Page 8 of Deception Point

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The President gave her a comforting grin, and Rachel sensed firsthand the legendary Herney affability. The man possessed an easygoing countenance political cartoonists loved because no matter how skewed a rendition they drew, no one ever mistook the man's effortless warmth and amiable smile. His eyes mirrored sincerity and dignity at all times.

"If you follow me," he said in a cheery voice, "I've got a cup of coffee with your name on it."

"Thank you, sir."

The President pressed the intercom and called for some coffee in his office.

As Rachel followed the President through the plane, she could not help but notice that he looked extremely happy and well-rested for a man who was down in the polls. He was also very casually dressed - blue jeans, a polo shirt, and L.L. Bean hiking boots.

Rachel tried to make conversation. "Doing... some hiking, Mr. President?"

"Not at all. My campaign advisers have decided this should be my new look. What do you think?"

Rachel hoped for his sake that he wasn't serious. "It's very... um... manly, sir."

Herney was deadpan. "Good. We're thinking it will help me win back some of the women's vote from your father." After a beat, the President broke into a broad smile. "Ms. Sexton, that was a joke. I think we both know I'll need more than a polo shirt and blue jeans to win this election."

The President's openness and good humor were quickly evaporating any tension Rachel felt about being there. What this President lacked in physical brawn, he more than made up for in diplomatic rapport. Diplomacy was about people skills, and Zach Herney had the gift.

Rachel followed the President toward the back of the plane. The deeper they went, the less the interior resembled a plane - curved hallways, wallpapered walls, even an exercise room complete with StairMaster and rowing machine. Oddly, the plane seemed almost entirely deserted.

"Traveling alone, Mr. President?"

He shook his head. "Just landed, actually."

Rachel was surprised. Landed from where? Her intel briefs this week had included nothing about presidential travel plans. Apparently he was using Wallops Island to travel quietly.

"My staff deplaned right before you arrived," the President said. "I'm headed back to the White House shortly to meet them, but I wanted to meet you here instead of my office."

"Trying to intimidate me?"

"On the contrary. Trying to respect you, Ms. Sexton. The White House is anything but private, and news of a meeting between the two of us would put you in an awkward position with your father."

"I appreciate that, sir."

"It seems you're managing a delicate balancing act quite gracefully, and I see no reason to disrupt that."

Rachel flashed on her breakfast meeting with her father and doubted that it qualified as "graceful." Nonetheless, Zach Herney was going out of his way to be decent, and he certainly didn't have to.

"May I call you Rachel?" Herney asked.

"Of course." May I call you Zach?

"My office," the President said, ushering her through a carved maple door.

The office aboard Air Force One certainly was cozier than its White House counterpart, but its furnishings still carried an air of austerity. The desk was mounded with papers, and behind it hung an imposing oil painting of a classic, three-masted schooner under full sail trying to outrun a raging storm. It seemed a perfect metaphor for Zach Herney's presidency at the moment.

The President offered Rachel one of the three executive chairs facing his desk. She sat. Rachel expected him to sit behind his desk, but instead he pulled one of the chairs up and sat next to her.

Equal footing, she realized. The master of rapport.

"Well, Rachel," Herney said, sighing tiredly as he settled into his chair. "I imagine you've got to be pretty damned confused to be sitting here right now, am I right?"

Whatever was left of Rachel's guard crumbled away with the candor in the man's voice. "Actually, sir, I'm baffled."

Herney laughed out loud. "Terrific. It's not every day I can baffle someone from the NRO."

"It's not every day someone from the NRO is invited aboard Air Force One by a President in hiking boots."

The President laughed again.

A quiet rap on the office door announced the arrival of coffee. One of the flight crew entered with a steaming pewter pot and two pewter mugs on a tray. At the President's bidding, she laid the tray on the desk and disappeared.

"Cream and sugar?" the President asked, standing up to pour.

"Cream, please." Rachel savored the rich aroma. The President of the United States is personally serving me coffee?

Zach Herney handed her a heavy pewter mug. "Authentic Paul Revere," he said. "One of the little luxuries."

Rachel sipped the coffee. It was the best she had ever tasted.

"Anyhow," the President said, pouring himself a cup and sitting back down, "I've got limited time here, so let's get to business." The President plopped a sugar cube in his coffee and gazed up at her. "I imagine Bill Pickering warned you that the only reason I would want to see you would be to use you to my political advantage?"

"Actually, sir, that's exactly what he said."

The President chuckled. "Always the cynic."

"So he's wrong?"

"Are you kidding?" the President laughed. "Bill Pickering is never wrong. He's dead-on as usual."


Gabrielle Ashe gazed absently out the window of Senator Sexton's limousine as it moved through the morning traffic toward Sexton's office building. She wondered how the hell she had arrived at this point in her life. Personal assistant to Senator Sedgewick Sexton. This was exactly what she had wanted, wasn't it?

I'm sitting in a limousine with the next President of the United States.

Gabrielle stared across the car's plush interior at the senator, who seemed to be far away in his own thoughts. She admired his handsome features and perfect attire. He looked presidential.

Gabrielle had first seen Sexton speak when she was a poli-sci major at Cornell University three years ago. She would never forget how his eyes probed the audience, as if sending a message directly to her-trust me. After Sexton's speech, Gabrielle waited in line to meet him.

"Gabrielle Ashe," the senator said, reading her name tag. "A lovely name for a lovely young woman." His eyes were reassuring.

"Thank you, sir," Gabrielle replied, feeling the man's strength as she shook his hand. "I was really impressed by your message."

"Glad to hear it!" Sexton thrust a business card into her hand. "I'm always looking for bright young minds who share my vision. When you get out of school, track me down. My people may have a job for you."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to thank him, but the senator was already on to the next person in line. Nonetheless, in the months that followed, Gabrielle found herself following Sexton's career on television. She watched with admiration as he spoke out against big government spending - spearheading budget cuts, streamlining the IRS to work more effectively, trimming fat at the DEA, and even abolishing redundant civil service programs. Then, when the senator's wife died suddenly in a car crash, Gabrielle watched in awe as Sexton somehow turned the negative into a positive. Sexton rose above his personal pain and declared to the world that he would be running for the presidency and dedicating the remainder of his public service to his wife's memory. Gabrielle decided right then and there that she wanted to work closely with Senator Sexton's presidential campaign.

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