Sandy Galvin decided to throw himself a victory party -- a black-tie dinner dance, no less -- to celebrate his purchase of the Washington Sun and Tribune. He was a newspaper tycoon now, after his bloodless decapitation of the two distinguished families, the Hazens and the Crosbys, that had owned the paper since 1910. The party was his way of announcing to Washington that its newspaper -- known for its sagacious editorials and worthy local reporting, but not for its sense of fun -- was in glamorous new hands. The invitations went out a few days after he closed the deal with Harold Hazen. They were printed on thick, creamy paper and stuffed into massive envelopes lined with gold foil, like invitations to a wedding. There was something delightfully childlike about Galvin's enthusiasm. He had bought himself a fantastic billion-dollar toy, and he couldn't wait to show it off.

I had fallen under Galvin's spell several months before, soon after he arrived in Washington. He had caught my eye when he bought himself two mansions, one in Georgetown and one in McLean, overlooking the Potomac. That was the kind of heroic ostentation that made him an ideal profile subject for the magazine I then edited, which humbly titled itself Reveal: The Social Bible of Washington.

People may scoff at Reveal now, but in its day everybody read it. And I know why. Because in a city where everything is serious and low in cholesterol, we were a big, gooey chocolate sundae. We fawned over the things people pretended they weren't interested in -- money, fancy clothes, big houses, cosmetic surgery -- and we had just enough of a sneer to convey that we were better than that, too.

Like any true Washingtonian, I was a creature of anxiety. That had shaped my philosophy of magazines, which I can summarize as follows: Write about the A's -- but for the B's. The people who really are movers and shakers don't have time to read society magazines, and they certainly don't need instruction in how to be rich and famous. But everyone else is dying to know the secrets -- in anticipation of the day when they, too, will be asked to serve as co-chair of the Leukemia Ball, or get appointed ambassador to Luxembourg, or marry the 29-year-old ex-model in the beaded Emanuel Ungaro cocktail dress. That was why it was important to have the Newly Rich represented in our pages -- so that our readers could see themselves taking that step up.

My only real question about Galvin was whether he was a B or an A. Was he a car dealer wanting to get his picture taken next to the president? Or was he one of nature's aristocrats -- a man who truly was indifferent whether or not Reveal ran a story about him -- and for that reason was absolutely, positively the one we wanted?

So I had invited myself to a cocktail party at Galvin's Virginia mansion soon after he arrived. A pool and gardens stretched to the right, and beyond the house a broad lawn sloped gently toward the cliffs overlooking the river. Perhaps I've seen larger houses, but not in Washington. I grabbed a drink off a silver tray and waited to pounce -- journalistically speaking.

Though I had never met the man before, I knew him instantly. He was tall and broad-shouldered, standing nearly a head above most of his guests. He was wearing a summer suit draped on his frame in the comfortable, elegant way that movie stars from the 1940s wore their clothes. He was talking with the deputy secretary of the treasury, and the odd thing was that the deputy secretary was leaning toward Galvin, straining to hear what he had to say. As Galvin made his point, the deputy secretary nodded in that grave, Washington way, prompting the host to do something most unusual. He smiled -- the broadest smile I had seen in months -- as if to say: What a night, what a place, what a pleasure! And the deputy secretary smiled back nearly as broadly, with the self-satisfied look of a fellow conspirator. And I understood, in that moment, the essential fact about Galvin: He knew how to make people happy.

He had seen me staring at him, and he began making his way toward me, still smiling. Close up, he was surprisingly dark, with a deep tan and jet-black hair that was cut short and sculpted to his face. It was a face that was as smooth and sharp as an arrowhead. The face, combined with that lovely draped suit, gave him the appearance of a man who had fallen out of time, from the Stork Club long ago, directly to here and now.

From the moment of that first encounter, Sandy Galvin interested me. He was dragging something invisible along behind him that was giving off sparks. The general type was familiar enough to Reveal readers: They arrived every year in the capital from St. Louis or Phoenix, men who had just sold the family department-store chain or real estate business, to set themselves up as problem-solvers, party-givers, candidates for ambassadorial posts in northern latitudes. They quickly discovered which schools, churches and synagogues would confer the most prestige; their wives found the right personal trainer, caterer and book club. Friends who'd arrived here in earlier expeditions of civic duty put them up for the right clubs. It wasn't all that different from the way things worked back in St. Louis, really -- just a bigger version.

But Galvin was something else. He maintained the aloof confidence of an outsider; from that first night, the city was paying him court. It wasn't simply that he was so rich. He appeared to have a different sort of ambition -- not to join the conversation, but to alter it. What would make a man so sure of himself? And what was he lacking, that had brought him here? He didn't seem to want power, at least not in the usual sense of running for office or obtaining a Cabinet post. He wanted something more raw and immediate -- the ability to command attention, to make people listen. But I had no idea what he would say.

And now he had bought our city's sweetest prize, the Sun -- stolen it would be a better word, really, given the financial tricks he had played on the Hazens and Crosbys. He had taken my measure, too, from that first night -- sensing in my anxiety and disdain the mark of a potential ally. He had drawn me into his machinations to buy the paper, and then -- knowing how easily I could be bought -- had offered to make me editor of the paper's Lifestyle section. That was the sort of job I would have dreamed about, if I hadn't forsworn ambition.

Galvin decided that because I had professional expertise in the area of party-giving -- had I not been editor of the Social Bible of Washington? -- I would be the event planner for his victory ball. He told me to spend whatever was needed -- more than was needed, this had to be the best party ever given in Washington. I wasted a day in urgent, useless activity before turning sheepishly to my erstwhile former employer, the owner of Reveal. I told her frankly that I was desperate -- it had fallen to me to organize the party of the year and I didn't even own a tux. And would she -- could she -- possibly offer some advice?

It will not surprise anyone familiar with the folkways of our nation's capital that my former employer, who only days before had been addressing me with four-letter words when I announced I was quitting Reveal, readily agreed to help. In a city of courtiers, there is only the eternal present; with each movement in the constellation of power, the past is instantly obliterated. The owner was happy to suggest the right caterer, the right florist -- the right orchestra, bartender, valet parker, liquor purveyor, grocer and tent provider.

Soon trucks began arriving at the house, unloading crates of china, tables and chairs, tents big enough for P.T. Barnum, a dance floor the size of a baseball infield, a jungle of fresh flowers, and enough booze to float a battleship. Galvin observed all this activity with genial contentment.

"How many shrimp did you order?" he would ask. Two thousand, I would answer -- four for every guest. "Double it!" he would shout back. And the same with the stone crabs, oysters, caviar and smoked salmon. When I told him what each particular bit of excess would cost, he would smile happily. What a lucky man, his face said -- to be hosting such an affair.

That evening, fortified by a martini cocktail, I put on my rented tuxedo and drove my Honda out to the plantation in McLean. I was the first to arrive and gaze, with genuine wonder, on what our labors had produced.

We had created an imaginary landscape. The trees that bordered the long driveway had been decorated with tiny golden lights, so that they shimmered and sparkled in the evening breeze like the pathway to a magical palace. At the bottom of the drive, the great red-brick house was illuminated by a dozen spotlights. Inside, the house was in bloom, with garlands of fresh flowers and the supernatural colors of Gal-vin's art collection. But the interior was no more than a passageway this evening, to the pageant of color and light out back.

The weather, too, had obliged Sandy Galvin. It was a perfect, cloudless evening in late September, the very last trailing edge of summer. A full moon was rising to the east over the river -- perfectly round, ghostly white and improbably large. As I walked through the French doors into the open air, I could hear the sound of a violin, testing a few notes of a Strauss waltz, stopping to retune and gaily starting up again.

The garden had been decorated to resemble the scene depicted by Renoir in his famous painting of an outdoor dance in "Au Moulin de le Galette." That had been Galvin's idea, and I'd thought he was out of his mind at first. But now that I saw the final effect, it was breathtaking. Paper lanterns were hung from the trees and across the yard, casting a delicate play of shadows and light. Two great tents bounded the sloping lawn -- one for dining, one for dancing. Beyond the tents, the trees had been dotted with tiny gold lights like those along the driveway. They twinkled and sparkled like an orchard of Christmas trees.

I caught sight of Galvin upstairs in his bedroom. He was looking out through the picture window at what he had created. It was a wary, expectant gaze. He was waiting for someone. He had constructed this perfect stage, and now he needed the players to arrive -- one in particular, who he could see in his mind, but who was still invisible to me.

Two hours later, the garden was full. I could tell it was going to be a good party -- people were actually drinking. Normally, people at Washington parties made a point of being abstemious. Drinking would mean relaxing, letting go, taking the risk of saying something foolish, or being unprepared, or making a mistake. When you were drinking, you were not working, and people in Washington never stopped working -- especially the journalists, who had become the most abstemious and risk-averse of all. But tonight was different. It was as if relaxation and decompression were the price of admission.

Galvin's guest list was masterful. His rule seemed to be: Magnanimous in Victory. He had invited the Hazens and Crosbys -- not just the younger men and women whose votes had carried the day when he bought the paper, but the old gentlemen as well. The families had taken several tables to themselves in the buffet tent and were accepting handshakes and best wishes with the good manners of General Lee at Appomattox.

Galvin made his way among the crowd. Everyone wanted to talk to him. This was his party, of course, but one sensed that this night, at least, it was also his town. In a city of transients, the newspaper was the one permanent store of value. It was the market-maker in the goods that were traded here -- influence, power, reputation. When the newspaper changed hands, it was like a change of government.

Striding among the guests in his French garden, bathed in the soft glow of his paper lanterns, Galvin looked like an artist's creation himself, dressed in the finely tailored clothes that conveyed an easy elegance, greeting the world with a face that seemed unmarked by a sleepless night or a day of worry. He was the man for this season. It's said that George Washington was an inevitable choice to become our first president because no one had ever looked better riding a horse. There was something of the same inevitability about Galvin.

I lurked at the edges of the party, looking at all the famous faces. Three justices of the Supreme Court had come, enough for a powerful dissent, at least; the speaker of the House was here, popping out of his tuxedo like the Pillsbury dough boy. The secretary of the treasury arrived and departed early, looking thin as a whippet and slightly stooped, as if bent over by the weight of all the money he had to worry about. The secretary of state came, too, although she kept disappearing inside self-importantly to take telephone calls; it was rumored that she was on the way out, but who knew? The vice president was over in the dancing tent, doing the Temptations Walk with his wife -- probably the same steps they'd done when they first met at a tea dance in high school, 35 years before. It was deemed a credit to the man, in the current environment, that one could imagine his bouncy wife having an affair more easily than him.

And everywhere were the journalists, leaning against tent poles, sizing up the guests, talking mostly to one another (for who could be more interesting?). The president was finished, they were saying. His position was deteriorating; the polls showed it. It wasn't what he had done, but the appearance of what he had done, someone was saying. No, it wasn't that, someone else said. It was that he didn't appear to be truly sorry about what he appeared to have done. They knew everything and nothing, this crowd. You wouldn't find the journalists over by the raw bar, scarfing down free shrimp -- not anymore. They made as much money, in their virtuous passivity, as many of the businessmen and lawyers. And I was one of them. Why did I dislike them so?

I looked for Candace Ridgway. She was the Sun's foreign editor, and the only journalist I really wanted to see that night. Indeed, over the years, I had developed a passionate and deeply useless infatuation for her. She was unreachable in her loveliness, the sort of woman Reveal lived to celebrate, not least because she had contempt for everything we represented. Like a model, she understood the impression she created: the tendrils of blond hair, the perfect ivory skin, the dewy glow on her cheeks, the supple body. She used it all to get what she wanted. But what was that? I had never been sure.

I had known Candace slightly at Harvard. She was three years older than me and already a senior when I arrived -- but she had been nice to me during the odious competition to join the Crimson and helped keep me afloat during my traumatic freshman year. I had followed her career from afar ever since, sending her fawning notes when I liked one of her stories and occasionally calling her for advice. Unlike me, she seemed to have perfect balance. Where I had bumped from job to job, priding myself on my non-celebrity, she had moved steadily upward in the news firmament. I try as a rule to dislike people who have been so successful, but in Candace's case, it was difficult.

She had a reporter's knack for gathering information. She didn't wheedle or scheme for it, as I did; it flowed to her naturally, as if by right. She had recently returned from a tour as London bureau chief to become foreign editor. That was a sign, and her colleagues assumed that more promotions would follow. People talked about Candace; there was an assumption that what she did mattered.

Part of Candace's aura was that she was a child of the Washington establishment. What took the edge off, and made her current success tolerable to others, was the fact that her outwardly perfect life had been touched by tragedy. During the late 1960s, her father had been deputy secretary of defense. At the height of the Vietnam War, he'd had a "breakdown," as people used to put it back then. Two years after that, in the spring of 1971, he had committed suicide. I'd known about Candace's father before I ever met her. He was a symbol of The Crackup -- the end of the genteel but short-of-breath establishment that had been routed by a bunch of Asian peasants and dope-smoking college students.

That was the one area of Candace's life that remained untidy. It was the only way you understood what had made her so strong -- when you saw a hint of that wound and realized the strength and self-discipline it had taken to get past it.

Her personal life was mysterious, but so far as I knew, she had no permanent attachment to anyone or anything -- except the newspaper. She was rumored to be dating an aging wonder boy who was an assistant secretary of the treasury -- we had even published a picture of them together in Reveal, a few issues back -- but she just rolled her eyes when I asked about him. Part of why I had always found her so sexy was I couldn't imagine her actually having sex with anyone.

I wandered over toward the stone wall that overlooked the river. The moon was higher in the sky now, casting a bone-white reflection on the slow-moving water. I had come there to rest. It was wearying, all this unearned status and derivative glory.

Two men strode up to the stone wall a little farther along, deep in conversation. One of them was Galvin. He was gazing down the river toward the distant lights of Washington, sipping a glass of champagne while the other man talked. This other gentleman sat on the wall, below Galvin. He was paunchy, with thinning blond hair and a weary look. He was probably about Galvin's age, late forties, but he looked far older. He had a big glass of whiskey in his hand and, it soon became clear, he was quite drunk. It took me a moment to realize that it was Howard Bacon, the editor of the Sun.

"I'm too old to be polite," Bacon was saying. "I've put in too many years, and worked for too many different newspaper owners. So I'm just going to ask you straight out: What are you going to do to the paper?"

"Make it better," answered Galvin. "With help from you, and everyone else."

"Well, that's a nice thought. It's hard to disagree with that. But better for who? For the advertisers, who think we're the devil? For the president, who whines every day that we're not being fair to him. For the president's enemies in Congress? For the Black Caucus, and the American Jewish Committee, and the AARP, and the Harvard-Yale Club -- have I left anybody out?" Poor man, he was definitely in his cups.

"Better for readers," answered Galvin gently.

"Of course, of course. Don't pay any attention to me. I've got too many miles on my tires; they're worn down, and sometimes they squeal. And I'll admit I get sick of all the complaints about the paper, yes I do. But I'll say one thing for us: We seem to piss people off in all directions, so we must be doing something right. Eh?"

Galvin frowned. "I don't get that part about how it's good to piss off all sides, Howard. Why do you think it's good for people to hate you? Maybe there's a reason they don't like the Sun. We'll have to talk about that."

"Sure. Absolutely. We'll talk about everything. You're the boss now. I've tried to do what I can to improve the paper, but I'll be honest: I get stuck in a rut sometimes -- have trouble remembering why I got into the business. The sharp edges get worn down, the picture gets fuzzy. You know what I mean?"

He looked up at Galvin. "No, probably you don't. But for the rest of us, it's not easy. We could all use some new ideas. I just want to be sure they're good ones."

Bacon was talking in that tone of sad bemusement that men discover in middle age, when they begin to add up the accounts and see that things don't quite balance. It was a quality I had begun to notice among the fortysomethings I knew -- that spacey, where's-the-rest-of-me look. I had never seen it in Galvin. He was still climbing, aspiring, searching. The phrase "Is this all?" had never crossed his lips. He was bored by Bacon's middle-age angst and changed the subject.

"What are people saying at the paper? The reporters and editors. What do they think?"

"Honestly, they're scared," said Bacon. "They don't know much about you, but what they have heard, they don't like. They're worried you're going to fire a lot of people, and do focus groups to create new sections -- Television Today, Foreign Fun Facts -- and generally dumb it down. They like the newspaper the way it is. They're proud of it. They don't want to see it change."

"Change is always painful." Galvin put his hand on Bacon's shoulder. "I'll be honest with you, too, Howard. I do have some new ideas. I'll save the particulars for another time, but I don't want to play games. I do intend to shake the paper up. That is a fact. I think it needs shaking up. And I want editors who can help me do it."

"I hear you," he said noncommittally. "Message received."

Bacon stood up from his perch on the wall. He looked shattered -- his face wasted by too many years of stress and booze and late-night deadlines. He wobbled unsteadily for a moment. The worst thing that could happen to a journalist was happening to him. "You will forgive me, sir," he said, "if I go in search of one of your lavatories."

Galvin watched his editor walk away and then turned back toward the house. As he did so, he saw me, standing in the shadows. "I suppose you heard all that," he said.

"Yup. Pathetic. Mr. Bacon is not what I would call a titan of journalism. But I hear they've got a smart new guy coming in as Lifestyle editor."

Galvin smiled. Nothing could put him off his good mood this evening. "Never judge a man when he has a glass of whiskey in his hand," he said. "Always a mistake."

The party lasted late into the night. People didn't come and go; they came and stayed. That was another Washington rarity. The usual rule here was lights out at 11, so that everybody would be bright-eyed for school the next morning. But perhaps Galvin was rewriting that one, too.

I continued to meander; I knew I hadn't seen half the guests yet, it was such a big party. The orchestra had started another set in the music tent; they were playing old-time dance favorites -- Glenn Miller, Broadway show tunes, even that waltz I'd heard the violinist practicing hours ago. Drawn by the music, I wandered into the tent. A cordon of people was ringing the dance floor, watching one couple dancing all alone. I opened my eyes, at last, and it was like a blow to the head.

Galvin was holding Candace gently in his arms, moving her with a tilt of his shoulders, a brush of his thighs. I hadn't seen her until that moment, with so many people and me hiding much of the time in the shadows. She looked magnificent. Her blond hair was swept back from her face in a way that accentuated the beauty of her cheekbones and her graceful neck. She was wearing a string of white pearls and a long black dress that seemed to be made of chiffon, it was so light and delicate. In all my years of admiring Candace, I had never seen her look so beautiful.

The music stopped, but they remained together on the floor, talking. He whispered something in her ear and she laughed -- there it was, that wispy smile of his, boyish and irresistible. The music resumed, and they started up again. You could see from the way they moved that they had danced together before. Her body seemed to understand his, to float with it, like a leaf carried on a powerful gust of wind. Nobody else danced; we didn't move; we were transfixed. The new owner of the Sun was dancing with the paper's foreign editor. When the music ended, we all applauded.

I wandered about in a daze for half an hour or so. It shouldn't have hurt so much. God knows, I had no claim on her, but Candace had been my only fantasy. Though I had never spent an intimate moment with her, I had somehow developed the lover's pride of possession -- the notion that I alone could appreciate her specialness. Yet after watching them together on the dance floor, I knew that my claim was entirely fraudulent and absurd. It was such a powerful feeling of defeat, I cannot fully explain it.

It was time to go. My party was over. As I walked through the house toward the front door, I passed the small study, where Galvin and I had spent hours preparing for the party, making plans for what we would do at the newspaper. The door was ajar, and I could just see into the room. They were sitting on the couch -- not kissing or holding hands, but just talking. I heard laughter. He was remembering something funny from long ago, and she was giggling about it. It was a sound I had never heard from her. A peal of laughter. The sound of pure pleasure.

I don't know who I felt more betrayed by -- him or her. But that was silly. I was not a real person. People like Galvin and Candace lived in three dimensions; they took up space. But I existed in two dimensions only, on printed pages. I had no mass, just words. Love was for people who took up more room in the world. But even a stick man is capable of theater -- better at it, even. He can hide in the shadows; he can disappear into the crevices of other people's ambition and desire, and bend their stories to his own.

David Ignatius is an op-ed columnist for The Post. This short story is adapted from his new novel, The Sun King, published this month by Random House. For more information about his fiction, go to: www.davidignatius.com.