Private Politics: Opening Chapter

Hey there, cats and kittens! Private Politics will be out in just over a month. If you like beta heroes, lobbyists, heroines who are finding themselves, scandal, and Mahler, you should be very excited.

And you can read the first chapter just below the fold.

Chapter 1

Smart, capable and in awe of her: was that really too much to ask from the men in her life? Alyse Philips dragged perfectly manicured nails through her blond hair and flipped it over her shoulder. But did the accountant across from her so much as acknowledge it? A practiced movement that had melted bartenders on three continents, received appreciative smiles from congressmen and even caused her father to once issue a compliment—and Fred of all people was unmoved.

Sitting in the cramped conference room at Young Women Read, Inc., the nonprofit where she worked, staring into the annual audit, she could have used a man whose reaction to her was a little more typical. A little more, well, dazzled.

But no, dazzled did not appear to be an emotion in the Fred Hammond playbook. The man probably hadn’t been so much as impressed since 2002 and really, who hadn’t felt a strong stirring of emotion in the face of Halle Berry’s Oscar dress?

Fred’s stoicism was a surprise—and like the decaf you hadn’t ordered, this surprise was unpleasant.

“As the Special Events and Fundraising Director, you write the donor receipt letters?” Fred asked, not looking up from the yellow legal pad he scribbled on.

“Yes. Sometimes.”

This was his second attempt at this particular question, but because he apparently hadn’t been satisfied with the first go-round they were detouring back. She and her boss both sent the letters, which were informal and tax documents at the same time. Nonprofit stuff was so weird.

Accountants, on the other hand, were not. Nearing fifty and wearing an ill-fitting department store suit, Fred sat across from her preparing his agenda for the next two weeks. The annual audit was, to put it mildly, a pain.

He formulated his next question, blinking behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He looked like someone who would call them spectacles.

“How long have you held the position?”

“Nearly two years.”

This went on the paper.

“And before that you were?”

What hadn’t she been? She had started at YWR seven years ago, fresh out of college as an intern answering phones and fetching coffee. Now she ran the fundraising operation. She got her own coffee these days.

“The office manager,” she answered. Anticipating his next question, she continued, “And before that a staff assistant.”

After graduation, she knew if she didn’t get out of the city she’d never leave. As much as she’d loved New York, she’d needed a break.

The choice of Washington had been almost accidental. It was the only offer she’d received—perhaps the result of spending too much time drinking and not enough time pondering the future—but whatever events had led to it, once she’d started at YWR she hadn’t been able to leave, despite other offers.

She felt like she made a difference—simple as that. Every year, they sent tens of thousands of books around the world to schools and other literacy programs. They funded teacher salaries, built and repaired schools, paid for electricity: anything to support women’s and girls’ education.

Okay, not exactly a controversial subject, teaching girls to read. It wasn’t difficult to raise the money or to get people on board with their goals, but it had vitality nonetheless. It felt like the absolute least she could do some days. Obviously girls needed to be literate, but the very simplicity was what drove her to keep on doing it.

If she stopped, would the next person be as good? The difference between an annual operating budget of $8 and $10 million—and surely she made at least that much of a difference—was huge in terms of what they could provide. So she had stayed, year after year, confident she, and her work, mattered.

Fred turned back to his legal pad, but before he did, she caught a slightly nefarious gleam in his eye. Faux-casually he asked, “Geri O’Reilly’s bookkeeping—what do you think of it?”

He had to know what a difficult position he was putting her in, know that she couldn’t answer this question diplomatically, and he asked it anyway. Fred apparently had a bit of a mean streak.

Geri ran YWR like a ship. A ship with a weekly staff meeting generally clocking in at two hours immediately before close of business on Thursday, which preparations for the annual audit had thankfully displaced this afternoon. Alyse’s boss was excellent at her job, except for her terrible taste in meeting times and her disdain for digital files.

Articulating each word like a perfect die-cut, Alyse said, “I haven’t ever been able to convince Geri of the merits of going paperless.”

Fred outright chuckled—the first moment of levity they had shared in half an hour. Maybe he was a slow thaw. Maybe she could get him. Because it would so help lubricate the next two weeks if he were at least a little bit astounded. The audit was grueling and stressful under any circumstances. The organization’s reputation was at stake. But if Fred were even infinitesimally on their side, rather than prosecuting them, it would be easier.

Hell, at this point, she would even settle for impressed.

“Because our files are antiquated.” Alyse leaned on the table conspiratorially and flashed the hint of a smile. The effect was flirty. It was the kind of practiced move she usually reserved for bribing the checkout guy at the grocery store not to charge her for plastic bags when she forgot the canvas ones her roommate insisted they use. “Maybe you could give me the list of documents you want to see so I can get everything ready for you on Monday.”

Blinks resulted. Many, many blinks. That had to be a good sign.

“Right.” Fred stretched the word out as if it were confused. He reached up to scratch his cheek, revealing a beat-up wedding ring. Maybe the guy did have a dazzled side. “That was my plan all along.”

“Oh. Well, then, it’s good we’re on the same page.” She was going to need to practice charming; obviously she was slipping.

He turned from the legal pad to his computer, struck a few more keys, then his tiny, portable printer rattled to life.

“Here’s what we want,” he said, passing the pages to her.

One sheet was followed by another and then another. The list of receipt letters was longer than she would have guessed. There were more letters listed here than she remembered writing, actually, but it had been a record-breaking year.

“Thanks, Fred,” she said, rising and favoring him with what she hoped was a better showing of her appealing, persuasive side. He swallowed before taking her outstretched hand. Oh yes, she’d get him on her side before the audit was over. “See you next week.”

Outside the conference room, several people were debating where to go to happy hour and others were packing up to leave. The cancelation of the staff meeting was indeed cause for celebration. Alyse wove back through a thicket of cubicles to drop off the notebook in which she’d scrawled the date and a few phrases at the beginning of her meeting with Fred. She would need only her list to tackle the storage room.

“Oh, thank goodness.” The voice belonged to one of her more needy coworkers, Linda. Alyse turned to find the woman clutching two belts, a pretty light green patent leather and a tacky gold lamé. “Which one?”

“The green.” The words shot out of her mouth and Alyse felt the error immediately. Never, ever announce a decision too quickly—it inevitably encouraged skepticism.

And indeed an all-too-familiar tightness began to edge her coworker’s eyes. Linda had arrived in this world unconvinced and thus would she leave it. The woman would require coaxing to wear vintage Givenchy. The correct approach to handling Linda was to demonstrate careful deliberation, not instinct or common sense. Particularly not the latter.

“Really?” Linda asked. She stretched the word out to three syllables.

“Yes. Chartreuse is having a moment.” Perhaps reason would convince her if nothing else would. Metallics were acceptable at the holidays, maybe in the summer, but not in March, and not that particular metallic. Not ever.

“Even with black?”

Tamping down her incredulity, Alyse said, “Yes, even with black. Especially with black. Black is a neutral. The chartreuse will define your waist and make the ensemble modern.”

Linda’s eyes brightened and she nodded. “Thank you. I knew you’d have the right answer.”

There were few words on earth Alyse liked better than those. She was an expert on the subject of accessories. Truth wasn’t flattery.

As Linda put the ugly belt in a drawer and put on the green one, the right one, Alyse asked, “What’s the occasion?”

“Anniversary dinner at Matchbox.”

Alyse felt a slight stab in her abdomen. Indecisive though she might be, Linda was a nice woman and Alyse should be happy she was happy. But lately, when confronted with romantic bliss, she felt vaguely ill.

Just the night before, she had watched her best friend and roommate, Millie Frank, wilt under attention at a dinner celebrating her engagement. She wasn’t jealous per se, at least not of Millie’s fiancé, Parker. He would have made her crazy, even as he’d turned Millie’s watercolor to Technicolor. No, they were annoyingly right together.

The problem also wasn’t the demure ring her friend now sported on the third finger of her left hand. If Alyse had wanted to be engaged, she could have accomplished that eons ago. Steven probably would have proposed; Quentin definitely would have. But she’d never let them. She’d kept saying marriage was something to be dealt with later. Later like when she went back to New York.

No, what tugged was the way Millie whispered in Parker’s ear. The knowing gleam in his eyes as he nodded back. Those words, those gestures, communicated volumes of intimacy. Sympathy. Communication. Trust. Things Alyse had never really known.

Thinking about it wasn’t helpful. She was the maid of honor. She needed to be bubbly. To be fizzy. To provide discernment about the merits of gardenias and the differences between varieties of domestic sparkling whites. But now, when she thought about the wedding, she felt actively uneasy. She felt longing—and WASPs simply weren’t supposed to. Particularly not when an auditor was sniffing around.

She shook off the introspection and crossed the now-emptying office, Fred’s list in hand. The annual audit was the first step in the end of the fiscal year crush. Close on its heels would be the annual report. Both required a complete accounting of all the money that had come in and all the money that had gone out, including the tricky subject of influencing policy.

They did it of course, tried to get Congress to spend more money on foreign aid, but they had to be careful with their tax-exempt status. They could lobby, but not too much; they just couldn’t be directly political.

Alyse pushed open the door to the storage room and fumbled for the light switch. The recessed bulbs came to life slowly, sputtering as if they resented her request. They probably did. They didn’t get used all that often.

The bulbs in the storage room finally clicked on all the way and flooded the space with a too-bright light. The harsh blaze cast sharp shadows over the boxes and binders stacked before her.

She finally located the binder she needed on the top shelf. As she pulled it down, dust fell like downy snow on her hair and shoulders. She smothered a sneeze and then batted at her gray pencil skirt and pink silk blouse with a crumpled tissue from her pocket.

After seven years at YWR, she knew what to expect in the storage room. Dust bunnies the size of, well, bunnies, a thick blanket of filth and massive amounts of paper that really should have been digitized.

She began flipping through the receipt letters. She recognized most of the names, big corporations and foundations that supported nonprofits. Leaders of business looking for tax write-offs. Rich folks from all over the country. Even some celebrities. All the people she’d gotten to open their wallets.

Closing the binder in her hand, she grabbed two others, then headed back to her desk. The office was delightfully dark and quiet now. She knew from experience she had a good hour before the cleaning staff showed up.

As she began to locate the letters Fred wanted scattered through the binders piled on her desk and started to plug them into the chart, she clicked her tongue in frustration. It was odd, so odd, that they still did so much only via hard copies. She’d been pushing for years to go paperless. It would be cheaper, plus it would make all the disclosure stuff easier. But Geri always resisted; the woman was stuck in the past.

As she plugged numbers into her spreadsheet, she noticed a lot of medium-sized donations from businesses incorporated in Delaware. Okay, so that was hardly unusual, many businesses were, it was just that she didn’t recognize the names on many of them.

Usually, contributions of any size came from foundations she knew well. It wasn’t like the past few years had been good ones for American businesses, like they suddenly had all this excess cash that needed to be given away.

When she plugged one of the unfamiliar names—Harding Investment Group—into a search engine, she found the group’s website. A little cheap-looking, but still, legit. At the next, Alyse sucked in her breath.

Cross LLC’s site was identical to Harding Investment Group’s. Only the banner at the top was different. She clicked the “about” tab. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

Her high school Latin might be inaccessible, but that was the dummy text that appeared on a website template until you put something else in. She checked the copyright at the bottom of the page; it was dated from three months prior, around the time of the donation.

This…wasn’t right. Why couldn’t a company that had enough money to give YWR $10,000 not afford a real web designer? Why would they still have the filler text up? What was going on?

The back of her neck tingled; she glanced over her shoulder. No one was there, of course. Her colleagues were all long gone.

Feeling a bit self-conscious, she scooped up the binders and headed for the copy room. She duplicated the pages for each donation she couldn’t remember, all the ones that seemed fishy, and returned the originals to storage.

They had definitely been receiving more corporate money than in the past. Much of it came from groups with names like Harding Investment Group and R. Cross LLC rather than the big, well-known foundations, the ones who funded shows on public television and conducted their business out in the open.

No, the increase in corporate money coincided with YWR spending a lot more money on lobbying—most of it going to Ryan Scott—the lobbyist who was their go-between with the Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees.

Alyse tapped her fingers on her desk, appreciating the press of the wood. Ryan’s relationship with Geri already raised the hackles of a lot of people around the office. Were the two of them together? Was that even appropriate? But he did a good job and nobody really knew if anything was going on, so nothing got said.

Lobbyists, and the shadow government they were part of, controlled the money in Washington—that everyone knew. The money was obvious. Wolf Blitzer talked about it on CNN. Candidates were asked about it during presidential debates. Reports were produced and hands were wringed about the money.

But the money was a red herring. What really mattered was that lobbyists controlled the information. Members of Congress and even their staffers tended not to understand the minutiae of the issues they worked on. They often left the little details, which was to say the text of bills, up to lobbyists. Once someone had cache with a committee and its staff, he could influence—control, even—legislation.

But even if Geri and Ryan were together, even if Ryan were exerting a little too much power in the Foreign Affairs Committee, what were dummy corporations doing giving YWR money? What did the money represent?

There was no way around it, what she was looking at seemed bad. Not like a little bad. Not like accepting a venti latte when you knew you’d only paid for a grande bad. No, really, potentially illegally bad.

She flipped through the pages again and again and trying to figure out how to explain what she was seeing, but nothing came to mind. She shoved the papers into her purse and almost ran from the building.

Outside, there wasn’t any comfort. March in Washington, DC, was not the prettiest month. The barely lit sky resembled wet cement. The wind cut through her coat, which she pulled tighter around herself as she flew down the sidewalk. She concentrated on the sound of her feet snapping out a harsh beat, trying to ignore the pages burning in her purse against her hip. There had to be some explanation.

She fumbled with the keys to her apartment minutes later. Wrenching the door open, she found Millie and Parker curled up together on the couch looking distressingly calm and cute. They were just staring into each other’s eyes like besotted teenagers and it made her want to scream.

All the emotion came out as a strangled, “Hi.”

They startled at her voice and when Millie turned, Alyse could tell her roommate picked up on the look in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, sitting up and pulling out of Parker’s arms. “You look terrible.”

The outside matched the inside these days. Convenient. She ignored Millie’s question and asked, “You’re a lawyer, right, Parker?”

“Nominally.”

“Well, let’s hope that’s enough. I, uh, think YWR is breaking the law.”

And you can find out if they are when the book releases on September 8!

In the meantime, you can add Private Politics to your Goodreads shelves or preorder it via AmazonB&NiBooksKobo, or Google Play.

© Emma Barry, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Emma Barry with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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