Originally published in Things that Go Bump in the Night #2 by Neon RainBow Press.

Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing.

Midnight Chat

A Commander in Chief story by Susan M. M.

Mackenzie Allen, the first female president of the United States, rolled over on her side. Propping herself up on one arm, she looked down at her husband with fond exasperation. The First Gentleman had caught a cold. His nose was stuffed up, causing a horrible snuffling sound as he breathed. Mac frowned. She loved her husband, but the noise was making it impossible to sleep.

Sighing, Mac climbed out of bed. The redhead fumbled with her feet until she found her bedroom slippers. Once shod, she felt her way in the dark until she found her bathrobe hanging over a chair. The White House staff wouldn't disturb her at this hour unless it was an absolute emergency. However, if an emergency arose (and they did, with far too great a frequency), Mac would rather meet her people modestly covered up by a terrycloth bathrobe, not wearing the Tinker Bell nightgown she'd bought on their trip to Walt Disney World last year.

She went to the kitchen and pulled out the Swiss Miss. She was glad the First Family's suite had its own kitchen. Sending down to the White House's main kitchen just to microwave a cup of hot chocolate would have been ridiculously ostentatious. She seldom had the time – let alone the inclination – to cook for her family, but the private kitchen was convenient for breakfasts and snacks. Sometimes her mother baked cookies with Amy and the twins. Mac wished she still had time for that; this job was hell on family life. She remembered teaching Horace and Rebecca how to add fractions by making chocolate chip cookie dough. Now she scarcely had time to glance at their homework.

"A remarkable device," a man's voice said behind her.

Mac whirled around, nearly spilling her hot chocolate. She hadn't heard anyone come in. She stared at whom she saw.

"I wish we'd had such a convenience in my day," stated the tall figure that stood before her. He was dressed in black: black jacket, black trousers. His bearded face was not handsome, but it was familiar. Very familiar. "And to think that the director of the patent office wanted to close the bureau down on the grounds that all possible inventions had already been invented." He shook his head wryly.

"President Lincoln?" Mac gasped. "I must be dreaming."

He shook his head. "I may no longer belong to the mortal realm, but I am no dream. No nightmare, either," he added with self-deprecating humor.

Mac opened her mouth, realized she looked like a fish, and shut it again. Dreaming, she told herself. She must have fallen asleep despite Rod's snoring, and was now dreaming that insomnia had forced her out of bed. She wondered if she should pinch herself. No, if she were dreaming that she was awake, she would simply dream that she pinched herself.

"Pray be seated, dear lady, and drink your chocolate before it cools," Lincoln urged. When she hesitated, he added, "Forgive my presumption. I ought not to be issuing invitations in your home."

"It's your home, too," Mac acknowledged, deciding to play along for the moment. Sitting on the couch, she held up her mug. "May I offer you some?"

Lincoln sat down in the chair on the other side of the coffee table. He shook his head. "Thank you, no. I no longer require nourishment. But it's kind of you to offer."

"So, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?" She sipped her chocolate, feeling more like Alice in Wonderland than Allison Dubois.

"I merely thought it time we became better acquainted, ma'am. No one who lives in the White House has an easy time of it, but you and I have – had, in my case," he corrected himself, "things especially difficult."

Mac nodded. She wondered when she was going to wake up.

Lincoln raised an eyebrow. He examined the expression on her face – clearly that of someone humoring a madman until the asylum attendants arrived. "You still don't believe in me, do you?"

"Well, not to be rude, Mr. President, but you've been dead since 1865," she pointed out.

"Harry Truman was the same way. He was convinced I was a bit of undigested potato, more gravy than the grave," Lincoln chuckled. "Very fond of Dickens, Harry was. Once he decided I wasn't a figment of his imagination, we discussed literature as much as we did politics. I'm sure you've already found that's one of the drawbacks of this job: no time for pleasure reading."

Mac nodded. "If it weren't for reading bedtime stories to Amy, I don't think I'd read anything but reports and briefings." Brown eyes looked up at him. "Do you visit with all your successors?"

"Not all. Some haven't been," Lincoln hesitated, searching for the correct word, "sensitive enough to see me. And some I chose not to deal with. But I wished to congratulate you on getting my home state to ratify your ERA, and to wish you luck on securing two more states."

"Thank you." Mac inclined her head graciously.

"Had such an amendment been suggested during my breathing days, I probably would've vetoed it. But times are different now, and I hope you succeed."

Mac sipped her hot chocolate, and wondered how to respond when a presidential ghost offered moral support to the current president.

"If I may be so bold as to inquire, when do you intend to announce that Jim Gardner is your choice for vice president?"

"First thing tomorrow morning, if he hasn't changed his mind," she replied. It was too dangerous to leave the country without a clear successor to the Oval Office. She'd gone from a token female vice-president to national leader when President Teddy Bridges had died in office. Her first nominee for vice president had resigned, officially to spend more time with his family, actually under political pressure from Nathan Templeton, the Speaker of the House. After interviewing generals and governors, legislators and bureaucrats, she'd offered the post to her White House chief of staff.

Lincoln raised a hand and pointed a long, calloused finger at her. "You realize that some people will regard it as a publicity stunt, merely a bid for attention: the first female president and the first black vice president."

"Jim is eminently qualified," Mac countered. "He knows the ins and outs of Washington. He's loyal, which is a rarity in this town. He's tough. We've already proven we make a good team; we work well together even when we disagree."

"They said the same thing about the Emancipation Proclamation," Lincoln continued as if he hadn't heard her. "My critics said it was a meaningless political gesture." He sighed. "The worst of it is, they weren't entirely wrong."

Mac sat bolt upright, spilling her chocolate on the arm of the sofa. "The Emancipation Proclamation was one of your greatest triumphs."

Lincoln shook his head. "Too little, too late. It should've been done sooner, and it should've freed all the slaves."

Mac quoted a bit: "All persons held as slaves in any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

Lincoln nodded. "My advisers convinced me to wait until after we'd had a major victory, so it didn't look like an act of desperation. We had to appear to be dealing from a position of strength … especially since we weren't. But I digress. How will you answer your critics, dear lady, when they claim your nomination of Mr. Gardner is just another gesture? That you are all style and no substance, like a magic lantern show?"

"I'll tell them that they're mistaken."

"And will that be enough to satisfy them?" Lincoln asked.

"Probably not," she admitted.

"They'll call it a grand gesture," Lincoln predicted. "And then they'll claim that the gesture is meant to distract people from the Mideast crisis, or Nathan Templeton's candidacy, or whatever the current scandal is." He sighed. "There's always a current scandal in Washington."

Mackenzie nodded. The town thrived on scandal.

"And how will you respond when your critics accuse you of nominating Mr. Gardner as a distraction, of indulging in tokenism?" Lincoln challenged her.

"I'll tell them he's the best damn qualified man for the job. Not the best qualified minority, but the best qualified person," she responded.

"Highly qualified," Lincoln corrected her. "The president of the United States shouldn't swear, especially not on national television."

Mac inclined her head, accepting the correction. It was a difficult balancing act for the first female president of the USA, always needing to be seen as tough as a man, but without ever being unladylike. She wished she dared put a bumper sticker on the presidential limousine that said, 'Well behaved women rarely make history.'

"Dr. King dreamt of a world where a man was judged by his character rather than his skin color. Everyone always quotes that line," Lincoln said morosely, "but no one ever seems to practice it."

"That's a nice turn of phrase. May I borrow it for my speech tomorrow?"

Lincoln spread his hand in a be-my-guest gesture.

Mac yawned. "I'm sorry. It's not the company."

"The hour is late," Lincoln agreed. He rose, stretching himself up to his full height. "Perhaps I should say good night, ma'am."

Attempting to suppress a yawn and failing, she was forced to concur. "I'm still not sure whether you're really a ghost or just a figment of my imagination, but I do want to thank you. This conversation has helped me to settle my thoughts."

"Always a pleasure to be of service to a lady." Lincoln gave a slight bow. "Good night, Madam President."

Mac stood, too. "Good night, Mr. President."

Abraham Lincoln faded, first turning transparent, then fading away altogether.

Mac stared at where Lincoln's ghost had stood. "I've got to tell the chef not to put so much paprika in the goulash the next time the Hungarian ambassador comes to dinner." Even as she muttered the words, she didn't believe them. What she'd seen was more than a goulash-induced dream.

"I nearly forgot."

Mac's eyes flew wide open, wider than she had thought anatomically possible. The air in front of her seemed to blur. Lincoln's ghostly form rematerialized, at first barely visible, then transparent, and finally it solidified.

"I forgot to warn you. Be wary of young Mr. McDonald. He'll do you a disservice if he can," Lincoln cautioned her.

"Dickie McDonald may want to, but he doesn't –" Mac interrupted herself. She didn't want to offend President Lincoln, and she was sure it would shock a 19th century gentleman if a lady said that her ex-PR director didn't have the balls to do anything to harm her. "Dickie may be upset that I fired him, but there's nothing he can do about the situation but whine. I'm not afraid of him."

"Perhaps you should be, ma'am. In a fair fight young Mr. McDonald wouldn't last five minutes. But in an unfair fight …." Lincoln shook his head. "That's another matter, especially in this Information Age of yours, where publicity can be a more dangerous weapon than the 'football' Major Benson keeps handcuffed to his wrist." He looked down at her, his dark eyes piercing her very soul. "By himself McDonald is a pipsqueak. But in Nathan Templeton's hands, he could be a dangerous weapon."

"I'll be careful," Mac promised. "Will I see you again?"

"If you wish. Now if Templeton were to be elected, I wouldn't come calling. I don't care for the man; I don't like his methods." Lincoln shook his head disapprovingly. "He's a disgrace to the party I helped found." He sighed. "The Republican party is not what it was in my day."

"Perhaps if it were, I wouldn't have become an Independent."

"P'raps. But forgive me. I am keeping you from your bed. Good night, ma'am." Again he faded and disappeared.

/ / / /

"Good morning, Madam President," Jim Gardner, her White House chief of staff greeted her.

Mac smiled up at the tall African-American bureaucrat. "Good morning, Jim. Still interested in the position, or did you come to your senses last night?"

"I'm good to go," Jim confirmed. He was a broad-shouldered man, muscular but not beefy, with short-cropped black hair.

"Good. We'll announce it at this morning's press conference. How does my schedule look today?"

"Not too bad." He reviewed her agenda with her: meetings with the heads of the FBI and the CIA, the press, a Boy Scout delegation, the junior senator from Florida, and an agricultural delegation that wanted to talk about government grants for soybean biodiesel. Then he updated her on the changes that had occurred in the geopolitical system since last night: the situation in Israel, increasing ethnic tension in what had once been Yugoslavia, a scandal in Argentina that could topple several cabinet members there. For once it was a fairly quiet day.

"Will that be all, ma'am?" Jim asked.

"Yes, thank you." She reached for a manila folder on her desk.

Jim nodded a polite farewell and headed for the door.

"Wait, there's one thing I forgot."

Jim turned around to see what the president wanted.

"We must have a portrait of Abe Lincoln around here," she guessed.

"Several, I should imagine," Jim replied.

"Could you speak to housekeeping? Ask them to find one and hang it here in the Oval Office," Mac requested.

"Of course, Madam President."