“Marnie, I can call you Marnie can’t I?” the POTUS asked and continued without waiting for an answer. “You don’t know why you’re here, and I’m sure Mark’s told you a whole sack of lies to throw you off the trail just to put you on the spot here today. But I know why you’re here, and I’m going to tell you why you’re here.”
It was somewhat disturbing for Marnie to witness how seamlessly the president shifted from unstudied Texan bonhomie to the grave sobriety of a man with the weight of the nation on his shoulders. She felt that the air had become heavy and the room had grown smaller, but she opted to pin these feelings on her imagination. Mark sat up straighter in his chair, seemingly tuned into this unannounced change in the president’s aura, and she followed suit.
“We are at a turning point. The world is at a turning point. The country is at a turning point. America is not only surrounded by people that hate us, hate our way of life, hate the way we live our lives, but our nation is now host to enemies within. There are people right out there on these streets who, when their orders are called in, will cause murder and mayhem on American soil. People are suspicious of their own neighbors and strangers in the park. Heck, we don’t even know if the guy selling Lotto tickets at the local 7/11 is going to turn a city block into a crater during the next World Series. There are bad people out there, and we don’t know Tom from Larry.”
Marnie sat politely at attention, not feeling overly informed by the president’s words. After all, she’d heard most of what he’d just said in his last State of the Union address if not the one prior, or on some radio show or news program. Over the past few years, Americans had grown accustomed to a new state of fear. During the eighties, Marnie lived under the specter of a modern cold war where nuclear missiles could be sent raining down from above, launched from submarines or sent through space. The brinksmanship between America and the USSR was portrayed as regularly as a sit-com by a before-her-time actor who was spending billions on a weapons program named after a sci-fi movie phenomenon, where the villains were dubbed an evil empire.
Psychologically, it could have become debilitating, and it was for many. She recalled a short story her high-school sweetheart had once written and let her read. The story’s climax found him and Marnie making love in the moments before an imminent nuclear holocaust. Writing was her boyfriend’s way of dealing with heavy issues, as well as trying to get into her mind and subsequently her pants; however, Marnie had her own methods. She could somehow transcend the constant undercurrent of apprehensive solicitude by compartmentalizing her fears, pushing them down to the point where she could get on with her life of simply being a girl going to school.
That threat seemed to have vanished overnight when the Iron Curtain came down. Mark had told Marnie years ago that most military analysts agree that it was the Star Wars budget itself along with Reagan’s brinksmanship that changed the USSR. However, that didn’t do much for her state of mind or the nation’s. What should have been a global sigh of relief and the beginning of a long holiday from the anxiety of being vaporized by some godless Russian turned out to be only a brief recess until a new fear was ready to take its place. Ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads had been replaced by hijacked commercial airliners, suicide bombers, and only Allah knew what next. Ivan and his evil empire had been replaced by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, only this time the world was not dealing with atheists.
Islamic fanaticism and its Allah-endorsed jihads promised paradise to its martyrs. This was now, and although she had become somewhat blasé when it came to the yellow, orange, and red that measured the country’s daily threat matrix, it was still terrifying when she let herself think about it. Didn’t she just watch a teenage girl blow herself to bits this morning on CNN? Marnie felt, as did many Americans, that it was only a matter of time before she either turned on the television to some new horror, or worse, was one of the unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this was nothing new to her. What she was trying to figure out was what the president wanted from her.
“You’ve heard me say this before, and I’ll say it again,” Bush said. “You’re either with us or against us. Now some people think this is because I’m colorblind or because I can’t count past two. Well, Michael Moore can go fuck himself.”
Marnie’s eyes opened as wide as an owl’s.
“What?” he said at her surprised expression. “The First Amendment still existed the last time I checked. If that fat bastard can say all the unsubstantiated crap that flies from his cake-hole, let alone bitch me out at the Oscars, I can call him whatever I like. He acts like an expert when he barely knows a fraction of what’s really goin’ on. Give that asshole a day in my shoes, and he’d crumble like dried cow shit. Hell, he’d cry like a fat little girl.”
The president took a moment to compose himself and took a sip of his soda before continuing. He tugged at his suit jacket and straightened his tie again. He had reverted to a cowboy again in the blink of an eye.
“Got my ire up, he did. Anyhow, Marnie, why I’m here talking to you right now is because I take great personal pride and interest in what we’re accomplishing in this here building. I’ve personally met most of the people who work here, and I spend a great deal of time keeping tabs on things. Intel from this place goes straight into my daily brief. Never before have we seen this level of cooperation between agencies that have historically been rivals—or at the least, very territorial.
“Now, here’s the kicker. All our little kids are finally ready to play in the same sand-box, and our toys aren’t talking to each other—at least not the way we want them to and certainly not fast enough. I’ll admit that I’m a complete Eskimo when it comes to computers, but you see, that’s why we hire the experts. That is, in fact, why you are here.
“Mark here is privy to whole raft of things that until now you’ve been off-limits to. Well, that’s gonna change as of ten minutes ago. He’s told me enough about you to make me think you can be a valuable asset to our team here. Mark says it, and I trust Mark. And that’s good enough for me. Of course, the extensive back-ground check we’ve run on you is an added level of comfort.”
Marnie shot Mark an indignant look as sharp as a hot lancet.
Mark shrugged and gave a face that read, “What can I say?”
The POTUS continued. “Apparently, you and he have cooked up some program, system, or whatever you call it that can out-think an army of geniuses. Better, faster, smarter—that’s what I’m lookin’ for. You see, the bad guys are getting smarter by the minute, and we’re sittin’ on more intelligence data than you can shake a stick at. We just can’t get through it all fast enough to react most of the time, and when we do it’s a crapshoot half the time. You’re here to bring it all together.”
Marnie let out an audible gulp and grabbed at her soda.
“Ah, that’s the hot-dog talkin’. Now, don’t misunderstand. You aren’t doing this alone. Believe me; you’ll be dealing with the best and brightest from all over the place. Mark knows ‘em all. You’ll be working with spooks, kooks, earls, and dukes. We got people so smart you can’t tell what they’re talkin’ about. Well, maybe you could. Anyhow, we all have one mission: terrorists. We’re gonna hunt ‘em, we’re gonna find ‘em, and we’re gonna stop ‘em, if it’s the last thing we do.”
President Bush paused and took in his audience of one. Mark had obviously heard this pitch before. Marnie instinctively reached for her drink again, buying her time in case she actually had to say something. It was bizarre. She’d somehow overcome being star-struck at having actually met the President of the United States in the flesh; however, she couldn’t utter a word because his last comment—all the more the way he said it—had categorically terrified her.
The president gracefully saved her.
“Well, Marnie, that’s about all the time I got for a pep talk. I’m a busy man. I hope you consider this project with all the seriousness it merits. I’ll be looking for good things from you.”
With this, the president rose and gave a nod to Mark. He then offered a smile and quick wave to Marnie. One of the Secret Service agents already had the door open for him and the other followed directly behind him, leaving them in a presidential wake of silence. Slowly, Marnie reached for the plastic knife and turned her gaze toward Mark.
“Why, I oughta…” she hissed.
“Sorry, I know. The food wasn’t all that great, but you have to admit the company was entertaining.” Mark couldn’t suppress laughing aloud.
“He called me Missy!”
“Take a breath. Calm down.”
Marnie sat silent for nearly a minute. She took in slow, deep almost melodramatic breaths through her nose like a yoga novice. Mark simply watched with smug satisfaction and curious interest while she went through the motions of digesting what had just occurred.
At last she said, “Mark Harmann. That was the most surreal experience of my life. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and I thank you for that. Now, I’ve got one question.”
“Shoot,” said Mark.
“Just what the fuck am I supposed to be doing anyhow?”
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