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Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

By jtshea05 All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Thriller

Blurb

Fundraisers and fundraising, the bane of a lobbyist’s life. Used to be they were an occasional annoyance, the periodic $250, $300 or even $500 check to a Member’s campaign committee. Starting in the mid-1980s, though, when Dick Gephardt and Tony Coelho decided their Democrats needed to catch up to Republican corporate money, the stakes got much higher. Over the next decade, Democratic Party politics was transformed into a vast money-making machine, during the period when Ronald Reagan and his ilk were transforming Republicanism into a conservative, semi-Christian cult of believers and non-believers, the Scientology of the American political system. When the believers took control of both Houses of Congress while G.W. Bush was in the White House, the culture of political money and the culture of belief for belief’s sake merged into one, allowing people like Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and the like to run rampant through the halls of power. Since then, the American body politic has been racing downhill on roller skates, with most of us just along for the ride.

Chapter 1


Corruptions start small in Washington.

I jerked as Bobby Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife’ blared from my shirt pocket. I’d been lost in a difficult client memo, floundering for the right way to pass on some particularly bad news. The ringer was set to mute, but not for calls from any number associated with Uncle Harry.

Fumbling the phone from my pocket, I dropped it, only to kick it under my desk. We’d gotten all the way to MacHeath’s jackknife by the time I could get it open. I took a breath.

“Ed Matthews,” I intoned in my best take-me-seriously voice.

“Eddie.” It was Belinda from Harry’s office, one of just two people in the world who called me Eddie and got away with it. “You have to get up here, now. Within fifteen minutes.”

“I’mmmmm, ah, I’m kinda in the middle of some-…”

“Eddie, now.” Dead air. She meant it.

“I’m at the office. Fifteen will be tight, but I’m out the door.”

* * *

Our offices were on Connecticut Avenue, just north of Farragut Square. Fifteen minutes would definitely be tight, but Harry’s office was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, on the north, or Senate, side of the Capitol Building, so it was possible – depending on the cabbie. Coming out the front door of our building, I walked quickly south to L Street, a one-way aimed in the right direction. The crosstown light was red, and I scanned the few cabs visible in the wait for a green. As they started toward me, I let one go by – he’d been at the stopline when the light changed, and started up too slowly – stepping out to flag down the next cab through, the one veering left to right, right to left, looking for advantage. He screeched up next to me, just missing my shoe.

Climbing in and slamming the door behind me, I saw I’d lucked out – a West African driver, by the look of him and the accent as he chattered into his cell phone. Barring an accident between here and Dirksen, I should pretty much make it.

D.C. cabs have mostly two kinds of drivers, the African and South Asian immigrants who drive like bats out of hell while yammering non-stop on their phones, and the old-time D.C. residents, almost all black gentlemen, urbane, pleasant, a guaranteed interesting conversation if you want one, but the slowest drivers God ever placed on this earth. There’s no middle ground, no somewhat fast but still interesting drivers, just mad jabbering foreigners and D.C. gentlemen.

“Dirksen Senate Office Building.”

Seemingly ignoring me, the driver took off at a breakneck pace, never pausing in his call. He shot down L Street, catching up to the flow of traffic that had passed him as I entered the cab, and moving quickly into a game of dodgems. I watched from the back seat, admiring his work, especially the way he sped up when the light at 15th Street went yellow, sliding left to pass the slowing limo in front of him, then right to squeeze by another cab, entering the intersection just after the light went red as the opposing traffic started up.

I had to give it to him, this was one hell of a driver. Knowing I’d make it to Harry’s on time, I leaned back to focus on the meeting, and began wondering what Uncle Harry could need that was so time-sensitive this early in the year.

It was a crisp, clear Thursday in January, about 25 degrees but feeling colder with the damp winter wind, and there wasn’t much of anything going on. Washington had slipped quietly into 2007, the beginning of the end for George W. Bush’s eight years in office, the early stages of another crazy-mad race for the White House already underway. For me, it was the beginning of yet another year lobbying in support of America’s foreign policy by representing friendly countries before Congress. At least, that was the simple way to put it. The full story was a lot more complicated, but then again what story wasn’t?

I’d stumbled into lobbying, but over time had gotten to be very good at it. Growing up, I’d always been interested in people’s interactions and how they influenced one another. In college I pursued a Sociology degree, learning what made groups of people tick; law school just reinforced those skills. As a third child, I was a natural mediator, and arriving in Washington found that my skills translated well in a town where success often lay in finding the middle ground between opponents. The fact that I enjoyed understanding people made me a good listener, and the more I retained from what they told me and then shared with colleagues, the more successful I was.

I’d leveraged that into a Vice President title at Michael McPherson & Associates, a boutique firm that specialized in small countries with big problems. Starting out, I’d been pretty naïve about our clients, but we only worked for the good guys, or at least clients that seemed to be good guys. Sometimes I got too caught up in the show, and I had a serious weakness for good food, great wines, and Johnny Walker Black. But my specialization – figuring out exactly how much of a client’s agenda we could achieve, and then helping convince the client why that was all we could get – gave me an edge and meant I made a difference. Maybe I had too much fun at it, but I’d always felt like I was doing something with a purpose.

This was looking to be a slow year, for us and for Washington. With Democrats in control of Congress, and the war in Iraq still heading south, there was precious little that the Bush Administration would get through Congress and into law; but then again, with a razor-thin margin in the Senate, there wasn’t much the Democrats could get done either. Add to that the number of Senators running for President, especially on the Democratic side, and none of us in the lobbying business expected much out of the year. Except, of course, for the little tidbits here and there that we could slip into those few bills that would slink through the process. After all, that was what the clients were paying us for. But while I might wonder what Harry needed from me, it didn’t really matter: he got whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.

That was just the way life was when your uncle was a United State Senator.

The Honorable Harrison J. Fuller, elder statesman of Pennsylvania Democratic politics and the state’s senior Senator, was a man to be reckoned with. Twice Chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, once before the Republicans took Senate control in 2002 and now again since they’d given it up in 2006, he’d been a mainstay in the Senate for a couple of decades. A liberal Democrat who got along with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Harry was a colorful speaker in Senate debates, a brilliant wheeler-dealer, and an Appropriations Committee member who could slip more crap into a funding bill than anyone other than Senate legends Ted Stevens of Alaska and Bobby Byrd of West Virginia, the two biggest earmark hounds in the history of the sport. While not in their league – let’s face it, they stuffed more money per capita into their Godforsaken states than anyone with a conscience ever could – Harry was nonetheless a serious player and, thanks to my delightful Aunt Helen on my mother’s side, was also my uncle.

Like most members of Congress, Harry is a people person with crowds but a shy, withdrawn and even gruff sonofabitch in person. He wasn’t someone you’d ever get close to, and having known him as long as I had, I could tell when he was ‘on’ and when he wasn’t. Over the years, he’d gotten to the point where he was ‘on’ pretty much all of the time, even at home, and it was only his good fortune in marrying Helen that gave his dinners with guests or his evenings out with supporters any inkling of a human touch. It’s a common curse in Washington, that loss of humanity that comes after years and years of being in public office, people wanting something from you virtually every minute of your life, never knowing if there was anyone left who was putting your interests in front of his own. Somehow they can’t give up though, the Members, staff and hangers-on who make up the Washington machinery, can’t give up the addicting inside knowledge and sense of power that hold them in a vise grip. Well into his fifth Senate term, Harry was as trapped as any of them, watching out for Pennsylvania and especially for the political future of one Harrison J. Fuller.

I hadn’t seen him since election night, when we stood together in his Georgetown mansion watching a crushing Democratic defeat of the President and his party, turning a 28-seat Republican House majority into a 32-seat Democratic edge and flipping the Senate from Republican to Democrat with the slightest margin, 51 to 49 if you counted the two ‘independents,’ Bernie Sanders of the People’s Republic of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of, well, his own little world. Harry and I stayed late into the night, drinking his exceptionally fine cognac, watching results that were giving Harry his first full committee chairmanship, the relatively useless Committee on Rules and Administration but a chairmanship nonetheless. We’d both gotten good and drunk, something Harry’s hollow leg seldom let him do, and I awakened the following morning on that same sofa, a blanket over me and Aunt Helen standing guard with a hot cup of black coffee, three slices of dry toast, and four or five Excedrin.

Glancing out the window toward Union Station, I considered calling Belinda back, to get a sense of what I was heading into. Then again, I told myself, I’ll just get whatever I need out of her when I got to Harry’s, and wing it from there. Answering Harry’s periodic calls was pretty standard, and I’d always been able to skate through. Harry had a good staff, but like so many Senate offices they were better at keeping constituents happy than at accomplishing anything in legislation. They could get just the right tone in response to a crackpot letter writer, or find the best photo op to put Harry in the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or draft resolutions that spoke in somber tones of some great issue of the day but in point of fact said nothing at all. When Harry needed something real accomplished on the Senate Floor, or just the right piece of report language to get action out of the Administration, he called me.

My cabbie pulled to the right by the security booth at First and D Streets NE, still about a block from Dirksen’s back door but the closest you could get in this post-9/11 world. He’d done it without any red lights – at least, none that we stopped for. I tipped him $3 on top of the $5 one-zone fare.

Sliding out the door, I jogged over to the building, where I lucked out again: no school kids heading through security or, worse, veterans groups lighting up the metal detectors – you can kill a good twenty minutes while the detectors boop and beep at every cane, leg brace, orthopedic shoe and other metal debris trapped inside their insides. Heading left inside the door, I made for the stairs – Dirksen’s elevators, while faster than Russell, were still slow this time of day, shortly after 1:00 p.m., as staffers en masse returned from lunch. Better a mad dash up the three flights of stairs, arriving breathless, than late for whatever Harry needed.

I half ran down the hall, slowing as I neared the office to catch my breath. Entering, I said a quick hello to Joanna, the pretty young receptionist, and kept right on going. Harry’s office was a home away from home for me or, better yet, an office away from the office. I could drop by any time I wanted, borrow a phone to make calls, or a desk and some poor intern’s computer if I needed to draft up an amendment or some talking points. I had to be a little more polite to people than at the company, but other than that I pretty much got to act like I owned the place.

Uncle Harry’s personal office was two rooms over, the first full of cramped staff cubicles, his senior people stuffed into tiny little areas made palatable by the Senator’s presence just a few feet away. The second, smaller office housed Belinda, keeper of Harry’s schedule and the one who had the most influence on the old man. She’d been with him forever, from back when he was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, and he’d just never let her leave.

Trim, a touch dowdy, Belinda Morgan reminded me of a 1970s-era librarian, precise in her movements, vaguely aware of the concept of style but never seeming to primp for anyone. She was always there for Harry, in that odd symbiotic relationship of two old pros who know each other’s every move, unwilling to walk away from this seat so close to power. For all I knew, she’d been in love with him over all the years in that Tracy-Hepburn kind of way, locked out of marriage by my Aunt Helen and uninterested in joining the parade of paramours. Belinda knew Harry inside and out, kept all his little secrets, saw through his weaknesses better than Helen did, and knew where the bodies were buried.

So I wasn’t ready for Belinda’s first words, pointing me back out the door I’d just come through after a quick, meaningful glance at her watch. “Stand over there, just outside the office. When the Senator’s door opens, walk in as if you’re just arriving.”

Given her tone, I backed up without thinking, and moved a few feet into the next room. A couple of the staffers looked up and smiled, and then looked confused as I smiled back blankly, but stayed where I was while trying to appear like I knew what was going on.

I watched through the door as Belinda buzzed Harry’s office. “Senator, your call from the White House will be coming through any time now.” I laughed in spite of myself; the White House never called Harry, and no real White House call would ever get announced like that.

Even from where I was standing, I could hear the dull bass of Harry’s voice approaching the door, the voice of a man used to talking to crowds, his apologetic tone recognizable through the solid oak. Sure enough, as it opened, Harry was rapidly explaining his problem. “So very sorry, but, well, they scheduled this call only this morning. All I can say is it’s a, ahhhh, a very important call and I really will be on for a while.” Then he emerged through the doorway, the Honorable Sen. Fuller, his white hair flowing, in his dark green suit, the one best tailored to his newfound weight. I could hear murmurs of concern from within the office, from whoever was in there with him.

“Eddie!” It was a hiss, low but urgent. I’d forgotten my cue.

I stepped into the room. “Good afternoon, Uncle Harry.” Instinct told me to go with the familiar rather than to give His Excellency the full Senator treatment, the way I usually did when strangers were present.

They were all in the room now, four of them, a very odd mix: an old man, Nepalese maybe, no, Chinese in origin, in a limp suit that fit more like a sack; a young guy, same racial mix but much more comfortable in his similarly dark suit, holding the old man up; and two corporate types, Washington regulars, white guys in very expensive suits looking very much at home. One of them, slightly older, maybe mid-50s, slid up to Uncle Harry, continuing their conversation in a conspiratorial tone. I couldn’t hear what they were saying – the other white guy drowned him out, explaining to the old man in loud, slow English about the White House being where the President, America’s leader, lives – but even over his jabber I could see that the older guy and Harry knew each other well.

“Nephew!” Harry never called me nephew. Turning to his guests, he proclaimed, “What a stroke of luck! This is my nephew, Ed Matthews, who I told you about, the lobbyist. One of the best, very effective on the kinds of issues you are faced with. I never go to my Committees or to the Floor without consulting Ed.”

Whoa, he’s laying it on thick, I thought. Even though this was a first for me, it was pretty obvious what was happening, so I responded first by looking sheepish and all aw-gosh-Uncle-that’s-too-much before stepping up to respond.

“Really, Senator, I just try to help when I can – working the bills all day every day, I just have an advantage from knowing every step of the process.” I paused for effect. “I’m just glad you give me the opportunity to help. It’s an honor for me.”

Harry beamed as he turned back to his visitors, one hand raised to point over at me. “You’d want to consider other candidates, of course, if you decide you even need a lobbyist, but Ed here really is among the best.” Inside, I smiled: plausible deniability, combined with a direct handoff that meant he thought they’d sign me.

Looking at me, Harry winked. He knew I could take it from here, just as he knew that I knew I’d owe him big time for whatever he was handing over. After his own pause for effect – something we in Washington did all the time – he turned to the old Asiatic man to begin his goodbyes.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Belinda had picked up the phone and was discreetly dialing. That seemed odd for a moment, since Harry, an inveterate gabber, was just starting the ritual of handshakes and thank-yous and wasn’t anywhere near ready to place a call. She glanced at me and smiled as the phone on Uncle Harry’s desk began ringing. Looking down again and then at Harry, she said, “That must be the call, Senator.” She paused theatrically before punching a button on her phone with a flourish, picking up what I assumed could only have been her own call. “Senator Fuller’s office.”

After listening to dead air for a moment, she put her hand over the mouthpiece. “It’s … the one you’ve been waiting for.” Harry was still trying to get away from the first guy, but raised his arms in defeat as he retreated toward his office.

I took my cue, and began to shepherd my new friends out of the office. Harry nodded with his best ‘duty calls’ look, backed into his office and shut his door. Belinda pushed another button on her phone and then rose to help out, coming from behind her desk with arms outspread, mumbling something about it being “so good of you to come,” moving slowly enough to appear polite but basically shoving us all out of her office. What a pro, I thought.

I led the way out and into the hall, pondering the fact that I was left with what looked like our firm’s newest client. I had no idea who they were, where they were from, or what they needed – for the life of me I couldn’t figure out Grampy or the kid, but the cut of the suits on the two white guys meant somebody with money needed some kind of help. In the foreign aid game, if I played this right, that could work out to a retainer somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 to $360K a year. This was turning into a very good day.

* * *

The client pitch. A meeting I’d done many times, but never on my own, certainly never in the lead or, worst of all, without knowing at least a little something about the potential client. This time, I didn’t know anything about the potential client. Still, if I couldn’t dance my way around that problem, they’d probably drum me out of the Lobbyists League – after all, we were mostly just song-and-dance men, primed for precisely this kind of meeting.

“So you can assist with our cause?”

On leaving Harry’s office, they’d limoed me up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Willard and invited me in for a discussion over drinks in the bar. One of Washington’s grandest and oldest hotels, The Willard was completely redone in the Reagan era after crashing into utter disrepair in the 1960s. Horribly overdone and gaudy, it was a dark, plush monstrosity of a hotel that showed well to impressionable out-of-towners but always grated on me.

In the car, I’d been able to figure out who was who. Bao Yan-hu, the elder man in the ill-fitting suit, seemed at first blush to be the nominal client, while the one who hung back with Harry, Edward Kincaid, acted like he was the one who would be signing off on any checks. Each had a hanger-on, Bao his grandson Charlie, and Kincaid a fellow lawyer by the name of John Hendrickson. They were with something called the Dungan-American Friendship Society, a name that meant nothing to me. In point of fact, I didn’t know what a Dungan was, although it seemed safe to assume the old man was one of them.

In the chitchat during the ride, Hendrickson had played the role of intermediary with Bao and Charlie, paying close attention to their comments and questions while Kincaid ignored us all, working on his Blackberry the whole way. Here, in the Willard Bar, the scene in the car replayed itself, as Hendrickson placed himself carefully between Bao and Kincaid, who in turn had motioned me to the seat next to him. Definitely the decision maker.

“Well, I believe that you need help,” I responded to Charlie’s question, “and I know that our firm is positioned as well as anyone else in the city to do it.” I took a very long pause, staring unblinking at my guest. I was still flying entirely blind here, and the conversation up to now had given me no clues as to what they were looking for. Given the way Harry handed them off to me, I wasn’t sure if they thought I knew all about them – meaning I couldn’t just come right out and ask what I wanted to, ‘so, who the hell are you?’ But it had to be something foreign aid-related, or foreign aid bill-related at least. I’d just have to figure it out. “I can’t promise I’ll succeed – but I know the Senator cares about your issue, and I don’t think he would have introduced us if he didn’t feel we could help.”

Charlie smiled. “I am most pleased, as is my grandfather.” He had a wonderfully lyrical way of speaking, an Etonian accent born either of an English school out in his little speck of the world, or of his being sent to England for high school or university. “Senator Fuller told Mr. Kincaid that something good would come if we visited Washington, and I believe it is so.”

So this had been planned, but nobody told me in advance. It struck me as odd that Harry hadn’t said anything, but then again, he had his little secrets, lots of them, and I guessed that this was just another. I turned my attention to Kincaid, to get a sense of what the guy in charge was looking for. “Tell me more about what you need.”

But it was Hendrickson, the other suit, who answered. Goddammit, I thought, I haven’t gotten two words out of Kincaid.

“The Dungan-American Friendship Society is concerned about the plight of the Dungan people of Kazakhstan. As you know, President Nazarbayev grows increasingly erratic, even despotic, and the people fear that their window of freedom following the collapse of the Soviet Union is again closing. We seek only Congressional support and commitment to protect the Dungan people.”

Wow, I thought, that was slick. Short, to the point, the 20-second pitch you make to a Congressman as he’s walking down the hall on his way to a vote, or at a fundraiser when he’s trying to determine what you want for your money. This guy clearly knew the game – so, I wondered, what the hell do they need me for?

Problem was, despite what he thought, I didn’t know anything about President Nazawhatchamacallit. I let that slide, though. If I was recalling right from occasional glances at Washington Post articles on the region, this was pretty much the standard story of the Stans: dictators getting ever more despotic. And asking a question like ‘President Who?’ would just make me look like an idiot. Still, I had to say something.

“So tell me, why do the Dungan feel especially threatened?”

Charlie leaned forward, excited. “We are a different people, outsiders in our own country. We have been in Kazakhstan for 150 years, and we are Muslims, but still we are outsiders. We are a Sinitic people, and we do not intermarry with our fellow countrymen – so we remain … outside.”

I raised my eyebrows, and nodded slowly. It was a delaying tactic – Sinitic? Sinitic? They weren’t from the Sinai, with features that were clearly Asiatic. “Chinese?” I said, realizing only from their faces that I’d said it aloud. Another pause, clutching for something to say that would sound like I knew what I was doing. “You’re from western China, if I recall right.” Sort of a statement, sort of a question, and in any case a safe bet with the Stans all lying due west of China.

“Yes,” Charlie smiled, “we were from the west of China. It was in the Hui Rebellion that we were forced to depart China, and our forefathers fled to what is now Kazakhstan. There were few of us then, and we are only 50,000 now. And like all non-Kazakhs in our country, we are afraid.”

I nodded sagely again. After a few years in Washington, everybody in town can pretty much nod sagely all night long if they have to; it’s like a sport. Get enough lobbyists drunk in some Capitol Hill bar, you can set off a couple of hours of raucous laughter imitating various Congressmen trying to look sage in televised Committee hearings. Here, though, while I could nod as much as I wanted, I was starting to worry how long I could maintain the charade. Central Asia was a bitch to keep up with in the best of times, trying to tell one Stan from another, and even among us foreign-aid lifers, all most of us knew about Kazakhstan was that Borat came from there. What with all hell breaking out in that whole region thanks to the Taliban, Osama, and the wars, it was completely impossible to track: what country do we have secret bases in? which dictator is the one we like? how many troops from which Stan were in the Coalition of the Willing? So for all I was ducking and dodging, trying to find out what they wanted without giving away too much of my own ignorance, I knew I had to give them something.

“We must secure an official Congressional statement of support for your people,” I said. That was easy – a couple of paragraphs in a Committee report would do. “We must be sure that the government of Kazakhstan is put on notice.”

Charlie translated this for his grandfather, who nodded and smiled.

I waited until he was finished. “And of course we will provide you with weekly updates of our activities, reports on what Committee actions, our plans, and any efforts by our opponents.” Again, nothing that difficult; this was standard practice for every client.

Again Charlie translated, and once again Bao looked over at me and smiled. I had to admit it, this guy was great, late 80s or so, hunched, quiet, but with eyes that saw everything. He didn’t seem to need to understand every word, since Charlie only translated snippets of the discussion, just the key parts I assumed, whatever they were. But Bao watched us like a hawk, like he was reading us from the way we moved, or gestured, or from the tone of our voice. He said something in reply, a thin reedy voice with a sing-songy tonal quality, surely a Chinese dialect and not the Russian I assumed to be spoken in much of the Stans. Wizened, I thought with a smile, wizened was the word that came to mind; I finally knew what that meant.

“My grandfather is most grateful for your willingness to help our people,” he said, “and we will be thankful for whatever you can do to assist.”

Gratitude is nice, but I needed to know whether there was any money here. “I will have to research the issues a little further and talk to my employer, of course, but I feel that we should be able to agree to a representation for this calendar year at a rate of $375,000. That’s less than our standard $425,000 fee, but I believe that I can talk my partners into that concession.”

Charlie’s eyes widened; he wasn’t prepared for this. “That is a very great deal of money.”

Hendrickson leaned in, turning away from Charlie to speak directly to me. “Our organization is well funded,” he said, “but we need to discuss this matter with the Board of Directors when we meet next in February. That amount seems rather high for this level of work.”

It was, well over the norm, but I expected them to try to talk me down. I decided to leave his comment alone and see what happened next.

Charlie started again to object, but Hendrickson held up his hand to stop him. “This really is not something to concern yourself with, Charlie,” he said, glancing back slightly. Looking around to me, he paused before continuing. “But as I say we will discuss this. The Board members take their concerns very seriously, and we are prepared to fund this operation.”

Charlie looked troubled, but Bao continued to smile over at me. He almost seemed to understand what we were discussing, although Charlie hadn’t thought to translate this part of the conversation.

Okay, I thought, you do have money – and I was right that the suits control it. But I still didn’t know what their decision process was, as in what this Board would need to know about us. I leaned in to ask, but was cut off.

“This is not a FARA client.” This from Kincaid, his first words since we arrived at the bar, coming out of nowhere. FARA – the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a pain-in-the-ass piece of law requiring anyone working for foreign nations or groups to register with the Justice Department – is one of those inside-the-Beltway things that nobody ever talks about. Obviously a U.S. trade association wasn’t a foreign entity, even if foreign policy was involved, so they wouldn’t be a FARA client. But why did he care?

“The Friendship Society,” he continued, “is a 501(c)(6), an educational organization under the tax code. Generally, we focus on trade – the Dungan produce almost all the vegetables grown in Kazakhstan, and we worry most about their country’s access to European markets.” That sounded somewhat plausible, I guessed, although not very sensible. If it’s access to the European markets, what was I supposed to do? I made a mental note to check on Kazakh trade statistics – assuming I could find any. “But we are incorporated in the U.S., through Mr. Hendrickson’s law firm in Chicago. So FARA does not apply.”

“Yes, I thought so,” I replied with a smile. “That is much easier on us, though, so I’m glad to hear you confirm it.” I waited, but it seemed that he had what he wanted, for after staring back for a few moments he turned to his drink and withdrew again from the conversation. I couldn’t figure him out at all.

Hendrickson cut in again, pulling my attention away from Kincaid. “So we understand one another?”

“I think we do.”

“When the Board makes its decision following the upcoming meeting, what will we need to finalize our arrangement?”

Looks like I landed me a client, I thought, suddenly losing interest in Kincaid. Maybe now Michael will take me a little more seriously.

* * *

On the street outside the Willard, I watched them drive away, headed to National for the 7:40 p.m. nonstop to O’Hare. Could it be that easy? I wondered. They’d asked for nothing in writing other than a couple of firm brochures, no proposal, nothing to outline our plans. When I’d offered to fly out to make a presentation to the Board, they’d even avoided a commitment on that, promising to get back to me. The most specific requirement I got out of them was that the association needed ‘representation,’ whatever that meant. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for representation? Well, if they were willing to bite, that was up to them; and the $375,000 would be a bundle for the firm and a huge breakthrough for me. A huge breakthrough.

Pulling out my cell, I put in a call to Uncle Harry. Per our standing agreement, I called Belinda first despite the time, and was surprised when she was at her desk to take the call. She put me right through.

“Ed. How did it go?”

“Great, Uncle Harry, once I got over the shock and figured it out, for Chrissakes.”

“I knew you’d catch on quick enough.” A low rumble of a laugh slid down the line at me.

“Just wanted to say thanks – it looks like they want to do a deal with us, and do it soon.”

“With you, Edward,” he corrected me. “This is your deal.”

“I can talk to Michael…”

“No.” A pause. “No, this is your deal. It’s what you want, your own client – you’ve said that for years now.”

“It’s still not my company, though, and Michael is …”

“You can make it work. You need to make it work. I’m not in the business of delivering up clients for Michael McPherson.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll make it work. I have no fucking idea how, pardon my French, but I’ll make it work.”

That quiet, low rumble again, his real laugh rather than the loud, toothy one reserved for constituents. After a pause, he continued, “Ed?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You realize this puts you in the Big Leagues, right? Are you ready for that?”

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, Harry. A very long time.”

There was another pause on the line, longer this time. Perhaps Harry had noticed something I missed: I hadn’t answered his question. Waiting for something, and being ready for it, those were two entirely different things.

“Good night, Ed, and good luck,” he said. And the line went dead.

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