At that, the archivist with the scratched reading glasses stood up straight. His supervisor, Ronald Cobb, was one of President Wallace's oldest friends from law school. It was Cobb who usually managed the visits and selected which priceless files the President would read. But with his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Cobb wasn't going anywhere for a bit.
"Mr. Cobb's at a chemo appointment, sir," the archivist explained in a voice that seemed strained even to himself.
Again, President Wallace nodded without turning around, flipping his legal pad shut.
It was the quick motion of the legal pad that caught the archivist's eye. For a moment, as the pale yellow pages fanned forward, he could swear one of the brown, mottled Lincoln letters was tucked inside.
The archivist squinted, trying to see. But from the angle he was at, diagonally behind the left shoulder of the President, the Lincoln document was --
This was the President of the United States. He'd never . . .
No, the archivist told himself.
No. Not a chance. No.
"Before we go, I just need to hit the little vice president's room," President Wallace said, using the joke that always got him easy laughs with donors. He stood from his seat and held his legal pad at his side.
According to current research, when faced with an awkward social situation, the average person will wait seventeen seconds before breaking the silence.
"Mr. President," the archivist called out without even hesitating.
"I'm sorry, but --"
President Wallace turned slowly, showing off his calming gray eyes and flashing the warm, fatherly grin that had won him the governorship of Ohio as well as the White House. "Son, I just need to run to the restroom, and then we can --"
"It'll just take a second," the archivist promised.
The room was no bigger than a classroom. Before the archivist knew it, he was standing in front of Wallace, blocking the President's path to the door. The blond agent stepped forward. Wallace motioned him back.
"Tell me the crisis, son," the President asked, his grin still keeping everything calm.
"I just . . . urr . . ." the archivist stammered, slowly starting to sway. "I'm sure it was just an honest mistake, sir, but I think you may've accidentally . . . huhh . . . In your notepad." The archivist took a deep breath. "One of the Lincoln letters."
The President laughed and went to step around the archivist.
The archivist laughed back.
And stepped directly in front of the President. Again.
President Wallace's gray eyes slowly shrank into two black slits.
He was far too savvy to lose his temper with a stranger, but that didn't mean it was easy to keep that grin on his face. "Victor, I need you to excuse us a moment."
"Sir . . ." the blond agent protested.
"Victor . . ." the President said. That's all it took.
With a click and a loud metal crunk, the metal door to the Vault opened and Victor joined the other three agents stationed in the corridor outside.
Staring at the archivist, the President squeezed his fist around the legal pad. "Son, I want you to be very careful about what your next words are."