Main Menu (edit)
The long, dirt-shrouded truck – “U. S. Accessways” barely visible under the grime – ground and ratcheted to a halt in the truck lot of the Midway Truckers Paradise, the late afternoon sun beating down upon its metal shell. The passenger door opened, and a tall, powerfully built man with shortcropped hair, a puffy vest, and wrap-around sunglasses stepped out into the Texas heat, looking around the lot as though expecting a rendezvous. Nothing forthcoming, he nodded back up to the cab, and the President of the United States opened the driver’s side door and climbed down to the asphalt below.
Mind you, it wasn’t the President that everyone knew on TV, the one who’d been elected by the public (and the electoral college, and never you mind all the various controversies over that) and who lived at the White House and gave speeches and waged wars and all that jazz. James “Little Jim” Montrose had never actually stepped foot in Washington, DC, nor did he wish or expect to.
Still he had been, in fact, elected. It was by a secret sub-chamber of Congress consisting of the majority leaders, whips, and five delegates of each party (so sorry, Greens) from each chamber, in accordance with Section 5 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, such section being approved in secret by a similarly clandestine gathering in accordance with Article V, Section 2 of the US Constitution, itself an article which showed up in no constitutional law text but which had been included in the Law of the Land since its inception, and had been used to pass seven other secret amendments the public had no need to know about.
Calling Montrose the President of the United States was, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. He had no formal role to play, he penned no policies, he gave no direct commands. He did forward copious memos to the current president, though he had no expectation or assurance that anyone was even reading them.
He was, however, what was called (by those few who knew of his existence – the “real” President and Veep, the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, certain key cabinet secretaries, and, of course, the electing congressfolk) the “Shadow President.” Should something actually happen to the real president in such a way as to decapitate the government – the standard explanation back when the office was created was a nuclear strike on Washington – Montrose, just as his eighteen predecessors, was expected to step up and step in, become the President-in-fact, and lead the country out of whatever predicament it was in. That was likely to be a doubtful proposition, under the expected circumstances, but it beat the alternative of no fall-back plan at all.
The duties of the office were, in point of fact, twofold. First, he was required to be something of a moving target, roving about the country and, so the plan went, out of reach of Dastardly Foreign Agents and sneak attacks. There was still a margin for error there – Montrose had been in Pennsylvania on 9-11, and some folks had speculated (to his disdain, to be sure) that Flight 93 had been after him when it plowed into the Pennsylvania countryside.
Regardless, the easiest way of accomplishing this particular duty was to put him in a truck and send him scooting here and there. The truck actually carried crates of materials, non-perishable items that nobody would ever notice had not actually been ever delivered anywhere (the manifest was duly updated on a periodic basis). Montrose enjoyed a certain wanderlust, so this was no particular problem.
The second duty was to keep up to date. Montrose had a distinct schedule by which he’d visit different places around the country and, on a weekly basis (more frequently when need be), he’d meet with an in-the-know staffer from the Administration and be brought up to date on Stuff. There were other means of communication – a high-tech Gamma-level encrypted satellite link that piped info (much of it meetings, thanks to the extensive recording and monitoring systems in the White House and on its personnel) to the truck, which could be listened to on FM 88.5; dead drops of 48-hour-self-destructing CD/DVDs; and so forth. But the briefings were where the real business took place, where Montrose got a real feel for what was going on back in DC, on the off chance he ever had to do something about it.
And today’s briefing – as it was about once a month – was at the diner at the Midway. That brought a smile to Montrose’s face. He liked the Midway. It had a sort of … well, American charm to it. Kitschy, in some ways, but very hard and hot and smelly and real in others.
It also had some amenities he planned to make use of.
They sauntered across the parking lot, toward the store. Montrose looked around. A sallow-skinned girl in a glittery black tube top and short-short denim pants was hanging out by the ice machine by the store, watching the lot. She glanced at him, then turned quickly away. They’d had a conversation once, but Montrose was – well, she wasn’t really his type, and entanglements with her sort might have made him seem a security risk. Neither he nor his “keepers” would have cared for that.
Tommy walked next to him as they crossed the parking lot and stepped into the mini-mart. The big man was, as always, somehow the first to and through the door, scoping out the folks there. Secret Service, of course. In this case, very secret, even for that organization. There were three people in the Service who were familiar with Montrose’s official role. They’d all been carefully chosen for their lack of outside ties (single, anti-social, self-contained) and utter loyalty to flag and country. Tommy Hooks was currently on duty, and the newest of the trio, just three months on the job.
He was good, Montrose considered – probably better in a fight (assuming one ever came along) than Johannsen, but a lot less subtle and natural-seeming than Visconti. Not much of a conversationalist, either. Montrose needed to work him on that.
“Hey, Little Jim,” Woczak barked from behind the bulletproof glass. Montrose liked Woczak – Viet Nam vet, real salt of the earth. Montrose’s life was, as any of the “in the know” people knew, anything but stable – wouldn’t be, one would expect, until the Committee voted in another Shadow President – but having a place where folks knew your name was kind of nice. It was another reason he liked the Midway.
“Hey, Woz,” he shot back with a grin. Montrose actually had a very winning style. He was too private an individual to make a good candidate for public office on his own, but he was a charming, believable, trustworthy leader. It hadn’t even taken that much government-sponsored training to get him to that point.
They went through the swinging doors into the restaurant beyond – not the diner, but the other restaurant, whatever it was called now – almost empty. A bored-looking woman sat at the hostess chair, reading a magazine. “LINDA AND CHAD – WILL THEY KEEP THE BABY?” She glanced up with tired expectation, but they were bypassing the restaurant, enjoying the a/c and the chance to stretch their legs.
They moved on, through the video arcade, where bored drivers distracted themselves with out-of-date pixelated adventures -- shooting mushrooms, or rescuing Princess Daphne from danger, or just batting a steel ball along a slope. They wandered through the gift shop, full of various trucking/Texas t-shirts and naughty postcards. They continued past the door to the rent-a-showers. Montrose grinned to himself at that. He’d have to find an excuse –
The diner was hopping, even mid-afternoon. The Midway’s diner (the sign over the door said nothing other than “DINER” and the credit card bills folks received just said “MIDWAY TRCKRS PDISE”) had a good reputation. Mostly truckers, of course, but a handful of families, too. There were really no neighbors to the place, so no “locals,” aside from folks who worked at the various places at the stop itself.
“Sir,” Tommy said, then frowned slightly, quickly correcting it to, “Jimmy. Over there.”
“We’ll make a trucker out of you yet,” Montrose said, grinning at him. He looked past and saw a young man in red t-shirt (“I LOVE THE SPOTTED OWL // With BBQ Sauce and a Bud”), gold wire-rim glasses, and sandy hair topped a black mesh hat, poking at a plate with burgers and fries on it. The particular sartorial combo (well, the shirt and hat) was what he was looking for, according to prior arrangements, at this particular stop.
Montrose slipped into the opposite side of the booth. Tommy managed to find a chair at a table close enough to watch, far enough to not listen, and angled so that he could see the room, the exits, and anywhere else some sort of commie terrorist assassin might spring from.
“You got the time?” Montrose asked.
The young man, who had started when Montrose had sat down, narrowed his eyes. “My watch stopped at 11:46.”
“Must be the heat.”
“Okay, enough with the code phrase bullshit,” Montrose said. “Let’s get –”
A teenaged girl with frizzy blond hair stepped to the table. “Can I get you anything? Oh, hi, Little Jim.”
Montrose grinned winningly at her, then glanced at the capped man he was here to meet. “House special. On a bun, rare. Make it onion rings, though, not fries. Root Beer Float.”
She looked at him a moment, then nodded. She left, taking the empty milk shake glass from the table.
“Okay, then,” Montrose continued, after she was gone, “Let’s get to it.”
The young man nodded. “Things are getting dicey again with the Ukraine …”
The briefing went on for a good two hours. Montrose might have a very low opinion of the current denizen of the White House, but at least the fellow made sure that his Shadow was fully informed of any significant geopolitical and/or secret information, plans, and policies that might affect his role. Parties and ideologies came and went, but everyone made sure the Shadow President was up-to-date with the latest.
The briefer’s name was Tony Baen. He was new – some sort of assistant deputy undersecretary in State. He was well-informed, though -- organized, had clearly memorized a prodigious amount of information, and sharp-witted enough to pitch his voice to the crowd, speak in circumlocutions when someone came by, and yet still pass along quite a bit of classified data with minimal confusion.
“I have to confess,” Baen said, after the girl – Leilani, Montrose recalled from previous visits. He liked to know folks’ names – had cleared the table of Baen’s cold, half-eaten burger, “I’m not sure why they picked me for this assignment.”
“Why shouldn’t they?”
“Well, I’ve not made my –” He paused, then continued with a somewhat sheepish smile. “Nothing personal. I’ve just never made my opinion about people like you a secret, and, well, so I’m surprised they trusted me to brief you on this stuff.
“People like -- me?”
“Ah.” A new cover. Montrose was mildly annoyed that he hadn’t been informed beforehand what Baen would expect him to be, and briefly considered dropping into a French accent -- it had been years, but he could probably do it -- but decided not to. “Maybe they’ve fed you some disinformation to pass on to me.”
Baen shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not privy to all the meetings where this stuff is discussed, but it all hangs together and sounds right. And the stuff I do know about is pretty highly classified.”
Montrose nodded. “Well, it’s appreciated. The US is doing a fine job upholding this particular treaty, and I assure you in return that I have nothing but the best interests of your country at heart. I may be with the UN, but I’m an American first.”
Baen’s expression flickered in skepticism, and he snorted lightly, but he was polite enough not to argue the point. “Well, anyway, I should get going. Long drive back to St Louis, especially with the crazy-ass way they want me to drive.”
Montrose raised an eyebrow. “How’s that. I drive all over these here parts.”
The young man – Montrose thought of him as young, though he was probably over thirty – sighed. He took a sip from his water. “Well, they told me to take Highway 47 back up and around to get to St Louis from the east, with a check-in at a – well, a particular mileage marker. But there isn’t a Highway 47 in any of the states between here and there, not that makes any sense.”
“Highway 47? Who told you that?”
“The VP.” Baen looked like he was going to say something further, something not entirely respectful regarding a senior administration official, but didn’t.
Montrose nodded. “That explains it. He’s real good at fund-raising and playing the power behind the throne, but shit for directions. Look –” Montrose considered his options, and decided the House Special had been a decent enough starter. “You have any idea why this is the one rendezvous point for these meetings that stays the same? I mean, I get together with folks from DC everywhere from north of Pierre to west of Reno to hickvilles like Tullahoma and Etna. But once a month, it’s always back here at the Midway, deep in the heart of Texas. You know why that is?”
Baen seemed to be digesting the info he’d just received. “Um – because it’s midway …”
“Well, yeah, of course. But there’s also the Dragon’s Lair.”
Baen’s brow furrowed. “The Dragon’s Lair?”
Montrose nodded, then gave a grin like he was about to share the best joke in the world. “It was originally set up around the same time as Cheyenne Mountain, as another backup C&C site. Sort of like Greenbrier in West Virginia, too – a place where military and government folks could hunker down, if they were nearby when the Soviets launched. It’s a thousand feet under the ground, massively sheltered and protected against any sort of attack.”
The young man nodded slowly. “Makes sense.”
“And it’s the reason this place is still the middle of nowhere.”
A quizzical lift of the eyebrow. “I don’t follow.”
“Well, you can’t build a place like that – with all the facilities it will need and ties to the power grid and water and phones and all -- and then plonk a suburb on top of it. You need something like this place –” He gestured around him. “— to give cover to folks coming and going, but you really don’t want a bulldozer digging into the ventilation shafts. So the Feds bought up the land, all around here, hiding it in about a dozen shell corporations, tidy profits for everyone, and have made sure that nobody – nobody – builds anything anywhere nearby except this little Trucker’s Paradise.”
“That’s really clever,” Baen said, nodding, getting into the tale.
“Well then, when –” Montrose looked around him, lowered his voice. “— when the treaty that has you reporting to me came about, the shelter was re-purposed. It’s now the headquarters for the UN Strategic Weapons State Inspection Force – UNSWESIF – here in the US of A.”
Disgust passed quickly across Baen’s face, but he covered it up well. “Huh.”
Montrose paused a moment. “Would you like to see?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I have the passkey, of course. There’s nobody actually there at the moment – just monitoring and comm equipment and the like, making sure there aren’t any nuclear tests or missile launches on the sly. It’s actually kind of interesting.”
Baen was clearly unhappy with and put off by the whole arrangement Montrose had described, and, because of that, was both reluctant and eager to see it. Montrose could almost see the wheels turning in his head. f I can confirm this – a word to certain Senators, or even the newspapers – anonymous sources – I could really do something about this disgraceful abandonment of American sovereignty.
“They also have data links into a very nice mapping system for the whole United States. We could figure out what the hell the VP meant and get you on your way.”
That was enough to decide Baen. He nodded, decisively. “Let’s do it.”
Montrose smiled. “Great.” He fished into his pockets, pulled out a couple of twenties, left them on the table. It was more than the two meals had cost, by far, and it pained him to overpay like that – but it was, when all was said and done, only paper. Not real wealth. And if it disposed the staff here at the Midway kindly toward him for his next visit, well, that couldn’t do any harm.
He slipped out of the booth, Baen with him. Tommy got up from the nearby table, and the three of them walked back into the building.
At the door to the locker rooms and showers, Montrose stopped. “Tommy, my friend here and I are going to – chat a bit. You can head on back to the truck.”
“You don’t need to call me sir, Tommy. Just plain ol’ Jim.”
“Jim, my or– I’d rather –”
“We’ll be fine. If you’d rather hang out here, or go play some pinball right over there, that’d be fine by me. But I’d prefer you stay out here.”
Tommy wasn’t happy about that, but there wasn’t much he could do. Besides the locker rooms and showers didn’t have an exit besides this door. Tommy wasn’t particularly happy about – well, he supposed he had to be open-minded about such things, and if his principal and this other fellow were going to head into the showers together, it wasn’t any of his concern, really. Besides, he’d stood guard at some Washington parties that would make anyone’s hair curl …
Montrose and Baen stepped through the door. Baen looked one part suspicious to two parts confused. Montrose gave him a grin. “What, you’re expecting massive vault doors and MPs?” Baen looked a bit abashed at that, since that’s clearly exactly what he’d been expecting, and realized its foolishness.
Past the lockers, but before the showers, a left down a short hall that ended in a door. Montrose had his keys out, and one of them unlocked it, and he ushered Baen into –
-- a broom closet.
Montrose closed the door, then reached over and pulled on a mop mounted on the wall. The bracket slid downwards, and the rear wall opened.
Montrose took a couple of flashlights off of a shelf and handed one to Baen, keeping the other himself, and led the way, passing a large, faded sign that mentioned the US Government and the dire penalties for trespassing.
They descended down a set of concrete stairs, which after a couple of flights turned into a dirty, unfinished passage that continued to twist ever-downward. After about ten minutes, Baen said, “How the hell could they expect to evacuate down through this little tunnel.”
“This is a back route,” Montrose said over his shoulder. “The main entrance is off of the store, but this is easier and quicker.”
At length, the passage leveled out, the air warm and a bit stuffy about them, redolent of earth. “Just a bit more,” Montrose said. They turned a corner of the tunnel – and the roof suddenly rose, the passage widened, and they faced before them a massive set of doors, elaborately and abstractly decorated, and gilt in gold leaf.
Montrose turned to Baen. “Suffice it to say, a certain Senator believed that, even in a nuclear emergency, certain … proprieties must be observed.”
Baen snorted with the cynicism of youth. Montrose turned a large handle on the door, and pushed it open, ushering Baen in.
At first, the younger man wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. He’d expected a sort of military-style installation – at best, some kind of retro 60s-style barracks chic. Instead, he was looking at a huge room, a cavern in fact – his flashlight barely reached to the far wall and ceiling. And all around him, some sort of shining, glittering surface, uneven. Mounds. Hillocks. An uneven, undulating floor.
And then Baen realized he was looking at gold. Gold ingots. Coins. Nuggets. Statuary and candlesticks and idols and shrines and goblets and bric-a-brac from a hundred different cultures. A cross-cultural riot that almost defied the mind to comprehend it, all in a rich and glittering yellow that would never tarnish or fade. His mind wandered, unable to quite grasp it, flitting between concepts like museum and federal repository to pirate’s treasure and Seven Cities of Cibola.
“I – don’t – ”
“I’m afraid I lied,” Montrose said. Baen turned back to him, and his eyes widened. The flashlight dropped from his fingers, even as it dropped from Montrose’s hands as they changed and grew and sharpened, changing shape and form and size along with the rest of him. “No underground bunker, no maps, no UN conspiracy -- well, not exactly. Though, to be sure," Montrose continued, his voice becoming deeper, more gruff, slightly sibilant, "calling it the Dragon’s Lair was, in fact, the truth.”
As Baen backed away, Montrose gave him a very large, very toothy smile, from a very large, very inhuman face. “I do like your shirt, by the way. Though I’m afraid I don’t have any barbecue sauce …”
Deep under the earth, nobody can hear you scream.
A certain time later, Montrose, again looking like Montrose, though perforce naked, closed the great gilt doors behind him, and with them the glorious scent of the gold stored within, tinged with blood and other bodily fluids (though not many -- he was a tidy eater). He’d have to grab some new clothes from the lockers upstairs – that would no doubt confuse poor Tommy, but he doubted the Secret Service agent would actually pursue that confusion, any more than any of the others had, over the long years, decades, and nineteen different faces he’d worn in that time.
It was annoying, sometimes, having to deal with the humans, but he’d figured out a fine way, over the course of a couple of centuries, to keep tabs on them, using their own trembling fear against them. And, with the proper application of a tiny pittance of his horde (painful as it was to offer up any of it) to ensure that he, regardless of the face he wore, would always be the one selected for that particular role. Not to mention ensuring the long-term safety of (and regular return to) his … nest.
And if it meant that he had to spend most of his time in the form of one of those soft-fleshed, sweaty, hairless monkeys, well, that was a tiny price to pay for security and knowledge. And the freedom of movement he enjoyed, in his current arrangement, compensated slightly for the modern era’s restrictions on free flight and preying upon the unwary.
And, of course, it meant the occasional government-sanctioned meal. Mention of the number forty-seven was, like some sort of Cold War-era espionage novel, a signal that the speaker was deemed expendable and disposable by the Powers That Thought They Were -- triggering one of his "duties" not even mentioned in the Amendment he'd arranged to have passed. If the VP thought that Baen had been taken care of in a … well, more conventional fashion, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Until Montrose decided it would.
Besides, human flesh, particularly suffused with fear, was such a delicacy. One too infrequently indulged in over the last few centuries.
Montrose reached the stairs and ascended them, eager to once again hit the road toward his next stop.
By Dave Hill