My future is in my past and my past is my present.
October 19, 1991
"This is a fun party."
Toby looked sideways to see his friend grinning from ear to ear. "I am trapped in a circle of hell Dante forgot to mention," he replied dryly.
"Always the theatrics, Toby," Will sighed. "We're standing in a gorgeous mansion, eating food prepared by master gourmets, and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful. What more could you ask for," he asked, largely rhetorically.
"Something stronger than sparkling juice," answered Toby, glancing at the full glass in his hand. "Where in hell have they hidden the bar?"
"There is no bar."
Toby turned to face his friend. "Excuse me?"
"The Wellington's are teetotalers," explained Will, not bothering to hide his amusement. "They don't have a bar."
"They abstain and expect the rest of us to suffer with them," Toby concluded darkly. "How can they do that?"
"They have money."
Toby grunted and looked around the room. "Well, I know why I'm forced to endure this torture. Why are you here?"
"It's a great place to pick up women, Toby."
Predictable. Will was a consummate playboy. The secretaries at the office had taken to calling him Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome. With his crystal blue eyes and brown wavy hair, he regularly left a path of women swooning as he past by. He had two saving graces as far as Toby was concerned. One, he was equally smart and savvy in Democratic politics as he was with women. And two, he harbored a complete lack of arrogance in both fields.
"Speaking of," Will muttered under his breath as his gaze followed a leggy blonde walk by. Without a second glance to his friend, he left to follow her.
Toby rolled his eyes and took a drink of his sparkling grape juice, wishing for the hundredth time it was a scotch. "I'm in hell," he mumbled to himself and began to search for his salvation.
She tucked a errant strand of hair behind her ear and smoothed an imaginary wrinkle out of her skirt as she got out of the cab. Despite her best attempts, she couldn't quite ignore the tightening of her chest and gymnastics of her stomach. She had attended political events like this before, but always with a group of colleagues and a particular agenda.
This time she was alone with no other goal than to meet people. Hell, she didn't even know the hosts. Keith Lynch, a major donor to several Illinois politicians, including her boss, was Jack Wellington's brother-in-law and when he heard she would be in New York, he wrangled her an invitation.
She took a deep breath and approached the massive oak door. Before she could ring the bell, it swung open to reveal a small, gray-haired man in a dark suit. "Your name please?"
"Claudia Jean Cregg," she replied, her voice giving no evidence to her nervousness.
He nodded silently and lead her to a room the size that would rival any hotel ballroom. Four magnificent crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling. Large arrangements of exotic flowers were strategically placed on the white marble floor. The moment she took a step into the room a waiter was at her side with flute of sparkling juice.
She stood just inside the entrance of the ballroom and marveled at her surroundings. Taking a sip from her glass, she took another deep breath and started towards a random group of people. Before she took two steps, however, she heard a voice call her name.
CJ turned around to discover a diminutive woman addressing her. Her silver hair was pulled away from her face in a french twist. Her vibrant red dress that matched the color of her lips, and the large diamond wedding ring she wore was only upstaged by the brilliance of her smile. "I'm Kathleen Wellington," she introduced herself.
The older woman had the kind of presence that could soothe the nerves of a long tailed cat at a rocking chair convention, CJ thought as she felt her discomfort evaporate into the air. "Ms. Wellington, thank you for the invitation. You have a beautiful home."
"Darling, everyone calls me Kick. I hope you will too." Her firm tone made clear that that was not a request, but a demand.
She nodded enthusiastically. "If you will call me CJ."
"Of course, dear." Kick put her hand on CJ's arm and began to gently guide her across the room. "I want to introduce you to my husband. Keith has told us so many wonderful things about you, he can't wait to meet you."
"Honey," she called out as they approached a woman and two older gentlemen. "I want you to meet someone. CJ, this is my husband, Jack," she introduced a tall, bulky man. "Jonathon Karmik, treasurer of the New York Democratic Party," she gestured to the other man, then turned to the younger woman with them. "And this is Andrea Wyatt. She's the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. Darlings, this is Claudia Jean Cregg. She works for Congressman Tolbert."
"From Illinois twenty," Jonathon said as he shook her hand. "He's on Foreign Relations, right? I'm very impressed with his work so far."
"I'm thrilled to finally meet you, Claudia Jean," Jack Wellington said, his voice booming. "If all the women in Illinois politics are as beautiful as you, then I can certainly see why my brother-in-law insists on living out there."
She smiled politely. "Thank you, sir. And please call me CJ."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, CJ," the slender red-headed woman said and offered her hand.
"We were just congratulating Andrea on the Barefield case," said Jack, then explained to CJ. "Nick Barefield was one of the biggest crime bosses in New York; drug trafficking, embezzlement, murder. Andrea and her team were finally able to catch him and put him behind bars."
The younger woman shrugged. "We were only able to get him on tax fraud, but it was enough to put him away for at least forty years."
"I heard about it," CJ said. "From everything I read about the case, you had your work cut out for you. Congratulations."
"I loathe to leave such beautiful ladies," Jack interrupted, "but Kick is wildly signaling me from across the room. If you'll excuse me." Jonathon left a few moments later as he saw someone he urgently needed to talk to, leaving CJ and Andrea alone.
A few uneasy seconds passed before Andrea spoke up. "So, CJ, you work for Congressman Tolbert?"
CJ nodded. "I work in his Communications office in Springfield."
"Are you a speechwriter?"
"No," she said. "I'm more of a press officer."
"Ah," Andrea said understanding. "You're the person who actually faces the press and does all the hard work."
"Something like that," she laughed.
"Well you must be doing a good job," observed Andrea. "From what I hear, your boss is considered to be one of the rising stars in the Party. Not to mention, the Illinois twentieth is historically a tough sell for a Democrat."
"You seem to be quite knowledgeable about Democratic politics."
"I blame my husband," she smiled. "It's all he ever talks about. In fact, I know he'd like to meet you. He was the first one to tell me that Tolbert was one to watch."
CJ barely heard the last few words as her eyes focused on a figure she saw approaching from over Andrea's shoulder.
"Andy-" he started, then stopped abruptly as he recognized the woman she was with.
"Toby," CJ breathed in surprise.
His mouth quirked up in a small grin. "Claudia Jean."
She smiled. "Your resemblance to my mother has not improved over the years."
"I'm sure I speak for your mother as well as myself, when I say that's a relief, CJ."
They laughed easily, falling into a comfortable rhythm. CJ impulsively moved closer and kissed his cheek. "It's good to see you."
"I guess introductions aren't needed," Andrea finally said, reminding them of her presence. "I didn't realize you knew my husband, CJ."
"We met in Illinois a few years ago," explained Toby, placing his hand on the small of Andy's back. "I was working on the gubernatorial campaign and she was with Tolbert's campaign." He turned to CJ. "What brings you to New York?"
She sighed and grimaced slightly. "I'm playing a role in a scheme so Machiavellian it would befuddle even the Prince himself."
Toby laughed. "Would it have something to do with Congressman Mauriello and HR-648?"
"In all honesty, almost every bill in front of Congress factors in somewhere," she answered, unable to hide the smile on her lips. "I have a meeting with 'Red' Wittmer tomorrow morning," she referred to Mauriello's right hand man.
"Why isn't Sampson taking care of it?"
"Sampson and Wittmer despise each other for something that happened fifteen years ago. I swear I don't think either remembers the original cause of their mutual hatred," replied CJ, "but it remains nonetheless. I picked the short stick, so now I have to deal with him."
"How long are you in town for," Andrea asked.
"A couple days. I figured while I was here, I might as well take a small vacation."
"After your meeting with Wittmer, you'll have earned it," commented Toby, under his breath, earning an elbow in the stomach from his wife.
"CJ, I promised Toby we wouldn't stay here long," Andrea said. "Would you care to join us for a late supper?"
CJ sighed, "I wish I could, but I need to stay here a little longer and talk to some people," she said regretfully. "Besides, a friend of mine from college is starring in an off-Broadway play, and she promised me a ticket and supper afterwards."
"How about dinner tomorrow," Toby suggested. "If you have to spend much time with Red Wittmer, you deserve to be treated to a nice meal."
"That would be nice," she smiled. "I should be done by one."
"Why don't we meet at Jock's Tavern at two," Andrea suggested and looked at Toby. "That's near Mauriello's offices, isn't it, honey?"
"It's just a few blocks north on 63rd," he told CJ.
"Sounds great," she smiled. "I'll see you then."
October 20, 1991
Shivers ran unchecked through her body as she stepped inside the tavern door. The restaurant's warmth a welcome relief from the bitter cold outside. Her cheeks were flushed and her blue eyes glassy as she unwrapped the soft, black scarf from her neck and unbuttoned her coat. A quick search of the room found Toby and Andy sitting in a booth towards the back.
As she approached, she watched Toby raise his wife's hand to his lips and kiss the inside of her wrist softly as he looked through the menu. CJ felt her breath catch in her throat at the gesture; so intimate and sincere, almost unconscious of his actions. As she saw the quick smile flit across Andrea's face while she studied her own menu, CJ could tell she felt the same thing.
"Sorry I'm late," apologized CJ as she sat down across from the couple.
"Cookie or cupcake?"
"Excuse me," responded CJ in confusion.
"Did Red Wittmer refer to you as a smart cookie or a smart cupcake," Andrea clarified Toby's vague question.
"Ah, cookie," she answered hesitantly. "He called me a smart cookie."
"Damn," the other woman cursed under her breath and pulled a five dollar bill from her pocket, handing it to Toby, who wore a victorious grin.
"You made a bet whether he would call me a cookie or a cupcake," CJ asked incredulously.
Toby shrugged. "Easy money."
"From your wife," interjected Andy, admonishingly.
"Got to take it where I can get it."
CJ's eyes narrowed. "How did you know he would call me a cookie?"
"Hard as it is to believe, Red Wittmer considers that to be a compliment."
"And what does he consider 'smart cupcake' to be?" inquired Andy.
"A cleverly veiled insult," Toby replied, then turned back to CJ. "So, he likes you."
"Yes, and it warms my heart to be liked by such an egotistical, self-serving, sexist sleaze like Red Wittmer," she deadpanned.
"Only three hours with the man and she's using alliteration to express her disgust," Toby noted amusedly. "I assume you emerged victorious."
It was CJ's turn to be amused as she recalled the older man's enthusiasm as they concluded their meeting. "I accomplished what I set out to do," she answered diplomatically.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," Andy cut in and looked at Toby. "You and Will refer to Mauriello as the cur of the Democratic Party." She turned to CJ. "Why would Tolbert want to be associated with him?"
"We don't," CJ answered. "That's why they sent me."
"Technically, she's low level enough that if anyone questioned it, they could brush it under the rug," explained Toby.
"I was in town visiting some friends, seeing the sights," CJ said. "I just paid a courtesy call to Mr. Wittmer."
"But why meet with Wittmer at all," asked Andrea.
CJ paused a moment, unsure how much she should say. "I was sent to assure him that Tolbert will vote against an amendment on a bill."
"Which he was going to vote against anyway," Toby said, "Because of a deal he made with Chang and Preston."
"But Fred Wittmer and Anthony Mauriello don't know that," CJ added with a sly smile.
"And in exchange, Mauriello helps kill 823 in committee," finished Toby. "Which is a favor to Godwin, the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, a committee that will have an open seat when Rodriguez leaves next year."
CJ cocked her head. "There were a few more factors, but that's basically the gist. How did you know all of that?"
"I work at the Payton Institute."
"Well, that explains it," she said. The Jacob R. Payton Institute for Public Policy was a well known liberal think tank with close ties to the Democratic Party.
Shaking her head, Andrea chuckled. "How can politicians keep any of that straight?"
"Oh, they can't," CJ answered quickly. "That's why we have jobs."
Before she could say anything more, Andrea's cell phone rang.
Sighing, she fished it out of her purse and answered it. "Andrea Wyatt... Why are they moving it?" She was started to search for something to write with. "No, I want to be there... Where is it?" She accepted the pen Toby held out to her and scribbled an address on a napkin. "Tell them I'll be there in twenty minutes and if they so much as ask her if she would like a cup of coffee before I arrive, I'll have their asses on a wall."
A sheepish look came over her face as she hung up the phone. "I'm really sorry, but I have to be at this deposition." They all stood and Toby started to help her with her coat. "CJ, I hope we talk again before you leave, but if not, it was really nice to meet you."
"Same here," CJ smiled.
Andy turned to her husband. "I'll see you later," she said and kissed him quickly before leaving.
CJ and Toby stayed standing for moment, as she walked out of the restaurant. Then, turned back to each other. For the first time in more than three years, they were alone together.