"He's not bad."
"'Not bad'? He's a knock-out!"
"That's what I said."
"Well, I don't think he's a knock-out. But I don't think he's that bad."
"I think he's a knock-out."
"Who is he?"
Bonnie, Ginger, and Margaret looked at each other, but none of them knew.
Carole, walking past them, knew. She nodded hello, and tried to look as though she were in a hurry. Around here, if you were in a hurry, you might be exempt from whatever office pool was in progress -- tonight, bets were on the identity of the tall, silent man at CJ's office door.
The sight of him made Carole shiver. He was too tall, too silent, and just close enough to her desk to distract her from the briefing notes she was attempting to type. The door at his back was closed, but Carole knew CJ wasn't doing anything more than sitting motionless in there.
"A new reporter."
"An old boyfriend."
"A new boyfriend."
"If he were a new boyfriend, her door would be open."
The assistants were approaching. They silenced themselves when they realized how close they were getting to the object of their gossip. Carole smiled wearily at them and then glued her eyes firmly to the screen. They passed, and their whispers picked up again like wind in grass. In tall grass, the kind Carole was lost in, trying to figure out how anyone could bear to threaten CJ's life.
The door opened behind Simon Donovan, and he and Carole both turned to face CJ. CJ walked past Agent Donovan as though he wasn't there, but once she was past him, she glanced over her shoulder, and walked faster as she approached Carole's desk.
"Hoping he won't see you?" Carole asked drily. Her own tone of voice surprised her. She was nervous, she was frightened, she was furious. She wasn't bored or unconcerned or amused, but that was how she sounded.
"Don't look at him," CJ whispered, glancing furtively at the agent who was pretending to ignore them. "It lends him credibility."
"Okay." Carole made it a point to look at the ceiling, and CJ sighed and settled herself on the edge of Carole's desk. Carole was glad. She wished CJ would sit there all night, or sleep in her office, or stay up working till dawn. Simon Donovan was too tall and too quiet, but Carole was suddenly glad he was there.
"He noticed you looking," CJ accused.
"CJ, he's a Secret Service agent. If he didn't notice me craning my neck to catch a glimpse of him, I would be hiking over to Treasury and demanding a replacement."
"Would you anyway?"
Carole forced herself to roll her eyes.
"I'm serious," CJ said. "Would you anyway?"
"What's wrong with Simon Donovan?" Carole protested.
"He's so ..." CJ clenched and unclenched her hand in mid-air, searching for the word.
"Cute?" Carole offered, giving in to the other assistants in an attempt to keep her boss sitting here longer.
CJ released one of her 30-second sighs, and Carole pretended to take the hint, turning back to her computer screen. A minute later, she guessed, "Charming?"
"Masculine, all right?" CJ snapped, and Carole couldn't stifle her chuckle in time. It was a genuine chuckle, was the thing. Maybe they should keep this up; maybe she would relax if they did.
"He's too masculine?" she snorted.
"I'm serious." CJ glared at her. "He's a man and I'm, you know, not, and to have him play the protector and me play the, whatever, the helpless ... girl ... It lends the illusion that I'm -- that I'm --" She raised both hands in bewilderment.
"A White House staffer who's been getting death threats?" Carole prompted.
CJ dropped her hands suddenly and let her breath out in a rush. "I don't know why they couldn't have given me a woman."
Carole slowly looked up at her boss. "You don't know why they couldn't have given you a woman?" she repeated.
"Assigned, whatever," CJ said impatiently. "I don't know why they couldn't have assigned me a female agent."
"Because the United States Secret Service does not discriminate on the basis of sex?"
CJ rolled her eyes. "I'm not asking them to hire someone new, or to fire anyone. I'm saying, there are female Secret Service agents, and if I've got to have somebody follow me around, I don't want it to be a representative of the patriarchy." At Carole's look of amazement, CJ admitted, "I've been reading an Amy Gardner memo."
Carole worked very hard to hide her amusement, but CJ saw it anyway. "What?" she snapped.
"No, because I like my job," Carole stated calmly.
"Good. Then it'll matter to you that if you don't say what you were going to say, you'll be cleaning out your desk."
"And you'll be doing your own typing."
That stopped her. "Hmm."
"Really don't have time for that."
"You really don't."
CJ frowned. "Okay. You can still work for me. Just tell me this. Do you think -- if I asked them, do you think they would assign me a female agent?"
"I don't know how they decide these things," Carole said carefully.
"But you're going to try?"
CJ started to stand, but Carole touched her arm. "Wait."
Something in her face must have betrayed what she was feeling, because her boss sat down again without a word.
"CJ ... no one's going to think you're weak because you have Secret Service protection. Not even if you're a woman and the agent is a man. And not if the agent is a woman, and not if you have ten agents who are all men, or who are all women; not if you've got a whole team of agents following you around. No one is going to think you're weak." She waited. "Okay?"
CJ nodded shortly.
"That includes the people you work with," Carole added.
"I know that," CJ said quickly.
"Okay," Carole answered.
"I -- I know that," CJ repeated.
"Okay," Carole answered again.
They fell silent, CJ studying the desktop and Carole typing sentences she wasn't taking in.
"It's not like I can hide him," CJ pointed out at last.
"You could put a lampshade on my head and I could hold up a flashlight," Simon Donovan offered. Carole hadn't noticed him moving closer -- probably one of the reasons she wasn't going to have to hike to Treasury tonight.
Aloud, she suggested, "You could tell people your goldfish grew. A lot."
"Perfect," Simon agreed, and made a fish face.
CJ glared at them both with equal hatred. "How about I tell them this strange man is following me and I don't know who he is?"
But the statement reminded them all of just why Simon was there in the first place. They fell silent, and Carole looked at CJ until her boss suddenly rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I get it," she snapped, and slid off the desk in protest. "I'm not happy about it, and I'm certainly not putting up with you cheerfully, Agent Donovan. But I get it."
"Good enough," Simon answered.
"You could make a whirring noise, Simon, and CJ could tell people you're a vaccuum cleaner."
Simon and CJ turned slowly to look at Carole, and she shrugged. "It's late," she justified. She was glad CJ smiled a little while still pretending to be angry. The evening had gotten too serious there for a second.
"I could walk on my hands and she could call me a wheelbarrow," Simon offered.
"Good!" Carole pointed at him, then dropped her hand. "But then we have the problem of why does CJ have a wheelbarrow in the White House?"
"Was there a reason for the vaccuum cleaner?" Simon asked.
"Or, for that matter, the walking lamp?" Carole added.
CJ stared in amazement from Carole to Simon. "Are you two finished?"
Simon held up one finger. "Hang on. I was thinking we could pass me off as a ghost."
"With a sheet!" Carole jumped on the idea. "I like it! It's an old building, after all. Lots of Press Secretaries Past to haunt the place."
"I hate you," CJ said, hiding her smile again.
A new voice asked, "How come?"
It was Sam, strolling toward them with a satisfied look on his face and a strut in his step. Carole realized she had no idea what was going on in the rest of the building. Sitting at the junction of press meets private, she was usually on top of these things. But today nothing had mattered except the stranger standing at the office door.
"How come what?" CJ turned to face Sam. Carole realized Simon had started looking in the direction of Sam's approach more than twenty seconds ago.
"How come you hate Carole?" Sam repeated.
"Because she's conspiring with my -- with Simon here to drive me mad."
"Long drive, that?" Sam asked innocently.
"Sorry. I'm feeling jovial."
"Go away from me," CJ commanded.
"I was looking for you," he protested.
She sighed sharply. "What do you want?"
"Well, if you're going to be all sour about it--"
"What do you want?"
"We're going out. You want to come?"
"Okay," she agreed without pausing, and then, an afterthought, she looked at Simon. "Oh. Okay," she repeated. "But I'm going to have to bring the, um ... the vaccuum cleaner."
Sam looked baffled, but Carole nodded firmly. "I'll come, too," she informed them, and started shutting down the computer.
Carole watched CJ go for their coats, and how, as they joined the others, Simon Donovan faded away from them a little. It gave her a shiver, as though the ghost idea were serious. She watched the others, watched Toby and Sam notice Agent Donovan's lapel pin, and knew, from the way they didn't blink, that Josh had told them about the e-mail. She thought CJ would be mad about that. She thought, I didn't even notice his lapel pin. She thought, Simon could be a ghost, trailing us like this, trailing us dead silent like this. It gave her a shiver.
CJ handed her her coat.
"Thanks," Carole said in that unconcerned voice, and they all left the building together. She wondered if Simon Donovan would sit with them at the table, or if he would stand back in the corner, if he would fade back and haunt the corner. She wondered if the taxi driver was a stalker with a computer at home. She wondered if someone was taking their picture right now.