“Veeee-je-tah-bers.” Bao smiled, handing his menu back to the perplexed waiter.
Vegetables? Oh Jesus, I thought, running my eyes through the list of menu items, there probably aren’t any vegetarian entrées. The big ticket Chicago lawyers who arranged lunch brought us to a typical, big-ass Chicago steakhouse, and nobody thought to ask Bao Yan-hu or his grandson about the old man’s diet. Looking over at Hendrickson and Kincaid, it was evident that the one was clueless and the other, Kincaid, didn’t seem to care about anything happening around him. As usual.
I turned to Charlie. “He’s a vegetarian? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Grandfather insisted I say nothing,” he replied, looking chagrined. “Among our people, the role of host is taken very seriously, and we do not criticize our hosts.”
Well, that doesn’t work, I thought. Among our people, the role of host has pretty much gone down the toilet and most people don’t spend two minutes thinking about their guests. Bit of a mismatch.
I waved the waiter over. “I’ll have the New York strip, medium, and I’ll start with the chopped salad. Bring him” – pointing to Bao – “an entrée portion of the vegetable sides, some of each. Not just a pile of side dishes, but make it an entrée. Uhhh, lemme see, have them throw the asparagus on the grill, and do the same with the baked potato, slices or wedges of it so they brown.” I handed him back the menu, and glanced to my left to Charlie. “You’re okay, right?”
Charlie smiled. “Yes, unlike my grandfather, I am a meat eater.” He too ordered the strip, but ‘very well done’ in the style of people who don’t like meat but eat it anyway.
I smiled back and, reaching into my pocket, said, “Thinking fast on your feet is part of the business.” I pulled a pair of chopsticks from my pocket, a small piece of the research I’d done on the Dungan: one of the Chinese customs they’d retained was the use of chopsticks, especially among the older generation. Vegetarians, that I hadn’t picked up on; chopsticks, though, I was prepared for chopsticks. Even had a spare pair for Charlie if he needed them.
Laying the chopsticks next to Bao’s forks, I pointed to them and then to him, and smiled at him.
“Thahh-nk you,” he said with a broad grin and, picking them up, began to toy with his bread.
* * *
Michael and I had arrived at lunch a few minutes early, finding the table and setting ourselves up opposite one another. We’d flown to Chicago on an early morning flight, hoping to finalize our relationship with the Dungan in this meeting over lunch right after their monthly association board meeting. We would be heading back that same night, contract in hand. At least, that was the plan.
It was rude, of course, to seat ourselves when we weren’t even the ones who’d scheduled the lunch, but we’d given up on ceremony to stake out exactly the spacing we wanted. Michael, figuring that he needed to convince the lawyers of his skills and knowledge of the system, wanted Kincaid on one side of him and Hendrickson on the other. Me, I wanted the opposite, Bao on one side and Charlie on the other. It was typical of us: Michael always went for the power and the money, while I liked to cozy up to the people who could help me understand the country, the society, their mores and customs. That was information I could use on the Hill to give staffers and Members a feel for the client, a sense of them as people, making it harder to treat them like statistics or ‘furriners’ the way Congress normally treats every non-American.
We rose as they entered, while the maitre d’ expertly guided them to our table. With Kincaid nowhere to be seen, Hendrickson let Bao take the lead, leaning on Charlie as he walked smiling toward us. “I am so pleased,” he told Michael, as I introduced them around, “to meet you. I look forward to working with Mr. Matthews.” He bowed ever so slightly.
Michael froze for an instant, and a thin plastic smile came across his face. “I am so glad that you are pleased with Edward. He has come so far in the time since he first came to work for me.” He glared his smile at me, behind eyes of ice.
Well, that only took about 15 seconds….
I too nodded deferentially, hoping to think of something that might ease the tension. But glancing at the others, I noticed that Hendrickson standing back just far enough to watch for our reactions. He’d planned this moment, or at least had known it was coming. So he’s smarter than he lets on, I thought. I began to wonder if this might be more evenly matched than I’d expected, and to hope I’d be on whichever side won.
* * *
“I would like to make a toast.” It was Michael, acting out of turn again.
“We are so very pleased that you invited us to join you today,” he said, looking slowly around the table at each of us, stopping almost imperceptibly as his eyes locked on mine, nodding ever so slightly before moving on to the others. He had a presence about him sometimes, where you just didn’t see anyone else in the room; this was one of those moments. “We at Michael McPherson & Associates are very pleased to be considered for this important representation. Before we start with our business, I would simply like to express my personal appreciation for your willingness to consider my firm to assist you in Washington.”
Subtle again, Michael, I thought, counting the ‘I’s,’ ‘we’s,’ and ‘my’s’ silently in my head. Raising my glass with a smirk, I leaned forward a little to drink but stopped, sensing rather than seeing something wrong.
Five red wine glasses in the air, one – Bao’s – still on the table. Bao himself had joined his hands as if in prayer and bowed toward the table.
Turning to Charlie, I asked, “He doesn’t drink, does he?” Charlie shook his head a little. Jeez, this lunch is turning into the Sacred cozying up to the Profane, I thought.
Through its early stages, once Kincaid had strolled in a good twenty minutes late with no explanation, Michael had been virtually ignoring Bao and Charlie, focusing on Kincaid and Hendrickson, talking up his many hard-earned successes. From what I could tell, he was regaling them with stories of his work in tax and trade policy, issues so far off track from today’s topic that I guessed he was angling already for his next client rather than worrying too much about this one. He was most definitely ‘on,’ pitching his skills as intently as I’d ever seen him. He’s reaching the point, I thought to myself, where he was selling himself so constantly he was forgetting how to turn himself off. So different from my small companion, I thought, glancing down at Bao.
While Michael was pitching away, I’d been learning more about the Dungan, their homes, their lifestyle and how Charlie came to be in America: a math prodigy picked up on by the old Soviet school systems and sent to Moscow for further training, he’d escaped to the Math Department at the University of Chicago for a doctorate and never gone back. Now he was CTO in a security software start-up that sounded like it involved five guys, all working from algorithms Charlie had developed.
Kincaid broke the ice first, taking a drink from his glass and shaking his head as he put it back on the table. He was disturbing to me in so many ways: he paid no attention to the Dungan, even though as their association’s president he was technically working for them; he paid scant attention to Michael’s spiel, something Michael wasn’t picking up on; and he seemed strikingly bored. His eyes roamed about the room as if tracking who was eating with whom, or maybe just trying to keep his attention focused on something vaguely interesting. He had almost nothing to say, leaving Hendrickson to respond to Michael’s questions about who was representing them in Washington and on what. The one pleasure I was getting – the fact that Michael was getting nothing more out of Kincaid than I had – was simultaneously disturbing, since Michael was so much better than me at breaking through people’s barriers. Who is this guy, I asked myself, and what the hell is he doing?
Looking over at Bao as I drank, I saw that he was smiling, so either we hadn’t done anything overly offensive, or he was so used to Americans ignoring him and his traditions by now that it was amusing. He muttered something brief to Charlie, who looked at Michael and said, “My grandfather says that you are most kind in your welcoming. We are most pleased to be here in this lovely restaurant to share with you this kind opportunity, and we look forward to learning more about you. Your colleague, Mr. Matthews” – here, Bao looked directly to me and nodded – “has been most helpful in explaining your system, and we look forward to today’s discussions.”
Well, that was one hell of a lot more than whatever Bao had actually said, but was nice nonetheless. Especially naming me – the whole ‘who signs the contract?’ question was hanging over us still, and he was pulling the discussion back a little bit toward their team. Things seemed to be going well enough.
* * *
“It is most unusual, that is all,” said Michael, holding his Cuban like a defensive shield, “most unusual for a client to sign with individuals in a firm when the firm, after all, is here as a whole to serve our clients’ interests.”
I had to admit, I was calm at this point, abnormally calm despite the intensity of everything going on around me. My boss, the guy who’d made me in this town, was fighting like hell to make sure that my first client was his client, not mine. Hendrickson, their lawyer, had come to lunch expecting a fight and was fighting away, quietly, politely, as if they were discussing the precise shade of écru to paint the walls. My client-to-be – at least the person I saw as the client, the tiny thin old man who sat with a quizzical look, as if uncomprehending – watched the debate like you would watch a tennis match. Like me, Charlie stayed out of the conversation, occasionally translating in a low voice to give Bao a sense of it, I assumed, but mostly letting it all roll by in silence.
Somehow, I knew I didn’t matter. So I just watched.
“My clients are prepared to sign for one year, for $360,000, if Mr. Matthews will sign the contract on behalf of the company.” They’d nudged us down $15,000, on principle I supposed; lawyers had always struck me as unfailingly driven to demonstrate some value. “We will pay in two installments, one-half immediately, one-half in six months.”
“But in our company,” Michael said, his cigar bouncing as he spoke, “I sign all the contracts.” He took a deep drag on the cigar. He was a horrible smoker when he was nervous, sucking in cigar smoke like it was a cigarette. As owner of a small foreign aid lobbying company, he was nervous a lot. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering how his family history was for lung cancer.
“But in your company,” Hendrickson purred, “you can surely delegate that authority to your Vice President for Legislation.” He gave me a thin smile and peered at me over the top of his glasses. Michael’s eyes followed his, glaring at me.
I didn’t react. I just waited, hoping someone would say something so I might be off the hook.
“It’s not the way we do things.”
Michael was making this painful. For me? For them? I couldn’t tell. It was rather maddening, if only because I’d gotten so used to Michael over the years I thought I knew his every mood. This one, though, was new: I’d never seen him negotiating like this. I wasn’t used to seeing him lose control, and that alone was making me tremendously uncomfortable.
Looking back, I think he knew it was over, but he just felt like he had to fight it.
“There is one small complication,” Hendrickson said. Shit, I thought, we’re so close; this could screw the whole thing up.
Taking the cue, Michael said, “Another complication?” Nicely played: making the signing already a complication.
“We cannot sign the contract until tomorrow. Today is Tuesday.”
Michael and I looked at each other and, despite the tension, I almost laughed. “Tuesday?” I asked.
Charlie coughed, and looked at me in embarrassment. “Our board meets each month on the 17th, which is a lucky day for Grandfather. This month, the 17th, today, is a Tuesday. Tuesdays are very unlucky days. The Dungan never begin a relationship or sign a deal on a Tuesday.” He looked down at the table, and continued, “It is very bad luck.”
“Bad,” Bao added, looking up at me. “Bad luck.”
“Looks like I’ll have to stay overnight,” I said, to no one in particular.
* * *
The following morning, Hendrickson met me in the lobby of the skyscraper where the Dungan-American Friendship Society had its small office, and accompanied me to the 14th floor. Entering the office, which was little more than a conference room off the main hall, I was surprised to find Bao and Charlie waiting.
“Am I late?” I asked Hendrickson.
Charlie replied for him. “No, first we had to have the Board vote, to finalize our decision to hire you. We could not do that on a Tuesday either.”
“Bad luck day, Tuesday,” Bao intoned. “Good luck day today.”
It had taken me a while, Googling ‘dungan,’ ‘tuesday,’ and a bunch of variations, but I’d finally found a reference confirming that, indeed, Tuesday was an unlucky day for the Dungan people. I’d cut-and-pasted the document into an email to send to Michael; he’d been in a killer mood when he’d headed out to O’Hare to head back to D.C., and I’d decided it was worth the trouble to prove to him that the Dungan and Kincaid weren’t scamming him somehow – at least not about Tuesday. I hadn’t found any rationale for why Tuesday was a bad luck day, though, so I wasn’t sure that Michael would be convinced. At least he hadn’t called me on the phone screaming about it. Yet.
“All we need to do now is sign the agreement,” Hendrickson said, pointing me to an empty seat next to Bao.
My heart began to race, even though this had all been decided the day before. Michael had conceded before the end of lunch that I would sign the contract, and headed out of town furious with me. Walking him to the cabstand, I’d pushed my luck, being ballsy enough to raise the split of revenues, the traditional finder’s fee for bringing in the client, but he’d waved me off in disgust and just started walking faster. “Just sign the fucking contract and bring it back to D.C.,” he said, struggling with his coat, and then throwing it and his briefcase into the rear of a waiting cab.
Holding the door open, he turned back to me. “You may think this is all about you, and all about your client. It’s not. It’s about Harry – I don’t trust the motherfucker, and you shouldn’t either.”
I looked at him, surprised. He was serious. “I’m being careful, Michael.”
“Are you?” He glanced down at the curb, reddening a little more. From years of experience, I could almost hear the gears grinding as he worked through what he wanted to say. Then he surprised me again, turning back to stare at me. “You’re great at your game, the best. But if Harry’s fucking with us somehow, if there’s a play here we can’t see” – in his eyes I saw, ‘you can’t see’ – “you’re not ready to face Harry down. You’re ready for a lot, but not for that.”
He stood staring at me for several more moments, but I had no response: I’d been expecting just about anything other than what he said. Finally, he turned to get into the cab. As he slammed the door, I could hear him tell the driver, “Just get me the fuck out of this town,” and watched the back of his head as the cab sped off. I stood by the corner for several minutes, the Chicago wind whipping at my coat, my mind spinning without catching on anything specific.
Today, though, everything was going perfectly. They’d sent a driver to pick me up at the hotel, and he’d called ahead to Hendrickson as we were approaching the building. I wasn’t even entirely sure what part of town we were in, since I didn’t know Chicago well and, other than crossing over the river at one point, couldn’t tell one set of streets from the others. It’s one of those cities where all the skyscrapers – other than the Wrigley Building and the Sears Tower –pretty much look the same after a while. It didn’t matter, since Hendrickson was there by the car door to take me through security and up the elevators.
Hendrickson took the seat next two me, and opened the folder in front of him. He signed the one-page contract on the bottom of the page, and then signed the extra copy behind it. He slid the open folder, which I could see included a check, upside down, presumably the first $180,000, over to me.
This was it? I thought. I was deflated somehow, very aware of Bao smiling at me, Charlie watching us, and Hendrickson waiting, while I looked down at the folder. After all the excitement, and the arguments with Michael, this was it? Two signatures? Then what?
“It is good.” It was Bao, in a low voice, but enough to shake me out of my reverie. I looked him in the eye, and knew he was reading me, recognizing my hesitation, knowing that there was something I felt was missing. He waited.
It is good, isn’t it? I thought. Laughing a little, I looked down again, and this time signed my name once, twice, with a little more panache and a lot more care than I normally did. It was done.
As we walked back to the elevators, Hendrickson was apologizing for Kincaid’s absence when I heard the ‘ding’ of an elevator arriving. As I turned, Kincaid walked out of the elevator, and I noticed a look of surprise on his face just as the red light over his head winked out. Down? I wondered. For a moment, I asked myself where he could have been to be coming off a down elevator, and promised to check in the lobby who the building’s other tenants were. In the rush of goodbyes, though, and in the afterglow of having a $180,000 check in my pocket, I forgot.
I was halfway to O’Hare, replaying the signing in my head, when I recalled the image, the one seemingly wrong moment, the red light over Kincaid’s head. Damn, I thought, I need to check that out. That feeling faded, though, as I once again patted my breast pocket, to be sure the check was still there. I leaned back and sighed, my first big payday in hand; there was plenty of time to worry about Kincaid and his elevator. Besides, this is a good luck day, I recalled, laughing; so it has to be nothing.
* * *
“Oh, Ed, I don’t know, they’re just very upset over there. Even at the thought of it.”
Eleanor stared down into her drink, some obscure California red, eyes crinkled in concern, her chin sunk down into the grey turtleneck she wore over a charcoal skirt and under a navy blazer. She’d been well-trained by State, and still had some of that striped-pants, cookie-pusher style about her, looking more like an Embassy functionary than most Hill staffers. The perfect outfit for tonight’s event, a Golongolese Embassy-hosted function honoring the nation’s Vice President, Joshua Gangaran.
Gangaran’s visit was the bone I’d been thrown for pitching a fit in our staff meeting over the desperate straits in which Golongo’s president, Mr. Koliba, found himself. Gangaran was the country’s front man, the pleasant face of an increasingly unpalatable regime, the small-d democrat elected to office freely and fairly while Koliba and his people were focused on stacking the Presidential vote and not worrying much about the rest of the ticket. Tall, 6’2” at least, his skin the blue-black found only in Africa, Gangaran was Harvard-trained and had run as a reformer, promising to reform from within. There were no indications that he’d had the slightest success so far, and for all any of us knew he’d been bought off by now, but he retained a veneer of respectability, and that was about all we could expect from any Golongolese these days.
Gangaran was in town for two days only, having arrived earlier in the afternoon for a visit to the State Department before tonight’s reception, and with meetings on Capitol Hill the following days with the House and Senate foreign affairs committees. Tonight’s was to be the friendliest part of the visit, the semi-official, semi-open reception for U.S. Government folks and defense contractors with an interest in Golongo, along with those few members of the House and Senate and their staffs willing to be seen in public with him. It was one hell of a feed, the kind that desperately poor countries always insist on throwing for visiting dignitaries, their limited resources wasted on trays and trays of shrimp, pastry puffs, mini-quiches and cut vegetables, along with a bar that exceeded the choices at even your best fundraiser. Still, getting people – serious people, like members of Congress – into the room was always hard, because there was nothing in it for them. So we’d called in a lot of chits to get at least a few people in from the Hill, something no good reception can do without. I’d had to beg Uncle Harry to come, since he was absolutely our only shot of pulling in a Senator; he’d given me a lot of crap for it, but he’d promised to drop by at some point. That put me here for the duration.
I smiled back at my date, Eleanor, who I’d invited once Charlotte made clear that she wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with Gangaran, reformer or not. It was something of a two- or three-fer, since Eleanor counted as a senior Congressional staffer on our list of attendees, I actually enjoyed spending time with her, and I’d asked her to nose around the State Department for some inside skinny on how Kazakhstan was faring inside the building these days. It was this last assignment that was disturbing her so much. “Eleanor, I just don’t see what they could possibly flip out over. We’re representing a few thousand vegetable growers, for heaven’s sake.”
She took a long drink. Watching, I was reminded how lovely she still looked to me, not in any classic sense, but strong, symmetrical features on a face whose every movement, every nook and cranny, every look I knew so well. It had been a short summer for us, but very intense, and one I’d learned so much. They tell me familiarity breeds contempt, but somehow my ongoing familiarity with Eleanor – and the knowledge that of all the many “familiars” in her long State Department career, I was the only one who came back to find a true friend and, in her own way, mentor – made her very special to me. “I think you’re in trouble.”
“Oh, well, shit, if that’s all, I’m always in trouble.” I reached to squeeze her hand, small, thinner now, with the slightest mottling. She squeezed back, laughing despite the annoyance. I turned, looking for Gangaran. “Come on, let’s go meet a Vice President.”
She drew back. “I mean it.”
“I know you do, sweetheart.” I turned to the shrimp tray, and picking one up, offered it to her. “I promise, we’ll talk about it later,” I said, leaning in toward her. She smiled slightly, and opened her mouth. I fed her the shrimp, delicately, holding the tail tightly to squeeze the last of it out of the shell. My fingers brushed against her lips, and I let myself remember how good it felt to have her body close to me. “After we introduce you to the Veep.”
I smiled at her. Maybe this is why I never told Charlotte about my summer with Eleanor, I thought. She knows about all the others, but this one, this was too close to the bone, and retained too much intimacy, too many scenes like this, to admit.
* * *
I waited for Eleanor on the stoop in the courtyard where she was house-sitting, a small enclave hidden away from the Sahara in the form of most Embassy homes in Mauritania: a square one-story building, rooms scattered around an open air courtyard that attracted the cool air of the night and, with walls blocking the worst of the wind and sand, allowed for some semblance of a garden. She was getting a bottle of wine, a Californian purchased from the Embassy commissary. On nights like this, when the city’s generator had failed again, this was the only place in the building that was even vaguely cool, and chatting over wine and maybe a little cheese was the only activity that made sense. With the Milky Way bright above us, it was desperately romantic as well.
“Are you going to tell me what the hell I was doing at that dinner?” I asked her. We’d just gotten in from another of my only-in-Mauritania evenings, a dinner for three in the courtyard of some Moor’s home, he, Eleanor and I gathered around a small dish holding nothing but the boiled head of a goat. No lettuce, no trimmings, nothing, just boiled goat head. I’d been asked to come at the very last minute, and my presence seemed to surprise our host as well. Through his tortured French, I sensed an effort to figure out who I was, this 20-something young lad trailing after the Ambassador’s secretary. I didn’t mind, my French was just as butchered and I was trying just as hard to figure him out.
“Well,” she said, as she poured me a glass of the Cabernet, “after I accepted the invitation to dinner, I found out he only had two wives. I thought you’d block any plans he might have.”
Taking the glass from her, I laughed again. “Why not just cancel?”
“And miss that goat head?”
Eating boiled goat head was pretty much what it sounded like: picking bits of meat off the face and skull of the poor beast, picking here and there desperately trying to find something edible, all while giving your host reassuring smiles as if this wasn’t the strangest meal in your entire life. There was the inevitable offer of the eyeballs, a delicacy in this part of the world but one that even Mauritanians know Americans just don’t eat; so he offered them, one at a time, we politely declined, and then we listened to the disquieting crunch as he chewed, lost in thought, picking at the skull in search of another morsel. “If I’d known you were coming, I would have brought a second head,” he said as we snapped the goat’s jaw to get at his tongue, slicing it into small pieces. Oddly, at least for me, that turned out to be the best part of the meal.
“You know I never say ‘no’ to a new experience.” Eleanor rolled the wine in her glass, sniffing it, and glanced up at me with a smile. She’d sat down next to me and scooched over, sliding her hip against mine. My arm instinctively went around her shoulder.
“Oh, well, you know me,” I replied, “I’ll go along with anything.”
She looked down into her glass before taking another long sip. “Yes, you will. It’s one of you most endearing qualities, and one of your most annoying.”
I didn’t know how to take that, but decided to let it go. “So am I one of your new experiences? Does that explain us?” I asked her, leaning toward her.
“No, honey,” she replied, kissing me lightly on my lips, “the sex explains us.” She kissed me again, firmer this time, serious about it.
Three hours later, we were still there, under the Milky Way, on the mattress we’d dragged out from the too-hot bedroom and planted in the courtyard. Hot, sweating, a thin film of sand, the Sahara’s ubiquitous sand, coating us, we lay in a loose embrace, letting the air float around us in a futile effort to cool down. “You’re a sweet kid, you know that?”
I paused, wondering for a moment if that was a compliment, or a comment, or a what? “Thanks, I think.”
“I mean it,” she responded, sliding back into me, planting her firm butt against my lap, spooning, wiggling her way in. “You’re sweet. It’s a good thing.”
I laughed, and nuzzled against her neck, pulling her in with my left hand, playing it along her belly and down to her thighs. “Yeah, it’s a good thing. Besides, it takes a lot less energy than the alternative.” Pressing my hips against her, I could feel myself growing again, feel my prick harden. My fingers trailed up again, now to her crotch, to the damp patch of hair that I touched lightly. “Hmmmmmm,” I said, into her neck.
She twisted, part into me and part away. “Jesus, Sherman, my pussy already hurts from the last two times,” she said. “Don’t you ever let up?”
Removing my hand, I drew back away from her. “Sorry.” I lay flat, chastened, and looked up to the stars.
“Goddammit, Sherman,” Eleanor said, rising up on her elbow. “You’ve got to learn to be more assertive.”
“You said no.”
“No, I said my pussy hurts a little. You said you wanted it.” She grabbed me and squeezed, arousing me even more. “Don’t you?”
Panting, I breathed, “You know I do.”
Sliding her right leg over me, she sat on me, and began moving, agonizingly slowly at first, and then just the tiniest bit faster. “I don’t want it. But if you plan to survive in Washington, Sherman, you need to be able to use people sometimes. Especially the willing ones.”
My breathing was getting more ragged, my need to be inside her pulsing inside me. I fought it, feebly I admit, but I fought it. “Dammit, you said no.”
Her response was to reach down and guide me inside her, grimacing only a little, and then begin grinding against me again, mechanically still but just that much faster. “Using people,” she continued in a flat voice, “using people is the currency of Washington, Sherman. You have to do it to survive. We all do. Tonight I used you, now you use me.” She held my wrists loosely as she rode me, holding me in place. I didn’t, couldn’t fight her.
“Slow down, dammit, you’re going too fast…”
“But I’m not doing this for me, Sherman. This is all about you.” With that, she raised up on me just that much more, and slid down, slamming her pelvis against my belly.
“God damn you, it’s too good, it feels too good,” I said, sliding my arms out from under and, taking her by the wrists, flipping her over on her back in one smooth motion. I couldn’t slow myself any more, I hadn’t learned that kind of control yet. I was moving faster, faster, and my breath was getting ragged.
“Look at me, Sherman.” My eyes opened, looking down at her, seeking out some sign of pleasure, but all I saw was the look of someone almost at work, at an unpleasant task. “Not for me,” she said.
At that, I exploded with a cry of pain, combined with intense, burning pleasure, exploded in her like it had been days or weeks, not an hour, since we’d last made love. A hard shiver ran through my entire body and my arms buckled, dropping me down on top of Eleanor. I could feel my breath rattling through me, feel the spasms running down my legs as I kept coming, coming, like it was somehow new. I felt Eleanor’s arms enclosed me, hold me to her, and heard the lightest whisper saying, “It’s the nature of Washington, using people. It’s how you survive. You have to learn to like it.”
God damn you, I thought, eyes closed, breathing hard, as little ripples of pleasure wove through me. Collapsing on top of her, I felt the thick sweat on our bodies mingling, sliding off our skin. I let out a deep breath. This does feel good, I thought. It’s not me, not my way, but my God it feels good.
* * *
“Mr. Vice President, may I introduce my colleague, Ed Matthews, and his guest, the Executive Assistant to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Chief of Staff, Eleanor Walters. She’s here on behalf of the Chief of Staff, who was unable to make it.”
Dammit, Tom, I thought, where the hell did that come from? I was livid, and felt myself take half a step forward. Eleanor was here as a favor to me, not on some official Committee business, and wasn’t ready to play that game. Worse, I never, ever put her into that kind of game; it was part of our unspoken deal, and Tom had just broken it.
Tom smiled thinly at me, his face drawn, while Eleanor stiffened on my arm. Tom had been in lockstep with Gangaran all night, hanging on one side of him like a Secret Service agent protecting the President. Grim, his face taut, Tom looked increasingly scared as the night went on, that some-kid’s-gonna-break-the-china scared that parents get when they’ve got a houseful of four-year-olds at little Tiffany’s birthday party.
We all knew the trip wouldn’t go well, but that was the plan: bring Gangaran out so that he can get yelled at and defuse a little of the steam building in Congress. The State Golongo desk officer had told me his State and Defense Department meetings would definitely go about as badly (from his point of view) as I’d hoped. But being in this room, it seemed pretty clear that Tom was having trouble accepting the idea. I counted three right-wingers from the House – Jack Tindal, conservative Texas Democrat from just southeast of Austin, and two nutjob Republicans, Louis Hadle of Alabama and Timothy Wilson of Florida – who would only have showed if Tom had begged them. The problem was, having three members of the House of Representatives show up a silly-ass reception like this might give Gangaran and his ambassador the idea that Golongo had support in Washington. And with an even bigger draw on his way over, Tom’s claim that Eleanor was representing the House Foreign Affairs Committee was entirely the wrong message. In addition to pissing me off royally.
As I squeezed Eleanor’s forearm lightly in reassurance, Gangaran stepped forward to her with a smile, looking her up and down in that strikingly blatant way foreign government officials always did. “Miss Walters, it is my very great pleasure.”
The man was a hulk, built like a linebacker, with an incredible air about him. I felt like I wasn’t there, and, of course, he treated me that way. I wasn’t bothered; it was a client thing, they all treated us like cattle.
Eleanor paused, her mouth open, for just a moment. That surprised me, for I’d never seen anyone get the better of Eleanor. Recovering, she flashed Tom a look that said, ‘do not ever do that to me again, asshole,’ and responded, “Mr. Vice President, it is an honor. My boss so regrets his inability to attend, but it was a national security matter. I’m sure you understand.”
The tension in Tom’s face eased ever so little. Gangaran tilted his head slightly and said, “Oh, but of course, Miss Walters. Tell me, tomorrow I meet with your Committee members. How will that go?”
Eleanor stiffened again. Not bad, I thought, that’s twice in one night.
Uncle Harry’s booming voice over my right shoulder saved the day. “Edward! Nephew!” he called, approaching quickly from the sound of it.
Letting go of Eleanor, I stepped forward to the Vice President, cutting between them while simultaneously turning toward the sound of Harry’s voice. Conspiratorially, I leaned in to Gangaran. “Senator Harrison Fuller, Pennsylvania, Defense Appropriations member,” I said. “Very important.” Gangaran threw a glance at Eleanor, as if to follow up on his question, but I held tight and began Harry’s introduction while he was barely in earshot. “Senator,” I said, “we’re so very pleased you could be here. I’d like you to meet Vice President Gangaran.”
Harry stepped up, every bit the Senator, a little more regal tonight than usual, but I supposed that was the company: Senators relish meeting foreign leaders, perhaps since their own Presidents so seldom give them the time of day. I stepped back, to give them some room, while Tom and the Ambassador crowded in to pay their respects. Tom looked relieved, in that we’d pulled one Senator into the party, but still grim, since he knew Harry was something of a loose cannon. I’d warned Tom that Harry’s one requirement for attending the event was that he could tell Gangaran ‘whatever the fuck’ he pleased, as he so daintily put it, so Tom had reason to worry. But I’d pointed out that it was a small price to pay in exchange for getting him into the room, and with no other Senator on his dance card, Tom had been forced to go along.
As I turned toward Eleanor, standing still stricken off to my left, I heard Harry’s booming voice. “Could I have a moment alone with His Excellency?”
Glancing back, I could see Tom looking beseechingly at me. I ignored him, and took Eleanor by the arm as I approached, leading her away. “Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” she said. “That son of a bitch…”
“He’s my problem, not yours,” I replied, looking into her eyes. “Entirely my problem.” I paused, to let that sink in. “Let’s you and I go get a stiff drink.”
At the bar, I ordered us both a Johnny Walker Black, rocks for Eleanor, mine with a splash of water. We were both tense, Eleanor because she wasn’t there representing the Committee but as a favor to me, me because Tom had just crossed a huge line – screwing me with one of my most useful contacts – and I wanted to fry his sorry ass. Looking over at him, hovering with the trio of idiot right-wingers he’d brought to the party, I wondered how best to confront him.
“It really is your problem, isn’t it, Sherman?” Eleanor asked softly.
“I think I feel sorry for Tom, for once.” She smiled, and laid her hand on my arm. “I do think you’ve learned over the years.”
“I had a great teacher.” Looking over again, I saw Tom and then past him this time, to Harry, deep in conversation with Gangaran, the Ambassador beside them looking deeply unhappy. Harry didn’t seem angry, though, and neither did Gangaran; from here it looked like they were having a serious discussion but not a confrontational one. Tom was watching them too, nervously: he’d stopped listening to his friends, and was staring openly at the Vice President, too far away to hear but smart enough not to walk into their conversation.
I looked back to Eleanor, and raised my glass to clink against hers in a toast. “Yes, Master, I indeed had a great teacher,” I said in my horrible faux-Chinese accent, “Glasshopper has ‘rearned’ from your wisdom.” Taking a long slug of the scotch, and relishing the burn as it went down my throat, I added, “You were going to tell me about Kazakhstan.”
* * *
Eleanor wove one hell of a tale. It seemed that State was absolutely, positively freaking out at the thought of anyone representing any of the minority peoples scattered through the Stans, let alone Kazakhstan, perhaps the most problematic among them. It wasn’t so much just the idea of someone working for them, an outcome State always hated because it made it harder for them to control the bilateral relationship. It wasn’t even the new standard complaint, about the delicacy of diplomacy in that part of our post-9/11 world and how lobbyists can undermine the objectives of American foreign policy – as if some bozo like me walking the halls of Congress could actually have an impact on foreign policy (something we never told the clients, but even on our best days we just nibbled at the edges…). No, State was going totally overboard at the idea of another Kazakh group being represented in Washington because of … the Vice President’s office. Not Gangaran. Our Vice President.
“They are simply scared to death of that office. It’s like a black hole over there, and they love nothing more than hanging a few State Department ‘weenies’” – she did that annoying quote marks move here, as if that made them less weenie – “out the window by their toes.”
“But there’s no way they’d worry about a group as small as the Dungan. What’s the big deal with some tiny stateless group just angling for some notice?”
“Their ties to Shaddock Mills.”
Shit, I thought, that’s a very bad combination. Shaddock Mills was just one among the current crop of lobbying firms working for the Government of Kazakhstan, but if they were close to Cheney’s people, they were seriously connected. Shaddock Mills alone I could handle; the Vice President’s office, them I could slip under the radar of. But if Shaddock Mills had friends in the Vice President’s office, and they were working together, well, that was going to be a problem.
It made sense that Cheney would be keeping an eye on Kazakhstan policy: he’d been there in 2006, praising the dictator Nazarbayev and promoting the idea of an oil pipeline through Kazakhstan that could bypass Russia. But hell, I’d figured that was little more than a routine visit to a friendly ally in the fight against terrorism, especially since the Kazakhs had oil. I might have to rethink that a little, I thought to myself.
In my small corner of the world, Dick Cheney was a very big deal: the War on Terror had moved most corners of U.S. foreign policy into the ‘classified’ realm, and Cheney was nothing if not the King of Classified, even more than the Prince of Darkness title that Democrats liked to put on him. Always ready to toss his own grandmother, or his Chief of Staff, under the bus if it suited him, Cheney had his fingers everywhere, at least everywhere that he and his conservative friends cared about. That was the beauty of the Vice President’s office: Veeps could either do nothing at all, like most of them over the years, or, if they had influence with the President, could sneak around behind the scenes shaping policy, undermining approaches they didn’t like, supporting the ones they did, and reporting to no one except the President – and then in meetings where there was no one in the room but the two of them, so no one else ever knew what was happening.
It’s the greatest black-box experiment in the world, only with real people and real power.
The link between Cheney’s office and Shaddock Mills – whatever it was – was something I’d been totally unaware of, but I decided to play it cool. “Is that it?”
“Well, it’s enough, Sherman. So you just be careful. Those people play for keeps.”