Dedication/Thanks: A special thank-you to my Mistress, Tara, and my sister in spirit, Ally, who both recovered half of my work during computer crashes. This book wouldn't exist without you. 
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All The Pretty Things






June 4 th , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


“Well, you've got the face.”

Tess narrowed her eyes, her gaze revealing nothing to the well-dressed Suit across the table. She had both been looking forward to and dreading this meeting for the past year. “The face?” she repeated, leaving the words as more of a statement than a question. She knew what he meant. Blonde hair and blue eyes looked nice from behind the lens of a camera or on a television screen. Appearances mattered in the game of politics, and if his salary was any indication, Brian Tisdale was going to teach her how to win.

“A face people like. I've always thought so, even during your father's campaign.”

It took an exercise of willpower for Tess to keep from sighing and rolling her eyes. “Glad to be helpful,” she said dryly. Tess and Brian had been grudging acquaintances for years. As Senator Daubney's campaign manager, he had paraded her around at political fundraisers, posed her for commercials, and basically used her as a marketing tool ever since her early teens. She knew how he operated.

Brian deliberately ignored her unspoken criticism, not taking it personally. Although she was always rather cold towards him, Tess had complied with most of his wishes in the past. Now, as a favor to the former Senator, and with the incentive of a healthy paycheck, he was acting as Tess's campaign manager. “Is your father coming?” he asked, glancing at the door even though they were the only ones in the conference room.

Tess shook her head. “I talked him out of it. I know you wanted this to be private.”

“Some of these questions are going to get personal, Tess. That's the way things work in this world. You've got to know what you're getting in to.” Sometimes, Tess wondered if she really did know. Whenever she had doubts, she reminded herself of her career path. She had written it out on a sheet of notebook paper when she was only twelve years old and stuck to it as closely as she could. Her determination helped her to become Valedictorian at her exclusive high school, Salutatorian during her first four years of college thanks to a particularly vindictive professor that had unfairly lowered her final grade, and graduate Magna Cum Laude from an Ivy League law school. Now, after several years working for her father in Washington and dabbling in local politics, it was finally her time.

“I'm going to lay it out for you,” said Brian, flipping open to the third page in his binder. “If you want this Congressional Seat, you're going to have to work for it. The second district's demographics are pretty typical, but the 2010 census really screwed us over. Redistricting cut two seats and grouped you in with Saunders.” The blonde stared at him over the frames of her glasses, waiting for him to continue. This was all old information, but she had a feeling that there was more. “This won't be like the primary, Tess. The other Republicans were willing to make nice with a pretty new girl from a well-known political family, but Saunders and the Democrats won't. He's used to winning and he has no scruples about using theatrics, mudslinging, and outright lies to get results. I'm worried, and this district has been in Republican hands since the early 1980's.”

“That doesn't say much for your faith in me,” Tess said, careful to keep her tone neutral.

“Faith doesn't count in an election year. I want you going in to this with both eyes open.” Brian turned to another page in his binder. “At least this part won't take long, since I already know most of your background.”

Curious, Tess leaned forward across the table to get a better look at what he was reading. Even upside down, she could tell that it was a list and was able to make out a few of the words. “Money? Family? Drugs? Criminal Record? Sex? What kind of list is this, Brian?”

“The same list I've used for every campaign I've ever managed. It's called the ‘We're Fucked' list, and we're going through it together. When Saunders starts throwing stuff, I want to know whether it's shit or hand grenades.”

Tess lifted one skeptical eyebrow. “Okay. At least now I know why you didn't want Dad here. Go down the list.” Mentally, she braced herself for the barrage of questions. “What is ‘Money' supposed to mean?”

“The war chest. More specifically, where you got yours. Thankfully, we're playing with Daddy's cash, so you don't have too many lobbyist puppet masters to worry about appeasing and I also know you didn't obtain any of it illegally.”

“Illegally?” Brian simply nodded. For all her intelligence, sometimes Tess could be surprisingly naïve. Someday, that charming streak of naivety and faith in human goodness was going to come back and bite her in the ass.

“Your family is golden. Your father's name and reputation are going to boost you from the start. Your mother's a piece of work, but she knows how to smile for the camera. Joshua should buckle down a little more and take life more seriously, but he's not usually in too much trouble. You won't end up like Congressman Kempshaw.” Tess could sense Brian wincing internally. Although Alan Kempshaw of North Carolina was a straight arrow, as much as one could be in politics, his drug-addicted brother had caused him several campaign problems. “Which brings us to the next question,” Brian continued. “I know you don't use drugs, and I know you don't have a criminal record. That leaves -”

“Sex.” It was the only thing left that Tess could think of. “You really think this is necessary?”

Brian just stared at her, letting the silence stretch out between them. “People are going to talk, you know,” he said at last, studying her so intently that Tess wondered if he was trying to see through her skin. “You're wealthy and attractive. You come from excellent pedigree...”

“You make me sound like a showdog,” Tess muttered. “Do you want to walk me around in the ring and put me on a breeding program? I promise not to bite when the judges check my teeth.”

“I'm just saying that some constituents will wonder why you aren't married.”

Even though she was already sitting with good posture, Tess straightened her spine to give herself an extra half-inch of height. “Why should they care?” In her mind, Tess was not only defending herself against her campaign manager. She had given this speech to her parents, friends, and other well-meaning family members and colleagues since her mid twenties. “It's not 1950 anymore. There are plenty of single women my age. In fact, I know plenty of women decades older than me who are single, too...”

“Yeah, but most of them are divorced, and they aren't the ones running for office. A good family image –”

“Which I have,” Tess interrupted.

“Which you have,” Brian agreed. “Okay, enough arguing. Just please tell me you outgrew the lesbian college thing like the rest of your sorority.”

Tess's refusal to answer his question was telling. He groaned and flipped to another page in his binder. “Fine, fine, I guess that was too much to hope for. How many people are you out to, and how much damage control do I need to do?”

“Give me some credit. I'm not stupid, Brian. Aside from my brother and a few, um, personal arrangements, none of my friends or acquaintances know. Hell, my own mother doesn't know.”

“Your mother doesn't stop talking long enough to listen to anyone but herself,” Brian muttered. Tess's relationship with her mother had never been very fulfilling for either of them. In fact, she much preferred her father's mistress, Cindy. She was much more tolerable to be around and a better conversationalist anyway. “You've never paid for these ‘personal arrangements', right?”

Tess looked appropriately affronted. “Of course not! I have no desire to go the way of New York's not-so-esteemed previous governor before I've even been elected.” Fortunately for the blonde, she had always been an excellent liar. It was a skill that would serve her well as a politician.

“Teresa Daubney, if you are lying to me –”

“Why do you think I'm lying?” she asked, her voice coated in thin, crackling layers of ice. Even Brian Tisdale, who had seen everything there was to see in his years as a political aide and campaign manager, had to work hard not to flinch. Tess had more of her father in her than just his good looks.

“It explains why no brokenhearted exes have come crying to the newspapers saying they slept with a conservative Republican Senator's daughter.”

The frown on Tess's face carved itself deeper, matching the worry lines that creased her forehead. “Maybe I just happen to be discreet and persuasive. Isn't that how a politician is supposed to operate?” Her campaign manager still did not look convinced. “Don't worry, Brian. There's no girlfriend for you to cover up and there are no exes for you to worry about. In fact, I am planning on avoiding that sort of company during the campaign. I don't need the media poking their nose in my personal life.”

“Good girl.” Perhaps those words, in another circumstance, would have been more pleasing to her, but now, they only made Tess irritable. Tisdale straightened the papers in his binder, flipping to the next page. “Promise me that if something comes up, you'll tell me before I read about it on the Internet?”

“I promise.” Since both of her hands were resting in plain view on the table, Tess had to make do with crossing her legs at the knee, letting the hem of her skirt brush upwards along one thigh. If anyone found out either of her three secrets: that she preferred women, that she had paid for their company until four years ago, and that not all of the services she requested were ‘average', Brian was the last person she would go to for help. Money could buy a lot of things, and protection was one of them, if you knew the right places to look for it.


* * *



September 27 th , 2012. Washington, DC.


“How do you feel about Cincinnati?”

Special Agent Robin Hart had no particular feelings about Cincinnati one way or the other, but decided that it would be wise not to say so. Assistant Director Greely was the kind of boss who liked listening to himself talk. She chose to humor him, placing one hand on the back of the chair in front of his desk and waiting. Greely liked to imagine that he was approachable, a ‘people person' that always had an open seat in his office. She remained standing, knowing it would annoy him, and wondered what she had gotten herself in to this time

There were two possible reasons for Greely to send her to Cincinnati, and one was preferable over the other. The first possibility was a transfer to their field office, something that the olive skinned brunette definitely didn't want. Automatically, Robin searched her memory for any regulations she might have broken. Her last couple of cases had been smooth and relatively minor, and she had been cleared on the Grainger shooting months ago. She didn't have trouble with any of the three B's, no broads, no booze, and no Bureau cars, so she had no idea what might have motivated Greely to transfer her. Of course, there was always another possibility. He might be sending her on assignment.

The older man's next words confirmed it. “Your new assignment,” he said, pushing a manila folder and a memory stick across the top of his desk, leaving it within her reach. Resignedly, Robin took the memory stick, slipping it in the pocket of her neatly pressed slacks. Honestly, the whole dressing up thing was what she hated the most about her job. The occasional firefight or dangerous situation was also unwelcome, but really, the clothes were worse.

Flipping open the file, she glanced over the summary page, brown eyes growing progressively larger as she read. Corruption cases were nothing new to her since her she had reluctantly put her Counterterrorism days behind her, but this one seemed particularly slimy. No one working for the Government wanted to investigate one of their own, especially not her, and investigations like this tended to make lots more enemies than friends. Privately, Robin wondered what she had done in a past life to deserve this. It must be bad karma, she thought, looking back up at Greely. “Well, shit.”

“Shit is right,” Greely agreed. “We've had a couple of tips on this already. Everything we know so far is in the file. We didn't take it too seriously at first, so it's not much, but the information started to pile up.

Robin scowled. “You mean you ignored it.”

Greely did not deny it. “Washington's a funny place,” he said, reaching for his coffee and frowning when he discovered that it was cold. “Everybody knows everybody.”

“So he's got friends. So what?” Robin remained unimpressed. “Corruption is corruption.” With a sigh, she looked back down at the folder. Saunders. Where had she heard that name before? It seemed vaguely familiar, and not being able to place the man bothered her. She flipped through the limited information that her boss had provided in the folder. “The House Committee on Financial Services; Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology; Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government Sponsored Enterprises,” Robin read aloud. “This guy has his fingers in a lot of pies, and money seems to be the main ingredient.”

“Tread carefully on this one, Hart. This isn't some petty border control officer taking bribes. Saunders is a well-respected and influential politician, even if he does come from the middle of nowhere. Don't make me bail you out of trouble for stepping on a Congressman's toes.”

“I don't think Cincinnati is in the middle of nowhere,” Robin pointed out. To Assistant Director Greely, any city that wasn't on the East Coast or near Los Angeles was ‘the middle of nowhere'. She had never been to Cincinnati, or even Ohio, but she assumed that if it was big enough to warrant an FBI field office, there had to be some civilization there. “So, why am I going to Cincinnati if I'm investigating a Congressman working in Washington?” she asked.

“Because he's up for reelection. His offices, most of his support staff, and most of his paperwork are all there right now. Besides, I want you to keep an eye on the monetary supporters of his campaign.”

Oh. Bribes. Robin did not need a clearer explanation. “How much support am I getting on this?”

“Use some of Cincinnati's brick agents. No need to ship too many of our people over there. I'm calling their regional branch today to give them a heads-up,” said Greely. “You're the lead Special Agent on this, but try to play nice, will you? It's their sandbox. We've got enough trouble dealing with local law enforcement without worrying about inter-agency cooperation.” Both of them knew that what he really meant was: don't do anything to piss them off, but don't let them usurp the investigation, either .

Robin closed the file, tucking it against her side. “Got it,” she said, shifting her weight to her other foot and removing her hand from the chair.

“Get out of here, Hart. One of the Betties got you plane tickets for tomorrow, so you'd better pack and do your homework.” Robin headed for the door, ignoring the slightly sexist remark and reminding herself that she really did like her ADIC once in a great while. The bureau officials could be annoying sometimes, but Greely was all right most of the time. His personality was slightly abrasive, but he didn't interfere unnecessarily with the investigations that he supervised.

Despite her initial wariness about investigating a well-connected federal politician, the more Robin thought about her new assignment, the more she began looking forward to it. This was the part of the job that she loved, sinking her teeth into a nice fresh case and finessing the incriminating information she needed right from under the subject's nose. It wasn't quite as exhilarating as Counterterrorism, but it still required a certain amount of finesse and intelligence.

The relationship between Congressmen and their supporters was often blurry, and it was usually difficult to prove bribery directly. The political game was pay-to-play, after all. Casually, she flipped through the file again, neatly sidestepping a junior agent as she read and walked at the same time. Most of it was background information, and very little prep work had been done so far. She would be building this case from the ground up.


* * *


Robin felt the wide, buggy eyes of Charlie, her Siamese fighting fish, staring at her mournfully through the clear plastic walls of his home. He swirled his colorful fins, circling excitedly as she reached for his tin of food. “Sorry buddy,” she said, lifting the top of his tank to pour in a few fish flakes, “no blood worms or shrimp for you today. You're getting fat.”

Charlie's lips stretched into a long ‘o', puckering sadly at her. Robin decided that meant she was forgiven even though she had insulted him. She had developed a silent form of communication with Charlie over the years. He was a surprisingly good conversationalist for a fish, anyway.

“I have to fly out to Cincinnati for a job tomorrow,” she told him. Charlie seemed all right with this, but that was probably because he was preoccupied chasing after his food flakes. “Mrs. Villancio and her cats will take care of you while I'm gone.” Charlie did not like the cats, but since the doting Mrs. Villancio took them everywhere with her, he did not have much of a choice. He fluffed out his gills, opening and closing his mouth almost like he was talking.

Robin's job did not allow her much flexibility to care for a pet or develop a social life, but she liked seeing Charlie swim around in circles when she walked through the front door to her apartment. It was nice to know that someone was happy to see her, even if that someone was only a betta fish. His deep, purple blue fins floated weightlessly in the water like tiny scarves. He reminded her of an exotic dancer in costume.

Charlie had been a gift from her stepbrother, also named Charlie, who had added to the gift by commenting that since she couldn't bother keeping a boyfriend, she might as well practice with a fish. “It can't be that much different. All you really have to do is remember to feed him.” Robin had called him a sexist pig, reminded him that she had no interest in men, and punched him in the shoulder, forcing the elbow of his shirt into the meat of his Sloppy Joe. That made him shove her back, upsetting her water glass, and their mother yelled at both of them for causing trouble. She smiled at the memory. It was one of the few happy ones she had. Usually, family just made her think of all the times she had been forced to “handle” her mother's drunken binges.

Charlie's full name was Charleston instead of the standard Charles, after the city where he had been born. His mother had died when he was young, and he attached himself to Robin when their parents married. She had been fifteen at the time, seven years older than him, but she was fond of him anyway and didn't mind babysitting him. Unfortunately, that job had fallen to her all too often during her teenaged years while her mother spent time with Jack Daniels and searched for herself in the bottom of whiskey bottles. Charlie's father was a good guy, and he helped when he could, but he was entirely too passive to handle his wife's drinking problem.

Pulling out her laptop and flopping back onto her couch, Robin typed in her password and began reading through her work e-mail. Most of them were mundane, unimportant messages, but she did read one saying that her flight was confirmed for 10:05 AM the next morning.

After copying the confirmation number into her phone so that she would not forget, Robin began searching the Internet for publicly available information on Congressman Saunders. The information that the FBI had provided her with was a good start, but she wanted to know more about this guy than when his birthday was and which schools he had graduated from. She needed personal information – what his hobbies were, where he went grocery shopping, whether he was on good terms with his family or not. Some of these personal details would be impossible to find out online, but she could look up his voting record. That was public, shared information that she could access from several different sources. Going to the Office of the Clerk, she did a search for the voting records of the 112 th Congress.

“Is this what our elected officials do all day?” Robin sighed in exasperation, scrolling through the list of recently passed bills. Many of the items on their agenda were nonessential bills of congratulation or procedural guideline agreements. Remembering the contents of her e-mail inbox, Robin felt a pang of sympathy for Congress. She supposed that it wasn't just FBI Agents that had to juggle busywork while trying to close important cases.

Finally, towards the middle of the list, she found some of the more important laws that Congress had passed in the last six months. Most of them dealt with the budget. Bills coming out of Saunders' committees seemed to like handing out money, but that was nothing strange in and of itself. Republicans had attempted to tighten Congress' purse strings over the past two years – whether that was good or bad depended entirely on your point of view. However, several bills carrying Saunders' name went up for debate and were eventually passed.

Robin smiled to herself, warming up to this case despite her initial reservations. The murky nature of politics definitely made corruption charges difficult to prove, but sometimes, she really did enjoy her job.


* * *



September 27 th , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Kicking off her heels as soon as she closed the front door, Tess shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on the coat rack, letting the slope of her shoulders fall from the stiff, rigid line that she presented to the world. She wiggled her toes, grateful for the new range of motion, walking across the carpet in stocking feet and leaving her briefcase and purse in a pile beside her discarded Jimmy Choos.

Tess was proud of her apartment, the first one that she had truly financed by herself without any help from her father. The view was worth the price tag that came attached to it. Cincinnati's skyline wasn't as memorable as, say, Manhattan's, but the glowing lights above Queen City Square were beautiful at night. Most of the reconstruction going on was blocked in the view from her window, too.

With a sigh, the politician left the window and wandered into her kitchen, surprised to find an uncorked bottle of wine sitting on the counter and an empty glass waiting beside it. Shrugging, she poured herself some of the red and took a relaxing sip, not too concerned that someone was in her apartment. As she set the glass back on the countertop, a soft noise came from the bedroom.

“Samantha?” she called out, looking at the entrance to the hallway, “is that you?”

“Who else has a key?” came the response. “I almost didn't think you were coming home tonight.” Tess glanced at the oven clock as footsteps padded over the carpet in the hallway. It was a little past midnight. She had not meant to stay out so late, but as Election Day drew closer, her days were growing longer and longer. Her only comfort was that she was not alone. Tisdale was pulling all-nighters as well and accompanying her on trips around the district. At least she got to see him share her discomfort, even if he was getting paid for it.

A familiar figure appeared in the doorway, brushing back her dark hair with a long, elegant hand. Her makeup, although skillfully applied, was slightly overdone, and her skirt was a little too short. She was beautiful, but mostly in her movements and the way she carried herself and less in the planes of her face. “Hey, doll baby. Take another sip of that wine. You look tense.”

Only years of acquaintanceship prevented Tess from protesting the nickname – again – but she knew Samantha wouldn't stop. The younger woman liked to push her buttons just to see her reaction. With a second, deeper sigh, Tess wrapped her fingers around the stem of her wineglass and took another sip. “You can't call in advance before you come over and go through the bottles in my expensive wine cabinet?”

“I could, but where's the fun in that? Gotta take my perks where I can, since you don't pay me anymore.”

“That was your idea,” Tess reminded her. Even though it had happened years ago and Samantha offered services that not all of her colleagues would, or could, provide, paying someone for sex went against the grain of her moral fiber. She was relieved that money had been removed from their arrangement.

Samantha shrugged. “I happen to genuinely like you. It wouldn't be good for your spotless reputation if some reporter caught you hanging around with a prostitute.”

“And what am I doing now, exactly?”

“Hanging around with a former prostitute.” Samantha was semi-retired, which meant she did what and whom she pleased when she pleased, and Tess had no idea where her income came from anymore. “Which is essentially just as bad for your image, but much better for your conscience. I knew you hated paying for it, and sweetie, looking the way you do, if you weren't so deep in the closet that you could probably find Narnia, you wouldn't have to.”

Tess rolled her eyes, setting her glass back down and eyeing the one that was still cradled in her companion's hand. “How much did you have before I got here?”

“Not enough.” Noticing that her own glass was empty, she picked up Tess's abandoned one and finished it with a smooth swirl of her tongue, leaving behind a deep red lipstick print.

“You didn't have to go through the effort just for me,” Tess said, eyeing the mark on the clear glass. “You know I don't like all that war paint on you.”

“You have your barriers, I have mine. I know you sometimes like to pretend that we're...” She could not bring herself to say the word ‘lovers' when there were no illusions of romantic feelings between them. “Think of this as a gentle reminder.” Samantha and Tess had known each other for a long time. The blonde had a big heart underneath the frozen marble exterior, and when she fell, she was going to fall hard. She and Tess would never be anything more than friends that occasionally found release together for nostalgia's sake, but it didn't hurt to remind her what they really were to each other. Secretly, she hoped it would make Tess dissatisfied enough with their arrangement to go out and find what she really wanted. Fat chance of that happening, her sarcastic inner voice added.

Tess's spine stiffened and the line of her shoulders grew rigid. “I know what I am and what I want,” she said, a little defensively.

“Do you?”

“I'm a big girl, capable of making my own choices.” She closed her eyes, eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks. “Listen, I might not be able to see you for a while. I'm going to be living under a microscope with this campaign.”

“You didn't worry about that during the primary.”

“This time, I'm running against an opponent that likes to unbury skeletons – pardon the bad metaphor.”

Samantha looked concerned. “You know I'd never betray you, right?”

“I know. So far, I think I'm all right. The other women I've been with, they're people I trust, or people who never knew my name and were probably too drunk to remember my face.”

“You need to be careful, doll baby. Remember what I said the first time I refused to let you pay for my time?”

Soft pink lips twitched into a ghost of a smile. “You said you wanted the chance to vote for me someday, even though you hate Republicans, because you knew you could bribe me with sexual favors.”

Samantha nodded, drawing closer to her friend and resting a casual hand on Tess's waist. “Yeah, well, the first and second part of that statement still hold true. I know better than to try and talk you out of anything you've set your mind on [to?] now, though.” Tess leaned down to open the dishwasher, pulling away from Samantha's touch and sliding the two wineglasses onto the top rack. The former prostitute snorted. “Neat freak.”

“Don't worry about me, Sam. I'm careful. Discreet.”

“Do they teach that at whichever expensive finishing school for debutantes you graduated from?”

Tess snorted. “Yeah, ‘How to Keep Your Sexual Liaisons Out of the Newspaper' came right after ‘How Not to Appear Drunk at Parties 101'.” She paused as warm, familiar arms snuck around her waist, pulling her backwards until her shoulder blades touched firm breasts. Her eyes drifted shut again as Samantha's nose and lips nuzzled the crook of her neck.

To [o] often, Tess felt like her life was a staged production, not based in reality, but a carefully crafted script with lines that she had to follow. She had become adept at acting her part over the years, but she knew that her heart wasn't really in it anymore – if it had ever been. She loved her work, was committed to her goals, but the role she slipped into in order to do her job was exhausting. This thing with Samantha, however unhealthy it might appear, was one of the only things in her life that truly belonged to her. At least it was real.

“If someone starts asking questions, just play dumb. I don't think anyone will connect the two of us, but...”

“You talk too much.” A gentle nip to her throat. “You worry too much.” A light kiss.

“At least let me start the dishwasher.”

“Leave it. You're still all wired up from whatever you spent all day working on. I can feel it through your clothes.”

“Meetings. Lots of meetings. Mostly with Brian. He's a bastard, but a smart bastard. I lied about never having paid for sex, but he knows I'm a lesbian. He doesn't know...”

“About some of the unconventional things you enjoy?” A warm palm undid the bottom of Tess's blouse, sneaking up to caress her stomach. “Even without adding that part, I bet that was a fun conversation.”

Even though she was facing the other direction, Samantha could feel the blonde's eye-roll from behind her. “That's the understatement of the century.”

“I think you need some help relieving tension.” Tess noticed the change of tone and lowered her eyes, relaxing the line of her shoulders. Samantha was right. She did need to relieve some tension. “What do you say?”

Tess surrendered. There would be time to worry about the future later. “Yes, ma'am.”


* * *




September 28 th , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Robin glanced out of the window as she drove her new rental car, trying to get a feel for the layout of Cincinnati's downtown area. Strangely enough, the Cincinnati airport was actually located in Hebron, Kentucky. She had triple checked her boarding pass when she saw the state abbreviation, but the city was only a ten-mile drive to the north.

Following the directions on her GPS, Robin turned onto Main Street and kept an eye out for the Federal Building. The music coming from the radio began to get fuzzy, probably a result of overhanging clouds, and Robin fiddled with the dial, finding another station. The Beatles were playing, and she smiled in recognition and approval.

Apparently, medium sized cities were the same no matter what part of the country they were in, because Robin had difficulty finding a parking space anywhere near her destination even though the sidewalks weren't particularly crowded. Lots of workers commuted to the city during the day, but only the very wealthy and very poor actually lived there full time. Eventually, she settled for walking a few blocks, hoping that her meeting with Cincinnati's Special Agent in Charge wouldn't be too painful. Usually, the field offices resented Washington's presence on “their turf”, and Robin knew she had to figure out a way to keep from ruffling their feathers even as she staked her claim to the Saunders investigation.

Clearing security took less time than the same process at the Airport, for which Robin was grateful. Taking the elevator up to the ninth floor, she located the Cincinnati field offices. Several heads looked up from their work stations at the sound of the door being opened, a few with distrustful expressions. Keeping her face and posture neutral, Robin approached the nearest desk. “Special Agent Robin Hart, here to speak with SAC Slade?”

The young woman sitting at a computer terminal looked up to address the intruder, assessing her silently before saying, “second door to your left.”

“Thanks,” Robin answered, figuring it couldn't hurt to be polite. She headed left through cubicle-land before finding the correct door and asking another assistant, this one male and seemingly much more interested in ‘helping' her, to inform Slade of her arrival. After three minutes of gazing coolly at the overly attentive assistant, trying not to give him any encouragement, she was finally sent in.

SAC Slade was surprisingly muscular for someone in a management position. Robin had been expecting a beefy, football player type that had gone to seed and expanded at the waist over the years, but despite his average height, his form was well maintained. He had dark hair in a short buzz cut, large arms and hands, and light colored eyes. Although he wore a neat suit, clean shirt, and nondescript tie, they looked like they made him feel uncomfortable. He was obviously used to more physical activity than his current job provided.

When Robin entered his office, he stood and held out his hand to greet her. “Special Agent Hart, good to have you.”

She gave his hand a firm shake. “Likewise, SAC Slade. My ADIC briefed you?” Slade nodded in the affirmative. “Look,” she said, getting right to the point, “I don't want to have a pissing contest over Congressman Saunders. The higher-ups in Washington are going to be all over this. I'll hand over the information to both offices and let you fight it out. When I see a stampede coming, I like to get out of the way.”

To her relief, Slade began laughing and gave her a genuine smile. “Hart, I think this is going to work out just fine.” In his history of working with Washington Agents, he had never interacted with any as candid as Robin. It didn't hurt that she was female and easy on the eyes. “Our investigative agents have their hands full, but we can give you space, people, and any other resources you need. Just ask the guys in charge of White Collar or Cybercrimes to accommodate you.”

Robin smiled, pleased that the meeting had been so painless. Slade seemed like a down to earth kind of guy, and she wondered if his promotion had been recent. He hasn't been turned into an administrative cyborg yet , she thought. “Thanks. I thought this was going to be a real pain in the ass.”

“Me too,” Slade admitted. “Just keep me informed, and if you use some of our people, I'd appreciate it if you asked your ADIC to give them the credit they deserve for doing the groundwork.”

“Eh,” Robin said, giving Slade a shrug. “Greely likes listening to himself talk, but if I can get a word in edgewise, I'll remind him. By the way, I know this isn't an undercover assignment, but I came up with an idea that I ran by my ADIC before I left, and I thought I'd tip you off before I started. With the election coming up, the media is going to be following Saunders and his opponent everywhere. I figured I could press on the editor of a paper or something and get him to let me pose as a reporter. Just a way to observe and ask questions without looking like a suit.”

Slade's eyes brightened, and Robin wondered if he missed being in the field. “Not bad. I've got a name for you: Richard Harkiss, editor of the Cincinnati Sun. He's cooperated with us before. Knows that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that. I bet he'd set you up if you promised him an exclusive after the case is closed.”

“My thoughts exactly.”


* * *


Robin wasn't much of a newspaper reader, but she did pick up a battered old copy of TIME magazine that was lying around in the Cincinnati Sun's waiting area. She was surprised the newspaper offices had a waiting area, and privately, she suspected that they did not receive a lot of visitors. Abandoning an article about how controversial the president's policies were and flipping through a few pages with large pictures of Asian factory workers, she learned for the thousandth time that China was going to take over the world economy and that America's current administration was a threat to capitalism. Just the kind of thoughts to make mid-level white male executives shake in their polished shoes.

“Excuse me?” A voice interrupted her mid-paragraph. “These are private offices, ma'am. We only take visitors by appointment.”

So it wasn't a waiting area. And ma'am? Was she really getting to be that old? Shrugging off any possible embarrassment that the bespectacled young assistant standing before her had intended to cause, she stood up, pleased to notice that she was taller than him. His expression faltered. “I think your boss, Harkiss, will want to see me,” she offered, calmly tossing the magazine back on her chair.

“He has a very important deadline...” The newbie shut up when Robin flipped out her badge, his eyes suddenly growing very large. “Oh.”

Yeah, Robin thought. Oh. Sometimes, she absolutely loved being an FBI agent. It was better than TV. Well, except for the 18 hour days and the incredibly slimy people she had to arrest and the mountains of unnecessary paperwork. On television, the heroes solved the crime in an hour. In reality, most FBI cases took months, even years.

“I-I'll take you back, then.”

Robin gave him a wolfish smile and followed him through another version of cubicle-land without the privacy of actual cubicles. It reminded her of the FBI offices, except everyone was shouting and running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The pulsing glow of computer monitors illuminated everything and the harsh clicks of desktop keyboards – no typewriters anymore, of course – added a shifting undertone to the overlapping voices.

Dodging at least three worker bees that looked like they were in desperate need of a cup of coffee or even just a five minute break, Robin followed the assistant to a place near the center of the hive. “He's in there,” he informed her excitedly. “Are you going to arrest him?” The assistant, or perhaps he was just an intern, seemed to have overcome his initial surprise, and now he wanted to be helpful, probably in the hopes of finding out what was going on. Robin couldn't really blame him. He worked for a newspaper, and being nosey was part of the job description. Besides, if she were a civilian and an FBI agent showed up at her office flashing a badge around, she'd want to know what was going on, too.

Robin sighed. “I'm not arresting anybody.” The intern and/or assistant looked vaguely disappointed, and then relieved when he realized that having his boss arrested might mean a delay on his paycheck. Before he could offer any more observations, Robin opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind her all the way just in case he guide decided to listen at the crack.

“Mr. Harkiss?”

The overweight, balding man sitting at the desk did not look away from his computer. “I told you, Stryswycki, I need it now! Not tomorrow, not this evening, now!”

Robin did not answer, content to wait for the editor to realize his mistake. “Stryswycki,” he said again, “you should –” The sentence stopped abruptly as Harkiss finally checked to see who had entered his office. “Well, I'll be damned. How'd you get in to my office?”

Robin ignored the question and tossed her badge, face up, onto the surface of the desk. “The stairs, then the front door,” she said dryly. “You should invest in an elevator.” Or not, she added silently, examining the man's considerable girth. Much more weight and his tie would be resting horizontal to the floor.

Harkiss narrowed his eyes at her, and then looked back at the badge he had been examining. “You're Robin Hart?”

“Hopefully not for long. I need a little favor...”


* * *




October 1 st , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Tess reluctantly allowed the makeup artist to swipe one last streak of powder under her cheekbone as Brian adjusted the collar of her blouse, making sure that it framed her necklace and throat just right. She sighed. Over the years, Tess had been given ample opportunities to practice holding still while everyone else fussed around her. She was an expert now.

“There, you're good,” he said, giving her his seal of approval. Good. Tess gripped her sheet of paper lightly, reminding herself not to wrinkle it. In her opinion, she spent far too much time trying to achieve ‘good', but it went with the job. Good looks, good image, good attitude. This was going to be her first televised debate with Congressman Saunders, and although she was nervous, her face was a mask of calmness.

“Go out there and knock one out of the park,” Brian said, not looking particularly concerned. Although this was her first Congressional race, Tess had served in Ohio's state legislature, worked for her father in Washington, and participated in debates ever since she was a young teenager. She knew all of her positions backwards and forwards, and the only things on the half-sheet were statistics. She hoped that she would only have to glance down at it occasionally. Eye contact was important.

Tess swallowed, fixed a smile on her face, and prayed that no one would be able to recognize it as fake. Bodiless hands seemed to guide her forward, prodding and pushing until she was standing just off stage. The paper crinkled noisily in her hand, but she ignored the outside stimuli, focusing inward. Her therapist – another luxury Tess's paycheck went towards – suggested picturing calm, dark pools of deep water. Tess preferred picturing nothing at all. Blankness. Empty space.

She took a deep breath, held it in her chest for a moment, and stepped out onto the stage.

Cameras flashed and recorded. The bright lights stung her eyes, but she ignored it and waited for her pupils to dilate, waving at the applauding people.

Saunders and Michael Schope, a former Democrat now running as an Independent even though none of the political analysts thought that he had a chance, entered from the other side, taking their places beside her at the podiums. Saunders gave her his signature charming smile and extended his hand, which Tess took without a visible show of reluctance even though she did not want to touch him. She had disliked him before finding out that they were going to be opponents, and her distaste for his smarmy personality had only increased as Election Day drew nearer. They smiled and mouthed a few greetings at each other that could not be heard over the noise. Her greeting to Mike was, perhaps, a little more genuine.

“And hello, everyone, I'm George Rubio, coming to you from Cincinnati at the studios of...” Tess felt the words sliding together into a continuous, droning buzz and blinked, swallowing to pop her ears and regain her focus. She needed to be on her game tonight and leave a good impression. “- being broadcast live across the state. This is the first primetime debate for our three candidates, Tess Daubney, Cal Saunders, and Mike Schope.”

Poor Schope, Tess thought to herself, keeping her smile stretched across her face. Always the afterthought.

“Welcome to all of you. You three drew numbers for order, and Mr. Schope, you're up first. Please give your introductions, but limit them to sixty seconds.”

“Thank you, George. My name is Michael Schope and I want to be your next Representative in Congress. If they could see into the future, our Founding Fathers never would have imagined that today's Congress could be such a bitter, bipartisan place.” Tess bit down sharply on the inside of one cheek. The pain helped her to focus.

The introductions seemed to drag on for eons even though they were timed at a minute each. Cal's contained mostly democratic rhetoric: “send me to Washington, and I promise Washington will send back the Government programs and assistance you deserve.”

Tess took in a breath and prepared to deliver her own from memory. She paused, however, when a face in the third visible row caught her eye. It was a tall, dark-haired woman, busily writing away on a notepad. That surprised her. Most members of the press were either recording or typing away on portable devices. She was going the old fashioned route.

Zeroing in on the pleasant face with its smooth features, she started speaking to her newly selected audience of one. “Thank you, everyone, and I would like to thank all the network affiliates for all the work they have done to host this debate...” Pause. “My name is Tess Daubney, and instead of telling you why you should elect me as your Representative to Congress, I want to tell you why I'm running.”

The woman, and most of the crowd, looked up, listening intently. “Because the reasons are the same. The city budget, the district budget, the state budget, the national budget, they're all broken. People don't have faith in Washington's ability to manage their money. And without money, nothing gets done. Representative Saunders,” another pause, allowing people to look at him, “wants to do it by raising your taxes. I want to do it by slashing unnecessary government expenditures. That leaves valuable money in your pockets to stimulate our economy. Some people think that promising to keep taxes low will send our national debt skyrocketing, but I am confident that by cutting through all the red tape and changing the way things are done in Washington, we can reduce the deficit without overtaxing hard-working American citizens. I hope that you make a sound decision on November 2 nd , a decision that will make your future healthier and brighter. Thank you.”

“Thank you, Ms. Daubney, and thank you to our other candidates as well. Our first question is directly related to the deficit and our country's debt.”

Schope laughed and Tess tried not to frown. Her cheek muscles ached from holding the smile. Maybe, she mused, that was why so many celebrities invested in botox. It made smiling for the camera easier. “My most unpopular position,” he said. “Unlike the rest of the do-nothings in Washington, I'm open to listening to ideas about how to fix our nation's Social Security problem. Now, that might mean raising the retirement age and cutting benefits down the line...”

For a moment, Tess was jealous. Being an Independent, Schope could tell the truth about Social Security without alienating a large chunk of his voters [so true] . Older demographics tended to vote Republican anyway, although there were always exceptions, especially flower children from the sixties. Still, even on difficult issues like Social Security, Tess tried not to tell lies. She wanted to be an honest politician, even if that seemed like an oxymoron to most American voters.

When Rubio asked for her opinion, she gave it thoughtfully. “One step we can take right away to help ease our debt is to stop using the excess money Social Security takes in. That money should be allowed to grow so that the young, working people paying in to the system now can trust that it will still be there for them when it is their turn to retire. Using that extra money for other things is harmful in the long run.”

Then it was Saunders' turn. “We are an aging country. Lots of Americans depend on Social Security as their primary source of income. It would be wrong to take away benefits they need. However, Social Security needs an overhaul, and I am looking forward to working with Congress...” While her handsome opponent didn't look like the pontificating old goats that Tess usually pictured when she imagined wordy politicians, once he got going, he could go and go and go. His talents were wasted in the House of Representatives; he should have been filibustering in the Senate instead. Tess gave herself a mental shake. She could not think like that. So far, her father's name had served her well, and she was slightly ahead of him in the early polls.

“I'm sorry, Representative Saunders, but we've got to move on,” Rubio said, interrupting Cal mid-speech and Tess mid-thought. For a moment, Tess found that holding her smile wasn't so difficult.

The questions on Social Security segued into illegal immigration. Schope wanted an easier path to citizenship for immigrants so that they could pay into the Social Security system and ease America's debt. Immigration was another issue where Tess felt slightly trapped by her party. However, the questions did not bother her this time. She fielded them with her usual competence and charm, but most of her attention was still focused on the attractive, dark-haired reporter in the third row. Even though she was here for work-related reasons, as evidenced by the notepad and unopened laptop she carried with her, she seemed interested in what the candidates had to say.

Perhaps it was her imagination, but Tess wondered if the strange woman's eyes lingered on her slightly longer than necessary.


* * *




October 1 st , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Several questions later, Saunders seemed just as invigorated as ever, but Schope was looking tired. Tess knew his type, hard working and intellectual. A planner, but not a media darling. He did not know how to produce ten second sound bytes or smile for the camera lens. Perhaps that, more than any other reason, was why Tess felt less rancor towards him than Saunders, who thrived in the spotlight. During a brief pause in the battle, she took a drink from the bottled water provided for her.

“Now, we have a special surprise for all of you. In return for allowing us to use their brand new facilities, the students of Rock Ridge High School have requested that a few members of their student body be allowed to ask questions.”

Schope looked surprised, but Saunders seemed unfazed. Tess perked up slightly. Winning over young voters, even those that were not eligible to vote in this particular election, was one of the things she hoped to accomplish as a fresh face in the Republican Party. She wanted to dispel the characterization of the GOP as an aging dinosaur that would soon become extinct.

A tall, thin girl with glasses and frizzy hair was escorted onto the stage and briefly introduced. Despite the unfortunate effect of the humidity on her hair – really? It shouldn't be so hot in October, even under stage lights – she was neatly dressed and carried herself well. She only looked a little nervous when the cameras swiveled to focus on her and a microphone was shoved into her hand. It took her a few test words to get the right distance, but her question came out clearly enough.

“Thank you for giving members of my class a chance to speak tonight. My name is Hillary Kincade and my question is: if elected, what would you do to support clean energy in our country?”

Tess smiled. This whole ‘ask the students' thing was great PR, and she knew that Brian was probably eating it up backstage somewhere. Besides, now she could show off her secret weapon – no connections to the oil industry or corporate lobbyists.

“Ms. Daubney, why don't you go first?”

“Well, first of all, Hillary, I like your glasses.” She reached up to adjust her own and winked. Hillary and most of the crowd smiled. Over the years, various stylists had tried to make Tess abandon the glasses for contacts, but she had refused, and now they were an important part of her image. At least, that was what Brian claimed, pointing out that men liked the naughty librarian look.  

“I think Republicans have the right ideas about taxes and aiding the growth of small businesses, but when it comes down to finding cleaner, more efficient ways to produce energy, I'm not afraid to break party ranks. None of the giants in the oil or coal industries have any ties to my campaign. I stand against overzealous government spending, but investing in alternative energy will save us money in the long run. So far, the current congress,” she looked over at Saunders, “hasn't made any progress on that front..”

Saunders picked up where she had left off. “Obviously, my opponent has not examined my voting record very closely. I have voted with the president to invest in alternative energy sources, while her Republican colleagues in the Senate continue to block most of our efforts. They've sold their soul to the oil companies...”

And you've sold yours to the credit card companies, Tess wanted to say, but she kept her thoughts to herself for the time being. Sometimes, being a woman worked in her favor. People looked like bullies if they insulted her, but insulting them in return only made her seem like a bitch. In certain situations, she had learned it was preferable to keep her mouth shut while looking pretty and professional. She would save the ball-busting moves for later.

Poor Schope didn't have much to add. Saunders had stolen his thunder. The next student was ushered onto the stage, a young man with an unfortunate case of acne, and he looked more uncomfortable than his classmate. “Uh, my name is Nate Harris and I want to ask: what is your position on gay marriage and rights for LGBT people?”

Tess swallowed a groan, although she was not surprised. She had seen that one coming from a mile away. Young voters always seemed to ask about climate change and gay marriage. Schope went first this time, talking about how he supported some kind of partnership, but that answer had fallen out of favor. Now, it was marriage or nothing among the young, liberal voters. Secretly, Tess was pleased.

“I am neither for nor against it,” she answered when it was her turn, as far as she could go. “I believe that decision is up to individual states, as stated in the 10 th Amendment of the United States Constitution.” No one was pleased with that answer, but no one was incredibly angry, either.

“I don't want any other words coming out of your mouth on the subject,” Brian had warned her weeks ago, with a refresher every few days. Originally, he had tried pushing the sanctity of marriage line with her, but Tess flat out refused to win votes by demonizing anyone else, especially a minority group she happened to be a part of. “I don't care how many women you screw once you're elected to Congress, just stay as far away from that question as you can for the next few weeks. If they ask about DOMA, just say that you don't have enough knowledge about the subject to answer the question.”

Tess always felt that debates had a habit of pointing out the weaknesses in her arguments while bolstering her opponents, but like a fencer, she took advantage of any openings she could. “Congressman Saunders, however, voted ‘Nay' on ENDA – the Employment Nondiscrimination Act – when it came up in the House last session.”

Accusing eyes fixed on Saunders. Ohio was a somewhat conservative state in comparison with, say, New York or Massachu ss etts, but the crowd was mostly made up of younger voters, and they had no patience for that kind of foolishness. “The bill was poorly written,” he said smoothly. “It was hastily put together and forced businesses into a bad position. I would fully support a properly written bill.”

Back on an even keel, Tess took another sip of her water and looked out into the crowd. Without her permission, her eyes wandered to the third row, slightly to the left, and fixed on the female reporter that had interested her earlier. She couldn't get a very good look, but from up on stage, her face looked fresh and clear. Hair was a little messy, but oh well. It was kind of endearing. Tess's stomach dropped when she realized exactly what she was doing: checking out another woman in the middle of a televised debate. Quickly averting her gaze, she narrowed her focus to Saunders, who was still giving his answer.

Three more students got a turn to ask questions, one about the state of education in America, one about welfare, and one about jobs. Then, finally, it was time for closing statements. Tess felt like she had been standing for hours, and she really wanted to kick off her high heels and sink into a warm bubble bath. Saunders had been checking out her legs and it made her feel dirty. Not that she was much better, staring at handsome reporters while she was supposed to be playing Politician Barbie. Bend me, pose me, put words in my mouth. Some days, Tess figured that she and Barbie could relate.

Thank-yous were given. Lots of self-important media figures would be very happy tonight, having done their duty by broadcasting the choices to the district's voters and, more importantly, their stockholders. “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all very much for an intellectually stimulating debate. Thank you to my colleagues back at the station...”

Tess had already tuned out. It was over. The world hadn't ended. Even though she was hardly inexperienced, she felt a big rush as she waved her way off stage, pausing for a few pictures and one last glance at the woman in the third row.

It was a little like getting called up to the major leagues and winning your first game. It was true that many debates ended without a clear winner, but Tess felt like she had been clear, articulate, and straightforward. That was a win in her book, at least until the poll numbers came out. Despite the love-hate relationship she had with her job, she enjoyed getting up in front of a crowd and explaining her ideas.

“Hey, nice job out there,” said a low, smooth voice from somewhere behind her. Tess whipped her head around in the direction that the words were coming from, almost upsetting her hair, which was pulled back into a twist.

“Congressman Saunders,” she said, keeping her voice neutral. “You scored some hits yourself.” Insincere compliments were one of Tess's many learned skills. His eyes flicked noticeably down to her legs again, and she curled her toes uncomfortably in her pointed shoes. Her skirt was not that short, but it was slightly above the knee, and she felt exposed. “Excuse me, I should be going,” she said lightly. The weight of the gaze that she fixed directly on his wedding ring, however, was heavy. “Can't be seen consorting with the enemy and all that.”

“Of course.” But he did not move away. Instead, he seemed to dismiss her comment entirely and stepped closer. No one from the stage crew or either of the three campaign staffs seemed to notice the exchange. “I just wanted to congratulate you on your first debate. The media can be relentless.”

Something about the way he dragged out the words made Tess's skin prickle and she made her escape as quickly as possible, only giving him a nod goodbye before slipping out of a side door. She knew that Brian would be furious with her for leaving early and unattended, but Tess decided that dealing with his anger later was the lesser of two evils.


* * *




October 1 st , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Standing up from her seat, Robin stretched out the bunched muscles in her upper back and shifted the strap of her laptop case on her shoulder. She had let it record the debate while jotting down her thoughts in a small notebook. Even though she wasn't really a reporter, she found the discussion interesting. Or was it the blonde senator's daughter that she found interesting? If she was being honest with herself, Robin realized that she had spent an unusual amount of time watching Tess Daubney even though Saunders was the object of her investigation.

The lights were up and everyone was talking as they prepared to leave. Most of the people present seemed to know each other, and so Robin decided to make a hasty exit before they noticed an unfamiliar face among their number. Grabbing her jacket and draping it over one shoulder instead of working her arms through the sleeves, she headed towards the stage. Spotting a side exit to her left, Robin edged the unused door open and peeked out to get her bearings, smiling when she recognized the back parking lot. Perfect. Inwardly congratulating herself on avoiding the crowd out front, she slipped out of the door, hoping that no one noticed. That was an unfortunate side effect of visiting a high school for a press-related event. It made her feel a little like a student cutting math class to sneak out for a burger.

Her memories of high school truancies were rudely interrupted when, while turning a corner, she ran into something warm and solid, falling backwards onto the grass that ran alongside the cement sidewalk. Startled and a little embarrassed, Robin hopped back to her feet, glancing at the laptop that hung at her side and hoping that it was undamaged. “Sorry,” she blurted out automatically, finally looking up at the person she had run in to. “Oh!”

Tess, who had been picking herself up off of the sidewalk and examining a run in her stockings, nearly fell over again in surprise at the unexpected outburst. Robin hurried to offer some support, using a light grip to steady Tess's elbow. For a moment, the two women stared at each other, trying to get their bearings. Despite their awkward position, Tess smiled, instantly recognizing her as the reporter that she had been watching in the third row.

Fingering the material of the woman's leather jacket, Tess straightened the lapels and brushed off the smooth surface. Robin blushed at the surprisingly intimate gesture, but she didn't pull away. “I'm really sorry about that,” she said, giving the stranger an embarrassed smile. “I didn't mean to run in to you.”

“Oh, it's no problem.” The taller woman looked in to bright, clear blue eyes and tried not to gasp. She had looked calm and poised under the stage lights, but up close, with most of the makeup washed off of her face, Tess Daubney was remarkably beautiful. “It was partially my fault, too.”

“I saw you in the audience,” said Tess, eager to examine the mysterious woman up close. She had glanced her way several times during the debate, although she was not sure why. “I guess you already know this, but my name's Tess Daubney,” she said, extending her hand.

Robin accepted it. “Nina Stryswycki,” she said on the shake, remembering the name on the shiny press pass that Harkiss had given her. It was also the name he had shouted during her first visit to his office. The real Nina Stryswycki was a copyeditor at the Sun. The idea of using a real person's name to make her seem more legitimate had settled well with Robin. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Daubney.”

“It's a pleasure to meet you, too.” Tess felt her fingers heating up, but she wasn't sure of the cause. She usually disliked associating with the media, but Nina seemed easygoing enough. Not brash and persistent like some of the reporters she had dealt with in the past.

“Don't worry, you're off the record and I'm off the clock,” said Robin, noticing the way Tess seemed to be analyzing her. “You won't have to read about our little collision in tomorrow's paper.”

The politician breathed a sigh of relief. “No offense to you guys, but having cameras and microphones in your face can get tiring.”

“Believe me, reporters get tired, too,” Robin joked, “although you certainly gave me a lot to think about. I'll be honest, I always vote Democrat, but I liked some of the things you had to say tonight.”

Although she had seemed engaged in their impromptu conversation before, Tess's eyes brightened even more at the possibility of swaying a constituent over to her side of the fence. “Really?”

“I don't suppose you would care to discuss it over dinner?” Immediately sensing a trap, Tess opened her mouth to politely refuse, but Robin continued speaking. “Honestly, I'm asking because I find you interesting, not because of any sneaky reporter tricks.” It was only a half lie. Robin did find Tess interesting, and she wasn't asking her for a quick bite because of sneaky reporter tricks. Sneaky FBI agent tricks, perhaps...

Tess still looked doubtful, and Robin gave the woman her most charming smile. “Actually, I do have an ulterior motive. I live in Washington DC, and I'm only working in Cincinnati for a few months while I take care of a sick family member. I was hoping you'd help me out and tell me a little about the city.”

Even though all of her instincts should have been on red alert, something about the reporter seemed to put Tess at ease. Maybe it was her nice smile. Nina Stryswycki was certainly a charmer, and Tess guessed that she was probably very good at getting people to grant interviews. “Maybe fifteen minutes for dessert,” Tess compromised, inwardly promising herself that she could handle herself for that long without saying anything incriminating. As long as she remembered that she was dealing with a reporter and not a date.

Whoa, a date? Where did that thought come from?

Not counting the occasional night in with Samantha, Tess couldn't remember the last real date she had gone on with a woman. In fact, she wondered if she had ever been on one at all. Her dates with men in years past were all for show, and her rendezvous with women were always secret. In a temporary fit of insanity, Tess decided to pretend that she was on a date. No touching or obvious flirting, of course, but it might be nice to imagine that she could live her life openly for a quarter of an hour.

“You know, there's a bakery a couple of blocks away that makes some really nice cheesecake and other desserts. I haven't been there in a while.”

Robin's eyes brightened. Even though she was technically doing this as part of her job, getting to know the players involved in her suspect's work life, she felt drawn to Tess in a way she could not begin to explain or understand. It was too bad she couldn't use her real name, but it would be nice to spend a little more time in Tess's company, even if it was only a few minutes. Besides, her stomach was growling and dessert sounded excellent, especially since she had not had anything for dinner beforehand.


* * *


“I really shouldn't have done this, but I'm glad I did,” Tess said, making sure to swallow her bite of dessert before speaking. Even in relaxed situations like this, her manners were impeccable.

“What?” Robin said. Although she was a little more casual about talking with her mouth full, she made sure that she never showed her companion any chewed bits of food. “Meeting with a reporter or eating lots of sugar?”

The politician smiled. “Yes. It was very nice of you to offer to pay as well.”

“I'll lie and tell my boss it was a business expense.”

Although she was used to being the object of other people's attention, the way that Nina looked at her made Tess feel like she was the only person in the room. Another useful reporter skill, perhaps. Usually, making nice with people that wanted something from her had her ready to crawl up the walls, but Nina seemed to be enjoying herself as well. That made it easy for Tess to forget that she was a reporter, although the thought always lingered in the back of her mind, reminding her to watch what she said so that she wouldn't see her name in the paper the next day.

“I guess I've just never met a Republican that tried to do basic math before,” Robin said around another bite of cheesecake. Instead of finding it annoying, Tess thought it was almost cute. “They usually just say, ‘we want to cut taxes and decrease the deficit', but there's no way you can do both at the same time. You just confront the problem head on.”

Tess shrugged. “People need to keep their money so that they can reinvest it and meet their basic needs. It's kind of like going on a diet. If you cut enough spending in the right places, you don't need to take in as much money, and since you're also cutting taxes, you don't have to give people as many government benefits. It's not easy, a little like going on a diet, but in a place like Washington, there's always some way to cut costs.”

“Aren't you worried about cutting quality?”

“That happens sometimes,” Tess admitted. “But, like I said, people will be keeping more of their own money, so they won't need as much help from us anyway. It's a balancing act. Perhaps I'm naïve, and I know I've been given a really big head start in life because of my family, but I like to think that most people are capable of being responsible for themselves. That's one thing I would like to increase spending on, adult education so that people can become more self-sufficient. Then they won't need to rely on the government so much later.”

“Too bad I said this was off the record,” Robin teased, getting in to her role as Nina. “This is interesting.”

“You should call my campaign manager and schedule an interview. I can leave you his number. I'd love to talk with you some more.” Privately, Tess shut out the whispering voice in the back of her mind that said she was making up excuses to see Nina again.

“You know, I might just do that.”


* * *




October 2 nd , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


“Tess has a girlfriend!” Samantha sang gleefully.

“Ugh.” It was the only response Tess could come up with.

“Tess has a girlfriend!”

“Stop it!”

“Tess has a girlfriend -”

“Samantha, if you don't shut up right now, I will make you shut up, and it will be painful.”

Samantha leaned back against Tess's counter, resting her weight on her elbows and grinning at her frustrated friend. “Take it easy, doll baby. I was only teasing you. You need to loosen up a little.”

Tess shoved her glasses higher up on her nose and deliberately turned her back on the former prostitute, rummaging in her medicine cabinet for something to relieve the headache building behind her temples. “If I loosened the tight rein of control I keep on myself, I would go on a murderous rampage,” Tess muttered. The volume of her voice was lower, but no less annoyed.

“That's because you work with people that are asking for it,” Samantha teased.

Tess tossed her friend a well-aimed glare. “Like you?” she snapped back.

“Oh no, you would never harm a hair on my pretty little head. You love me too much.”

“In your dreams,” the politician muttered darkly.

“So, tell me about this girlfriend -”

“– She's not my girlfriend! –” Tess interrupted.

“– of yours.” Samantha deliberately ignored the overtalk.

Swallowing her pills dry and choking slightly, Tess replaced the bottle and shut the cabinet door, blinking away the tears in her eyes. “Why do I always do that? Am I really too busy to take twenty seconds and pour some water?”

“Habit. You don't always have water in the middle of a busy workday. Now, stop avoiding the question.”

Briefly, Tess wondered when Samantha had grown to know her so well. She also knew Samantha very well, and this knowledge told her that the taller woman would not quit until her persistence was rewarded with some scrap of information. “Her name is Nina, she's a got short brown hair and dark eyes, and she looks very nice in a leather jacket. And she isn't my girlfriend,” she protested again, weakly this time.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Tess was slightly surprised that Samantha knew the correct wording of the phrase instead of the often misquoted version, but kept her facial expression somewhere in between neutral and annoyed.

“I've only seen her once.”


“Fine. I am attracted to her,” Tess admitted. “But attraction does not a girlfriend make. I'm attracted to a lot of people, but I can never have a girlfriend.”

Samantha's ears were familiar enough with Tess's voice-patterns to catch the note of sorrow and longing that she carefully tried to hide. “You're the only one telling yourself that.”

“Yeah, along with my campaign manager, the Republican Party, my parents, my financial backers, my –”

“A bunch of people who don't give a flying fuck about your happiness, with the possible exception of your father, and you can't live your life for him.”

Tess's slightly hurt expression almost made Samantha regret her words, but she knew that she was only telling her friend the truth. “I'm not,” Tess tried to protest, but she couldn't completely deny that she spent most of her time and energy trying to follow in her father's footsteps.

“You should see this woman again, girlfriend or not. You could always use another friend-friend.”

Tess swallowed again to try and dislodge the phantom feel of the headache pills in her throat. She had a feeling she was going to need them if Samantha's mood didn't ease up. “I don't think so,” she grumbled. “I couldn't handle any more friends like you.”


* * *


Special Agent Slade shifted his coffee to his left hand, using his right to reach into his pocket for his keys and unlock the door. “Ladies first,” he said, only trying to be polite and not condescending. After several years of working at the Bureau, Robin had learned the difference. She smiled and walked into his office.

“So, why did you decide to drop by, Hart?”

“I was hoping I could impose on your tech guys. The FBI provided a basic file on my subject, but I would like another file on a related individual.”

Slade frowned. “On the same guy, Saunders?”

“Girl, actually,” Robin said. “I'd like to run his opponent, Tess Daubney.”

The short-haired man arched his eyebrows, taking another sip of his coffee and sitting in his chair. Setting the cup on his desk, he folded both hands behind his head and leaned back, studying her curiously. “Why?”

“Let's just say I'm curious.”

“Actually, I meant why are you asking me instead of the Washington Bureau?”

Robin's lips twitched. “Those idiots take too long. I figure that here, I can be in and out. Besides, this way you know what I'm looking at. I thought you would appreciate the shared information.”

“I appreciate it,” said Slade. “I just didn't expect it. Go ahead.”

Robin turned slowly for the door. “I'll let you know when anything comes up.”

“You do that. Good luck,” said Slade, watching her go. He had never met a Washington Agent quite like Robin Hart before, and he was grateful that she was being cooperative. Something about the woman had him guessing that if she were working against him instead of with him, his life would be a lot more complicated.

An hour later, Robin was skimming through the printouts given to her by the Cincinnati Bureau's computer guys. Even though the investigating agents got most of the glory associated with a bust, the eggheads in the computer labs did a lot of the FBI's hard work. They had two distinct divisions – the people that focused exclusively on cyber crimes, and the people that did all the computer legwork for the other divisions. They were the Brick Agents of the 21 st century.

Although it did not contain anything that she deemed pertinent to her case, and she felt a little guilty for invading the woman's privacy, Robin read over the file on Teresa Daubney with great interest. In some ways, it was not surprising. She had been through preparatory school, Ivy League college, overseas work, several promising Washington internships, done various jobs for her father, dabbled in local politics, and eventually joined the Ohio state legislature. Tess was clean. Very clean.

Robin was surprised and pleased to find that Tess had set up an ‘adoption' program between the patients at a local cancer ward and pets that were unlikely to find homes from local shelters. It was a nice idea. The animals could offer company and comfort while the people provided the animals with necessary socialization. Often, the temporary visits ended up resulting in real adoptions, either by family members or recovered patients.

“I wonder if she has any pets,” she mused aloud before remembering that Tess was not really the subject of her investigation. Waking up her cell phone, she scrolled through her list of contacts until she settled on a familiar number.

After a few rings, the phone went directly to voicemail. “Louph,” she sighed, “I know you don't like phones, but is it that hard to pick up when someone calls? Oh well, I need a favor. And no, I won't tell you on here, since I know you think several government agencies around the world are watching you.” Actually, several government agencies from around the world probably were watching Louph, but she did not want to feed his paranoia. “Just check your inbox, okay? I'll send you what I need. And yes, I'll pay you, and yes, it will be encrypted. I still have that program you gave me. By the way, it wouldn't kill you to call me once in a while to let me know you're alive... and it doesn't have to be during a job. Say hi to Tortue for me.”

With a quick “talk to you later,” Robin ended the message and slipped her phone back in to her bag. One way or another, she would get the facts she wanted. Louph's methods weren't always legal, but no one could argue that they were incredibly effective. Once she knew what she was looking for, it would be easy enough for Robin to track down the information she needed through legal channels.


* * *






October 3 rd , 2012. Washington, DC.


No one would ever accuse Louph Glaisyer of being a tidy person. His workroom was small, but crowded with various wires, computer monitors, fans, and surge protectors. There were a couple of used dishes lying around on available flat surfaces and a few dirty shirts crumpled on the floor, but the man sitting in the room's only comfortable leather chair did not notice. It was state of the art, built to minimize back problems resulting from long periods of sitting, and probably the most expensive thing in the room except for the computers. There were four working computers, not counting laptops, handheld devices, or the two hard drives being reconstructed under a hanging light bulb in the back.

Aside from the computers and their accessories, the dishes, the shirts, and the chair, the only other thing in the room was a large, clear glass tank sitting above the sleekest and newest of the four computers. The tank contained some rocks, a sun lamp, a few inches of water, a couple of plastic plants, gravel hills, and a small turtle with a colorful shell. He was currently sunning himself, soaking up Vitamin D to help keep away parasites, and looking very pleased with himself. The man in the chair worked very hard to make sure that his little friend was always clean, well fed, and happy.

Reluctantly looking away from his pet turtle, Louph tapped through the familiar keystrokes needed to unlock his computer. For a professional freelance hacker like him, no ordinary password would do. He had to enter a series of complicated numerical and alphabetical codes that changed based on the day. Fortunately, he had memorized them all years ago. So far, no one had discovered his system.

A few seconds later, several windows sprang to life on the screen of his computer, running regular antivirus software checks and automatically checking his stock portfolio. After glancing through his investments, Louph glanced up at Tortue. The turtle's eyes were closed, but Louph liked to imagine that he was listening. “My investments are again today, little friend,” he said, tapping his toes inside of his giant brightly colored converses. His right shoe was a garish neon orange, but his left was a distinct shade of lime green. Louph preferred them that way. It helped him to remember his right from his left. The shoes, like the rest of the man, were large enough to be startling, but Louph was used to being different. Most of the world was uncomfortable with his presence in it, and so he kept to himself except when he was working on an assignment.

A small red icon popped up in the corner of his screen, notifying him that he had an encrypted message waiting for him in his private work inbox. There were only a few people that knew how to reach him at that particular e-mail address, and none of them would use it unless they needed him for a job. Clicking on the icon, Louph was asked to enter another series of codes into the computer. All of his work correspondences were encrypted, just like everything else saved on his hard drives. The large, thin man's eyebrows lifted when he noted the sender of the e-mail, but he did not comment to Tortue, who was probably not interested anyway.

Reading through the short, pointed message, Louph smiled and opened another program that took up a quarter of his screen. He typed a name into the empty text box: Cal Saunders. Then, he hit ‘send' and waited. In a few minutes, he would have the man's birthdate, social security number, criminal record (if he had one), recent credit card purchases, and known IP addresses. It was truly amazing what one could find on the Internet these days if they knew where to look.


* * *


The first thing that Tess noticed about the envelope was that it did not have a stamp, not even one of the inked government stamps that the Post Office shipped for free. It was just a plain white envelope with no stamp, no return address, and her name printed on a label pasted on the front. Assuming that it was some kind of bogus credit card offer or personal information scam, she considered tearing it in half and tossing it in the blue recycling bin. She had been under the impression that most people used e-mail for that kind of thing nowadays, but these guys were obviously doing it old school.

Eventually, however, her curiosity won out. Unlike an e-mail, just opening the letter before she tore it up and reading what was inside would not give her a virus. Sliding a French nail under the envelope's fold, she tore open the slat and dumped out a small card. It only had three words on it, scrawled in penciled capital letters: WE ARE WATCHING.

Completely confused, she tossed the card and the empty envelope back onto the table. Irrational as it was, she wanted them far away from her hands. Numbly, Tess stared at her palms, wondering what on earth the sender of this strange letter had hoped to accomplish. If his mission was to confuse and frighten her, he or she had certainly succeeded. It reminded her a little of a bad television show.

“I should be used to this sort of thing,” Tess sighed, not taking her eyes off of the letter. She had received letters from angry constituents before, and she knew that her father received several unpleasant messages during his career along with all of the requests for money, votes, and a few autographs.

Tess had received her fair share of angry letters over the years. Some called her a money-grubbing conservative nutcase, and the rest said she was a dirty liberal just pretending to be a conservative and guaranteed that she would bring down the wrath of an angry WASP God upon her. However, she had never gotten anything like this before. Briefly, Tess wondered if she should call someone. The police? No, not for three words on a card. Even if she told them, what could they do? As far as she knew, she was not in any immediate danger.

Receiving the note had upset her equilibrium, and she suddenly wanted to talk to someone about it. Sadly, Tess realized that there were very few people in her life that she trusted enough to call. Maybe her father, but he was probably busy, and Tess did not want to monopolize his time for something that might turn out to be a practical joke. Samantha would insist on mothering her and staying over at her apartment, demanding that she call the authorities. Then it was sure to be all over the news: ‘Republican Candidate for Congress Has Unidentified Stalker!' Not the kind of positive headlines Brian would approve of.

Strangely, Tess thought of Nina Stryswycki, the attractive reporter she had run into outside the debate. She couldn't tell Nina about the strange message, but hearing a friendly voice might make her feel better. Before she had thought it through, Tess was pulling out her cell phone and reaching into her purse for the phone number that the handsome, striking woman had slipped her before they parted the night before. Completely uncomfortable with her decision, Tess fidgeted awkwardly as the phone rang against her ear, her eyes flicking towards the note card every few seconds.

Someone picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Nina Stryswycki?”

“You've got her,” said the voice on the other end.

“This might seem a little strange, but this is Tess Daubney. I know it's late, but I was wondering if you wanted to schedule that interview we discussed.” The words were out of her mouth before she could swallow them back. Just taking comfort in another human voice made her feel more secure.

“Wow, I feel popular,” said Nina, her joking tone carrying over the connection. “A hotshot political candidate asking me for an interview instead of the other way around.”

Tess smiled despite the awkwardness and lingering fear that she felt. “My campaign manager wants me to do something for a local newspaper,” she lied. “He keeps telling me that print media is old-fashioned, but he thinks all the dinosaurs read it with their breakfast on Sundays.”

“Hey, my grandma rides a motorcycle. Not all of those old dinosaur types are as boring as you make them sound. And you called me because..?”

“If I have to talk to a reporter, it might as well be a reporter that doesn't drive me crazy.” That part was true, but Tess figured that she could be forgiven for the little white lie she was telling.

“Ooh, so I'm a special pick?”

“Don't get too cocky, although I'd like to hear more about your motorcycle riding grandmother.”

The sound of Robin's laugh made Tess's heart stutter. “Well, maybe we can set up a date and I'll tell you all about it.”


* * *




October 4 th , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


“So, are you having fun with your stint in the News business, Jane Reporter?” Harkiss asked, coughing as he crushed the cherry of his cigar against the ashtray on his desk. Robin blinked, her eyes stinging slightly from the smoke that filled his room, but tried not to show any outward signs of discomfort.

“You could say that,” she said, breathing in as little of the toxic air as possible. Oh well, it was Harkiss' office and a free country. He could smoke if he wanted. Back in her Counterterrorism days, her ADIC had smoked foul-smelling imported cigars, and this was far more tolerable.

“Then why are you back here? I don't suppose you want to give me that story you promised...” he trailed off hopefully, fingertips drumming impatiently on the keys of his laptop.

“Not yet,” Robin said, “but I do have a few questions about interview decorum. I've got one scheduled, and before you ask, I'll give it to one of your reporters or copyeditors to turn into something workable once I clear it with my bosses. You should put me on the payroll,” she added dryly. “Showing up in this cramped building – with no elevator, too! – and doing all your work for you.”

Harkiss' jowls quivered as the muscles in his face twitched, studying her closely and concentrating hard. “Hm. You're the big bad FBI Agent, Hart. Don't you know how to conduct an interview?”

Robin grinned. “If it involves smashing a perp's head into a wall,” she said, her tone much more cheerful. At the slightly hungry look on Harkiss' face, she hurried to retract her statement. “I was kidding! Tough crowd. Anyway, what equipment do your reporters use for personal interviews? What should I wear? This cover isn't deep, but I don't want to come across as inept. I was hoping I could ask you some questions.”

Harkiss looked interested and willing to help, which made Robin's life a lot easier. In her opinion, the less time needed to convince somebody to help her, the better. “You can take a look at some of the unedited camera interviews we've got in the archives. If you can find them, you can watch them.”

“Any of them have politicians?” she asked. This might work to her advantage. If she could find any backdated interviews of Cal Saunders, that would kill two birds with one stone.

“Sure, lots.” He picked up the phone on his desk. “Remember how helpful I'm being when it comes time for that story, Hart,” he said, dialing an interoffice number and speaking into the receiver. “Harkiss... yeah... yeah, I'm letting a friend go through some of the stuff in our archives as a favor,” he lied smoothly. “Have someone take her through.”

Several minutes later, Robin found herself with several VHS tapes and a small television screen. Some of the more recent interviews were on DVD, but only about half of the Sun's video backlog had been converted so far. One thing Robin had learned about the News business so far was that they kept everything. It reminded her a little of the Bureau. They were pack rats, holding on to every scrap of information they came across just in case they needed it in the distant future.

To her surprise and good fortune, one of the early tapes she pulled out from 1993 was of Representative Cal Saunders, an interview from his earlier political years. His name was marked on the peeling label, along with several others. Sighing as the screen of the ancient twelve inch screen jumped, she fast-forwarded through an interview with an older, balding gentleman until she saw her target's familiar face.

“As I was saying, the American people need legislation protecting them from sudden interest rates,” said Saunders in his smooth, coaxing voice. “Imagine you're a small business owner that has to balance some debt in order to push a new product, a minimum-wage worker barely making enough to pay rent, or a homeowner that just bought a new sun roof for the back patio. You open the mailbox and find a statement from your credit card company saying they've jacked your interest rates up to 30%! What can you do? Consumers can't protect themselves...”

Thinking back, Robin sorted through the information she had already collected on Cal Saunders' voting records and his statements to constituents. From what she remembered, he was not in favor of stringent credit card legislation, drawing the ire of his more liberally inclined colleagues while moderate Democrats hailed him as the voice of a ‘sensible, independent' generation of politician, not afraid to veer from the party course. Perhaps that was why Schope had little to no chance in the election, Robin thought. Most of the moderates were comfortable with Saunders.

Nowadays, it was common knowledge that Saunders favored legislation helpful to the credit card companies. His Republican opponent had even cited the relationship in their debate a few nights ago, pointing out that she had no corporate masters financing her campaign.

Thinking about Tess made Robin's face feel warm, but she ignored the physical reaction and honed in on one question: “Why did he change his mind?” If she could answer that question, she might catch a break in her case. As morally reprehensible as it was, simply taking campaign donations from corporations was now legal according to the Supreme Court. However, taking bribes for specific pieces of legislation was not.

“Well,” Robin mumbled to herself, not overly worried that she was working through her thoughts aloud since there was no one else in the room, “I guess that gives me some questions for my interview with Tess.” No one would know more about Cal Saunders' possible political indiscretions (even unproven ones) than his opposite-party opponent.


* * *


October 5 th , 2012. Cincinnati, Ohio.


Robin narrowed her eyes, scrolling through the Cincinnati Library's online database of newspaper articles. Special Agent Slade had been kind enough to loan her his library card, giving her access to their entire collection. Running a search for the name Cal Saunders, the website loaded several pages of results. A few were straightforward biographies, but most were political analyses and a couple of op-ed pieces. Robin decided to start with those. Maybe there would be a sliver of truth somewhere in the crossfire.

Taking another sip of her apple juice, she moved her scrambled eggs around her plate with her fork, not really hungry for anything substantial. In fact, Robin rarely ate breakfast. She was usually too wrapped up in her latest case. This trip to Cincinnati was almost like a vacation, and so far, the natives had treated her fairly well. As peaceful as moments like these were, she still missed the good old days when she had been a Counterterrorism Agent in the field. White-collar stuff was interesting, but not nearly as exciting. Had it really only been two years since she left?

Wiping her fingers on a napkin to make sure they were clean before she touched the keys of her laptop, she continued scrolling through the articles. “Hmmm.” The sound rumbled in the center of her chest as she looked through the articles, trying to decide which to read first. Most of them were scathing political reviews (were politicians ever written about favorably?), but one article caught her eye.

Opening a second browser window, she typed in the URL of the Federal Election Commission's website and scanned a graph of his campaign donors. “If only the public knew the information they could find on the Internet,” Robin said to herself. Most people were under the impression that FBI agents spent most of their time in shoot-outs and hacking in to secret databases. There was some of that, too, of course, but a lot of their work was just good old fashioned research. Slogging through pages and pages of data to find relevant information was the really time-consuming part of the job.

Finally, she found what she was looking for. “Here we go...” Not everyone knew that all candidates for federal office were required to submit a complete list of the people and organizations that contributed to their campaigns. It mattered less than it had two years ago, before Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission changed the rules. Now, corporations could donate to political candidates or causes directly from their treasuries without any legal finagling or straw bundling.

Noticing the large brown segment of the pie chart, Robin clicked through. The Political Action Committees loved this guy, despite the op-ed pieces that called him a fascist Nazi or a liberal tree-hugger. That last inaccurate description amused Robin, because his Blue Dog voting record clearly indicated a strong lean towards United States oil drilling despite his party's stance and the message he gave to voters. Cal Saunders certainly seemed to be an oxymoron.

Businesses and the regulation of business. That's what it all seemed to boil down to.

Robin scanned through the familiar names: United States Petroleum Industries Political Action Committee, American Gas Association Political Action Committee. The list was beginning to get monotonous. Then, she found what she was really looking for. Credit card companies. VISA, QuikSilver, GateCard, and Discover were all on his list of corporate donors.

This mostly confirmed information that she already knew. The op-ed pieces were full of accusations that the oil and credit card companies lavished money and gifts on Representative Saunders in order to receive his help within Congressional business regulation committees.

Her phone rang, interrupting her train of thought. She answered it through a cheek-full of scrambled eggs, trying to mouth the words around the food. “Hello?”

“Hello, Nina,” said a familiar alto voice that Robin had already learned to recognize. “So, I was just wondering if you wanted to do that interview today? I just got an opening in my schedule during my lunch break.”

Robin smiled. “Oh, hello Tess. Is it okay if I call you that? I guess I never asked.”

“Sure, but don't tell anyone. I usually avoid first names.”

“Even though everyone knows yours?”

Tess groaned. “More like everyone knows my last name. Sorry, I'm a little crabby and I don't have time to go out for lunch today...”

That answer confused the fake reporter. “Um, I know you were the one that called me, but if you don't have time to squeeze me in, I totally understand. You must be really busy –”

Robin smiled as the pleasant sound of laughter drifted from her cell phone's earpiece. “Actually, I used you as an excuse to ditch a meeting with a bigwig investor that I absolutely despise. If I didn't make up another conflicting appointment, my campaign manager would have forced me to go. I can't leave my office to get lunch, though, or he might suspect something.”

“You like Chinese?”

“Sure, why?”

“I think I can pick up some on my way. Consider it your payment.”


* * *

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