Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 16


“Hello?”

Tom’s voice came through as a hollow echo, a thin warble over a sea of static. For the last minute or so, all we’d been able to hear was some kind of rumbling or crashing noise, like the sound of a car accident that never seemed to end, along with screeches that could be screaming and yelling, or maybe just a screwdriver dragged along the sides of a Cadillac. We’d thought we’d lost the call, and been hoping we hadn’t lost Tom, given the reports we’d been reading on the web of widespread rioting, military deployments and random violence following Gangaran’s murder.

“Dammit,” I said quietly, to no one in particular, pacing back and forth in the cramped space between Michael’s desk and the wall. It was the Wednesday after Labor Day, when the news first broke; we’d waited one full news cycle to see if anything else happened – like maybe a coup, which in this case would have been good news – before checking in with Tom on the ground in Golongo’s capitol, Kambala.

This is sooooo Tom, I thought. Too cheap to buy or even rent a satellite phone, despite the fact that most of his clients in Africa, where phone service still sucks even at its very best. I’d spent the last hour-and-a-half sitting on the other side of Michael’s desk, dialing Tom’s hotel while simultaneously debating with Michael how we were going to deal with Gangaran’s murder, and finally getting through once only to get cut off almost immediately by the switchboard. The second time we’d gotten a line through, around 11:45 a.m. out time, 3:45 p.m. his, they’d found Tom in the hotel bar, facing the street sipping warm scotch while watching the world go by. Here we were, everything going to shit on Koliba, and we’re talking to Tom from Golongo over what sounds like two Campbell’s Soup cans connected by a 6,000-mile string.

“We’re still here, Tom,” Michael responded, leaning in over the speaker. “What the hell was that?”

“Nothing. Really,” he answered, and we looked at each other curiously.

“Sure didn’t sound like nothing,” I muttered, not loud enough for the low-grade speakerphone on Michael’s desk, but loud enough for Michael and Weller. Michael grimaced and waved at me, to warn me off such risky comments. My first reaction was to give him the finger, but I held off, realizing that he was just as frazzled as I was, struggling to see ahead to how we’d fix this. He probably wasn’t in much of a mood for more of my presumptions, I thought.

We were in a little bit of a bind here. Working for foreign governments, you get used to cryptic telephone conversations when traveling, although not for fear of the National Security Agency, which has bigger fish to fry than carp like us. No, it’s your clients you worry about, listening in on what you say about them and potentially misinterpreting the slightest negative comment as a reason to fire you at a minimum or, at the other end of the scale, put you on trial. So open conversations like, ‘did Koliba kill Gangaran? or was it just bad luck?’ weren’t an option here. At the same time, we needed to know something of what was going on and what we should be saying. In situations like this, folks on the Hill were never very interested in hearing us come in and repeat whatever Christiane Amanpour had breathlessly reported 20 minutes ago from her outpost in CNN’s Cairo bureau.

Luck was on our side in that sense: while the UK and the French put live reporters on the ground in most African countries, CNN and Fox do all their initial reporting from three or four nations away, avoiding shots of the moderately lovely Christiane interviewing bleeding African demonstrators. Iraqis, sure, them she’d run to, but Africans are a different story. So to speak.

But we still needed something out of Tom, something we could use on the Hill, something that would keep us ahead of the reporters. It would have sounded stupid to anyone outside our little world, I knew, but lobbying was all about credibility, about being ahead of the game and knowing more about the issues than anyone else. So while we were primarily focused on covering our butts, there was a benefit that extended beyond the immediate problem here: if we walked Congressional halls as, ‘there go the guys who didn’t know squat about what Koliba was doing,’ that wouldn’t help any of our clients. We needed to know, and comments like ‘nothing, really,’ from Tom indicated that we wouldn’t get the kind of details I’d been hoping for.

“It was just a few trucks rolling by,” Tom continued. After a pause, he continued, “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

The video on cable news was showing only tanks in the streets, so it must have been another row of tanks rolling through. And ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ implied that this had been going on all day.

“Have you been out much?” It was Weller, up off the couch and over near the phone. Nice question – lots of directions for Tom to go in.

“Not in the last couple of days. I’ve been hanging around the hotel since late Sunday, when I got back from the hills.”

‘The hills,’ I assumed, had to be the CIA listening post. It was the only possible place that would take an American out of the capital in that godforsaken country these days, especially as Koliba’s intense military control of the capital city had given rise to popular unrest in the remainder of the country.

Weller leaned in closer. “How was the trip?”

“Great.” There was a little hop in his voice at that, like we’d distracted him from his more immediate worries. “Everyone I saw was just incredibly happy to be there, and they think it’s just a great country to be in.”

I looked at Michael, and made a ‘yeah, right’ face. Terrific country to be in, I thought, a sham democracy on the edge of civil war even when there aren’t tanks in the street.

Michael shook his head in disgust with me, and leaned forward from his side of the desk again, starting to ask, “So they’re happy…” But Weller stepped forward with his hand outstretched. Michael stopped.

“The hunting is good?” Weller asked.

There was another pause, and then Tom said, “What? I missed that. Sounded like two of you.”

“It’s me, Tom, Wellington. I said, the hunting is good?”

“That’s what they tell me.” Something rumbled again in the background, more quietly this time, as if a single vehicle were passing. We waited. As the sound subsided. Tom continued, “Very good, in fact. Gets better all the time.”

“And were they expecting Mr. Hatfield catching up with Mr. McCoy that way?”

Nicely done, I thought; maybe it made sense for Weller to take over the conversation from Michael. To any American, those names immediately bring up images of never-ending feuds that, in the current circumstances, could only mean Koliba-Gangaran. To anyone else listening, though, especially someone who probably speaks French far better than English, hearing those names for the first time, without access to Google, it’s utterly meaningless.

“They predicted it the way it happened,” came Tom’s voice echoing down the line. “But not for six or seven months at least. Not that they’re worried; in the current environment, they said, Mr. Hatfield’s the man.”

Weller stood up straight and looked into Michael’s eyes, triumph on his face. After a pause, he turned back toward his chair and sat back down. I decided that he must have heard all that he needed.

‘Hunting’ could only mean listening, at least in our lexicon, so apparently the folks at the CIA station were happy with the information they were getting, and were comfortable that Koliba was in charge for the long haul. ‘Getting more all the time,’ well, that could spin several ways, but Weller probably had a clearer sense of what Tom was saying. The two of them kept their own secrets sometimes, from me at least if not from Michael, so Wellington must have felt he had something he could work with.

That didn’t help me, though. I needed answers on what we could say about Koliba, and when we’d know more.

“Hello? Still there?” It was Tom, talking into his soup can.

Looking at Michael, I gave him a sign to keep going, to get more information out of Tom. He nodded.

“We’re here,” he said. “How’s the boss doing?”

“My meetings today have been canceled,” he added, “but the Colonel’s coming by the hotel tomorrow morning.”

He could only mean Col. Thomas N’Gada, ‘Colonel N’Godawful’ as he was known over at State, the scariest person I’d ever met, six feet tall, ramrod straight, that same blue-black skin that Gangaran had, and always in military dress. It wasn’t his looks so much as his bearing that was scary; even in seeing him only two or three times, in Washington hotel lobbies during his rare ‘private’ visits to the city, he always seemed like he had precious little time for fools like those around him and wanted to squash them like bugs. He ran the Ministry of the Interior, the agency in most countries that oversees the national police as well as the judicial system. You’ve never had a powerful dictator anywhere in the world without a strong Minister of the Interior, and N’Gada sometimes seemed to be setting new standards for how to quash internal dissent. He was one mean sonofabitch.

Tom, though, well Tom was a very big fan of the Colonel, who was his main contact with the Government and the guy who made sure we got paid. So a meeting with him was a good thing, at least in Tom’s eyes. N’Gada traveling the streets, well, that meant Koliba was absolutely in charge and not worried about his prospects.

Michael leaned into the phone. Glancing at Weller, as if to make sure he phrased it right, he paused and then asked, “Any idea if he’ll be able to tell you anything about recent events?”

There was a long pause. “My sense is that it’s their issue, not ours,” he said in a thin, slow voice. “I, uh, don’t think I’m going to ask.”

Un-be-LIEV-able, I thought. Not our issue. I banged my head, hard, against Michael’s bookcase, immediately regretting it.

“Thanks, Tom,” Michael said. “When are you coming back?”

“I’ll know more when I talk to the Colonel.”

“We’ll call tomorrow or the next day.”

With a few more pleasantries, Michael and Tom closed the call. Weller sat unmoving in his chair, watching Michael and waiting. I was still pacing back and forth, trying to decide where we were and what the hell I was supposed to do next.

“At least Koliba’s still in charge.”

I turned around to look at Michael. “Is that the good news or the bad news?”

* * *

Roger looked at me. “That’s all you’ve got?”

Biting down on the inside of my lip, I glanced for a moment at Michelle, who was trying to look innocent. This was only our first meeting of the day, and one of friendliest contacts on the Hill, but it took no time at all for us to feel like we were slogging up a hill of loose stones and mud, making no progress.

Still, I had to touch base with my key contacts. That was what they’d remember later, the fact that I came up there and faced them, not the fact that I had nothing to say.

Trick was, I still couldn’t talk about the CIA listening post, but only about what we knew about what was happening in the streets and how the investigation of Gangaran’s death was going. Weller had left right after the phone call, telling us he would first visit privately with friends on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, telling them what he knew, and then head over to Fox News to talk a little on background about the situation on the ground. Wellington played both sides of the press, left and right, but Koliba being a dictator America supported rather than one it hated, Fox was the obvious choice over CNN for this set of leaks.

Me, though, I got to go to the Hill unarmed, dragging Michelle along for the experience and so that I’d have someone to commiserate with every time a staffer put me through the sausage grinder. I’d started out with Roger, who must have welcomes me on the assumption that we’d have some credible explanation as to what was happening. When he understood that I had absolutely nothing to report on the Vice President’s death, he began blinking like a madman and demanded we get out of his office. “Don’t come back before you can tell me why he had his Vice President hacked to death, and what he’s going to do about it.”

“Well, now, Roger, we don’t know…”

At that, he started out from behind his desk, as if to throw me out the door bodily. I beat him to the door, with Michelle close behind me.

From there, we headed to see Peter in the Senate Majority Leader’s office. This was a much more delicate meeting, since I had told Roger he should bring Peter into the jurisdictional fight over Koliba a few weeks before, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved its anti-Koliba bill. Going into this meeting, I wasn’t sure if Peter would blame me for that, though, since I figured Roger would have wanted the credit for recognizing the jurisdictional problem.

“You sonofabitch,” Peter began before we’d even gotten through the door, “you suckered me into helping out with this maniacal dictator, and now everybody’s all over my ass wondering why I’m trying supporter Africa’s biggest psycho murderer.”

Wrong again, buckaroo.

The discussion went downhill from there, especially after my feeble ‘information dump’ on what we knew. I promised I’d have more information later, having no idea how I’d fulfill that, and shuffled out the door as soon as I could do so gracefully. As I left, he dropped a parting shot, telling me that I’d better have more information before showing up to the Koliba dinner I’d promised him – a dinner I’d forgotten about in the rush of events and was now seriously regretting.

Next was a long, slow walk to the House side of the Capitol, taking the underground tunnels just to stretch it out a little. We started with Kevin, Charlotte’s friend on House Foreign Affairs, who generally refused to talk to me about Koliba but this time not only took a meeting when I showed up unannounced, but ranted at us for about 30 minutes about how the Committee would not take this outrage lying down and ‘that Koliba bastard’ would finally be cut off at the knees. I took the route of least resistance: I kept quiet and listened. Wasn’t going to change his mind anyway, not that day.

From Kevin, I headed off alone to meet with Alexis. I don’t know why, but I thought the conversation would go better if I went in alone.

After asking if she was available, I stood waiting by the front desk, facing the door to the back office, pretending to read some of the local interest crap they’d left out for constituents. That way, I could see her coming through the door before she knew I was looking at her, and sure enough, she came through with a look more wary than usual.

“Hi,” she started, stopping outside the door. She held it for a moment, as if not sure she was going to let it go. “Maybe I can guess why you’re here.”

I smiled, but not too much. “Maybe. Everybody else has.”

The door slipped out of her fingers, but she remained standing, folding her arms across her chest, her omnipresent file pressed up against her dress. I wondered for a moment if she had this one file she kept on the corner of her desk, bringing it with her every time she stepped away. Maybe it gave her a little more confidence in the move from receptionist to staffer. Whatever, she held it now like a defensive shield.

“I just wanted to stop by,” I began, “just to check in.”

“Is it just my imagination, or is the guy a monster?” Despite the words, Alexis’s tone made her seem more disappointed in me than angry about Koliba. This was another element of my life I’d gotten used to, people’s tendency to judge you by your clients, but I was surprised this time, surprised by Alexis picking up on it so quickly.

“It’s not clear what’s happened, or what happens next.”

“How do you do this?”

“What?” I responded.

“This, coming in here as if your client caught a cold or something.” Her head tilting to the side, she was clearly more curious about my lobbying for such a client than about what the client had done. That threw me a little; her boss was anti-Koliba, but this wasn’t about Koliba. It was the ‘how do you sleep at night?’ question, but from one of my best contacts, not some schmuck staffer who hated my very existence like it usually was. This wasn’t good, not good at all.

There was a long pause, as I struggled with what to say next.

The door behind me, the one to the Congressman’s office, opened and Toby Kelton strode out into the lobby. I spun around, knowing the only door behind me was his, and backed up toward the sofa so he could pass. He stopped at the front desk and, seeing me there, looked surprised for a moment. “Jesus,” he said, “you’re not here to defend that asshole Koliba, are you?”

* * *

Throughout all this, I still had other clients to work on, and I still needed to find a way to get the coastal fisheries idea into the Senate bill. Most of all, I needed to get Erin Monaghan to get off her ass to put it in front of her boss. In normal circumstances, I’d have dropped the idea of working with Erin and moved on to Plan B, but I hadn’t for the life of me been able to identify a Plan B – even before Koliba apparently decided to have his thugs slice-and-dice the Vice President into a kajillion pieces.

Which reminded me, as I walked slowly across the third-floor bridge toward her office, the cavernous Hart lobby off to my right, I also needed to find a way to tell Erin that our client in this amendment was Koliba.

The door to Sen. Colbert’s office seemed particularly heavy as I drew it back. Entering the office, I queried the receptionist in front of me, “Hi, is Erin Monaghan in?”

“Can I tell her who’s here?” she replied.

My first thought was ‘no, that’ll give it away,’ but while that was still running through my head, the other receptionist beat me to it, responding, “I’ll let Erin know that Mr. Matthews is here.” I recognized her from my previous visits. “I think” – I could hear the italics, as she turned toward her phone – “she’s in a meeting, but I’ll check.”

With her back to me, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it took a lot longer than “Ed Matthews’s here to see you,” and involved a whole lot more back and forth. Erin obviously didn’t want to meet with me, that I could tell, and they must have been disagreeing about what to tell me. Ah, well, I thought, maybe she’d pass along some information I could use.

The receptionist turned. “I’m sorry, she is in a meeting. She’s wondering if there might be something you could leave for her, and she’ll get back to you when she’s able to focus on the Foreign Operations bill?”

Oh, God, I thought, that’s a bad answer. Up to this point, she’d been ducking me with getting answers that worked out to, ‘try again later.’ This time, she was telling me to leave something – knowing I’d already left her everything there was – and she would get back to me. Read: Don’t come back. She was blowing me off. I was screwed.

I realized I was still standing there, staring at the receptionist like I was mute. “Okay,” I responded, trying to think of anything to say, “I’ll just plan on seeing her, uh, next time we, um, cross paths.” I turned quickly, to get out of there before I broke into incoherent mumbling. “Thanks so much.”

Walking out, I turned left to head headed the Constitution Avenue side of the building and from there into Dirksen. I wasn’t going anywhere, just walking, trying to decide on a next step. My amendment was in serious trouble, and I was completely blocked on doing anything about it.

As I reached the front of the building, I turned right, crossing another bridge over the lobby. A group of school-age girls, 10- to 12-year-olds by the looks of them, all in school uniforms, were walking toward me in a semblance of order. They looked like Middle Eastern kids, maybe from some Arabic school, I thought, diplomats’ children getting a tour of America’s political system. As they passed I heard both Arabic and French, the clearer French of France itself rather than the more guttural French that their parents, most likely from North Africa, would speak at home.

North Africa.

Idiot, I thought.

I’d forgotten Mourad. I did have a Plan B, and I’d completely overlooked it. I’d left it aside because I didn’t want to let Morocco in on the amendment. That was suddenly a very bad idea.

Now what was that woman’s name, Mourad’s secretary? The receptionist, the gravel-voiced one he’d mentioned at the reception. God, what was her name. For all she drove me crazy with her questions about Michael, and my wife, and my job, for once I was going to enjoy calling her.

If I could remember her name.

Ayoubi.

Mrs. El Ayoubi.

I had a Plan B.

* * *

Two days later, shortly after 2:00 p.m., I approached Room 2255 in the Rayburn building from the long end of the hallway, avoiding the line stretching in the other direction. Sidling up to the guard, I said, “I’m switching with someone in the room,” while the human rights putzes heading up the line snarled at me. I wondered for a moment if they recognized me, but thought, no, it’s just human nature to snarl at line-cutters.

Entering the mobbed room, I caught the eye of my placeholder, sitting bleary-eyed in the back row next to Michelle, who in turn was scribbling furiously in her notebook. Jesus Christ, I thought, they’re all the way across the room, and I’m going to have to schlep all over people to get in there. Waiting for the linestander, I leaned back as he approached to let him pass, accidentally pushing up against the woman behind me. In response to her low grunt of ‘hey, someone here,’ I apologized while others around me looked on in disapproval. I was making much more of a scene here than I wanted, but still, I thought, this is better than being in the hall before the hearing, where staffers could see me and harass me over our disaster of a client, Ernest Koliba.

This was another one of the innumerable ‘how-bad-does-Koliba-suck?’ hearings that had been scheduled following Gangaran’s death. It stood to be one of those where both sides on the political spectrum rolled out their best rhetoric detailing the many things the man had done wrong in the past year or so. Gangaran’s murder was clearly a watershed event, in that it brought out the full Africa Subcommittee, something rare in these late-session hearings, to rant and rail against the man and everything he stood for. It wasn’t a pretty lineup: the Republican side included two members, Wilson and Hadle, who’d been at the February reception that we held for Gangaran’s visit. They both looked loaded for bear, and Hadle almost seemed to be looking at me, as if he recognized me. Oh, great, I thought, just what I need.

I leaned over to Michelle. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing.”

“What are you writing so furiously?”

“Everything they say. Keeps my mind of the content.”

I straightened, trying not to smile. It was true, if you focused on taking great notes at a hearing, you couldn’t pay attention to the broader message, using half your brain to scribble down the last ten words you heard while using the other half to store up the next ten.

Opening my notebook to a new page, I took out a pen and leaned back, staring for a moment at the bald spot on the State Department witness’s head. This was going to be a long hearing, with the head of State’s Africa Bureau starting us out, and a panel of three human rights groups following up. As usual, no one would testify from the other side, our side. Despite the popular perception that lobbyists testify all the time, that’s only true when they represent voters, not foreign governments and especially not foreign dictators. No, Michelle and I would simply sit there and listen, take it all in, and report back to the client. What mattered, of course, was being there.

Normally, I’d duck an end-of-the-year hearing like this, since it was unlikely to affect the actual legislation that would soon be passed. But this hearing was more like those meetings I had with my friends right after Gangaran died: they’d had to see me, to yell at me, to vent their frustrations. Same thing here: the Members, the staff, and even the human rights weenies all had to see that we were here, listening and taking notes. Even if they were all saying the same thing, over and over and over again.

Clearing my head, I began a run-through of where we were at this point. Our MNNA amendment was on track – sort of: I’d lost Will Richardson as my House-side help in Conference, but thanks to my first meeting with Alexis in her new job we had a possible back-up in Toby Kelton. This was way too soon to raise it with Alexis and Toby, because I needed to respect their tremendous annoyance over Koliba, but that should blow over by Conference and besides, with the amendment already in the Senate bill, I might not even need them. So that was open.

Koliba’s DOD funding was under threat, but even with all the screaming, it was still September and Congress had always had an exceedingly short memory, so I was thinking he would probably come out okay. Our military aid for Africa amendment was totally up in the air, although my Plan B might work if I could get to Mourad in time and we could work it out.

And the Dungan, my client? Well, there was always more to do on that one, more to show value for.

A fist striking the dais rousted me from my daydreaming, and I processed the words ‘penny-ante dictator’ as my eyes came into focus on Rep. Hamlin, the liberal Democrat from New York. Lots of New Yorkers on the International Relations Committee, I thought, their state home to a population that actually cares day-to-day what happens overseas, even when we’re not at war. Hamlin was much like the rest of the New Yorkers, loud, boisterous, his face a searing red at the moment as he spluttered on and on about Koliba.

Glancing at Michelle, she seemed to be smiling a little. I suppose I must have started at the sound of the pounding fist, although anyone paying attention would have been prepared for it. Glancing at the panel, I could see that the members and their staffs, arrayed behind them in a very cramped little row, were intent on the witness, still the poor State Department guy who seemed caught in the traditional witness’s bind, trying to preserve his dignity while simultaneously preserving ‘the President’s freedom of action in foreign affairs’ – another misnomer that basically means, ‘hey, Congress, leave us along, willya?’ Not an argument that ever worked with Congress, but also not one any Administration ever let go of.

No wonder I never wanted to work for the government, I thought.

* * *

Two hours later, the meeting broke. Moving slowly along the wall as I headed for the door, the crush of people exiting holding us back, I noticed Rep. Hadle at the end of my row, seemingly waiting for me to make my way out. I’d only met him once, at that Gangaran reception, and even then for just a few moments. He looked angry, very angry, same as he’d been throughout the hearing, lips pulled tight, face reddened, eyes like slits. God, I thought, he can’t be looking at me. Michelle muttered something I couldn’t catch from behind me, but I kept going, looking at the door not the Congressman and hoping I was imagining thing. I wasn’t.

“You work for Michael McPherson, don’t you?”

Several people turned to me, recognizing the name. Geez, thanks, bud, I’m likely to get stoned here.

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“We met at your reception in February, didn’t we?”

“Yes, sir, we did.” When in doubt, go all polite and shit, that’s my motto. Otherwise, you could have your head torn off.

“You tell Tom and Michael that the man has gone too far this time, and there are going to be repercussions.”

We were in the middle of the crowd now, the people trapped behind us not even trying to get by and the ones with easy access to the door finding Hadle much more interesting. All of them were watching us.

“We’ll tell him everything we heard today, air.”

He snorted. “You didn’t even seem to be listening half the time.”

Thank God in heaven, I thought, for Michelle’s presence. I turned, pointed to her and said, “She took our notes, Congressman.” Turning back to Hadle, I continued, “Feverishly, in fact, from what I could tell. I’m sure she got most of it. And we will pass it all on, I promise.”

He glared at me, his face still red, but maybe a touch of embarrassment in his eyes along with the anger. He paused, breathing slowly in, slowly out.

“You make sure you do.” I could see he wasn’t satisfied at that, but after a moment he turned to go. The crowd parted, and then closed back in behind him, the wall of people reassembled, as if waiting for more.

Turning to Michelle, I said, “Let’s get out of here.” As I turned back around, the wall parted again, people suddenly back in twos and threes, talking to each other while watching us leave.

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