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Home > The Brethren(5)

The Brethren(5)
Author: John Grisham

"He's willing to risk a third world war?"

Buttons were pushed; the screen became a wall again; lights came on. The audiovisuals were over and it was time for an even more serious conversation. Pain shot through Teddy's legs, and he couldn't keep from fiowning.

"I can't answer that;" he said. "We know a lot, but we don't know what the man's thinking. He's moving very quietly, putting people in place, setting things up. It's not completely unexpected, you know"

"Of course not. We've had these scenarios for the last eight years, but there's always been hope that it wouldn't happen."

"It's happening, Congressman. Chenkov and Goltsin are eliminating their opponents as we speak."

"What's the timetable?"

Teddy shifted again under the quilt, tried another position to stop the pain. "It's difficult to say. If he's smart, which he certainly is, he'll wait until there's rioting in the streets. I think that a year from now Natty Chenkov will be the most famous man in the world."

"A year;" Lake said to himself, as if he'd just been given his own death sentence.

There was a long pause as he contemplated the end of the world. Teddy certainly let him. The knot in Teddy's stomach was significantly smaller now. He liked Lake a lot. He was indeed very handsome, and articulate, and smart.They'd made the right choice.

He was electable.

After a round of coffee and a phone call Teddy had to take-it was the Vice President-they reconvened their little conference and moved forward. The congressman was pleased that Teddy had so much time for him. The Russians were coming, yet Teddy seemed so calm.

"I don't have to tell you how unprepared our military is;" he said gravely.

"Unprepared for what? For war?"

"Perhaps. If we are unprepared, then we could well have a war. If we are strong, we avoid war. Right now the Pentagon could not do what it did in the Gulf War in 1991."

"We're at seventy percent;" Lake said with authority. This was his turf.

"Seventy percent will get us a war, Mr. Lake. A war we cannot win. Chenkov is spending every dime he can steal on new hardware. We're cutting budgets and depleting our military. We want to push buttons and launch smart bombs so that no American blood is shed. Chenkov will have two million hungry soldiers, anxious to fight and die if necessary."

For a brief moment Lake felt proud. He'd had the guts to vote against the last budget deal because it decreased military spending. The folks back home were upset about it. "Can't you expose Chenkov now?" he asked.

"No.Absolutely not.We have excellent intelligence. If we react to him, then he'll know that we know. It's the spy game, Mr. Lake. It's too early to make him a monster."

"So what's your plan?" Lake asked boldly. It was quite presumptuous to ask Teddy about his plans. The meeting had accomplished its purpose. One more congressman had been sufficiently briefed. At any moment Lake could be asked to leave so that another committee chairman of some variety could be shown in.

But Teddy had big plans, and he was anxious to share them. "The New Hampshire primary is two weeks away. We have four Republicans and three Democrats all saying the same thing. Not a single candidate wants to increase defense spending. We have a budget surplus, miracle of all miracles, and everyone has a hundred ideas about how to spend it. A bunch of imbeciles. Just a few years ago we had huge budget deficits, and Congress spent money faster than it could be printed. Now there's a surplus. They're gorging themselves on the pork."

Congressman bake looked away for a second, then decided to let it pass.

"Sorry about that;" Teddy said, catching himself. "Congress as a whole is irresponsible, but we have many fine congressmen."

"You don't have to tell me."

"Anyway, the field is crowded with a bunch of clones.Two weeks ago we had different front-runners. They're slinging mud and knifing each other, all for the benefit of the country's forty-fourth largest state. It's silly." Teddy paused and grimaced and tried to reshift his useless legs. "We need someone new, Mr. Lakke, and we think that someone is you."

Lake's first reaction was to suppress a laugh, which he did by smiling, then coughing. He tried to compose himself, and said, "You must be kidding."

"You know I'm not kidding, Mr. Lake," Teddy said sternly, and there was no doubt that Aaron Lake had walked into a well-laid trap.

Lake cleared his throat and completed the job of composing himself. "All right, I'm listening."

"It's very simple. In fact, its simplicity makes it beautiful. You're too late to file for New Hampshire, and it doesn't matter anyway. Let the rest of the pack slug it out there. Wait until it's over, then startle everyone by announcing your candidacy for President. Many will ask, `Who the hell is Aaron Lake?'And that's fine. That's what we want. They'll find out soon enough.

"Initially, your platform will have only one plank. It's all about military spending. You're a doomsayer, with all sorts of dire predictions about how weak our military is becoming. You'll get everybody's attention when you call for doubling our military spending."

"Doubling?"

"It works, doesn't it? It got your attention. Double it during your four-year term."

"But why? We need more military spending, but a twofold increase would be excessive."

"Not if we're facing another war, Mr. Lake. A war in which we push buttons and launch Tomahawk missiles by the thousands, at a million bucks a pop. Hell, we almost ran out of them last year in that Balkan mess. We can't find enough soldiers and sailors and pilots, Mr. Lake.You know this.The military needs tons of cash to recruit young men. We're low on everything-soldiers, missiles, tanks, planes, carriers. Chenkov is building now. We're not. We're still downsizing, and if we keep it up through another Administration, then we're dead."

Teddy's voice rose, almost in anger, and when he stopped with "we're dead;" Aaron Lake could almost feel the earth shake from the bombing.

"Where does the money come from?" he asked.

"Money for what?"

"The military"

Teddy snorted in disgust, then said, "Same place it always comes from. Need I remind you, sir, that we have a surplus?"

"We're busy spending the surplus."

"Of course you are. Listen, Mr. Lake, don't worry about the money. Shortly after you announce, we'll scare the hell out of the American people. They'll think you're half-crazy at first, some kind of wacko from Arizona who wants to build even more bombs. But we'll jolt them. We'll create a crisis on the other side of the world, and suddenly Aaron Lake will be called a visionary. Timing is everything. You make a speech about how weak we are in Asia, few people listen. Then we'll create a situation over there that stops the world, and suddenly everyone wants to talk to you. It will go on like that, throughout the campaign. We'll build the tension on this end.We'll release reports, create situations, manipulate the media, embarrass your opponents. Frankly, Mr. Lake, I don't expect it to be that difficult."

"You sound like you've been here before."

"No. We've done some unusual things, all in an effort to protect this country. But we've never tried to swing a presidential election." Teddy said this with an air of regret.

Lake slowly pushed his chair back, stood, stretched his arms and legs, and walked along the table to the end of the room. His feet were heavier. His pulse was racing.The trap had been sprung; he'd been.caught.

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