THE MIRROR IN THE RIVER
Monday, August 27
He had done this before. How many times, he couldn’t guess, but it seemed like a million. Regardless, the one thing he did know was that it never got easier. In fact, each visit was worse. As United States Senator Bertram Russert contemplated what he had done countless times, and was about to do again, the predictable symptoms escalated. The queasy sensation that had begun his morning was now a pressure that compressed his very core. He felt himself within a tightening vise, but it was his own hand that controlled the jaws.
Making matters even worse was the insufferable weather. Washington, DC withered under a brutal heat wave and there was no relief in sight. An oppressive atmosphere clogged traffic and transformed city streets into stagnant rivers of asphalt. Russert stared through the window of his vehicle. His eyes, reflecting in darkened glass, betrayed an internal anguish. Russert could feel the automobile clawing its way through gridlock, inch by inch, drawing him closer to his grim destiny; the destiny he had chosen.
Russert had held office as a United States Senator for twenty years and was regarded as one of the most powerful men in Washington. Life in the national spotlight had become routine and he was comfortable with the elite status to which he had risen. He was an intuitive maestro in the ageless symphony of government, wealth, and power. On this torrid morning, however, the maestro found himself before an orchestra with no score. Twenty years of political ascendancy meant nothing as he faced the next twenty minutes.
Russert’s gaze shifted, hesitantly returning to the world within the limousine. Groomed fingers absently flicked imagined particles from his suit and straightened the cuffs of a crisp, white shirt. The vehicle’s air-conditioned sanctuary was nothing more than an artificial respite from the wretched heat of the outside and the awful moments that lay ahead. He could feel time as it brushed past, almost sticking to his body. Russert knew his sanctuary could not hold.
How many of these meetings had he endured? He envisaged the ordeal that lay before him and the humiliation that it was sure to deliver. He longed for the occasions when these matters could be handled on the telephone; those conversations were no problem, they were easy. All he had to do was exchange a few pleasantries, discuss the business at hand and conclude with a crisp farewell, the entire experience void of personal contact. The face-to-face, eye-to-eye episodes were what he dreaded. They had become more than he could stand.
The limousine snaked a course away from the Capitol through the bustle of Washington’s endless throngs of tourists, government buildings and museums. The driver, a seasoned veteran to Washington’s traffic madness, eased the vehicle into a no parking zone adjacent to the office building that was Russert’s destination.
Russert sat in silence, considering what was about to take place and recognizing the irony of his situation. It was nothing for him to appear on a Sunday morning television news show and articulate national policy to millions. He could dine with dignitaries, cabinet secretaries, the First Lady, even the President. Almost daily, he exchanged intellectual banter with members of the press and national leaders. Russert knew that he was regarded as a master in the delivery of sophisticated jokes. He could laugh with an admiring audience as they approved his wit and endorsed his intellect with knowing smiles and raised cocktail glasses.
Russert dropped his head and placed his hands over his face, pressing hard on his brow. There sure as hell was nothing sophisticated or intellectual in what he was about to do. He wondered how, in the name of God, he had allowed himself to get to this point. How could it be that every day the world came to him, yet here he was, preparing to grovel like a pariah before a man he detested?
Russert spoke to his driver, “I should be no more than twenty minutes.”
“Yes, Senator, I’ll be right here.”
Russert raised his face and sucked in hard, clinging to final moments of introspection. It was time. With a quick motion, the vehicle door was opened and he set foot into suffocating air. Within seconds he crossed the sidewalk and made his way through a revolving door, entering into an opulent lobby of waterfalls and tropical plants. People rushed about him in a blur of business suits and high heeled shoes; smells of a coffee shop, conversation and laughter, the throb of busy people engaged in the business of life. Russert ignored it all.
With urgency in his steps, Russert hurried his way through the bustle of the lobby, his eyes laser-focused on a bank of elevators. Without breaking stride, he stepped into one of the glass capsules where, sealed in silence, he ascended to his rendezvous. Upon reaching the fourth level, he walked a long corridor of polished marble and, with a silent prayer and sickening dread, United States Senator Bertram Russert entered the law offices of Whitman, Stevens, and Schultz.
“Good morning, Senator.” A smiling receptionist welcomed Russert. “Mr. Whitman is expecting you. Please go on back.”
“Thank you, nice to see you.” Russert dispatched a robotic smile as he passed the young woman and entered a hallway that led past the law library and cluttered offices of attorneys and staff. At the end of the hall Russert stepped through an opened door into the office of Mark Whitman.
The vista from Whitman’s office offered a spectacular panorama of Washington, DC. The opaque haze that lay trapped over the heat-stricken city created the impression of a surreal, three-dimensional mural suspended outside Whitman’s office. Heavy windows stifled outside clamor and repelled the brutal temperature. Whitman’s office was soundless and cool.
A massive wood desk stood between Mark Whitman and the entrance to his office. Engaged on the telephone, the lawyer silently motioned for his visitor to take a seat. Russert nodded his head in greeting and situated himself in a high backed chair, his gaze drifting about the office: an office that had become much too familiar through past visits. Framed diplomas, certifying a life of accomplishment, hung prominently upon the walls. Bookcases, filled with photographs of Whitman in the company of politicians, dignitaries and athletes proclaimed testimony to the people to whom Mark Whitman had access.
Russert had always wondered why Whitman’s office held no photographs of a wife or children. Nowhere could one find a framed letter entitled “To Dad on Father’s Day” or an image of a family enjoying a vacation on the beach or a mountain ski resort. Shortly after they first met, Whitman had told Russert that he was married with children. But in Russert’s mind, Mark Whitman’s office reflected a stark absence of evidence to support this claim; he saw no visible record to manifest the notion that Whitman felt the emotions of a human heart or love for another person.
Whitman concluded his conversation and cradled the telephone. He did not stand to greet the Senator or extend himself for a handshake. Instead, his harsh eyes practically glared across the desk and no facial expression was offered to convey welcome or pleasure at Russert’s presence. A curt “Thanks for stopping by” was the extent of Whitman’s greeting.
“Not at all.” Russert nodded.
“Would you care for something to drink?” Whitman asked in a flat tone.
Russert desperately wanted this ordeal to terminate as quickly as possible but he doubted his ability to carry on without at least a sip of water. His throat felt like parchment and the twisting in his stomach had crept upward, now a stifling pressure within his chest. He had to remind himself to breathe.
“I would love some cold water if you don’t mind. It’s brutal outside.”
Without reply and never altering his penetrating stare, Whitman pressed a button on his desk console. “Water please, Janet.”
Uncomfortable silence followed. Russert could feel the scrutiny of Whitman’s merciless eyes, felt himself being stripped naked. Russert had spent years refining the art of presenting flawless images of senatorial dignity. He had a slender physique with silver hair. He was poised, appropriately tanned and always immaculately dressed. But Russert knew that Mark Whitman could see through this façade; that at this very instant, Whitman saw with crystal clarity the loathsome truth concealed behind the public image of Senator Bertram Russert.
Whitman’s disdain had always been apparent to Russert, and now as always, he could feel the man’s contempt literally radiate. No words were exchanged but Whitman’s silence and dissecting eyes spoke a message more clearly than could ever be conveyed through language. Whitman was saying to Bertram Russert that he saw him for the man he was: weak and pathetic. A despicable son-of-a-bitch.
Russert felt his face growing red and hot. He wanted to scream out to the heavens, oh, my God, how has this happened, how did I ever allow myself to come to this? But he did not scream out. Instead, he attempted to break the awkward moment with a weak smile, a simple gesture of cordiality that begged reciprocity. Whitman responded with an unblinking, cold stare.
Momentary relief was blissfully granted when a middle-aged woman entered the office carrying bottles of water. With a careless wave of his fingers, Whitman indicated that the water was for the Senator. The woman removed the lid from a bottle and handed it to Russert.
”Thank you.” Russert offered a smile as he tilted the bottle to sooth his throat. Whitman’s secretary made her exit, cumbersome silence returning in her wake. Russert set the water bottle on the floor beside his chair and resolved to end the nightmare. He reached into his briefcase and extracted a bundle of legal-sized papers, which he placed on Whitman’s desk.
“This is the information you requested from Sherri concerning the shopping mall in Richmond. She said if you need anything more, feel free to call.”
With a nod, Whitman acknowledged the papers. “I’ll have someone handle it.” His eyes shifted back to Russert. “Sherri’s doing well, I hope.”
“Fine, thank you. She sends her regards.”
Small talk was of no interest to either of the men. A mere nod was Whitman’s only response to the obligatory message of politeness from Sherri Stone.
Sherri Stone had been Russert’s wife for 30 years. She was the source of his wealth, and many would say, his political success as well. The Stone family owned shopping malls, sports arenas, office buildings, casinos and hotels around the world. Mark Whitman had represented the legal interests of Stone Enterprises and the Stone family for years.
Bertram Russert and Sherri Stone had married immediately after graduating from college. Now, with two grown children, any semblance of love had long disappeared from their relationship. But the positions of their political and social lives had, over the years, created a mutual need for each other. This need was recognized and accepted by both. The expected duties of their public life and marriage were executed with pleasantness and respect.
Russert reached for his water, and after gulping desperately, leaned back in his chair thinking, it’s almost over. He again reached into his briefcase, this time retrieving an oversized, plain brown envelope. Clear tape was wrapped about the edges to insure the safety of its bulging contents. With no word spoken, Russert placed two hundred thousand dollars in cash upon Whitman’s desk.
Now it came. What Russert had known would happen. It always happened. It was the insolence, Whitman’s unbearable insolence. Like toxic gas it permeated the air, amplifying the silent moments that seemed to linger for eternity.
Finally, Whitman spoke. “Thank you.”
Russert pressed his lips, nodded slightly and rose to leave. Whitman remained seated, his mouth now in a full grin. Russert stood in awkward silence, feeling like an embarrassed schoolboy searching for courage to speak. When his words came they were spoken softly, “I’ll be fishing in Colorado next week. The Judge will be with me.”
Whitman cocked his head slightly, his eyes drilling into Russert’s face. “I’ll let Maria know.”
“Yes, please do,” Russert spoke again, this time scarcely more than a whisper. “The particulars are in the envelope.”
Russert stood watching as Whitman eased his chair backwards, entwining his fingers together beneath his chin. Russert knew that Whitman delighted in these moments, that he amused himself by administering torment. Russert had no choice but to simply stand there and endure the anguish, a squirming worm on a hook.
After a quiet pause that was deliberately orchestrated to remain longer than necessary, Whitman brought his body forward and spoke in a brusque, dismissive tone. “I’m sure it’s nothing that we haven’t done many times previously. Consider it handled. See you next time.”
“Yes, yes, next time,” Russert breathed as he turned, silently praying that his legs would not fail. Bertram Russert walked out of the office and made his way down the long hallway, away from Mark Whitman.