His milky blue gaze showed no surprise at my approach, and he waved me into the car. “Ms. Cardinal, I’ve been wondering when I’d hear from you. I’m headed over to the Russell building.”
The doors closed behind me, and the elevator operator, an elderly African-American man dressed in the requisite navy-blue blazer and striped tie uniform, pressed the button that would take us to the basement.
“Did you have a nice weekend, Arnold?” Harper asked the elevator operator.
“Yes, Senator. My oldest granddaughter came home for the weekend.”
“She’s a sophomore this year?” The senator’s wheezing breaths filled the small car.
“Remind me, what college is she attending?”
“University of Maryland.”
We ended our descent with a slight bump. “Give my best to your wife.”
“Will do, sir.”
The elevator spit us out not far from the entrance to the underground passageways connecting the Capitol to the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings. For an overweight man in his early seventies, he walked at a relatively brisk pace, and my sensible heels clacked against the aged russet stone flooring. Fortunately, my height provided an advantage when walking with taller men and I could easily replicate their stride.
“How’d you get past security?”
“I came over from Dirksen with Senator Kollingwoods.”
Either he preferred not to talk over my noisy heels or his own pace was too much for him, because he slackened his gait. The heavy breathing continued, and I was relieved he slowed us down. “You want to know why I voted against the bill,” he stated.
“I don’t understand. You voted for it in committee, and on the Senate floor the first time. Why?” We exited the drab putty-colored walls of the Capitol basement to enter the bright white halls of the tunnel system.
“You know why.”
“The amendment?” I clarified.
“Amendment? Try amendments.”
“That happens with every bill as it passes back and forth between the two houses,” I pointed out. “Everyone has to do a little give and take. We knew it wouldn’t come back the same way it went over. Some negotiating has to be done.”
“Negotiating?” He gave a dark laugh. “Is that what you call it? By the time it came to a vote on the Senate floor, there was so much pork added to it you could wrap the White House up in bacon and deep fat fry it like a Thanksgiving turkey.” He indicated for me to proceed him down the short escalator.
“Granted, I wasn’t thrilled with the ten million Texas package,” I conceded as we rode down. “But, overall the bill retained its integrity. It would have helped the lower income families.”
“The Texas package was the least of my concerns. Did you know Florida stuck on a fifty million grant to research chickens?”
“Wild fowl, migratory birds.”
“Ducks, geese, chickens!” He coughed and pressed a hand against his chest. “What does it matter?”
One of the trams that carried passengers through the tunnel to the Russell building cruised around the curve and out of sight. The other tram sat empty with an OUT OF ORDER sign on its side.
“I believe it had something to do with research on aging.”
“Fifty million! For fowl! Let’s walk.”
I squinted at Harper. Beads of sweat covered his upper lip and his coloring seemed to have paled. “Are you sure you don’t want to wait for the tram?” I asked.
“My doc says I need to get more exercise.” He lumbered past the tram stop to the walking path. “I’d have been willing to vote for it until the Uptown Trio gutted the incentives.”
“I agree the incentives were a blow. But, when your support departed, you took your own trio along, Tottengott, Goldman, and Tucker. Surely the incentives were a minor blip that could have been righted through section seven, part c. I won’t even mention the position you put me in with the Alliance or the damage it’s done to my reputation and possibly my career.”
“Pfft. Your reputation is fine,” he said. “You can’t tell me the National Healthcare Advocacy Alliance is going to fire you over this. You’re too well connected, and I’m sure they didn’t like the changes either.”
They didn’t, but I wasn’t about to let him get away that easily.
“Besides,” he continued, “Tottengott, Goldman, and Tucker make their own decisions. You can’t place their votes at my doorstep.”
I gave him an arch glare. Harper had been in the Senate for over twenty-five years and was considered the leader of the few moderate republicans-a dying breed-left in the Legislature. Gloria Tottengott, Stephen Goldman, and Rhonda Tucker tended to stick together on votes, and often followed Harper’s lead.
He flapped his hand. “Bah. You can direct that look elsewhere. I’m working on something even better. Something that will make S46 pale in comparison. Something that will put the fat cats in their place.”
“Really? Tell me. How can I help?”
“You’ll know when I’m good and ready for you to know. You lobbyists are all the same. Couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it, and right now I’m working the back channels. I decided it’s time to call in some chips . . . maybe all of them.” His breath came out in pants and he stumbled.
“Senator!” I reached out to steady him.
He pulled a roll of Tums out of his coat pocket, but his hands were so unsteady that he fumbled to open the package.
“Here, let me help you.” I used my thumbnail to slit the wrapper, and two antacid tablets fell into his palm.
He pressed his fist against his chest as he chewed. “Must have been the pastrami sandwich I had for lunch.”
It was close to six. Lunch had been hours ago, and I didn’t like the greenish tinge of his coloring. “Are you going to be okay? Do you want me to get help?” We’d reached the curve, the midpoint between the two buildings. The tram at the far end was empty of passengers and the operator.
“I’ll be fine.” He puffed past me.
“I’m not sure, Senator.” I glanced over my shoulder to see if anyone was coming from the Capitol side. “I think I should-”
His right hand slapped against the wall, his knees buckled, and he pitched forward.