It had to be a joke.
Being hazed on the first day of work was nothing new, but John Gutierrez had never thought someone would have the balls to prank him on this first day.
On Inauguration Day.
One simply did not haze the president of the United States.
Murray, Im not finding the humor in this, John said. The country has some very serious issues to deal with, and this goes beyond the realm of good taste.
Murray Longworth looked surprised. A . . . joke? This is no joke, Mister President.
Of course it was. John Gutierrez hadnt been born yesterday.
He looked around the Oval Office, gauging the reaction from his key advisers. Tom Maskill, his twitchy deputy chief of staff, was trying and failing to look nonplussed. Secretary of Defense Donald Martin sat back on an antique couch, his legs crossed. Donald was old-school Washington: tall, white, graying hair, tailored suit . . . looked like he was made of plantation money. Chief of Staff Vanessa Colburn sat on a striped chair. In appearance she was Donalds polar oppositefemale, black and young. Her no-nonsense poker face carried a cold stare that could freeze you where you stood. At the moment, that stare was fixed directly on one Murray Long-worth, deputy director of the CIA.
Murray also had an old-school Washington look, but different from Donalds. Murrays suit looked expensive, too, but like its owner it seemed a bit rumpled and tired. Murray was past retirement age, slightly overweight, with a scowl permanently etched into his face. His was a familiar image among the dinosaurs of Washington, a look Vanessa had dubbed Cold War White Man. He was a CIA deputy director, but not the deputy director. Murray worked mostly behind the scenes.
Ive heard a lot about you, Murray, John said. I spoke to all five former presidents before I took office. Of the many nice things they had to say, there is only one person they each pointed out by nameyou. They said that you are a . . . how shall I put this? A special kind of go-to guy.
Yes, Mister President, Murray said.
Now it seems they all pointed you out for a reason, to set me up for this ridiculous story about triangular growths infecting Americans and turning them into psychopathic killers.
Sir, Murray said, I assure you this is no joke.
Then why havent we heard anything about it before? Vanessa asked, her voice almost as expressionless as her face.
President Hutchins wanted this in the black, Murray said. And keeping things in the black is what I do.
Murray had brought in a large flat-panel screen for his presentation. It looked out of place in the Oval Office, a brash piece of technology in a room designed to reek of history and tradition. John stared at the image frozen on that screen: an old woman, clearly dead, a lumpy blue triangular growth on her shoulder. Each side of the triangle was about an inch long. It wasnt on her skin, or under it, but part of it. Beneath the photo, her nameCharlotte Wilson.
According to Murray, that growth had made Wilson murder her son with a butcher knife, then attack two police officers before they shot her to death in self-defense.
This wasnt just a joke, it was inexcusable.
Based on the endorsement of the former presidents, John had saved Murray Longworths Project Tangram presentation as the last of the day. It was the closing act in a mind-boggling cache of the previous administrations secrets: two stealth submarines resting on the bottom of the Sea of Japan ready to rain nukes on North Korea; two more subs sitting off Qatar, ready to first-strike Iran should the new government fall and fundamentalists get their finger on the nuclear button; secret deals with the Chinese government; a Mach-10 skunkworks strike-fighter that could fly forty miles above the Earth; fast-track deals for drilling in Alaska and off the coast of Florida; plus a dozen other tawdry dealings thatunder Hutchinss administrationhad been business as usual.
If I could finish the presentation, sir, Murray said, things might be a little clearer.
John looked at Vanessa, then Donald. They both shrugged. John sighed and nodded for Murray to continue.
Thank you, sir, Murray said. The disease was discovered about four months ago by CDC epidemiologist Doctor Margaret Montoya and her colleague Doctor Amos Braun. Both are still on the project. Symptoms begin with itching and small rashes that grow into large welts, then finally triangular blue growths. The disease also seems to create extreme paranoia in its victims, to the point where almost all subjects showed a definitive pattern of avoiding hospitals, health-care workers or members of law enforcement. Paranoia toward police and military, in particular, was particularly severe. Most victims either died of unknown causes, committed suicide or were killed by law enforcement as a result of psychotic behavior.
Wait a minute, Vanessa said. The parasite made them avoid hospitals? Aggressive behavior from some chemical imbalance is one thing, but you expect us to believe that these parasites actually modified a hosts decision-making ability?
It happens in nature all the time, Murray said.
But these are people, Vanessa said.
Behavior is merely a chemical reaction, maam, Murray said. Trust me, there is zero question.
Vanessas face showed just how much she trusted Murrays opinion. Is this supposed parasite contagious?
Murray shook his head. As far as we can tell, it does not transmit from an infected host to other people. Something spreads the disease, however, and we havent figured out what that vector is.
So Americans can catch a parasite that turns them into killers, she said, and yet you guys kept the people in the dark?