The announcement had the festive air of a victory party, with red, white, and blue banners and bunting draped from the ceiling and parade music blasting through the hangar. Every D-L Trilling employee was required to be present, all four thousand of them, and to heighten their spirits they had been promised a full day of extra vacation. Eight hours paid, at an average wage. of $22.40, but management didn't care because they had found their man. The hastily built stage was also covered in banners and packed with every suit in the company, all smiling broadly and clapping wildly as the music whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Three days earlier no one had heard of Aaron Lake. Now he was their savior.
He certainly looked like a candidate, with a new slightly trimmer haircut suggested by one consultant and a dark brown suit suggested by another. Only Reagan had been able to wear brown suits, and he'd won two landslides.
When Lake finally appeared, and strode purposefully across the stage, shaking vigorously the hands ofcorporate honchos he'd never see again, the laborers went wild. The music was carefully ratcheted up a couple of notches by a sound consultant who was a member of a sound team Lake's people had hired for $24,000 for the event. Money was of little concern.
Balloons fell like manna. Some were popped by workers who'd been asked to pop them, so for a few seconds the hangar sounded like the first wave of a ground attack. Get ready for it. Get ready for war. Lake Before It's Too Late.
The Trilling CEO clutched him as if they were fraternity brothers, when in fact they'd met two hours earlier. The CEO then took the podium and waited for the noise to subside. Working with notes he'd been faxed the day before, he began a long-winded and quite generous introduction of Aaron Lake, future President. On cue, the applause interrupted him five times before he finished.
Lake waved like a conquering hero and waited behind the microphone, then with perfect timing stepped forward and said, "My name is Aaron Lake, and I am now running for President." More .roaring applause. More piped-in parade music. More balloons drifting downward.
When he'd had enough, he launched into his speech. The theme, the platform, the only reason for running was national security, and Lake hammered out the-appalling statistics proving just how thoroughly the current Administration had depleted our military. No other issues were really that important, he said bluntly. Lure us into a war we can't win, and we'll forget about the tired old quarrels over abortion, race, guns,affirmative action, taxes. Concerned about family values? Start losing our sons and daughters in combat and you'd see some families with real problems.
Lake was very good. The speech had been written by him, edited by consultants, polished by other professionals, and the night before he'd delivered it to Teddy Maynard, alone, deep inside Langley. Teddy had approved, with minor changes.
Teddy was tucked under his quilts and watching the show with great pride. York was with him, silent as usual. The two often sat alone, staring at screens, watching the world grow more dangerous.
"He's good," York said-quietly at one point.
Teddy nodded, even managing a slight smile.
Halfway through his speech, Lake became wonderfully angry at the Chinese. "Over a twenty-year period, we allowed them to steal forty percent of our nuclear secrets!" he said, and the laborers hissed.
"Forty percent!" he shouted.
It was closer to fifty, but Teddy chose to downplay it just a little.The CIA had received its share of blame for the Chinese thievery.
For five minutes Aaron Lake blistered the Chinese, and their looting and their unprecedented military buildup. The strategy was Teddy's. Use the Chinese to scare the American voters, not the Russians. Don't tip them. protect the real threat until later in the campaign.
Lake's timing was near-perfect. His punch line brought down the house. When he promised to double the ministration, the four thousand D-L Trilling employees who built military helicopters exploded in a frenzy.
Teddy watched it quietly, very proud of his creation. They had managed to upstage the spectacle in New Hampshire by simply snubbing it. Lake's name had not been on the ballot, and he was the first candidate in decades to be proud of that fact. "Who needs New Hampshire?" he'd been quoted as saying. "I'll take the rest of the country."
Lake signed off amid thunderous applause, and reshook all the hands on the stage. CNN returned to its studio where the talking heads would spend fifteen minutes telling the vie.vers what they had just witnessed.
On his table, Teddy pushed buttons and the screen changed. "Here's the finished product;" he said. "The first installment."
It was a television ad for candidate Lake, and it began with a brief glimpse of a row of grim Chinese generals standing rigidly at a military parade, watching massive hardware roll by. "You think the world's a safer place?" a deep, rich ominous voice asked off camera. Then, glimpses of the world's current madmen, all watching their armies parade by-Hussein, Qaddafi, Milosevic, Kim in North Korea. Even poor Castro, with the last of his ragtag army lumbering through Havana, got a split second of airtime. "Our military could not now do what it did in 1991 during the Gulf War;" the voice said as gravely as if another war had already been declared. Then a blast, an atomic mushroom, followed by thousands of Indians dancing in the streets. Another blast, and the Pakistanis were dancing next door.
"China wants to invade Taiwan," the voice continued as a million Chinese soldiers marched in perfect step. "North Korea wants South Korea," the voice said, as tanks rolled through the DMZ. "And the United States is always an easy target."
The voice changed quickly into one with a high pitch, and the ad shifted to a congressional hearing of some sort, with a heavily bemedaled general lecturing some subcommittee. "You, the Congress;" he was saying, "spend less on the military each year. This defense budget is smaller than it was fifteen years ago.You expect us to be ready for war in Korea, the Middle East, and now Eastern Europe, yet our budget keeps shrinking.The situation is critical." The ad went blank, nothing but a dark screen, then the first voice said, "Twelve years ago there were two superpowers. Now there are none." The handsome face of Aaron Lake appeared, and the ad finished with the voice saying, "Lake, Before It's Too Late."
"I'm not sure I like it," York said after a pause.
"It's so negative."
"Good. Makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn't it?"
"Very much so."
"Good. We're going to flood television for a week, and I suspect Lake's soft numbers will get even softer. The ads will make people squirm, and they won't like them."
York knew what was coming. The people would indeed squirm and dislike the ads, then get the hell scared out of them, and Lake would suddenly become a visionary. Teddy was working on the terror.
There were two TV rooms on each wing at Trumble; two small bare rooms where you could smoke and watch whatever the guards wanted you to watch. No remote-they'd tried that at first but it had caused too much trouble. By far the nastiest disagreements occurred when the boys couldn't agree on what to watch. So the guards made the selections.
Rules prohibited inmates from having their own TV's.
The guard on duty happened to like basketball. There was a college game on ESPN, and the room was packed with inmates. Hadee Beech hated sports, and he sat alone in the other TV room and watched one banal sitcom after another. When he was on the bench and working twelve hours a day, he had never watched television.Who had the time? He'd had an office in his home where he dictated opinions until late while everyone else was glued to prime time. Now, watching the mindless crap, he realized how lucky he'd been. In so many ways.
He lit a cigarette. He hadn't smoked since college, and for the first two months at Trumble he'd resisted the temptation. Now it helped with the boredom, but only a pack a day. His blood pressure was up and down. Heart disease ran in the family. At fifty-six with nine years to go, he would leave in a box, he was certain.
Three years, one month, one week, and Beech was still counting the days in as opposed to the days to go.
Just four years ago he'd been building his reputation as a tough young federal judge who was going places. Four rotten years. When he traveled from one courthouse to the next in East Texas, he did so with a driver, a secretary, a clerk, and a US. Marshal. When he walked into a courtroom people stood out of respect. Lawyers gave him high marks for his fairness and hard work. His wife had been an unpleasant woman, but with her family's oil trust he'd managed to live peacefully with her. The marriage was stable, not exactly warm, but with three fine kids in college they had reason to be proud. They had weathered some rough times and were determined to grow old together. She had the money He had the status. Together they'd raised a family Where was there to go?
Certainly not to prison.
Four miserable years.
The drinking came from nowhere. Maybe it was pressure from work, maybe it was to escape his wife's bickering. For years, after law school, he'd been a light social drinker, nothing serious. Certainly not a habit. Once when the kids were small, his wife took them to Italy for two weeks. Beech was left alone, which suited him fine. For some reason he could never determine, or remember, he turned to bourbon. Lots of it, and he never stopped. The bourbon became important. He kept it in his study and sneaked it late at night. They had separate beds so he seldom got caught.
The trip to Yellowstone had been a three-day judicial conference. He'd met the young lady in a bar in Jackson Hole. After hours of drinking they made the sad decision to take a ride. While Hatlee drove she took off her clothes, but for no other reason than to just do it. Sex had not been discussed, and at that point he was completely harmless.
The two hikers were from D.C., just college kids returning from the trails. Both died at the scene, slaughtered on the shoulder of a narrow road by a drunken driver who never saw them. The young lady's car was found in a ditch with Beech hugging the steering wheel, unable to remove himself. She was naked and knocked out.
He remembered nothing. When he awoke hours later he saw for the first time the inside of a cell. "Better get used to it," the sheriff had said with a sneer.
Beech called in every favor and pulled every string imaginable, all to no avail. Two young people were dead. He'd been caught with a naked woman. His wife had the oil money so his friends ran like scared dogs. In the end, no one stood up for the Honorable Hadee Beech.
He was lucky to get twelve years. MADD mothers and SADD students protested outside the courthouse when he made his first official appearance. They wanted a life sentence. Life!
He himself, the Honorable Hatlee Beech, was charged with two counts of manslaughter, and there was no defense. There was enough alcohol in his blood to kill the next guy. A witness said he'd been speeding on the wrong side of the road.
Looking back, he'd been lucky his crime was on federal lands. Otherwise he would have been shipped away to some state pen where things were much tougher. Say what you want, but the feds knew how to run a prison.
He smoked alone in the semidarkness, watching prime-time comedy written by twelve-year-olds, and there was a political ad, one of many those days. It was one Beech had never seen, a menacing little segment with a somber voice predicting doom if we didn't hurry and build more bombs. It was very well done, ran for a minute and a half, cost a bundle, and delivered a message no one wanted to hear. Lake Before It's Too Late.
Who the hell's Aaron Lake?
Beech knew his politics. It had been his passion in another life, and at Trumble he was known as a fellow who watched Washington. He was one of the few who cared what happened there.
Aaron Lake? Beech had missed the guy. What an odd strategy, to enter the race as an unknown after New Hampshire. Never a shortage of clowns who want to be President. ,
Beech's wife kicked him out before he pled guilty to two counts of manslaughter. Quite naturally, she was angrier over the naked woman than the dead hikers. The kids sided with her because she had the money and because he'd screwed up so badly. It was an easy decision on their part. The divorce was final a week after he arrived at Trumble.
His youngest had been to see him twice in three years, one month, and one week. Both visits were on the sly, lest the mother find out about them. She had prohibited the kids from going to Trumble.
Then he got sued, two wrongful death cases brought by the families. With no friends willing to step forward, he'd tried to defend himself from prison. But there wasn't much to defend. A judgment of $5 million had been entered against him by the trial court. He appealed from Trumble, lost from Trumble, and appealed again.
In the chair beside him, next to his cigarettes, was an envelope brought earlier by Trevor, the lawyer. The court had rejected his final appeal. The judgment was now written in stone.
Didn't really matter, because he'd also filed for bankruptcy. He'd typed the papers himself in the law library and filed them with a pauper's oath, sent them to the same courthouse in Texas where he was once a god.
Convicted, divorced, disbarred, imprisoned, sued, bankrupt.
Most of the losers at Trumble handled their time because their falls had been so short. Most were repeat offenders who'd blown third and fourth chances. Most liked the damned place because it was better than any other prison they'd visited.
But Beech had lost so much, had fallen so far. Just four years ago he'd had a wife with millions and three kids who loved him and a big home in a small town. He was a federal judge, appointed by the President for life, making $140,000 a year, which was a lot less than her oil royalties but still not a bad salary. He got himself called to Washington twice a year for meetings at justice. Beech had been important.
An old lawyer friend had been to see him twice, on his way to Miami where he had kids, and he stayed long enough to deliver the gossip. Most of it was worthless, but there was a strong rumor that the ex -Mrs. Beech was now seeing someone else. With a few million bucks and slender hips it was only a matter of time.
Another ad. Lake Before It's Too Late again. This one began with a grainy video of men with guns slithering through the desert, dodging and shooting and undergoing some type of training. Then the sinister face of a terrorist--dark eyes and hair and features, obviously some manner of Islamic radical--and he said in Arabic with English subtitles, "We will kill Americans wherever we find them. We will die in our holy war against the great Satan." After that, quick videos of burning buildings. Embassy bombings. A busload of tourists. The remains of a jetliner scattered through a pasture.
A handsome face appeared, Mr. Aaron Lake himself. He looked directly at Hadee Beech and said, "I'm Aaron Lake, and you probably don't know me. I'm running for President because I'm scared. Scared of China and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Scared of a dangerous world. Scared of what's happened to our military. Last year the federal government had a huge surplus, yet spent less on defense than we did fifteen years ago.We're complacent because our economy is strong, but the world. today is far more dangerous than we realize. Our enemies are legion, and we cannot protect ourselves. If elected, I will double defense spending during my term of office."
No smiles, no warmth. Just plain talk firm a man who meant what he said. A voice-over said, "Lake, Before It's Too Late."
Not bad, thought Beech.
He lit another cigarette, his last of the night, and stared at the envelope on the empty chair-$5 million lodged against him by the two families. He'd pay the money if he could. Never saw the kids, not before he killed them. The paper the next day had their happy photos, a boy and a girl. Just college kids, enjoying the summer.
He missed the bourbon.
He could bankrupt half the judgment. The other half was for punitive damages, nonbankruptable. So it would follow wherever he went, which he assumed was nowhere. He'd be sixty-five when his sentence was over, but he'd be dead before then. They'd carry him out of Trumble in a box, send him home to Texas, where they'd bury him behind the little country church where he'd been baptized. Maybe one of the kids would spring for a headstone.
Beech left the room without turning off the TV It was almost ten, time for lights-out. He bunked with Robbie, a kid from Kentucky who'd broken into 240 houses before they caught him. He sold the guns and microwaves and stereos for cocaine. Robbie was a four-year veteran of Tmmble, and because of his seniority he had chosen the bottom bunk. Beech crawled into the top one, said, "Good night, Robbie," and turned off the light.
"Night, Hadee,"came the soft. response.
Sometimes they chatted in the dark. The walls were cinderblock, the door was metal, their words wereconfined to their little room. Robbie was twenty-five and would be forty-five before he left Trumble. Twenty-four years-one for every ten houses.
The time between bed and sleep was the worst of the day. The past came back with a vengeance-the mistakes, the misery, the could-haves and shouldhaves. Try as he might, Hatlee could not simply close his eyes and go to sleep. He had to punish himself first. There was a grandchild he'd never seen, and he always started with her. Then his three kids. Forget the wife. But he always thought about her money. And the friends. Ah, the friends. Where were they now?
Three years in, and with no future there was only the past. Even poor Robbie below dreamed of a new beginning at the age of forty-five. Not Beech. At times he almost longed for the warm Texas soil, layered upon his body, behind the little church.
Surely someone would buy him a headstone.