Read an Excerpt
The President wanted to see John Wells.
The feeling wasn’t mutual.
Wells sat in the emergency room at the Virginia Hospital Center in
Arlington, waiting for a doctor to set the foot he’d broken a day before on another continent, when his phone buzzed. A blocked number.
“If you say so.”
“Steve Lipsher at the White House. The President would like to invite you to a meeting in the Oval Office. Four p.m.”
“Shafer gonna be there?” Ellis Shafer, a CIA lifer and Wells’s closest friend. Currently stuck inside a federal jail not five miles from this hospital,
his reward for helping stop a war.
“Just you, the President, and Ms. Green.” Donna Green, the National
“Then no. I can’t.”
The silence that followed suggested that no one had ever turned
Lipsher down before.
“Someone will call you,” Lipsher finally said, and hung up.
Wells was tempted to turn off the phone. Five minutes later, it buzzed again. “John. It’s Donna Green. Justice is drafting the release order, but we have to find a judge, and it’s Sunday, remember?”
“You locked him up easy enough.”
“We’ll get it done. Promise.”
“What about the senator? He coming, too?” Wells meant Vinny
Duto, the former CIA director, now senator from Pennsylvania. For the last month, Wells, Shafer, and Duto had secretly worked together against a billionaire casino mogul named Aaron Duberman who’d tried to trick the United States into invading Iran. Duberman’s plan had nearly succeeded. Shown false evidence that Iran wanted to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, the President had set a deadline for Iran to open its borders or face invasion.
But barely twelve hours before, Wells and Duto had delivered proof of Duberman’s plot to Green, forcing the President to back down. In a midnight speech from the Oval Office, he called off the attack.
Wells had expected that the President’s next move would be to punish Duberman for what he’d done. Expected and hoped. Green’s tone, simultaneously wary and pleading, suggested otherwise.
“No Duto,” Green said now. “And that’s not negotiable.”
Wells wasn’t surprised. Green and the President had forced Duto out of the CIA two years before. Now Duto had the upper hand. He could destroy the President simply by revealing the truth about the way Duberman had suckered the United States. Though Duto had already hinted to Wells that he had another agenda. As a price for his silence, he would make the White House help him in the next presidential election. A straight power play, standard operating procedure for Duto, whom Wells imagined kept a shrine to Nixon in the basement of his mansion.
“Fine,” Wells said. If Green didn’t know that Wells disliked Duto almost as much as she did, Wells saw no reason to enlighten her. “I’ll see you at six. Give you time to get Ellis out, me to get my foot set.”
“You’re picking the time for a meeting with the President?”
“Come to an emergency room without hundred-dollar bills taped to your forehead, see how long it takes them to fix you.”
At 5:45 p.m., Wells offered his driver’s license to the White House gate guards and limped toward the West Wing entrance. The worst of the winter was over. Wells wore only jeans and a bright red T-shirt that read Chicago Homicide: Our Day Starts When Your Day Ends. Hardly appropriate for meeting the President. But he couldn’t make himself care.
As Wells passed through the metal detectors, he knew he should feel good. He and Duto and Shafer had kept the United States out of war. Yet Duberman was still in his fortified mansion in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile,
the President’s back-and-forth had damaged the United States already. An hour after the President’s announcement, Iran’s Ayatollah
Khamenei made his own speech. He thanked Allah for “defeating the
Zionist-American crusaders” and promised that “American lies will not stop our mighty Islamic Republic from using its nuclear facilities as it sees fit.” The last four words were new. In the past, Iran had insisted it would develop its nuclear program only for peaceful purposes.
Then Russia and China said they would immediately lift all economic sanctions against Iran. “The United States must learn not to meddle with other nations,” Russia’s Foreign Minister said, in a fingerwagging lecture that was more than slightly ironic, given his own country’s recent adventures in the Ukraine.
The White House confined itself to repeating the points the President had made the night before. We will fully review the evidence that
Iran was trying to smuggle weapons-grade uranium into the United States.
The ultimatum for an invasion no longer serves either side. The Pentagon had already leaked plans to bring home the troops it had just flown to
Turkey and Afghanistan. A New York Post headline summed up the popular view: “Thanks, Mr. President. We just lost a war we didn’t even fight!”
So Wells wasn’t surprised that the mood inside the White House was grim. Though it was Sunday, the West Wing was crowded. Presidential aides trudged along the narrow hallways, staring at their phones for bad news. In the Oval Office anteroom, Wells found Shafer. He was freshly scrubbed and in his best suit, but the bags under his eyes suggested he hadn’t enjoyed his time in jail. Or maybe Wells had just forgotten how old Shafer was. They had first met when Shafer was in his late forties. Wells supposed part of him still saw Shafer that way, thick curly hair and a cynic’s smile. Now Shafer’s hair had become a white horseshoe at the fringes of his skull. His shoulders were bent and narrow from too many years in front of a computer.
He still had the smile, though, the one that warped the edges of his lips. He gave it to Wells. “Seriously? Chicago Homicide? I’m the one who goes for pointless acts of rebellion.”
“Learned it from you, Dad. So don’t I get a hug? Or you got enough man-to-man contact the last few days?” Wells couldn’t talk to anyone else on earth this way.
“I was in there, no way of knowing what was happening, this siren came on like they were evacuating the place, then the intercom, a voice
I’d never heard, We have decided to broadcast the President’s speech tonight
because of its importance. Five words in, I knew you won.”
“We won, Ellis.”
“Lucky us. Now we’re here for our prize.”
The door to the Oval Office opened. “Gentlemen,” Donna Green said.
The President was in his mid-fifties, nearly as tall as Wells was,
though not nearly as muscled. He wore a tailored blue suit and white shirt. No tie. He extended his hand and looked Wells over. His eyes were resigned, like Wells was an unwanted suitor marrying his daughter.
No idea what she sees in you, but I guess we’re stuck with you. Still, he radiated command and power, the arrogance of the man who always had the last word. Beside him, Green was small and frumpy, in a wrinkled blue sweater and a shapeless gray skirt. Like Shafer, she seemed almost aggressively unfashionable.
“Please.” The President indicated the twin yellow couches in the center of the room. “Anyone need a drink?” Nothing formal, just a
Wells and Shafer shook their heads.
“I could ask about your foot,” the President said to Wells. “Offer to sign that cast. But I have a feeling you’re not in the mood.”
“Let’s just stipulate that we’ve had the small talk,” Shafer said. “You were charming.”
“As always. I want to apologize to you, Mr. Shafer. It goes without saying that we should never have detained you—”
“But I’m guilty. I leaked that information, sir.”
The President’s smile didn’t waver. “You’ve both done a great service.”
“You’re taking this well. Considering Ladbrokes is making book on when you’ll resign.”
“Good for them. I can’t say I was happy when Donna came to me last night. But I’m not angry at you. The CIA failed. I failed. We shouldn’t have needed you. But we did. And for that, I thank you. At some point,
I’d love to hear the story, how you did it, start to finish.”
Wells found himself impressed with the man’s apparent sincerity.
Then he heard Shafer. “Very good, sir.” A parody of an English servant’s accent. “Very, very good.” Veddy veddy guhd. He golf-clapped. Twice.
Until now, Wells hadn’t realized the depth of Shafer’s anger. He wondered how far Shafer would push. How much the President would take.
“You’re so happy, how come you didn’t tell the country the truth?
You lied your ass off last night. Now you’re about to ask us to keep our mouths shut like good little soldiers. After we tell you the story, of course. Guys like you always want to hear what happened. From your bulletproof offices. Why don’t you ask my man here”—Shafer nodded at Wells—“about the nightmares he gets. You think you want the truth,
but you don’t even want the truth’s second cousin, what it’s like out there.”
“Ellis—” Wells said.
“You think because we gave you an enema with the facts last night and you had no choice but to back off your war, everything’s cool,
we’ll keep our mouths shut. And in return we get a secret medal we look at for five minutes before you lock it in a safe and promise that our grandchildren get it fifty years after we’re dead? Shiny and gold?
Heroic Workers of the Revolution? Tractor on it?”
“I’m not finished. Sir. What about Duto? All he wants is your job and you can’t give it to him right now, not unless you’ve secretly rewritten the Constitution. But I bet you promised him you’ll make it happen as best you can. Which would be a disaster, in case you don’t know. But you don’t care. All you want is to stay in here.”
Shafer wiped his forehead. “Now I’m finished.”
A flush climbed the President’s neck like an infection. He reached for the pitcher of water on the table between the couches, poured a glass, drank it down. Wells figured he was buying time to cool off. Yet when he spoke, his voice was even.
“I had that coming. I lied like a rug to the whole country. About
Duberman, all of it. Didn’t see a choice.”
“The truth is always a choice—”
“My turn. I let you talk. Should I have told the world that one man,
a civilian, hired a couple of dozen operatives, almost faked us into starting a war? Would that have made us look better? Everyone’s blaming me. Let ’em. Let them say I was bluffing, the Iranians beat me. I
know this stains my record forever. I’ll take that. Better than the alternative.”
The President rattled off the sentences quickly and with an almost unnatural precision. Wells wondered if he’d slept at all the night before,
if he’d taken a little helper this morning to stay awake.
“You want to know what I want,” the President said. “I am not telling you to keep your mouths shut. Not threatening you. Not implicitly,
explicitly, in any way. You want to call The New York Times, go ahead.
Tell ’em everything. We won’t deny it. We won’t split hairs about what you told us and when. You want the truth out, it’ll come. My only request.
Please tell me in advance, so I can be ready.”
The President poured himself a fresh glass of water, looked into it as if it might hold the answer. For a man with no leverage, he was making a decent case, Wells thought. Neither threatening nor begging.
Treating them as equals, telling them the choice was theirs.
“Probably how it shakes out.”
The bald, liver-spotted truth. They could make him quit, if they chose. Wells wondered if he could substitute his judgment for that of
320 million Americans. Though if the voters knew the truth, would they keep this man in power?
“But you’d rather we didn’t.” Shafer spoke quietly now.
The President didn’t bother to answer.
Shafer looked at Wells. “I said my piece. You?”
The question meant Shafer hadn’t decided. Otherwise, he would have forced the issue, dragged Wells along. Wells looked at Green.
“You’ve been quiet.”
“I’ve been listening. Like I should have last week.”
“Can he survive? Or is he ruined?”
Green’s eyebrows rose. “You’re asking me to tell you if I think he should quit? In front of him? And you expect an honest answer.”
“I do, too,” the President said.
“And if I say it’s time?”
“Donna, if I’ve lost you, then I’ve lost everyone.”
“All right, then,” Green said to Wells. “The truth? We’re better off with him. As badly as we screwed the pooch, you want to air all this?”
“Suppose we don’t air it. He quits in a couple weeks, gives whatever reason he likes.” Talking about the man like he wasn’t in the room with them.
“That’s worse. And either way, the Veep is not the guy for this job.
He wants to be liked too much. Talks too much.” Green leaned toward
Wells. “I know we made a huge mistake. But in the end, you showed us the proof, we listened. No war. Now give us the chance to fix the damage we’ve done. If we can’t, you can go public anytime.”
Wells had spent the last dozen years making life-and-death decisions,
but he felt unequipped for this one. He looked at the President.
“If I agree—and I’m not saying I am—you flush the CIA. Hebley, all his guys. And Ellis gets to stay at Langley as long as he likes. He’s ninety and drooling, doesn’t matter.”
“Ninety and drooling?” Shafer said.
“Protection for my son, my ex-wife. I ask, the Secret Service watches them. Forever.”
“Not a problem,” the President said.
Wells had the uncomfortable feeling that the President had expected his demands exactly. He decided to shake the tree. “And I’ll need ten million dollars.”