The Heart of the Deal
by Maxim Salnikov

The man swirled the ice cubes in his whiskey glass, the low hum of his private jet a soothing, calming sound. It was a sound of power and, as far as the man was concerned, power meant merit. Respect. Money. But the power he had was not absolute . It was limited to buying others and then watching the world dance to their tune.

It wasn’t fair.

Politicians would smile their enameled smiles into his face, take his money, and joke about him behind his back.

“That fool,” they would say. “What does he know about how the world works? You can’t say and do whatever you want and buy everybody. That’s not how things work. There are rules. Rules he doesn’t care for. And that’s why he’ll never, ever, ever be as good as us.”

They were wrong. The man was anything but a fool. He took a swig from the glass, the whiskey burning his throat. A pleasurable sensation. Whiskey on a plane. He always drank whiskey when he was on a plane. It was his plane, and it was his whiskey, and if he already climbed in the saddle, why the hell shouldn’t he enjoy the ride?

The man shut his eyes and prayed.

“God, devil, Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph and Zeus,” he prayed, though he believed in what religious men called ‘the power of prayer’ as much fur believed in the power of lice.

“Whoever’s listening. Any price. Any price at all. I want …”

He paused, thinking carefully about what it was he really wanted. What was more important to him than anything else in the whole wide world. Not the fancy hotels. Not the golf resorts. Not the fake admiration of those on his payroll or the polite courtesy of his Japanese friends who bowed whenever he met them, usually before asking for more of his money. The man didn’t mind a little bow now and then. He liked that about the Japanese. They bowed. It was the only thing he liked about them .

Deep in his heart, the man realized he already knew what he wanted. He knew it all along. And that was what he wished for.

“I want to be really, really important. Really important. Make it so.”

The man chuckled, amused at his own silliness. But didn’t hurt to try, did it? He finished off the whiskey and waved for the flight attendant to refill his glass. She winked at him and brought the bottle, leaning very, very close as she topped the glass with golden, magic liquid.

He’d met her last summer during a trip to the Seychelles. Lilly. Short for Lillith. He’d just opened a new hotel chain, and he was in a jolly good mood, as the Brits were apt to say, when he’d noticed her in the crowd. Curly black hair, tanned skin, a hint of mischief in her eyes. He hired her there and then. She was happy with her work and he was happy with her. They had a past. A brief one. Lots of moaning. But she was a good worker. She understood him. And she knew he was no fool.

The flight attendant leaned even closer and asked, “Would you be requiring anything else, sir?”

He could do anything. Grab her by the pussy. Ask her to suck him off. Anything at all. But what he wanted was an answer. An honest answer.

“Babe, do you think I could make president? Of America?”

The plane shook a little – turbulence could be a bitch – but Lilly stepped back, expertly balancing on her high heels, and looked him straight in the eyes. She didn’t answer right away. She was no fool herself.

“Sir,” she said. “If you want, you can be anything you want.”

The man raised an eyebrow.

“But you know those politicians,” she continued. “They pay with their souls for what they get.”

“They pay people like me.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose they do.”

“Which means, if I were to make it, I wouldn’t need to pay anybody. I could do anything I wanted to. I’d be a very good president. A very good one.”

Lilly brushed his cheek with her fingertips, a sensual, slow motion, before pulling her hand away.

“This is your Captain speaking,” the pilot said on the intercom. “Altitude is twenty thousand feet, weather is clear, please buckle in. We’re arriving to JFK in fifteen.”

Lilly nodded and smiled. The man thought he detected some malice in her expression.

“You could make your country great again,” she said.

The man did not wait until landing. He dialed his Personal Assistant, who picked up before he could count to five.

He did, in fact, count to four. She was getting sloppy.

“Yes, sir?”

“How much is an election probe going to set us back?”

“Depends. But I can find out. Who will we be supporting this time?”

“Me.”

#

“A deal with the devil?” my Creative Writing class tutor asked, putting my paper back on his desk. He couldn’t look more disappointed if he tried. “Seriously? It’s banal and cliché. You should know better than that.”

He’d asked me to stay after class, again, and the sound of silence hung heavy above the empty desks.

At least it’s not one of your silly space stories, I thought he wanted to add. I averted my eyes. Autumn’s sunshine seeped through the classroom’s windows, coloring the wooden floor in stripes of orange light. And so what if it’s been done before? What hasn’t?

For my tutor, writing was practice, multiplied by technique. Character plus problem equals plot. Scenes and sequels. The human heart, in conflict with itself. That sort of thing.

For me, it was the closest to actual magic we humans ever got.

“The devil is a metaphor,” I said.

“For what? Lack of originality?”

“For all the damage we can do if we’re not careful. If we, and by we here I mean humanity as a whole, would’ve thought it was okay to rape, cheat, and murder everybody who looked a bit different from us, a civilized world would’ve been nothing more than a pipe dream.”

“Yet here we are.”

“Yet here we are,” I agreed. “With nukes at the ready.”

#

The President dreamed of man’s affair with fire. It was the same dream he had for weeks, and though he knew it was only a dream, a nightmare, a very, very bad one, there was little he could do. The streets of the city he loved, busy with typical New York hassle, suddenly came to a standstill. A flash, and the picture turned bone-knuckles-white, slowly coming back into focus like a Polaroid photograph.

A flaming vortex shot across the cityscape, melting steel and flesh as it danced through New York. He saw a face in the tornado of fire, features formed from blue and red flames.

It was his own.

The President awoke with a start. He was in the back seat of his limo, the scent of expensive leather as reassuring as ever. The scent was real. Realer than real. And what he saw, his face in the column of fire … it was only a dream. Only a dream.

Lately, he had good reasons to lose sleep, but this nightmare? It was ridiculous. He’d never let it come to that. True, China was escalating, and the Russians were probing for any opportunity to bring him down to his knees, but they were playing with fire. All of them. They were playing with fire, and they were ought to get burnt.

The limo came to a halt and his security detail held open the door. The President headed towards the White House, the cold air filling his lungs with the freshness of winter. Snowflakes turned to water on his forehead, and an aide at his side was frantically briefing him about something, but the only thing the President felt and heard were his own racing thoughts.

They weren’t crazy. The Russians, the Chinese, the rest of the world. They were testing him. Probing for weakness. The populist president of the United States of America, the man with strong charisma and an even stronger resolve, the man who’d promised to put his own people first.

Of course they wanted to test him . To see if he put his heart where his mouth was. Boy, where they in for a surprise.

He was tired of his predecessors “policing” the world, inciting regime changes and uprisings whenever they saw fit. What was the point of playing cloak and dagger when he had the strongest military in the world standing by at the ready?

The world was sick. Sick of Muslim terrorists, sick of stupid environmental laws and stupid environmentalists standing in the way of technological progress, sick of politicians who did nothing but talk and talk, scared shitless to change the status quo.

No more.

He entered the operations room with the stride of a tiger stalking an antelope. He couldn’t help himself. A smile spread across his face.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “Let’s make the world great again.”

Conversation died and all eyes were on him in an instant. Everyone was here. The head of NSA, white like a portobello mushroom from lack of vitamin D, the new space arms program bosses, the Secretary of Defense, even Lilly, standing quietly in the corner, ready to take notes and bring coffee at a moment’s notice. They all owed their livelihoods to the President, and were patiently waiting for him to continue before deciding on how energetically they were expected to agree with whatever it was he was about to say.

“Gentlemen,” the President continued. “The reports are most alarming. The Chinese shot down one of our recon satellite over Tibet yesterday. The Russians are putting everything they’ve got on NATO’s borders, claiming self-defense, as usual. If they and the Chinese were to make a deal, we’d be in for real trouble.”

The room maintained attentive silence.

“Well, I have it on good authority to believe that they have, in fact, reached such a deal. The Chinese and the Russians are working together.”

The chief of NSA turned a shade paler, which seemed hardly physically possible.

“Where is this coming from?” he asked. “We haven’t received any …”

“You haven’t what? Excuses! Excuses, excuses. You haven’t heard anything about this because you didn’t do your job right. If you would’ve, we could’ve reacted faster. But you didn’t. I tell you, I have this on good authority. Very good authority.”

The President was lying, of course, but it was for the greater good. He was a big believer in ends justifying the means. Any means necessary. And this was the only way to ensure world peace. Long-lasting peace and prosperity, a new age for mankind, a bright future like never before.

It was like that Roman general said: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

“What I’m saying is, we can’t let this go on. That’s why I called this meet. By afternoon today, I want a brief from each and every one of you. I want proposals. Bullet points. I want plans on how to put some fear of Jesus into them . If we’re the greatest country in the world, we’re not gonna get pushed around. We deserve respect.”

He looked around the room. All eyes were still on him.

“Any questions?”

There were none.

“Dismissed.”

They vacated the cabinet, careful not to throw glances at Lilly. After the Secretary of Defense dutifully shut the door behind him, she came closer and sat on his desk, legs crossed, full lips half-parted as if unsure if to laugh or whisper obscenities into his ear.

God, how he loved those lips.

“Whatcha think, babe?” he said. “Can we take ‘em ?”

“The Chinese? The Russians? Our own cabinet?”

Lilly paused, then continued. “Of course we can. But remember, there will be a price to pay.”

“It’ll be worth it.”

She smiled. “It will.”

The President put his hand on her thigh. He hit eighty three a couple of months ago, and he’s already had enough sex in his life to last a lifetime or ten, but there was no force in heaven or hell that could stop him from appreciating the beauty of a well-formed female thigh. No, not on his watch.

Lilly. His Lilly. He remembered the wish he made on a plane with her pouring whiskey in his glass, all those years ago. How long ago was that? Five years? Ten? It didn’t matter; he remembered it like it was yesterday. He wanted to be important. Very, very important.

And now he was older, greyer, more high-energy, even more rich, clever as always, more powerful than ever.

The President smirked.

“And what if,” Lilly suddenly said, “what if it won’t? What if the price would be too high?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if, you have thought you have bargained only for your own soul … and the devil tricked you?”

“What devil? Lilly, are you stoned? It’s barely noon.”

Lilly jumped off his desk, landing on the exquisite carpet without a sound.

“Please, consider the possibility.”

“Fine, fine, let’s play your stupid game. Say I made a deal with the devil to … what, exactly? Become the President of the United States? All the good that did me! Fine, let’s suppose your crazy idea. Are you implying I’m doing something wrong? Dancing to the devil’s tune, so to say? Come on, Lilly. You know me better than anyone. I’m not stupid. It’s diplomacy. All of it — diplomacy. Very good diplomacy. Very, very clever diplomacy.”

“I’m sure it is. But allow me to finish my theory.”

“Okay, fine. I’ve made a deal with the devil. For my charming good looks and the President’s seat. Okay. It’s ridiculous. What’s your theory?”

“Well, like I was saying, what if the devil has tricked you? If, by bargaining for your soul, he made you promise him the souls of the millions who might die if you make one wrong move with China as President, Mr. President, sir?”

“Baby,” the President said. “I’m never wrong.”

#

“It’s not too late,” my tutor said.

“What’s not too late?”

“It’s not too late for us or the world. Aldous Huxley, in an introduction to The Brave New World he wrote years after he wrote the book, said,

Between the utopian and the primitive horns of the dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity … science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle — the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: ‘How ill this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?’”

I prayed to God that good old Aldous was right.

That we are better than we think.

Or was he only telling a story?

— THE END —

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