Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 14


“Who’s the fucking Queen of Sheba up there?” a voice behind me mumbled.

I laughed. It was pretty much what I’d been thinking, although not nearly so colorfully. Besides, I knew who it was: Michelle.

Washington will drive you crazy sometimes, going from its usual slow Southern crawl into a day at the races in no time. In a normal world, the Congressional process would consider bills in some semblance of order, with the bills authorizing the spending of money finished before the bills that actually spend it come up. And the House would act, followed by the Senate, with a little time in between each so everyone could get organized for the next step. For us on the outside, that made the process bearable, and gave us the time to respond to one Committee’s actions before racing on to the next. It gave us time to breathe.

Not this year: we’d had no action on foreign aid at all until the beginning of June, but from there on it had been insane. The House Subcommittee, Committee and Floor had all passed the State/Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill within the first three weeks of the month. The Senate had decided to skip Subcommittee and move straight to a full Committee mark-up, which was scheduled for the following day. And here it was June 27th, and we were sitting in one of Congress’s most cramped hearing rooms, S-116 in the Capitol Building, waiting for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to start marking up its own batch of foreign aid bills. Most of these wouldn’t ever see the light of day, and the entire hearing was little more than a feeble attempt to demonstrate the Committee’s alleged relevance. And buried in that pile of bills, there was one on Ernest Koliba.

So on a day when we should have been out tying up loose ends on Approps, we were stuck listening to the Foreign Relations Committee.

Michelle was at the center of the room at the moment, by the conference table, greeting several of the Senators. Daughter of a former Democratic National Committee chairman, she was well known in senior Democratic Party circles, and one doesn’t get much more senior than former Presidential candidate John Kerry and Senator-For-Life-and-Presidential-Wannabe-Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Happen Chris Dodd. Smiling and chatting amiably, she looked utterly in her element, one of the rare times I’d seen her like that.

Had I played my cards differently, I thought, maybe I could be up there with her. Back in my youth, though, instead of hanging out with my Democratic Party powerhouse like Michelle and her dad, I’d avoided Uncle Harry like the plague. He was a glad-hander, a big, gruff, smiling old goat who was always looking past you to the next constituent, or donor, or dignitary, never there with you. Now that I was in the business, I forgave him that, but as a kid it just rubbed me raw.

So she was an insider and I played around the edges. I didn’t mind, though; it was just never the way I wanted to do the business – at least, not until I’d stumbled into my Dungan client earlier this year. Now, I thought, now might be a good time to have those kinds of connections and a little more experience working them. At least Harry wouldn’t seem so mysterious.

As she strolled back toward the seat I’d saved, Michelle was radiant in the afterglow of her chance meeting with the Senators. The people around us were watching, wondering, looking at her come down the aisle in her semi-trance. They didn’t know her, or know why she was important, or even whether she was important, they only knew that she talked and laughed and joked with Senators, so she must be someone, and they wondered who she was. It wasn’t the person I wanted to be, but, as she stepped over me to get to her seat, she was the one people were noticing.

Is this why I can’t stand her, I wondered. Is this why she grates me like she does? Because she enjoys this sliver of life? Or is it just that she thinks this is the way every day is supposed to be?

“The Committee will come to order,” the Chairman called, with a single, sharp bang of his gavel.

Settling back in my seat, I felt disturbed by my reaction to Michelle’s display and, as the Committee got going in earnest, silently played through my interactions with her since she’d joined the firm. It wasn’t so much our periodic arguments – like the recent Belkin Paris trip fight we’d had – for we always got over those and moved warily on. It was more the entire way she’d arrived at the firm, and the way she saw her role. She’d arrived as royalty, even in our first meeting, an ‘interview’ arranged by Michael despite the fact that Weller had already promised her the job. I knew from the moment we met that she would be trouble: she was primarily interested in all the lobbying she’d be doing, in exactly how much freedom she would have in her interactions with the Embassy and with the Congress, and in who would be backing her up with written materials and research. That alone was enough to flip me out, given that I’d spent my first two years with Michael serving as his writer/driver, among other menial duties, and had worked my way up. But it hadn’t just been that, I thought, there had been more than simple resentment to it.

At least that was what I’d been telling myself. But was it true?

Glancing at her, I saw that she was still basking in the conversation. I’d no idea of what they’d spoken, and she was dutifully taking notes of the Committee’s deliberations, so it wasn’t as if she were starstruck. No, she was in some new comfort zone I’d never seen her in before. Feeling my gaze, she looked over at me briefly and smiled, raising her eyebrows to ask if there were anything I needed. I shook my head no.

So if this is her comfort zone, I wondered, why does every encounter I have with her feel like fingernails on a chalkboard?

She leaned in to me, and whispered, “Chris wants me to tell Michael he says hello.”

Chris? Chris Dodd?

Then again, there was that whole stuck-up, privileged bitch thing she had going. Maybe that’s it, I thought, turning back toward the dais.

* * *

“Mr. Chairman, I would like to speak in support of the bill regarding the reprehensible Ernest Koliba.”

I winced at that; we’d been expecting it, but somehow the gall of Senator Newman denouncing him as ‘reprehensible’ right off the bat gave the discussion just a little extra edge.

While Newman continued, discussing Koliba’s antics over the last year in some detail, I thumbed out a four-word message on my Crackberry, ‘Newman bill debate begun,’ and sent it off to Roger. With the device on silent, I watched the screen, waiting for his response.

‘Im in mtg. All fnds?’

Jesus, the man needed to take a typing course. He wasn’t even working off a Blackberry, since he simply couldn’t tolerate them, but rather off his desktop computer and its standard keyboard. Earlier I’d stopped by his office to open up a chat window on his desktop – something else he was incapable of doing – and set it to beep loudly whenever I sent a note. Then I’d sent a ‘Test’ note to him, to get the chat started so that he wouldn’t even have to accept it. Even then, I thought, ‘Im in mtg’ was the best he could do.

‘Don’t know,’ I thumbed. ‘Newman still talking. More to follow.’

That probably wouldn’t satisfy him, but it was the best I had at this point. He’d told me he wanted to know the moment it was brought up, but of course at this point he was probably cursing at his computer about my stupidity at contacting him before I even knew what the amendment was.

Michelle elbowed me, and I tuned back in to Newman’s droning voice.

“… and as you know, I serve not only on this Committee and on the Defense Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, where there are also funds that are increasingly spent in foreign countries in response to the war on terrorism. Those funds do not receive the oversight that this Committee provides in terms of critical foreign policy issues, especially in the areas of democracy and respect for human rights. For that reason, and because President Koliba’s actions are, Mr. Chairman, simply beyond the pale of what this Committee deems acceptable, I believe that we must condition all U.S. Government funding to that country, and not just the funds covered in the foreign aid bill. My amendment, therefore, would prohibit the spending of any U.S. funds to support the Koliba government …”

I’d begun thumbing with the words, ‘prohibit the spending,’ and completed the quote before sending the email off to Roger.

His reply was almost immediate. ‘Postive?’

‘It’s a quote. Newman amendment: prohibit spending of any U.S. funds to support Koliba government.’ Sending it twice should satisfy him.

“Aprved?’

‘Not yet,’ I typed in reply. ‘Jeez, give me a minute here.’

Nothing. I smiled, seeing him in my mind’s eye, staring at his computer screen, setting and resetting his glasses in place as he tried to think of a good response. This was one of those times when being one of the few folks in Washington who never swore in anger put him at a disadvantage.

I thought about sharing the exchange with Michelle, but thought better of it. It’s bad form to joke around at a Committee hearing, especially when the Committee is in fevered debate on how best to screw your client. And, boy, were they taking off after Koliba; there wasn’t a single voice on the Committee willing to stand up for the man. Even the Committee’s Ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, re-elected in 2006 into what had to be like his 312th term as the senior Senator from Indiana, was overcoming his usual willingness to allow the Administration to do almost anything they wanted and letting his disgust with Koliba’s human rights record carry the day. After extended discussion, the legislation was approved on a voice vote, with several more voices chiming in than usual.

‘Passed,’ I typed. ‘Voice vote. No objections. Tell them Newman did it. Go.’

‘Ill go wn redy.’

I’ll go when I’m ready? Chances are, he’d gotten up out of his chair right after sending that, and headed directly over to the Armed Services Committee offices to be the first one in with the news. But that didn’t mean he was going to let me get away with telling him what to do.

Roger, I thought, will always be Roger.

* * *

Leaving the room after the mark-up, I walked straight into Philip Galsworthy as I turned a sharp right out the door.

“Michael couldn’t be here?” he asked.

Ah, he was waiting for me. Bad form, Philip, mocking your enemies, at least before you’ve fully defeated them. Another Washington rule, especially for lobbyists but also true for staff: don’t try to kill someone unless you can kill them utterly, totally dead. And sometimes, even the dead can come back to haunt you.

“No, he’s out of town on business.” Another not-quite-a-lie; Michael had decided to work from the house that day and, after all, lived in Maryland. “We took particularly good notes for him, though – he’ll hear just about every word.”

“Yes, but I so wanted to hear his opinion of the day’s proceedings,” he continued, as if being solicitous.

Asshole, you just wanted to dance on his corpse. “I’m sure he’ll regret the Committee’s actions.”

“Mmmmm,” he murmured, like a cat with the mouse still caught in his teeth, not sure what to do next. I found it a profoundly disturbing moment, the corridor crowded with lobbyists and staff debating the morning’s events, Philip much too close to me, his oily hair slicked down against his forehead, striving silently inside himself to find just the right insult, or perhaps the right bon mot, to dig the knife in further.

“Sorry,” I interjected, “I have to run to a meeting.” I slid to the left, edging two young women slightly backward, nodded in apology, and turned back to Philip as I moved into the gap I’d made. “I’ll tell Michael we chatted.”

He looked ready to respond at last, but I turned away, bolted into the crowd, and was gone.

* * *

“Oh, sweet Jesus, there it is,” Charlotte said, bits of Special K falling from her lips as she read the headline. It was below the fold, with another Supreme Court ruling narrowing affirmative action taking up most of the top of the page.

“There’s what?” I asked, mildly annoyed as I looked up from my end of the sofa. My copy of the Post was open to the Nationals’ results. Having a decent baseball team in Washington was once again proving to be too much to ask for.

“Richardson,” she said, “in full glory.”

“Jesus, they used one of the photos?” I replied, rummaging through the various sections trying to find the story. I didn’t need this right now.

Another small flurry of Special K flew. “No, you idiot, of course they didn’t print the picture. They have the whole story, though. Listen.”

Congress is bracing for yet another scandal this week, as Representative William E. Richardson, Democrat from Georgia, announced on the House Floor late yesterday that he had been served with a subpoena by the Justice Department. Justice sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that the subpoena related to an ongoing investigation of Richardson’s relationships with several female Congressional staffers and lobbyists renting rooms in a house he owns on Capitol Hill. The investigation, which is still in its early stages, focuses on allegations that Richardson has provided earmarks and other favors to the women and their employers in exchange for sex.

“Well, the investigation may be in its early stages,” I said, “but they’ve got the whole damned story right there.”

She smiled over at me, seductively. “I love this town. They know how to prioritize the news, and being on the inside we get to know it before anyone else.”

I smiled back at her. Despite myself, and my friendship with Will, this was fun. “How long ’til he resigns?”

She leaned back and laughed. “Well, at least his tenants weren’t minors.”

“Yeah, and none of the ‘she’s’ was a he.” I paused, walking through Richardson’s committees and caucuses in my mind. “Besides, he’s not on any of those, ‘Hey I Swear I’m Not a Pedophile’ caucuses, like that asshole Foley from Florida a few years back.”

She lowered the paper again. “True. It didn’t happen with Congressional pages, either, or somewhere in the Capitol complex. How long did Foley last? A week?”

“More like 48 hours, but this is more about the money and the lobbyists than the sex,” I said, “more of a Cunningham. And he lasted something like seven months, right?”

She leaned her head back, the line of her neck a slight parabola. Her narrowed eyes and the slightest bob in her chin implied she was counting. “Five,” she said finally, with a sharp nod. “June to November.” Satisfied, she turned back to the paper.

“So at this point,” I agreed, “there’s more likelihood people will believe it right off the bat, he’s got….?”

“Three months, max. In the meantime?” She looked up from the paper, and smiled at me. “Dead man walking.”

* * *

The Senate State/Foreign Ops mark-up began later that same day, promptly at 2:30 p.m. At least, that’s when the gavel first hit the table calling the Subcommittee to order. It took another ten minutes of Subcommittee members chitchatting and showboating to get the actual mark-up started, and sure, the meeting was scheduled for 2:00, not 2:30, but nonetheless, it got off promptly at 2:30. Ish. Sort of.

In the run-up to the meeting, I’d been hanging out by the doorway, pretending to stretch my legs. Michelle held my seat over by the window looking out onto the Capitol lawn, but I had a few last-minute tidbits for staff and could only catch them as they came in the door. Most importantly, I needed to talk to Roger – I hadn’t yet told him about my lack of progress on the coastal fisheries amendment and the need to push it to the Floor. Roger hated worrying about Floor amendments, which were much trickier to slip into a bill. Just another opportunity for him to bite my head off, I thought, hearing his reedy voice rolling down the hallway toward me.

As he came closer, several of us stepped forward at once. We were like street beggars, groveling for change. Roger’s attention was caught first by one of my fellow gypsies, as he stopped briefly to refuse her request. Before I could interrupt, he turned to me and asked, “Who’s carrying it?”

I stammered in reply. “I, well, she’s, I, uh…” I stopped to catch my breath, looking around momentarily as if for support. There was no one there. “Not today,” I said, turning back to face Roger. “It’s not going to happen until the Floor.”

“What?” His eyes grew large behind his glasses, and a flurry of blinking and twitches were visible before he turned to scuttle away. Over his shoulder, he called out, “That’s ridiculous. That’s a bad idea.”

So was taking the amendment out of the bill, you boob. “Sorry, Roger, there’s nothing I can do.”

“Tell me about it.”

While Roger was still getting settled, Sen. VanderMeer arrived, pausing momentarily to squeeze my arm as he headed into the room. I smiled, and pointed Tom out, over on the other side of the room. VanderMeer gave him a little wave on his way to the table.

I hadn’t wanted Tom at the mark-up, given how badly he usually took these committees’ open assaults on Koliba, but VanderMeer’s interest in helping out with the Dungan mandated bringing him along. I might get an acknowledgement out of the Senator, but action, that was more likely to come if VanderMeer knew that Tom was watching over him.

It was a long, slow slog, two-and-a-half hours of listening to blather, before we got to the discussion on Kazakhstan. That was normal; the Central Asia portion of the bill was buried in Section 6, the butt-end ‘General Provisions,’ little snippets of legislation tacked on either to keep the Administration honest by making them send a bunch of useless reports up to Congress or, more often, to keep various interest groups happy. Like us.

“Mr. Chairman,” VanderMeer intoned with his serious voice, “I have a concern about the provision in the bill referring to Kazakhstan, Section 678, and whether we need to further restrict our assistance to that country given their abhorrent disregard for religious and ethnic freedoms.”

At those last words, Sen. Belkin suddenly snapped to attention, while Raymonda, seated next to him at the table, stopped the conversation she was having with the junior staffer behind her and spun around to face VanderMeer.

Biiiiiiig alarm bells went off in my head. I’d expected them to question VanderMeer’s amendment, but I hadn’t expected them to freak out about it. Something was wrong here.

“Please proceed, Senator,” the Chairman responded.

The next few minutes went by in something of a blur, for there was way too much going on all at once. After confirming that Michelle was taking rabid notes on the discussion, I focused on watching the room and tracking the varied reactions. First off, I thought I’d talked Allison out of the amendment, but she wasn’t in the room and VanderMeer’s foreign policy staffer was up by the table, kneeling next to the Senator feeding him notes and, during the debate, whispering arguments to him.

More important were the reactions of Raymonda and Sen. Belkin. After only a few moments of listening, Raymonda had flipped her binder of talking points papers open to a specific section and plopped it in front of Belkin. In the ensuing debate, Belkin fiercely debated Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev, mostly reading from the notes but also throwing in a few shots off the top of his head.

Meanwhile, the crowd in the room was showing a lot of excitement too. Four undistinguished young guys in high-priced suits, who’d already struck me as out of place in this crowd and a couple of whom at least I’d assumed were working for Shaddock Mills, were set all atwitter by VanderMeer’s move. Two rows ahead of me, on the other side of the room, I could see them stiffen, redden, and begin whispering furiously to one another. After some discussion, one bolted from the room, taking the cell phone from his pocket to dial as he went; a second began thumbing furiously on his own Blackberry; while the other two began taking notes. Maybe they’re all working for Shaddock Mills, I thought

It made no sense to me that there were talkers prepped against this, but Belkin’s notes were good, a disturbing sign. The counterpoints he was making matched VanderMeer’s arguments point by point. Either someone had been reading over his shoulder, or they’d spent a tremendous amount of time and energy murder boarding every argument that could be put forward. If that was true, someone was paying a boatload of money to prep for amendments that might not even get offered. It also meant that there was something serious to defend here, something I wasn’t yet seeing. In this business, you didn’t spend that kind of time and energy figuring out how to defend some dimbulb autocrat off in Central Asia. There was something more here, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell what it was.

The debate ended when Belkin convinced VanderMeer that, at this critical time in the – you guessed it – war on terror, approving such an amendment would not be in the interests of U.S. national security. He also promised to work with the Senator as the bill progressed, another of those Washington weasel ways of saying he was going to try to sweep it under the rug. VanderMeer, who hadn’t intended to do anything until his meeting with Tom and me, looked surprised and seemed happy to back down from his colleague’s assault. The meeting ended shortly thereafter.

Staying where I was, I watched the crowd disperse slowly out into the halls. The three guys in suits proceeded quickly into the exit, each working a cell or Blackberry as they headed out. Raymonda stood still by the table, watching the crowd as if trying to find someone or something. Luckily I’d never told her about my Dungan, or from her look she’d have been over in the corner beating me to a pulp. Roger, meanwhile, glared at me again as he left. The VanderMeer amendment? Or still just pissed about there being no Colbert amendment?

Something was very wrong.

Not a good place to be this late in the year.

* * *

In the hall after the mark-up, as the crowd slowly thinned, Mourad approached. He’d been in the back of the room, sitting between two human rights advocates who apparently didn’t recognize him. For the liberal side of the aisle, Morocco was one of this year’s bad guys, someone – whoever it is who makes these decisions from on high – having decided that once again Morocco’s hold on the Western Sahara, one of the most pitiful and pitiless scraps of land on the planet, needed to be a high priority for Congressional debate and derision.

Mourad was there to monitor Congress’s fruitless efforts to demand that Morocco straighten up and fly right. They weren’t nearly as harassed as our client Koliba, of course, but being Moroccan Mourad actually took it worse than we did – for all the shit Congress heaped on our client, they were never talking about me.

“So they weren’t too bad,” I said to him as he walked over. “Not as bad as our guy got, anyway.”

Mourad laughed. “Yes, my friend, President Koliba did not have his best day in that room today.”

I shrugged. “It all could have been worse.” The prohibition on aid to Koliba had passed as written, without any need for debate but with, as had been happening throughout the year, extended caterwauling about the evil nature of our client. It was, also as usual this year, the one bad result coming out of the day. “Other than Koliba, the day went well.”

“Yes, other than that.” He smiled, and looked down to the floor. Looking around at the crowd, he asked, “You have anything else major out there?”

He knows something, I thought; looking away was Mourad’s ‘tell.’ “I’m not sure I know what you’re asking.”

“It is an environmental program, I think. For Africa.”

Peter, I thought, Peter must have told him.

“Yes, it is,” I said, smiling, “although I’m not sure this is the best place to discuss it. Perhaps I could come by the Embassy sometime. It would have to be a Senate Floor amendment at this point, so I have some time.”

“I believe it is something we would have an interest in,” he responded, looking me in the eye now, “from what I have heard.”

“Well, between you, me and Peter, yes, it is,” I replied. Mourad raised an eyebrow. I’d been right. “But we should talk at the Embassy,” I continued, looking around at the thinning but still too large crowd.

Mourad nodded. “Call Mrs. El Ayoubi to arrange a time.”

“I will.” Maybe, I added to myself; I’m not sure I need your help, my friend. Smiling, I turned to head on out.

* * *

At this stage of the process, my biggest problem was the fact that I had no idea what the hell was going on with regard to Kazakhstan and my little friends, the Dungan.

Luckily, there are ways to figure that kind of thing out in Washington. None of them are direct – like running up to your opponents and asking, ‘what the hell’s going on?’ – but they can be just as effective.

I wasted much of a morning later that week at a trade hearing pursuing one such strategy, all for the sake of a five-minute conversation.

“Would the gentlemen please take their seats so that the Subcommittee can bring the hearing to order?”

This was a little off my normal beat, the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee’s annual shouting match on Canadian lumber. Not that I was staying for the whole thing – the hearing promised to go deep into the afternoon.

The large Ways and Means hearing room was packed. Many of the Members were off the dais or leaning over it, schmoozing with the occasional constituents and the oh-so-many lawyers that were present. Almost the entire Subcommittee had appeared, since lumber was one of the biggest money trees a Trade Subcommittee member had to shake. Lots of Members meant lots of question-style statements about their deep concerns, their tremendous interests in the issue, the many years they’d fought for justice for America’s lumber industry, yutta, yutta, yutta, blah, blah, blah. This was going to be a very long day.

Canadian lumber is the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of U.S. trade policy, a never-ending battle between two completely conflicting lumber economies over America’s ‘dumping’ laws, where only the lawyers and lobbyists make any money and both make it by the truckload. Every time the U.S. housing market slows, American timber owners stop feeding trees to their millyards while the Canadians, looking to protect jobs, just keep cutting and shipping their wood to the U.S, market. When prices fall below the U.S. market price, U.S. producers bring a dumping claim – and the lawyers and lobbyists get to work, for years at a time. It’s thousands upon thousands of billable hours, and with so many possible clients wanting in on the game – U.S. lumber producers, timber owners, unions, and home builders, and similar groupings of Canadians – any trade lobbying firm that couldn’t get a few years worth of this business just wasn’t trying hard enough.

My target this day was near the front of the room, a little off to my left, his thick white hair gleaming, J. Riley MacGonagill, the old Kennedy Administration hand who’d been handling British Columbian lumber companies since the dawn of time. That wasn’t why I was hoping to catch up with him at the hearing, of course; I was here to talk to him about his law firm – Shaddock Mills. Around MacGonagill, a sheaf of nameless, faceless lawyers from the firm, already a global legal powerhouse when they stumbled into the lumber game by convincing MacGonagill to join them. On his right, closer to the witness table, the blue-suited crowd representing American lumber, all stiff, solemn and faceless, peering around the room to see what other firms might somehow have joined into this hunt. And if you listened close, you could almost hear the tick, tick, tick of the seconds, minutes and hours of billable time creeping by. No wonder no one was in a hurry to get the hearing started.

Three panels on lumber today, the first made up of Administration witnesses, the other two of private witnesses. It was a scary prospect, what with most of the testimony coming from economists hired by one side or the other to argue their arcane case, arguing about how many thousands of board feet were being shipped, the inherent unfairness of Canada’s long-term Tree Farm Licenses, insanely obscure academic jargon like the ‘Nordhaus effects test,’ etc., etc., incoherent bullshit that would go on and on for hours.

I figured I had about ten minutes, what with Chairman having made that first call to order and the Members still scattered around chatting up the various teams of lawyers. Folding my paper, I headed straight for MacGonagill.

“Hello, Riley,” I said, holding out my hand. “It’s been a couple of years.”

He smiled broadly, his rheumy eyes twinkling, and took my hand in both of his, shaking it slowly. “Edward, my boy, what are you doing here?”

I’d met Riley when we’d landed a small contract for a Quebecois lobbying group, feeding at the lumber trough for almost three years while accomplishing, like everyone else in this particular game, absolutely nothing. I’d first seen him at one of the never-ending sessions when all the lobbyists on the Canadian side got together to discuss strategy, three or four people representing each firm, haggling pointlessly for hours over whose tactical moves were better than who else’s, all the while amassing those hours to bill back to the client. Riley and I would inevitably find ourselves over by the coffee, standing around trying to ignore the foolishness, the only two in the room willing to admit that the whole thing was a sham. Not that it stopped us from billing the time, but at least we knew, right?

“Well, we like to keep an eye on past clients that might come back – and lumber just never seems to go away.”

Riley smiled, looking at me expectantly.

“Okay,” I said, laughing a little, “that’s bullshit. I have a question about your firm.”

He laughed, and said, “Yes, I’ve been asked about you. They’re wondering about this Dungeon group you’re working with.”

“Dungan,” I said quietly, stepping in a little closer to him. One of the associates to Riley’s right looked up from his seat, glancing at me and then at Riley. MacGonagill glared at him, so he ducked his head back into his notes. “So what’s their take?”

“They’re just curious,” he said. “They’d never even heard of the client until someone over at the White House called them.”

The White House? After what Eleanor had told me, that would presumably be the Vice President’s office, but who the fuck told them?

“I assume they’re not worried.”

He laughed, quietly. “My boy,” he said, “we don’t worry about firms your size.” Ouch, I thought; something of a blow to my pride. Still, it was a relief: while they seemed to be everywhere I was, and they certainly had prepped their Senate Committee people exceptionally well, it didn’t sound like they were targeting me. From the sound of it, Shaddock Mills had us on their radar screen but weren’t taking us very seriously.

“Not to worry, son,” Riley continued, “I told them you’re too smart to fuck with a major U.S. ally represented by a firm that’s asshole buddies with the Veep.” He put an arm around my shoulder. “You are too smart to do that, right?”

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