Josh Pinner sat in the plush waiting room of Sen. Flik Maynard, like a kid waiting for the dentist. He called up a news magazine on one of the screens in front of him as Maynard’s attractive young staffers flitted in and out of the Senate office. Even this late at night, they were busy with something.
The news was all about China, as usual. It had been a week, and the bombing hadn’t let up. Dawson II seemed to be hoping that hitting the big cities would provoke a surrender, but that hadn’t happened yet. So now the bombs were falling in some of the minor cities, and seemed to be aimed at people, not munitions.
China was huge, Josh thought. Who know how long it might take? The casualties were starting to pile up.
Josh watched another huge Chinese building fall, then turned off the news. It was too distracting to watch other people’s problems when he had so many of his own. Being chased through Georgetown had terrified Cindy and angered Josh, and he still had to get ready for tomorrow’s hearing.
He figured he would still testify, despite how scared he was yesterday. The chase and the threats were meant to scare him off, and the idea of being scared off by the government was something he could never accept.
But on the other hand, Dawson II was really bombing China right now, and if he was willing to do that, maybe the chase wasn’t just an empty threat. Maybe he was willing to snuff out a reporter, too.
That was the thought that kept him on the edge. No sleep Saturday night, and just a little sleep Sunday night. Too nervous. But waiting around in the senator’s boring office for a half hour seemed to be doing the trick. I could fall asleep right here in this chair, he thought.
“The senator should be with you shortly,” said one of the beautiful Senate aides for the third time, just as he was about to doze off.
The door to the hallway opened, and in walked Zak, the Wall Street witness. Zak smiled at Josh and walked over, but his face grew more worried as he studied Josh.
“You look like shit,” Zak said. “Are you sleeping?”
“Not much since I was chased through the city and threatened,” Josh said.
“Ah, so they’re after you too,” Zak said. “Some guy rammed my car up in New York yesterday, and in so many words told me I better not testify. You get the same message?”
“Pretty much,” Josh said. “I would have preferred your version.”
“You sure about that?” Zak said. “My BMW is totaled.”
“The fact that you have a BMW is a big part of the reason I would have preferred your version.”
“You think they got to the senator the same way?” Zak said. “Maybe they scared him off it. Maybe there is no hearing tomorrow.”
“I don’t know, maybe,” Josh said. “It’s hard to imagine them making physical threats against a senator. But these guys seem capable of anything. I guess we’ll find out.”
A young woman walked out of the big double doors at the far end of the office and headed toward them. She was sobbing, and halfway over she stopped to grab some tissues from the main reception desk. She blew her nose, and carefully dabbed around her teary eyes to avoid smearing her eye makeup. Only then did she approach Josh and Zak.
“Hello, gentleman,” she said in a shaky, teary voice. “My name is Tika, and the senator is really excited to see you both. We’re so sorry about the delay. Can you please follow me? He’s about ready to meet.”
As soon as she turned around she seemed to break down again, and they could see her shaking as she tried to control her tears. They followed the sniffling and yet still incredibly attractive Tika across the office. They saw her wipe her eyes a few more times, and she was trembling as they reached a door to the senator’s main office.
She turned to motion them inside, and now her mascara was running halfway down her face. Her eyes were red and puffy.
“Can you let me know what you’d each like to drink?” she was able to force out between gasping sobs. “Happy to get whatever you’d like.”
“No, we’re fine, thanks,” Josh said.
Tika looked him over.
“You look tired. Do you need aspirin or anything like that?” she asked.
They walked into the ornate meeting room and took a seat at the far end of the long table. Without saying a word, they sat on opposite sides of the chair at the head of the table. Anyone who knew anything about senators knew that Flik would sit there, right in the middle.
They were sitting in the part of the office reserved for meetings. The other half, near the big window, was the senator’s work space. Big desk, phones, screens, the works. They could hear water running through one of the walls, and then, through a door that must have contained Flik’s private bathroom, the senator emerged.
His eyes were red and puffy too, and he also seemed to be choking back tears as he greeted them.
“Hey boys, glad you could make it,” Flik said as he sat at the head of the table. “Sorry for the delay. We just, um…”
Tika walked back into the room with glasses of ice water for everyone. Flik looked down at the table, as if he couldn’t bear to face her, Josh and Zak watched as she set the glass in front of the senator. Tika didn’t look at Flik, either.
“Thanks,” Flik said. “Tika listen…”
“You’re welcome, Senator Maynard,” she said stiffly as she walked out of the office. She slammed the door behind her, and they could hear her sobbing again.
“Did someone just die or something?” Zak asked.
“No, we… it’s complicated,” Flik said. “We were… and now we…”
They sat in silence for a minute as Flik fidgeted in his seat.
“Well, look at us,” Josh said. “We’re all a wreck. Zak and I are spooked, and I don’t know what this is all about here. Do you still want to go ahead with the hearing tomorrow?”
Flik found the will to look up at his guests.
“You can maybe guess what’s going on here,” Flik said. “I’m not going to spell it out for you. But don’t think that means we’re not going ahead with the hearing tomorrow. I just cleared the decks for the big fight. No baggage now. I’m clean. So when we tell the world what’s going on, nobody’s going to be able to point at me and say, ‘He’s flawed, he’s screwing his press secretary.’ Oh, Christ. Well, I guess I just spelled it out for you.”
“But that’s over,” Flik said. “Blogo was right, if I’m going to take down Dawson II, I have to be perfect. So now I am. Time to attack.”
Flik sat up and drained his glass of ice water. He put it down and looked again at his guests. His eyes were clear, he suddenly seemed focused and alert.
“But what the hell are you two talking about?” he asked. “Spooked? What happened?”
“We both had visitors over the weekend,” Josh said. “Direct threats saying we shouldn’t testify.”
Josh quickly told them the story how he was chased through the city on Saturday night, grabbed through a fence and told not to speak to the Senate. Then Zak described how his car was hit, and the bribe he got to keep his mouth shut.
“They offered you $200,000?” Josh said when he heard Zak’s full story. “Jesus Christ, that’s not so bad. My legs are scraped up from climbing the fence and I’m having nightmares about being killed in some dark alley. Nobody ever offered me a dollar.”
“It was $150,000 to $170,000,” Zak said. “Depending on what it takes to fix up my car. But don’t ask me why no one wrote you a check. Maybe they figure reporters aren’t into money. No offense.”
“I’d take $1,000 at this point,” Josh grumbled.
Flik watched them both carefully, then leaned back in his chair.
“So Josh, you were chased, and Zak, you were offered money,” Flik said, mulling it over. “Maybe you should listen to what happened to me, and we can decide what to do next.”
“Something else happened to you?” Josh asked. “Let me guess. Dawson II will make you ambassador to France if you cancel the hearing.”
“No, nothing like that,” Flik said. “Good guess. But it’s harder and harder to bribe politicians. If I take money or land, or I do some favor for some other politician, it’s too easy to track. Sounds like the only one they tried to bribe outright was Zak. What’s that say about your profession?”
Zak shrugged his shoulders. He hated talking about money because usually he made more money than everyone in the room combined.
“So what happened to you, senator?” Zak asked.
“I got ushered in to meet the president,” Flik said.
“Wow,” Zak said. “President Dawson? Dawson II?”
“Jesus,” Josh said. “They are worried. He threatened you or something?”
“Dawson’s hatchetman, this guy Levi Raffets, drove me around the city and tried to talk me out of the hearing,” Flik said. “But it wasn’t working, so he drove me right up to the White House to meet with Dawson. This all happened this morning.”
“I have to admit, as I got out of the car and walked into the Oval Office, I was prepared for all the things you suspect me of,” he said. “I was on guard for some kind of policy favor, or as you guessed, or some kind of perk. An ambassadorship, a Cabinet spot maybe.”
“But he didn’t threaten me, and he didn’t bribe me. He tried something else,” Flik said as he recalled his conversation with the president.
“Your home state of New Hampshire is simply lovely,” President Dawson said to Flik as he walked into the Oval Office. “The people there are as real and rugged as your rocky coastline. And they do make a candidate for the White House respect them! I worried a lot about those four little Electoral College votes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Flik replied, not knowing what else to say. The two men stood there after shaking hands, and President Dawson suddenly invited Flik to sit down, as if he wanted to start over. They retreated to two sofas in the middle of the room, and sat across from each other.
“Senator Maynard, I do respect you,” President Dawson said. “And my staff has made me aware of a line of questioning you are hoping to stage in committee tomorrow.”
Flik winced at the president’s squishy code words for what he was really going to do on Tuesday: blow the cover off the president’s plan to bomb U.S. creditor nations into subservience. He didn’t want the president to be able to get away with such a cursory description of what he was doing.
“Yes, sir,” Flik said. “I’m worried we are using our bombs to turn former allies into our debt slaves. First Japan, with your father, and now China, your own project. It looks to me like you’re finishing the work he started.”
President Dawson laughed his dry little laugh. “Debt slaves,” he chuckled. “Well, that’s one way of putting it. And I suppose that’s what you’ll call it tomorrow, correct? Is that the goal, to make headlines for a day? To paint me as some sort of warload, some kind of modern-day Napoleon, looking to shore up his empire?”
Flik almost replied, but this wasn’t some regular back-and-forth argument with Tika. The president’s eyes held Flik in their grip, and Flik knew it was still the president’s turn to talk. This was going to be a lecture.
“Senator Maynard, I suppose you won’t be bothered to hear how complicated this all is,” the president said. “I know of your concern with the debt, and you must believe me that I share it too. But a president doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about one number in a sea of numbers, the way you worry about our $67 trillion in debt.”
“But without dragging you in the details of my world, suppose I ask you this question,” the president said. “You’re an American. And more than that, you’re an elected leader of other Americans. So suppose I were to ask you, what is it that makes America special?”
Flik froze, and wished he had Tika by his side to feed him an answer. Then he realized he needed to answer this one quickly or lose points in his argument. He blurted out the first thing he could think of that sounded like an answer.
“It’s our willingness to use our government to fight for people’s rights, instead of oppressing people,” Flik said. “Their individual rights. Freeing blacks from slavery, giving women the right to vote, letting people worship the way they want.”
The president leaned forward and almost whispered his response.
“Now that is a pretty good answer,” he said. “Much better than the one I thought you would give. You are correct, Senator Maynard, and not only that, you’ve just told me a lot about yourself and how you think about the country. And, I happen to think like you do. For almost 300 years, we’ve been a beacon of hope, doing the good works so many other countries can’t do. And not just here, but abroad. We topple dictators. We clean up the environment. We invent technology and disperse it to our allies. We try to help. We try to free people.”
“So the world owes us?” Flik asked. “It owes us so much that even when countries decide they can no longer pay, they have no choice? We have to take them over? Squeeze out every last dollar?”
The president was immediately angry, and all his folksy charm evaporated.
“What do you think American exceptionalism means?” the president barked. “Little shits like you show up here and think it means that regular, ordinary Americans are special because they were born here.”
“But you’re wrong,” the president continued. “We’re not special individually, we’re special as a group. We’ve… earned certain things, certain rights, as a group of people. Here’s the secret. We are part of a tribe of nations. We are the strongest in the tribe, so we take what we want, and what we need. That’s what exceptionalism means, it’s that simple. We are the exception, so we get more. We take the best people from around the world. We take energy resources when we need them. Our power as a nation is what makes us exceptional, nothing more.”
“Now, we don’t go around saying that out loud, but that’s really the gist of it. And it just so happens that we’re benevolent. Yes, we take the world’s money, and do you know why? Because we’re the only ones in the world who know what to do with it. We build, we produce, we create wealth. All of this comes back to the countries who lend to us. America is the only country on this planet that gives any regular person a fighting chance. We grow the economy. We sent aid to countries too backward to figure it out for themselves. We fight just wars, maintain the proper balance.”
The president rose from his seat and paced the floor.
“You say we’re going to war because China won’t lend to us?” the president said as his arms waved. “I say we’re saving China from the biggest mistake it ever made, which is trying to undercut America, the only force in the world that’s keeping anarchy away. Not to mention poverty, disease, chaos. They’ll thank us for intervening in five years, just you watch.”
The president stood against the window with his back to Flik, a move that Flik thought was designed to impress his guests, to remind them who the president was. Flik refused to play along, and kept arguing.
“That’s an impressive argument,” Flik said. “But it doesn’t exactly describe reality. Your father attacked Japan. Is Japan thanking us?”
The president turned on his heels to look at Flik.
“Well, they’re not complaining any more, are they?”
Flik stopped talking and started up at the ceiling as Josh and Zak absorbed his story. Josh still couldn’t tell yet whether Dawson II managed to calm Flik down enough to cancel the hearing. He studied the senator for more clues, but found none.
“You’re right,” Zak said. “It wasn’t a bribe or a threat. He appealed to your… your civic duty or something.”
“He appealed to my patriotism,” Flik said. “It was his own twisted version of patriotism, but that’s what he was doing.”
“So what do we do?” Zak asked.
“My mind is made up,” Flik said “It was exciting meeting the president, but who does he think he’s dealing with? My whole campaign was about cutting back government. Then you guys come along and explain how we owe so much money that we’re bombing other nations to keep the money coming, and what am I supposed to do? Ignore it because I met the president in the White House? It’s… I don’t know… it’s sort of…”
“It’s insulting,” Josh said. He had quietly listened to the senator’s story, and was still fuming over Zak’s $200,000 bribe. Why was Zak offered money? Because he figured that was his weakness. And he figured he knew all of their weaknesses.
“Dawson II thinks we’re all shit,” Josh said. “He thinks we’re a joke. He’s throwing us crumbs. He thinks he can buy off Zak with money, because Zak must be some Wall Street hustler who only respects cash. He thinks he can scare me off with some kind of stupid chase through town, because reporters are stupid. And he can make some kind of fake patriotic speech and the senator will fall for it because that’s how Republican senators think. He rewarded us, or threatened us, or appealed to us based on some sort of cartoon understanding of what makes us tick. It’s…”
“Insulting,” Flik said. “You’re right.”
“So what do we do?” Zak asked.
“We hold the hearing,” Flik said. “Fuck this guy Dawson. No respect, nothing but scare tactics. He’s acting like he’s still in control. But if we tell the world what he’s doing, then we’re in control. We let the people decide if they like what they see.”
“But Zak, we need you to testify,” Flik said. “Let the world know what you found, using your name. Are you up for it?”
“Yeah, we talked it over, me and Cassi,” Zak said. “She was right all along. This is more important than money. Being offered that bribe showed me how empty that road can be. I can’t just be a slave to the cash. Wall Street won’t ever let me back in after this, but there’s other ways to make money. Plus I want to wipe the smile of the face of that jerk who threatened me. We have to shut them down. Cassi couldn’t believe what happened to me, and now she worries all the time. It’s not fair what they did to us.”
“What about you, Josh?” Flik asked.
“We take them down,” Josh said. “Dawson II, Raffets, all of them. Listen to our story. It makes me want to stop and write it right now. Just for pointing out a few trends, a few facts, we’re being hunted down by our own government. The president tries to pressure Flik. Some guy rams Zak’s car. I get chased through the city as a warning. It’s insane. We have to tell people what’s going on. How can we not get that story out?”
“Do I think Dawson II could have us killed? Sure I do,” Josh said. “But that’s why we have to tell people tomorrow. Once we tell our story, we’re safe, because if they ever killed us after that, everyone would have to suspect them. Our story is our best insurance policy, so we have to tell it.”
“Also, I’ll just never forget Cindy’s face on the bridge,” he said. “It’ll be fun making them pay for that. So yeah, let’s take them down.”
Flik sat back in his chair and seemed to relax suddenly. His big moment was finally set up and ready to go. Tuesday.
“All right,” Flik said. “We take them down.”