Welcome to the sequel to The Alexandria Project, a cybersecurity thriller. If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here.
Frank was sitting inside his camper, a bowl of diet popcorn at one elbow and a small dumbbell at the other. The elbow next to the popcorn was getting most of the exercise. On the opposite side of the camper hung a large flat screen TV, and on that set the latest, pre-primary season Republican debate was about to begin.
Like many other Americans, and indeed like a surprising number of satellite viewers around the world, Frank was curious to see how Lamar Wellhead, the latest entrant to the Republican field, would fare in his first performance under the scrutiny of the public and the national media. As usual, he had rocketed to the top of the polls within days of announcing his candidacy, but few besides Frank knew that this was almost certainly a manufactured illusion.
Just then, the candidates walked on camera to take their places at the podiums spread in a shallow arc across the stage. Consistent with his sudden status as a top contender, one of the two podiums at center stage was reserved for Wellhead. Texas was being unusually generous with her native sons this year, and Lamar was not just another homey from the Lone Star State. No, he was the son and grandson of genuine Texas wildcatters, the senior minister of his own evangelical mega church, and a very popular talk-radio show host, to boot.
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Best of all, at the commencement of his career, he had “decided,” with the help of the Lord, to “no longer be a homosexual.’ He regularly preached about the joys that heterosexuality had brought into his life, and could bring into the lives of every other homosexual as well. Curiously, none of his childhood sweethearts – including those whose absence from High School for six months at a time remained unexplained – had ever detected the slightest inkling of his true sexual preference.
Next to Wellhead stood Hollis Davenport, Governor of a swing state and a second-time contender for the nomination. A Yale graduate, he had led a prominent Wall Street investment bank before entering public service, and was the consensus choice of the media as the most electable candidate. Strangely, the electorate did not seem to agree, and poll after poll invariably showed him to be in second place, at least a handful of points behind the latest new candidate to enter the race.
To the left of Wellhead stood the immediately prior Great Right Hope, Julian Johnson, the Governor of Texas. His time in the lead had lasted only days, due to his disastrous performance in the previous televised debate. To the right of Davenport stood Senator Roxanne Rollins, a former State of Wisconsin Dairy Queen, who was filling out the unexpired portion of her ex-husband’s term. Regrettably, his tenure in office had been cut short when he was caught in flagrante delicto with the young lady that was currently wearing the Dairy Queen’s crown.
Also on stage was Raúl Poll, an unabashed Libertarian. Constant in his convictions, unimpeachable in his public and private life, he had dedicated his career to service in the House of Representatives and was now a somewhat elderly, scarecrow of a man with a shock of white, often unruly hair. Unlike the other candidates, Poll often said what others knew to be true but feared to state. But he also said things that no one that maintained a more traditional relationship with reality ever thought or said. An example was his opinion that future economic disasters could be avoided simply by freeing Wall Street entirely from financial regulation. Nevertheless, over the years he had amassed a loyal and growing following that appreciated his willingness to stand up to special interests, and to tell it like it is. Lately, he had been telling the country that it should shut down the regulatory agencies, shut down Congress, shut down the courts, and contract with Goldman Sachs to run the country instead. Slowly but surely, his ranking in the polls continued to rise.
Consigned to the boondocks at the ends of the stage were Landa Goshen and Merrill Dreeper. Goshen was a City Councilwoman from Enid, Oklahoma whose hour had come and gone over the summer. Unfortunately for her candidacy, she had entered the race just before the foreign policy debate, and her platform was based in part on having no foreign policy. Rather, she advocated killing three birds with one stone – or, more accurately, with approximately 432 billion large, quarried stones – which she would use to build a thirty foot wall surrounding the entire nation, thereby keeping out illegal immigrants, foreign invaders and the rising tides of global warming, if those liberal lies somehow turned out to be true. She continued to have a fanatical, but diminished following.
Which left only Merrill Dreeper. Throughout his long career, Dreeper had held and served honorably in almost every high level post a politician on the national stage could hold – Member of the House of Representatives; Cabinet Member; Senator; member of blue ribbon investigatory commissions. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was as highly regarded abroad as he was at home – a rare occurrence in recent times for a Republican holding that position. Before entering public service he had graduated from both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and twice had tried cases before the Supreme Court. Naturally, no one on the right took him seriously.
The debate that evening was being sponsored by conservative cable TV channel Pox News, “The Network that tells you what you want to hear.” Coincidentally, NNR also owned the radio station that hosted Lamar Wellhead’s talk show. The debate would be moderated by Ben Gleck, host of one of NNR’s most popular political commentary programs, and the topic it had chosen was, “Is there Anything – Anything at all – that the Democrats Can do Right?” The crowd in attendance gave the candidates an enthusiastic welcome.
When the applause died down, Gleck welcomed the audience and introduced the candidates. Then he announced the rules of engagement.
“During the debate tonight, the usual televised debate rules will apply. In other words, we ask each of you to stay strictly within the time limits, which are three minutes for answers to my questions, and one minute for rebuttals to the statements of other candidates, when I allow them, assuming you haven’t already butted in. When you ignore the time limits, I will interrupt you politely, and you will ignore my existence. Interrupting other candidates is forbidden, and when you do so anyway, I will jump in, and you will tell me, in so many words, to stuff it. So do I have that right?”
The candidates smiled and nodded in agreement.
“Good,” Gleck smiled back. “Now let’s begin.” As usual, he addressed his first question to the new front runner.
“Mr. Wellhead, you’ve made some pointedly negative remarks about Democrats in the past. For example, just last Monday in Milwaukee you said that saying the typical Democrat is almost as dumb as a box of rocks would be insulting to the average box of rocks. Do you have any concerns that comments like that may make it difficult for you to win the election?”
Wellhead flashed his unnaturally white teeth at the audience in a dazzling smile. “Not if we let rocks vote!” The crowd went wild.
“Very good, Sir. Very good. Just seeing if you were on your toes tonight, and clearly you are! Now what do you think the worst thing is that this Democrat president has done since he’s been in office?”
“Oh my – where do I begin? Well, let’s see, how about I say when he sent our troops into Iraq?”
The crowd was silent. After a moment, the moderator cleared his throat and said. “Ah! I’ve got it. Now you’re seeing if I’m on my toes! Good one! Of course, we all know that the president’s predecessor, a Republican, took that action.”
Wellhead looked at him blankly for a moment, and then panned the audience back and forth with his million dollar smile as they laughed and clapped.
“Let’s move on, now, to another candidate. Mr. Davenport, when did you quit considering a Democrat as a running mate?”
Davenport started to scowl, and then forced a smile. “Ah, good one again, Ben. You almost caught me there.”
“I’m not joking, Hollis. When did you?”
Now Davenport did scowl. “I’ve never considered a Democrat as a running mate, Ben, and you know it.”
Gleck gave a knowing smile and a huge, Vaudeville wink to the audience as the camera zoomed in for a close up. “Of course not, of course not! Now Mr. Poll. A question for you.” Poll, his suit coat hunched up on his thin shoulders, smiled crookedly.
“Mr. Poll, what do you think of Democrat plans to tax the top 1% of Americans to bring down the deficit?”
“Oh my goodness, Ben, what a terrible idea! We should repeal all taxes! Why, if we just let businesses run things, everything would be fine! Just fine! The best way to let a free market economy operate is just to leave it alone!”
Gleck nodded. “How about you, Mr. Johnson? What do you say?”
“Well, I absolutely agree that the last thing we should do is tax the rich! Why, they’re the engines of our economy! If we were to raise taxes, they might just decide to move out. Then what would we do? Who would buy the luxury cars Detroit doesn’t make? And what about all those mansions? If all those estates got dumped on the market at the same time, then the realtors would really be in trouble! No, I think the only smart thing to do is to cut taxes for the rich. Let’s have a flat tax for everybody! It’s incredible the Democrats can’t see that.”
“Does anyone disagree?” Gleck asked the candidates at large.
Most nodded; Landa Goshen, lost at the edge of the stage, bobbed up and down with her hand in the air. “Not me! Not me!” she mouthed. Only Dreeper shook his head in the negative.
“Well, it’s unanimous, then. We’ll return to other policies the Democrats have all wrong after this commercial break.”
The screen flashed to an ad for Bentley Motor Cars, and Frank got up to grab a beer and his laptop. How could it be that the entire Republican leadership could think that the way to get elected was to defend the wealthiest 1% of the nation when unemployment and underemployment were at 15%, and the nation was running almost a trillion dollar annual deficit? And weren’t Republican voters able to do the math? A flat tax would drop taxes for the rich while raising them for everybody else. It defied all logic.
In disgust, he opened his email, and took a sharp breath. He had just gotten his first email from Josette! He opened it
>Hi Frank! All is well here. Do you watch the debate?
Not exactly what he had hoped for. But he should respond.
Yes, although I’m wondering why – they’re all crazy
She replied immediately, and so did he.
>I think so, too. But surely all the voters are not crazy?
You have to wonder, given the polls.
>And I do wonder. The only two candidates that make sense are Davenport and Dreeper. But it seems no one pays attention to Dreeper. And it seems that anyone new is always right away more popular than Davenport
Frank looked at his laptop. He wasn’t sure where to go with this conversation, knowing what he did. Time to change the subject.
How was the festival?
>It was so wonderful! You would have loved it. I have taken many pictures. Perhaps I can show them to you some time?
He paused, then responded.
I’d like that. Where will you go now?
>I will head ride back east with my friends. They will be returning to France, but I will stay here to study
Once again, she had taken him by surprise; he did not recall her ever suggesting before that she might stay in the U.S. over the winter. Not very imaginatively, he responded:
>Yes, I had applied for a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, and they have told me that I am accepted! For the fall and spring, I will be studying your election and what happens afterwards. I must find somewhere to live now in Washington.
Frank leaned back and stared at his laptop. Had he ever felt anything other than off-balance when conversing with Josette? Then he had another thought and phrased his next question carefully.
Just you? All of your friends will be returning to France?
>Yes, just me. Oh – the debate is beginning again. Ciao!
Frank closed his laptop slowly and turned back to the TV screen. But he found it hard to concentrate.
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