Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender build and narrow shoulders. He had a freckled face, bifocals, and thinning black hair. His unimposing physique, however, stood in stark contrast to the almost princely love the man commanded from those who knew him. It was said that if you met Zach Herney once, you would walk to the ends of the earth for him.
So glad you could make it, President Herney said, reaching out to shake Rachels hand. His grasp was warm and sincere.
Rachel fought the frog in her throat. Of . . . course, Mr. President. An honor to meet you.
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 mans effortless warmth and amiable smile. His eyes mirrored sincerity and dignity at all times.
If you follow me, he said in a cheery voice, Ive 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 dressedblue 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 wasnt serious. Its very . . . um . . . manly, sir.
Herney was deadpan. Good. Were thinking it will help me win back some of the womens 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 Ill need more than a polo shirt and blue jeans to win this election.
The Presidents 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 planecurved 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. Im 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 youre 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 didnt 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 Herneys 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 youve got to be pretty damned confused to be sitting here right now, am I right?
Whatever was left of Rachels guard crumbled away with the candor in the mans voice. Actually, sir, Im baffled.
Herney laughed out loud. Terrific. Its not every day I can baffle someone from the NRO.
Its 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 Presidents 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, Ive got limited time here, so lets 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, thats exactly what he said.
The President chuckled. Always the cynic.
So hes wrong?
Are you kidding? the President laughed. Bill Pickering is never wrong. Hes dead‑on as usual.