He heard it before he came within a hundred yards of the hot room.
"A life beyond strategizing isn't worth living."
It was Harris, a minor weasel who shilled part-time for the Post and he was sweating profusely in what was once a light blue dress shirt, messily tucked into pants held up by a belt on its last loop. He stood outside the double doors, talking loudly on his cell phone until a huge Secret Service agent pushed him back inside, neither of them missing a beat.
Someone's been doing Atkins, he thought vaguely and sidestepped through one of the many hidden doors in the maze they called The White House. Wondered how a fat moron like Taft ever found his way around, then decided these doors were probably for Taft's mistresses -- a discreet way to join him in his special bathtub, the one that could fit three.
"Mr. Vice President?"
The robotic politeness of the voice meant that it was someone he didn't have to bother reply to, so he didn't, he simply kept walking.
But it was persistent and following him. "Mr. Vice President?"
He came to a dead stop. Stared straight ahead for a full ten seconds before turning around slowly like a laser gun zeroing in on its target, aiming to kill. It was brutal, but effective and the owner of the voice shrank away from him with a visible cringe.
He spoke with the forced kindness of a firing squad captain. "Yes?" How may I help you?"
"Charlie O'Connell, sir. State Department," he said breathlessly, as if he'd been running. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir ..."
"Out with it." He didn't know the man, never heard of the man, thus it didn't matter who the man was or where he was from, he was no one.
"Somalia, sir. We have reports coming in from Mogadishu that might need your immediate attention."
"Everything needs my immediate attention." Where the hell was his aide, Shiffer? He was going have his head, no, his dick on a plate for this, some little State Department drone tracking him down in a White House hallway. If one of the press saw it ...
"If everyone stopped me in the hallway, Charlie from the State Department, I wouldn't get very much done now would I?"
"The Secretary told me to. If necessary, sir."
"It's not necessary, Charlie from the State Department. Ever. No matter what Secretary McAllister says." Still polite, still kind and this kid was going to be shipped out of Washington on the next Greyhound out along with the three supervisors above him. "I'll view what's on my desk at the appropriate time. Thank you."
He resumed his walk, fuming. McAllister just bought himself a one way ticket out of the loop for at least a week. Maybe two.
Stormed into the East war room and saw Shiffer and Richard Mack bending over a table-sized map of Vermont, both of them smirking.
Not for long. "What the hell is going on here? Why are there needle-nosed pricks from State harassing me in the halls? Shiff? Care to enlighten me?"
"Hmmm?" His aide was still grinning at the Green Mountains running his thumb over their blue-lined peaks. He looked up, nonplussed. "Did you know that in Vermont it's illegal to tie a giraffe to a telephone pole?"
Richard Mack was slightly smarter or maybe just more concerned with protocol. "Good morning, Mr. Vice President."
"Good morning, Dick. I asked you a question, Shiff."
"I know, but I have yet to figure out anything State does. Seems like they got a bug up their collective asses over Hailitrumundo's threats against Ambassador Wilkenson . Says he's going to be split him like a bush hog and sell his hands next to the gorilla parts in Mogadishu's main market."
"Is this a joke?"
Shiff turned thoughtful. "The gorillas don't think so. Have you ever seen Wilkenson's hands? I wouldn't want them anywhere near me, even disembodied."
Mack stepped up, cutting off the blood flow to the argument before it began to get messy. "Sir, the security around the Ambassador has been increased substantially as of last night. If you ask me, State is just trying to make a point."
"Is that a nice way of saying that State doesn't like the President's stance on their latest African meanderings? Or shall I say, non-stance?"
"They don't like being ignored," Mack admitted.
Vice President Peter Ross glared at him. "We'll see how much they'll enjoy my attention then. Let alone the President's."
Shiff sighed loudly and folded the map into lopsided squares. "Don't bother with them. McAllister was bumped off Meet the Press last week for an interview with Crambaker, who was on oxygen the whole time by the way. They had a long wheezy discussion about how he'll die on the floor of the House before he retires."
Ross ignored him. Kept his focus on Mack and made sure Shiff saw it. Make him squirm for a little while. "Dick, do me a huge favor and crucify whatever office of State sent that roach over here. Wipe 'em out and ignore any heat you get. I'm behind you."
"Sure. Do you know the name of who it was?"
"O'Connor, O'Malley ... I don't remember. Just wipe the smiles off some faces. Can you do that for me?"
"No problem." Mack was smiling broadly and if Shiff was concerned, he didn't let it show.
Instead, he shuffled the yellow poll results. "Aren't you going to look at the numbers? The President's got an all time high in five Northeast districts he's never cracked before."
Casual tone but Ross could tell that he was bothered.
Good. "Send them over after the daily briefing ... Dick." Ross turned to leave, then turned back, something nagging at him. Something that felt dangerously like doubt or worse, those premonitions that had served him through the past fifteen years of politics. "By the way, this Mogadishu business... it's all bullshit, right? There isn't something that's going to surprise me here, is there? Is the threat real?"
Mack and Shiff exchanged glances. "I'd say so," Shiff said. "If ambushing and killing the American reporter covering the Ambassador's trip is any indication. Came over CNN about an hour ago. Didn't the State roach tell you why he was sent? Here ...." He clicked on one of the half dozen televisions placed throughout the room.
CNN reporter Dana Wolfe's surgically sculpted yet still strangely unattractive face popped onto the screen. "Again, we are receiving reports from Mogadishu, Somalia on the slaying of The Metropolis Inquisitor reporter, Chloe Sullivan-Jones while reporting on Ambassador's Wilkenson's first trip back to the war-torn nation in three years. Ms. Sullivan-Jones was ambushed on a dirt road about six miles outside of the capital, when her car was sprayed with machine gun fire. She and her driver were both killed and the local troops of Bantu warlord Siaha Hailitrumundo are claiming responsibility. Jones is survived by her husband, Terrance and their five year old daughter, Gabriella."
Ross stared at the little box to the right of Dana's head with the banner at the bottom reading: "Chloe Sullivan-Jones, 1985-2025." The picture above it was an old one, taken at some press function maybe ... definitely not the paper's headshot for her byline.
She was smiling too much in it.
Same crooked smile, never changed. Teeth that hadn't ever been straightened completely, the orthodontia money running out around the time she'd moved to Smallville with her father, Gabe.
Gabe Sullivan. Ross wondered if he was still alive.
Hoped he wasn't.
Heard Mack's voice buzzing somewhere around his head like an errant fly, slowly circling, the kind that you were always too lazy to kill. "Do you want just the Northeast numbers or the whole dailies?"
CNN's focus shifted to some story about floods in Alabama and with it, the Vice President shifted as well. "Send them all. I'll tell the President about the North."
"Got it." Mack still sounded obscenely happy.
It was Shiff's turn to be smart. "Shall I send flowers to the Sullivan-Jones, Pete?"
Bastard. Fuck all the bastards who've known him for far too long. "Yes," he replied shortly before heading back into the halls of power, lined with dozens of deceptive doors. "Just put The White House on them. No names ... especially not mine."
The Oval Office was an awe-inspiring place, always. Its designers made it that way, hushed and seamless, responsibility and power without beginning or end.
Only one piece of furniture mattered and that was the President's desk, all the other bits and pieces were marked for historical auctions the day they entered the room.
Here's the sofa where the Joint Chiefs sat while briefing the President on invading Turkey. Here's where the Director of the CIA spread out his maps of Iraq while describing the successful assassination of its Minister of Defense. Here's where the President sat and smiled for the official White House photographer while the Prime Minister of some inconsequential nation or another squirmed miserably in the most uncomfortable chair the staff could find just for the purpose of making them look inconsequential in comparison.
It was all garbage, every piece of it ... except for that desk.
Especially when the President was sitting there, reading over a thin brief with the same sharp concentration he tackled everything, from an afternoon primary buffet in Shitown, Oregon to cabinet meetings at midnight.
U.S. President Alexander J. Luthor, first term in office, once senator from Kansas, twice State Representative, once on the City Council of Metropolis, a term cut short by his father's untimely demise. Former CEO of LexCorp, an interesting and exemplary resume all around.
It had to be; Pete Ross had made certain of it from Day One.
Now they met once a day, at the formal morning briefing of the Vice President, which usually consisted of an inquiry after the President's health, followed by a general offer of assistance then off to their separate hells for the day. Ross was still handling the party moderates, the ones that had the gall to waver when it counted the most, while the President handled the hardliners and ancient Senators, too old to be swayed, too entrenched to be trusted.
The polls were left up to Ross -- a holdover from his days as campaign manager in Kansas -- and given to the President out of habit. The President no longer paid much attention to the numbers. He held his own among both parties, partly because they respected him -- his intelligence, his determination, his impeccable timing -- but mostly because he scared the living shit out of them.
The unions loved him, he'd been benevolent lord to the working man since his early twenties and if mothers didn't ever become afraid of handing their babies over to him, they pretty much had the country sewn up in a bag.
A large, seething bag that threatened to burst out of its seams at least twice a day along with the rest of the world.
Ross took his place in front of the desk and waited until the President looked up at him. "Good morning, Mr. President. How are you today?"
"I'm very well, Mr. Vice President. Thank you for asking."
"You're welcome, sir. It looks quiet today on the homeland front. I don't see anything major for today and the poll numbers for November are taking on positive trends." His lips were dry and he coughed past a slight hitch in his throat before continuing. "On the international front, State has informed me on the Mogadishu situation. It looks contained but we should keep an eye on it."
"Somalia, yes." Leather creaked as the President sat back in his chair. "I heard we lost an old friend today, Pete."
His tongue thickened in his mouth. He looked past the President's shoulder to outside where the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom. "We did, sir. Chloe ... she ... I," Ross stumbled, then regained himself. "We hadn't spoken in such a long time."
"Not since I became a Representative. My God, that was quite a while ago. Not that our Chloe didn't like talking about us, in the most public manner too." The President smiled. "Remember all the terrible things she used to write?"
"Hard to forget. She always did have a way with insults."
"I'm sure she's cursing us from on high at this very moment. Tonight we'll have a drink in her honor ... a spirited girl until the end. Did you read her last article?"
Ross searched his memory. So much news now, so many bits of paper ... so many enemies to remember it sometimes became a blur. "Honestly, Mr. President, I'm not sure I did."
"It was the one where she promised a future in-depth analysis of LexCorp's old books with sample transactions I haven't seen in years. Interesting, mainly because I'd been the only one who'd ever seen that particular set of books. I can't imagine where she'd gotten a hold of them. " The President tapped a pen thoughtfully against his chin. "I wonder if her late father had something to do with it." He sighed. "It's very hard when someone you trusted for decades turns against you behind your back like that. Very hard. Don't you agree, Pete?"
There was nothing untoward in the President's tone, nothing that gave the slightest hint of anything out of sorts -- but Peter Ross shivered nonetheless. Doubts ... premonitions ... everything that had served him all his political life was turning on him, like wolves once kept as pets, now staring at him, yellow-eyed, with lean and hungry looks.
"Yes, sir. I certainly do."
The President turned cheerful. "So drop by tonight. We'll drink to Chloe and figure out how we're going to kick Bertolli's ass come November. Pencil in ten, subject to the usual changes."
"Ten o'clock, sir. I'll be there."
"And bring an old issue of The Smallville Torch if you have one lying around. Hell, I know you have a trunk full of them so bring them all. We can read some real journalism for a change."
"Will do." Ross nodded and quietly slipped out the door into the outer office where the President's secretary, Cashmere, sat creating PowerPoint presentations by the dozen.
He felt slightly shaky, dizzy even and sat down hard, forcing his head down closer to his knees as Cashmere looked up from her monitor, befuddled. "Are you all right, Mr. Vice President? Shall I call ..."
"I'm fine. Spring allergies."
She nodded sagely. "They're getting worse every year. Even people who never had them before are getting them now." She leaned toward him, elbows resting on her overcrowded desk. "You never know when it's your turn to get hit. You just never know."
The headlines read "Lunchroom Strike Called for Return of Sloppy Joe Thursdays." Another screamed, "Principal Kwan Gives In to Chess Club Funds Scheme -- The Sock Hop Will Happen!"
Pete's lone byline read "My Job as a Benchwarmer" and he took another long sip of bourbon. The afternoon had passed into night and more than once staffers asked after his health, annoyed when he passed off the red eyes and continuous sweat rolling off his brow as hay fever.
Even Shiff got on his case. "You look like crap. Why don't you take it easy and head home to the wife?"
"What wife?" An old joke. The woman who'd live and died with him a few dozen times on a hundred different campaign trails was everything to Ross, except a wife.
He kept a mistress in Georgetown for that purpose.
"Then just go home or out of here. You seriously look worse than you did in Scranton and I was going to call 911."
"I'm meeting the President at ten. Informal," he said quickly when Shiff's eyes took on their usual predatory gleam. "And no, we're not talking numbers, so forget it."
"Screw you, Ross." Affectionately, and Shiff laughed. He sobered slightly. "Did you watch the rest of CNN's coverage? They already got the guys who killed Sullivan."
Ross found himself holding the last in a high pile of Torches, the one ranting about Spring Formals. Chloe had worn a pink dress that year -- the year she'd gone with Clark Kent. "They did? That was quick."
She'd looked very beautiful that night. Very much out of his reach, more so than usual, dancing in Clark's arms -- until Kent, the eternal moron, had ditched her for the soulmate of his stupidity, the Lang girl.
Ross had driven Chloe home that night, trying to mop up her tears with ineffectual wipes of his pocket hankie, a red silk number that just smeared the tears around her face, messing up what was left of her makeup and making her look even more childlike than usual.
Ross loved when she looked like that. Really beautiful, all big blue eyes and crooked teeth, freckles and hair that stuck out in every direction. Blonde hair, so soft the slightest breeze made it stand up into a dozen different cowlicks. Hair that was flipped out to Jesus he used to joke, ducking her oversized, heavy-as-hell handbag.
Beautiful girl. He remembered that much.
"Yeah," Shiff said. "And guess what? The militia guys are blaming the CIA. Can you imagine? The thugs are claiming that they were trained by US agents, given the weapons and paid $5,000 each in US currency, specifically to kill Sullivan. Man, we got to stop letting these bozos watch Oliver Stone movies in their huts."
"Scandal at Cadmus Labs! Lex Luthor Connected" -- that wasn't a Torch headline. Pete had hit the first of Chloe's Daily Planet bylines and dropped it as if it burnt his hands.
He needed more bourbon. His head was fucking killing him. "Is this something we'll have to worry about?"
"No. CNN didn't bother to translate their howlings into English. I got this from the Ambassador's staff." Shiff laughed again. "Jesus, Pete. When we have to worry about what some halfwit killer a world away accuses us of while being dragged off to his hanging, then we're really in the shit. Go home, man. The President will understand."
"No, he won't." True enough. The President was many things ... understanding wasn't one of them. "Have the Midwest numbers ready for me by seven. If they're bad, you can tell him all about it. I'm sure he'll understand."
"Go to hell, Pete. Oh, I forgot, you're already there." He clapped Ross on the back. "Nighty-night, Mr. Vice President. Don't let the conspiracy theories bite."
"I want them by seven, Shiff."
His cell phone rang and Ross fumbled for it.Cashmere's extension, he knew it by heart. "Yes, love of my life?"
"Liar. The President is ready when you are. Don't forget a Smallville high school year book if you have one, he says."
"Tell him I have it all."
Phone flipped shut and Pete Ross examined his hands. They were filled with newspaper ink, smearing his palms in smudges of deep black. He probably had it on his shirt as well and he cursed before making his way in the private bathroom, Vice Presidents only.
Turned on the water, until it was good, hot, and steaming. Soaped up his hands with something antiseptic-smelling, the same crap they used in public bathrooms at Smallville High, he was sure. He remembered the smell.
Lather. He remembered the hallways.
Rinse. He remembered the Torch office.
Repeat. He remembered Chloe's eyes, ever bright.
More water. More soap, and Pete Ross continued to scrub his palms until they started to turn raw. Until they started to hurt.
Started to burn and bleed from bashing the knuckles against the faucet again and again until he had an excuse to cry out in pain.
More water and he waited until the crying stopped of its own accord. Rested his forehead on the steam-wet mirror and Pete Ross stared at himself. He looked like a man who didn't know what had hit him.
Who hadn't known it was his turn to get hit.
Like Chloe, like the unsuspecting world he'd handed to Lex Luthor on a plate one winter's day four years before.
He just hadn't known.
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