In a way, she supposed that she should have seen it coming. That Jonah given a modicum of power would use to wreak complete and total havoc was a given. Perhaps it was just that it had never occurred to her that he would ever be in a position to have any kind of power. She had met hundreds of politicians since she had worked for Selina Meyer and had formed certain observations about the kind of person who sought to mortgage their privacy and common decency for petty political power. Starting with that observation about the lack of privacy and common decency.
It wasn’t that she thought that Jonah was above all that. He had the moral rectitude of an alley cat. She just hadn’t thought that he was competent. At anything. The only stopping him from being a womaniser, or worse, was a profound lack of charm and likeability. Even the most dedicated abuser of women would struggle when they came across as profoundly creepy and gross as Jonah did in even the most basic of conversations. It had always baffled her how he managed to get a job in the West Wing at all, let alone keep hold of it, until she found out about his Uncle Jeff. Kent had fired Jonah as soon as possible.
Sue crossed her legs. It was occasionally frustrating how often her thoughts returned to Kent. They had dated briefly a number of years ago. She had moved on. She had married. Alright she had also divorced but that was not the point. She had little reason to think about a man she didn’t even work with any longer.
Except that she did have some reason to think about him. That reason was Jonah Ryan. Sue had no great loyalty to those who paid her salary. She knew full well that they rarely had any loyalty to her. It had been no surprise that after Selina Meyer had lost the election that Kent, like Ben, Amy, and the others, had found alternative employment. That Kent had found it with Jonah was painful. It was embarrassing. Even though their breakup had not been pretty, even though there had been a time when she wanted fire ants to sting him to death, she wouldn’t have wished a career as Jonah’s employee on him. Seeing him reduced so low was acutely embarrassing that it even embarrassed her on his behalf.
Something in the background noise changed. A modulation perhaps in the chanting of the protestors. Oh yes. Jonah Ryan brings the government to a screaming halt and people protested the president. And all of these people were allowed to vote, as if they had the sense and intelligence to choose between a nice ham sandwich and death in a fiery pit. People like that had voted for Jonah Ryan. It was the only possible explanation.
She sighed and made the call.
Ben Cafferty answered, grunted, and handed the phone to Kent. That was par for the course with Ben who was, to be polite, one of the most “on brand” old white men in Washington D.C. He didn’t like talking on the phone. Or sending messages on the phone. But he did have a tendency to leave voice mails, a thing everyone under the age of sixty knew instinctively not to do.
‘Hello?’ Kent asked.
‘Mr Davison, this is Sue Wilson, the president’s appointment secretary. She has asked me to arrange a meeting with Congressman Ryan. Is that something with which you can help me?’
She knew from the way the texture of the sound changed that he had put his hand over the receiver. She heard muffled voices for a moment before he removed his hand.
‘The senator would like to know to what this pertains,’ Kent said.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Ben yelled in the background. ‘Stop trying to impress her. Aren’t you already fucking half a dozen women?’
‘Ben! This is important!’ Jonah hissed.
Kent gave a small sigh. ‘Miss Wilson, I apologise for any… interference that you may have heard. Did you hear my response to you?’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘Please tell the congressman that the president wishes to discuss the shutdown of the economy due to his childish and pathetic tantrum.’
There was a long pause.
‘Are you quite sure that’s the message that you want me to pass on?’ Kent asked.
Sue pursed her lips. ‘No,’ she admitted. ‘Please tell the congressman that the president wishes to discuss a way to address the concerns of his group in a way that will be beneficial for everyone.’
‘A moment,’ Kent said.
This time he put her on hold. That was interesting. She wasn’t given to analysing other people’s decisions the way that Kent was. That he had to be to do his job. Nonetheless she wondered about the two different reactions.
He returned to the call. ‘The congressman is amenable.’
‘Four-fifteen this afternoon,’ she said.
‘I’ll put it in his diary,’ Kent said.
‘Don’t you want to check with him?’
Kent chuckled. ‘They’ve gone out to lunch,’ he admitted. ‘He would only get hung up attempting to assert his masculinity by suggesting ridiculous alternatives. It’s better to be a fait accompli.’
‘He’s gone out to lunch with Ben and left you on the phone with me?’ Sue asked, raising her eyebrows. It was hard to imagine Ben left alone with Jonah for any length of time not attempting a coup. Or a murder.
‘No, no,’ Kent said. ‘With Tawney, his… partner seems inaccurate. Handler? Trainer? Warden, perhaps.’
Sue chuckled. ‘I cannot say that I envy her.’
‘No, nor I. However, Ben is at a dental appointment so perhaps he would enjoy lunch with them more.’
Sue moved the phone to her other ear. ‘I doubt it.’
‘So do I,’ Kent said.
‘Have you eaten your lunch yet?’ Her stomach was rumbling.
‘I keep looking at the box and feeling depressed,’ he said dryly. ‘There’s something wrong with the office refrigerator. It does terrible things to food.’
Sue toyed with one of her pens. ‘If I were to go a local restaurant and you happened to be there, I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if you were to join me.’
It had been some while since she had spent much time in his company, but she could still clearly hear the smile in his voice when he replied. For the first time in a long time the idea of him smiling made her smile.
‘And if you were to go to a local restaurant for lunch, which restaurant would it be?’ he asked.
Sue smiled slightly. ‘I’ll text you the details.’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
Sue knew that she looked good as she left the West Wing. She had always taken good care of herself even when things in her life were not going well. Perhaps she had taken more care of herself when things were going poorly. Her mother had always said it was better to eat nothing and have your pride then eat caviar and lose your pride.
It was of course especially important when she was going to meet Kent. He was many things to her but most of all he was her ex-boyfriend. That was a complex situation at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. There was a distinct balance of power when one was encountering an ex. The delicate algebra of comparative personal fulfilment and professional development was always equally challenging and contentious. It didn’t help that she strongly suspected that Kent was barely aware of the competition and if he was aware then he barely cared.
Kent had been, of course, rather ahead of her when it came to professional development. Although arguably that had changed. Having to work for Jonah was such a significant fall that she would have almost felt sorry for him even if she hadn’t had some remaining… what? Affection? She would never admit affection for anyone. Desire? Perhaps. He was still objectively an attractive man. Liking? That was more difficult. Most people in D.C. would claim that Kent was too cold, too robotic, and simply too odd to be likeable. It was a belief that Sue had too often indulged. Not because she agreed but because she was irritated or bitter or simply because it was easier than arguing.
Likeable. What a stupid barometer. She heard that politicians had to be likeable. She had no idea why. Surely intelligence and ability were more relevant and far more important than whether or not she would choose to spend quality time with them.
Nonetheless, she liked Kent. It was a shameful thing to admit but there it was. Kent’s manner was cool, certainly, but it was the coolness of a man who was professional and in control of his emotions. If she were to ever honestly respond to the accusation that he was “robotic” then she would say that he was only robotic in comparison to the hysterical, overemotional, childish posturing that was far too common on the capitol.
Also, and she would never admit it if pressed, but she suspected that everything which made people call him “robotic” could be also applied to her. She was continually aware that, no matter the species of the politician, they were all equally egotistical, self-obsessed, overwrought, and irrational. To anyone with that perspective in life, a person who was calm, rational, and sensible, might indeed seem robotic.
Sue checked her hair in a shop window as she approached the restaurant. There was a light drizzle, and, despite her umbrella, she was always somewhat concerned that it would reach her hair.
That was an unacceptable outcome.
She was precisely on time. Sue was always precisely on time. Kent would be two minutes early. He was always two minutes early to important events since he allowed himself a two-minute variance on arriving on time in acknowledgment that timepieces might differ slightly.
Sue arrived precisely on time, since she made no allowance for other person’s mistakes or misapprehensions.
It was a busy restaurant, and she might have struggled to see Kent. However, he stood up immediately upon her entering the restaurant. Something that he hadn’t done since they had broken up so messily.
Even under threat of torture she would not have owned to the flutter of excitement in her stomach when she saw him stand up and smile. She hadn’t seen him in some while, not in person. She had seen him on the news of course, normally at Jonah’s heels as he tried desperately to put the brakes on the latest idiocy. His hair was a little lighter but just as voluminous. She had expected that from the television. He was wearing a suit that she hadn’t seen before. A well-cut, black suit, with a mint green pocket square and tie. It was new and it was striking. It was difficult to imagine him wearing it to sit in that miserable little office while he pretended to care what Jonah was doing. He would have been the best dressed person in the office by some considerable way.
‘Miss Wilson,’ he said, as he pulled out a chair for her. ‘What a pleasant surprise.’
‘Mr Davison, is this a new ensemble?’ She considered kissing his cheek but decided it wasn’t precisely the right moment. She did allow her fingertips to brush across his lapel.
‘It’s been some while since I purchased a new suit,’ he said. ‘It seemed like an opportune moment to do so.’
They settled down at the table and picked up their menus. Sue crossed her legs and glanced at Kent over the top of her menu.
‘How is work?’ she asked.
Kent snorted. ‘Hardly the blandly prosaic small talk one usually expects in these sorts of situations.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s very common to discuss work.’
He smiled slightly. ‘Perhaps less common when the people involved have work relationships that are diametrically opposed.’
‘Some people might consider that makes the conversation more interesting,’ she suggested.
‘Assuredly,’ he said, glancing at the approaching server. ‘Perhaps a little too interesting for the traditional amount of polite chit-chat in these situations.’
They gave the server their drink orders. Sue waited until she walked away.
‘That might be relevant if it weren’t for the case that we both loathe small talk,’ Sue said.
‘It’s not a skill that I’ve ever been able to develop.’
Sue shrugged. ‘It’s hardly worth your time.’
Kent placed his napkin on his lap. ‘Work is not as fulfilling as it once was. Although of late it is rather more… exciting than it has been previously.’ He pursed his lips. ‘I imagine that you’re aware that Jonah fired Ben.’
‘I heard something, but it seemed unbelievably stupid even for a man as abundantly blessed with stupidity as Jonah Ryan.’ Sue propped her chin on her fist. ‘I would welcome more detailed information.’
His eyes lit up. ‘Miss Wilson, are you asking me to gossip?’
She considered it. ‘Yes.’
The server brought their drinks.
Kent clasped his hands over his stomach. ‘I am disappointed that I don’t have a more exciting story to share with you. Unfortunately, it was simply a burst of bad temper from Jonah. I was quite hopeful that he might also fire me but for whatever reason he desisted.’
‘Ben didn’t hit him?’
‘Alas, no.’ Kent tapped his thumbs together. ‘I’m not aware of Ben having ever punched anyone.’
She raised her eyebrows as she reached for her drinks. ‘But he is so aggressive.’
‘Verbally, yes.’ Kent took a drink of his whiskey and savoured it. ‘In my experience there is often an inverse proportion between the outward aggressiveness in general demeanour and actual willingness to perform acts of physical violence.’
‘By that logic you are more likely to punch someone than I am,’ she said, putting down her menu.
‘You said that,’ he pointed out. ‘I didn’t.’
The server came over for their order. When she had left, Sue folded her arms.
‘Have you ever punched anyone?’ she asked.
‘You first,’ he suggested.
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘I have considered tripping you up on a number of occasions.’
‘Only tripping?’ he asked. ‘I rather imagined that you were plotting my death.’
She smiled sweetly. ‘I’m sure that you like to imagine that you had such an effect on me that I would be driven to consider murder.’
Kent shrugged. ‘Actually, I rather ascribed that to your general homicidal hatred of all of your ex-partners.’
‘Only because they don’t deserve to live,’ she said crisply. ‘Including you.’
He cocked his head. ‘This conversation took a turn.’
‘It started with you avoiding answering the question of whether you have ever punched someone.’ She sipped her wine.
He toyed with his fork. ‘Never unprovoked.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Who did you punch?’
Kent waved his hand. ‘Oh, it was hardly anything interesting.’
‘Then why are you so reluctant to tell me about it?’ She leaned forward slightly. ‘Is it someone that I know?’
He was granted a temporary reprieve from answering by the server bringing their food. The scent of Sue’s rack of lamb swept temptingly across the table.
‘Was it Jonah?’ she asked.
Kent blinked. ‘Are you suggesting that I hit him while he was kneeling or that I asked him to wait while I fetched a stepladder?’
She snickered. ‘He’s not that tall.’
‘Why won’t you tell me?’
Kent shrugged and ate a mouthful of his salmon. ‘It’s embarrassing to have lost self-control to the extent that I struck them.’
She sliced her lamb into precise slices. ‘Kent, I will name every single staffer and politician in the whole of Washington D.C. if necessary. You know that I will.’
He sighed. ‘It was quite some considerable time ago.’
She looked at him in silence.
‘Ben,’ he said.
Sue leaned back. ‘Ben?’
‘Why would you punch Ben?’ She took a breath and shook her head. ‘I will rephrase that. Given all the abuse and provocation that Ben gives you regularly without you responding with significant irritation what would spur you to violence?’
Kent was quiet for a moment. ‘It was a long time ago. I didn’t know him well. We had been working on a campaign excessively arduously. After the votes came in, everyone went out to celebrate. We drank far too much. I came back to the hotel early. At some point I was awoken by noise from one of the other rooms. I went to investigate. Clothes, rubbish, and detritus were strewn along the corridor. I saw an open door along the corridor and heard movement. I went to ensure the occupant was quite well.’
Sue sipped her wine. ‘Ben?’
Kent shook his head. ‘A female intern. I went into her room and saw her unconscious on the bed. Ben was… stood is the wrong word. Slouched perhaps or hunched. Barely upright. He was doing something with her dress.’
Sue’s grip tightened on her fork. ‘Undressing her?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not as it turned out.’ He took a gulp of his whiskey. ‘She had thrown up and he was too drunk to roll her over or clear her airway.’
Sue smiled slightly and relaxed. ‘That sounds more in character for Ben than assaulting a woman who was unconscious.’
Kent groaned slightly. ‘I am aware of that now.’
‘Why are you embarrassed?’ she asked. ‘If you found Ben in that position now, I would expect you to reach the same conclusion.’
He licked his lips. ‘But you just said it seemed out of character.’
Sue took a bite of food. ‘That doesn’t matter. That is not a situation where you can assume the benefit of the doubt.’
‘Ben didn’t agree,’ Kent pointed out.
‘He’s wrong,’ she said flatly. ‘He’s thinking purely of himself and not of what could have happened if another man had been in that situation.’
Kent shifted in his seat. ‘It’s not something I’ve discussed with anyone else. Ben was so deeply upset that I felt that I had made a dreadful error of judgment.’
‘You cannot possibly set your moral compass by Ben’s hurt feelings,’ Sue said. ‘You know that. What did she say?’
He cocked his head. ‘She? Oh, the Intern? I didn’t discuss it with her. She remained unconscious during the event and I saw no reason to embarrass or distress her by informing her of events.’
She clasped her hands together. ‘If I didn’t know you as well as I do then I would be extremely annoyed at you for so completely centring this event on Ben and utterly excluding this young woman.’
‘But she had no idea it had happened,’ Kent said weakly.
‘That isn’t the point,’ she snapped. ‘Do you even know her name?’
He took a deep breath. ‘I do.’
Sue recognised the expression on his face as a mixture of guilt and unwillingness. ‘It certainly wasn’t me. I was never an intern.’
His attempt at a smile was weak. ‘I think that you can hold your alcohol rather better.’
Sue rubbed her forehead. ‘Better than Amy.’
Kent shifted in his seat. ‘You have inferred that, but I have not implied it.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Does Ben know that it was Amy? It seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have said something about it to her.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m sure that he doesn’t. Ben barely remembers the names of junior staffers let alone interns.’
Sue finished her meal and pushed away her plate. ‘You’re looking at me like a naughty schoolboy in front of the principal.’
‘Well, you’re angry at me,’ he pointed out meekly.
‘I’m frustrated,’ she said. ‘You told me something that I would find genuinely quite impressive and then you almost ruined it.’
‘Almost?’ he asked.
‘You’re lucky that I’m feeling generous.’ She drained her wine. ‘If you ask me nicely, I might allow you to take me somewhere and earn back my admiration.’
He swallowed. ‘Oh… Would you perhaps allow me to escort you somewhere to your taste?’
She sighed. ‘I suppose that will do.’ She sent a quick text. ‘Don’t tell Jonah you won’t be back this afternoon. Perhaps he might even fire you.’
‘Good Lord,’ he said. ‘We can only hope.’