The Washington MetroRail subway now leaving Federal Triangle station could not speed away from the White House fast enough for Gabrielle Ashe. She sat rigid in a deserted corner of the train as darkened shapes tore past outside in a blur. Marjorie Tenchs big red envelope lay in Gabrielles lap, pressing down like a ten‑ton weight.
Ive got to talk to Sexton! she thought, the train accelerating now in the direction of Sextons office building. Immediately!
Now, in the dim, shifting light of the train, Gabrielle felt like she was enduring some kind of hallucinogenic drug trip. Muted lights whipped by overhead like slow‑motion discotheque strobes. The ponderous tunnel rose on all sides like a deepening canyon.
Tell me this is not happening.
She gazed down at the envelope on her lap. Unclasping the flap, she reached inside and pulled out one of the photos. The internal lights of the train flickered for a moment, the harsh glare illuminating a shocking image‑Sedgewick Sexton lying naked in his office, his gratified face turned perfectly toward the camera while Gabrielles dark form lay nude beside him.
She shivered, rammed the photo back inside, and fumbled to reclasp the envelope.
As soon as the train exited the tunnel and climbed onto the aboveground tracks near LEnfant Plaza, Gabrielle dug out her cellphone and called the senators private cellular number. His voice mail answered. Puzzled, she phoned the senators office. The secretary answered.
Its Gabrielle. Is he in?
The secretary sounded peeved. Where have you been? He was looking for you.
I had a meeting that ran long. I need to talk to him right away.
Youll have to wait till morning. Hes at Westbrooke.
Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments was the building where Sexton kept his D.C. residence. Hes not picking up his private line, Gabrielle said.
He blocked off tonight as a P.E . . . the secretary reminded. He left early.
Gabrielle scowled. Personal Event. In all the excitement, shed forgotten Sexton had scheduled himself a night alone at home. He was very particular about not being disturbed during his P.E. blocks. Bang on my door only if the building is on fire, he would say. Other than that, it can wait until morning. Gabrielle decided Sextons building was definitely on fire. I need you to reach him for me.
This is serious, I really‑
No, I mean literally impossible. He left his pager on my desk on his way out and told me he was not to be disturbed all night. He was adamant. She paused. More so than usual.
Shit. Okay, thanks. Gabrielle hung up.
LEnfant Plaza, a recording announced in the subway car. Connection all stations.
Closing her eyes, Gabrielle tried to clear her mind, but devastating images rushed in . . . the lurid photos of herself and the senator . . . the pile of documents alleging Sexton was taking bribes. Gabrielle could still hear Tenchs raspy demands. Do the right thing. Sign the affidavit. Admit the affair.
As the train screeched into the station, Gabrielle forced herself to imagine what the senator would do if the photos hit the presses. The first thing to pop in her mind both shocked and shamed her.
Sexton would lie.
Was this truly her first instinct regarding her candidate?
Yes. He would lie . . . brilliantly.
If these photos hit the media without Gabrielles having admitted the affair, the senator would simply claim the photos were a cruel forgery. This was the age of digital photo editing; anyone who had ever been on‑line had seen the flawlessly retouched spoof photographs of celebrities heads digitally melded onto other peoples bodies, often those of porn stars engaged in lewd acts. Gabrielle had already witnessed the senators ability to look into a television camera and lie convincingly about their affair; she had no doubt he could persuade the world these photos were a lame attempt to derail his career. Sexton would lash out with indignant outrage, perhaps even insinuate that the President himself had ordered the forgery.
No wonder the White House hasnt gone public. The photos, Gabrielle realized, could backfire just like the initial drudge. As vivid as the pictures seemed, they were totally inconclusive.
Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of hope.
The White House cant prove any of this is real!
Tenchs powerplay on Gabrielle had been ruthless in its simplicity: Admit your affair or watch Sexton go to jail. Suddenly it made perfect sense. The White House needed Gabrielle to admit the affair, or the photos were worthless. A sudden glimmer of confidence brightened her mood.
As the train sat idling and the doors slid open, another distant door seemed to open in Gabrielles mind, revealing an abrupt and heartening possibility.
Maybe everything Tench told me about the bribery was a lie.
After all, what had Gabrielle really seen? Yet again, nothing conclusive‑some Xeroxed bank documents, a grainy photo of Sexton in a garage. All of it potentially counterfeit. Tench cunningly could have showed Gabrielle bogus financial records in the same sitting as the genuine sex photos, hoping Gabrielle would accept the entire package as true. It was called authentication by association, and politicians used it all the time to sell dubious concepts.
Sexton is innocent, Gabrielle told herself. The White House was desperate, and they had decided to take a wild gamble on scaring Gabrielle into going public about the affair. They needed Gabrielle to desert Sexton publicly‑scandalously. Get out while you can, Tench had told her. You have until eight oclock tonight. The ultimate pressure sales job. All of it fits, she thought.
Except one thing . . .
The only confusing piece of the puzzle was that Tench had been sending Gabrielle anti‑NASA e‑mails. This certainly suggested NASA really did want Sexton to solidify his anti‑NASA stance so they could use it against him. Or did it? Gabrielle realized that even the e‑mails had a perfectly logical explanation.
What if the e‑mails were not really from Tench?
It was possible Tench caught a traitor on staff sending Gabrielle data, fired that person, and then stepped in and e‑mailed the final message herself, calling Gabrielle in for a meeting. Tench could have pretended she leaked all the NASA data on purpose‑to set Gabrielle up.
The subway hydraulics hissed now in LEnfant Plaza, the doors preparing to close.
Gabrielle stared out at the platform, her mind racing. She had no idea if her suspicions were making any sense or if they were just wishful thinking, but whatever the hell was going on, she knew she had to talk to the senator right away‑P.E. night or not.
Clutching the envelope of photographs, Gabrielle hurried off the train just as the doors hissed shut. She had a new destination.
Westbrooke Place Apartments.