Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 2


“Need I remind you that they’re not even a country?”

Charlotte looked up from her chopping, glaring at me, carving knife raised. I laughed.

It was only a few days after my first meeting with the Dungan, and while I’d had several days to revel in my euphoria, my wife Charlotte and I were still trying to come to grips with what this client-to-be entailed. It was part of a much larger discussion, and occasional argument, about what I wanted to do with my life after spending a decade or so of it helping our foreign friends. As long as I was just working for Michael, I had some freedom of action; now that I was bringing in my own client, though, that made it all seem more permanent.

I turned to the other counter to grab some plates, and headed for the dining room. Make yourself useful, I thought to myself, just do it in another room. Placing the plates around the table, more slowly perhaps than was necessary, I tried to think of a response that might rescue the conversation. This was an increasingly important issue between us, and I hadn’t yet found an easy answer to her worries.

Her basic argument was simple: I was working for everyone but America. As a lobbyist, you have to believe that you’re working for the good guys, people who deserved what they were asking for – or at least people that were just as deserving as anybody else. In foreign policy lobbying, it’s tougher: that $30 million I wanted for Morocco could just as easily go to a jobs program in Detroit. (Actually, it couldn’t, but only for all sorts of crazy budget rules that could all be circumvented anyway.) Over about three or four years, Charlotte and I had been talking more and more about this ‘why not America?’ question, as I successfully lobbied for small African nations, countries emerging out of Yugoslavia, tiny trade associations, and now a friendship society whose purpose I still wasn’t entirely sure of. “Can’t you ever do anything for Americans?” she’d ask. Foreign aid and foreign policy work is for America, I’d answer. “Americans,” she’d glower.

The issue was bigger than that; it was about the whole question of lobbying. Lobbying is one of those fields where there isn’t really a ‘you,’ only a ‘them,’ the client. I’d spent my career finding government money that other people could spend (or more likely, misspend), getting meaningless snippets of language signed into law, pushing resolutions that honored the Right Honorable Anybody from Anywhere for doing something the average person might do any day of the week. Just for them, the client, the people paying me to do it. She wanted to know what I wanted out of life.

Like I had any frigging idea.

So there I was, setting the table, trying to stay out of her way while thinking that we still had time for a quickie before Mourad, Halima and the others showed up – if I could somehow get Charlotte to chill about my future, to move a little faster with the cooking, and to give me a few minutes in the sack, or on the sofa, or wherever. Glancing forlornly over at the couch, I knew that would never work: ever since I’d told her about the Dungan, she’d been more upset about my ‘furriners’ than ever. Until we settled that, I knew there wouldn’t be a whole lot of sneaking off for quickies.

* * *

I hadn’t seen it coming, that evening following my meeting with the Dungan when I first told her about my potential client. I waited until we were both home, she after a staff meeting that ran late, me after a long walk home in the cold replaying the client pitch meeting in my mind to be sure I’d read it right. I was still warming up in the living room when she arrived, my back against the couch, a glass of Cabernet half-drunk next to me, reading some articles in that day’s Post I’d skipped over earlier. Charlotte came through the door weighed down by her long winter coat, an overlong scarf she’d nabbed from me, and two briefcases – one for the laptop and some papers, the other just for papers. As she shed them, layer after layer, she asked me how my day had gone.

I’d started right in on the story, focusing less on the gymnastics of getting to Harry’s office – a tale she’d heard many time before – and more on the clients, their attitudes, their interactions, the old man and his link to the boy, Kincaid’s silence vs. his partner’s openness. I spoke fast in my excitement, missing some of the details so I had to go back to what I’d glossed over. She headed from the closet to the kitchen as I rambled on, grabbing a plate, cheese, some crackers and sliced ham that she rolled up as we talked, while I leaned in through the hot-dog window opening into the kitchen from the dining/living room space. She listened, taking it all in, considering it, as we walked back over to the couch, her with the food, me with the wine and a second glass. As usual, she heard more than I said as she mulled through their behaviors, laughing at the right places but apparently unsure where the story was headed. She especially wanted to know about the exchange with Kincaid about FARA, and his partner’s agreement on the money. She wasn’t as sure as I was yet, but I knew in my heart I’d win her over – after all, it wasn’t until all her questions were done that I told her the best part – it would be my very own client.

“They’re not hiring Michael, they’re hiring me.”

“Whaaaht?” She looked up from where she’s been picking at another cracker; I noticed that her body had gone perfectly still. “What do you mean, you? You work for Michael.”

“Well, Harry told me, I … I … they said they wanted me,” I stumbled, caught somehow, feeling like when my mother used to catch me stealing candy; suddenly the mood had shifted. “I spoke to Harry after … he said it was my client, not Michael’s. Michael can’t stop that.”

“How deep into this business do you want to get? I thought you wanted to get out.” She leaned back, her face suddenly flushed, and turned away to look out into the alley behind our apartment, on the light snow that had begun to fall, at the trees and the fire escapes as it gathered, anywhere but at me.

I turned to look out with her, my heart sinking as I did. I’d been so excited about the idea of a client, of finally breaking through and landing something that was mine, I hadn’t foreseen this at all. “Jesus.”

“You’ve talked about being unhappy in this business for years now, being miserable with the constant chatter, the lack of satisfaction, your need to do more.” Her voice was rising with every word, and her knuckles were white around her fork. She turned to look at me. “I thought you were serious.”

“Honey, I … I dunno, I said it’s time to think about doing something else. I said it’s time we look to the future. I said, shit, I don’t know, I…” This was going downhill fast. I ran through my memory, trying to remember what I’d said about my career. Hell, everyone complains about their career, I thought, looking down at my wineglass. Sure, these last couple of years I’d been complaining some too, but it wasn’t like I had even the slightest idea of what else I might do. I certainly wasn’t ready to leave yet. Glancing over at her, I gave her a skeptical look and, not sure what to say, just shook my head a little.

“Jesus Christ. Is that the best you’ve got?” She stood then, dropping a cracker on her plate and turning quickly away. “I’m going to bed.”

“Honey,” I called.

The infuriating thing in all this was that Charlotte’s really hot when she’s angry, a little pistol, a thin, smallish figure with an intensity that would blow you away. She has a fire in her eyes, especially when she’s impassioned, and her cheeks color with a warm glow. She always got her whole body into it somehow, and watching her rise and begin to leave I felt my desire rising, and hated being so confused. “We should talk,” I said quietly, not quite like I meant it.

Charlotte stopped by the living room door for a moment, and turned. “I’m not the one with nothing to say. All you’ve got for me is ‘um, uhhhh, uhhhh, um.’ That doesn’t cut it.” She shook her head, and turning back walked on toward the bedroom, her stockinged feet sliding just a little on the wooden floor.

* * *

“It’s like I’ve been telling you for years – the Arab states have to recognize that the war in Iraq changed everything.” Peter laughed, his short, hard-to-read laugh, the one that always left me unsure whether he was serious or not, that seemed to give him an out if he offended any of us. “They’ve got no choice.”

Peter Chase was in his element, playing to the crowd, spouting bullshit to see what kind of reaction he could get. He was one of the most arrogant people I knew, matched only by Philip Galsworthy, who unfortunately for the rest of us was sitting directly across from him. If we’re not careful, I thought, these two idiots will drag us into a three-hour debate on Iraq – hardly the way to spend an evening among friends.

Eight of us were settled in at dinner, scattered around the table, Charlotte at one end near the kitchen and me at the opposite, with the couples split up around the table. Charlotte had insisted on sitting with Mourad on one side and her good friend Kevin Carlson on the other, if only because she couldn’t stand listening to Peter and especially hated the sight of Philip, Kevin’s partner. I had Halima, Mourad’s wife, to my right, and Alexis, a beautiful young thing unfortunately married to Peter, on my left. Peter and Philip faced each other across the center of the table.

“Jesus, Peter, you are so full of shit,” I responded to his laughter.

Charlotte started, and with a quick glance at Halima, said, “Ed, our guests.”

Halima smiled. “No, Charlotte, reeeeally,” dragging it out the way that native Arabic speakers do, “I agree: he eees full of shit.”

That brought a laugh from just about everyone. Halima, petite, generally very quiet but always impish when she piped up, smiled at Charlotte and then me. Even an Embassy wife can have a sense of humor, she seemed to be saying.

Her husband Mourad reached out to Charlotte. “In Morocco, we do not encourage our wives to be so bold,” he said. He paused as he glanced over at his wife. “Except when they are speaking with people like Monsieur Chase, ces hommes complètement de la merde, so to speak.” Halima tittered, while Peter looked a little confused.

“Full of shit,” I translated. Peter laughed, this time for real.

I liked Mourad, liked him a lot. Morocco was a former client of ours, and Mourad my former client manager, then Second Secretary at the Embassy, but now the Deputy Chief of Mission. We’d had a lot of fun; the Government had hired us to earmark some money, and thanks to Mourad’s contacts and mine we’d worked out the deals we needed to secure a $12 million earmark about two months into the year. That allowed us to spend the year hanging out, without a whole lot of worries whether we’d get anything done. So we’d take staffers to Orioles games, or to the Kennedy Center, and out to a nice dinner somewhere – with Mourad paying the bills, we avoided the restrictions at the time on lobbyists paying for food. It was a good deal. It didn’t hurt any that Charlotte and Halima got along like gangbusters, either.

This was our first dinner of the year, the first with guests, that is. We entertained at home a lot, mostly because bringing friends in to eat has never been considered buying them a meal. Besides, Charlotte and I had always loved cooking, if only because it gave us such a sense of achievement: when we cooked a meal, we got to sit right down and eat it. Instant gratification. In a city like Washington, where most things took months if not years to finish, everybody needed a little of that or they’d go crazy. Some people played golf, day in, day out, raining or not; some people shopped. Us, we cooked.

As we always did with the first dinner of the year, this was something of a ‘round the horn’ dinner, bringing together people from throughout the process who seldom got to see one another. Peter and his lovely wife Alexis were a bicameral couple, he on the Senate side, she on the House. She was wasting her time as a secretary on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a starter job of the sort she’d never been able to get out of, while Peter was one of my Senate-side go-to guys, this term working as defense and foreign policy staffer for the Senate Majority Leader, a killer job in this status-conscious town. On looks alone, Alexis was totally out of Peter’s league, except for the whole ‘older and wiser’ thing he had going; in truth, they were intellectual equals, but he never seemed to give her any credit for that and used his long years in the Senate to play the senior statesman in the family. I had no sense what she saw in him, but then again was smart enough to realize that maybe I was just biased – blue eyes, blonde hair, I’d always been a sucker for all that.

The last couple was another two-fer, two authorizing committee staffers, and a different Washington tradition at that: another gay Washington power couple, Kevin Carlson and Philip Galsworthy. Kevin worked on the Democratic side of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Philip the Republican side of Senate Foreign Relations. I’d actually introduced them several years back, shortly after Kevin’s then-partner moved to Seattle to run for City Council. They were an absolute odd couple – both half-in, half-out of the closet depending on who they were with. Philip’s fellow Republican staffers politely ignored the fact that he was gay, as did the whole Heritage Foundation crowd. Kevin was very ‘out,’ at least in Democratic circles, where being gay was prized in a staffer as evidence of an employer’s openness to diversity. In this way, Kevin and Philip’s opposing political philosophies were a plus: since they never socialized together at political functions, Kevin didn’t have to try to pretend to be in the closet, and Philip didn’t have to worry about being dragged out of his.

Kevin and Charlotte had known each other from their first D.C. jobs together working for Rep. Charles Peterson, a liberal Democrat from Washington state. It was pure coincidence and sheer luck that Kevin’s job put him in a position to help me out, the kind of luck that happens all the time in Washington. I liked Kevin, if only because he held Charlotte’s hand through a couple more crappy bosses after she left Peterson’s office, a shoulder to cry on, giving her advice and then job leads that rescued her from bad situations. He even provided the lead on a job in the office of her latest asshole boss, Rep. Heaney of Tennessee, but she didn’t blame him for that one. I’d always thought that Heaney was someone she was able to live with, that either because by then she could take anything a boss could throw at her, or because there was something less obnoxious about him that let her put up with his shenanigans. Now, I thought as I watched them chatting, heads close together, maybe it’s just that after three assholes in a row she’d given up on finding anything better and decided to stick it out – at least until I decided what I wanted out of life.

At a dinner party similar to this one, I’d introduced Philip and Kevin. I’d asked Philip to join at the last minute, after Kevin’s relationship had gone bust and we had an empty seat to fill. I wasn’t planning to set them up; I didn’t even know until Kevin’s gaydar went off that Philip was gay. I was just trying to fill out the dinner table, with Philip the right choice because I needed to a favor from him. So Kevin latched onto Philip – who, despite being an asshole, was a handsome guy; I got my favor from Philip; and I earned Charlotte’s undying annoyance for bringing the two of them were together. Charlotte had this ‘thing’ about knowing who was right for who. Philip definitely wasn’t right for Kevin, and it was all my fault.

Tonight’s was the kind of dinner party I liked most. For a process lobbyist – as opposed to an access lobbyist – this was the perfect collection of people. My job was to work the system, not any one individual in it. An access lobbyist knows one or two Members of Congress and leverages that to the limit, like Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes did when they bought Duke Cunningham for the 30,000 or so pieces of silver he demanded. As a process lobbyist I worked everyone, trying to get our clients to be item #3 on a whole bunch of request lists rather than item #1 on any of them. Subcommittee Chairmen loved granting wishes like those, wish #3 on five Members’ wish lists. Think about it: they’d get five happy Subcommittee members because they were able to give them something, and by doing it add to the number of votes for the bill.

Problem was, that meant a lot of balancing acts, especially when you needed to entertain lots of different people and put them in lots of different mixes, putting together dinners like this one where two-thirds of the agenda was fun and one-third work – just the intrusion of Washington into our social life that Charlotte hated. I glanced down the table to find her staring at me as the conversation rolled on around us. The grim smile on her face told me she was reading my thoughts again, listening about our social life being indistinguishable from my business life, and the fact that as long as I stayed in Washington as a lobbyist we’d never get away from dinners like these, convening and entertaining our friends, not sure whether they were friends or just freeloaders. God, she knows me so well, I thought.

* * *

We’d met at Michael’s house, at some party or other. Charlotte was relatively new to Washington then, working for a junior Foreign Affairs Committee member. There was something about her, some spark, some intensity that made me notice her immediately from across the room. She isn’t a traditional beauty, and she’s tiny, but she’s perfectly proportioned, has lovely carved features, and eyes, eyes that … well, they fleck and shimmer from green to brown and back again, and they drew me like some pitiful moth whizzing round and round the neighbor’s bug zapper until the inevitable ZITZ!

The Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, a short Italian immigrant from California who’d been in the Korean War and, from the look of his balding skull, generally forgot to wear his helmet, was chasing her around. She had a laugh – still has it – that could liven up a space, and she was laughing at the silliness of being courted by the Chairman while her date, a feckless young lawyer from one of the international trade firms, stood by and fumed.

We were in a group, carefully discussing American policy toward the Middle East, when Charlotte walked up. Talking about the Middle East was a tricky thing: if you had political ambitions, including good staff positions on foreign policy committees, you had to be careful not to be too pro-Arab for the prevailing tastes – tastes that were something of an ever-shifting sand depending on whether Likud or Labor was running the Israeli government. When Labor was in charge, as it was this night, you could be a little less concerned. But still, you had to be careful.

“Why do we let them get away with it when they bulldoze Palestinian homes?” Charlotte said, jumping into the middle of our conversation.

We stopped for a moment, stood still, looking into our drinks or glancing warily at each other. There were four of us, together in a small cluster, chatting more than talking seriously about policy. Someone had mentioned the housing guaranties as she was walking by, but no one wanted to touch her comment.

“We were supposed to reduce the loan guaranties when they did that, right? Isn’t that what the law said?” She wasn’t going to stop.

I looked her in the eye, and she was laughing, mostly on the inside, but challenging us nonetheless. She was wearing a light summer dress, one that swung as she moved, and it was still rustling slightly as it settled. She was sexy, and I wasn’t surprised she was being chased around the room. Looking past her, though, I saw the Chairman receding, slowly, sidling off toward the food table, trying to look nonchalant. By joining a conversation on the Palestinians, she had dropped him like a stone. I liked her immediately.

“Oh, but they included the standard national security waiver,” I told her. “So it’s up to the President to decide what’s in the national security of the U.S. It’s not our decision.”

“That’s convenient.”

“There are those who say everything Congress does is convenient.”

She snorted. “Not bad, but you haven’t answered the question.”

“I didn’t plan to.” I laughed, and she laughed too. So did the others, I think, although I wasn’t paying attention. Besides, they were already realizing there was a spark here and the broader conversation was over.

That was the start, and that was the end; I was hooked from that moment on. I never did find out what happened to her date that night, but any woman who could ditch a Committee Chairman and a dweeb date, all while picking up a guy who at least seemed interesting – well, I just couldn’t help myself. We were in our own little world the rest of the night, and for months, even years after.

The spark wasn’t quite as powerful as it had been, but we’d never lost that deep connection. We seemed headed for a crossroads, but the connection was still there.

She was surely right in one way, of course. Washington takes over your life, invading every moment, involving itself in everything you do. Like entertaining. Charlotte loved entertaining, but she was right about this dinner. A dinner party for six ‘friends’ included a former (and possibly future) client and his wife along with four Congressional staffers who, let’s face it, were all potential lobbying targets. Every sign pointed to it being an event among friends, but with me as the lobbyist in the group we were the hosts and paying for it all. We’d be reimbursed by the company, of course, but that only made it worse – getting paid to have dinner with friends. Were they true friends? Were they friends because I paid for everything? Could I keep it social, or would I slip in a little business every half-hour or so?

As Uncle Harry would have put it, “There is no line – live in Washington, and Washington’s your life. Get used to it.” It was definitely getting harder and harder for Charlotte to live with that part of our lives. Still, I had to admit we had once again put on a great spread. Like I said, Charlotte loved entertaining – it was the guests she had trouble with.

* * *

I stood with Mourad on the fire escape while he smoked, looking in through the large French doors at the others. They were gathered around the sofa, Charlotte and Halima on opposite ends, Kevin and Philip gathered to Charlotte’s left, and Alexis sitting cross-legged on the floor facing the couch. Peter stood to the side alone, watching. Looking at him, I wondered again at the ways of couples and why people pair up. As little attention as Peter paid to Alexis at the dinner table – other than to correct her occasional misstatements – he always ignored her for the rest of the evening. Kevin and Philip, the gay odd couple, hung together most nights, comfortably within reach but never touching. Alexis, though, might as well have come alone.

I looked to Charlotte, and wondered how my actions seemed, wondered how our relationship appeared to my friends. At these parties, I loved to mingle, walk the room and work my way back to Charlotte, pass on a story, snatch a kiss, and then move on again perhaps, or stick with her for a while, connecting and separating and connecting again. She was more likely to find a spot and sit in it, letting the party come to her, the flies attracted to the bright light of her laughter and spirit. But how do they see us? I asked myself.

“So where are they again, exactly?” Mourad caught me by surprise with the question and, turning as he took a slug from his scotch, I paused to remember the conversation at hand. He was looking at me with real curiosity in his eyes. The Dungan, I remembered, I’d asked about the Dungan. Mourad had served in Ankara, Turkey, and knew the Stans well, but he’d never heard of my new client.

“I can’t say I’m entirely clear on that myself. As far as I can tell they’re on the southwestern-most edge of Kazakhstan, but I’ll still have to find a better map.” The maps I’d reviewed so far had given me pretty much nothing. “Maybe the Georgetown library, or GW. There isn’t a lot on them on the web, and Google and Wikipedia have only been of marginal help so far. The best information I’m getting so far is off Christian websites focused on peoples needed to be ‘saved.’” I smiled thinly. “I’m not entirely sure I can trust those.”

He snorted, and looked down into his scotch. “I wouldn’t,” he replied, raising it in mock toast before taking another slug.

A shiver ran through me in the cold, damp air. We’d been somewhat lucky, since the temperature was back into the high 40s during the day, and the snow mostly gone from the ground. It was typical of Washington, a heavy, wet late January snow followed by a quick warming, the disruptions limited to the day of the storm and a day or two after. I’d worn a sweater for the party, knowing the ritual – this was my third trip out here with Mourad and his Gauloises so far this evening – but sweaters don’t keep out the damp.

“So what do they need?”

“Well,” I responded, “we’re in the cagey phase where they’re trying to get me to tell them what I can produce, and I’m trying to figure out the minimum they need to keep them happy. They’re definitely not looking for an earmark, but I’m not sure how much or how little language they want.”

Mourad turned to face the street, and flicked his cigarette out over the yard of Eleanor Walters, our downstairs neighbor, and into the alley. I made a mental note to go pick it up once they’d left, for he’d placed it expertly in her parking space, and I just didn’t need another scene with her. I’d given up smoking many years before, but knew from experience Eleanor’s intense dislike for cigarettes and smoking.

“It’s very strange,” he said. “A people without a country hiring a lobbyist for something they can’t or won’t define.” He turned back to look at me. “Tell me again about the lead guy, the one on his Blackberry?”

“I don’t know. He hardly said a word.” It still struck me as odd – a high-priced, high-end lawyer as much from his style as much as his attitude, representing a couple of guys whose outfits screamed, ‘communist tailors made this suit!’ He’d also been the last one out the door from the meeting with Harry, the one who cozied right back up to Harry as the group entered his lobby. So he was the one Harry knew, but Harry hadn’t passed anything on about him and I didn’t know him from Adam. “So what’s out there, anyway?”

“Well, if it’s where you say it is,” he replied, “there’s nothing but sand and maybe some oil.” He looked over at me and shrugged. “Il n’y a rien là.” Nothing there.

Discussions with Mourad were one of those rare places where my college French came in handy. I’d been a double major in college, History and French, the latter mostly so I could take Junior Year Abroad somewhere in France. I’d ended up in Provence, far enough from the American mobs in Paris that I was actually able to learn the language. Completely unexpectedly, it turned out to be surprisingly useful in the lobbying business, for developing relationships with clients like Morocco and people like Mourad.

I winced as he took out another cigarette and lit it; I took a long, slow drink from my own scotch, holding it in my mouth in the vain hope of it warming me a little. “But there’s no reported significant reserves there, and no way to get it out, no pipeline.” He furrowed his brow as he looked at me. “I don’t get it.”

I smiled thinly – I didn’t have a clue either, but didn’t want to tell him that. It wouldn’t be good for the mystique I’ve so carefully worked on over the years, even if Mourad was one of the few who could see right through me. So I changed the subject. “Tell me about the area.”

“Well, we’ve been working the Stans for a lot of years now.” Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan – all those sandpit former Soviet republics scattered along the southern edges of the old Russian empire. “We’ve had people in there ever since the Berlin Wall came down, figuring that independence was inevitable at that point.” Mourad grimaced – he’d left unsaid why they’d been there, working to keep the mainly Turkic populations on the moderate side of the Islamic equation, hoping to counter the influence of neighboring Iran’s Shi’ite radicals and Saudi Arabia’s wealthy Wahhabi fundamentalists. “You know the drill: Sunni Turkic populations that have never embraced Islam with the fervor of their southern relatives. They’ve been under Russian or Soviet rule since forever, and don’t know how to be free – so they’ve all evolved into autocracies, where we maintain our silent struggle to keep them moderate.”

“Sounds like your kind of client, sweetie.” I turned to find Charlotte sticking her head out the door. She smiled at Mourad, then looked back over at me. “You look a little chilly.”

Bless you, sweetheart; even annoyed with me, you still care. In point of fact I was freezing my ass off, and starting to shiver. Mourad laughed, “You should have said something,” and taking one long last drag on his cigarette and then tapping it out, he expertly flicked it out to join its fellow butt in Eleanor’s parking space. I really need to get out there as soon as they leave, I thought, or she will freak.

* * *

Kevin and I stood by the table, choosing among brandies. These were harder to charge back to the company, but I had a weakness for a good brandy and Hill staffers seldom had access to the 10- or 15-year-old stuff. So Michael looked the other way when I every once in a while charged off an entire bottle with one of these meals. “So what’s the Committee up to this year?”

Kevin pursed his lips, unsure which bottle would give him the most bang for my buck. “Not much, it should be quiet. We won’t know much until the President sends up the budget, but we’re hearing it’s just more foreign aid cuts, except for Iraq – and we’ll spend the year fighting like hell over that.”

It was always a bad year for foreign aid, but since Bush’s Iraq War it had gotten a lot worse. That wasn’t my concern, though, at least not for this conversation. “When’s your first hearing on the bill? The SecState hearing?” As I spoke, I reached for the Armagnac and held it up for Kevin – he looked relieved at not having to choose. I was relieved that he didn’t know to take the $240 Remy XO cognac I had hidden in the back. I poured us both a glass of the Armagnac.

As I poured, Kevin leaned in a little too eagerly. A nice enough guy, good at keeping his boss happy and a good friend to Charlotte, but a pompous ass sometimes, like in fine restaurants or when drinking what he thought was fine brandy. At least he heard my question, I thought as he replied, “Rice? Her? Early February, I think. Why?”

“Oh, I’ve got a really good question, on religious freedom in the Stans,” I said. “After the inevitable Iraq questions in the first round, most Members will probably just do another one on Iraq. This one will stand out, and it’s a natural for the cameras. I figured I’d give it to someone who can use it for some credit back home.”

We were discussing the once-a-year hearing where the foreign affairs committees drag the Secretary of State up before the cameras at the beginning of the annual foreign aid process, trying to get a little airtime on the TV news back home. And Kevin’s boss, Rep. Edgar Kleinmayer, yet another Massachusetts Democrat, came from a part of the state that was full of émigrés from the former Soviet Union. It was a natural for him.

Kevin coughed into his snifter, caught just on the verge of a sip. “I’ll take a look at it.” He peered at me over his glasses. “I might be able to use it.”

“Well…” I dragged it out. I had him, but I needed to reel him in. “Thing is, I need this one asked while the cameras are still rolling, in the first round of questions. I mean, it’s the question on the Stans, and freedom of religion is a very big deal in those communities.”

More to the point, it was a big deal for me. I needed to know what kind of opposition we might be up against if and when we landed the Dungan as a client, and the easiest way to do that was through a softball question thrown on the table to see if anyone reacted. Using the Secretary of State hearing, one that everyone would be watching, was the best place to do it; but only if the question was asked live on TV during the hearing, instead of submitted in writing after the fact. I needed this, and could probably only pull it off with someone like Kevin. So I had a lot more riding on this conversation than he probably thought I did.

“Shit.” Kevin stared down into his Armagnac, pondering perhaps the price I’d just attached to it. He looked back up at me. “Is that what you want?”

“It’s what I need.”

Charlotte paused briefly on her way back from the kitchen, balancing three refilled wine glasses in her hands. “Catching up on a little business, sweetness?”

Gotcha.

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