"How bad is it?" the President asked over his scotch, cupping the crystal tumbler with both hands.
The only light came from the fireplace in his Camp David study, casting the room and the President in uncertain hues of red and yellow.
"Pretty bad," the White House Chief of Staff admitted. "Wallace has been busy. I haven't seen all the information, but just looking at the names..."
He stood near the bar fixing himself another drink. The navy steward who would normally be doing that had been given the evening off.
"When will it break?" The President closed his eyes, wishing this business away; that it had never happened at all. But in that case, the man knew, he wouldn't be the President. He'd be just another two bit pol in a town full of them.
"My guy in Atlanta says they're waiting on Wallace to confirm her sources. They don't know what she's got, only that it's big," the staffer answered. "Thursday night, that's what they're looking for. They want to go prime time and scoop the networks."
"Yeah." The President drained his glass. "That's what I'd do. Three days, huh? Okay. What's the spin?"
"We get you into Bethesda, routine check-up, nothing to worry about," the Chief of Staff said. "Brian's going to drop cancer, back door it through his girlfriend at NBC."
"Heh!" The President smiled. "I thought he was banging her out of love."
"What's love got to do with it?" the staffer asked with a chuckle.
"Cancer's a big bullet." The President rubbed his jaw pensively. "I'd like to save that one."
"If you want to make this go away and come out of it smelling like a rose..." His Chief of Staff held up a hand. "It kills a lot of birds, Mr. President."
The most powerful man in the world smiled at his friend's mixed metaphor, but it was true nonetheless. Even the possibility of a serious illness gave the President a lot of clout with public opinion. A lot of sympathy and concern in the polls. It made him appear to be in public, when in fact he was even more isolated than usual. The press would have to back off a bit, being fed through press conferences by doctors, releases by the Press Secretary, and the odd leak from 'reliable sources inside the White House' ... And the business with Wallace...
"Yeah." The President stood slowly, tugging his bathrobe into place and leaving his glass on the coffee table. "That's what the country needs, right? Okay. Set it up."
"Yes sir." The other man picked up a telephone.
"Mercury Plumbing Associates. Good morning, this is Joan, how can I help you?"
"Hi Joan, this is Shep Richards, over at the American Literature Congress? We have a little problem with the pipes, I'm afraid, and..."
"Oh, Mr. Richards." Joan smiled into her headset, tapping her keyboard quickly. "Would this be at 1804 K Street in Georgetown?"
"Exactly," the man replied. "You've done some plumbing work for us before."
"I understand. I have your account right in front of me, sir," Joan agreed. "Is this an emergency?"
"Aren't they always?" Richards chuckled ruefully. "We'd really like to get this taken care of as soon as possible."
"I understand, Mr. Richards," Joan said. "I'll have a man over in ... oh ... Between ten and eleven this morning, is that good for you?"
"May I help you sir?" An older woman smiled, taking off her reading glasses so that they hung around her neck on a silver chain.
"I'm Dick Spanner, uh..." The man in blue coveralls lifted his clipboard and glanced at it. He carried a red toolbox in his left hand. "From Mercury Plumbing. I have a job order here..."
Mrs. Cleary, the receptionist, put her glasses back on and leaned forward to look at the work request.
"Oh, here. Guess you'll want this too." The plumber let Mrs. Cleary take the clipboard so he could show her his MPA employee badge.
"Hmmm..." She read the form and examined his identification. "We've been expecting you. The lavatory is up the stairs behind you, and to the left. You can't miss it."
"Yeah, I've been here before," Spanner said, taking his clipboard back.
After the man had left, Mrs. Cleary lifted her telephone.
"Mr. Richards? The plumber has arrived," she said. "Yes, he's up there right now."