“Jesus, Riley, what are you doing? Expecting to find something hidden inside?”
J. Riley MacGonagill turned his attention slowly toward me, away from the shrimp he’d been inspecting so closely. “Ah, it’s the miscreant. How are you, Edward?”
I laughed, curious about the miscreant comment but even more so about the fact that Riley would be caught dead at one of Uncle Harry’s fundraisers. Riley bore some time-honored grudge against Harry the origins of which I’d never been able to draw out of him, but the two of them insisted on acting as if the other didn’t exist. Yet here he was, having plunked down at least $1,000 to nosh with Harry and what appeared to be a much larger than usual crowd of lobbyists. In fact, the room was crammed with people, and after recognizing Riley’s pure-white mane above the heads of the lobbyists around him, I’d been lucky to even get near him, given his prime location next to the shrimp bowl.
“So, do you think the shrimp is tainted? Or are you just calculating how much that one shrimp is costing you?”
“No, no, for heaven’s sake,” he replied, waving the shrimp in the air in front of him, “these things are just money down a black hole for me. I was more wondering how many I can consume before my gout starts acting up.” With that, he popped it in his mouth, fantail and all, and grinned at me as he chewed.
“So what are you doing here?”
“Please, Edward, you must know,” he responded with a shake of the head. “The whole damned firm is here.” He waved airily at the crowd, and dipped his hand back in for another shrimp. “They even flew in the entire Chicago office,” using his latest catch to point toward the far corner.
Looking over, I saw a large group of suits gathered around Harry, all listening earnestly to him as he rambled, as usual, and raved. He seemed defensive, even from across the room, like he was trying to convince them that he was on their side. They were being very attentive, and clustered around in a way one usually didn’t see at a fundraiser, the things being primarily social occasions rather than serious opportunities to lobby a member.
“Hell of a crowd,” I said. “Why are they all here?”
The group around Harry shifted and a small space opened, just as a thin man in a dark grey suit leaned forward gesturing to Harry, practically in his face.
Riley and I spoke at the same moment. “Shit,” I said. “You’re kidding, right?” was his comment.
I turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
“It’s you, Ed. Shaddock Mills is up to its ass in business with Kazakhstan, and your work for that sillyass crowd, the Dungeons, or Dangans, or whatever they are, has the government completely up in arms.” He looked around for a moment, and saw what he was looking for over by Harry. As my eyes followed his, I sensed the people around us glaring at me, or pointing as they told their neighbors who I was.
“I thought you said you weren’t stupid enough to cause trouble for a firm so close to the Vice President.”
“No, Riley, if I’m recalling right, you said that.”
His eyes narrowed as he looked down at me. “Maybe I did. But whoever said it, you’ve certainly done the reverse. The Vice President is rumored to be livid, the entire D.C. office is here tonight in a command performance, and like I said, the whole Chicago office flew in.” He waved again over toward the group by Harry.
“Harry’s talking to my client,” I said, almost to myself, turning away from Riley to stare over at Kincaid.
“Impossible, son,” he replied, “he’s talking to the man we use for political fundraising advisory services, Edward Kincaid. That’s him in your uncle’s face.”
The room spun a little, losing all focus except for the bright circle that seemed to shine around Kincaid’s face. My balance gone, I reached out to reach for Riley’s arm, and at his sharp “ow!” turned toward him. There was a sudden sadness in his look, a recognition that something was going wrong. “Ahhhhh, Riley,” I started, “he, ummm, he’s...” I stopped.
The room was beginning to spin quite badly as I dropped my hand from Riley and headed for the door. These were my guys, my good client, the client that had been keeping me going in this hideous swamp. Someone had been out there, causing me trouble, but I was still in a good place, Joint Conference ahead of me and a chance to do some real damage if I wanted to. Now, though, I saw it was Kincaid, my guy, my client’s lead representative, my money man, who oh-by-the-way provides fundraising advice to the Chicago office of Shaddock Mills. Here he was, chatting up Uncle Harry surrounded by pretty much the entire firm.
As I got to the top of the steps, I speeded up, jogging down the circular stair to the lobby, through the glass door and out into the street. Stumbling to the sidewalk, I felt my stomach heave, and moved quickly to the curb just as I retched once, hard, into the street. Well, mostly into the street, but partially onto the car just to my left. I closed my eyes, and let my weight rest heavily on the car’s hood as I struggled for control. For a moment, I felt the tightness easing, and I breathed in deeply. Then it was gone again, and I retched once, twice, fiercely, losing everything I’d eaten and then some.
“You know, it’s actually quite tacky vomiting on a BMW when there’s a perfectly good Buick right in front of you.”
I laughed, coughing as I did, glancing left at the poor Beemer. I could see Riley out of the corner of my eye. He must have followed me out.
I looked down again, waiting in case there was more to come. Reaching into my back pocket, I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped my mouth. Riley waited patiently for me as I caught my breath, blew my nose, and dropped the handkerchief into the pile on the street. I can always get another handkerchief, I thought.
I turned to face him, about ten feet back from the curb, just far enough, I assumed, to avoid the stench. “How was the show?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “no one would know anything other than the fact that you cleared out of there quickly.” He turned back to look, as if to reassure himself that there was no one there. “As I left, I glanced over toward Harry; it looked like he might have seen you leaving. Kincaid was still talking, though, so he couldn’t have seen anything.”
I was staring down at his feet now, numb, still nauseous, and a little lost. Again, he waited.
“He’s runs the board of the Dungan-American Friendship Society,” I began. “Harry introduced us, and insisted it be my client, not Michael’s. And now he’s all over Harry, and it must be about Kazakhstan, so it must be about me.”
Something clicked in my head. “The address of the Chicago office, Riley. Shaddock’s Chicago office. What’s the address?”
He paused, looking surprised. “I’m not positive,” he said, “but I think it’s on East Wacker, right by the river. Somewhere in the 200s.”
The elevator, the fucking down elevator that Kincaid gotten off of. They were in the same goddamned building as the Dungan-American Friendship Society, probably another 20 floors up in the frigging top floor offices. And I’d totally missed it.
I looked up at him, feeling the pain showing on my face, letting the budding knowledge that somehow this whole year had been a sham wash over me. “This is all so totally fucked.”
“Yes, son, it is.” He smiled ever so slightly. “Isn’t it usually?”
My stomach lurched one last time, and I spun around. After a brief pause to regain my balance, I looked to the street. This time I targeted the Beemer.
* * *
My Crackberry buzzed again. Pulling it from the holder on my belt, I knew who it was even before looking at it: another call from Belinda. I ignored this one too.
I was in the Hart Senate Office Building, having come up the many stairs from the tunnels running under the Senate office buildings and over to the Capitol Building. I’d surfaced at the southeastern corner of Dirksen, the stairs nearest the Capitol, and turned right down the corridor to enter into Hart. I wasn’t so much walking to anywhere as just walking, back and forth, down into the tunnels, across toward the Capitol, and back again into the Senate office buildings. Three calls so far from Belinda indicated that Harry wanted to see me, and soon, but I wasn’t ready for that yet, not even ready to agree to the meeting.
If it had been another office, another situation, I’ve have been forced to take the call: otherwise, they might have called Michael. Belinda, though, I knew I could trust, especially if she thought there was trouble for me. She’d show up at my apartment door at 2:00 in the morning if that was the only way to get my attention, but she’d never go past me to Michael like others would have. It gave me more time, time to think.
Not that there was all that much to think about. I could see that I was screwed.
As I approached the lower half of the massive Calder dominating the Hart lobby, I stopped. There it was, right in front of me, an unintentional hommage to the outrageous disconnect between substance and legislative action that lies at the heart of the American political system. Down here, on the lobby floor, the black pillars of steel representing mountains, the day-to-day legislative debate and occasional action that Americans see on their television sets. Up there, four stories over my head, the clouds, the hidden, nebulous behind-the-scenes insanity that was the reality of life and work in Washington, not just mine, but everyone’s. For people like me, the rules were made up there, that place that no one outside Washington even knew existed, or if they did, saw like one sees massive cumulus clouds on the horizon.
And I’d broken the rules.
The imminent crashing down of my safety-net client, the Dungan, brought home the sheer absurdity of my work for Koliba. I’d listened to endless debates on Koliba’s increasingly dictatorial hold on power, the undermining of the courts, the beatings of protestors and other opponents in the streets, and even the murder of his Vice President, but still found ways to prevent any serious damage. While Congress was focused on cutting non-existent foreign aid funding to his government, I didn’t have to worry since the real fight should have been on his listening post, and the $20 million Pentagon payoff that came with it. The classified listening post, the one no one could actually talk about but that most of them seemed to know about. The one in the clouds.
Like I’d told Alexis, Washington had always been the world’s largest sieve, with information leaking out all over the place so people could position themselves to win debates. Like Pakistan in the 1980s and early 1990s, before they exploded their first nuclear bomb. Everyone knew the Pakis were working on the bomb, everyone knew pretty much how far along they were in enriching the uranium they needed, and most everyone working on the issue knew that the critical breakpoint in the relationship came when then-Pakistani President Zia lied in a one-on-one meeting with then Vice President George Bush, the old man, as to what degree Pakistan had already enriched its uranium. But most of the information was classified, as was the reason Bush knew the precise level of enrichment – spy satellites reading the heat signature of Pakistan’s enrichment facilities – so no one could debate that part of the issue. The resulting debate was an unfocused ‘he said, he said’ fight between those who thought Pakistani contributions to the war in Afghanistan were paramount and those who thought the U.S.’s main foreign policy goal needed to be nuclear non-proliferation.
Both sides lost, of course, when victory over the Soviets led inevitably to further civil war and from there to the rise of the Taliban. Pakistan not only succeeded in setting off its first nuclear device in May 1998, but also became the Taliban’s main political and military supporter until sometime shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. That’s when being friendly to our former Afghan ally Osama bin Laden became too hot even for them.
I turned, heading left down the central hall leading into Dirksen, not so much to go anywhere as to move. As I nodded to the bored, overweight cop patrolling the central hall, I wondered how many fruitless, mindless debates the Congress had pursued in its desperate searches to ‘fix’ the planet, country by country, by shaping each one into some version of our own increasingly corrupt and misguided political system, all the while that immovable forces like hunger, disease, population growth and sheer human hatred of the ‘other’ conspired against any effort to ‘fix’ anything.
Coming to the end of that corridor, I approached the elevators to my left, ready, I thought, to go see Belinda. Senator Earl Ford of Tennessee, patrician elder of the Senate’s minority, waited by the elevator with a nervous young staffer just behind his right shoulder. I chuckled to myself, reminded once again that Senators, unlike House members, seemed constitutionally incapable of going anywhere alone. As the elevator door opened, three young pages exited the elevator in a sloppy mess, one turning right toward Hart, the others to the left, deeper into Dirksen, and calling out to their compatriot, ‘this way!’ None seemed to notice the Senator as they passed, and he certainly gave no indication of noticing them, in that noblesse oblige kind of way that Senators have.
Watching them, I tried to make my mind float back to my own first flush of innocence in the Washington scene, those first days of eagerness and excitement. Following the Senator into the elevator, I winced: it wasn’t working.
What I couldn’t get away from was the simple fact that I was helping Koliba. It didn’t matter that the Congressional efforts to cut him off from any U.S. money were going to fail, or that my legislative legerdemain was making it a lot easier for everyone to skate through giving money to Koliba in a clandestine way, or even that despite Roger’s screw-up on my coastal fisheries amendment I was still likely to win on that. What was starting to hit home was the simple fact that I was not only working for the leading candidate for this year’s ‘Scum of the Earth’ award, but I’d been winning and enjoying it.
Now that my cover had been blown, now that the Dungan had been revealed as a sham in someone else’s political games, the truth was staring me in the face. And it was ugly
* * *
I waited to return Belinda’s call until I was right outside Harry’s office.
“Hi, Belinda. Is Harry in?”
“He’s gone home,” she responded. “An hour ago. I’ve been waiting here for you to call back. He needs to see you first thing tomorrow.”
“I’m right outside. Wanna let me in?”
Belinda looked confused when she opened Harry’s private door to the hall, his escape hatch for when constituents were camped out in his lobby. All members of Congress had them, although Senators’ doors worked better because their offices were so much larger than the House ones – meaning their private doors were that much further down the hall from the ones mere constituents used.
“I’ve got a question for you,” I said as I ducked past her into the office.
Belinda smiled. “I don’t know what he wants. He just said he has to talk to you.”
“It’s not that. It’s his contributions book. I need to see it.”
The smile disappeared. Now she really looks like a librarian, I thought. But I resisted the temptation to continue.
“Eddie, I can’t. I mean, I don’t have … a, um, book.”
“August, just a few months ago. The morning of the Norman Hsu hearing.” Hsu, the Hillary Clinton fundraiser who’d built political fundraising into his pyramids schemes, the better to convince his marks that he was legit. “I was talking to Harry about the new lobbying bill, and we got to talking about Hsu’s contributions to Hillary and others.” I paused, hoping she’d remember this. “He called you in, and asked for the book.” She looked down at the floor, remembering. I waited, but so did she. “He showed it to me; it lists every contribution he’s ever gotten.”
Belinda turned, and walked back behind her desk. I could tell that she still wasn’t convinced, and was killing time while she thought about what to do.
“He’s never raised money here,” I continued, “so he hasn’t violated FEC rules. He just keeps a book here so he can review the lists.” I wasn’t sure that was true; hell, I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but it sounded good and even almost convincing. I needed to see that book.
She looked up at me one last time, and then back down at her desk. She paused for a few moments. I waited. Looking up, she said, “You’ll never tell anyone of this. Anyone.”
She meant Harry. I nodded.
She turned back toward her credenza. From the left side, the bottom drawer, she pulled out a binder, comparatively small given all the money Harry had raised over the years, and turned in her chair. She held it to her chest. “Why?”
“I need to see how much trouble I’m in.” I smiled at her. “And if there’s any way out.”
I could theoretically have done this from the FEC website, but that would just give me total dollar numbers and I’d have been forced to construct it from scratch. I didn’t have time for that kind of search. The one thing I remembered from glancing at the book over Harry’s shoulder was his color coding system, linking batched fundraising to the lead organizer of each event, and the affiliated numbering system identifying how many individuals had been pulled in and at how much each. It would give me a quick visual sense of just how bad my situation was.
“You can’t take it.”
“I need three minutes, just to glance through it.” A look of pain crossed my face, inadvertently for once. “Please.”
She handed it across to me.
Opening the book, I flipped randomly to the first of the blue divider tabs and found Kincaid at the top of the list. His number, 1-0001, identified him as the lead for all blue fundraisers; it took less than a minute to add up the first five tabs I flipped to and come up with $225,000.
I was fucked.
I’d been betrayed, used by Harry for some reason I couldn’t figure out, but first and foremost, I was fucked.
“Thanks,” I said, handing the book back to Belinda. “Will 10:00 tomorrow morning work?”
* * *
I arrived home around a quarter past eleven, finding Charlotte on the living room couch, her back to me, wine glass in hand, reading. She glanced back at the sound of my arrival. “Hey, sweetie,” she called, a slight smile playing at the edge of her mouth.
I crossed the foyer, tossing my hat on the hall table and dropping my coat to the floor as I continued into the room.
Looking down for the briefest moment, I took her in, looking up at me with a slight surprise at not getting the peck she’d been expecting, that lean-in and quick brush of a kiss that had become the norm. I moved a little further past her, around and then inside the arm with the wine glass, and got down on one knee. I took her face in my hands, and kissed her, really kissed her, like I hadn’t in so long. She giggled lightly, and kissed back, a broad smile emerging on her face as she pulled back a very little and squeaked, “my wine!” with more than a little urgency.
I reached to take it from her, and placed it on the table. Turning back, I stopped, looking in her eyes, at her lips, at her chin and nose and cheeks and eyes again, all in a quick brush of a glance across her features, all exactly in place, exactly aligned the way I’d always known them to be. I breathed in sharply, needing air, and reached out to take her face in my hands again.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I could feel the tension inside pulling at me then, a strain in my chest, a sob trying to get out. “I just, I just … I need to be with you.” God, please, I thought, let that be enough for now.
It was. I’ll never know why, because I don’t want to and I’d never ask. After taking a moment to put her book down, she reached out to me, her right hand against my face to bring me close, to bring me back to her. Pulling back, for air, to move, I bit her lower lip and pulled, tugged ever so gently, before moving to her neck. Her arms slid around my shoulders, holding me gently in place, giving me the freedom to move but pressing into me nonetheless, a pressing that gave in to my need as well as to her own. Sensing it, knowing, feeling it, I let go, stopped listening to the voices in my head and lost myself in the moment, in what I’d risked, in what I’d spent such time and energy undermining.
We made love there, on the couch, slowly, gently, frantically, passionately, back and forth, basking in the glow of the reading light as I took the care to reconnect with the parts and places of her. It was like making love to her for the first time all over again, full of surprises that carried only dim memories, of stretching, sliding my hands along the length of her, of feeling her hands and mouth more than ever.
And I felt the freedom, ever so much the freedom of being away, away in a place that was ours, just away. There was another place out there, I knew even as I made love to her, a place of clouds, and anger, and defeat, but here, here for these moments it was at bay and I could be at peace.
We moved to the bedroom, and began again, more slowly, both of us sensing how different this was and needing to take our time, to enjoy one another in these new ways we’d forgotten. As our lovemaking headed to its crest this time, though, I could feel the clouds, the anger coming back, could feel them coming through. I drove her, drove her forward into orgasm once, twice, three times, to exhaust her, to push her limits, to push her closer toward sleep.
It worked. We lay in the aftermath, smiling against the weakness in us, against the labored breathing, and touched, lightly, carefully now, and I waited. I held her fingers in my mine, intertwined. We whispered little bits of thanks and love, listening to our breathing begin to slow, listening to each other slide away, she into sleep, me back into the mess I’d created of my life.
Turning on my side to face her, I watched Charlotte fading, the trademark twitching in her shoulder, the hand under her pillow telling me that she was edging deeper and deeper into her dreams. I watched her mouth slip open, watched her breathe, listened as the breaths became deeper and longer.
When I knew she was asleep, I rose and headed for the living room, to get the lights I’d say if she awoke, to get some water, to pee, whatever. I waited by the door, but she was sleeping soundly.
For a while, I just sat on the couch, staring out the window, drinking from a fresh bottle of red wine I’d opened. Round and round the day went, the ups and downs and more downs, the fundraiser, seeing Kincaid, walking the halls, seeing the book. How the fuck did I ever get to this point in my life? Somewhere along the line, I turned on the TV, for something meaningless to distract me. Around 3:30 a.m. I fell into a fitful sleep.