The Party, 5

Anyone who had ever encountered Under Secretary Colin Stahl agreed with the sentiment that he was a humorless man. He had been a humorless child and later, a humorless teen...no doubt due to an unconscious determination to put his parental influences behind him. Stahl's parents were what their Tennessee neighbors kindly referred to in his presence as 'hippies'.

Stahl's childhood was one series of 'life experiences' after another. That was the phrase his parents employed when attempting to paint a rosy color on their failure to provide stability and normality for the child they were so obviously unsuited to raise. They were the children of two old-money families. Indulged since birth, they rebelled against their early lives of privilege by denying their trust funds and living a 'simpler life'. At least, that was their plan. All Colin remembered was days of little to eat, second-hand clothing, and a dwelling place that changed every few weeks when they slipped away from their current location in the dead of night because they could not pay.

As soon as he was able, Colin dug in his heels and refused to be a part of his parents' nomadic lifestyle. He was 15 years old and desperate for the security that only routine could bring. He thumbed a ride to Boston and showed up on his paternal grandparents' doorstep. They would not even meet Colin. The couple had never forgiven their son for what they felt was a slap in the face. The doorman was instructed to turn Colin around without explanation.

Colin's maternal grandmother, on the other hand, had thrown her arms around him and wept for 20 minutes. Colin's appearance in her life was a godsend. She had been widowed only months earlier. With her grandson's presence, the oppressive silence that reigned throughout the enormous condominium at the death of her husband of over fifty years was broken.

Two days later he was enrolled in Boston's finest preparatory school. Colin filled his schedule with more classes than was recommended, and had no difficulty achieving high marks across the board. He rebuffed gestures of friendship from the other students. In some ways he was already behind them and couldn't spare a single moment for idle entertainment along the way to his goal of military school.

Acceptance into the Naval Academy was everything that Colin hoped for. Anything that upset the reassuring stability of his daily routine was swiftly dealt with and corrected. The Navy's devoted (almost obsessive) adherence to one code of behavior eased something that had been twisted by his parents' life choices.

His superior officers hoped that Colin would be a 'lifer', but they were content to believe that some day they would have an advocate on Pennsylvania Avenue willing to fight for the military's best interest. Their trust was proven wise. Stahl's life as a government official (defined by a rigid set of rules and regulations) was based on his experience at the Academy. Earnestly he extolled the virtues of a military career to any young person looking for a sense of direction in life. And he never failed to voice the armed forces' concerns regarding the decisions of the current administration. These very traits made Colin Stahl ideal for the position of Under Secretary of Political affairs. There was no fear among the powers-that-be that Stahl would go off the rails or ignore American policy in an effort to play superhero or to forward his own agenda.

Stahl could not say the same about the man seated opposite him. Jack Bauer had been the darling of at least two presidencies. David Palmer made no secret of his friendship with the man. It was easy to see that Bauer was not just a federal employee to the tragically assassinated leader of the free world. Whispers among those on the fringes of Palmer's administration were that Jack Bauer held a place of personal trust that not even the President's brother Wayne could match. Many believed that Bauer was Palmer's 'fist', sent by the President to do the things no American government should do.

President James Heller, on the other hand, was thought to be less complicit regarding Bauer's actions. He displayed an indulgence for Bauer that traced back directly to his daughter and her poorly disguised feelings for the CTU agent. His role seemed to be that of cleanup whenever Bauer 'went off the reservation', as they say. But Bauer's free rein ended with the death of President Heller. The President never recovered from the death of his only child and grieved himself to death only months afterward.

That he had never been allowed to handle the source of chaos that was Jack Bauer chafed the Under Secretary more than anything in the entirety of his professional career. Still, he was human enough to admit an unflattering sense of pleasure at being the one to vividly demonstrate to Bauer just how far outside the inner circle of power he had recently been relegated.

Curiously Stahl watched Jack. The quietly efficient government operative sat reading through the thick sheaf of printed papers Stahl had handed him almost as soon as he'd walked through the door. Stahl could understand Bauer's close attention to the details outlined, but truthfully, nothing included in the extensive classified report mattered after reading the baldly stated first paragraph. "You are now the 9th person to know this," Stahl said.

For the first time in almost twenty minutes, Bauer locked eyes with the Under Secretary. "Who are the others? And how long have they known?"

Stahl steepled his fingers and laid them on the blotter on his desk. "Haydn, Mendes, Gold, Patterson and myself," he rattled off, "Bolden and two of his people. We've known for just a little under six months."

"So..." Jack countered, "The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, NASA, and you. Why tell me now?"

"We have reason to believe that we won't be able to maintain the secrecy much longer. It's possible that others may begin discovering the news. We'll need your assistance dealing with what happens next. The President is going live with the announcement tomorrow."

Stahl wondered about the small, enigmatic smile that suddenly quirked the corners of Bauer's mouth. "Yes?"

"For the record, I'm not the ninth person to find out," Jack shrugged. "I'm pretty sure there are two other people who know."

 

 

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