The reject pile
“Boring. Boring. Very Boring. Give that one to Gav. Boring. Tedious. One for Priti. Not interested. Bor…” As he was reflexively placing the folder on the rapidly growing pile nominated as boring, also known as other people’s problems, his hand was stayed. “Um, what’s this one precisely?”
The Spad leaned in a little closer to scan the Executive Summary on page one. “It’s a report of an intercept from GCHQ Cheltenham.”
“Yes, that I can read. Significance?”
“The intercept was of a CIA inter-departmental communication. So if the CIA let GCHQ intercept it, they wanted us to see it.”
“It’s about Kent Warfield planning to kidnap Donald Trump.” Warfield. Kent Warfield. Rings a bell somewhere in the old noddle.
“He’s a film director.” Ah yes, seen some of his flicks, jolly good actually. His hand was still considering whether to dump the folder on the not my problem pile.
The Spad offered her unasked-for opinion, “If I were you Mr Johnson, I’d take a glance through the file. You know, US elections coming up, volatility and all that. Wouldn’t do to not know about a plot against your opposite number over there.”
For the first time since the Spad had entered his inner sanctum some ten minutes earlier, weighed down with files, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson paid some attention to the girl. Obviously one of Cumface’s weirdo misfit recruits, wearing a wraparound charity shop cardigan, and owl-eye spectacles. Probably stupidly clever too of course. “You’re not the usual, er, Special Advisor, that drops this stuff in to me are you?” He indicated the soon to be rejected pile.
“No Mr Johnson.”
“I prefer ‘Prime Minister’ if you don’t mind.”
“And I prefer Mr Johnson, if you don’t mind. Devanshi had a puncture on the way in.”
The Prime Minister laughed, “Like a blow up sex doll!” He pictured the rather lumpen frame of his usual Special Adviser-stroke-Errand Girl, now deflated.
“No, like the rider of a bicycle. So Dom instructed me to bring the files over to you.” Dominic Cummings, the power behind the throne, Special Adviser Supreme, whose tentacles of Spads, Sub-Spads, and Sub-Sub Spads had infiltrated every corner of British Government. Can’t live with Dom, can’t live without Dom.
“Um, and what exactly are you, young lady? Um, in the grand scheme of things?”
“Here? My name is Jun, and I am Special Adviser to Devanshi, who is one of a team of Special Advisers reporting directly to Dom, obviously.”
“And when not trotting over with files for self, what does one do all day?”
“Me? I’m in the Games Room.”
“The Ga…?” But it didn’t do for a Prime Minister to express ignorance. Of anything. He gave an airy wave indicating Jun should amplify just a teensy bit.
“I engage in multi-player games every day.” Another wave of the Prime Ministerial hand. “Dom says it harvests data, and it does of course. I’m rockin it with kids all over Britain, all over the world actually. It means we are gathering datapoints all the time, getting at the truth.”
“Unfiltered. What people are really thinking and doing.”
“By playing games?”
“Hell yes,” Jun was clearly proud of her abilities. This was why she had gained her First in Classics and Modern Languages from Cambridge. “So anyway Mr Johnson. If I were you I would think whether Dom would like me to know about Kent Warfield planning to bring down the President of the United States. I would think whether or not it would be embarrassing to have had the file cross your desk, but not to have absorbed the message.”
“Yes, yes, yes, point taken.” The Prime Minister was feeling bullied. He tested the weight of the file and assessed it as being no more than five pages. Compared to all the other junk they expected him to suck up every day, that was a reasonable workload, and he could hunker down in his office for an hour, with the Do Not Disturb light on. Scanning through security-related and somewhat spy-y type material was a small perk of the job because at least it was sometimes entertaining. Far better than the latest crises in the education system, balderdash about care homes and hospitals, or keeping a nation of workshy spongers on free handouts. “Just leave the Kent Warfield file, and see that the others are distributed.” His eyes twinkled with what he thought of as his roguish look, “And I do hope Devanshi gets pumped up again soon.” He chuckled to himself. As Jun left the room, she did an exaggerated eyeroll, which as it happened was nicely picked up on the CCTV monitoring cameras.
Frederick Polson II was sitting up late, as usual. Flippin the channels, nothing much to watch. Great, at least Kamala Harris was now the official Dems VP pick, but meanwhile depressing what the orange clown was doing to the country, day in, day out. Depressing that Margaret was now these two years passed, and not one day got to be lighter or easier. Depressing that the bank balance was down near zero. At his age he didn’t expect much more work, and when it came he was awful grateful, but hell, nothing for six months?
Back in February had been his last gig. They wanted a sort of Mark Twain / Kurt Vonnegut grandpa, so they’d slicked back his still blondish hair and wigged him up in unruly white curls, put him in a plaid shirt and hokey bibbed jeans. He’d spent the shoot day being fussed around by the crew, along with his co-star, an eight year old Hollywood legend in the making. ‘I’m gonna buy us a burger each’ he said, only about a hundred times. ‘No Grandpa, I’m gonna buy us a Wendy’s burger,’ said the kid, also about a hundred times. Then the moneyshot of them seen from behind walking down the farmtrack heading for their Wendy’s, and the old man goes, ‘Heh heh heh’ and jumps up and kicks his legs together. Of course that was a stunt man in a fatsuit, and just as well, because that had to be done about a hundred times too. The production team said it was ‘Enhanced’ and ‘Mood’, which was a good thing apparently, and they were sure the ad would go viral, promising more shoots of Grandpa and Little Tommy in the pipeline. More money for old rope thought Fred Polson. And then Covid-19 hit, eateries closed, and the commercial was pulled. No rolling campaign, no repeat fees, no further shoots.
It wasn’t just the money of course. Appearing on camera had been his life, but now his so-called career was ebbing too. In the past he had been versatile – German soldiers, cowboys, court ushers, hotel receptionists, and so so many doctors. His was the trusted face that heroes and heroines went to hear the worst from. If he had a buck for every time he’d had to deliver the line, ‘I’m afraid the news isn’t good…’ his condo wouldn’t now be under threat of repossession, but in a way he didn’t even care about impending foreclosure. They’d owned the place outright until he had to re-mortgage to fund Margaret’s treatments. Now, with his wife gone it felt like he was simply sitting in God’s waiting room, biding his time for the final call. Maybe one day before too long a real doctor would tell him, ‘I’m afraid the news isn’t good…’ and he’d probably kiss them and say thanks. Thanks for releasing me.
Frederick Polson II fell asleep in front of his monitor, with a picture of him and Margaret as the screensaver.
Frederick Polson II woke in front of his monitor with a terrible headache and wondered how many whiskeys he’d drunk the night before. Then he recalled that he’d been dry some thirty years, so that wasn’t it. He was face to face with Margaret. The image of Margaret. It gave him a start. Moving, he knocked the mouse, and the screen changed to his email inbox. He jerked his head back so he could focus. One new email. A German company was it? Maybe the Nazi soldiers market was picking up again. He read the email twice. Yep, somebody on the other side of the world, in Yurp, wanted him to audition by skype for ‘an important part.’ He said a sort of prayer of thanks to Margaret, for watching out for him. Maybe it wasn’t yet time to shuffle into line, waiting on the Pearly Gates to open up.
‘An important part’. Please let me get that part. Please let it be a little bit lucrative. And please let it not be another goddamned doctor saying, ‘I’m afraid the news isn’t good…’
The heist scenario
Madeline had been beating her brains out for ten days, knowing that Kent Bloody Warfield was waiting for something to get his teeth into. Time was passing and Trump was slithering ever forward. Crazed as a loon, but would that guarantee the electorate would get rid of him this time around? And would he even accept the result if it was against him? Madeline felt the weight of Kent’s enterprise on her shoulders and knew that she shouldn’t. Let him think up his own bloody scenario! Except she was the screenwriter. She had the awards on her shelf for brilliant stories and snappy dialogue. And now, just the one sketchy idea, which was barely even an idea.
She didn’t need the whole of the Reeltime Gang in on this call, just Kent – and presumably Zsuzsa – along with Lyle, and in this case the essential grit of Pete. When she signed in to Zoom, Lyle was already in full flow to Kent about his own work as a director for RTE. After years of chipping away at the Irish national broadcaster, he was eventually helming a noir crime series set in Galway, and it had been getting good reviews, before the Covid closedown. Kent was congratulating his First Assistant Director – the master handing on to his apprentice. Not that Lyle was a whole heap younger. Late fifties, early sixties already? Of course great skincare products could knock years off a man. If proof of that was needed, Madeline had simply to look at the reverse effect on HRH, who scorned male grooming products and said such things were for pooftahs. Correctly in the case of Lyle O’Nolan.
Pete Pinter was also already on the call, but was simply watching and listening, smoking her cheroot. “Well, if it isn’t the late Mizz Moore,” was her sour greeting, announcing the writer’s arrival. For a moment it was on the tip of Madeline’s tongue to apologise for being minutes late, but then she figured fuckit. She’d heard from Debs that Pete really had lost someone in the Beirut explosion, so was willing to cut her a little slack.
“Mads Mads Mads!” Kent Warfield greeted her. “You’re going to make our day, right? Tell us you’re well blah blah blah. Miserable scumbag of a rich toff husband is doing great blah blah blah. Weather’s tip top, good year for the roses blah blah blah. Great, we’ll take it that the smalltalk is now all done. So what’s the plot babes?”
“Not a plot, as such, just an approach.”
“It’s been ten days Mads…”
“And don’t I know it. OK. Let’s think heist movies. A gang is going to steal the biggest diamond in the world. It’s on display in the public eye, but under maximum security, watched every second of the day. To get away with the heist, the gang need to buy themselves time. They won’t just do a smash-and-grab and hope their getaway car is faster than the cops. They will replace the diamond with a near-perfect copy, and for some time the deception will go unnoticed.”
“Just like every other heist movie ever,” Pete Pinter remarked flatly.
“So that’s the story?” Kent Warfield also sounded less than enthusiastic. “We steal Trump, and replace him with a robot or something?”
“Which would be an improvement,” Lyle remarked. “How? Smoke and mirrors?”
“Kind of,” Madeline replied. “But our sort of smoke and mirrors. We do what we’re great at, with the almost full knowledge of the President. We do everything in plain sight.”
“Which as I pointed out last time we talked is called ‘Reality TV’ and is the lowest of the low as far as I’m concerned,” said Lyle.
“What were you thinking to do anyway Kent?” Madeline threw back at the director. “Kidnap the guy? Assassinate him, what?”
Kent Warfield shrugged his shoulders. “You got me there Mads. I guess I thought… Well I thought perhaps we could create a scandal that would bring him down. Although he seems fireproof there. Or yes, just shoot him.”
“Creating an instant martyr for the far right.”
“Yup. I guess.”
Madeline decided a cigarette was called for. She went about the business of extracting one from her pack, lighting, inhaling, exhaling, buying a little time. Zsuzsa appeared beside her husband and waved to the other three, “Did I miss anything?”
Pete provided surprising backup to Madeline. “Actually Pru called me last week and asked me to start casting for a Trump replacement. Not just a Trumpalike, but someone to really play the part. I didn’t know until now what she was getting at – still don’t – but I turned up some interesting options. Baldwin’s agent said he wouldn’t audition because we already know what he can do from Saturday Night Live. I have a clip of that if you need it.”
Kent batted away the suggestion. “No, I like Alec, but people would be looking all the time at him and saying ‘That’s Alec Baldwin, playing Donald Trump’. I’m thinking that’s not what Mads is thinking.”
Pete shared her screen and played a number of clips of online auditions she’d conducted in the last week. They were mainly impersonators rather than actors. One guy had captured the elliptical speech and strange tics, but lacked what Madeline called ‘the imperial quality, the crazed emperor mentality.’ These were all older gents who’d piggybacked Trump’s peculiarities and were making a few dollars to add to their pensions, doing in-person appearances and local TV ads. They all had their long red ties and orange make-up, plus reasonably convincing wigs.
“Then you have to see this guy,” Pete was unusually enthused. “He’s actually a Berlin nightclub performer that some friends of mine know. I just wanted you to see him because he’s so… bizarre.” And there followed a convincing enough Donald Trump, fully costumed, by an Indian man speaking German. “Priceless!” was Lyle’s opinion. “I could watch him all day. Please keep him in the frame Pete.”
“Goes by the name of Darahaas Trumpti,” Pete laughed and made a note. “But look, I’ve been teasing you a bit with these videos. Let me now show you the real find. I auditioned him just yesterday.”
The tired old face of Frederick Polson II filled their screens, peering all the way to Germany. “I know this guy,” said Kent Warfield.
“Yep, he was a juror in Make It Like It Is,” Pete confirmed. “You probably had to look at him many times while editing the court scenes.” Not one of his greatest movies Kent had to admit, but a respectable box office, and Madeline’s script had positively crackled. And now here was one of the most minor characters staring out from the audition recording, listening to Pete’s instructions. She was sly, perhaps realising from the start that she was onto the sort of actor they were searching for. It was an important part she was saying, and the old guy was listening, asking a few questions, but not gushing or fawning. He was a very tiny fish, but he was a pro. And Pete didn’t jump straight in with the Trump scenario – she was an angler bringing the little fish to land. She asked if Frederick could do Cagney. He did Cagney. Could he do Harrison Ford? He got the twisted smile but not the voice. No problem Pete assured him, how about Churchill? The old actor had a think, experimented with getting a rumble in his chest, massing up his shoulders. He looked bigger and grimmer. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so few to so many. Or maybe it’s the other way round?” He had the fragment of speech, and a British accent to go with it.
“Not bad,” said Zsuzsa.
“Where did you find this guy?” Lyle asked.
“Believe it or not, I’m a Casting Agent,” Pete replied. “I conjure up miracles at the whim of directors… and screenwriters.”
“This guy I could believe in,” Madeline nodded. “But he didn’t do Trump?”
“Coming up,” said Pete. In the recording she was now asking if he could do Joe Biden. She was sneaking up on her prey, degree by degree. They watched as he thought a little, got the voice, then did something to elongate his neck. Madeline thought of her yoga teacher who told the class to imagine they had a string in the centre of their head, pulling them upright. Yes, that was it, Frederick had now embodied uprightness.
And then the killer question – what about Trump, could he do Trump? The old actor lost his friendly and obliging sheen, “That idiot! I’d rather do Adolf Hitler.”
“That part is already cast,” Pete joshed him. “I need a Trump. A bloody amazing Trump. I have this bastard of a director who wants to see a Trump.” Kent laughed, a little bit.
The actor pondered, “You see lady, I’m kinda opposed to Trump, in every way. I’m a Democrat, don’t mind telling you. What Trump is doing to this country is criminal, so I’m not sure I want to ‘do’ him as you put it.” Watching, Kent Warfield applauded.
Pete laid her cards on the table then. The big part she’d emailed him about really was a big part. The biggest, to play the 45th President of the United States. It would be a massive production, several lightyears from his ill-fated hamburger ad all the way back in February. Oh, and of course the paycheck would be commensurate with the importance of the role. Subject to a proper screentest, medicals, background checks, contract and all the usual.
“You are not shitting me lady? Donald Trump? Me?” Frederick Polson II weighed principles against foreclosure, and then in the space of fifteen seconds he morphed. That’s the way Madeline experienced it. One moment a slightly bleary old man sitting in front of his computer, and then something entirely different. The jaw jutted, the eyes narrowed meanly, and the voice was good, the mangled speech patterns more so. He addressed Pete as a nasty woman for interrupting his television viewing and went off on a pitch-perfect Trumpian rant about the US Postal Service and fake voting. On the recording Pete could be heard laughing, telling the old man to cool it, and she’d be in touch.
“So?” Pete asked her watching audience. “I’ve arranged costume, makeup and a crew to go shoot a second call later today. There’ll be prosthetics on hand too – I want to see his jaw more jutty. I figured no-one would object.” The murmurs of no objections came down the lines. Madeline felt that in only a week, perhaps Pete had found the fake diamond they needed to make the heist work.
You were the tofu with glass noodles right?
Exactly. Thanks, I’m hungry.
Did I miss much?
Well the cut-down Reeltime Gang have more or less accepted the idea of replacing Trump with what I think is called a ‘ringer’, and they’re liking the old actor.
Exactly. My bet is that by tomorrow Sundeep will be checking out contracts, and there won’t be any foreclosure on old Fred’s apartment.
But that still leaves them needing to figure out what they’re going to do with him.
Exactly. Mmm, this food is delish by the way. I do believe Kent Warfield might be thinking of deploying Antony Tone Fentick at this point.
Zsuzsa thought the call had gone well enough and was impressed by the potential of Frederick. Kent didn’t get how they could substitute a fake President, even for an admittedly already fake President. “I mean, everyone around him will know. What about his wife, what about colleagues like Pompeo and Pence? The deception wouldn’t last one minute.”
“If I just happened to be married to an old madman,” Zsuzsa looked meaningfully at Kent and played with his grizzled grey hair, “I would welcome any fiction that gave to me breathing space. I might to play along, you know? And Pence? He does what he is told. Pompeo? He’ll run for President in 2024 and he needs a little bit of the Republican party left standing. So if Trump and his – what is the word? – wrecking ball get taken out of the equation, he will play along also.”
“You know all this?”
“I am political analyst Warfield. And Trump is now even endorsing QAnon. We don’t need worry about our little fiction.”
“So you think we could convince Trump to play the part, whatever it is?”
“Trump is narcissist, as we all know. Anything that puts him front and centre will work.”
Kent was hitting speed dial on his phone. After a minute, “Hi Tone, Kent. Things are moving. I think it’s time your people called his people and started the conversation. No, just say that you want to scope out a production with him and you as co-stars. That should get his juices flowing. No need to mention me yet. Sure. Nope. Yep. Great. Thanks Tone, call me when you know. Ciao. Ciao.”
Jet was sat across from an overweight woman who was in civilian clothes, but apparently ranked as Colonel. She was first point of access at Global International Worldwide Shipping LLC, the tautologically named front for BlackOps returnees in the Washington area. Colonel Kendy Henshaw didn’t like BlackOps returnees because they always smelt bad. Not actual bad, just too stained by dark deeds and ungovernable actions. She liked this Jet Lassiter person even less because she was kinda pretty in a hardass way and was one of those types that said bullshit things like, ‘Rules are made to be broken.’ Which right now Lassiter seemed intent on doing. She’d left theatre, hitching a ride back to DC, for no clear operational advantage. She was hanging in an expensive Washington hotel, also for no apparent reason, and had been tapped talking about removing the President of the United States from office. Which was a treasonable offence if Colonel Henshaw recalled correctly.
And now the brassfaced woman was dismissing it all as of no consequence. Her file hadn’t mentioned that the co-conspirator she had been on calls with, some English film director, was actually her father. So Lassiter’s airy excuse had been, ‘Oh, that’s just the way Pops and I always talk.’ Sure, a plot against the state, nice way for a father and daughter to joke together.
And the big problem for the Colonel was that she knew she wasn’t getting the real story. BlackOps people usually came back from the wilds wanting something, like PTS counselling or a bit of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, but this one seemed to want nothing. Actually, Henshaw realised, the thing was that this one seemed protected. Like no matter how high up the tree the Colonel might escalate her enquiries, she would only ever learn what Jet Lassiter wanted her to learn. It was frustrating.
“So can I go now?” Jet did a good impersonation of a bored teenager, hauled before the Principal on some unimportant pretext, like smoking behind the bicycle stands.
Colonel Kendy Henshaw kept her interviewee waiting a few more moments, as if reviewing the options, which were essentially non-existent. “Yes you can go. But we – but I – will be watching you every step of the way.”
“How re-assuring,” Jet Lassiter produced her sweetest and most fake smile.
In Mack Avenue Detroit, in Pearl Street Boulder, in Sunnyside Road Portland, USPS maintenance crews were unbolting yet more mailboxes from the sidewalks, to be loaded onto flatbed trucks along with the day’s haul of other decommissioned drop boxes.
Chapter 05 will be published on Monday 31st August
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and contribute to Chapter 05 up to 29th August