I waited, more nervous about this gambit than I would have liked. I'd arrived too early, but I hadn't wanted to miss her. Even though I didn't know who she was.
Oh, I had a name, but I knew women in her profession used aliases. Just like their clients did. Like I hoped my boss had.
I checked my watch again. Finally only three minutes to five. All throughout the city, civil servants were glancing at their own watches, waiting for those three minutes to pass. Three short ticks and they could jam the Beltway on their way home, or head to the bars to toss a couple down while debating the politics of the day.
Just a few short ticks and it would be too late to back out, too late to walk away. I steeled myself.
Two minutes to five.
At least the Congressman was on his way home. Catching my boss in flagrante delicto would have been bad, I reminded myself. Very bad. I didn't want him as an enemy if I could at all help it.
Which made dealing with his hooker even more delicate. I had to handle this just right...
At one minute to five, the lock clicked and the hotel room door opened.
My breath caught. I'd been preparing myself for this moment all week, but my heart still pounded. Would this work? I forced myself to breathe.
She saw me immediately, but just stood in the doorway, studying me. I studied her in return.
She was older than I'd expected. Probably not forty, but certainly not my age. Her conservative black cocktail dress would have fit in at any of the Hill receptions, though the way she wore her hair, long and straight down her back, would have stood out. As would her eyes. Those eyes that engulfed me even now.
"Just you?" she asked.
"Okay." She entered the room and let the door swing shut behind her. She paused a few feet away, looking at me.
Since I occupied the room's only chair, I motioned her toward the bed. She placed her purse on it, but remained standing. She looked at me again, waiting.
"I'm not who you were expecting," I said.
"I had no expectations."
I shook my head. "You were expecting my boss."
She pursed her lips and slowly shook her head. "The desk clerk told me a man had checked in and it wasn't David."
I blinked. "You call him David?"
"That's his name. What do you call him?"
I frowned. Since he hadn't used an alias, why not be honest? "Congressman Smith."
She didn't audibly sigh, but her eyes carried the meaning all the same.
I bristled. "The Congressman is a powerful man. I'm surprised he lets you call him by his first name."
"He's also just a man. And I'm one of his more intimate friends."
"Friends?" I said, arching my brow.
I paused. Could they really be friends? I dismissed the idea—he was paying her.
"Friends. So that's what they call it these days?" I asked.
She raised her eyebrows. "What would you call it?"
"An 'exchange of services' if I'm being polite. 'Spending time with a hooker' if I'm not."
She stared at me, unfazed by my verbal dart, and then chuckled, low and throaty.
My eyes narrowed. "What's so funny?"
"You. You're what, twenty-two?"
"Twenty-three. And what of it?"
She nodded. "You must be the new intern that started last September, right after 9/11."
She looked off into space for a moment, thinking. Then her eyes met mine and a small smile spread across her lips. "Thomas. Thomas Reed."
"And you're Sherri Bryant."
She feigned a curtsey. "You've done your homework."
"Of course I have."
She raised her eyebrows, looking at me. Then she tilted her head toward the mini-bar. "Do you mind... ?"
I shook my head, confused. She wants a drink now?
She slowly walked to the bar. She glanced at me as she extracted some bottles from the fridge.
"David always liked to start with a martini," she said. "Would you like one?"
I again shook my head.
"It'll help you relax."
"What makes you think I need to relax?"
She shrugged. "Are you sure?"
"I'm fine," I said firmly. This wasn't how I'd rehearsed things.
"Okay." She extracted two martini glasses from the bar and set them next to the shaker. "So will David be coming by?"
"No, and I'm asking the questions."
"Oh." She poured vodka and vermouth into the shaker. Then she added a little ice and put the lid on. As she gently shook it, she looked back at me. "So what are your questions?"
"I want to know why he's been seeing you."
"Why should I tell you?"
"Well, for one, I'll pay you. More than my boss normally does." I pointed at the bulging envelope I'd placed on the bureau when I first arrived.
She glanced at it, but didn't immediately react. Instead, she filled both glasses. Taking one, she strolled over to the bureau and studied the thick wad of money.
"That's a lot," she said. "Where'd you get it?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Mmmm, I'm not so sure of that. I know you can't afford it on an intern's salary, which means someone else besides you knows about David and me."
"No they don't."
She raised an eyebrow. "The price for answers from me is answers from you."
I frowned, silently grumbling, but then nodded. Tell as much of the truth as you can, the Congressman constantly said. "I got it from some friends in the Whip's office. I didn't tell them what it was for. Just that I needed it for something important."
"Oh." With that, she did pick up the envelope and thumbed through the bills. "There's quite a lot here."
"It should be enough," I said. "It's ten times what he normally pays you."
"How do you know what he normally pays me?"
"I do my homework."
She set the envelope back on the bureau. Then she returned to the bar and picked up the second glass, holding it toward me. "You sure you don't want a drink?"
"I'm sure," I said with a dismissive wave. "I just want some answers."
"You'll get better answers if you don't treat this as an interrogation."
"Fine." I gestured for her to bring me the martini.
Instead of handing it to me, she set it on the table next to me. She smiled as she leaned over, and I forced myself to not look down her cleavage. At least not for more than a quick glance.
She sat on the bed. Then she looked at me and took a long sip of her drink. "So what do you want to know?"
"Well, first I want to know why."
"Why does that matter?"
I smiled, since I'd anticipated her response. "The Congressman," I said, "is a brilliant man. He understands power and politics better than anyone I know. But if he got caught seeing a hooker..."
She smirked. "You think he doesn't know the risk?"
"Oh, I think he does. I want to understand why he's taking it."
"So why not ask him?"
"I'm not ready to do that."
She arched her eyebrows. "But you think I'll tell you."
I nodded and pointed at the envelope. "Like I said, that should be enough for some answers."
Her lips thinned into a smile. "And like I said, the price for answers from me is answers from you."
She toasted me with her martini. I lifted my own glass and returned the gesture. Our eyes locked as we both took long sips. I stifled a cough—the martini was stronger than I was used to—and lowered my glass.
"Let's start with the easy questions," she said. "How did you know my name?"
"It was on the note he left for Joanne, telling her to cancel this appointment." And which she never saw, since I saw it first.
"My last name too?"
"That's a second question," I said. I paused and then picked up my glass for dramatic effect. "How'd you know mine?"
"David's talked about you. Mostly good."
She raised her glass and looked at me over the rim, her eyes half-lidded. "That's a second question."
I toasted her and we both drank.
"Do you really want to do tit for tat all night?" she asked after we'd lowered our glasses.
"Not unless we have to."
She set her glass on the nightstand and then leaned back, crossing her legs at the knee. Her dress rode up just a bit, though not enough to be anything but lady-like. She studied me for a moment.
"David said you were bright and ambitious. While you'd said you were inspired by 9/11 when you applied for the internship, he says you're not as idealistic as you first appear. He said you reminded him of himself at your age. Smart, and going places."
An involuntary grin slid onto my face. "I've thought so myself."
"Which is why I don't understand why you're here. David would never stoop to blackmail."
"I'm not blackmailing him. I don't want him as an enemy."
She nodded and took another sip of her drink. "Which he would be if you tried."
"I realized that. Besides I doubt it would have worked. Short of taking a picture of you two in the act..." I held up my palms and smiled.
"You never would have gotten that photo."
"I know." Time to play the next card in this gambit. "The only photo I want is one of you, fully dressed."
She arched her brow and her eyes flicked to my backpack leaning against my chair. Smart woman. She's already figured out where I have the camera.
She sipped her drink and considered me again.
"And you want this because..."
"To prove we met," I said. "To prove we talked."
"I'll tell him we talked."
"I expect you to. But with a photo, I don't have to rely on you. In case, you know," I gestured toward the envelope, "you decide to take the cash and skip town."
She smirked. "You obviously don't understand the relationship I have with David."
Exactly why I'm here. I nodded. "So enlighten me."
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
"C'mon. I'm paying you a lot of money."
"You didn't do your homework well enough, then," she said with a small shrug. "I don't need the money. I have plenty."
"But he still pays you."
"He does. It makes things cleaner."
She sighed. "And David said you were really bright. But maybe it's just too obvious for you to notice." She drained the last of her drink, while I waited, growing impatient. "Even though you already said it."
I racked my memory for my recent words. It didn't take long for them to fall into place.
"An exchange of services," I said. "The fact that he's paying you means it's nothing more than sex."
She toasted me with her empty glass and smiled. Then she stood. "Want another?" she asked as she moved to the bar.
I shrugged. I was beginning to see...
"So," I said, "it's not a romantic affair. The money becomes a way of putting distance between you so neither of you fall in love."
She chuckled. "Close enough, but there's no risk of me falling for him. He's not my type."
She mixed another drink and then paused. She looked at me, and then my empty glass. When I shrugged she walked over and accepted it from me, once again bending low, letting her cleavage gape.
"So what is your type?" I asked.
Her eyes flashed. "I like them young." She moistened her lips before returning to the bar. As she filled my glass, she looked at me and slowly trailed her eyes from my feet to my face. Her smile turned feral and then our eyes met. "Young and smart. Like you."
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Concentrate, I told myself.
"So," I said, "he pays you and that keeps it clean. But surely the price of sex is more than just a few hundred dollars, for someone in his position."
An amused grin settled on her face. "The price of sex? The ultimate price is death."
Her grin didn't waver as she slowly mixed me a new martini. "You know that there are organisms alive today that have been alive for millions of years, right?"
I shook my head.
"They're no bigger than a single cell," she continued. "They reproduce asexually. But sexual reproduction makes change between generations possible."
She smiled brought my drink over, setting the glass on the table next to me. "And as a price, it requires death, because otherwise the new generations wouldn't have a chance. Experience and treachery beat out youth and strength every time."
I rolled my eyes. "That's nice. But I doubt you're killing the Congressman. Except in the 'little death' sense."
"Touché." She returned to the bed.
I sipped the martini. It was stronger than the last one, but I wasn't going to give her the pleasure watching me cough again. "And you didn't answer my question."
She tilted her head. "Remind me?"
"The price of sex is more than money, for someone in his position. What else are you getting?"
Her eyes flashed in amusement. "You mean like influence or power? Pull?"
"Exactly. This town runs on 'pull.' What influence does he give you?"
"Not much," she said. "Not more than any of my other friends."
"You could blackmail him."
"And he could have me arrested."
I shrugged. "Seems like that would be worse for him than for you."
She snorted. "No. For him, it would just be a scandal. For me, it could be much worse."
I looked a question at her.
"Do you really think he's my only high profile client?"
"I was curious, but I wasn't sure."
She paused, staring out into space for a moment, obviously considering her words. Then she faced me again.
"Some of my clients," she said, "would go to great lengths to make sure I didn't reveal their identities. Clients with a lot of 'pull.' Have you thought about what a man trying to keep a secret might do?"
I sucked in my breath and nodded. I had, which was one reason I'd decided not to blackmail the Congressman.
"He's my friend," she said. "I get some money to spend time with him, doing something I truly enjoy."
I raised my eyebrows and took another sip of my drink.
"Oh, yes," she said, "I enjoy it. David's quite the stud."
I coughed in surprise, trying not to let me face blanch. Too much information. Definitely too much information.
"Of course," she said, looking me up and down, "he's not a young stud. They can be quite the treat."
When our eyes met, hers danced merrily. She moistened her lips and, despite my self-control, I felt my blood heat. I broke away, my eyes casting around the room as I sipped more of my martini. They fell on the money, and I reminded myself why I was here.
"So the only reason he's seeing you is for the sex?"
"Well, that and the usual reasons men see courtesans. So there's someone that he can truly relax with, with no pressure. Someone who'll listen. And of course, someone who'll leave without a scene when the fun's over."
I smiled. I'd heard variations of that last line. "It still seems like quite a risk."
She shrugged. "It is. But so is your showing up here."
I shook my head. "I don't think so." If I made it clear that I'm not blackmailing him, the worst the congressman will do is transfer me to the home office.
"Or at least you hope."
I resisted nodding in agreement and just smiled. She smiled back and let the pause stretch out.
"So," she finally said, "what do you gain from this?"
I waved my hand. "It's not important."
She didn't audibly sigh this time, but I sensed it nonetheless.
"You know," she said, "we don't have to be adversaries. We're really on the same side." She paused until she had my complete attention. "We both work for David and we both want him to be happy, for us as well as for him."
I silently shook my head. I was starting to see why the Congressman might have been willing to take risks for this woman—she was as sharp as she was gorgeous.
"I can help you," she said. "Just tell me what you need."
I let out a long breath. Did I want to trust her? I thought back through my gambit. There wouldn't be any harm if she knew what I was trying to do. Besides, she was right—we didn't have to be adversaries. I'd just assumed it. I let out another breath and nodded.
"Well," I said, "I want the Congressman's support for my career. I want to go places—become influential like he is. I thought by taking the internship, I'd learn how he navigates politics, but instead..." I threw up my hands. "I'm filing and running errands and answering phones for Joanne when she's out at lunch."
She smiled. "And Joanne can take long lunches sometimes."
"Yeah, I'm surprised the Congressman puts up with it."
She chuckled. "That's because he knows what she does on her lunch hour."
She shook her head. "You'll have to ask her or David."
I dismissed the conversational tangent with a wave. "The point is, I'm not learning anything. Nothing real. But I thought if I could show him, really show him, that I was bright enough to be one of his operatives..."
"Which is why you wanted to meet me."
"One of the reasons. Like I said, I also want to know why he's been meeting you, given the risk. I mean, if I'm smart enough to figure it out ... what happens when someone else does?"
She smiled. "He's done the risk analysis, and I'm worth it. Besides, you had certain advantages. It would be very difficult for anyone outside of David's office to figure it out."
I snorted. "I doubt that. He could be followed."
She smirked. "We have safeguards against that. And against someone spotting the ATM withdrawals. No ... unless you've told someone, no one outside the office knows." She looked at me expectantly.
"I haven't told anyone," I admitted. Then the penny dropped. Other people in the office know. They were covering for him. Joanne, at a minimum.
"They know," I said.
She shrugged and set her empty glass on the nightstand. Then she brushed her hair behind her ear and leaned back on the bed.
"I'm surprised," I said.
"Why? Part of the reason David's so successful is because he has a very tight, very close support team."
I nodded. I knew that all too well, being on the outside. "I want to be part of that team."
She smiled. "We don't take new members without careful consideration."
"We? You're part of the team?"
Her eyes danced and she nodded.
"I suppose your role is stress relief."
"That's one of them."
One of them? I paused and another penny dropped.
"Wow," I said. "Your other powerful clients. You're one of the Congressman's operatives."
She chuckled and shook her head. "I'm no Mata Hari, spying for David. Besides, I wouldn't betray the confidences of any of my clients, even if they were foolish enough to engage in pillow talk about sensitive things."
"Then what else do you do?"
She paused a long time. I finished my martini while I waited. She bit her lip and then, after an eon, slowly nodded.
"I think I can trust you," she said.
She smiled. "I mentioned I have other powerful clients."
I nodded. I knew there was more than sex.
"Well, sometimes powerful men need a way to ... pass information through channels no one else can detect. I'm one such channel."
I snorted. "I find it hard to believe they can't just have a private meeting."
"I see men on both sides of the aisle," she said, as I raised my eyebrows at her admission. "Men who dare not be seen together under any circumstance. If they tried, someone would leak their meeting to the press. Or worse, to their party's leaders."
I shrugged dismissively. "I don't understand why seeing a hooker is worse."
"Ah, but people will help cover up that type of indiscretion. At least a lot of people." She paused. "Like the desk clerk. If David were meeting with another Congressman, do you think the clerk would conceal that from an inquisitive reporter?"
I chuckled. She was right—this town thrived on such minor gossip.
"So," I said, "you're using the façade of sex as a cover."
"Oh, I have sex with my clients. We can't have one member of 'Sherri's circle' with less to lose than the others."
She smiled. "I like to think of it as a very exclusive, very privileged special club."
"Yes," she said. "Special. I'm very good at what I do."
"You should." She licked her lips. "For example, I can give men multiple orgasms like a woman has."
"Really? I didn't know that was possible."
"It's part of having a full body orgasm, instead of just one you feel in your dick."
"It's really incredible," she said with a saucy smile. "But, well ... it's really something that has to be experienced to be described."
I snorted. "So you've got a horde of rich powerful men who use you to pass messages while having incredible orgasms. Right."