The President’s expression soured as our limo passed the partially-dismantled inaugural platform. “Took them five months to build the damned thing. I have people who could have finished it in a couple of weeks.”
As his third press secretary since the election, I played it safe and smiled thinly. “Yes, Mr. President. Now, about those remaining cabinet positions —.”
“Hold that thought, Sweeney. I’m brainstorming here. Now what are they going to do with all that scrap lumber? Burn it? Send it to a landfill?”
“I suppose one or the other. As for the Secretary of Defense, I have a few names.”
The Presidential lower lip protruded like baby fat over pull-ups. “We’ll get to that. Now, people like souvenirs. What if we sold them a piece of history? How many board feet of wood we talking about? Campaign donors like something to show for their money. Why not a plaque made from the inaugural deck? Could be worth millions in funding. Nice and legal.”
“Well, it’s kind of government property right now.”
“Damnit, Sweeney! Why do you always have to piss on my parade?”
“Forget about it. Let’s go over the list. For defense, I want somebody tough. A guy who can get the job done without busting the whole place up. I’d take the job but I’m already President. So, who we got?”
“Well, the first four on your list were actors with no actual military experience.”
“Like Reagan. You saying he wasn’t a great president?”
“No, sir, but two of these guys are already dead. Natural causes. Last century.”
The lip retracted slightly. The President nodded. “Both great men. Send their widows my condolences and flowers.”
“Their widows are deceased as well, sir.”
“You’re doing it again, Sweeney.”
“I’ll arrange for wreaths at their graves.”
The President winked. “You do that.”
Crossing water on an interstate highway, I recognized the distant skyline of Baltimore as we descended an off-ramp into an old industrial district. The agents assigned to us that morning were silent when I asked about our destination. I guessed we were going to the “special briefing” that lore held would reveal the truth about extraterrestrials, secret weapons and black helicopters. We barely slowed down as we approached a dingy warehouse. A roll-up door lifted just enough to let us pass through, then lowered quickly behind us.
The interior of the building was as clean and orderly as the exterior was ramshackle. Two rows of dark-suited men with identical sunglasses stood facing one another. The limo stopped between them. The driver lowered the window by the President and the burliest man spoke. “Mr. President, you were instructed to bring no one but the Secret Service.”
The President pointed to me. “My right-hand man. We have no secrets between us.”
The agents inside and outside the vehicle seemed to communicate by locking gazes. Burly Man nodded once. “All right, Mr. President, but the Press Secretary stays here.”
The President pointed at himself. “Do you realize I am the fucking president of the fucking United States of America? What’s your name?
“Impressive credential, Mr.President. I am Agent McKibben. If you find the terms unacceptable, you can reschedule with the Director, but I strongly suggest you take advantage of this opportunity.”
“Can you believe this guy, Sweeney? Like I gotta take orders from him.”
I gritted my teeth into a smile. “Actually, I’m fine with staying in the car, Mr. President.”
“Bullshit! You’re my guy. You’re with me.” The President felt for the door release as the window went up. “What the hell is going on? Who the hell is in charge of this operation?”
Agent McKibben touched a finger to his earpiece. “The Director is ready to see you, sir.” He opened the door.
The President nudged me. “I’m going to go set this guy straight. I’ll send for you.”
I held up my tablet. “I have e-mails to catch up on. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re a good man, Sweeney. Team player. I like that.” His tone changed as McKibben led him away to a free-standing structure near the middle of the vast room. Very un-presidential invective echoed off the concrete until the elevator doors closed. Much as I wanted to know about what lay beneath the warehouse, I withheld my questions.
As I struggled with my tablet, one of the agents standing outside the limo explained. “This is a secure facility. Your phone won’t work either.”
“Are you kidding me? My job is communications! You can’t do this to me.” I wished I did not sound so shrill.
“With all due respect, you’re not supposed to be here.”
“How long will it be?”
“That’s between the President and the Director.”
“Jesus! Well, parade or no parade, I have to pee.”
Looking momentarily confused, he signaled to two men who soon flanked me. “Agents Murray and Stein will escort you. You will have to leave all devices with me.”
I suddenly knew how gunslingers felt when the town sheriff made them surrender their pistols. The theme of weaponry continued as we walked past a long row of unmarked armored personnel carriers and Humvees equipped with large-caliber guns. I thought better of asking their purpose.
Murray accompanied me into the restroom while Stein remained outside. The stainless steel toilet in the middle of the room reminded me that I was essentially under arrest. The glamour of Washington politics was rapidly losing its appeal. My already shy bladder went into full recluse mode and I had to summon all my will to produce. I did not want the agent to think I lied about my need as some kind of ruse.
After a couple of uneventful hours, the President returned to the limo. He appeared unusually subdued. My gratitude for the return of my tablet and cell phone may have been a mild dose of Stockholm Syndrome but the thrill of being able to access my e-mail when we left the building made me feel like Saul regaining his vision. I was so involved in catching up on world events and e-mail, I hardly noticed the president’s reticence on the ride back to the White House.
* * *
My hand shook as I hung up the desk phone. After avoiding me all week, the President wanted to see me “pronto.” Certain I was about to join the growing list of former staff members, I saved the changes to my résumé and e-mailed myself a copy in case I was barred from returning to my office. Having already taken most of my personal effects home in anticipation, I scooped an assortment of White House pens, memo pads and sticky notes into my briefcase and walked down the hall to the Oval Office. The door opened and a square-jawed bald-headed man pushed by as the President waved me in. I stared at the receding figure until the President closed the door and walked me to his desk.
“S’matter, Sweeney? You looked like you just saw a ghost. Have a seat.”
“I swear to God, that man is a dead ringer for Benito Mussolini.”
The President smiled coyly. “That’s Tony Turino, our new Secretary of Transportation. Good reputation. Gonna fix him up with a head of hair before we trot him out.”
“Let me guess. He’s going to make the trains run on time?”
The President, lower lip deployed like a wet slug, his head rock segued into a nod. “That’s what I like about you, Sweeney. You know how to connect the dots.”
I relaxed a little. “Of course, even if he were Mussolini, that whole thing about the trains is a myth.”
The President looked surprised. “And you know this how?”
“I minored in history. Did a term paper on the rise of facism all the way back to the Romans with comparisons to the Ottoman and Mongolian Empires. I found that —.”
“Hold it right there, professor. I saw your résumé. I’m sure you could go on all day.” The President indicated the pile of papers on his desk. “Been looking at a lot of résumés lately, trying to fill out my cabinet.”
“I could help you with that, sir. I researched a number of candidates.”
The President did his familiar head dip and shrug. “Gotta level with you, Sweeney. I was looking into replacing you. Turns out, you are the better man for the job. The guy I had in mind was a little, let’s say, extreme.”
Odd to hear him use that word, applied to him so often throughout the campaign.
“Thank you, sir?”
“I’m serious. I trust you. Confide in you. Look to you for an informed, reasonable opinion, even if I don’t agree. This other guy, well, forget about it.”
“But you don’t want my input on your cabinet choices.”
Steepling his hands, the President leaned forward. “Let me give you a hypothetical situation.”
“Now, understand, I’m not saying this is possible or real, just pretend.”
“I’m with you.”
“What if you could select from all the people who ever lived? Who would you select for secretary of, let’s say, Education.”
I scanned the room for inspiration. A painting or a bust. “Oh, I don’t know. Socrates? Newton? Einstein?”
“All good choices. Brilliant men but not good executives. How about Agriculture?”
I pinched my temples. “Uh, Luther Burbank? Gregor Mendel?”
“Okay. Both good with plants, but not likely so good at dealing with Congress. We’ll try one more: Interior.”
“You know. Parks, monuments and stuff.”
“Yeah, I know what it entails. I want to say John Muir or even Teddy Roosevelt, but I think you have different criteria.”
“I’d be with you on Roosevelt, but he’s too recognizable. Got his face up there on Mt. Rushmore. Muir would be out. Too much of a tree hugger.” The President stood and paced, hands behind his back. “You see, I would look at the man’s abilities and character. See what he accomplished in his time. For instance, I might consider Josef Stalin for Labor.”
“But he was a brutal dictator. Millions of people died because of him.”
“That was after he was in a position of unlimited power. Granted, he did some awful things, but he was focused and pushed programs through without regard to popularity. He might be effective at dealing with unions. Of course, he would have to lose the mustache.”
“Why would it matter if they look familiar?”
“People would have certain expectations.” The President mimed erasing a blackboard in the air. “Forget I said that. This is all hypothetical.” He made eye contact until we were nodding in unison. “So, for Treasury, I’m thinking this guy Ponzi.”
I snorted. “Charles Ponzi? The man whose name is synonymous with fraud?”
“Have you seen the numbers on the national debt? Think those Federal Reserve notes in your wallet will have any value when that pyramid collapses?”
“I get it, but the man was a crook.”
“Oh, he’s not so bad, I mean, wasn’t. The important thing is he understood economics and human psychology when it comes to money. He worked the system to his advantage and he knew how to manipulate people. Good skills to have in this town.”
“This would all be well and good if these guys were educated and fluent in English.”
“That’s the beauty of time travel. You pick your candidate before he acquires power and gets all crazy with it. Show him what a fantastic place the future is and spend a few years getting him up to speed in a special facility before bringing him here and now. Protectorate island in the South Pacific, maybe. Uninhabited, more or less. I mean, that’s how it might work.”
“Why not select candidates from the future? Wouldn’t they be likely to have more knowledge and understanding?”
He responded with no hesitation. “People in the future don’t exist yet. They have no track record, so, how do you judge?”
“What happens when you yank a person out of his time? Doesn’t that affect all subsequent events?”
“That old paradox thing? Over-rated. A new reality starts the moment you change something. A new timeline or something. At least, I’m guessing it could be.”
“Wow! You have given this some serious thought.”
“I have my whimsical side.” He put up his hand. “Again, all hypothetical.”
A frantic female voice came from the intercom on the desk. “Mr. President, the Secretary of Defense is at it again.”
The President pressed the talk button. “I’ll be right there.” He turned to me. “I’ll be right back. Charlie Chang’s a good man but he’s got this idea that his receptionist is automatically his personal concubine. It’s been a bit of a culture shock for him.”
When the door closed behind the President, I looked from the jumbled pile of manila envelopes on the desk to the security cameras on the wall and then back. Nobody said I couldn’t look or at least organize them. First I would have to figure out how to sort them. Grabbing a handful, I sat in the presidential chair got to work. The first contained a dozen color photographs of a well-tanned young man with black hair and a matching beard. A few of the shots featured temple-like buildings with fluted stone columns. These were not ruins and would look at home in Washington, D.C. or one of the President’s former casinos. The surroundings suggested a more natural setting, with no paved roads or vehicles. Given the President’s predilection for entertainers, I assumed it was a Hollywood movie set. Under the heading “Health and Human Services?” on an attached form I read the handwritten notes. “Subject is intelligent, ambitious and enthusiastic about the future. Deep thinker. Not strictly homo. Needs some direction there.” A series of alliterative names was scribbled in the margin. “Alexander Acropolis” and “Spiro Sparta” were crossed out. “Pete Papadopoulos” was circled.
I went on to the next envelope, this time sliding the entire contents out all at once. The documents read more like dossiers than résumés, written in very general terms concerning character traits and accomplishments. Biographical data and subject names were lacking on the forms. Sticky notes bearing the President’s familiar scrawl intrigued me more. The subject was a distinguished looking man with a neatly-trimmed beard and late-19th century gentleman’s attire. The attached note read “Frick recommended by Carnegie. Union buster. Labor?” The name was vaguely familiar, then it registered. The Frick Collection! The art museum in Manhattan. Henry Clay Frick. Industrialist. Friend of Andrew Carnegie.
I cleared some room on the desk and spread out the contents of the next envelope. A clean-shaven man with a receding hairline stared righteously into the camera. I couldn’t place the face right away but I knew I had seen it before. The attached note gave it away. “WJB. Should play well with evangelicals. Education?” The name came right away. William Jennings Bryan. The next candidate had to be a joke. The clothes. The hair. The chin. The pale, pasty skin. Even the hay cart and thatched roofs in the background looked convincing. No question this man was trying to look like Sir Isaac Newton. The resemblance to familiar portraits was uncanny. Were it not a photograph, especially one in color, I would have sworn it was the great scientist and mathematician himself. The attached note read simply “Kind of a fruitcake. No fit.”
Shouting and footfalls came from the hallway, growing louder. Hastily stuffing the materials back in the envelopes, I put them back in the pile. When the noise outside receded, I opted to open one more. A thin-faced man with his mouth pressed into a repressed smile looked at me with fanatic eyes. I knew this face too all well. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. The sticky note was a kick in the gut. The words “Press Secretary” were crossed through. Underneath, it said “too scary.”
A door flew open and a robust Asian man in a disheveled suit entered, brandishing a bloodied sabre I recognized from a display in the library. He looked down at me with an imperious sneer. “Your president is dead. You are in my chair.”
The clues that mystified me moments before gathered and crystallized in my mind. It would be absurd for the Secret Service to specifically train for a scenario involving a murderous cabinet member. They would naturally hesitate to shoot the Secretary of Defense. My near-term survival required that I accept my new reality. I stood and turned the chair to the man. “I am Sweeney, your loyal servant. Shall I address you as Mr. President?”
He smiled and lifted a corner of the presidential flag. “That will be acceptable for now.” Even without his trademark mustache, leather armor and headgear, there was no question in my mind about his identity. When finished wiping the blood from the blade, Temüjin, the man known better as Genghis Khan, touched the tip of his saber to my sternum. “Your first job, Sweeney, is to fetch me some women.”
Mike Tuohy was born in New Jersey in 1954. Moving to Georgia in 1965, he has sopped up Southern Culture ever since. A professional geologist, Mike works the environmental consulting rackets by day and writes at night, making friends, family and co-workers nervous as he chronicles the preposterous through short stories, novellas and a novel-in-progress. Eighteen of his short stories, including a Pushcart nominee, have been published in print and online. A two-time finalist in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, he has a total of nine words in that prestigious publication. Mike lives by the North Oconee River near Jefferson, Georgia. Mike has also co-authored a piece accepted by the lovely people at Scribes Valley Writing Contest | Scribes Valley 2016 Writing Contest Winners
Original artwork designed by David Wendel.