Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 18


Mourad and I were waiting outside Senator Colbert’s office the following as Erin Monaghan approached; we’d been there since 8:00, to be sure we beat her to the office and could catch her on the way in. She saw us from a distance and, for an instant, seemed to think about turning around to walk away: she missed a step, and almost tripped, as if she were pondering her options.

“Good morning, Erin,” Mourad said as she approached. We’d decided he should take the lead.

She stopped, and gave us a downtrodden look. “I’m really sorry, but … well, we’re not going to be able to help you with that amendment.” She looked to the floor, and sighed theatrically. “I’m so sorry. It is a really great idea. We just don’t have the time to take it to the Floor.”

There was a long pause. “Well, Erin,” I said, “we actually have some good news, and maybe some bad news. But not that bad, I guess.”

Mourad looked at me, uncertain.

“The Senate passed the amendment last night.”

“Oh,” she said, “that’s great. Wow. That’s terrific.” She smiled at us.

“Yes, that’s the good news,” I continued. “The maybe bad news is, well, the Senate passed the amendment in Sen. Colbert’s name.”

Her mouth opened, slowly, as a look of shock spread across her face. I waited and, as Mourad started to say something, reached out to stop him. We need her to react before we know what to do next, I thought, glaring at him in the hopes he’d pick up on that somehow. We waited.

After a seemingly interminable pause, she said, “I’ve never had an amendment pass on the Senate Floor before.”

Well, technically you still haven’t, I thought, but we’ll let that go for now.

“It truly is a great amendment, and we feel proud being part of it,” I said, giving her a determined look, one that said, ‘you’re one of us.’ “The thing is, the Floor leaders on the bill had copies of the amendment, and we’d told them to wait until you spoke with them, but they moved the amendment on their own. At, like, 9:30 at night.”

After a moment, I decided that a look of shock might help here, so, glancing first at Mourad, I looked back to her, shocked.

Erin looked confused, while Mourad, clearly out of his league, looked serious but noncommittal.

“Here’s what I suggest,” I said, this time moving a little bit closer while going for conspiratorial. “You should take this to your staff director. The bill has already passed the Senate, but” – I paused, giving her a moment to panic combined with the small shred of hope she might hear in my ‘but’ – “the Senate can still vitiate the vote” – wipe it off the books, pretend like it never happened, through one of their better and most arcane legislative moves – “so the Senator is totally protected.” I paused again here, and nodded meaningfully, letting it sink in. Erin looked at Mourad and, God bless him, he nodded too; he was getting into this. “But it would be too bad to lose such a great amendment.”

She paused, as did I. It was up to her now, and all I needed was for her to figure that out. She looked at Mourad, and then back at me, and then at the floor. We waited.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

As the door closed behind her, Mourad smacked me on the left arm. “You sonofabitch, that was good.”

“Yeah, well, you were great,” I told him. “Completely useless. And ow, by the way.” I rubbed my arm; this one would raise a bruise.

It was a good fifteen minutes before Erin came back through the door. But she came out smiling. “He says it’s okay. We can leave it.”

* * *

“So somebody’s gotta have something good to report.”

It was Michael, the following Monday, leading off our staff meeting in his typical jovial mood. At least, his typical mid-September-Congress-will-wrap-up-soon-and-you-haven’t-done-everything-you-promised-yet jovial mood, meaning he wasn’t very jovial at all.

Our victory with the coastal fisheries amendment was short-lived, as the continuing television coverage of the disaster in Golongo was giving us a major Koliba hangover. We were spending way too much time watching CNN reports from the capital – they’d finally snuck someone into Kinshasa, not the lovely Miss Amanpour, of course, but some unknown, unshaven rookie reporting from the tank-filled streets on the continuing rumors, innuendo and general lawlessness. It was somewhat addicting, in that car-wreck kind of way.

Tom was back, glummer than ever since even he had been forced to start thinking ill of his client, and because he was feeling that the odds for accomplishing anything for Koliba were somewhere a few degrees south of zero. I was a little more sanguine than that, both because of America’s general inability to pay attention to anything that happens in Africa for more than a week or two, and because Koliba’s Congressional opponents, now numbering in the hundreds, weren’t positioned to do much of anything bad this late in the year. The appropriations bill had already passed the House and Senate, and we had a month or two to go before Joint Conference. But I wasn’t saying anything out loud, because the moment I did they’d hold me to it, turning the slightest comment that we might have a chance of getting out of this alive – no pun intended – into a firm commitment I’d have to meet. So I just sat quiet, hoping not to be noticed.

“Ed, what do we do?”

Well, there went that idea.

“Right now, nothing,” I replied, staring back at Michael. “Our best plan is to sit silent and let the furor die down a little.” To my left, Tom shifted uncomfortably in his seat. At least it seemed like he was uncomfortable, or at least wanted me to think so; he lifted up a little, shifted his shoulders and arms in one direction, his ass and hips in another, like he had a king-sized wedgie and was trying to shimmy his way out of it. Once he’s settled, as if for good measure, he coughed. I ignored his Mr. Subtle act. “It’s still early in the month, and Koliba just isn’t the kind of thing that stays on the front pages that long. We just have to lay low for now.”

“They’re not paying us to lay low, though, are they?” Michael was glaring at me, disgusted with my plan. Michael’s biggest problem as a lobbyist was in being a man of action, a hoverer, someone who felt we always needed to be doing something. Like a chef who can’t stop opening the oven over and over again to check on a soufflé, ruining it in the end. He never liked my theory that when you had a plan in place, and knew it was working, you needed to let it play out. He was a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy, while I was a Hail-Mary man all the way. This part of the year that always meant holding him back while watching carefully that none of my carefully laid plans went to shit. Best way to hold him back?

“Michelle and I’ll hit the House side again today,” I said, “see what we can find.” Three yards and a cloud of dust.

* * *

“So what’s the plan?” It was Michelle, on the she-slid-over side of the cab. She had an earnest look on her face, apparently not yet in on the joke that was this trip to the Hill.

Looking over, I wondered how long it had been since I’d shown that face, that open, friendly, I-believe-in-you face that she was wearing. Back somewhere before I stopped believing in the issues and started believing in the game, I supposed.

I leaned up toward the cabbie, and spoke through the window in his plastic barrier. “Instead of Rayburn, just drop us at the corner of Second Street, just past the Madison Building of the Library of Congress.” Looking into his eyes through the mirror, I saw that he knew which one I meant, the modern, anonymous block of stone and glass facing Independence Avenue, as opposed to the original, majestic Jefferson Building across the street.

“Why are we heading there?”

“Starbucks. We’ll catch a coffee and lay out the plan,” I responded. Turning to look out the window on my right, I continued, half to myself, “Or at least make one up.”

Just about the worst thing you could do in this business was to argue in support of your client when the whole world was against you. That first day of meetings that we went to the Hill on Koliba, that was just to give people a chance to rant. With the end of the year still a couple of months away, with nothing on foreign aid moving, this was an extremely good time to lay low, keep our heads down and hope people would forget about us in light of the latest hurricane, or another Middle East hiccup, or coup rumors in East Kablooistan. Jeez, even the latest budget deficit numbers. Anything that would get their minds off Koliba for a while.

Besides which, sticking your face in just to talk to people was a horrible way to do lobbying. People in Washington never had time for meaningless meetings. They had time for a free lunch or dinner. They had time to get a cup of coffee if you bumped into them on the street. They even usually had time to catch a quick drink after work with you at the Pinnacle, or the Hawk and Dove if you were on the House side. But they never had time for you to stop by to blab.

Especially not when they were appropriators heading into the last couple months of the year.

Looking out the cab window, I watched the Rayburn Building slide slowly by, as our cab struggled up the long incline that is Capitol Hill. So here we were, we’d reached the Hill, and I had nothing. Where could I go in those halls that would do the least damage, but give me something to report back to Michael and get him off my back?

I glanced ahead through the windshield to check the car in front of us. As I suspected, it was pulling away. Another disaster of a D.C. cab was slowing us down, not the traffic. That’s all right, I thought, I still don’t have any frigging idea what to do.

“Goddammit, this is stupid.”

What?” Michelle seemed shocked. Jesus, I didn’t mean to scare her, I thought.

“This.” I waved my arms around the air, as if that meant something. “Running to the Hill. What’s the fucking point?”

“I don’t have any idea.” She was staring now, her eyes a little wide, her mouth locked in an effort to say something more. Finally she spit out, “I, I, I, Jesus, you practically dragged me out to the cab with you. I assumed you knew what you were doing.”

“Don’t always assume that.” The kid was starting to bug me, the way she always did. “You have to learn to have your own ideas. Koliba’s not just my problem, for Christ’s sake.”

She stared at me for a moment, motionless. At least, as motionless as you can get in a D.C. cab rattling to a stop on a downtown D.C. street. “Well, shit, then,” she finally said, “we’ll just talk to people who don’t even known Koliba exists.”

Well, duh.

* * *

Six shots of watery Starbucks espresso later – three per espresso macchiato, the second more to kill time than because I needed it – Michelle and I set out on her simple yet elegant plan. If talking to our opponents about Koliba was just going to focus their attention on how to make him pay, and talking to our friends about him just going to get them to yell at us about what a lousy sonofabitch we were working for, we should just avoid the topic entirely. Doable. It would take a little luck, ducking anyone we didn’t want to see while slipping in to see those we did, but that’s a pretty routine operation in lobbying, knowing which halls were the least traveled, climbing an extra flight of stairs to get out off the high traffic floors, where the Committee rooms are, onto the quieter ones.

We entered Longworth on the south side, along C Street SE, the less-traveled side of the building. Turning right at the entrance, we headed to the stairs, toward our target, the 3rd floor office of Rep. Tommy Walston, Republican of Alabama, Chairman of the House Republican Conference, another darling of the right-to-life and religion crowd. He was from the same wing of the party as Henry Little, the loon who Will Richardson had told me to ally myself with, but Walston was actually a reasonable human being despite the fire-and-brimstone attitude he adopted on the House Floor and in front of TV cameras. He served on the House Commerce and Small Business committees, a seemingly odd pairing for someone whose main face in politics was bringing religion and family values back in America. Truth be told, he was most successful at protecting jobs at the Boeing plant in his district, and the Toyota plant next door, half of whose employees live and vote in Walston’s district.

One of the biggest lies in Washington was the one people told about knowing everything there is to know about everything. The dirty little secret was that most of them, even the best, only knew about their own sphere of influence: the foreign aid world, the defense spending world, the world of taxes and revenues, or of whatever their primary committee assignments might be, along with maybe, maybe some smaller subset reflecting a personal interest. Someone like Walston, good as he was, knew everything in the Commerce Department budget, how big it was, what it was for, and how he could squeeze a little ‘juice’ out of it to the benefit of the folks back home. Other than that, he focused on the internal politics of Republicans in the House, who he oversaw as head of the Conference.

Similarly, his staff was divided into a couple of people who focused on Commerce and Small Business, somebody doing defense and homeland security, some poor schlub who answered constituent mail, and a junior kid whose formal title should have been “Legislative Assistant, Kitchen Sink.” This was the job in every office held by some pimply young kid, usually a Politics major from HomeState U, who pretty much didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. In this office, it was Kenny Thurgood, tall, lanky, still just a tad pimply at 24 or 25 years old, with an odd habit of tilting his head to the left and down as he spoke to you, especially when he was tense. And he was tense pretty much all of the time.

That’s who we were here to see.

“Kenny.” Michelle put out her hand in greeting as Ken walked out from the back office, glasses slid far down his nose, shirt loose at the left of his waist, a grimace on his face. “How’ve you been?”

Michelle knew Kenny from grad school at Georgetown, where he was in the International Security Studies Masters Program, a sort of elephants’ graveyard where old national security practitioners went to die … I mean, teach. Old warhorses teaching young hopefuls – and hopelessly deludeds – in the intricacies of American foreign policy and national security in an age when none of us seemed to have a clue where the next threat was or would come from. It was a useful degree if you spent your two years in the program networking your way into the Washington establishment and laying the groundwork for a future career. Otherwise, like most Masters programs in politics or policy, it was pretty much a waste.

Kenny came from among the hopelessly deludeds, the ones who think their degree will get them a job. Michelle had told me over coffee once that Kenny spent about 18 months hunting around Washington in search of a national security position, and took this sea-slug of a job with Walston as an absolute last resort. Right after he got there, Walston had been voted in as Chair of the Conference, the policy organization for all House Republicans. It hadn’t changed Kenny’s job, and he spent about ten percent of his time on foreign policy, but working for the Conference Chair was never a bad thing – and neither was knowing someone hidden away in that office. Kenny always welcomed Michelle when she visited, and I always encouraged her to visit.

This time was no exception. “You two free for coffee?”

Michelle snickered under her breath at the idea of me drinking more coffee, but I spoke first. “Sure, I haven’t had a cup all day,” I said, glancing at her in silent warning. This could easily kill another 40 minutes if we were lucky.

As we headed out the door toward the elevator, I started in on Kenny with a discussion of the Dungan, and their concerns about possible religious and cultural oppression by the Kazakh Government. Walking the halls, I blabbered through my stock speech while watching for anyone I might know, lest I have to duck behind a bush or plant to evade any Koliba discussions. The standard spiel rolled off my tongue without much effort, both because I didn’t need Kenny to do anything and because I’d been doing it all year and knew it by heart. Kenny was fascinated, his questions pulling me into discussions of political differences among the Stans, and the relative levels of unpleasantness exercised by the Kazakh and Turkmen dictators. All in all, he had a pretty good sense of the region, telling me he’d specialized in former Soviet states while at Georgetown, an interest he’d obviously kept up with since.

Standing in line in the Longworth cafeteria, I poured myself a massive cup of their watery coffee. Once again, when taste is missing, volume conquers all. While Michelle unobtrusively paid for the three coffees, undoubtedly violating some new ethics rule as she did so, I walked with Kenny to an empty table near the back, about equally far from the cash registers and the cafeteria doors. I’d learned long before that it was seldom a good idea to be surprised by someone walking in on you in the middle of a shtick.

As we sat, Kenny asked, “You guys work for Koliba, right? What’s your take on the letter that’s being circulated?”

I froze for a moment. Letter, letter, letter, nope, nothing buried in my head about any letter on Koliba. Must be new.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” I replied.

“Of what?” Michelle asked, catching up with us.

“Oh, shit,” Kenny said. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you about it. It’s pretty harsh.”

I laughed at that. “Oh, that we’d expect. At this point, anything on Koliba’s going to be pretty hard.” I took a moment to slide into my seat, consciously relaxing my body. I needed him to see me as non-threatening, to get that I was just another joe. “You know, half our business is telling the client what Congress thinks, not just asking for favors. We’re two-way information sources, so the more we can tell them the better.”

Michelle was looking at me as I spoke, her face showing much less than it would have just six months earlier. The intensity in her eyes gave her away, staring at me as they were with only the slightest crinkle at the corners, something only I’d notice. I smiled, and looked back to Kenny. “I don’t suppose you have a copy of the draft with you, do you?”

“I don’t think I could do that,” he said, looking over at Michelle. “I mean, we haven’t even decided on whether we’re going to sign it. Besides, I don’t have it on me.”

“No problem,” I said. “We’ll figure something out. Besides, we’re here to talk about the Dungan, anyway. Where were we, discussing the joys of yak milk, right?” I laughed again, and slipped back into my spiel.

Twenty minutes later, watching Kenny trundle off down the hall, I turned to Michelle. “Follow after him and get that letter. I don’t care how you do it, bat your eyes at him, give him the whole frigging Georgetown thing, tell him how Saxa the Hoyas are, how you Hoyas need to stick together, whatever, just get the letter.”

“I thought you gave up on that a little easy.” Michelle smiled grimly.

“I’d have had to drag it out of him,” I said, “making him feel guilty about it. You can wheedle it out of him, and he’ll give it up feeling like he’s doing a buddy a favor. I do it, it’s the last thing we get out of him; you do it, you’ve got a co-conspirator for life.”

Michelle stared at me for a moment before speaking. “Half the time when you talk strategy to me, I feel like I’m listening to Satan.” Turning to follow Kenny, I could hear her continue under her breath, “What a crazy fucking job this is.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it, I thought.

* * *

Two days later, Michelle and I sat together in the third row of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room, watching yet another assault on Koliba. I’d had another line-sitter holding my seat for me, something Michelle had complained about mightily if in whispers when I got there – he apparently wasn’t exactly Mr. Hygiene – but was pleased to see that the Committee was well into the Koliba debate by the time of my arrival, so I’d had the good fortune to miss much of it. Michelle was miserable.

House Committee debates are always much more intense than Senate debates, more antagonistic, more spiteful across party divides, and just generally more unpleasant to sit through. I think that’s why I liked this Committee so much more than its Senate counterpart; if you have to sit through four hours of deadly debate, there might as well be fireworks to keep you entertained. Michelle, however, didn’t see it that way.

“How long’s it been going?” I asked.

“Koliba? The last hour,” she murmured, shaking her head.

“What’s the issue?”

“Anderson” – Congressman Ted Anderson, fourth ranking Republican on the panel and a raving madman of the party’s lunatic fringe – “is trying to defend Koliba as an island of stability.”

I started, and turned to scan the crowd. “Tom’s not here, is he?”

“He came in about forty minutes ago,” she said, looking surprised. “Walked in with Anderson. He’s over by the other door, up against the wall. Why?”

There he was, ramrod straight, standing watch. Jesus Christ Almighty, I thought to myself, he’s decided to pick a fight. This one, I knew, he was going to lose: half the Republicans on this particular panel paid serious attention to human rights issues, and most of the rest of them were smart enough not to pick fights on the issue except when they had to. Which was more than often enough, given the White House’s loathing of any Congressional meddling in such matters.

“Oh well, nothing I can do.” I smiled at Michelle, who still looked confused. I straightened out in my seat, and leaned over to her. “I’m glad you were here. If I’d seen Tom walk in like that, I’d have known he put Anderson up to it and would probably have strangled him.” She looked over at Tom, and back at Anderson, shaking her head.

Tuning in the debate, I decided that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. Anderson was being pretty nasty, and, while he was clearly outnumbered, Koliba’s opponents on the Committee were so consumed with responding to him, venting their spleen about our evil client, that he might be giving them the target they needed. With all this caterwauling, maybe they’d feel like they’d made their point on Koliba and stop worrying about him for the rest of the year. I could only hope.

My Crackberry buzzed in my pocket. I’d put it on silent, meaning that it had to be an IM from Charlotte. That was odd; she knew I was in one hearing or the other, and wouldn’t be taking calls.

I slid the device from my pocket, and marveled at the stream of new messages. Charlotte’s topped the list, but there were six others, all IMs, all about Richardson. ‘Ethics takes up Richardson’ read the first, and the others mirrored that. Charlotte’s said simply, ‘Call me now.’

I shook my head. Larry Craig’s two-step in a Minnesota airport restroom had pushed Will off the front pages for several weeks, but it looked like it was now his turn to be roasted over the slow flame that Washington and network reporters call ‘news.’

Glancing out the window to my right, I paused. I hadn’t seen Will since the news hit the Post, and hadn’t tried to. I was still pissed at him, not so much for almost bringing me into his scandal, but for being so stupid as to do something like this in the first place. The city was teeming with – well, looking at it through Will’s eyes – pussy, and he had to set up some completely crazy-ass scheme just to secure his supply? There was something entirely too sick about that, entirely too Washington about that, and I just didn’t need it. I’d walked away from Will, and didn’t regret it.

I thumbed a note back to Charlotte. ‘Saw Richardson news.’ Send. ‘Will call when hfac done.’ Send.

I started to slip the Crackberry back in my pocket when it buzzed sharply in my hand. “Fuck,” I muttered, almost dropping it. The vibrate on those things is pretty muffled when tucked in my jacket, but always freaks me out when it goes off in my hand.

‘No. Call now.’ Another note from Charlotte.

That couldn’t be good. She never, ever dragged me out of a hearing. Never.

I looked at Michelle and asked, “You okay here? You have it covered?”

“Yes,” she said, looking around. “I think so. Why?”

“I have to go, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back in.” I reached down under my seat for my notepad and copies of the bills. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t let Tom get too far off the reservation.”

As I rose, she clutched my arm from behind and pulled. “What do I do?”

I sat back down, and turned toward her. “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do, so don’t worry about it.” I smiled to reassure her. “I was kidding. I do hope that Tom stops this soon, because Beach up there” – I pointed toward the dais, where old-timer and longtime liberal Republican Tim Beach of Iowa was turning all sorts of shades of red – “looks like he’s going to have a stroke listening to someone say good things about Koliba.”

Seeing her relax a little, I continued. “Listen, kid. Most of the time we just play the cards we’ve been dealt. So don’t worry so much about what’s going to happen. What happens, happens. We’re just along for the ride.”

* * *

Heading out of the Committee room, I told the doorkeeper I was just running to the men’s room and would be right back. That way, if it wasn’t anything serious with Charlotte, there was a slim chance I might still be able to reclaim my seat.

Turning left, I walked quickly down the hall to the elevators, and lucked out by finding the doors on an ‘up’ elevator opening as I arrived. Three floors up, I turned left again and headed for the long corridor leading to Heaney’s office.

Coming in the door, I said a quick hello to Joanna and, pointing to Charlotte’s office, said simply, “She in?”

“Go ahead,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

As I entered the office, Charlotte was standing by the oversized window, her back to me, her arms crossed. From where I was standing, she seemed smaller than ever.

“Honey?”

She turned. She looked strained. “The FBI were here.”

I walked quickly over to her, and took her in my arms. God, she was small, and felt smaller than ever as she put her arms around me. She was shaking. “What happened?”

“They came in, and asked to talk to me.” She pointed in the direction of her desk. “They closed the door, sat down, and started asking me questions.”

“Jesus, what about?”

“Will.”

Oh God, it was the Richardson investigation. But what? His house parties, the dinners? I’d never gone. Maybe my political contributions, the ones I’d been bundling over the years? But the law requiring bundlers to disclose their activities had just been passed, and wouldn’t even go into effect until January 1.

Jesus, I thought, I never believed we’d get dragged into this, and standing there I felt a chill go through me. These fucking FBI investigations had gotten insane, beginning with the Duke Cunningham case, where his entire style of living turned out to be corrupt, and followed quickly that idiot from Louisiana, William Jefferson, who hid cash in his freezer and incriminating documents in his Congressional office. These in turn pointed a beacon at the various investment property investigations involving Denny Hastert, Alan Mollohan and the others who earmarked federally funded projects right next to properties they or their wives had invested in, driving up the value of their land to obscene heights. With all this floating around, the FBI had been rumored to be running a whole series of witch hunts into any Member of Congress whose conduct raised even the slightest suspicion. Most of the fuckers deserved it, but often it bled over to their staffs, who were mostly – and certainly in Charlotte’s case – unaware of the goings-on.

“So why’d they want to talk to you?”

“They wanted to know what amendments Richardson might have slipped into the Chairman’s bill.” She looked up at me. “Can you believe it?”

I was confused. “What does that have to do with us?”

“With me, stupid, I review the Members’ requests, remember?”

Oh Jesus, it wasn’t me at all.

I was relieved, but the anger and fear in me spilled out. “Fucking A, sweetie, everyone sticks shit into in the Veterans Affairs bill, it’s a fucking Christmas tree.” It is surely that, a bill for funding new VA clinics and hospitals and so Committee members could be looking over the Veterans Administration’s shoulder. Mostly it’s someplace to get on local TV talking about veterans, and how important they are, and how much a Member cares, truly cares about the plight of vets. I always found that the best way to tell when a Congressman was spinning a pile of bullshit was to count the number of times he used the word ‘care’ as a verb; the more he said it, the more he was lying. Anytime someone said it more than ten times in a single speech, it was time to take him out back and vote the sumbitch out of office.

“Nothing personal, babe, but there’s more shit shoveled into that bill than just about anything else up here,” I laughed, trying desperately to lighten her up. I felt a small rumble in her, like something of a giggle.

“Hey,” she said, pulling back to look up into my eyes. She was smiling a little. “That’s my boss’s Committee.”

“Is he here?”

“No, he’s already headed back to the district for the weekend.”

“Yeah?” I said. “Well, then it’s a bullshit assignment and you know it.” She laughed, and leaned back into me. I hugged her tighter, and smiled slightly. She was calming down if she could laugh. There was more to learn here, but she was calming down.

But I needed room to breathe.

* * *

Leaving the office about 20 minutes later, I headed outside, into the stifling heat, just to get out of the building and away. I left Rayburn by the side entrance, the one facing Longworth, and turned right out the cavernous driveway toward C Street, and then left on C. I walked slowly; it was September, but we were still in one of those horribly miserable D.C. summer weeks, 96 degrees and the humidity at 143 percent. I didn’t care, just needing to walk, away from that place where she’d been interviewed, away from the interview itself, and especially away from my own reactions to it.

I followed C Street past the rear side of the Longworth Building, the rear of Cannon, and finally, an eternity in this steaming heat, along the long back side of the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. At the corner of 2nd Street, SE, I turned left and crossed the street at an angle, walking north again toward the Starbucks I’d been in with Michelle just two days earlier. It would have been somewhat shorter to come around the other way, turning left out of Rayburn and getting onto Independence there, but that was the main drag this time of day, Members, lobbyists and staffers crossing between buildings and over to the Capitol, or up to where Independence hit Pennsylvania if headed toward the restaurants and bars. The way I came, I had less chance of running into anyone I knew, and it worked.

I was sweating like a demon by the time I hit Starbucks, and looking at my reflection in a window along the way, could see how wilted I was. At the bar, I ordered myself two bottles of water and my triple espresso. I carried the water to an open table near the side while waiting for my coffee, opened one of the bottles, and took a long slug. “I hate this fucking town,” I heard myself say aloud. “I really do.”

Turning back toward the bar, I could see a startled customer looking over at me. I smiled, muttered “Bad day” to him, and headed for the bar to snag my espresso.

Stirring three sugars into the cup, I stared at the wall in front of me. There were so many things wrong with the conversation I’d just had with Charlotte. My reaction, thinking it was about me and not even considering it might be about Charlotte. The simple fact that it could have been about me, had I gone to that dinner Will invited me too, or had the FBI been smart enough to connect me to Charlotte. The fact that this was my life, hanging out with people like this who could flame out at almost any moment. What in God’s name was I doing? And was there any way out?

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