“Twist my arm,” Lonsdale said as she entered the apartment. There in the living room were two other women, Fran Burton and Amy Pringle, both United States senators. Together they were the Four Gals. That was the name their sexist colleagues in the Senate had given them sixteen years ago. In that time their ranks had grown to seven seats, but the fifth, sixth, and seventh female senators were all from the other party, so it was decided to keep their little group at four. Schedules were tough, but for sixteen years they got together at least one evening a month.
In the beginning, they played cards, smoked, and drank. Lonsdale figured it was their way of showing the men that they had no problem keeping up with them. Both Burton and Pringle had given up smoking about ten years earlier and that coincided with their starting a book club. That lasted a few years and then petered out after they realized they all liked different kinds of books and none of them were about to change the other’s mind. Lately they’d gone back to cards and drinking chardonnay. Mostly, though, they got together to network, to make sure they were watching each other’s back and offering support where it was needed.
Ogden handed Lonsdale a glass of chardonnay and in her smoky voice said, “Harry told me you seemed a little down.”
Lonsdale took the glass. “I think we all probably are . . . aren’t we?”
Burton and Pringle were starting a game of Thirty-one. Burton started dealing cards and said, “I haven’t slept more than an hour or two each night. I keep waking up feeling like I can’t breathe. Like I’m being suffocated.”
Pringle picked up her cards and said, “Me, too. I keep thinking . . . what was it like for them? What did they feel? Were they buried under the rubble and then slowly suffocated, or worse, burned to death?”
“I’ve wondered the same thing.”
Pringle said, “I was supposed to meet Greg Givens from the Sierra Club there for lunch, but canceled at the last minute. He and his wife and their kids all came over this weekend to thank me. We all sat around and cried.”
Ogden shot Pringle a look that could kill and then jerked her head toward Lonsdale. Pringle, who wasn’t always quick on the uptake, realized what she’d done. While she had canceled lunch and saved a man, Lonsdale had decided to skip lunch and condemned a man by sending her chief of staff to take her place. “I’m sorry, Barb. I wasn’t thinking.”
Lonsdale nodded, took a massive gulp of chardonnay, and then lost
it. She had a full-blown meltdown. Ogden took her wine from her, afraid that she was about to spill it all over the carpeting, and steered her to the nearby couch and had her sit. The other two put their cards down and huddled around their bereaved friend. After a few minutes Lonsdale got her breathing under control and managed to say, “I feel so guilty.”
Ogden countered by telling her it was nonsense. “There was nothing you could have done. This was fate and nothing else. You’re a survivor. You always have been a survivor.”
Through sniffles, Lonsdale said, “And I have survivor’s guilt. I sent Ralph to his death. He was my best friend and he tried to . . .” She couldn’t finish the sentence and once again began sobbing.
Ogden patted her on the back a bit too roughly. She looked more as if she were trying to get her to spit out a piece of meat than to comfort her. “This is foolish. Ralph, of all people, would not want to see you like this.”
“Ralph tried to warn me,” Lonsdale said through tear-filled eyes. “He thought it was foolish the way we hounded the CIA and Mitch Rapp. He tried to get me to see who the real enemy was.”
Ogden frowned. “Ralph was a prince of a man, but he was . . . shall we say, morally inconsistent.”
“He was right,” Lonsdale countered.
“Well, I’m not so sure about that.” Ogden took a couple of steps back and placed her hands on her ample hips. “What I’m about to say does not leave this room. Do you understand me?” After all three women had nodded, Ogden said, “This whole thing is wrong to me. The timing . . . everything. You were supposed to be at lunch that day, Barbara, and so were you, Amy. You’re two of the Senate’s most outspoken critics of the CIA. Just minutes after the explosions, Mitch Rapp and this Nash thug just happen to stumble across some immigrant who has the IQ of a Labrador, and then they proceed to beat a confession out of him.” She shook her head emphatically. “I’m not buying it.”
“What are you trying to say, Carol?” Pringle asked.
“I’m saying this thing stinks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that conniving bitch Irene Kennedy and all of her mercenary pals aren’t behind it.”
“You’re not serious?” Lonsdale asked. “I was there. I was at the National Counterterrorism Center when it was attacked. Rapp and Nash were shot at.”
“And neither one of them was scratched, and oh, by the way, all six terrorists who attacked the NCTC were thrown out the window and their bodies were conveniently destroyed by the suicide vests they were wearing. It’s all a little much.”
Burton, who was sitting on the far side of Lonsdale, looked up at Ogden and with a frown asked, “Have you been visiting those whacky conspiracy sites on the internet again?”
“No,” Ogden snapped. “I haven’t worked it all out yet. It’s complicated, but I’m warning the three of you,” she pointed at each of them, “don’t fall into this trap and forget the sins of the CIA. They are the reason our friends were killed last week. We need to hold them accountable.”
That was the last of the conspiracy talk for the next few hours. Three more bottles of wine were opened and Burton insisted they hold a miniwake of sorts. Pringle then made everyone agree up front that they couldn’t say anything negative about their deceased colleagues and friends. Ogden broke the rule twice but each time was shouted down, and Lonsdale only had one more major breakdown and a couple of minor incidents.
All in all, though, it was good for the soul. Especially the laughter. Ogden told the story about her first year in office when they went on a fact-finding mission to Brazil. One night in the bar they were all tanked and everyone was dancing when Senators Safford and Sheldon decided to make an Ogden sandwich at the bar. She was the meat, and they were the bread. Safford got a little too into it and decided to grab the left breast of the new senator from California. Ogden in turn placed Safford’s left testicle between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed it like a grape. Safford dropped to his knees and had to be carried to his room. Upon hearing the story for the first time, Amy Pringle nearly wet her pants.
Lonsdale helped clean up. She was glad she had decided to show. Both the laughing and the crying helped. When she finally left, Ogden was saying her good-byes and reminded her about the NARAL ProChoice America event they were cohosting on Saturday night. “You’re the keynote speaker.”
“Oh, God,” Lonsdale moaned. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You can.” Ogden rubbed her arm. “I’ll write something up for you just in case. Remember, we’re honoring the life of Dr. Smith.”