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.

Sharon’s First Day Starts

Very early that next morning had Sharon walking up to the White House employee entrance with her stomach in knots. The afternoon before, she had been led around the West Wing by Ms. Washington, first to complete the box loads of virtual paperwork – the forms were actually on the computer – then to see her office. Ms. Washington said that Sharon’s predecessor had hired a staff, but since he had passed before the office could begin functioning, they hadn’t been officially working.

The office, itself, was made up of a pod of cubicles clustered, more or less, around her main office. The staff included four researchers and a personal assistant. Ms. Washington had said that she would see to calling the staff members and telling them to come in the next day. Then Ms. Washington slapped a flash drive with samples of the rest of the advisory team’s reports into Sharon’s hand and sent her on her way.

Sharon had spent the night poring over the reports. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t expected to present one on her very first day on the job, she still was determined to make a good impression.

Now, as she approached the guard gate at 6:30 a.m., she swallowed and put on her formidable best. So what if her stomach was doing loop the loops and that soft malevolent voice in the back of her brain whispered that it had all been a dream and the second she presented herself at the gate she would be immediately arrested for impersonating a successful woman?

Fortunately, the guard at the gate had no clue what the malevolent voice was saying and handed Sharon her temporary badge, explaining that she would need to go straight from the gate to the security office so that she could pick up her permanent badge and ID.

Great. Thanks.”

Sharon flashed the guard a smile, but he didn’t see. He was too busy waving in another woman behind her.

The woman was fairly short but carried herself with authority. Her hair was shiny, deep black and perfectly straight, falling just below her shoulders. She wore a dark wooly top coat over black dress slacks and boots, with a matching fuzzy hat perched on the top of her head. She stopped as she saw Sharon fumbling with her box and her temp badge.

Are you Wheatly?” the woman asked. She was Asian, with an oval face that belied her age.

Uh, yeah. How did you know?”

Newbie badge, box. You’re moving in.” The woman held out her right hand, which was covered with a black kid glove. “I’m Karen Tanaka.”

Oh. You research pop culture.” Sharon shook the offered hand and then readjusted her box.

Tanaka’s right eyebrow lifted. “And you’re up on your homework. That’s good. You’ll need to be on your toes around here.”

I’ve done it before.”

Tanaka laughed. “Yeah. We all have. But there’s nothing like this. Don’t let the guys fool you. We’re all a little freaked out about being here. Even the boss. But they keep saying we’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

They started off toward the side door of the all-too famous building. There had been a good snow the night before and the lawn was glittering with a fresh foot or so.

Thanks,” Sharon said. “I figured there might be some early arrivals, but I was hoping to get in first.”

You almost made it. Most of us don’t get in until seven or so. The boss said that he doesn’t want a lot of working late, either. He wants the entire staff out of the office by seven p.m. unless absolutely necessary.”

I’d heard that.”

Tanaka nodded. “It’s a good idea, in theory. Keeps us more well-rounded, prevents tunnel-vision.”

And does it work?”

Mostly. I’m early today because my kid had to be at school early for some planning meeting.”

Sharon remembered that Tanaka was a single mom with two children, one in middle school, one a freshman in high school. Sharon was about to ask for more details when a snow ball caught her hard in the back of the neck. Sharon yelped and Tanaka whirled.

Behind them, an average-sized Black man in a tan trench coat and an ugly tweed hat approached them from the gate. There were still remnants of snow on his dark, woolen gloves.

Coop!” Tanaka hollered. “What the heck do you think you’re doing? I got the newbie with me.”

Coop grinned, his teeth mostly white against his dark skin with an even darker pencil-line mustache on his upper lip.

I meant to hit you,” he hollered back, good-naturedly.

Karen, smiling, rolled her eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh.

Ignore him,” she told Sharon.

But Sharon knew that one ignored Dr. Edward Cooper at one’s peril. And it wasn’t because he was President Jerguesson’s best friend. Dr. Cooper was fairly widely acknowledged as being a beyond brilliant economist. He was also fairly widely acknowledged for his tendency toward practical jokes.

So you’re the newbie,” Cooper said as he came up to the two women. “Welcome. I’m Eddie Cooper.”

Sharon finished brushing snow off the back of her neck. “Thanks. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

Making an early start, huh?”

Yeah. It doesn’t hurt on a first day,” Sharon said. They were almost to the door.

Don’t make a habit of it,” Cooper answered, grinning. “You’ll end up old and ugly like me.”

Sharon grinned in spite of herself. Cooper was 46 years old and hardly unattractive, not that that mattered. He was married and had a huge number of children, by all reports.

Sharon dropped her badge and bent quickly to pick it up. Cooper dove, as well, but Sharon got the badge first. She also got a nice chunk of ice, which she quickly slipped underneath the collar of his suit. Cooper yelped as the ice hit the warmth of his skin, but he stood up, laughing.

Man, that’s cold!” he said.

Tanaka laughed hard. “Wheatly, you and I are going to be very good friends.”

She held up her hand for a high five and Sharon swatted it.

Be that as it may,” said Cooper, still smiling. “Both you ladies better remember, you’re playing in the big leagues now.”

And he swooped inside the West Wing entrance.

Tanaka laughed again, but it was more than a little hesitant. “Yipes. We’re in for it.”

Oh.” Sharon swallowed her own fear. “Well. He’ll have to be very careful if he wants to mess with me.”

Tanaka opened the office door. “I like your spirit. Good luck, but I like your spirit.”

She pointed Sharon to the security office, then went on to her own. Sharon finished the final computer forms and got her badge and ID and directions to her own office.

It was blessedly empty. Sharon set her box on her new desk and fell into the padded, but aging swivel chair, all pretense at being strong and formidable gone.

Moving In

Inez Santiago angrily snapped her mobile phone shut and glared out at the New York City traffic.

“Mi amor?” Michael Wheatly asked, softly.

He was sitting next to her in the back seat of the limo, gently strumming his six-string classical guitar. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown eyes in a perfectly balanced face, topped off by blond hair that he was wearing a little on the longish side for the time being. Inez smiled softly at him in spite of her profound irritation. As stunningly handsome as Michael was, people were always going to be looking at him. But as long as he kept his shirt on and his hair straight, people were not as likely to recognize him.

“That was Bryce,” Inez told him.

“I got that.”

“He’s going to release that song for Sharon as the single off the new album whether we want him to or not.
Michael nodded. “I got that, too.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “Your sister is not going to like it.”

“It doesn’t mention her by name.”

“But you know how skittish she is.”

“Better than you do, Amada.”

Inez shook her head and looked out at the traffic again. She hated limos and Michael did even more than she. But trying to drive through Manhattan after a very long flight was madness and a limo was more comfortable than a taxi.

It had been a dream trip. Michael’s career – which had never completely stalled – was bouncing back to life again, and the previous year had been jam-packed, at best. Then there had been the holidays – a tense week with her family, and after that, the happy, noisy chaos of his. Getting away, just the two of them together, for a month in Australia had been heaven.

Only now, they were home. Not her home. Not even his, really. They had bought a new place together – Michael’s idea. After five years together, it was about time.

“Bryce is an asshole,” Inez said quietly.

“We’ve known that for years,’ Michael replied.

“Thank God you’ve only got one more album on that contract.”

Michael shrugged. “And then what?”

“You’ve got a name. We could go independent and you’ll still get air time on the radio. Maybe we could get a website going. Besides, by the time you get that last album made, who knows what the business will be like by then? You may never have to make a whole album at a time again.”

Michael strummed some more. “Who cares? I’m betting it’s not Bryce that’s got you on edge, anyway.”

Inez fidgeted with the cell phone.

“Am I right?” Michael asked.

“Close enough.”

“We don’t have to do this. I can buy you out of your share of the apartment.”

“And then what?” Inez smiled softly at him. “We can’t go back to the way it was before, Miguel, even if I wasn’t managing you. If I wait ‘til I’m ready, we’ll both be in our graves.”

“I thought you not being ready was why we’re not married.” Michael grinned.

Inez lightly punched his upper arm. “One step at a time, amado. Let me get used to living with you, first.”

And, sure enough, the limo pulled up in front of the Upper East Side apartment building and stopped. Inez caught her breath as Michael smiled and took her hand.

“There’s no getting used to me,” he chuckled. “But we can and will make it work.”

Working Together

Sharon knew she was definitely more nervous as the guard escorted her from the guard house. Kent barely glanced at her from his desk, then pushed the intercom.

“Mr. President, Ms. Wheatly is here.”

“Please send her in.”

That raised Kent’s eyebrows, but he just glanced at Sharon and nodded toward the door.

He was alone in the office and standing behind his desk. Sharon tried not to gulp, but her insides were going again, only this time it had nothing to do with nerves.

“Hi,” Mark said softly.

There she was, this time in a dark gray dress. Her hair was up and her eyes, yes, her eyes were definitely a deep, rich brown.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Uh, please sit down.” He gestured to the couch, then waited for her to sit before sitting in the chair across from her.

“Thank you,” Sharon said.

“Well, about this job thing,” Mark started slowly, looking everywhere but at her.

“Yeah, about that.” Sharon sighed deeply.

“Yeah.” Mark swallowed. “I think we both know we have a little problem with that.”

Sharon nodded. “Without question.” She looked at him and the words came tumbling out. “Look, it’s not you. I mean, obviously, it’s you. But you, as a person, are not why I can’t do this. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“I think so. You don’t want to date the boss.”

“Oh no. I don’t care about that.” Sharon flushed. “I’ve dated my boss before. It wasn’t any big deal and we broke up and worked together for another two years before I left. Everybody knew about it and nobody cared.”

“Only this time, it’s different.”

“Way different. You’re… It’s all this.” Sharon waved her hands to indicate the office. “I couldn’t take the publicity. It’s happened before. I’ve had my fifteen minutes and it was the worst time of my life, bar none. I never want to go through that again.”

Mark nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved. “I can understand that, I think. And you’ve got a point. Which has really put me on the horns of a dilemma. Ms. Wheatly, I need the work you can do. You are my top candidate several times over.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Sharon blurted out. “Your personal advisors are almost all PhDs and older.”

“And not one of the folks I’ve been considering has your breadth of interest, your language skills, and most importantly, your sense of humor and your willingness to stand me down.”

“Mr. President, I can’t take this job!” Sharon squeaked, then fought to get control again. After all, she was a professional, an executive who had faced down CEOs all over the world. So what was it about this guy that had her acting like she was in high school all of a sudden?

“Yes, you can,” Mark said. “Because I don’t want you to get any publicity, either.”

“What?”

Mark got up and started pacing. “I’m not sure how to say this. But I think it’s a fairly safe and objective observation that you are an attractive woman. And, as you have just pointed out, when an attractive woman gets around me, people tend to talk about it and she gets photographed and well, you know how it goes.”

“All too well.”

“Which is why putting you in the public eye would not be good. That kind of talk can be very hard on your credibility and I can’t have that in an advisor.”

“Which is why I can’t take the job.”

“That’s exactly why you need to.” Mark turned and grinned at her.

Sharon felt her mouth open and then close. “That makes no sense, whatsoever.”

Mark returned to his chair and leaned forward. “I’m laying the cards on the table, consequences be damned. There’s something going on here. You. Me. I can barely breathe, there’s so much electricity going on.”

“Me, either,” Sharon said softly.

“And obviously, there are some significant obstacles for both of us in terms of a personal relationship. For you, there’s the publicity. For me, well, let’s just say it’s a similar issue. But if we were working together, it would be out there. It would be public, true. But there would be witnesses that nothing is going on. We’re co-workers and nothing else. No story. And it will be very hard to sustain those kinds of rumors for any length of time.”

“I doubt that,” said Sharon.
Mark shrugged. “Maybe not. But without concrete evidence, it would be very hard for the media to keep it going.”

“Possibly.” Sharon felt herself weakening. “But, since the cards are on the table, what about a personal relationship? Is that definitely out?”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” Sharon winced. “I mean, I guess, this whole frisson thing between us. That’s sweet and romantic and all. But… I’m really messed up. There’s part of me that could easily do the whole romantic, falling in love thing. And I’d really want to, if it weren’t for the fact that this will not be an easy break up.”

Mark sighed. “I’m at least as messed up. I wasn’t joking during the debates when I said the last thing I was interested in was getting romantically involved while I was in office. This job is 24/7. It’s consuming like nothing else on the planet. I literally have to turn the lights out in the West Wing so folks will go home.” He paused. “But then you walked into my office, and if this is what a ton of bricks feels like, then, yeah, I got hit with them.” He looked at her. “I can’t do a relationship right now.”

“And I don’t want to risk it.” Sharon sighed. “The only thing worse would be giving you up.”

“I know.” Mark looked at her hopefully. “Think we can try to stay just friends for the next eight years?”

Sharon laughed sadly. “Do you honestly think that’s possible?”

He shrugged. “It’s possible. The work is pretty consuming, and I can’t imagine having that much time to, well, do the relationship thing, in the first place.”

“I suppose. And my Tante Berthilde always says if it’s going to last, no need to rush into it.”

“Fine. We’ll just take things really, really slowly and focus on keeping a platonic friendship between co-workers.” He stood. “So, you’ll take the job, then?”

She stood. “I guess so.”

He grinned. “Then, in the name of platonic friendship, let’s have some coffee.”

Sharon looked over at the credenza where the thermal pot was. “Ethiopian harrar?”

“Nope. Sumatran.” Mark showed her a white ceramic crock and popped open the seal.

Sharon sniffed the beans and sighed happily. “That’s Cecil’s work, all right.”

“Yep. I’ve got the burr grinder right here. And I’ve got to buzz Johnnie. Do you mind doing the grind? For French press?”

“No problem. Where’s your water?”

“There’s an instant heat kettle.” Mark went over to his desk and buzzed. “Johnnie, need you to come in with Ms. Wheatly’s paperwork, please. And bring your mug.”

Johnetta appeared moments later, then stepped back in shock as Sharon expertly operated the grinder.

“Perfect,” Mark said, readying the carafe with the special plunger attachment that would separate the coffee from the grounds. “Sumatran mandheling, Johnnie.”

“Sumatran? And you let Ms. Wheatly touch your grinder?” Johnnie said.

Mark paused, looking guilty. “Uh, kindred spirits on the coffee front.”

Sharon caught his eyes and nodded. Discretion was in order. Already.