Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Monroe People
1 MONROE PEOPLE
The WMATA Metrobus 38B crosses the Potomac on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, turning east on M Street and traversing a fitfully elegant Georgetown. Heading southeast and transitioning onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the city bus crosses Rock Creek and fully engages the brooding, low-slung metropolis that is the nation’s capital. Hayley Chill, wearing a white blouse and ruffled hem cardigan from Dressbarn with dark straight-leg trousers and functional pumps, has claimed a window seat near the front of the bus. Her straw-colored hair has grown out from Fort Hood days, styled on a budget at Diego’s Hair Salon on Q Street. JanSport bag on her lap, she is barely recognizable as the triumphant and bloodied boxer in the ring or subdued soldier in crisp service uniform mustering out of the army. Whatever the metamorphic process she has undergone in the fifteen months since saying goodbye to Stanley Oakes at the Killeen bus depot, it has transformed Hayley Chill into an accurate facsimile of a DC worker bee.
It is 7:08 a.m. in late November and the weather clings stubbornly to Indian summer. Passing sights they’ve seen hundreds of times before, all other passengers on the bus are engrossed by handheld devices or asleep. But Hayley has ridden the 38B only once before, one week earlier, on a test run after signing the lease on a studio apartment just across the Potomac in Rosslyn, Virginia. Despite having grown up only a six-hour drive from Washington, DC, the city and its monuments are entirely new to her. She gazes out the window, gathering impressions of the passing city with the keen attention of a cultural anthropologist.
As the Metrobus eases to the curb at the southeast corner of Farragut Square, its last stop, Hayley disembarks with a dozen other passengers. The familiarity of another workday is etched on the bored faces of those stepping off the bus. Only Hayley moves with a surplus of energy and a brisk, five-minute walk south on Seventeenth Street brings the President’s Park into view. She pauses on the sidewalk to take in the iconic sight. The White House, partially obscured by fern-leaf beech, American elm, and white oak, impresses her as both splendidly grand and surprisingly modest at the same time. She knows the building’s original architect was Irish-born. She has memorized the names of every senior aide and their phone extensions. Somehow she has even ascertained what flavor ice cream the president is said to prefer. Unsurprisingly, Hayley Chill has arrived for her first day of internship at the White House completely and thoroughly prepared.
A gatehouse opposite the EEOB controls entry into the White House complex, and Hayley joins the long queue there. The majority of staffers waiting in line have green badges on lanyards. Many fewer, including Hayley, possess blue badges. The young Park Police officer who performs the initial screening accepts her driver’s license and checks it against her badge. He has warm eyes and a folksy grin.
“West Virginia, huh? I grew up in Lewisburg.” His voice possesses the familiar twang of Hayley’s tribe.
She nods. “Lewisburg. Sure. Nice.”
“Blue badge,” the Park Police officer remarks with surprised regard. He hands her ID back and gestures behind him, toward the White House complex. “Ready for the viper pit?”
Hayley laughs. “I hope so!”
The policeman waves her through the gate. “You have yourself a pleasant day, Ms. Chill.”
She offers her hand. “Hayley, but you already know that.”
He nods, shaking her hand. “Ned.” Hayley continues forward as the line of people waiting for ID check lengthens behind her.
Once cleared through security screening, she and other arriving personnel are waved through an aggressive, final series of barriers and frowning Park Police. As instructed by email, Hayley passes through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and continues outside, onto West Executive Avenue. Nearly all interns receive green badges, designating their access as being limited to more prosaic confines of the Eisenhower building. Hayley’s blue badge allows her to breeze past the Secret Service agents monitoring access between the EEOB and the White House’s West Wing.
Hayley enters the West Wing through a door on the ground floor. She is older than the typical White House intern by at least five years. Her serious expression is evidence of a life lived without favor or entitlement. Self-delusion is a luxury she could never afford. Even as an eight-year-old sitting on the lap of a Charleston department store Santa reeking of Camel cigarettes and boiled onions, Hayley could tell a fake beard when she saw one. Nor is she unduly overwhelmed here, within these historic walls of the president’s house.
Hayley pauses just inside the entryway to get her bearings, the plastic encasing her blue badge shiny and unscuffed. A passing man, cowboy handsome and wearing a dark suit, perceives Hayley’s plight. “New intern?”
“That obvious, huh?” Hayley’s demeanor is friendly and matter-of-fact. The Secret Service agent knows from experience that most new interns are like kindergartners on their first day of school, breathless and wide-eyed. For that reason alone, this young woman impresses him. He gestures toward her credentials. “They teach us how to decipher those doodads, oddly enough.”
“I feel safer already,” Hayley says, smiling.
“I’ve heard of him,” he responds sarcastically. He indicates a nearby stairwell door, but his hazel eyes remain on Hayley. “One flight up, go right, then right again. First door on your left. Can’t miss it.”
Hayley nods curtly, signaling she’s got it from here. The Secret Service agent is disappointed their encounter is over so quickly but covers with a wink, continuing on his way.
There have always been pretty boys on the periphery of Hayley’s life. Back home in Lincoln County, a roundelay of aggressive suitors vied for kiss, grope, or better from the most desirable girl for miles. Charlie Hadden, All-Conference quarterback and proud possessor of a cherry 1964 Pontiac GTO, hung in long enough to earn the mantle of Hayley’s high school boyfriend but too much Smirnoff and a hairpin curve on Sproul Road ended his tenure, and he died before she could gain what she had at long last decided to take. Hayley wore black for two months, fetchingly so in the opinion of would-be replacements.
Enlistment followed high school graduation by twenty-four hours, a day in which Hayley relinquished her virginity to a twenty-eight-year-old drifter who wrote love songs, had a mutt dog with a face like Bukowski, and played a pretty wicked twelve-string guitar. After that underwhelming initiation to the world of sex, Hayley had chosen to never attach herself to a steady mate. Her priorities were other than romantic love, namely seeing that there was a roof kept over the heads of her younger siblings and food on the table. Nearly every penny of her army pay was sent back home. Pay scales are higher for infantry soldiers, all the inducement Hayley needed toward becoming one of the first eighteen women to earn her blue cord.
Once she’s climbed the stairs to the first floor, Hayley finds herself in a carpeted corridor that muffles the footsteps of dozens of staffers and personnel hustling to and fro as if the nation’s business really is important work. None pay the slightest notice to the new intern. Hayley threads her way along the corridor, dodging other staffers, and stops outside a door like all the others. On the wall to the left is a surprisingly unostentatious placard that identifies the office as belonging to the White House chief of staff.
Pushing the door open, Hayley ventures into the suite’s reception area. No one is inside the compact room. The single, curtained window boasts a commanding view of the North Lawn and Lafayette Square beyond. An oil painting of a three-master blasting through a white-capped tempest hangs above the couch. Lights blink silently across an impressive phone console on the receptionist’s desk. With no receptionist to offer guidance, Hayley is unsure what to do. She hears voices drifting from the partially open interior door.
Crossing the room, Hayley stops just inside the doorway leading into the suite’s primary office and observes sixty-three-year-old Peter Hall, wearing a suit jacket and tie, sitting behind a large desk and surrounded by a nervous litter of aides and assistants. The White House chief of staff has a black phone receiver pressed to his ear, barking into it as he scans papers held before him by his courtiers. In jarring contrast to his august work space, Hall’s voice possesses the timbre of a high school football coach from west Texas, which in fact he once was before running for the state’s Twenty-Third Congressional District and winning in an improbable landslide.
Representation of a mostly Hispanic constituency of five hundred thousand souls offered only modest horizons for an idealistically charged, ambitious former All-American tight end and only son of a Korean War veteran. Over the years, however, Peter Hall paid his political dues and amassed influence extending far beyond the dusty Twenty-Third district in Texas, stretching to every corner of the nation and beyond. But there are limits to power and prestige even for one of the highest-ranking politicians on Capitol Hill. Congress makes laws. The executive branch makes history.
Hall’s salvation came in the form of Richard Monroe’s stunning victory in the previous year’s presidential election. The president-elect yielded to Hall’s persistent lobbying and plucked him from the House of Representatives, installing him as chief of staff of a West Wing in need of congressional expertise. The president, an actual war hero, was the embodiment of the electorate’s craving for change in Washington and possessed the necessary gravitas to inspire that political revolution. But as political neophyte, he hadn’t the legislative tools to effect his controversial agenda. Every great president needs a Peter Hall, that skilled mechanic who operates belowdecks and keeps the engine’s machinery running.
Hall couldn’t be happier with his role of president’s loyal consigliere. There are only two directions on the chief of staff’s moral compass: the president’s way and the wrong way. Hall’s fervent opinion is that Richard Monroe is America’s last and best chance for survival as a democratic superpower. Political opponents, congressional naysayers, critics in the media, and hostile foreign powers are to be methodically destroyed, ignored, or neutralized. If Monroe simplified some of the complexities on certain issues and ironed away nuance with language his base could easily comprehend, so be it. No other political leader has come close in the last hundred years to furthering the basics of a party’s political agenda. The time to strike the iron was now.
“Senator, the president is in fact the leader of your goddamn party and expects the votes he needs for passage of this bill!” Hall bellows into the phone, pausing for the unfortunate recipient of this abuse to fumble a reply, then resuming his tirade with even greater amounts of venom. “Hell yes, I’m shouting, ’cause you’re clearly not hearing me, Senator! The other side is throwing every fucking thing they’ve got into obliterating our mandate, and the goddamn media is passing them the ammunition!”
As Hall continues to verbally pummel the unnamed senator into submission, one of his aides glances in the direction of the doorway, where Hayley stands. Karen Rey, midthirties and furiously raven haired, with a master’s in English literature from UVA and a Bedlington terrier back home named Churchill, reacts with outraged expression to the unknown young woman’s presence in the gaping doorway.
Rey stands fully erect and darts across the expansive office, a Scud missile headed directly toward Hayley. She confronts the White House newcomer, and her question is neither gentle nor rhetorical. “Are you insane or just stupid?”
Hayley’s gaze is unwavering. Her voice is firm and clear. “Hayley Chill, ma’am. I’m interning for the chief of staff’s office.”
Rey sizes up Hayley with an incredulous gawk; the intern’s West Virginia drawl is often mistaken by some as a sign of slow-wittedness and unsophistication. Rey thrusts out her hand.
“Let me see your paperwork,” she snaps.
Hayley complies, retrieving the pertinent documents from her backpack. Rey briefly peruses the paperwork, arching her eyes in mild surprise.
Hayley is used to such reaction to her military status. With her trim build and pretty face, she could easily be mistaken for a performer with Disney On Ice or a retired beauty queen. “Third Cavalry Regiment, ma’am. Forty-Third Combat Engineer Company,” she informs the White House aide and intern wrangler.
“No college degree?”
“Two years at Central Texas College, ma’am, on the Active Duty Montgomery GI Bill.”
Rey looks up from Hayley’s paperwork and offers it back as if it were drenched in biohazard.
“The West Wing operates at a grueling pace, Ms. Chill, especially with this administration. No disrespect to your community college, but perhaps the First Lady’s office would be a better fit.” Her condescension is not gratuitous. Peter Hall’s persecution of the slightest incompetence is of DC lore. Hayley’s first significant flub would be on Rey’s head.
“Thank you, ma’am, but I believe I’m up to the task. Mr. Hall must think so, too.” Hayley flips to the last page of her sheaf of papers and offers it for Rey to see. “That’s his signature right there.”
Karen Rey’s expression goes flat. She silently leads Hayley back into the reception room and to the entry door. Stepping out into the corridor, she points toward the near stairwell as if casting a fallen angel from the heavens. “Interns live, work, and die downstairs.” Pronouncement issued, Rey turns and retreats back inside Hall’s office suite, closing the door behind her with an emphatic push.
HAYLEY ARRIVES BACK where she started, on the West Wing’s ground floor, and locates the correct office door, a handwritten sign designating it as “CoS Support.” Entering, Hayley discovers a room not much bigger than a janitorial closet, which in fact it was until only a few months before. Peter Hall wanted his interns close at hand, located in the West Wing, and being the chief of staff, that’s exactly what he got. Four desks are jigsawed into the claustrophobic space, three of which are occupied with sharply dressed young people. The fourth desk, Hayley’s apparent work space, is heaped with files and binders, an impressive and disorderly pile two feet high.
The other interns, two-week veterans of the West Wing, regard Hayley with cold suspicion. CoS Support has been their exclusive domain, and Hayley is an unwelcome addition. What possible good could come of her joining the team? At best, the blue-eyed, blond-haired young woman wearing an off-the-rack Dressbarn cardigan represents an annoyance. At worst, she is potential competition. The goal of any White House intern is to be noticed, achieving special recognition at the expense of the several dozen other young people toiling there. A glowing personal recommendation from a powerful DC player is of incalculable value in scoring admission to Ivy League graduate programs, entry positions at Goldman Sachs, or further advancement in Washington.
Luke Charles, the only male in CoS Support, is a junior at Georgetown with the obligatory major in political science. His father, a fantastically wealthy hedge fund manager, hopes Luke’s interest in politics is a phase his son will soon leave behind. In the elder Charles’s view, politicians follow while money leads. Luke will indeed come to this same conclusion in the coming year. The grubbiness and panhandling that defines every politician’s life doesn’t escape the notice of the sufficiently bright Luke. After graduation from Georgetown and an MBA from Harvard, he will join his father’s firm and notch his first seven-figure annual bonus before he’s thirty.
Sophia Watts, her desk abutting Hayley’s, is barely receiving the required grade point average to avoid expulsion from USC, having spent much of her first two college years trolling Los Angeles’s hottest clubs. In Sophia’s second sophomore semester and still an undeclared major, she had a two-week-long Tinder fling with an aide of a Los Angeles councilperson. Landon was a sweet and fun-loving boy who infused an impressionable Sophia with a passion for government. Given this newfound purpose, her father, a successful film producer of cacophonous superhero movies, used his clout to score his only daughter a highly coveted internship at the White House. Sophia’s future love child with a Senate minority leader will result in moderate infamy and a best-selling memoir, a literary sensation that, synergistically, will be adapted by her movie-producing father into a scorching independent film. Daughter will join father onstage at the Oscar ceremony for a Best Picture acceptance speech.
The third intern in the room, commanding the biggest and best-positioned desk, is Becca Byran. With a lion’s mane of dirty-blond hair, she is a recent graduate from NYU under an accelerated program. Her father owns a small print shop in Queens, on Myrtle Avenue. Her mother is stay-at-home, taking in neighborhood toddlers for day care. Burning deep within Becca is an obsession to rise above these modest origins and apply her fierce drive to amassing power in whatever form it might exist. In seven years’ time, she will be the founder of a rapidly expanding, quasi-religious “commune” located in Vermont. Within the decade, Becca Byran will begin an eight-year stretch at FCI Danbury for bank fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion.
“What’s your name?” Becca demands of the newcomer, weaponizing that brief, normally innocuous sentence.
Becca slides a look toward the other two interns seated at their respective desks. Her expression is difficult to gauge. Sophia takes a stab at decoding the alpha intern’s judgment of the new addition to CoS Support.
“Can’t be for real, right?” Sophia asks. Becca shrugs in response.
“Where is that accent from? Kentucky?” Luke asks Hayley.
“West Virginia.” Hayley indicates the desk nearest to the door, currently being used as a file dumping ground. “Guessing this is where I sit?”
Becca is again regarding Hayley with cool, analytic precision, taking measure of the threat level posed by the newcomer and how she might be manipulated to personal advantage. “We’re under a lot of pressure, if you didn’t notice. Sit there if you must, but don’t mess any of that stuff up.”
Hayley doesn’t respond. The unfriendly and unwelcoming attitude of the other interns doesn’t much bother her. The other interns just seem to be kids, not worth her time or energy. Hayley places her bag on the floor and, ignoring Becca’s admonition, begins to organize the mess of folders and papers on the desk.
“You look kinda old,” Sophia tells Hayley. “Where do you go to school?”
Hayley continues to work as she answers Sophia’s prying question. “Two-year community college in Texas, near where I was stationed.” Their blank faces prompt her to add, “Believe me, you’ve never heard of this place.”
The three other interns exchange a communal look of bewilderment.
“Stationed?” Becca demands clarification with distaste.
Like most civilian Americans, none of the other interns have had any personal interaction with an actual serviceperson, let alone set foot on a military installation. That ignorance does not stop them from forming the near-universal bias against military personnel. This prejudice prompts all three college-educated interns to share an opinion that a US Army veteran, particularly one who enlisted, is of subpar intelligence, backward thinking, and perhaps psychopathic. Why else join the military if not a hopeless loser with mental issues?
Hayley has encountered this sort of prejudice since her earliest days in the army. Typically, she wouldn’t bother justifying to anyone what was a profoundly transformative life experience. But, in this instance, encouraging the cooperation and affinity of her fellow interns strikes her as important. “Enlisted out of high school, discharged about a year ago,” she tells the others. “And here I am.”
“But I thought ... ?” Sophia’s question dies in midsentence.
Becca lays it out for the USC girl’s benefit. “White House interns must be a current college student, recent grad, or veteran with high school diploma.” With that explanation, the judgment of the intern kangaroo court is final. Hayley is nothing but a carbon-based organism taking up valuable space and time. On first sight, Luke had privately mused on the potential of fucking Hayley, her sex appeal undeniable. Knowing what he does now, however, the Georgetown student decides to keep his focus on the brighter sparkle of Sophia. Luke instinctually assesses that his dad would have a shit fit if he took up with this baby-killing white trash from West Virginia.
As Hayley continues organizing her work space, the other interns utterly ignore her. Not one says another word to Hayley the entire day. Luke departs first, at four thirty, for an appointment with a personal trainer at an Equinox on NW Twenty-Second Street. Sophia and Becca leave together at 6:05 p.m. for a double drinks date with two congressional pages at Black Jack near Logan Circle. Hayley’s workday, therefore, ends peacefully and gloriously alone. She finishes organizing the pile of documents on her desk, then turns to other stacks of position papers, memos, and briefing binders stacked throughout the cluttered office. At eight forty-five that night, her work is finally complete. The CoS Support office has been meticulously organized. Hayley puts on her jacket, turns off the lights, and begins her commute via the 38B Metrobus to her modest intern housing at the Henry House.
AFTER A WEEK and a half in the West Wing, Hayley has yet to leave the former janitorial closet. History may be made in the White House, but the real action might as well be happening on Mars for all Hayley knows. Her primary duties and responsibilities have consisted of maintaining the organization she had brought to the interns’ office and preventing it from sliding back into a persistent chaos. Becca, Luke, and Sophia are perfectly satisfied with this new arrangement. The West Virginian’s diligence has allowed them to cherry-pick assignments while receiving glowing performance reports for work actually done by the newcomer. In effect, Hayley is the interns’ intern.
Karen Rey occasionally drops by for a few minutes but deals exclusively with Becca, who has achieved this elite status through sheer force of personality and Machiavellian cunning. Luke and Sophia never really had a chance. Since their first encounter in Hall’s office suite, Rey has exchanged only a few desultory words with Hayley. Confined to the CoS Support office, the West Virginian toils in abject anonymity, a real-life Cinderella. If there’s a silver lining to her exploitation, it’s that the other interns rarely include Hayley in their feckless chatter.
Their immediate task on this particular morning is responding to emails sent to POTUS, electronic missives that range from outraged condemnation to idolizing approval of administration accomplishments, real and imagined. Whatever the category, each email receives the same cordial and appreciative reply. Even messages threatening harm toward the president are given respectful response while simultaneously being forwarded to the Secret Service. The volume of these disturbing missives fluctuates, depending on the news of the day and latest presidential statement or action. The record for actionable emails was set one week earlier, after Monroe gave a speech at a national VFW meeting in which he attacked NATO as a relic of twentieth-century geopolitics having no relevance to a twenty-first-century world. In proposing an alternative, eastern European alliance reflective of the new world order, Monroe generated a total of thirty-five active threats in the span of twenty-four hours, all of which were meticulously investigated by the Secret Service.
But answering emails isn’t met with abundant enthusiasm. Becca, in particular, is feeling underutilized, her ambitions roadblocked. Frustrated, she shakes her head in disbelief as she types. “Freaking morons are driving me crazy! This lady wants POTUS to help her son get a liver transplant. What does she expect Monroe to do, invade Mexico and harvest some?!”
“That’s actually not such a bad idea,” Luke muses, already attuned to exploitative opportunities in every facet of human existence. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll prove to be an even more successful hedge fund manager than his dad.
Sophia is more cursory in her response to the emails, with replies reading more like Zen koans. Some of these marvels of epistolary brevity have been printed and tacked to the office bulletin board. “Sir, the President appreciates the concerns of every citizen of this great country but cannot discern exactly the nature of yours. God totally bless the United States of America” was an early example. In straightening up the interns’ office, Hayley had considered taking down Sophia’s little gems, but even she had to appreciate their value as morale boosters and left them in place.
“I might as well be doing product support at Apple and actually get paid for my talents,” Sophia surmised, resisting a habit of reminding the others that her semi-famous father once hosted Steve Jobs for dinner. On that occasion, the Apple founder gifted a ten-year-old Sophia with the first model iPhone before the device’s official release, an event Sophia naturally mentions in telling the story.
“It’s either this or studying for the GREs. Frankly, I’ll take this,” confesses Luke, reflecting his country-club work ethic.
Becca glances toward Hayley, who has been quietly loading briefing binders. The job is not without its significance, and the other interns have come to rely on the flawlessly conscientious military veteran to handle the job.
“What about you, G.I. Jane? What’s your plan B?”
Hayley is surprised to be included in the discussion. Her response doesn’t require meditation. “Long as I can serve my country, I’m good.”
The other interns exchange a look, barely restraining their guffaws. Before one of them can get off a snarky remark, however, there is a quick rap at the door, and it’s pushed open, revealing White House Chief of Staff Peter Hall. Without his suit jacket, Hall is in roll-up-your-sleeves work mode.
Becca, Sophia, and Luke freeze, not quite believing their eyes. The chief of staff has never stopped by the ground-floor support office. As a matter of fact, none of them have exchanged more than a few words with Hall besides expected pleasantries. He certainly doesn’t know any of them by name.
“Staff’s jammed. Need someone for fifteen minutes,” Hall announces, needlessly adding, “not another second more than that, I promise.”
Luke, Sophia, and Becca all stand in unison, but the NYU grad finds her voice first. “I’m available, Mr. Hall!”
Hall glances around the room, ignoring Becca’s declaration. “Which one of you is the army vet?”
Hayley raises her hand to half-mast. “That’s me, sir. Hayley Chill.”
Hall’s normally fierce demeanor instantly softens when he turns his gaze on Hayley. “Chill? Sure. How the hell could I forget a name like that? Fort Hood base commander wrote your letter of recommendation. Among the first females to gender-integrate the infantry. History making, General MacFarland said. Hell of a boxer, too.”
“Yes, sir. Honored to serve in any capacity.”
Hall fancies himself an ear for regional accents, not without justification. “Kanawha County, West Virginia?”
Hayley grins. “Pretty close, sir. Green Shoals, Lincoln County.”
Watching Hayley interact with the chief of staff, Becca knows she has lost a major battle here, though the war is far from over. Sophia and Luke’s game is strictly two-dimensional, and they don’t even realize the contest is over for them. Becca now understands that this was a two-man race from day one of Hayley’s arrival. Underscoring that point, Hall’s focus remains exclusively on the West Virginian.
“Your father, he made the ultimate sacrifice?”
“Yes, sir. Bravo Company from Marine Corps Reserve’s First Battalion, Twenty-Third Regiment. Second Battle of Fallujah. Killed in action at Blackwater Bridge, sir, when I was eight. My mom raised us six kids slingin’ grits and black coffee at a Shoney’s in Charleston, up until she got sick herself.”
Hall nods, sagely, recognizing the backstory. “Monroe people,” he assesses approvingly.
“Yes, sir. The president is very popular back home.”
Without a glance toward the other three interns, Hall crooks his finger and tilts his head toward the door. “Let’s go. Not enough hours in the day to save a country.”
Hayley stands and follows Hall out the door, leaving Becca, Sophia, and Luke to exchange looks of stunned misery.
Hall leads Hayley up the stairwell and down the corridor to his office suite. The reception area is empty except for his primary assistant seated at her desk, running traffic control on the office phones. “No calls or interruptions for fifteen minutes,” Hall barks at his assistant as he strides past. Hayley follows him into his office.
She gestures behind her. “Door closed, sir?”
“Leave it.” Hall picks up a sheaf of papers from his desk and thrusts the papers at Hayley, indicating a chair opposite his desk. “Sit.”
Hayley takes the pages and briefly scans them.
“The president’s speech in Ohio Saturday on national security,” Hall informs her, sitting on the corner of his desk with arms folded across his chest. Through the window behind his desk, the Washington Monument looms. “Read. I want to hear it.”
Hayley glances down at the pages for no more than five seconds, then looks back up to Hall.
“?‘This is a time, my fellow Americans, when we must reach within ourselves and discover the essential strength of our convictions. We must recall the lessons taught to us by our elders, ones that spoke to ideals that once made this great country—’?”
Hall raises a hand, stopping her recitation. “Bullshit.”
Hall gestures for the speech transcript impatiently. Hayley hands the pages back to the chief of staff.
Hall asks, “Photographic memory part of army training now?”
“Fortunately, sir, my recall has always been pretty good.”
As a child, Hayley did not begin to speak until the age of two but then spoke in complete sentences and was reading by the age of four. It was her second-grade teacher who first discerned Hayley’s photographic memory. On a field trip to the local park, Hayley had flawlessly recited the birthdays of every student in class by recalling the dates written on a homeroom poster. As it developed, Hayley realized her eidetic memory wasn’t limited to visual aspects of memory but also included auditory memory and other sensory stimuli associated with a visual image. Sensitive to the freakish nature of this gift, she downplays its significance to the point of obscuring it unless exposure is absolutely necessary.
“Fantastic. How good are you at forgetting it?” Hall unceremoniously dumps the pages into the garbage can. “Speechwriters we hired couldn’t write a thank-you note without a fucking thesaurus. I’ll write the damn thing myself.”
“A field general is only as good as his EO, sir.”
Hall nods in agreement, his impression of this army veteran from West Virginia only getting better by the minute. With four grown sons, he has always lamented having no daughters. In the car later that evening, after a long day, Hall will recall these few minutes with Hayley and consider fixing up his youngest son with her. After Hall’s wife, Carol, died from cancer three years ago, Paul has been the most attentive in helping his dad through the dark, lonely times. Next time his youngest is down from New York, Hall makes a mental note to invite the new intern over to the house on Kalorama Road for brunch.
“No one expected him to go all the way. No one even saw Richard Monroe coming. Ninety-nine percent of Washington figured him for just another war hero with a book deal at Simon and Schuster,” Hall informs her. “I saw a chance for national redemption.”
“It was a good book, sir. Read it twice,” she relates.
“And its author actually wrote it! Words like hand grenades and napalm for ideas. How else to win a political war for the ages? Obliterate the status quo and take no prisoners.”
“Yes, sir, but as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible.”
Hall scoffs. “The art of the next best? Nice try, Ms. Chill, and kudos for being better read than all of your Ivy League colleagues combined. But don’t underestimate the forces mobilized against us.” He pauses for dramatic effect, hinging at the waist as he leans his face toward hers. “They want us dead!”
“Sir ... ?” Hayley protests.
Hall cuts her off with an index figure pointed to the ceiling. “The president or me. Dead! And don’t be surprised when it happens. They’ll do anything to stop us. Trust no one.”
“Who is ‘they,’ sir?”
“The people who actually control this town, the shadow government, or ‘deep state.’ Call it what you will, they are a hybrid association of elements of government joined with parts of top-level finance and industry that effectively governs the United States, and without consent of the electorate. They’re afraid of what Richard Monroe might do to the precious power they’ve accrued over decades of entrenchment. These elements are mortally afraid of an end to a status quo of their creation and will preserve what they believe is rightfully theirs through any means necessary.”
Hayley remains quiet, Hall’s words hanging in the air.
“We, as a country, think we’re so different, that we’re better than all of that. But we’re not better. We’re not all that different from anyone else. This country was founded in blood. Blood is our heritage, just like every other country on the planet.” The chief of staff gives Hayley a sidelong look, a wry grin on his face. “But I’m not telling you anything, am I, Ms. Chill? You’ve seen something of the real world, unlike your fellow interns.”
Hayley’s face remains impassive. “Yes, sir.”
Hall nods, satisfied with this meeting of like minds, however disparate their professional positions. He casually gestures toward the door, as if the dire threat he had just mentioned was simply part of the job. “Don’t have much time to bang this out. Appreciate your time.”
“That’s all, sir?”
“For now.” Hall seems to consider saying more but decides against it.
Hayley dutifully rises to her feet and strides toward the door.
“Keep close, Ms. Chill, and stay alert. Your country needs you,” he calls after her.
“Thank you, sir.” Hayley quietly leaves the room.
WASHINGTON’S DELIGHTFUL INDIAN summer ended with finality three weeks after Hayley started her internship. Balmy temperatures and blue skies were replaced overnight by a low ceiling of gunmetal clouds and air temperatures in the midthirties, with snow flurries in the forecast. Disinclined to join one of the budget fitness centers in town, Hayley begins every day before daybreak with a five-mile run through the District’s dark streets. She follows that cardio workout with a series of basic calisthenics in her studio apartment, a condensed twenty-minute workout comprised of multiple sets of pull-ups, push-ups, woodchopper squats, and sit-ups. Six days a week, without deviation, Hayley’s workout is the same.
After a shower, Hayley dresses and then ducks back into the tiny bathroom. Studying herself in the partially fogged mirror, her self-assessment isn’t gentle. Since she was thirteen, Hayley has judged her lips too thin and nose too wide. The issue here isn’t one of attractiveness or imperfection so much as competence. If you can’t fix your own face, then how capable can you be? She opens her makeup bag and contours her nose, skillfully narrowing with concealer. Next, lips are overdrawn with liner and then filled with lipstick and gloss. After she has finished and carefully studied her work, a dissatisfied Hayley removes all of the makeup with a quick wash and leaves the bathroom cosmetics-free.
This process of brutal self-appraisal, application of makeup, and then reversal of all her work is completed within only a few minutes and is clearly a familiar ritual. After a hurried light breakfast of fruit over instant oatmeal, Hayley catches the 38B bus a block from her building. The other commuters are bundled up with down jackets, scarves, and knit hats, but Hayley wears only a simple navy-blue peacoat. After disembarking at Farragut Square and making the short walk down Seventeenth Street to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building gate, Hayley presents her ID to Ned, the Park Police patrolman.
“Sorry about the weather, Hayley.” Ned’s crush on the intern really doesn’t know where to go.
Hayley rewards him with a generous smile. “Thanks, Ned, but I don’t mind it at all. You’ve obviously never spent a summer in central Texas.” Their brief exchange represents the only words spoken in the gatehouse. The other personnel in the queue, cowed by the change in weather, pass through security screening wordlessly.
The energy inside the West Wing on this cold morning is also muted and workmanlike. With no international incidents requiring a response from the leader of the free world and nothing on the president’s calendar rising above the routine, operations today are strictly paint-by-number. Peter Hall maintains an iron grip on administration staff and personnel. Naysayers, malcontents, and bunglers have all been long since expelled from the premises. The Monroe administration is a marvel of discipline, speaking with a single voice and operating at a high level of efficiency.
As Hayley makes her way along the ground-floor corridor, toward the CoS Support office, she sees the handsome Secret Service agent approaching from the opposite direction. There had been only rare occasions in the prior three weeks in which Hayley had seen him from afar—walking with other agents up the White House driveway or across the crowded commissary in the EEOB—but there was never opportunity to pursue what she has come to recognize as romantic interest in the man.
It has been more than a year since Hayley last had sex. She had two lovers while stationed at Fort Hood, neither of whom were anything but physical attachments. In the time since leaving the military, Hayley hasn’t found within herself that particular urge to become intimate with another human. But the Secret Service agent has awakened something in her. What draws her isn’t his obvious physical attractiveness but the simple connection with a lightness in his eyes and warm, unostentatious smile. She intuits in him a man in whose company she will feel safe and relaxed.
As Hayley and the Secret Service agent draw abreast, both stop, seemingly in tune with a mutual desire to connect again.
“You don’t seem lost anymore,” he observes.
“Guess I’m starting to get the hang of things.” She smiles easily. “Thanks for helping out the other morning.”
The suit-clad agent offers his hand. “Scott Billings.”
Hayley accepts his hand with hers. “Hayley Chill.” Their handshake lingers, as does their gaze.
“Ex-military, I understand.”
“Have you been asking around about me, Agent Billings?”
Scott smiles guiltily. Of course he’d asked around about her. In his defense, his inquiry into Hayley and her background could’ve taken far more invasive proportions with the investigative tools available to an agent of the US Secret Service.
“Nice to meet you, Hayley Chill. See you around the shop.” Reluctantly, they release hold of each other’s hand. Scott gives Hayley the briefest, flirty salute as he continues on his way.
A FEW MINUTES before ten in the morning, the interns in CoS Support have just about finished prepping briefing binders for a cabinet meeting, hastily called by Peter Hall only an hour earlier. Because of the short time frame, all four interns pitched in to finish the job in time for the meeting, scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. Disbursement of the binders is a desirable job, affording the lucky intern the opportunity to escape the janitorial closet and gain face time with administration bigwigs. As self-anointed queen of CoS Support, Becca decides who gets the disbursement job. No one is more surprised than Hayley when she gets the nod.
“It’s your turn, after all,” Becca rationalizes.
“Sure. Okay. Thank you.” Hayley hasn’t had an assignment outside of the janitorial closet in the whole time she’s been in the West Wing. Neither Sophia nor Luke is happy with Becca’s unexpected decision, but they don’t dare speak up.
Becca clocks Sophia and Luke’s unhappiness and artfully ignores them. “Did you double-check the contents of every binder?” she asks Hayley. “It’s your ass if they’re incomplete.”
Hayley had assembled the binders with the others and can attest to their completeness. “I went through them before my break.”
Becca shrugs and sits, checking her phone for messages. It’s apparent from her frustration that cell reception is an ongoing issue. “You’d think the most powerful country in the world could have halfway decent Wi-Fi.”
“Dead zones all over the building, but this office seems to be the worst,” Luke offers.
The NYU grad levels a sneer in Luke’s direction. “Thank you so much for that.”
Hayley wants no part of their sniping and points the pushcart toward the door.
There is more than bad cell coverage in explaining Becca’s persecuted mood. On a limited budget like Hayley, Becca was walking to work that morning when she saw Luke dropping off his Maserati at the W Hotel valet on F Street, as was his custom. The White House parking garage is off-limits to interns and clerical staff. The thirty-five-dollar charge at the W Hotel is chump change for the hedge fund scion, and the Salvadoran who delivers the car again in the late afternoon can always expect a hefty tip.
But it wasn’t Luke’s extreme wealth that was gnawing at Becca. She has surrounded herself with wealthy people since her first year at NYU. What galled her this morning was seeing Sophia sitting in the seat next to Luke, sufficient evidence she and Luke were fucking. Becca has no sexual desire whatsoever for Luke. Point in fact, the soccer-loving, Imagine Dragons fanatic with unrepentant cowlick and lingering odor of AXE White Label Dry Spray mildly disgusts her. Nevertheless, losing any contest, even one of such meager stakes, to a second-rate SoCal nitwit like Sophia is a burden too great to bear without retaliation, however indirect. Sophia and Luke are easy targets, and their usefulness has not yet been expended.
Hayley is another matter. Complete and total annihilation of her potential rival is just what Becca needs to brighten her day. Once Hayley has pushed the cart laden with briefing books out the door and disappeared, Becca withdraws a folder from under a pile of papers on her desk. “Oh, wait! You forgot an insert,” she calls after Hayley many moments too late.
After riding a service elevator up to the first floor, Hayley pushes the cart down the corridor, passes Peter Hall’s corner office, and approaches the hallowed grounds of the Oval Office. Several aides and uniformed military personnel are gathered in a clutch just outside the doorway. None of them except a wary Secret Service agent Hayley has never seen before pay any attention to her as she shuttles past with the mail cart.
She continues down the corridor a short distance, turning for the open doorway leading into the Cabinet Room. Entering, Hayley sees a few of the less important cabinet members standing at the far end of the room in a tight scrum, speaking in hushed voices. Respectfully minding her own business, Hayley begins to disperse the briefing binders. She takes care to place a binder exactly in the same position before each of the sixteen identical chairs at the table, one briefing book for heads of fifteen executive departments and the vice president. An extra-large chair is situated at the exact midway point of the table. Before the president’s seat, Hayley places a special, leather-bound briefing book.
As she is just finishing up her careful work, the remaining cabinet members filter into the room. Peter Hall herds the late arrivals inside with typical brusqueness. “Let’s go, people! The president needs to be on Marine One in forty-five minutes. Time’s wasting.” No matter their prestige and importance, all cabinet members respond obediently to Hall’s badgering. Hayley moves to leave the room, pushing her cart toward the far door. Hall catches sight of her.
“Park that rig in the corridor and get back in here, Ms. Chill,” he bellows from the opposite end of the room. “Want you here in case we need anything.”
Hayley does as directed, depositing the mail cart outside and returning to take a position standing in the southwest corner of the room. A hush falls over those in attendance, as if everyone’s radar simultaneously picks up the imminent arrival of a Man of Significance. Those instincts are fantastically accurate, as within moments Richard Monroe enters through the north doorway with a gale force of extreme charisma, accompanied by his vice president, Vincent Landers.
As America’s warrior hero, Monroe carries a well-known résumé, having held rank everywhere from the army’s Second Battalion, Seventy-Eighth Field Artillery to US Army Pacific Command. A career soldier before winning his first and only political campaign as president of the United States, Monroe is a West Point graduate who led a thunderous tank charge across the sands of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm and later, as a major general and commander of the First Armored Division, drove the tyrant Saddam Hussein from Fortress Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom. With chiseled features and hawklike profile, Richard Monroe was then and continues to be an iconic presence, the natural born leader America sorely needs in rancorous and divisive times.
Everyone stands in respect for the president’s entrance, the electricity in the room supercharged. Though nearly all members of the cabinet are themselves powerful and accomplished individuals, no one’s light comes even close to shining as brightly as Monroe’s. He offers only the slightest of gestures. “Thank you, everyone. Please, sit.”
All take their seats. None dare breathe a word until spoken to by the president, who pauses a moment to scan the papers on the table left for his attention. After a moment of silence as he reads, Monroe squares the pages and then looks up, addressing his cabinet.
“Thank you again, everyone, for coming on short notice. We’ve been under the gun here, getting our affairs in order for the upcoming trip. Excuse the disorder.” Few commentators would use the word “disorder” to describe Monroe’s administration. The West Wing runs with the steady beat of a Roman slave galley.
Vice President Landers, seated across the long table from POTUS, is perennially cast in the greater man’s shadow and is therefore eager to be heard. “As always, Mr. President, we are all so grateful for your leadership.” Other cabinet members start to talk all at once, similarly anxious to flatter the destroyer of tyrants. Monroe only grins slightly, benignly tolerant. Peter Hall loudly clears his voice. “Sir, you’ve got wheels up in less than an hour.”
Monroe nods and fingers the pages in front of him. “Our trade policy with China. I wanted to get everyone on the same page before I make my speech tonight in Columbus. Obviously, a unified voice in terms of these proposed tariffs would be best, yes? Let’s have a look.”
The cabinet members, the vice president, and POTUS all open briefing binders in near unison. Landers is the first to notice a problem with the briefing materials. “Hold on. Where’s the transcript of Yii’s address?”
Other cabinet members and Monroe are flipping through the pages and sections in their binders. Monroe looks to his chief of staff with eyes that don’t suggest leniency. Hall leans over the back of Landers’s chair, inspecting the binder for himself. “The translated transcript of Yii’s address, Peter? It seems to be missing.” The president’s cool agitation snaps like a whip, with Hall seeming to cringe from its lash. Sensing weakness, Landers leaps into the fray. “Jesus, Peter, without that transcript, this whole meeting is pointless!”
Hall is temporarily at a loss for words, a rare condition for the infamous verbal gladiator. Unaccustomed to making mistakes, he finds himself in the middle of a very public fuckup, and that exposure has paralyzed him. Hayley discreetly materializes at the chief of staff’s elbow. “Mr. Hall, you excluded the complete transcript because a Washington Post article under Tab Four summarizes President Yii’s speech with annotations, explaining some of the more arcane Chinese linguistic idiosyncrasies.”
“Yes,” the chief of staff manages to get out, “only so much time in the day.”
It’s not lost on Monroe what has just transpired. The president regards the young woman in the $49.99 blazer with frank admiration. “With interns like this one, we just might get something done in this goddamn city.”
Cabinet members voice their agreement. A few of them—secretaries of education, veterans affairs, and human services—even applaud. Hayley acknowledges their appreciation with bowed head and retreats to the far corner of the room, alert and ready for however next she might be of service.
Less than thirty minutes later, after the cabinet meeting has ended and POTUS is aloft in Marine One, Hayley pushes the mail cart back into the CoS Support office. The other three interns silently observe her entrance, studying Hayley for signs of emotional trauma or devastation. They are disappointed in that hope. Hayley is her usual confident, well-balanced self. Becca takes her failure to kill off Hayley particularly hard.
“Where have you been?” the NYU grad asks. “You’ve been gone almost an hour.”
“Mr. Hall asked me to stay after I’d distributed the briefing binders,” Hayley tells her matter-of-factly.
“You stood in at the cabinet meeting,” Luke asks incredulously, “for, like, the whole time?”
“It was a pretty short meeting,” Hayley offers as modest comfort to the other interns.
Before Becca, Luke, and Sophia have had the time to regain equilibrium, the door is pushed open, and for only the second time in his tenure as White House chief of staff, Peter Hall pokes his head inside the repurposed janitorial closet. “Nice recovery, Miss Chill.” Hall then turns to address the other interns. “Can’t have any more screwups like that.”
“Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again,” Hayley assures the chief of staff.
Hall disappears again, as abruptly as he’d materialized. Hayley sits down at her desk to resume work, seemingly ignoring Becca, Sophia, and Luke as they gape at her. Only after a loaded pause does the West Virginia native slide a quick glance in Becca’s direction, just to let her know she’s fooling no one. As an accomplished boxer, the West Virginian recognizes a well-delivered body blow. Hayley’s opponent is still standing, but the fight has been knocked out of her.
Dejected and defeated, Becca requests to leave work early, soon after lunch. She cites an upset stomach as the reason. Karen Rey is displeased, but Becca is her favorite intern in the complex, and so she reluctantly acquiesces. With the coast clear, Luke and Sophia take turns revealing to Hayley not only Becca’s sabotaging of the briefing binders, but also her numerous other transgressions and general abusiveness. Hayley expresses no interest in the gossip, working quietly as the others talk. Failing to make an alliance with the new queen of the CoS Support office, Luke and Sophia turn to making their dinner plans. They depart at four thirty p.m. and, as is their custom, leave Hayley to complete their half-finished tasks.
NOT LONG BEFORE seven p.m., Hayley finishes all CoS work and leaves the office, turning off the lights as she does so. A short walk up the corridor of less than thirty seconds takes her to the ground-floor exit and out onto the exterior grounds. Dusk has fallen, and the air temperature is below freezing. Hayley has neglected to retrieve her coat from a hook on the back of the office door and is considering returning for it when she hears a voice.
“Cabinet-level save. Pretty heady stuff for a hillbilly from West Virginia.”
Scott Billings has just finished his shift and was about to head over to the garage to retrieve his vehicle when he caught sight of Hayley exiting the building. In order to intercept her with his quip, he had to backtrack nearly twenty-five yards. Despite her many physical attributes and obvious intelligence, Scott is surprised by the intensity of his attraction for Hayley. Seducing women has always been a trivial matter for the handsome Secret Service agent, with the real problem being choosing one or two from the several.
Hayley stops and turns toward the approaching Secret Service agent. “Kind of ironic, coming from a Division Three quarterback who bombed his combine.”
Scott is momentarily thrown for acceptable comeback. The sensation of being one-upped by a female is neither familiar nor pleasant. Intelligence and wit is one thing, but how the hell did she learn about his disappointing performance in Indianapolis? Clocking his distress, Hayley simply grins.
“Interns know shit, too, Mr. Billings.”
Her smile has its intended effect. Whatever hurt feelings Scott may have suffered are vanquished by the glow of Hayley’s countenance. The collision of emotions she engenders in him is a new experience. Scott struggles to regain footing and deploys a tried-and-true bit of charm.
“I’m armed, you know. Call me Mr. Billings again and I might have to shoot you.”
Again that smile and a nod of her head in agreement, but Scott is no longer looking toward Hayley but intently off, over her shoulder and beyond. She pivots to see what has distracted him, when Scott starts running in that direction.
Two figures—too distant to ascertain race, gender, or age—are running across the North Lawn, toward the White House. Video surveillance tapes reviewed after the fact will reveal the “jumpers” scaled a fence in the northwest corner of the Treasury Building, immediately adjacent to the White House, and activated a sensor alarm in the Treasury moat. But the Park Police officer in charge of monitoring that particular alarm, among others, had stepped away from his station to use the restroom without securing a replacement. Consequently, the two intruders were able to trespass on White House grounds without being noticed.
Numerous individuals have illegally entered the White House grounds by scaling the fence in recent decades. They rarely venture far, although there have been significant exceptions. In November 1975, Gerald Gainous roamed the grounds for more than two hours and approached President Ford’s daughter outside her car. The year of 1991 saw the highest number of jumpers, with a total of seven intruders. Between 1995 and 2005, there were none. In 2017, Curtis Combs jumped a concrete barrier on the outer perimeter of the south grounds and was arrested. He was dressed in a Pikachu suit. It’s easy to forget that until the Second World War anyone could enter the premises and knock on the front door.
As Scott Billings races to intercept the two intruders, he shouts so there’s no question of his voice being picked up by a Motorola handset in his suit jacket pocket. “Unauthorized entry! North Lawn, east side! Seventy-five meters from residence! Closing fast!”
The two jumpers apparently realize Scott has seen them and immediately split up, one of them veering east. With no other agents currently in sight, Scott makes the spot decision to stop the intruder nearest him, doubtlessly leaving the other jumper to reach the building unhindered. Only then does Scott glance to his right and see Hayley also running, moving to intercept the second intruder. Without slowing, he waves emphatically at the intern. “Stay back! Stop!”
Hayley Chill, one of only eighteen females to successfully gender-integrate infantry training, does not stop running. Maintaining a strong, steady pace, she tracks the intruder’s course perfectly and brings the six-foot-three, twenty-seven-year-old male to the ground. A Schrade SCHF10 Survival knife, with 5.3-inch black blade, pops from the intruder’s hand and he reaches to retrieve it. Hayley scrambles behind the big man’s back, shooting a forearm across his neck, her left hand gripping her right wrist, and executes a sneak choke from armbar position with shocking efficiency. The intruder’s grip on his knife falters as Hayley applies steady pressure against his windpipe, critically reducing oxygen and blood to his entire system.
Hayley’s subduing of the second intruder has taken approximately twenty seconds, enough time for Secret Service agents to converge on the scene from every direction, weapons drawn. Two of the agents drop to their knees and assume control of the intruder’s arms as Hayley eases off the armbar and then slides out from underneath the man. She gets to her feet, putting one hand on her White House credentials for emphasis. The nervous, hyperventilating Secret Service agents aren’t entirely certain who the hell Hayley is and what she’s doing here. One agent keeps his submachine gun trained on her as he quickly scans her ID.
“It’s all right! She’s okay!” Scott comes running over from where he had held the first intruder, restraining him until the cavalry arrived. Seeing Hayley being braced by his colleagues quickened his pace. He arrives and puts a comforting hand on her shoulder to signify Hayley’s legitimacy.
The more-senior Secret Service agent lowers his P90 machine gun, glancing from the male intruder on the ground in handcuffs to Hayley.
“Who the hell is this?” the incredulous senior agent asks Scott, gesturing.
“Hayley Chill,” Scott tells him. “She’s a White House intern.”