"What the hell's going on this morning?" asked Jerry Bland. "Don't they know who they are delaying?"
Paul Butler looked up from his cell phone and noticed the big car he and his boss occupied had stopped. He could not see exactly what was going on, but hoped it would be quickly resolved. Jerry Bland had little patience and Butler did not feel like listening to his whining complaints this morning.
They hadn't even reached the highway yet. Stuck in the suburbs. Just great. Butler looked around, hoping he might spot a route around the traffic stalled in front of them. What he did see was smoke rushing out of a house about a block away. If anybody else saw the roiling gray cloud, they didn't pay any attention to it.
The smoke grew thicker by the minute and it struck Butler someone might be in the house. An invisible hand squeezed his guts. He opened the car door and took a closer look at the house. Through the gray mass, he saw flames. It was a fire!
Why wasn't somebody reacting to it? He didn't hear any sirens nor did he notice any first responders.
"What are you doing out here?"
Butler jumped. He'd forgotten about Bland.
"Looks like that house is on fire," Butler said.
"Great. We'll be here all day if the fire trucks arrive," Bland said.
"There may be someone inside," Butler said and stepped out of the car.
"Wait, where are you going?” Bland asked him.
“We have to make sure there's no one in there.”
"Let someone else check," Bland said. "We have to get to the office."
Despite Bland's order, Butler headed for the house.
"Hey! Don't ignore me. Let's get out of here before we get stuck all day," Bland said.
Butler didn't look back. The smoke grew more intense and it wasn't long before Butler felt the heat from the burning house. He increased his speed and suddenly two other men appeared in front of him, headed for the house too. One of them shouted, "Is anybody in there?"
Butler heard some sort of response from within the house as they nearly collided when they all arrived The first man was about to barge through the front door, but the second man stopped him.
"If you push that open, the fire's going to come out and get you because the oxygen will feed it and make it bigger."
"We gotta do something," said the first man.
In response to the second guy's warning, the first touched the doorknob anyway and quickly pulled his hand away. "It's in there just waiting for somebody to go through that door," said the more cautious fellow. "Go around the house and see if there's another way to get in,” he said to Butler and the other guy.
The tone of the man's voice indicated he was used to having people obey him. Butler took off and looked around the house for another entrance.
When he saw the other door he was tempted to blast his way in there, but remembered what had happened out front. Cautiously, he climbed the three concrete steps that led up to the door and touched the doorknob. It was warm but not burning hot. He was going to turn the knob, then a thought occurred to him. He took off his suit jacket and wrapped it around his hand then opened the door.
"Anybody in here?" He shouted.
"Here, here!" It was clearly a woman's voice.
Butler's eyes teared up as he tried to peer through the smoke. He caught a glimpse of a human form and he made his way over to it.
"You've got to get out of here," Butler said.
"I can't," she wailed. "My baby won't come out."
"Is this his bedroom?" Butler asked.
"No he usually sleeps with me," she said.
"What's his name?"
Butler wasn't hearing very well over the din of the burning house. He asked again for the name.
"Poochie" the woman repeated.
Butler realized he was not familiar with children's names. However, Poochie seemed extreme.
"He's my doggie." The woman said.
She was waiting inside a burning house for a dog, Butler thought.
"Please get him out,”
Butler knew he was being stupid. Yet, he stepped inside the room and tried to find the dog through the choking smoke. He heard whimpering and so did the woman, who pushed him aside and called to her dog. Luckily, the dog decided to come out and soon they escaped from the burning house. The other two men were waiting outside.
Firefighters, pulling hoses and carrying other equipment, ran into the now collapsing building. Within minutes, they doused the structure and the smoke disappeared.
The three men, the woman and Poochie watched for a short period, then headed back from where they came. However, before they could escape completely, the media showed up. At least, what Butler called the various people who followed his boss around, waiting for Bland to announce whether he was going to run in the next presidential election. There were some in that horde whom Butler considered legitimate reporters with real jobs. The next level was composed of freelancers and others who occasionally pursued the candidate. The others were a hodgepodge of people who could operate a cell phone well enough to take videos.
At first, there were just a few of the professional variety, but apparently the word was getting out rapidly that Bland was involved in some sort of accident. A picture of a dead potential candidate would be worth much more than any photo of a live office-seeker.
Butler was trying to decide how to handle the incident They could try to slip away, then it would be nearly impossible now or they could with the mass of people. Butler decided he could control the narrative if he could control the crowd and dictate his version of the fire. For that he needed Bland. He looked around for the man and discovered him standing next to the woman and he was holding the dog.
"What the hell?" He asked himself and then walked over to where Bland stood.
As he went over, it looked like the woman was trying to get her dog back but Bland was not letting go. Butler pushed way through the growing crowd and went over to Bland.
"What's going on here?" he asked the man who wanted to be president a second time.
Before Bland could answer, the woman stepped over to Butler and said, "He won't give my dog back. He grabbed Poochie from me as soon as he saw the people coming over to see us.”
"What do you think you're doing?” Butler asked Bland, who was looking at the people gathering. He wore his best fake smile.
“This will be great for my campaign,” Bland said. “People love dogs and when they find out I saved this one, I will lead the polls.”
"But you didn't save the dog."
"Not exactly," Bland said. "However, a member of my staff did and by extension that means me."
Butler had heard many pieces of Bland logic, but this one really was on the far edge of reality.
"Too many people saw what happened," Butler said. "This lady saved her own dog."
"She was confused from smoke inhalation," Bland said. "Isn't that right?"
When Butler looked at her, she quickly looked down and said, "I mighta been mixed up about it all. You know I was scared by the fire and thought Poochie was a goner.”
Butler grabbed Bland's arm and spun him around so their faces were only a few inches apart.
"What are you doing?" Butler demanded. "Do you think you can get away with this? Too many people saw what happened. The truth comes out they'll roast your balls."
"That's why I have you," Bland said and just for a moment Butler swore he saw Bland's tongue flicker out between his lips.
"Mr. President, did you save the dog?" Someone called out.
Bland had been out of office for several years, but he still loved the title. Any reporter using the title got his questions answered first.
"Well, George, it certainly looks that way," Bland said. He then turned abruptly gave the dog back to the woman. "The real heroes are people like this woman who saved this wonderful animal from certain death at one of those shelters where they kill the poor dogs and cats who are left homeless and starving. When I'm elected again no creature will left out on the street. We can fix a broken America."
"Do you have a plan, sir, to help the homeless?" It was George again, serving up a juicy pitch over the middle of the plate for Bland.
Butler listened carefully because he was going to have to explain all the stuff Bland was shoveling. Already the woman was starting to believe that he did save the dog. More and more people drifted over toward her as she told the ever-changing story about the dog and the fire. Butler was used to it, but it was still a difficult job to cover all the lies the man freely spun out everyday.
In a few hours, photos of Bland holding the dog were everywhere.
"Bland saves dog! Can he save us!" The headline was from George's organization, sometimes not much more than a mouthpiece for Bland. It was full of details how Bland managed to find the dog and save it before the fire could consume both of them.
Of course, not a word of it was true. The woman, who was quoted earlier in the investigation, was gone. Butler knew Bland's people took her someplace, but did not know where or any other circumstances and didn't want to know. The less he was aware about those kind of things, the better off he would be. He couldn't talk about things he didn't witness himself.
It was dark enough going down the street he chose for himself. There was no need to get involved with Bland's henchmen who would likely lead him even further into the dark.
Bland was pacing when he arrived.
"Where have you been?" Bland yelled at him. Bland's face was red, but not nearly as intensely as his eyes. At times the man could get by on little sleep, however was not reluctant to return to chemical means to stay awake when he wanted to do so. His hands shook and Butler noticed twitching at the corner of Bland's eyes.
Bland went on, "We've got to get moving put this locomotive back on the tracks.”
Butler was sure Bland was talking about the campaign, but he wanted to be absolutely certain they were talking about the same thing.
"What do you mean?" Butler asked.
"If you don't know what I'm talking about, maybe I should get someone else to fill your position."
Butler wasn't worried about his job. Bland would either ask him to come back the next day or someone else would hire him.
Bland hardly missed a beat. "Let's roll. This is the moment we've been waiting for. God gave this sign to me to run for president do the job right this time.”
He grabbed the Butler by the arm and led him to a conference room already filled with various people who wanted to see Bland run again.
"He's here," Bland said when he entered the room. Silence descended and all eyes focused on Butler
"I'm sure most of you know Paul. If you don't, you should get to know him because he will be running things.”
Typical Bland. He didn't ask if Butler wanted to serve as campaign manager. He took an incident in which he hardly participated as a sign from God that he should run again. Bland beckoned a few people over and made some introductions.then hooked Butler's arm again, pulled him away and they went outside.
“I'm not a young man anymore, Paul,” Bland said. One way or another this will be my last campaign. I only get four years. I'm worried that's not enough time.”
Butler grasped what Bland was getting at. If it were anyone else, Butler might think that candidate was dying and realized his time was short. But Bland wanted something else.
"I want to do something all people in the world will remember. I can't do that with these obstacles, people, trying to stop me. You know who I mean. The other so-called candidates. These people with no vision, no ideas how to change the world. I can do that, but I will need some help. Someone's got to run interference for me. Keep the pests away from me.”
"Are you saying you need to lengthen your term of office?" Butler asked.
Bland smiled. "That's a wonderful way to put it. That's why I like you so much."
"What do you have in mind?” Butler asked.
"I will create an office as soon as I win the election. Those in it will work on extending my term. They will report back to you and you to me and use any means to keep me office."
Bland paused, looked into Butler's eyes, and said, "any means." With that, Bland walked away and left Butler to think about the future.
A cell phone vibrated in his pocket three times then Butler pulled it out, pushed a button and listened. He shut it off without saying a word and followed protocol.
"I considered the idea that it might be you, but then rejected the thought. I don't know. Perhaps, I thought we were too close or you didn't have the guts to do it. Where is my Secret Service protection that ex-presidents are supposed to have?"
"Any who weren't already on board, were neutralized," Butler said. They were in the bedroom of the hotel's presidential suite. Bland,excited by the idea of running for president, stayed up later than usual. Butler worried that he wouldn't have enough time, but the now tired old man gave up the fight against sleep about 1 am.
"Who?" Bland asked.
"I'm not the going to divulge that." Butler said.
"Are you afraid I'll seek revenge?” Bland asked.
“No,” Butler said and shot him twice in the head. He heard two splats. A double tap.
A few seconds later, Bland appeared to sigh as the final breath left his lungs.
Within the hour, Butler reported back to the man who made the final decision about Bland.
"How did it go?" he asked Butler.
"It went well. Of course, he wanted to talk, but there was no time for that."
"Did he figure out it was the incident with the dog that cost him?"
Butler said, "There wasn't time."
The man went on as if he didn't hear Butler, which might've been true anyway. Then he said to Butler, “Let's prepare for the news conference this morning."
The two men stood in front of a wall filled with TV monitors. All were tuned to the press conference.
"Former president Jerry Bland was found dead this morning. His personal physician said it was a heart attack. Most political observers thought Bland would announce today. However, several things dogged any potential campaign,” said the woman on Fox.