THE LAST REFUGE (Chapter One)
CATOCTIN MOUNTAIN PARK
NEAR THURMONT, MARYLAND
President Rob Allaire sat in a comfortable, red-and-white-upholstered club chair. His worn L.L.Bean boots were untied and propped up on a wood coffee table. Allaire wore jeans and a faded long-sleeve red Lacoste rugby shirt. His longish brown hair was slightly messed up, and there was stubble across his chin.
To his right, Allaire’s yellow Lab, Ranger, lay sleeping. Another dog, an old English bulldog named Mabel, was napping by the fireplace, the sound of her snoring occasionally making Allaire look up.
To most Americans, the sight of the slightly unkempt president of the United States might have been off-putting, perhaps even a little shocking. If Allaire looked as if he hadn’t taken a shower in two days and had worn the same pants an entire weekend, during which he chopped half a cord of wood, hiked ten miles, and shot skeet twice, it was because he had done just that. However, most Americans would have been pleased to see their president in his element, with his unadorned love of the outdoors, his simple joy in physical labor, his affection for his dogs. And now, at five fifteen in the afternoon on a windswept, rainy Saturday in April, his satisfaction at the sight of a bottle of beer, Budweiser to be exact, which one of Camp David’s servants brought him as he sat staring into the fireplace.
“Thanks, Ricko,” said Allaire.
“You’re welcome, Mr. President.”
In President Allaire’s six years in office, he’d been to Camp David 122 times. Allaire would not, by his term’s end, set any records in terms of time spent at the presidential retreat; that record would still belong to Ronald Reagan, who visited Camp David 186 times during his two terms in office. Still, Allaire loved Camp David just as much as Reagan, both Bushes, and every other president since Franklin Roosevelt had the retreat built almost a century before. Allaire loved its rustic simplicity, the quiet solitude, and he loved most the fact that Camp David allowed him to escape the backbiting, lying, sycophancy, and subterfuge of Washington. If Allaire was compared to Reagan for his constant escaping to Camp David, and for his conservative politics, that was okay by him. Allaire believed it was important to have a set of beliefs and to stick by them, through hell or high water, no matter what the polls or the prevailing wisdom said. It’s why America loved Rob Allaire.
Allaire sipped his beer as he stared down at the iPad, leaning closer to try and see, adjusting his glasses. He looked up. Seated on the far side of the room, reading a book, was John Schmidt, his communications director.
“I can’t read this goddamn thing,” said Allaire.
“You’re the one who said you wanted one,” said Schmidt. “Remember? ‘It’s the future’ and all that?”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind. I’m sick of pretending I like these fucking things.”
“We’ll go back to the daily notebook, sir.”
“Good. In the meantime, have you read this editorial by our friends at The New York Times? How the hell is The New York Times editorial board aware of what’s happening in Geneva?”
“It’s coming out of the Swiss Foreign Ministry,” said Schmidt. “They’re taking the credit, which is not necessarily a bad thing. To the extent it adds to the public pressure on Tehran, it’s helpful.”
There was a knock on the door and in stepped two men: Hector Calibrisi, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Tim Lindsay, the U.S. secretary of state.
Calibrisi and Lindsay, who had been out shooting at the camp’s private skeet range, were both dressed in shooting attire. Calibrisi was an expert shot. He came up through the ranks of the CIA paramilitary and was deft with most weapons known to man. Lindsay, a retired former admiral in the navy, and lifelong hunter, was even better.
“Well, if it isn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” said Allaire, a shit-eating grin on his face as he watched the two men stomp their boots on the welcome mat and remove their Filson coats. “Either of you manage to hit anything?”
“No, Mr. President,” Calibrisi said politely. “We thought it would be impolite to hit more clays than you.”
“Wise guy,” said Allaire as Ricko returned to the sitting area near the fireplace. “Do you two have time for a drink before you leave for D.C.?”
“Sure,” said Calibrisi. “Same thing as the president, Ricko.”
“Pappy Van Winkle,” said Lindsay, looking at Ricko, “if there’s any left. A couple rocks. Thanks, Ricko.”
“Yes, sir,” said the bespectacled servant, who turned and left for the kitchen.
“Seriously,” continued Allaire. “Who won?”
“It’s not a contest,” said Calibrisi, his confident smile leaving little doubt as to who hit more clays that afternoon. He moved to one of the sofas and sat down.
“I’m sixty-four years old, for chrissakes,” said Lindsay, sitting across from Calibrisi, next to Schmidt. “I’m surprised I hit anything.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” said Allaire, taking a sip from his beer and shaking his head at Lindsay. “Right before you took twenty bucks off me.”
“That was a lucky day, Mr. President,” said Lindsay as Ricko brought a tray with drinks on it.
The four men sat talking about skeet shooting and hunting for a long time, the president regaling the others with a story about the time when, as governor of California, he’d gone dove hunting with then vice president Cheney just a few months after Cheney had strafed someone with an errant shot. The story, as with most of Allaire’s elaborate and expertly told stories, left the other three in laughter.
Allaire stood and put more wood on the fire, played with the arrangement of the logs for a time, then returned to his chair.
“Before we take off, Mr. President,” said Lindsay, “we need to discuss the proposal by the Swiss foreign minister.”
“We’ve already discussed it,” said Allaire. “I gave you my answer two days ago, Tim. I refuse to sit down with the president of Iran. It’s that simple.”
“Ambassador Veider believes that if we agree to a summit, with you and President Nava meeting one-on-one, that the Iranians will renounce their nuclear ambitions and might even agree to begin talks with the Israelis.”
“I trust Iran about as far as I can throw them,” said Allaire. “They’re lying. I’ve seen this movie before, Tim. I don’t like the ending.”
Lindsay nodded at the president.
“We have to consider the larger objective,” said Lindsay. “The Iranian government is reaching out to us. This meeting would be the first step toward normalizing relations between our countries.”
“They’re playing the Swiss and they’re attempting to play us,” said Allaire, nodding across the room at Ricko, indicating he wanted another beer. “President Nava has created a distraction which he’s using to get us to take our eye off the ball. So while he makes the world and The New York Times believe he’s had a change of heart, Iran continues to pour tens of millions of dollars into Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. And they continue to build a nuclear weapon.”
“We don’t have definitive proof the Iranians are constructing a nuclear bomb, sir,” said Lindsay.
Allaire glanced at Calibrisi. “Here we go again,” said Allaire, shaking his head.
“We know they are, Tim,” said Calibrisi. “They have enough highly enriched uranium to assemble at least half a dozen devices. They have the uranium deuteride triggers. We know that. These are facts. They’re getting close.”
“Our objective, Mr. President, is to put Iran in a box,” said Lindsay. “We do that by allowing the Swiss to bring our countries together, and then holding our noses and sitting down with President Nava. He publicly commits, we get inspectors in there, and the box is complete.”
Allaire nodded, but said nothing.
“We have to be willing to be the adults here,” continued Lindsay. “The reward is worth whatever risk we take by virtue of standing on the same stage as Nava. This is a good deal. They’ve agreed to on-demand inspections, access to their scientists, and details on their centrifuge supply chain.”
“Tim, there are certain things that, for whatever reason, you don’t seem to understand,” said Allaire, leaning back. “One of those things is Iran.”
“I think I understand Iran, sir,” said Lindsay sharply.
“You understand Iran from a policy perspective. You know the names of the cities, the history of the country. You’ve studied their leadership, their institutions, their culture. You’ve been there how many times? Five? Six? A dozen? I know all that. But I don’t think you understand that the Iranians are, quite simply, the most dishonest group of people on this planet.”
“You can’t seriously mean that, Mr. President,” said Lindsay.
“Yes, I can. And I do mean it. I don’t trust those fuckers one bit. The Supreme Leader, Suleiman, is insane. President Nava is a menace.”
“You’re misunderstanding me, sir,” said Lindsay. “I don’t trust them either. But you’ll forgive me if I take a slightly more nuanced view of Iran. It’s a country ruled by a corrupt group of individuals, but a large majority of the country desires freedom. The Iranians are a good people.”
Allaire paused and stared at Lindsay. He looked around the room, caucusing Calibrisi and Schmidt for their opinions.
I think it would be a mistake,” said Schmidt. “A big mistake. Nava and the president of the United States, on the same stage, tarnishes America.”
“Hector?” asked the president.
Calibrisi shook his head in silence, indicating his agreement with the president’s and Schmidt’s negative assessment.
“For you to extend the olive branch to Iran would send a positive message to the Iranian people and to all people in the Middle East,” said Lindsay.
“I understand the concept, Tim,” said Allaire, “but my decision is final.” Allaire took a swig from his Budweiser. “I don’t trust Suleiman and I don’t trust Nava. They’re pathological liars. I will never step foot on the same stage or shake the hand of Mahmoud Nava.”
The president arose from his seat. He walked to the large picture window that looked out on the fields, trees, and forests of the Maryland countryside. The rain was coming down hard now, slapping atop green leaves that had just started sprouting in the early springtime air. He grabbed a brown coat that was draped over a bench near the door. Ranger, his Lab, awoke and moved quickly to the door, anticipating going outside.
“Come on,” said Allaire. “I’ll walk you guys down to the helipad.”
“You don’t need to do that,” said Calibrisi, who stood and put his coat on. Schmidt and Lindsay followed suit. “It’s pouring rain out.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Allaire. “Nothing wrong with a good rainstorm. Besides, Ranger needs a walk.”
“What about Mabel?” asked Schmidt, nodding to the large bulldog asleep in front of the fireplace.
“Mabel will be asleep until Christmas,” said Allaire, smiling.
The four men, followed by the Lab, walked out across the terrace, then down the old road that led past the commandant’s quarters, past the tennis courts. In the distance, they could hear the smooth, high-pitched drumming of the helicopter’s blades slashing through the air. As they reached the edge of the tarmac, Allaire turned to the three men. All of them were soaked. Allaire smiled.
“You and your team have done remarkable work,” said Allaire, staring at Lindsay, talking above the din. He placed his hand on the secretary of state’s shoulder. “You, in particular, Tim, deserve a great deal of praise and credit. I will speak nothing but positively about the developments in Geneva and the potential for Iran to rejoin the civilized world. But they’re going to need to do it without the involvement of the United States. They need to do it because they want to, not because I agree to sit on the stage and legitimize their past behavior.”
“I understand, Mr. President,” said Lindsay. “Thank you for the day of shooting.”
“See you three in a couple of days,” said Allaire, smiling.
Allaire shook Lindsay’s, Calibrisi’s, and Schmidt’s hands, then watched as they climbed aboard the dark green and white chopper. A moment later, a uniformed soldier aboard the craft pulled the door up and sealed it tight. The chopper lifted slowly into the darkening, rain-crossed sky.
Allaire stared at the flashing red and white lights as it disappeared into the slate sky. He glanced around the now empty helipad, watching the rain bounce off the dark tarmac. He reached down and gave Ranger a pat on his wet head.
“Good boy,” he said.
As Allaire started to walk back toward Aspen Lodge, he felt a strange warmth on the left side of his body, emanating from his armpit. He went to take a step but his foot was suddenly stuck in place, frozen still. His voice, which he tried to use to call out to the agents, now up the road more than a quarter mile, didn’t work either. As the massive stroke swept down from his brain, his body convulsed in a warm, hazy, painless set of moments. He tumbled to the grass, his face striking first, the sound of the spring rain and the dog’s desperate barking the last sounds President Rob Allaire would ever hear.
THE LAST REFUGE. Copyright 2012 by Ben Coes.