|Primary Characters:||Dickie, Vince, Kelly, Mac, Rod, Jim|
|Description:||Dickie is beginning to realize that everyone sees him as a total bore. He does things to change his image, but due to unforeseen circumstances he ends up in trouble. Later, he also learns a harsh lesson.|
Kelly was talking animatedly with her friend Vince. Just as he was entertaining her with a vivid account of how he and his partner had met, Dickie McDonald walked in. As usual he was in a hurry and his nose was buried in a thick tome of papers. He was actually hoping to catch the president before her morning staff meeting. At first Kelly and Vince didn’t even hear his approach.
“And I was so embarrassed. My date – and his – were standing there watching. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so – naked – except when I tried to tell my family about – Anyway, we can laugh about it now, but at the time, it was totally mortifying.”
“I know what you mean. When I was in high school, my boyfriend Jack and I were – making out one morning. Really early. I had cheerleader practice and he had football practice. There we were, kissing and – well, he had his hand under my top and that’s when my home economics teacher caught us. She was – I swear she was almost seventy and had these thick framed glasses. When she looked at you, it was like – talk about feeling naked. My face was so red and Jack – well, you can imagine.”
“That must have been embarrassing. It must have taken you a while to bounce back after that, but you know – what we were doing was – a bit more -”
Kelly giggled but immediately felt guilty and put a hand over her mouth, as if to stop the sound after it had already issued from her vocal cords. Lowering her voice slightly, she moved closer to Vince.
“You bad boy. So you really were naked?”
“Not exactly, but there was no doubt about – what we were doing. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped to my feet that fast. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to do now. The worst part was that he’d already -”
Suddenly, Vince stiffened and straightened up. A door further along the corridor had opened and what he’d been about to say would have been highly inappropriate, no matter who was going to walk by. Unfortunately, he also happened to notice Dickie, standing only a few paces away, still absorbed in his stack of papers. Dickie was losing concentration. The low murmur of voices had provided a muted backgrop for his thoughts, but the sudden silence had jarred him so he looked up, and met Vince’s eyes. There was an agonized look in them.
Kelly too noticed Dickie’s presence and began to giggle again.
“Oops. You can’t talk about that kind of thing around Dickie. He can’t handle it. Imagine him overhearing -”
Vince’s features twisted into a blank mask and he even nodded stiffly towards Dickie.
“I – uh – apologize. Didn’t realize someone was standing so close to us.”
Dickie realized he’d accidentally walked into a private conversation and couldn’t stop his face from going a hot, revealing pink. He hadn’t heard more than the last few words of the conversation and even that hadn’t registered until afterwards. Apparently, Vince had been caught in a compromising situation. What was worse, was that Kelly – Kelly – the little innocent cheerleader type – thought he couldn’t handle – no, worst of all was that she was probably right. Stories about gay sex most likely would have had him blushing, just like he was now. Damn that girl and damn Vince and his gay anecdotes.
“If it’s any consolation, I didn’t hear anything. Too busy going over the latest -”
Vince coughed self-consciously and Kelly cried out in dismay as she caught sight of her wrist watch. She had a press conference starting in about three minutes and if she didn’t make a run for it, she’d be late. The press really would have a field day over that.
“I have to go. See you later, Vince.”
“Uh – yes, of course. I have to go as well.”
He cast another agonized look at Dickie, who was still blushing furiously. Vince could hardly think of anything more awkward, other than maybe his own family walking in when he and his partner were –
“Don’t let me stop you. I just have to see the president before her meeting begins.”
Forcing himself back into his professional role, Vince drew himself up.
“Yes. I just took her a cup of coffee and if you hurry, you might catch her before she leaves. She’s in her office.”
The last thing Dickie wanted was to stick around, trying to make polite conversation with Vince, after his faux pas a moment ago. He tidied up the pile of papers and set off rather too quickly towards the president’s office, where he almost ran into the First Gentleman, who was apparently saying goodbye to his wife.
“And Amy’s gym teacher wanted her to get a new set of -”
“I’m sorry, Rod, I don’t have time for that. Talk to mom about and it I’m sure she’ll take Amy shopping this afternoon.”
“Of course. I’ll get going. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Rod was more or less walking – backwards – and talking at the same time, and since Dickie was in such a rush, he ran straight into the First Gentleman’s back.
“Excuse me, sir.”
“Dickie. No, excuse me. I should be watching where I’m going. Good morning – and bye.”
“Good morning, sir.”
The president’s voice from inside the office called Dickie back to attention.
“Dickie? If you have something to tell me better make it quick. My meeting begins in ten minutes.”
“Madam president -”
“Yeah, yeah. What is it now?”
“I’ve just had the figures for your current rating and -”
“Oh, that. I looked at them this morning over breakfast. There’s nothing to worry about there, right?”
“No, not in itself, but -”
“Dickie, I’m in a hurry. You have thirty seconds.”
“You should meet with the governor of Louisiana and discuss the weather conditions and what can be done to strengthen the -”
“Sorry, your time is up, but I’ll consider your suggestion.”
“Yes, Madam President.”‘
The president left Dickie standing in her office, still pink and flustered after his run-in with Vince and Kelly.
Mac shook her head dismissively. Dickie’s face had had a funny color. Maybe he was coming down with something. Of course, he might just have been late, though she found that hard to believe, and he might have been out of breath because of that. If so, he’d better work out more. Maybe he was neglecting his health – but that wasn’t her problem and she had more important things on her mind.
After another crisis in the Middle East, Mac and Rod had been up working for almost thirty hours. Rod had been snatching moments of sleep off and on, and making sure the children and Mac didn’t lose touch, even during such a troubled time. It was now only about an hour or so until Mac was supposed to have been having breakfast for another ordinary work day. By now, they were both so tired they were giggling and making silly jokes.
After the successful conclusion to the problem, Mac had sent most of her staff home, and the rest were busily typing in the last of their reports, hoping to be able to catch an hour or so of sleep until they had to get back to work the next day.
Mac had sunk down on the more or less private sofa in the more or less private living room, Rod beside her. He was kissing her neck and his hands were moving across her body in a way more suited for the presidential bedroom, when Dickie timidly looked in.
The marital intimacy had progressed a bit and Mac was trying to deflect Rod’s attempts at unbuttoning her blouse.
“You’ll have to go on ahead. I asked Dickie to give me the last of the report on – where was I? Oh, Dicke’s going to be here any second and when he gets here, you’d better be keeping your hands to yourself. Got it?”
“Why? Last time I checked, you and I were respectably married. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise for young master Dickie that we – love each other.”
Mac laughed a low, incredibly sexy laugh, which sent shivers down Dickie’s – and Rod’s spine – and pulled Rod closer again and kissed him, which effectively shut them both up for a considerable amount of time. Regretfully, she pushed him away and studied his face, as if trying to commit it to memory.
“Dickie? Come on. Do you think Horace or the girls would be able to take it?”
“Dickie is a little older than our kids, if you recall.”
“Dickie – will never be grown up enough to handle it. Have you ever seen such an uptight guy? I’m betting he didn’t do anything at college. Other than studying. Can you see Dickie at a frat party?”
“No, I’ll admit I can’t. Dickie at a frat party. No. Impossible. That kid doesn’t know how to have fun.”
Rod lowered his voice slightly but Dickie could hear him just fine. He only wished that hadn’t been the case.
“Do you think he’s even lost his virginity yet?”
“Rod. Be nice. Of course he must have. He’s – what – twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Of course he’s – he must have, surely? If not, then I guess he never will. Poor Dickie.”
“Maybe he’s – very good with his hands -”
This time, Mac slapped Rod’s fingers, which were on her thigh, trying to move up underneath her skirt.
“Rod. Shame on you. That was beneath you. Let’s leave poor Dickie’s sex life – or lack of it – out of things. You go ahead and go to bed and I’ll just wait for Dickie here. If you’re good, I might -”
Dickie stumbled back into the corridor, leaving the door open so he wouldn’t make a noise. Unfortunately, Mac’s hearing was excellent but she interpreted the noise as Dickie coming, not going.
“There. He’s on his way. Go on.”
Rod obediently left, a happy grin on his face.
Dickie, who was standing in the corridor, trying to collect himself, didn’t smile at all. He felt as if he’d been pushed into a cold shower. Was that the way he came across? Uptight? Inhibited? A guy who didn’t know how to have fun? A – virgin – at his age?
As the president had so rightly pointed out he was twenty-eight and he might have told her, if it hadn’t been so totally mortifying, that he’d lost his virginity almost nine years ago. In fact, he couldn’t complain about his sex life. He handled it the way he handled everything else. Efficiently, and in a well balanced way, keeping an eye on what was appropriate. Which was – kind of inhibited.
Once again, he’d heard a description of himself, which while not charitable, could be said to be at least partially true. It did nothing to boost his self-esteem.
He knocked discreetly on the open door and walked in, hoping his face wouldn’t betray his emotions.
“Thank you, Dickie. Is that my report? Good. Now you can catch a little sleep before tomorrow -”
“Thanks. I’ll try. Good night, Madam president.”
Rather stiffly, he walked out again. The less the President saw of his face the better.
Mac thoughtfully regarded Dickie’s retreating back. He certainly didn’t seem to know how to have fun. For the first time, Mac actually felt a little sorry for the young man, who could be counted on to do the dirty work, when no one else wanted to.
As a part of the president’s entourage, Dickie was sometimes expected to – or at least it was suggested that he might come along – to certain official functions. Usually, his work dealt more with reports or schemes to ensure Mackenzie Allen’s return to office after a successful campaign, but once in a while, like tonight, he let himself be persuaded to appear at a vernissage in an art gallery.
Kelly was there, with a date, and Vince and his partner – arriving and leaving separately – too. Two bored Calloway twins were herded around by their father, while their mother was introduced to the artists. The exhibition would feature work by several different artists and there were examples of both sculpture, paintings, photographs as well as more interactive modern art involving tv screens and computers.
Dickie followed the president and Jim Gardner at a suitable distance, allowing himself to be led around the huge gallery’s several spacious rooms.
In one, he caught sight of some pretty amazing photos. They didn’t feature anything completely out of the ordinary, such as exotic places or odd objects. Instead, they included such motives as closeups of faces and groups of people going about their every day life – or urban or rural landcapes.
What distinguished these photos from others of a similar type was hard to identify. Dickie wasn’t walking close enough to the head of the procession to overhear more than snatches of the comments about the work. He had a feeling it might have something to do with the light. The photographer had a way of using the natural light in new and unexpected ways, to illustrate some point she had.
A young woman with long hair was being introduced to the president and soon the two women were talking and gesticulating as if their conversation was absorbing them completely. It seemed to Dickie that the president liked the photos as much as he did. As he walked closer, he realized that he liked the photographer even more. It wasn’t just her looks, which he appreciated, but something more.
Now he was close enough to hear her voice and that too, appealed to him. She seemed to be so secure in herself, while in no way being overbearing or domineering. It was just as if her work was such an integral part of her, that it seemed natural to her to discuss it, even with the president of the United States.
Dickie tried to weave his way through the large group of people to get closer to the young woman, but she was obscured from his sight and when the rest of the group moved on, he decided to stick around. Instead, he focused on the photos themselves. He found that the room was divided into two obvious parts – one containing the photos and the other some pencil sketches and water colors. Dickie was wondering if those were by the same artist – the photographer – or someone else, but decided that artists usually chose the same media for their art, not such different techniques.
He returned to the photos and found one that he liked so much he remained staring at it, completely absorbed in it.
It featured a clearing in a forest. The trees were high and thick and had to be incredibly old, but somehow a ray of sunlight was able to filter through the thick, green canopies overhead. There was a deep, unusual shade of greenish white, except in the shadows close to the ground, which were almost black, but not quite. More a dark slate color.
In any case, the image breathed peace. Dickie had a feeling that a person could stretch out underneath one of those trees and fall asleep and know almost complete peace of mind there.
“I see you’ve found my forest picture. Interesting. It’s probably the most unusual of my motives. Unless you count that drag queen in New York.”
“Yes, that was unusual, but this – I don’t know – I just love it. It’s so peaceful. Not dull, but – relaxing.”
“Exactly. That was the way I felt too, when I found that clearing. I’d been walking for maybe half an hour and it was so dark everywhere, you’d think it was late at night, but it was only maybe ten or eleven in the morning. Then suddenly, I walked into that light. It was almost – spiritual.”
“Where is it?”
“In Vermont. I have a cabin there – or rather – my parents do.”
“I see. How much is it?”
Suddenly, he just knew he had to own that photo. The image seemed to draw him in and made him feel different somehow.
The young woman – who on closer inspection wasn’t quite as young as Dickie had believed – looked as if she was considering his question carefully. He returned her gaze but something in her eyes made him look away. On the photo there was a price tag he hadn’t noticed before. It said one hundred dollars. He had no idea if that was cheap or not, but he would have paid twice that or more, just to have it hanging in his apartment. Not that he spent much time there. He more or less lived his life in the White House or going about his work for the president around Washington or further afield.
Suddenly a smile transformed the artist’s rather somber face and it seemed to Dickie that he’d never seen anyone that beautiful.
“Let me give it to you as a gift. Please. So far, I’ve never seen anyone that taken with it.”
“No, I insist. You’ll just have to wait for it until the end of the exhibition. I’ll have it delivered to your address.”
“In that case, thank you. I just – love that photo.”
“That’s reason enough. Susannah Kendall.”
“I’m Dickie – Dickie McDonald – Richard really, but everyone calls me Dickie.”
“Dickie it is.”
He didn’t think he’d ever seen such blue eyes. That was startling in itself, since Susannah’s hair was almost completely black. Strangely enough, there were also some hints of red. He’d never seen anything like it. Her complexion was pale, but when she smiled, there were some splashes of pink on her cheeks.
They kept talking until it dawned on Dickie that most of the visitors to the vernissage were gone. He’d been counting on hitching a ride with Kelly and Vince or – possibly – the president and the First Gentleman, but with the twins coming along, the latter probably wouldn’t be an option. Not that he minded being stranded here on his own.
Susannah noticed his gaze and smiled again.
“I guess everyone else has gone. Where did the time go?”
“I have no idea. Thanks for a fascinating conversation.”
“My place is right around the corner. It’s actually in the building.”
“Yes, there are a few apartments upstairs. For the artists who work here for an extended period of time. I have my own place, but since I’m pretty much tied up here for almost two years, I thought it would be best to move in. The place was empty anyway.”
“Oh. That must be convenient.”
“Very. We could go up and have a drink. It’s been a long night.”
Dickie had hardly noticed the passage of time and in any case, he didn’t care. As long as he got to stay with this amazing woman, he’d gladly do without the night’s sleep.
They continued their conversation upstairs, in what seemed to be a studio and apartment in one. There were large windows which had to provide quite enough natural light in the daytime and even a skylight in the middle of the combined living room and studio. Since Susannah didn’t paint, there were no easels or paint – at least that was what Dickie would have imagined to find in an artist’s studio. Instead, there were photos everywhere in many different sizes and camera equipment.
Dickie wasn’t too familiar with that sort of thing. He had a digital camera of the kind you just point and click, that was pretty much the extent of his knowledge of photography.
After a while, their conversation faltered a little but the silence never got awkward. Dickie felt he could sit like this all night and all day too, staring into Susannah’s blue eyes. He loved the shape of her mouth and the sound of her voice. Unlike Kelly, who had a squeaky little girl’s voice, Susannah’s was more like the president’s. Full and warm. Sexy. The second he thought that, a spark seemed to jump from her hand, which was resting only inches away from Dickie’s, to his fingertips, causing a tingle to go down his spine and spread all across his skin.
Susannah’s smile deepened and without Dickie knowing quite how it had happened, they found themselves in her bedroom. From then on, he gave up his analyzing and chronicling of the situation. He just let himself go.
After that first night, Dickie hardly spent one single night in his own apartment. The exception being the few times Susannah slept at his place. Dickie’s few relationships had never felt quite like this. In the past, he’d always carefully considered any implication the liaison might have for his career and his future. This time, he never gave that type of consideration a second thought.
There was something about Susannah, that attracted him enormously. During their many and long conversations, he’d learned that Susannah never worried about planning her career. She always chose to do exactly what she wanted to. At first, he hadn’t quite understood how that was possible. He’d asked her what she’d do if she found herself without a fixed income. The question appeared to amuse her. He caught himself thinking that maybe she was independently wealthy, maybe an heiress to some huge fortune.
“If I can’t get a contract or anything like that – I’ll just do something else.”
She shrugged as if the matter wasn’t of a great deal of interest, but Dickie couldn’t let it go that easily.
“Anything. I’ve worked in a store and a school and even as a cab driver.”
“A cab driver?”
“Not for very long. I could never get used to driving around all the time. It – I guess you could say it upsets my inner watch. I need to be in one place at least for weeks or months at a time. Traveling is different. There’s always a time when you come back and it’s for a limited time only.”
The very idea of not worrying about the future seemed totally novel to Dickie. How could Susannah live like that? What if – she never found her way back to photography again? He had to ask.
“Aren’t you afraid that – I don’t know – the audience will forget you. Lose interest.”
“Not really. I don’t do it for them. When I see a motive that interests me, it’s just for my own sake. If someone else likes what I see, fine, but if not – it’s their loss. For me, photography isn’t about the money, it’s about – the vision – the expression of – whatever the message is. Usually there is one and when I can see it, and interpret it, I’ll make a photo of it.”
“Is it that simple?”
“No, it can be incredibly complex, but sometimes, yes. It is that simple. I could never – force something out. If I have something to say, I do, but if not, I don’t have to have everyone’s attention. In fact, that’s even a little daunting at times. All those sets of eyes staring at my work. Sometimes, I don’t want to share my work with a big audience. I keep it to myself and only a few close friends get to see it.”
“What’s so daunting about it? Are you afraid they won’t see it the same way you do?”
“No. That’s entirely up to them. I think there are probably as many ways of seeing a particular view as there are people. What I sometimes feel uncomfortable with is – the thought of so many people analyzing my vision. At times, I kind of fear their energy might drain the power of my vision. Does that sound like complete hogwash?”
“No. I just never thought about that way. In my work, I tend to deal with masses. The opinions of one or two individuals don’t really matter as much as larger groups of people.”
“That’s different. Your message usually can’t be seen, or sometimes not even heard, I guess.”
Susannah moved closer and looked eagerly into his eyes.
“Does your work make you happy?”
Dickie stared at her in confusion.
“Yes, you know, do you enjoy what you do?”
He had to think about that one. Enjoy? How did you define enjoy anyway? In a way, he did derive satisfaction from doing what he did, but – did that mean he enjoyed it? He didn’t think his work had anything to do with enjoyment. At that point in his reflection, he realized that strictly speaking he might not exactly enjoy what he was doing, but he dismissed the matter as irrelevant. What he did was important. It needed to be done. Why look for entertainment or amusement in one’s job? There was always one’s spare time for that sort of thing. As much spare time as there was.
“I suppose so. I mean, it isn’t that entertaining, but it’s important work.”
“I believe the president is doing a great job and I think she deserves to be re-elected.”
“I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t even vote. You must think I’m very ignorant.”
“Not at all. All this – I’ve never met anyone who’s more – talented and knowledgeable than you.”
“It’s nice of you to say so. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, so I guess I’m lucky I get to do it. Of course, no one can stop me. I’d be doing this even if I was a checkout girl at the local supermarket somewhere.”
It occurred to Dickie that he’d never met anyone who was so – free. Susannah really was free of everything, even if she didn’t seem to be lonely.
In fact, there was a guy who lived next door, in one of the other apartments provided by the gallery owner. Susannah had mentioned that he was her ex boyfriend and that he was the one who shared the room downstairs in the gallery, with her photos. His sketches and watercolors were different from Susannah’s photos in more ways than one. Some of it was so abstract Dickie had a hard time making any sense out of it at all.
Susannah’s and the guy’s breakup had been very amicable and they were still close. Dickie didn’t like to pry, but he found he couldn’t resist asking about it anyway. He wanted to know everything about Susannah. When she heard his question, she smiled as if at something private.
“Oh, we grew apart. I guess we’re both too independent to stay long in a relationship with each other. We get restless and have to move on. Jeff’s a very restless soul. He’s always off to some remote place. Sometimes really far away. Like Mongolia.”
“Mongolia? You’re kidding, right?”
“No. He was there last winter. It was after that trip we broke up – or rather – before – but we only got round to really talking about it when he returned. Mongolia is – according to Jeff – a totally fantastic place. You have to take a look at his work from there. I love it. It’s so – minimalistic, yet very expressive. Talk to him about it. Ask him. He’ll love to show it to you and discuss it.”
Dickie nodded, still more focused on the relationship, than the guy’s travels. Even if Mongolia did seem like a very exotic place. Dickie realized that he didn’t have the slightest idea of what that country was like. He determined that he’d look into the CIA files on the place. There had to be something to find out.
Mackenzie Allen gratefully accepted the coffee cup Vince handed to her and sipped it gingerly. She remembered to nod thanks to Vince before he quietly closed the door behind him.
It was six forty-four and she’d booked a meeting with Dickie McDonald at seven sharp. He’d never been late so far, even though she had, frequently, when her work made it impossible for her to keep a schedule.
Today wasn’t an unusually busy day, unless some new crisis forced her to rearrange everything at a moment’s notice. That meant she could afford to relax a little. She stretched out more comfortably in her chair and prepared to enjoy her coffee.
The door opened again and she glanced at her watch. Still only six fifty-two. When she caught sight of her husband, her frown relaxed into a smile.
“Rod. What a surprise. No last minute crisis with the kids, I hope?”
“Nah. They’re doing fine. The twins are up and when I sneaked out, Kate was doing her best to drag Amy out of bed. I just thought I’d look in on you and -”
“Oh, just make sure you’re comfortable.”
“Isn’t that Vince’s job?”
“Serving you coffee is his job. I should hope this one’s all mine.”
Rod smiled suggestively as he rounded the President’s desk and stood behind his wife. He began to rub her neck, exactly the way he knew she liked it.
“Mm. I doubt if Vince is any good at this. Of course, I could ask him.”
“No, don’t do that. I’d like to think there’s still something I can do for you, that is exclusively my domain.”
“Oh, but there is. It’s such a shame we hardly ever get to – experience that area of your expertise.”
Mac closed her eyes and leaned into Rod’s strong hands and allowed herself to relax. She let her thoughts drift any way they wanted for just a few minutes. It was stolen moments like this one that really kept their marriage alive.
“Put your feet on the desk and I’ll -”
“No. I wish I could, but if someone were to walk in -”
Rod sighed regretfully.
“Like innocent young Dickie or Kelly or Vince. I know. This place feels like a three ring circus, not a home.”
“I know. You’re an angel to put up with it all. I swear I’ll make it up to you somehow.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m more concerned about you. You never get enough sleep and you’re constantly stressed out.”
“That goes with the territory. You know that. Besides, I thrive on the challenge. Mm. That was great, darling. I’d better get on with my day now. What time is it?”
“Eight past seven. I’d better go and make sure Amy doesn’t have anything too unhealthy for breakfast. The staff spoils her.”
“Mom, too, I know.”
Mac glanced incredulously at her watch. Nearly ten past seven and Dickie was nowhere in sight. Amazing. Was the end of civilization near? Since she’d reluctantly decided that her future campaign needed Dickie’s services, he’d never once been late or left early. That was a guy headed for an ulcer or a heart attack or both. She was doing fine. Rod was worrying unnecessarily.
Rod kissed her lightly before hurrying back to their personal quarters. Quarters or suite. It felt a little like being in the army. Except fortunately, his wife and children were with him – and his mother-in-law.
Mac kept glancing at her watch until it was nearly twenty past seven and decided that something serious must have happened to Dickie. A car crash? Surely it couldn’t be anything worse? For a moment she recalled her earlier thoughts about Dickie suffering a heart attack. Surely he was a little bit too young for that?
Other explanations struck her. Washington was a dangerous city. Had Dickie been mugged and left lying unconscious somewhere? She even considered having her security staff call the hospitals to find out if any young John Does matching Dickie’s description had been admitted last night.
The door opened to reveal a very sheepish looking Dickie. He glanced surreptitiously around the room, apparently not sure if she’d still be available for their meeting which should have been over by now.
Mac’s voice held no reproach, but Dickie flinched anyway and felt as if he was nine again and had been sent to the principal’s office for – here his memory failed him. He had an idea it had been a misunderstanding, but by the time he’d found out he wasn’t going to be punished, he’d worked himself into quite a state and if he recalled correctly, his mother had had to be called to take him home.
“I’m sorry, Madam President. I -”
“Are you ok, Dickie? I was beginning to think you’d been in an accident or something like that.”
Dickie’s face flushed a hot, vivid pink and there was a look in his eyes of such distress, Mac felt almost amused. What did Dickie expect? That she’d send him out into the yard to be executed? Sentence him to twenty lashes? Put him over her knee and spank him? ‘Off with his head’. Surely not. This was getting ridiculous.
Dickie coughed nervously and finally he managed to get a few words out.
“I – didn’t hear the alarm and – I overslept.”
“Oh, was that all? Excellent. At least you’re alright.”
“About our meeting -”
“If you’re prepared, we could do it now, or we could try later. Relax, Dickie. Did you think I was going to bite your head off?”
“I have all the figures here and -”
“Ok. Let’s hear it then.”
For the first time since Mac had met Dickie, he stumbled over words and made a bit of a mess of the presentation. Mac had complete confidence in his competence, so this one failed presentation didn’t mean anything. In fact, she found that she actually liked Dickie more, now that he’d finally revealed himself to be human. She’d been wondering if he never slipped up.
It seemed Dickie suspected he’d made a bad impression, because at the end of his little speech, he faltered and broke off almost in mid-sentence, looking extremely ill at ease.
“Thanks, Dickie. I’ll take a look at the report later. Are you coming to the briefing at eight?”
“Yes. I’ll be there.”
“Good. Did you have time for breakfast?”
“Uh – no, but I’m fine.”
“Why don’t I have Vince bring you something from the kitchen? You still have almost twenty minutes.”
“I wouldn’t want to -”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
Without waiting for a reply, Mac picked up the phone and ordered a light breakfast to be sent to the outer office. After firing off an encouraging smile, she left to have a few words with Jim or – if necessary – Kelly, before the briefing.
Dickie still felt off balance after the morning’s chaos. He’d woken up at least half an hour too late and since he’d still been at Susannah’s he’d been forced to make do without his shaver, which he’d left behind at his own place. It really was time he brought some necessities to her place, since he now spent almost every night there.
Susannah had only been partially awake when he left, so he hadn’t felt comfortable raiding her kitchen. He’d intended to pick something up on the way, but after missing his subway train and realizing he’d be more than fifteen minutes late for the meeting with the President, he’d forgotten about everything else.
Vince’s face didn’t betray anything about his possible feelings about serving breakfast to another staff member, but Dickie imagined what thoughts might be passing through his mind right now. Uneasily, Dickie looked away, after he’d thanked Vince for his trouble. When he looked up again, Vince was gone. To his dismay, he spilled some coffee on his tie and while he was rubbing furiously at the stain, he was hoping no one would notice.
He walked into the room where the briefing would be held and had the bad luck of running into Kelly. There was an amused look in her eyes as she smiled in greeting. Dickie was wondering if everyone knew about his late arrival. If so, he’d learn soon enough, because to his surprise, Kelly seemed to be about to sit down on the chair next to his.
“Did you have breakfast in a hurry?”
Dickie didn’t share her amusement. This was probably the worst day he’d been through so far, since he’d graduated from college.
Kelly giggled delightedly and touched the stain on his tie. Dickie recoiled from the overfamiliar gesture, but Kelly didn’t seem to notice.
“Yes, I happened to spill some of my coffee on my tie just now. Very funny. Ha ha.”
“You must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. The question is – whose bed?”
Again, her laughter seemed to echo unnaturally loudly in the large room. Dickie stared sullenly at Kelly, thinking that she was so – young. In comparison Susannah, who was at least seven years older than Kelly, seemed far more mature. At least the president arrived so he was spared the necessity of replying.
Dickie gradually got to know Jeff – Susannah’s ex – a better. The guy really had had a fascinating life. At Susannah’s prompting, he told Dickie about his travels in Mongolia and showed him some of the sketches he’d made of the big horned cattle or buffaloes – yaks – or whatever they were called, and the intriguing natives. There were also some water colors of the landscape. The images made Jeff’s account seem even more vivid, but it was Jeff’s words that really made the remote country come alive.
Dickie was fascinated. He knew that personally, he’d be helpless in such a huge wilderness, but despite that, he suddenly desperately longed to go on such a trip once in his life. Mongolia. Tibet – all those places sounded magical. Jeff even had a very good voice for narratives like that.
Susannah shot Dickie a gaze filled with warmth.
“I told you Jeff tells a good story. It makes me want to go there too, some day.”
“You wouldn’t be able to breathe. It took me days to adapt to the altitude. You wouldn’t think it, but the sun is really a lot hotter up there. If you think about it, it makes sense. You’re further up than here. Those mountains – you can’t imagine how immense they are. They dominate the entire scenery for miles around, when you’re at the edge of the plains.
People there still live as shepherds basically. They follow their flocks around looking for the best pastures just like their ancestors have done before them for thousands of years. The modern world feels very far away – yet it’s always present. You have miles and miles of pasture land, with no buildings or infrastructure – but on the other hand, you have an internet café on Mount Everest and wi-fi networks in Ulaan Baatar.”
As he was telling his story, Jeff’s own eyes glittered with enthusiasm. He was an easy person to get along with. Dickie was amazed to find that he didn’t feel at all jealous, despite the fact that he and Susannah had been involved for almost five years. It was hard to feel resentful towards such a laid-back, good-natured guy. There wasn’t a trace of competitiveness or aggression in him. From the first time Susannah had introduced him to Dickie, Jeff had been nothing but friendly.
It was quite a change for Dickie, since he often felt as if his colleagues didn’t have any affection at all for him. Jim ‘disapproved’ of his methods. Methods that he and the President were relying on.
Dickie thought they probably appreciated having someone to do their dirty work, so they could enjoy the feeling of having clean hands. If they thought what he was doing was dirty work, they had big surprises ahead of them. Their competitors would stop at nothing. It was Dickie’s job to anticipate their every move and counteract each and every one of them. Not that he expected any thanks. A job well done and some credit for it would be his reward.
Dickie soon learned that the artists working for the gallery kept irregular hours and they loved to throw impromptu parties. They all brought bottles of wine, various dishes and odds and ends, so there was never anything organized ahead of time. It was all very spontaneous and unassuming, but everyone usually ended up having a great time. Dickie loved it. No one appeared to find his presence odd, even after they’d learned he wasn’t one of them.
After one of those parties, Susannah, Dickie and Jeff retired to Susannah’s apartment to have a few drinks and talk. As Jeff put it, the night was still young. Since it was a Saturday night and Dickie didn’t have any work scheduled for the next day, he decided he agreed.
Susannah put on some music – a very unusual sort of music to Dickie’s ears but as he listened to it, he found he liked it. Apparently, it was some kind of ethnic music, not from Asia, as he’d first imagined, but Eastern Europe. He never found out how Susannah had discovered it and how she’d come to love it. Jeff seemed to like it too. Tonight, he was unusually eloquent in his typical quiet way.
He recited some poetry he’d heard on one of his travels. It was by some foreign guy, whose name Dickie missed, but for some reason, it was in English. He didn’t know if it was Jeff’s own spontaneous translation or if the guy had written it in English from the start.
Susannah’s eyes seemed to express a hint of resignation.
“Jeff – are you – on something again?”
“Yes. You really should try this. It’s completely harmless, I swear. Perfectly legal too.”
He reached into his pocket, but Susannah shook her head. Jeff didn’t seem to mind. He went on expanding on how the drug in question actually enhanced one’s creativity.
“Thanks, but I think I’m ok anyway.”
Dickie felt torn. Normally, he wouldn’t hesitate to turn down such an offer by using the strongest possible terms of refusal. However, there was something about Jeff’s carefree relaxed attitude that Dickie envied. He didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone so much at ease – except possibly Susannah. The thought of her and her reaction to Jeff’s offer made him do the same.
“Thanks, but I’m fine.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Dickie didn’t think he was missing out on all that much. Where he was sitting, on the couch, with his arm around Susannah he didn’t think he’d ever been more comfortable. He pushed away some strands of hair which had a tendency to get in Susannah’s eyes and carefully tucked them behind her ear. When her ear became visible, he couldn’t resist leaning over and kissing it. He continued kissing her neck all the way down to her shoulder and only Jeff’s presence stopped him from continuing further.
Jeff was sitting so close to them, his left arm brushed Susannah’s. Now he looked down and saw Susannah’s hand no more than an inch away from his own and he placed his hand on top of hers and after squeezing it for a moment, he raised her hand to his lips and placed a light kiss on it.
“What was that for?”
“For tonight. For – your photos. They open up new worlds.”
“Like your sketches and paintings.”
Jeff didn’t appear to have heard her.
“I propose a toast to Susannah and her work.”
Dickie fumbled for his glass, which he’d put down on the side table, a while back. There was still some lukewarm wine it in and he raised it to his lips.
“Don’t be jealous, Dickie. Susannah and I are just good friends.”
“Since you’re drinking to me, I guess I’ll have to drink to Jeff’s work too and to him.”
Susannah managed to find her own glass and proceeded to do just that. Jeff slid closer and put his arm around her and kissed her cheek.
“Aww, thanks, hon. You’re the best. Sorry, Dickie. You’re a great guy too.”
“So are you, Jeff.”
Jeff leaned over and solemnly shook Dickie’s hand.
For a while, no one said anything more. Dickie leaned into Susannah and, intoxicated by her scent, he began once again to kiss her cheek and the side of her neck. This time, he didn’t stop quite as high up. He continued raining kisses on her shoulder and – one of his favorite spots – her clavicle.
Jeff had slid down a bit and his head was resting on Susannah’s shoulder. At first, Dickie thought the other guy had fallen asleep and he used this as an excuse to wriggle a little closer still to Susannah’s warm and enticing body. Dickie’s breathing picked up and he almost forgot Jeff’s presence. His hands brushed Susannah’s breasts. After resting a moment there, he let his left hand slide in between her thighs.
She returned his kisses every bit as enthusiastically and began to fumble with his tie and shirt. By the time she’d managed to get it unbuttoned all the way down to his pants, his hands were underneath her top and continuing their exploration from that direction.
Dickie hadn’t noticed until now that Jeff wasn’t asleep at all, and now he was stroking Susannah’s hair, apparently enchanted by her long, black hair. For some reason, that didn’t bother Dickie at all. It was as if the other guy didn’t really concern him or Susannah. He found it easy to ignore everything but Susannah and his own pulse pounding faster and faster.
By the time he was trying to pull down Susannah’s panties, she put a hand on his arm, apparently to dissuade him.
“Dickie – slow down a bit.”
She glanced at Jeff, who had buried his nose in her hair and in fact had his fingers entwined in it. His lips were pressed against the side of her neck and now that Dickie was paying attention, he could tell that Jeff was also pressing his body very closely against Susannah’s on the other side.
“I’m sorry, Jeff, but we’d better -”
“Why? It wouldn’t be the first time -”
“No, but this time, I’m with Dickie. I don’t think he can handle anything like that.”
Suddenly, Dickie’s temper flared. Why did everyone assume he was such a square? If people had – threesomes – why shouldn’t he be comfortable with that? It might have been something to do with all the wine of different vintages and qualities he’d consumed that night, but suddenly, the thought of a threesome felt extremely arousing.
“No, I’m fine.”
Susannah, gazed thoughtfully at Dickie, not sure what to make of his sudden intensity, then she nodded.
“Ok. Let’s go into the bedroom, then. It will be much more comfortable.”
Two minutes later, Dickie and Jeff were side by side, kissing Susannah’s neck, stroking her satiny skin, removing the last of her clothes. Her arms went around both their necks, pulling them closer.
Dickie found his right cheek pressing rather closely against Jeff’s left one and for a second, it broke his concentration. He hadn’t felt stubble scratch his cheek since he was a child in his father’s embrace. The moment passed and Susannah claimed his attention again, shutting everything else out.
They were kissing her, one at a time, alternating so quickly at times, that Dickie felt Jeff’s lips brush his own. At that point, he hardly even noticed.
Somewhat later, when they were laying back, resting, Dickie felt a craving for a cigarette. He’d given up smoking almost three years ago, after he’d found it slowed him down.
Lying like this, partially wrapped around Susannah’s body, he felt more at ease than ever. Not even Jeff’s face, only inches away made him feel the least bit uncomfortable. Dickie’s eyelids suddenly felt so heavy and seconds later, he drifted off to sleep.
There was another big do at the art gallery. This time, only the First Gentleman was invited from the White House. An award was going to be presented to the most promising young artist of the year, and the First Gentleman was to present it to this year’s winner. Dickie wasn’t invited in his capacity as a member of the White House staff, but Susannah, who was going to be present anyway, had asked him to come.
“Those things always drag on until late at night and it’s such a bore. You’ll be doing me a favor if you come. Unless you’re busy?”
“No, I haven’t got anything booked for that night. You did say Friday night?”
“Yes. Oh, good. We’re expected to be there. Even if it’s nothing to do with us personally. Makes a good impression, apparently.”
So he’d been there, along with about five hundred others. Just a nice cozy little banquet, celebrating a young artist, at the beginning of his career. Dickie only caught a glance of the kid. The guy seemed impossibly young, but apparently he was at college. Eighteen or nineteen.
Speeches were made and the First Gentleman presented the award. For an art award, Dickie thought it was incredibly hideous. He couldn’t even guess what it was supposed to be. To him, it just looked like some deformed blob. Maybe it was supposed to be abstract, which didn’t tell him anything more really.
The evening wore on, just like Susannah had predicted but finally, the crowd showed a tendency to thin out a bit. Dickie kept his eye on Rod Calloway. When the First Gentleman took his leave, it would be ok for him and Susannah to sneak upstairs.
It wasn’t until now, that Rod noticed Dickie’s presence. He was surprised. This wasn’t one of the president’s duties and he’d have assumed Dickie was busy enough without having to go to all these fluffy events. Too inconsequential for anyone but the First Gentleman. Rod knew that if the situation had been reversed, Mac would have rebelled at the boredom. Now he was forced to fake an interest for art societies and school inaugurations. No matter how bored he was, however, he was happy to do it for Mac.
After the final goodbyes and improvized speeches were done, Rod caught Dickie’s eye.
“Can I offer you a ride back to the White House?”
“No, I’m not working tonight.”
Rod felt confused. If Dickie wasn’t working, what was he doing at the art gallery? Dickie had never struck him as an art lover.
“I could drop you off anywhere you like, Dickie. It’s no trouble.”
“I appreciate it, sir, but – I’m fine. I’ll make my own way home later on.”
“Ok, if you’re sure. Good night.”
“Good night, sir.”
The puzzled look in Rod’s eyes was lost on Dickie. At last it was over. The caterers and the other staff were clearing away the glasses and dishes and he was finally free to go upstairs with Susannah. Discreetly, he made his roundabout way up to her apartment.
Once upstairs, he found Jeff there.
Dickie felt only the slightest bit uncomfortable around Jeff, even after the threesome the other night. It had been – incredibly stimulating to watch Susannah with the other guy. Far hotter than Dickie had imagined.
Jeff smiled warmly.
“Don’t mind me. I just have to pick up some canvasses I left in here.”
“No rush. Have a drink.”
“I thought you’d never ask. Susannah’s in the bathroom. She’ll be right out.”
Jeff poured himself a drink, but instead of sitting down, he moved over to the opposite wall and began to search for his canvasses.
Susannah came out of the bathroom and smiled welcomingly at Dickie.
“At last it’s over.”
“You did warn me. Here. I got this for you.”
He handed over the drink he’d just poured for her and went about getting one for himself as well. The sounds of music made him turn and take a look around. Jeff had picked out a CD and put it into the player. The strains of music filling the room were invitingly rhythmic. Somehow, Dickie hadn’t expected this type of modern dance music from the two artists. It was what you’d expect to hear at some fancy club downtown.
To his surprise, Susannah began to dance in time with the music. She waved encouragingly at Dickie, who didn’t know how to dance. Not like that anyway. His embarrassed face made her smile.
“Ok, never mind. I just love this one. Do you mind terribly?”
“No, I love watching you dance.”
Jeff had sat down again, and it seemed he too, loved watching Susannah move in place. Dickie too sank down, on the couch and leaned back comfortably.
After a while, the music changed to a slow song, which seemed to encourage slow dancing. Dickie was about to get up and ask Susannah for this dance, when Jeff beat him to it. Laughingly, Susannah accepted, but Dickie noted that they didn’t dance all that closely. Not enough to make him jealous. Jeff seemed to dance well. It irked Dickie a little. Not really the fact that Jeff was such a good dancer, but more that he himself wasn’t.
He let them dance for a few minutes, then decided to cut in. Putting his hand on Jeff’s back, he followed the traditional practice.
“Can I cut in?”
Jeff let go and shrugged, but Susannah held on to him.
“Come on, Dickie. There’s enough of me for both of you.”
Slightly surprised, but amused, Dickie tried to follow her suggestion. It took some maneuvering, until they were both in position, but after that, it was kind of fun. Dickie suspected the other two did their best to compensate for his clumsiness, but he didn’t let that spoil his enjoyment of the experience. He’d already sensed that they were all in a mood for another threesome. In fact, the thought excited him. There was a feeling of anticipation which made him feel like a kid at Christmas.
Susannah pulled free and turned towards the side table beside the couch.
“You go on without me. I just want another sip.”
Taking her suggestion as a joke, Dickie laughed. Jeff joined him.
Susannah appeared to be serious. Again, Dickie laughed, then shrugged. Fine. Why not? It was a joke, but why not play along? As long as he wasn’t the girl, he’d be ok about it.
“Right. Can I lead?”
Jeff flashed him an amused grin.
“Whatever turns you on.”
Bowing exaggeratedly, Dickie reached for Jeff’s hand and did his best to adapt to the situation. Jeff was about the same height as he was and about the same build too. It was a little different from holding Susannah’s full figure, but not really unpleasant.
Jeff played up to his suggestion and let his cheek rest on Dickie’s shoulder. Susannah, Dickie noticed out of the corner of his eye, had sat down on the armrest and was observing the scene with a mix of amusement and – excitement.
There was another slow song and since Susannah stayed on the couch, Dickie decided to play along for a while longer. He was tired, but somehow, he didn’t feel at all sleepy. It was more the champagne and the Scotch that was making his head feel so light. He didn’t think he’d ever been in a better mood. As he and Jeff turned and moved in time with the music, Dickie kept catching Susannah’s eye, making signals to her to end the charade so they could all retire to the bedroom.
Finally, she got up and seemed to hesitate. She put down her glass and went to turn the CD player off. A shiver of anticipation went down Dickie’s spine.
Again, he played his part and bowed to Jeff as if to thank him for the dance. Jeff too bowed slightly. The thought of him curtsying would just have been too silly. Jeff leaned closer and placed a kiss on Dickie’s cheek. Dickie’s eyes met his and for a while, everything seemed to stop. When Jeff closed the distance between their faces and their lips made contact, Dickie didn’t withdraw. For a moment, they shared a kiss almost as passionate as they used to with Susannah. Then it was over. Jeff pulled back, shrugged slightly and waited for Dickie to walk ahead of him into the bedroom.
At the time, Dickie didn’t give the kiss a second thought. His mind was too busy with thoughts of Susannah.
Afterwards, Jeff excused himself and left for his own apartment, the canvasses under his arm. Dickie pulled Susannah closer. She was beginning to doze off. For a while, he allowed himself to savor the moment. Unfortunately, he had a busy day of work ahead him the following morning. He had to be there by seven thirty at the latest. Remembering the mortifying day he’d arrived too late, he’d decided to return to his own place, to make sure there was no repetition of the fiasco.
“I have to go now. Tomorrow -”
“I know. You poor thing. I’m going to sleep in. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Looking forward to it.”
Regretfully, he left her warm, snug bed. There was a shortcut through the park, which would take him to the room in the White House, where he sometimes caught an hour or so of sleep during periods of extremely intense activity.
It was almost four thirty and if he had to get back to his own apartment, he’d only get to shower and shave, then get on the next train back. This way, he’d be at the White House in less than twenty minutes, which would give him a chance to sleep for an hour or two.
He’d come this way before, frequently, even before he’d met Susannah. With the street lights and the almost full moon, he had no trouble making his way through the park. He was almost halfway through, when he heard the footsteps behind him. Picking up his pace, he tried not to glance over his shoulder. It would only slow him down. Whoever was there might be a threat to him, but he had no choice but to continue on his way.
Up ahead, the path wound through an area with unusually dense foliage. Underneath the trees, it was almost completely dark, despite the clear skies and the almost full moon. A branch broke and the sound was like an explosion. Dickie jumped. He couldn’t stop himself from glancing over his shoulder. What he saw made his breath catch in his throat. Two big men were hurrying after him, looks of grim purpose on their faces. He began to walk faster, then broke into a run, but his rush was checked when he ran into two more, who were blocking his path.
The next couple of moments his memories became disjointed. As he remembered it afterwards, those men never said a word. Two of them grabbed his arms and held him so hard, he couldn’t wriggle free, no matter how he tried. The other two began to pound him with their fists and when he doubled over with the pain, the first two let go. His legs gave out under him and he began to slide to the ground. One of the men began to kick him, and he rolled into a ball, trying to protect his face and his abdomen.
He was barely conscious when one of them reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out his wallet.
When he came to, he was lying on a stretcher, being wheeled through a corridor. At first, he couldn’t remember anything. The stretcher arrived at its destination and two medics lifted him to what had to be an examination table. A dark brown face looked down on him, a look of concern stamped across the gentle features.
The examination hurt so much, he passed out again. When he came to the next time, sunlight was streaming in through a window, getting into his eyes. The pain was gone and he only felt numb and a little dizzy. He never told anyone, but he hated hospitals – the smell, the colors – everything. It took him a while to remember the night before. The banquet. Later, he’d been upstairs with Susannah. Dancing. Making love. Then walking through the park, where he’d been attacked.
He gingerly touched his head and found, not surprisingly, a bandage. Further examination revealed that he was attached to a tube of some kind. It was a little hard to breathe, so he assumed a few of his ribs were cracked. The arm, which was attached to the tube, was also in a cast, so his arm must be broken. There was still no trace of pain. Just that numbness and dizziness. He had to be sedated.
The door opened and a man he didn’t know walked in.
“I’m Detective Santiago. Do you feel up to answering some questions?”
“Did you see the men who attacked you?”
“Well, I didn’t see their faces too well. They had baseball caps and hooded jackets. I mean, two of them had baseball caps and the others -”
“I see. So you don’t think you’ll be able to identify them, mr McDonald?”
“i’m not sure. They were tall, bulky.”
“I think at least two were African-American, but like I said, it was hard to see their faces. It all happened so quickly.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“I was on my way back to the White House -”
“The White House? On a Friday night?”
“Yes. I’d been away until late and since we have a full schedule tomorrow – today – I was going to spend the rest of the night in my room at the White House. There are rooms where we can get some sleep when the work drags on.”
“I see. Then what?”
“When I’d walked about halfway through the park, I heard a noise. I realized I was being followed and I tried to move faster. That’s when I ran into the other two.”
“How many of them were there?”
“Two of them grabbed me and began to hit me. When I fell over, they began to kick me. After that – I – passed out.”
“Right. We found your wallet on the ground right next to you. There’s about fifty dollars in it, and two credit cards.”
Santiago handed over a plastic bag, containing the contents of his wallet. Except – his pass.
“My pass is missing. For entry into the White House.”
“Your personal card?”
Santiago seemed to be swearing under his breath, in Spanish, if Dickie wasn’t mistaken.
“Is that all you remember?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Are you sure?”
Was it Dickie’s imagination, or did the guy seem to place a little too much emphasis on the last question?
“Yes. I don’t remember anything until I came to, here at the hospital.”
“I see. Since you’re a VIP, I’m going to have to hand this over to the White House’s own security.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“Thanks for your cooperation, mr McDonald.”
Sleepily, Mac took the phone which was ringing insistently close to her ear. It wasn’t fair. She’d only just fallen asleep and now some new crisis was brewing somewhere. Worst of all, the ringing had to be waking Rod too. She fumbled about on the bedside table and was able to pick up on the third ring. Too late for Rod.
What she heard, made her sit up straight in bed. Not that too, on top of everything else.
“I’ll be right there. Yes, I’m sure they will.”
Rod watched Mac, concerned over what her tone of voice might mean. He knew the kids were ok, and since he also knew his mother-in-law was spending the night at the White House, he didn’t think the phone call had anything to do with her.
“It’s Dickie. He’s been attacked in the park.”
Rod glanced out the window, knowing their room faced the wrong way, but unable to see in the direction of the park.
“Is he badly hurt?”
“I’m not sure. That’s what I have to find out. I do know they got his pass, so the security agents will have to -”
“Yes, but the alarm hasn’t gone off, so I’m assuming we haven’t been burgled yet?”
“Too soon to tell. Dickie’s pass wouldn’t have gotten them into our personal suite so at least the kids are safe. Stay here, while I find out more, ok? In case Amy or one of the others wakes up, I’d like you to be able to calm them down. Mom too, if she shows up.”
“Of course. I hope Dickie’s ok.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mac was sitting in the limousine, being briefed on the way to the hospital. Not surprisingly, the agent focused mainly on the potential security breach.
“I’m afraid security might have been compromised, ma’am. We have people looking into it as we speak, but – certain classified documents -”
“The ones concerning our trade with China?”
“We don’t know yet. As soon as we have more information, we’ll let you know.”
“Right. What about Dickie?”
“I don’t know anything about that. You’ll have to ask the agent in charge of that part of the investigation.”
She was met at the hospital by a tall man, saluting her smartly.
“Madam President. If you’ll follow me, I’ll brief you on the latest developments.”
“I’m afraid it looks as if this was no random attack. We have indications that mr McDonald was deliberately targeted. He seems to have been followed for some time now. Days at least.”
“I expected that. Since they took his pass. Well, did you find out who’s behind the attack?”
“Not yet, ma’am, but the investigation is proceeding -”
“Ok. Do you know how Dickie is doing?”
“You’d better talk to the doctors about that. I think one of them is standing by right now.”
The African-American doctor was about thirty-five years old and very beautiful. Mac imagined she could easily have been a model or an actress if she’d chosen a different profession. She introduced herself and got straight to the point. Mac had the impression she was extremely busy, just like herself. She could sympathize with that.
“Madam President – your staff member – mr McDonald has suffered a few cracked ribs. He has a big swelling on his head, but as far as we can tell, there’s been no brain damage. There’s also a minor fracture in his wrist. Defence injury. His abdominal area is bruised and tender to the touch, but again, there doesn’t seem to be any internal injuries. He should make a full recovery – ”
Somehow, Mac had the distinct impression there was a but attached to that last sentence. What were they not telling her?
“Yes? Is anything else wrong?”
The doctor appeared to be hesitating.
Mac made an impatient gesture with her hand. Why couldn’t people just spit it out, whatever it was they had on their minds? It would make her job so much easier.
“I’m not sure this has anything to do with the attack, but I thought I should mention that – there was traces of semen on mr McDonald’s clothes.”
“Yes? His own, I assume.”
“Yes, but – there were also traces of another man’s semen, so you see my point – Is mr McDonald – I mean, to your knowledge, is mr McDonald gay?”
Mac hesitated. She didn’t think so. In the time she’d known Dickie she certainly hadn’t had that impression. Her security agents would know, she was sure of that. They had a neat little file on everyone connected to the White House. There were times when she was afraid they had records of her and Rod’s sex life, tucked away somewhere for future reference.
Shaking her head slightly, she forced her mind to return to the matter at hand. Was Dickie gay? Or – the thought of what had happened to Rod only six months earlier made her suddenly feel cold. Could that be what the doctor was trying not to say?
“Did you make a – complete – physical examination?”
“No. There was no indication that – I mean – no signs of injuries of that type. Usually, we need the patient’s consent before performing that sort of examination. Unless – there are certain indications that -”
“I see. You’ll have to ask him.”
“Yes. Of course. I just thought I’d ask you first if you think he might be -”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but – I’ve never had reason to ask.”
“I see. Well, that’s all I know so far.”
The doctor left the room. She didn’t look forward to what she was about to do. Invading someone’s privacy was never pleasant, but under the circumstances, she knew she didn’t have any choice. It was a tricky situation. Whatever the patient replied, there might have been some kind of sexual assault. On the other hand, if the semen was the result of consensual sex, it would still be awkward.
Holding her head high, she walked into the patient’s room.
“Mr McDonald -”
“I’m dr Gordon. During the course of the physical examination we discovered something – a little out of the ordinary – and I was hoping you could help clarify this circumstance for me. There’s nothing to be concerned about. You will make a full recovery. As you can see, there’s a fractured wrist and – well, there are a few more injuries, but – like I said, nothing serious.”
“Ok. What – I’m not sure I see what you’re asking.”
“Oh. We found traces of – semen – on your clothing and – it was from you and – from another man, so naturally, we – were wondering.”
Dickie looked away, trying to seem completely absorbed in the view of the sky through the window. Other buildings obstructed part of the view, but all in all, it looked as if it would be a pleasant day. Outside.
The doctor’s question had caught him unawares. It made him feel extremely uncomfortable. He hadn’t known Jeff had – It wasn’t as if he’d been paying too much attention at the time. Looking back, he realized that it was possible, considering how close they’d been.
“I – that’s personal. I’d prefer not to go into any of that.”
“I’m sorry, mr McDonald, but I have to ask – are we talking about consensual sex here?”
Dickie turned around sharply and faced the doctor. What was she hinting at? Consensual – as opposed to – non-consensual – Surely she didn’t think – Feeling his face heat up, he forced himself to reply.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t – I mean, we didn’t -”
The doctor was already getting to her feet, about to retreat hastily.
“I see. Thank you. That was all I wanted to know. Are you comfortable? Can we get you anything? Is there anyone you’d like to contact?”
Dickie sensed that the doctor was just as embarrassed as he was, and he eagerly seized on the excuse to move away from the awkward topic.
“No, I’m fine. I suspect my employers will be in touch, but – I’ll contact my family later on.”
“I see. Actually, your employer – the President – is here now.”
“I had the impression she’d like to see you, so – if you’re up to it, she can come in for a few minutes.”
The president. She’d know. About – the semen and the missing pass. Dickie braced himself to face his employer. He tried not to let his enthusiasm show, but one of the reasons he’d been so eager to work for Mackenzie Allen was his admiration for her. She was a remarkable woman.
Now he’d let her down, badly. He knew what he had to do. There was no other choice. After this, he’d be a liability. At least he’d salvage some of his pride and spare the president the necessity of having to fire him.
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
Catching sight of Dickie’s face, Mac winced. She’d been prepared for something like this, but the bruises and the swelling took her by surprise. Judging by the agonized look in Dickie’s eyes, he was in a great deal of pain. Couldn’t those doctors at least give him something for the pain? She was about to turn around and call that doctor back right away, but decided against it. First she’d talk to Dickie.
She sat down on the chair beside the bed and let her eyes roam across Dickie’s face. That, and his arms were more or less all that was visible.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m – Madam President – you’ll have my – letter of resignation as soon as I can – hold a pen. I’m sorry. You trusted me and I let you down.”
“Dickie. What are you talking about? I didn’t come here to demand your resignation. If you mean that pass, that’s ok. We have security agents to deal with that kind of thing. Since it was issued to you, it was understood that under certain exceptional circumstances it might end up in the wrong hands. I understand they have contingency plans for this type of thing. That’s not something you or I need to worry about.”
“You’re – too kind.”
Mac didn’t think Dickie looked very reassured. Something was still bothering him. The doctor had been very uncommunicative about the semen but Mac had gathered that at least there was no question of sexual assault.
Suddenly, it dawned on her how Dickie’s mind would be working. In his work, he always kept a close eye on the media and even the slightest hint of a scandal had to be taken into account. As far as he was concerned, this must have seemed a serious threat to her presidency.
No matter how brilliant he was in other matters, she knew he was wrong about this. Who would worry about one of her employees letting loose a bit? As she’d told him just now, there were contingency plans. No one would know about his indiscretion, she’d make sure of that.
“Dickie – there’s nothing to worry about. Whatever happened tonight, it’s no one’s business. You were off duty. What you do in your spare time, is your business. Are we clear on that?”
“Madam President – when the media -”
“The media isn’t going to find out anything more than that you were attacked and robbed. Just focus on getting well again. That’s all you need to do. Let me worry about work.”
There was a silence, in which she could almost hear his mind working.
“You’re very kind.”
“Nonsense. Dickie – you must think I’m a very harsh employer. Lighten up a bit. No one’s going to punish you or -”
“I appreciate your kindness, Madam President.”
Madam. Hearing herself described that way gave Mac a funny feeling. It almost sounded as if she was in charge of a high class brothel, and not – Forcing down the whimsical thought, she focused on Dickie again.
“Just try to get some rest, ok? We’ll deal with the rest. I can assure you, you have nothing to worry about.”
“I was with my – girlfriend – and -”
“At the art gallery? Rod mentioned something about you being there.”
“Yes. Susannah is a photographer.”
“I think I remember some of her work. Very interesting work – and beautiful.”
“Yes. That sounds about right. She’s enormously talented. I love her work.”
Judging by the sound of Dickie’s voice, Mac could tell he loved more about her than just her work. Good for him.
It was obvious that there was more on Dickie’s mind and he seemed painfully determined to have his say. Mac imagined he was desperate to explain how he’d ended up in his predicament. She was about to tell him again that his personal life was no one’s business, but realized that he wouldn’t rest until he’d made himself clear.
“My girlfriend and I – anyway, her ex was there and -”
Mac could see Dickie racking his brains trying think of a way to explain. She decided to put him out of his misery.
“And you got drunk and – one thing led to another?”
Dickie stared at her, a look of stupefaction on his face.
“Uh – yes. Jeff’s still a good friend of hers and – he’s a nice guy and – it’s not that I usually -”
“Of course not. Relax. You’re hardly the first person who’s had too much to drink and – well, in any case, I’ll make sure none of this gets out. And Dickie – congratulations. I’m glad to hear you’ve met such a special person. Of course, she’s lucky too – to have met you. Now try to get some sleep, ok? We’ll manage without you for a while. Don’t worry about anything. That’s an order.”
At last, he seemed to be a little less distressed. It seemed as if he would actually settle down and get some rest. Mac nodded encouragingly and got up to leave.
To Dickie’s dismay, his doctor told him he’d need at least six weeks of convalescence. That was after he’d been released from the hospital, which would take at least another week to ten days. After any head injury, the doctors wanted to keep the patient under observation. There was also the matter of his broken wrist.
He felt helpless. At the White House, his work was waiting for him and at the art gallery, his girlfriend. Instead of all that, he’d be stuck in bed, and later on, walking aimlessly around the hospital corridors. Of course, he did his best to move his work to his hospital bed. For a while, he was busy using notepad, Palm and the pay phone he was able to have moved to his room. Unfortunately, his wrist was practically useless and even though he hadn’t suffered a concussion, he still had periodic headaches which made it hard to focus on the flickering notepad screen.
In any case, soon the nurse came and told him sternly to put aside his toys. His ‘toys’? Dickie drew himself up indignantly, about to explain how important his work was, when he realized his speech was falling on deaf ears. The nurse cared nothing about his work. She had her work to do, and he was part of it. Resignedly, he gave up for the time being.
By the time he was feeling better and was allowed to take walks, he began to pace back and forth in the corridors.
One day, about five days into his imposed time off, he caught sight of a face which seemed vaguely familiar. The young man, who appeared to be about his own age, was being wheeled into another private ward, like Dickie’s own. If it was who he thought it was, the guy had changed enormously since the last time they’d met in person. He calculated that it must have been at least four years since they last saw each other, but how long since he’d last heard from the guy? Dickie frowned in concentration as he tried to recall the last phone call or even email. Could it really be almost eighteen months since the last time?
He hoped he was wrong. Maybe he was being misled by a chance likeness. The encounter had disturbed him and Dickie returned to his bed, deep in thought. What if it really was Lionel? All through school, from first grade to graduation in high school, they’d been inseparable. Dickie and Lionel – it was never any use trying to put them into different home rooms. Where one was, the other would inevitably follow.
Even from the start, they’d been competing, as much as cooperating. It was always a good-natured competition between them. As far as Dickie could remember, there had never been any ill will or hard feelings. If Dickie got a slightly better grade in one subject, Lionel would work even harder and either get a better one in another subject or in the same subject the next time. Their competing had even continued on into college, even though they’d gone to different schools on different coasts.
After graduation, they’d continued trying to best one another, by getting the best job. Then when they’d both landed top jobs, they’d become too busy to do more than keep in touch sporadically, by phone calls and emails. Then that too had stopped.
It was no use. Dickie knew he had to find out who the emaciated young man in the room across the corridor, a few doors down really was. He got out of bed again and walked back to the door through which he’d seen the other guy vanish. The door was still standing slightly ajar, and he was about to knock on the door and walk in, when he heard the sound of voices. Those voices sounded familiar.
Mr Eden and – could it be Lionel’s older sister Wanda? She’d been at least five years older than the two boys and to Dickie she’d been just a typical teenager. He thought she was married. At least he had an idea Lionel had told him that at some point.
Since Lionel already had visitors, Dickie decided to wait and was about to turn back to his own room, when the door swung open and mr Eden came out. He’d changed too. In Dickie’s memory, he’d been tall and strong. Now he was a thin, stooped man, his face lined and eyes sunken. The look in those eyes was still sharp though and he immediately recognized Dickie.
“Richard. Richard McDonald. How are you, boy? I can’t remember the last time I saw you. What happened to you?”
“I was – mugged.”
Mr Eden shook his head sadly.
“This city – I swear it’s getting worse every year. All the major cities. Something is seriously wrong with our society.”
“Mr Eden – sir. I saw Lionel -”
The older man sighed.
“Yes. He’s not getting any better, that’s for sure.”
“I didn’t realize Lionel lived here now.”
“He didn’t. We moved him here because we heard of this specialist – apparently, she’s worked wonders with other cases like this.”
Dickie didn’t dare to ask what type of case mr Eden was referring to.
“Go on in and say hello. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you too, just like I was. You’re looking good, boy. Apart from that -”
Mr Eden indicated Dickie’s injuries.
“If he’s up to seeing a visitor.”
“There’s been no change. He’s the same with or without visitors. Besides, Wanda will want to see you too. I’m going to get a coffee and some fresh air. You go on in now and I’ll see you later.”
Timidly, Dickie looked inside the ward. Wanda was standing by the window, looking out and there seemed to be a hint of anger in the air, as if Wanda and Lionel had just quarrelled.
That must be a new development. On the few occasions Dickie had seen his friend with his older sister, the two siblings had appeared to be very close. He was wondering what had brought on the change. Of course, he might be mistaken. Wanda might be upset anyway.
Lionel’s eyes were closed, looking as if he was asleep and Wanda hadn’t heard anyone entering the room.
Dickie coughed delicately to call attention to himself.
Wanda whirled around, as if prepared to tear into whoever had come to disturb them. When she caught sight of the unexpected visitor, she lost her momentum. Dickie didn’t think she’d recognize him. To her he must have been just another little boy darting in and out of her house all the time. Her first words astonished him.
“Dickie. Little Dickie McDonald.”
“Lionel, look who’s here.”
Lionel’s eyes had opened and he was studying his sister and his old friend, without a word.
“What happened to you, Dickie?”
“I was mugged in a park not far from here.”
Dickie decided he needed to know what was wrong with Lionel and he hoped he was still considered a close enough friend to be told.
“What happened to you?”
“I’m just stressed out and overworked. It’s nothing. Dad and Wanda are just making a fuss.”
Wanda’s expression changed and her eyes narrowed. Dickie had a feeling he’d stirred up an old source of dissension between the siblings, without meaning to.
“Nothing? You should know, Dickie, that his attitude is part of his condition. Have you heard of anorexia nervosa?”
“Uh – isn’t that the exaggerated dieting that some teenage girls -”
“Teenage girls. These days anyone can get it. No, shut up, Lionel. You might as well listen, while I explain to Dickie. Maybe it will knock some sense into you.”
Intensely uncomfortable, Dickie tried to back out before he was the cause of a full blown quarrel between the siblings.
“You know, if this is upsetting Lionel, I really think -”
“He needs to hear it. Dickie – it all started maybe two years ago. Lionel got a promotion and began to work harder. He neglected his girlfriend and his health. Then the company needed to lay off some of the staff and the ones still employed had to work that much harder. Like in Japan or places like that.”
“Wanda. Please. You’re always exaggerating. Lisa met another guy. It was nothing to do with -”
“Really? How come you didn’t even see her in over four months? You were living in the same apartment, for crying out loud. Lisa told me she never saw you. You got up so early she was still asleep and returned so late, she’d already gone to bed.”
“It can’t have been that long. Maybe a week or two -”
Ignoring her brother’s protests, Wanda went on.
“He began to skip lunch and probably dinner as well. Who knows if he even had breakfast. I was there. I saw the empty cupboards.”
“I ate out with clients.”
“Ate? Or pretended to? He was still working out though. Any time he could spare between work and commuting, he worked out at the gym. Then there were the laxatives and -”
“Wanda. Dickie doesn’t want to know all this. I’ve always liked to stay in shape.”
“In shape, yeah, but you became obsessed with your weight.”
“No, I didn’t. I just felt I could relax better when I was working out.”
Wanda shot Dickie a meaningful glance, as if to say ‘I told you so.’
“Dad caught him sticking his fingers down his throat, trying to throw up. He’d been forced to have dinner with dad. Poor Lionel. What a cruel, ruthless father who wanted to have dinner with his son, once in six months. Afterwards, Lionel sneaked into the bathroom and -”
“Dad misunderstood -”
“What? What were you doing if you weren’t sticking your fingers down your throat?”
Lionel sighed and didn’t reply.
“When he started passing out at work, he was fired. That’s when we began to take him to different doctors, who all had different diagnoses. Finally, we found out the truth. How much do you weigh, Lionel? Tell Dickie.”
This time it was Dickie’s turn to plead with Wanda. He could tell her words were causing Lionel distress.
“Wanda, please. Don’t -”
She went on as if she hadn’t heard Dickie either.
“He weighs ninety-seven pounds. A guy his height.”
This time, Lionel didn’t even bother trying to contradict his sister.
Wanda made a weary gesture.
“Oh, what’s the use? He’ll never admit it. Dr Sung says it’s all part of the condition. The patient has no comprehension of the disorder. I can’t take this anymore. You try to talk to him, Dickie. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
Wanda stalked out of the room, a sullen look on her face. Dickie could understand and sympathize with her feelings. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see a loved one waste away like Lionel appeared to be doing.
Awkwardly, Dickie sat down on the chair beside the bed. He was uncomfortably aware of Lionel’s skeletal hands and arms. His face was no more than a skull covered by skin. The eyes almost vanished in their deep hollows. What little Dickie could see of his friend’s limbs looked equally cadeverous. It was chilling to see what was virtually a skeleton still breathe. Worst of all, this was his best friend from school.
Lionel’s eyes darted back and forth, until finally, his gaze came to rest on Dickie’s face.
“You’re looking well. Unless you count all those bruises.”
“Tell me what it is you do these days.”
“I work for the President.”
“You mean the President?”
“Yes. Mackenzie Allen.”
“Wow. What’s she like?”
“She’s – something else. It’s an honour to work for her.”
“I always knew you’d go far, Dickie.”
“So will you.”
“Not anymore. You know, in a way she’s right. I’m not trying purposely to stay thin, like one of those girls. It’s just that – I can’t stand eating. I get – nervous – restless – in fact, I almost panic. The thought of food makes me sick. I need to control my intake of nutrition and – if I lie idle like this, I get – anxiety attacks. They have me shot up with sedatives and I don’t know what else.”
“I’m sorry, Lionel.”
“Yeah, you know, why me? I’ve been thinking that ever since I got this diagnosis. Other people work hard and don’t get sick. Like you. You’re doing great. My colleagues – my former colleagues – they can handle it. People I know from college. Everyone’s a success, except for me.”
“Don’t worry about work now, Lionel. You have to focus on getting well again.”
“I’m not going to get well again. Look at me. It’s true. I do weigh less than a hundred pounds. What do you weigh?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a hundred and fifty”
“You see. Staying fit. Are you working out?”
“Yes. I try to catch a half hour in the morning or maybe in the evening. Not every day, but as often as I can.”
“You work out and you don’t get sick. It’s just me.”
“Lionel, of all the people I know, I have the most faith in you. You can do it. You can beat this thing. Make it your job. Whatever it takes, just do it.”
“I wish it were that simple, Dickie. All I want is for this thing to go away so I can work again. That’s all I ever wanted. To work and be a success and make money.”
Dickie didn’t know what to say. Those had been his goals too, until he’d met Susannah. Even now, he was putting almost all his energy into fulfilling those goals. He’d get Mackenzie Allen reelected. Except once he’d done that – what would he do then?
He was saved the necessity of replying, by the nurse entering.
“Mr Eden. You should rest. Your visitor can return tomorrow.”
Dickie shot up from the chair, and studied Lionel’s face guiltily. What if his visit had made his friend worse? At least he couldn’t detect any visible changes. Lionel looked exactly the same as before.
He returned to his own room deep in thought. Was work really all there was to life? What if something made it impossible for him to continue working like he had up until now? Could he find something else to fill his life or would he fall apart like Lionel had?
They’d been so much alike, most people had thought they were brothers. Everything they did, they did the same. What if he too, would suffer Lionel’s fate? The thought of ending up as his old friend terrified him. He couldn’t let that happen. There had to be something else he could do.
The day he was finally released from the hospital, he’d intended to visit Susannah, but instead, he found himself returning to the White House. He’d been away for too long. Susannah, and even Jeff had visisted him at the hospital and he’d visited Lionel, who actually seemed to be making a little progress, at last. It was time he found out how much his absence had cost the Allen administration.
Besides – he didn’t want to admit this even to himself, but the thought of returning to the art gallery frightened him a little. While he’d been right in the middle of the – threesome – he and Susannah and Jeff had been involved in, he’d found it all exciting and thrilling.
Now, after the enforced separation from his lover and his new friend, he’d become wary of the changes he’d undergone. Until that night at Susannah’s place, he’d always considered himself one hundred percent straight. What if – he’d need to revise that assessment of himself?
After checking in with Jim Gardner and Kelly Ludlow and taking stock of the situation, he should have been heading home, to get some rest. It was clear that he wasn’t as fit as he had been when he’d ended up in the hospital. Even half a day’s work had exhausted him. He just couldn’t bring himself to leave.
In the end, he set out to find the person he thought might offer him some insight into his strange transformation.
As usual, at that time in the afternoon, Vince was serving the president coffee. Dickie waited until he was finished with that, before approaching him.
Vince nodded amiably.
“Hi. I see you’re back. Feeling better?”
“Yes. Sort of. Vince – could I have a word with you?”
Vince raised one eyebrow inquiringly. He hadn’t thought Dickie needed to consult him on anything. It was usually Kelly or Jim, if not the president herself. Glancing hastily at his watch, he nodded.
“Ok. You can have a couple of minutes.”
Vince didn’t move, as if he expected what Dickie had to discuss with him could be gone into in such a public place.
“In private, if you don’t mind.”
By now, Vince was feeling just a little bit curious. It occurred to him that Dickie might want to check on the rumors going around about his stolen pass. While the media had been kept ignorant, most of the White House staff knew about what had occurred. To Vince’s knowledge, the stolen documents had turned out not to be quite as sensitive as first believed, but it was bad enough as it was. It had been years since the last time the White House had been burgled.
“Ok. No problem.”
They went to a small room, which was mostly used for storage. It had at one time been a tiny office for a member of the White House staff, but apparently, it had been deemed too cramped to serve for any longer period of time. There was only a small window up on a wall. Vince’s personal opinion was that it had always been used for storage or for keeping refreshments out of the way until the final moment they were needed. White House history was a bit of a hobby of his and when he had time, he was going to find out for sure.
“Go ahead. If you’re wondering about that pass -”
A disconcerted expression spread across Dickie’s face. Everyone seemed to know about that. Would they also have heard about – He searched his mind for some way of asking what he wanted to know, but at the moment, his mind was a blank.
Vince was getting impatient. He couldn’t understand what was on Dickie’s mind. If the boy couldn’t get to the point soon, Vince would be forced to get on with his own work.
Nervously, Dickie blurted out the first thing that came into his mind.
“How did you know that you were – you know – gay?”
Of all the questions Dickie could have asked him, this was the one Vince had least expected. His first impulse was to tell the kid to mind his own business. It was just too obvious that he wasn’t asking merely out of idle curiosity.
“Well, I guess I always knew.”
This was even more personal. Vince was wondering what was going on in Dickie’s mind. He couldn’t begin to guess what had brought this on.
“I don’t know. How did you know that you were into girls?”
“Well, when I was a teenager I just felt attracted to them and -”
“Exactly. It wasn’t all that easy for me though. You see, I liked girls too. Just not the same way.”
“Like friends, you mean?”
“That’s not what I meant. I had a very good friend. We were – inseparable. That wasn’t the same though. What I felt for him was just -”
“I see what you mean. If you tell me exactly what it is you want to know, maybe I’ll be able to help you. It’s just – a very personal matter.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that – do you think it’s possible for someone to just suddenly change? To wake up one day and be – gay?”
“No. Not if you mean someone adult. That doesn’t happen, unless this person has been trying to – deny – his true nature. I believe we’re born this way. Look, if that’s all, I really need to -”
“Wait. What about me? Do you think it’s possible that I could be – gay? Or rather bisexual?”
Suddenly, Vince realized what Dickie was so concerned about. For some reason, he’d gotten it into his head that – what exactly?
“I don’t know. How should I know? You’re the only one who can -”
“Please. Don’t you know how to tell? I mean – how do you know who to – you know – come on to?”
This was something Vince really didn’t want to discuss. At least not with Dickie. It was far too personal. Stiffly, he tried to think of a polite way of ending the awkward conversation. The only thing keeping him from just curtly excusing himself and leave, was Dickie’s distress. It was far too clear that this matter was weighing on his mind.
“Uh – have you fallen in love with someone?”
“And this someone is a man?”
“No. It’s a woman.”
A look of total confusion spread across Vince’s face. What was this young idiot so worried about then?
“Excuse me, but I really don’t see -”
“It’s just that – I’ve also – met a guy.”
“And you’re attracted to him?”
“No. We’re just friends.”
“I don’t see the point of this. If you want me to help, you’ll need to tell me what your problem is. So far, I haven’t heard anything that you need to worry about.”
Dickie hesitated. This really was far too personal, but he had no one else to turn to, and in his desperation, he was willing to suffer the humillation of confiding in Vince.
“Ok. I’ll -”
“Try to get to the point soon, please. I have work to do.”
“We had a threesome.”
Vince stared at Dickie as if he hadn’t heard him right. Dickie – in a threesome? He must have misunderstood, though what word could have sounded so much like that particular one, he couldn’t guess. Maybe Dickie, for all his intelligence, had misunderstood and used the wrong word. That still didn’t help much.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what that is.”
“No. I know what it is. I just didn’t think -”
“Oh, please. You guys obviously think I’m an uptight, inexperienced bore. I know what that is. Do I need to spell it out or are you doing this to humiliate me?”
“No. I’m sorry. Ok. I’m assuming this was with a woman and a man?”
Vince was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. How on earth had he ended up having this conversation in the first place? Was he the only gay employee at the White House or did the others just keep their personal lives to themselves? He was beginning to wish he’d been that wise too.
“Ok. I suppose it would depend on your feelings. If you were attracted to the man -”
“In that case -”
Vince’s patience was rapidly running out. He’d never liked Dickie but he’d always admired his intelligence. Right now, he was revising his opinion of the younger man.
“It’s just that – we – did things.”
“We kissed and – well, we were very close, when we were -”
“That’s enough. Were you drunk?”
“Was he drunk?”
“Yes and stoned too, apparently.”
Vince sighed. This young man was clearly beyond help.
“I’m guessing you didn’t do much partying at college.”
“Why do you all assume that?”
“No. I was studying to get good grades.”
“If you had been partying a bit more, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be in this situation now.”
“Yes, but -”
“All I can tell you is that it depends on how you feel. If you liked kissing this guy, then maybe -”
“I didn’t exactly like it. It just didn’t make me feel sick.”
Vince rolled his eyes.
“And that’s why you’re tormenting me with this idiotic nonsense? Dickie – my best guess is that you’re not gay. Now please, let me get on with my work.”
“You don’t think so?”
“What about bisexual?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. There. Does that put your concerns to rest?”
Vince’s obvious impatience didn’t for a moment put a damper on Dickie’s relief. When he thought about it, Vince’s words made a lot of sense. He’d never been attracted to Jeff. What he’d liked about the situation was simply the fact that it was an excursion into the forbidden. He liked Jeff a lot but he wasn’t in love with him. It was just that – threesomes were hot, there was no getting away from that. Despite his panic reaction just now, he didn’t think he wanted to stop.
It felt great to know two people he could trust that intimately. None of his colleagues among the White House staff were that close to him. Like Vince, they despised him, and only barely tolerated him. Susannah and Jeff were different and he was happy he’d met them.
Air Force One made a big circuit around the landing strip. Normally, they would never even attempt to land at such a small airfield, but under the circumstances, the neighboring countries of their closest ally in Central America just weren’t considered stable enough for a state visit.
In fact, the president had been advised against it by all her closest advisers, the CIA and her husband, but despite listening politely and attentively, she’d dismissed their concerns and gone ahead with her plans. They would visit the country where an American corporation had just built a huge, modern chemical plant.
Thousands of previously unemployed citizens of the country in question had been hired and it was predicted that the investment would pay off and increase the country’s gross national product by several hundred percent. At least in theory. The reality was that the corporation had run into resistance both domestically and in the small Central American republic where the new plant was built.
At home, environmental activists were protesting about the potential impact on the fragile eco systems of the rain forest. In Central America, the resistance was political. Of course, the regime had the news media under strict control and when the president’s team were already in the air, they learned that the citizens had had a strict curfew imposed on them, just in time for the US president’s offical visit.
This wasn’t Dickie’s concern, but he’d been taken along for the ride, so he could prepare his own work, using choice parts of the visit to illustrate the president’s commitment to foreign policy. Among other things.
Jim Gardner and the president, along with a number of others, were closeted in her office, while Kelly was trying to feed the chosen reporters selected details of the upcoming visit to the presidential palace in the capital. Apparently, it was an old colonial fort, with highly interesting archtitectural details. The president himself had an immense collection of art work, which would be shown to the US delegation, led by the First Gentleman during the course of the visit.
He, Kelly and the reporters, along with most of the staff, would remain in the capital. Against all advice, the president herself had decided she would take Jim Gardner and a few others to visit the actual plant which was some miles further inland, in the rain forest.
When he’d learned about this, Rod blew a fuse. He swore colorfully making Mac grin delightedly.
“I love it when you talk like that, darling, but you know me. Once I get something into my head, there’s no stopping me. Honestly, Rod, it’s going to be fine. The political situation in the inland is stable and besides, we’ll be accompanied by both our own security team and President De Vega’s troops.”
“In that case, I’m coming with you.”
“No, Rod, that’s not a good idea. Stay here and take the tour with Senora De Vega and -”
“I’m not going on a goddamn tourist sightseeing tour, while you’re in the jungle. Kelly can tour the capital. You’re not going anywhere without me.”
Mac considered Rod’s suggestion. In a way, she could understand his feelings and while the art collection viewing was compulsory, the sightseeing wasn’t. He was free to go with her if he wanted to. There was no reason why she should humiliate him by not allowing him to come.
“Ok. You’ve convinced me.”
She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips.
On the second day of the visit, they set off for the inland, early in the morning. Dickie McDonald insisted on coming along, to document the president’s trek through the jungle. As he put it, it would really bring it home to the American public how seriously she took her job, and – another advantage – it showed that she wasn’t weak – as some might expect a female president to be.
It was the worst possible time of year. Long before the rain period, right in the middle of the hottest season. The first part of the journey was easy, in comparison. They set out in a small jet, which was air conditioned after a fashion. Before the chemical plant was built, there hadn’t even been roads out to the site, but now – since eighteen months or so ago – there were roads – again, not quite up to what the Americans were used to.
When the plane landed, they continued in jeeps. They were wearing wide brimmed hats and the sort of khakis usually associated with safaris.
Jim Gardner glanced uneasily out the windows as the thick foliage flashed by beside the road. To him, jungles were associated with snakes, scorpios and poisonous spiders. He’d lived all his life in a city and this place, seemingly void of people, but instead populated by far too many creatures of staring eyes, fluttering wings and silent slithering, gave him the creeps.
Dickie was far too absorbed in his paperwork to pay attention to the outdoors. It was lucky that he’d never suffered from motion sickness. Jim stared enviously at him, as he turned one paper and focused on the next. Unlike Dickie, Jim couldn’t for the life of him read, while on the road. On a plane, he could, barely, but never in a car, on a bus or even a train. Yet there Dickie was seemingly completely unperturbed.
As if sensing the intense scrutiny, Dickie looked up and stared inquiringly at Jim.
“Nothing. Get back to work.”
He shrugged, a puzzled look on his face.
Barely two miles from the airport, one of the security agents received a phone call. He hardly said a word in reply, and his facial expression didn’t change, but suddenly Mac had a feeling something was wrong.
“What’s going on?”
“Madam President – we have to turn back immediately. We just had word there’s been some trouble at the site.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“It’s not completely clear at the moment, but apparently there’s been some kind of accident.”
“Has there been some contamination?”
“That’s what I was told. The locals have been severely hit and – unfortunately, there’s a guerilla which has seen its chance of spreading discontent. We have to turn back immediately. The area is no longer considered safe for any American, let alone the president.”
“Ok. Give the order.”
Rod released the breath he’d held in. He hadn’t exactly thought Mac would insist on going on, but until the last second, he hadn’t been completely sure. If she’d insisted on continuing –
The convoy stopped. There was an awkward moment while each vehicle tried to turn around, then finally, they set off again, in the opposite direction. They only got a couple of hundred yards. A primitive road block of some kind was barring their way. Trees had been felled and were now piled up in their direct path.
The driver stepped on the brakes and Mac and Rod fell forward, almost hitting the driver and the security agent sitting next to him.
“Madam President – stay in the vehicle and I’ll go outside and investigate.”
Mac made a quick estimate of how many troops they had, counting the security agents, then how far they were from the airport. President de Vega had provided half a dozen men, intended more as a guard of honor, rather than real protection. This situation was completely unforeseen. Their own security agents numbered another half dozen.
Could they make it back nearly two miles – on foot – in hostile territory? Mac was beginning to see that she’d made a serious error of judgment. Though how she was supposed to predict a chemical leak, she wasn’t sure. According to her information, the plant was a state of the art, high tech product of American ingenuity. It occurred to her that maybe the guerilla had sabotaged the plant.
The sounds of shots fired recalled her to the present. She knew these vehicles were armored but for how long could they resist constant gunfire – or – explosives? In her experience these guerillas were usually frighteningly well armed. Handheld missile launchers, advanced explosives, even dirty bombs – it was all within reach of these individuals, despite the best efforts of democracies worldwide, to stop them.
She could see, through the windows that her security agents and President De Vega’s men were returning fire. The agent who had just exited the vehicle returned and made his report.
“Madam President – I have been trying to reach our troops and President De Vega’s men have done the same. Unfortunately, the reception out here is unreliable, due to the massive vegetation. We have so far been unable to request backup. Our best estimate is that the guerilla group outnumber us slightly, but we’re better armed and it looks as if we might be able to force our way through. If we get to the airport – if it hasn’t been taken – and I’ve been told the local military command post is located next door – we should be able to make our back to the capital or at the very least to their closest military base.”
“What are we waiting for?”
“I’m afraid we have no protective gear for you or the First Gentleman.”
“We’ll cover your retreat, ma’am.”
“Ok. Let’s go.”
Rod swallowed hard and glanced outside. On both sides of the road, there was thick vegetation. If they wanted to make it back to the airport they’d better hope they would be able to stay on the road. On the other hand, it was clear that on it, they’d be sitting ducks –
“Wait. Agent -”
“Agent Clarke. Do you have a weapon I could use?”
The agent stared uncomfortably at the president. Mac shook her head.
“Negative, sir. Just follow me.”
Rod was about to launch into an explanation why he felt it was a good idea for him to carry arms, but decided it wasn’t a good time.
In the meantime, Jim and Dickie had been given the same advice. They were awaiting the signal to make a run for it. It was pretty clear that their position was totally impossible. Anyone could take a shot at them from the safety of the dark forest.
The agent detailed to their jeep returned and told them to go ahead. Somewhere behind them President De Vega’s troops were providing cover.
Suddenly, a number of men, their faces camouflage painted, broke through and total confusion broke out. Jim and Dickie were separated and for a while, neither knew where the rest of their group was.
From somewhere slightly ahead of him, Dickie could hear one of the agents yelling.
“Sir. Mr Gardner. Where’s your colleague? I told you to stay together.”
“I’m not risking my life for Dickie McDonald. Madam President -”
The rest of Jim’s words were lost in the renewed spurts of gunfire. Dickie felt strangely calm. He registered Jim’s voice and its tone, but at the moment, Dickie was too scared to take it in. For a moment he was surrounded by a sea of strange faces, then someone grabbed him by the arm and began to drag him into the forest. At first he was too stunned to resist. It took him a while to even notice that he was leaving the road and entering the forest.
Panicked, he began to struggle.
“Sir. I’m taking you into cover.”
The voice had an unmistakable American accent and Dickie relaxed and let himself be led. He had no idea in what direction they were going, and soon he couldn’t even tell how far from the road they were.
The agent who was leading him to safety found a spot he appeared to consider defensible and shoved Dickie back against a tree. He whirled around and began to scan the surrounding forest for any sign of attack.
“Sir – stay behind me and keep your head low.”
Dickie didn’t have any intention of disobeying. Unfortunately, the brief moment of calm was over far too soon. Shots exploded seemingly from all directions at once and he heard a cry of pain from the agent. The man dropped his weapon and stumbled to his knees, a hand pressed to his shoulder.
At least six camouflage painted guerillas swarmed around the fallen agent and crying out excitedly, they picked up his rifle and brandished it dramatically above their heads. One of them, who appeared to be in charge spoke rapidly in Spanish and two of his men pulled the agent to his feet. They rapidly searched him for hidden weapons – at least that was how Dickie interpreted their actions. He’d studied Spanish in high school and at college, but these men spoke far too quickly for him to follow.
Once the agent had been disarmed he was forced to his knees again and the leader, without any preliminaries, fired two shots into the back of his head. He dropped down, face forward and didn’t move again.
Something hot splattered across Dickie’s hands and face, but he refused to analyze what it was. His mind went numb. He’d lost the ability to react, or so it seemed. The knowledge that he was most likely about to die any second now, didn’t make much impression on him either. It was all far too unreal. That agent – surely he’d get up again and laugh and talk to the men – extras – playing guerilla warriors. It was all like a movie. Dickie had seen this kind of B-movie a hundred times.
Again, the leader barked out his commands and this time, his men grabbed Dickie. He felt dizzy. Spots were dancing in front of his eyes. His breaths came in short gasps.
The leader gripped his chin and stared disconcertingly into his face, then let go. Again he said something to his men and two of them grabbed Dickie roughly by the shoulders and yanked him along. They kept a rapid pace, urging him along.
It might have been ten minutes or fifteen before they arrived in a clearing. There were some primitive barracks like buildings, but mostly just makeshift tents and shelters made from branches and what looked like moss. Roughly in the center, a fire was burning and a few women were walking about, clearly serving food to the troops.
At almost the exact opposite of the spot they’d entered the camp, some people were lying. Dickie counted to about eight or nine. They seemed to be a family or maybe two, judging by their clothing. At least two were adult males, three adult females and two what looked like adolescent boys. It was clear that they were dead. At such a distance, Dickie couldn’t see what had caused their deaths, but as he was pushed closer, he realized that they all had their eyes open and their faces were twisted into rigid masks of pain.
Dickie was shoved to the ground only a yard or two from the bodies. It seemed the leader was about to address him for the first and only time.
“Mira. These people died from the chemical leak. They died in agony. Your people are responsible for their deaths. They will pay. You are our hostage. Comprende?”
“Oh, he speaks. Very nice Mexican accent. Sit here. Do not try to escape or I will reconsider my need for a hostage. My men here – will love the chance to make an example out of you. Do not give them any excuse. I say this for your own good.”
Dickie tried not to look too closely at the bodies. It was hard enough to ignore their presence. In the intense heat, they had already begun to decompose and there was a pervading stench of death in the air. It filled Dickie’s nostrils and made him violently sick. As he was about to wipe his mouth he caught sight of his hands and realized with a start that there were blood stains all over them. The dead security agent. Again, he was sick, but soon his stomach was empty. From time to time, he kept coughing and retching.
A sudden noise from the direction of the bodies made him turn around and stare horrified at the pile of twisted limbs and bundles of rags. Was that a rat? The mewing noise sounded awfully like a child crying. Suddenly, Dickie caught sight of a movement. At first, he assumed it was some forest dwelling creature feeding off the decomposing flesh. Then, to his horror, he realized that it was a human child. The child couldn’t be more than two or three years old and was partially naked.
This close by, Dickie could see horrible bare patches where the skin had been eaten away by some chemical substance. The child was wimpering in pain, but was clearly conscious. Though he was shaking, Dickie forced himself to inch closer, all the time keeping a wary eye on the armed soldiers. They weren’t paying any attention to him.
He managed to lift the child free of the dreadful pile of rotting flesh that used to be her family and as gently as possible, he put her on his lap. While he was far from a medical expert, it was clear that she was dying. Despite that, there was awareness in her eyes. The terror and pain he read there, choked Dickie, but he forced himself to remain outwardly calm.
All the while, the child was still quietly whimpering and crying. It took him some time to realize that there were words mixed up in the wordless wail. The child was asking for her mother. Shuddering in horror, Dickie couldn’t stop himself from glancing towards the rotting remains only a yard or so away. One of those women had to be the child’s mother. There was nothing he could do except try to keep her calm, though how he was supposed to do that, he didn’t know.
Awkwardly, he said something in Spanish, but he wasn’t sure she understood him. According to the guerilla leader, his accent was Mexican, which made sense, since he had a feeling his professor had been Mexican. Would this Central American child be able to decipher his words? He decided that it didn’t matter. She’d be able to interpret his tone of voice if not the actual wording. So he went on speaking softly and reassuringly to her, until she lost consciousness.
It was a while until he realized that she wasn’t breathing anymore. He blinked to clear his sight. Gently, he put the tiny body down among her family. There was so little he’d been able to do for her.
That guy was right. His people were responsible for what had happened to the child and her family. If that corporation hadn’t decided to build their plant in the rain forest, the family would still be alive. How could he blame the people for reacting against the foreign invasion of their wilderness?
By this time, his ears had become used to the sounds of gunfire. From what he could tell, there were a large number of shooters coming in their direction. A shriek from one of the women told him she’d been hit. She dropped the tray she’d been carrying and fell, dangerously close to the fire, but if she’d been as seriously wounded as it had looked, she was probably beyond feeling any pain.
Again, Dickie felt numb. He’d been through too much in such a short time to really feel anything. Maybe he too would get hit by a bullet, maybe not. It didn’t really matter. If he was going to die, he was. Like that little girl. She hadn’t even had four years. He was nearly thirty. Those two dead boys might have been twelve or thirteen. Even the child’s mother might have been a teenager. He had a feeling Central Americans sometimes married young. Why should he get to live to old age, when so many others didn’t?
The troops attacking the camp seemed to be successful. It was hardly surprising. They were at least twice as many as the guerilla soldiers. The survivors appeared to have fled. Soon the perimeter had been secured. Dickie didn’t see anyone who looked familiar, and he had no way of knowing who the successful invaders were. Indifferently, he awaited their arrival.
“Are you American?”
“Yes. Richard McDonald from President Mackenzie Allen’s delegation.”
“Mr McDonald. Are you injured?”
Amazaing. The guy even spoke with what sounded like an American accent, but Dickie could tell that underneath it all, there was another accent, hinting at his true heritage. His face even had a slightly Indian cast.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
“The blood – it’s from – one of our security agents.”
“Is he here?”
“No. He was shot and left somewhere in the forest.”
The soldier nodded.
“If you’ll come this way, sir, we’ll take you back to the road. We have transportation waiting for you.”
“Aren’t you going to bury these people?”
“The civilians. A family. There was a little girl -”
“The villagers will be taken care of, sir. Just come this way, please.”
Short of beginning to dig a grave for them with his bare hands, Dickie didn’t know what else he could do, so he meekly followed the soldier. There was no telling when the guerillas would launch a counterattack.
Half an hour later, he found himself at the local garrison. He was reunited with the president, the First Gentleman, Jim Gardner and the surviving security agents. Of the six who had set out with them, four remained. One of them was injured.
The president greeted Dickie with what seemed to be genuine concern.
“Dickie. Good to see you. Are you hurt?”
“I know. The agent who was with me -”
The president made a gesture to a man in uniform who was standing by, as if waiting for her cue. He moved closer to Dickie and began a visual examination.
“Sir. I’m a medic. Will you let me -”
“I’m not injured. If I could just clean up -”
“Of course. Right this way, please.”
Apparently, he’d been told by the president to stick to him, because Dickie found himself accompanied every step of the way into a barracks where there were a line of showers and some large wash basins attached to the wall. Dickie found a bar of soap and began to scrub his hands and arms. The blood had dried and taken on a brownish tinge.
There were mirrors on the wall and the face looking back at him didn’t look familiar. He forced himself not to look too closely at the stuff he wiped off. Eventually, he thought he’d managed to get it all off. His clothes were a mess. He couldn’t wait to get out of them.
It seemed the medic had anticipated his need. He’d brought a pile of neatly folded garments, which turned out to include a pair of pants, a t-shirt and a jacket. Dickie was wondering if the guy would leave him alone while he changed, but the medic remained standing staring at him.
Dickie began to laugh. He had no idea where that came from. Suddenly, he couldn’t stop himself from shaking with laughter. What was so funny? He had no idea.
“You’d better sit down. I’ll send for a drink and something to -”
“If you think I’ll be able to eat after -”
“There were some dead people at the camp. Eight or so. They’d died in the chemical leak. I can still smell them. So don’t bring me any bloody food, is that clear?”
“I’m sorry, sir. Just some water -”
“No, thanks. Leave me alone. Can I take a leak without an audience?”
Dickie gave up and docilely pulled off his jacket, t-shirt and pants and put on the replacements the medic had brought. His mind was in turmoil. At the moment, all he wanted was to be left alone.
“Sir, as soon as the situation’s been stabilized, we’ll transport you and the other Americans out of here. Hopefully before nightfall. In the meantime, we have some quarters ready for you. If you’ll come this way, please -”
Again, Dickie obeyed without protest. He accepted being taken to what looked like army barracks. At least he thought so. He’d never been in the army himself. The room was bare and bleak. Normally, it must have housed about a dozen soldiers. Now it was empty, save for one man. Jim Gardner.
Jim suddenly recalled how he’d yelled at the top of his lungs that he wasn’t going to put his life on the line for Dickie McDonald. He felt a deep sense of shame. It had been the shock of the sudden attack which had made him overreact, he tried to tell himself. He didn’t like Dickie, but he’d never wish him any harm. Glancing warily at Dickie, he tried to guess if Dickie had heard him and if he had, if he was going to comment.
Dickie looked – odd. His eyes were vacant somehow and his skin had a sickly pallid hue. The man who had accompanied him made him lie down on the lower bunk of one of the six bunk beds lining the wall. On the opposite wall, there were a series of lockers.
Uneasily, Jim sidled away from Dickie and outside. He didn’t want to have to face this right now.
The medic followed him to make his report to the American president.
“How was mr McDonald?”
“I believe he’s in a state of shock. It would be best if he was hospitalized once you return to the capital or – at least he needs medical attention.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Mac exchanged a worried look with Rod. It was time she brought her people home. She was concerned about Dickie. Doubly so, after the attack less than six weeks ago. Maybe he’d returned to work too soon.
She remembered how Jim Gardner had screamed that he wasn’t going to risk his life for Dickie. It made her realize how little her staff members respected Dickie. She was as guilty as the rest of them. If they didn’t like the work he did, then why employ him? He was only providing the necessary tools for winning her reelection campaign. What he did, was just a small part of the rest of her work.
She decided that from now on, she’d show a little more appreciation for Dickie. The reason she’d employed him in the first place was that she’d liked him. If only she could keep that in mind, she was hoping their work together would run more smoothly.
When the medic had left, Rod squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“Maybe I should go and take a look at Dickie?”
“No, I’ll go. Keep an eye on Jim. Don’t let him wander off. We’re leaving as soon as we get the all-clear.”
Mac walked into the barracks and found Dickie lying on a bunk. She was hoping he was asleep, but as she approached, she caught sight of his eyes. Even if she had no medical knowledge, she agreed with the medic’s assessment. Dickie was in a state of shock. The sooner they got him back home the better.
She felt a stab of guilt for bringing him along. He was so young and considering his – personality type – he must have been completely unprepared for what he’d seen today. She guessed she only knew half of it.
He even made an attempt to get up.
She looked around for a chair and found it over by a round table close to the window. The soldiers who normally used the barracks had left in a such a hurry there was still a deck of playing cards lying on the table. Dragging the chair back towards the bunk Dickie was lying on, she sat down beside him.
“I’m sorry I brought you here.”
“There were bodies – at the camp. They’d died from the chemical leak. One of them was still alive. A little girl.”
Mac winced when she saw the pain in Dickie’s eyes. She’d been right. There was far more.
“She was crying for her mother and – her mother must have been dead. I – held her as she died.”
Mac blinked to clear her sight. Her tears wouldn’t bring back that little girl and they wouldn’t help Dickie either.
“At least she didn’t have to die alone. You were there for her.”
“If we hadn’t been there, she would have been still alive.”
She sighed. That was one way of looking at it.
“I see what you mean. When I get back to Washington I’m going to launch an investigation into the circumstances of that leak. If the plant is unsafe -”
“It shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Not in the rain forest.”
She was surprised at the intensity of his outburst. Dickie McDonald was the last person she’d have expected to be opposed to industrialization. Still, considering what he’d just been through, it was hardly surprising he felt resentful.
“You’re right. I can’t interfere in the internal affairs of a corporation, but I’ll do my best to get this situation resolved.”
It was as if he couldn’t hear her.
“You should have seen the hate in their eyes when they looked at the agent who was with me. They hate us. We’ve brought them nothing but grief and -”
“Dickie, I know you’re upset. As soon as we get back -”
Realizing that he was being rude, not only a to a lady, but also the president, Dickie bit back the rest of his outburst. He was out of line.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“It’s ok, Dickie. You’re upset. I understand. Just try to hang on until we get back and I’ll make sure you get help.”
“Help? I don’t need help. It’s the people down here who need help.”
“Yes. Try to get some rest now, ok? I’ll send someone to wake you when it’s time to go.”
Outside, she was met by Jim who looked uncomfortable and tense.
“Ma’am – I just wanted to – how was Dickie?”
“He’s in a state of shock.”
“I – wanted to apologize for my outburst earlier.”
Mac knew exactly what he was referring to.
“Don’t apologize to me, apologize to Dickie. I realize that you don’t like him very much, but try to remember that his work, is the basis for ours. We wouldn’t be able to do our part, if it weren’t for him. Think about that before you judge him.”
“By the way, I’d wait until he was in better shape before trying to apologize. Leave him alone.”
They landed in Washington late in the afternoon the following day. Their own doctor administered a mild sedative and Dickie was able to sleep away most of the trip. Once back at the White House, Mac considered her options. She could have Dickie treated on the premises, or have him hospitalized. Another option was to let him return home – or – to the art gallery. From what she’d gathered, his girlfriend lived there. That way, he wouldn’t be alone.
She decided to ask his opinion before making a decision.
“Dickie – would you like to stay here or – The army medic recommended that you be hospitalized, I could order you to let yourself be admitted to the hospital – but – if you prefer it, I could send you home or – to your girlfriend’s place. Which would you prefer?
The thought of Susannah, made Dickie’s eyes mist over. Maybe she could help him put the sickening memories out of his mind.
“I’d like to go to Susannah’s.”
“Excellent. I’ll send a limousine. Would you like to call her ahead to make sure she’s expecting you?”
“Yes. Thanks, ma’am. I’ll just -”
Half an hour later, he was on his way. Susannah had been horrified when she heard, but she’d been eager to see him. Dickie felt himself relax just a little.
Susannah met him at the door and rushed him upstairs. She scanned his face anxiously for any signs of injuries.
“I’m fine. Could I just use the shower? If I could, I’d like to change clothes too. They gave me these at a military base in -”
“Of course. I’ll go and get something from Jeff. Go ahead. I’ll be right back.”
When he was finished with the shower, Susannah handed over the jeans, t-shirt and underwear she’d borrowed from Jeff. They fit him well enough.
“Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”
On his way to Susannah’s bedroom he caught sight of Jeff’s anxious face.
“Hey. How are you doing?”
“Oh, you know -”
“Ok. I just wanted to see how you were. Take care, ok? I’ll leave you two -”
Susannah stopped him with a gesture.
“Actually, I was hoping you could get Dickie something to eat. You know, just a light snack.”
Dickie felt his throat constrict.
“No, thanks. I couldn’t eat.”
“When was the last time you had anything to eat?”
Jeff was studying his face with a look of concern.
“What’s the problem?”
“At the camp where they held me – there were some dead bodies. I can – still smell them.”
“Oh. That can take days to clear up. Susannah, do you have some of those essential oils – you know the aromatherapy stuff?”
“Uh – yeah.”
“Pour some on the lightbulbs. Peppermint would be best.”
“I think I have that. Just a minute.”
She began to rummage through some drawers and found a small bottle. After reading the label, she nodded, then began to pour a few drops on each light bulb. At first, Dickie didn’t notice any change. It was a while, until the fragrance began to spread throughout the room. Jeff was right. The fresh peppermint smell was soothing and it helped clear out the smell of decaying flesh.
“How did you know?”
“Oh, when I was Mongolia, I sometimes came upon the remains of people left for the scavengers. It’s part of their traditional religion. The smell can be really sickening in the summers. Actually, they do that in many parts of Asia. After a while, I learned to bring something that smelled stronger. Right. Something to eat. A light snack? No problem.”
Susannah made Dickie lie down, despite his protests.
“Maybe, but you’re tired and you’ve had a bad shock. Would you like to talk about it?”
By the time Jeff returned with the promised snack, Dickie had managed to get to the part when the guerilla leader had shot the security agent in the back of the head. He fell silent and warily studied the contents of the plate. There were carrot sticks, some crackers and cashew nuts. Jeff had also brought a big glass of lemonade and a bottle of Scotch.
“Take your pick. I’d go with the Scotch if I were you, but – I thought Susannah would prefer the lemonade.”
“The sugar will be good for you. Go on. Drink up. You can have some Scotch later.”
To Dickie’s surprise, he realized that he actually felt a little hungry. Those crackers and the carrot stick, not to mention the cashews all looked appetizing. He hadn’t thought he’d ever be able to look upon food with any enthusiasm. Now he felt able to gingerly nibble the snacks and gulp down the lemonade. When he’d finished, Jeff poured him a little Scotch.
With relief, Susannah noted that Dickie’s color was beginning to return to normal. Now she’d just make sure he stayed warm and hopefully, he’d doze off soon.
Jeff took the tray and was about to return to his own place, content that his friend seemed to be doing better.
Susannah shook her head.
“No, please. Don’t go. I was hoping you could stay within earshot, in case – well, you know, just in case.”
“Ok. I’ll crash on the couch.”
Dickie relaxed a little. How had Susannah known he’d feel safer if Jeff stuck around? It was ridiculous, but somehow, having one more person present made him feel more secure. Especially Jeff. There was something so reassuring about him. Incredibly, he’d also known how to dispel the corpse stench. Dickie didn’t think the images inside his mind would be banished that easily, but at least it was over now.
Susannah squeezed his hand, smiling comfortingly.
“Do you think you could sleep now?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired, but not really sleepy.”
“Ok. If you want to talk, I’m here. Jeff too, right?”
“Any time, pal.”
“Thanks. Both of you. It’s just that I’ve been thinking. I may not want to keep doing what I do. After president Allen’s campaign -”
“You have plenty of time to figure that out. Do you really need to decide on that right now, Dickie?”
He considered her advice. In a way, she was right. It was too soon to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. On the other hand, he knew that from now on, he’d want more from life than just work. Seeing the security agent die, had brought home to him painfully, how ephemeral a human life was – or could be. The little girl’s death had done so even more. One second you were alive – the next – it was over. Sometimes you didn’t get any advance warning. It was up to you to get as much as possible out of the life you had.
“Yes. I have no idea what I want to do, but it’s going to have to be more than just work.”
Susannah nodded agreement. She couldn’t take her eyes off Dickie. Though her expression was somber, she was smiling contentedly.
“I’m so glad you’re back and safe. If anything had happened to you – I love you, Dickie.”
“I love you too, Susannah.”
She bent over him and planted a light kiss on his lips. He returned her kiss for a moment and held on to her.
Eventually, she pulled back and settled herself comfortably in the chair beside the bed. It was obvious that she was preparing herself for a long vigil.
Jeff got up and silently left the room.
Dickie took Susannah’s hand and pulled her closer again.
“Why don’t you lie down too?”
“Ok. As you say. Why not?”
She stretched out beside him and put her arms around him. Now her smiling face was only inches away from his.
“Much better. You know, whatever I want to do in the future, I’m hoping you’ll be a part of it.”
“I’d like that.”
Despite what he’d told her earlier, Dickie gradually began to relax. Soon his eyelids were beginning to droop, and he felt drowsy. Lying like this, in Susannah’s arms, helped keep the memories at bay. If he just held on to her, maybe he’d be ok.
With a shudder, he realized that if he hadn’t met Susannah – or Jeff – he’d be on his own right now. In a hospital bed or somewhere else. The thought of that made him nestle closer to her warm body. Mercifully, he didn’t see any images of the dead child or the rest of it, as he dozed off.