|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Links to earlier chapters are provided at the bottom.]
Clara Noemann turned on the television at seven a.m. and had breakfast in bed: scrambled eggs, English muffin, orange juice, and black coffee.
|Nelson A. Rockefeller|
“We’ve sampled the opinion of people on the streets across the country. The first street we visited was Broadway and 42nd Street right here in New York.”
A reporter held a microphone under the face of a passerby who seemed to have given up being surprised at anything. “Sir, what do you think about the Vice-President’s disappearance?”
“Think?” The man on the street looked like a mollie fish through his thick glasses. “Oh, well, he’s…disappeared, ain’t he? So what?” He smiled faintly.
Clara winced. Next, a long-haired blonde smiled and exclaimed, “Wow!” into the camera. She fondled the many layers of beads around her neck with long bejeweled fingers. “He got tired of it. Being the Vice-President and all, ya’ know? Living with that woman. Down in the basement. It wasn’t the space for him. He just walked out. Who wants it? I mean, it’s fine if you want it. But who wants it?”
Clara said to herself, You’ll see who wants it, young lady.
“Where do you think the Vice-President went?”
“He’s flipped out, wow. Letting it all hang out. Ya’ know?”
A lean sextogenarian with folds of empty flesh on his face glanced around over each shoulder. “It’s the Martians. They’ve took the Vice-President off in a flying saucer. I saw one. I mean, I’ve saw lots of them.”
A stout woman on Michigan Avenue carried a sign in front of the publishing offices of Playboy Magazine. “HUGH HEFFNER USES WOMEN.” She threatened the reporter with the sign. He shrunk back and held out the mic to her.
“More of ’em ought to disappear. Who did you say?”
“Yeah, men. What do we need ’em for?”
“D0 you have a theory about what happened to the Vice- President?”
The stout woman theorized. “Heh! He was probably out all night with some stripper. Fuzzy Fanny or somebody. He didn’t dare come home. Men are all alike.”
A fat man with gray-white pork chop whiskers took the cigar from his mouth. “He found a better racket. There’s money in government, if you’re in the right place. But Vice-President ain’t it. I coulda’ told ’im that.”
“What would you advise the Vice-President to do?”
A man in a striped shirt, knit tie, and club blazer with shiny brass buttons stood in front of a sign that identified Sunset Boulevard. He had the unsteady look that goes with drinking most of your meals. “It’s a conspiracy. It’s all a conspiracy.”
“What’s the conspiracy?” The reporter wore a white tie, navy-blue shirt, and floral sport coat. The camera lingered to record the flaring of his nostrils. This reporter got equal footage with the man on the street.
“They’re going to take over. First they remove the leaders, one by one.”
“Who’s going to take over?”
The man on the street looked straight ahead. He read the script scrawled on the inside of his forehead. “The sinister forces. When they’ve removed them all, they’ll install the terminals in our heads and start pushing the buttons.”
The cable car behind the jolly flower salesman said Powell street. “I think he defected. I mean, he wasn’t getting no return for his effort here. It’s happened with scientists. Why not with Vice-Presidents? Why, I read a book the other night—”
Clara was impressed. Fred had told her that Austin Froth said there would be lots of theories. “Everybody wants to believe something. It’s a pronounced trait of the untrained mind. Recent history doesn’t seem to have made the believer a bit cautious either.”
A tearful middle-class grandmother pressed a child to her round hip. “Oh, it’s awful. The poor man. Those bodyguards left him unprotected. You can’t go out on the streets nowadays without protection. The Vice-President was mugged for sure. They ought to check all the hospitals.”
Clara wondered whether the President had done that.
Hugh Scud returned. “While you were watching the spectrum of opinion from men and women on the street, we received a note from a group that claims to have kidnapped the Vice-President. Repeat: The Vice-President has apparently been kidnapped.”
Clara put down the cup she was holding and clapped her hands. Austin Froth had said the theories would be too diffuse, unconcerted, divisive. “They want to believe, but lack direction.”
So this was what he had in mind?
Hugh Scud held a piece of brown paper. It seemed to have been torn from a paper bag.
“‘We have the Vice-President. How much is he worth to the American people? How much is he worth to the rich people and corporations that have already spent millions to elect him? The Vice-President will not be brainwashed – he will be returned safely. But time is important. We will contact you later about where to leave the million dollars. Don’t fool with us. Get the money ready in used bills, unmarked, no larger than twenties. No food stamps.’
“It’s signed ‘Strong Left Arm,’ and that’s abbreviated underneath: SLA.”
The political and social slant of the note displeased Clara. She didn’t appreciate the veiled reference to her own expenditures for the election. She dialed the President’s upstairs number to put her immediate response on the record.
Nadli answered the phone. “Oh…I’ m sorry…about Fred. Have you got any word yet?”
“You sound reserved with me, Nadli. I know I was hard on Otis in my statement, but now I’m ready to apologize to him for being unfair.”
Clara told Nadli about the ransom note. “Oh, Clara, I’m sorry. I understand now why you said those things. Otis will be relieved.”
“Is he there?”
“He’s gone to his office already. He was very preoccupied last night. I could tell he was thinking about you the whole time….”
The Oval Office looked deserted, but a rubbing noise came from President Flawless’s desk.
Underneath the desk the President crawled and felt around for the bug that he now feared had been devouring his privacy. He finally found it. It was at the front edge of the bottom of the drawer, where he had felt, not carefully enough, to begin with. He pulled the bug off and leaned against the inside back of the desk. The dark, walled space was peaceful.
Was there a breach of security? But Rob put the bug in Clara’s vase. Was Rob bugging the President? It was easier to believe that some foreign agent...or—
|Richard M. Nixon|
But no one should ever know. If they got hold of this, they’d just kick him around some more, go over the whole thing once again, when they should let him rest in peace.
But what if it wasn’t one of President Dixon’s?
The President took a meditative breath and dropped his chin onto his chest. He didn’t want to think about it. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Peter Piper – he wouldn’t think about it – picked a peck of pickled peppers. You didn’t have to think about things you didn’t want to.
“Mr. President?” He jumped and rammed his head into the bottom of his middle drawer. He wriggled out from under the desk. His face was mottled red. His shoulders were raised in admission of guilt.
But Clara Noemann he didn’t push around. She had begun to intimidate him. And like sex and gravity, intimidation worked at a distance. She didn’t have to be present.
And here she was.
He dropped the bug onto the blotter pad. “I was looking for listening devices. I found one.”
“Why, that’s—” Clara realized she couldn’t really see the bug from ten feet, so she went over and picked it up.
“This is just like the one that was in my vase.”
The President’s eyes narrowed. Clara noticed he doubled his hands into fists at his sides.. “We’ve been bugged by the same people.”
“Uh, don’t mention this to anybody, okay? If the bugger doesn’t know I’ve found—” He remembered that the bug was probably picking up their conversation.
He wrapped it in his handkerchief and stuffed it under a cushion on the sofa in front of the fireplace. “Don’t mention the bug to anybody.”
Clara looked at the President without expression. “Mr. President, I feel bad about some of the things I said in my statement yesterday, and I want to apologize.”
He looked as though he knew he was being tricked.
“The Vice-President has been kidnapped.”
The President was suspicious. He squinted at Clara. She seemed steady, very serious.
“How did you find out?”
She explained what she had learned. “Apparently the SLA is using the networks to communicate with us.”
The telephone rang. The President sat down and picked up the phone on the coffee table in front of the sofa. “Yes?...Yes, I’ve just heard.” He looked at Clara and motioned for her to sit next to him.
She sat at the other end of the sofa.
The President nodded his head and said uh-huh several times. “Is the Vice-President okay?...Uh –huh…I agree – try to find out where the message came from.”
He put the phone down. “That was the FBI They’re checking out the message.”
“What’s going to happen?”
The President frowned. “If we can’t rescue him, I suppose we’ll pay the ransom. Did you think I was going to desert him? Well, I don’t do that when my people are in trouble…Clara, you don’t know how good I feel that you know I had nothing to do with Fred’s disappearance. And I didn’t have anything to do with bugging your vase.”
Clara patted the President on the arm. “I’m glad we’ve cleared the air, Mr. President.”
He noticed that she had put on lipstick and lined her eyebrows. Would a worried wife have done that? Or would any woman, even under these circumstances, just naturally put on some makeup to see the President of the United States?
“We’ll get Fred back as quickly as possible.”
“Won’t…pa ying the ransom just encourage more kidnappings? Make it unsafe for others?”
“Perhaps…but…the Vice-President— What would you recommend, Clara?”
“I want Fred back, and we should do all we can to get him back. But he wouldn’t want us to use the people’s money to pay the ransom. It would be a bad precedent for future Vice-Presidents.”
The President rubbed his chin. “Ah, yes, this administration doesn’t want to set any more precedents for Vice-Presidents. This is one President who believes we already have enough.”
“Precedents for Vice-Presidents.” The President leaned back and looked at the ceiling. “It’s a damned mess, though. We’ve already got a precedent. No Vice-President has ever been kidnapped before. We’ve got to get him back. I sure as hell don’t want to be the first President to lose a Vice- President…like this…We have to get him back with honor…Yeah—”
The President sat up. “We’ll show these kidnappers they can’t push us around. They’ll have to hand him over on our terms, not theirs.”
Clara thought of Professor Young’s book, which she was reading. He had a theory about the strange psychic forces that seemed to inhabit the Oval Office of late. These forces worked like a magnetic field to warp and distort human intelligence.
“But…the million dollars?” The President flung out his hands. “Aw, we can raise a million dollars. We can use the old bills they’re going to burn at the mint anyway.”
The President abruptly scooted over to sit on the cushion with the bug under it. He watched Clara to see whether she noticed, but she was looking cold-eyedly at Addleman.
Addleman advanced on Clara, who involuntarily shrunk back. She remembered the conversation with Fred before he left. Just what did Addleman know? And what did the President know? And when did the President know it?
Addleman stood over Clara and turned to the President. “This disappearance is a put-up deal. The only reason I can see is they want to use the Vice-Presidency for personal gain.”
Clara sat up straight. “Of course, you’d believe it had something to do with acquiring money.”
The President laughed without merriment. “Clara doesn’t think we ought to pay the money.”
“I don’t believe it!” Addleman turned back to Clara. “Who’re you trying to fool?”
Clara ignored him. “Can’t you turn this man out of here, Otis? Anybody can see he doesn’t need to be fooled – he’s already a fool.”
The President hesitated a moment. “Otis” from Clara was unexpected.
“Yes, you’d better go now, Rob. We can talk later.”
“No, I don’t think so. Whatever their game plan is, the disappearance is a fake. Froth’s partner somehow got into the press conference last night. This whole thing’s a PR stunt.”
The President felt under the cushion to touch the bug, then withdrew his hand. “If this is true, Clara, you’ve already cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”
Clara studied her cards. Her assumption that Addleman was the bugger was verified. And the President was not only privy to it, but he now seemed willing to admit it – at least in private. But now he also had reason to believe that Addleman had bugged him too. She had to stand firm. She was too close to success to lose it now. She had to trust in Austin Froth’s professional ability to bring the stunt off without further compromise.
“Otis,” she said solemnly, “you don’t question who Froth is? I’m disturbed to learn that you have been bugging the Vice-President. It’s very unbecoming. When he returns, if he returns, he—”
“What do you mean, if? You may as well admit it’s a hoax. I admit I’ve…condoned bugging. But I see now that it was justified.”
“Rubbish!” Clara stood up and stood over the President. Her nearness to him prevented him from getting up easily. He was a captive.
Addleman started to come around the sofa. “Hey—”
“Stay where you are, you! Without looking at Addleman – still looking at the President – Clara pointed a stiff arm and index finger at the chief aide.
She may have sounded to the President like his third-grade teacher: “The bugging was not justified. I’m not even talking about ethics or legality. I’m talking about the results. You just learned a few minutes ago what one of the results was.” She nodded at the desk.
Addleman tried to move again. “What—”
“Be quiet.” Clara didn’t have to raise her voice this time.
She continued her lecture: “I myself believe that results speak for themselves, and if you could show me some worthwhile results, I might change my opinion of the means. But the results are all bad.
“Your suspicions and your trust in cynical counsel have led you to exclude the Vice-President from the government and cause him to seek other ways of making a contribution. They have led to his being kidnapped and to your mistaken belief that it’s a hoax.”
The President was sliding down, lower and lower.
Clara let up. She talked in a soothing, but commanding tone: “Otis, the Vice-President was simply going to disappear for a few days to focus attention symbolically on the fact that he was not a part of things in Washington. We couldn’t say that was the reason until after the point was made. Froth’s assistant came to the press conference to throw people off the track.”
“Hah!” Addleman jumped forward. “A fake kidnapping’ll really throw them off the track.”
The President struggled to pull himself up. “Goddamnit, everybody be quiet a minute. What’s going on? I don’t know what to believe.”
He crossed his arms and put his chin on his chest for a minute. His eyes were closed. He said three Peter Pipers to himself and would have thought about the present situation, but one of his favorite thoughts came to him. President Dixon may have brought religion to the East Room, but he, President Flawless, had brought meditation to the Oval Office.
He uncrossed his arms and rose to pronounce the results of his meditation.
“Okay, what should we do, Rob?”
Addleman looked from the President to Clara and back to the President. “Well, first off, we don’t pay nobody any money.”
The President took the bug from under the cushion and held it up for his chief aide. “Rob, what do you know about this?”
Addleman saw a thumb and an index finger describing an oh. “That’s a sign for all’s okay.”
The President looked at his upheld hand. He lowered the hand and went over to his desk, where he placed the bug on his blotter. He poked the blotter with his finger.
“All is not okay. Come and look at this.”
Clara moved toward the door. “Otis, PR, I’ll leave you to it. I’m out of here.”
The President and Addleman watched Clara leave, and then Addleman bent over and peered at the bug. “Did Clarabelle bring that to you? So what?”
“Get down here!” The President pointed at the space beneath his middle drawer.
Addleman didn’t move. The request to get down on his knees didn’t make sense to him. The President had never demanded religious deference, just ordinary Presidential deference.
“Don’t you get it? That came from under here. The game’s up.”
“Game?” Addleman didn’t get it.
“That’s your bug, Rob. You can drop the act.”
“No, no. Are you sure?” Addleman picked the bug up and examined it. His hand shook.
The President said, “It’s identical to the one you put in Clara’s vase.”
“How do you know that? There are dozens of types.”
“Because Clara said so. It would be a big coincidence for this one to be just like the one you put in Clara’s vase. This really upsets me—”
“The one in the vase was waterproof.”
“Otherwise they’re identical.”
“But, I didn’t bug you. You’ve got to believe me. You’ve got to trust your chief aide.” Addleman was pleading.
“That’s why I’ve been thinking, maybe it’s time to get a new chief aide.” The President looked at Addleman nostalgically.
“Wait ! It’s too big a coincidence.” Addleman closed his eyes and concentrated.
He looked up and snapped his fingers. “Ask Clara to bring you the bug she found in the vase. I bet she can’t!”
“You’re right, she said Noemann destroyed it.”
“She said he destroyed it— Isn’t that convenient? Just suppose she had that bug planted in here – Froth’s got lots of expertise. Who would take the heat for it? Me! She’s out to get me because I’ve exposed her shenanigans with this promoter. Me!”
Addleman was animated. “There’s only one way to get to the bottom of this. What I came in here to tell you was that our men saw a girl go into Froth’s place late last night. She left early this morning, and they followed her to a place in the Poconos.”
“That’s probably where Noemann’s hiding out. Let’s raid the place!”
“He isn’t there, Rob. Noemann doesn’t have the guts.”
Addleman nodded his head thoughtfully. He raised a pedagogue’s finger. “This Froth’s an operator, a real pro. If Clara had any problems with Noemann…Yeah! Noemann didn’t want to go ahead with the real plan – he wanted to play ping pong!”
Addleman’s eyes were joyously mad. “I bet she gave Froth the go-ahead to actually kidnap him.”
The President was impressed. This was the kind of daring hypothesis that made Addleman indispensable in the White House. You couldn’t work out scenarios and game plans without a creative thinker.
The President licked his lips. He walked over to the south window and looked out at Washington’s monument. The stately obelisk seldom failed to arouse him.
He whirled around decisively. “Do you think we ought to do this, Rob?”
“I say, slip it to ’em. It’ll really take the heat off us.”
The President picked up some of Addleman’s excitement. “You think we could skewer ’em?”
Addleman made an open-fisted gesture, jerking his arm.
“But keep our men out of this. Get the FBI up there.”
“And arrest Froth at the same time?” Addleman rubbed his hands together quickly.
The President nodded.
Chapter 1. “Downstairs at the White House”
Chapter 2. “Making It Happen”
Chapter 3. “The Muse’s Fee”
Chapter 4. “The Game Plan”
Chapter 5. “Home Movies (Blue)”
Chapter 6. “Keeping Up Appearances”
Chapter 7. “Better to Serve You With, My Dear”
Chapter 8. “The Battle of the Press Conferences”
Chapter 9. “The Vice-President's Plan Is Missing”
|Copyright © 2016 by W.M. Dean|