Another Light Missing
by Jae, Luna, and Lydia
Some days require extra patience, extra aspirin with her first cup of coffee. Some days require nicotine, and C.J. suspects that's the way this one is headed.
At nine-thirty in the morning her mouth is already a little dry; pressure is already building in the arches of her feet. She sets her hands lightly against the back of the podium and concentrates on the answer she's going to give as soon as Arthur finishes asking his question.
"Well, naturally the President's looking forward to working with the incoming Congress," she says, clearing her throat. "In fact, he sent fruit baskets to all twenty-nine new members."
Arthur tries to read her deadpan and raises an eyebrow. "Fruit baskets?"
"You know. California oranges, Washington apples. Pomegranates. Or, as the President calls them, 'those pink things I don't like.'" She gets a laugh, a minor one, and smiles in return. "I think that's all I have for--"
"C.J." Danny's been back for five weeks and already he thinks he's home; he doesn't even raise his hand in briefings. He points his pen at her and says, "You'll come back and update us?"
"On what? How many incoming Congressmen it takes to change a light bulb?"
"On whatever's going on over by Dupont Circle."
It probably isn't a good sign that she's got to concentrate to remember the beginning of her own briefing. Dupont Circle: some kind of rally, some kind of riot, police and camera crews on the scene. "Right," she says, and turns decisively away from the microphone, finished for the time being.
Carol follows, and takes the briefing packet from her by reflex, exchanging it for another, thicker folder of messages. C.J. barely looks at it. "Do we know anything more about whatís happening?"
"At this point, we barely even know for sure that anything is happening," says Carol.
"Well, it's a good thing we don't get paid to collect and dispense information." She tosses the messages back into Carol's hands. "See if you can get someone on the phone. I'll try and find out if anyone around here knows more than we do. Unthinkable as that sounds," she adds, and nods to Carol before they turn different corners.
Just outside the Roosevelt Room, someone crashes into her arm and stumbles past her. Normally she's patient--everyone's in a hurry--but this time she spins around, ready to bite off an unsuspecting intern's head. Except it isn't an intern. It's Will Bailey, and already he looks sufficiently nervous and guilty.
"Sorry," he says, and actually seems to swallow "ma'am" as the follow-up.
"Well, no bones broken," she says, keeping her mood on a leash; it has nothing to do with him. "Everybody's under everybody else's feet here."
"I'm really sorry."
"Will, it's okay." She starts to turn away and then reverses herself. "You don't know anything about what's going on at Dupont Circle, do you?"
He pushes his glasses farther up his nose. "I don't even know what's going on in this building."
"That only lasts for the first couple of years," she says. "Thanks anyway."
"My guess is you spent a good half-hour this morning trying to track down exactly what state the pomegranates came from."
A smile spreads across her face, the first genuine smile of the day. "Ten minutes, but it felt like half an hour," she says. He nods. Just before she turns away the second time, she asks him, "Hey, you donít smoke, do you?"
Puzzled wrinkles cross his forehead. "No."
"I didn't think so," she says, not quite sighing as she walks down the hall. Noise filters past her: the chirp of a fax machine, her heels' muffled noise on the carpet, someone sneezing. Then she's standing outside Toby's office. He is staring at his laptop screen, and doesn't look up when she knocks on the doorframe. His hands aren't on the keyboard.
He knows she's there, but his eyes don't move. "What?"
They're not much for banter these days. Either they're distracted or they don't have the energy. She doesn't think any harder about it, just gets straight to the point. "What do you know about a march over on Dupont Circle?"
"I know I was stuck in traffic for almost an hour trying to get around it," he says. "And I know it's not a march."
"Okay." She rests a hand on her hip. "How's it coming?"
"Whatever you're working on."
"If they were marching, they'd be marching to the Mall," he says, leaning his chair back, frowning at her. "Probably the Reflecting Pool. In which case, they'd have gotten clearance from Park Police, the route would already have been blocked off, and we would have known about it two weeks ago. It's coming fine."
"I can tell," she says, rolling her eyes. She takes a couple backward steps, and when she's sure he's got nothing else to say she leaves him.
She breathes in and out, wondering what kind of miracle it would take for her to finish work at noon and put her feet up on her desk. She starts to swing into Josh's office, pulls up short as Donna backs over the threshold, folding her arms and announcing furiously, "I was *not* looking at porn!"
Josh's eyes twinkle at C.J. over Donna's shoulder. "Let me just lay the situation out here. You were sitting in front of a computer. It was your computer. There were naked people on the screen. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury--"
Donna twirls around in the doorway and notices C.J. "Could you tell him to stop saying I was looking at porn?"
She looks back and forth between the two of them. "First, could you stop saying 'porn' at the top of your lungs?"
Donna begins what's sure to be a ramble of an explanation. "I went to White House dot-com instead of White House dot-gov. It turns out White House dot-com is a p--an adult site." She takes a breath; her cheeks are flushed like apple skins. "I didn't know that! How could I know that?"
"I knew that," C.J. says. They blink at her. She shrugs. "We get around a dozen e-mails about it every week."
"The point is, I was looking for the White House site, and I just got sidetracked."
"By porn," Josh points out, grinning when Donna turns even redder.
C.J. sees her chance and edges away, nodding good morning to Larry as he hurries past. The TV set mounted from the ceiling is broadcasting Katie Couric's perky hair and surgical smile into the bullpen. Suddenly its low sound stops dead. When C.J. looks up, Today has been replaced by the network's graphic: breaking news.
"Anyway," Josh is saying, behind her, "why were you looking for the White House site in the first place?" Donna mumbles something as Josh squeezes past her. "What?"
"I wanted to see if I could find my picture on it anywhere," Donna repeats, only a little louder.
"Your picture wouldn't be on the official site," Josh says. "White House dot-com, on the other hand--"
"Josh," C.J. snaps, waving her hand vaguely in his direction, and his voice subsides a little. The breaking news graphic gives way to one of the local news anchors, a down-market Katie who seems a little lost.
"Good morning," the anchor says. Her smile is incongruous with the flutter of nerves in her voice. "We're getting reports about an incident of some kind, coming out of Dupont Circle, where apparently a gay rights rally was in progress. Our Channel Four breaking news van is on the scene--do we have Kevin yet?"
Everything except the TV screen seems to fade, as if someone turned a dial to dim the lights and the sound in the room. Carol's voice finally registers. "C.J.? I have a spokesman from the Chief of Police's office on the phone."
"Tell him to hold on," she says without turning her head. Josh hears something in her tone, stops chuckling and comes to stand near her. Donna picks it up, too. The three of them are very still as the connections are finally made and the picture changes.
The reporter is standing in front of the portable metal barriers the District police use to blockade an area, which look flimsy and forbidding at the same time. On the other side, a cop in uniform has corralled a small group of young women; the cop is speaking and the women are holding hands and crying. There is something lying in the street, in the background--it takes C.J. a few seconds to realize it's a trampled cardboard sign. Rainbow stripes broken and splattered with mud.
"Yes," the reporter says. "I'm here at the scene of--what was the scene of a rally for gays and lesbians in the greater Washington area. Apparently the gathering began shortly after six a.m., in an effort to block off rush hour traffic. At approximately eight-fifty-five this morning, shots were fired into a crowd here at Dupont Circle. Behind me you can see that the police are interviewing witnesses--we're receiving unconfirmed reports that there was more than one shooter, and that perhaps ten people have been removed from the scene with serious injuries."
C.J.'s mouth falls open slightly. Her eyes are starting to ache, but she does not, she will not blink. She can feel Josh a step behind her; she can hear him catch his breath.
The sound of a siren bleeds into the broadcast. The reporter cranes his neck, briefly becoming just another witness. He turns around and continues; "I can report with confirmation that there are five--I'm sorry. Six fatalities on the scene. We've been asked by the police not to film the victims, out of consideration for the families that have not yet been notified."
Fleetingly, she wishes she'd found out any other way. Then, with an effort, C.J. tears herself away from the television and the frozen faces watching it. She has to get the phone, get the official line, get ready for what comes next.
The wooden leg of C.J.'s chair juts against the blue carpet in Leo's office. Josh fixes his eyes on it, tethering his thoughts to the only solid thing in his line of vision. Then he forces himself to look up at her.
"--Six dead, at last count," she continues. Her voice is dull.
"How many injured?" Toby asks.
"Ten or eleven, I'm not sure. Four critically."
"They were taken to GW?"
C.J.'s eyes flick over to Josh, and she hesitates, her lips slightly parted. Josh's gaze doesn't waver, but he can feel Leo looking at him as well, a pressure on his temple. He grinds his teeth together and straightens his shoulders. "What I don't get," he says, keeping his voice level, "is how anybody in their right mind could hold an outdoor rally in January."
C.J. pinches her mouth in a ghost of a smile. She turns toward Toby. "They're all at GW."
"How did this happen?" Leo asks. "I mean, nobody walks around crowded city streets with an assault rifle in the middle of a rally without being spotted."
"It looks as if there were two shooters. They came at the crowd from two sides before getting away."
"They had a car?"
"As far as we know, the shooting occurred on foot, but they had a car," C.J. confirms.
"Didn't anybody see them?" Leo's voice rises.
Her shoulders slump slightly. "We don't know yet."
The room falls silent; they're holding one collective breath. Josh drops his eyes to the carpet and curls his fingers around the arms of his chair. The wood presses against the scar on the palm of his hand.
"There's going to have to be some official reaction from the White House," Toby says. "Something that goes beyond 'the President's thoughts are with the victims and their families.'"
Josh reaches for something beyond, something with meaning. He looks up. "Hate crimes legislation," he blurts, as it comes to him. Now they're all looking at him. "We could resurrect it."
Leo squints. "Now?"
"Now." Josh nods.
"It'll be seen as exploiting tragedy for political gain."
"Or making sure the guys who did this won't get away with it again." Josh shifts to the edge of his chair, trying to make himself stay seated. "This is exactly the time to move. Nobody in Congress wants to hear about something like this happening on their doorstep."
"Josh is right," C.J. says, and Josh's eyebrows shoot up. He catches her eyes, recognizing the fire in them. A jolt of energy rushes through him. "The current statute doesn't cover hate violence based on sexual orientation. The official response could include a mention that the shooters would be prosecuted under the new law if only--"
"We've at least got to wait until the bodies are cold," Leo says.
Josh shakes his head and locks his eyes on Leo's. "Two amendments on hate crimes have been stricken and a separate bill's dead in committee. If we want to push this thing through before we turn the White House over to some other guy, we've got to do it now."
"I'll take it to the President."
He clenches a fist against the arm of his chair. "We could start--"
"I'll take it to the President." Leo's eyes are steel.
"I'll save you a walk."
Josh's head jerks up. The President is standing in the doorway that connects his own office with Leo's. "Good morning, sir," Josh mumbles, jumping to his feet. Three chairs squeak as the others echo both the motion and the greeting.
"That's all right," he says, motioning with his hand. "I just wanted to make sure Toby and Will Bailey are working on the speech."
Toby blinks. "What speech?"
"The one I'll be giving later today, condemning the attack at Dupont Circle and coming out with a strong statement in support of new hate crimes legislation?" He cocks his head at Leo. "I mean, I'm assuming there'll be a speech."
"We hadn't discussed..." Leo begins.
"Discuss it now." The President's voice is light, but they all know it's an order, and that's why they've all stayed on their feet.
"I think there has to be a speech," C.J. says, one hand tightening on the back of her chair. "I think if we don't address this it's a betrayal of who we are." She pauses. Josh watches her chin dip and then come back up. "I mean, it will look like a betrayal. From a PR standpoint."
"And here we were worrying about seeming exploitative," Toby mutters. "Coming out--" He stops, catching himself, and Josh rolls his eyes "--coming out on TV to push our agenda the same day as a tragedy, that's marvelous PR."
"We shouldn't even have to argue about this," Josh says. Toby turns his head, but Josh can match him glare for glare. "Come on," he adds, "if this had happened in a suburban high school, would we be asking whether it would look good for the President to address it?"
The words sink in across the room, and then the President nods just once. "It doesn't matter how it plays," he says. "There's been a tragedy and we're going to speak to it. As for the legislation itself?"
Josh breathes in, his chest expanding, and tips his head back. He clenches his jaw and says, "I'm gonna cover it." His voice sounds good; it sounds confident.
One of Leo's eyebrows arches up. "You don't think you should farm it out to Legislative Affairs?"
"You want the bill this month?" Josh asks. He looks around Leo's office, settling his gaze on Toby and C.J. "You guys will be busy putting together the speech. I can get on the phone."
No one says anything immediately, and the hesitation puts a nagging tension in Josh's neck. But the President nods once more. "I want the perpetrators of these crimes to live with the kind of fear they force upon their victims. And I want the country behind it." His voice and his eyes are clear and level. Not a hint of doubt. "You'll get it done," he says.
They know their cues. Toby lowers his head and C.J. raises hers, and they file out of Leo's office. Josh relaxes a little bit, and follows them.
Carol's placed a latte on the corner of the desk without saying anything. Not for the first time, C.J. remembers she's lucky to have her.
"Call Paul Hackett first," C.J. says, as she walks into her office. She picks up the cobalt mug, wrapping her cold hands around it. "Give him maybe a fifteen minute heads-up."
"It won't look like we have a bias toward NBC, will it?" Carol asks lightly from the doorway. "Because if anything, we should be sucking up to CBS. Retirees vote."
"And they're so fond of gay people." C.J. sips her coffee. "I want to talk to Paul first anyway. We'll do these calls and then check in with the police again."
Carol nods and leaves, and C.J. circles to the other side of her desk. When she sits down, her chair squeaks; it's only three years old but already wearing out. She sets the coffee mug on top of the morning's Post and runs her hands lightly over her face. Her fingers linger at her temples. Briefly, she almost forgets where she is.
She picks up the receiver of her phone and gets the automatic dial tone; Carol hasn't been patched through to Hackett's extension yet. Her fingers play over the keypad. She knows her brother's numbers in Napa, home and office, by heart. And she probably knows exactly what he'll say.
"Yeah," he'll say, "it's terrible. The thing is, I feel like I should be shocked or something, but I'm not. People like them hate people like me, and I gotta say, at this point, the feeling is mutual."
Or he'll say, "I'm all right, Ceej. What about you?"
It won't matter what he says, she decides; it will be worth it to hear his voice. She takes another fast swallow of her latte to wash the tight feeling out of her throat, and starts to raise the phone to her ear.
Danny says, "You're using my article as a coaster. I'm touched, is what I am."
She puts the phone back in the cradle and looks up at Danny. "Only the copy I didn't paste into my scrapbook. Why exactly does Carol let you back here?"
"My winning smile," he says, displaying it.
"What do you want?" she asks. She's not in the mood for high-school flirting. Not today.
He leans casually against the doorframe, though she knows this conversation will be anything but casual. "You guys are gonna bring back the hate crimes bill?"
"Danny," she warns, the sigh thick in her voice.
"C.J." he sends back. "You're bringing back the hate crimes bill."
"I'm not discussing that with you."
"Come on, C.J."
She stands, to defend herself. Her shoulders slump, and she flattens her hand on her old maple desk. Support. "Last year, a student at the University of Michigan outed himself in the campus newspaper. He was also on the school's hockey team. Two days later he was rushed to the emergency room after a particularly hard day of practice."
Danny lifts himself up from the doorframe. "I'm not..." he begins.
"Two of his teammates checked him so hard during a scrimmage, he was knocked out. And then one of them *accidentally* broke three of his ribs with his hockey stick."
"C.J., that's not what--"
A pinched line is forming between her eyebrows. "His own teammates, Danny. They were friends, until they found out this kid was gay."
"And those teammates were punished, right? For the crime they committed."
"Do you know how many lynchings there were between 1865 and 1965?"
"Too many, but that's not the point."
"Yes it is!" Her voice has gotten louder than it should have, in less time than it should have. "Yes, it is the point. There has to be a repercussion for killing someone just for being different!"
"And there is. A murder's a murder. You can't play thought police. You can't play Big Brother."
It's her big brother she's worried about, but she refuses to say that. "There needs to be another level. A higher standard. Something. I've heard all the arguments. A murder is a murder. I know that. But here's another argument for you, Danny. Lynchings didn't happen in ones and twos. We can't tolerate a society that sees bigotry as just another motive. Because one beating will lead to one hundred beatings. And today's shooting didn't just hurt the victims, it hurt the entire gay and lesbian community. And their families, and their friends."
Danny's mouth is open and he's about to say something else when Carol knocks on the door. A lifeboat. "Paul Hackett on line two," she says, and glances from C.J. to Danny before she turns on her heel and leaves.
"Thanks, Carol," C.J. says even though she's already gone.
Danny gives her a look. He knows, of course, who Paul Hackett is. But he isn't moving.
"I have to take this," she says, looking at her desk. She slows her breathing to calm herself down.
"You can't get rid of the First Amendment that easily," Danny says, as if she hadn't known he'd be back.
She picks up the receiver, punches the button beneath the flashing orange light. "Hey. Paul. Have you missed me?" she greets him, as she watches Danny walk out.
It's a little too hot in Josh's office, and he's fighting the temptation to roll up his sleeves or loosen his tie. He grabs the remote control off his desk and flips through the news channels, leaving the sound off. There's nothing new to hear. Some kid at the rally must have had a camcorder, though, and sooner or later someone will have the exclusive, a confused and shaky ten-second clip ending with a tumble to the ground. Josh doesn't know he's staring at the screen until he hears Donna cough discreetly at the door.
"Congressman Bristoll's here," she says, as he turns his head. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah, I--of course I'm ready." He shrugs his shoulders straight, drags his chair a couple inches forward. She's still watching him. "What?" he asks, managing to grin at her. "Something in my hair?"
Donna tilts her head. "You left the TV on."
He jabs a finger at the remote's power button and the screen goes black. "Go get the guy."
"I'm going to get the guy."
He moves some papers around on his desk and stands up a moment before the Congressman comes in. Glenn Bristoll is an inch or two taller than Josh, with graying sideburns, a farm boy's face, and a good grip. They shake hands across the desk. "I haven't been here in a while," Bristoll says cheerfully. "Did this office get bigger?"
Josh quirks an eyebrow and glances around. "Yeah, when the Secret Service isn't looking I've been in here knocking out walls. Have a seat, Congressman." So they sit down opposite each other, smiles fading now that the business of welcome is over. Josh wraps his hands around the ends of his chair's arms. "You know why you're here," he says.
A frown crinkles Bristoll's face for the first time. "A terrible thing happened today, and it happened right in our backyard."
"And because you're on the Judiciary committee," Josh says, leaning forward. "We--that is, the President believes this is the time to revisit the federal hate crimes statutes. Specifically, to revisit the American Law Enforcement Reinforcement Act."
Bristoll scratches his chin while he registers this. "It's not a good idea," he says finally.
"Honestly, which one of you thought that 'Enforcement Reinforcement' was a clever name?" Josh wonders, scanning the summary of the bill Donna put on his desk. "Of course it's a good idea, Glenn. You've wanted to get this thing out of committee for years. When something like what happened today--if this isn't a time to make laws condemning hate crimes, when do you propose we do it?"
"It's not 'not a good idea' because--" Bristoll stops, folds his hands in his lap, and begins again. "I'm not talking about the timing. I'm not talking about the content of the law. I'm talking about the fact that you're going to be out there, you're going to put the President out there for something that's not going to fly."
Josh puts the sheet of paper down and looks at the Congressman down the end of his nose. "You're telling me you don't think, in these circumstances, we can get this bill through the House?"
Slowly, Bristoll shakes his head from side to side. "I'm telling you that we may not get it out of committee. And you should realize that before one of you goes on television and embarrasses the President."
"First of all..." Josh stands up, circles to the back of his chair and places his hands on top of it. "You're the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, and if you can't swing one Republican to your side to let a bill out of committee, that's embarrassing. And if you're refusing to, that's more than embarrassing, that's--that's insulting."
"Forget the Republicans." Bristoll doesn't get up; he looks so relaxed he might be growing into part of the chair. Only the frown is growing more tense. "I'm not worried about swinging a Republican, I'm worried about our guys."
"Democrats," he explains. "Democrats who just squeezed through an election and have another one to squeeze through in two years. The center of the party isn't where it used to be, Josh. There are Democratic members of Congress who don't support this law because it's going to remind people that they're liberals. And some of them sit on the Judiciary committee."
Josh stands still, his hands stuck to the top of the chair, the beginnings of sweat tickling the back of his neck. He looks into Glenn Bristoll's face, and past him, at dust in the sunlight, at nothing at all.
"Give me names," he says.
"You're going to bully them into voting for this? You want to spend their political capital and the President's on something this unpopular and unenforceable?"
"I want to have a civilized conversation about the party platform." He draws his head up and looks Bristoll in the eyes. "It's your party, too. I want their names."
Reluctantly, Bristoll stands up, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "You'll have to talk to Warren, Harrigan, and Sarah Dade."
Josh rubs his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and exhales loudly. "I can hardly believe I have to debate this with Democrats."
Bristoll glances curiously at him. "You should get out more often," he says.
"Donna will see you out," Josh murmurs, and doesn't offer his hand to shake. He watches Bristoll walking away, but his eyes are out of focus. Dade. Harrigan. Warren. He needs to write the names down so he can hand them to Donna when she comes back.
He pulls his chair out from the desk. Harder, it turns out, than he meant to: it rolls backward and thuds into the wall. He yanks it back into place and sits down, reaching for his pen and the TV remote at the same time.
All three executives are already in the Roosevelt Room when C.J. opens the door. They've arranged themselves on alternate sides of the broad table, two seats between each of them. She can tell they've been studying each other, sizing each other up without sympathy. Now they're ready to give her the same treatment.
Lonnie Manross from ABC stands and gives her what he must think is a charming smile. Paul Hackett follows his lead a moment later, but C.J. waves them down before he's entirely out of his chair. She sets a stack of folders and her reading glasses on the table, and rests against it without sitting. "You've all seen the news since this morning."
They look appropriately solemn as they nod. Saundra Tozier, who just took over CBS, whispers "terrible" under her breath.
"As you can imagine, the President's deeply troubled by the shooting today," she goes on. "He plans to address the nation at eight-thirty this evening, barring any unforeseen events, and he'd like you to give him the broadcast time."
C.J. watches their nervous glances go around the table, like loose electric energy. They're sizing each other up, and it seems like the woman either loses or wins. Saundra reaches to the back of her neck, unfastens her tortoiseshell clip and lets her thick hair fall. "How long?" she asks.
"Excuse me?" C.J. straightens up and looks down her nose and the length of the table.
Lonnie's bomber jacket creaks as he leans forward, lacing his fingers together. "She means, how long is the speech going to be?"
"Toby Ziegler's drafting it right now." She tilts her head to the side, wishing she had a firm answer. "You all know writers can be a little unpredictable; you'll have copy at least ninety minutes before we go on the air."
There's another pause, and it's obvious that something isn't right. She looks at Paul; he's sitting closest to her, but he dodges her gaze, staring at the tabletop. "Uh, C.J.," he says, "We have a problem."
She folds her arms across her chest, channeling every disapproving schoolteacher she's ever had or heard of, and arches one eyebrow as she says, "Do we?"
"The thing is, it's a Thursday." Lonnie shows her his teeth again. "And it's the beginning of February sweeps."
C.J. blinks lazily at him so he'll realize his gray temples and his grin aren't working on her. "February sweeps traditionally begin in February, don't they?"
"You may think it's funny." Saundra tips her head back so that her hair slides off her shoulders. "But this is how we do business."
Before C.J. can say anything, Paul inches closer to the table, his head ducked in something like an apology. "Sandy's point is, without specifications, on a night like tonight it's hard for us to juggle our schedules--"
"I got the point." She gives him a thin smile. "Guys, I worked in Hollywood for years, remember? I know how sweeps work. You've been promoting your programs, you've lined up hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising, and the networks have been losing viewers to cable at a pretty steady rate, am I right?" They nod, and she adds, "This is an important time for you."
"Exactly what I was saying," Saundra says.
C.J. drums her fingers on her upper arm. "Well, that's a load of crap."
"Claudia," Paul murmurs, and it stretches what's left of her patience.
"You think I care about how you do business? Do you think anyone cares? Because I'm sure the seventeen mothers whose children were shot this morning don't."
"Our news department's covering it, C.J.," Lonnie says. She isn't sure, but it's possible he rolls his eyes. "It'll be our top story at six-thirty, it'll be our top story at eleven."
"That's not enough," she says, arms dropping to her sides. Her hands are clenched. She opens them, draws a deep breath and lets it out. "We believe that's not enough. The attack today is the kind of thing Americans have nightmares about. It's exactly the kind of thing that warrants a Presidential response."
None of them are looking at her now. Finally Saundra purses her cherry-colored lips and says, "That's one way to look at it."
"What's another way to look at it?"
She hesitates a little. "There's an audience that already believes our news departments are biased toward the liberal, gay-friendly perspective. That audience will see this as, well, provoked. These people were demonstrating in the street, blocking traffic, causing trouble--obviously, no one in this room would suggest it was anything but a vicious attack, but there are people in the audience who would question how we prioritize it."
"I'm talking about addressing the American people," C.J. says, through clenched teeth.
"The American people hear the words 'gay' and 'shooting' and change the channel," Lonnie says, cracking his knuckles. "It's not about them, it's just a waste of their time."
C.J.'s throat is dry and drawn. Her face must be turning red; the executives are looking at her like she's an animal they've cornered. And maybe she is, but she makes herself swallow anyway, so she can speak again. "The White House is requesting your cooperation," she says. Her voice is flat and hard. "Do you want me to report to the President that it isn't forthcoming?"
Nobody says anything, and that's enough of an answer. Finally Paul pushes himself up to his feet, reaching out to graze C.J.'s elbow with his fingertips. "Any other day," he says. "I mean that literally, and I think I speak for everyone here."
She flinches away from the faint touch. "If you'll all follow me, please."
Lonnie gets part of the way out of his chair, his hands still on its arms. "Listen, C.J., nobody wants--"
"I'm done with this meeting," she says. Stone in her voice. She leaves it to an intern to show them the door; she doesn't want to look at them anymore.
The crying kids leaning against the gate are the same kids they showed earlier this morning, but this time the clip is followed by blurry footage of two guys in the back of a squad car. Their faces are ducked down, hidden beneath identical navy blue baseball caps. Two white guys with guns. Josh swallows.
"You got your meeting."
Josh's shoulders tense, and his head jerks up. "What?"
Donna's standing in the doorway. Her eyes fly over him, a quick once-over. "12:30. I just talked to Harrigan's guy. He can make it. I booked you the Mural Room." Her forehead creases. "They arrested somebody?"
"Yeah," Josh says, keeping his voice level. He hits the mute button, silencing yet another description of the crime scene. "Two suspects."
"Don't you think maybe you should ..." She bites the corner of her lip as her voice trails off.
"Watch something else."
His eyes fall to his desk, and he runs a hand through his hair. "I had it on Oprah, but they brought on one of those dumpy women with a whiny voice, and I had to change the--"
"What?" It comes out louder than he intends. He rolls his shoulders once, straightening. "This is what I'm doing this morning, Donna," he says, more quietly. "This is what's happening."
She gives him a long stare, then an almost imperceptible nod. "Sarah Dade's going to be about five minutes late."
"I'm still trying to get him on the phone, but his secretary let slip that he was free. There's no reason he can't make it."
Josh's forehead wrinkles. "What do you mean, you're still trying to get him on the phone?"
"I mean his secretary's stalling. It sounds like she's stalling."
His eyebrows flatten into a line, and he pushes all the air out of his lungs. "All right. I'm gonna do this." His hand grips the phone, and he looks up to dismiss her.
"225-4663." She's still standing in the doorway.
He dials the number before he can forget it. "Thanks."
"12:30, in the Mural Room."
"I heard you the first time," he says, and she's gone. The receiver is cool against his ear. He traps it between his chin and shoulder and flicks off the television.
"Congressman Warren's office," drones the secretary.
Josh flexes his fingers and grabs hold of the receiver again. "This is Josh Lyman from the White House. Could I please speak to the Congressman?"
"Just one moment, Mr. Lyman," the secretary says, a hint of nervousness prickling the edges of her voice. "I'll put you through."
There's a click, then a long silence. Josh leans back, pinching the back of his neck between his thumb and forefinger.
"Well, if it isn't Josh Lyman, placing his own phone calls." The drawl of Congressman Warren's voice is rich and dark, a perfect imitation of the southern aristocrats whose votes he courts every other year.
The corner of Josh's mouth turns up. Jerome Warren may be southern, but he's no aristocrat. "You might want to try it sometime," Josh suggests. "Make sure you don't forget how."
"I'll keep that in mind." Josh can almost hear his smirk. "So, what can I do for you this morning?"
"This isn't about what you can do for me, it's about what you can do for those six dead kids at Dupont Circle." Josh cradles the receiver in his hand. "Let's get the hate crimes bill out of committee."
"Dupont Circle. Yes." He's speaking slowly, as if to buy himself time. "It's a terrible thing. A terrible thing."
"Terrible crimes deserve terrible punishments, sir."
"There are some pretty terrible punishments for first-degree murder in the District of Columbia, Mr. Lyman."
Josh lays his hand flat against the desk. "You see, the thing is, the seventeen people who were hit weren't the only victims of what happened today. The kid who stays home from the next rally because his biggest fear is no longer that his parents might find out he's gay, but that some son of a bitch an automatic rifle might shoot bullets into his skull, he's a victim too. And there's not just one of him, there are thousands in the D.C. area alone. Maybe tens of thousands. And as things stand right now, there's no punishment for *that* crime."
The Congressman doesn't respond. His breath echoes across the phone line, long and labored. He's had this argument before. Well, he's going to have it again.
"You got anything on your schedule for 12:30?" Josh throws the idea out there, his tone deliberately casual.
The Congressman hesitates. "Well, actually, I'm supposed to be talking to somebody from Andy Ritter's office in half an hour."
Lying bastard. "I'm only asking 'cause your secretary seemed to think you weren't busy," Josh says. "You might want to have a little talk with her about double-booking you."
This time the silence is colder. "Mr. Lyman--"
"12:30, White House Mural Room," Josh snaps. "You can pick up your pass at the gate."
"This isn't the time to--"
"This is the time. Now. Today. 12:30." He slams the phone into its cradle, sending the ringer vibrating against his desk.
Josh tries to settle back in his chair, but a rush of adrenaline propels him up, around his desk, and out of his office. He doesn't turn his head or even glance in the direction of Donna's desk, taking the chance that she'll follow him anyway. For once, she doesn't. He walks like he's in a hurry even though he has nowhere to go, looking up only to glare at a junior staffer who stays too long in his path. So he's surprised, though only mildly, when he finds he's standing outside Sam's office.
But there are framed photographs on the wall instead of the flag with the snake, and it isn't Sam's office anymore. Josh tilts his head from side to side, trying to relax a cramped muscle in his neck. He breathes in deep, lets it trickle out slowly, and rounds the narrow wall to see what Toby's doing.
As it turns out, Toby is hunched over his desk, his eyes narrowed to read line after line of angular writing on a yellow tablet. Will Bailey is sitting on the couch and trying very hard to look comfortable. But he keeps shifting, twisting his hands together. Leaning forward, leaning back.
Josh bumps his shoulder against the frame of the door and crosses his arms. "Hey. How far along is the speech?"
Will straightens his back. "We're close."
The instant he says this, Toby picks a Sharpie up from his desktop without raising his eyes. He runs a thick black line through a sentence or two and mutters, "Not using that."
"We *were* close," Will amends with a sigh. He doesn't seem to realize how impressive it is that Toby's actually reading the draft. Josh crosses past him and walks to the other side of the desk. He scans what he can make out over Toby's shoulder and waits to be shooed away. But the Sharpie stays poised above the paper, and Toby doesn't so much as blink.
Finally, Josh arches one eyebrow and looks over at Will. "How many words in one sentence need to start with 'p'?"
"It's artistry." Will shrugs.
"I see." He rocks on his heels, and his back is against the wall. "Well, somewhere in there between artistic flourishes, I hope you're emphasizing that this bill doesn't just apply to gay people." Toby responds with a grunt, and Josh adds, "I hope you're emphasizing that we're not trying to pass this law because something bad happened. We've thought it was right all along."
"Actually," Will begins, twisting himself around on the couch, "the speech is focused primarily on what happened, and then the hate crimes bill."
"I'm trying to get Congress to make a progressive move here," Josh says, rebounding off the wall, bracing one hand against the desk so that he can bend down and read more of the handwritten draft. "Which is, you know, a bit of a Sisyphian labor, so a little help pushing this rock up the hill would be good."
Toby taps the point of his marker thoughtfully in the margin. "Hmm," he says, as if he's alone in the room. "We'll keep 'immeasurable grief and immeasurable sympathy' until I come up with something better. And I will come up with something better."
"I liked 'immeasurable,'" Will says to himself. He looks at Josh over the upper rims of his glasses. "We really have this under control, Josh. We'll finish the speech, and it'll be a good speech. It'll express the President's reaction and his position--"
"Not using that, either," Toby interrupts.
Will slumps against the back of the couch. "With artistry," he finishes.
Josh frowns at him, at this new kid who's suddenly taking up the space on Toby's couch and in Sam's office, whose voice is irritatingly young and confident. Those are supposed to be virtues. Josh lowers his chin and bites his lip as he paces around to the front of the desk. "Did people call you Willy when you were growing up?" he asks.
"I grew up in Brussels."
"Kids in Belgium didn't think it would be funny to call you Willy?"
Will ducks his head. "Actually, they thought it was hilarious."
"I want the draft as soon as he's finished with it," Josh says, stepping out of Toby's office at the same time to make sure that's the last word.
"March twenty-third, 1999," Danny intones, hovering over C.J.'s table. "'It is not the job of the U.S. Congress to regulate what the American people should be viewing, reading, or thinking.' End quote."
C.J. lifts her spoon to her lips, blowing delicately on the cream of broccoli soup before taking the mouthful. "So you've proven that you have an Internet connection at your desk. I'm impressed."
"Los Angeles, April 2000," he continues. "'The very first change our founding fathers made to the Constitution was to guarantee freedom of speech, and free speech can only arise from free thought.'" He points the manila folder at her like a fencer leveling his sword. "I have an Internet connection, and a memory. Yes."
"He was talking about filmmaking."
"He was talking about the Bill of Rights." Danny turns the chair around and straddles it, slapping the folder down on the table.
She puts her spoon down and picks up a packet of Saltines, using her fingernails to break the plastic wrapping. "Do you want a cracker?"
"What am I, a parrot? I don't want a cracker, I want you to admit I'm right."
"Danny, you're not going to get me to say something's hypocritical when it's not." She breaks one of the Saltines into her bowl before she takes another bite.
"'For nearly four hundred years, this country has been a place of refuge for those individuals who have believed differently, who have held ideas and ideals separate from those of their native states. It remains a nation where people are invited to live freely, and think freely. A nation that honors the people's independence.' End quote." He brings the flat of his hand down on top of the folder. "The Fourth of July, 2002. So when exactly did the President do a one-eighty?"
"Well, you were off chasing rainbows for quite a while," she says, dabbing her lips with a paper napkin. Keeping her cool. "There's no hypocrisy because it's not the same thing. There's a fundamental difference between hating someone and killing them."
"I hate Tommy Tucker," Danny says.
"Who's Tommy Tucker?"
"Kid in my second grade class. He used to chase me on the way home from school."
She looks up from her soup, struggling to keep a straight face. "Was he after your Lucky Charms?"
He crosses his wrists on the back of the chair and squints at her. "It doesn't matter whether I hate him because he's gay or because he stole my girlfriend. Point is, I hate him, and if I kill him, who's to say which reason is worse?"
C.J. turns her head and watches the other tables, which are mostly empty, as on any ordinarily busy day. People grab food and get out of here. She waves to Ed and Larry as they head for the door, juggling cans of Coke and French fries in plastic cartons. "The law makes distinctions based on motive all the time. That's why killing in the heat of passion isn't the same as hiring a hit man."
"Okay." He scoots in even closer to the table. "So say somebody hates all cardiologists, or all math teachers."
Accidentally, she bites the inside of her cheek. "Say somebody hates all reporters," she says. "Hard as it might be to imagine."
"Firing into a crowd of reporters isn't covered under the bill you're backing, or any other hate crimes bill I've ever seen."
"It's not the same thing," she says, tucking her hand under her chin. "Wait, I said that already. Am I moving backward in time?"
"Come on, C.J.--"
"There's a history, Danny!" She can't help raising her voice. She knows there are people across the cafeteria glancing her way, but she's tired of worrying about them. "When there's a history of hate, and discrimination, and unprovoked violence toward members of a group, we have a responsibility to do everything--everything within our power--to condemn that."
"Who decides what qualifies?" he asks. "You're saying it's up to the government, like deciding who gets to go on a stamp?"
Her appetite has vanished, as if a switch has been thrown somewhere in her brain. "I don't know why I'm arguing with you," she tells him, swirling the leftover soup with her spoon, drowning soggy cracker crumbs.
Danny stands up. "I think I do."
She ignores his serious tone of voice. "Must be because I'm a Democrat, and everybody knows we put education first."
"I think it's because you couldn't make the case you wanted to make to the networks," he says. "And that's because your mind's not really on the issue."
She stares up into his face. "This is an argument about the issue, isn't it?"
"You're sitting here in the Mess Hall." He opens his arms to indicate the whole of the room, including the people who are eating sandwiches and pretending not to eavesdrop. "It's one o'clock in the afternoon and you're avoiding your office because you don't want to see what's on TV."
He starts to walk away. "I'm having lunch," she calls after him, but he keeps going. She nibbles a cracker, gives up and gathers her tray, dumping Danny's folder of quotes into the trash with the rest of the garbage. Some intern's morning of work, wasted.
She stands next to the trash can and surveys the Mess. Lunch has left her unsatisfied, but she knows she doesn't want more food. There isn't time for it, anyway. She climbs the stairs, thinking of what needs to be done between now and tonight's speech. What she needs most is a game plan.
She looks up at the sound of Charlie's voice at the top of the stairs, and does her best to sound playful. "Hey, Chaz."
"The President wants to see you." He isn't fazed by the nickname or the smirk. He's business as usual.
"Yeah, it's the first five minutes he's had today."
Charlie turns and heads back toward the Oval, so she follows him. She doesn't bother starting a conversation, because as bad as her day has been, his can't have been any better.
"He's waiting for you." Charlie heads back to his desk and begins rearranging files without waiting for her acknowledgement. She passes him and enters the Oval Office.
It's empty, and as palpably silent as the interior of an old church. C.J. stops with her toes on the threshold, feeling like she's disturbed the peace. Then she notices a Secret Service agent standing against the glass door to the portico. She walks the length of the room with her arms straight at her sides, stepping between the striped couches, carefully skirting the edge of the broad old desk. The agent turns as she approaches, and opens the door.
"Over here, Claudia Jean." The President is standing between two pillars. She watches him as he brings a cigarette to his lips. For a moment, she is watching a clip of the president on TV in her childhood. "What've you got for me?" he asks, exhaling the smoke as he speaks.
The cold air washes around her as she moves toward him. Reflexively, she wraps her arms around her chest. "Well, sir, I'm having a little trouble getting the networks to play."
He nods, still without turning. "They don't want to screw their line-ups." He takes another drag from the cigarette.
"Yeah," she says, taking a deep breath to absorb a little secondhand smoke. The two of them stand there in silence, looking at the yellowish lawn splotched with old gray snow.
After a moment, he says, "What the hell happened out there today, C.J.?"
She bows her head, studies the toe of her navy pump. Her feet ache, but only if she lets herself notice it. "I don't know, sir," she answers. She pauses to compose herself, and adds, "We don't have the best track record with random acts of violence."
As if he doesn't know. She winces; she can tell he's doing the same.
"You've got to get the networks to play along. What happened today--God damn it, C.J.! What happened today doesn't just affect the victims, and if they don't see that--" He throws the cigarette down, grinding it to ash under his foot.
Wisps of her hair drift into her face. She raises her hand to brush them away. "They're taking a very narrow view."
Now the President looks at her. His eyes are the sharp blue that the clouded sky is not. It seems like he can see through her and beyond, into the distance. "You know," he says, "It's not as if I expect anything we do to be simple."
"None of us do." Her voice is oddly small against the ambient noise of the outdoors. She tries to sound bolder. "At least we get to be pleasantly surprised when something simple does happen."
"Right. All three times in the last four years." He shakes his head, leaning one shoulder against a pillar. "We spend half the time sorting out what we want from what we need, and what we need from what people are telling us they want. You'd think it would have to be easier when we have a clear priority. I don't expect simplicity, but you'd think it would have to be easier."
She shifts her weight a little and tries to think of something to say. Anything would be better than nothing, but before she opens her mouth, the President continues.
"When we really have our own house in order, when we have something so terribly clear by which to define ourselves..." His mouth tightens into a line, and pale dents deepen at the corners of his nose. "Those are often the times when other people's priorities are dead-set against us."
"Yes, sir, they are," she says, trying to suppress a shiver. She doesn't succeed. Her fingernails dig into the sleeves of her suit. "The only excuses the network executives could come up with--"
She loses her train of thought when she hears something behind her, and she and the President both turn toward it. Charlie's footsteps are polite as he emerges from the office, sorry for interrupting, but his shoulders are tensed and his dark eyes are cast down.
"What is it?" the President says, and it's plain from his voice that he's expecting the worst, whatever that might be.
"The police department spokesman just left a message." Charlie raises his head. "One of the suspects in custody gave a full confession."
This ought to be good news, but something in Charlie's tone keeps them from relaxing. C.J. glances back over her shoulder at the President, and her throat tightens at the sorrow etched into his face. She's seen him look that way too many times. Each time, they're both infinitely older.
"Giving up the other shooter?" the President asks.
"No," Charlie says. He presses his lips together and then goes on. "The guy wanted to make sure he got credit."
It was already cold out, but the words make it colder. They soak it up in silence, and then the President says, "Okay. Someone'll brief me in a minute."
"Yes." Charlie disappears into the Oval Office. C.J. starts to go after him; she needs to know more, and she needs to know quickly. As she takes a step backward, the President reaches into his coat pocket and produces a pack of cigarettes. He doesn't have to ask or even move, just reaches out and one of the Secret Service men produces a lighter. With one hand cupped against the wind, the President lights his cigarette.
"Excuse me. Sir?" C.J. hesitates, clearing her throat. "You wouldn't happen to have another one of those for me, would you?"
He meets her gaze with his own steady one, his eyebrows raised, one corner of his mouth crinkling just a little. It doesn't matter how much taller she is than the President, she's always looking up to him.
"So that's a no, then," she says, with a small smile. He turns his head and looks out at the lawn again, motionless as a photograph. She lingers for a moment, watching the smoke, and her own breath freezing white and fading away.
Harrigan leans in toward Josh, pressing the edge of the table against his enormous belly. "The Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota statute that--"
"Come on, that's a bogus argument, and you know it." Josh waves a hand at him, and Harrigan's eyes narrow. "This bill isn't about criminalizing free speech, it's about penalty enhancement for bigots who commit violent crimes."
Josh watches the three of them across the table. They're trying to present a united front, but the cracks in their armor are so wide you could fit two Roy Harrigans through them. Sarah Dade has her hair pinned tightly to the back of her neck, but the severe lines in her forehead are already softening. And Harrigan's a blowhard, but he's just along for the ride. It's Warren who's the real holdout.
Josh fixes his gaze on him, and he stares back at Josh with brown eyes the same color as his skin. "We're not trivializing these people's cause, Mr. Lyman," Warren says carefully.
"Dismissing these people's lives as a 'cause' makes them sound pretty trivial to me," Josh says.
Warren ignores him. "We just don't think people should receive tougher sentences because of what's in their minds when they commit a crime."
"We're talking about more than what's in their minds." Josh shakes his head and throws a quick look at the ceiling. "Thinking about firing a weapon into a crowd of gay people is not a crime. Actually *firing* that weapon into a crowd of people because those people are gay is."
"It is a terrible crime," Warren says, nodding. "All we're saying is that it's a crime covered by laws already on the books."
"I can't help but notice that there are laws already on the books that cover lynchings, too, Congressman," Josh says, his voice cold. "There were just under three thousand racially motivated crimes last year alone. Are you going to tell me you think a murder conviction is enough for those guys? How many of those crimes took place in Georgia?"
Warren's hands clench into fists against the table. "I'm not gonna go to my people and try and tell them this is the same thing as..."
For a moment he sounds more inner-city Detroit than upper-crust Atlanta, and his loss of composure is palpable. Josh resists a victorious smile. Warren steadies himself, a hand against the table, and the anger drains away from his face again. Josh raises an eyebrow, but doesn't speak.
"Let's be frank, shall we?" Warren says, leaning back again in his chair. "Those dead kids and their parents didn't elect us, our constituents did. And if 85% of the people in my district don't approve of special protections for homosexuals, how can I then turn around and support a bill that provides for exactly that? My first responsibility has to be to the people back home."
"Have you even read this bill?" Josh throws his hands out to his sides. He can feel his face starting to flush, and he leans toward Warren. "'Cause that argument would carry a lot more weight if we were talking about something like the Protection of Washington-Based Gay Teenagers Act. Race, religion, disability, national origin, sexual
orientation, or gender," he says, ticking the provisions off on his fingers. "I think it's fair to say you were elected chiefly by ethnic minorities and women."
"You know as well as I do that if we put the bill on the floor right now, all that other language becomes incidental." Warren's eyes narrow, and he meets Josh's own with an unwavering stare. "This makes the whole debate about those gay kids, and all the rhetoric in the world about lynchings isn't going to change that." He ducks his head slightly and lets out a sigh. "Look, the bill isn't irredeemable. With a few changes, we can probably get it out of committee if we can just wait a few months--"
"We don't have a few months!" Josh sputters. He's itching to stand up, and he wraps his foot around the leg of the chair. "They've already picked up the guys who did it. These guys fired their guns into a crowd of people because they hated everybody there and everything they stood for. How can you just sit there and tell me you don't think they deserve a tougher sentence for that?" His heart is pounding, echoing in his ears.
Sarah Dade gestures toward him with an open palm. "It's not that we're unsympathetic--"
"Like hell you're not." Josh swivels his chair toward her, waving an angry finger. "If you people can sit there and tell me that you think what happened at Rosslyn means the bill should be held up even longer, well, then that's more than just unsympathetic, that's downright complacent."
Sarah Dade's reaction is the first to register in Josh's brain. Her shoulders drop, and her eyes grow wide. Josh's gaze flicks over to Harrigan, and the determined look is gone, replaced by something that looks more like sympathy. A jolt of realization shoots through him, ice in his veins.
He runs a hand through the hair on the top of his head, weaving it through clenched fingers. "I think I-- I think I misspoke just now. I meant to say..."
Sarah Dade glances at Warren, and the rough edges around his eyes soften. His lips press together, and he looks almost concerned. Josh clenches his teeth. Shame paints a wash of heat across his face.
"Look," Warren says quietly. "We can let it on the floor. It won't pass, but we can let it on the floor." He blinks at Josh.
"We didn't realize..." Harrigan looks down at the table as he lets his voice trail off.
Josh splays his fingers in the air in front of him and shakes his head. "It's not what you think. This is--it's the right thing to do."
Six eyes are focused on him, three identical expressions of pity. Warren coughs into a fist and dips his head in silent apology.
Josh clenches his jaw and jumps to his feet. He has to get out of here. "Ah. Thank you all for coming." They each stand in turn, their eyes still on him. Josh looks away and edges toward the door, fumbling behind him for the knob. "I'll have Donna call your offices. You know the way out?"
"Of course," murmurs Sarah Dade, still hesitating by the table. Josh throws the door open and steps out into the hall.
Hovering directly outside the Mural Room, a fist poised to knock on the door, is Margaret. A look of confusion crosses her face. "I was just going to--Leo said to come get you. He wants to see you for a minute."
Josh glances down at the floor. He feels the others brush past behind him, and Sarah Dade's heels click against the tile as she shuffles out. "Yeah. Okay. I'll be down in a--"
"Josh." The voice is deep and firm, and Josh looks up. Leo's standing at the end of the hall, his expression stern. Josh's gaze falls back to the floor, and he rubs his forehead.
Margaret's hand brushes against his arm. "He says it'll only be a minute."
He inhales a long breath and pushes it back out through his nose. "Okay."
His feet are lead weights as he passes Margaret, stepping into Leo's office. She closes the door behind him, and Leo tilts his head toward the couch. "Sit down."
Josh shifts his weight from one leg to the other. "I've really got to get back to--"
"Sit down," Leo commands, and Josh sinks against the couch. His back presses against stiff leather. "How was the meeting?"
"It was fine," he says, too quickly. Josh runs a hand through the hair on the top of his head.
"Can I get you anything? Something to drink?" It's something Leo would ask the Treasury Secretary, not his deputy.
Josh grits his teeth. "I'm fine."
"How about a glass of water?" Leo turns his back and crosses over to the miniature refrigerator behind his desk.
Josh's eyes fall shut as the water splashes against the glass. He folds his fingers against each other and lets his head drop. He cracked, in front of Congress. He cracked. In front of Congress.
The glass appears in front of him with a dull clank against the table. He looks up as Leo sits down in his chair. "I'm taking you off hate crimes," Leo says, his mouth set in a line.
All the muscles in his chest tighten against his ribcage. "What?"
"You're done with this."
He curls his fingers around the couch cushions. "You can't--"
Leo shakes his head. "Somebody else is going to take it from here. It's not as if you don't have other stuff you should be doing."
"Somebody else? Who?" Josh's jaw juts forward, and he clenches two fists in his lap. "What are you gonna do, send in Sam?"
"Not that it's any of your concern at this point, but I'm going to finish it."
"Since when does the White House Chief of Staff negotiate with Congress?"
"You're too close to this," Leo says, his tone warning.
"Leo, don't. Don't do this." His voice is a whine. He's begging, and he hates it. "Listen, I'll--I'll delegate some of the meetings. I'll take it easy. Just don't--"
"You think this is about you?" Leo's eyebrows fly up, and Josh freezes in place. "Toby says you're trying to micromanage the speech, Margaret hears you yelling at Warren clear through the door, and you think this is me being concerned for *you*?" He levels his gaze at Josh. "You're not gonna work on this one anymore. Is that clear?"
Josh deflates like a balloon that's lost its air. He drops his head. "Yeah."
"How close are they to giving in?" Leo pushes his chair back and starts to turn away.
Josh's fingers twitch, and he wraps them around his knees. "They say they'll put it on the floor."
"Who said that?" Leo asks, turning sharply around.
"Warren said it, but all three of them were there. Harrigan. And, um, Sarah Dade." Josh grimaces as the look on her face flashes across his mind.
Leo drops his chin, and his forehead wrinkles. "Warren said he can get it on the floor."
"Well, all right, then. Good work."
Josh's gaze falls to the floor, humiliation burning the back of his neck. "Thanks."
Leo sits down in his chair, and Josh stands. The clock on the wall ticks out the seconds, but Leo doesn't look up. Josh bites the edges of his tongue, turns and heads for the door.
"Hmm?" Josh glances over his shoulder. Leo still isn't looking at him.
"You *will* delegate some of the meetings."
Josh blinks. "Yeah," he says.
Leo pushes a file folder off to the side and nods a dismissal. "Okay."
"It was a peaceful demonstration disrupted by gunfire," C.J. says, and raises her left heel out of her shoe. She's stood on this spot for years, for more hours than she wants to count; some of her routines have developed into rituals. When she's giving a long statement at the end of a long day, she always wants to ground herself with her hands on the podium and her feet bare on the floor. "The President's thoughts remain with the victims of this tragedy, including the families of Michael Calzada, Christine Felton, Louis Kavanagh, Donald Davila, Laurel Touricant, and Nathan Yoo."
Cameras light up to catch C.J.'s face as she pronounces the names. She wiggles her toes free, presses the tips of her fingers down on top of her pile of index cards. Some she already knows by heart, some she doesn't, and some she doesn't even know if she needs. She waits a moment while the reporters take down the victims' names, then finishes, "Questions?"
It seems as though a thousand people shout, "C.J.!" and she looks for a reliable hand in the crowd. "Yeah, Mark."
"Have they been able to determine the shooters' motive?"
"That's not obvious?"
"We need confirmation."
"We know one of the suspects has given a statement, but I'll leave it to the District Police to brief you on the investigation as they see fit. I believe they're holding a press conference at five. Next question!"
Katie stands halfway and yells out, "Were the shooters affiliated with any group?"
"The police can answer that."
Someone, she thinks it's Allan, yells from the middle of the room, "Do they know yet if there was anyone else involved in the planning?"
Three others shout out questions simultaneously. C.J. presses her flat palm hard against the wood of the podium. "Listen folks, I know the DCPD is all the way across town, and I know it's cold outside, but if you want this information, you're going to have to go get it from them when they brief at five."
They all sit down, thinking of questions that she could answer. After a moment, Steve raises his hand so that his fingertips are level with his forehead.
"Where exactly were all of these kids standing?"
"You know, that brings up a good point," she says, shrugging her shoulders back. "These people, Louis, Christine, Mike, Donnie, Laurel, and Nathan, they weren't kids. Ted Marcus isn't a kid. My brother Tom isn't a kid. Reasonable adults believe in this cause, and reasonable adults died today in a peaceful rally for what they knew was right."
The press is quiet for a moment to acknowledge that they've been reprimanded. Then Steve raises his head again, and calls out, "Well, where exactly were all of these adults standing?"
C.J. chooses to ignore the comment directly, but gives him an answer he won't like as retribution. "Once again, this is the DCPD's area. They actually have people who enjoy answering these questions themselves."
Danny speaks out without waiting to be called on. "C.J., we're hearing that the President is going to address the nation, this evening. Can you confirm that, maybe give us more information?"
She wants to yawn, wants to curl up on the floor and fall asleep or, even better, to wake up and find that this whole day has been a dream. Instead she raises her eyes to meet the expectant looks on the faces of fifty reporters. They want the story; that's their first priority.
"Here's some information I can give you, Danny," she says, and shuffles her index cards into a new order. "Arsenio Hall is hosting a revival of the classic TV series 'Star Search'; I believe they're choosing the semifinalists tonight. On 'Friends,' Monica sings at a piano bar, while Ross and Rachel discuss their relationship. Wow, nobody saw that coming. Oh, and don't let me forget: Peter Falk returns as everyone's favorite detective, investigating a rave promoter in the world premiere TV-movie 'Columbo Likes the Nightlife.'" She sweeps the index cards off the podium, gathering them in her hand, her eyes locked on the rows of bewildered reporters. "Apparently those things are more important than the cold-blooded shooting of seventeen Americans. For anyone who isn't busy, the President will be speaking from the East Room at eight-thirty."
In the second of silence before they break out with a fresh volley of questions, she's already walking away.
She hands the index cards over to Carol, who's waiting for her just inside the hallway. "Think I caught 'em off guard?" C.J. deadpans.
"Danny looked like he might have had a follow-up question," Carol says, beaming at her.
"I've been arguing with him all day, he can sit on his follow-up question."
Carol laughs, and C.J. keeps walking. She takes the shortest route back to her office; it isn't really the time for a victory lap. She isn't half a foot into the office when she hears familiar heavy footsteps behind her.
"What the hell was that?" Toby demands. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before turning around.
"Do you have a problem, Toby? Is there something I can help you with?" The exasperation isn't hidden in her voice, and he stops where he is, a few feet from her threshold. She puts a hand on her hip and narrows her eyes, waiting for his response.
He shuffles his feet a little, practically weighing options out loud. "I...uh..." He looks down and raises his eyebrows. "I just thought. You know, you're not wearing any shoes, there, C.J."
"Get out," she says, and stalks to her desk. When he's safely out of sight, she sinks into her chair and waits for Carol to come back, hopefully with her heels.
She's holding her head high when she passes him, walking a little taller even than usual. Josh hesitates in the doorway of his office, turns around, and follows her. "Hey, C.J."
"Joshua," she greets him, and breezes on down the hall. He catches up as she slips past the columns and into the lobby.
"Good job today." He bites the inside of his lower lip, weighs the words before he continues. "You know, with the press."
"You were watching that, were you?" The corners of her mouth turn up.
They cross the hallway. "Couldn't help but."
"Well, thanks." Her smile widens and she ducks her head a little. She would almost look shy if he didn't know her. "I think there was an audible smacking sound when reality hit the Press Corps."
He tries to return her smile, but it feels forced, and it must look that way, too. His hand grazes C.J.'s arm to get her attention before she swerves off toward Toby's office. "Here's the thing. It was kind of..."
"Kind of?" She raises one eyebrow.
"Kind of emotional," he says, sliding his hands into his pockets.
She narrows her eyes, giving him a look that would probably freeze a lesser man where he stood. "It worked, didn't it?"
Something tightens in his chest, a familiar twinge just below the scar. He inches closer to her, matching her expression as best he can. "Is that really how you want to handle this thing?"
"What are you talking about?" She takes a half step away from him.
Suddenly he's following her again, the noise of the Communications bullpen blurring around them. "Do you really want to manipulate the media using your personal relationship to this issue?" he asks, staying close on her heels. "You don't think that's, well"--he comes up against the word and can't find a way around it--"a bit unprofessional?"
C.J. stops walking and whirls around to stare at him. Her face hardens. Without saying a word, she grabs his elbow. Her fingernails stab through his sleeve. She half-leads, half-drags him out of the bullpen, hustling him into the empty Mural Room, slamming the door behind them before he has time to think. As soon as it closes, she demands, "Where do you get off?"
He flinches away from her, resists the impulse to rub his elbow. "What the hell did you--"
"Where do you get off calling me unprofessional?"
"You were snippy with the press. You mentioned your brother by name!" His chin juts forward. "You sounded like a Miss America candidate announcing her platform to change the world."
"It got the job done," she snaps. She makes fists and rests them on her hips. "I did what I needed to do to make clear the White House position on this issue, which is exactly what I'm paid to do."
"Oh, bull--" He scowls, stepping back, pacing away from the patterned walls. "This isn't about the White House position, C.J. This is personal and you know it. You've got no business bringing that anywhere near the Press Room."
"I see." She gives a short, mirthless, maddening laugh. "So who's the pot, here? Who's the kettle? I've been lectured before, but coming from you, about this--you have no room to talk."
He feels like he's been sucker-punched; he clenches a fist. "You weren't having a chat in your office, C.J. You were standing at the White House podium, talking to the Press! You can't go treating them like they're our enemies!"
"Yeah, well from what I heard, you were talking to a bunch of Democrats, so dial it down a little, okay?" He shoots her a glare, wondering what she heard, and she tosses her head back. "As long as we're telling each other how to do our jobs, the best way to get a bill passed isn't to blow a fuse at the few people who are actually on our side."
"You have no idea who's on our side!" He traces a battle line on the floor between them with one foot. His lip is curled in a snarl. "Would it be better if I sent you in and you could stick out your lower lip and cry?"
Hands still on her hips, she leans toward him, looming. He puffs out his chest and steps closer. "You don't know a damn thing about how to handle my job, Mr. Secret Plan to Fight Inflation--don't you dare try to tell me how to do it!"
"I need to get this bill passed, and I'm not going to let your open mike night jeopardize it. I can't believe you--"
Her index finger is hard against his breastbone. "Listen, I've been getting static from Danny and the rest of the Press Corps all day--"
"The last thing I need is people worrying about their feelings or my feelings or anybody's goddamned feelings when seventeen people got shot today--"
"--Not to mention the network heads that are supposed to actually cooperate at times like this! I can't believe you're in my face--"
"--and I'm trying to do my job here!"
"I'm trying to *work* here!"
Abruptly, they fall silent, listening to the echoes of each other's words. Somewhere outside the room, a phone gives out a lonely electronic bleat. The clock on the wall ticks steadily. Josh is burning up, starting to sweat. C.J.'s face is bright red, and looking at her is like looking into a mirror; they're upset about the same thing. He exhales as C.J. steps back. Her shoulders slump; she leans against the wall, and her eyes dart away and then back to his.
It's weak laughter, tired, but laughter all the same. The knotted muscles at the base of Josh's neck let go, and his jaw feels suddenly loosened. He manages a smile at C.J. and steps away from her. The couch is there, so he drops onto it, taking a slow breath, letting it rush out. "So," he says, waving a hand in an aimless circle, "I feel like we should grab some fingerpaints and cut loose on the walls in here."
She chuckles again and comes over to the other end of the couch, collapsing like a puppet with cut strings. She rubs her hands together on top of her knees. "What we really need are nap mats."
"Do they come in your size?" he asks, the corner of his mouth quirking. "I can't picture you in kindergarten. Maybe if I saw you wearing pigtails..."
"Never gonna happen," she says, touching her hair. She tucks a few strands behind her ear. "You got the bill out of committee."
A nerve jumps in his neck. "Yeah."
"So that's something."
His ears ring with Warren's apologetic cough and Sarah Dade's irritatingly soft tone of voice. He winces. C.J. catches it and tilts her head at him, questioning.
Josh plants his elbows on his knees and runs his hands over his face, pushing his fingers into his hair. "Warren really wanted to kill it." He stares down at the blur of the carpet. "But I had him worked up. He was just about ready to cave. And then I--" He swallows and makes himself look up at her. "I said that what happened at Rosslyn shouldn't mean the bill should be held up."
Her eyelids flutter, but she doesn't look away from him, and there's sympathy but no pity in her eyes. Slowly, she nods.
"I swear, C.J., if I could have told them to put the bill back in, I would have."
"Leo would have served your head on a platter."
His laugh sounds hollow. "Yeah." She's smiling at him, but he shakes his head. "It's not even that. I mean, it is, but it's...it's like...all these people died today. And the thing, the one thing that makes them decide they maybe should actually *do* something about punishing the guys who did it, is feeling sorry for me."
She sighs and her chin dips toward her chest. "I know," she murmurs. "I've worked here a long time and I know better than to be shocked that there are so many people--and these are educated, successful, important people--and they just don't care." Her eyes slant toward him, and he notices the dark smudges underlining them. "But coming up against that--it just gets tired."
"Yeah." He leans backwards into the cushion, resting his arm along the top of the couch, and yawns. "Yeah, it does."
She scoots over so that she's sitting at his side. He listens to her breathing. "The speech tonight will be great. At least there's that."
"How do you know?"
"Days like these?" She settles her head gently against his shoulder. "They always are."
"Immeasurable grief and immeasurable sympathy," the President is saying, staring earnestly into the camera and through the screen. "But, strong as they are, these emotions are not enough. We must respond with action. We must act: by preventing ignorance from festering in our hearts, protecting the innocent against intolerance, and punishing those who would terrorize our nation with their hate."
"Three Rolling Rocks, Scotch on the rocks, and an amaretto sour." The sound of Will's voice and the clink of glass against glass make C.J. turn around in her seat. Will slides her drink across the table and wonders aloud, "Isn't the whole point of amaretto that it's not sour?"
She stares at him over the rim of the glass before she takes her first deep, slow sip. The sweetness glides down her throat, with the alcohol's tang chasing it like the crack of a whip.
"All I'm saying is..." Josh wrenches the cap off his third bottle of beer. "All I'm saying is, all I'm saying. Is. All I'm saying is--"
"Please," Donna groans. "Spit it out or shut up."
"All I'm saying is, pornography." Triumphantly, Josh raises his bottle and toasts the air. "That's what I'm saying."
Will scrunches up his forehead. "I shouldn't have left the table. Or maybe I shouldn't have come back."
"It was Donna's idea," Josh says, as Donna shakes her head. "A swimsuit calendar of White House staffers."
C.J. takes another drink. From the TV set behind the bar, the President says, "This act offends more than criminal law; it offends the very ideals upon which this country was founded."
"Call it 'The Body Politic'," Josh says, tossing back some of his beer. "Sell a million copies. We'd make enough to buy Congress." His grin is a little too wide. "Or pay down the national debt."
He looks around, but nobody laughs. The news has given way to weather now; it's quieter, and Toby is just audible as he murmurs into his scotch, "Foreign debts. Homeless vets. AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz."
The laugh that bubbles up in C.J.'s chest is like Josh's smile: too much. She presses her teeth together. Will has a look on his face like he's fallen down the rabbit hole, and she pats his hand. "Don't worry about him," she says. "He's moved into the Billy Joel phase of inebriation."
Toby frowns at her. She ignores him, licking her lower lip, tousling her hair with her fingers. All of them gathered around a single table, making no more sense than is absolutely necessary; it's the only way to finish a day like this.
"It'll be over soon," she tells Will, picking up her drink. "Enjoy it while it lasts."
Donna wraps her hands around her beer bottle and looks down, her hair swinging over her shoulders. "You know, I really do feel like I've been living in a white-bread world..."
"No one likes my idea," Josh says. He leans forward with his elbows on the table. "C.J., no one likes my idea, can you believe that?"
By looking into his eyes, and at the faint lines around them, she can tell he's not quite as drunk as he wishes he were. Neither is she. The amaretto sour isn't cutting it. "Unbelievable," she says, nodding, and he sits back.
There's a pause in which they all drink, and Toby's lips move vaguely near the rim of his glass, as if he's chanting. Will's gaze drifts around the table, settles on C.J. He blinks. "You gave quite a briefing today," he says. "You, you've got a way about you."
"Thanks." She's wishing he wouldn't turn the conversation toward work, when a ribbon of smoke actually turns her head. A man in a pinstriped suit pulls an ashtray to him across the bar; the cigarette he's just lit glows between his fingers. C.J. inhales at the same time the smoker does.
"I don't know about you, Josh," Donna's saying, "but I don't want to see Oliver Babish in a Speedo."
Everyone groans, and C.J. pushes her chair back from the table. Her ankles wobble when she stands up. "On that note," she says, reaching for her coat. It swishes off the back of her chair. "I'm just about done for the night."
"You should stay." Donna looks up at her. "I promise I won't mention Babish again. Or swimwear."
"Too late, the mental image already scarred me for life," says Will, with a smile. "You should stay."
She shakes her head and smiles at each of them, and at Josh, last. "Goodnight," she says finally.
Josh raises his bottle and tips the neck toward her. "'Night."
She sets out, snaking between the tables separating her from the door, but instead makes her way to the bar. She ends up at the end closest to the exit, and leans across it until the young bartender approaches.
"What can I get you?" he asks, barely trying not to look bored.
"You don't have a cigarette, do you?"
He pulls out a soft pack from under the counter, and squeezes it out for her, handing it to her silently. She lifts up her purse, looking for a lighter and a dollar to give him, when he stops her from finding either. "Need a light?"
She meets his eyes. He must understand the kind of exhaustion that comes from staying on your feet while people yell questions and demands. She leans in with the cigarette in her mouth, and the small flame hits it. Inhaling is heavenly, and it hits her again how relieved she is that the day is over.
"It's a great feeling, isn't it?"
"Mmm," she answers, tilting her head back, breathing it in.
"Need anything else?" the bartender asks.
She brings her head down to look at him. "Call me a cab?" He nods. "Thanks," she says, backing away. It will be a few minutes until the taxi comes, but she needs fresh air mixed with the smoke.
With the cigarette between her teeth, she struggles into her coat and shoulders her way out the door. The cold hits just as hard as she'd expected. She rests her back against the brick wall, holding her coat closed with one arm, letting the smoke fill her lungs and then float away. The street is bordered on each side by lines of streetlights like beads on string. One lamp, the one closest to C.J., is burned out, leaving her in the dark.
Her cigarette is halfway gone by the time Toby comes out. He stands next to her and takes a cigar from one of his coat pockets, lights it without saying anything. She waits, but his silence is stronger than hers, so she asks, "What happened to the fire, there, Billy?"
"I'm not really drunk," he says. There's something in his tone that sounds like regret.
"Right," she says. "And I'm not really tall."
But his frown, and his eyes, are sober. "Have you called your brother?"
"After the speech."
"He thought it was great."
"I didn't mean the speech," he says. The smoke from his cigar lingers around his face.
She sighs and flicks the cigarette with her thumbnail, sending sparks and ashes tumbling toward the concrete. "He's all right."
He huffs a little, adjusting his coat. "And when he asked how you were, what did you say?"
She studies him from the corner of her eye, wondering what he'd say if she really answered the question he's asking, if she sat right down on the curb and unburdened herself, let everything out. The wall is hard against her shoulders and the back of her head. "I'm fine."
"You're lying," he says flatly.
"Would I lie to my own brother?"
Toby twists the cigar in his fingers and decides, she guesses, to give up. He scratches his temple. "I have my car. If you need a ride home."
"I called a cab," she says.
She is almost exhausted enough to give in, to stumble after him to wherever he's parked, collapse into his passenger seat while they wait for the frost to melt away from the windshield. Almost. She takes a long drag that nearly finishes the cigarette. "It's already on the way."
A set of headlights shines from the low end of the hill, growing brighter as the cab trundles up the street. "GW's spokesman says the eleven injured victims are going to make it," Toby says, apropos of nothing. "Both suspects are in police custody. Everyone did their jobs today, C.J."
She takes a step away from him, drops the remnant of the cigarette and crushes it under her toe. "And there are still six people dead."
As he opens his mouth, she turns away, because they both know there's nothing left to say. The cab's white lights fill up her eyes, fill up the darkness underneath the dead streetlamp. Her fingers shiver on the door's handle, but she gets it open. She climbs inside and closes her eyes, instead of looking back.