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Gabrielle Ashe had no idea what to make of the documents now spread out before her on Marjorie Tench’s desk. The pile included photocopied letters, faxes, transcripts of phone conversations, and they all seemed to support the allegation that Senator Sexton was in covert dialogue with private space companies.

Tench pushed a couple of grainy black‑and‑white photographs toward Gabrielle. “I assume this is news to you?”

Gabrielle looked at the photos. The first candid shot showed Senator Sexton getting out of a taxi in some kind of underground garage. Sexton never takes taxis. Gabrielle looked at the second shot‑a telephoto of Sexton climbing into a parked white minivan. An old man appeared to be in the van waiting for him.

“Who is that?” Gabrielle said, suspicious the photos might be faked.

“A big shot from the SFF.”

Gabrielle was doubtful. “The Space Frontier Foundation?”

The SFF was like a “union” for private space companies. It represented aerospace contractors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists‑any private entity that wanted to go into space. They tended to be critical of NASA, arguing that the U.S. space program employed unfair business practices to prevent private companies from launching missions into space.

“The SFF,” Tench said, “now represents over a hundred major corporations, some very wealthy enterprises who are waiting eagerly for the Space Commercialization Promotions Act to be ratified.”

Gabrielle considered it. For obvious reasons the SFF was a vocal supporter of Sexton’s campaign, although the senator had been careful not to get too close to them because of their controversial lobbying tactics. Recently the SFF had published an explosive rant charging that NASA was in fact an “illegal monopoly” whose ability to operate at a loss and still stay in business represented unfair competition to private firms. According to the SFF, whenever AT T needed a telecomm satellite launched, several private space companies offered to do the job at a reasonable $50 million. Unfortunately, NASA always stepped in and offered to launch AT T’s satellites for a mere twenty‑five million, even though it cost NASA five times that to do the job! Operating at a loss is one way NASA keeps its grip on space, the SFF lawyers accused. And taxpayers pick up the tab.

“This photo reveals,” Tench said, “that your candidate is holding secret meetings with an organization that represents private space enterprises.” Tench motioned to several other documents on the table. “We also have internal SFF memos calling for huge sums of money to be collected from SFF member companies‑in amounts commensurate with their net worth‑and transferred to accounts controlled by Senator Sexton. In effect, these private space agencies are anteing up to put Sexton in office. I can only assume he has agreed to pass the commercialization bill and privatize NASA if elected.”

Gabrielle looked at the pile of papers, unconvinced. “Do you expect me to believe that the White House has evidence that its opponent is engaged in profoundly illegal campaign finance‑and yet, for some reason, you are keeping it secret?”

“What would you believe?”

Gabrielle glared. “Frankly, considering your skills for manipulation, a more logical solution seems that you are plying me somehow with phony documents and photos produced by some enterprising White House staffer and his desktop publishing computer.”

“Possible, I admit. But not true.”

“No? Then how did you get all these internal documents from corporations? The resources required to steal all of this evidence from so many companies certainly exceeds the grasp of the White House.”

“You’re right. This information arrived here as an unsolicited gift.”

Gabrielle was now lost.

“Oh yes,” Tench said, “we get a lot of it. The President has many powerful political allies who would like to see him stay in office. Remember, your candidate is suggesting cuts all over the place‑a lot of them right here in Washington. Senator Sexton certainly has no qualms about citing the FBI’s bloated budget as an example of government overspending. He’s taken some potshots at the IRS, too. Maybe someone at the bureau or at the service got a little annoyed.”

Gabrielle got the implication. People at the FBI and IRS would have ways of getting this kind of information. They might then send it to the White House as an unsolicited favor to help the President’s election. But what Gabrielle could not make herself believe was that Senator Sexton would ever be engaged in illegal campaign funding. “If this data is accurate,” Gabrielle challenged, “which I strongly doubt it is, why haven’t you gone public?”

“Why do you think?”

“Because it was gathered illegally.”

“How we got it makes no difference.”

“Of course it makes a difference. It’s inadmissible in a hearing.”

“What hearing? We’d simply leak this to a newspaper, and they’d run it as a ’credible‑source’ story with photos and documentation. Sexton would be guilty until proven innocent. His vocal anti‑NASA stance would be virtual proof that he is taking bribes.”

Gabrielle knew it was true. “Fine,” she challenged, “then why haven’t you leaked the information?”

“Because it’s a negative. The President promised not to go negative in the campaign and he wants to stick to that promise as long as he can.”

Yeah, right! “You’re telling me the President is so upstanding that he refuses to go public with this because people might consider it a negative?”

“It’s a negative for the country. It implicates dozens of private companies, many of which are made up of honest people. It besmirches the office of the U.S. Senate and is bad for the country’s morale. Dishonest politicians hurt all politicians. Americans need to trust their leaders. This would be an ugly investigation and would most likely send a U.S. senator and numerous prominent aerospace executives to jail.”

Although Tench’s logic did make sense, Gabrielle still doubted the allegations. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

“Simply put, Ms. Ashe, if we release these documents, your candidate will be indicted for illegal campaign financing, lose his Senate seat, and most likely do prison time.” Tench paused. “Unless . . .”

Gabrielle saw a snakelike glint in the senior adviser’s eyes. “Unless what?”

Tench took a long drag on her cigarette. “Unless you decide to help us avoid all that.”

A murky silence settled over the room.

Tench coughed roughly. “Gabrielle, listen, I decided to share this unfortunate information with you for three reasons. First, to show you Zach Herney is a decent man who considers the government’s well‑being before his personal gain. Second, to inform you that your candidate is not as trustworthy as you might think. And third, to persuade you to accept the offer I am about to make.”

“That offer being?”

“I’d like to offer you a chance to do the right thing. The patriotic thing. Whether you know it or not, you’re in a unique position to spare Washington all kinds of unpleasant scandal. If you can do what I am about to ask, perhaps you could even earn yourself a place on the President’s team.”

A place on the President’s team? Gabrielle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Ms. Tench, whatever you have in mind, I do not appreciate being black‑mailed, coerced, or talked down to. I work for the senator’s campaign because I believe in his politics. And if this is any indication of the way Zach Herney exerts political influence, I have no interest in being associated with him! If you’ve got something on Senator Sexton, then I suggest you leak it to the press. Frankly, I think this whole thing’s a sham.”

Tench gave a dreary sigh. “Gabrielle, your candidate’s illegal funding is a fact. I’m sorry. I know you trust him.” She lowered her voice. “Look, here’s the point. The President and I will go public with the funding issue if we must, but it will get ugly on a grand scale. This scandal involves several major U.S. corporations breaking the law. A lot of innocent people will pay the price.” She took a long drag and exhaled. “What the President and I are hoping for here . . . is some other way to discredit the senator’s ethics. A way that is more contained . . . one in which no innocent parties get hurt.” Tench set down her cigarette and folded her hands. “Simply put, we would like you to publicly admit that you had an affair with the senator.”

Gabrielle’s entire body went rigid. Tench sounded utterly certain of herself. Impossible, Gabrielle knew. There was no proof. The sex had happened only once, behind locked doors in Sexton’s senatorial office. Tench has nothing. She’s fishing. Gabrielle fought to retain her steady tone. “You assume a lot, Ms. Tench.”

“Which? That you had an affair? Or that you would abandon your candidate?”


Tench gave a curt smile and stood up. “Well, let’s put one of those facts to rest right now, shall we?” She walked to her wall safe again and returned with a red manila folder. It was stamped with the White House seal. She unhooked the clasp, tipped the envelope over, and dumped the contents out on the desk in front of Gabrielle.

As dozens of color photographs spilled out onto the desk, Gabrielle saw her entire career come crashing down before her.