He felt his heart skip a beat as the ancient door squeaked and shut with a thud behind him in the blackened hallway.
“You ok, Sir,” the young aide inquired in the dark; her voice just feet ahead of him. He could tell she had stopped in her steps, so he remained still.
“Yes...is all this cloak and dagger really necessary, Kay,” he asked as they both resumed their slow walk down the hall.
“It's one of the oldest tunnels connecting the White House and the US Capitol, Mr. President. And one of the least used...there are bound to be some neglected areas.”
“I suppose that's a good thing, huh?”
Because of the few light bulbs on the ceiling in the tunnel, he could see that she looked back pensively toward him, “Yes, Mr. President.”
“So, which leads me to ask this, Kay: why are we using the network now? Reason stands that something has come up.”
For the longest, the staffer said nothing. Only her high-heels clopped for a while and his muffled dress-shoes.
“We're almost there, Sir.”
“Ms. Bermann,” he said with impatience as he stopped dead in the musty hallway, “I've got a meeting with the premier of China and the president of Russia to figure out how to get out of this war with Iran we've seemed to stumbled into; attend another state burial for several more fallen soldiers; a meeting with Herald on the possibility of another 9/11 attack...whatever this is you're taking me to better be important!”
Again, her silent gaze puzzled him! She continued to walk and he followed until they finally reached another door. This one was, without a doubt, recently upgraded with security access portals and reinforced steel.
“I can only take you this far, Mr. President,” Kay said with a hint of regret.
His head whipped around to look at her. “You have Alpha access, Kay! I've given--”
“The Rules don't permit it.”
He glared at her. “What Rules?”
“The instructions to open the door is mostly biometric, Mr. President. I'll be heading back to the surface...good day, Mr. President,” she said with a slight smile. If he didn't know any better she was saying good bye to him!
He returned his attention to the door and followed the touch-screen instructions and opened it...
On the other side stood several men, about twenty of them; all in various business attire, their ages ranging from twenty-something to senior status. The room was more like an old-fashioned study—bookshelves filled with books, a couple of globes, studded chairs, statuettes of nude figures and European paintings...Across the Chamber, dominating an open wall was a relief-sculpture of an owl perched atop an opened book with a stylized wreath ringing them. There was an inscription on the exposed pages of that book, but the wall was too far of a distance for the president to read it.
Instead of a fireplace, as one might expect to see in such old-world style, there was a wall-sized monitor, with several televised news broadcasting stations from all around the world. Various people in suit and tie or a blouse and suit-pants spoke, chuckled, ranted, sat quietly as others talked...then Evan Temple realized that what he was looking at was not news broadcasts. Rather, it was some big meeting being carried live and whoever these people were, they were positioned in all the major cities and capitols of the world. Temple recognized most of the landmarks in the background behind the talking heads. What was more, the president also noticed that the volume to the mega-monitor was set to low, and he could barely hear a flood of conversations.
“So...so, it's true,” the president finally said after gawking around the room. “You really do exist! I thought those were just old legends passed on to each generation occupying the White House. To say nothing of popular culture!”
“Then you should know why we sent for you,” one of the elders of the group said stoically.
The president froze for several seconds. He had to think about one of those obscure procedures that was outlined for him by his staff; Kay, the young lady who lead him down in the subterranean labyrinth, being one of them. “You've got to be kidding me...gentlemen, this is reality, not some episode from the X-Files!”
“President Temple,” one of the younger men, a European, from the standing group put to him, sternly, “you knew this was a possibility upon your election! When we saw which way the votes were going on election night, you should've gotten that secured text message from us.”
“Yeah, key words, Upon Your Election, pal! Not only did I win the popular vote, but I cleaned Whitmore's clock in the Electoral votes, too! I don't answer to you guys...” Unconsciously, he glanced at the wall of talking heads, remembering that most of them were from other nations. “And I don't answer to whoever these goons are, either!”
Dissatisfied looks were exchanged between the group of men. Some, as if straight out of the Victorian era, had three-piece suits with top hats or Derbies and a Hansom pipe! A few others had an even older era of costume; perhaps around the Middle Ages or so? Temple wasn't versed in culture enough to know for sure. Others seemed more out of the mid-twentieth century with a kind of FBI-look about them—short and styled hair with a part off to the side and black, thick-rimmed glasses. Only a few of the “Gentlemen” actually had the contemporary look of early twenty-first century bureaucrats; simple suit and tie, the slacks tapering at the ankles, head shaved bald or very near-bald, and a little stubble on the chin and jaws.
“You didn't actually think I'd go through
with that, did you,” Temple put to the crowd upon seeing their smoldering
looks. “I'm not joking, gentlemen. We live in a democracy and the people have
spoken. This is not Medieval
Europe where all of you can toy around with other people's lives on your
“Based on the US Constitution,” one of the '50s-like men said from the thick of the group; this one, American, “presidents are elected based on the electoral votes, not the popular!”
Temple chuckled as he looked around at the others. “Yeah, I addressed that already, Joe Friday.”
The same man began to lose his patience and started to take a step toward President Temple, but a couple of the other Gentlemen held him back as he spoke. “And do you really think the Electoral College would vote for some former jock, who only got into politics in the first place because some Congressmen back in his home state thought it would be cool to have a washed-out football player in the White House?”
That last comment wiped Temple's cocky countenance from his face.
"Temple,” the same Gentleman continued, by now his fellows having released him, confident that he would not go toward the president, “you have that Oval Office because we put you there! It wasn't that long ago that the world was in the Great Recession; we needed some kind of balance in the US to help keep the global markets going...that Theo Whitmore was too polarizing! I don't care how much of a scholar he is. He would've made the Bush-Gore debacle look like a Christmas pageant for elementary kids!”
“And remember, Mr. President,” another
Gentleman came in; one of the Victorian-types; English, of course, “the Parties
control the Electors. Now, I
don't expect you to know this, but it was upheld by your Supreme Court—“
“Yeah, I know; it's called the Faithless Electors,” Temple said, regaining some of his confidence. “Supreme Court said there are no Federal laws to stop the Democrats or the Republicans from punishing the Electors from the College if they don't vote the way each Party wants them to!” He smirked upon seeing their surprised faces. “It's alright, gentlemen, I'm used to people underestimating me. Not so different from sports, really.”
Despite themselves, some of the men in the old-world room nodded with tacit approval.
“This changes nothing,” one of the modern-looking chaps came in. Perhaps Australian, or South African? “He still has to do it...the Rules require it!”
Remembering what Kay said earlier about some Rules not allowing her to go into the Chamber, President Temple quickly said, irritated, “What in the world are these Rules that everyone keeps talking about? I don't remember reading or hearing anything about some cryptic Rules after being elected!”
“But you know what you're supposed to do upon your election,” stated another younger, modern-day dressed Gentlemen; American. “You don't have to know the Organization's full-range of operations to do your duties, President Temple.”
Evan shook his head, saying nothing this time. Then a thought occurred to him. Everyone else in the room watched with interest. “So, what would happen if I refuse to do it?”
“That's President Temple,” Evan broke in, over that same older man that had first talked to him upon entering the Chamber.
The older, American man frowned to himself, and thought better. “President Temple, Sir, you really don't want to go down that rabbit hole!”
“Oh, really...” Temple straightened his posture as he walked within a couple of feet in front of the Gentleman; the closest he had been to the group since arriving there. “Sounds like you're kind of threatening me there, Pops.”
The old man held his stern gaze on Temple as the others looked on; most with nonchalant faces. “Send for one of the aides to escort President Temple back to the surface!” The two men yet locked daring eyes at each other.
“I don't think Kay got too far away,” volunteered one of the middle-aged, European Gentlemen from the back of the group. “I'll see if she can come back for him.”
“Mr. President...this way, please,” one of the other mid-twentieth century-styled Gentleman requested with one of his arms graciously extended toward the same door Temple had just came from. His gestures were as if there were a state dinner function going on and none of the contentious encounter even happened!
For once, President Temple actually did what he was requested and, without protest, exited the Chamber and stood in the darkened tunnel-way as the door closed with a thud behind him. He didn't need any escorting. He knew that was just diplomatese-talk for getting him out of the room. But to President Temple, he stood up to a “special interest” group that had more sway in American politics than it should have, and he felt a sense of pride in standing up to the enigmatic organization...and now he wondered, at what price?
It had been over a week since President Temple had his surreal meeting with the Cabal, and they were one of the furthest things on his mind. Besides the normal, myriad of issues a US president had to deal with, there was progress on the Iranian front! If things worked out with the next batch of meetings he had scheduled with Chinese Premier An Sui and Russian President Aleksey Markov, the Iranian-American War (as some in the media titled it) would be the shortest modern-day war since the Falklands War of 1982!
Given the United Nations Security Council required a unanimous vote to go to any war, the Temple Administration's push for a UN-led war failed earlier in the year since both China and Russia vetoed the campaign for war in Iran. President Temple was, however, able to muster up the votes in the US Congress and the Senate for the war against Iran. In essence, the government of Iran was caught, via American intelligence, making nuclear weapons. And given that Iran was one of the 190 signatory states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of nukes, it was a breach of the UN treaty. Again, since the United Nations was not party to the war between the US and Iran, President Temple thought he could use the political route to get out of the war since Russia and China were Iran's allies...lives, literally, hung in the balance with such meetings!
“Mr. President, the Russian ambassador is here to see you now, Sir,” the White House secretary announced to Temple from her desk.
“Thank you, Cindy,” he said as he finished up a flurry of signatures on several legal writs as an aide held a business folder as a hard surface for the president to use.
After he finished the last signature and date, President Temple thanked the young man and made his way to a secured area of the White House to meet the ambassador; his two secret service guards flanking his every step. Temple was surprised to see a middle-aged man standing, alone, in the middle of the hall where said dignitaries normally walk up to meet the president—along with their entourage! Temple stopped just before getting to the hall and looked at his body guards.
“It's alright, Mr. President...we've got everything covered,” the taller of the two officers said and gestured with his head that it was ok for him to walk up to the ambassador.
Temple's glare went back and forth between the two, formally dressed officers and made a mental note about whether or not to fire them.
“You wouldn't keep a Gentleman waiting...would you,” the man asked, sarcastically; his Eastern European accent ringing down the hall.
President Temple felt a chill run down his spine! Indeed, he recognized the man. He was one of the Cabal members he had seen in that Chamber about a week ago! The man had not interacted with the president, but given the intensity of the experience, Temple made sure to remember those faces as best he could! He slowly walked up to the Gentleman while the two secret agents kept an eye on things.
“Where's Ambassador Rustan,” he demanded of the slender man. Temple remembered that many of his cohorts were dressed in outdated dress-ware, as if they were in some freakish costume convention! But today, this man was in contemporary affair.
“We gave him the day off,” he said with no irony whatsoever.
Temple kept his eyes on those of the Gentleman's to gauge his sincerity. “I think you forgot whose name was checked on the ballot for president last year...I'll give you five seconds to turn around and go back to that cave where you and all your boyfriends like to play dress-up! Five...Four…”
“Officers, could you give us a moment,” the Gentleman said to the secret service agents over Temple's shoulder.
To his surprise, the two men turned to walk down the hall!
“Abel...Chris,” the president called out to them, “get back here!” But they were gone. Temple knew that was just the Gentleman's way of demonstrating his power over him. Slowly, Evan Temple was beginning to see another world behind the hairline cracks of his world!
Apparently, the Gentleman could see this in Temple's face. The man softened his demeanor before he spoke. “Mr. President, we saw that you were actually doing a good job in trying to put an end to all this nonsense with Iran. So, we already set up a meeting with China's premier, the Russian president, and President Karaj.” The man actually smiled! “It'll be fine, Mr. President. From what I've heard how things are going, the war should be over, probably, by next week or so!”
Again, just to make sure it was not some sick joke or misunderstanding, President Temple held his gaze into the Gentleman's face. But Temple was the type to convince himself before others could do that for him. From one of his dress-jacket's pockets, the president took out his secured cell phone and placed a call to the White House secretary.
“Yes, Mr. President,” she said cheerfully over the cell.
“Cindy, has the Secretary of State left me any messages?”
“He did, Sir,” the young woman said without any hesitation.
“Anything about the meeting...?” He was deliberately vague with her.
“Uh, you mean with Presidents Karaj and Markov, and Premier An? Yes, Sir...of course he said he'd fill you in with the details, but he said that it was a thumbs up so far!” Silence for a while. “Is everything alright, Mr. President?”
“Yeah, uh, yes, Cindy...just kind of hard to keep the players straight with all these meetings I've had lately.” As Temple finished up, the Gentleman nodded with approval at the president's performance.
“No problem, Mr. President. That's what I'm here for!” And the call was ended.
The Gentleman watched as President Temple slowly paced, rubbing his chin as he was trying to figure out the puzzle with missing pieces. Temple noticed how the Gentleman stood properly, his hands behind his back; confidence exuding from his pores, as it were. Visually, Temple knew that it looked like the Gentleman was the president; not him!
“I can't believe this,” the president whispered to himself as he continued to pace; his back to the chap.
“Mr. President, we were hoping with the Secretary of State meeting with the principles in Tehran, that it would clear up your schedule a bit so we could take care of that unfinished business.”
Temple heard the Gentleman, but really had no interest in responding. But he could see, now, that he was not in charge. “I mean, I knew about the Electoral College since before I could even vote! But...” Temple finally turned to face the Gentleman and looked at him in the eyes. Not with confrontation, but with powerless wonderment. “So, why do you—all of you!—even bother to have the presidency? Why put on the charade? Literally, even!”
The Gentleman chuckled at that last point, knowing that Temple was referring to the Cabal's choices in attire! He thought for a few seconds before responding. “Well, Mr. President, you said it yourself back in the Chamber. Remember? Democracy. Oh, we're powerful, President Temple. We've been that man behind the curtain since before your Revolution! But even we cannot control a raging sea of humanity when social pressures are high in society...we've learned this from the French and Soviet Revolutions, and America's of course. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, and with the unfortunate rise of that dreaded Reich in Germany soon after, we knew that our power on events and governments had waned significantly!”
The Gentleman noticed the alarmed look in the president's face. “Please tell me you didn't have anything to do with America joining the Second World War to balance things out! Or, or...the Space Race; JFK's assassination; G W Bush becoming President...”
President Temple looked upon the Gentleman with askance. The man shrugged. Again, with no irony. “Ok, Sir, I won't tell you.”
Temple winced upon hearing that. But he let the Gentleman continue; his hands remaining clasped behind him. “As for the literal charade you referred to...there's no harm in me telling you that it's mere tradition. Some members decide to don the clothing of our ancestors just as a reminder of how far back our group goes and which era we've had the strongest influences. Nothing nefarious to it; sorry!
“Perhaps you noticed that these days we prefer to call ourselves Gentlemen.” President Temple nodded absently at his question, yet recovering from the shock of it all. “Right...well, as you can understand, Mr. President, that it would be, shall I say, distracting if we used our original identity in the 21st century! I'm afraid it's one of the drawbacks of the Internet and television, from our perspective. There are so many citizens in the world with exaggerated, conspiratorial narratives that we would simply put ourselves in danger if we went by our original name. No, Mr. President, we've worked too hard to get to where we are today since our destruction in the 18th century!”
This time, the Gentleman noticed that even for Temple, he seemed to be in deeper thought about something. “Mr. President, I hope I haven't completely lost you, Sir!”
After, yet, more time in thinking, President Temple once again faced the Gentleman. “So, you, Gentlemen, are basically all about balance in the world?”
“Indeed, we've always advocated reasoning and rationality over archaic superstitions! We've always tried to spread education and critical thinking to various citizenry all over the world!” This time, the Gentleman was a bit more animated. “Mind you, our tactics sometimes can be a bit controversial, but...yes, we strive to maintain some balance in the world, when and where it's needed.”
Again, the US president went into a shuddered place in his mind. The Gentleman, having done this for years, knew when to give space to the subject.
“Ok,” Temple said, nodding sadly to himself, “I'll do it—the unfinished business we talked about back in the Chamber.”
The Gentleman beamed at Temple and gave him a supportive rub on one of his shoulders.
“But this must be for all that balancing you spoke of,” the president threw in defiantly.
“I promise you, Mr. President, it will...under the circumstances of your country's primary and general election last year, we had to resort to more creative ways to achieve this particular goal.”
Temple nodded pensively and said nothing for a long while. The two secret service guards peered into the hall to make sure everything was alright. He started to wave them off, but deferred his eyes to the Gentleman.
“Sir, you are still the president, Mr. Temple,” he said with a slight smile.
Temple wearily gestured to the agents that he was alright. It all felt so contrived, now. But he had to look at the big picture.
“So,” he said with a lingering sigh, “what'll be the cover story?”
The Gentleman was a bit surprised at the president's directness already. “Well...some in the Chamber thought going the impeachment route would be too long and costly. Myself included in that camp. We crunched some scenarios with our met-drives, and the most plausible narrative seems to be an accident.”
President Temple whipped his head toward the man; an inquisitive face greeting the Gentleman.
“You're a former football player; you still exercise, as do all American presidents, so your health is a very low risk-factor. To say nothing of your medical coverage! As you said to our organization in the Chamber, you were very popular in the election, so it would not be very likely that some group would want to assassinate you...” The Gentleman shrugged, his hands yet behind him. “The meta-models make sense. If this were real, you would most likely die in an accident than any other possible demise!”
Temple tsked to himself as he looked away. “You sure my family—“
“And this is the terrible part in all this, President Temple,” the Gentleman strategically interrupted him. “I was not joking about how the Internet made things a lot more difficult for the group! Social media, in particular. Somehow, Mr. President; somehow, one of your family members would leak the truth...I'm very sorry, Sir.”
By that time, Temple was already nodding his head in submission. “As I said, so long as the Gentlemen are doing this for the greater good of our country and humanity, it's a price I'll have to pay.”
This time, it was Evan Temple that noticed something on the other man's mind.
“Well...I shouldn't say this, but you will not be the first to have done it this way, Mr. President! It's hard; this is true. But you will be greatly compensated for this...but, I admit, it's no substitute for your own family.”
Silence in the hall.
“When,” Temple asked after about a minute.
“Even I don't know,” the Gentleman said with frankness. “But don't worry, Sir, we will definitely let you know when. In fact, you won't have a say in it,” he said with a subtle warning.
President Temple straightened his posture and re-adjusted his suit, then his thick head-full of hair. The Gentleman, standing ever still next to him, looked upon Temple with a whisk of pride.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” the Gentleman said as he extended a hand. The president shook it sincerely.
“Actually, thank all of you Gentlemen! We better, um, get security to walk you out...you know; stay in character, as they say in Hollywood!”
That was the old President Evan Temple that the Gentleman was used to seeing on the news. For the first time, he actually laughed.
But before President Temple called for the secret service, he stopped himself and furtively said to the Gentleman, “Oh, and, believe me when I say this: Vice-President Katheryn MacIntosh will do a great job as president, when I'm gone!”
The Gentleman smiled and nodded as the president walked off and the two agents passed him to escort the enigmatic agent of change out. “That's the idea, Mr. President...that's the idea.”