“Matthew Hawkins, please, the White House calling.”
Matt felt a growl come from his stomach. He knew it was a hunger pang, but he felt a sudden nausea come over him.
“Is this Mr. Hawkins?”
“Yes... Is this some kind of prank?”
“Well, who the hell wants to talk to me from the White House?”
His mind went numb at the sound of the words: THE PRESIDENT. His eyes glazed over and he stared straight ahead, almost unaware what was happening, what he was hearing.
“The president?” he mumbled.
“Yes, sir. Please hold while I connect you.”
Matt stood still, looking down at the phone on the table below him, frowning, suddenly overcome with a case of nervousness mixed with his hunger. His head floated with the feeling, like a smoker’s first cigarette in the morning.
“Yes, uh, yes, this is he,” he replied, suddenly coming to.
“This is President Norwalk, Matt. I’m sorry to ask you on such short notice, but would it be possible for you to come see me?”
“See you, sir, I mean, Mr. President?”
“Uh, when should I come?”
“As soon as you can. Right now if you can.”
“Yes, Matt,” said Norwalk a little impatiently. “If you can.”
“Oh, yes, sir, I can come now.”
“Good, I’ll expect you in fifteen or twenty minutes.”
“At the White House, Mr. President?”
“Yes, Matt, at the White House,” said Norwalk indulgently. “I can send a car.”
“No, sir, I’ll just take a taxi.”
He rang off.
Matt replaced the receiver with a clatter, finding the cradle after a few seconds, feeling for it but not really seeing it. He turned and walked towards the door and put his hand on the knob to turn it. He opened it and stood in the doorway thinking: What could he possibly have to say to me? He was nervous, fearful, unsure, hesitant. Matt couldn’t believe, couldn’t comprehend that he was attracting so much attention for his one lousy vote. It simply didn’t register that he could be so important that the president himself would have to intervene. He was saturated with apprehension, fear and elation.
He glided to the elevator in a daze, reached the lobby and walked outside mechanically to take a taxi. The cold air and bright sunshine outside hit him forcibly and he realized he hadn’t even put on his topcoat. He started back to the lobby but decided to forget it because the president was waiting for him. He stepped into the taxi.
“Where to, bud?” asked the driver looking at him through his mirror.
Matt sat in the back seat looking straight ahead.
“Oh yes, the White House.”
Matt half thought that a magic carpet would pick him up and deposit him on the White House lawn. He didn’t notice the impressed driver’s eyebrows rise as he drove off and joined the traffic on Connecticut Avenue on the short drive to the White House.
“Well, this is a first,” said the cabbie.
“What?” asked Matt in his daze.
“Twenty-six years driving a cab in D.C. and nobody ever – not once – gets in my cab and says, ‘Take me to the White House.’ Not one single time.”
“No. I tellya, it’s a first for me.”
“That makes two of us,” said Matt with a crooked smile.
What could he say to Norwalk when he asked him to switch his vote? Could he just say “No” to him?
Matt rolled down the window to let the freezing air in. He breathed deeply, trying to restore his senses, which remained dulled to the point of numbness all over. He decided he would just tell the president that he’d made up his mind and that he would appreciate it if the White House would let him vote his way without any interference. But what if Norwalk used the agent’s death to threaten him?
The government could cause a stink he wasn’t sure he could combat successfully. What would his constituents think if they knew he killed someone, and with Patricia thrown in to complicate matters? What was the best way to handle that approach if Norwalk chose to use it? He couldn’t make up his mind. His mind was turning to putty.
He felt his weakness and hated it. He gently massaged his forehead and then pounded his head with his fist. Everything was so sudden. He should’ve put off Norwalk a day or two. But no one put off the president when he called. You had to be ready, thought Matt. You had to be ready when they threw you a curve. If you couldn’t measure up, you were out. They walked all over you and you were out, out, out! What would his career be worth if he didn’t give in? he asked himself. The Republicans could beat him if they put their minds and enough money into it. He knew that. They could get their revenge. Was a vote for Thurston worth it? Were his convictions all that sacrosanct?
“Hey, mister!” said the cabbie for the second time.
He focused on the cabbie, who was looking over the seat at him and jerking his head backwards towards his window. Matt looked out. A uniformed guard was looking in at him through the cabbie’s window.
“Your name, sir?”
“I have an appointment with the president,” said Matt.
“Yes, sir, but what is your name?” asked the guard, who recognized that Hawkins had never been to the White House before.
“Oh, Matthew Hawkins.”
“Thank you, sir.” He consulted his clipboard. “If you’ll leave the cab, we’ll take you up from here.”
Matt paid the fare and got out. The cab made a U-turn and left the grounds. An enclosed golf cart pulled up and Matt got in.
Matt’s attention was fixed on the curving driveway ahead as the golf cart moved along it. The White House stood out massive and solid before him, the top of it seemed lost to his vision as he got closer. The cart stopped and the door snapped open as if by magic. He fumbled his way out and followed the guard who had opened his door and went inside. He gave his name and another guard made a telephone call as he was led to a waiting room in the old part of the White House. He sat alone in a room furnished with fine antiques and carpeted with one large Persian rug. He wondered why he was alone. Surely there must be others waiting to see the president.
In a moment a man entered. Matt stood and took his offered hand.
“How do you do, Mr. Hawkins? I’m Charles Roebuck, the president’s appointments secretary.”
He nodded and said, “Hello.”
He recognized Roebuck’s face now. He remembered seeing his picture in the papers.
“Please follow me, sir,” said Roebuck, moving away gracefully. Matt walked alongside him down a long, richly furnished corridor to the West Wing.
“The president forgot to tell you which gate to use, Mr. Hawkins. You came in the formal entrance. I had to run down here to get you,” Roebuck said affably.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing. He seldom meets with someone who hasn’t been here before. It never crops up,” said the secretary with a friendly smile. He didn’t recognize how much Hawkins felt his remark. Matt felt the unique nature of his visit. He was a nobody. On the same level as the Boy Scouts coming to get an award from the president. They have to be told which gate to use.
They entered the West Wing and Matt noticed how much more like a normal business office the surroundings looked, only the ceilings were high and imposing. Expensive mouldings. People were coming and going until they reached the area around the Oval Office itself, which was quieter.
“I’ll take you right into the Oval Office, Mr. Hawkins. The president’s been expecting you,” said Roebuck, approaching unprepossessing white double doors. He opened both of them and stepped in. Matt shot a glance to Norwalk’s desk, behind which the president was sitting, before Roebuck made his announcement.
“Thank you, Charlie. Come in, Matt,” he said as Roebuck stood aside.
Matt took a tentative step or two into the room and cast a quick glance around. It was empty. He wished in a perverse way Slanetti was present. It would fuel his determination and resolve. Alone with Norwalk, he knew he would feel more intimidated. He heard the sound of Roebuck closing the doors behind him and returned his eyes to the president. Though hyper tense, he felt like everything was happening in slow motion, every movement seemed special, selected, emphasized, every sound piercing.
“Come in, Matt,” repeated Norwalk.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, moving towards a chair.
Norwalk came from behind his desk to shake his hand. The president’s grip was strong and sure. Matt tried to make his clasp just as firm. He looked into Jeffrey Norwalk’s lined face, which was not a smiling one, but neither was it a threatening one. It was serious, real – he could tell he sweated like any other man. Norwalk motioned to a chair beside his desk and Matt sat down as Norwalk returned to his seat. He watched as Norwalk filled his pipe and lit it. Matt eased his eyes closed for a moment. He opened them and looked out the windows behind the president to the White House lawn beyond, to freedom it seemed. He thought he would suffocate. He returned to the president just as he was leaning back. A light blue stream of smoke rose from the bowl of the pipe. The president of the United States was about to speak to him and yet he still found it impossible to comprehend that this was all happening to him.
“I’m sorry to call you over here on such notice, Matt,” began Norwalk.
“That’s quite all right, Mr. President.” He felt like a little boy about to be chastised.
“Allow me if you will to get right to the point.”
“Certainly, Mr. President.” He sat with his hands in his lap. His stomach emitted a growl that sounded like a wolf howling at the moon.
“Are you all right, Matt?”
“Oh, yes, sir, I’m fine. I was just going down to lunch when you called and never got any breakfast.”
“Do you like chicken salad sandwiches?”
“Well, sir, … ”
“I don’t know what they put in it, but for eight years I’ve had the best chicken salad in the world.”
Norwalk punched a button on his console.
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Have them send up two of those chicken sandwiches I like so much. And tell ‘em to make it snappy. I’ve got a guest and he’s starving. And a couple of iced teas.”
“Right away, Mr. President.”
“Mr. President, that’s not really—”
Norwalk waved him off.
“Aw, just wait’ll you taste this sandwich. It’s really a sliced chicken sandwich, not chicken salad. You’ll see. I think it’s tarragon or something.”
“Well, thank you.”
“Now back to business. You already know Governor Senkirk needs your vote badly.”
“Phil Slanetti has made me aware of that, Mr. President.”
He thought he was being a little rude, but he didn’t feel he could be responsible for what he was saying. He felt like an automaton and tried to relax himself, but it was impossible. He’d killed a government agent. He was watching Norwalk’s face as closely as he could, trying to think ahead of him, but he knew he had no idea what the president was going to say. Norwalk looked sharply at him and their eyes drilled into each other’s. Matt looked again at the deeply lined face, the gently combed back graying hair. Norwalk leaned towards him, still holding fast his gaze. Matt thought Norwalk was going to rebuke him, but his face wasn’t harsh and his voice was kindly, fatherly when he spoke.
“You are too tense, Matt. I wish you’d relax.”
“I wish I could, too, Mr. President, but you’ll understand if I find it a little difficult under the circumstances.”
“Of course, I’m sorry.”
Norwalk had forgotten what it must be like for someone as young as Hawkins to be called into the Oval Office, someone who’d never left his home state before. He sensed it still in children who came in, ordinary people when he was on the road, but he’d been sequestered in the White House and its environs for a long time now, untouched by the masses.
“I don’t want a nervous man responding to what I have to say to him,” Norwalk said.
Just then, the doors flew open and two stewards appeared carrying trays – one with sandwiches and one with a pitcher of iced tea and glasses and lemons.
“Here we are, Mr. President,” said one of the stewards.
“Why, thank you, Milton. Just put those trays right here on the desk.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
The other steward filled two glasses with iced tea.
“You know, the hell with the tea. Matt, you drink Scotch?”
“Bring that decanter of whiskey over here, and two glasses. Maybe that’ll calm you down a little,” Norwalk smiled. “Now, try this sandwich.”
Matt pulled his chair a little closer and picked up the chicken sandwich. Taking a healthy bite of it, he savored the herbed mayonnaise slathered on the delicious bread and the slices of freshly roasted still warm juicy chicken breast and ripe tomatoes.
“What do you think?”
“About the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had, Mr. President.”
“I wish you were as easy to convince about Senkirk as you are about sliced chicken sandwiches.”
“Here we are, Mr. President,” said Milton, setting down a silver tray with a crystal decanter, two glasses, and a small bowl of ice.
“Thank you, Milton.”
Milton poured generous portions and added a few ice cubes before leaving the room.
Matt drank the whiskey and ate the sandwich. His senses were returning to him. He glanced at the decanter on the tray on Norwalk’s desk. Norwalk was watching him, reached for the decanter and poured him another healthy portion. Matt sipped it and set the glass down.
“Oh, much better. Thank you, Mr. President.”
“Now then,” said Norwalk, wiping his mouth with a linen napkin and swinging his chair around to Matt and resting one arm on his desk. “I want to tell you how much I regret, deeply regret, you being put in the situation in Acapulco resulting in the death of that agent. I know how any good person would react to having accidentally killed a man. I don’t hold you responsible. I know it’s not an easy thing for you to live with, but please don’t worry that we’d ever use that against you. It hasn’t entered my mind at this point.”
Matt caught “at this point.”
“I regret also not having met with you sooner to discuss your vote and its importance to Senkirk’s campaign. It’s only become clear in the past few days just how important you are, Matt. Further, let me tell you that I regret Phil Slanetti’s tactics. He’s usually a most efficient man, but perhaps in your case, because of its importance, he was overzealous. It’s just that time is running out for everyone and when time is important, feelings aren’t weighed. You’ll come to see what I mean.”
“I haven’t changed my mind about supporting Thurston, Mr. President,” Matt forced himself to interrupt. He seemed to be going to extremes to calm Matt and Matt wanted to let him know right away what his position was.
“I see,” noted Norwalk quietly, but with a frown. Matt felt encouraged.
“If everybody would just leave me alone to vote my own way, wouldn’t things be better for everybody concerned?” he asked.
“I wish more than you do that I could leave you alone, Matt,” said Norwalk seriously. “I know you have your convictions and I wish I could honor them. But in certain situations, ideals must be compromised, they mustn’t stand in the way. I’ll tell you why I want you to come over to my position.” He rested his hands on the desk. “We both know the candidates’ positions on the Russian-Chinese dispute. I’m telling you, as Lord Ellsworth told you in Acapulco, that if Senator Thurston is elected, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, will prevent China from involving the world in thermonuclear war. When they get those weapons, they’ll shoot them off so damn fast your head won’t have time to spin. And I don’t think Thurston can handle that situation. His entire platform is based on total support for the Chinese. He’ll look like a fool, a complete fool, if he’s forced to abandon them after they take some action with long-range missiles. The only reason they haven’t used the short and medium-range missiles they already have is because they won’t penetrate far enough to do them any good. If what we’re facing now is not a life and death struggle, it soon will be, Matt, and I tell you that from the bottom of my heart.” He paused, waiting for Matt to say something.
“Put bluntly, Mr. President, I simply disagree with you.” He shook his head from side to side in a deprecating manner and held up his hand. “I know I could be wrong, I’m only human, but I don’t believe I am. It’s as simple as that. I believe if Thurston was sitting where you’re sitting, the Chinese would cool off, would back down – simple as that.”
“It’s never as simple as that, Matt,” Norwalk started. “But, I’m sorry, I didn’t really want to talk to you about my position. I knew you could argue back,” he smiled. “I didn’t really bring you here to change your ideals, Matt. I brought you here to tempt you, to threaten you, to appeal not to your ideals or convictions, but your sense of destiny, your ambition and your future.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to make a deal. A simple matter of horse-trading. I want that vote of yours badly – very badly. And I’m willing to offer you something extremely valuable for that vote.”
“How do you mean?”
“This is how I mean, Mr. Congressman-elect.” said Norwalk, narrowing his eyes. “You know Walt Lafitte, of course. He’s the senior senator from your state and he’s sitting outside my office right this minute with Henry Senkirk.”
“While we’ve been eating sandwiches?”
Norwalk poured both of them a little more Scotch. And giggled.
“Yes, while we’ve been eating sandwiches and drinking Chivas Regal. Walt’s old and he’s planning to retire at the end of his term in four years. I talked to him this morning and he’s agreed to resign his Senate seat now. As soon as Charlie Roebuck left you here with me, he had the switchboard connect with Lowry Smith, your governor back in Wyoming. He’s waiting to talk to us now as we sit here. You know how Lowry feels about you. Can’t stand your guts, Matt. He’s one of my staunchest supporters among all Democratic governors. He fought against you in the campaign hoping to get Bill Crampton reelected.”
“This is all true, but I still don’t understand.”
“I talked to Lowry this morning, too. He’s agreed that if you resign your seat in the House, he’ll immediately appoint you to fill Walt’s seat in the Senate. He will then appoint Bill Crampton to take his old seat in the House. This will give Senkirk the state we need and elevate you to the Senate. You turned thirty just,” he glanced at the open dossier in from of him, “Thanksgiving, it seems. Constitutionally, you can sit in the Senate – by just a few days. As you might know, you have to be thirty years old.” He paused.
Matt just looked at him.
“It’s all settled, Matt,” Norwalk continued. “All you have to do is say yes. If you think this is some sort of trick, I’ll bring in Walt and Senkirk. You have my word of honor that what I say will be done if you quit the House,” Norwalk said, trying to push the young man. “Walt will resign tomorrow if necessary.”
Norwalk saw the glaze in Matt’s eyes. He was close, he thought, he was this close. He reached over and touched a button.
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Send in Henry Senkirk and Walter Lafitte.”