Saturday, January 4, 2020


     [A short story for you today, in celebration of President Trump’s forceful and entirely appropriate response to recent Iranian provocations, especially the assaults on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Trump might not be Stephen Graham Sumner, but he’s likely to be as close as we’re going to get for the foreseeable future.

     This tale is a portion of my novel Statesman. -- FWP]

     "Mr. President," the static-flecked voice from the speakerphone said, "my people cannot endure much more of this bloodletting. We have lost --"
     "Two thousand three hundred forty-six citizens in the past two years alone," Stephen Sumner said. "I know it well, Natan. But the ink on the peace accords is barely dry. Do you propose to topple the government of Palestine before its first birthday, while it's still struggling to get control over its people?"
     Secret Service agent Geoff Nolan kept his face expressionless. He'd mastered that, and every other discipline of his exacting trade, except for one: the art of not hearing what was said by the president of the United States and the potentates with whom he conversed.
     "Mr. President, we both know that abu Sirkas's regime has no intention of stopping the attacks. Mossad could show you documentary evidence that the terror squads are drawing on the Palestinian state treasury, and receive funds from eleven other states besides."
     A scowl flickered across the president's face. He rose from his desk and went to stand before the broad bay window of the Oval Office.
     "That's as may be, Natan. I know your evidence is good, but for Israel to make war on Palestine at this time would engender massive casualties, backlash from world opinion, and a strong reaction against your advocates in America. I cannot support you in this under current conditions. I advise you to do what you can with your less publicized tools and methods."
     Nolan's ears pricked up involuntarily.
     It sounds like he's counseling the prime minister of Israel to dispatch an assassination squad, the way they did after Munich. How many people would be howling for his scalp if they could hear this conversation, as I'm hearing it now?
     Sumner had risen to the presidency on the strength of his ardent constitutionalism. He'd preached the importance of strict limits on the powers of government, of absolute adherence to the rule of law especially by its hired minions, across the length and breadth of America. Huge audiences, crushed by ever-rising taxes, baffled by incomprehensible laws, and outraged by unaccountable legislators and regulators, had thrilled to the message. His victory had eclipsed all but George Washington's unanimous election in 1788.
     Now it appeared that his convictions were somewhat flexible. At least, when it would not be he who had to answer for the consequences.
     There are no saints in high office, Geoffrey boy. Leave your idealism at home with Nadia.
     Nolan's hand went automatically to the crucifix that was always in his hip pocket.
     Lord Jesus, guide me in this as in all things. Though these be Caesar's things, affairs of state in which You refused to involve Yourself, surely there's a right and a wrong to it. Help me to know the difference.
     The conversation ended. Sumner spent a moment more staring out at the gorgeous White House lawn, then strode to the mantel and took down the epee mounted above it. He struck a garde position, held it for a moment, and launched into an elaborate sequence of strokes and feints that carried him all the way across the Oval Office.
     Nolan watched with an appreciative eye. Sumner would turn fifty-five in two weeks. Yet with his sword in hand, he moved with the fluidity of a far younger man. His every motion was micrometer-exact and as precisely timed as a metronome. The president noted his attention, put up the sword, and grinned.
     "The boss is a little strange, eh, Geoff?"
     "Not at all, sir." Nolan struggled to keep his face smooth. "A lot of people like the grace of fencing."
     The president nodded. "There's a purity to it. When the gong sounds, there's just you, and the sword, and your opponent. The rules are simple and clear, and the objective is right there in front of you."
     "Not much like statecraft, then, Mr. President?"
     The grin slipped from Sumner's face. He looked a moment at the sword in his hand, returned it to its place above the mantel and resumed his seat at his desk.
     "No, not much at all."


     Though the entire Secret Service competed for the supreme prestige of guarding the president's person, there was little love for the daily debrief that each agent so honored had to endure. All such debriefs were conducted by Agent-In-Charge Ryan McFarlane, the commander of the detail.
     McFarlane was a legend in federal law enforcement. He'd entered the Secret Service from the FBI, where a string of takedowns of major espionage and drug rings had raised him to national prominence. He'd disdained all publicity, but the regularity and size of his successes kept his name on everyone's lips nonetheless. It didn't hurt that he was tall, blond, classically handsome, and built like Captain America. The president himself had solicited McFarlane's application, twenty years earlier.
     But the highest ranking, most decorated agent in the Service was not an affable man. He had no friends on the job. His smile was rarer than an admission of error from a politician. Nothing was known about his private life, except that he was a widower without children and lived alone. An agent on whom his eye fixed was hard pressed not to shiver.
     "You neither saw nor heard anything that could be construed as a threat to the president's person?" McFarlane said.
     "Nothing, sir." Nolan kept his voice level.
     "And you neither saw nor heard anything that might later be used against the president in the performance of his duties?"
     "Uh, no, sir."
     A jot of extra intensity entered McFarlane's already bright blue eyes. "Why the hesitation, Nolan?"
     Nolan cursed himself beneath his breath and tried to organize a response.
     "I'm waiting, Agent." McFarlane had risen from his chair and stood with his arms crossed over his chest.
     The little interview room suddenly seemed like the inside of a freezer.
     "Well, sir, you know an agent can't help hearing what's said in his presence."
     McFarlane's icy stare was unchanged.
     "The president doesn't always talk straight, sir. Sometimes there are...ways to interpret his words that would reflect badly on him."
     "Politically?" McFarlane said.
     "Yes, sir."
     A quantum of tension drained from the Agent-In-Charge's features. He pursed his lips and stuck his hands in his pockets.
     "Did you vote for him, Nolan?"
     "Uh, yes, sir."
     "But he's not the first man you've voted for, is he?"
     "No, sir."
     "And those others? Were they calendar saints, whose every word meant exactly what it appeared to mean, and nothing else?"
     Nolan's mouth tightened. "No, sir."
     McFarlane nodded. "Of course they weren't. Nor will any other man be who rises to the Oval Office. We don't involve ourselves in politics, Agent. The people choose according to their own lights. Whoever they choose, we're oathbound to protect."
     Nolan could not repress a shrug. "You asked, sir."
     McFarlane shook his head. "I asked whether you saw or heard anything that could be used against the president in the performance of his duties. Things that could be used to put him under duress. Not matters of policy that his opponents would use to campaign against him. Our job is to protect him from violence and coercion, not to ensure his re-election. Got that straight now?"
     "Yes, sir."
     McFarlane stared down at him a moment longer, then sat and folded his hands before him. A grin played at the corners of his mouth.
     "It's a hard job, Nolan. Acquiring the right kind of detachment is one of the hardest parts. You're doing well. Keep at it. Dismissed."


     The bombing of Geneva's famous Weiss Associates Building, home to the most prestigious retail diamond merchants in Europe, woke the news centers of the Eastern Seaboard at precisely 2 AM. At the time of the explosion, more than three hundred persons were in the building, more than two-thirds of them affluent shoppers from around the world.
     The explosion, later reckoned to be an atomized-fuel blast, shot chunks of structural steel through the walls of buildings hundreds of yards away. The firestorm that followed the explosion completely defeated Geneva's firefighting corps. They watched, impotent, as the five-storey jewelry emporium was reduced to a mound of ash. There were no survivors, and nearly no recognizable remains.
     Geoff Nolan was on duty outside the presidential bedroom when the news hit. A mass of politicos and agents, led by Ryan McFarlane, surged down the hall toward him, a sight that nearly made him pull his sidearm and drop into combat position.
     First Lady Adrienne Sumner had been scheduled to be in Geneva at the time of the blast. McFarlane had attempted to contact her detail and assure himself of her safety, but without success.
     It was Nolan's task to awaken the president.
     Stephen Sumner emerged from his bedroom in a maroon silk robe. He was pale, but grimly composed. He gestured at once for his Secretary of Defense and pulled the man out of the knot of cabinet officials that awaited the president's orders. Their exchange was seven words long; Nolan heard it all.
     "You know what to do," Sumner said.
     "Yes, sir."
     The secretary hurried off. Sumner retreated to dress. McFarlane issued orders for a high-alert, imminent-threat deployment of the Service's twelve hundred agents.
     The orders McFarlane gave to Nolan were simple and clear: "Don't let him out of your sight, son."
     "Yes, sir."
     The First Lady's Secret Service detachment commander rang in six minutes later. Twenty-three minutes after that, the wire services came alive with the news that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had claimed responsibility for the attack.


     The Secret Service wasn't the only federal organ to receive special tasking orders that day.
     The commanders of twelve separate special-operations detachments in bases in Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean received go-orders so cryptic that not even their communications chiefs could make them out. All of them mobilized at once. Aircraft seemed to drop magically from the sky to accept squad after squad of heavily armed Delta Force commandos, whom they whisked off into the darkness. SEALs and Marines, loaded for bear and for underwater infiltrations, boarded submarines that left the docks without fanfare and went to flank speed the moment they reached open water.
     Each detachment had as its target a palace in a capital in the Muslim Middle East. Their strike orders were time-synchronized.
     Four hours after the Weiss Building exploded, those twelve teams struck their targets as one.
     The guards who walked the parapets and corridors of twelve palaces heard only the barest breath of passing air as death closed upon them from the shadows. The Americans killed without mercy until they reached the persons whose names stood at the tops of their order sheets: twelve sleeping heads of state, who'd gone to their beds serenely confident that the thugs surrounding them would be proof against any intrusion.
     All twelve received a rude awakening.
     American soldiers jerked them roughly from their covers, stripped them of whatever they wore, and secured them in plastic hand- and ankle-cuffs that were impossible to pick or break. Black hoods were pulled over their heads. The unspeaking Americans frog-marched them through the carnage to destinations unknown, leaving only corpses and silence behind them.


     Nolan stood his Oval Office post in an agony of anticipation. Sumner had seated himself at his desk, made a single phone call, and then sat back with his hands steepled against his chest. Nolan watched him sit that way, unmoving, for four hours, until the sun had risen and the soft buzz of the phone notified him of an incoming call.
     Sumner pressed the ANSWER key and said, "Yes?"
     "Full compliance, sir."
     "Thank you." The president disconnected. His eyes went to Nolan's face.
     "Would you like to know what's happened here tonight, Geoff?"
     The question threw Nolan off balance. "Uh, yes, sir."
     "History. You've been a witness to history. You can be a witness to still more of it, if you're amenable. Sleepy?"
     "Yes, sir."
     "Then go get some rest." Sumner rose and stretched. "But set your alarm to wake you in six hours. I'll expect you back here then."
     "Uh, Mr. President, Agent McFarlane told me not to let you out of my sight."
     Sumner nodded. "I'm sure he did. But for a change, I'm perfectly safe. Just now, I'm probably the safest man in the world. You'll find out why in six hours. So be off with you. I'll handle McFarlane. You catch some sleep."
     Nolan did as instructed.


     When Nolan returned to the Oval Office, the president rose from his desk and said only, "Come with me."
     They hurried down the corridors to an elevator that Nolan had never seen used. It plunged them deep into the subterranean security levels, where the president might be expected to go in the event of a nuclear attack. But when they debarked, it was to board a curious looking subway, a single-car affair that looked more like a spaceship than a thing that traveled underground on rails. There was no one there waiting for them.
     Sumner pulled open the engineer's cabin, stepped inside, and beckoned Nolan to follow him. He put his hands to the futuristic control board as if it were something he did each day. Nolan regarded the multicolored array of touch-panels and plasma displays uncertainly.
     "Relax, Geoff. You weren't expected to know about this. McFarlane does. We're headed for a facility only a few people have heard about."
     The president took hold of a joystick and drew one finger along a green plasma panel, and the little train accelerated smoothly and silently down the track. Blue steel arches, like the ribs of some gigantic prehistoric beast, flashed past them as they sped down the dim tunnel.
     "You disapprove of me, don't you, Geoff?"
     The president kept his eyes on the track unspooling before them. "You think I've betrayed my convictions." He grinned at the windshield. "Your deadpan isn't nearly as good as you think it is."
     Nolan fumbled for words. "Mr. President, if you want to replace me --"
     "Nothing of the sort, Geoff. It's part of the reason I like having you around. You're a measure of, well, a lot of things. And no one on the detail doubts your skills."
     Sumner canted his joystick to the left, and the little train cambered smoothly through a descending curve. A spot of light appeared in the distance. It grew slowly larger and brighter.
     "There's no manual for how I'm supposed to fulfill the oath I took. The Constitution describes the duties of the president fairly well, but it never gets to the 'how' of the thing. What am I allowed to do for the sake of 'preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic'? Since no means are specified, should I assume I'm allowed to use any means at all?"
     "Uh, sir," Nolan faltered, "you're a little outside my field."
     "Which field, Geoff? Criminal justice, or protecting the president?"
     Nolan kept his mouth shut.
     "We've been at war for a lot of years now. Damned few people have been aware of it. But the enemy is real, he's numerous, and he hates this country and its ideals more than a decent American could imagine. And I am charged with stopping him."
     The spot of light was now plainly the mouth of the tunnel. Sumner drew his finger across the throttle again, and the train decelerated to a smooth halt. The right wall of the tunnel gave way to a concrete platform on which stood a squad of Marines, rifles at port arms.
     When they debarked, a Marine lieutenant approached, snapped to attention, and saluted. Sumner returned it.
     "Is everything ready, Lieutenant?"
     "As you specified, sir."
     Sumner nodded and made for a nearby escalator, with Nolan right behind him.


     The room to which Sumner brought him was nearly a hundred feet square, high-ceilinged and as brightly lit as an operating theater. Yet it was empty of everything but people: Marines in BDUs, and twelve naked middle-aged captives, hands bound behind them, their swarthy faces uniformly filled with fear. At each captive's elbow stood a Marine with a nightstick. Another dozen Marines armed with M-16s flanked the group.
     The captives' faces were quite recognizable. They'd been splashed across the country by innumerable newscasts and newspapers. Nolan paled as the implications struck home.
     The walls were dotted with capped fittings, evenly spaced. They might have been for wiring harnesses, or for hoses; Nolan couldn't tell.
     The floor was smooth, seamless concrete. It had been smoothed more carefully than any concrete Nolan had seen before, giving it a texture near to porcelain. Its sole feature was a large sewer drain at the room's center. When his eyes lit on it, Nolan noticed that the floor was slightly pitched, perhaps half a foot lower at the drain than at the walls.
     It was clear what the room had been designed for.
     Sumner sauntered up to the captives and looked each in the eyes. Each one's expression went from terror to wonder, and then to outrage, as he recognized his host. They started to scream in a melange of Middle Eastern tongues.
     Sumner let it go on for a few seconds, then drew a deep breath and shouted a single word, in a parade-ground blare that would have made any drill sergeant proud.
     The gabble ceased at once.
     "You all speak English. You recognize me, and you recognize one another. But you do not yet recognize that the world has changed.
     "That is why you're here. That is why I'm here with you. Before you leave this place, you will know the change, and you will bow before it."
     One of the captives spat a stream of obscenities. Sumner nodded to the Marine at the captive's side. The soldier cracked his baton across the gibbering man's midsection, doubling him over and sending him to his knees. Sumner waited while the Marine hauled the captive back to his feet.
     "Do not presume on my benevolence, gentlemen," Sumner said. "It should be obvious by now that I have none. None for you, at any rate.
     "All of you are heads of Muslim states. All of you are complicit in the funding and operation of terrorist gangs. All of you have blood on your hands, probably more than anyone will ever know. So I have had you brought to me."
     Sumner's voice was level and unstressed, but Nolan could see the special gleam in his eye, the glaze over his features, that presaged a dramatic action.
     What could be more dramatic than kidnapping twelve heads of state?
     "My operatives killed everyone around you. Their count was eleven hundred sixty-seven fatalities. That was by my order. I wanted there to be enough carnage to drive the lesson home. But the lesson is not yet complete.
     "In a few hours you will be going home. The same infiltration teams that snatched you will be tasked to return you, in full darkness and by the same methods. Whoever is in your palaces when you return will die. What happens after that will be for you to decide.
     "I have had you brought here to hear a sentence of death. At the next terrorist act by any group that has received even one dollar's worth of assistance from any of you, that sentence will fall. Do not doubt that I will have it carried out."
     The silence was so perfect that Nolan found himself listening for his own heartbeat. Sumner's gaze raked across the faces of the captives.
     "But the sentence will not be for you. It will be your families who will die, from your next of kin all the way out to your grandparents, your grandchildren, and your second and third cousins. You will be left entirely without relatives.
     "If that lesson fails to produce the effect I want, and another Muslim commits another terrorist act, I will have you brought to me again. But we won't convene here. You will go to my War Room, where we'll watch the saturation nuclear bombing of all twelve of your countries. I will leave you as the sole remnants of your people, your languages, and your cultures. Then I will return you to them. You will rule over nations of corpses and radioactive rubble, to survive as best you can."
     Sumner smiled. "Do you have any questions?"
     One of the captives in the front row croaked a single word. It might have been "oil."
     Sumner nodded. "Oil, yes. A very important commodity, doubt it not. But America has its own, and Europe and Asia can learn to do without it. Anything else?"
     "Why?" the same captive said.
     Sumner cocked his head. "Because I'm sick of you, your posturing, your fanaticism, and your savagery. Because you've killed enough, and hated enough, and brutalized enough to damn your entire civilization. Why else? Or did you mean why now?" Sumner breathed deeply, and suddenly seemed to double in size. "Because my wife was in Geneva last night, and when that bomb went off no one knew where she was. Do you need more explanation than that, Mr. Prime Minister?"
     "Very well. You will now be returned to your palaces. Have a nice day." Sumner strode at once for the door, with Nolan behind him.


     McFarlane's gaze was less challenging than usual.
     "What upset you most about the episode, Nolan? The specifics of it, or the fact that you were compelled to watch it?"
     Nolan grinned ruefully. "I wasn't compelled, sir. The president asked me if I'd like to watch history being made. Of course I said yes. I just wasn't prepared for what came next."
     McFarlane rose, hands in his pockets, and looked over Nolan's head into the far corner of the room. His expression was distant.
     "How did you feel about 'what came next'?"
     Nolan clamped his lips together and bowed his head.
     "Agent Nolan?"
     "It doesn't seem right, sir. It was an act of war at the very least. And to kill all those people deliberately, just to send a message! Can the president have that kind of authority?"
     McFarlane didn't answer at once. He shuffled out from behind the little table and paced as best he could in the confines of the interview room.
     "Not only can he, he does. Yes, the strikes were acts of war, absolutely. Undisguised, undecorated, and unapologized for. But in for a penny, in for a pound, Nolan. The president is commander-in-chief, remember? He'd decided we were already at war with those states, and he wanted to force their immediate capitulation. The only way to do it was to terrify their leaders so thoroughly that they'd submit to him without further fighting."
     "Do you think it worked, sir?"
     McFarlane produced one of his rare grins. "Ask me in about two years."
     The commander of the Secret Service reseated himself and steepled his hands on the table between them.
     "No president has ever had to face the terrors we live with today, Nolan. There's no rulebook for this sort of conflict. Stephen Sumner has to make up his own tactics. Worse, he has to make up his own rules. God help us all if he blows it, but he has no choice about trying."
     "Sir..." Nolan hesitated.
     "Spill it, Nolan."
     "He wouldn't have done it except for his wife."
     As soon as he said it, Nolan felt a deep shame. McFarlane looked steadily into his eyes. The younger man struggled to bear it.
     "I could have guessed that would trouble you, son. But does it trouble you enough not to want to do this job? Have you thought at all about why the president wanted you to see those twelve tyrants brought to him in chains and humiliated in his presence?"
     Nolan's eyes widened. "It wasn't just because my name was at the top of the duty roster?"
     McFarlane shook his head. "Not at all, son. He thinks you might have what it takes to command the detail." A grin. "In about twenty years."
     The room went briefly silent. Nolan fingered the crucifix in his pocket.
     "To be a top agent," McFarlane said, "you can't be perturbed by the impurities in the men you protect. You have to be able to accept them. Not just ignore them, but accept that they're part of what makes a man strong enough to wield the powers of the presidency. Like the impurities in weapons-grade steel. It would be ordinary soft iron without its carbon and molybdenum fractions. Useless." His eyes flicked to Nolan's hip pocket. "What are you fiddling with, Agent?"
     Nolan's face reddened. Reluctantly, he pulled the little crucifix from his pocket and laid it on the table. McFarlane regarded it somberly.
     "Do you always carry that with you?"
     Nolan nodded.
     McFarlane reached into his own pocket, pulled out a slightly larger crucifix, and laid it on the table next to Geoff Nolan's. The younger man stared at it in silence.
     "Surprised, Nolan?"
     "Uh, a little, sir."
     "The president gave that to me. I'm never without it."
     "President Coleman?"
     McFarlane shook his head. "President Sumner."


Copyright © 2011 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


Glen Filthie said...

What a great little story Francis. Unfortunately, in the real world, the ways of the power brokers and Cloud People work much differently.

Linda Fox said...

The Peace at any cost Catholics have done their best to indoctrinate the rest of us in the concept that violence - even if used to protect the innocent - is unacceptable. Fortunately, for most of us, they have failed in their mission. Most Catholics, like most Christians, understand the idea that violence used against violent people is justified.

The current ploy in NYC to release all criminals without bail, if possible, is being used to frighten and cow the law-abiding part of the population. Look to it to be spread nationwide, should the Leftists win again.

Tracy Coyle said...

My story 37 Minutes, has a similar theme.

Your's captures the issues better.

I kinda agree with Linda - the attempts to use 'turn the other cheek' as a means to force pacifism upon people drives me nuts....worse to hear it come from people without an ounce of fealty to Christianity in ANY form.

I hope Trump does the same - not exactly, but figuratively...with both the Left and the detritus that exists in the world leadership halls.