was “liberal big government politics as usual – tax and spend.”
Jerusha Hutchins was in fine form. She was just off a national book tour for her populist tome, “The Christian Roots of American Freedom.” She was quoted as saying that, “the real people are waking up…as they wake up to what is really going on here. And as my wise husband, the Reverend Hutchins, often says, the American government is through the people, by the people, and with…of the people of America.”
Catherine wondered for a moment if Hutchins knew that the statement – or the correct version of it, anyway – wasn’t original with her husband.
One of the BuffBeast columnists remarked on the same thing, musing about whether the self-titled “Georgia Peach Pickers” who followed Jerusha had ever read the Gettysburg Address.
Catherine looked up as she heard a knock. “Come on in.”
It was Camilla. “Madam Vice President, I wanted to talk to you about the schedule…” she trailed off and her eyes focused on the windows beside Catherine.
“Oh my God,” Catherine said, following Camilla’s gaze and gasping as she saw the military jet flying close beside them. “I hope that’s some kind of exercise…”
Suddenly they could feel their jet take a wide swing around. Camilla grabbed the wall to steady herself, and the laptop slid toward Catherine.
She turned to her right and hit the intercom button beside her that connected with the cockpit. “This is the Vice President. What’s going on?”
“We’ve been ordered to turn the plane around, Madam Vice President. I apologize for the sudden movement –”
Catherine heard a quick knock and then Zane appeared at the door, “The President has been rushed to the hospital –”
The phone rang and Catherine picked it up. “Madam Vice President, it’s Jeffrey.”
She recognized the voice of the President’s Chief of Staff, Jeffrey Silverstein. “What’s happening, Jeffrey?”
“President Drummond is going into emergency surgery at the Naval Medical Center. It looks like his appendix may have burst. He’s about to be sedated. We’re not sure how long he’ll be on the table or how serious it is, but he may be under for a while.”
Catherine looked at the faces around her on the plane, which now included Zane, Camilla, and several other staff members. In the hall she could see a gaggle of reporters craning their necks to look through the open door. She made a quick decision and punched the speaker button on the phone so that everyone could hear what was going on.
“There will be a temporary transfer of executive powers on an emergency basis while the President is being operated on,” Silverstein’s voice continued over the speaker. Catherine could hear the Chief of Staff take a careful breath.
“Madam Vice President, you are now the Acting President of the United States.”
“Thank you, Jeffrey,” Catherine said as she looked up at the people around her. She put down the phone. After a collective intake of breath, there was a quick retreat of the press in the hallway, as phones, laptops and notebooks were all suddenly put into service.
“So we’re turning around,” Catherine said, almost to herself. “Obviously,” she continued, gesturing toward the jet outside the window, and noting that the sun was now streaming into this side of the plane.
Zane spoke up. “Madam Vice President – should I send in Chloe for hair and makeup?”
Catherine looked up at him and spoke sharply. “Would that be the first question you’d ask if I were Mr. Vice President instead of Madam?”
“Um…no, probably not.” Zane looked more annoyed than abashed.
“I think we have more important things to worry about than my hair. Like how long I’ll be acting president – and whether I might have to make some real decisions while the President is unable to attend to his duties.”
For a moment Catherine let herself feel the full weight of the responsibility she suddenly held. From long habit she took the time to examine her reactions. Fear. Excitement. Surprise. Curiosity. And pride.
Then she brushed it off. This was mostly a formality. The President might well be awake and recuperating by the time she got back to her desk. Which she certainly hoped he was, she thought to herself, quickly editing any internal thrill. For Catherine to really have the power of the presidency, she would have to keep campaigning and make her own opportunities.
She realized that Zane and Camilla were still looking at her. “Sorry, Zane. I know I snapped at you…” Catherine sighed. “Having established that there are more important things for the Acting President to worry about than her hair, please do have Chloe come in. She can fluff it up a bit. Oh, and Camilla, will you check the weather in D.C.? If it’s still windy, I’ll let her spray it.”
Shaking her head, she continued, “Other than that, I’m just going to put on some fresh lipstick. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
She headed for the small bathroom as Camilla and Zane left, and after she shut the door and latched it, she leaned against the chilly metal wall for just a moment. She hadn’t expected this. Suddenly it occurred to her that the President could actually be in danger. She remembered from Paul’s medical training, years ago, that a burst appendix was a serious matter. During his residency, he had seen an otherwise healthy young man die fast as toxins entered his body.
Catherine said a quick prayer for her friend, the President. It was important for the whole country, not just her, that he recuperate quickly.
As she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, she realized she didn’t even have a lipstick with her. Like the Queen of England, high-level women politicians carried neither cash nor cosmetics, leaving that to handlers or artfully placed pockets. It would never do to be photographed carrying around a big old purse like everyone’s grandmother…or like the Queen.
But Catherine definitely needed lipstick. She needed more than lipstick. There would be a gazillion reporters on the tarmac when she landed as the first woman to be the chief executive of the United States – even temporarily.
She opened the door and saw Camilla and Chloe standing there. “Why does Jerusha Hutchins have to be so damn beautiful?” she asked to no one in particular.
“Well, she was a stewardess – excuse me, a flight attendant – before she got married,” answered Chloe.
Catherine glanced down at her laptop, still open to the BuffBeast. A glaring new headline, all in red, met her eyes: “Emergency Surgery for Drummond. Catherine Young, Acting President, First Woman Ever.”
The Twitter feed below the headline revealed tweets both elated – “Girls are in charge for a change!” and snarky – “I bet this is all a set-up to make her look more presidential.”
Camilla looked down at the screen. Jerry Rash, the right-wing provacateur, had proclaimed, “This is the first step toward martial law. Nazi-time ahead!”
“My lord, but he’s a nitwit, isn’t he?”
In Camilla’s British accent the comment sounded like something out of Monty Python, and Catherine found herself laughing. “This is going to be a circus, I’m afraid,” she said, “and it’s only just beginning.”
She sat down and Chloe started on her hair, adding hot rollers and then setting out her makeup case.
“Madam Vice President, you do realize that your arrival in D.C. will be carried worldwide,” Camilla said.
Catherine nodded. “How long before we land again?”
“About an hour, I think.”
Catherine leaned over to the intercom and pushed a button. “Zane, can you ask Sarah to bring me my red suit, please?”
A moment later Sarah, her personal assistant, walked in carrying a garment bag. “Red? Really?” she asked.
“If I’m going to be on TV screens all over the world as the first woman ‘acting’ president of the United States, I want to come out of this plane blazing. Power and confidence. The mantle of leadership and all of that. I certainly don’t want to look timid – or scared. After all, I’m asking the country to give me this job permanently.”
“Red it is, Madam Vice President. Or Madam Acting President. A bold choice.”
Catherine pushed the intercom again. “Zane, could you come in here? I’m going to have to come up with some words. We need to discuss the appropriate demeanor.”
She reached up for a moment to run her fingers through her hair, and then realized that there were rollers in her way. Chloe was trying to put on some blush, but Catherine waved her away for a moment as Zane appeared in the doorway carrying his laptop, and then closed the door on the reporters outside.
“So what’s our basic message here, Madam Vice President?” Zane settled into a seat across from her and opened the laptop.
“The first point to make is about our concern for the health and well-being of the President. And of course I need to sound suitably gracious about the honor of serving in this temporary position. But I also have to grab the chance to look like I’m ready, willing, and able to be president of the United States in my own right.”
Catherine smiled at Zane as he started typing.
“Because I am.”
* * * * *
Maria walked down the hallway of the Brazilian Embassy, the plush red carpet softening the impact of her tall heels. As she passed a door to her right, she heard excited voices raised and saw five of her colleagues gathered around a screen.
She stepped into the room.
“What is going on?”
Her friend Esther turned around and gestured her over to the laptop. “The American president is in the hospital. He handed over the government to the Vice President.”
“Temporarily,” said Rodrigo, one of the interns. “It’s not like a long-term thing. Just until he’s out of the hospital.”
“Unless he dies,” said Esther. “His appendix burst, that’s pretty serious, no?”
Catherine looked at the photo of the Vice President on the screen and the headline underneath it: “Catherine Young, First Woman Acting President of the United States.”
The hair on the back of her neck rose and she felt a tingling along her spine.
* * * * *
Catherine stood at the top of the flight stairs for just a moment before descending from the plane. It was important to get her bearings. Surrounding the aircraft was a phalanx of reporters, television cameras, and satellite vans.
She resisted the automatic urge to smile. This wasn’t a campaign stop. This was a serious moment for the country.
Carefully maneuvering down the steps, she stopped at the bank of microphones and makeshift podium that had been set up on the tarmac. Though the sun was still high in the sky, at 6:00 on a late summer evening, bright lights were pointed at her face so that the cameras could see every detail. For a moment she thought about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, her first political memory, and worried that she would sweat.
Well, what if she did? It was a moment for sweating. The President was in surgery, and it was her job to reassure the country.
She tried to swallow before speaking, and for an instant, she couldn’t. If she won the election, would she feel like this? A little tongue-tied, a little petrified, knowing how much of the world was listening?
“I want to send a message to the people of the United States, and to the world.” She could hear that her words were going into the microphones, but there was no resonance in the outside air, as there would have been indoors. Catherine wondered if she could be heard. For just a moment, she had the surreal sensation that this was a dream about being President of the United States. A dream from which she would awaken any moment, her alarm buzzing beside her bed, her young children, tousle-haired, climbing in beside her.
Then she blinked, and it was all real again. Real but nearly unbelievable.
She opened her mouth and continued speaking the words that she and Zane had prepared. “The operations of the United States government are undisturbed and are completely secure, and will remain so until President Drummond is able to resume his duties, which I am certain will be very soon.
“He is getting the best of care at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, and is likely to be recuperating comfortably as early as tomorrow. As is provided in Amendment 25 to our Constitution, the President has empowered me – an assignment which I accept as a great honor and with considerable humility – to act in his stead should the need arise during the brief time that he is incapacitated.
“I know that all Americans join me tonight in wishing President Drummond a speedy recovery and a quick return to his duties as chief executive.”
As planned, Catherine turned away from the microphones swiftly just as the expected barrage of questions arose from the assembled reporters. She had taken only two steps when she heard a male voice shouting out, “Vice President Young, what do you think of Jerry Rash’s claim that you and President Drummond cooked up this scheme to enhance your chances of being elected?”
A visceral shot of anger made Catherine turn back. Her calmer side said to ignore him, but some instinct wouldn’t let it go.
Stepping back up to the microphones, hearing the click and whir of cameras and knowing that she would be seeing photographs of her angry face tomorrow, Catherine faced the reporter who had asked the question.
“Any suggestion that this administration would cynically manipulate the political process – and potentially put this country in danger – through such a stunt, is unworthy of a loyal American, and is the product of a paranoid and delusional mind.”
Catherine turned on her heel and walked toward the waiting limousines.
She wondered whether she was going to regret that in the morning.
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