“Senora Gomez, good morning. You sure make it shine.” George Leland stopped on the top step of the curving marble staircase. He smiled down at the small woman in a maroon smock who knelt by the balustrade, brass polish in hand.
She met his eyes shyly for a moment and beamed. “Gracias, Senator. Extra shiny this week with Franz Forster coming in.”
“Don’t you be screaming and fainting like all the teenagers when he shows up in the rotunda, now,” Leland teased over his shoulder as he saw an aide beckoning him to hurry into the chamber.
Alice Gomez applied elbow grease to the next spindle in an endless row of them on the Capitol’s second floor, sighing as she reflected on how few of the countless legislators she’d seen in 15 years working here, ever paused to notice her.
The job had helped her raise five kids, but what a grind. More kind hearts like this man Leland (and him being with Covenant, the party of the right, at that) would have lightened the drudgery a little. Yes, she thought with a shake of her head, Senator Jorge was a rare one.
Leland’s aide, Mike Loomis, handed him a bill folder and gestured toward the dais. “She’s about to run the Forster vote. I knew you didn’t want to miss it.”
“Clerk will read the title to SJR-29,” intoned the presiding officer, Sen. Linda Maldonado of East Hamilton. “And by courtesy, please read the resolution at length.
The reading clerk’s rapid singsong rang across the ornate chamber and rolled off the stained-glass windows. “Senate Joint Resolution 29 by Senators Maldonado and Martin, concerning the designation of April 21, 2017, as Franz Forster Day in our state.”
George grimaced, rolled his eyes at Mike, and slid into his high-backed leather chair along the back row of desks on the right side of the aisle where members of his Covenant Party traditionally sat. He half-listened as the legislative boilerplate droned on.
“Whereas former Governor Franz Forster represents a classic immigrant success story.
“And whereas his adopted home, our larger sister state on the coast, is affectionately esteemed by citizens of this smaller heartland state.
“And whereas he is an icon of America’s bronze-skinned body-building culture, the epitome of fantasies made real.
“And whereas he is legendary in our nation’s movie industry, world-renowned for bringing dreams to the screen.
“And whereas economic growth and job creation are stimulated by FIX, the Film Incentive Expression grant program.
“And whereas political comebacks both left and right have always…”
Tuning out, George Leland saw Martha Nash, the majority caucus chair, making a face at him from across the aisle where the Service Party members sat. “Blah blah blah,” she silently mouthed.
“Blah blah blah,” Leland mouthed back, just as the reading clerk was finishing.
“Now therefore, the State Senate, by the authority vested in us, hereby designates Friday, April 21, as…”
“Blah blah blah,” commented George again, this time in a sarcastic stage whisper.
Senate President: “The motion before the body is the adoption of SJR-29. Are there any no votes?”
Reading clerk, calling out the show of hands: “Senators Nash, Epstein, Walker, Leland, Green, and McCoy.”
“Pathetic,” said Leland to Dick McCoy and Jill Green, the Covenant senators seated next to him. “Three on this side and another three from over there.” They hadn’t even carried most of the Ninth Amendment Caucus, the minority within a minority who usually battled for fiscal responsibility and constitutional fidelity. Disgusting.
“On a vote of 29 ayes and 6 nays, the resolution is adopted. Cosponsors?” President Maldonado rapped her gavel and that was that. This morning’s short calendar was over.
George saw an urgent text from his wife and was moving toward the door when Phil Epstein, one of the Service Party no’s, stopped him. “Marty and I really liked your vote, Georgie, but we’re dying to know your logic.”
Martha Nash, derided on conservative social media as “the Senator from Planned Parenthood,” gave Leland a mock-serious finger-wag. He noted her expensive manicure.
“Phil hates Forster for what he did to labor law while in office, and I obviously despise him as a sexual harasser,” she said. “But what’s up with you Covenant guys? Franz won on your ticket, after all, and if he makes it this time, it’s another sweet victory for the right’s favorite action hero. I thought Franz the Force was your guy.”
“Senators, I’m really hurt,” moped George, playing along. “Don’t you know me any better than that? This boondoggle that’s turning our Capitol into a movie set tomorrow is costing taxpayers $4 million in subsidies that ought to be spent improving the schools or building highways.
“That’s money out of the pockets of little people your party claims to care about, into the grubby fist of this Austrian phony and his Hollywood pals. Maldonado wants Alice Gomez to subsidize Franz Forster? Please.”
“Who’s Alice Gomez?” Nash asked.
“Never mind, Marty,” said Leland wearily. “I’ll see you at the premiere, if we’re invited. As for Franz being our guy, he’s no more a conservative than Beyonce’. Franz is all about Franz. He stands for nothing.”
Frances Leland waved her husband over to her desk by the window as soon as he hit the office, having glided politely past eight lobbyists in the fifty paces from the chamber to his outer door. Senate staff allowances being what they were, especially for the party out of power, many of the members relied on a spouse for trusted volunteer help during the hectic 120-day annual session. Fran had been staffing George since his first day in office.
This lean-running state was nothing like the big ones where legislators awarded themselves perks like a little Congress and the governor’s seat was for sale to celebrities like Franz “the Force” Forster.
Would Forster’s widely predicted 2018 run succeed in recapturing that seat, Fran wondered as George paused to give Mike several bill folders. And would this crazy new movie, I’ll Be Back, with Franz playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself, the macho ex-governor seeking a return to power, help or hurt the guy with voters?
Reality and make-believe were becoming more and more indistinguishable here on Planet Trump, she reflected wryly.
“Mike’s gone, right?” Leland’s wife asked in a low voice, glancing toward the door. When he nodded, she pointed silently to her computer screen. George took in the splashy layout of what seemed to be some kind of fan website for Forster and I’ll Be Back.
FORSTER FORCE SOUVENIR GEAR
Personally Signed by Franz Forster
on Capitol Filming Day 4/21/17
Limited Edition * Order Now
Tee shirts, ball caps, halter tops, and beer cozies were depicted, all with the FF logo, next to a shot of the grinning, shirtless Forster with a bikini-clad starlet on his lap and an AK-47 in hand. “Presented by Hamilton Enterprises,” read the bottom line of the home page.
“Karen Cooley sent over this link on your Gmail,” Frances said. “She didn’t want it on your state account where Mike might see it. She thinks Hamilton Enterprises is him and his girlfriend. This could be an Amendment R disaster.”
Amendment R, the tough new ethics law enacted by voters in 2016, was getting its first road test this spring, and it had every lawmaker on edge. A sweeping inclusion clause held elected officials responsible for financial malfeasance or self-dealing by anyone on their staff. Penalties could go as far as removal from office.
Leland had enlisted his friend Karen Cooley, a former House member with the Service Party who now lobbied for the right-leaning Veritas Institute, to help him navigate the new hazards.
“No committees till 1:30,” he told Fran with the raised eyebrows that had become their unspoken signal in 35 years of marriage. “I feel the need for a stroll in the orchard. Get that thing off your screen, hon.”
The acre of apple trees at the south end of the Capitol grounds was a sea of white at this time of year – the glory of downtown, and a good place for confidential phone calls. George’s concern deepened as Karen filled him in.
“I was waiting in President Maldonado’s outer office before you all went on the floor, and Kim, her press secretary, left this page up on her laptop when she stepped out to the ladies’ room. Call me nosey or just observant, but it naturally caught my eye.
“Lying there next to it was a printed email talking about ‘Alpert and Loomis dba Hamilton Enterprises.’ I just had time to jot down the URL before she came hurrying back to her desk. Thank God it’s still just a beta site. But these stupid kids are playing with dynamite, George.”
The senator glanced up and down the gravel path – no one coming – and sat down on a wrought-iron bench dotted with fallen blossoms. “And on a short fuse,” he said.
“The filming ends at 3:00 tomorrow, then a quick autograph session – for VIPs, not little staff weenies on the make – then his motorcade rolls out, and they’ll start tweeting the site within the hour. Sell, sell, sell. Damn that Mike. I trusted him. What’s gotten into the boy?”
“Young love and starvation wages make for risky behavior, George, if you can remember back that far,” Cooley said drily.
“Even if they were a licensed Forster Force outlet, which they’re not, this would ethically expose you and Maldonado. To be selling knockoffs and forgeries, and using state resources to do it, criminally exposes Mike and Kim too. I’m afraid it’s woodshed time, Senator. Sorry to blow up your day.”
Leland called Mike Loomis and suggested they run out for a burger. “See you at my parking place by the north steps at 11:45.” Waiting in his pickup for the kid to come down, engine idling, oldies station on the radio, George thought how fond he was of the bright, likable aide.
Youngest son of a 1979 Hamilton Christian College classmate, now a senior at the same school, Mike had been a star volunteer on the 2014 Leland campaign and a mainstay in the office ever since. Now this. The senator fought back his anger and murmured a prayer as he saw the staffer bounding down the broad steps. “Lord, you have the answer. I sure don’t.”
Small talk about the Cubs’ chances this season and Mike’s honors seminar with HCC political science chairman Wes Hooper got them comfortably over the five blocks to a Good Times drive-thru and another five blocks to the riverfront park with its sweeping view across to the hills of upscale West Hamilton.
If Mike was uneasy about anything, it didn’t show. Leland parked by the tulip gardens and they ate in silence for a few minutes. A barge horn split the air. A hawk swooped low in front of them, then caught an updraft toward the river.
George cleared his throat and tried to sound nonchalant. “Excited about Forster’s movie bringing a little Hollywood glitz to sleepy Hamilton tomorrow?”
“Oh, not particularly,” Mike said. “I’d rather it was a typical Friday with the General Assembly at work and the Commerce Committee taking up your deregulation bill. Get it to the floor. Time’s running out. Kim actually likes Franz’s movies better than I do.”
Cool customer, George thought, his annoyance tinged with admiration. He brought up her name before I did. Okay, here goes: “Speaking of the lovely Miss Alpert, the rumor mill is linking her to some Forster Force souvenir sales scheme. Way inappropriate. Do you know anything about that?”
“Golly, Senator, it’s news to me. That doesn’t sound like anything Kim would be involved with.” The aide’s face betrayed no emotion. “I can ask her, if you want me to.”
George slapped both palms on the steering wheel – harder than he meant to. It resounded like a whip crack. “Look, Mike, I need you to level with me. This isn’t just hearsay. There are disturbing allegations. The ethics implications could be devastating for you and me both. The truth is always our friend. Always.”
Loomis’s jaw tightened and he flushed a deep red. For a long moment he said nothing. “Mr. Leland, sir, I am at a loss. When have I ever given you less than the truth? When have our two families ever doubted each other? Ever since I was little, when you took me door to door for Bush in ’04—“
Abruptly the younger man flung open the door and swung himself out. He slammed it and leaned in the window, now almost in tears. “I don’t have to take this. Not from you. Not from anybody. Never mind firing me, Senator. I quit.”
Mike stalked angrily down the sloping lawn toward the river embankment, burger bag still in one hand, milkshake cup in the other. Spotting a trash can, he dropped the bag in and looked over his shoulder at the pickup.
Then like Tom Brady launching a Hail Mary, the staffer wound up and threw the shake as hard and high as he could into a magnolia tree. The lawmaker turned off the ignition and the radio and just sat there in the truck, watching him walk out of sight.
Leland made it to his Education Committee meeting ten minutes late, but paid little attention as the day’s three bills were heard and voted on. He slipped out to call Karen Cooley and urge her to alert President Maldonado about what the kiddie corps might be up to.
George felt sure Mike was lying, and quit or not, his web scheme had to be stopped. Scrub everything. Maybe Kim would come clean if confronted. It was 3:15 before he could get back to the office and catch his wife up on everything. Fran’s face was grave.
“Beth Loomis called here all agitated about whatever you said to her son. The way she’s telling it, which I’m sure is wrong, you bullied Mike and he’s resigning. Beth said we owe her and Jack better than that, and hung up on me. Isn’t public office fun?”
Their mood didn’t improve when Karen Cooley showed up with word that Linda Maldonado was indignantly defending her press secretary and brushing the whole thing off.
Yes, Linda had seen the web page, and so what? Yes, Linda had talked to Kim and satisfied herself that the incriminating Alpert-Loomis email was just a practical joke from some other young staffer.
“Tell Sen. Leland I don’t appreciate him and you and the damn Veritas Institute making trouble for the Senate majority,” Cooley quoted Maldonado as saying. The President had told her George could go pound sand. “Actually, it was earthier than that,” the onetime Army officer added, smiling at Frances.
Setup crews were rigging lights and camera booms in the main floor of the rotunda as the Lelands descended the grand staircase where faithful Alice Gomez was still rubbing away at the brass.
“You know my little litany as I walk out of here every evening: ‘How much of my soul did I lose today?’” George mused aloud. “That’s undetermined, I suppose. But it seems I’ve lost a good man in Mike. And with this stunt of his, I might even lose my seat.”
“Maldonado has lost more than you have, honey,” Frances came back. “You’re trying to find truth, and for some reason she’s trying to bury it.” She paused as a forklift rolled by. “I wonder if this isn’t a case for our friend Dr. Jill Green.”
Weighing the idea, Leland opened the pickup’s passenger door and took Fran’s elbow as she boosted herself in. Jill Green was his seatmate and closest ally in the Senate. She ran a family counseling practice in the off-session.
Colleagues amused at their shared penchant for deep-think, stemming from his background as a pastor and her PhD in psychology, had dubbed Leland and Green “the political analyticals.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” he said, easing onto the freeway ramp. “Mike likes Jill a lot. She could disarm an ISIS brigade. Maybe we could get the two of them over to the house tonight.”
Sen. Leland had just lit the living room fireplace, and his wife was setting out lemonade and brownies, when Sen. Green rang the doorbell promptly at 7:00. George had briefed Jill on the phone before dinner. He was showing her in when the bell rang again.
Mike had been sullen and noncommittal when invited two hours ago, but here he was. Game on, thought George.
The aide was wearing torn-knee jeans, a Hamilton Christian College sweatshirt, and a Dodgers cap. He glowered and muttered, “No thanks, Mrs. L,” when Fran offered him the lemonade. George shot him a look and he took off the ball cap.
Jill broke the silence. “Mike, I’m glad you decided to come. We weren’t sure you’d man up. You have.” He seemed to soften a little. “Watching you down at the Senate, we think you have a terrific future. We don’t want to see you throw it away.
“Let’s pretend this noon didn’t happen. Start over. Tell us what’s up with the Forster website.” Seeing George about to add something, she shook her head and he stopped himself.
Mike folded his arms across his chest, unfolded them, looked down at his Keds, and whiffled air out through his lips like a skittish horse. The fire crackled. Jill took a sip of lemonade and waited.
“It’s hard to put into words. Kim Alpert is like no girl I’ve ever known. My parents can’t stand her, but I don’t care. We were meant for each other.”
His voice was choked. George leaned over and patted him on the knee. “We’ve all been there, son.”
“I’m sorry about today at the park, Senator. That was stupid. The last thing I’d ever want to do is let you down. Kim shouldn’t have been so careless. Cooley wouldn’t have found out. Nobody would have.”
“You can’t be sure of that, Mike.” Jill’s tone was now sharper. “And that still doesn’t make it right. Selling those forgeries is a serious ethical and legal violation. Do you want that on your conscience? Or tangled up with your feelings for Kim?”
Loomis abruptly spread his hands as if tossing confetti. “Look, Sen. Green, Sen. Leland, I admire you both a lot. Conscience is a nice abstraction, if invisible under a microscope. But we’re not back in the Eighties, back in the day, morning in America, Reagan in a cowboy hat.
“Franz Forster is a hollow phony, a bad joke. You said it to Nash on the floor this morning. He stands for nothing I can respect or believe in. If Kim and I can make a few bucks to elope on, out of his deal tomorrow, that’s just karma. It doesn’t hurt anybody.
“Look at Trump, for God’s sake. ‘Grab what you can.’ Wes Hooper puts it well: In this country as of 2016, Boy Scout ethics are out, situational ethics are in.”
Frances excused herself and fled to the kitchen. George took up the gauntlet. “Prof. Hooper is teaching that at the supposedly Christian college your dad and I went to? It’s a new day indeed, I’ll give you that.
“But there’s an old thing called honor, and it never goes out of date with the Lelands or the Loomises. I knew your dad’s grandfather. He fought at Belleau Wood. This would break his heart.” He heard himself speechifying and broke off. Pointless. What would get through to the kid?
Tough cop time, Jill decided. “Let’s be clear. This isn’t some simulation in a Hooper seminar. It’s real life. I told Sen. Leland earlier he should just take this whole thing to the police. Pull the emergency cord. Save his skin. Skip the fireside chat. You and Kim are adults. His career is on the line under Amendment R.
“But George said no, not yet. Give Mike one more chance. That’s called honor – on the Leland side anyway. On the Loomis side, you tell me.”
“A couple of things I would add as a woman,” said Fran Leland, standing in the doorway. “Kim seems to have the lead on this. What kind of love is it that would have her lead you down such a reckless path?
“And what’s going on between her and Sen. Maldonado, that the President would try to cover for her as Karen Cooley experienced this afternoon? I’m concerned you’re headed off a cliff, Mike.”
The aide got to his feet and jammed the ball cap on. He was tense with rage. George let his disgust show. “Really? Run away twice in the same day? Come on, pal. That won’t solve anything.”
“Stick with us, son. See it through,” said Fran softly. Mike sagged back onto the couch. His head hung like a beaten boxer. His eyes were wells of sadness.
“Senator, Mrs. L, Dr. Jill, you are better friends to me than I deserve. This is the worst day of my life. I should have brought this whole freaking thing to you a week ago, before the beta site was ever put up.”
“Yes, you should have,” George agreed. “Why didn’t you?”
“I guess I put too much stock in Hooper, and I’m in too deep with Kim. I never knew love could be like this.” He seemed to lose his place for a moment, her face filling his mind.
“That, and I was afraid. Kim can be a hellcat. She has a lot of dirt on Maldonado, illegal contributions from the homebuilders, which is why Linda was willing to look the other way on Forster Force. So that’s most of it, Senator.”
“Most of it?” Jill Green pressed, tapping her finger on the glass coffee table. “What’s the rest?”
Mike’s mouth was set in a thin line. “She claims to have dirt on Sen. Leland too. That hunting trip the homebuilders took you on, right after we passed the construction defects bill.”
Jill let out a long “Oohhh.” George snorted defiantly. “That one was in the gray area, no doubt. I knew it at the time. But I also know my vote isn’t for sale to anyone at any price, and I’ll establish that before the Amendment R Hearing Board if young Miss Alpert wants me to. Bring it on.”
The senator put his hand on the aide’s knee again and looked at him hard. “It’s like I told you in the truck today. The truth is always our friend. Same for me as for you. Now – is your resignation still on the table?”
“It has to be, sir. I’ve forfeited your trust.”
“Well, you mortgaged it for sure, boy, but it’s not gone yet. We can rebuild. I’m declining your resignation and ordering you back to duty. How soon can you get hold of that web developer and have the site taken down?”
“Right now, sir. He’s in my phone. But Kim will be furious. This will finish me with her, and God knows what kind of trouble she’ll try to make for you.”
George broke into the first smile Frances had seen from him all day. “Long answer I’m taking as a yes. Make it so, Marine.”
“As for Hellcat Kim, who sounds like something in a Forster movie, if she was that, we might send in Franz. But if this was Reagan days, we’d ride it out like a Boy Scout. I’m with the Gipper.”
Sen. Leland stood to shake Mike Loomis’s hand, then squeeze Sen. Green’s. Jill nodded toward Fran: “Cornball.”
“The worst,” she assented. “But you never want to bet against him.”
“You’d regret that bet,” George growled, trying for Teutonic menace in his voice. “Because as sure as death and taxes, I’ll be back.”