Gabrielle Ashe had taken the White House public tour many times in her youth, secretly dreaming of someday working inside the presidential mansion and becoming part of the elite team that charted the countrys future. At the moment, however, she would have preferred to be anywhere else in the world.
As the Secret Serviceman from the East Gate led Gabrielle into an ornate foyer, she wondered what in the world her anonymous informant was trying to prove. Inviting Gabrielle into the White House was insane. What if Im seen? Gabrielle had become quite visible lately in the media as Senator Sextons right‑hand aide. Certainly someone would recognize her.
Gabrielle looked up. A kind‑faced sentry in the foyer gave her a welcoming smile. Look over there, please. He pointed.
Gabrielle looked where he was pointing and was blinded by a flashbulb.
Thank you, maam. The sentry led her to a desk and handed her a pen. Please sign the entry log. He pushed a heavy leather binder in front of her.
Gabrielle looked at the log. The page before her was blank. She recalled hearing once that all White House visitors sign on their own blank page to preserve the privacy of their visit. She signed her name.
So much for a secret meeting.
Gabrielle walked through a metal detector, and was then given a cursory pat down.
The sentry smiled. Enjoy your visit, Ms. Ashe.
Gabrielle followed the Secret Serviceman fifty feet down a tiled hallway to a second security desk. Here, another sentry was assembling a guest pass that was just rolling out of a lamination machine. He punched a hole in it, affixed a neck cord, and slipped it over Gabrielles head. The plastic was still warm. The photo on the ID was the snapshot they had taken fifteen seconds earlier down the hall.
Gabrielle was impressed. Who says government is inefficient?
They continued, the Secret Serviceman leading her deeper into the White House complex. Gabrielle was feeling more uneasy with every step. Whoever had extended the mysterious invitation certainly was not concerned about keeping the meeting private. Gabrielle had been issued an official pass, signed the guest log, and was now being marched in plain view through the first floor of the White House where public tours were gathered.
And this is the China Room, a tour guide was saying to a group of tourists, home of Nancy Reagans $952 per setting red‑rimmed china that sparked a debate over conspicuous consumption back in 1981.
The Secret Serviceman led Gabrielle past the tour toward a huge marble staircase, where another tour was ascending. You are about to enter the thirty‑two‑hundred‑square‑foot East Room, the guide was narrating, where Abigail Adams once hung John Adamss laundry. Then we will pass to the Red Room, where Dolley Madison liquored up visiting heads of state before James Madison negotiated with them.
The tourists laughed.
Gabrielle followed past the stairway through a series of ropes and barricades into a more private section of the building. Here they entered a room Gabrielle had only seen in books and on television. Her breath grew short.
My God, this is the Map Room!
No tour ever came in here. The rooms paneled walls could swing outward to reveal layer upon layer of world maps. This was the place where Roosevelt had charted the course of World War II. Unsettlingly, it was also the room from which Clinton had admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gabrielle pushed that particular thought from her mind. Most important, the Map Room was a passageway into the West Wing‑the area inside the White House where the true powerbrokers worked. This was the last place Gabrielle Ashe had expected to be going. She had imagined her e‑mail was coming from some enterprising young intern or secretary working in one of the complexs more mundane offices. Apparently not.
Im going into the West Wing . . .
The Secret Serviceman marched her to the very end of a carpeted hallway and stopped at an unmarked door. He knocked. Gabrielles heart was pounding.
Its open, someone called from inside.
The man opened the door and motioned for Gabrielle to enter.
Gabrielle stepped in. The shades were down, and the room was dim. She could see the faint outline of a person sitting at a desk in the darkness.
Ms. Ashe? The voice came from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. Welcome.
As Gabrielles eyes accustomed to the dark, she began to make out an unsettlingly familiar face, and her muscles went taut with surprise. THIS is who has been sending me e‑mail?
Thank you for coming, Marjorie Tench said, her voice cold.
Ms . . . . . Tench? Gabrielle stammered, suddenly unable to breathe.
Call me Marjorie. The hideous woman stood up, blowing smoke out of her nose like a dragon. You and I are about to become best friends.