TITLE: "Why Nineveh Is Still Standing" (Toby/CJ, rated R)
AUTHOR: Luna
ARCHIVE: Ask me; it's at http://www.sparkgirls.com/stories/violet
SUMMARY: Manchester 1.5. "It's wrong to want a city like this one to
burn."
NOTES: Not my characters. Title/summary from Carl Dennis'
poem "Prophet." Props to him, Neil Young, Tori Amos, Jonathan
Carroll, and everyone who suffered through me writing this. Sorry.
Whale-belly props to Cinnamon and k.

Why Nineveh Is Still Standing (1/3)

This is what the world is like, under its skin.

It's what they used to call the smoke-filled room, but without any
smoke, without much mystery. Two floors underneath the earth. Naked
walls, empty bottles and coffee cups, black ink on white paper, air
paralyzed by climate control. No moisture. No sleep. No exit.
Five of us. Four men and one woman.

"He's never going to speak to us again," Sam is saying for the sixth
or seventh time. He looks around for an argument, looks in my
direction. But there's not much to say.

"Oh, he'll speak to us," Leo says. "I imagine he's choosing his
words very carefully."

"I mean he's never going to work with us again." Sam puts his
glasses on, takes them off again. "He's gonna be out of town when
there's a close vote, he's gonna be in California when we're in New
Hampshire--"

"And can I just say that I never liked him?" Josh interrupts. Josh
should not look that alert. There's something wrong with him, being
awake. The rest of us are still in the fog. C.J.'s eyes are ringed,
unfocused or focused on the table or the floor. Not on me. "Can I
just say I thought we should've gone with Willey to begin with?"

My pen rolls across the table with one flick. "No, Josh, you can't.
That's lousy construction."

He glares at me. "I still don't like him."

"You worked for him," Leo points out.

"Yeah, well, I work for you..."

Leo scoffs. "Toby? You're closest."

"Right."

Josh doesn't duck fast enough. The flat of my hand connects with the
side of his head. The smack noise is satisfying. "Ow."

"He's gonna be in Florida when we're in Iowa. He's kissing babies
while we're quoting Gray's Anatomy." Sam slumps in his seat. "We're
Healthgate, and a theme song on CNN, and he's running a damn Rose
Garden campaign."

C.J. says something into her fingers. We all look at her. "What?"
Leo says.

"We can always bump him off television," she repeats. She rubs her
temples, stray hair snaking over her fingertips. "He's the guy we
send to funerals. We're the big show. Whether that's good, not
good, I don't--"

"Iowa," Josh blurts.

We all look at him. Iowa. Shit. "That's in, what, just over two
weeks?"

"He can't go," C.J. says. "He can't, we can't do thousand-dollar
plates right now."

"Right." Josh yawns, rocking his chair. Now signs of wear are
starting to show. "We already have enough people who think Bartlet's
a lemon and they want their money back."

"So we're back to Hoynes." Sam leans forward as Josh goes back. He
picks up my pen and spins it across to me. "Hoynes'll do Iowa. And
don't think he won't jump on it and ride."

Leo nods fractionally, points his chin in C.J.'s direction, but his
eyes slant away from her. "You were gonna go out there with the
President."

"Yeah." If the rest of us are tired, C.J.'s through it and out the
other side. Something hollow in her face reminds me: we were at a
funeral thirty hours ago. Still have the same tie on, and her face
is still set in the same lines. "But obviously, now, we need--"

"We need someone out there. The President's in a tough situation;
he's not dead. And some Democrats need to be reminded." Sam's
shoulders shift visibly when Leo says this. "It's just an overnight
thing."

She should argue. She should state her case for staying. She drops
her hands into her lap and looks at them as if they're new to
her. "Okay," she says.

"Okay?"

"Okay."

Josh tilts his chair back further. It would be funny if he went
over. Comic relief. "We're gonna have to talk about making an
announcement."

"Or not making one." My throat is dry. The ventilation in here is
crap. "Normally, I am not in favor of letting the President write
for himself. But in this case I think he pretty much covered the
ground."

"An official announcement," Josh insists.

"And I'm saying, it's hard to be much more official than 'I'm running
and I'm going to win' from the mouth of the President."

"About that--" Sam begins.

Leo stops him with a wave of his hand. He's smirking just a
little. "When was the last time any of you people took a shower?"

Josh swings forward, elbowing my arm and making Sam lean away. "Come
on, Leo, I was stuck out in the rain for like half an hour. That
doesn't count?"

"Smells like a locker room in here. I should send you home."

"It's the middle of the afternoon," C.J. says under her breath.

This is greeted with silence; we've all been thinking it's the middle
of the night. There are no windows in here, and artificial light
dulls my senses. Like lack of sleep. There were moments of clarity
last night, and this morning. Now things are blending. My watch
tells me it's four p.m. My head disagrees.

"Yeah," Leo says. He stands up. "Yeah. Okay. And you should be
back at your desks. We'll do this tomorrow with a fresh pot of
coffee." My mouth waters automatically at the word coffee. That's a
little alarming.

We file out toward the stairs. It will be like coming out of a
movie. Impossible to believe, under here, that there is still
daylight and activity. Much easier to talk strategy because the
practical world is out of sight. Underwater, you can comprehend the
importance of air.

Ahead of me, Sam swipes at his face, trying to push away exhaustion
or something else. Josh puts two fingers on C.J.'s arm as he takes
the first step up, mutters, "We'll fix it." She doesn't say
anything. Leo is behind me, watching. Waiting to see.

*

Sometime around two a.m., running on a second or third wind. Playing
with words as the bullpen empties out. Relieved. Realize.
Reiterate. Repeat. Relieved. It will sound stupid no matter how we
phrase it, no matter how we cover it. Moving the starting line of
this campaign another step back. This is my first incumbency. It
should have been an asset. We're relieved. Focusing on something
that matters.

Carol stops outside my door to tell somebody invisible she's on her
way out. That woman is subtlety personified. So C.J. must leave
before me; she must have decided to wait. She's there by the gate,
coat drawn tight around her. It's not raining now, but the pavement
still glistens in places. She keeps her head down. "Why didn't I
fix it right away?"

"Don't--"

"No, that's what you're wondering. Why didn't I fix it right away?
How can we just say I fucked up when I didn't immediately bite my
tongue in half?" Her hair falls forward in a diagonal shimmer. She
takes a few rapid steps away from me. "You and Leo and Josh and Sam,
you're standing around debating it, and I'm crawling the carpet of my
office but that doesn't mean I don't know what you're thinking."

She needs to slow down. "Of course you know. Public screw-ups are
not exactly unprecedented in your tenure."

"Thanks." C.J. steps directly into a puddle. It spatters up around
her ankles. She sucks in a hissing breath. "That helps so much, to
be reminded this isn't the first time."

"I meant everyone." She knows that; she must know that. She folds
her arms around her chest and walks even faster. Trying to keep up,
to get her to listen to me, is uphill. "You know what I meant."

Normally, her laugh is beautiful. Now it's ugly and awkward, a bird
plucked bare. "Here's what's funny," she says. "Danny giving me
apologetic head-nods in the hall. It's already all over the
networks, the Internet--I don't photograph well, Toby, you know
that. And Matt Drudge has the single most hideous picture. I look
like the Crypt Keeper. It's already out there and Danny thinks I
give a damn that he's gonna have to lead with it tomorrow. Like it's
not quarter past too late."

This is dangerous, when she sounds this high, fragile, giddy. My own
voice is carefully low. "You photograph better than Josh."

"And better than you."

"But not Sam."

"Don't be funny." C.J. grinds her teeth. "You think it'll be okay?"

She forces honest answers, sometimes. "I don't know."

"You guys probably think you could have fixed Watergate with a
typewriter, a few reams of paper and a good supply of blank tape."

"I'm on intimate terms with failure."

She jerks away before my hand even reaches her arm, self-contained.
Under her coat, her muscles are taut, her vertebrae misaligned. "You
are," she says, voice clipped, and stops walking so suddenly we
nearly collide. "I passed my car."

She covers the ten yards back to her Nissan in a few long strides,
legs flashing. She peels out from the curb like she's driving the
Batmobile. There's no pursuit. The prints of her heels show on dry
squares of sidewalk. My car's another block away, if it hasn't been
towed. A wind comes up to follow me. It's cold for this time of
year.

*

Multiple sclerosis, re-election, Haiti. Subpoenas. Tobacco. A
stock market that quivers as technology fails to produce infinite
profits, as venture capitalists get their illusions shattered. One
of our oldest forests is burning down in Wyoming. They're still
wiping up oil off the coast of Delaware. Debating airport security
and death and taxes. And every other idiot with an idiotic agenda in
his hip pocket is thinking he's about to have his day in the sun.
All of this is standard operating procedure for the richest, safest
country in the world.

We're providing plenty of drama and crisis for the world. One would
think that everyone else might be content to sit back, watch the
collapse, wait on the fringes for the empire to fall. But while the
shit is hitting the fan here, the Ukranians managed to accidentally
shoot down a Russian airliner on its way back from Tel Aviv. The
Indians and Pakistanis are playing chicken on the border.
Paramilitarists are assassinating ex-congressmen in Colombia. AIDS
will account for two-thirds of all deaths in South Africa by 2010.
And thousands of people are willing to explode the earth for a clump
of sand currently assigned to the nation of Israel. Standard
operating procedure again.

As a nation, we've been working under the theory that we are united,
that there's some kind of common faith. We're all bearing the torch
of liberty; we're all keeping warm by its flame. It makes me wonder
if this is the best humanity can do. The answer to that is not
comforting. It would not be outrageous to believe that we've failed,
as a species. But this morning Josh is practically skipping around
the halls. He rebounds, grinning, out of Sam's office and into mine
before my first cup of coffee's even finished. "You like
campaigning, Toby."

"I hate campaigning." The last of the coffee is cold and acrid. "I
just think we'd probably get a little opposition if we declared
ourselves dictators for life."

"You're a campaigner." Josh whistles a few bars of something
unrecognizable. "Even Richard Nixon has got soul..."

"Okay, that needs to stop."

"I'm just saying." He sits down on the couch, pops up again like an
inflatable clown, dizzy with energy. "You have to get fired up here,
Toby. We get to beat the odds."

"We're not beating the odds. We're the incumbents. We've got the
money, the connections, the clout we didn't have three years ago.
We're supposed to win. We're Goliath."

Josh frowns briefly at my words, but springs back into a suspicious
smile. He looks so smug there ought to be canary feathers around his
mouth. "Well, we'll make our own fun, huh?"

"What's going on?"

He drops onto the couch again. "Leo's bringing in Bruno Gianelli."

Suddenly my head hurts. Not enough coffee in my system yet to make
this tolerable. "Great. We've been short of ego around here. We
haven't made our quota."

"He's good at his job," Josh says.

"You should've given him mine."

He thuds the back of his skull against the wall. "Yeah, his name
came up in that conversation. But you know, if we'd been stuck in
here with Bruno, or David Rosen, we'd miss your sunny presence."

"Yes, I'm Little Miss Sunshine."

Josh chuckles. "Joey says the swing numbers are static. Bruno's
coming in next week, try and fix that. I guess we're gonna have to
live with that. You can work with his people, right?"

The prospect of working with Bruno and his people does not fill me
with any of Josh's joy. "I haven't killed you yet."

"Even though you try almost every day." He pauses. "How's C.J.?"

He assumes there's an answer, expects me to have it. "Ask C.J."

"I don't want her to think I'm hovering. I mean, Leo's had her
benched for two days. She can't be thrilled about that."

There's the urge to jump up and pace around the room. But Josh is
the manic one. My fingers drum on the arm of my chair. "You think
we could have fixed Watergate?"

"You and me?"

"And Sam and Leo."

He smirks again. "We could've sealed that thing up tighter than Seth
Gillette's sphincter."

"Get out of here."

"'Kay." He stretches, gets back on his feet and struts toward the
door.

"Josh?" He turns back to me. "What's going on?"

"I'm gonna do a thing."

Sometimes he's too easy to read. "Tobacco. Don't be--"

His foot makes circles on the floor. "It's a noble cause."

"Sure it's a noble cause. They're all noble causes." Standing up
makes my vision blur to black, briefly, as Josh starts to walk
away. "Don't be stupid."

"Get ready to throw out the welcome mat," he calls. He rounds the
corner and is gone.

The rubber balls are a habit that need to be broken. They stay in
their drawer. There are papers to read--C.J.'s highlighted my
copies, the wash of yellow over important paragraphs, lines of red
ink in her wobbling, pretty hand--and statements to write. According
to the Times the entire government of Norway has resigned for
unspecified reasons. Nancy and Henry are handling the daily
briefings, and we're waiting for Bruno Gianelli. The siege is on.

*

Days run into each other, dominoes falling into an indecipherable
design. It doesn't seem like we leave work at all. Maybe we
haven't. C.J. starts briefing again. She steps down from the
lectern, retreats into her office with Carol circling the perimeter.
She emerges for meetings, too quiet, smudged makeup, lines on her
forearms from the edge of her desk. She bumps into people in the
halls but rarely trips and never stumbles. She's always watching her
feet.

Appropriations gives up the money for tobacco. It's a flag for Josh
to wave against the wind of what Leo termed extracurricular
nonsense. An umbrella to an avalanche, but it's enough of a victory
to keep him moving this week. Even though Joey Lucas shoots doubtful
looks at his back receding down the hall. Even though Bruno and his
people walk into our White House like it's their campaign
headquarters. Bruno machine-guns through the introductions--"Sam.
Toby. Doug. Connie."--and disappears to argue with Leo about office
space. We watch each other across Sam's desk, waiting for the first
argument to begin.

Doug Wegland lights the match. "So, where is it going to happen?"

"The official announcement?" Sam wrinkles his nose. "That high
school, two weeks from yesterday. Thought that was settled."

"No, where in the official announcement--"

"Which I still don't think is necessary, since it's been announced
already. Cat's kind of out of the bag."

Doug ignores my interruption. "Where in the speech is he going to
apologize?"

Sam flinches noticeably, leans back. Not good. "He hasn't yet," the
woman--Connie--adds helpfully, tossing her hair.

"Thanks," Sam manages, regaining a little balance. "I actually did
watch the interview and the press conference. He came clean of his
own volition."

"Too little, too late." Doug leans toward us, hands on the back of
one of Sam's chairs. "It doesn't negate the fact that he lied."

It's tired and weak but it needs to be said anyway. "He didn't
actually lie."

An unpleasant smile stretches across Doug's face. "Knock yourself
out trying to sell that technicality to the press. See how it plays
in the Midwest. It took you guys three years to come clean of your
own volition. That really looks like you have nothing to hide."

"We've been having this conversation for a month." My words make Sam
frown a little. Everything he's thinking is there in the set of his
mouth. Way to present a united front, Sam. "We're not gonna send
him out there to beg forgiveness."

"Why not?" Connie asks.

"Because he's the President, not a disgraced schoolboy. He didn't
break his mom's vase."

"He didn't lie," Sam adds.

"The sooner you get over that," Doug says, "the sooner I can work
with you."

Work with us. It's hard not to laugh. "Do me a favor, take a look
around. This is Sam's office. Mine's on the other side of that
wall. That's our bullpen." There's a knock on the frame of the open
door and we all look up. "This is my assistant."

"Phone call, Toby." Bonnie hands me a note and is gone again. Her
handwriting is angular and precise.

"I'm gonna have to take this." Sam's abandoned puppy look, Connie's
look of speculation, Doug's critical stare--they follow me around the
corner. My desk is less cluttered than Sam's; folders stacked
instead of piled, the laptop aligned parallel to the lamp. My chair
squeaks. The red light on the phone blinks impatiently at me. Press
the button, pick it up. "Mr. Justice."

"Toby." Mendoza's voice is low, resounding, authoritative. The kind
of voice that should exist to read life-and-death decisions. He was
born for this. "How's the weather over there?"

Hard to sound casual. "It's been a little intemperate."

"A little hot under the collar, I'd imagine." Mendoza laughs. "I
sent a note to the President, but I figured there was a lot on his
desk at the moment."

"I'm sure he appreciated it."

"I'm sure." There's a second of silence. "How long was this in the
works, Toby?"

No way to know how long Leo thought about this, what the President
was planning, before it was pushed to the surface. The blinds are
slanted open on the window to Sam's office. He walks around his
desk, waving his hand, clenching his jaw. "Not long enough."

"You're waiting for the hearings to start?"

"Something like that." Doug squints, his face close to Sam's. He
must have raised his voice, but the words are unintelligible to me.
Connie sits in her chair with a calm expression, murmurs something.
Doug and Sam ignore her completely. "They're saving the subpoenas to
take the news cycle from us."

"Don't worry about them." Mendoza says this with certainty, with
confidence. He hasn't been in this building in a while. "Don't
worry about the lawyers and the media. Give some credit to the
American people. The President is a good man, and as far as I can
see, he didn't break the law."

Sam paces out of the rectangle of the window and then back into my
line of sight. Doug is standing firmly still. My throat is
dry. "No. He didn't break the law."

"Then this too shall pass, trite as it is to say. Just keep running
the country."

It's painfully obvious that he's not a politician, as clear as it is
that Sam's losing the fight in the next room. But there's no reason
to say that. "We're glad to have your support, sir."

"I'm glad to give it." He pours that rich, reassuring voice into the
words. We say goodbye and hang up.

The light seems dim even though it's the middle of the morning. My
bloodstream needs coffee. My back aches. Getting older every day.
A few steps out the door, Doug's voice reaches me, scornful and
louder than he probably realizes:

"...total clusterfuck, it made a bad situation worse, and she ought
to take the hit for it!"

The silence is as total as it can possibly be, with phones and
footsteps and televisions. We have literally stopped in our tracks.
Doug rolls his head from side to side, uneasy for the first time.
Sam's face is glassy. "You don't ever speak that way in this
building," he says quietly.

"Doug didn't mean," Connie begins, biting her lip. Sounds like she's
had practice with those words.

"I don't care what he meant." Sam glances past her and sees me. He
exhales through his teeth and shakes his head slightly. Doug and
Connie start to follow his gaze, but my back is already turning. The
silence is replaced by a buzz in my ears. The door of my office
slams much harder than it was meant to. Coffee's not going to help
anymore.

*

The first full-fledged meeting we have with Bruno's people doesn't go
much better than the informal ones. It's possible that stress pushes
me a little out of line. It's also possible that Doug Wegland is a
prick. Bonnie and Ginger watch me warily most of the day; Leo calls
for me late in the evening. He watches me enter his office, folds
his hands like a high school principal. Without preamble, he
says, "You gotta lay off on him."

"Leo--"

"Doug, Bruno, the Tate girl, you've gotta lay off on them. And you
know it. They're doing what I hired them to do."

He's right, of course. That annoys me. "I'm doing what you hired me
to do."

Leo picks up a memo on his desk. "Yeah," he says.

"I have no problem with Connie Tate."

"And you respect Bruno Gianelli." He raises his eyes to look at me
over the edge of his glasses.

"All right."

"I sure as hell don't expect you to like Doug. I expect you to give
him the room to help us."

The floor is unsteady underfoot. "Leo, he comes in here thinking he
has some authority in this administration. He's making
pronouncements to my staff, about my staff--"

He quirks an eyebrow. "He doesn't work for this administration; he
works for this campaign. It's a distinction you're going to have to
adapt to over the next seventeen months."

Strange to be on this side. Strange to empathize, suddenly, with
every candidate that ever told me to shut up. "We do know what we're
doing around here."

"I know. But allow for the possibility that Bruno's people also know
what they're doing." Leo stands. He picks up his briefcase and
walks around me, to the stand holding his coat. "The thing in Iowa,
that's in four days."

"Yeah?"

He eases one arm into a sleeve. "I want you to go along with C.J."

My hand goes automatically to the back of my head. "Leo, you're
sending her with a babysitter?"

"Of course not." He cocks his head. "We can't trust Hoynes. We
need people out there to remind the Party who's still in charge.
Hell, I'd fly out myself if I could. And I need you to stop letting
Doug and Bruno and--" He stops. "What's her name?"

"Connie Tate."

"Right. I keep wanting to say Sharon. They're putting you off your
game, and you of all people--" He breaks off again, sighs and
finishes putting on his coat. "It's just an overnight thing."

There's a tone Leo takes when he's made a decision, final as a
slammed door. He's using it now. "You keep wanting to say Sharon?"

He snorts. "They're not bad people, Toby. You know that. And you
ought to talk to Sam."

He heads down the hall, leaving me in the doorway, in the
semidarkness. A few seconds pass, or maybe an hour. Leo's right,
and it's still annoying. Sam is probably still in his office.
There's time to check on him, on my way out.

*

Continued in Part Two.

 

 

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