The Accomplice

A Novel

Charles Robbins

Thomas Dunne Books

1
 
THE DANCE
 
 
Henry Hatten shifted on the anteroom sofa, the dog-eared sheaf of printouts in his lap beginning to blur, a picture of Senator Tom Peele coalescing in his head from excited blue underlines, arrows, and phrases. The warm leather grudgingly released and then reclaimed his suit pants, and Henry was about to begin another pass through the folder when a mass flashed toward him. He looked up to see Mike Sterba take two final bounds. Before Henry could shield his papers, Sterba lifted him off the couch.
The chief of staff nearly crushed him in a bear hug, then dragged him past a receptionist who shot a distracted glance. Sterba pulled him down the corridor into an office that looked like a combination tea parlor and trophy room. Dodging the doorframe, Henry brushed an accent table, rattling framed photos of a younger Sterba in a West Point football jersey, in camouflage fatigues, and on the ski slopes with a blonde. He settled against a barrister bookcase, beneath a bill with the President’s signature.
Sterba was sizing him up again, wondering whether this had been a good idea, after all. Henry could tell. He’d seen that look before, of hope, forced kindness, anxiety. He first saw it fifteen years earlier on James, a dean’s list student who had volunteered, maybe been assigned, as his escort when Henry applied to Trinity. Henry had been so proud that day, arriving at the Manhattan prep school in the new outfit his father had bought him, a slate-blue windbreaker with fabric so crisp it swished when he walked, a white dress shirt, brown EZ-Waist poly-blend trousers, and white Pro Keds low-tops. He had gotten a haircut the day before on Steinway Street, a short pompadour. James had swallowed at meeting him, then tried to cover it with schoolyard gusto. Other kids came up to them, James was popular and Henry was a curiosity, and James introduced him repeatedly as a “prospective.” The others took the cue, became oh-so-polite ambassadors for Trinity and the next generation of übermensches. A girl in a cable-knit sweater pointed at him and grinned, then cupped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide, when she realized he had seen her. Still, somehow, Trinity had taken him.
And now he was a prospective again, this time a refugee from the House of Representatives and a busted campaign trying to crack the big time, maybe with the stench of small-time sorrow and failure soaked into his best gray suit.
Sterba, posted by the door, watched the corridor. “Boss is about to file paperwork at the FEC to form an Exploratory,” the chief of staff said. “You do the interview walking to the garage. You get, maybe, two minutes with him.”
Henry nodded. His temples throbbed and the pulse at the hinge in his jaw pounded, the way they had half a lifetime earlier as a Trinity wrestler, when his name blared across a gym and he snapped on his headgear and trotted onto the mat. “Talk about getting in on the ground floor,” he said, just to say something. He had been ready to gamble that Tom Peele would run for President. The Nebraska senator was the only moderate Republican positioned for a serious bid. Hell, Peele was about the only moderate Republican. But he hadn’t expected action so soon; the first voting, the Iowa caucuses, were fifteen months away. Forming a presidential exploratory committee would give Peele license to raise money and hire staff.
Sterba leaned in, inches from Henry’s face, the azure eyes studying him, searing him. Sterba had a stake in this now, too. The chief of staff had interviewed Henry a few days earlier, and apparently recommended him. If Peele nixed Henry, or he got the job and flamed out, Sterba would catch the heat. “If he takes you on the ride to the FEC, that’s the second interview,” Sterba said. “He invites you into the FEC, you own the job.”
Henry nodded again. So two minutes would spell his destiny; whether he got profiled in “up-and-comer” Washington Post and Politico columns and helped shape history, or crawled back to his father for a bridge loan.
A Bronze Star medal glinted at Henry from a triple-matted frame. Sterba’s ego wall, even the photos with Peele, revolved around the chief of staff, a howl of “I am!” in a world where aides’ identities subsumed into the boss’s. Nothing here or, for that matter, in the anteroom to suggest Peele’s earlier on-screen persona as keeper of America’s Marlboro Man idealism. Not a magazine cover or even a photo from the TV show Parkland.
“Game on,” Sterba called.
Henry felt a hand clamp between his shoulder blades and shove him into the corridor. To his right, a column was closing on him. The Senator was in the lead, head forward. For an instant, Henry froze. Peele, in person, exuded an aura that the photos didn’t capture. Henry’s eyes caught first on the chin, broad with a deep cleft, vintage Hollywood. Then the hair, thick and graying progressively down the sides, the top still mostly dark; just the way Henry had hoped his own locks would one day gray, before they began thinning. Under a forehead that looked plains-etched, Peele’s intense blue eyes scanned the corridor above a chiseled nose and dimpled cheeks. Tom Peele looked like a senator, with a mien that said “Trust me, I’ll save you.”
Squinting to erase the gray and the lines, Henry pictured a younger Peele, as TV’s Ranger Roy, flashing an aw-shucks grin as he fought forest fires, rescued tourists and bears, and made a generation of teenage girls swoon.
Then, for a moment as Peele advanced, Henry met the blue eyes. Despite himself, he wilted. He’d met plenty of senators, sometimes over big stakes, and some of them pulsated with power, while he didn’t notice others until he was introduced. It’s something inside that a senator either has or doesn’t. Size can augment the effect, but can’t create it. With Tom Peele, it seemed to flow from the eyes. Peele wasn’t that big, a shade under six feet and maybe 190 pounds, but he seemed massive stalking the corridor, even with a giant behind him.
The bald giant’s double-breasted suit, a lustrous charcoal with beige chalk stripes, looked like it cost Henry’s House press secretary salary. As the man swaggered, a gold cuff link glinted. Henry glanced down at his steel-gray Jos. A. Bank two-button, which used to make him feel cool, with its pinstripes that met at sharp angles where the lapel sections joined. His tie was creased, a gash across the meat of the silk.
Henry fell in behind Sterba and the bald man, Sterba’s lineman’s shoulders shifting in cadence before Henry’s nose. Did Peele schedule meetings when he planned to dash, posse in tow? Maybe stagecraft picked up in Hollywood.
They cleared the anteroom and passed into a corridor, a herd of cap-toes and pumps slapping marble. Sterba trotted up on point and made the introductions.
Up close, Henry noticed that Peele hadn’t shaved the back of his neck, leaving stubble that extended from hairline to collar. The guy wasn’t perfect.
“I’ve been a fan, Senator, since your speech about the fringe turning the Republican Party into a regional right-wing cult,” Henry said, sliding between Peele and the bald man. He focused on forming the words flat, not slipping into a Queens accent.
Peele nodded. “I’m looking for true believers.” The Senator eyed the bald man. “Too many mercenaries in this town.”
The giant scowled. Cass, the man’s name was, Sterba had said. Henry had seen the name before, maybe in a news story.
“Senator,” Henry began, but Cass stepped between them and whispered to Peele.
At the elevators, Henry studied the metalwork, the way the brass molding blended into the marble frame. He had a month to land another Capitol Hill gig, before the sergeant at arms locked Tyler’s House office and seized the staff’s I.D. cards. After that, he’d be just another outsider trying to claw in. For now, fellow Hill rats were helping, like Tyler’s health-care aide, who had tipped him about Peele’s job opening. They all knew that the guy down today might be up tomorrow. They all knew the stories, like Kansas congressman Dan Glickman, unseated and shunned, and then Clinton named him secretary of agriculture, and all those guys who hadn’t taken Glickman’s calls were begging him to take theirs. Henry had fantasized about landing a top spot on a top-tier presidential campaign, once nearly missing his Metro stop. And now it might actually happen.
The brass doors parted and Peele’s crew marched in, Henry last. The descent and a short march took them to the Russell Building garage, where a silver Lincoln was waiting, a grim young aide at the wheel. A Buick SUV idled behind the Lincoln.
Sterba jumped in the Lincoln’s shotgun seat. The rear door opened, and Peele stepped toward it. The word “Senator” formed on Henry’s tongue, but no breath came to expel it. He tried to make contact with the blue eyes, but Peele was angling into the cabin.
“Take a ride, Henry,” a high, nasal voice said. He spun toward the sound and found Cass. The voice seemed too small and tinny for the big frame.
Henry squeezed between Cass and Peele in the backseat, his feet on the driveshaft, shins pressed together. Cass scowled. The glare suggested deep secrets, that Cass knew how the game was played, and could invite you in or throw you under. Cass’s talc and aftershave scent both singed and soothed his nostrils.
As the Lincoln flew up a ramp into daylight, Peele propped on a pair of reading glasses and plucked Henry’s résumé from a leather briefcase. Up close, Peele had pretty good skin, but a few tiny purple blood vessels scored a cheek, like lines on a map. Henry realized he was playing a game with Peele that he usually worked on the subway with dauntingly beautiful women, finding flaws to make them more approachable. Still, purple capillaries and all, the former “Heartland Heartthrob” radiated an anguished decency that made you want him to like you.
“You got the best possible recommendation,” Peele said, reading a yellow sheet. “From the opposition.”
He felt himself glow. It must have been the Iowa governor’s campaign manager, with whom he had sparred on camera after a debate, and who told him, “You spin well.” Or maybe the media guru whose ads he had debunked.
“Thank you, Senator.”
Peele sifted papers. Henry squeezed his thumb in a fist.
“Dartmouth, English major,” Peele said, reading. “Founded and ran the Student Pizza Delivery Agency. You worked your way through?”
“Partially,” Henry said. Almost completely, actually. His father’s warehouseman’s pay barely covered his used textbooks.
“Trinity School before that, in New York City,” Peele said, swaying as the Lincoln bounced over a pothole. “Guy who runs Morgan Stanley, his kid goes to Trinity. You were on scholarship?”
Henry felt his face heat. “Yeah.”
Peele nodded again. “Five years on the Hill as a press secretary. First for Morris from Alabama, then Tyler from Iowa. Then handled press for Tyler’s run for governor. We’re going to need people who know Iowa.”
Henry forced a quick smile. God, whatever else, don’t ship me back to Iowa. When he began with Tyler, a veteran reporter told him, “If you ever find out you have six months to live, spend it in Iowa; it’ll feel like ten years.”
“Hey, I’m just a kid from Mead, Nebraska,” Peele said, maybe reading Henry. “Had dirt under my fingernails till I was eighteen.” The Senator swept an arm at Constitution Avenue. “This town’s just a giant theme park of federal government. Most weeks when we adjourn, I can’t wait to get back to the real world.”
Peele was spouting the Washington blather that you’d rather be back with your constituents, the real people, at hog roasts and pancake breakfasts, than stuck in this Sodom suffering through the National Symphony and four-star dinners with CEOs. Henry felt himself smile. Peele’s bottom lip curled, saying the Senator saw that Henry knew the dance. But Peele had also seen through his Knickerbocker society guise.
Henry had to keep the conversation going. What to say? “Yeah, I guess ‘true believer’ says it. Congressman Tyler called for enlightened, progressive Republicans to rise and stifle the shrill cries of the extremist right that hijacked the party. Well, this isn’t the time to be modest; I wrote that.”
Peele nodded again, only slightly this time. Cass rolled deep brown eyes.
“What went wrong with Doug?” Peele asked.
“Nothing,” Henry said. “We nearly took out a three-term governor in a Republican primary.”
Peele seemed to be waiting for him to say more. To say what? An image of Tyler’s primary-night party at the Des Moines Holiday Inn filled his head, the melting ice sculpture after Tyler’s concession speech, the thinning crowd hitting the ballroom bar.
“We knew it was uphill from the start,” Henry said, “basically asking Iowans to fire a guy who hadn’t done anything wrong just because we said we could do better. That’s a tough trick without a scandal.”
“Without a scandal?” Cass’s nasal voice bounced around the cabin. “The Governor’s son was selling dope in a Laundromat in Denison. You needed someone to draw you a picture?”
Henry’s face fizzed, sending white rays up through his eyes. How could they know about that? He had agonized for two days, recalling decent neighborhood kids who shoplifted or worse as rites of passage on Astoria’s streets. By the time he called the Denison police for the incident report, nobody there seemed to know the Governor even had a son.
He never told Tyler, who also surely would have sat on the dirt; you don’t ruin a sixteen-year-old’s life to win an election. Two weeks later, he told Fran. She scoffed. No absolution, no sympathy. Later that night, when he invited himself to her hotel room, she told him, in her opposition researcher snarl, she didn’t feel like it. That was the last time he had seen or spoken to her.
But Fran wouldn’t have said anything, wouldn’t have betrayed him. Would she? No, it must have been Tyler’s Crawford County chairman, who had given Henry the tip. Peele was exploring Iowa for a presidential run; the Senator’s people had probably run into the Crawford guy, an electrical contractor also plugged in politically.
Henry looked at Cass. “We couldn’t get anything solid on that.”
Cass raised an eyebrow. Sterba swallowed, maybe worried about Peele chewing him out for wasting his time.
Sterba looked like a solid 240 or 250 pounds. If Henry had to take him out, right now, he thought, the move was an eye gouge. Henry had conjured these scenes since Trinity, to ease tension when he felt bullied or stressed. The fantasies grew more complex when he began aikido training. Yeah, he’d spread his fingers, bend the joints slightly, then jab his hand like a fork at Sterba’s eyes. That way, one or two fingers would hit an eyeball, and the others would bend back safely against bone. From there, once Sterba was blinded, he’d clench Sterba’s hair with one hand and ram the base of his other palm into Sterba’s nose, repeatedly.
He felt his breathing deepen, and his eyes narrow. He sat straight. The look had flashed for only a second. Nobody could have seen it. He scanned the faces. Cass was staring at him.
The Lincoln whipped past 6th Street. The FEC was at 10th and E, as Henry recalled.
“Senator, I assume your staff flagged CNN and C-SPAN about your filing papers,” Henry said. He could still feel Cass’s stare.
Peele turned to him, the blue eyes narrower. Peele’s breath cut through Cass’s talc musk, slightly sour and hot.
“Well, you probably want some cameras outside the FEC,” Henry said, “to at least catch you going in or coming out.”
“Mike,” Peele called, and waved a finger. Sterba reached for a cell phone.
Maybe Henry really could play at this level. “Senator, we did move the poll numbers in a big way on the issues. Mr. Tyler’s bill to tie the minimum wage to inflation jibes with your plan. The unions and small businesses both hate fighting every few years about raising the rate. But the key to doing the whole enchilada, after you get a workable formula, is selling it to the American people as the least bad option.”
Peele clasped his hands, as though in prayer. “Well, Henry, we’ll need more than snappy slogans to index the minimum wage.” Henry knew Peele had been leading the talks, trying to rally centrists in both parties, in both chambers. He had marked a USA Today story in which Peele quipped, “Once a week, our outcasts meet with their outcasts.”
“Henry,” Cass said, “even Ivory Soap is only ninety-nine and a half percent pure. You know what’s in the other half percent? The unholy, keep-it-off-the-label shit you don’t want to talk about. The stuff that gets the job done. The dope-selling in Denison.”
The Lincoln bolted off a stoplight at 8th Street, pressing Henry into the leather. Peele was giving him a soulful look, like his wrestling coach’s gaze after he got pinned. It was over. In a moment, they would reach the FEC, and Peele would thank him for coming by. He’d ride back to Capitol Hill in the Buick staff car. And he’d have to tell his father, after boasting about the interview, that it was another bust.
“Senator,” he said, “if you’re looking for a cowboy, I’m not your guy.” He tapped his folder of notes. “I nail stuff solid, and then when I do shoot, I blow the target out of the water. It’s not squeamishness. It’s strategy.”
In the corner of his eye, he saw Cass shift toward him. Henry kept his gaze on Peele. He couldn’t invite any distractions. He felt his breathing quicken again. “And like you, Senator, I’m ambitious—nothing wrong with that. When you were at Columbia, I’m told, you brought women back to your room, and when you were going at it, you told them, ‘Call me governor.’” He shrugged. “Twenty years later, the whole state of Nebraska was calling you governor.”
Peele blanched, as though he had been punched. In the shotgun seat, Sterba’s big head slumped. A hot, throbbing silence pressed Henry’s eardrums. He swallowed.
Cass glared at him, then grinned.
The car pulled to the curb and Peele slid out. On the sidewalk, aides swarmed the Senator. Henry climbed out, his legs heavy, and studied his Florsheim cap-toes. Glass shards in the pavement shot rays at him as they caught the sun.
Peele stepped toward the FEC doors, then paused as Cass took his elbow. Cass leaned down to the Senator’s ear. Henry could hear the giant whispering, but couldn’t make out the words. Cass stepped back and crossed his arms.
Peele’s tongue extended, as though in thought. The Senator turned toward Henry, the eyes wider. “You coming?” Peele angled toward the FEC.
Henry, in the corner of his eye, saw Sterba looking as stunned as he felt.
“We can use you here in D.C., maybe in Iowa,” Peele said. A smile spread on the Senator’s lips, for the first time.
*   *   *
Back at Tyler’s House office, across the Capitol from the Senate buildings, autumn dusk cast sliding shadows across the barren rooms. Henry did a double take in a mirror by the receptionist’s desk. His face looked older than its thirty-one years, blood vessels scarring his eyeballs, the lids purple and puffy. At least the dark pillows had shrunk, so heavy during the primary he could shift them by squeezing his eyes shut. The receding corners of his thick brown hair were leaving him with a more pronounced widow’s peak, as though he’d been shaved for a lobotomy. A few silver strands glinted above one ear.
A few feet away, a young legislative correspondent moped amid stacked cartons and dark rectangles on a wall where festive and triumphant photos had hung. Doug Tyler would soon become a face on archived class pictures and a name in Congressional Record minutes. The kid glanced at Henry. Envy, maybe. Word of job interviews spread in Tyler’s shop like adoption tryouts in an orphanage. And he had landed Daddy Warbucks.
Peering into the private office, Henry watched Tyler trudge from the desk to the window. Doug had increased his shrink sessions to twice a week, still bewailing the voters’ rejection and dreading life without the first name “Congressman.” The moping was new.
Henry had also thought Tyler would pull it out, until the final counts came in. Until one A.M. on election eve, he had scrubbed and polished a victory speech, as much for himself as for Tyler. He needed to spew, while it was fresh and raw. To shout why he had left his friends, freedom, and Upper Northwest D.C. condo for eighteen-hour workdays and a Des Moines dive. He had modeled his style on Tyler, eaten Christmas dinner with Doug’s family, imprinted on the Brahmin. He had poured out, his own voice mixing with Tyler’s, why pragmatism had to conquer self-righteous, know-nothing intolerance. Who were those cavemen to call Henry a squish and a RINO, Republican in Name Only?
When they lost the primary, Henry’s father told him to get a real job, get married, and get on with life. But the presidential cycle was heating up, and Henry had already paid his dues. Now he could peddle statewide Iowa campaign experience. Maybe he could advance his ideals on the national stage—do good and do well.
He knocked on Tyler’s doorframe. Beckoned in, he approached the pedestal desk with none of the augur he had felt an hour earlier across the Capitol. Tyler was wearing a jaunty check sport coat and khakis with a rep tie, but the cheeks were sunken, gray bags. The almost-governor must have shed ten pounds since the election.
“It’s a gamble, Doug. Peele offered his top press job to the Republican National Committee communications director. That was three weeks ago. The guy has a newborn and an offer from the insurance association for a senior VP gig that pays four hundred K. And I hear his wife’s going to leave him if he signs on with a campaign. So I take the number-two job, run things, the RNC guy passes, and pretty soon I’m the man.”
Tyler shook his head. “At this stage of your career, you shouldn’t be taking hind tit.”
He looked away. He hadn’t really wanted Tyler’s advice, he realized; he had just wanted to crow. He should have anticipated Tyler’s response. He had run Tyler’s statewide press shop, and now he was going to staff another statewide official. Never mind that his new boss was running for president. “I’ll be in charge. It’ll just be a while before it becomes official.”
“Okay, then. At this stage of your career, you shouldn’t be taking middle tit.”
Henry felt an artery throb against his collar. “It’s all front tit, Doug.”
He scanned the bare office. So this was how it would end. He and Tyler had begun in this room three years earlier. The office had seemed so much larger then, bursting with hope and promise. At the time, Henry was flacking for Morris, who had just lost a reelection bid. Henry had landed in D.C. figuring he could hawk any member, like a lawyer defending any client. After a few months, he had trouble spewing the Mobile congressman’s John Birch agitprop. In one interview, he could sputter only a string of one-word responses, prompting a reporter to ask whether she had offended him. He had vowed never to work for another right-winger. Tyler had rescued him.
When Henry mentioned Cass, Tyler nearly lunged across the desk. “Wait a second. The Angel of Light?”
“The Angel of Light?” Henry repeated and laughed.
“Yeah, press boy. Gil Cass. One of his fans dubbed him the Angel of Light, and the name stuck. Or just ‘the Angel,’ for short.” Tyler sighed. “Not too up on your Bible, eh? The Angel of Light was one of Satan’s disguises. Cass chaired some big campaigns, but got radioactive after some dirty tricks went south.”
He nodded, picturing the bald giant.
“Cass makes most of his money lobbying. You heard of Joachim Azullo, the Central American rebel leader? Kind of a modern-day Zapata. Killed about fifty thousand people?”
Henry shrugged; another name from old newspapers.
Tyler sighed again, louder. “He was one of Cass’s clients. Cass has kind of specialized in dictators and corporate sleazes. Word gets around in that crowd, who’s willing to handle them, and the Angel became one of their go-to guys. For big coin.” Tyler eased back behind the desk. “Listen, Henry, you’re going places. But Peele, and Cass, may not be the place you want to go.”
Henry dug a finger under his collar and tugged to loosen it. He knew the words were wrong before they left his mouth. “Doug, are there any sour grapes here?”
Tyler shoved back from the desk and raised both hands. “Go with God.”


 
Copyright © 2012 by Charles Robbins