When Kent Jeffries called to tell Sharon she had an interview at the White House, she was only mildly surprised. She’d heard that the various cabinet offices had been helping the White House hire staffers in their respective fields.
Her first week in Washington had been relatively relaxed. It had only taken three phone calls and two lunches to secure her meeting with Mr. Wallace at the State Department. She’d been a little surprised when Ms. Fritsch had called and requested an interview, but since things were done somewhat differently in the public sector, one had to expect it.
Still, a meeting at the White House. Sharon had to work to keep a professional demeanor as she signed in at the West Gate.
“Mr. Jeffries?” asked the guard, slightly incredulously.
“Yes, Mr. Kent Jeffries.”
“I’ll have to call on that.” He turned and dialed a phone. “Mr. Jeffries, I got a Sharon Wheatly here. Says she’s here to see you…. Oh. I’ll do that. Very good, sir.”
The guard turned back to Sharon and started pulling together the visitor badge and all the other necessary paperwork. Sharon wondered why the guard was so surprised that she wanted to see Mr. Jeffries.
Another guard escorted her to the West Wing, and she couldn’t help giggling with excitement as she walked through the majestic corridors. Jeffries’ desk appeared to be in an outer office and Jeffries, himself, was short, pudgy, with dark, curly hair, glasses and the attitude absolutely necessary for a good gate-keeper. He barely glanced up from his computer as the guard introduced Sharon.
“How do you do, Mr. Jeffries,” she began.
“You’re not here to see me,” he said abruptly, as if she should have known that. His voice was as sharp and nasal as his appearance bespoke.
“All you said on the phone was that you were from the White House and that I had an interview for today at this time,” Sharon said, putting as much authority into her voice as she could.
It was a considerable amount of authority – she had terrified middle managers all over the world with that tone. Nonetheless, Jeffries remained unaffected.
“You’re here to see the president,” he said, his eyes still glued to his monitor as his fingers rattled the keyboard.
Sharon’s heart stopped. Something tugged at the back of her brain suggesting that she should know why, but the shock of hearing who her interviewer was kept the suggestion at bay. There may have been a small betraying tremor, but her outward appearance remained cool. She’d been swimming with the corporate sharks far too long to give anything away that she didn’t need to. That didn’t mean her insides weren’t roiling.
She took multiple, discreet, deep breaths, which didn’t help at all when the intercom buzzed.
“Kent, I’m ready for the candidate now,” said a voice that was more than a little familiar.
Mark was trying to get a couple more seconds in on the latest briefing on pork belly subsidies when Kent announced Ms. Sharon Wheatly and shut the door. He glanced over the top of the papers and saw legs. Shapely legs. He lowered the report and looked over the new candidate. She was wearing a suit, a lighter blue than you mostly saw on The Hill, and while it looked perfectly business-like, there was something else about it. The shape of the jacket was different – which Mark guessed meant it had style, something his sister, June, would have thumped him for missing.
Wheatly looked to be in her early 30s, and her blonde hair was pulled back instead of cut short and hair-sprayed out. But it was her eyes and her face… Standing on the other side of the room, it was hard to tell what color her eyes actually were, just that they were dark. But there was something about her.
Sharon, for her part, saw him appraising her and began to bristle, only to realize she’d been looking him over, too. He was so much better looking in person. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown hair that was just long enough on top to run her fingers through. And his eyes, which were a rich green, and something about the square jaw.
A third voice cleared itself.
“It’s good to meet you, Ms. Wheatly,” Mark said, coming around the desk. “This is Johnetta Washington, my chief of staff.”
Sharon propelled herself forward to shake hands first with the president, then with Ms. Washington.
“Good to meet you, sir. Ma’am,” Sharon replied.
“Please have a seat,” Mark continued. “Would you like some coffee?”
He dashed to the credenza next to the door. Sharon followed his gesture to the sofa in the middle of the room and sat down next to Ms. Washington.
“It’s Ethiopian,” Mark continued, painfully aware that he was chattering and helpless to stop himself. He filled three cups from a thermal pitcher on the credenza. “One of my guilty secrets. I get my own custom roast done.”
“K Street Koffee?” Sharon smiled, relieved and excited. Coffee geek-speak she could do.
“Yeah. Who else?” Mark grinned.
“I love them,” Sharon said. “It’s the only place in town I can get Kenyan Double A that hasn’t been roasted to within an inch of its life.”
Mark handed her a filled cup. “Cecil is amazing. He did some Sumatran Mandheling for me that is beyond belief.”
Sharon sipped as he gave Johnetta her cup. Johnetta glared at him meaningfully as she reached for the cream and sugar on the coffee table in front of her.
“This is so good,” Sharon said. “Maybe just a little sugar to bring out the berry notes?”
“Please.” Mark grinned again, then turned to his desk. “Let me get your resume.”
Sharon noted that there was no paper on the desk and wondered where the resume was. Mark grabbed the tablet computer, then bringing his cup, came around and sat down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table.
“So, you’re looking to join us from the private sector,” he said, after tapping the tablet with a stylus and giving the resume a quick glance. “Why the change?”
It wasn’t the question he’d intended to ask and he caught Johnetta looking at him quizzically. Sharon, however, had expected that question, and had her answer ready, but it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said instead. “I mean, public service. Growing up, all my friends wanted to be models, actors, CEOs. I wanted to be a diplomat, work all over the world, bring people together.”
“And you can’t do that on the corporate side?”
“Not really.” Sharon shrugged. “I guess you can. I just got so tired of the petty egos, the power games.”
“And you’re coming to Washington to get away from that?” Mark looked at her, bemused.
“Naturally.” Sharon laughed. “I know it sounds a little out of the frying pan into the fire. But at least, here, I can pretend that I’m doing some good, making the world a better place.”
“Indeed.” Mark looked over at Johnetta and nodded.
“This is a report on some trade issues with Kuwait,” Johnetta said, handing Sharon another tablet computer. “It was prepared by one of our staffers.”
Sharon looked it over and shook her head. “Well, someone’s not watching Al Jazeera.”
“I’m sure my staff does,” said Mark.
“Yeah, the English version,” Sharon said, looking him square in the face. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is a common mis-translation. It’s not at all consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the original Arabic.”
“That’s right.” Mark looked at the resume again. “That’s one of your ten languages.”
He looked over at Johnetta.
“What she’s saying makes sense given the intel we got this morning,” Johnetta said.
“So how many of those ten languages are you fluent in?” Mark asked.
“All of them,” Sharon said. “That’s why I put them on the resume. I haven’t taken the proficiency tests at State yet, so I don’t know if I qualify as an official translator.” She paused. “But I’ve been able to run circles around most of the embassy translators I’ve run into.”
“Fluent in ten languages.” Mark smiled and looked over at Johnetta, who was smiling. “And I thought I was doing well, fumbling through with high school Spanish.”
“For most Americans, you are,” Sharon said. “I’ve just been multi-lingual all my life. My mom’s from the French-speaking part of Belgium. My dad’s American. And we had a Mexican nanny. So I’ve been speaking English, French and Spanish as long as I can remember. Then we moved to Germany when I was seven, so I learned German, and Italian, when we moved there. By that point, I realized I wanted to join the diplomatic corps, so I learned Russian and Japanese. And started taking Chinese around then, too. And learned Hebrew and Arabic. My biggest weakness is the African languages. I’ve only got a smattering in a couple. Although I’m working on learning Igbo. Nigeria is one of those up and coming areas.”
“Oh, it is,” said Mark, somewhat ruefully.
The suggestion that had tugged at Sharon’s brain earlier suddenly popped up front and center.
“Is this about taking Andy Shepherd’s job?” she asked suddenly.
Johnetta sat up straight. “You mean you didn’t know what this was about?”
“No. No one said anything about any specific job,” Sharon said. “When I went in to talk to Mr. Wallace, over at the State Department, last week, it was just an informational interview. Then Mrs. Fritsch called, but she never said anything about any specific job, and all she wanted to talk about was my past work. So I thought she was just trying to place me, and since I wasn’t going after any specific position, I didn’t ask. So I didn’t know what to think when Mr. Jeffries called. He didn’t even say who I’d be interviewing with.”
“Really,” said Mark, looking over at Johnetta.
“I’ll speak to Kent,” Johnetta said. “I’m sorry about that, Ms. Wheatly. Since our process is geared at finding the right people, we try to strip any potentially prejudicial information off resumes and the like. Although in the effort to not get too much information, we sometimes let out too little. More to the point, are you interested in the position?”
“Are you kidding? Talk about my dream job!” Sharon sat back and paused to gather herself together.
“It’s more a research position,” Mark said. “I’m afraid it’s not to advise on policy, per se.”
“I understand. That’s why you have the Secretary of State. “
“Right. The World Affairs Advisor mostly just keeps me updated on what’s going on around the world,” Mark said. “We’ll be meeting twice a week with the other advisors, plus whenever I need additional briefings.”
“Pure research,” sighed Sharon. “Sounds wonderful.”
The intercom buzzed. “Mr. President, the members of the River Barge Commission are waiting in the Map Room for their meeting with you.”
“I’ll be right there, Kent,” Mark addressed the air behind him, then looked at Johnetta. “River Barge Commission?”
“Essay contest grip and grin,” she replied.
“Oh, right.” He stood and Sharon and Johnetta stood with him. “Well, Ms. Wheatly, it really was a pleasure. I’ve got to go through channels, but we’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sharon answered, shaking his hand. “I’ll look forward to it.”
He buzzed the intercom. “Kent, will you escort Ms. Wheatly to the gate, please?”
“Thank you.” He looked up. “Thank you, Ms. Wheatly.”
“Thank you, sir.” Sharon turned and left the room.
Mark looked over at Johnetta. “What the hell just happened there?”
“You don’t know?” Johnetta smiled. “Well, I’m not going to tell you, then. But the bad news is, you’ve got to hire her. She’s the only one who’s stood up to you.”
“I know,” Mark said softly.
“Come on.” Johnetta gently took his arm. “Let’s go smile pretty for the river barge people.”