Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 21


I awoke to the sounds of Charlotte in the kitchen, small sounds, a spoon in the sink, the coffeepot being slid back into place.

I’d scarcely slept at all, and never gotten back to bed. Once or twice during the night I’d gone back down the hall to our bedroom, finding her dead asleep. I’d pulled the blankets up around her, but she was too out of it to move and I knew I was still way too wound up to join her.

Hearing her now, I lay still, listening. I needed to get up, to get to the Hill for my meeting with Uncle Harry. But I paused for a few more moments, listening to the quiet sounds of Charlotte’s movements, the snick of the refrigerator opening, the clink of her coffee cup striking the counter, the whoosh of water running in the sink as she rinsed a plate. My eyes closed, I could see her precise, practiced movements.

Rising quietly, I padded into the hall and turned right into the kitchen. She turned to look at me. “You couldn’t sleep?”

“Nah. It wasn’t us, it was…I don’t know.” I reached around, pulling her close to me. “Good morning.”

She leaned back into me, so light I could scarcely feel her, but somehow I knew that if I stepped away she’d fall. “I’m worried about you.”

I closed my eyes, and breathed. And then again. “I know.” I paused for a few moments, my mind racing but empty. “It’s… it’s just I don’t know how to leave. This is what I do; this is who I am…”

“This is not who you are!” She leaned forward, pulling away, and turned her body to face me. “It’s only what you do, and you can do other things.”

Easy for you to say, I thought – you run offices. You can run any office anywhere, a law firm, local politician, you can run a store, manage a department, whatever. I beg for money from Congress or the administration – where else can you do that? I’m a shill, for Chrissakes. “I just thought I was coming into my own.”

“You hate this town!” She wasn’t angry, just earnest. But I wasn’t ready yet, not for this, not now.

“No,” I said, “not the town, only the fuckers who live here!” I laughed, almost a bray, hearing the thin edge I was on, so close to tears. “Sometimes I’ve hated what I did, not the town. Never the town…” Until now. I couldn’t say it out loud, but suddenly, standing there, I knew it. I hated this place.

Charlotte was still, waiting for me, determined.

“Look,” I said, “let’s not start – I don’t think I can do this right now.” I let her go, stepping back, and turned toward the coffeepot. “I need some time.”

She looked down, and let her hands drop. I took my cup off the counter and, pouring, watched her from the corner of my eye. As she straightened the blouse that didn’t need straightening, I knew she was finished, and leaned back against the counter, facing her again. She started by me to the door, but stopped, leaning in to kiss me but pausing for a moment just before we touched. “You’re not what you do.” She kissed me, turned, and went out.

Well, I thought, now what?

* * *

From the frying pan…

“Son, I did you a favor.”

You fat lousy miserable sonofabitch, I thought. “Harry, you gave me a sham client, lied to me from the get-go, and then sold me down the river,” I responded, gripping the sides of my chair. “The whole fucking thing was a sham, and now you’re telling me I have to sell out the client. Fuck you!”

Harry leaned forward in his chair. “Don’t forget who you’re talking to here, son,” he said, wagging a finger at me. “I’m still a United States Senator, and I’m still your uncle. So you just calm down here. No one fucked you. I did you the biggest goddamn favor I’ve ever done anyone. And now you’re going to do what you have to.”

God, I hated the man at that moment. “Harry. Just tell me what happened.”

“What happened is that you’ve fucked up the easiest deal anyone ever had,” he said, slamming his hand on the desk. His face was red, redder than usual. How much of this right now is a show just to scare me?

I’d gotten to Harry’s office at 10:00 a.m., as promised the night before. He was waiting for me, pacing his office floor. He’d laid into me almost from the start, but nothing yet that was a surprise. There was still some game going on here, but he clearly didn’t want to tell me what it was. I’d have to drag it out of him.

I wasn’t sure it mattered, but I wanted to know. I needed to know. I’d spent a year chasing around the city because of him, and I needed to know what the hell was going on.

“The whole idea was to give these people a little representation, some coverage on what’s happening in Washington, some information on the system.”

“No, Harry,” I replied. “That wasn’t the gig.” I stood up, and stepped to his desk. “I was hired to ensure that the Kazakh government didn’t oppress these people, the Dungan.” I stopped, leaning on the desktop, getting as close as I could. “I wasn’t told how. They left that to me. I did what they hired me to do.”

“Well, none of us expected you to do so well, Goddammit!”

Ka-ching. ‘Us.’ I had him.

“Well, Uncle, what did weeee want me to do?”

“Goddamn you!” He rose from behind the desk, his gut first, his legs lurching under the weight. “It’s not that simple.”

“Harry.” He stopped and turned, a little surprised. “It’s that simple. You agreed to something with someone – presumably Shaddock Mills, or maybe just Kincaid.” His eyes glimmered, and he looked away, toward the bookshelf behind him. “It involved me. I need to know what it was, and what you expect now.”

“There’s nothing you can do.” He looked a little sheepish now, guilty. “You have to stop trying to put more Kazakhstan language in the bill.”

“Just tell me what the deal was.”

“What does it matter, for Chrissakes?” He stared at me, but I stared right back and waited. He looked down at his desk, and after pushing some folder to the side, said, “They have a client bidding on a pipeline deal. It’s a multibillion dollar project, but their French competition seems to be on the inside. They needed an edge.”

The gears in my head processed that. “They were in on it from the start.” That meant that everything I’d sent them, all my reporting, was going to my opponent, because my client was my opponent. “They needed a political problem in Washington that only they could solve.”

“They needed something they could sell as a crisis, so they could save the day,” he said. “You created the real thing. Now you have to pull it back.”

I leaned forward in my chair, and looked down at the floor. Oh God, I thought, I gave it to them step-by-step in the weekly reports we’d been sending, told them everything I was doing, not in detail but with enough information that they could counter me every step of the way. No wonder I’d always felt like there was someone looking over my shoulder.

The pain in my stomach was back, not such that I’d be sick, just a dull lingering ache.

Problem was, there had to be more.

“Belkin,” I said, first to myself and then to Harry. “Belkin. What did he get in Paris? What did you give him?”

He stopped. He hadn’t been expecting that. “I… it wasn’t… it wasn’t anything at all…”

“Bullshit.” I stood and approached his desk, leaning over it. “There’s no way he gave you that and got nothing. What’d he get?”

Harry sat still, staring up at me.

“What’d he get?”

Nothing.

It hit me. “You gave him me. He’s our UAE amendment, and he’s with you on the Dungan. I cross you on this, and he screws us on the UAE. Right?”

Harry’s head dropped for a moment, and when he looked back at me, there was something new in his eyes. It was almost respect.

As I watched him, it became a strange sort of sympathy, an almost fatherly sadness. I paused, and felt a wave of defeat wash over me. “Fuck off, Harry.” Turning from him, I exited through his private door.

* * *

The hammer fell three days later, when I met with Michael over drinks at the Hotel Mayflower.

“How did you miss it?’

Damn you, Michael. It was the right question to ask, and the one that had been bothering ever since I’d walked out of Harry’s fundraiser.

“Jesus, Michael, I don’t know,” I said, “I Googled everything, and everywhere around this guy – he didn’t show up anywhere tied to Shaddock Mills.” I looked into my glass for a moment, before taking a long slug off of it. “Irony is, thanks to that bullshit lobbying reform act Bush just signed, next year I would have been able to find it. This year, well, it ain’t like I didn’t try.”

We were in the Mayflower’s lobby bar, a little ornate, a lot overdone, an open bar space in a bustling lobby full of tourists, dominated by a piano that no one ever seemed to play. It wasn’t the Washington insider kind of place that one expected for this kind of meeting, but it would have to do. Besides, the Dom Perignon was real, and a nice touch.

“Such is life, right?” Michael raised his glass in toast to me, his friendly face on, but with an edge.

“That doesn’t help me now, does it?” I emptied my glass, again. After a long pause, I said, “By the way, what are we celebrating?”

Michael, sliding the bottle from the ice bucket, said nothing at first. He slowly poured me another glass, and then topped his off. Returning the bottle to the bucket more carefully than necessary, he finally said, “Harry called me, and said I needed to talk with you.”

“We’re celebrating that?”

He glared at me for a moment. I wasn’t making this easy for him. Not that I had any intention of doing so.

“We never celebrated you getting the client,” he responded, looking down into the glass. “We’re celebrating that, and the fact that you’ve earned your 20 percent finder’s fee.”

I laughed, half in appreciation, half in amazement at his chutzpah. It couldn’t be more of a payoff if he’d called it that.

“Harry calls you to shut me down, and you’re trying to tell me it’s a success? Jesus, Michael, I’m supposed to bend over for this?”

“Hey, chill out, for Chrissakes,” he said, turning a little red. I’m finally getting to him a little, I thought, although we’re still only down around level 2 out of 5, a medium rare. Still a long way to go on the Michael scale. “This isn’t any easier for me than it is for you.”

I took another long sip, and Michael grimaced at me. “What happened, anyway?”

“You tell me,” he responded, relaxing a little. “All I know is that if we don’t pull the plug on the Dungan, Harry’s gonna create holy hell for our other clients. We’ve got no choice.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “We’ve got everything lined up for Conference.”

Michael looked up from his glass with a smile. “You’re kidding, right?”

I wasn’t, but I might as well have been. Belkin could kill our MNNA amendment any time he wanted to. With the UAE a client that was virtually certain to renew and pony up the cash for next year’s contract, Michael would have been crazy not to do what Harry wanted.

“It’s always been a company client, Michael.” I emptied another glass, and leaned back, uncertain. And maybe a little bit woozy. “I guess it’s not my call.”

“No, my friend, it’s not. And I am sorry about that.” He leaned in and smiled, and took the bottle in his hand. He raised it to me, and it was his real smile – he was ‘off,’ I marveled, the first time today – and I held my arm out as he filled my glass. “You might have avoided this if you’d played the client differently from the start. But you got the client, and earned the deal: twenty percent.”

“Blood money.”

“Maybe.” He emptied a third glass, keeping up with me but showing no sign of the alcohol’s effect. Him and his hollow leg. “One last thing. Harry tells me I’m the one to tell the members and staff the amendment’s dead. Personally.” He tilted his head a little as he looked at me with a crooked smile.

Jesus, I thought. Harry doesn’t trust me. That’s a kick in the pants.

Shaking my head, I emptied my glass again, and waved it at him again. Time for another bottle.

* * *

The next few weeks were like a demented dream, the disjointed kind where nothing made any sense but you kept walking from one scene to the next.

The normal train of events leading up to a Joint Conference had me working the halls, lining up the support I needed to get my amendments signed into law. That meant a lot of time walking from office to office, drop-by visits where I’d check in with people to make sure that my stuff was are on track and that nothing new had popped up. But given my level of coverage on the Hill, it was hard to surprise me, so it was mostly a lot of time spent chatting people up with no heavy lifting.

There were two kinds of opportunities, the staged kind where I’d hang around in the halls outside someone’s office around lunchtime to catch them on their way out, and the utterly random kind, trolling the waters to see what comes up on the line. During the year, I tried to do the latter at least twice a month, for three or four hours at a time; in the weeks before Conference, it was more like twice a week. Maybe it only worked because with three clients minimum at any time, I could always find a way to make lemonade out of any lemons I bumped into.

This year, though, this year was different. When the bill left the Senate floor in September, I still had one big issue to deal with – my Dungan client – and a couple of little bits to clean up if I felt like it. Once Harry and Michael lowered the boom on the Dungan, though, my year was basically over. I had to keep an eye on the UAE amendment, and monitor to be certain Koliba got his money, but those were both fish in a barrel. I’d been going stir-crazy in the office, and felt lost walking the halls of Congress. Still, with Michael back in the office, I’d decided ‘lost’ would be a major improvement over ‘stir-crazy.’ So off to the Hill I went.

This day was luckier than most.

I’d gone back to see Kenny Thurgood, Michelle’s friend from Georgetown, just on a lark, and had run into him heading out of the office with five of his friends. They were all wacko right-wingers, each and every one of them, but I was in a forgiving mood.

Just kidding.

This day I was the ultimate beggar, smart enough not to pretend I was a chooser, so when Kenny invited me to join them, I immediately said yes. It was always a good idea to cultivate new contacts, since you never knew when they might come in handy. Besides, like I said, I had nothing better to do.

Over coffee in the Rayburn cafeteria, we got into a long argument over freedom for missionaries to operate globally, a major foreign policy issue for the religious right. Most Christian religions, as well as the Mormons, put a high value on proselytizing. And what better place to go than the Moslem worlds, the ultimate infidels in Christian eyes. At least, that seemed to be a great idea until earlier in 2007, when a group of Korean missionaries got themselves kidnapped in Afghanistan. The end result was that their freedom had been purchased for $20 million. In cash. Turned over to the Taliban. So they could kill American troops.

A conundrum.

“Look, that’s not the point,” I said. “There are hundreds of millions of people around the world where you can go preach. Why go into a war zone?”

“The Word must be spread,” one of them responded. It was Adam Childress, a tall, thin African-American who seemed the most avowedly Christian of the group and the one whose new job they were celebrating.

“Adam,” Kenny replied, “please. There’s holier-than-thou, and then there’s just annoying.” Several in the crowd laughed, as, surprisingly to me, did Adam. I guessed that he was putting on a show for my benefit.

It was turning into an interesting discussion, in fact, as there was a dramatic range of differences within the group. Kenny seemed the most sensible, to me at least, maybe from the context he’d gotten going to graduate school. More likely, I thought, the prejudice that led him to value graduate school was probably more of a predictor than whatever he learned in the classroom.

“Look, I’m not disagreeing with you guys,” I continued. “It’s just that I think there’s a time and place for everything, and it’s not the time to be doing this in Afghanistan.”

“True missionaries are prepared to die for their faith,” Adam retorted, serious once again.

Jeez, I thought, he is annoying. “They do have that right, as long as they’re the only ones to die,” I said, leaning across the table to point at him. “I don’t think they have the right to put U.S. troops in danger.”

“My boss, for one,” said Kenny, “thinks that there’s a case to be made for that argument.”

“So does mine.” I looked up, surprised. It was Alexis – more good luck. I’d needed to find her, but wanted the informality of bumping into her. This was perfect.

I turned to Kenny. “I’m not sure we’re going to make a whole lot more progress, here, do you?” He smiled, and shook his head. I was starting to like this guy.

I stood, and bowed to the table. “Thanks for the time, gang.”

A chorus of voices responded. “No problem.” “Thank you for the coffee.” “Any time.” Righties are so much more polite than the left, I thought, not for the first time.

Taking one last look at Adam, I asked, “By the way, what’s the new job?”

“Foreign aid and defense approps for Senator VanderMeer.”

Ka-CHING!

I must have stared; Adam smiled up at me and said, “Probably not your favorite Senator.”

I smiled. “Actually, the Senator is a big supporter of one of my clients, the Dungan people of Kazakhstan.” Adam’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open a little. “He’s concerned about protecting their freedoms.”

“He talked about them during the interview,” Adam said.

“We should meet up some time; I know that bill backwards and forwards, and can tell you who’s doing what to whom.” I paused. “Just ask Kenny.”

“He da man,” Kenny said, smiling. “You should talk with him.”

Adam looked up at me, still unsure, but – I could just about see the gears clicking – willing to take a shot. “Give me a call.”

“Will do.”

* * *

“Here you go.” I presented Alexis with her tall cappuccino with an extra shot and, as always, she slid $3.40 across the table at me. I took it, and smiled to her.

Sitting, I stirred raw sugar into my triple espresso while trying to decide the best approach. I’d talked her into a Starbucks run, on the basis that I’d had three cups of the crap they served in House office buildings and couldn’t take any more. We’d caught a cab as we walked out the Rayburn front door, and chitchatted during the brief ride up to Pennsylvania and 2nd. I’d caught her up on Charlotte, and she’d caught me up on her and Peter, something that was still felt weird since I was so used to knowing Peter better than I knew her, and, well, our opinions of the dear boy differed. Let’s leave it at that.

What I needed out of Alexis was news on our MNNA amendment, and a status report on the Dungan. My dropping the first of those into my initial conversation with Alexis was turning out to be critical for us, now that Will Richardson had resigned, finally giving in to the reality of his disgrace. MNNA was still in play: staffers for the House side were playing it coy, not having decided to accept the amendment yet, so we definitely needed Kelton’s help. If luck was what we made it – by always sticking our ideas out there, walking the halls and talking to anyone who would listen to us – this was one of those times when we needed the effort to pay off.

“So how do things look for Conference?”

I looked up. Alexis was looking very relaxed, comfortable, like most of her issues were done. “Well, you tell me,” I replied. “Has the Congressman talked to the House staffers about our MNNA amendment?”

“Oh, now it’s our amendment?” She laughed, once again with that wonderful open laugh. Well, so far she’s made it through the year without losing too much of herself, I thought; that’s a good sign.

It had to be going well, or else she wouldn’t be playing with me like that. “So he has talked to them?”

“Of course he has,” she said. “You knew that, though.”

No, I didn’t. I hadn’t been able to check in directly with the either subcommittee staffers, not since Michael went to see them about the Dungan. Partly because it was early enough that I didn’t need to, but more importantly, I couldn’t bring myself to. I just wasn’t ready.

“How about your Dungan?” she continued.

‘My’ Dungan. My little beebles. I guessed I had come to think of them that way. My people from the Kazakh steppes, brave Chinese-origin peasants standing in the way of dictatorship. What an idiot I’d been.

“The references to Kazakhstan and the Dungan are being dropped from the bill,” I responded.

“I know. Billy filled me in on what’s going on.” She took a sip from the cap, maybe playing for time, maybe not. “Why?”

She’d answered my question, which was how widely the story about the Dungan was known. The part I’d been worrying about had been how to get that out of her without telling her why. Otherwise, I’d figured I’d have to lie to her. So now what was I going to do?

I took a sip from the espresso, which for once had some value beyond the jolt it was going to give the rest of my afternoon. “It’s a very long story.”

“I have time,” she responded with a smile.

I pondered, looking down at the table, then up to her, and then down again. “It’s, uhhh, a problem with the client. Can I give you a raincheck? Tell you some other time?”

The surprise showed in her face. I was expecting that kind of reaction; it wasn’t an answer a lobbyist could get away with very often. It was the first time I’d ever tried it on her.

“You need to?”

“Yeah, sorry, I do. That okay?” She nodded, with a quizzical look in her eye, something clicking. I took the coffee, swirled it to pick up the last bits of sugar, and finished it in one swallow. I reached for my coat.

“One last question.”

Shit, I thought, I need her not to push me on the Dungan right now. “Hmm?”

“It’s Koliba.” This time I was surprised. Alexis never wanted to know about Koliba, she hated the guy on principle.

I left the coat where it was. “Ooooo-kay.”

“What do you need personally from this?”

“As we talked about, I think that dialogue between the U.S. and other countries is more important than how badly we slap their …”

“No, not the company line. I mean you. Personally, you, what do you need? From the process? In the bill?”

I hadn’t thought about it, since no one had ever asked. They generally either didn’t want to talk about him, or told me he was wonderful. And while I always knew what I needed for the client, it wasn’t based on what I might want, but how much I could get. Pausing now, and glancing at her to make sure she was serious, I closed my eyes for a second and cleared my head. Basically, I wanted the miserable bastard to die a horrible death, but that wouldn’t happen this year, not in this bill.

I looked back at her. I’d told her about the $20 million, so there was no point in lying. And I’d slipped out from under her first question, so this one I should answer. Okay, missy. “I want him to get his $20 million, and other than that I don’t give a shit. If he’s smashed around in the bill, fine, in the report, fine. Just let him get his money and maybe he’ll go away next year and I won’t have to worry about him.”

She smiled, thinly. I wondered what she’d been looking for, and whether I’d given it to her. “That good enough?”

She leaned over, and pulled her long coat off the chair next to her. “Yep.”

* * *

“Charlie?”

“Yes. Who’s speaking?”

“It’s Ed, Charlie, Ed Matthews. Sorry to bother you, but I’m wondering if I could chat with you and your grandfather.”

Another week had gone by, and it was the first time since the fundraiser that I’d been able to bring myself to call Bao. I knew that he couldn’t have been in on the game that Kincaid had been playing, but I needed to hear it directly. I needed some kind of closure with them.

I’d steeled myself for the conversation. I was at home, on the fire escape, looking out over the many cars parked in the early snow, one of those mid-November snows that never lasted long in Washington. It was a quiet evening, about 9:00ish, so still around 8:00 in Chicago. I’d played it close, in that Bao usually went to bed by 8:15 or so, but I kept delaying the call, like I’d been delaying it all week.

“Ed, it’s been a long time.” Charlie paused, and I thought I could hear something in the background, perhaps him talking to Bao. “Grandfather and I were wondering where you disappeared to. Grandfather says to say he was worried.”

“Thank him for me, Charlie.” Sweet old guy. I took a sip out of the Merlot I’d brought out with me, hoping for a little warmth. “But there’s a couple of things I need to know, if I can ask.”

“Of course, please.”

“Can you ask your grandfather why he set up the Dungan-American Friendship Society?”

“I can tell you that.” Another pause, longer this time, for back and forth between Charlie and Bao. “It is as I remember. We had discussions with Mr. Kincaid and Mr. Hendrickson about our concerns for our people. Grandfather has been very worried in the months that he has been in the United States, and his conversations with Mr. Kincaid only made it more so.”

I could feel a deadening creeping up on me. “How did you get to know Mr. Kincaid?”

“I attended an event at their firm about Kazakhstan, a discussion. It was close to my office. They befriended me, and convinced me to bring my grandfather to America for a few months. They even helped with his visa.”

Helped with his visa? An old Kazakh man, visiting his grandson for no apparent reason? That’s an automatic ‘no’ from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an absolute automatic no. Unless you have friends in high places.

“You asked them to set up the association?”

“No, this was their idea.” Charlie laughed lightly. “They even insisted that we call it Dungan-American. We are the Hui people, and only outsiders call us Dungan.”

I remembered reading that somewhere, some early research, but it hadn’t meant anything. Now it did: the Hui are Chinese, and those Hui who emigrated to Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan were known as Dungan. The word didn’t identified who they were, it identified where they lived.

“So when you came to Washington…”

“They asked Grandfather if he wanted to meet with a Senator, to tell the Senator about our people,” Charlie replied.

“You were going to hire a lobbyist?”

“No.” There was a pause, and then an extended back-and-forth conversation in their native tongue. Another pause.

“Hello?” It was Bao.

“Hello, sir,” I replied, slowing my speech down in the hopes he might understand me. “I apologize for interrupting. But I have something to tell you.”

“More surrr-prise?”

I laughed lightly. “Yes, sir, but not a good surprise. I have failed in what I promised you. There will be no language supporting your people.”

A slight pause. “But you try?”

“Well, yes, I did,” I said, coughing. “But….

“Not but,” he interrupted me. “We ask you to try, you tried.”

“Well, thank you…”

“A good luck day,” he said. “With Senator. We meet you. Like I tell before, a very good luck day.”

I paused slightly before answering. “Not so much for me, sir.”

“Not your luck,” Bao responded matter-of-factly. “My good luck day. I do not know your luck.”

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