The man's voice carried out into the wide hallway corridor. His yelping commanded four guards with body armor and automatic weapons away from their stationary posts and into the entryway. They leveled their rifles at the large, shining elevator doors as the man's sweaty fingers punched in the pass code to his secure room atop Everson Tower. Even after the steel reinforced blast doors closed and he heard the hiss and lock announcing their security, and even after the lovely British woman's voice assured him the door was secure, he fought to breathe. His wheezing worried him. Even with a double dose of his medication, it seemed worse than usual, and there would be a dozen more deep breaths before he would realize he wasn't dying and that he had fallen down onto his two-hundred-thousand dollar antique Sarouk Farahan Persian carpet.
Once convinced he would live to take stock of the evening, he crawled to a row of nearly invisible cabinets lining the floor of one of the safe room's six walls.
“The elevator is locked down, sir, no one up or down!”
The built-in speakers crackled on the first three syllables, then evened out. The man fumbled with his phone, wiping his hands on the floor to dry them enough to provide his thumb print identification to unlock the home screen. The phone shook in his hands, but his thumb print had been accepted. After two more taps and swipes, four monitors above him on the wall illuminated.
“We stay right here until your say-so,” the voice from the speakers said. Now, the man could see the security officer talking. The officer gave a thumbs up to the closed circuit camera above him, and the man gave a thumbs up to the screen. Neither man saw the other.
“No one gets in, you hear me? No one comes up!” The man yelled.
After another thumbs up on the monitor, the man slid down the wall and let his weight settle into the floor. He closed his eyes, started the breathing cycles his doctor advised. He envisioned his beach house in Malibu, but the image of beach combers and the ugly, cheap boats flitting across the water a few hundred yards out made him change his mind. He flew instantly to Paia, his Hawaiian paradise. He felt the warm, Maui breezes on his face. He watched his grounds keepers sweating into their beige uniforms and beige hats and imagined himself in a light, flowing silk Versace robe, red and purple, of course.
A fast, aggressive breath in...
He imagined the sound of the sea, waves crashing like applause, heralding him, celebrating his victories.
A slow, long breath out.
He tried to avoid thoughts about recent deaths in the city, tried to push out what it might feel like to take a knife to the throat, like Senator Evans had in his downtown office two days ago. He tried to dismiss the image of a bloated, drowned chief of police, killed in his own bathtub.
Deep breath in...
Tried not to think about taking a sniper's bullet, like Judge Kaysin.
Long breath out.
The election had been brutal. Between the travel and the speeches and answering the endless and insulting questions from the press, he was glad to be back home, back in New York, back in a place he controlled and understood. Sure, the news of multiple social and political leaders falling suddenly ill or disappearing or being openly murdered by a new, unnamed, brash guerrilla group had been alarming, but some rag-tag group of computer hackers and wannabe GI Joes didn't stand a chance of reaching the highest levels of power. The man reminded himself of the structural soundness of his safe room, of the security systems in place, of the armed guards here on his floor and the armed guards on nearly every floor below.
There are attack helicopters flying overhead for God's sake.
He took solace in state of the art technologies and tactics. He took solace in his power.
Back to Hawaii. He pressed through the unwanted thoughts like tall grass, letting them sting his hands but not letting them completely block his view of the paradise beyond. His garden, his workers, a table of grilled pineapple, mango, and fresh crab legs. A saucer of melted butter.
Fast breath in...
His maid, scrubbing a nearby table, her skirt almost short enough for the man's liking.
Long slow breath out.
His mind flashed to images of Washington lobbyist Elizabeth Shurmer. She'd been wearing a skirt when she was shot twice in the head on the steps of her townhouse. He tried to pull his thoughts back to Hawaii, back to security and power and health. For a moment he was back in Hawaii and his maid's skirt was shorter and he tried to keep her face from changing to Elizabeth Shurmer's face.
A breath in...
The skirt got shorter.
A breath out.
Elizabeth Shurmer's bloodied face smiled back.
“Careful, you'll use up all of our air.”
The man jerked upright, ramming his head into the secret cabinet doors behind him. It wasn't the voice, it was the piercing squeal and then the crackle of the speakers that startled him. He grunted to his feet and checked the monitors. The security team was still positioned around the elevator doors down the hallway, guns still leveled.
“What was that?” the man asked, palming the intercom button he'd pressed before.
The figures in the hallway didn't move. There was no response. When the man pressed the button a few more times and yelled a few more questions, they still didn't move.
The intercom blared again:
“Do you need a towel or something? That sweat is intense.”
The man wheeled around, surveying the rest of the safe room. It was nine hundred square feet, one partial wall separating a living room command room combo from the bedroom beyond. Overhead lights ran the length of the ceiling, but he hadn't turned them on yet. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he knew, he felt, before it was illuminated, that a figure was sitting in one of the leather chairs.
“Don't turn on the lights,” the intercom blared again, “I like the dark.”
The man immediately lunged for the light switch and clicked it on. He looked up, expectant, into darkness. The only light was now the faint glow of the security monitors.
“Like I said, I like the dark.”
No screech, no crackle. Now the voice was just a voice, quiet and patient with a slight accent the man couldn't place. Now it was simply another voice.
Another voice inside the safe room.
“Do you prefer this?” The intercom again. In the darkness, the figure brought something down from his head and placed it in his lap. Before he could speak again, the man was pounding on the intercom buttons and screaming.
“Help! Help me!” he yelled, punching the buttons and pulling every switch and toggle on the control board. He fumbled across his pockets for his phone before remembering that he left it on the ground. He dove for it, snatching it up like a live grenade that needed its pin put back in. He frantically pressed his thumb against the screen. Too wet, too much sweat, and he wiped it wildly on his shirt, on the carpet, and pressed it to the screen again. He never stopped screaming for help.
The figure shifted slightly in the chair. It would have been hard in the darkness to see the figure pressing his fingers into his ears amid the screaming. The man didn't see it, he was busy staring into the blank screen of his six thousand dollar smart phone. In between screams he begged the phone, pleaded with it to open and give him a lifeline to the outside world.
“Oh no, is your phone not working?” the voice again, without the intercom. “Typical, right? What do you have, Sprint? T-Mobile?”
The man was too busy punching buttons and screaming to respond.
“Oh I know, you have some special, top-secret billionaire illuminati world domination type provider. You probably get great reception all over the world, huh? You have a data plan?”
The man continued screaming:
“Get away from me!”
“Unlimited talk and text?”
“Get away, you stay away! Help!”
The man dropped the phone on the counter top and activated one of the cabinets. Small lights glowed slowly from dark to dim to soft white, illuminating a weapon cache, complete with foam cut outs in the shape of a nine millimeter Glock seventeen, three Glock seventeen clips, an MP5, and a clear plastic container of bullets. The bullets remained. Every other cutout was empty.
“No one can hear you screaming so could you please stop?”
“Help me, help!”
“Please, if you just listen...”
“If you listen I think we could come to an underst—”
“In here, he's in here! Help!”
The man was screaming at the monitors, banging his hands against the surrounding wall panels. He wouldn't look at the figure, wouldn't even glance, the way a child ignores danger by covering ears and shutting eyes. Thoughts of Hawaiian maids and Maui and Mai Tais were retreating to the edges of the man's consciousness when the gunshot shook the room. It echoed, the tinning drum of enclosed metal and exploding gunpowder pounded on the man's ear drums before he could get his ears covered. He fell to the ground, holding his ears and moaning, as the figure finally stood. The figure walked to the monitors and took his time, smiling into each one. The security team was very determined to keep those elevator doors secure. The figure remembered a time when he looked like that: young, raw, eager. But he was never that raw.
He picked up the man's phone, removing a nearly identical phone from his own pocket. He held them next to each other, smirking, humming as his thumb print activated his phone. With another few commands, the other phone lit up, as well, and in twenty-four seconds, the exchange had taken place. The figure dropped the man's phone onto the floor.
“Are you ready to listen?” the figure asked. The man was still moaning, rocking back and forth and trying to find a seated position and a hand-over-ear pressure that would quiet the high pitched hum in his head.
The figure dropped a folder on the floor and knelt down.
“Please allow me to introduce ourselves, Mr. President.”
The man's hearing started to clear. He heard the end of the sentence, heard the title he'd won in election, the title he'd carried for almost four weeks now. A strange man infiltrated his safe room in one of New York's most secure buildings and the President knew what he was about to hear.
“Our name, Mr. President... is Karma. We are a powerful force for balance in the world. We wish to swing the pendulum of power back from unfeeling corporate military industrial enslavement to something a little more... equitable. More sustainable. Less... murdery. You can understand that, right?”
“Please,” the President said, his eyes closed and his hands trembling in front of his face.
“Mr. President, sir? Honestly, it didn't take this long acclimating the others to the conversation, and I thought the acting director of the world's largest military superpower, the leader of the free world, would have a little more sack than this. I'm surprised. I'm... disappointed. My colleagues will all be very disappointed.”
The President brought his hands down from their shielding position in front of his face. He started to open his eyes, allowed himself to look into the face of his nightmares. He'd been watching for this, waiting for it to come, for almost four weeks, when he received the nomination and watched, the next day, as news came in that FBI director James Gibson had been killed. Everson Tower became a second White House, the safe room stocked with months of food and water and outfitted with the servers and software he would need to continue operations in case of emergency. The President and his inner circle had seen to the specifications personally, in preparation.
He can't know why we did that, can he?
As the fog of his panic lifted, he realized the room had been designed to be nearly impossible to break into, and no amount of screaming would alert the people outside. They wouldn't have even heard the gunshot. It would take a cruise missile to get anyone's attention without the intercom.
“What do you want?” the President asked.
The figure smiled, “I'm so glad you asked. It's really quite simple.” He dropped a folder on the floor and motioned the President to open it. He opened the folder, expecting pictures of a dead FBI director, pictures of Elizabeth Shurmer and Senator Evans and Judge Kaysin, maybe other deaths he didn't yet know about. In the last moments before seeing the first item, an image of his wife and daughters, tied up and gagged, bloody, or simply dead, flashed into the frame of possibilities.
There were no pictures of dead politicians or kidnapped family members. The folder contained paper, documents, official transcripts detailing confidential CIA operations. As the President flipped through them, he started to feel like photos of bullet-induced blood spatter and exposed brain matter would have been better.
“These first pages are the records of all of the CIA's drug movements through New York Harbor. We were wondering why the shipment size and frequency suddenly increased two months ago and we figured it might be related to developments we were tracking in Syria.”
The President continued thumbing from page to page. He could feel the pressure rising in his chest again, could feel his inhales getting shorter. His heartbeat swished in his ears and thumped in his neck.
“Oh, I love this part, page five? Probably my favorite. These are files detailing communication between CIA operatives and a Mr. Asan Al Zarkali. Did you know that? We wondered why the CIA would set up a meeting with a top member of Al-Qaeda's command, and why he would show up to such a meeting, and why the CIA wouldn't then kill him at said meeting.”
The President stopped turning pages. He started shaking his head.
“Oh don't stop now, you're at the best part.”
He knew the story, he didn't have to read it out of the confidential documents stolen by an international hacking organization. He knew members of the CIA made contact with Zarkali to convince him to set up a small team of followers for an attack on the White House. The men would be supplied with the implements and instructions for building a small thermobaric bomb, one that could be carried in the back of a moving truck. If the truck could get close enough to the White House, the blast would level it and all surrounding buildings, killing everyone inside. Their plans included assuring that the President would be out of the White House at the time.
“The White House?” the figure asked, shaking his head. “Now, we're not super keen on all of the machinations and institutions of the current government. We don't tend to get too hung up on special people or special positions or special buildings. But blowing up the White House?”
The President closed the folder and let his head hang between his knees.
“What do they call that? A false flag event? It doesn't matter, we intercepted this information six days ago and Zarkali and his team are no longer an issue. But that brings me to the reason for this whole night.”
The figure sat down in front of the President and crossed his legs. He assumed the pose of a teacher, a wise old yogi... apart from the pistol in his right hand.
“You... need to stop. You, and all of the people like you, just need to stop. America is ready to move past all of this. You ran on a platform that suggested you were a man who could move past all of this. Inciting riots, staging 'terrorist attacks,' usurping democratically elected leaders around the world, the dissemination of information and disinformation designed to keep China, Russia, and the middle east suspicious of us and of each other. Humanity is ready to move past the 'chaos for prophet' model. We don't need dark rooms full of rich old men trying to carve out their ownership of the world. It's stupid. It's unnecessary. Now, the reason I'm here with you is because your position gives you power for real change. It would only take a few men and women like you, in positions like yours, to change these flawed political structures. When you were on the campaign trail, you claimed to be ready to make real changes, to shake up the system, to fight for the people, for freedom. What was your slogan?”
“You know what it was,” the President mumbled.
“I do know, I remember it clearly. But I would love, just love love love, if you'd say it for me. I think it would mean more if you said it.”
The Glock shifted slightly in the man's hand. The President turned over a few more pages. His mind was still cycling through options for escape, but being locked in a sound proof box, alone, with no means for communication with the outside world and no weapons to use against the man now questioning him kept his options limited: kill the armed assailant in hand to hand combat, or acquiesce.
“Take your time,” the man said, “I want to really feel it. I want the version you belted out in Ohio and Michigan. I don't just want to feel it, I want to feel it in my balls!”
The man stood, grabbed his crotch, and returned to the leather chair.
“Come on, Mr. President, hit me!”
“An America we can be...”
The man stopped him, “No, no no, don't just give me the punchline, I want the last paragraph. I want the monologue, the passionate call to action. Inspire me!”
The President dropped his head, dragging his chin back and forth across his chest as he started to shake his head again.
“I know it's just me in here, Mr. President, but I'll help. I'm sure your chanting crowds helped at all of those campaign trail stops. You ready? Pick it up whenever you feel lead by that passionate American spirit.” The man cleared his throat. “From coast to coast, from our highest mountains to our lowest valleys...”
The man leaned in, looking out of the tops of his eyes at the President's mouth. He was waiting. He knew it would come, he simply needed to wait.
“… from the Pacific North West's crystal lakes to the Louisiana bayou...”
The man funneled his hands around his mouth and tried to create the sounds of a wild crowd. When his hands withdrew, he rested the Glock on his knee, leveling it at the President's chest.
“This is my favorite part so I'm really going to need your help here, Mr. President.”
The President stopped shaking his head. The man saw it, the moment, acquiescence.
“From the crystal lakes of the Pacific Northwest...”
“There you go.”
“To the heat and hospitality of the Louisiana bayou...”
“I hear it.”
“From the schoolhouse to the beach house to the penthouse to the White house...”
“Preach it, brother!”
“An America we can be sure of...”
“An America we can be proud of...”
“America... leading the way!”
The man stood from the leather chair with his arms raised and belted out his best “Yeehaw!” It echoed like the gunshot.
“Oh man! That stuff just gets me, you know? It just gets my juices flowing! Woo! I love it, I know why you won, that stuff just works. I don't even know why, just something inside me comes alive and I want to... take over something, you know? I just want to bomb some poor brown country and take all of their natural resources. I get it, man, I get it! A lot of people in the media and on the left didn't get it, still don't get it, but I get it.”
The man strode to the President's side and slapped him on the back.
“Good stuff, my man. Now... quick question... where in the 'America, leading the way' slogan is the part about staging a fake terrorist attack on the White House and killing hundreds of American citizens to establish grounds for a war with Syria?”
The President watched the gun appear from behind the man's leg. The black metal swung slightly in the man's grip, peering from behind him like a second interrogator.
“You know what I hoped? I hoped all of your rhetoric on the campaign trail was just that, rhetoric. Words, meant to set you apart from your Democratic opponent and the previous administration. I thought, with your knowledge of social media and manipulating the mainstay press outlets, that you might be catfishing us. I hoped, somewhere deep down in my heart and soul, in my very being, that you were going to lie your way into the White House by using fear and racism and xenophobia and misogyny, only to turn around at your inauguration, accept the role of President, get sworn in, and then give your speech. In my sweetest dreams, it would have included thank yous to all of the people who voted for you. All of the misinformed, misguided, manipulated people who voted for you. I envisioned you laughing as you detailed some of the things you said to other world leaders, to your party members, to your own family and friends. I hoped you would read direct quotes you made that contradicted themselves or other statements you'd previously made. Or both! I thought you might give America a stern talking to. I thought you might lecture us on totalitarianism and the folly of dividing America and the world into an us versus them playing field where the biggest, loudest, meanest, most violent players win. I saw you waving your hands and asking how we elected a known thief, a repeated liar, a womanizer teetering on the edge of full-blown sexual predator, and then I saw you calling it all a big show. You would reveal yourself to the people for the real you, the man who truly did want to get America moving in the right direction. And, silly me, I even thought America might respond positively to such a brash and bold piece of performance art. I had such hope.”
The man returned to his yogi pose in front of the President.
“But then you spoke at your inauguration. And then you spoke again the next day, and the next, and we got to see your speeches and your press conferences and your emails and your Twitter page.”
The man pulled another, smaller folder from his vest.
“You're a performer, Mr. President. You've never been a businessman, a politician, or a leader. You're a performer, and you're performing for the wrong playwrights. We'd like to change that.”
The man dropped another folder on the President's lap and the pages slid out together. The writing on these pages was different. This wasn't a collection of intelligence documents or operational transcripts.
It was a script.
“We'd like to try what I envisioned. We're a little late, it won't have quite as much power at this stage, but like I said, Mr. President... you're a performer. The people will need convincing. The people will want to be shocked. They will want that wow factor. They will want to tune into the rest of your TV show if you grab that microphone and you melt their faces off. Now, I know this is a lot to take in, and you're probably thinking about ways to kill me, or thinking about how I expect to get out of this safe room alive, but none of that matters. What matters is that you've been given this opportunity to make real change. You've been given a chance that no one has had since John F. Kennedy, rest his soul. You will pull back the putrid scab that is American politics. You will dig the chiggers out of America's skin and help her begin to heal. You will not arm al-Qaeda members with the means to blow up the White House and send the world, yet again, into war. We're starting a new act in the play, now. We're going to act three in this crazy show we call America.”
The man rose, stepping to the control panel and raising his phone to the screens. A few seconds of key tapping satisfied him and the phone returned to his pocket.
“When men approach you and threaten you or threaten your family, don't be afraid. I'm here with you in one of the safest and most secure rooms in the world and I will be gone soon and, if you'd like, you can pretend I was never here and none of this ever happened. No one else will know I was here. That is how good were are at what we do. Please know that our skills work both ways, offensively and defensively. If I tell you we will protect you and your family, they will be safe. On the other hand, if you insist on continuing to make decisions that will get more people killed and ruin more lives, I will have to come back and talk to you again. Do you want to talk to me again?”
The President shook his head.
“Well jeez! Tell me how you really feel!” The man checked to make sure the Glock still had a round chambered. “You've got a big speech on Tuesday, right? Sounds like a perfect day for real change. I'll know, within the first thirty seconds, your decision. We have some amazing writers on our team. I hope you will join us.”
The man secured a small tactical pack and unloaded the pistol. He left the bullets on the floor and the clip and Glock on the leather chair.
“One more thing, Mr. President... do you like the men out there on security?”
“The men out their guarding the elevator, do you like them?”
The President understood the question and nodded slowly.
“They're good men,” he whispered.
“Aw, see, you're already making better decisions.” The man looked at his watch. “Mr. President, it's been a pleasure. I hope you're not afraid of the dark.”
Before the President could answer, the monitors clicked off and the room went black. A hiss called out from the blast doors and the President could hear them opening. He almost screamed out for help again, but stopped himself. He waited, listening, as the security team called out directives in the dark. One by one their bodies hit the hallway floor, and everything was quiet.
The President got to his feet and shuffled along the wall toward the door. Before he reached it, the blast doors hissed again and began to close as the lights clicked back on. Light from the hall streamed in briefly before the doors shut, and when he looked to the monitors, all four guards were down, motionless. The man was nowhere to be seen.
The intercom crackled to life:
“Remember, Mr. President... an America we can be proud of. Lead the way.”
The President scooped the file and the loose papers from the floor. He flipped through the first few pages of the script and drew a long, deep breath.
Act one: honesty.
To give this speech would mean shaking the political foundations of the entire world. It would be on every news station in operation. It would, overnight, change foreign relations, the effectiveness of representative government, the concepts of nationalism and borders, and would make him the most famous, or infamous, President, or maybe even leader, of all time.
Do you want to continue the status quo, or become the most influential leader in human history?
By the time the effects of the gas wore off and the guards recovered, the President had the first ten minutes of Tuesday's speech nearly memorized.