Senator Eugene Whist believed his time was almost come. His four terms, including the current one, were prefatory, preparations for the moment when he would shine bright, flare in the eyes of the country, bedazzle the masses with his brilliance. And make his bid to become the leader of the free world. He just needed a spark, an incident that would thrust him in the nation’s spotlight and give him the chance to prove his mettle as something more than simply the senior senator from a small, if influential, New England state. He could feel the wind of change eddying around him like a clifftop breeze before a jump.
“I know who you mean, Bill,” Senator Whist replied to the man sitting across from him. “Libertarian wing-nuts. ‘The Cuckoos in Coos’ we call them.”
Bill laughed. “I’m guessing Stan doesn’t let you call them that in public.”
“It might’ve slipped out once or twice.” Whist swirled his tumbler, watching the dark single-malt slosh over ice. “I’m still a little surprised they were able to carve up Pittsburg and incorporate on their own. ‘Freedom Plot,’ they call it — their own little plot of freedom.” He drank. “Arrogant sons of bitches.”
“You’re not the only one with that impression.”
“Oh? What do you know?”
Bill leaned forward in his seat across the desk from Senator Whist.
“The Bureau sent an undercover agent up there a couple weeks ago. He stayed for a few days, came back and wrote a report that reads like a mashup between a Hunter S. Thompson novel and a Clint Eastwood film. Drugs, gambling, hookers, guns. I think he even mentions spurs at one point.”
“I can walk two blocks from the Capitol and find all that. Except maybe the spurs.”
“You can walk two blocks from anywhere and find it. But that’s not the point, is it? We’re talking about Rural America, here. It doesn’t matter what you can find, it only matters what people believe you should be able to find.”
The senator swirled his drink again, then took a slow sip.
“How do you think they’ve been getting away with it?” he asked after he swallowed.
“What’s the difference?”
“The important thing is that they have been getting away with it, and pretty soon they won’t be able to get away with it any more.” Bill sat back in his chair again. “This is your chance, Gene. There’re money changers in your temple. You can be the one to flip their tables and chase them out.”
“I’m not used to being a messiah.”
“I know. But it can’t be that hard. Hell,” Bill chuckled, “Jesus did it at less than half your age.”
Through the window in his office, Whist could see the small cherry orchard at the opposite end of his large, well-manicured lawn. It was in full blossom, and the fluffy tops of the trees looked like rose-tinted clouds against the Maryland sky.
“It’s the perfect setup, really,” Bill continued. “Conservatives hate the idea of big-city vices poisoning their precious pastoral; liberals accept their vice, but they get skittish if Big Nanny isn’t making sure the fun doesn’t get out of hand. You play this right and ‘swing state’ won’t have any meaning.”
“When is the Bureau looking to move?”
“Justice is pulling together warrants now, then it’ll take some time to put together resources. There’s a lot of area to cover; they’ll need quite a few agents. A few weeks, a month, maybe less.”
“Bigger fish have all been fried. Someone’s brother overdosed there, and now they’re pissed. A clerk got bored. Take your pick.”
“I’ve known you a long time, Bill. You don’t give away information without a reason. Why are you telling me this?”
“Like you said, because we’re old friends, Gene.”
“I mean, what’s in it for you?”
“I’m shocked, Gene,” Bill said, sitting back in his chair. “Here I am looking out for the moral integrity of our dear Country, and you accuse me of seeking personal gain. Isn’t it enough that we all benefit by lancing this den of iniquity before it festers and infects the whole land?”
“Of course,” Whist said, raising his glass. “Lance away, good doctor. And of course you’ll get your fee reimbursed by Medicaid.”
“It’s only right that we give our most competent professionals suitable compensation according to their abilities. That’s how the free market works, after all.”
Whist tipped his glass toward his friend and then took the final swallow. He looked back out the window. The gardener was doing something with the bushes in one corner of the yard. His wife always had the poor guy trimming this or tying back that. As long as it looked halfway decent, Whist didn’t care what the little Argentinian did.
“So, what’s the next step?”
“Call the director, invite him to your office for a drink, build rapport. Tell him it’s your state, and you want to be kept in the loop. Hint at subpoenas if you have to, but make sure it stays amicable. Have him give you all the details before he mobilizes a tactical team. Promise military support.”
“Military support?” Whist said. “Is that necessary?”
“Does it have to be necessary to promise it? If it becomes necessary, you’ve got friends at the Pentagon. Call in some favors, cash in some chips, discuss possible appointments. It’s all part of becoming a messiah.”
Whist looked at his friend. The other man had barely changed in thirty years – the same white shirt, the same broad tie, the same dark suit, perhaps taken out just a little bit to accommodate the slower metabolism of an aging athlete.
“While you’re at it,” Bill continued, “get your speechwriters to start adding references that’ll look good later. Toss in some founder quotes and allusions, talk about how nobody’s above the law. Think about the campaign videos you want to be running in a year. Consider what you’ll want to have said, and say it now. Stan’s smart, he’ll know how best to start laying groundwork.”
“Yeah, bring in your junior.”
“Because she’s young and you’ll need her someday. Because she’ll find out at some point anyway. Because when you make it as big of a deal as you’re going to, she’ll either hate you for not including her or love you for letting her stand nearby and soak in some of the spotlight. That enough reasons for you?”
“It’ll do for now.”
Senator Whist stood and walked to a small table near a bookcase. He dumped the old ice from his tumbler into a trash can and added two new cubes from an insulated bucket. He selected a mostly empty bottle of scotch, poured enough to cover the ice, took a swallow, added the rest of the bottle. The senator returned to the seat behind his desk and resumed his vigil out the window.
“No thanks,” Bill said. “I don’t want any.”
“You’re going soon.”
“Now, in fact.” Bill stood. “We still on for lunch next week?”
“I’ll check my calendar.”
When Whist continued to stare out the window, Bill shook his head.
“Look, Gene, I know you’re kidding, but listen to me seriously for a moment. You’ve got to be on top of your game. From here on out, you need to know everything that’s happening everywhere, not just your own god-damned appointments. The People want a Commander in Chief who takes control.”
Whist swiveled slowly in his chair and looked at Bill.
“Tuesday, one o’clock at Cal’s.”
Bill frowned. Whist drank.
“Yeah. Okay,” Bill said. “We’ll talk more then.”
Bill left, and the senator took another drink. Outside, the cherry blossoms ruffled in the warm spring breeze, and the gardener kept wrestling with the bush in the far corner of the backyard.
In the car back to the office, Bill made a call.
“Yeah, it went alright,” he said. “I’m not sure how serious he is at this point, but he’s thinking about it.”
“What about money?”
“That’s why I called you. Whist has supporters, but he hasn’t even launched an exploratory committee yet. We should wait until the campaign is in full swing to start tapping loyal donors. You have any prospects?”
The other voice was silent for a moment.
“I might have an idea. Let me see what I can do.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Give me a couple days.”
Bill closed his phone. Traffic on the Beltway was about what he expected given the time of day, so he nestled himself into his seat.
“Take your time,” he told the driver, shutting his eyes. “I’m done with all my meetings for the day.”