But America seems to have an endless supply of people who want Washington their way and don’t care how many others have failed at this gambit before them. And there are many women who are tougher than men, as Tracy was tougher than me. I hadn’t not fazed her. I wasn’t her boss. “What if I think it’s in my interest that Scott divorces his wife and marries me?”

 

I should have let it go right there. I should have kept Tracy at a distance the way I had long kept Scott’s wife Sharon at a distance. Not intruded. Not failed to realize how brazen and far ahead of me she was. But I stumbled and kept stumbling. Tracy outwitted me at every turn. I couldn’t catch her, couldn’t reposition my argument and make it work. I’d lost the jury and lost the judge, and she was both, not me.

 

“Don’t you realize he’s interested in you because you resemble his sister?”

“Of course, I do. That’s how we found each other.”

“Tracy, filling Catherine’s role in his life is a terrible idea. I know something about this.”

“Do you? And do you also know we love each other whether it’s a terrible idea or not?”

“I’m not the one who’s really saying this. The Secretary is. End the relationship.”

“Jim, if you drag the Secretary into this, Scott will get rid of you, not me.”

“I didn’t drag the Secretary into it. He dragged me into it.”

“Then my advice to you is to drag yourself out of it. You said yourself the little people are the ones who get hurt, and that’s what your having blown the whistle on us will do to you. You’re not Scott’s friend, Jim. You don’t have a clue.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Yes, we will.”

And we did. Tracy’s self-serving interpretation of my meddling prevailed with Scott, and I was shipped back to the Department of Energy. I landed with a thump and no applause. As a civil servant, I should not have cared. Go to work in one place, go to another. Still get paid. Serve your time. But I was bruised. The transfer was handled by Scott’s successor, the undersecretary for administration. No thanks, no goodbye, not even good riddance.

Not the end of the story, however. To mollify the Secretary and clean up the perception issues, Scott both filed for divorce and got Tracy a job at the White House.  There she met and married someone, for want of a better description, “more important.”  That is how I would put it, anyway.  When that administration came to an end, Scott joined a Washington law firm where he continues to work. Inevitably, I see him from time to time on the street or in a restaurant. These encounters never change. He got his sister back, and somehow I played a role in once again taking her away. So he looks at me as though now I’m the man he’s planning to kill. It’s a glare as violent as a knife drawn straight across my throat.

WHEN Scott Burke joined my agency in D.C., he placed a photograph of his sister, Catherine, on his desk, a pretty girl with a lazy smile, the kind of older sister you would love having in the house. That photo shocked me because Catherine had been raped and murdered when she was a college sophomore in Texas. I knew because I was in high school with Scott at the time. Local TV ran a picture of the acne-scarred, balding rapist-murderer when he received a life sentence instead of execution by testifying against another rapist-murderer.

 

We graduated. Ten years passed before I saw Scott again. He interrupted my greeting: “You’re the only one around here who knows, Jim. Can we keep it that way?”  He was a gaunt man, a marathoner. “If that guy ever gets out, I’ll kill him.”

 

I said, “I was sorry then. I’m sorry now.”

 

I thought we were done, but Scott couldn’t contain himself. “He pulled her into his van, tied her up, and drove into the hills outside Austin. He raped her for two days before he cut her throat. Then he threw her into the weeds where she bled out. I’ve got the autopsy report. I read it every year on the anniversary of her death.”

 

“Doesn’t that torture you?”

 

“I’m not leaving it behind.”

An agency that investigated chemical spills was a natural place for me, a geochemist. By contrast, Scott had an economics and law degree. He got his job as general counsel through political connections and pursued maximum penalties and minimal remediation. This was the Republican in him: moralistic but indifferent to the environment. If a spill might have contaminated an aquifer, he would propose piping fresh water into a community and leaving the aquifer unexamined. Cheaper that way. Once he suggested stabilizing a pond-sized spill by pumping it full of cement.

 

I said, “People don’t want three acres of congealed waste in their community. They want the stuff gone.”

 

“Cement wouldn’t work?”

 

“I haven’t done the analysis.”

 

“Do it. Then let’s talk.”

 

Scott didn’t stay with us long. He moved to the Office of Management and Budget, then Treasury. Politics drove him back into the private sector, where he prospered, but he always returned to D.C., although I suspected he hated government because of the plea bargain that kept Catherine’s killer alive. Clearly a complex, self-punishing man. Meanwhile, I moved to the Department of Energy.

 

One day, I received an invitation to his wedding. We hadn’t been in touch for years. The other guests were political and high-powered business types not interested in me in the least, all but the bride, Sharon.

 

“You’re his only friend here from high school, Jim. What was he like?”

 

I sensed that Sharon really wanted to hear more about Catherine than Scott, and knew I should be careful. When Scott returned to school from the trial, girls he barely knew hugged him with tears running down their cheeks, but he might as well have been a lamppost. In fact, I now wondered why he was getting married. My own relationship with him was affable, but lacking emotion, terse and evasive. No one got close to him, including, I suspected, his bride. It must have cost her some effort to find out about me and persuade him to let her invite me to the wedding.  

 

I said, “He was super smart and ran long distances, so we hardly saw him.”

 

“He always has a goal,” she said, perhaps without realizing that his ultimate goal was to see another man dead.

 

In time, Scott was named undersecretary of the Treasury for administration. Sharon made partner in a major law firm. In D.C. they qualified as an A-list power couple. I received occasional invitations from them and accepted ambivalently. Sharon found something comforting in me that made me uncomfortable. She introduced me as Scott’s high school buddy, a tactic designed to align herself with his wound. Everyone except Scott ignored this. He was not important because of his friends in high school. Scott’s attitude toward me did seem to soften, though. He surely knew Sharon got nowhere with me. We had a tacit pact I had no qualms about honoring. He had his reasons for not being likable, and I sympathized. Being a loner myself, I became his friend by not being his friend, if that makes any sense. Resolutely saying nothing of consequence to one another worked for us. We were mutually proud of keeping Scott’s secret.

 

The next Republican president made Scott deputy Treasury secretary. Energy, a huge part of the world economy, prompted him to invite me to advise him on oil—my ultimate interest, a new challenge and a nice promotion—but I didn’t see Scott often. We communicated by email and staff meetings. We both were overwhelmed. Eighty-hour weeks became normal. Soon I needed an assistant. The ideal candidate unfortunately resembled Catherine, whose photo still sat on Scott’s desk along with pictures of Sharon and their kids. I wondered if I should raise this with Scott, but how would I go about breaking our pact? So I hired Tracy Lewis thinking I could keep her out of Scott’s sight.

 

That was foolish. I’ve searched my conscience and have to admit the possibility that I may have let something in me buckle because Scott’s abiding obsession ultimately offended me. Or I may have decided there was a moral statute of limitations that voided the claims of his hatred. I definitely rationalized that Tracy Lewis was not the murdered Catherine Burke or her exact image, and I could not be unfair to her talents or my needs. Who knows? But people aren’t good in Washington unless they are ambitious, and no one will stop an ambitious person from edging into the picture frame. The door just about closes on senior meetings, and in slither three or four staffers who take seats along the wall. Scott scanned everyone, and there was Tracy. His grayish face grew stormily florid. He beat up his subordinates for the next hour. After the meeting, he gestured for me to follow him to his office.

 

“Did you notice the woman who resembled Catherine?”

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

“Who’s she work for?”

 

“Me.”

 

He turned his back and stared out the window at the statue of Albert Gallatin on Pennsylvania avenue. He’d been thinking hard while he was abusing his staff.  “Let her go.”

“I told her not to come to the meeting, but I’ll reinforce the message.”

“She still came? That’s the reason then. Insubordination.”

“Scott, I just hired her. I can’t fire her for that.” I let myself out, saying “I’m sorry” as a way of trying to leave things up in the air.

Tracy nodded when I said Scott only allowed his direct subordinates at his meetings, and I was his direct subordinate, not her, but when I needed a sick day, she used my name to make an appointment with him to review a report that she, admittedly, had written. As soon as she saw Catherine’s picture on his desk—a sister he told her had died young, exactly what he told anyone who asked— she apparently understood her opportunity perfectly. The longer Scott looked at her, the more he would find her irresistible. She captivated and compromised him easily. The pressures that may have made me give in to her when I hired her may have forced his surrender, too.  Soon everyone in the higher levels of Treasury knew what was going on, if not why. They had no idea he was carrying on with Tracy because the hatred he felt for the man in the federal prison had become a compensatory attraction to the woman in the federal ministry.

One afternoon, the Secretary asked to see me. He looked at me as if he knew me—he didn’t—and spoke to me like an old confidant. “Jim, they tell me you’ve known Scott for many years, since high school in fact. Is that true?”

“Yes, sir, it is.”

“Then you might be the perfect person to resolve a troubling issue. I want you to tell Scott to terminate his relationship with your assistant. I don’t want to lose him, and I’m sure he wouldn’t take it well if he ended up costing your assistant her job, too.”

At that level of government, discussions aren’t dialogues. Cabinet secretaries don’t listen after they’ve given instructions. But I thought if I approached Scott directly, I’d get nowhere, so I asked Tracy to come into my office.

 

“In Washington the ones who get hurt worst are the little people, not the big ones,” I told her. “Please believe me on this. It would be in your interest to terminate the relationship.”

With more than ninety stories in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary short fiction writers in America. His new novel is Suffer the Children. He lives in North Carolina after a twenty-five year career in diplomacy.

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Robert Earle

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Fiction

January 2016

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