Excerpt: “Seven Pictures”
Holiday parties can be murder.
The Secretary of Defense cornered Evie Bennett between the holiday cookie platter and the sugar-frosted scale model of the Pentagon, complete with a marzipan version of the 9/11 Memorial Garden. As showpieces for the SecDef’s holiday party went, it wasn’t in the best of taste, but then, neither was the Secretary. He never did anything actionable—or worth pursuing against someone at his level—but she hadn’t invited those elbow pinches, either.
Damn. She flashed her professional smile just before the camera blazed. The SecDef squeezed her shoulder while she was still blinking away the spots, and wandered off to greet one of his tame contractors. His palm left a sweat print on the ivory silk of her blouse. For a minute she thought she smelled it, only to realize it was just the remains of the suckling pig splayed on the serving table on the other side of the party corridor.
“Got you under the mistletoe this time,” Gabe Guardino chortled. He angled his camera to give her a view. “Hell of a shot, if I do say so myself.”
It was. At six-foot-five, Army Audiovisual’s senior photographer was one of the few photographers who could shoot her from above. She knew her smile was fake. But she doubted anyone else saw the strain—certainly not the bespectacled frog smirking at her breasts or the moon-faced official caught at the edge of the frame. Stanley Plunket, head of the SecDef’s executive staff, close personal friend and “fixer” since the SecDef’s days on the Hill, ogled them in horror, a gingerbread flag dangling from his fingers.
“How does he do it?” Evie demanded. “This has got to be the fourth time the Secretary’s photobombed me. It wouldn’t be so bad if we worked together. Scratch that. It would be awful, but at least I could understand it. But I’m so far down the food chain, my supervisor’s a GS.”
Gabe shot her a lewd grin. “SecDef’s got a taste for brown sugar or mountain climbing, take your pick. And you’re lowballing it. I’ve got at least seven pictures of the two of you in the files. You want prints?”
She shuddered. “Not on a bet.”
“There you are.” The voice of Evie’s supervisor Barbara Dodd sliced through the party din like the villain’s hiss in a bad black-and-white movie.
Barb’s management style derived from the same source. It entailed a lot of sneering, spitting, shaming and threats of professional dismemberment. In a just world, she would’ve been dismissed as ludicrous. Instead, political appointees, senior executives and flag officers—to say nothing of ordinary civil servants and military personnel—sheared out of her way as she pounded the terrazzo floor of the corridor in stilettos too delicate for the shape of her ploughman’s ankles. Even Karen Hines, Evie’s friend and office mate, cut and ran.
Barb stomped to a halt three feet from Evie and stabbed a slim fold of papers at her chest. The fact they crumpled to the floor instead of impaling her had more to do with the flimsy nature of the weapon than her supervisor’s intent.
“My office. First thing. Monday.” Barb stormed down the path she’d carved earlier.
Sighs of relief trailed after her. The partygoers returned to their original, upright positions and pretended they hadn’t noticed a thing.
Gabe, a civilian whose chain of command ran through the Army instead of the Department of Defense, didn’t know the drill. He stared after Barb. “What the hell was that about?”
Evie straightened. “Looks like my supervisor got her Christmas present a day early.” She offered Gabe the crumpled papers the same way he’d offered her his camera. “She just found out Senator Michaels spiked her military education program. Specifically. In a special amendment to the continuing resolution they sent to the President this morning.”
“Senator Michaels killed the GI Bill?” Gabe looked more horrified than the SecDef’s fixer. “No, the Montgomery GI Bill and the DoD education program supporting it are fully funded. What got spiked was a special project of Babs—a duplicate education project to be administered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce under the personal supervision of the Secretary’s blushing bride to the tune of twenty-three mil. Barb thought she could sneak it in through a supplemental in Family Policy’s transition program.”
“Transition, isn’t that the program that helps discharged members join the civilian workforce.”
“Isn’t that your program?”
This time Evie smiled for real.
Gabe whistled softly. “You could go to prison for leaking stuff like that.”