Valerie Murphy frowned at herself in the mirror. The makeup couldn’t disguise her pallor, nor could new clothes disguise her nearly gaunt figure. She leaned close, squinting her eyes, and noticed something which had escaped her up to this point. A long, fine, white hair.
She shook her head. No surprise there. And nothing to be done to improve her prison influenced appearance beyond what she’d already done. She wanted to make a good, solid first impression, but there was a limit to what she could do.
Valerie walked to the door of the small suite, straightened her jacket, slung her purse over her shoulder, then opened the door.
Outside, a state patrolman stood casually in the hallway. He held out a cup of steaming coffee in a travel mug.
“Morning, Ma’am. I’m Trooper Dennis Henry. Lieutenant Thrasher suggested you’d be needing some coffee; I hope you like cream and sugar in it. Ready to go?”
She had to think for a moment, then it clicked: Lieutenant Thrasher was uncle Tommy’s aide-de-camp. She smiled, and accepted the cup. “Nice to meet you, Trooper Henry, and oh God, yes, I’m ready for coffee. Lead the way.”
She followed him into the basement parking lot, where a government sedan waited. Exhaust from the car steamed out in a long trail of blue smoke, somehow giving the space a haunted, disturbing air. He opened the door for her, then got into the drivers seat. He passed a folder to her and said, “This is the agenda for today. Acting Secretary Hatfield asked Wade Davis—he’s the acting chief of staff—to put together a schedule for you to give you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the department.”
She murmured, “How thoughtful of Mr. Hatfield.” If Trooper Henry caught the mild sarcasm in her tone, he remained tactfully silent about it.
The car quickly whisked her across town to the new headquarters of the department of Military Affairs and Public Safety: a hundred year old pile of bricks and stone that looked like it had once been a bank. Two soldiers stood guard at a makeshift gate blocking the street; they waved the car through after swiping Trooper Henry and Valerie’s drivers licenses.
Valerie followed Trooper Henry into the front lobby of the building. A long stained marble counter stretched along one wall, resembling the check-in desk at a hotel. Two security guards with an x-ray machine and metal detectors blocked access to the elevators.
The guards were deferential after Henry introduced Valerie, and in moments they were in a slow moving elevator.
Valerie took a moment to compose herself in the elevator. She could feel a tension headache coming on. Whatever else happened, she was determined to do a good job for Al Clark, her mentor and friend. But the truth was, she didn’t want this, wasn’t ready for it; she wanted to run away and hide somewhere. She couldn’t stand to be alone, but every time she was around anyone at all, she wanted to burst into tears. And that didn’t even cover how she felt every time she thought of her father.
On the seventh floor, Henry led her to a suite of offices. Inside were three people, two professionally dressed women and an older man with short grey hair and a dark suit.
“Ms. Murphy,” Henry said, “Please allow me to introduce Wade Davis, the chief of staff.”
The man in the suit gave a broad smile and said, “Secretary Murphy, it’s a pleasure to meet you. And please, allow me to offer my condolences regarding your father. He and I worked together for many years.”
She felt a pang of regret, that she’d never really know much about her Dad’s life outside what they’d shared. Whole aspects: his professional peers, his friends, the things he enjoyed, would always be lost to her.
Valerie said, “Thank you,” and shook his hand. “You were chief of staff when my father was alive?”
“Well, then.” She forced herself to close the door on her regrets and fears about Ken Murphy. “Let’s get started.”
“Right. To business, then,” he replied. “Trooper Henry, thank you for fetching the secretary.”
Davis led the way to her new office, a large room in the corner of the suite, with windows overlooking the river and downtown area. Bookshelves lined one wall, a large walnut desk and credenza on one side of the room, and a conference table occupied the other side of the room.
Valerie set her purse on the desk. Davis offered her a cup of coffee, and they sat at the conference table.
She looked at Davis, trying to gauge if he was going to be an ally or a problem. After a moment she said, “Wade… may I call you Wade?”
“Tell me about this agenda.” She looked down at it, then said, “I’m looking it over and honestly I can’t make any sense of it. Ribbon cutting ceremony in Fairmont? Review of the Junior ROTC cadets in Moorefield? Not to be difficult, but I’m looking at three or four days of … fluff. I recognize that getting out and meeting people is important, but I also have a very brief window to get down to brass tacks before my confirmation hearing next Monday. How did this schedule come about?”
Davis looked startled, then began to smile broadly. Finally his smile bubbled into a chuckle.
“I’m sorry for the levity, ma’am, but just now you reminded me so much of your father I ….”
Valerie was astonished as the man’s eyes suddenly watered. He composed himself, then spoke again. “I apologize. Ken Murphy was a good man, and I think we’ll all miss him, but I can only imagine how serious the loss is for you. The fact is: until this morning, Asa Hatfield was my boss. And he told me to put together a schedule that, um… kept you busy and out of the way. I believe that was the wording he used.”
She nodded. “I had the feeling it was something like that. I take it from your response that you … see things differently than Hatfield?”
Davis smiled. “You’re the boss, ma’am, not Hatfield. While he makes a fine leader for the enforcement division, he … has failings in terms of seeing the big picture. I have the feeling you’ll do just fine in this job. I’ll do my best to support you in making that happen. Fair enough?”
Valerie gave a sigh of relief. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that, Wade. I wasn’t looking forward to firing someone on my first morning, and that’s what would have happened had you given me a bullshit answer to that question.”
“All right, then. He’re what I would like: clear this awful schedule. Here’s how I want to spend the next three days. First, get me access to email and the network here. I’ll need my email on my portable too. Second, within the hour I’d like a copy of whatever summary exists from each department on current activities, budget, challenges, you get the picture. I’ll also want bios of each department head: not the official stuff we put up on websites, I want to know details. Then set up one on one meetings with each department head, including our friend Mr. Hatfield. You’ll sit in on those meetings with me: going into each one I’m going to ask your frank assessment of each individual. Each of them should be prepared with details on what they’ve been doing, what’s planned, and what problems they are facing. Can you make that happen?”
Davis grinned. “Gladly, ma’am.”
“One other thing, Wade… call me Valerie. I’m not really suited to ma’am. Fair enough?”
Within minutes, a flurry of activity took over the office. Davis deputized the two administrative assistants, who began making calls to arrange the needed network access and schedule changes.
Valerie spent a few minutes arranging her desk, and by the time she finished, Davis approached, holding a thick folder.
“I thought you might find it useful to have a summary of activity within the department to begin with, Ma’am.” At her raised eyebrows, he quickly amended the “Ma’am” to “um… Valerie. Anyway, up until Asa Hatfield took over, the old secretary used too hold twice weekly management meetings: fairly short, usually never longer than an hour, but a chance to work out the big picture of the department. Before the meeting, the staff produced an executive summary of activity within the department. Even though the meetings haven’t been happening, the summaries still are: I’ve got the last several months printed out her for you.”
She smiled. Wade Davis was already proving to be a valuable ally. “Thank you, Wade. And the meetings? Let’s go ahead and get those on the calendar for the foreseeable future.”
She dove into the file. Details, both pedestrian and extraordinary, were laid out in the biweekly reports. Recent summaries noted that the department had less than twenty million dollars remaining in its coffers for the remainder of the year, that the temporary disaster relief staff in Mingo County had walked off the job a week earlier due to lack of power or clean water at their headquarters, and that a column of US Army tanks had inadvertently caused a bridge failure in Weston. Cost to repair? Nine million dollars. Local residents would be taking the long way around for the foreseeable future.
Valerie flipped through the reports, choosing to initially scan them for broad trends, returning later to get the fine details. A vague feeling that something was missing began to trouble her as she read more details about the department, but she couldn’t pin it down. The summaries seemed to be comprehensive, covering all the broad details of the department, from budgeting to maintenance, but something was wrong.
Her head jerked up suddenly, and she blurted out, “Why isn’t there anything in here about the Boone County sheriff? Or other possible insurgent incidents?”
She spread the papers out across the desk, a fine vertical crease appearing on her forehead. Then she pressed the intercom button on her desk and without preamble said, “Wade… there’s no crime statistics here. Or anything about the murder of Boone County’s sheriff. Why not?”
A heartbeat of silence, followed by a response. “I’ll be right there.”
Valerie waited, and a moment later Davis knocked lightly on the door, then entered. Quietly, he said, “The former acting secretary ordered that crime statistics and anything related to possible insurgent activity be omitted from the bi-weekly summaries, Valerie.”
“Why? When? This related to our primary mission…. why in God’s name would he not want it included?”
Davis shrugged. “I’m not sure I’d care to speculate what his motives were. But he made the order almost as soon as he took over as acting Secretary, back in mid-January.”
Valerie sat back in her seat, considering the possible implications. Several possibilities ran through her mind, and none of them were at all reassuring.
At that point one of the administrative assistants buzzed on the intercom. “Ms. Murphy, Mr. Hatfield is here to see you.”
She hadn’t finished the words before Asa Hatfield burst into the office. His face was red, apoplectic. Valerie stood up behind her desk in instinctive reaction.
Hatfield began speaking in an angry tone before she said a word. “Ms. Murphy, I want to know what’s going on here! The whole schedule we worked out for you cancelled? Who the hell do you think you are?”
Hatfield’s words stunned Valerie. The arrogance! Coldly, she responded, “I think I’m the Secretary of this Department, and your boss. I wasn’t aware the enforcement division was concerned with whether or not the Secretary attended ribbon cutting ceremonies and spent days on end meeting with elementary school teachers.”
Hatfield backtracked, saying, “Murphy, this schedule was worked out carefully to introduce you to the various activities of the department and …”
“And keep me busy and out of the way,” Valerie interrupted. “I’m quite sure this was carefully put together, Mr. Hatfield. Nonetheless, I have other things to do in the next several days, one of which is assessing the suitability of our department heads.”
Hatfield’s face went even more red at the implied threat. She continued, her tone cold.
“For that reason I chose to reschedule. Now, I’ve instructed the Chief of Staff to arrange a meeting with you within the next day so we can cover the activities of the enforcement division, which I do believe is your job. I expect us to be able to work together to get the job done, Mr. Hatfield. If we are going to accomplish that, I hope you’ll seriously reconsider your attitude. Do we understand each other?”
Hatfield’s eyes narrowed. “You’re sure as hell right we understand each other, Murphy. But don’t think you’ll get away with this. This is my department, and they might make you into some kind of pretty talking head, but I’m the one who runs things around here. You don’t want to mess with me.”
“That will be quite enough, Mr. Hatfield.”
“You’re god damned right!” he shouted. He turned and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
Valerie stood behind her desk, absolutely astonished. Slowly, she said to Davis, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such unprofessional behavior in my life.”
Davis looked at her and said,”Be careful, Valerie. Hatfield has a lot of friends in the legislature, a lot of allies. He’s not someone to dismiss easily.”
Valerie sighed. She knew that, and found it hard to believe she was willing to go to the mat over a job she didn’t even want. But she’d be damned if she’d let a man like that walk all over her. Now the real question was simple: where would the next attack come from. And would she be able to withstand it?