"A sharp suit and a firm grip will take you places, son."
And it had. For Charlie Smoak sat in the presence of power, his hand aching from two hours of administering that firm grip. His father might not have approved of his son’s rise to power, but he certainly would have been impressed with how he had interpreted his old man’s advice.
Before Smoak sat President Trump, a cold sweat staining his red baseball cap. The President was surrounded by his cabinet and a security detail that would have made Osama bin Laden weep with envy.
Spokeswoman Palin fidgeted, speaking in tongues that even the most fervent snake handler wouldn’t have understood.
Interior Secretary Christie was busy filling his interior with his signature Kristie Kreme donuts, figuring it might be his last two dozen.
Vice President Cruz was on the phone with his agent, adding another couple of million to his life insurance policy.
The Situation Room hadn’t seen this kind of tension since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only calm soul in the room was Smoak.
Which was curious since he was the only one who had firepower trained on him, enough firepower to take out an Afghani neighborhood.
Smoak, however, had enough firepower in his HNV, Halliburton Nuke Vest, to take out Capitol Hill and leave a smoking hole. The red button on the small remote clenched in Smoak’s hand had been depressed for almost two hours, his firm grip standing between life and death.
He had made it clear that any effort to disable or kill him would result in the loss of that firm grip, detonating the HNV. “I borrowed the idea from my son’s jet ski,” he explained. “Adds a new meaning to kill switch, eh?”
President Trump had the Speaker of the House on speakerphone, interrupting a ceremony dedicating the Dick Cheney Monument. Cheney had been called to the phone to advise on the best method to disarm the device.
“How the hell do I know,” shouted an angry Cheney. “I don’t design the damn things. I just collect the profits. Only Jesus can save us now.”
An incensed Cruz erupted, “It’s pronounced HAY-soos, Dick! Don’t confuse immigrant scum with our Lord and Savior.”
And Jesus was, indeed, DC bound. Jesus H. Criste, the only known Hispanic-Scottish terrorist housed at Guantanamo, was in the back seat of a Super Hornet fighter, finishing off the last of his lunch.
Criste had been the brains behind the development of the HNV, sharing his bomb-making knowledge in exchange for his favorite Tex-Mex fare flown in daily from a food truck in El Paso. He belched, scratched his belly, and nodded off.
The tattoo on Criste’s abdomen often itched after an expansive meal, the intricate patterns stretching and irritating the nerves in his distended belly. “A small price to pay for such pleasure,” he mused.
Criste’s love of food and his brains had made him an easy target for the entrepreneurs in Halliburton’s micro-nuclear weapons division. He had been lured away from a Mexican drug cartel before he could perfect what would become the HNV.
Things had gone well for Criste until it came time for him to collect his booty, a cool $10 million, and make his way South. Unknown to him, planted in his suitcase was a defused micronuke, properly packaged in a TSA-regulation Ziploc baggie.
Halliburton had just happened to have a corporate jet idling nearby, and Criste was whisked off to Guantanamo after a slightly inebriated local magistrate had found him guilty.
Meanwhile, back in the Situation Room, Smoak’s hand had begun cramping badly and trembling a bit. But the bulk of the trembling afflicted the Cabinet members and Secret Service contingent. President Trump, however, showed no signs of distress, having passed out and fallen under his desk.
A deadly silence oppressed the room, shattered when Smoak broke into gales of laughter, panicking the Cabinet, Cruz and Palin embracing and yodeling in prayer.
“Relax,” assured Smoak. “I just had a funny thought. It hit me, ‘If you got ‘em, Smoak ‘em.’ And it seems I’ve got ‘em — you.” Smoak’s humor remained largely unappreciated, but he made one more stab. “You’re supposed to say, ‘You’re killin’ me!’” The silence dropped to deafening.
President Trump had momentarily revived, but promptly passed out again after throwing up on the Bengal tiger rug he had personally had shot for him by Cheney.
The Super Hornet had disgorged its gorged passenger who was enjoying an appetizer of chips and dip aboard the presidential chopper. Criste had just enough time to finish another round, topped off with tequila, before the chopper touched down on the Capitol pad.
Rushed into the Secret Service chambers adjacent to the Situation Room, Criste was stripped of his shirt and laid on an interrogation table. Bomb technicians swabbed the sweat and lunch spills from Criste’s abdomen and quickly shaved the thicket of hair that obscured the tattoo.
A small, dark Indian man (whom Cruz had tried to have deported), squinted against his jeweler’s loupe and began tracing the intricate patterns. This irritated the nerves in Criste’s distended belly, and he belched loudly, disturbing Dr. Subhas Chandra’s concentration.
After nearly an hour’s examination, teasing out the patterns, Chandra announced he had succeeded in mapping the wireless detonator circuits and actuating frequency. Criste had used the tattoo to ensure he kept a copy of his intellectual property. The schematic was embedded in an intricate depiction of Mother Mary, for Criste was deeply devout and loved his fellow man for the profits he could extract.
“Are you sure?” asked the senior bomb tech who had raised questions about what appeared to be conflicts in the circuitry.
“Well, there’s a little distortion in the patterns from his distended abdomen,” Chandra conceded. “But I can see no other route that would trigger that particular frequency.”
“Give me five minutes alone with Criste,” insisted an agent.
“You must not beat him up,” said Chandra. “I need him to be coherent.”
“No beating,” assured the agent.
“Mr. Criste,” cooed the agent, “may I mix you a tequila cocktail?”
The sounds of gagging and heaving reverberated against the cold tile in the bathroom, causing sympathetic reflexes in the agents’ quarters. Christie lost the second dozen Kristie Kremes he had just wolfed, while the agents turned green. The syrup of ipecac had done its job.
The distended belly was now flatter as Criste was laid out on the table. Chandra retraced the route over a prairie instead of a mountain. “I have my doubts now about the circuit path,” he fretted, sweat pooling in the furrows of his brow.
“Look, man, you’ve got to get this right,” growled the lead agent. “I’ve met the only Jesus I want to meet today.”
President Trump had been revived, cleaned up, and sat at his desk, shaking and sweating, shouting at Cruz, calling him immigrant scum, and swearing he’d be deported the instant the crisis was over. “Get him outa here! Palin, get me a fresh hat.”
Cruz, however, failed to be moved. He and Palin were still locked in tongues and were beginning to paw each other in Godly lust. Men and women of faith rarely experience foxhole conversions but are more commonly afflicted with foxhole fornication.
Before the moment could be consummated, however, Chandra burst into the room with two schematics, accompanied by a host of technicians with circuits and soldering irons. The plan was to cobble a transmitter to block the triggering frequency of Smoak’s remote.
“It’s a toss-up on which frequency detonates and which disarms,” explained Chandra. “Too many tacos. The flesh has stretched and sagged too many times to be sure.”
With the transmitter completed and tested in a shielded box, all that was left was who would make the decision on frequency selection.
Cruz bowed his hand, Palin babbled, and Fiorina blasphemed. Trump tossed a coin.
Smoak, unaware of the frenzy in the adjacent quarters, was in an introspective mood, sanguine even. He thought to himself, “I wonder if this thing works.” He had worked for Halliburton and knew their track record only too well. He wondered if Cheney would appreciate the irony of the greatest power on Earth decapitated by a device manufactured by the company he had once led.
With the unveiling of his bust on hold, Cheney was wondering the same thing at the same time. His former company had become so compartmentalized, it had come to resemble Microsoft at its most bloated, and no single department or individual had enough knowledge to suggest a surefire disarming method for the device.
Cheney had considered calling for an interdepartmental meeting, but there was no time to draft and send out memos. He had grudgingly suggested bringing in Criste from Gitmo as the best hope. Cheney, in the meantime, had insisted his bust be placed in the most secure area possible. He lamented the lack of proximity of a North Carolina restroom. Legacy, he thought, must be preserved if nothing else.
Smoak grimaced, raising his hand over his head, and waving it menacingly. The Cabinet wailed and screamed, cries raised to the heavens for deliverance. Cruz and Palin graduated to glossolalia such as hadn’t been heard since the Tower of Babel’s dedication.
“Cramps,” Smoak said calmly. “Just need to get the circulation going. Have you made any progress at getting the Joint Chiefs here? And I still need that notary and court reporter. Snap, snap.”
“Be reasonable,” pleaded Commerce Secretary Fiorina. “If news of this leaks out, it’s going to cripple corporate profits for the third quarter. I know you think of me as the layoff queen, but you can’t just lay off the Joint Chiefs. Think of the severance package and write-down that would require.”
Agents touched ears, brows furrowed. “We’re confident we’ve recovered detonation and defusing frequencies, so I’ll count you down from 30 when we’ll transmit. DO NOT FIRE! We don’t know what kind of secondary detonating device may be embedded in the vest. Be prepared to charge him on my count. I’m on the common frequency, so the other agents are prepared. Chandra out.”
As Smoak’s cramp eased, he lowered his arm, the wailing subsided to whimpering. Chandra’s count reached two.
In the quaint village of Mt. Jackson, Virginia, an old man and an old dog sat on the porch, wood shavings flying as a snake emerged from a dry limb. The old dog growled, whimpered, and ran under the porch.
“Here sumpin’, boy?” asked the old man. “Damn, that’s one big thunderhead to the east. Gonna be a nasty evenin’.”
Epilogue: Halliburton’s profits soared in the third quarter.