THE PRESIDENT'S MAN

PROLOGUE—DANCING WITH THE DEVIL

He had been very careful.

There wasn’t any choice.  Yesterday afternoon, while buying a few sheets of brown paper and a box of mailing labels from the nice lady at the drugstore, he had happened to notice a couple of goons in a dark blue Chevy, slowing down for a look.  They had already made one try and now, apparently, they were out in force; if they spotted him again they weren’t going to be at all shy about how they behaved, and it would be just too damn bad for the innocent bystanders.  So he had been careful.

He had the package in his coat pocket; it wasn’t much larger than a man’s billfold, so nobody would spot it.  They didn’t know about the package.  They didn’t know what they wanted, except to kill him as quickly as they could and then hope that their problems would go away on their own.  But it didn’t matter whether they killed him or not—except maybe to him—because once Austen had his final clinching piece of the puzzle, then they could kill anybody they felt like and it wouldn’t do them any good.

Except that Austen was in DC, all those thousands of miles away.

He had thought about it all night, worked it all out for himself because it was impossible to sleep—it was hard even to close his eyes.  He had just lain there, on his back on the load bed of a truck some farmer had left parked overnight behind a tiny, dilapidated adobe house—his girlfriend’s, apparently; at a quarter to two in the morning he could still hear her high-pitched laughter.

His original idea had been to wait until the post office opened, but that wasn’t going to work.  Lover Boy would want to be on his merry way well before eight-thirty in the morning.  Even your ordinary corner letterbox might not be enough, not if the wrong parties saw you dropping something inside—after all, not everybody believed in the sanctity of the mails.

Once it was done, well, he would just have to try and make a run for it.  Maybe he could hotwire a car and find someplace to get himself lost.  Maybe somehow he could get down to Sacramento and then catch a plane. . .

But first he had to get rid of the package.  Then he could feel at perfect liberty to worry about saving his neck.

There was a bank across the street from his motel; he would settle for that.  It had one of those twenty-four-hour card-operated gizmos where you could get a hundred dollars out or deposit your dividend checks anytime you felt like it, and, like most of them, it had a mail slot.  Bank buildings were possessed of alarms—they weren’t going to try breaking in on the off-chance that he might have left something behind for the postal service.

On the theory that there was no point in risking getting picked up as a vagrant, he waited until five-thirty before he crept out of the truck and started on his way.  The sidewalks, of course, were perfectly deserted, and his footfalls seemed to smack down on the pavement with appalling violence.  Once or twice a car came swishing by, but he was on the lookout and always managed to dodge out of sight well before the headlights could reach him.  When he could, he kept to the alleyways, away from the streetlamps.

It took him better than a half-hour to reach the rear wall of the bank building.  The mail slot was right beside the front entrance.  The bank was a corner building, and you couldn’t have slipped a playing card between it and the liquor store next door.  There was nothing for it but to go around by the street side.

Every step of the way he felt indecently exposed.  There was a little border of lawn next to the curb; he tried walking on that for a few paces, hoping it would be quieter, but then he thought it just made him more conspicuous and went back to the sidewalk.  At the corner the yellow traffic light was blinking—proceed with caution, as if he needed reminding.  There didn’t seem to be a soul about, but somehow he had never been so scared in his life.

When he reached the corner he almost ran to the mail slot, his hand in his pocket the whole way, gripping the slender little package.  As silently as he could, he pushed back the metal cover and shot the package inside.  Then he stepped over to the huge stainless-steel grid marked “All-Day, All-Night Banking” and, just for protective coloration, pretended to punch in a number.

Now he was on his own.  The bloody thing was off his hands, and he had nothing to look out for except his own precious hide.  He heard the tires squeal behind him and caught himself turning to look.  But there was no time for that, no time at all—it didn’t help him any to see the red smear of the traffic light reflecting on the front bumper, and the rear window rolling down.  But he ran anyway and didn’t look back again.  It was too late for that, too late for anything, and he didn’t want to have to watch it coming.

. . . . .

The wind was blowing due east.  Even at the northwest entrance to the White House Frank Austen could feel the damp cold from the Potomac, more than a mile away, as he stepped out of his limousine.  He whispered a word of thanks to the Marine sergeant who opened the door for him, smiling as the guy almost twisted his arm out of its socket saluting, and allowed himself a moment to straighten his legs.

He disliked being driven; he had never adjusted very well to being a Washington mandarin, and it made him feel restless.  The trip from Langley felt as if it had taken forever instead of slightly less than a quarter of an hour.  He was too young to be spending his life on the back seat of a car; that sort of thing was for the dark side of forty, so by rights he should have been safe for three whole months.

The weather had held off all week, but this was the coldest day he could remember so early in November.  God—that wind!  Standing against it, his hands jammed into the pockets of his black overcoat, he made a tall slender figure, a stranger in any landscape.  His lean, ascetic, not-quite-brutal face would never have betrayed him, but one of Frank Austen’s best-kept secrets was that he hated cold weather.  He could feel the tightness gathering around his eyes, eyes that even now seemed to laugh at the joke, and he knew that in another few minutes his sinuses would be killing him.

Well, the secret would stay kept—he might be miserable, but he had been blessed in that respect.  Fortunately, considering the line of work he had fallen into, he wasn’t the type to wear his heart on his sleeve.  Life was a joker; he had learned that a long time ago.

“I’ll buzz you when I’m ready, Jimmie,” he said, bending down for a word with his driver.  Jimmie thrust his square blond head through the car window and nodded grimly, just as if he had received an order to pull out the .45 Colt automatic he kept clipped to the underside of the dashboard and use it to punch a nice, symmetrical hole through the Marine, whom he kept glancing at with apparent suspicion.  Jimmie was young and took things very seriously.  “Pick up Mr. Timmler at the airport and bring him with you.  I expect I’ll be about an hour and a half—and, Jimmie, check your mail while you’re about it.”

The limousine crept stealthily off, around the corner of the building and out of sight, and Frank Austen turned to look at the concrete steps that led up under a blue canvas awning to the business entrance to the West Wing.

The huge double doors were as familiar to him as the weary expression he saw every morning in the mirror.  They were the back way to power, the only real way, the way you came when it was no part of your object to be chased across the lawn by a crowd of television reporters hungry for a celebrity to put on the six o’clock news.  They were the way you came when your business was with the President of the United States and no one else, and in the nearly four years that he had served this particular President they had never lost their power to make him have to wipe his hands dry.  He braced himself and marched up the stairs like a man ascending the scaffold.

Even before the guard at the cloakroom had disappeared with his coat, he discovered that Howard Diederich was upon him, the lines of his charcoal-gray suit standing out crisply within the doorframe.  He hadn’t heard Howard approach, but that was the way with the man—he had the happy knack of simply appearing, smiling his suave, I’m-in­perfect-control-of-the-situation smile, and holding out his hand for you to shake.  When you took it, it responded with no discernible pressure; the fingers were lifeless in your grasp.

No one observing these two men together—the ironic courtliness of the one matched against the clipped and gloomy self-restraint of the other—could have avoided the conclusion that they detested one another.  Nevertheless, certain necessary fictions had to be maintained.

Frank Austen forced himself to look a shade friendlier.  “Morning, Howard,” he said, glancing furtively at the wall clock to make sure there were at least a few minutes left before noon.  “You stay up all night watching the returns?”

“Yes—it was a great triumph.”  The chief of staff, conscious of himself as the principal architect of that triumph, smoothed his pale gray silk necktie with the flat of his hand and smiled again.  It was a peculiarly sly, feline smile.  “Most of the West, the entire Northeast, even Ohio.  Almost a grand slam.  We stayed up until nearly three, but it was all over except for the counting long before that.  The President is unquestionably the most popular man in the western hemisphere this morning.”

What was that, a threat?  Under the circumstances it was undoubtedly just that.  Howard Diederich, the politician’s politician, the confidant and first minister to our newly anointed king, was flexing his muscles ever so slightly.  We hadn’t meant the Herr and the Frau and all the little Diederichs—Howard’s children were all grown up, and his ex-wife, about whom Austen had heard only rumors, had been happily married to a swimming pool contractor in Phoenix, Arizona for the last eleven years.  No, we had been none other than Diederich and his lord and master, sitting in their shirtsleeves in the Oval Office, hunched in front of the television set while they passed the Crackerjacks back and forth and watched John Chancellor hand them another four-year option on the world.

And if we wanted your ass, the implication was—even yours, Frank Austen—that meant that we could have it.

But it was a peculiar kind of triumph, tasting of self-mockery and the most bitter of wisdoms.  Somehow, by some inflection that Austen had never been able quite to pin down, Howard always managed to pronounce the words the President as if they were the answer to some private joke.

“Well, then, I should find him in a good mood.”  Austen arranged the muscles of his face into one of his carelessly unreadable smiles.  “Maybe I should grab my chance and hit him up for a raise.”

They exchanged a few breathless, unpleasant syllables of laughter, and then Howard—gently, as if the operation required the greatest possible tact—took the Director of Central Intelligence by the arm and escorted him down a short corridor and into the office that belonged to the President’s appointments secretary, who rose from behind his desk to grasp each of them in a fierce handshake.

It was an interesting moment.  Jerry Gorman was one of Howard’s little discoveries; taken on as an advance man during the first campaign, he had made enough of an impression to find himself, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, only a thin walnut door from the Holy of Holies.  That suited Howard, because whatever Jerry found out at his little listening post he told Howard.  It also suited Frank Austen, because, as it happened, Jerry was one of his snitches too.

The interesting question was whether Howard knew.

“That son of a bitch,” Jerry had whispered one night, resting his head against a grape arbor in the garden of a house rented by the Secretary of Defense while waiting for his own out in Colorado to sell—it was only the third month of the new administration.  “That son of a bitch, he’d have me fitted for a studded collar if he could get one the right size from General Services.  That smug bastard.”

Jerry hadn’t been enjoying himself that evening.  When you’re an appointments secretary you get invited to all the right parties, but nobody is much interested in talking to you.  So he usually found himself with a lot of free time to drink too much and nurse the bruises that were collecting on his ego.

On this particular night, while he waited in the dark for the cool freshness of the April breezes to work their cure, while he stared down at the Secretary’s grass, lacquered almost black in the thick yellow light of the ornamental gas lamps, Jerry had unburdened his heart to the Director of Central Intelligence, who he knew, even as early as those days, was Howard Diederich’s principal adversary.  He was just drunk enough to be that careless.

Frank Austen had listened, and the next morning he had set in motion some cautious inquiries about Jerry Gorman’s relationship with life.  You moved slowly in these matters, since there were no guarantees that you weren’t being fed a plant, but by the first anniversary of  Inauguration Day—a little private party the chief threw for his old stagers—the Director could look across the room to where Jerry seemed to be measuring a wastepaper basket to throw up in and know, as well as it was possible to know anything in such a case, that he had that nice boy in his pocket.  Revenge and ambition, they were wonderful things, solid and dependable.  The only constants in an unsettled world.

But, of course, Howard Diederich knew all about revenge and ambition and—who could say?—might just conceivably know about Jerry Gorman as well.  Anything was possible.

Austen squinted nervously at his watch and then at the door that led to the Oval Office.  It was still about a minute and a quarter shy of noon, but the President had a well-known obsession with punctuality and it wouldn’t have been at all out of character for him to be sitting behind his desk at that precise moment, counting off the seconds on the Seiko quartz watch he reset twice a month against an electronic time signal down in the code room.  When Simon Faircliff said, “Come by around twelve and we’ll have lunch,” around was a term of enormous precision.

“Is he in?” Austen asked, turning to Jerry.  But Jerry never had a chance to answer, because suddenly the door opened and there he was, in a pair of light gray trousers, wearing a cardigan over his white shirt.  He grinned as if by the most consummate stealth he had caught all three of them in some ludicrous act, and his eyes settled on the Director of Central Intelligence.

“Frank—it’s wonderful to see you.”  He held out his hand, and Frank Austen paced off the eight or ten feet that allowed him to take it.

It was like approaching an idol.  Simon Faircliff was a man of considerable physical presence—six three and built on a large scale; he reminded you of a wall.  And there was more to it than that.  The guy radiated power the way some women do sex appeal.  It was like having a light directed into your eyes; he was simply dazzling.

Without so much as a glance at the other two men, the President threw his huge arm across Frank Austen’s shoulders like a net, dragging him captive into the next room.  When they had crossed the threshold, he pushed the door closed behind him with the flat of his free hand, and they were alone.

“Let’s have a look at you, boy,” he growled with proprietary affection.  “Come over here and sit down.  We’ve got a little time to visit before lunch—you feel like a drink?  What’d you think of the returns last night?  Wasn’t that something?  Wasn’t that more fun than a damned peep show?”

The President dropped into his oversized padded leather desk chair, bracing his foot up on the edge of the desk as if he were about to push himself away and go rolling back into one of the four ceiling high windows that stood like sentinels in the curve of the rear wall.  It was an attitude Frank Austen had watched him assume often enough over the dozen or so years he had worked for him; it was the Simon Faircliff equivalent of the crouch that precedes the spring.  It meant, in that gestured code that communicates what words are so often meant merely to obscure, that His Lordship was feeling aggressive.

Austen just smiled, nodding his head behind his folded hands, like a parish priest listening to the plans for the Easter pageant.  “I switched it off as soon as CBS gave you the election.  Even that much made me feel guilty—the CIA isn’t supposed to be interested in partisan politics.”

Simon Faircliff threw back his head and laughed at his director’s exquisite joke, crowing like a rooster—more in exaltation than anything else, because it hadn’t been that funny.

The few seconds in which the President indulged his ecstasy provided a peculiar privacy.  Frank Austen found himself, for all practical purposes, alone in the room, and he allowed his gaze to drift across the vast desk—really more of a library table with a few file drawers built under one side—that had ascended with its owner through a succession of House and Senate offices to the absolute focus of government.  In another four years, so the plan went, it would be moved again, to the seaside house near Fort Ross in California, and from there, in another fifteen or twenty, to its final resting place in the inevitable Faircliff Memorial Library.

Certainly it didn’t look like a museum piece; Faircliff, to his credit, had always cared little for the trappings of power.  There were no miniature American flags in marble holders, no bronze medallions encased in plastic, none of that.  Just a couple of telephones, a pencil holder, a copy of that morning’s Post, three disorderly piles of pale blue briefing books, and a color photograph in a stand-up frame of a pretty, blond, eighteen-year-old Vassar freshman, smiling her mystified smile as if wondering what all the fuss was about.

“How is she, Frank?”

The Director of Central Intelligence glanced up into the President’s face and smiled—their eyes had come inescapably to rest on the same object, almost making her a third.  “She’s fine, Simon.  She sends her love.”

“Like shit she does.”  The sentence was punctuated with a single muted explosion of something that bore only the remotest resemblance to laughter.  “I haven’t even seen her in over a year—you two live right over the river in Alexandria, and she and I haven’t laid eyes on each other more than half a dozen times since I took office.  Like shit she sends her love.”

Faircliff lapsed into a moody silence; the lined unhappiness of his face reminded you that he really was, after all, sixty-three years old.  He stared blindly from under his light brown eyebrows, not expecting a reply, listening to some inner voice telling him, again and again, that nothing in this life is an unqualified pleasure.

“Over forty-seven million people voted for me yesterday,” he continued quietly, almost to himself.  “I swept the party to the largest congressional majority since Johnson; there probably isn’t a more loved man in America at this precise moment; and my own kid can’t stand the sight of me.  Why the hell does she hate me so much, Frank?  What’s the big grievance?  God, if anybody knows, you ought to.”

Austen only shook his head—there was nothing else he could do, really.  The truth would serve no one.  The truth, in this case, was the last thing anyone would ever wish to hear.  “I don’t have any idea, Simon.”  He smiled wanly, shrugging his shoulders.  “She doesn’t exactly take me into her confidence either, not anymore.”

“No, I suppose not.”

Then Faircliff smiled his magic election-day smile, and Austen followed his line of sight to a small door that had opened at the other end of the office and turned around to see a solemn-faced black man in a white mess jacket standing there.  It was time for lunch.

They followed the melancholy figure into a small dining room, not much larger than one of the staff offices honeycombing that part of the building, where places had been set for them at the near corner of a table covered with a heavily starched white cloth.  There was already a Bloody Mary waiting in the center of one of the plates; Austen sat down in front of the other and ordered a glass of ginger ale, just to be companionable.

At first, the conversation tended to be halting and was conducted in murmurs.  They talked over all the harmless topics of Washington life—the election results, the probable identity of the Senate minority leader’s new mistress, the prospects for any Supreme Court justices doing the decent thing and dropping dead.  All the while it was fairly obvious to the trained observer that, even as Faircliff was describing with delicious comic elaboration his opponent’s concession statement, he was holding something in.  He never glanced at the waiter, who moved back and forth from his serving cart to the table as anonymously as any machine, but he was clearly impatient.

At last, when they were alone with their stuffed pork chops (the President was now officially abandoning his campaign-trail diet), Faircliff cut off a small piece, tasted it, and, without registering any reaction, put his fork down and turned to his Director of Central Intelligence exactly as if the meal were over.

“In seven or eight months, I want you to move over to State, Frank.  I can’t do it now without making it look like some sort of post-election purge, but Harry Towers wants to step down anyway; his wife’s sick and he’s eager to move her back to Michigan, where she can be near their children.  You can name your own successor at Langley, someone you can keep under your thumb after you’ve made the jump, but I want you to start the briefings as soon as you can—I don’t suppose those lounge lizards know much that you don’t, but get on it early.  Maybe we can make it six months.”

“Mr. President, I don’t—”

“Piss on it, Frank,” he said sharply, brushing the objection aside with an impatient sweep of his hand.  “I want you at State, and State is where you go.  It’ll look better—the public’s never really trusted the CIA.”

In an instant he seemed to lose interest in everything except what was on the table in front of him.  With wonderful deliberation, he cracked open the hard roll that had rested on its own little plate just above his napkin, tearing off a fragment and smearing it with butter.  It was an astonishing performance; you might have supposed you were in the presence of some saintly, patient archaeologist scraping away the dust of millennia from a Hittite amulet.

“Simon, what the hell are you talking about?”

“What do you think, stupid?”  Faircliff queried slyly, treating Austen to a curious sideways grin.  “I’ve got responsibilities, haven’t I?  I’ve got to think of the welfare of the country.  We won big last night, kiddo—a rising tide raised all the boats, and those good party stalwarts who won with us, from the Senate right on down to the dogcatcher in Mankato, they all owe us, and they know it.  All that loyalty and love, we can’t let it go to waste, now can we?  I’m going to be the one to settle the destiny of this nation, and I’ll decide on my own successor.  The people have seen to that.  You just wait—when gradually it begins to dawn on everybody that you’re the heir apparent, they’ll fall all over themselves to smooth the way for you.  Just you watch, boy—I’m going to raise you to glory.  I’m going to make you the next President of the United States.”

. . . . .

Two hours later, when he emerged again into the gloomy mid afternoon sunlight, the first thing Frank Austen noticed was the black immensity of his limousine, which was waiting for him just beyond the shadow of the blue awning that was still flapping sulkily over his head.  Another Marine, this time a corporal, held the rear door open for him as he slipped inside, where he shared the seat with the slight, gray, wistfully smiling form of his Deputy Director, George Timmler.

“Did it come yet, Jimmie?”

The blond head shook back and forth without turning around.  “No, sir.”

“Then take us back to Langley,” he snapped, touching a button that raised a smoked glass screen behind the driver’s seat, sealing the two compartments off from one another.  George, whose hands were folded together in his lap, turned ever so slightly in the direction of his master, simultaneously raising his eyebrows perhaps a sixteenth of an inch.

“You’re looking peevish today,” he said evenly.  “What did the great man want?”

“You won’t like it.”

“All right. “

The limousine started up; you couldn’t really hear the engine, only feel a slight vibration that came up through the soles of your shoes; and the Marine corporal saluted.  George Timmler looked straight ahead, as if the subject of Austen’s meeting had been dismissed from his mind.  Perhaps it had—George had been on a plane from Los Angeles since the very crack of dawn; perhaps his mind was simply numb.

“I’ve been nominated to be the crown prince.  We go by easy stages, first Foggy Bottom, then the White House.  He loves me like a son, so I get to inherit the family business.”

George continued to stare through the glass partition at the dim outline of Jimmie’s head, as if not a word had registered, and then, very slowly, his lips pursed out and he emitted a low whistle.

“I said you wouldn’t like it.”

“The question is, do you like it?  What are you going to do, take him at his word?  I wouldn’t blame you a bit.”

“Wouldn’t you?”  Austen allowed himself a pained smile.  “I know you’ve never quite approved of me, George—no, save yourself the trouble.  Personal considerations aside, you’ve never really thought of me as a certified Company man and you’ve been right.  I’ve always been Simon Faircliff’s man, just another slimy opportunist.  Slimier than most, probably.  But not that slimy, George.  Not quite slimy enough to go for this number.”

George reached over and patted him lightly on the knee with a bony, fragile-looking hand.  “I’ve always thought you were one of the nicer slimy opportunists.  You see Howard Diederich’s fine hand in this, I take it.”

Austen nodded.  “It’s got his fingerprints all over it.”

“But you didn’t tell him flat out that you weren’t buying.”

“No.  No, if I did anything like that the cat would really be out of the bag.”

“Then you think Diederich suspects already?”

The expression on Austen’s face revealed nothing whatsoever.  Inside, he could feel his heart dissolving into a cold trickle that seemed to be collecting somewhere down around his bowels, but he tried to keep any of that from registering.

“He’s no fool, you know—that’s what all this has been about.  He’s trying to buy us off before it’s too late.”