“Weight…divided by height…” President Ronald Small muttered to himself as he finished the calculation on his phone. “31.6…obese?” Obese!? He stood and examined his image in the full-length mirror installed beside his portrait, a far slimmer and more flattering version of himself, and held up his shirt. Jesus, I can’t even see my own dick. All those lunches and dinners… Sit down every fucking day with some foreign asshole from some place you’ve hardly heard of, make nice and eat – and you’re gonna pay for it bigly. And all the time, jokes from nasty washed-up, two-bit actors. He sucked in his gut and regarded the figure in the mirror. That comedian, Whatshisname, with the stupid wig. What did he say on that show the other day? Karn relaxed and a white hairy bulge slid over his belt. Said I was having a baby. Said it was too bad with the changes I’d made to the high court I couldn’t get an abortion… And then those media assholes get a hold of it and the next day it’s all over the Internet. And then jokes get made about the jokes… No respect. You’d think people had something to get on with, like maybe working for the good of the country.
There it was again, the knock on the door, sharper this time, more urgent. Dammit! Small shook his head. He demanded twenty minutes peace in the Oval Office every evening to do a little putting practice. That was the deal. Everyone agreed to it. Not too much to ask, surely. Another knock.
“Mr President?” said the muffled voice on the other side of the door.
“What!” he called out. And then, sighing heavily, “Come!”
The door swung open and people surged in like fish through a net suddenly holed. “It’s my private time and you all know that. The day is done. All I ask for is a lousy 20 minutes. This better be good. Sam?”
Secretary of Defense, Samantha Epstein, early 60s, pencil thin, voice like a coffee grinder, her makeup applied so that it would last the whole day without too much maintenance, wearing down slowly layer-by-layer like an archaeological dig. “Mr President,” she announced, “you’re not going to believe this.”
“Lemme guess…there’s a UFO parked over the roof?”
“The Russians, Mr President.”
“The Russians have parked on the roof?” Small smirked, delighting himself with his wit. But wiseass comments aside, he’d been at this long enough to know something major was about to land on his desk. The Russians. First thought: something nuclear. An accident, maybe? No, there are a whole set of protocols for that. This was something else.
Epstein, the wheezing Secretary of State Ed Raster and Wayland Flange, the thin, almost emaciated National Security Advisor, exchanged a glance.
“Do you want me to guess or draw a picture?” Small said, his patience thin. “I’m a great artist. You wanna see?”
“Sir, the Russians have lost Petrovich,” Director CIA Reid Hamilton announced, the distinctive wild orange and gray eyebrows that sat above his deep sunk brown eyes pushed together so that the hairs almost tangled.
“What? What do you mean ‘lost’?”
“Mr President, this could be a game changer,” Flange took over, reassured him. “In a good way.”
“Well, I’d love, love, love to agree with you, Wayland, just as soon as I know what the hell you’re all talking about. Did he wander off at the mall or something?”
“Mr President,” DCIA Hamilton continued, “NSA has intercepted traffic on multiple levels, government and military, that Russian President Valeriy Petrovich has gone missing in northern Syria.”
The President grinned. “Is it my birthday?”
Epstein, Raster, Hamilton and Flange stood before the president like naughty children who had lost their tongues.
“Well, no, but…” Small suddenly got up out of his chair and busted a move, nothing too athletic, cleared his throat and did his best to project concern. “Has this been announced in their media, or anywhere else?”
“No, sir,” SECSTATE Raster advised him. “Our guess is that the Russian military is hoping to locate him before the Kremlin is forced to make any kind of announcement.”
“Do we know what happened?”
“We believe his helicopter was shot down on the outskirts of the city of Latakia,” said Flange.
“That’s in the north of Syria, near the Turkish border,” Hamilton added, knowing that his President’s sense of geography was more a Monopoly board view of the world defined by the number of hotels he had once owned there, and he had never owned hotels there. “Petrovich was making a surprise visit to the battlefront to review Russian armed forces.”
“Then I guess Valeriy was the one who got surprised. You’ll never catch me doing anything so tremendously stupid. When did this happen?”
“Around 2AM, local time in Syria. 8PM our time.”
Small grunted. Around three hours ago. “And it’s not some kind of stunt”
“By whom, Mr President?” Raster enquired.
“The Russians. Who else?”
“Sorry, sir. No, sir. Not a stunt,” the SECSTATE assured him.
“Unlikely,” said Epstein, backing up her colleague, somewhat taken aback that POTUS was accepting this news with such a light heart.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Small told Epstein. “Geniuses can do that – read minds. Einstein could read minds. Did you know that, Madam Secretary?”
“No, Mr President,” Epstein replied, clearing her throat. Er…what? “I didn’t.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know. You’re thinking I’m pretty relaxed about this, right?”
“Yes, Mr President,” Epstein agreed. He’s right. I am…
Well, we want Russia to play ball with us on a number of trade and defense issues. And anyone who knows anything about how to structure a great deal will tell you – and if there’s one thing I know it’s how to make a fantastic deal – is you gotta have leverage.”
“What leverage do we have here, Mr President?” asked Hamilton, genuinely at a loss.
President Small underlined the point with the usual hand gestures. “I’ll tell you once you’ve told me everything. What do we know about this?” the President asked the room. “Do we have intel of our own? Of course we do. Give me the headlines, no need to dig around in the weeds. We have the most fantastic intelligence in the world, everyone knows that.”
“Yes, sir – we have a SPIREP from assets-“
Exasperated, the President stopped him. “A what? Spare me the initials for things, Wayland.”
“Don’t try and seem clever by using words no one knows. What did you say…? Acro…acro… You want to use words everyone knows – that’s clever. Now, can we get on with it? You people were hand picked to make me look good. That’s your job, but so far you’re not giving me confidence. Next time come into my office better prepared.”
“Yes, sir,” Raster said, blood pressure flushing his face a puce color.
“We don’t have much, but it’s something, Mr President,” Flange told him. “Yesterday evening, local Syrian time, we received a Spot Intelligence Report from our assets on the ground that two Russian Hinds had crashed outside Latakia – as I said, that’s on the Syrian side of the border close to Turkey – the very vicinity in which, it turns out, we believe the Russian President has gone missing. It’s yet to be confirmed, but I’d bet the farm that Petrovich was aboard one of those helicopters.”
“And you think he may have been killed in the crash.”
“We don’t know as yet, but it’s a real possibility, sir,” said Epstein, relieved that the President was present enough to join the dots.
Raster, mopping his face with a hanky, added, “The thing is, Mr President, the Russians will make it our problem, sir.”
“Why do you say that, Ed?”
“History, Mr President. That’s what they do.”
“Despite that,” said Epstein, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they ask our help to find him. As I said, we’ve got people on the ground over there. Not many, but more than they do and the Russians know it.”
Flange agreed with a grunt.
“Back to leverage.” The President made a steeple with his fingers beneath his chin. “Let’s see if we can’t find a way to turn this to our advantage. You know, when the stock market goes up, people make money. When the stock market goes down, people make money. You with me? Up, down, it doesn’t matter. You can make money out of bad news too, no problem. If the Russians ask for our help, we’ll provide it. We’re America, the greatest country in the world. But there will be payback. That’s the way it works.”
“Our concern is that it could have been one of the anti-Assad groups we secretly support who shot these choppers down,” said Hamilton.
Flange paced, arms folded. “Just think where this will go if our missiles took him down.”
Small had an answer. “If that turns out to be the case, it would be a shame, because you know President Petrovich and I have an understanding. Or I should say had an understanding. Right up to the time he said I wasn’t the genius he thought I was and that I “Forest Gumped” my way into the White House, blundering across the right thing to say at the right time. And he said those nasty things all because my people wouldn’t support his claims in the Baltic States. So I called him President Golum because, let’s be honest, there’s an incredible similarity there with that boney head and stick-out ears. “But America has to come first and if it looks bad for us, we’ll just take a leaf out of the Russian Book on Handling Bad Publicity, and deny, deny, deny.”
SECDEF Epstein gave the President the glimmer of a smile.
“Meanwhile, what of those assets you mentioned? Are we talking, like, people? Special Forces or whatever? Personally, I like the SEALS. Can we change their mission? Give them a new one? Get the SEALS to go take a look at least?”
“No SEALS, sir,” Flange replied. “And we’ve lost contact with the team who made the report. Communications with people on the ground there are always difficult.”
“I’m sure you can fix the problem, Wayland. You know I have the most tremendous faith in our armed forces. The American military is the best in the world – everyone knows it. Those SEALS are one of the many reasons. No doubt you’ll all keep me well briefed on developments…” The President picked up his putter by the handle and gave it a flick so that it span rapidly in his hand, and sized up the SECSTATE. “What’s your BMI, Ed, do you know? I would say that, technically, you’re obese. Mine? It’s on the high side of normal.”