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If he didn't get out now, he'd never forgive himself. He was fifty-five, but after nearly six years in office, fifty-five felt like seventy. He had become a cliché, a caricature of the burned-out politician. In the beginning -- before three terms in the Senate, and long before the title of Vice President had soured on him -- politics had meant something. Something pure, maybe. Something noble.
If he didn't get out now, he might not have the strength to try again. These days his hairline receded by the minute. A face that had for decades been his calling card, lately only revealed the rigors of this job. His once broad, proud shoulders now felt weak under the burden he'd carried for far too long.
James Ettinger reclined in the soft leather of his reading chair and watched the light of a full moon wash in through his bedroom window at Beagle Run, his vacation lodge in Maine. Miriam, his wife of twenty-seven years, was still asleep beneath the thick quilted comforter on the bed. She looked so peaceful lying there. He stared at her for a long moment, a fond expression on his face. The comforter rose and fell with her breathing. Finally, he got up from his chair with a sigh.
He stood there in his robe, one hand in a deep silk pocket, the other swirling bourbon in a crystal glass. As he gazed out the picture window, he struggled to relax. The activities of the past week had taken him to Asia and Europe and back to the United States in seventy-two hours. It was an exhausting way to live. He hadn't slept for nearly forty-eight hours.
The vice president drained the last of the bourbon and set the glass on the bedside table. Another drink would be nice...and then another. Maybe he'd polish off the half-empty bottle he kept tucked away in the study. He stared at the glass on the little mahogany and brass table. It seemed to taunt him. Ettinger shook his head, chastising himself.
The warm dent in the pillow that had been formed by his head was now filled with the plump body of their snooty female Persian, Dolly. Ettinger rested his weight on the edge of the bed, the mattress giving slightly under his two hundred and some-odd pounds. Dolly glared at him with unflinching disdain -- her only expression.
"What?" he said at her.
The feline ignored him, wrapping her white puff of a tail down the length of her body. She squinted, likely from a whiff of bourbon on his breath, and worked her paws into the cotton of the pillowcase.
It was 4 A.M. The bourbon had coated his tongue with a wicked aftertaste and made his stomach growl. He lumbered downstairs to the kitchen and foraged through the refrigerator for something -- anything -- sweet. There was strawberry cake with some sort of whipped-cream topping on a glass plate. He sliced off a section and carefully flipped it onto a paper napkin. He found a half-gallon of skim milk in the fridge and filled a green tumbler. He squirted in some Hershey's syrup from a squeeze bottle, stirred it with a butter knife, and carted the feast back to the comfort of the bedroom.
Perched on the edge of his reading chair, he fingered the remote control and flipped channels until he landed on CNN. President Yates was on the screen. The sound was low, and that was fine with Ettinger. He'd heard all that Yates had to say. The buffoon! There was a collage of footage of the president doing this and that; speaking to students at a fund-raiser; lighting a Christmas tree at a holiday gathering of constituents; shaking hands with the British prime minister. It all seemed so benign.
He had to hand it to Yates, he'd strutted into office and handled it like a champ for over six years now. But he was really just an ignorant puppet, controlled from afar. They'd managed to pull it off. But the ice was getting thin.
It was definitely time to get out.
But what then?
Money wasn't an issue. He'd married money. Of course he loved -- cherished -- Miriam, and could probably have still loved her even without her father's billions. But he hadn't been forced to make that choice. They could slip out of public life and live in luxury. And why not? Any sane man would have fled this circus years ago. Maybe now was his chance. He could buy an island. Waste millions on the biggest boat on Earth and stalk the horizon. Drink till the sun went down; drink when it popped back up. Sail the boat and stay drunk. Grow old and watch his kids grow old. The money was there. Would Miriam go for it? Probably. But that wasn't the issue, was it?
He thumbed the red button on the remote and killed the television. He placed the green tumbler next to the bourbon glass on the bedside table and noticed that Dolly, like Miriam, was now fast asleep. The room was warm, heated by a vent in the floor near his feet. Christmas was closing in. Snow was heavy on the ground and was still blowing in by the truckload. The pines and firs outside the window looked like a postcard.
From the drawer in the bedside table he took a leather-bound book and tucked it under his arm, careful not to make a sound. The book was purchased years before his days as a bond servant to the White House. Printed in gold foil on its spine were the title and the author's name. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Ettinger inspected the volume proudly. He had purchased it at a specialty shop in Chicago. It was an impulse purchase. Now though, he fully realized that fate had been his guide on that gray afternoon in Illinois.
Ettinger eased back out the bedroom door, then down the hall and down the stairs toward the kitchen. Just before he reached the kitchen he turned a knob and slipped through a door that hid a narrow flight of stairs to the basement. He locked the door from the inside. A slender chain hung from the ceiling to one side of his head. He gave it a crisp tug. A sixty-watt bulb painted the walls and his feet and the pine board steps with dull yellow light.
The pine boards creaked under his weight. At the bottom of the steps he flicked a switch on the wall. Several banks of fluorescent lamps blinked haphazardly, then pale light pushed away the gloom, allowing him to safely navigate the cold cement slab floor.
The basement was filled mainly with junk collected over a lifetime. A space was cleared toward the center of the big room; arranged on a large oval rug, a metal folding chair faced a video camera. It was an RCA model that required a full-size VHS videotape.
Ettinger picked up the plastic remote control from beneath the chair and sat down. He faced the camera and thumbed a button on the remote. A red light glowed on one side of the camera. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and began to speak.
"Hello. My name is James Highfield Ettinger, vice president of the United States. Today is the seventeenth of December. By the time anyone views this tape, I will have resigned from office. And by the end of what I have to say here, all of you will understand exactly why I have taken this course of action. I have played a part in a crime. A crime against all that is noble and good and just. A crime against this nation, which I chose to serve. A crime against you, the American public. It is a crime of sickening proportions."
He stared straight into the camera and spoke with precision and clarity.
"I was an unknowing participant in many of the activities which I will describe. But for too long I have withheld the truth from not only my friends and family, but also from the nation I love. I believed it was for the greater good. But I was wrong. All that I share with you now is the truth, and can be verified. "So let me begin...at the beginning."
Ninety-seven minutes later, with nothing left to say, James Ettinger wrapped up his confession by hitting the power button on the remote. The red light on the camera went dark. The basement was still; only the groaning from the furnace broke the silence. He remained seated in the folding chair for a few minutes, his mind reacclimating itself to present reality, pushing back the ghosts of those things he'd dredged up this morning for the benefit of the camera.
With the press of a button, the videotape flopped out of the camera. Ettinger pulled the tape out and set it on the folding chair. On the floor beside the chair was the leather-bound edition of Great Expectations from the bedroom. He picked it up and flipped open the front cover. Where there should have been pages, there was only a rectangular cutout, an empty compartment cut into the block of wood that had long ago been crafted and painted to look like worn and well-read pages. Over the years he'd stashed a number of rather personal items within this handy novelty piece. The VHS cassette was a perfect fit. He snapped it into place.
In a moment of silent reflection, he held the book with his left hand and gently stroked his right hand down the smooth plastic of the front side of the tape. He thought about what was recorded on it. What it meant. In no uncertain terms, his political career was over. A matter of days and it would all be finished.
So be it. He closed the book.
From amid the clutter that lined the walls, Ettinger withdrew a stack of rubbish. He dodged a pair of Ping-Pong tables that were stored with their aluminum legs tucked beneath the playing surface. There were lawn chairs heaped together, bent and contorted. Broken canoe paddles. Patched life preservers. What a mess.
The stack of rubbish spilled down at an angle to the smooth cement at his feet. He stared at yellowed newspapers, decades old, and magazines with outdated celebrities on their covers. Folded among the heap he found a useless collection of brown paper grocery bags. He chose one without too many water stains and kicked most of the rest of the junk back into a corner, between some croquet mallets and Coleman lanterns.
At a worktable covered with trinkets and gadgets, he ran a pair of scissors up one side of the paper bag and laid it open. He set the false copy of the Dickens classic in the center of the stiff brown paper and wrapped it like a gift, sealing it with heavy packing tape. He plucked a black ballpoint pen from a half-corroded Folgers can and addressed an adhesive shipping label in block lettering, which he then applied to the package. He recapped the pen and toted the small bundle back upstairs.
In the kitchen, he attached several dollars' worth of postage to the top right-hand corner and deposited the parcel into the mail bin that sat at one end of the kitchen counter.
Breakfast with Miriam and the kids and their holiday guests was mainly omelets and sliced fruit. James Ettinger more or less ignored the meal, facing the dining room window in his chair, watching the snow whip from side to side in the morning light, thinking about what he'd done that morning and the repercussions it would bring.
After lunch they played checkers in front of the huge stone fireplace, munched on cookies and chocolates and sipped eggnog and brandy. The satellite dish on the roof could pick up nearly three hundred stations, and they stared at the Weather Channel for hours.
Later, a snowball fight erupted in the front yard. Miriam stood on the porch, laughing, keeping clear of the line of fire. Secret Service agents stood nearby at their posts. It was a familiar sight, and in many ways a very reassuring one, but always intrusive to family life. She ignored them and enjoyed her family.
The snow deepened with the afternoon. Miriam and her sister and their kids piled into the black limousine, headed for Christmas shopping in town. The snowfall continued, but the roads were still navigable. Before leaving, the driver gathered the outgoing mail. While the others shopped, he'd make a quick stop by the post office.
The vice president stayed behind, standing ankle-deep in snow in the yard, talking football with a pair of Secret Service agents who were diehard Redskins fans. The temperature dropped ten degrees in less than three hours. Tonight it might get down below zero. Only the Secret Service cared. They were the ones stuck out here in the elements day and night. After a few minutes, Ettinger dropped the stub of his cigar in the snow and headed back for the warmth of the lodge.
Beagle Run was built about ten years after the Civil War. Miriam's father, E. E. Greeber, bought the rustic lodge and two thousand surrounding acres in the early 1940s, long after his great fortune had blossomed into the realm of excess. At nearly ten thousand square feet, it was enormous, and reeked of money to burn.
The lodge had been a gift to Miriam from her father. Ettinger loved the place. It sat on the coast of Maine, a mile from the water. He fished in the summer and hunted whitetail a week each winter, even though the nature freaks in the media rode him hard. Christmas meant two uninterrupted weeks at Beagle Run. Traditionally, he ate too much, smoked with the Secret Service, slept late, and pondered the vile world of Washington, D.C.
In the game room, he set up an easel with a canvas and toyed with watercolors for forty-five minutes. When he tired of painting he moved on to a paperback he'd worked on all week.
As the hours passed, he became less focused and began to worry. He wondered if he'd done the right thing.
He thought of Nelson, his brother in Montana. Their relationship had fallen off dramatically in the years since he'd taken office. Nelson had a ranch just north of Yellowstone. His tastes and desires were much simpler and less cluttered than the vice president's.
Ettinger settled in behind the laptop computer in his study, taking a moment to fire off a very special email to his older brother, to give him the heads-up regarding the media firestorm they'd face in the coming weeks.
By four-thirty the gang returned, bearing gifts of all shapes and sizes, wrapped in expensive designer paper and complexly arranged bows and ribbons. Dinner was quite a feast. Everyone ate until they were sick, except Miriam and her sister, who picked at their plates like sparrows. After a week in the boonies Bradey Ettinger, nineteen, was sick of Beagle Run. He missed the city and his friends and the unrelenting public attention he received as the only son of the vice president. He was a sophomore at Harvard. He'd tired of his fifteen-year-old sister, Jude, within forty-eight hours of this little family holiday. He gnawed on a fat pork rib and glared at her across the table. Jude was picking at the croutons in her salad, totally pleased to be on his nerves.
Miriam's sister, Elaine Greeber-Castel, and her cache of spoiled children carried on like royalty. Elaine was as deep in inherited wealth as Miriam, but her money couldn't buy the kind of prestige that Miriam possessed as the vice president's wife.
When the sun sank behind the trees, the big halogen lamps surrounding the pond out front were cranked up, and the kids laced up their skates and hit the ice. The adults lounged in deck chairs and drank cocoa and laughed at the youngsters.
The ice was at least a foot thick, plenty safe for mild recreation, and had been cleared of snow for the evening's recreation. Miriam and Elaine had skated on the big pond when they were girls, and had even taken the sport seriously for a number of years.
Despite the cold, the evening turned into a pleasant family get-together at Beagle Run. Miriam snuggled against her husband, wrapping her arms around his midsection. She nuzzled her face into his shoulder. Her nose glowed pink from the cold. Ettinger enjoyed a hundred-dollar cigar and held his wife tightly to his side. The laughter of the children as they skimmed across the frozen pond rang out like a carol and would have made any father proud. A part of him wished this night could last forever, because the future looked so chaotic and uncertain. Perhaps he'd made a mistake. Perhaps it would have been wiser to simply hold course and let things continue as they had. But it would have eaten him alive. It was too late now, anyway.
After the skating, coats and mittens and rubber boots were shed in the entryway. The fireplace in the game room roared as a fat oak log was thrown on the blaze. Cocoa and hot tea, spiced cider and marshmallow treats were downed by the trayful. Board games came out, along with jigsaw puzzles.
Finally, the vice president kissed his wife on the cheek and let out a yawn.
"I'm going to take a quick shower and read a little before bed," he said, motioning toward the stairs.
In the shower, James Ettinger pressed his hands against the tiled wall and let the soothing hot water spill over his head and face. He toweled off, slipped on some clean boxers, and snatched a robe from the enormous closet across the room from the bed.
He glanced out the window at the full moon, briefly admiring the look of snow bending the tree limbs. Dolly pawed at the door and he let her in. Moonlight spilled in through the big floor-to-ceiling window behind him. Dolly circled him two or three times, leaning into his legs. Hands on hips, he studied the old cat with a wry smile. He was unaware of the spot of red laser light no bigger than a dime that was moving up his back to his neck. In the instant that it reached the middle of the back of his head, there was a single, quick, crisp sound of chipped window glass, and the upper third of his skull was blown off.
Copyright © 2004 by Casey Moreton
Posted April 26, 2011
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