Episode 18 – Introducing Matt

Another time zone away, practice was running late. Matt Jerguessen waited in the stands while his coach raised hell with his teammates, his raspy bass voice booming through the rafters. It was only a matter of time before Coach Winslow came and raised hell with him. Matt wasn’t sure it mattered.

Just-turned sixteen years old, he was supposed to be the sophomore miracle for his prep school team in Minnesota. Matt was supposed to be a lot of things, but at the moment, he didn’t care to be anything. He just wanted to be left alone.

Coach Winslow finished his harangue and the team went back to their drills, accompanied by squeaking shoes, thudding balls and murmured complaints. Winslow shook his head and started up the bleachers. He had years of experience working with privileged youth. Matt seemed to be a pretty typical angry young man and yet not. The kid hadn’t filled out yet and still had that lanky but awkward look about him. He’d look a lot like his famous uncle in a few years, especially with those deep green eyes. Girls seemed to melt around Matt, but he was barely aware of it. Or if he was, he was curiously disinterested. Winslow wondered briefly if Matt was gay, but that didn’t feel right, either.

Matt?” he asked gently as he approached the boy.

Yes, sir.”

What’s going on?”

Matt stared straight ahead. “Sir?”

Cut the crap, Jerguessen. You’re laying down on me. We both know you can do better. What’s going on?”

Matt shrugged.

Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to be here?”

Give me one good reason why I should.”

You owe it to your team?”

Matt didn’t reply.

Winslow sighed. “If you don’t want to be here-“

Coach, I gotta be here. Okay? I’ll try harder.”

Who’s telling you you have to be here?”

Nobody,” Matt murmured.

Coach nodded. “Unless it’s understood that your folks want you to be on the team.”

Matt stayed silent. Of course, his folks wanted him on the team. It’s all his dad talked about. Not that his dad ever showed for games or anything.

You know, I could drop you,” Winslow said.

You could?” Matt’s eyes glinted with a spark of interest.

But I can’t imagine that’d make anything easier for you at home.”

They don’t care about me at home,” grumbled Matt. “As long as I don’t do anything public.”

Which getting kicked off the basketball team would be.”

Matt sighed. “Probably.”

Look, Matt. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen a case like yours. Folks want you to make a good name, but don’t seem to care about you.”

Matt shrugged.

But one thing I’ve noticed about you is you really like playing. When you’re not in one of your moods.”

Matt shrugged again.

I need you, Matt. You’ve got skills and when you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, you’re a damn good player. Can’t that be enough for you?”

Dunno.”

Isn’t there anybody you can talk to?”

Used to be able to talk to my uncle.”

So why can’t you now?”

Uh, hello? President of the United States? I don’t think he’s got time for me.”

Have you tried?”

His old e-mail’s down. The one he had in the Senate. Mom won’t let me have the new one. Assuming she even knows it. And she changed our Internet provider, so my old e-mail’s dead. And it’s not like you can just call up the White House and ask to talk to the president. I tried. They didn’t believe me.”

What about your dad?”

Are you kidding? He hates my uncle. And he doesn’t talk to me, anyway.”

Look, Matt, there’s gotta be some way you can get through. You’ve just gotta put your mind to it. You’ve got your grandfather and great-grandmother. I see them here all the time. And don’t you have an aunt?”

Yeah.”

So keep trying. I know if you put your mind to it, you can find a way through. In the meantime, I need you to get on your game. You’re a good player and a good kid. So what if some parts of your life suck? Make the best of what you’ve got going for you and it won’t matter that your parents don’t seem to care about you.”

I s’pose.”

All right. Now get down there and give me twenty laps.”

Yessir.”

Matt, still feeling sullen and out of sorts, made his way down the bleachers to the gym floor to begin his laps. His teammates hooted derisively and he flipped them the bird. Aunt June was sympathetic, but didn’t really have any answers for him and he didn’t have her e-mail address, anyway. His grandfather and great-grandma were nice enough, too, but barely knew what e-mail was, let alone Uncle Mark’s address. Uncle Mark was the only people on the planet who really seemed to understand him and his mother had made damned sure he was out of reach.

Coach was right. There were other ways than e-mail and telephone to reach Uncle Mark. It would take some planning and saving. Matt debated just using the credit card his mother had given him, but knew if he spent too much at once, his mother would get called and that would blow everything. It would take a little research and the right timing. In the meantime, he could just play basketball.

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a question for you.

Ladycarla: What up?

Swheatly531: Just noticed you got a really nice pool table and bar in your basement, mind if I add on?

Ladycarla: What do you have in mind?

Swheatly531: Just a big-screen TV and a couple couches. There’s room. I measured.

Ladycarla: Sure, but why?

Swheatly531: Believe it or not, it’s officially top-secret, but it has something to do with that hidden entrance down there.

Ladycarla: Niecy said you still had the hots for him.

Swheatly531: Won’t do me much good with the rest of the Advisory Panel hanging around, which is the point. Gotta fly.

Episode 17 – A Cocktail Party

If Sharon didn’t pay much attention to the looks as she entered the reception at the State Department, it was only because she was so used to people looking at her. Yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling there was something else behind them, at least from the women, beyond the usual jealous glances. It didn’t matter. She had other things to think about and stayed focused on greeting Monsieur Sartimes and chatting with him and the French ambassador for a bit.

After the president had joined them, Sharon moved away and all but ran into June. Which is when Sharon realized that her odd feeling about the other women looking at her wasn’t just an odd feeling. June’s dress may have been pink, but it was exactly the same as Sharon’s otherwise, right down to the gold arrowheads shot through the sheer pink fabric.

June, for her part, started laughing.

“Oh, Sharon, please forgive me,” June hissed, trying to stifle her giggles.

“I’ve got your dress on!” Sharon gasped.

“Yes. But it’s my fault.”

“Huh?”

But at that second, one of the butlers whispered something in June’s ear.

June groaned. “Gotta deal with this now. We’ll talk later. It’s not your fault.”

June scurried off as Sharon stood, trying to digest what had just happened, let alone figure out why June would feel guilty about the mix-up.

Daniel Friedman wandered up at that point.

“It seems to be going well,” he observed blandly.

“Uh. Yeah.” Sharon swallowed. “Anyone talking about the food?”

“Mostly about how good it is. Looks like we dodged that bullet.”

“Good.” Sharon’s voice came out a lot more tense than she’d planned.

“You okay?” Friedman asked

“Fine. Great.”

The president wandered up. “Looks like everything’s going really well, Daniel.”

“Sure seems to be,” Friedman replied. “Um. Did you hear about the menu changes?”

“No. Should I have?” Mark grabbed an hors d’oeuvre off a passing tray and popped it in his mouth.

“No, sir,” said Sharon quickly. “As long as you and Monsieur Sartimes are happy, who cares?”

“Tuna tartare?” said Mark, grinning. “Definitely some wasabi action on the endive? I’m happy and I hear Sartimes is chowing down like a pro.”

Sharon glanced downwards and saw something definitely wrong.

“Sir? Can I confer with you outside, please?”

“Sure,” Mark replied. “You got a headset on I can’t see?”

Sharon smiled. “It’s not that kind of problem. Sir?”

Mark glanced at Friedman. The two shrugged and Mark followed Sharon from the room.

Sharon wandered quickly through the halls, trying each door. “There’s gotta be an open conference room somewhere.”

Puzzled, Mark followed obediently until Sharon found a door that opened. She sighed in relief when it opened into a conference room and not a men’s room.

“Ms. Wheatly?” Mark asked, expectantly.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got a button missing on dinner jacket,” Sharon said, opening her purse. It was a small rhinestone affair, but big enough for what she needed. “On the sleeve.”

Mark sighed. “Oh. Yeah. I fidget with them. Johnnie’s always on my backside for tearing them off.”

“I think I might have a close enough match here,” Sharon said, pulling out her sewing kit.

“I’ve got it right here.” Trying to hide his flush, Mark pulled the button from his pants’ pocket.

“Well, that makes life easier.” Sharon smiled. “Don’t worry. You wouldn’t believe the number of executives I’ve saved just because I keep a sewing kit on me. May I have your jacket, please?”

Mark pulled his off and handed it to her. “Johnnie’s always telling me to keep my hands in my pockets.”

“Obviously, you’re listening,” Sharon said, then tried not to wince as she took the jacket and pulled out a chair from the conference table so she could get to work.

“Bad habits. What can I say?” Mark smiled.

He allowed himself a covert glance at Sharon. She bent over his sleeve, presumably concentrating on the job at hand. Yes, she was gorgeous. But that was almost a distraction. Granted, her interest in seeing him well-groomed had as much to do with her professional duties as anything else. Yet, there was something. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something special.

Which, of course, is why at that exact moment, June chose to burst into the room.

Mark, they’re looking for you,” she began, then saw what was going on. “Oh. For heaven’s sakes. Can’t you keep your hands off your sleeves? For crying out loud. You’re a grown man!”

I will endeavor to do better,” Mark said, pleasantly.

June rolled her eyes. “You say that every time. I don’t think you’re really trying.”

It’s irrelevant now,” said Sharon, biting off the thread. “It’s taken care of. Although why more men don’t carry sewing kits is beyond me. It would make my life easier.”

Mark took his jacket back and put it on. “I’ll put it on my to-do list.”

Get yourself back in there. It’s speech time,” said June, pushing him out the door. As soon as her brother was gone, she turned to Sharon. “Well. Thank you. I swear, it’s scary how often he tears his buttons off. Everyone thinks he’s the proverbial cucumber and no one ever notices how many times the buttons go missing on his suit jackets.”

It’s not all that uncommon,” Sharon said, ducking her head as she put the sewing kit back together. “It’s why I learned to pack my little kit.”

June giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing. You must be horribly embarrassed.”

It’s a little awkward on my first night out.”

It’s my fault. I forgot I put this design into production.”

Sharon looked at her, completely perplexed. “I’m sorry? I just got it today.”

It’s a Design by JJ, right?”

I have no idea.” Sharon stopped and thought about it. “I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me.”

She grabbed the back of her dress and tried to wriggle around to look at the tag.

It’s mine,” said June, laughing. “Are you serious? You had no clue?”

Sharon sighed. “I used to be better at the label game. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be.” June smiled warmly. “I hate label freaks, although I have to confess, they’ve been pretty good for business.”

Sharon took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. That makes how many times I’ve messed up tonight?”

Messed up?” June looked at her. “Oh, Sharon, I’m not mad at you. Actually, I’m pretty complimented. You bought the dress because you genuinely liked it. That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten all year.”

I’m glad you think so.” Sharon sighed. “I’m beginning to thing Tanks was right. This White House thing is pretty freaky.”

June laughed outright. “Pretty freaky? Good lord, it’s absolutely crazy-making! I didn’t get this messed up dressing Helen freaking Mirren for the Oscars.”

You’re not upset, then?”
“Why? Because you have such exquisite good taste?
Sharon sniffed and giggled. “Well, if you’re not upset, then to heck with the rest of them.”

To heck with them, indeed. Shall we return together, arm in arm? That will really get the old gossip mill going.”

Sharon instinctively shrank back. “Oh, lord. Oh, what the hell. The men haven’t noticed. You’re not peeved. Why should I care?”

You do, don’t you?’ June said softly.

Sharon shrugged. “You’d think I’d be used to the looking and the rumors and all that stuff by now. Funny thing is, I don’t think you ever get used to it.”

June shook her head. “You don’t get over it. But you do get used to it. You can get used to a lot of things. Trust me.”

Think your brother is ever going to get used to being president?” Sharon blurted out.

Yipes. Where did that come from?”

Sharon blushed. “I can’t believe I just said that.” She sighed. “It’s funny. I just can’t help noticing how sad he seems every time the rest of the Advisory Panel talks about going out to lunch together and he can’t come with us.”

Actually, I’ve noticed that, too.” June frowned. “It’s kinda weird, really. Mark is the original every day guy. So it’s totally amazing to me that he’s gotten as far as he has. I mean, the kind of ego you need to pull off a presidential campaign. Mark doesn’t have that. He does have drive, I’ll give him that.”

Probably accounts for it.”

Probably. But he’s been having a couple problems settling in.”

I, uh, talked to Coop about it the other day. He said he’d see what he could do. There’s a bunch of private clubs around the area. Coop said he’d talk to the Secret Service guys and the clubs, so maybe…”

Maybe,” June said. “What’d be really great is a good hide-out with a secret entrance or something.”

The light went on in Sharon’s head. “Yeah. He likes basketball, right?”

June laughed. “He loves sports, period. The guy will watch curling, for crying out loud.”

Curling’s kinda fun,” said Sharon. “Now, if he was into watching badminton, I’d really be worried.”

June laughed even harder and Sharon joined in.

Think you can face ‘em?” June asked, finally.

If you can, I can,” Sharon said.

So arm in arm, the two returned to the party. Across the room, Mark saw the two enter. Again, he felt his stomach flutter at the sight of her. And she was with June, no less, and the two really seemed to like each other. Mark smiled to himself. How perfect could one woman be?

Episode 16 – Last Minute Shopping

Sharon, herself, however, was not thinking about being impressive. She was panicking. Tanks had swung by her office and asked if she was leaving early to get ready.

Ready for what?” Sharon had asked, going over the latest subject lines in her e-mail inbox.

The reception tonight. Cocktails with the French foreign minister?”

Shavings!” Sharon gasped at Tanks. “I have to go to that.”

And so do I,” Tanks sighed. “I just hope I can get out early so my girls don’t start whining about Mom being gone all the time again.”

Kira’s fourteen. At that age, I would have loved it if my mom was gone all the time.”

That doesn’t stop them from whining about it if they think they can get something by it.”

So how ready do I have to get? I can get away with a suit, right?” Sharon looked at the long list of subject lines.

The memo from State said cocktail dress, to encourage a social and welcoming atmosphere.”

Sharon sighed deeply. “At least they got that straight. The French don’t mix business and social like we do.” She frowned. “Do I even have a cocktail dress right now?”

You weren’t expecting to go to any parties?”

Not right away. I haven’t even been here a full month and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. I’ve gotten a couple new suits, but that’s it.” Sharon sighed as she looked at the list of subject lines again, and closed the laptop. “I’ll have to look at these at home tonight.”

Sharon left a few minutes later. Karen met her at the Metro stop and the two went straight to Sharon’s place to see what Sharon already had before picking up Karen’s daughters and hitting the stores.

Karen was suitably impressed by Sharon’s house.

It’s my friend’s place,” Sharon explained. “I’m just renting it from her. It’s a great old house, built by some senator years ago. He even had a secret doorway put in the back so he could sneak his floozies in.”

“Now that sounds like fun. Too bad I’m in a steady relationship. Let’s see your closet.”

Sharon led the way to the bedroom where Karen stood aghast at the open closet doors.

“You’ve only got about eight suits in here. Four day dresses. Good heavens, woman, why don’t you have any clothes?”

“I used to. I just got into simplifying a few years ago. I was traveling all the time, had no place to put things. And I had stuff that had gone completely out of style that I hadn’t even worn yet.”

“That’s normal. You’re supposed to have stuff like that. You go ahead to the mall. I’ll get my girls and meet you at there. This is an emergency. How can you justify not working to keep our economy going by buying your brains out?”

Sharon chuckled, but sighed and headed out again.

It was not a fun outing. First, Sharon couldn’t find anything she liked, then Karen called and said that her younger daughter had a school project that absolutely had to be finished that afternoon and that she (Karen) would instead be haunting the craft stores that afternoon instead because, of course, her daughter, Allie, hadn’t even started yet.

Finally, as the clock ticked off closer and closer to five p.m., Sharon found a dress that she liked. It was an a-line in a shimmery light blue sheer over a light blue lining. The top fabric had little sliver arrowheads flecked throughout. Sharon found some silver dress shoes that were workable, then a bag, necklace and matching earrings and scrambled back to the office to get dressed.

Episode 15 – The Secretary of State

Daniel Friedman was not the sort of person anyone would have marked as a future Secretary of State, at least not based on his early career. He certainly didn’t have the tall, smooth good looks one associated with diplomats. If anything, Friedman, who was of average height, slightly scrawny, dark, curly hair, near-sighted and prone to ugly glasses, looked like the nerd he’d started out as. Some years before, during the first tech industry bubble, he had burst on the scene, having not only developed a prodigiously successful search engine, but then parlayed that into the prototype for advertising on the Internet before selling out just before the first bubble burst.

It was an accident that he found his real passion in life shortly thereafter. It wasn’t so much the politics, which he began dabbling in right around the time he sold his company. It was diplomacy. The politics and his massive wealth merely got him the ambassadorship to Rwanda. The fact that he was able to actually help defuse some of the civil unrest there and get the country some significant U.S. aid did make folks sit up and notice. The ambassadorship to Russia only furthered his reputation.

So when Mark Jerguessen got elected, Friedman decided to pay a call on the president-elect and go after the big job. And he got it. It had been a bold move, the media said. Friedman conceded that he’d been a little surprised, himself. But the more he worked at the position, the more he realized he’d found his life’s passion, which was probably why he was so darned good at it.

Like everyone else watching the White House, he’d heard rumors about the president’s youngest – and prettiest – new advisor. There were those who suggested that everyone was just dazzled by the good looks. Friedman wasn’t so sure, but then he hadn’t seen her, either. He had gotten a couple e-mails from her, particularly one that pointed up the brief issue between the Saudis and Qatar, and suggesting that unless State had information otherwise, just ignoring it might be the best course of action for the time being. His staff hadn’t even realized the event had occurred, let alone that non-involvement was the best course of action.

Unfortunately, freezing his tush off on the tarmac at National Airport, waiting for a foreign dignitary’s plane to land wasn’t where he’d hoped to meet Ms. Wheatly. As she stepped out of the official limousine, he could see that the rumor mill had gotten the looks part right. Even bundled up in the regulation London Fog tan trench coat with a burgundy knit hat and matching scarf, he could tell she was striking.

The plane landed and Ms. Wheatly let Friedman take over, as Sartimes’ English was excellent. However, in the car on the way to the hotel, Monsieur addressed her in French, teased her about her Belgian accent and then she proceeded to out-pun him in French. At least, Friedman was fairly sure that’s what was going on. His own French was fairly good, but clearly Wheatly spoke the language as a native.

Where did you find her?” Friedman asked the president as the two went over their initial meeting with the minister.

From you guys,” Mark replied genially. “Apparently, her application was in with the ones we’d requested when we had to replace Andy Shepherd.”

You’re kidding. I know I had several folks offering candidates, but I don’t remember… Wait. My under-secretary, Earl Wallace. Just after we sent those applications over, he was all up in arms about a candidate for our office that had gotten mixed up in your applications. He wanted to hire her.”

Mark smiled. “I’m glad I got her first.”

She’s pretty impressive.” Friedman sighed. “I could’ve used her.”

Episode 14: A Meeting

The next few days kept Sharon pretty busy. Aside from the small flutter between Arabia and Qatar that Faiza had alerted Sharon to that Thursday, there were rumors of trouble in Rhodesia, an election that was getting overly contentious in Brazil and the Australian government was making noise about protecting their wine industry again, which meant the Californians would be worried.

In addition to all that, Sharon was working very hard to get up to speed in her new position. Thanks to her corporate work, she had a very good network of government contacts around the world. But that network had to expand rapidly if she was to be as effective as possible.

On Friday, Coop talked the Advisory Panel into coming in on Saturday to play tennis with the president at the White House tennis court, including tech advisor Geraldine McKelvey, an MIT professor and researcher who only came in on Fridays because she lived in Boston. Mackie, an average sized woman with a couple honest rolls about her waist, didn’t seem like the kind of person who was into sports, but partnering with Coop, the two killed everyone, including the president and his partner, Tanks’ oldest daughter, Kira. Ed-man refereed.

Still, as the group broke up to go to dinner, Sharon couldn’t help noticing the sad glint in Mark’s eyes as they all left.

So Monday, Sharon made a point to visit the Chief of Staff in her office.

“Come in, Ms. Wheatly,” Johnetta said brusquely as Sharon came to the door. “Please have a seat and how can I help you?”

“Well.” Sharon paused. “I’m not sure. But I think you’ve noticed it, too. About the president. He seems… Lonely doesn’t seem right, but isolated, I guess.”

Johnetta sighed. “That kind of comes with the position. But you’ve noticed, huh?”

“I don’t know if anyone else has,” Sharon said. “And I’m not even sure if what I think is going on is going on, or even what to do about it.”

“You’re right. He’s feeling the isolation.” Johnetta fidgeted with a small stack of papers on her desk. “All the protocols, you know? His friends don’t even call him by his first name anymore. Well, I do sometimes.” She glanced away, then back at Sharon. “Look, I don’t know if I should be saying anything. I’ve known Jugsy since we were in college.”

“Jugsy?”

Johnetta smiled. “Coop named him that when we were in Coop’s study group back when we were freshman in college. That’s how Mark and I met, along with Mary Karpati and Dave Cohen. I was what they called a re-entry student. That’s why I was so much older than the others.” She chuckled fondly. “The surprising thing is, we’ve all stayed friends over the years and ended up here in Washington, more or less. Mark and I went into politics. Mary’s got her PhD and is teaching at Johns Hopkins. Dave runs PBS.” She sighed again. “One of the things my predecessor told me he was really worried about when Mark got elected was that Mark is single. And it wasn’t about scandal or anything like that. But most men in this office have had wives to help keep them grounded, someone with whom they can just be themselves and no one else. Some one who can still call them by their first name, if you know what I mean. Mark does not have that, and Mr. Wills said that worried him because if anything will make you crazy in this job, it’s the isolation. The restrictions on your movement are bad enough, but it’s the constant formality and distance that’ll really get to you.”

Sharon nodded. “I kind of figured. This may sound a little strange to you, but I almost know what he’s feeling. My brother is pretty famous.”

“Who’s your brother?” Johnetta looked at her, frowning. “Wait. Is your brother Michael Wheatly?”

“Yep.” Sharon smiled.

“Oh, my goodness, I recognize you. You did that wonderful video for him.”

Sharon flushed. “I did. I was only fifteen at the time and it made my life a living hell, so I don’t usually talk about it.”

“Why? It was beautifully done, and such a tragic story.”

“Maybe, but at the time, I was dealing with a lot of fifteen-year-old boys who just saw a hooker.”

Johnetta smiled. “I can see where that might make life difficult.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know. I thought you guys checked me out fully.”

“Jean and the press people probably knew and they didn’t see any problem with it. Like I said, we try to strip away all the non-essential details so we can focus on your qualifications.”

“Well, anyway, let’s get back to why I’m here. And I think you’ve pretty much answered my question.” Sharon waited for a moment, trying to figure out what to do next. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers.”
“You don’t?” asked Johnetta, suddenly smiling.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Trust me, the last thing I want to do is date the guy. I just… I don’t know. He just seems a little sad when the rest of the panel goes off to lunch or to dinner. So I wondered and, well, now I know. Maybe I’ll talk to the rest of them. We should be able to come up with something.”

“They just might.” Johnetta nodded thoughtfully. “If they do, would you keep me posted? And, uh, call me Johnnie.”

“Sure, Johnnie. I’m Sharon.” Sharon stood.

“Sure thing, Sharon.”

As Sharon left, Johnetta smiled and chuckled to herself. Mark had quietly protested any interest in getting together with the lovely Ms. Wheatly, and Sharon had just done the same about getting together with Mark. Which, of course, meant there had to be a way to get the two of them together.

Sharon, for her part, knew darned well she had other things to be thinking about besides her boss and turned her mind to focusing on those very things, not the least of which was the upcoming meeting with Monsieur Sartimes.

Episode 13 – Sharon Meets June

A few days later, Sharon was settling in fairly well. She’d gotten a little bit of a suspicious sniff when she’d asked Raul Mendoza for some specific research on the French foreign minister, but he’d done as she’d asked. She sent a quick e-mail to the minister’s office to verify the information and to get some additional details, and Raul’s research had not only been accurate, it had been pretty complete.

The problem was what to do about it.

“Who’s in charge of entertaining at the White House?” Sharon asked Julie.

“The First Lady’s office,” said Julie, promptly.

“We don’t have a first lady.”

“Well, we do, sort of. The president’s sister.” Julie’s fingers went rattling quickly across her keyboard. “I’m sending you her e-mail address. Ms. Jerguessen oversees all the entertaining, including state dinners and other events for visiting dignitaries. The scuttlebutt is that the press office would like to have her do more good-will stuff, you know, planting trees and opening senior homes. But, hey, she’s running her business.”

“I hope she can find time for this. Is there a way to flag it so that she knows it’s critical?”

Julie nodded. “I’ll e-mail her assistant. And here’s that address. Go ahead and cc the e-mail to her. I follow it with a phone call. That ought to do the trick.”

“Thanks.” Sharon went back to her office.

June Jerguessen had caught some flack for running her business out of the White House, but Mark had insisted she do it and had set up a studio and office where she could. Not that it mattered much. June spent half her time in New York, as it was. Mark’s press secretary, Jean Bouyer used that to play down the criticism, after pointing out that both Mark and June had paid for the improvements and whatever equipment June needed themselves.

While June’s business meant that she did not have much time for good-will appearances, she made time to actively oversee whatever entertaining needed doing, and there was a fair amount. Press events were generally handled through the press office, but on any given day, the president was expected to meet at least some member of the public, not to mention entertain ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries.

The French foreign minister was the highest ranking official they’d had thus far. Not being a head of state, he didn’t rate a full state dinner, but a formal dinner was expected. That was to happen on the last night of his three-day visit. There would also be a small reception at the State Department (which June would also oversee) on the first night, and two luncheons.

So when June received Sharon’s e-mail on Thursday before the minister’s Wednesday arrival, she initially felt a little annoyed. But the fact that Sharon had thought to check impressed June and while it would mean some re-arranging, there was still time to do it.

She’d heard about the new wunderkind on the Advisory Panel. There had been the less-than-kind grumbling about her being a show-off and out of her element. But the e-mail didn’t seem to indicate that. It just showed good sense.

So June decided it was time to check the new kid out. She found Sharon’s office without difficulty and could see that Sharon was there because the door was open. Sharon was at her desk, reading something on her laptop when a female voice called from a nearby cubicle. Only the female was not speaking English. A tall woman wearing a blue and orange hajib burst out of the cubicle and hurried into Sharon’s office as Sharon answered back in the same language.

Together, the two looked at Sharon’s laptop. They went back and forth for a minute, then Sharon nodded.

“I’ll call Al and see what his intel sources say,” she told the woman in English. “Thanks, Faiza.”

“No problem,” Faiza answered and headed back to her office.

Sharon was about to dial when she saw June and immediately got to her feet.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sharon said. “Please come in.”

“Please, don’t confuse me with my brother,” said June, flapping her wrist. “If the First Lady has no official standing, I have even less.”

“Sure. I’m Sharon Wheatly.” Sharon reached over and pulled a chair next to her desk. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

June’s eyes fell on the grinder and yet another bag from K Street Koffee. “Oh my. Either you’re already a coffee geek or my brother’s trying to convert you.”

Sharon flushed. “The former, I’m afraid.”

June flopped into the chair. “He’s been trying to convert me for years. I can’t get into all the different beans, but I have to admit I am so spoiled when it comes to coffee. But I’ve had my limit for today. Go ahead. Sit down. I’m normal people, okay?”

“Okay.” Sharon sat down. “How can I help you?”

“Your e-mail. I’m surprised the State Department hasn’t mentioned Monsieur’s problem.”

Sharon shrugged. “One of my staffers has a friend in the French foreign ministry and I went ahead and confirmed it with my contact. Monsieur Sartimes doesn’t like mentioning it, so his staff doesn’t volunteer the information. I’m not even sure their Embassy knows. The only reason I knew to ask was that he got sick last fall while visiting India. I have a friend who’s a minister in the Indian government and she told me all about it. Apparently, his blood pressure went through the ceiling and it scared them to death.”

June sighed. “Mark said we should tell Chef Solly to go all out. Monsieur has quite the reputation as a gourmand, you know, and Mark wants to take full advantage. You should see the menus. One of the lunches alone could clog a horse’s arteries. And it would be dismal for Monsieur if he got a separate plate and everyone else is feasting.”

“How hard would it be to swap out a few items for some healthier food? Or see if the chef can adapt as much of the menu as possible? I mean, there are lots of ways to do the gourmet thing and tone down the fats and sodium. My mom does it all the time for my dad.”

“The tricky part will be getting it past my brother. He was really looking forward to that dinner.” June sighed.

“I heard he can be something of a foodie.”

“A total omnivore, more like. But he does like to eat well. The problem is he can’t come off as too sophisticated or Middle America freaks. He gets too excited about rare French cheese and Wisconsonites assume their cheese curds aren’t good enough for him, which is ridiculous because he loves Wisconsin cheese curds.”

Sharon nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“And don’t even get me started on the veal thing,” June groaned. “Admittedly, there have been some real abuses, but if you know anything about dairy farming, you know why veal is not a bad thing.”

“Let me guess, no foie gras, either?” Sharon smiled wickedly.

June yelped. “You’ve gotta be kidding!” She got up. “All right. I’d better get with Chef on this. And thanks for the heads up.”

“Any time.”

June paused in the doorway. “Um. A lot will depend on whether I can get it worked out with security, but would you like to go shopping some time? I gotta warn you, I don’t usually buy much. It’s mostly research for me. But most of my friends are in New York and it would be fun to go with someone.”

“I don’t see why not.” Sharon shrugged. “I’m not really into heavy accumulation, either. Did that up until a few years ago, then decided I like keeping things simple. But it’s fun to go out.”

“Okay. Um, how’s Dr. Tanaka? You think she’d like going out?”

“Tanks? Yeah, I think so. She has at least three different winter coats with hats to match, so I’m guessing she likes shopping.”

June smiled. “She does know how to accessorize. I’ll see what I can work out and let you know. Maybe we can do lunch in the meantime, so the three of us can get to know each other.”

“Sounds good.” Sharon smiled.

As June left, Sharon decided she liked the president’s sister. She had his same down to earth, easy attitude and good head on her shoulders. And no potential relationship issues to deal with. Not a bad compromise.

Episode 12 – The New Email Address

Sharon left the room wondering why she had made such a silly offer. It wasn’t like the president couldn’t pick up the phone and get exactly what he wanted. But at the same time, it dawned on her that he couldn’t just go down to the coffee store and pick the beans up, himself, either. She shuddered. All the more reason to keep distance from him. And yet he was so sweet. And lonely.

From: swheatly@whitehouse.gov

To: niecybagdha@indonet.in, ladycarla@freemail.com

Subject: New E-mail, Etc.

Dear Niecy and Carla;

Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get an e-mail off to you guys. We had a little bit of a problem with the super secure wireless that’s currently installed at the house. Hope you don’t mind the upgrade, Carla. But naturally, it was so secure, I couldn’t get online at all. The nice thing about having the Secret Service as part of your tech support team, however, is that you get really fast service. I can get online with both my work and my personal laptop, although since the work one is so nice, I suspect I’m not going to be doing much on my old one.

I’m mostly sending this so you guys have my work e-mail. I’ll still be using the personal one, but occasionally, I might have a professional question for you guys.

Well, the first day at work was pretty interesting. I’m really going to like it here. It’s intense and the rest of the board is scary smart, but they’re a lot of fun and the whole point is not to take yourself too seriously.

As for the president, don’t bother asking. Yes, I had that little heart flutter, but that is so not going anywhere. Maybe in eight years, but don’t count on it. He’s too busy and I do not want to give up my privacy.

Let me know what’s going on with you guys.

Sharon

Sharon Wheatly

World Affairs Advisor

The White House

Washington, DC.

To: swheatly531@freemail.com

From: niecybagdha@indo.net

Subject: So Not Going Anywhere?

Bullsh*t.

Love, Niecy

Episode 11, The First Meeting

Sharon laughed and followed Tanaka to the Advisory Board’s conference room. Julie was outside the door with Sharon’s laptop, which she handed to Sharon and then left. Sharon took a deep breath and entered the room.

The president had not yet arrived, but there was a laptop ready for him at the head of the table. The others had theirs open and ready, cords snaking across the table to a hole in the middle. Tanaka, whose own assistant had brought her laptop and a bag, took her place near the middle of the table, across from Eddie Cooper, who was smiling warmly. There was an empty chair next to him, closest to the head of the table, behind which a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall. Across from the empty seat sat an elderly White man sitting ramrod straight, but rolling a pen in his fingers as if it were a cigarette.

Tanaka sat next to him, quietly crocheting some lace, and on her other side was a medium-sized man of Hispanic heritage and a decidedly boxy shape to him. He was doodling on a pad of paper next to his open laptop. Across from the Hispanic man was another who could have been his twin, except that he had the high cheekbones of a Native American. He was folding a piece of paper into what was starting to look like a bird of some sort.

“Greetings, newbie,” Coop said warmly and gesturing at the empty seat next to him. “Today, you get the seat of honor.”

“Why, thank you, Dr. Cooper,” Sharon replied.

As she sat, however, a very loud, very rude noise erupted from underneath her. Fortunately, Sharon had already set down her laptop. She paused.

“What do you know,” she said finally. “I’d call that at least a seven-pointer.” She got up and removed the whoopee cushion. “Frankly, Dr. Cooper, I’m disappointed in you.”

Coop’s eyebrows shot up. Sharon felt gratified that he had clearly not expected that response.

“A whoopee cushion?” she continued. “You can do better than that.”

She dropped the bladder in his lap as the rest of the board began breaking up.

“You are good, young lady,” Coop conceded between giggles. “But to the business at hand. Since our beloved fearless leader is currently detained, let me effect the introductions. Sitting directly across from you is Dr. Al Eddington, properly known in this forum as the Ed-man. Specialty the military, which is why he is sometimes known as the Warmonger. Next to him is Tanks, popular culture, whom you’ve met. Next to her is Augusto Guerrero, media specialist, properly known as Augie. Across from him is Whitey, aka John Whitesand, social justice. I specialize in economics. I am properly known as The Coop”

“The Chicken Coop,” said Augie, mildly. “And what shall we call you, Ms. Sharon Wheatly, specialist in world affairs?”

“Wheaties,” said Ed-man abruptly.

“Wheaties sounds good,” said Coop.

“As long as no one calls me Breakfast of Champions,” Sharon said.

“Why not?” Ed-man asked, insinuating that he had been thinking exactly that.

“Because you’re not getting any,” Sharon shot back.

“Ow!” howled Coop in joy. “The newbie scores big. And you’re already buying her lunch, Ed-man.”

“He is?” Sharon asked, eyeing Eddington.

“All I said was that I hoped you had good legs,” Ed-man replied.

“He’s an unrepentant sexist,” Tanks sighed.

At that moment, the door was opened by Gen Forrest. The rest recognized their cue and immediately go to their feet, Sharon scrambling to hers somewhat belatedly. It was just as well. The second she saw Mark, her heart skipped a beat in spite of herself.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” the group sing-songed together.

“Good morning, children, and how are we today?” Mark went to his place and sat down.

The others followed his lead. Mark noticed with a sudden jump in his stomach that Sharon was sitting next to him. It was where newbies and part-timers always landed. But he desperately hoped that the sudden dance going on in his gut wasn’t obvious to any of the others.

All seemed relatively normal. Mark deeply appreciated the balance between the respect for the office and the protocols, which oddly enough Al Eddington had been the one to insist on, and the friendly irreverence that put it all into perspective.

The meeting went on, as usual. There were a couple reports sent in from some of the part-time advisors to go over. No one had been expecting Sharon to give a report, but she had one ready and was able to back it up for the Ed-man when he questioned one aspect of it.

It broke up just before lunch, and in spite of her lunch date, Sharon lingered behind as the others filed out ahead of her and the president.

“Sir, Ms. Washington just sent me an e-mail asking me to brief you later this afternoon on next week’s visit from the French foreign minister,” she said.

“I saw that. Kent’s got it set up for 3:45. Will that work?” he said.

“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”

Mark’s shoulders fell. “I know.” He glanced at her. “I never could pull off the autocratic thing.”

“It’s not usually that effective as a management style.” Sharon smiled at him softly. “If you’ll excuse me, sir. I’m supposed to go to lunch with the board.”

He smiled back, with an odd sadness in his eyes. “Yeah. Well, have fun.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Ms. Wheatly?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You like them?”

“Sir?”

“The other board members. Do you like them?”

Sharon looked into his soft green eyes, not quite sure why he was asking. She briefly debated trying to put a glossy spin on the situation, then decided that not only did she not have to, he really wanted her honest opinion.

“I do. They’re pretty intense, and kinda rowdy, but I think that’s what I like about them.”

“Then I guess that means you’ll be around for a while.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

“Good.” Mark turned away. Beyond the normal concerns involved in working the political game effectively, Mark seldom worried about what others thought of him or his decisions. But why Wheatly’s opinion should matter, he couldn’t understand, except that it did, especially if it meant she was going to be around. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

“I’ll see you then. Oh. Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for the Kenyan and the other stuff. It was really thoughtful of you.”

Mark smiled. “You’re welcome, but be careful. The others seem to think the coffee thing borders on the unstable.”

Sharon chuckled. “And they should know from unstable. I guess since I’ll be out, I could swing by K-Street Koffee and pick up some extra beans.”

“Ethiopian Yrga Cheffe?” Mark’s eyes lit up. “City roast?”

“Done.”

Karen Tanaka Explains It All

By nine-thirty, Sharon had her report amended and filed onto the server. Which was just as well because Karen Tanaka popped up in the office door right about that time.

“The boss asked me to bring you to the meeting,” Tanaka said. “I thought we could swing by the cafeteria first and get some coffee or something.”

“Or something.” Sharon stood up and re-filled her mug. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about your laptop. Your assistant can bring it over before the meeting starts.”

“Sure.” Taking her mug, Sharon left the office. “Julie?”

“No problem.”

Sharon paused and looked at Tanaka. “Are you sure that’s okay? I got the impression from the guy that brought me the laptop that to let it out of my sight was tantamount to high treason.”

Tanaka laughed and rolled her eyes. “Consider Julie your second set of eyes.” She led the way down a nearby corridor. “By the way, who was your computer guy?”

“I have no idea,” said Sharon. “He never said his name. But he was tall and wore a dark suit.”

“Oh, that really narrows it down. They’re all tall and wear dark suits.”

“Ooh. Kinda creepy.”

“You said it.” Tanaka led Sharon through a pair of swinging double doors into a large, brightly-lit room with plastic and chrome tables and chair, and a steam table line at one end.

Tanaka went straight for the nook bearing air pots, other coffee paraphernalia and a basket piled high with plastic-wrapped Danish.

“The food’s pretty good here,” Tanaka said. “So’s the coffee, believe it or not. Turns out the boss is a coffee geek and a foodie. Rumor has it, he ran rough-shod over the budget office to get some real food in here and buys the coffee, himself.”

“A foodie, too, huh?” Sharon mused.

Tanaka turned on her. “You knew about the coffee?”

Sharon flushed. “It came up in the interview.”

Tanaka looked at Sharon’s mug and nodded. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me. He’s real good at making you feel right at home. With me, it was the food thing. We met at some campaign event at school, someone had set up this really bad sushi bar. And we both laughed at how trite it was. So when he called me in for the interview last December, he had brought in eel and octopus and some of the nicest sashimi you’ve ever tasted.” Tanaka filled a mug from one of the airpots. “The guy can even use chopsticks. He’ll be great if we get over to Asia. I’m kinda surprised he asked me to bring you to the meeting. He usually brings the newbies in, himself.”

“Really.” Sharon didn’t say anything more, but in the back of her mind, she decided she was relieved. If the president was still feeling the effects of that all too strange meeting, then she was perfectly happy he was keeping his distance.

Tanaka led her over to a table. “By the way, you played it perfectly with the Coop this morning.”

“I did?” Sharon sat down, trying to hide her fear.

“Oh, yeah.” Tanaka paused long enough to grab a few danishes from the basket and drop them on the table. “Here’s the thing. The idea behind the Advisory Board is interactivity.”

“Yeah, I’d heard.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page, opinion-wise. We all joke that the boss took Doris Kearns Goodwin too seriously.”

“Oh. You mean that historian who wrote that book about Lincoln’s cabinet.”

“Yeah, that Lincoln purposely stacked with people he didn’t agree with. The boss did the same, not only with the cabinet, but with the Advisory Board, too. Consider, you’ve got the Ed-man.”

“Dr. Eddington.”

Tanaka nodded. “Yeah. That guy is a hard-core Libertarian, for crying out loud. The only role for government is military and postal service, and he’d privatize the postal service if he thought he could. On the other end of the spectrum is Whitey, John Whitesand. Government should pay for everything. Both of these guys are hyper-intelligent, both are convinced they’re right. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Sharon hesitated. “I got the impression from Ms. Washington that everyone got along really well.”

“Whitey and the Ed-man are best friends.”

“Huh?”

“They are. That’s the genius of the Coop.” Tanaka stuffed half a danish in her mouth. “He was aiming at me, by the way. Guy can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

“I don’t get it,” said Sharon, who had decided to abandon reason and was attacking another danish, herself.

“It’s all the practical jokes and teasing. So no one takes him or herself that seriously. Then it becomes all about the work. No one has to stick to their territory because their ego is at stake. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t agree with you because it’s not about you.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s like corporate games retreats.”

Tanaka laughed very loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s kind of the same idea, but I wouldn’t say so in front of the others.”

“Why not?”

Tanaka looked around and leaned in conspiratorially. “Because of Her. Marian Jefferson. The boss brought her in to run operations, and she’s really good. Kicked the stuffing out of the policy office and got it running worth something. And she actually got the budget office straightened out. And one of the ways she got those two offices working was that she had everyone, including the press office, do the corporate games thing.”

Sharon winced. “They are pretty effective.”

“And you look like you just tasted some bad wasabi.”

“I don’t really like them, myself.”

“None of us advisory folks do. It’s one of the reasons why the Ed-man works at home. So Ms. Jefferson finally tells the president that it’s only fair that the advisory group do the games and team building thing.”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I’m getting the impression it didn’t go over well.”

“Ed-man flat out refused to show and sent out a notice to his staff that they didn’t have to, either. The rest of us dragged our sorry butts in that Saturday.” Tanaka shook her head and chuckled. “Coop was out and out docile, wouldn’t tease her, wouldn’t make faces, nothing. Until she gets us doing this stupid group project – we were supposed to build something out of snow. As soon as her back is turned, Coop says we should divide up into our respective sub-groups, each build our own fort and have a snowball fight. Ms. Jefferson had a cow. He just ignored her and we had the baddest snowball fight you ever saw. Coop damn near got frost bit when I rubbed his nose in it. That’s why he was aiming at me this morning. But that’s also how I know you played it right. He threatened to get you back. I’ve noticed. He doesn’t play jokes on people he doesn’t respect. He just ignores them. And advisory folks get that. We’re not here to toe the line and play nice. We’re here to think and to help the president get the best information he can get. Ed-man said it’s kinda like the Marines. They tear you down, then build you back up the way they want you. Coop tears you down, but then he builds you back up as part of something bigger than yourself.”

Sharon sat back. “Okay. That’s not quite what I expected, but that’s interesting.”

“Yep, but that’s part of the boss’s genius, too. He knows how to pick the right kind of people. We haven’t had a bad apple yet.”

Sharon stuffed back a momentary qualm then looked up at the clock. “Well, I guess it’s baptism of fire time.”

Tanaka grinned. “Good. You’re terrified. Coop will be so happy with me.”

Meeting the Staff

What had she done? Sharon had dropped the snow down Cooper’s neck on instinct. And she had built her career on having razor-sharp instincts and the ability to take risks. Only, Sharon suddenly realized, the reason she hadn’t been afraid to take risks was that she had never worried about losing whatever job she’d held at the time. It had never mattered before because she had a fabulously wealthy rock star brother who would have been happy to support her. The fact that she and her sisters preferred to make their own way was their choice. And she had put away some serious money and made some excellent investments, which meant work was almost a matter of preference these days.

But now things were very, very different, she realized with a shock. For the first time in her life, she now had a job that she wanted to keep. Assuming Dr. Cooper would let her.

Sharon shook it off. Being scared wasn’t the answer. She had a staff coming in and research to finalize, not to mention an office to set up.

She looked around and cringed a little. She’d heard West Wing offices were cramped, and the windowless room was certainly that: wide and shallow with a fairly large dark wood desk in the center that faced the door. There wasn’t room for chairs in front, but there was a couch along one of the narrow walls, with empty bookshelves over the couch. On the facing narrow wall was a chalkboard and more shelves under that. Everything was painted a dull, institutional egg-shell color, contrasting with the dark gray institutional carpet.

It wasn’t directly behind the desk because there wouldn’t have been room, but along the back wall of the office and to the side nearest the couch, was a dark wood credenza that short of matched the desk. On top of that was a rather nice coffeemaker, a better than average grinder, and a couple bottles of water. Next to those was a brown bag folded over and hand-labeled, from K-Street Koffee, Kenyan AA. The soft scent of roasted coffee beans tickled Sharon’s nose. She picked up the note.

Some of Cecil’s best for a fellow fan,” it said in a cramped scribble. “Welcome to the team.”

Sharon smiled. It was a nice touch and somehow, just right. She looked at the grinder. It wasn’t one of the top-of-the-line burr grinders like the president had in his office, that would have been too much. But it wasn’t your basic cheap model, either. Just enough to say welcome without any inappropriate overtones. Personal enough to show thoughtfulness, but not enough to imply a deeper intimacy was apparent or wanted.

There was only one thing to do and Sharon did it. In no time, some of the Kenyan AA had been ground and the coffeemaker was happily dripping away, filling the office with a comforting scent. Further inspection of the credenza revealed mugs, spoons, and sugar. There was even a small refrigerator at the end of the credenza that Sharon hadn’t seen at first and, sure enough, a small carton each of cream and milk were inside. Somebody else must have put those there.

With coffee on the brew, Sharon turned to unpacking her box, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. A young African American man dressed in a dark suit stood politely in the doorway.

I’m here with your laptop, ma’am,” he said quietly. “If you’ve got a second, I can show you how to get on the system and get your passwords set up.”

May as well,” Sharon said.

He came in and gently placed the computer on her desk, along with a sheet of paper.

“I also need you to sign this. It’s giving the Secret Service permission to enter your home and install secure wi-fi there.”

“Oh, okay.”

And so it went on. In fact, the young man was still working with her when the first of her staff members began to filter in shortly before eight a.m. The printer was down the hall and around the corner, partly because staffers were being strongly encouraged to do as much electronically as possible.

“Notes, memos, everything will be coming via e-mail,” the young man said.

“Good. I think I’d better send one right now. Now, where was that list of my group’s e-mails?”

The young man disappeared shortly after, just as Sharon turned to thank him and ask his name. It seemed odd, but Sharon was more than distracted a moment later by the sound of someone clattering into the cubicle outside her door, muttering curses and other foul imprecations on the city’s subway system. Sharon stepped out of her office and into the cubicle. It was crammed with two desks, each facing opposite walls, and filled with the usual office paraphernalia, much of which was empty for the time being. The young female someone who had just come in was busy stripping off her coat as fast as she could while digging through the box on her desk to find something.

“Oh, hi,” she said, noticing Sharon. She was in her mid-twenties and dressed in a dark skirt and tan blouse that was somewhat more chic than the usual Washington business-wear. She pulled a hangar from the box and hung her coat on it. Her hair was long, brown and in a thick braid down her back. “I’m Julie. Think the boss knows I’m late?”

“I’m sure I do,” said Sharon.

Julie groaned and flopped into her chair. “I left early. I swear I did. But there was a killer pothole on the freeway, had traffic all backed up all the way to the Metro station. Then the freaking train just sat there for twenty minutes. Apparently there was a problem at the Pentagon stop.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“At the moment, no. Are you one of the researchers?”

Julie laughed. “Heck, no! I’m not smart enough for that. I’m your assistant.”

“Great. Good to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Julie Ivins.”

“Actually, Julie, I just realized there is something you can help me with. I want to have a quick staff meeting in about ten minutes and we need to figure out how we’re going to get everyone into my office. And staff meeting will always include you unless I say otherwise.”

“Sure, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Call me Sharon.”

Julie grinned. “Okay.” She got up. “It’s going to be tricky. Would you believe you got one of the bigger offices?”

Sharon looked at her, surprised. “I thought you were just starting today.”

“Working for you, yeah. But I’ve been at the White House for about seven years now.”

“I thought every administration re-staffed.”

“Us clerical stiffs are always here. There’re some assistants in budget who’ve been here through three administrations already. I was working for one of the speechwriters before. I’m really liking the new president. You know, they dim the lights in the evening as the sun goes down? So people will actually go home at night? The president says he wants people to stay fresh and they can’t be fresh if they’re constantly burning the midnight oil.”

“Oh,” said Sharon. “Well, let’s figure out the meeting situation.”

It took Julie five seconds to look over Sharon’s office, propose a solution, then get the chairs needed to make it work. They were older, dark wood and decidedly old-fashioned. Sharon wondered how long the chairs had been in the building. They looked like they might have been new when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Sharon’s four staff researchers were pleasant enough and seemed to respond to her well. Faiza Moussel was a tall, slender woman with intense dark eyes. She wore a bright green and yellow hajib over her hair, and was otherwise conservatively dressed in a tan suit with slacks. She had been born and raised in the U.S., but her parents were Algerian. She focused mostly on the Middle East and Asia.

Katie Minor was as short, stout and fair as Faiza was dark, tall and slender. Katie’s area of expertise was Africa, although she was interested in Asia, as well. Raoul Mendoza was a dour-looking older man with a bald top and dark hair underneath. He focused on Europe, Canada and Australia. Leonidas Bertonetti was the South American expert, a handsome man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a very Italian smoothness, probably because his family, though long in Argentina, was of Italian ancestry.

The meeting was very short and in less than half an hour, everyone had gone back to her or his desk to do some final updates.