Quid crastina volveret aetas scire nefas homini.
What the morrow’s years might bring ’twas sin for man to know.
Publius Papinius Statius A.D. 85
Michael stepped outside and took a deep breath. Their street was cobblestone, narrow with trolley tracks down the center, the shadows of the trees striking the pavement at irregular intervals. It promised to be another warm day in D.C., making its occupants wish for the relief of fall and dryer air. A glance at his watch told him that he had plenty of time before his morning meeting. Enough to visit with Sonia for breakfast and…well, whatever she was willing to do.
Coffee dripped from the dash and onto his slacks. With a half-hearted swipe of the back of his hand he attempted to push the still warm liquid toward the passenger side but only accomplished getting his sleeve wet, staining a nice circle of brown on his white French-cuffed shirt. During the panic stop, made because another car was happily running a red light, the coffee cup dumped its contents against the windshield, afterwards landing who knows where. It was bad enough, but he never had a chance to get a sip, not one.
A glance at his wrist showed that he was going to be late again this morning, and the Chief of Staff was an intolerant man, puffed up, impressed by his lofty position and quick to give voice to criticism toward those under him. Michael laughed. Who cares? He laughed again, chuckling with the knowledge that he was there for criticism, the brunt of antagonisms fell on him as designed by his appointment. No one liked him, and no one would ever to listen to his contrary ideas or give them consideration. He was window dressing and that was all. Simply an impotent rebel representing nothing but an image of inclusion for public consumption. He decided that he would attend the meeting as is, ignoring any disapproving looks or comment. A rebel rebelling, they should expect no different.
Michael turned his car into the line waiting entry into his assigned parking garage as the car behind him sped angrily by, its driver glaring hatred at him for some unknown reason. His appointment included several minor perks, but this was the one he considered an un-perk, so to speak. The oversold facility was always packed, always, and the line was often longer than today’s. Someone over there, two blocks away at the White House, was having a laugh at his expense. “No,” he was curtly told, “there are no more slots in the underground. Sorry.” Only they weren’t sorry. Delighted would be a better descriptor. Sticking it to Michael Greenburg was itself a perk. The two more years left, before elections would decide all of their fates, would be intolerable except….except for her. Michael touched his lips, wondering if traces of her were still visible. He glanced into the rear view mirror…no, they were clean, but he had to be sure. No way he needed that as another round of gossip fodder. Anyway, they all were doing the same thing, even the gals. A large sexual appetite at this level of government was the rule…expected, even though it couldn’t be mentioned or openly flaunted.
Sonia’s image floated somewhere outside his windshield, her long nipples casting small shadows around the lower curve of her ample breasts. Erotic and arousing, even in memory. A car horn sounded behind him, and he crept forward a car length, Sonia disappearing for the moment. He activated his pad, deftly clicking his schedule up, keeping one eye on the car ahead to avoid another panic behind him. Finished by four. Good. He could see her again for a couple of stolen hours before going home. Jennifer could wait, that is if her busy social schedule permitted her to come home before dinner. Michael sighed. Once they were close. Once they flew into each other’s arms, kissing passionately after being separated for even one hour. How could that kind of love just disappear, as it had? Roommates now and that only. Michael couldn’t even remember their last sexual encounter, or how long ago it was, and no longer cared, as he was sure Jennifer felt as well.
Late for a meeting is excusable occasionally but entirely missing a meeting is not. Michael decided that enough is enough, and he got out of the car, walking toward the busy attendant, past the waiting cars as horns behind started to blare out, reminding him of geese squabbling at each other over a morsel of food. He clipped his White House ID on his lapel and took a ten from his wallet. The attendant saw him coming, placing his hands on his hips in a defiant gesture. This trick he had seen before.
“Sir, you simply can’t leave your car in the street. We have no way of getting it in here…” The ten was tucked into the attendant’s shirt as Michael Greenburg shrugged and headed across the street, dodging cars like an overpaid quarterback. The message was clear. Tow it, park it, blow it up. He didn’t care a bit.
The walk was automatic by now, after sixteen continuous months. Down Pennsylvania…cross 17th to the plaza and then turn right at the guard house. The rear entrance to the White House loomed through the trees. A sanctuary, a nest, of those appointed by the people to rule, a target, an objective of those hoping and plotting to occupy it. Samuel Jones watched him come, smiling his big toothy smile, the deep chuckle audible from fifty feet. As Michael drew near, the visual appraisal, the ‘tisk..tisk’ and the head shake.
“You are late, Congressman, better get yourself in step!” Another one of Sam’s deep laughs bounced off as Michael went past with a half salute, returning the smile. He was a rumpled mess, stained, and had a lack of coffee dullness about him. It didn’t matter. He was nearly the only one there who couldn’t get fired. What could they do? He was only a token, a pawn, a dart board. Fire him for disagreeing? Never happen. He pushed against the handle, speeding up the automatic door and headed for the metal detector.
“Good morning, Congressman Greenburg,” the guard said politely, motioning for him to raise his hands for a wand-over before entering the detector. “And how does this fine morning find you, sir?” she said just before pushing the detector between his legs. Michael suppressed a grunt, denying her the satisfaction.
“Oh, I’m fine, Gloria. Can’t your meter register that?” he answered sarcastically.
“Yes, indeed, Congressman. A person is inside as they look outside,” she retorted quickly.
Michael ignored her comment and headed for the staircase of the West Wing, sprinting two at a time and emerging in the second floor hall somewhat breathless. Two turns, a long hall and the meeting room door greeted him. It was closed. He tapped lightly and waited.
The door opened a foot and Julia Page’s head looked him over and frowned. “Better come in Congressman. They’ve already started.” She stepped back and opened the door wider, exposing the long mahogany table hovering over a cream carpet accented with pale blue inserts. Michael always had the same thought when he saw this room and its historic furniture. The people currently in the room had no business here. This room, like many others in the White House, had seen some great people making profound observations while doing august business on behalf of the American People. Not in this administration. Not by a long shot.
“Sorry,” he said to the room, not its current occupants, as he stepped over shapely legs, making his way to his chair. The brass plate read “Mr. Michael Greenburg, Special Advisor.” Funny, he thought, that it never specified exactly whom he was advising. Nor could it, because he didn’t advise anyone.
“Welcome Mike,” Robert Doran said smoothy, his perpetual toothy smile beaming his insincerity down the long table. “To get you up to where we are, allow me to give you a summary.” He waited until Michael acknowledged with a tip of his head. “We are discussing Iraq and its current crisis this morning. Yes, I understand that this is a familiar and recurrent discussion, and yes, I understand that your position will not have changed.” Chief of Staff Doran waited until Michael nodded once more before continuing. “At this moment I am entertaining and inviting ideas from this committee for a rational solution. Admiral Phillips has just described the use of napalm as a method of crowd control, and we are in the processes of debate.”
“I did no such thing,” Admiral Phllips stammered, turning a blue-red, the goading successful in destroying his demeanor, as it was designed to do. Michael had to give Bob Doran credit. With a minimal number of well placed and expertly timed insults, he could rattle just about anyone he chose to attack, allowing his own views to advance by default. Bob had grown cautious about insulting Michael, because Michael would fight back and not lose his cool while doing it. Placing a dagger into someone was a skill Michael had learned by practice on the campaign trail and during debate with the vicious opposition party. This very party, in fact, the current party in power. One of the reasons he was in this room with them was to destroy any chance he would ever have to seek higher office…the senate, for one. Being in this room, rubbing elbows with this bunch, would taint him in his own party, the equivalent of the kiss of death. Marked, stained for life, his future was not to be in politics, that much was for certain. The only salvation was that he could speak to what he believed, even if it was just so much hot air, drifting out of the ducts to the outside without an echo or memory. They had made an offer he couldn’t refuse; a chance to bring his party’s opinion to the inner sanctum of power. His colleagues, and the party leaders, had insisted that it was a good idea, that he should accept this appointment. Now Michael felt…knew, that all of them thought he was a problematic troublemaker. Everyone wanted Michael to get the shaft, friends and enemies alike, and naively, he had accepted, and here he was, the target of not too polite humor.
“A question, Mr. Chairman,” Michael said loudly, feeling the turning heads appraise him and his coffee stained clothing. Not wanting to wait for official permission, he quickly continued. “About napalm,” he started. “During my four years in the Air Force, I was instructed about the uses of napalm and its history, so I am not ignorant regarding the subject. Exactly what was the discussion concerning napalm?”
Admiral Phillips suppressed a smile, but his eyes flashed satisfaction at the question.
“Please, Mike, this is a subject that we have passed, and we have to move forward not backward. Rhonda will make our minutes available for later reading if you insist,” Bob Doran said, his finger pointing up at the Lord as if he were the model for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He finished speaking, flashing his tight smile of victory, but his eyes still held the sharp knives of his inner self.
“Of course a U.S. Admiral, such as we have here, would know that napalm has been outlawed for use against civilians, don’t you think? Surely, he would mean against legitimate military targets, a crowd of soldiers perhaps. You will clear this up for me, won’t you?” Michael persisted. He wasn’t in the mood to be silenced this morning, at least not so dismissively. Admiral Phillips grinned openly at him, enjoying the budding confrontation.
“Mike, Mike, I assure you that I respect Admiral Phillips’ views. Now can we proceed with others viewpoints?” Doran said, not visibly angry, still in control. He looked away before Michael could answer and pointed to Audrey Jones-Hayden, who was shuffling papers in anticipation of a long, meticulously planned dissertation.
Audrey started right in, obviously waiting for her chance to impress the room with her preparedness, pushing her heavy glasses back up her nose by habit and glancing at Michael, also by habit. She knew from experience that Congressman Greenburg would take exception to her position, whatever it might be, and he would be persistent and cunning about it
“We must start back, way back, to the death of Muhammad…”
“Must we?” Michael interrupted. “Let me stipulate that all of us are very aware of the beginnings of Islam. Aren’t you about to describe the schism which has lead to the present conflict? Please…” For emphasis, he tossed his pen on the table. Audrey looked up at him, her black rimmed glasses sliding back down her nose automatically so that she could see over them.
“Congressman, or should I say ‘former Congressman’, for the sake of politeness, if nothing else. Do let her speak without interruption. Can you do that?” Bob Doran asked, his words rising in pitch and volume towards the end of the sentence.
“Regretfully, I simply can’t,” Michael responded. “I had history in college, as all of us have had. I suggest that she skip to the interesting parts, if there are any.” Audrey Jones-Hayden looked back and forth between them, wondering who was to have the last word. Her confidence already shaken, she shuffled her papers instead of contributing to any confrontation. She was a hack appointee, as all were in this room. Such an absolute waste of time, Michael thought as he rubbed his chin, studying the chess board, anticipating the next exchange. This morning he was going to extract revenge on the world because of his miserable personal life, his failed marriage, his lack of a future and the genuine lack of respect he had been shown for a year and a half. It was coming to a head, the torment forcing him to try to be noticed, to attempt to make a difference, any difference.
Bob Doran sighed to the silent room. “Audrey…perhaps you should cut to the chase or we will never be finished by noon.” He made a show of appraising his wrist watch, the excuse of backing down not his fault but the pressures of his office forcing him to be diplomatic.
With a last glance at Michael, the only man in the room she had a deep, unshakable physical attraction toward, she started again, this time half-way through her thick stack of notes. “Two main polarizing elements, the Shia, the Sunni, have always vied for control of Iraq, as they do at this moment and will into the distant future. I won’t mention, at this time, unless you are interested, the various tribal and regional influences which could be considered. To be blunt, none of them, even their oppressed women, are responsible or trustworthy allies to us. We are seen as an alien, Christian-Jewish culture trying to impose our values. They accept our money and our weapons but not our ideas of democracy. Let’s not pretend any longer that we can remake their society in our image. The only way that Iraq or any other Islamic based state in the Mideast will be stable is through autocratic rule by a heavy hand. Something we fear, because of the potential for a cascade of capitulation of the weak, unstable and untenable governments currently in place. A Hitler or Stalin style dictatorship or a Caliphate rich in oil, abundant in population, will emerge astride an area always critically important to the rest of the world…like it or not.” She paused to gather her thoughts and to catch her breath but more importantly, to judge how Michael was going to respond. Catching his eye, to her surprise, she read interest in his face, not hostility. She had given a summary which was factual, indisputable, but unexpected, least of all from her, the bookworm, think-tank scholar, appointed because of her gender, not because of her wisdom. Michael was silent, for the moment, waiting with interest for her to continue.
“Options for us are limited by competing economic and political interests, such as the European and Asian need for oil, or the Russians, playing for a market for their arms sales as well as preventing us from gaining influence.” Audrey Jones-Hayden looked over her glasses at Michael and turned a page. “So just what can we do?” She asked rhetorically, waiting for all the minds present to focus on her next sentence…the nuts and bolts of her presentation. She looked around the room, sensing interest but also impatience. After all, she was just window dressing…a female intellectual, harmless but necessary for appearance. This time they were in for a shock.
“Allow conflict to happen, feed both sides with arms but just enough to have continuous battle without resolution. Decades of war…as long as we can sustain it. The two sides will consume each other slowly as if by cancer. Think about the so called Hundred Years War in Europe. If one side starts to win, assist the other side…escalate but keep the killing confined to the area. A side benefit would not only be the diminished terrorist attacks on the West but an increase in energy sales. That’s right. Oil, gas, coal. We have it, Europe and Asia want it. Same for the Russians.” She pulled off her glasses and put down her notes, waiting for the response, especially from Michael.
“My God, Audrey!” Bob Doran exclaimed. “That is the most radical idea I have ever heard, bar none. Is that from an excess of flavored coffee or has the university crowd gone simply mad?” Audrey held her ground and ignored him. That was the response she feared but she expected it to come from Michael. He was looking intently at her, his face impossible to read, and she looked back trying to understand what was twirling in his mind. “Utterly ridiculous, Audrey.” Bob continued. “You haven’t thought this out, I can tell. The death toll would be enormous and responsibility would fall on our shoulders…the President’s as well. As Chair, I rule this proposal out, completely reject it, disown it and insist that it be thrown in the trash.” Bob looked around at the other faces for support, but Audrey continued to stand in place.
“Mr. Chairman, if you will, please let me continue,” Audrey asked quietly. Bob Doran ignored her, distancing himself from any connection to her proposal…but he didn’t ask her to be seated, which she took as an opening. “The present conflict is no different, just disorganized and will have the same result without any benefit. Sure it’s a disgusting idea, but I honestly feel that it is the only one. We can’t allow one side to win. The death toll would be even higher that way and then we would face a particularly nasty and unified enemy. I have been sitting here for months as opinion after opinion floated past, and I recall that none of them had any merit. My idea will work and it is the only one that will.” She sat down, looking at Michael.
Admiral Phillips cleared his throat. “I must say that the young lady has made a point. As Machiavellian as her plan sounds, I haven’t heard anything better. The entire Middle East is up for grabs and other than dropping nukes on them, I don’t see any strategy which would lead to peace. The problem is that they don’t like us over there, and whatever we do seems to make their political situation worse, not better. Every hope of resolution or representative government has failed over time. Looking back at history, Audrey is correct, there is no solution for this area.”
Bob Doran shook his head and pointed across the table. “Mr. Wallace. Your turn. First, how would your people view such a scheme? And would it work? The second question…can you suggest any other way?”
Franklin Wallace, acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, pushed his brass name plate back, leaning on the polished surface with his elbows, his chin in his hands. “Excuse me for bluntness, but her plan is just stupid dreaming and would not work. Those people over there are not dumb and would easily see through such a scheme. It might just be what’s needed to unite them against us. As far as the second question: we should do what we have been doing all along. We are continuing to develop like-minded allies among the factions, and we support our friends. The United States should promote the idea of peace, fairness, education and trade. We can’t control an outcome or visualize what might occur in the future, but we can do the right thing, the honest thing. Our government has always stood for honesty and the rights of man and so should we continue to do so.”
“But it’s not getting the problem solved, is it?” Admiral Phillips observed.
“It might not be possible to solve this problem, Admiral,” Acting Director Wallace retorted.
“Thank you, Director Wallace, for your insight,” Bob Doran said, shooting the Admiral a quick disapproving look. “Other suggestions?” he asked, looking around.
“You’ll think this as strange as the last plan but here goes,” Peter Morgan offered, raising his hand like he was still in grade school. “My group has been developing and maintaining information distribution sites for the Defense Department…”
“You mean web sites?” Michael interrupted.
“That’s only the visible part, Congressman. But allow me to finish. On a particularly active blog site, we solicit suggestions from the public and a recent comment intrigued me, and I want to pass it along.” He waited for approval from Bob Doran who just raised his eyebrows, not committing himself to prior approval in case the suggestion was as strange as suggested.
Peter Morgan drew a deep breath, “I’ll just read this unedited, and before you ask, the author is unknown and undiscoverable, part of the design of the blog site. The writer says: “I am involved in virus research and at my laboratory we are using genetic engineering tools to modify viral genetic information with the hope of finding cures for untreatable viral infections in humans. We have recently learned that it would be possible to modify the Ebola virus making it more virulent, shortening the incubation period, thus making a dangerous virus much more dangerous. We are sure that this same sort of research is being conducted in other labs around the world. An offensive attack with this particular virus would devastate any enemy, certainly those in the Middle East, given the current chaos in that area. Note that I’m not suggesting the use of this weapon, just observing how effective it would be.”
“Wow!” observed Bob Doran. “It just gets crazier all the time.”
“One proposal that this committee liked previously was to lure radicals into a confined area and take out as many as possible with missiles. Is this so different?” Admiral Phillips asked.
“Sure it is, Admiral. Bombing terrorists is not the same as unleashing a potent virus on a general population. Besides killing the innocent, it might spread into…well, the U.S. for instance. Other than breaking international law, it would lead to reprisals of similar nature. This is mass murder on a scale never previously attempted. I will not allow serious discussion of anything like this,” Bob pounded his fist on the table, glaring at Admiral Phillips with anger.
National Security Advisor John Cements stood to speak for the first time. He was a commanding presence with his height and mass as well as his heavily lined and jowled face. “Gentlemen, Ladies, good morning to all of you. I have listened with interest this morning to some rather far-fetched solutions for a nonexistent problem. Remember that we are over here across a massive ocean with allies on both sides, protected by the world’s best navy. No matter what they do in the Levant, we are safe, oil independent and resource rich, and besides, we have the intellectual brain power to create an impenetrable defense of antimissiles. As a last resort, we can vaporize all the people in the area in minutes just by pushing a button or two. We know that and so do they. My suggestion is in line with our CIA. Do the diplomatic dance but stay at arm’s length. Attack as a last resort and only when our own soil is threatened. But…if we are forced to use weapons in defense of our lives, we should respond with total annihilation, without remorse, without pity.” After speaking, he paused for a moment but seated himself to a silent room.
“Congressman Greenburg?” Bob Dolan asked, leaning over to look at him. “You have been uncharacteristically silent. Please…your comments.” Putting Michael on the spot for comment about wild schemes was a new twist. It was a loosing position to be in. Either support a crazy scheme and be branded a warmonger or risk being called soft on the security of the country. Worst of all, and either way the question was answered, he would be associated with the opposition…the stink of the skunk. Michael avoided touching his face, a tell of weakness, and just sat there looking back at Bob, gathering his thoughts. It wasn’t so much that anything was to be decided this morning. That would be done in secret in the Oval Office. This was about positioning, and that was all.
Michael cleared his throat but remained seated. He caught Audrey’s eyes, which were waiting on his thoughts. She had more than a professional interest in him, he realized. There had been other times that he noticed her look, but during those moments, there was always so much going on. Audrey was attractive, slender, and this time he looked back to her with something other than politics on his mind. “With respect to our presenters,” he began, “the proposal to foment war would require Russian cooperation and trust. Good luck with that. The Ebola weapon, if one is possible, is threatening to all of us. I strongly suggest that a vaccine be developed as soon as possible, just in case our adversaries are ahead of us. On the other hand, I agree that we have lost control of the entire Arab world, and I believe that responsibility lies with the present administration and its weak policies. At this moment, after so many mistakes, our options are limited. I do support discussions such as we have had this morning, because even if rejected, these ideas are necessary to explore, and I congratulate Audrey on her courage in speaking about one particularly terrible solution.”
“What, no suggestions, no criticisms?” Bob Dolan sneered, projecting his smile around the room as if he had scored a victory.
“I’ll let you know when I do, Bob.”
Bob Dolan looked at his watch, frowning. He wanted to let everyone know that he had commitments, time constraints and was busy and in demand. “That does it for today, and my, what a day it has been. Food for thought, as they say. My secretary will contact you when the next meeting is scheduled.” He stood, ready to shake hands with anyone and everyone, the consummate politician. Avoiding Michael’s hand, Bob touched his shoulder on the way past his chair. A mock show of affection. Michael remained seated, still intrigued by Audrey Jones-Hayden’s talk and her obvious interest in him.
He felt a soft hand on his shoulder and turned toward her. “I hoped you would stay behind. Can we talk?” Audrey asked with a hopeful smile.
“I would love to discuss this topic with you, Audrey. It was a well thought out but aggressive plan, and it sent my head whirling. You have some time right now?”
“Of course. You will be the first to give it serious attention. Here?” she asked, looking nervously around, obviously not wanting their first private discussion to be monitored by White House recording devices.
“I have a private but very, very small office at the other end of this long hall. Is that suitable?”
Michael pulled the wooden chair away from the desk and extended his hand, motioning her to be seated. Instead of being on the other side of his desk, he chose to sit on it and pushed his meager paper work to one side. “Sorry about the height difference, Audrey. I’m not one to look down on you, really I’m not!” he laughed, looking down at her. She tucked her hands under her legs, little girl like, in a defensive posture, looking up at him with anticipation but also glancing at the open door and the frequent passers-by. Michael took her message, getting up to close the door. The room was only slightly bigger than a closet and in the close quarters her perfume was more noticeable. He had a sensation that he had experienced that perfume previously and some part of his brain started processing it.
“Do you have an office, Audrey?”
“Not in this building. I share a smaller one than this over at the Rayborne. I am only an infrequent visitor here. Given the way you are treated, I’m surprised you have one.”
“My former colleagues in the House would howl if I didn’t. Appearances here are everything. Say, this is the first time we have actually talked, isn’t it?
“Yes. I am always anxious to hear your opinion on things. You have a firm grasp and aren’t full of fluff. At least I always know where you stand on issues.”
“Well, actually, I am expected to have a contrary opinion. You can’t be from the opposition and hold the same view, can you?” he laughed again, causing her to smile broadly at him. Yes, he thought, she wants more than a conversation regarding her paper. Truly, he didn’t know the first thing about Audrey, where she was from, her age, her marital status or her party affiliation. He had always assumed that she was rabidly in agreement with the Chief of Staff’s views, otherwise why would she have been appointed? After all, they only wanted support for an already held opinion, not diversity or clutter. The ship runs smoothy in one direction if all the propellers point the same way, even if the ship is on the wrong course. A small, insignificant propeller named Michael would make no detectable difference.
“Frankly, Audrey, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the CIA or the military had suggested your plan, but coming from you, it was a massive shock. I haven’t had enough time to really think it out, but one thing is apparent, it would be the most unlikely proposal to ever arise from the staid U. S. of A.”
“There is no other way, Michael. I have assembled a ton of data regarding the Middle East which includes secret analysis from people in the field. If you wish, I’ll see to it that you get copies.” After speaking, she took off her glasses, tucking them into a unseen compartment in her jacket pocket. The effect was to unmask her face, a thin one, handsomely appointed with full lips and large eyes. A soft face, a face which could show tenderness, motherly affection, at the same time suggesting a possibility of submission.
“A ton, huh? Better wait and see if anyone takes it seriously first. My expertise has always been economic not military strategy. Besides, my opinion is not worth very much around here, and frankly we both know that what I think won’t matter in the least.”
“Not to me,” she said, looking at him with a hint of passion just under the surface. For a brief moment, Michael considered what a quick tryst in his small office would be like. Not that there wasn’t precedent for it, perhaps even in this very room. The thought was arousing, and he was experienced enough with women to read the obvious signals from the woman in close proximity. He looked again, appraising her figure through her clothes, trying to imagine how her skin would feel under his hands. Audrey glanced at the door, then back to his eyes. They were alone, she said in her mind, beaming the thought into his. She smiled and glanced below his waist, which was about head height, then back to his face. Her little trick worked and he started to become aroused whether he agreed or not. Nature was claiming its dominance over his better judgement and the process had started.
The phone rang, jarring his mind back to where he and Audrey were…the seat of power of the most powerful country on the planet.
“Hello,” he said, still watching Audrey’s face projecting that willing smile at him.
Bob Doran’s smooth voice came across the earpiece, “Michael! Glad you are still here. Can you manage to come to my office? Right away would be appreciated.”