“WE’RE NOW TRAVELING AT the speed of a rifle bullet,” the fighter pilot said, “twice the speed of sound, over fifteen hundred miles per hour. We’ll arrive in Washington less than two hours from takeoff.”
“What plane is this?” asked the passenger in the second seat, directly behind him.
“F-15 Strike Eagle.”
The voice of the pilot was audible but tinny, transmitted into the earpiece of the flight helmet. Jock Boucher stared at the complex instrumentation in front of him, astounded by where he was at this instant and where he had been just thirty minutes ago. Wrapped in a towel in his hotel room in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, his evening shower interrupted, he’d been greeted by a U.S. Air Force colonel telling him he had orders from the president to fly him back to Washington without delay.
He’d been rushed to Puerto Vallarta’s international airport, given a flight suit, and practically carried onto the tarmac, where he’d found this winged devil cleared for immediate departure.
“How did you get permission to fly a fighter aircraft into Mexico’s airspace?” he said into the helmet’s mouthpiece.
“Our president spoke to their president. It’s unusual for a jet fighter, but our navy pulls into Mexican ports all the time.”
“This must be costing taxpayers a fortune. I could have flown coach.”
“I needed to log the flight time,” the pilot said. “I would have been up in this bird anyway; the president’s orders just gave me a mission. At least this is one thing they can’t assign a UAV.” The acronym was muttered with a sneer evident even through the lousy audio.
“UAV?” Boucher asked.
“Unmanned aerial vehicle. A drone. They’re taking more responsibilities away from fighter pilots every day. I’m glad I’ll be retiring soon. I hate what’s coming. Took me two and a half years and cost the government ten million dollars to train me to fly this aircraft. Now they’re teaching twenty-year-old kids to play video games. After a few weeks they’re guiding drones over Afghanistan from a cozy cubicle in Las Vegas. Not what I signed up for. Yogi Berra said it best. ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’ He
should have been our national poet laureate. Anyway, sorry to ruin your vacation.”
“Well, thanks for picking me up, I guess.”
Boucher had one thought. The President of the United States must really be pissed off at him. A federal judge from the Eastern District of Louisiana, Boucher had let it be known he was leaving the bench only months after assuming the position. His first case had caused him to question whether he was fit to sit in judgment of others. In self-defense, he had taken the lives of two men with his bare hands. He had no remorse; in fact, he would do it again if given the chance. Bringing his girlfriend on vacation while he pondered the ramifications of his decision, he had been forced by this unexpected presidential command to leave her to make her own way home. The unheard-of abandoning of his judicial post must have caused anger and embarrassment to the man who had nominated him, and now the president was going to chew him up and spit him out in little pieces. He had sent supersonic transport in order to do it without delay. Jock Boucher was nervous.
“How high are we?” he asked.
“We’re climbing to our cruising altitude of forty-five thousand feet, over eight miles high. You can see the curvature of the earth from up there.”
“Am I in the copilot’s seat?” He wondered if the controls in front of him needed attention that he would not be able to give.
“That’s the WSO’s position,” the pilot said. “Weapons systems officer. Don’t worry, I don’t think we’ll run into any hostiles between here and the nation’s capital. You do have a throttle and stick back there, and they have all the controls you need to fly the plane. HOTAS—hands-on throttle and stick. Do you fly?”
“Does a Piper Cub count?”
“Same principle. Grab the stick. Get the feel. Got it? Great. I’m going to take me a little nap. Wake me up when—”
“Don’t you dare!”
The pilot laughed. “Just kidding.”
Boucher repeated the question he’d asked the colonel on first meeting him. “Is the president pissed off at me?”
“Like I said earlier, you’ll have to ask him. We’ll be touching down at Langley. There’s ground transport waiting to take you to the White House.”
“That seems kind of late. Maybe I could just find a place for the night and meet him in the morning.”
“I have my orders. Sit back and enjoy the flight.”
“Yeah, right,” Boucher muttered.
Despite his misgivings, it was a fascinating flight. The pilot explained the function and purpose of the screens and monitors and impressive equipment that were the responsibility of weapons systems officers, or “wizzos,” as they were called. The WSO station had four multipurpose displays, MPDs, including a moving map that could show a TSD—tactical
situation display. It showed the area over which the plane was flying, as well as the location of any enemy aircraft and its exact position and direction of flight.
“Wizzos are damned good instrument fliers,” the pilot said. “They have to be, with their restricted vision back there. There’s probably not a closer team in the military than a Strike Eagle pilot and wizzo.”
They landed at Langley AFB, Virginia. A long black limo was waiting on the tarmac, as were two assistants to help Boucher discard his flight suit, stripping him out of it like mechanics in a Formula 1 pit stop. Dressed in his civvies, Boucher looked down at his feet. He was wearing his well-worn loafers with no socks. Not the way to meet the president. It was also damned cold. He’d started this journey in the tropics.
It was after nine p.m., but there was still plenty of traffic on the George Washington Parkway. Boucher recognized Key Bridge as they crossed the Potomac and spotted the spires of Georgetown University on the other side. They turned onto M Street, which led to Pennsylvania Avenue, but a series of turns before nearing Lafayette Square meant he was not being taken into the White House through the front door. Instead, the limo parked outside an entrance to the Executive Office Building, where handlers as efficient as those who had disrobed him at the air base hustled him inside to an elevator that took him down to a basement corridor. They rushed through it to a smaller elevator, then pushed the button and
the door closed. Boucher rose alone. The door opened, and a Secret Serviceman awaited him, wearing an earpiece attached to a white spiral cord that ran behind his neck and inside the back of his sport coat.
“He’s here,” the agent said into a microphone clipped to his lapel. As these words were spoken, a door opened and two men in suits and ties stepped out, both olive-skinned with black hair, one with a small trimmed mustache. The president was right behind them. He was herding the two men toward the elevator and frowning as if mulling over a deep thought that required perfect organization before speaking—this from a man whose extemporaneous communication skills were legendary. He stopped, turned, and stared at the new arrival. “You’re Judge Boucher.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”
“And you just flew up from Mexico.”
“I was in Puerto Vallarta, yes, sir.”
“I think that’s quite a coincidence. Let me introduce you. Gentlemen, this is Federal Judge Jock Boucher of the Eastern District of Louisiana. Judge Boucher, this is Tony Torres, our ambassador to Mexico.” The gentleman with no mustache offered his hand. “And this is His Excellency Candelario Cuellar, the Mexican ambassador to the United States.” Boucher shook the Mexican diplomat’s hand, and they gave each other a respectful nod.
“I hope you enjoyed your visit to our country,” the Mexican ambassador said.
“Very much, Your Excellency. I only wish I could have stayed longer.” Boucher did not look at his commander in chief as he said this.
“Then you will have to return.”
“I am already looking forward to that.”
“Gentlemen,” the president said, “Judge Boucher is a friend, and this is just a social visit, but we’d better get started with it so I can have my family time.”
“Of course, Mr. President,” Ambassador Cuellar said, “I am sorry for the imposition. Please forgive the late hour.”
“Not at all, Your Excellency. Thank you for coming. When you live above the store like I do, you keep later hours, but you don’t have a problem finding time for the wife and kids.” He turned to the U.S. ambassador. “Tony, it’s always good to see you. We’ll talk.”
“At your earliest convenience, Mr. President.”
The Secret Service agent held the elevator open for the men, and they both gave slight waves as the doors shut.
The president sighed and shook his head in the silent corridor. “Hell of a mess down there. I don’t suppose you saw any of it where you were.”
“Saw what, sir?”
“Cartel violence. Decapitations. Torture. Gruesome murders. God, the death toll down there exceeds our combat losses in Vietnam.”
“Sir, I saw sandy beaches, blue skies, blue water—and friendly people.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry to have cut your vacation short. Come into my office.”
Boucher walked behind the president, took a few steps inside the Oval Office, then closed the door behind him. He stood in place as the president walked to his desk, leaned against it, then faced him with arms folded across his chest.
“Like I said outside, with due regard to the separation-of-powers provisions of our Constitution, yours is purely a social visit.”
“Of course, Mr. President.”
“So tell me, what is this shit about you wanting to quit after being on the bench for only a couple months?”
“I don’t think I’m suited for the job, sir.”
“The United States Senate thought otherwise; so did I. You know how much time and effort goes into a judicial appointment, and I stake my credibility on each and every nominee I send to the Senate for confirmation. Quitting so soon? You’re making me look like an ass. I’m trying to get the highest qualified men and women on the bench—jurists who’ll serve their country for the next two, maybe three decades.
“I’m familiar with your background, Jock. You grew up in poverty, a Cajun raised on a Louisiana bayou in a town so remote you spoke French before you learned English. Your parents struggled to make a living, and you achieved a fine education, professional success as a lawyer,
then as a well-respected state judge before your appointment to the federal bench. Believe me, I know how much you had to overcome to achieve what you did. You’re a credit to your family, your state, and an example of the promise this nation offers every man and woman regardless of creed or color. And you want to throw that all away? What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. President.”
“ ‘Sorry’ doesn’t cut it. I want to know why you want to quit.”
“I killed two men,” Boucher said, “and given the opportunity, I’d do it again. I’m not fit to be a judge.”
“When you screw up, you do it big-time, don’t you? I know you acted in self-defense, and I understand the dilemma you’re facing. On the other hand, I can’t just let you walk away. There are too many young men and women out there facing challenges in their lives, like you did throughout your professional career. You’re an example to them—at least you were. I am not going to have you regarded in their eyes as a failure or, worse, a dilettante. I fight a partisan battle with the Senate with every judicial nomination I make. They’re not approving my choices, and there are far too many vacancies on the federal bench. Some judgeships have been vacant for over five years. Even the chief justice of the Supreme Court is pleading with men of his own political party. If a judge I appointed tries to quit after a few months, they won’t blame themselves, that’s for sure. They’ll
be screaming that my selection process is a failure, and I may not get another judge approved for the rest of my term in office. I’m not going to let you do that to our justice system. You’re not leaving public service yet. I’ve got another job for you, and it’s not a promotion.
“You will remain a judge of the Eastern District of New Orleans, but you will not try cases until you are told otherwise. You will handle any administrative task that any other judge in your district decides to give you, and they’re going to pile it on. I also want you to see if you can help that poor judge who was swamped with all the oil-spill litigation. I understand most of the lawsuits have been settled, but if there are any complaints, I want them going to you. It’s a no-win situation for you, Jock. The poor people affected by that tragedy are going to hate the process for going too slow or for not giving them enough money. But because a federal judge who has no connection to the offshore energy industry is involved, the people will know the matter is being taken seriously. Have I made myself clear?”
“We had a judge impeached in our district. He was given a similar penance while his proceeding went forward.”
“You’re not being impeached, at least not yet. This assignment was at the advice of your chief district judge. He’ll oversee your work. I’m at arm’s length here.”
Jock said nothing.
“Look,” the president said, “I couldn’t fill your slot if you left now. There’s been a death and an impeachment in your district. One of your judges has had no time for anything but oil-spill litigation. Help me out here, Jock. When the political landscape shifts and I can get an appointment approved, you can go back to full duties, or you can quit. Do you agree to my terms?”
The president looked at his watch. “Then we’re done here. I’ve got family duties. There’s someone waiting outside to show you to your sleeping quarters. You scared of ghosts?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom tonight. I figure that’s a good place for you to think about the duty you owe to your country. Don’t worry, there haven’t been any sightings in forty years.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Boucher said.
The president shook his hand, looking deep into his eyes. “Yes,” he said, “I’m hoping you will.”
• • •
Boucher called his girlfriend, Malika, on her cell. She answered after the first ring.
“Well, I’ve had a few dates cancel with fancy excuses,” she said, “but dumping me in Mexico for a meeting with the President of the United States, that’s a first. Where are you?”
“I’m in the White House,” Boucher answered. “Specifically,
I’m in the Lincoln Bedroom, where I’ll be spending the night.”
“Isn’t that where they see his ghost?”
“No. This room was Lincoln’s study and his cabinet room. It’s where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. When President Truman moved Lincoln’s bed in here, they started calling it the Lincoln Bedroom. I’m sitting on the bed right now. It’s huge: eight feet long and six feet wide.”
“Wow. I can’t imagine Lincoln’s spirit isn’t hanging around that. There can’t be too many beds that size in heaven.”
“You’re trying to scare me, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. Just because your country’s leader calls, you think that’s sufficient reason to leave me stranded in Puerto Vallarta all alone with the sound of the gentle surf and the soft strumming of guitars . . .”
“I’d be on the next plane if I could.”
“I know. What did the president want? Are you going to be shot at dawn for leaving the bench?”
“I have a mission. I’ll be going back to New Orleans in the morning. Maybe it would be a good idea if you got a flight out tomorrow and met me there.”
“Juan, could I have another margarita?” Malika was holding the phone away from her face, teasing him. At least he hoped she was teasing him.
“Malika, look. I’m sorry.”
“I know you are, Jock. It’s not your fault. Your country needs you, and I need a vacation. I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk about our relationship and where it’s going, but I guess affairs of state trump affairs of the heart. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to stay till the end of the week, then I’ll be back in New York. Call me when you can.”
He heard music in the background. Damn those guitars.
• • •
Jock Boucher was a collector of antiques, and for someone with this particular passion, the Lincoln Bedroom was nirvana. He used his cell phone to surf the Web and educate himself about the famous collection. First the bed itself: Mary Todd Lincoln bought it in 1861, along with a suite of bedroom furniture. Originally, it was placed in what then was called the Prince of Wales Room. There was no evidence that Lincoln ever slept in it, but his son Willie probably died in it in 1862, at eleven years of age. It was moved around over the years, and there was no doubt that several subsequent presidents slept in the bed.
Pieces whose use by Lincoln was documented included four Gothic Revival walnut side chairs—the only ones remaining that had been used at Lincoln’s cabinet table; a French portico mantel clock purchased in 1833 by
President Andrew Jackson; and a slant-front desk transferred from the Soldier’s Home—Lincoln’s summer residence—and on which he was known to have worked on drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. A complete restoration of the room was completed under the guidance of First Lady Laura Bush in 2005. Boucher stared in awe, hardly daring to run his hands over the items that had witnessed one of the most meaningful acts in the history of America—especially to his forebears.
But it had been a long and draining day, and he was tired. When Boucher pulled down the sheets and climbed into Lincoln’s bed, he thought of the mind-numbing boredom that faced him with his new job description. It put him right to sleep.