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Mickelson's grin faded. "I think it's the only place I haven't been. I thought I'd love this job, I really did."
"And you do." Leo had finally caught a breath. He stood, already feeling the workout in his muscles.
"Not like I thought I would, Leo. Not when we were in school. Remember those mock debates? Remember how hyped I would get?"
"I never understood why you liked it then," Leo said. "It seemed dry to me."
"It's not dry." Mickelson picked the ball up and held it in his right hand. "It's fascinating work. It always has been. It's just ... so much is at stake. So much is always at stake."
They had had variations on this conversation before. It was one of the benefits of being old friends. Leo knew that Mickelson talked to him in ways he didn't talk to anyone else. He couldn't.
"You knew that going in. Hell, you've been flirting around this level of government for a long time."
"Flirting around the corners is not the same as being the one in charge." Mickelson glanced at the ball. He seemed about to say something, and then stopped himself.
Leo watched him, waiting. Leo was a bit out of his depth. He didn't entirely understand the differences Mickelson was talking about. The kind of power Mickelson had was something that Leo couldn't get close to, and didn't want to even if he had the opportunity.
Then he shivered. If his research turned out, he might need to make use of such power.
He shook off the thought. "Four months is a long time to go from crisis to crisis."
Mickelson smiled. This time it was the press briefing smile. "I was home for a few days."
"Not long enough to playracquetball."
"Long enough to call you and cancel." He shook his head. "Thank God for the plane. You know, if I didn't have time on that jet to meet my staff and concentrate on the next country, I wouldn't know what time zone I was in, let alone what U.S. interests were in the area."
"You've always known what our interests are. Everywhere," Leo said.
Mickelson nodded. "True enough. But going from a conversation on the International Cloning Treaty violations in China to brokering the latest economic crisis in Greece requires a different set of protocols, different knowledge, different skills. You know, I'm very good with the Chinese."
"But the Greeks baffle me every time. You'd think I'd do better with them."
"Because of the influence of their culture on ours."
"Their ancient culture," Leo said. The conversation had now moved into his specialty. "A hundred years makes a huge difference in our own culture. Imagine talking to someone who survived the influenza pandemic of 1918 and trying to explain how conditions helped it spread. You can't expect the Greeks to be anything like their ancient ancestors."
"I suppose not." Mickelson sighed. "You caught me on a bad day, Leo. I guess we should have waited until I was back for a week before we had our racquetball date."
"Only to have you cancel again because of another terrorist incident in Milan? No thanks."
"I hope that never happens again." Mickelson started across the court. "I'm supposed to be back for at least a month. Maybe as out of shape as we are, we should schedule twice a week."
Leo smiled. "Whatever you want, Mr. Secretary."
"You're not going anywhere?"
"Research is keeping me home." Leo stood up completely, and walked to the glass door. On the bleachers sat Hank, the head of Mickelson's Secret Service detail. Two more Secret Service officers stood outside the private door leading into the racquetball courts. Since Mickelson had become secretary of state, privacy had become a thing of the past.
At first Leo felt uncomfortable even talking to his friends with the Secret Service around. But Mickelson pretended they weren't there, and Leo felt that if Mickelson was comfortable discussing personal matters around these men, then Leo could be to. Still, every time he came out of the racquetball court to see a burly man in a black suit, with the most sophisticated electronic equipment on his wrist, and a gun in a shoulder holster ruining the line of the man's jacket, he was astonished. Astonished because, in his mind, he and Mickelson were still students at Columbia, their theoretical discussions simply continuations of all-night pizza sessions at the dorm, the ups and downs in their personal lives just more grist for the conversation mill.
To think that, in twenty-eight years, Leo had risen to the top of his profession and Mickelson had risen to the top of his made Leo feel like a grown-up. He wondered if this was how his parents' generation felt when they woke up one day to discover their friends were successful bankers and doctors, and a man their age was president of the United States.
Perhaps that was what got Leo the most. The president was only five years older than he was, and Mickelson--the guy who had once called himself king of the mosh pits, who had gotten his nipples pierced on a dare--was now secretary of state for the United States. A man who wore Saville Row suits because they told leaders of foreign countries that he was conservative and cautious despite his relative youth (forty-six, apparently, was considered babyhood in international politics).
Leo himself had reached the age where anyone under thirty called him "sir"--and rightly so, since he could have fathered most of them. He hadn't fathered anyone, however, and he hadn't married. He had dedicated his entire adult life to his work, and he didn't see that changing. Archaeology combined the best of all the sciences. He had to know chemistry and biology and physics, as well as geology and paleontology. In the last year, he'd learned more about astronomy than he ever thought he would, and he'd been to a lot of classes and meetings in archaeoastronomy, a growing branch of his own field.
Yet the more he learned the more he realized he didn't know. And that worried him. He was beginning to think he was running out of time.
As Leo pushed the glass door open, he said, "Hey, Hank."
Hank nodded, just as Leo expected him to. In the years that Hank had been assigned to Mickelson, Leo hadn't managed to get more than a "Yes, sir," and "No, sir" out of the man. There was no way of telling if he had enjoyed watching two middle-aged men play racquetball for the past forty minutes. There was no way of telling anything about Hank at all.
"Dr. Leo," Hank said, and Leo started. Hank had never addressed him directly before. "Your computer alarm has been buzzing off and on for the last ten minutes."
Mickelson frowned. "You should have interrupted us. It might have been something important."
"No," Leo said. "Being my secretary is not part of his job description."
Leo grabbed his towel off a lower bleacher and wiped off his face and chest. Then he wrapped the towel around his neck and picked up the watch.
Watches weren't really watches anymore, but all the trendy names like Infometer by Swatch failed to catch on. Even though watches could do everything but drive your car (and Leo sometimes wondered why someone hadn't developed a program to do that), they were still called watches. They were thick little creatures though, and the older models, like his, were bulky. He just didn't believe in upgrading every time someone improved the sound speakers. He simply waited until the upgrades were something he could use. And in the last three years, no one had thought to upgrade the business programming.
He didn't buckle the watch onto his sweaty wrist. Instead, he sat on the bleacher and called up his e-mail.
Mickelson stood beside him, toweling off. "It's kind of nice to see someone else get the urgent message these days," he said to Hank.
Hank, characteristically, didn't reply.
Leo stared at the e-mail response from Professor Edwin Bradshaw in Oregon. Part of him had hoped that he wouldn't get another e-mail like this, but the scientist in him, the part that loved discovery, was thrilled.
"Problems?" Mickelson asked.
"A pet project," Leo said. "A worrisome one."
"Something you need to talk about?" Mickelson was a good friend; he always asked that. And once or twice Leo had taken him up on it. But archaeology was not Mickelson's strong suit. He didn't understand how ancient civilizations had a relevance in modern society.
This time, though. This time, he might need to know. But Leo would pick his moment, and this certainly wasn't it.
"Actually, I might need to talk to you," Leo said, "in an official capacity."
"You're not a head of state, Leo," Mickelson said, only partially joking.
"I know," Leo said. "But sometimes you open the doors you can, not the doors you should."
"And I suppose on that cryptic statement, you're going to let this go."
Leo grinned. "Yeah." He flicked the watch to voice-activation. "Phone."
"You don't need to lean in like that," Mickelson said.
"You always tell me that," Leo said as the phone icon appeared on the tiny screen. He leaned in again. "Office."
The watch dialed his office, and he turned the switch on the side back to normal function. The phone rang, and then his secretary Bonnie picked it up. Bonnie was an elderly woman who refused to give him her age. She had raised her own children, and then her grandchildren, and then, two years before, had decided to rejoin the workforce. She'd had a lot of trouble finding a job; secretaries were a dying breed, replaced by automation and computers. Leo hated doing a lot of the work himself, even though it took nanoseconds instead of days, and he had convinced the university to find room in the department's budget for a secretary.
Leo wouldn't have gotten that luxury if he hadn't been the centerpiece of the department.
He had interviewed nearly forty highly qualified women, most of them elderly, and had finally settled on Bonnie, not because she was more qualified--there were others who were just as qualified as she was--but because she made him laugh.
"Dr. Cross's office," she said in her best schoolmarm voice.
"Dr. Cross," he said, and she burst out laughing. He had done that to her on her first day, and inadvertently launched her into a surreal conversation where she was trying to explain that Dr. Cross wasn't available, and he was trying to explain that he was Dr. Cross. Later she had called it an Abbott and Costello moment, and when he hadn't understood the reference, she introduced him to the joys of their "Who's on First" routine.
When she stopped giggling, she said, "I thought you were coming back here after your racquetball game."
"Change of plans," he said. "I need you to book me a flight to Portland, Oregon. I need to leave as soon as possible."
"Want me to bring your overnight bag to the airport?" she asked. Her question wasn't an idle one. She was booking his flight as she spoke to him, and she was efficient enough to use the conversation to gather information. Someone had once pointed out to him that in the time he spoke to her, he could have booked his own flight. But he really hated that sort of work, more than he admitted to anyone, except Bonnie.
"Depends on the flight time," he said. "I might have a chance to stop at the office and pick it up."
"Good," she said, "because you were supposed to have student conferences this afternoon. It would be nice if you were to leave the vid message canceling instead of me."
He sighed. "If I have time."
"You'll have time," she said. Then he heard a slight ping on the watch. "There. You've got a flight leaving from Dulles in three hours. You'll have time to stop."
"Nothing earlier? It'll be late afternoon by the time I reach Oregon."
"I can work miracles," she said primly, "but only on every other Thursday."
He laughed. "Thanks, Bonnie," he said. "See you in a few." Then he hung up.
Mickelson was still watching him. "I thought you said your research was keeping you here."
"It was," Leo said. "But things change at a moment's notice."
"In archaeology?" Mickelson said. "If it's been sitting there for a thousand years, what difference does another day make?"
Leo stared at him for a moment, wondering if this was the time to broach the subject. Then he shook his head slightly.
"You'd be surprised how much difference a day makes, Doug," he said. "You'd be really surprised."