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The president of the United States eyed the downhill four-footer from three different angles. "It's not every day you shoot eighty-nine," he said, still panting a bit from the walk between the cart and the eighteenth green at Congressional Country Club. The caddies in his group shared a look, knowing there was no way President Leary had broken a hundred, even if you ignored the water ball on hole number six, the "gimme" he putted anyway—and missed—on eleven, and the fact he'd played the entire round with sixteen clubs in his bag, two over the limit. His regular Sunday morning playing partners had given up years ago on the prospect of ever winning a bet against the Leader of the Free World, seeing the six-hour saga as yet another tax on the rich.
The president had, in turn, given up years ago on the idea of spending his Sunday morning in the front pew of St. John's Church in Lafayette Square. For one thing, it was boring as hell. For another, the pastor wouldn't let him smoke during the sermon.
Confident of his read, he tossed his cigarette to the ground and settled over the knee-knocker. The sun bounced off his hair, vibrant and flawless, the color of a freshly minted penny. Sweat beaded off his freckled Irish skin. Left edge and firm, he reminded himself. His putter was halfway back to the ball when the BlackBerry in his pocket buzzed, sending his Titleist wobbling wide right, never scaring the cup. "Damn it!" he barked. "That didn't count!" The sprawling red-roofed clubhouse was a hundred yards away, but the outburst easily carried, loud enough to cause an elderly member to spill her hollandaise sauce as she lunched on the patio with her Jamaican nurse. Leary raked the ball back and tried again, this time missing left.
The president's short game wasn't the only thing in the crapper. It had been two years since he declared America's Great Recession over and the Great Recovery in full swing, a speech that culminated with a balloon drop (eco-friendly, of course), a blast of confetti (biodegradable), and a rousing rendition of Neil Diamond's "America" sung by the cast of the hit TV show Glee. There was just one problem—it wasn't true.
It wasn't for lack of effort. In the three and a half years Leary had been in office, he'd funneled over four trillion federal dollars to troubled banks, upside-down homeowners, and mismanaged corporations. In cases where free money couldn't rescue a company or a mortgage, the government went ahead and bought it outright. The thinking was that the backing of Washington, D.C., would free up credit and ease everyone's fears, like a rich parent's signature on an apartment lease. Leary's intentions appeared good, his commitment unwavering, but the president's Keynesian approach had not delivered.
Instead, the sick economy he thought he was reviving had been suffocated by wasteful spending, increased regulations, and a general demonization of free market capitalism. Wary investors dumped stock and ran to gold. Small business owners ignored Washington pleas to hire new workers and sat on what capital they still had. Entire housing developments stood empty. Others were bulldozed and returned back to nature. Inflation was on the rise, the dollar was dying, and the unions, the president's most loyal voting bloc, had taken to the streets with increasing violence to make it known that if anyone was going to take a cut in pay or in benefits, it would not be any of them.
The world was losing faith in America. On more than one occasion, the first lady found her husband staring out the window of their White House bedroom, shaking his head and wondering aloud, I thought people loved Glee …
His wife wasn't making things any easier. Where most first ladies choose one cause célèbre, she had a dozen, each of which appeared purposefully targeted at fixing the flaws she saw in her own husband. Cigarettes, sugar, swearing—she had taken public shame and made it her most powerful weapon.
At least he had his golf—but apparently now even that wasn't sacred. It was a standing rule that he was not to be contacted on the links unless there was a national emergency, and even then, it had to be really bad. Like missile-heading-toward-a-DNC-Hollywood-fund-raiser bad. He read the waiting text message and wasn't sure this qualified. TX GOV FEARED DEAD AFTER CAR CRASH. He walked through his partner's line as he dialed. Mark "Ruffles" Ruflowski, his flabby forty-five-year-old chief of staff and omnipresent adviser since his days as a Massachusetts state senator, was trained to answer on the first ring and always let Leary talk first.
"Feared dead or actually dead? Because if he's not really dead you just cost me a par."
Ruffles blew his nose into his handkerchief. He was still a hanky guy; one of a shrinking handful of men under fifty who saw nothing off-putting about blowing mucus into a rag and then stuffing it back into one's pocket. "Yes, he's dead," Ruffles said. "So is Lieutenant Governor Rice."
"Yowzers. A twofer."
"Apparently Rice's limo had a flat, and rather than wait, he broke protocol by driving back with the governor. That's what Fox News is saying at least."
"Fox News?" Leary could hear Ruffles's TV click back to the comforting voices of MSNBC. "Any clue how it happened?"
"NTSB's working on it," Ruffles said. "There were no survivors, no witnesses. They drove right off a cliff."
"I thought you said this happened in Texas."
"It did. A hundred miles outside Austin."
Leary dropped his putter back into his bag. "I didn't think Texas had any cliffs."
"Well, they got at least one."
Leary peeled the plastic from a fresh pack of Benson & Hedges and let the wind carry it away, paying no heed to the Secret Service agent who shuffled off to retrieve it. "Alright, let's issue a statement. ‘Tragic loss' … ‘our hearts go out to the people of Texas' … mention the wives by name, boilerplate stuff."
"You got it."
Leary had always liked Governor Allen. Not in a friendly way, but more in the way you like someone who is putty in your hands. In public, he referred to Allen and similar Republicans as open-minded, reasoned, and, if he was feeling especially charitable that day, bipartisan. Guys like Allen ate that stuff up for some reason. In most cases, it was because their wives were secretly Democrat and the husbands could use compliments from the other side of the aisle as proof they weren't complete monsters. In private, the administration simply referred to people like Allen as ETs. Easy Targets. Damn it all, Leary thought. He'd miss the big idiot.
The president's golf-gloved thumb moved to hang up, but the reminiscing about Governor Allen triggered one last question. "Hey, Ruffles."
"Yes, Mr. President."
"Who the hell's in charge of Texas?"
* * *
Ben Travis was working without his gloves again. Kate used to say that his hands doubled as her calendar, and by the looks of things, the blisters of early April had finally given way to the calluses of late May.
He liked the heat. A lot of people in North Texas cursed it, but it made him sweat and become occasionally dizzy, which, in its own strange way, made him feel young. At age fifty, those moments were becoming fewer and farther between. When his new driver's license arrived a few weeks earlier, it was hard not to wince when he noticed that his hair was now listed as "gray" and not brown. He'd lobbied hard for "salt and pepper," but the surly pumpkin-shaped woman behind the counter at the DMV informed him that it wouldn't fit. At least Travis had some hair. And his looks. Probably for another six or seven years. After that, the chiseled chin would soften and the boyish dimples would slip into the cracks and valleys of an old man who'd had a good run.
No matter how old or ugly he became, he couldn't picture himself in gloves. Gloves were for gardening. His ranch hand, Gene, a thirty-year-old raisin in a cowboy hat, still didn't get it. "Remind me again what's wrong with that black pair in the shed?" Gene had been pushing those on Travis for months. They were a Christmas gift from a fellow senator, and Travis loathed everything about them: the color, the synthetic material, the extra rubber grip on the thumbs …
"They're like Darth Vader's gloves," Travis said.
"Exactly!" In Gene's eyes, this was yet another selling point.
"Yeah, well, I know I haven't seen those movies for a while, but I don't seem to remember him clearing a lot of brush with them. Now if you could get me one of those light swords…"
"Lightsaber," Gene corrected.
While Travis may have looked and acted the part, he didn't consider himself a rancher in any real sense of the word, and he certainly didn't think of himself as a politician. He'd had too many careers to be labeled anything other than occupationally schizophrenic.
He got rich drilling oil and gas wells in West Texas and went penniless owning a string of 1950s-themed diners across Oklahoma. He made half of it back in the oil and gas commodities market before a third of that disappeared on a "sure thing" racehorse that he'd later discover never actually existed. He took his family and what little was left of his fortune and returned home to the town of Prosper, his unassuming birthplace thirty-five minutes due north of Dallas. First he bought the ranch, and then he bought a struggling Prosper company that made heating and air-conditioning ducts for commercial buildings. There was nothing sexy about it. Five years later, it cracked the Fortune 500. Forbes summed up Ben Travis the best when it dubbed him "a business savant with the Midas touch … but only about half the time."
The original ranch was eighty acres, with a cheery, two-story, pale blue clapboard house in the middle. Over time, he befriended his neighbors, and as they moved—or moved on—he always bid first and bid highest. Then, somewhere near the five-hundred-acre mark, Travis's marriage fell apart. What had started off as a man building his empire had ended up bearing a closer resemblance to a middle-aged divorcé living in depressing isolation.
His pickax arced through the air and took aim at a line of mesquite bushes that were encroaching on his back porch. He hated mesquite. It was a total nuisance, the raccoon of the plant kingdom. It wasn't pretty, its sharp thorns could penetrate sneakers, and it never stayed away for long. It was all due to its taproot, the vertical root that stretches all the way down to the water table. The longest one ever recorded on a mesquite was close to two hundred feet, or twice the length of a blue whale. He was fighting a losing battle and knew it.
A half mile behind him, a line of black cars, lights on, drove single file, kicking up dust and scattering jackrabbits as they went. Gene noticed them first. Among the advantages of a five-hundred-acre ranch on the outskirts of Prosper is the sheer impossibility of anyone ever being able to sneak up on you. As the vans and Suburbans came into focus, Gene eyed Travis accusingly. "What did you do?"
Travis stopped and looked. "Me? What makes you think they're not coming for you?" Gene had a habit of spending a few nights a year behind bars.
The fact that Ben Travis was third in line to be governor was one of those things that briefly registered in his brain the year before and was promptly forgotten, like the fire extinguisher he'd bought and placed under the sink, which, even if the kitchen was engulfed in flames, would never be remembered when its moment came.
The president pro tempore of the Texas Senate was a ceremonial position more than anything else. In the United States Senate it's bestowed upon the longest-serving senator of the majority party. Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, and Strom Thurmond played hot potato with it for the better part of two decades. When Travis's peers in Austin bequeathed it to him, however, it wasn't because of his seniority. He'd only been in the senate two years, and there were plenty of old coots ahead of him. Lee Snyder, the same senator who gave Travis the Darth Vader gloves, was one of them, and he said they chose Travis because he was so well liked and respected. Travis suspected it was the best way they could think of to show sympathy for the messy way his divorce unfolded inside the Austin statehouse.
The caravan pulled to a stop in front of the house as the dust cloud moved on without them. A familiar face stepped from the passenger seat of a Suburban and waved. Hunter Reese was the governor's ever-exhausted chief of staff. He was stronger and wiser than he looked, and make no mistake, he looked terrible. His birth certificate claimed he was thirty-nine, but seven years in the same job had sucked the remaining youth out of him. His shirt hung loose off his shoulders, as if there were a hanger in there and nothing else. Eating was a luxury his schedule didn't often allow, and today the thought of it hadn't even entered his mind.
"We've been calling all morning, Ben," Hunter said. "Where were you?"
"Church. Then here," said Travis.
"Alright, second order of business, we're giving you a cell phone."
"What's the first order of business?"
From the other Suburban appeared another face Travis recognized. Owen Pokey was eighty-five and the oldest Texas Supreme Court justice on the bench. The thin laces on his brown leather shoes were still untied from the long drive. He shuffled along, dragging his feet and leaving parallel tracks in the dirt. Under his arm was a tattered leather book that could only have been a Bible.
Travis's mouth turned to chalk as he pieced together the evidence. "Both of 'em?" he said. Hunter nodded.
Travis let the handle of the ax slip through his hands. He tossed it to the ground, removed his hat, and flattened his hair. As he raised his right arm, Gene finally caught on, memorializing his boss's swearing in with an entirely inappropriate and perfectly understandable summation: "Holy shit."
Copyright © 2012 by Bob Smiley