Kent’s wrists were dragged behind his back and cuffed. Next to him, Santiago was cheerfully chanting a litany of obscenities aimed at the female agent who was strutting back and forth.
‘That one I understood,’ she said, swinging back her boot, and kicking at Santiago’s side.
Kent gathered his fuzzy wits enough to roll quickly to his left, just as Santiago rolled to his left, away from her kick. She stumbled, unbalanced, and Santiago rolled quickly to his right, knocking her onto her ass.
‘That was unwise,’ Kent muttered.
‘But so much fun.’
The agent squatted down in front of Kent as male agents dragged Santiago away. She was attractive, in a hard sort of way, with sharp cheekbones, flinty grey eyes, and icy blonde hair.
‘And then there was one,’ she said, as Kent looked up at her. ‘But what a one. You’re the one they call “Captain,” aren’t you? What’s a white guy doing serving as treasurer for a Latino motorcycle gang?’
‘Am I arrested?’
Her grin was predatory. ‘Oh, you absolutely are. We’ll start with the assault and battery charge and work up from there.’
‘Self-defence,’ Kent said.
‘Hmm, so you say. But he’s a cop and you’re a greasy, scum-sucking biker. Let’s see who the courts believe.’
Kent sighed as he was dragged to his feet. ‘You don’t care about a minor fracas in a bar. This is a transparent and unambiguous attempt to bring pressure to bear in your ongoing vendetta against the club.’
She put her hands on her hips. ‘A minor fracas?’ she mimicked. ‘An unambiguous attempt? What the hell kind of a biker are you?’
‘One who wants his lawyer.’
Kent rubbed his wrists as he sat back in his chair. He knew all about the Reid interrogation method. Better women had tried to intimidate him than Agent Steel. Although things had improved in recent years, historically any woman attaining high political office had to have a will of pure adamantium and a ruthlessness to rival Lady Macbeth. Kent preferred working for women, working with women, as he generally found them so much more… focused than their male colleagues.
By putting him in an interrogation room before his lawyer arrived, Steel was flouting the rules. She was that sort of federal agent. Doubtless she imagined his relaxed demeanour meant that he was a hardened criminal, when the truth was that after repeated congressional committees he was simply hardened to intimidation attempts.
‘You’re doing yourself no good refusing to give your real name,’ Steel said, putting her feet up on the desk. ‘Sure, there’s no “Stop and Identify” statute in this state, but it’s not going to look good in front of the judge.’ She prodded the table with her finger. ‘You’re gonna need the goodwill of the judge.’ She shook her head. ‘A lot of these judges are very conservative. They don’t like outlaws of any stripe and especially not bikers.’
Kent’s cheek was throbbing. He’d caught a stray blow in the melee, which was probably fair, since he’d started it. His knuckles hurt more. He knew how to throw a punch without breaking his thumb but there was little to be done to prevent injury to the knuckles.
‘The bartender didn’t wanna talk to us,’ Steel said. ‘But several of the other patrons seemed to think that you were drowning your sorrows.’ She made a pastiche of a sad face. ‘What happened, did you have your eye on some sweet butt but one of your brother gang members beat you to her?’
Kent met her mocking gaze and smiled slightly. If he spoke, then he would invalidate his refusal to answer without his lawyer. She wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Selina Meyer or as irritating as Ben, and neither of them had spurred him to losing his temper. Kent, if pushed, would admit to having certain regrettable weaknesses of character. A short temper was certainly not one of them.
‘I get it,’ Steel said. ‘You got booted from one of the white gangs and you couldn’t make it by yourself. What happened, you not quite white enough? You got a little chocolate mixed up in your milk?’
Kent stood up, shrugged out of his jacket, and stretched. He was feeling a little… tense. Steel had been correct about one thing, if one was willing to stretch the term ‘correct.’ He had not been drinking out of pleasure or to bond with Santiago, who was overenthusiastic to the point of embarrassing, but to offset bad news.
'Ignore me all you want, Captain. I've got all the time.'
The door was pushed opened.
‘What’s going on here?’ a woman demanded.
Steel was already sneering. ‘Who the hell are you?’
She was... majestic in her perfectly tailed suit and work of art shoes.
‘Is that so?’ Steel asked.
‘My client has asked for me and invoked his right to silence. You have no business in here.’
Steel shrugged. ‘Maybe he changed his mind.’
‘He hasn’t.’ She took a sheaf of papers from her bag. ‘You’re a federal agent attempting to illegally question my client. He was arrested for a simple assault. Not a crime you have any jurisdiction over. You’re obviously attempting to trick, pressure, or otherwise coerce him into providing some sort of information against his club.’
Steel shrugged. ‘Can’t blame a girl for trying.’
‘These say otherwise.’
Steel took the paperwork with bad grace. ‘He’s still under arrest for assault.’
‘Twelve witnesses state that was self-defence. You’ll see the memorandum from the DA authorising his release.’
Steel smiled sweetly as she leafed through the papers. ‘That so? Problem is, these are all referring to a “Kent Davison.” This gentleman refused to give his name and he wasn’t carrying any ID. So how do I know that he's this Davison character?’
His lawyer raised a perfectly styled eyebrow. ‘I suggest you talk to your supervising agent, before you find yourself in even more of a mess.’
‘Ooh!’ Steel shuddered. ‘I’m so scared!’ She sauntered to the door. ‘Enjoy your little chit-chat.’
His lawyer sat down.
She held up a hand.
‘Given her general approach to the law, she’s probably listening at the door.
‘Thank you for flying out,’ he said meekly.
‘For a fistfight, how could I resist?’ she patted his hand. ‘What happened, Kent, bad day at work?’
Kent pulled a face. ‘Something like that.’
‘She got married. I knew she was going to. I... just... Now I find out she didn’t even bother to tell me when it happened.’ Kent looked at his hands. ‘Did you call Ben?’
Diane nodded. ‘Everything will be squared away. He’s sending someone to pick you up.’
Kent snorted. ‘I don’t require a nursemaid.’
‘Yes you do. Look at you. You’ve been split up a year and she can still do this to you.’ She put her hand to his cheek. ‘You’re lucky that you weren’t seriously injured.’
Kent took her hand, squeezed, and gently put it on the table. ‘It was nothing. This whole thing is Agent Steel attempting to rattle something loose. She has nothing but a hunch and a vendetta.’
Diane stood. ‘She’ll have to be satisfied with your little friend. Doubtless she’ll get no more success with him.’
‘Santiago’s still here?’
Diane checked her lipstick. ‘His lawyer probably doesn’t have quite the same motivation I do.’
Kent nodded. ‘Is a check okay?’
‘Really not what I meant.’
* * *
‘I don’t want you to think of this as goodbye, Captain,’ Steel said as she escorted him out. ‘Think of it as au revoir.’ She grabbed his ass and squeezed.
If she was expecting anger or disgust, she was disappointed. Kent was only somewhat surprised. He had met women before who used sexual aggression to put men off guard. He’d even slept with a few. They tended to have a refreshing lack of hang-ups about their bodies.
‘Does that in some way ameliorate the desperate lack of control and agency you feel in your life, Agent Steel?’ Kent asked. ‘Aping the behaviour of boorish men who can only deal with their inadequacies by assaulting women may feel transgressive and empowering. However, it merely makes you appear boorish, inadequate, and unimaginative.’
She cocked her head. ‘I’m gonna find out what your deal is, Captain, and then we’re gonna tango, you and me.’
‘Can’t wait.’ Kent walked down into the lot and glanced around for whoever Ben had suckered into nursemaid duties.
She was dressed casually in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans and had her arms tightly folded.
‘Get in the car,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘We have a long drive back.’
‘Actually, I need to stop at the clubhouse first.’
She glowered at him. He said nothing. The irresistible force met the immovable object.
Sue’s hands tightly gripped the wheel. ‘It's Thanksgiving. I was supposed to be with my husband and our families,’ she said.
With her husband.
‘You knew the job when you took it,' he said.
‘Running a cab service for drunken old men play-acting as bikers was not a part of the job description,’ she said.
Drunken old men. Kent counted to five. ‘Rest assured, I am no more pleased to have you here then you are to be here.’
She slammed on the brakes. They jolted in their seats. Behind then, someone lent on the horn. Sue gestured at them to go around.
‘You didn’t ask Ben to send me?’
‘Why would I do that?’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘He said I had to come. He implied it was my fault you were arrested.’
‘He was being characteristically overdramatic. I didn’t speak to Ben. I’m sure Diane didn’t say anything of the sort.’
Sue started the car again. ‘Diane?’
‘My lawyer,’ he said. ‘Also my sister-in-law.’
Sue relaxed a fraction.
‘Why did you come?’ he asked quietly.
‘Ben asked me.’
‘You don’t work for Ben,’ Kent said. ‘POTUS would understand if you’d refused.’
Sue gave him a look. ‘You think I would discuss any of this with her?’
‘I suppose not.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘That police detective was wearing Gucci.’
‘How could you tell at that distance?’ Despite everything, he was still impressed. He still admired even her more esoteric skills.
‘It’s distinctive if you know what you’re looking for. I do.’
Kent looked out of the window. ‘She wasn’t a detective she was an FBI agent.’
‘Why did the FBI arrest you?’ Sue asked suspiciously.
‘She wanted to show me her handcuffs.’
Sue wasn’t amused. There had been a time, a brief, beautiful window, when she used to smile at his light-hearted comments. She never laughed. He knew better than to hope for anything so overt. But she had smiled.
‘You never smile at me anymore,’ he said quietly.
Her brow furrowed slightly. ‘What?’
They rode in silence until they were approaching the club. ‘I don’t understand,’ Sue said.
Kent stirred himself. ‘Hmm?’
‘You said clubhouse.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘I see factories, garages, and run-down bars. I do not see anything approaching a golf course.’
Kent thought about it. ‘Not that kind of a clubhouse.’
See gave him a dark look. ‘If you have made me drive you all this way to take you to a strip club, you will walk back to D. C.’
‘It’s not a strip club,’ Kent said. ‘Pull over there.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘It’s just... a club. A place for people with similar interests to gather. Sometimes to drink, sure, but mostly for sociable interaction.’
Sue parked the car. ‘It sounds like a strip club.’
Kent leant back. ‘Sue, you are an intelligent, educated woman. Do I look dressed for either a golf course or a strip club?’
‘Possibly performing in one,’ she said tartly. ‘You took dressed for Halloween.’
She got out of the car before he could answer.
‘I don’t think you should come inside,’ he said.
Her lip curled in an expression of such disgust that he felt a little piece of himself die.
‘I do not know what other women will accept,’ she said. ‘But I will not be left in the car like a dog while the men talk.’
Kent rounded his shoulders. ‘I simply meant that it’s loud, dirty and rarely has the most salubrious smell.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘Kent, take me inside your ridiculous little boys’ fantasy play pen and point towards the rest room. Otherwise your helmet will have the salubrious smell associated with my relieving myself in it.’
Unlike most of their contemporaries, the club accepted female members. It was one of the factors that had attracted Kent to it. It also meant the female facilities did at least receive more than marginal attention from the prospects tasked with cleaning.
Or so Kent speculated when Sue did not either scream or exit at high speed.
The club was fairly busy, and Sue’s appearance had been so sudden and surprising that it took a moment or two for the president to clasp Kent in greeting.
‘Where’s your little friend going?’ he asked.
‘She insisted on visiting the ladies,’ Kent said. ‘Or she was going to violate my helmet.’
There were some sniggers and Kent heard Crazy Lupe announce that everyone had done that at least once.
‘So who is she?’ the president asked.
Kent waved his hands. ‘That’s Sue. She came to pick me up from the lockup.’
The president squeezed Kent’s shoulder. ‘And you take that as a bad sign?’
‘She just got married.’
‘That makes it sweeter!’ he sniggered.
Kent rolled his eyes. He was well aware that his compatriots considered him.... in need of a good woman, so to speak. A bad one would be even better, but nobody expected miracles.
Roby sat on the bar next to him. ‘So, you like your women a little less MC and a lot more DMV.’
Kent snorted. ‘Working at the DMV wouldn’t pay for her shoes.’ He turned to the president. ‘I think Santiago is still being questioned.’
‘Sure, sure. The lawyer is on his way.’
Sue walked out of the ladies. She looked around, before walking across to Kent.
‘I have my bike outside,’ he said. ‘So you can drive –’
‘If you think I am driving all the way home on my own, you’re wrong.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘You are riding home with me if I have to Taser you first.’
‘She should bust your balls,’ Roby said approvingly. ‘She’s not an Uber.’
‘What’s he supposed to do with his bike?’ someone else asked.
Sue looked at Kent. ‘Does everyone here speak Spanish?’
‘It’s a club tradition,’ Kent said. ‘Roby here believes that it would be disrespectful and rude not to drive back with you.’
Sue caught Roby’s eye and nodded.
‘You don’t actually have a Taser?’ Kent asked.
‘Would you have me drive all this way to a police station? Driving while black is not a joke, Kent, particularly not while driving a new car.’
The president clasped Kent’s shoulder but addressed Sue in English. ‘Of course, he’ll drive back with you. What kind of man wouldn’t leap to protect his woman? Especially a fierce beauty. We’ll see if we can put his bike inside your car.’ He gave her a lascivious wink, and ambled away with most of the others.
‘He was teasing,’ Kent said quickly. ‘He’s aware we’re not together.’
‘You told a gang of bikers about our relationship?’
‘They’re my compatriots. We talk about things.’
‘You ride a motorcycle,’ Sue interrupted.
She raised an eyebrow. ‘You are in a motorcycle gang.’
‘A club.’ He licked his lips. ‘What are you thinking?’
‘I’m thinking that I don’t believe I ever knew you at all.’
In the case of car versus determined bikers, the determined bikers were having it all their own way. Despite mechanical protests from the car, the seats had been pushed out of the way and Kent’s motorcycle had been carefully propped up and strapped in.
Sue pursed her lips. She knew little about motorcycles but she could see that it was extremely clean and beautifully maintained.
‘Have you ever ridden on a motorcycle?’ Kent asked.
‘I do not have a death wish,’ Sue said.
‘I’m not dead.’
‘That is a matter of opinion.’ Sue stalked around to the driver’s side door and got into the car.
‘She still wants you, Captain,’ the president said, squeezing Kent’s shoulder.
‘She never wanted me,’ Kent said. ‘I was merely convenient for a little while.’
He exchanged hugs with the other men, and got into the car.
‘I suppose they were taunting you for my driving,’ Sue said.
Kent shook his head and looked out of the window. ‘Nothing of the sort.’
‘I won’t allow anyone to drive me when they’ve been drinking,’ she said.
‘When have you ever allowed me to drive you anywhere?’
Sue shook her slightly.
'What?' Kent asked.
‘I understand the boat,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand the motorcycle.’
‘Sailing allows quiet and thoughtful contemplation when one wishes for solitude. Riding is a dynamic act which taps into a kind of… hyper-masculinity that appeals partly due to it being a side of myself that I have always felt necessary to suppress. Being a part of the MC provides me with social interaction and a sense of fraternity.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘Surely there are more appropriate ways for you to socialise and more appropriate people to have as friends?’
‘You are aware that I am not gifted socially,’ Kent said. ‘Necessity is a far more pressing mistress than propriety. There is something particularly refreshing about people entirely outside of politics. In D.C. you’re dealing with huge policy issues that are simultaneously incredibly broad and utterly mired in the minutia of petty personal politics. We forget that there’s a whole nation who don’t know us, who have lives, needs, and interests entirely different from ours. POTUS has no idea how much milk costs, what the difference is between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” or how people can be too well-off for Medicaid but too poor for medical insurance. Tom James will never have to choose between a terrible dentist he can afford or one who knows what they’re doing. You and I will never let a minor injury develop into a major problem simply because we can’t afford to go the doctor.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘What does the price of milk have to do with anything?’
‘It’s a synecdoche.’
‘Naturally.’ Sue glanced at him. ‘Are any of those violent thugs actually your friends?’
‘They are,’ he said with dignity.
‘Good.’ She didn’t look at him as she said it.
Kent watched her for a few seconds. ‘Does Sean know about me?’
‘He does not.’
Kent grunted. ‘Why did you tell him you were at the West Wing?’
Sue frowned at him. ‘Sean would wonder why I was willing to demean myself driving around the country to pick up you.’
‘A drunken old man.’
Her expression softened. She squeezed his knee very briefly. It wasn’t an apology. But it was the closest he would get.
* * *
Sue parked in Kent's garage.
‘Would you care for a coffee while I change?’ Kent offered.
‘I would. Do you have any macaroons?’
He shook his head. ‘I only ever got them for you.’
There were a lot of things he did for Sue that wouldn’t otherwise do. He put up with a lot of things that he wouldn’t put up with from anyone else.
The cleaning staff were just finishing for the day. They trooped past with polite smiles and giggled furiously as soon as they erroneously thought themselves out of earshot. Apart from one of the younger girls. She smiled and then turned in the doorway to look again at Kent: her gaze slowly tracking over him.
‘Are you sleeping with her?’ Sue asked sharply.
‘Certainly not.’ Kent threw his keys down into the bowl.
Kent groaned. ‘Why would you care?’
‘You’re making enough of a fool of yourself riding around on a motorcycle.’ Sue adjusted one of his paintings.
‘Forgive me, I’m unable to tell if you are jealous or merely cruel,’ Kent said.
‘Neither. I still respect you. Apparently more than you respect yourself.’
Kent set his jaw. ‘You know where the coffee machine is.’
He took a short shower. They’d been together in there once. She said it was something she’d always wanted to try. Not a fantasy. Sue was insistent that she didn’t have “fantasies,” those were the product of immature minds too busy masturbating to actually have relationships.
Kent, who had never pretended his fantasies were anything else, had found himself uncharacteristically cautious about sharing his with her. As exciting and vibrant as she undoubtedly was, failure to please her also frequently managed to make him feel small and ashamed.
Enough of that. She was married now. She had firmly and very definitely moved on. There were probably children on the horizon.
In common with a great many socially uncomfortable people, Kent often failed to pick up on social cues. Children were even harder for him to read, with the added problem that they were somehow always aware of his discomfort. He hadn’t liked children even when he was a child.
He chose a tie he knew Sue hated. Provocative? Perhaps. But he was still irritated that she accused him of making a fool of himself. He liked riding a motorcycle. He liked being in the MC. It wasn’t fair of her to poison those small pleasures purely because they didn’t perfectly fit her model of “proper” behaviour. She’d called him “old”. Perhaps he was old. Age had some benefits. Realising that you didn’t have to mindlessly accept other people’s value judgements was only one of them.
‘I made you a coffee,’ Sue said when he walked into the living room.
‘I was having a third cup,’ she said. ‘I found the Girl Scout cookies.’
‘You shouldn’t eat so many sweet things.’
Kent sipped his coffee. ‘I have to have some vices.’
Sue crossed her legs. ‘Don’t get snappy.’
‘Don’t keep telling what I should and shouldn’t do.’
Her jaw tightened. ‘You clearly can’t trust your own judgement.’
‘Yet I have no interest in yours.’
Sue put down her cup. ‘You’ve been hostile since you found out I was married.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself.’
‘It’s that why you got into brawl?’ she asked.
Kent snorted and shook his head. ‘Your ego never fails to astonish me. Bravo.’
‘It isn’t ego to seek to establish cause and effect.’
‘We broke up over a year ago,’ Kent said. ‘Evidently it’s not enough to treat your husband poorly. Now you’re trying to get some kind of a rise out of me.’
She flinched. ‘That’s not true.’
‘You’re a sadistic narcissist, Sue.’
‘Get yourself to the West Wing,’ she snapped.
‘I’d love to.’
‘What the fuck took you so long?’ Ben asked, as Kent turned on his computer.
‘Sue insisted on my accompanying her in the car,’ he said.
‘She was eight kinds of pissed I made her come pick you up,’ Ben admitted. ‘Are you sober now?’
‘We need to talk to POTUS.’
‘She’s conscious already?’
Ben shrugged. ‘I guess it was a local. Christ knows what state her face will be in.’
Kent followed him to the door. ‘Female politicians seemed trapped in a Catch-22. They aren’t allowed to appear to be ageing or otherwise not conventionally attractive. Yet they’re condemned if mob mentality decides they have either tried too hard or chosen an “unfashionable” method.’
‘You ever consider getting work done?’ Ben asked.
‘Surgery,’ Ben said. ‘Maybe get your ear fixed.’
‘No,’ Kent said flatly.
‘Has it always kinda stuck out?’
Kent scowled. ‘Have you always had an uncanny resemblance to an elephant seal?’
Ben scratched his stomach. ‘I was thinking about lipo,’ he said. ‘But that doesn’t get the right fat. It just gets the surface fat not the deep stuff that’s really the problem.’
‘Like elections.’ Kent suggested.
‘Heh. I like that.’
‘I aim to please.’ Kent pursed his lips. ‘Does POTUS know about last night?’
‘You mean the part when you went to a bar, got drunk, and started a fight?’ Ben asked. ‘Or the part where you got arrested and questioned by the goddamn FBI?’
Kent raised his eyebrows. ‘A simple yes or no would have sufficed.’
‘No. She’s got enough to think about what your screw-ups.’
‘It was self-defence not a screw-up,’ Kent said sharply.
‘Bullshit, Wilson announces she’s married and you go on a rampage. That’s pretty fucking simple.’
‘I will not be lectured by a man who has been given three DUIs and who celebrated his first divorce by attacking his own television with a hammer.’
‘There was never anything good on anyway,’ Ben said.
‘Have I told your mom I love her?’ Ben asked.
‘Question eighty-seven on my list of things I never wanted to be asked,’ Kent said drily.
They were opening the large thermally insulated case of food that Kent’s mother had sent.
‘Has she put in some of her peach cobbler?’ Ben asked. ‘I think that’s my favourite.’
Kent dug into the crate. ‘Yes, it’s here. Also blackcurrant.’
‘Bleugh. You can have that one.’
Kent smiled slightly. ‘You’re very gracious. There are four servings of each.’
Ben nodded. ‘Eating them all will be hard work but I owe it to the American people.’
Gary, slump-shouldered, and dragging his feet, walked past.
‘What’s his fucking problem?’ Ben asked.
‘POTUS did not ask him to eat with her,’ Kent said.
‘Was she supposed to?’
‘Only in his mind.’ Kent looked out of the door. ‘Do you think we should-’
‘There’s more than enough food,’ Kent said.
Ben loosened his tie. ‘You know that’s not the issue. It’s bad enough you’re here. I’m not eating with that sack of misery and mopeyness. Christ, it’s no wonder he can’t get laid. He’s like a creature from the Swamp of Sadness.’
Kent clucked his tongue. ‘So if I invite Gary, you’ll leave?’
‘Don’t you fucking dare.’
Kent smiled lightly. ‘I’ll be back in a moment.’
Ben groaned. ‘Do it and I’m gonna eat your damn yams!’
* * *
‘Oh my God,’ Gary said, covering his mouth with his hand. ‘I need your mom’s recipe for this cobbler.’
‘She prepared everything in advance this year as she is currently visiting my brother,’ Kent said.
‘He’s the one in Alaska?’ Ben asked.
‘So far away,’ Gary said, and shuddered. ‘So cold! I’m an Alabama boy. I like it hot, hot, hot.’
‘It’s like a tag for a terrible episode of Love Island,’ Ben said.
‘Perhaps if things don’t go our way you can apply for the celebrity version,’ Kent suggested.
‘Oh my God! Don’t even joke about that!’ Gary protested.
‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘Everyone knows that Gary would be a natural fit for Dancing with the Stars.’
‘Don’t joke about losing the election’ Gary hissed.
Ben held up his hands. ‘Okay, okay, keep your panties on.’ He took a gulp from his flask. ‘It’s not like you’re an actual celebrity.’
‘The Birmingham News ran a profile of me,’ Gary said proudly.
‘Yeah? The Washington fucking Post ran one of me,’ Ben said.
‘My dad doesn’t read the Washington Post,’ Gary said.
‘Ah,’ Kent said. ‘Never underestimate the necessity of making one’s parents’ proud.’
Gary’s smile was brittle. ‘Uh-huh. Absolutely.’
‘You should show your folks around the White House,’ Ben said. ‘You get POTUS in the right mood and she might even say hello.’
Gary’s eyes widened and he shook his head. ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so.’
‘I remember when your mom visited,’ Ben said to Kent. ‘She brought those amazing cookies. You should invite her again.’
‘I could simply ask her to send you some,’ he said drily.
‘I don’t remember that,’ Gary said.
‘Presumably you were in the Eisenhower building,’ Kent said. ‘This was in President Hughes’ time.’
‘Oh, I don’t like to think about that,’ Gary said. ‘I think of Selina always being president. Always has been. Always will be.’
Ben and Kent exchanged looks.
‘Weren’t you seeing a… woman?’ Kent asked.
‘Dating’s healthy,’ Ben said. ‘Helps you safely discharge all that... pent up energy.’ He looked at Kent. ‘That sounded more X rated than I intended.’
‘I’ve dated,’ Gary protested.
‘Actual human women?’ Ben asked. ‘Those dolls don’t count.’
‘I don’t date my dolls,’ Gary scoffed.
Kent licked his lips. ‘Are you referring to toy dolls or… Real Dolls?’
Ben sniggered. ‘Got yourself a couple?’
‘I leave that to you.’
‘I don’t know who you’ve been talking to,’ Gary said. ‘But I don’t play with dolls.’
Kent gave Ben a look. ‘He thinks playing with dolls is shocking.’
‘The naïveté is adorable,’ Ben said heavily. ‘How can anyone have been in politics as long as you and be so fucking clueless?’
‘Have you always worked for Selina?’ Kent asked.
Gary nodded. ‘Right out of college.’
Ben sat back. ‘I can’t even remember what I did out of college.’
‘Fight in Vietnam?’ Kent suggested.
‘I’m barely older than you, jackass,’ Ben snorted.
‘I miss those days,’ Gary said quietly. ‘We didn’t have big dinners and beautiful dresses but it was fun and everyone was so optimistic.’
‘I came out of the womb a pessimist,’ Ben said.
Kent rolled his eyes. ‘Doubtless we are all shocked.’
Kent scraped his spoon around his bowl. ‘I interned during college. We were all very young and… idealistic.’
Ben shoved the last of the peach cobbler into his mouth. ‘You?’
‘I’m aware it might be considered uncharacteristic,’ Kent said.
‘Selina was so bright and full of hope,’ Gary said. ‘We all were.’
Ben looked futilely in the crate for more pie. ‘This got depressing quickly.’
Kent scratched his eyebrow. ‘Do you have any more of that beer?’
Ben opened his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of beer. He opened it with a bottle opener from his key chain and handed the bottle to Kent.
Gary sat up straighter. ‘My mom makes macaroni and cheese for Thanksgiving.’
Ben groaned. ‘Christ, I’ve already had three heart attacks. Are you trying to kill me?’
Kent took a deep gulp of his beer. ‘There is much to be said for the comfort of familiar food. I myself find butter fried chicken and mashed potatoes to be particularly reassuring in times of heartache.’
‘Ooh,’ Gary said. ‘That sounds so good! Your folks are from Illinois, right?’
Kent nodded. ‘Chicago.’
‘Where’s your fucking accent?’ Ben asked.
‘This is my voice,’ Kent said.
Ben tipped his head to one side. ‘I didn’t ask if someone was using you as a fucking ventriloquist’s dummy. I asked about your accent.’
Gary undid the top button of his trousers and adjusted his waistband. ‘My first year with Selina, she had me work with a dialect coach to soften my accent.’
Ben chuckled. ‘Kent, did you get a speech guy to get rid of your accent?’
Kent waved a hand dismissively.
‘Holy fuck, you did,’ Ben crowed.
‘I merely did some work to improve the clarity of my diction,’ Kent said.
Ben leant forward. ‘Does your accent slip when you go back home?’
‘Oh, my God, yes!’ Gary laughed.
Ben poked Kent’s shoulder. ‘I meant you.’
Kent scowled, and pushed his hand away. ‘My clarity of diction might slip under certain circumstances. One of those circumstance is being around people with poor diction.’
‘Next time your mom visits I’m telling her you said that,’ Ben said.
‘Next time I see your wife I’m telling her that you prefer my mother’s cooking,’ Kent retorted.
Ben sat back in his chair. ‘I do feel kinda bad I’m not there for Thanksgiving.’
‘It’s a time for families,’ Gary said.
‘Then why the fuck aren’t you with yours?’ Ben said.
‘Selina needed me.’
‘Looks like it.’
‘Arguably transitioning from enjoying the holidays as a member of a family to enjoying the holidays as a member of a couple is one of the few markers of adulthood which can be temporary,’ Kent said. ‘Perhaps we’ve all merely reached an age when family is a more complex concept than the nuclear model.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got kids from three different marriages to juggle,’ Ben said. He tapped his thumbs together. ‘I’ll get to do something with Joyce over the weekend.’
‘You must have had a significant variety of holiday dinner compositions and configuration over the years,’ Kent said.
Gary loosened his tie. ‘Last year I spent Thanksgiving at home. Year before that I spent it with Dana.’ He looked at Ben very seriously. ‘Can I have a beer?’
‘Sure you can handle a whole one, sport?’ Ben handed a bottle over.
‘Holidays are when I miss her,’ Gary said.
Kent nodded. ‘Irrespective of how bitterly a relationship ended there is often a lingering reminiscence of happier times and the remembrance of previous affections.’
‘Didya do any holidays with Sue?’ Ben asked.
Kent hesitated a moment, but he’d had a little beer and felt just a little sorry for himself.
‘A couple,’ he said. ‘We were both busy and she was reluctant to accept gifts. Nonetheless it was... a happier time.’
‘She wouldn’t take presents?’ Ben asked.
Kent shook his head. ‘I enjoy purchasing them but... no.’
‘Well, if you feel you gotta buy presents, I would take them off your hands,’ Ben suggested, waggling his eyebrows.
Gary rolled his eyes. ‘How can you miss Sue when you see her every day?’
Kent drew his brows together. ‘I said nothing of the sort.’
‘Nope,’ Ben said. ‘Just your tone of voice, body language, and expression.’
‘Even if that were true,’ Kent said, ‘it is very easy to regret the loss of a friendship when one is continually exposed to the former friend. More easily perhaps than if one didn’t see them again.’
‘You two need to get laid,’ Ben said, and then thought about what he’d said. ‘Not together. Christ, what an image.’
Kent raised his eyebrows as he looked at Gary. ‘You’re not my type.’
‘Not if Sue is what puts sugar in your coffee,’ Gary sniggered.
Ben chuckled. ‘You hear that? Mr-in-Love-with-His-Boss thinks your taste in women is weird.’
Kent shook his head. ‘Astonishing.’
Sue hummed. She would deny it, if it was mentioned. She would also deny snoring, and that was certainly in her repertoire. Kent hadn’t heard her snore since she had drunk too much at the Christmas party and had fallen asleep behind the bar. He used to hear her hum most weeks, but not for quite some time. She only did it when she was both engrossed in something and content in herself. She was frequently engrossed and infrequently content.
‘Stop staring at me,’ she said, not looking up from her desk.
‘I wasn’t,’ Kent answered.
‘Not true.’ Now she looked up. ‘I could feel it.’
‘That was common or garden variety paranoia,’ he said.
‘I am not paranoid.’
‘That’s what the voices in your head wish you to believe.’
The corner of her mouth twitched unwillingly. ‘You are not amusing.’
‘And you are not intimidating,’ he said. ‘Despite your delusions of my watching you.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘I remember you specifically telling me that you found me commanding.’
‘It was more polite than calling you domineering.'
He saw her lose interest in the conversation. He didn’t lack the awareness that a social interaction was going awry. But he never knew how to correct course, or even what his mistake was.
‘POTUS wants to see you,’ she said brusquely.
‘Now. You’re in trouble.’
‘I do,’ she said turning her attention to her work. ‘I would very much enjoy watching you being driven from the White House in disgrace.’
‘Does Sean know you’ve been having sadomasochistic fantasies about me?’ he asked tartly.
He expected an equally tart response, not a shocked and wide-eyed expression.
He was unable to resist a smirk. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell him.’
POTUS looked perplexed. This was not an uncommon sight, particularly of late. She sat up a little, when Kent walked into the room. Kent paused a few feet away.
‘I beg your pardon, Madam President,’ he said. ‘I was told that you wished to see me.’
‘Ya darn tootin’! You know Freda, right?’
Kent nodded and offered his hand to the FBI liaison. Freda Navickiene was smiling slightly as she squeezed his hand.
‘Mr Davison,’ she said.
Selina waved at him to sit down. ‘Kent,’ she said, ‘I’m confused.’
‘Ya see, Freda here, she came to me and said there seemed to be a problem. The Secret Service told her that someone had been searching criminal records and intelligence databases for information on you.’
Freda crossed her legs. ‘Attempting to search for West Wing staff on various official databases raises all kinds of flags. You’re potentially quite vulnerable targets particularly from a security point of view.’
Kent raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s not very reassuring.’
‘The Secret Service informed Freda because it was an FBI agent doing the searching.’ Selina leaned forward. ‘Turns out this Agent Steel arrested you.’
Kent clasped his hands together. ‘I was released without charge.’
‘Shit!’ Selina slapped her hand on the desk. ‘I owe you twenty,’ she said to Freda. ‘Get it from Gary, okay?’
‘I’m sorry?’ Kent asked.
‘I bet Freda that it was some stolen identity shit,’ Selina said. ‘How the fuck did you end up getting arrested?’
Kent waved his hand dismissively. ‘It was nothing. There was a minor contretemps in a bar. It was an extremely minor issue.’
‘Then why the fuck is an FBI agent looking you up?’ Selina asked. ‘Oh wait, I know. It’s because you’re in a biker gang.’
‘We don’t have any reason to believe that the MC is involved in criminal activities,’ Freda said.
Selina drummed her hands on the desk. ‘Thanks for coming by, Freda, I think I’ve got this.’
The FBI liaison was obviously disappointed, but she stood up and nodded. ‘Madam President, if there’s any other information that you need please let me know.’
Kent crossed his legs, putting his ankle up on his opposite knee.
Selina sat back in her chair. ‘Ya know, you and Ben are supposed to be experienced and mature. I rely on you to be the steady, grounded ones. Ya know how things work. Ya know how to get shit done. I rely on ya to be fucking calm and collected at all fucking times.’ She drummed her fingers on the desk. ‘So what the chicken-fried fuck is going on with you?’
Kent licked his lips. ‘Ma’am it was nothing. A minor scuffle.’
‘Nope. Don’t try to sell me that bill of goods. Ya got a bruise on ya cheek, so I know ya took a punch. Ya got bruises on ya knuckles, so I know ya threw a couple right back.’
Kent looked at his hands. ‘I apologise for any embarrassment I may have caused.’
‘Is this... is it Sue?’ she asked. ‘Don’t gimmie that look. I saw ya face when she said she was married. Ya think I don’t know what it’s like? I’ve had more shitty relationships than you had boat rides.’
Kent smiled slightly. ‘My friendship with Sue wasn’t... entirely without merit.’ He shifted position. ‘I’m not as experienced in matters of the heart as one might expect for someone of my relative years.’
Selina winced. ‘Sue wasn’t your first girlfriend was she?’
‘No, and she would fiercely dispute the word “girlfriend.” There was always an innate imbalance between our conceptions of the relationship and also our relative... I hesitate to use the use the word power.’
‘Can I get that in fucking English?’
‘I desired a meaningful, committed connection with defined long-term goals. She... did not,’ he said.
Selina laughed bitterly. ‘Christ, not the old “I don’t wanna settle down” speech which turns out to mean they do wanna settle down, just not with you?’
Kent nodded. ‘It would appear so.’
Been there,’ Selina said. ‘It sucks donkey dick.’
Selina leaned forward and squeezed his forearm. ‘Okay. Ya got a little loaded and got into a fight. I’ve done worse. Now ya gotta suck it up. okay? Do whatever the guy equivalent is of eating ice cream and crying and move the fuck on. Meet some other terrifying emotionless lady who’ll appreciate you more than Sue. Maybe ask Marjorie if she’s got a straight friend.’
‘Because I need you on your A-game,’ she said. ‘The best way to get over getting your heart stomped on, is to throw yourself into your work. That’s what you should do.’
Kent nodded. ‘Ma’am, thank you for your understanding.’
‘Absolutely,’ she said. ‘Now go bury yourself in your work. I don’t wanna hear about any more bar brawls, okay?’
‘Of course, Madam President.’
It hadn’t precisely been Sue’s manner that had attracted him. He found competence and efficiency both appealing, certainly. Her insistence on complete control of the narrative was a little challenging, but he wasn’t a fool. He recognised barricaded insecurity and fear of emotional vulnerability when he lay in bed with it. But recognising and overcoming were different things. He had been willing to be patient.
But she had no desire to open up. Certainly not to him. That wasn’t what she wanted from him. She recoiled when he let down his guard and was horrified when he caught her in a vulnerable moment. But her smile in her sleep, the anxious way she hid behind her files when giving evidence to congress, those were as much the “real” Sue as her controlled demeanour and self-assurance. The glimpses of warmth and gentleness were as true as the strength and competence. But what he found most fascinating, she deemed weaknesses. Not to be shared, especially with him.
‘Mom says you’re lovelorn,’ Catherine said.
Kent looked up from his computer. ‘Excuse me?’
‘My mom. She says you’re broken up about Sue being married.’
‘Oh...’ Kent gripped his pen. ‘I’m not comfortable discussing my private life.’
‘Why not?’ Catherine wandered in and sat down. ‘You discuss my private life all the time.’
Kent heard an echo of the mother’s steel in the daughter’s voice.
‘That’s a part of my remit,’ Kent said cautiously. ‘You’ve chosen to be a visible part of your mother’s administration.’
‘So are you,’ she said. ‘If you were caught cheating or something that might be newsworthy.’
‘Possibly,’ he admitted. ‘But merely mourning a relationship is not.’
‘I was really hoping you would talk about it on camera,’ she said.
Catherine leaned forward. ‘But it would humanise you guys. Seeing stuff like that would make staffers seem like real people.’
Kent narrowed his eyes. ‘We are real people.’
‘That’s what I said.’
‘I’m not talking about my relationships past or present on or off camera,’ he said. ‘If you take my advice you won’t either.’
‘I just assumed I was straight,’ Catherine said. ‘Society acts like heterosexuality is the default. Sometimes there’s a whole string of failed relationships because the person doesn’t realise they’re acting against their nature. Especially older men.’
It was all Kent could do not to roll his eyes. ‘I’m not gay.’
‘Politics traditionally forces gays, lesbians, the transgender, and alternative sexualities into the closet.’
Kent squeezed the bridge of his nose. ‘Catherine, I appreciate that you are finding your place within altered cultural norms, and I understand that you feel your documentary would benefit from a “humanising” effect. However, I am not and cannot be that person as I am simply not homosexual.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘But if you change your mind, Marjorie knows the numbers for all the support groups.’
Kent squinted at her. ‘If I change my mind about being gay?’
‘Huh-huh.’ Catherine dragged herself out of the room.
After a minute or so, Sue stepped into the doorway. Her lips were pulled together, but her eyes were bright.
Kent sighed. ‘How much did you hear?’
‘If you change your mind about your sexual preference please give me fair warning,’ she said. ‘I would like to alert all my friends. I would alert all of your friends, but my Spanish isn’t quite up to it.’
‘Think if it as a compliment,’ Sue suggested. ‘She wants you on her team.’
‘She wants an easily exploitable story to liven up her documentary.’
Sue touched his cheek. Kent felt himself redden.
‘Your face is bruised.’
‘Stupid boy; she said, but there was just a hint of some passing gentleness, fading in her voice. She looked down. ‘Your hands are bruised.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘Why would you do such a thing?’
‘Was this about your club?’ she asked.
Kent shook his head.
‘I’ll get you some ice,’ she said, turning away.
‘Don’t do it again,’ she said severely.
‘That’s what POTUS said.’
‘She’d get some ice?’
‘Not to do it again.’
Kent didn’t enjoy confrontations although he certainly wasn’t frightened of them. He had siblings both older and younger. He had experienced his fair share of teenage high spirits. There had been arguments and sometimes physical altercations.
Yet, for all that, he couldn’t ever remember so much wanting a fist-fight. Wanting the rush of fear, pain, and adrenaline. Wanting the blissful mindlessness of hitting someone else.
‘You aren’t badly hurt.’ Sue walked into the room and around the desk. She was holding ice packs.
‘Why are you apprehensive?’
Kent let her wrap an ice pack around his hand. ‘I fear I may not be quite as evolved as I hitherto believed.’
‘Something of that sort.’
He could smell her body lotion. See the slight crinkle at the corner of her eye.
‘The more evolved a life form, the more primitive traits it has waiting to be expressed,’ she said.
‘I’m not sure that’s entirely-’
‘Don't argue,’ she said. She raised an eyebrow. ‘You discussed your Captain Caveman brawl with POTUS.’
‘She asked me about it,’ Kent said.
‘Did she ask why it happened?’
Kent shook his head. ‘She conjectured.’
Sue licked her lips. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her do that before.
‘Do you expect me to guess?’ Sue asked.
‘I don’t expect anything from you.’
‘Don’t sulk,’ Sue ordered. ‘It’s unworthy of you.’
Kent frowned. ‘Fine. You know why. I was.... agitated after you announced that you and Sean are married.’
He thought she might smirk a little, gratified to still have such an effect. Or perhaps be disgusted at his reaction. Instead she lowered her eyes and looked away.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ she said, her voice tight. She wrapped the other ice pack around his other hand. ‘I trust POTUS is censuring you."
‘Not at all. She just told me to eat ice cream, cry, and “suck it up,” an expression I have never entirely understood.’
Sue gave a tiny eye-roll. ‘At least she didn’t tell you to have sex with someone else.’
‘Ben would.’ Sue straightened her back. ‘You have though?’
‘What?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘Dated other people.’ A muscle was twitching beneath her eye.
Kent snorted. ‘When do I have time to date? Whom would I date? Some teenage intern? Amy? Some random friend of Mike’s wife?’
‘There has always been sexual tension between yourself and POTUS, Sue said.
Kent snorted. ‘There is certainly tension,’ he said. ‘As there is with Ben, Jonah, Dan... the list could go on.’
Sue’s lips twitched. Almost a smile. ‘It’s different with her.’
‘Hmm. In a different life perhaps.’
Sue turned to leave. ‘Although if you were to raise the issue, I am quite sure that Dan would be amenable.’
Kent shuddered. ‘I would rather take a boa constrictor to my bed.’
‘It would be safer.’
‘A better chance of affection as well,’ Kent said.
He didn’t intend as an insult or a jab at her, why would he when they were talking about Dan? But her expression hardened all the same.
‘Throw those away when you’re done.’
It was a touch disingenuous of him to suggest a complete dearth of options sexually. There were female staffers, reporters, consultants, and the various support functions, certainly. There were also the... “unofficial” support staff: the escorts, models, masseuses, therapists and every other title other than “prostitute.” Some of them were more discreet and more trustworthy than the FBI, NSA, or CIA. Some of them worked for the FBI, NSA, or CIA.
Kent had considered availing himself, but only in moments of extreme weakness. The physical act of sex was less important to him than the relationship. He was a poor conversationalist. he would admit, but he enjoyed female company. He was not a particular demonstrative man, but he enjoyed the oxytocin rush of an embrace, or even holding hands.
There were also options outside of work. Although they weren’t any more appealing. There were always women at the club. The female bikers’ general attitudes towards him tended more towards patronising affection than lust. He was well liked and well respected, but just a little too different, a little too alien to be considered a viable partner.
Actually, at least two of the female bikers nursed an interest. Maria, who had a long history with men old enough to be her father, and Bear, the swaggering, snarling club mama. Marie never summoned the nerve to signal her interest, and Bear refused to be a rebound. So neither of them spoke up and Kent went oblivious.
There were also the... enthusiasts. The girls and women who hung the club around hoping to be picked up by a biker. Kent almost never did. He rarely found them on his wavelength and besides, the club could be a little too close, almost incestuous. The girl at the clubhouse today might have been in a friends’ bed yesterday and in another friends’ bed tomorrow. Fights over women were the kind of common event in which he had no desire to participate.
‘You the Captain?’
Kent was at the pool table with Santiago and Blacktop.
‘Chanise,’ she said with a blinding smile.
Kent shrugged, nonplussed.
‘The president thought you needed some female company.’
Kent felt his shoulders clench. ‘Uh, do you play pool?’
She laughed. ‘Sure, if you wanna. You’re the Captain.’
It was a genuine relief when Ben called him back to D. C.
Kent didn’t have much to do with reporters. He wasn’t a “personality,” he wasn’t outrageous, scandalous, or charismatic. He was neither good or bad copy. He was vanilla, boring, and unremarkable. Precisely as he liked it.
All of which was why he was baffled to be contacted out of the blue by a reporter.
‘Mike,’ Kent called, striding over to the other man.
‘What’s wrong now?’ Mike asked, cringing slightly.
‘You have mayonnaise on your lapel. That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.’
Mike paused in his attempts to clean away the mayo. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘You’re the press secretary for this administration.’
‘The only one we’ve got!’
Kent didn’t smile. ‘So explain to me why I am getting calls from a reporter. This is literally your job.’
Mike sagged. ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘Tell me who it is and I’ll try to sort it all out.’
‘Jen Washington at the Tribune,’ Kent said.
‘I am on it,’ Mike promised, backing away.
‘Hope "it" isn’t anything more important than a recipe for pot pie or the location of a new restaurant.’
Kent turned. ‘Tom.’
‘Hey, Kent,’ Tom said. ‘Thanks for the loaner, by the way.’
It took Kent a moment to parse. ‘Dan Egan?’
‘Grovelling little shit isn’t he?’
Kent nodded. ‘And completely disloyal. But relatively competent.’
‘I heard you were the one to fire him over the data breach?’
Kent nodded. ‘With Ben. Officially Dan resigned.’
‘I have few regrets, but I do wonder if it would have been better to have fired him the first time the opportunity arose,’ Kent admitted. ‘I allowed myself to be swayed by compassion.’
Tom smiled. ‘That can’t happen very often.’
Tom glanced around. ‘We should have a... chat sometime soon. About... compassion, and pragmatism.’
Kent nodded. ‘Sounds good.’
He watched Tom walk away. Being a master of the art of faking sincerity, Tom was an excellent politician . Kent had worked for the competent evil and incompetent well-meaning. He avoided the incompetent evil and he’d never met the competent well-meaning. He was damn sure that Tom James was not the exception.
A full weekend off. That was so rare as to be almost inconceivable. Working Saturdays was common. Working all night was not unknown, particularly for younger and less experienced staffers, but Kent had done more than his share recently.
Two full days off stretched ahead of him like an approaching oasis. He would have a lie-in. It was a somewhat complex prospect. Kent was an early riser by nature as much as necessity and he had no desire to fall foul of social jetlag. So, perhaps he would aim for a couple of extra hours sleep. It was all he could realistically hope to have before been screamed at by one cat and batted at by another.
‘You’re staring into space,’ Sue said.
‘I’m considering my options.’
Kent crossed his legs at the knee. ‘My weekend.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘You have the weekend off.’
‘Why do you get the weekend off?’ she demanded.
Kent gave her a thin smile. ‘POTUS relies on me to be available 24/7 even during family holidays. While you were failing the basic social nicety of pretending not to hate your in-laws, I was preventing a public health mass panic. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that I be allowed to take the entirety of the weekend.’
Mike wandered into the room. ‘Hey guys.’
‘What?’ Sue asked.
‘Huh?’ Mike said. ‘Oh! I spoke to my guy at the Washington Post and this Jen is playing everything close to her chest, but she’s doing background on West Wing staffers,’ he said. ‘Weird right?’
Sue frowned. ‘Who else has she contacted?’
‘Who else?’ Kent asked. ‘She’s spoken to you?’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘I am not authorised to speak to the press,’ she said. ‘You know that.’
‘She contacted you as well?’ Mike asked. ‘I’m gonna see who else. Ooh, but first I need to grab lunch.’
‘It’s barely eleven.’ Kent said.
‘Brunch is good too.’
As Mike left, Sue gave Kent a dark look. ‘You need a lock on your door.’
‘Perhaps I’ll get a drone to hover outside.’
‘Given your childlike desire to ride on boats and motorcycles I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by your desire to play with overgrown toy helicopters,’ she said.
Kent put his hand on his hip. ‘I make no apology for understanding the importance of relaxation. I would rather be in touch with my inner child than live as a judgemental bore whose emotions are so fossilised I no longer understand how to relax and enjoy myself.’
Ben cleared his throat. ‘Wow, feel that sexual tension, wouldya?’ He hiked up his pants and threw a tiny envelope to Kent.
‘What’s this?’ Kent asked suspiciously.
‘Cafferty family alternative Thanksgiving Dinner,’ Ben said. ‘My wife wants all the senior staffers who had to work Thanksgiving to come around.’
Kent opened the envelope. The card had a picture of a dancing turkey.
‘She still makes her own cards.’ Ben glanced at Sue. ‘None for you, y’know, since you got to go home.’
‘I spent most of the day ferrying around Mr Davison,’ she said coldly.
‘I would love to hear you explain that to Sean,’ Kent said.
‘He thinks I was here.’
‘Uh-oh,’ Ben said. ‘Lying to the spouse. That's never good. But if you want I can ask Joyce.’ He tugged his ear. ‘Although I’m pretty sure she was hoping to set Kent up with one of her sisters at the dinner.’
Sue raised her eyebrows. ‘So this is an attempt for your wife to play matchmaker.’
‘People do,’ Ben said. He looked at Kent. ‘I think you’d like Emily. She’s a real spitfire.’
‘You’re not considering going along with socially sanctioned prostitution,’ Sue said.
‘Prostitution?’ Kent repeated. ‘It’s an introduction at a meal.’
‘Gee Sue,’ Ben said innocently, ‘If I didn’t know better I would think you were jealous.’
Kent winced as Sue set her jaw.
‘Yes, Mr Cafferty. I am jealous of you wasting your precious time off with co-workers you openly disdain.’
‘Actually, that would be envy,’ Kent said mildly. ‘Jealousy is when you feel others are encroaching on something of yours. Envy is what you feel for something that belongs to other people.’
Sue looked at Ben. ‘I envy you the scintillating conversation you will have.’ She turned on her heel and stalked out, slamming the door behind her.
‘Huh,’ Ben said. ‘Who’d a thought that Sue had a nerve to touch.’
Kent covered his eyes. ‘Sue is a woman of exquisite depth and sensitivity.’
‘And I’m the fucking Dalai Lama,’ Ben said.
Kent sat back in his chair. ‘We were getting on relatively well until all this business.’
Ben slumped into a guest chair. ‘You thought remission was recovery. I wasn’t kidding about the sexual tension.’
‘There are other causes of tension,’ Kent said quietly. ‘Sue was never emotionally invested. She had no difficulty resolving her feelings for me.’
‘She didn’t look over you to me.’ Ben scratched his forehead. ‘You sure as shit don’t look over her. When was the last you went on a fucking date?’
‘I am too old to date.’
‘Sue tell you that bullshit?’ Ben asked.
‘She called me a drunken old man.’
Ben didn’t respond for a moment, waiting for a punchline. ‘Fuck you,’ he said. ‘I’m the only drunk old man around here. Don’t be stealing my act.’
‘And I was so looking forward to it.’
Ben balled up a piece of paper and threw it at Kent. ‘If she was over you, she wouldn’t be calling you names and pitching a jealous fit at the idea of you being on a date.’
Kent looked at his hands. ‘She’s married.’
‘I didn’t say to go for it, Christ I can just see the headlines.’ Ben shrugged. ‘Just try to fucking feel better knowing she didn’t shake you off like a bad cold.’ Ben leaned back and put his feet up on the desk. ‘You ever wanna give it another go with her?’
‘No point,’ Kent said shortly.
‘Jesus, if she got under your skin so much why’d you let her get away?’
Kent frowned. ‘I did everything I could to keep her.’
‘There’s this thing we have now, it’s called marriage.’
‘She said no.’
Ben reddened and looked away. ‘How the fuck was I supposed to know that?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Ben fiddled with his tie. ‘Does she know you’re in a goddamn biker gang?’
Kent sighed. ‘POTUS told you.’
‘Too damn right. A fucking gang! What are you, Marlon Brando?’
Kent spread his hands. ‘We are a club, not a gang.’
‘That’s what the Hell’s Angels say too.’
Kent groaned softly. ‘They’re one percenters. We’re not.’
‘Wrong context,’ Kent said. ‘In biker parlance, ninety-nine percent of bikers are law abiding and one percent are outlaws. We’re in the ninety-nine percent. We socialise. Sometimes we raise money for local charities.’
Ben checked his phone. ‘That’s boring. I’m gonna pretend you run guns and pornography.’
‘You need a hobby,’ Kent said.
‘I don’t have time to go to the can,’ Ben said. ‘When do I have time to cook or screw around with little model boats?’
‘You make time,’ Kent aid. ‘Hobbies reduce stress and give a sense of accomplishment as well as perspective.’
‘You sound like my fucking shrink,’ Ben grumbled.
‘You’re seeing a mental healthcare provider?’
‘Don’t sound so surprised,’ Ben complained. ‘I’m a twentieth-century guy.’
‘It’s the twenty-first century,’ Kent pointed out.
‘Don’t I fucking know it.’ He tucked his cell away. ‘Besides I gotta or they won’t give me any anti-depressants.’
Kent had lunch on his boat. It was Saturday and November so the water was quite busy and the weather brisk. Nonetheless, he was glad to have come. He wasn’t the sort of man who thrived on social interaction. He had worked almost every night that week and desperately needed some solitude. Not everyone understood that. A couple of his romantic prospects had felt slighted by his need for time alone. Time to reorient. To refresh himself. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy their company, just that he needed something else. Enjoying sushi didn’t mean he wanted to eat it all day, every day.
Sue had understood. She also needed her own space. More than he had, actually, but Kent knew better than to protest. He was too mature, too wounded, to hope for a relationship without compromise. He knew himself to be a somewhat... niche, romantic interest and knew that he had to be pragmatic if he wasn’t to be alone. He didn’t think he was unreasonable. A mature, intelligent woman, practical, sensible, and reasonable. One who would understand his hours and his occasional need for solitude. In his younger years – before hope had been beaten into the ground by experience – he would have said kind and warm.
He knew now he simply didn’t attract warm women and kind ones quickly grew frustrated with him. Physically he had his preferences, but found they were the first thing to be ditched when pragmatism was at play. Besides, he had noticed that women grew more attractive when he liked them and less attractive when he didn’t. There was probably a name for it.
Young people seemed almost alien. He had no common points of reference with them. Young women seemed uninteresting and uninvolving. Their concerns and problems so utterly unlike his own that the difference was almost laughable. Not that any young girl would genuinely be romantically interested in him. He wasn’t even sure women POTUS’s age would look at him. Kent had little or no illusions there. The concept of a sexual partner as a trophy to prop up one’s ego was equal parts baffling and disturbing to him. Sex had never been his driving force but he increasingly found himself craving simple companionship.
He still missed Sue. He didn’t have her knack for quickly replacing one lover with another. There hadn’t really been anyone in his life since they had parted. It wasn’t a choice. Kent had been introduced to a couple of women but things hadn’t worked out. They so rarely did. People were too... complicated. He could see things going astray but never knew the remedy.
Cats were easier, even if they did wake him up at three in the morning for a cuddle.
Kent was feeling rather mellow when he arrived at Ben’s house on Sunday. He had got lots of small jobs done around his house, done his filing, finished a novel, and had a short lie-in on both days. He had even been to the clubhouse on Sunday morning to check the MC’s books. It was always quiet there in the morning and he’d had an interesting chat with Bear while he added up the figures. That is to say, she spoke and he listened or she asked questions and he answered. Bear was old enough for Kent to find her interesting. Kent was respectful enough for Bear to find him intriguing.
Ben’s eldest son opened the door. Kent took a step back at the scent of marijuana rising from his clothes.
‘Oh, hey,’ the boy said.
Kent was trying to remember his name. His mother was Ben’s first wife and his name was... Zach? Brad?
‘May I come in?’ Kent prompted.
‘Oh... sure.’ He stumbled away, leaving the door open.
Kent shut it behind him and hung up his jacket.
‘Hello?’ he called.
‘I have polar bear.’
Kent turned. A child of about three looked up at him.
‘Is that it?’ he asked, pointing to the white mass of fur lodged under her armpit.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Wee-em,’ she said.
Kent frowned slightly. ‘William? William the polar bear?’
‘I have new dwess,’ she said, doing a twirl.
‘Do you?’ asked Kent, who was now thinking about getting back in his car and driving away.
‘Fwowers,’ she said seriously, pointing to the roses on the pattern. ‘What your name?’
‘Kent. What’s yours?’
The door behind her was open and Ben lumbered into view. He put his hand on the girl’s head.
‘Imogen, honey. why don’t you go help Mama cook?’
Kent held out a plate covered in foil. ‘Mashed potatoes with cream and butter.’
‘You coulda brought booze,’ Ben grumbled.
‘I thought this was a dinner not a frat party,’ Kent retorted.
‘Wait until Dickhead Dan and the human mope get here, Ben said. ‘You’ll wish it were a frat party.’
Kent groaned softly. ‘Gary and Dan both?’
Kent shrugged at that. ‘Anyone else?’
Ben snorted. ‘Be glad we didn’t end up with Tom James.’
‘I thought this was for staffers,’ Kent said.
‘It is, but Joyce likes him.’
‘Your wife has appalling taste in men, but that’s no surprise.’
Ben gave him a sideways look. ‘Not gonna ask about Sue?’
‘I’ve never heard of her voluntarily choosing to spend time with you.’
‘Well she sure as shit doesn’t wanna spend time with you,’ Ben sneered.
Dan was being... charming. Kent deeply distrusted charm. It was slippery. It made people smile and laugh instead of thinking. It was an appeal not to logic or reason but to emotion. It was the lowest common denominator of communication.
On the other hand, it did mean that Joyce’s various sisters, cousins, and assorted friends had someone to focus on. Unlike many men of his age and background Kent had no disinclination towards women taking the lead in romantic encounters. It many ways it made things considerably simpler. However, he had limited conversational topics in social settings and found flirting exceptionally stressful. He was perfectly happy to forgo the attention in favour of someone else. Even if that person was Dan.
‘What’re you doing in here?’ Mike asked, sticking his head into the kitchen.
Kent poured himself a glass of water and gestured with it.
‘Hiding from all the single ladies, huh?’ Mike asked cheerfully.
‘Something like that.’
‘Yeah.’ Mike wandered over to the fridge and opened the door. ‘I used to have that problem before I married Wendy.’
Kent rolled his eyes. ‘Why aren’t you with her now?’
‘She’s visiting her mom. She’s in assisted living and couldn’t make it to ours.’
Mike closed the fridge door. ‘So is it true?’
‘What?’ Kent asked suspiciously.
Mike was trying not to smile. ‘You know.’
‘I do not.’
‘The... God, I don’t want to say it. If I do and it’s some stupid lie I’ll look like an ass.’
‘Believe me, whatever is it I won’t think any worse of you,’ Kent said.
Mike burst out in a huge grin. ‘Is it true about the motorcycle?’
Kent groaned. ‘Why is my choice of recreational locomotion so outrageous to you people?’
‘Are you kidding? Kent Dawson, robotic math guy, doesn’t just have a motorcycle, he rides with a gang! This is amazing!’
Kent rubbed his forehead. ‘We’re a club. Not a gang.’
‘Wow! When I had a midlife crisis I just bought an SUV.’
Kent folded his arms. ‘For your information, I’ve been riding since I was sixteen.’
‘Christ,’ Ben said from the doorway. ‘I didn’t know they had motorcycles back in the dark ages.’
‘Since you’re older than I am, you would know,’ Kent retorted.
‘Will you get your asses back in there?’ Ben demanded. ‘I’m massively outnumbered and I’d like some reinforcements.’
‘Outnumbered by whom?’ Kent asked.
‘Some men would pay good money for that,’ Mike said.
‘All three of you are single?’ Joyce asked.
‘I’m more of a serial monogamist,’ Dan said with a bright smile. ‘Somewhere there’s a girl for me.’
‘For a couple hours, anyway,’ Ben retorted.
‘I’m too busy to date,’ Gary said. ‘Working for POTUS takes up a huge amount of my time and energy.’
Joyce smiled sweetly. ‘Not because you’re in love with her?’
The colour drained from Gary’s face.
‘You’re thinking of Kent,’ Ben said quickly. ‘He’s still in love with his ex-girlfriend.’
Kent scowled at him as Joyce and Emily fussed over him.
‘You were in love with Sue?’ Dan snickered. ‘That’s like being in love with furniture.’
‘Don’t push me, Egan,’ Kent said flatly.
‘Okay,’ Dan said. ‘That was a little scary.’
Ben chugged a beer. ‘Kent likes his women cold and bossy. I think you might be a little too sweet and affectionate for him, Emily.’
Dan shuddered. ‘Sweet and affectionate, ugh.’
‘No wonder you and Amy are always making eyes at each other,’ Gary said distastefully.
‘We do not!’
‘Amy is always so tense,’ Mike said. ‘I worry that if someone bumps into her she’ll snap in half like an old, dry stick.’
Kent snorted. ‘No wonder you write POTUS’s speeches. You have the soul of a poet.’
‘Was that sarcasm or irony?’ Emily asked. ‘I get confused.’
‘Sarcasm is a type of irony,’ Kent said.
‘What is she like?’ Joyce asked.
‘You’ve met Sue,’ Ben said. ‘At the Christmas party. Tall girl, African-American.’
‘Cold as Antarctica,’ Gary said.
‘What would you know about it?’ Kent asked.
‘Just saying,’ Gary muttered.
'The drunk girl?’ Joyce asked. She held a hand up to Kent. ‘Don’t get mad. Pretending she doesn’t have a problem only hurts her.’
‘You’re married to one of the most notorious alcoholics in Washington,’ Kent said. 'He empties a hip flask of scotch at least twice a day.’
Joyce glared at Ben, who scratched his forehead.
Someone hammered at the door, making everyone startle.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Ben asked, clambering to his feet and heading out of the room.
‘Repo man cometh,’ Kent suggested.
Gary checked his cell. ‘Maybe it’s Selina.’
‘Sure,’ Dan sneered, ‘The President of the United States goes door to door.’
‘She can be very determined,’ Gary argued.
‘Fuck!’ Ben bellowed, from the front door.
Ben’s two youngest kids looked up with widening eyes.
Kent and Dan were on their feet when the door was thrown open and Ben staggered into the room. He was clutching his eye.
‘Benny!’ Joyce ran across.
‘What happened?’ Kent asked.
‘I don’t fu… I don’t know,’ Ben groaned. ‘I opened the door. Some guy said “are you Ben?” I said yes. He smacked me in the eye and told me to stay away from his wife!’
Joyce drew herself up. 'His wife?'
Ben waved his hand.
‘Joyce, sweetie, it’s mistaken identity or something. I haven’t been playing around. I swear!’
If there were ever a reason not to practice yoga at home, it was cats. They tried to sit on Kent’s lap or leg or shoulder and always at the least convenient moment. He didn’t do Pilates at home any more after accidently kicking one cat in the leg, but he persevered with yoga at home. His hours made finding a convenient studio almost impossible. The cats were fascinated by his attempts to keep flexible and didn’t stir from their positions even when someone rang his doorbell.
It was barely five-thirty am. Kent frowned. That could not be good. He checked his cell: nothing.
Kent met hundreds or people. It took him a moment to place the woman he saw through the scanty peephole.
Kent opened the door. ‘Agent Steel.’
‘Mr Davison!’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘You are a hard man to investigate. Are you going to let me in, or shall I wake up your neighbours yelling that you... oh attacked me? That’s a good one.’
Kent leaned forward and pointed to the discreet security camera over the door. ‘That has 1080p hd video capture and an excellent microphone. Want to make some more empty threats?’
‘Shit sticks, Captain, whatever the evidence says.’
Kent shut the door in her face. He made a copy of the video and sent a dropbox link to Diane. Then he went for a shower.
When he was younger, Kent used to worry more what people thought about him. Experience had taught him that while being liked could make interactions slightly more pleasant, it was almost never worth the cost of being considered a pushover. A female chief of staff, whom he considered a mentor, had told him that female professionals could be bitches or doormats, and nobody wiped their feet on her.
Steel had parked in a disabled parking spot. Kent took a photograph and sent it to the police.
He could speak to Freda, have Steel told to back off, but he didn’t want to do that. Kent was perfectly happy to use political back channels when it was appropriate, but using Washington contacts to deal with a club problem struck him as a disaster in the making. Steel would use it as justification to pry into his work. If it leaked to the press they would have a ball with “corruption” stories, right when the administration needed all the positive press they could scrape together. So, no D.C. interference, although that didn’t mean he had to sit back and take it.
Kent made two coffees in take-out cups. He put one on the counter and took the other one out to Steel.
‘What’s this?’ she asked suspiciously.
‘Did you spit in it?’
Kent shook his head. ‘You’re not getting my DNA without a court order.’
Steel leaned out of the window to look him up and down ‘You sure about that, Captain?’
‘Does that work?’
She smiled. ‘Sometimes. Which look gets you more ass, badass biker, or overpaid office boy?’
‘I don’t find either particularly successful. How did you find my address?’
Steel laughed. ‘I’m in the FBI, Captain, I have resources.’
‘But my records are protected.’
She tilted her head. ‘For now. Witness protection won’t cover your ass forever.’
‘Witness protection,’ Kent repeated.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell your brothers in the club. At least until it suits me. Like if you refuse to help me out. Something like that.’
‘Agent Steel are you attempting to blackmail me?’ Kent asked.
‘Absolutely not, what an appalling slur,’ she said innocently. ‘But if you’ve been a rat before there’s no pesky morals stopping you from being a rat now.’
Kent leaned in, resting his arms on the windowsill. ‘Enjoy your coffee.’
‘Thanks, I will.’
He returned to the house, got his coffee, jacket, and bag, and went out the back. He caught a cab a couple blocks down and sipped his coffee on the way to the West Wing.
* * *
Kent didn’t make it often to the club at midweek. It was always difficult to make the effort but Santiago’s release demanded his presence.
The party was in good swing when he arrived. Beer and other beverages were flowing, the music was loud, and the strippers were enthusiastic.
Kent stuffed money into the jar on the bar. He was acutely aware that Santiago’s latest arrest lay at his door.
Bear was behind the bar. Kent accepted her welcoming kiss on his cheek.
‘President was beginning to worry you were going to miss it,’ she said.
‘I was told seven and it’s barely quarter past,’ he said.
Bear smiled. ‘He always worries when you’re late.’
Kent looked across at the mob of bikers around the stage. The president had a scantily clad enthusiast on each knee. Kent looked back at Bear.
‘Do you ever think someone should just tell him that everyone knows and nobody cares?’ he asked.
Bear shook her head. ‘No.’
‘The lying and hiding seem like a cheerless way to live.’
Bear shrugged. ‘Chicks in public, dicks in private. Works for him. Don’t ruin his fun.’
Kent held up his hands in acquiescence. ‘Can I have a beer?’
‘All the beers you want,’ she said, nodding at the jar.
‘I won’t tell,’ she promised.
He smelled the president before he saw him, a mixture of too much cologne, sweat, and grease. Nobody else wore cologne to the club.
‘Hey, Captain. You seen the FBI agent?’
‘Quite possibly she followed me,’ Kent allowed. ‘She was outside my home this morning.’
The president clasped Kent’s forearm. ‘Followed you home like a lost dog, eh?’
‘I think she considers me a weak link here.’
‘Stupid bitch,’ Bear sneered.
‘You should go give her something else to think about.’ The club president winked. ‘Club business, no need to tell the beautiful black girl.’
Kent laughed. ‘Steel would kill me and Sue would help her buy the body.’
Kent checked his watch. There were half as many strippers now. Every so often, a biker would flash enough cash to take one for a “private dance” in a back room. The younger bikers would reappear to cheers. The older bikers would have to sleep it off. Santiago was staggering around drunkenly and babbling incoherently.
‘He’s not going to ride home, I hope.’ Steel leaned against the bar.
‘Certainly not,’ Kent said.
‘Because if he does, he’ll be going right back. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. And the rest of you will be taken in as accessories,’ she said.
Bear vaulted over the bar and prowled towards her. ‘We look after our own.’
‘Not that drink-driving would come under your purview,’ Kent said.
Steel winked. ‘I’m making sure everything in this sweaty little building my business.’
‘That sounds like harassment,’ Kent said.
‘Get your bony ass out of my club,’ Bear said, looming over Steel.
‘Unless you’re here to dance, you’re not welcome here.’ The president pushed Bear back behind him. ‘Don’t come back without a warrant.’
‘Oh, gosh,’ Steel said. ‘But the Captain invited me!’
Kent snorted. ‘You fail even as a competent liar.’
She batted her eyelashes at him. ‘We’ll see.’
Kent watched her leave, when he turned back; Bear was tearing into the president for undermining her.
Maria slid onto the seat next to Kent. ‘We never hire male strippers,’ she complained.
‘Get arrested for assaulting an FBI agent and I’ll see what I can do,’ Kent said.
Maria laughed. ‘You feeling better?’
Kent took a gulp of his beer. ‘Better?’
‘Heard you were feeling bad about your ex.’
Kent ticked his lips. ‘Sure.’
‘I set my ex-boyfriend’s trailer on fire,’ Maria said.
‘Was he in it?’
Maria shook her head. ‘Just his collection of Japanese schoolgirl porn.’
Kent shrugged. ‘That sounds like a public service.’ He patted her hand. ‘You’re a bright, passionate, and beautiful young woman. You’ll meet someone else. Perhaps avoid anyone with any amount of any variety of schoolgirl porn.’
‘I’m supposed to be making you feel better.’
Kent cocked his head. ‘What’s your pitch: I’m old and boring, therefore women will be knocking down my door? Is having the social grace of a dead hermit crab all the rage?’
Maria flushed. ‘There’s no need to be a dick.’
Kent sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose. ‘Apologies. You and I have such radically different expectancies of relationships and romance that we might as well be talking different languages.’
‘You’re not old,’ Maria said. ‘You’re not boring. You’re not the other thing.’
‘You’re sweet.’ Kent kissed her forehead. ‘And you don’t have to nursemaid me.’
‘I’m not a child,’ she said, standing up. ‘Don’t treat me like one.’
Kent stared as she walked away. He shook his head and went to fetch a broom. When he came back. Bear was sullenly leaning on the bar.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she asked.
‘Making myself useful.’
‘That’s the prospects’ job,’ she said. ‘Sit your ass down and tell me why you talked to Maria like she was some little pussy.’
Kent sighed as he sat down. ‘I have no idea what I did to upset her.’
‘You called her fucking sweet and kissed her head! Jesus, you men. When you’re not treating us like whores, you’re treating us like fucking children. We don’t need protecting and we sure as fuck don’t need to be patted on the head.’
Kent winced. ‘I have always treated you, Maria, and everyone else with respect.’
‘She’s not your kid so don’t act like her father.’ Bear leaned on the counter. ‘You make a face when you look at the strippers.’
‘You don’t know that. Maybe they enjoy it.’
Kent raised his eyes. ‘None of them are a day over twenty-five. The average age of members here is fifty-three. Not a young, healthy fifty-three either.’
‘Age is just a number, Captain.’ She tilted her head. ‘I know you like women but you never screw the enthusiasts or the strippers. You haven’t even taken a shot at one of us.’
‘Don’t mess where you live,’ he said dismissively.
She came around and sat next to him. ‘Don’t lie to Momma Bear, Captain. You work with your ex.’
‘And now we have to see each other every day,’ he said bitterly.
‘You’ve still got a thing for her.’
‘It’s been over more than a year,’ Kent said.
Kent sighed. ‘I... Yes. I still have some feelings for her.’
Bear squeezed his forearm. ‘That’s okay. You’re loyal. That’s good.’
‘Bear, I sense that the word "but" is rushing to your lips.’
‘She’s married,’ Bear said. ‘She treated you like shit. Don’t argue! Whose shoulder did you cry on? Mine. She treated you like shit. She made you feel like shit. So, now you gotta move on. You’re a decent man, you look decent, you’ve got a decent job. Find a decent chick.’
‘I can’t while I have feelings for Sue,’ he said quietly.
He heard heels clacking across the floor towards him. He turned his head. The girl gave him a dazzling smile.
‘Chanise,’ she said. ‘We played pool.’
‘And now you’re a stripper,’ Bear said. ‘Progress!’
Chanise ignored her and addressed Kent. ‘You want to keep a lonely girl company, Captain?’
‘Oh, David is over there. He’s much closer to your age,’ Kent said.
Chanise moved much closer. She ran her fingers over Kent’s jacket. ‘That’s a boy. I was really looking for a man.’
‘You got nothing to lose,’ Bear said to Kent. ‘Except your pristine pecker.’
‘I am not diseased!’ Chanise protested.
‘You’re very kind,’ Kent said. ‘But no thank you.’
Chanise sighed and her tone changed. ‘The president already paid me and I need the money, okay? My son needs braces.’
‘Look, Chanise, you seem like a perfect lovely young woman –’
Bear threw an empty can at him. ‘Take her upstairs would you? Anything that helps you forget about what’s-her-face can only help. She’s even the right type.’
Chanise smiled. ‘What’s your type, Captain?’
‘I don’t –’
‘He likes his girls dark and curvy,’ Bear said.
Chanise took his hand. ‘That’s a good type.’
Upstairs there were bedrooms, very roughly outfitted for those times when members were too tired, drunk, or divorced to go home.
Chanise sat down on the bed to take off her shoes. ‘I’m a little sticky,’ she admitted.
‘Exotic dancing does seem physically demanding,’ Kent said. ‘Would you like a shower?’
She looked over at him. ‘You gonna hide over there by the door all night?’
‘I’m sure the president didn’t pay for you to stay all night.’
Chanise stood up and unhooked her bra. ‘Shy boy, huh?’
‘Something like that.’
‘But you like girls?’
‘I like women,’ he said. ‘I don’t... I don’t sleep with women I don’t care for.’
Chanise pouted. ‘You don’t care for me?’
‘I don’t know you.’
Charis took off her panties. ‘When I get out of the shower we can get to know each other.’ She put her hand on her hip. ‘Unless you want to come in with me.’
‘I’ll wait here,’ he said.
It wasn’t that she was direct – he liked that. It wasn’t that she was somewhat aggressive – he liked that too. It wasn’t even that she’d been paid – although that was completely galling.
It was that he didn’t feel anything for her and she didn’t feel anything for him. Cold, empty, and meaningless. That wouldn’t be sex. That would be rutting, like an animal.
He could hear the water running. He could hear her singing. She was just a kid.
Kent lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. He was tired. Work didn’t energise him when everything was going so horrendously wrong. He’d stopped telling POTUS the polls unless she asked. The public loathed her. They thought her at best incompetent and at worst corrupt. He should have never worked for her. He should be approached Chung. Sure, he didn’t win the nomination, but an honourable loss would be better than being dragged into the mire with Meyer.
But then he would have never dated Sue. He didn’t regret that, only how it ended. Only that it had ended.
The mattress dipped as Chanise sat down.
‘You really don’t want to do this,’ she said. ‘If you like we could cuddle, or talk.’
‘Cuddle sounds good,’ Kent said, taking off his jacket and sweater. He lay on his side, his head resting against her chest.
She stroked his hair. ‘What was your ex called?’
‘You do this with Sue?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said.
‘Not as often as you wanted?’ He could hear the smile in her voice
‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘Not that much.’
Kent jangled his keys in his pocket as he looked at the display. He wasn’t hungry yet but he would be although he wasn’t sure how hungry he would be. For some months, his usually robust appetite had been faltering.
‘I was under the impression that interns existed to run chores like buying lunch for senior staffers.’
Kent turned around. He didn’t recognise the woman addressing him.
‘Jen Washington,’ she said. ‘I’ve left you messages but you never get back to me.’
‘I don’t deal with the press,’ he said, looking back at the display.
‘But you deal with biker gangs, the cops, strippers, and the FBI.’
Kent frowned slightly. ‘What are you talking about?’
She adjusted her bag. ‘You’re in a biker gang.’
‘No, I’m in a club for motor cycle enthusiasts,’ he corrected. ‘I’m also in a club for sailing enthusiasts. Do you mean to accuse me of piracy as well?’
She grinned. ‘You’re just Mr. Enthusiasm aren’t you?’
Kent sighed. ‘I have none for this conversation.’
‘How about being arrested for brawling in a bar? You got any comment on that?’
He shrugged. ‘I was freed without charge.’
‘Because you pulled strings. That’s pretty corrupt.’
Kent’s frown deepened. ‘I did no such thing. I was released because the witnesses agreed I was acting in self-defence.’ He started to walk away.
‘What about the torrid affair?’ she called after him. ‘The American public love a juicy adultery.’
* * *
‘Adultery?’ Selina asked.
‘I was nonplussed,’ Kent said. He scratched his forehead. ‘Your lover’s divorce has been finalised?’
‘It’s not me! It’s one of you useless fuckers. Get Ben in here.’
Ben was drinking coffee and eating a donut. He rumbled into the office carrying both.
‘How’s the diet going, Ben?’ Selina asked acidly.
‘It’s going great. Ma’ am,’ he said. ‘As long as it doesn’t find out I’m cheating on it with junk food.’
Selina smiled thinly. ‘Speaking of cheating, are ya?’
Ben swallowed a mouthful of food. ‘Am I what?’
‘Cheating.’ Selina jabbed a finger at Kent. ‘Some reporter asked James Dean here about stories that someone is having a torrid affair.’
Ben sniggered. ‘And you thought it was me?’
Selina slumped back in her chair. ‘Well ya got form, Ben.’
‘Fidelity is not on of your strengths,’ Kent said.
‘That was years ago,’ Ben said. ‘And I never managed "torrid" anyway. Grubby, sure. Dirty, maybe.’
Selina put her chin in her hand. ‘Why is it always torrid? And why is torrid only used for affairs?’
‘Sometimes the weather,’ Kent suggested. ‘It has overtones of being somewhat overbearing; intense as well as hot.’
‘I definitely didn’t manage those,’ Ben said.
Selina pointed at his eye. ‘Did ya tell that to the guy who smacked ya?’
Ben licked sugar from his fingers. ‘I don’t know who he was. He was in his thirties. I haven’t pulled a thirty-year-old since I could see my feet.’
Selina drummed her fingers on the table. ‘Guess we better monitor this shit. Although it’d be a nice change for me not to be the only one getting fucked over by the press.’
Ben shrugged. ‘Three cheers for novelty.’
Kent followed Ben out of the office but moved across to Sue’s desk.
‘Miss Wilson, might we speak privately?’ Kent asked.
She pursed her lips suspiciously, but followed him into the office. ‘Is this official West Wing business, Mr. Davison?’ she asked.
‘It is West Wing business,’ he said. ‘At the moment is not official. You may wish to close the door.’
She did, and then folded her arms across her chest.
‘I was waylaid by that reporter. After asking about my arrest and my involvement with the club, she mentioned rumours of an affair. Adultery was the specific word used.’
‘Why are you asking me?’ she demanded. ‘What are you implying?’
‘I have already spoken to POTUS and Ben,’ he said. ‘Both claimed their innocence. Those were longshots. Given that the reporter directly contacted only ourselves, it seems highly probable that the rumours refer to us.’
Sue set her jaw. ‘We are not having an affair.’
‘Rumours are rarely accurate in all respects,’ Kent said. ‘In this case the timing is inaccurate which has led to confusion as to your marital state during our... friendship.’
She looked away. ‘She made leading statements to Sean.’
‘That was unfortunate,’ Kent said carefully.
‘Certainly for Ben.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘She was vague and neglected to use your name. Ben called me out to work at Thanksgiving. After Ben invited me to his wife’s alternative Thanksgiving, he sent me texts with his address.’
Kent sucked in his breath. ‘Sean that attacked Ben?’
‘Do not tell him,’ Sue said severely.
‘Why was Sean checking your texts?’
Sue sat down in his guest chair. ‘He is jealous. He has trust issues.’
Kent licked his lips. ‘You cheated on him.’
‘He doesn’t know that,’ she said sharply.
Kent watched her carefully. ‘Sean appears to have a significant temper.’
Sue straightened her back. ‘He loves me.’
‘And demonstrates it with his fists,’ Kent said.
Sue gripped the desk. ‘That is ridiculously hypocritical. He did not get into a bar brawl.’
‘No, he didn’t respond immediately to an attack. He drove several miles, confirmed Ben’s identity, and then attacked him.’ Kent touched his fingers to the back of her right hand. ‘If he will do that to a man he suspects, what would he do to you?’
Her eyes widened. ‘Sean would never strike me!’
Kent tentatively patted her hand and withdrew. ‘What have you told him?’
‘I certainly told him that I wasn’t having an affair with Ben,’ she said, avoiding Kent’s eyes. ‘The very thought was offensive.’
‘You didn’t tell him the truth?’
‘That is the truth.’
Kent squeezed the bridge of his nose. ‘You did cheat, Sue. That you were unfaithful before marriage isn’t negated by fidelity during marriage. If indeed you have been faithful.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Sue, this journalist knows something. Sean is going to find out about our prior relationship,’ Kent said. ‘I have no desire to open my front door and get punched in the face.’
It was the wrong thing to say. Her expression hardened.
‘So you pretend to worry about my safety but really only care about your own,’ she said.
‘You said he wouldn’t hurt you,’ Kent said. ‘I trust your judgement regarding your own husband.’
‘Oh, now you trust my judgement. Where was that trust when we broke up?’
Kent narrowed his eyes. ‘There is a gulf between expecting you to know Sean and taking it on faith that our relationship was never going to work.’
‘It wasn’t supposed to be a relationship!’ Sue snapped. ‘You were supposed to be sex. Nothing more.’
‘Then your judgement of me is clearly woefully inadequate,’ Kent said.
Sue sighed. ‘Yes. I thought that being unmarried and single at your stage of life meant that you had no interest in a committed relationship. It didn’t occur to me that you were hurting but hopeful.’
Kent looked at his hands. ‘You might have asked me.’
‘I should,’ she said quietly. ‘I assumed that you would walk away when you realised we wanted fundamentally different things.’
Kent rubbed his forehead. ‘I thought you were becoming emotionally invested.’
‘I was,’ Sue admitted. ‘That’s why it had to end.’
‘Why him and not me?’ Kent asked. ‘Is it because he’s younger?’
Kent swallowed. ‘Ah.’
‘My father died when I was seven,’ Sue said. ‘My mother has never recovered. Women have longer life expectancies than men. Statistically, I will have twenty to thirty years longer with Sean then I would with you.’
‘Not if you get divorced,’ Kent said sourly. ‘Your odds of staying together until he dies of old age are middling even without infidelity.’
‘He’s never going to know about that,’ Sue said firmly.
Sue put her hand to his cheek. ‘You won’t tell him.’
‘No. Because you’re worried about the fallout, and because you still have feelings for me.’
Someone was in the toilet cubicle, crying. Several interns were stood about, looking sheepish and uncertain. Kent had no idea why a man crying in an oddly private, public place was somehow his problem. Yet here he was.
‘Everyone leave,’ he said to the interns.
‘But I need to –’
‘There are restrooms upstairs,’ Kent said. ‘Out. Now.’
It wasn’t that he was unsympathetic, in general terms, to having a moment in which it was necessary to vent one’s emotions. But the West Wing was full of nooks and crannies. Why not go there?
It was almost as if the man wanted both the attention and the facade of seeking privacy.
Kent rapped on the door to the cubicle with his knuckles.
‘Mr Walsh, is that you?’
There was a long pause.
Kent sighed. ‘Mr Walsh, I recognise your voice.’
‘I’m not bothering anyone.’
‘In fact, you are distressing anyone attempting to use the facilities as well as reducing cubicle availability by a third.’
Kent heard Gary sigh heavily. He was one of those people. Every setback was a disaster requiring copious moans, sighs, and complaints.
Gary opened the cubicle door. ‘Did POTUS send you?’
Kent blinked. ‘She’s negotiating with Russia. You think she took time out to ask me to find out who’s crying in the men’s facilities?’
Gary rolled his eyes as he turned on the taps. ‘Then what are you doing here?’
‘I was walking past and an intern stopped me. One of the side effects of seniority is the frequent assumption that it conveys leadership.’
Gary sniffled. ‘They don’t expect me to do anything like that.’
Kent ignored the first response that came to mind. ‘I see.’
Gary dried his hands. ‘Aren’t you going to ask?’
‘What I’m upset about,’ Gary prompted.
Kent frowned. ‘I’m unclear how that could possibly be helpful.’
‘It’s what people do.’
Kent shrugged. ‘Fine. What are you upset about?’
Gary’s lower lip wobbled. ‘Selina and Charlie broke up.’
Kent waited for a few seconds. ‘And?’
‘And he’s not answering my calls or returning my messages.’
Kent leaned back. ‘Gary, if you are sending threats to a member of the –’
‘We used to... hang out you know? When Selina was getting ready or if she was late. We’d talk about our day, holiday plans. Guy stuff.’
‘Guy stuff,’ Kent repeated.
‘He’s not going to be visiting any more,’ Gary sighed. ‘I just want to make sure we don’t lose out friendship.’
‘That’s not friendship,’ Ben said. ‘That’s polite conversation.’
Kent shrugged. They were having a drink in Ben’s office. ‘Perhaps I misunderstood.’
‘Or Gary did. I know which one I think more likely,’ Ben said.
‘I rather hope they are friends,’ Kent said.
‘That asshole only fucked POTUS in the first place so she’d bail him out when the time came!’
Kent gave him a look. ‘Surely not the sole reason.’
Ben sipped his whiskey. ‘Power is sexy.’
‘Gary gives the appearance of being a very... lonely man,’ Kent said carefully. ‘For his own sake as well as national security I hope he is able to cultivate friends.’
‘Men over thirty-five don’t have friends,’ Ben said. ‘That’s why we need wives.’
‘Lonely men nursing unrequited affection for unobtainable women is only romantic in movies. In real life it rarely bodes well.’
Ben shuddered. ‘You don’t think Gary would go postal?’
‘Psychological wellbeing is hardly my forte,’ Kent said. ‘Statistically he’s more likely to injure himself.’
Ben topped up his glass. ‘Great, Presidential aide kills himself is a much better headline.’ He slumped back. ‘Maybe we can get Mike to take him out for a drink.’
‘That sounds like a shitty night for everyone,’ Selina scoffed. ‘Who’re you sending on a blind date with Mike?’
‘Gary,’ Ben said. He jerked a thumb at Kent. ‘Brando found him bawling in the restroom.’
Selina accepted a glass of whiskey. ‘You found Gary?’
Kent nodded. ‘It seems he was under the impression that Charlie Baird had become a friend.’ He gestured with his glass. ‘One who is no longer taking his calls or returning his messages.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ Selina groaned. ‘He does know I’m the one who was sleeping with Charlie, right?’
Kent raised his eyebrows. ‘I don’t believe his feelings for Charlie Baird are romantic.’
‘Kent thinks Gary is lonely,’ Ben said.
‘Who the fuck isn’t?’ Selina asked. ‘Just because you’re not alone in bed doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely. I am surrounded by people every day and there isn’t a moment I don’t feel crushed by loneliness.’
Kent looked at his glass.
‘Shit, now I feel like I should’ve invited you for lunch,’ Ben said. ‘I did invite Gary. And he ate thanksgiving with Kent and me. So I think I’ve done my bit. Let Mike buddy up to him.’
Selina was smirking. ‘You two had thanksgiving together?’
‘Twice,’ Ben said. ‘Next time is the clincher.’
‘My mother likes to send care packages if I’m working a holiday,’ Kent said.
‘I could eat her cobbler fresh from the oven,’ Ben said.
Selina shook her head. ‘That sounded completely filthy and I have no idea why.’
‘Practice, Ma’am,’ Ben said.’ Lots of practice.’
Selina was staring up at the ceiling when Kent walked in.
‘Ma’am, I have the data you wanted.’
‘Is it the secret to happiness?’ she asked.
‘Hot water, good dentistry, and soft toilet paper.’
Kent shook his head. ‘It’s the student loan data.’
Selina straightened up. ‘Oh. How thrilling.’
‘Some of it is actually quite interesting.’
‘To you, maybe.’ Selina put her chin in her hand. ‘This whole thing with stories of affairs between staffers, nobody ever tells me the gossip. Does it happen that often?’
‘Frequently,’ Kent said. ‘It’s an extremely high-pressure environment with long hours, few breaks, and fewer vacations. Emotions run high and people don’t see their families much. Under those circumstances some people are guaranteed to act on shared attraction.’
‘Gee, what a romantic.’
‘Screwing someone you work with isn’t very practical,’ Selina scoffed. ‘Look at you and Sue. Some days you two look ready to beat the shit out of each other.’
Kent felt the blood rush to his face. ‘I have never, and would never, raise my hand to any woman. Least of all Sue.’
‘I didn’t mean literally.’ Selina tilted her head. ‘You did though, huh? Never had, never would.’
‘It was one of the things most firmly inculcated in me in childhood,’ Kent said gruffly. ‘One does not raise one’s hand to anyone smaller or physically weaker.’
Selina smiled. ‘So what you’re saying is if I took a swing at you, I could kick your ass?’
‘Hmm, or I could sit on you,’ he suggested.
‘I’d like to see ya try!’ She let out a breath. ‘How d’ya deal with seeing Sue every day?’
‘It’s difficult,’ he admitted. ‘But she’s frequently rude to the point of offensive, which helps.’
Selina leaned forward. ‘Mike asked around. You and Sue are the only staffers this Jen Washington chick has approached.’
Kent shifted uncomfortably. ‘Or the only ones to admit it.’
Selina rolled her eyes. ‘Christ, your gonna make me ask aren’t ya? Okay. Kent, are you and Sue having an affair?’
‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘The reporter’s information is out of date. Sue and I have not been intimate since before her marriage.’
Selina drummed her fingers on the desk. ‘How long before?’
‘I don’t know the date she married,’ Kent said.
‘Kent,’ Selina said slowly. ‘Do not screw me around. Were you and Sue fucking while she was with whatever-the-fuck her husband is called?’
‘Yes,’ Kent said.
‘I was unaware initially,’ Kent said. ‘I’m not in the habit of pursuing women in relationships.’
‘Unless Sue has retrograde amnesia she never mentioned then damn well knew,’ Selina said.
‘Ma’am, Sue specifically asked me when we parted ways not to discuss this at work.’
Selina threw a pen at him. ‘She meant no gossiping, ya idiot. This is damage control. You better be real careful, Kent. Sue will throw you under the bus in a New York minute. Don’t be sap enough to let her.’
* * *
Kent hadn’t been to a commercial US airport in a while. If POTUS lost the election, then flying in Airforce One would be one of the things he would most miss. Commercial flight was so cramped and unpleasant. When he’d been a boy it was still glamorous; Martinis and business suits. Now it seemed to be Red Bull and sweatpants.
Not Diane. She strolled through the door perfectly coiffured and in a business suit with high heels. Effortlessly calm and collected. For a fleeting moment, Kent wondered what it would be like to work for her as POTUS.
‘Hello Kent,’ she said, letting him kiss her cheek. ‘No leathers?’
‘I came from work.’
She smiled. ‘Afraid the lady staffers would go wild with desire and rip them off you?’
‘More worried about the subpar AC,’ he said. ‘Leathers get warm.’
Kent was very particular about food so he tended to quite conservative in his choice of restaurants. However, Diane was quite adventurous and, since he felt particularly indebted, Kent took her out to the new Brazilian place that Mike had been raving about.
‘Is this your first Brazilian?’ Diane asked impishly.
Kent winced. ‘You’ll put me off my dinner.’
‘Oh goody, I’ll eat yours.’
Kent poured them both a glass of wine. ‘I don’t know where you put it all.’
‘The key is forgetting to eat when you’re busy,’ Diane said. She sipped her wine. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come to the fundraiser?’
‘I will if you want, but all of your friends would talk.’
Diane rolled her eyes. ‘You’re my brother-in-law.’ She smiled. ‘Physical appearance aside, I can’t think of anyone less like Kurt.’
‘That may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.’
Diane slapped his hand. ‘Don’t tease.’
Kent frowned as he shook his hand. ‘I go to fundraisers for work.’
‘Ah. I can see why the idea of dressing up and having free food isn’t quite as novel to you.’
Kent took in her tight posture and brittle smile. ‘I’ll be happy to go with you,’ he offered.
She waved a hand. ‘You don’t have to.’
‘Diane,’ he said and waited until he caught her eye. ‘I’ll go.’
She smiled. ‘I’m out of practice going to events by myself.’
‘You’re in luck, I’m an expert.’
Diane laughed. ‘You and I are going to talk about... ooh, food.’
Kent sat back as the server put the plates on the table.
‘I have news about your stalker,’ Diane said.
‘I wasn’t aware I had one.’
‘The charming FBI agent.’ Diane paused to eat a mouthful of food. ‘Doubtless you’ll hear through work channels, but I’ve got you first: she’s been reassigned.’
‘In addition to the harassment, she was caught running an unauthorised operation inside your club. Very serious.’ Diane wagged a finger at him. ‘You cannot repeat that.’
‘That will not be a problem,’ Kent said. ‘Since I have no idea what it means.’
‘ln the vernacular, an undercover agent was in the club to inform on you.’
Kent blew out his cheeks. ‘There’s nothing to inform on.’
‘Fortunate for everyone concerned. The operation was unauthorised, although the undercover agent didn’t know that. If things had gone wrong, there would have been nobody to ride to her rescue.’
Kent shuddered. ‘That seems criminally negligent.’
‘It cannot get back to the club.’
‘Were you a scout?’ Diane asked.
‘Ah, it all makes sense now,’ she said sagely.
‘Isn’t this cosy.’
Kent groaned softly and swivelled in his chair. ‘Bill.’
‘Hello Kent.’ Bill said. ‘Enjoying your food? It’s so much better than food in prison.’
‘Don’t I know you?’ Diane asked.
‘Bill Ericsson,’ he said. ‘Victim of a corrupt president and her cowardly lackeys.’
‘Goodness.’ Diane glanced at Kent. ‘There I was thinking he was the man responsible for your data breach.’
‘I was the man crucified for the data breach,’ Bill retorted.
‘Really? Well your recovery is little short of miraculous,’ she said.
‘What did you do to your hair?’ Kent asked.
‘Prison haircut.’ Bill put his hand on the table. ‘You didn’t defend me, Kent. You defended that girl but not me. I won’t forget that.’
‘Nor did I condemn you,’ Kent said. ‘You, however, attempted to throw me to the lions.’
Bill glared at Kent. Then marched away.
‘What charming company you keep,’ Diane said.
‘I think technically the company I would be keeping would be yours.’ Kent shrugged. ‘Bill was passing.’
‘What a shame,’ Diane said. ‘He seemed so fascinating.’
‘I thought you preferred men to be brusque and taciturn.’
Diane sighed. ‘Too taciturn.’
Kent patted the back of her hand.
‘We are trying to work things out,’ she said.
‘Men also get lonely,’ Kent said quietly. ‘We crave attention and affection as much as anyone else.’
Diane gave him a dark look. ‘Is that your excuse for dating Sue?’
‘It was weeks before I found out about Sean,’ Kent protested. ‘She never mentioned him.’ He looked down at his plate. ‘I hoped that she would choose me. Alas it seems my function was purely sexual.’
‘Most people, given a choice, opt for love over sex,’ Diane said.
Kent nodded. ‘I’m sure Kurt would agree.’
Politicians had children. They got married to appropriate partners and they had children who ranged from perfectly placid to insanely rebellious. Kent was used to the children of politicians being underfoot, or causing problems, or even throwing their weight around. He was not used to them being interested in him. Or at least being interested to a small and very specific degree.
Catherine was not his favourite person but he found he could get along with her well enough. He had a certain sympathy for her attempts to carve a role for herself. He would also admit that her desire to explore his life outside of work was somewhat flattering.
She was clinging on to him tightly as the motorcycle took a corner. The MC was meeting for a charity ride. They went about once a year but he wasn’t always able to commit to it.
After he parked the bike, Catherine scampered away to get some wide shots. Kent exchanged greetings with other riders.
‘Captain, you hear the FBI bitch got sent to Florida?’ The President asked.
‘Reassigned, I believe,’ Kent said.
‘Good,’ Bear said. ‘I hope she gets eaten by an alligator.’
The President laughed. ‘I think she wanted you, Captain.’
‘Who doesn’t, eh?’ Bear winked. ‘There’s your little chicky.’
‘Who?’ Kent asked.
‘The pool playing stripper. Chanise.’
‘What kind of name is that?’ The President asked.
‘Didn’t you tell her to cosy up to the captain?’ Bear asked.
‘That’s her,’ Kent said, pointing.
The President squinted. ‘Not me. If you don’t want her, Captain, then I’ll fuck her.’
‘Perhaps one of us had the wrong end of the stick,’ Kent said.
‘Sounds painful,’ Bear said.
Kent drew Chanise to one side. Near enough she had nothing to worry about, far enough that they couldn’t be overheard.
‘How are your son’s braces?’ he asked
‘How did you know –’
‘At the clubhouse, you used needing money as a motivator to get me to go upstairs,’ Kent said. ‘It was well judged.’
Chanise sighed. ‘I was just doing my job. I hope you being so high up means you have insane security clearance and I can trust you.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Vicky Steel went nuts searching law enforcement databases for intel on you. She even called in favours with other agencies. You were blocked on all of them.’
Kent folded his arms. ‘What did you do?’
‘I googled,’ Chanise said. ‘Why didn’t you have the investigation shutdown?’
Kent snorted. ‘Because that would’ve been a scandal in the making for little or no reason. The FBI don’t care about strippers being paid to have sex or the odd bit of cannabis use. There was nothing else to find.’
Chanise jerked her thumb back to the bikers. ‘You know your president has a string of convictions for public indecencies going back to the seventies?’
‘He kept getting caught in bathhouses,’ Kent said. ‘I did my homework.’
‘I won’t be back,’ Chanise said. ‘Not back here, anyway. But I might get moved to work with another MC and I know you guys interact.’
‘I won’t blow your cover,’ Kent said.
‘May I ask, when we went upstairs, what would you have done if I’d wanted sex?’
Chanise shrugged. ‘Reading people is my job. I didn’t know you were a Washington power player but I could see you were more interested in talking than screwing. I wanted you to talk and you did.’
She smiled. ‘Actually it was. You didn’t give any indication of guilt or even caution about discussing the club. I already figured we were backing the wrong dog. You made me sure.’
‘How is that a good thing?’ Kent asked.
‘Because it’s better to know quickly,’ Chanise said. ‘You’re a nice guy, Captain. You should be careful. There are enough dirty clubs to make the clean ones a target.’
‘I will if you will,’ he promised. ‘Are you going now?’
‘Yeah. Would you give them an excuse? Tell them I turned into a bunny boiler or something so you ran me out of the club.’
Kent chuckled. ‘That seems flattering to me and insulting to you.
‘Will you do it?’ she asked.
Chanise kissed his cheek. ‘See you around, Captain.’
Kent couldn’t sleep. He’d been running on adrenaline all day and now he couldn’t unwind enough to sleep. He glanced at the clock: 1am. Early enough that he could do something else for an hour or two and go back to bed.
He made himself a cup of warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg and sat in the living room. Television would probably be too stimulating. He put on the second movement of Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto, and sat back in his chair.
He needed to consider his options. It was going to be close. Selina might win. O’Brien might win. Tom might win. Montez might win. Little wonder he was struggling to sleep.
The uncertainty was the problem. He needed a plan. Everything seemed shifting and ephemeral. He needed security.
Someone knocked at his front door.
Kent glanced at the clock. It was far too late for casual callers.
It was far too early for a work disaster.
There was another knock.
Kent walked to the door. It was times like this he thought, for a moment, that Kurt might have a point about protection.
He checked the security display and then opened the door.
He’d never seen Sue like this. No, that wasn’t true. Once or twice he had, when they had been arguing. She was stalking up and down his kitchen like a caged animal. She was shivering, rubbing her hands down her arms. Kent gave her a sweater. She pulled it on without looking at it.
‘What did the reporter say?’ Kent asked.
‘She told Sean she had security footage from the conference a couple of years ago. Footage of me going into your room and not coming out until morning.’
Kent gave her a brandy. She downed it immediately.
‘There’s no way a journalist should have access to those,’ Kent said.
Sue held out her glass for another brandy. ‘Apparently it was delivered anonymously from Florida.’
‘Steel,’ Kent said. ‘That’s a significant security breach.’
‘You need to prove that. You need to make her suffer.’
Kent touched her hand. ‘What did Sean say?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ Sue said. ‘Can we go to bed?’
‘I’ll have to make up the bed in the guest room so –’
She kissed him. Her hand slid into his hair.
‘Take me to bed,’ she said firmly.
‘You’re upset,’ he said quietly.
‘Emotional,’ he offered as a compromise.
‘Aroused,’ she said.
Kent rested her forehead against hers. ‘Sue –’
‘Don’t say no.’
‘You’re only here because you want to hurt Sean.’
‘Haven’t you hurt him enough?’ Kent asked.
‘You know nothing about my marriage,’ she said.
Kent stepped back and put his hands on his hips. ‘I know that you’re not thinking clearly.’
‘You want me,’ Sue said.
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret in the morning.’
Sue stepped forward and kissed him gently.
‘You can sleep in my room,’ Kent said. ‘I’m going to go out but I’ll be back before breakfast.’
Sue raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re not going to do anything... reckless.’
‘No, I’m going to sleep somewhere else because if I remain here I will probably sleep with you. That would be reckless as well as wrong.’
Sue squeezed his hand.
* * *
It was in all the papers. Photos from the conference. Photos of Sue arriving at his house last night. Judging by the angle, someone had been in Mrs Dial’s garden.
‘I fucking told you not to start it up again,’ Ben growled.
Kent and Sue were sat in front of him like naughty school children.
‘We didn’t,’ Kent said.
‘There was no sex,’ Sue said.
‘Then why the fuck were you visiting him in the middle of the damn night?’ Ben demanded.
Sue clenched her jaw. ‘Someone sent the hotel footage to Sean. We had a disagreement. I was disturbed. I went to Kent for emotional support.’
‘Ben, I didn’t stay in the house,’ Kent said. ‘Sue slept there alone.’
Ben cracked his knuckles. ‘Can you prove that?’
‘Yes, I have a security camera.’
Ben sat down and leaned back. ‘Okay, that’s something. What about the hotel? You didn’t sneak out the fire escape did you?’
Sue crossed her legs. ‘I wasn’t married then.’
‘But you were with… uh… Sean?’
‘Yes,’ Sue said.
Ben rubbed his forehead. ‘So your defence is you weren’t committing adultery you were just cheating.’
‘It’s not a crime,’ Kent said quietly.
‘Neither is being a fucking moron but it’s still something we prefer West Wing staff avoid!’ Ben squeezed the bridge of his nose. ‘How did this hotel footage get out? The Washington Post was sniffing around you two but they wouldn’t give their exclusive away.’
‘Might Sean have sent it out?’ Kent asked Sue.
Her cheek twitched. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He told me that he would humiliate me,’ she said.
‘Nice husband you got there,’ Ben said. ‘I’d love to meet him.’
Sue’s hands tightened.
Kent covered his eyes with his hand. ‘Perhaps we should concentrate on damage limitation.’
‘Put together a statement for the press,’ Ben said. ‘Fuck, neither of you is exactly charismatic. Kent, you do it. Sue will be easier to sell as upset and desperate to make up with hubby if nobody actually sees her.’
‘I am upset,’ she said.
Ben raised his eyebrows. ‘Yeah, I can tell from your completely blank expression and emotionless voice.’ He stood up. ‘I’m gonna brief POTUS. You should both expect to get your asses kicked.’
As the door slammed behind him, Sue stood up.
‘Have you spoken to Sean this morning?’ Kent asked.
‘Why would I?’
Kent clasped his hands together. ‘I thought you wanted to reconcile with him.’
Sue straightened her back. ‘I’m aware I was wrong. I’m aware that I hurt him. I regret it. But I don’t deserve to be publicly pilloried. He knew that we have been over for months but he did this anyway.
‘People may not think rationally when they’re hurt,’ Kent said.
‘Why would you want Sean and I to reconcile?’ she asked.
‘I want you to be happy.’
Sue smiled slightly. ‘Does the martyr nonsense work?’
‘You tell me,’ he said. ‘It’s my first attempt.’
‘It’s fortunate that you left last night,’ she said.
‘But I wish that you hadn’t.’ She stood. ‘Mr Davison.’
Ben shut Kent’s door behind him. He looked uneasy.
Kent’s stomach clenched.
‘You working on that statement?’ Ben asked.
‘Yes, I’ve got the footage as well.’
‘You don’t need to bother,’ Ben said.
Kent narrowed his eyes. ‘Why?’
‘POTUS has decided it’s better that the White House not get involved in the private lives of staffers.’
Kent sat back. ‘So I should issue this under my own auspices.’
‘No.’ Ben shifted from foot to foot. ‘You know often it’s better to ignore these things and let them burn out.’
Kent stared at him. Ben couldn’t meet his eyes.
‘We are distracting attention away from her latest cock-up,’ Kent said.
‘And how!’ Ben sighed. ‘You know how this works.’
‘I know that throwing the two most competent employees under the bus is irrational,’ Kent said sharply.
Ben barked a laugh. ‘Reality check before you climb up on your cross. There’s a bunch of double standards here and they all benefit you: she’s married and you’re single, she’s a woman and you’re a man. She’s screwing an old rich guy and you’re cuckolding a guy half your age with his young, hot wife. Sue’s the one gonna be called an adulterous, gold-digging slut. You’re gonna be a legend among lecherous old white guys. Lecherous old white guys being the ones who rule D. C.’
‘This is probably going to end her marriage and possibly her career,’ Kent said.
Ben threw up his arms. ‘Do I look happy about it? But she’s a grown woman, Kent. She made her choices.’ He opened the office door. ‘You just have to tell her about the consequences.’
‘Regarding consequences,’ Kent said quietly.
‘If you ever speak of Sue in that way again, call her a gold digger, a slut, or anything else, I will punch you in the other eye,’ Kent said.
Ben nodded. ‘I believe you.’
Kent sat back as Ben left. His hands had clenched into fists. He didn’t even remember doing that.
His cell began to ring. An unknown number.
‘Hi Captain,’ a familiar voice said. ‘It’s Chanise. We should talk.’
Kent wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. It was too late in the year to be outside in his shirtsleeves, but he knew if he stayed inside he would end up shouting at someone or trashing a piece of equipment. Now was not the time to lose his temper. Now was not the time to alienate potential allies.
He was hidden in a corner of the gardens. It was quiet here and he couldn’t be seen accidentally, someone would have to come looking for him.
Leaves rustled as a branch was pushed aside. Tom James walked into the formerly safe little space.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Right where Miss Wilson said you would be.’
‘I had no idea she knew about this spot,’ Kent said. ‘Let alone the circumstances under which I would come here.’
‘She said you come here when you need to think. She’s a master of understatement. An interesting woman. Terrifying, but intriguing.’
‘Terrifying is an underrated charm.’
Tom smiled. ‘A little birdy tells me that last night, when you were supposedly getting intimate with Sue, you were actually here.’
‘Why hasn’t that been released to the press?’ Tom asked.
‘Because the President is a cunt.’
Tom whistled. ‘Well. I’ve often wondered if there was a real Kent underneath the two-faced staffer smiling stiffly and spinning Selina’s disasters, and there he is. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
Kent sipped his coffee ‘What do you want?’
‘You,’ Tom said. ‘Not in a… sexual way, although I’m sure you and I together would be scorching hot. No, I want you on my team if I become president.’
Kent straightened up. ‘I assume there is a quid pro quo element to this offer?’
Tom nodded. ‘I take it from your colourful but evocative description of Selina that you haven’t set the record straight because she’s using your situation as a smokescreen?’
‘Astute as always,’ Kent said sourly.
‘I need Selina’s feet back over the fire,’ Tom said. ‘You and Sue being humiliated in the press is no good to me. The President being asked if she conspired to humiliate two staffers in order to avoid bad press, that’s something I can work with.’
Kent shook his head. ‘I have security footage that proves I didn’t return to the house until morning. However, there’s no way I can disseminate it without POTUS knowing it was me.’
‘The logs here and security footage will prove the same thing,’ Tom said. ‘They couldn’t be traced back to you.’
‘I have yet to inform Sue of POTUS’s strategy. I find myself in no hurry to do so.’
Tom offered his hand. ‘It’s all being taken care of. Tell her that.’
‘Explain what that means,’ Sue said sharply. ‘I thought you were issuing a statement?’
Kent sighed. ‘POTUS wants this to remain in news rotation. So no statement. No explanation. Just you and I thrown to the wolves.’ He held up his hands. ‘But that is not going to happen. I am taking care of it.’
‘I need this gone,’ Sue said. Her voice was tight. ‘People in my church are whispering and pointing.’
‘I wasn’t aware that you were religious.’
‘I’m not,’ she said. ‘Church is a social endeavour. One which is being destroyed by this.’
Kent took her hand. ‘I need you to trust me.’
Sue let out a breath. ‘I do.’
‘How do things stand with Sean?’
Her lips tightened. ‘He intends to divorce me.’
Kent winced. ‘Will he reconsider when he knows the truth about last night?’
‘No,’ Sue said flatly. ‘I told him everything. He says he would never have married me if he knew I cheated before the wedding.’
‘Sue…I’m… I’m sorry.’
Sue shook her head. ‘I married a man I didn’t love because I was afraid of being hurt.’ She pulled her hand free. ‘Perhaps I deserve this.’
‘Nobody deserves to be cynically used as a smokescreen because POTUS has pissed off the Russians.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘You only care because it’s us. Neither of us would be this angry on someone else’s behalf.’
‘So we’re hypocrites,’ Kent said. ‘We work in Washington.’
Sean had taken the day off work. That irritated Kent as much as anything. He had chosen to spread the footage, to pour gasoline on the fire, and then he hid at home while Sue and Kent were thrust into the public eye.
Kent knocked at the door. He didn’t much relish the idea of being punched in the eye, but he appreciated it was perhaps necessary. Deserved, even.
Apologising was bitter medicine. If you actually enjoyed it then something was significantly wrong.
Sean was younger than he expected. In the moment before he recognised Kent, he had quite a pleasant face.
‘What the fuck do you want?’ he demanded.
‘To talk. May I come in?’
‘Sent you to grovel has she?’ Sean asked.
‘You know Sue would never do that.’
Sean stepped back. ‘I guess I could always shoot you. Tell everyone you attacked me.’
‘There are much easier ways for you get life in prison.’ Kent follow him inside. ‘Nobody who knows me would believe I attacked you and if you have a gun then you have it illegally. I’ve checked.’
‘What the fuck do you want?’ Sean asked.
‘This security footage shows that, while Sue did spend the night at my home, I didn’t. I went to the White House. I was there until the morning.’
Sean sat down. ‘What about all those times the reporter was talking about? You were screwing Sue then.’
Kent unbuttoned his jacket as he sat down. ‘I wasn’t initially aware that she had a boyfriend. I can only assume that Sue was unhappy in some way, perhaps made anxious by the speed or seriousness of your relationship.’
‘She told me she married me because I was safe,’ Sean said.
‘She chose you,’ Kent said.
‘She chose safe,’ Sean said. ‘I was in love.’
Kent held up his hands. ‘Is it true that you wouldn’t have married her if you had known about me?’
Sean was quiet for a long moment. ‘Yes.’
‘Then this may have a simple and relatively painless solution.’
Sean folded his arms. ‘Fuck that.’
Kent sighed. ‘You’re the wronged party in this. Victimising Sue, however, would be unwise.’
‘Oh, you think?’
‘Why should I care?’ Sean asked.
‘Because you assaulted Ben Cafferty,’ Kent said calmly.
‘I thought he was screwing my wife!’
Kent shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. You committed a premeditated assault on a man with no opportunity to defend himself. Sean, you’re already on your second strike.’
Sean took a step back. ‘I never told Sue that,’ he said quietly.
‘A friend of mine in the FBI read the news and did a little digging,’ Kent said.
‘Don’t…Don’t tell Sue,’ Sean said. ‘Please.’
Kent took a card from his wallet and held it out. ‘This is my lawyer. Ask her about an annulment. She’s expecting your call. This way will be quick and quiet.’
Sean looked at the card. ‘I can’t afford some fancy lawyer.’
‘Under the circumstances, covering your legal fees is the least I can do,’ Kent said.
‘I love her,’ Sean said.
Kent tensed. You want Sue to reconcile?’
Sean looked up. ‘I… No. I can’t... no.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Kent said. ‘If that is worth anything.’
‘Not a fucking thing.’ Sean took out his cell. ‘I hope your lawyer is expensive.’
* * *
As Kent approached his office, Ben grabbed his upper arm and dragged him inside.
‘Are you out of fucking mind?’ Ben demanded. ‘Couldn’t you be subtle when you’re screwing us over to save your own fucking skin?’
Kent yanked his arm free. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You released the security logs and security footage!’
‘I did not,’ Kent said firmly.
Ben hesitated. ‘You’re not that good a liar. Where have you been?’
‘Persuading Sue’s husband not to drag her through the divorce courts.’
‘You got them back together?’ Ben asked incredulously.
‘Certainly not,’ Kent retorted. ‘But a speedy annulment is better than a protracted divorce.’
‘Oh.’ Ben scratched his scalp. ‘POTUS is going fucking ape about the leak. Now the press is saying she threw you both under the bus.’
‘She did,’ Kent pointed out.
‘That makes it worse, not better!’ Ben shook his head. ‘I’ll go tell POTUS you didn’t have the guts to leak. Hey was it Sue?’
Ben cocked his head. ‘You know who it was?’
Kent shrugged. ‘Someone with access to the West Wing logs and a desire to embarrass POTUS.’
Ben frowned. ‘So Tom James.’
‘That would seem likely.’
It had been a long day. Kent stretched as he waited for his mint tea to brew. A long day of frantically attempting to return disaster to a status quo that was neither fulfilling nor engaging. Sue was going to be single once again. POTUS hated and mistrusted him once again. He had been forcibly reminded that he was expendable, once again. He had allowed himself to imagine that things might be different. That things might be better.
Instead he thrashed desperately in the water and only managed to prolong the time it took him to drown. Nobody was going to throw him a rope. He was alone.
Someone knocked at the door.
Kent looked at the clock. It was late. He was tired. He didn’t have the energy for dealing with reporters. He didn’t have the strength for a confrontation with Sean.
Someone knocked at the door again.
Kent sighed. He walked to the door. Checked the security camera. Then he took a moment to neaten his hair and straighten his clothes.
He opened the door.
Sue was stood on his doorstep. She was shivering despite the warm air.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Hello,’ he said.
‘I brought macaroons,’ she said, softly.
Kent smiled. ‘Then you better come in.’