Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 17


Watching Senate Floor debate is kind of like watching grass grow, only less interesting.

In fact, calling what the Senate did with legislation a ‘debate’ was a serious misnomer. It was more of a carefully choreographed dance where, except on the most contentious bills, the time and timing for debate were agreed to in advance and orchestrated through a maneuver called ‘unanimous consent,’ basically an agreement on what went next. When they didn’t have such a deal ready, some Senator would point out there wasn’t a quorum present – literally, as in, ‘Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum,’ which was true about 99 percent of the time and a violation of Senate rules – and Floor debate would stop while the Clerk of the Senate called the roll to see who was there. The maneuver allowed them to turn the TV cameras off while they negotiated their next unanimous consent. As a result, you could go hours watching the television with only the occasional drone from the Clerk, calling out whatever Senator’s name he’d gotten to and somehow never getting to the last name on the list.

Their other great trick, one they were planning to use later in the day, was ‘stacked votes,’ where they debated a series of amendments late into the night but didn’t vote on them until the following morning, when they’d hold a series of five-minute votes. This way, most of the Senators got their beauty sleep, while the deadly dull debates were gotten out of the way. God forbid that they should actually have to listen to their colleagues debating legislation – there wouldn’t be nearly enough time to make fundraising calls, or campaign for President, if they actually had to do that.

The Foreign Ops bill came to the Floor right around lunchtime, which is generally a bad idea but particularly problematic on days like this when the two parties were holding their policy luncheons, weekly strategy sessions on how to screw the other party’s agenda. Americans like to think that Congress is there to do the nation’s business, but in these days of deep partisan division, Floor debates are more like verbal dodgeball between twelve-year-old boys: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” It’s generally well-disguised behind positions that sound principled, but it’s still just dodgeball.

Around 1:30 p.m., I was in the Senate gallery, looking down on the Senate Floor and hoping to somehow stay awake. I’d convinced Sen. VanderMeer to try once again to put something in the bill on freedom of religion in Kazakhstan, the amendment that Sen. Belkin had talked him out of during the Senate Committee debate. I wasn’t entirely convinced it would fly, given Belkin’s fight against the amendment in Committee, but it was worth a shot. And even if they talked him out of it, he’d be better positioned for the House-Senate Joint Conference where the bill would be finalized.

So far, discussion of the bill had consisted of lame introductions by the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Subcommittee, along with the obligatory compliments to each other and each other’s staffs for their wisdom, willingness to collaborate, and all-around good-guyness. A couple of amendments that everyone had signed off on – mistakes, probably, in the printing of the bill, or items that fell to the floor on the way to the printer – were agreed to, but that had been about it. After all, those luncheons were still underway.

Sen. VanderMeer emerged through the Republican-side door as Sen. Belkin, running out of things to say, once again suggested the absence of a quorum, turning the television cameras off and suspending the ‘action’ once more. I’d decided to turn up the heat a notch, sending VanderMeer to the Floor with a marginally improved amendment: I’d added a small proviso that would prohibit U.S. funds to any country undertaking a program of religious persecution against any group. After the way the two of them went nose-to-nose in the full Committee, I figured it had about zero chance of passing, but it might tell me something new.

The reason was simple. The Foreign Aid Appropriations Bill includes funding for the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the institution that provides financing and loan guaranties for America-led projects overseas. So when General Electric sold some country a batch of jet engines, or when Bechtel built a new power plant somewhere, Ex-Im would cover some part of the funding. That reduced the risk to the U.S. corporate seller, since no government would be stupid enough to default on a loan that the U.S. had financed or guarantied. It was more grease on the wheels of international commerce.

The goal here wasn’t to get the provision signed into law, but to try to find out who was behind Belkin’s opposition to our earlier amendment. I figured that if it originated from Shaddock Mills, Belkin and Raymonda would make the argument based on U.S.-Kazakh relations and national security. If it originated with some oil company, or manufacturer, they’d go after him on the impact on U.S. commercial sales. The strategy depended on my hearing from VanderMeer what they’d said, but that would be easy: ever since Tom and I had gone in there, VanderMeer and his staff were my new best friends.

As VanderMeer approached Sen. Belkin, Raymonda converged on them from behind her desk, as if she didn’t dare leave him alone. With the TV off, I was sure that virtually no one but me had seen them, but it was still more overt that I’d expected: Senators like people to think that they know what they’re doing, and this came very close to insubordination.

I smiled to myself, watching the three of them in a little triangle, VanderMeer appearing to describe his amendment to Belkin while Raymonda read through it. She was leaning in just a little, looking down at the paper but clearly listening while she read, splitting her attention between the story and the fact, VanderMeer’s explanation and the amendment itself on the page before her.

She started, and I felt my heart skip a beat. I’d hit a serious nerve.

The rest of the conversation went by in slow motion, Raymonda ranting at VanderMeer in a quiet voice, waving the amendment and pointing at him, surprising Belkin as much as VanderMeer himself. The discussion went on for a minute or two, as VanderMeer edged slowly away and finally caved. As he turned to leave the floor, with a glum nod to Belkin, I could see that Raymonda still had the amendment in her hand. That’s probably not a good thing, I thought to myself, rising out of my seat to head for VanderMeer’s office.

* * *

“You look like hell.”

“Yes, thank you very much,” I replied, “and, well, you’re a schmuck.”

I wasn’t in the best of moods, having come to Roger’s office on my way to an early dinner with Charlotte, scheduled for 5:30. The Senate Floor debate was still going on and would continue go deep into the night, so for all I felt like crawling home to bed, I was stuck up on the Hill. The Senate leadership had insisted that the bill would pass sometime this evening, meaning that I could be there until 3:00 a.m. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to.

I was troubled, mostly about Kazakhstan, and mostly because I was confused. I’d caught up with VanderMeer walking down the hall to his office, and thanked him for taking the amendment to the Floor, telling him once again how we appreciated his willingness to stick with his principles. He thanked me, expressing regret that he hadn’t succeeded, and complaining about ‘that woman’s’ demeanor and words. I’d expected him to be angry with Ray, but he wasn’t; he must have been getting used to her unique approach to the world around her.

My confusion came when he said that Raymonda had cited U.S. commercial interests and U.S.-Kazakh relations and Shaddock Mills and the Vice President’s office, all in the space of what I remembered as being only about two minutes. That was a ridiculous amount to squeeze into that amount of time, but… well, but nothing, it just was. She almost can’t be responding to all of them, I thought; and that only means that I don’t know anything more than when I sent him to the Floor.

My frustration had made me somewhat careless, and Roger’s opening line was a sign that he was in one of his own special moods, the ‘you suck’ one he cultivated most carefully. It didn’t help that I’d interrupted a discussion he was having with some State Department morons, just walking in the door like I belonged there and, as I realized there was a meeting going on, stumbling back out like an idiot. Roger hated it when people just walked into his office, especially when doing so revealed, as I had done, the rare privilege of showing up pretty much whenever I wanted to. Now, having waited in the hall, trying to relax while he took his time finishing up, I’d been welcomed into his sanctum sanctorum despite my indiscretion.

“You here to insult me?”

“No, Roger, here to see if there’s anything you need before I take a break to get some dinner.”

“Yeah, right. Every time you try to do me a favor, it’s because you’ve got something you need.”

The man was right, of course, but I wasn’t in a position to let that stop me.

Roger rose, lifting a stack of papers from his desk, and began to come around it to the right. That classic move, that first step in pushing me out the door.

“The coastal fisheries amendment,” I said. Roger paused. “For Africa. The one you dropped out of the bill for me.”

Three quick blinks. “I told you how to fix it.” Shaking his head, he started forward again. I was running out of time.

“I’ve got a fix. Tonight. During Floor debate,” I said. “And you’ve got to make sure that the managers take it.”

Roger stopped. “Who?”

“Colbert. Who else?”

“I thought you said she couldn’t get it done.”

I handed him a manila folder, with three copies of the amendment and some talking points in case his boss needed them. “I talked Mourad into it, added in North Africa, and he convinced her to do it.” I smiled at him.

He laughed, shaking his head again. “When does it come up?”

“Tonight.” I looked him right in the eye, waiting to see his reaction. “Not sure when.” That was true; in fact, I wasn’t even sure of ‘if,’ but Mourad and I still had several hours to work on that. And it had to be tonight, since the Foreign Aid bill would only be on the Senate Floor this one night. It was now or never.

“Is that it?”

Is it ever? I thought. “You, uhhhh, mind if I use your office as a base station? Michael’s over at the Veep’s lobby in the Capitol” – meaning, in these post-9/11 days, inside the Capitol Building security – “and I need somewhere to hang out while working with Colbert’s folks” – meaning, inside the Senate office buildings’ security perimeter. While the press always put lots of attention on lobbying restrictions, it was the heightened security due to terrorism that put the biggest crimp into our ability to walk the halls freely, and especially to go back and forth between the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings.

“What about Harry’s office?”

“Can’t do it.” With Harry being my link to Belkin on the MNNA amendment for the UAE and Belkin having rejected the Kazakhstan Floor amendment I’d just had VanderMeer offer, I felt I should distance myself just in case – but that wasn’t something I could explain to Roger. “It would be too obvious.”

He breathed in deeply, and glanced at the papers in his hand before breathing out again. “What time?”

“6:00, maybe 6:30. I’ve got dinner with Charlotte, and I’ll come back here.”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to regret this, am I?”

Hey, don’t ask me, I thought. “Nah.”

* * *

Charlotte was at Zaragoza, our favorite Spanish restaurant in D.C., when I arrived. No surprise there. I was on time, maybe a minute or two late, but she was forever early no matter where we went. Over the years I’d gotten used to being ready to leave ten minutes before we’d said we’d be going, because that was inevitably when she was ready to go. And no matter how hard I tried – and in Washington, with its ever-changing schedules and its tendency to always run late, I had to try really, really hard – I inevitably arrived after she did. It was maddening, more to her than to me, but every once in a while I found myself wishing I could get there before her. Like since Paris, my betrayal nipping at me. Like tonight.

“Hey, Sweetie,” I leaned in to kiss her and she turned up to me. From the little glimmer in her eyes, I figured that something was up.

“Hi, baby.” She reached for her wine glass, a white, and took another drink. She was well into that glass, so she’d either arrived very early or was drinking very fast. From the size of the gulp she took, I was thinking the latter.

I flagged for a waiter, and ordered a Merlot, the one glass I could afford to allow myself that night. While getting his attention, I wondered what Charlotte’s drinking meant. She’d always been a pretty cheap drunk, not that she sought out a drunk the way kids do, but just that she had a low tolerance, especially when she wasn’t eating. And like so many women, she wouldn’t order something to nibble on with her drink to balance out the alcohol; that would mean too many calories. So she’d have a drink or two when she was in the mood without worrying about the effect. Sometimes it was okay, and sometimes she was sliding under the table before finishing her entrée. Tonight, we’d have to see.

“So, how’s your day been?” Another of my post-Paris guilt trips maneuvers, trying not to dominate our conversations, letting her go first.

“Oh, Heaney’s such an asshole.” She took another long swallow of the wine. So that was it – a bad day – which usually meant the whole sliding under the table thing if she was drinking this soon. Must have been an exceedingly bad day, I thought; Heaney was always as asshole.

“What now?”

“Oh, he reduced Karen to tears over some useless press release she wrote.” Karen was the goat of the office; many Hill offices have them, especially the badly-run ones, staffers who can’t seem to do anything right. Like I mentioned earlier, elected Members of the House arrive in office with fewer skills in management, especially personnel, than anyone else in America, and they have total freedom on how to staff their offices. Job security – i.e., re-election – is completely divorced from how well the office runs: as long as they respond to constituent mail and have the necessary political skills, once they made it through the second election – i.e., getting re-elected for the first time – they become a habit, and normally they’re returned to office over and over. Such was the case with Heaney; no one back home knew what a gasbag he was, or just what an evil manager he was. He ran roughshod over the staff, and Charlotte had to try to pick up the pieces.

“She blew the story?”

“No, it was Heaney. He’s been complaining about not being in the Post-Courier enough back home, and that it’s Karen’s fault, so he insisted she do a release on him and this hearing he testified at.” She shook her head, and took another gulp. As the waiter approached with the Merlot, I ordered off the menu from memory, a gambas al ajillo appetizer to split, just to start getting some food in us; zarzuela de mariscos for me; and, with a glance and nod from her, the pollo asada, her favorite, for Charlotte. As he was starting to turn, she lifted her wine glass, waving it a little and pointing at it with her free hand. He nodded. “Karen had no way of knowing that Heaney’s testimony, given to him by the guys from Tempest Water, would be completely contradicted by witnesses from four separate environmental organizations. The Post-Courier guy went after him like a buzzsaw after the hearing, and Heaney went nuts.”

“Tim” – the office environmental policy guy – “should have caught that.”

“Tim wasn’t in on it; like I said, the Tempest guys gave Heaney the testimony, and he went with it without even checking with Tim. Tim was in the back of the hearing room sweating as he listened to Heaney – he’d already gotten the enviros’ testimony earlier in the week.” She laughed, very lightly and paused to take another drink. “He hid in the Committee room after the hearing, to avoid the explosion. I had to go find him, in a carrel in the back of the staff office, to figure what the hell had happened. From there it just got worse.”

She looked right at me, her eyes still smiling, brown with flecks of green in this light as opposed to the green with flecks of brown that daylight would bring out in her. Her skin was slightly flushed, but from excitement, not the alcohol – she seemed to be burning through the alcohol, a sign that she was worked up.

After a pause, she said, “So my day was absolutely for shit. How about you?”

I looked up from the bread basket, where I was hunting for some distraction. She looked more relaxed; I figured that she’d needed to vent, and had gotten it out. “So far? I’ve had one amendment killed on the Senate Floor, and I don’t know why. Someone’s fighting against what we’re trying to do for the Dungan.”

“The Dungan,” she snorted, reaching for the second wine glass, which the waiter had just deposited. “Like the world needs a new amendment on the Dungan. What we’re you going for, $50 million in new equipment for that gas station?”

“Oh, God, don’t start with me,” I responded, laughing, as I turned to find the waiter again. “I get that all day from everyone on the Hill.”

“I’m serious.”

I turned and, whoa, she wasn’t smiling any more. That turn came quickly.

“Honey….”

“No, I mean it,” she said, “what are you doing for these people? Let alone Koliba. And why? Why do you keep doing it? Why do you want to stay?” She leaned back and turned, flushed again but this time darker, looking out onto Pennsylvania Avenue, out at the traffic, out at the people, looking anywhere but me.

Oh, shit. I hadn’t seen that coming at all. I turned then too, and looked out with her, sinking as I did. I just hadn’t seen this. “Jesus.”

“Let’s recap, Ed. Koliba’s on the news every night, and all day long in the office, with new details all the time about how he’s squashing democracy, you’re out defending the man. The Dungan, your excuse for our still being in this city, no one even knows they exist.” She stopped, staring, to let that one sink in. I waited her out. “Today completely sucked at work, and you know, it wasn’t any worse than any other day this month, just a little louder than usual. And the career you’re staying here for involves working for an absolute monster.” Her voice was rising with every word, and her knuckles were white around her fork.

“Honey, the Koliba thing only went to shit a week ago – and we’re coming up on the end of the year. Next year we probably won’t even work for the guy.” Or maybe he’d straighten up, or get overthrown so we’d be working for some other crazy African dictator. Jesus, I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to get into this now.

“I’m talking about now. How do you do this now?”

“Honey, there’s nothing we can do – sometimes we’ve gotta play the hand we’re dealt.”

“And how many years do we have to wait before you’re the dealer? Before you start making your own choices?”

This was going downhill fast. And I had to get back to tracking the Senate Floor.

“Here we are, your gambas al ajillo.” Our waiter was back, with the shrimp and vegetables drowning in butter-oil mix whose scent rose strongly from the plate. I leaned back from the table, and exhaled slowly.

Charlotte watched me closely.

“So you’ve got nothing to say?”

Closing my eyes, the room slowed back down. “No.”

“Can I bring anything else right now?” The waiter was still there, waiting for a pause in the discussion.

Charlotte pushed her chair back. “No,” she said, “just the check. He’ll take it.”

Faster than I thought. Much faster.

“Sweetie…” I began to protest, knowing better but feeling like I had to try.

She was starting to stand, turning to take the coat of her chair, while the waiter tried to keep from losing the plates he’d started taking. “Don’t start with me, you asshole. I’m leaving.” She turned back to me. “I’m going home. I’ll see you whenever.”

Watching her go, swirling between the tables, the thing I noticed most was her ass, swaying as she negotiated the tight space and the over-high heels she’d worn that day. I loved her at that moment, and hated where we were. The waiter, smaller almost than Charlotte, stood back now, and the customers around us were staring, but Charlotte seemed oblivious to all of it and I was fixated on her weaving perilously between the cramped tables. She ducked a waitress as she slid past the cashier and made her way to the door and out. I looked at the waiter – this must have been when I saw everyone staring.

“Maybe if you could have the kitchen just pack up everything I ordered, I’ll take it with me,” I said, pushing the shrimp back toward him. “And I, uh, will take that check when you’ve got the chance.”

* * *

Walking back from Zaragoza, I put in a call to Roger. “Just checking to make sure you’re still there.”

“Of course I’m still here, you idiot.” Well, his mood hadn’t lifted, so it looked like I was in for a fun hour or two before he stationed himself over at the Capitol for the last couple of hours of the debate.

“Need some dinner?”

“Can’t leave.”

“I’m bringing it in,” I told him. I stopped walking for a moment, and paused before continuing. “Charlotte and I had a fight, so you can choose between pollo asada and zarzuela. Just don’t ask me what we fought about.”

There was silence from his end of the line. As I started walking again, he said, “I can probably guess what you fought about.”

“Yeah.” I snorted, closing the phone as I was reminded just one more time what a lousy fucking fishbowl I lived in. It was bad enough that your entire social circle was predetermined by your job and your clients, without the fact that those parts of your life that should be private were spilled out all over the city because your best friend was the guy you lobbied three days a week, or your mother’s sister was a Senator’s wife, or whatever crazy fucking incestuous set of relationships drove your life.

I knocked on Roger’s door this time before walking in. At least I’ve got something for him, I thought, turning the knob; might make the waiting less painful.

Roger watched me as I came in and put the bag on his desk. “What did you order?” he asked.

“The zarzuela.”

“I’ll take the chicken.”

A peace offering. Not a common start from Roger, but I guessed that the idea of Charlotte and me fighting had calmed him down. He’s a softie at heart, I thought, although I decided against voicing that feeling: he’d probably take it as a challenge and start chewing my ass off over something totally unimportant. I smiled to myself, for the first time in hours, and passed him the pollo asada. “There’s an appetizer if you want it.”

“No, thanks, I’m not that hungry.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes, me just eating slowly while my mind raced in circles, Roger flipping through some notes that probably didn’t need reviewing.

“I do need a favor, by the way,” I said, taking another bite of mussel and speaking through it, “after the bill’s off the Floor.”

Roger looked askance at me. He was good at looking askance. “Hmmm?”

“Remember that girl I told you about a few months back, the one held prisoner in the UAE?” He nodded. “The client still hasn’t released her yet, and I think we’re going to get screwed in Conference if they don’t. We snuck through Committee and Belkin can walk the amendment through tonight, but her parents’ lawyers will catch it when the bill is reprinted.”

“Of course they will,” he said, glaring at me. “Tell the Embassy to straighten up and let her go.”

“Tried that,” I said. “I even tried a face-to-face with the Minister of Defense. It didn’t work. They won’t listen to us. I need you to tell them.”

“Is that how it works?” He pushed at his chicken, looking carefully at a piece of breast meat before cutting into it. “We do your work for you?”

“Sometimes we have to save the client from their own stupidity.” I said it as calmly as I could; it was a weapon I didn’t like to use very often.

His eyes narrowed.

“Get Fawzi in here,” I said. Roger knew Fawzi from the many Embassy receptions he’d attended, and from the annual single-malt scotch that Fawzi sent him at Christmas. For reasons I never understood, Arab Embassies always sent out the best Christmas presents. “Rip him a new one and tell them to let her go.”

My Crackberry buzzed in my pocket. ‘CALL ME,’ all caps, rude according to geek etiquette but rather typical of Michael’s messages. Ignoring it for the moment, I looked back at Roger. “It’s the only way.”

A long pause. With a grimace, he nodded.

The phone rang twice before Michael picked up. I heard nothing for a few seconds, but then I could hear him talking to someone in the background, “No, I know it’s important. I’m sorry, but I have to take this.” Into the phone, he said, “Yes, Mr. Ambassador?”

“Hunh?”

After a pause, he went on. “No, Mr. Ambassador, I don’t believe the Emirates will be discussed tonight.” There was another pause, and I heard him say off-line, “Really, this is something I need to discuss outside. Sorry, Philip.”

Galsworthy, I thought. He’s trying to get away from Galsworthy.

“Would it help if I yelled into the phone at you?” I asked him, laughing.

“No, Mr. Ambassador, it’s fine,” he replied. “Let me just move over here where I can have some privacy.”

“So this is just all about ditching Galsworthy?”

“Oh, shut up. He was trying to give me a ton of shit about Koliba.” He must have been moving quickly, for his breathing was getting a little forced. “They don’t pay me enough to listen to that asshole.”

Michael, for all his strategizing and plotting on Koliba over the last five months, had been shielded from most of the Congressional rampages about him. The benefits of seniority – he could send us lackeys to sit through the shit, and even duck it in the final stages.

“So what’s up with Roger?”

“Enjoying some fine dining here at his desk.”

“You didn’t buy him dinner, did you?”

Like I needed this. Congress has just passed legislation prohibiting meals like this, but it wouldn’t go into effect on the Senate side until January 1 and besides, I’d bought the dinner for Charlotte, not Roger. He was just eating it. “Is there something I can help you with, Michael? Or is this just a crank call?” I shook my head back and forth, and waved my right arm in the air. Roger stared at me, looking confused.

“Fuck off. I need to talk to him.”

“He’s on the phone.” Roger’s eyebrows rose. “I’ll have him call as soon as he’s finished. Any sign of the bill?”

“That’s what I need to ask him.”

“Will do.” I thumbed the ‘off’ button, and lay the Blackberry on Roger’s desk. “He’s bored,” I said, “it’s 6:15 and the man’s bored. You can call him when we’re done.”

“You’ve been working for him too long,” Roger responded with a smile.

“Tell me about it.”

* * *

A knock on the door startled me, but it was only Mourad, who’d also positioned himself inside the Senate security perimeter for the night. His look was grave.

“She’s gone.”

“Shit, Mourad, she can’t be gone,” I replied, pointing to the TV, “they haven’t done the amendment yet.” Our coastal fisheries amendment, the main reason I was hanging around all night. Mourad had taken on the assignment of bird-dogging Erin Monaghan. His last report, an instant message at 6:30, had been that he’d talked to her, she knew the amendment needed to go that night, and she would do it. She couldn’t be gone.

“The whole office is empty.”

“Maybe she’s at dinner.” Even before glancing at my watch, I knew that was unlikely since it was well past 8:00 p.m. – shit, I thought, it’s already 8:30.

I looked over at him. “Do we have any options?”

“Not that I can see.” He shook his head, and looked over at the gambas still sitting by the television. I guessed that he hadn’t eaten yet. “I gave Peter the folder with the amendment and talkers, and he was going to talk to Raymonda.”

“What time was that?”

“7:00, 7:15, somewhere there.”

“He’s given it to her. I saw him talking with her a little after 7:30, directly behind Belkin on the Floor.” Senate committee staffers sat directly behind their Senators during Floor debates, keeping Senators on schedule with the things they needed to do, and serving as traffic cops working out deals with other Senators while their guy was talking. Some Senators needed their staffers more than others; like Raymonda had demonstrated earlier with Sen. VanderMeer, Belkin was definitely one of those. “And I gave mine to Roger, so we’ve got everything in place for when Colbert gets to the Floor to offer the amendment.”

“Or she gets them to offer it on his behalf.” Mourad walked over toward the television, and reached for a shrimp. Just before taking it, he looked over at me.

I nodded. “Take the whole thing.”

He popped the shrimp in his mouth, and quickly bagged another. He must have been starving. “But she’s gone home,” he mumbled in between chewing.

“I need to go check.”

Mourad stopped. “She’s gone. The entire fourth floor offices are dark. There’s no one there.”

“If this is going down the toilet, I need to be able to tell Michael I tried. Besides, I just need to take a walk.” I pointed to the TV again, where Sen. Belkin was requesting unanimous consent to rescind the order for a roll call, that little nicety that would allow debate to proceed. “I’ve been staring at these assholes doing quorum calls for the last couple of hours, and I need to clear my head. Just keep an eye on them, and I’ll be back.”

Mourad grunted, and let me pass by before heading for Roger’s chair. Must be something about sitting in a staffer’s chair, I thought; he’s ignoring the other two chairs the same way I did.

As I reached for the doorknob, I turned back. “Don’t touch anything, and I mean anything. Roger knows exactly where he left that pile of papers, to within a centimeter. He’ll fry both of us if anything’s changed when he comes back.”

* * *

Ninety minutes later, Mourad and I were getting pretty punchy. I’d given up reclaiming Roger’s chair behind the desk, as Mourad refused to get up to hand it back over. With my back to the door and my chair tilted dangerously back, I’d planted my feet on Roger’s desk and, in between tossing an old tennis ball we’d found back and forth, was doing my Washington-renowned imitation of Sen. Frank Johnson, Roger’s boss, barking out at Mourad for imagined transgressions: “What do you mean, you’re not going to support the bill? What are you, French or something?” The trick was the odd, Clutch Cargo-kind of way he held his mouth when he barked, and the depth that came into his voice, as if he were reaching down into his belly to bring up a deeper, richer sound.

“So we’re having a party?”

I had completely missed the sound of the door opening. My arms flailed as the chair went over and, from the floor, I found myself staring up into Roger’s smiling face.

Mourad roared with laughter, and from the corner of my eye I saw the tennis ball moving in a high arc, and then dropping down at me. Catching it with my right hand, I asked Roger, “How’s the Floor debate going?”

He glanced over at his television. “What do you think?”

Roger carefully placed his folders on his desk, next to the others, and stood watching me as I scrambled to my feet and righted the chair. After a few moments, it became evident he was waiting for something else. Mourad started, and then rose quickly from the chair, moving aside to let Roger by. A nasal sound, like an “mmmmmm,” emanated from somewhere inside him, which I took to be an expression of thanks. Sitting, he pulled the chair close to the desk, and straightened himself out.

Mourad smiled at me as he came around to my side of the desk, the non-Roger side, where we belonged.

“So where is that idiot with the fisheries amendment?” Roger asked, reaching into the lower left-hand drawer of his desk. Bringing out first a white cloth and then a spray can, he sprayed several spots on his desk, and began to wipe them in careful, circular strokes.

My first thought was that he better not start going all OCD on me.

My second thought had me looking quickly at Mourad, shaking my head no. No need to let Roger know yet that we had nothing. “Hasn’t she been to the Floor yet? Last we heard she promised Mourad they’d do the amendment.”

“Well,” he said, “you’re running out of time.” He looked up at us, raising the cloth as he did, and blinked. “They’re working on a unanimous consent to lock down the last five or ten amendments. Belkin’s freaking out because they haven’t done anything in the last two hours. Raymonda’s cornering Senators, staff, anyone she can find to get the agreement finalized.”

I noticed movement on the TV screen, and nudged Mourad to turn up the volume.

“… that the order for a quorum call be rescinded, Mr. President.” It was Belkin. It looked like they’d agreed on something.

“Mr. President, I send an amendment to the desk, which I am pleased to offer on behalf of the gentleman from New Jersey, Mr. Colbert.” Mourad and I looked at each other. They couldn’t be doing our amendment, so what the hell were they doing?

“Mr. President, this amendment will target funding from the military aid section of this bill specifically to protect the precious fisheries off the coast of Africa, including North Africa. These fisheries are threatened by overfishing by the fishing fleets of France, Spain, Korea and other countries, and must be preserved.”

It was our amendment. Those were the talking points I’d written, word for word, except that I’d used ‘precarious,’ not ‘precious.’ The fact that he’d mispronounced it, though, proved that he’d never seen them before, hadn’t even read them before giving this speech – so it was a spur of the moment decision to offer the amendment. Because Erin had talked to Raymonda? Or because Raymonda was tired of Belkin complaining about having nothing to do?

“Roger, this is important.” He was scrubbing again, in circles. He looked up. “Did you talk to Erin tonight?” He shook his head ‘no,’ and blinked. He could tell something was wrong. “Did you see her on the Floor?” ‘No’ again, and much more blinking. Oblivious to the rag in his hand, he pushed his glasses up his nose.

I looked over at Mourad.

“She went home ages ago, Roger,” he said. “We’ve been checking every hour or so, but there’s no way she was here to give Colbert’s clearance on the amendment.”

On the television, Belkin held up the paper he’d been reading from, waving it for effect. “In fact, Mr. President, I would like to ask that I be added as an original co-sponsor on this amendment. This is a fine amendment, and I am proud to co-sponsor it.”

“If the gentleman will yield,” another voice cut in.

“I will be glad to yield to my colleague from Ohio.”

The shot switched to the Democratic side of the aisle, where Subcommittee Chairman and Ohio Senator Robert Naylor was standing. “I would also ask that I be added as an original co-sponsor to this amendment.”

Roger started giggling, slowly at first, but as Naylor continued to expand on the amendment, longer and louder. His face contorted, he said, “You better make sure Colbert approved moving that amendment by the time we start the session tomorrow morning.” Looking back at the desk, he sprayed another spot, as if he’d missed it earlier. “Or you are totally, and I do mean totally, screwed.”

Within two minutes, the amendment had passed. Voice vote.

Mourad and I looked at each other. Roger, again, started giggling.

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