It was the haircuts then, too. That was what gave them away.
When Conor was a grunt in the post-Vietnam army, he’d spent basic training and a year of mind-numbing monotony at Southern military bases that could have moved a hundred miles in any direction and still not been close to anything. There were stores and bars in the nearby small towns where they and their paychecks were welcome. A good chunk of the local economy depended on them, in fact; the sooner they could make it into town on payday Saturday, and the sooner they could spend it all until next month, the better. Even the dumbest rifleman learned which places they were supposed to go in and which were for locals. It was the quality of the stare you got when you went in the door. Uniformed or in civvies, you got the same stare. They recognized you by the haircut.
Same with the students. You could tell them by their haircuts. Smithy’s doctors, lawyers, builders, and shop owners could have gone to the same stylists who gave the students such interesting haircuts, but why would they want to? The haircuts - and colors - along with the pierced tongues and the studied je ne sais quoi about sartorial method separated the students from locals as surely as the haircuts and always-new civvies separated the G.I.s from the Georgians when he was 19. Same attitude as well. Merchants humored them, but didn’t know them. Conor had repeatedly suggested that council try to arrange for the students to stay wherever they were from and just mail in a sales tax check. The proposal never went anywhere.
Conor walked across the quad, thinking how long since he’d been on the campus, how little anybody in town came over here. He had a vague idea where Zaner’s building was, but knew he’d have some looking around to do, and would have to ask a few questions. He knew he wasn’t among pipeline supporters, and wondered if anybody would give him bad directions as a result. There was nobody close enough to take him to task for chuckling.
He noticed a couple of female students looking at him and giggling behind their hands. Their issue, he knew, was probably how out of date his suit was, or how uncool his haircut was, but he allowed himself the luxury of pretending for a moment they were discussing how cute he was. For an old guy, anyway. He resisted the temptation to glance in the glass of a doorway to see his reflection and confirm that he really was worthy of their attention. He made the physical effort to keep his head pointing forward, to not glance at the glass. He suppressed s smirk of pride at his restraint. He hoped he looked at least passable anyway. His color was returning, and he no longer felt shaky. He and Jamie were going hiking tomorrow, Saturday, and if he survived Bear Fence Rocks, he’d know he was recovered.
Zaner’s office was in one of the older buildings on the central campus, all white columns and native limestone. Castles in a modern feudalism, where students and faculty came from somewhere else, and the only local people were the night students and the cleaning people. At least they all recognized the mayor. Conor was starting to get used to it. He’d had two years to warm up to it. And Jamie reveled in being the mayor’s kid. Conor hoped Jamie felt the same when the reaction to the pipeline vote began.
Zaner’s office would have fit in one corner of Conor’s, and would have roughly tripled the amount of paper. Precarious piles, black type on white paper, criss-crossed and intermixed with books and magazines. Conor recognized the budget notebook toward the middle of one stack. That must be the city pile, he thought.
Zaner waved him to a chair, then hopped up and shook his hand, an afterthought. Zaner glanced around the office, wondering if there was anything else he needed to do in order to greet company that wasn’t a math student. Conor hoped he wasn’t going to try straightening things up.
“Well, Mayor … Jim … we have a lot to think about, don’t we?”
“Some. First off, I haven’t thanked you yet for nominating me for mayor.”
Zaner nodded quickly as Conor spoke, an academic trait, Conor had decided. The speaker guessed what the end of the sentence would be after the first few words, and began preparing his answer. It probably came from dealing with a few hundred freshmen every year, none of whom knew their ideas and problems weren’t new. Sort of like legal clients.
“Well, I finally decided you were the only logical choice. I wasn’t sure of the protocol … whether I was supposed to let you know what I planned to do … that I planned to put your name in nomination…”
“No harm, no foul. I guess I’ll start earning my pay Tuesday night.”
“Oh, uh, well … I though the mayor’s job paid the same $500 a month we all get.”
Conor suppressed a sigh. “Just an expression, Bill. I meant that will be our first full meeting. It could be an interesting one.”
Zaner nodded vigorously again. “We could almost flip a coin, couldn’t we?”
“Well, uh, … I don’t think the two options are that close.”
“No, I meant so far as knowing which option would pass. But obviously there’s a difference because flipping a coin is purely random whereas our situation isn’t.”
Mathematics humor. Conor remembered where he was. “Good point, Bill. But what I was wondering … there were negative reasons for your nominating me?”
“As in, to keep from having somebody else for mayor?”
“You mean Marlin Waters?”
“You tell me.”
Zaner stared intently at a point halfway between his eyes and the floor between their chairs. Conor waited.
“Certainly nothing has happened to change my attitude about Waters, particularly after the offer he made to Betty.”
“Yeah. Wonder where he got that idea?”
“Just the way a man like that thinks, I’d imagine. But that doesn’t help us with our issue, does it?”
Conor noted how much different Zaner was from previous times he’d seen the professor. The uncertainty, the detailed loquaciousness was gone. Conor wondered if the difference was that Zaner was in his own element now, on his own turf, or if it was some level of poise born in the two months since the election, or perhaps when he decided to make Conor the mayor.
“No, it doesn’t. I guess the question now might be whether we’re willing to let him decide the most important issue of the year, maybe the decade. He’s in that position almost by accident and he sought it for the wrong reasons. How much juice do we want to give him?”
“Oh, I understood. I was just enjoying the metaphor. I’m not sure what it is you’re suggesting.”
“I’m not either. But one of two things is going to happen. Marlin’s going to decide this thing, or one of us is going to flip?”
“Yeah. Sizemore will vote the way Charles told him to. Betty’s adamant against the pipeline. That leaves me and you.”
“To do what?”
Conor shrugged, spread his hands. “To decide this issue.”
“Whichever one of us is planning to vote against Marlin flips.”
“I don’t follow.” His furrowed brow said he did, but Conor let it go.
“I’ll tell the clerk to call his name first on the roll call. If he votes for the pipeline, so do you. If he votes for the dam, so do I.”
“Or I suppose I could find out beforehand which way Waters is leaning …”
“Look, Bill, is this a, uh, … an intellectual exercise, or are you leaning toward the concept?”
“That would depend. That phrase you keep using. That word rather. Flipping. Why do you call it that?”
“It’s pretty simple. It’s like the coin you suggested. There are two choices, yes or no, heads or tails, no compromise available. You either vote the one you were planning to vote, or you flip and vote the other one.”
“How many times can a man flip and still be effective?
“That’s a mathematician’s question, Bill, not a politician’s.”
“So give me a politician’s answer.”
“A man can’t flip twice on major issues and keep any sort of political standing. Not unless he can present a compelling reason.”
“I see.” Zaner found another point, this one between the ceiling and his chair, and stared at that one awhile. “I suppose if we let a man like Waters be in the middle, this divisiveness could continue so long as it’s good for him?”
“That sounds like something Simon Pershing would say.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“I meant it that way. So how do we work this?”
“The logistics, you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’m new at this.”
“So let me know before Tuesday night’s meeting. If you’re agreeable, and you can find out something from Marlin … you make the motion and I’ll vote for it.”
“You say yes or no. It only takes a second.”
“I’m not sure … I don’t even know why this makes sense to me.”
“It becomes mechanics after a while. When you know something is going to happen, you can start worrying about how. But keep one thing in mind.”
“You may think about this, and decide it’s a bad idea. You still have that right. I don’t consider this a commitment. If you decide this doesn’t work for you, that it’s bending too much, we’ll just forget the logistics and go with the straight vote.”
“It seems odd … we’ve been fighting this pipeline so long, and it’s the only reason I got into politics. To change the decision, to make it our own … it just seems odd.”
“Welcome to the bigs.”
Conor started to ignore the phone. He knew he should get caller ID. Then he could know if it was safe to ignore the Sunday night phone calls from people with free advice on the pipeline. For a while he’d just let the machine get them. But that didn’t work with Jamie around. There were constant calls from other twelve-year-old boys. And girls.
“How are you?”
“Busy. But it’s productive.”
“Can I talk to Jamie?”
“He’s at the Smiths, playing some kind of computer game.”
“That’s all he wants to do. You’re making him do something else?”
“We hiked yesterday. He spent most of today at the pool.”
“It sounds like things are still divided up there?”
“Two more days.”
“The pipeline vote?”
“It seems like it’s been going on forever.”
Not all that long, Conor thought: six months, a marriage and a funeral.
“A lot of things do. … We ought to … we need to talk about Christmas.”
Conor thought how odd it was that he couldn’t hear anything on the phone. He remembered when phones crackled, hummed, popped. Now there’d be no sound unless she said something or the electronic noises began if she hung up. Only if he couldn’t hear anything did he know there was somebody on the line.
“Can we think about that, discuss it when I pick him up?”
“We need to make some decisions.”
“Jim … can’t we just get used to this first?”
“I think I am used to it. At least it doesn’t feel as strange as it did.”
“Maybe it’s …”
“Maybe it’s easier for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jim, I hear stories. … Are you involved with Cathy Chandler again?”
If he’d been prepared, Conor thought, he’d have had a convincing lie prepared. Instead, he counted the seconds until his silence answered for him. He knew the silence had gone on long enough that it was too late. Too late for a quick lie, too late for an explanation. He should have said something as soon as she finished her sentence. But then he should have said something as soon as he became involved. Or maybe even not become involved. Now it was too late and it had happened without him having anything to do with it. A door had closed in his life when he wasn't looking, closed by some gossip from one of the half dozen people in town Karen still talked to, closed so that even if they ever got back together there'd still be this thing, this cloud. Closed because he thought he could deal with it at the right time even though he knew there'd never be one.
“Is that why you stayed?”
“No, Karen. It just …”
“It just happened?”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“No? You’ve got so much history there, Jim. I can’t help thinking that was just one more piece, one more link.”
“Karen … all the times we’ve had this conversation, I’ve never felt like we were talking about the same thing. To me it’s home. To you it’s … I don’t know … threatening somehow.”
If the silence ended, he’d know she’d hung up. He looked into the backyard. Jamie had grown up there. He’d have a history there. He’d have a home there.
“Jim, at Jack’s funeral. You said there were three women in that room you’d been to bed with. Me and Cathy Chandler. Was the third one Betty Wilson?”
“Good God, no!”
“Who was it?”
“The fat woman?”
“She wasn’t the night of our senior prom.”
“Oh, god, Jim, will you ever get out of there?”
“I don’t see how you can do this, living with a ghost around every corner.”
“Karen, that’s not … it’s not like that.”
“Jim, I wish you could see, the whole town’s a ghost. You’ve kept the town intact there at its center, but there are chicken plants, and a university, and a couple of malls all the way around it. It’s become some other city. You’re keeping what’s left of Smithy on life support. Can’t you see it’s going to die someday no matter what you do?
“At least it’s not going to die because I gave up on it.”
“You mean like our marriage?”
“That’s unfair, Karen. You made the decision. I didn’t want to draw the line. You drew it.”
“You wouldn’t come with me.”
“You left me here.”
“Goodbye, Jim. Have Jamie call me when he gets in.”
Was it that easy? he wondered. Could it really be that simple?
February, he thought. It had only been in February that he’d last held her, really held her. And even then, he remembered now, he’d been thinking back. He’d gone back to the first time he’d touched her, if you could call it thinking, because it was really images and ideas that fit so well with the way her back felt under his hands, and the way he could almost hear her breasts moving against the hair on his chest, and the way he felt almost unbalanced because he wasn’t a straight line going from feet on the ground to head in the air, but rather a series of waves radiating out from the places where he touched her until the waves merged together and resonated and vibrated into whatever he was at the moment.
She’d been sitting in the hall outside the courtroom, someone standing behind her, someone else leaned over to where she was, a young, eager paralegal who’d obviously carried the bulk of the case. They were discussing the case they’d just lost to him, and he had to walk over and speak to the opposition, because it’s just something you do. She looked up when he said, “Nice try,” and any fool could see she was unhappy, but at the same time she wasn’t defeated. Sorrow wrote lines on her face but didn’t cover it. He shook her hand, and he felt it, cool and dry and firm and polite but still a woman’s hand, in his, and there was no way he could get around that. And there was a hint of expression, a response, to him and not to what he was saying, and it was some kind of Mona Lisa smile, a Catholic girl look that said she was in there waiting, not that she was trying to tell him that, she just was, and he could see her but he didn’t want to wait all that long.
He was trying to think of an excuse to send her a follow-up note, because protocol didn’t require it but he did, when he got a note in the mail thanking him for his gracious moment, and so he could write one back thanking her for her note of thanks, and she had to write back as well because he was so gracious about responding to how gracious she was, until eventually all that gratitude was just more than they could handle by mail, because the post office was busy enough anyway, thank you very much.
One thing led to another, and they were undressing one another in his small townhouse near downtown. She could look him in the eye, because she was that tall, but also because she didn’t slump the way some tall women did, trying to look dainty because for some reason they thought that was prettier than looking strong. But Karen wasn’t dainty, she was just big, no other word for it, and he was astonished at himself because he just couldn’t believe how beautiful he found her, and how afraid he was to tell her because she might think he was just saying it because he wanted her, which was something he couldn’t argue with because he did want her very, very much. And maybe she was big but his arms still fit around her quite nicely and made him feel all that much bigger because he was not a small person either. He never did anything to emphasize his size, because he despised a bully, but now he could because she wanted him to, and he wanted to, and he could relax and enjoy her because he knew he didn’t have to hold anything back and that she could enjoy him back without very much effort on his part. Her lips didn’t just lay there in a secret smile waiting to be kissed, but came after his with a ferocity almost like battle, a sport they both could win because it had a goal but there was no way to keep score. And he’d traced the lines of her face, with a fingertip when he could, and in his mind the rest of the time, staring into her eyes, looking for a flaw but not finding one, not in the strong but beautiful line of her jaw, not in her nose, not in her searching lips, but maybe in the little trace of ruddiness on her chin where it had rubbed against his rough cotton shirt.
He found himself thinking of Cathy Chandler’s cool elegance, but also of the effort that went into it, and he knew it was no less a part of her because it was acquired, but he still felt more at ease with the grace of body and spirit that was obviously midwived with Karen. He thought of the girl he’d been engaged to in college, and told himself it wasn’t that he couldn’t remember her name, he just didn’t have the time or desire to right now. Her tender fragility was such a gift, although her size tended to limit movements and style, and he would always remember the night she lay against him, saying, “It’s OK, it’s all right,” over and over, and how he’d wanted to tell her that it really was OK, that he’d gotten carried away and understood he was supposed to feel really bad about hurting her a little, but at that instant all he could do was feel guilty about not feeling guilty, and he didn’t really feel all that guilty about that.
But mostly he just thought about how in the moment he was with Karen, and how the thoughts weren’t articulated comparisons, just images of a place where he wasn’t any more. The place where he was right now was in her arms, in her hold, in her clutches, caught and captured and penned like a wild animal in a live trap, laughing when the gate slammed shut behind him because all he wanted was the bait to begin with. Primitive was how he felt, and undisciplined, and a little savage, and happy with not knowing if the civilization was real and he was acquiring the savagery because it felt good, or if the evolution was something he’d been faking all along.
It didn’t feel strange or odd to hold her, just different, and very natural. Hand in glove they fit, foot in sock in shoe, although he’d always preferred less mechanical methods.
“What are you laughing at?” she asked into his chest, her movement slowing against him.
“I’m just happy,” he said, but what he was really thinking was that he wasn’t laughing, he was praying, and he’d have to explain that to her sometime.
“What’s all the activity at the police station?”
Conor was pretty sure he knew the answer to Mike Christian’s question, but he decided to wait. “What activity?”
“Two captains and Bob Gardner stayed after closing time. Somebody was brought in through the sally port so we couldn’t see who it was. An assistant prosecutor said she’d call us later with a statement. My reporter could only use the front door and then they just let him wait in the lobby.”
“I’ll find out and call you back.”
“I’m betting you already know.”
“Maybe more than you do, but not enough to print. I’ll call you.”
Christian rung off with an unfriendly grunt. Conor tossed the report he was reading on the desk in his study. He’d quit using the room for months, and had been trying to get it back into useable shape while Jamie was there. No nights at the office the rest of the summer, no naps on the couch. Just a pile of paperwork he hadn’t found interesting while it was relevant, and now seemed like things he ought to know. Maybe he could have a detailed discussion with Betty Wilson now about how many miles of paved roads the city had, or with Bill Zaner about flow rates.
“What are you laughing at, Dad?”
He walked into Jamie’s room, watched his son look up from the computer screen where unrecognizable creatures took indecipherable actions in the pursuit of impenetrable goals. “Just thought of something funny. Hard to explain. I need to go downtown for a couple of hours. I’ll have the cell phone with me.”
“OK. Will you see Mike?”
“If I do, I’ll tell him you said hello. Call me if you need anything major. Go next door if it’s small.”
“And don’t put beans up my nose?”
“We’ve had this chat before?”
“The last time you went downtown. Are you doing something to get ready for the council meeting tomorrow night?”
“There’s not a lot I can do to get ready for that one except get a good night’s sleep.”
Conor shrugged. “Call me if you need anything.”
Conor counted dates in his head as he drove. Five weeks until Karen came to pick Jamie up. Five weeks of at least having a connection while he was home with Jamie. They might not be sitting in the same room that much, but having him there made it feel like home. It hadn’t for too long. Having him there made it easier to be mayor.
Conor tried to think for a few more seconds about being with Jamie, to not think about what he was likely to find out downtown. At least – was he looking for good news or what? – at least he’d have one more thing he wouldn’t have to decide. If she was facing this, Cathy Chandler wouldn’t need to meet Jamie, and Conor wouldn’t need to decide if he could go to dinner with her. He couldn’t be her lawyer, he probably couldn’t help her. She had two sons off at college who could come home and do that. But maybe he’d find out what she was thinking. At least he’d know that.
He called ahead on the cell, had somebody open the back door. He started to go up the back stairs, but an officer stopped him.
“The chief asked me to bring you in this way, Mayor.”
The officer had assumed the cop-wait Conor had come to recognize. He was following orders, and Conor or anybody else could argue with him all night, but he had a gun and his orders. Conor followed him past the dispatcher’s office, through the lobby. A frowzy looking woman sat in one of the uncomfortable looking metal chairs in the waiting area, a policewoman in the chair next to her. Her hair had been bleached and dyed to a straw-like consistency, her clothes had been bought when she weighed less. She looked up, recognized him, looked embarrassed at being seen here by the mayor. Conor thought she looked like a Betty Wilson gone bad, tried to parse whether that meant Wilson had gone to the good. He realized he was smiling at the woman, hoped it didn’t look like he was laughing at her. Her scowl said it did.
He followed the officer up the front stairs, down the hall to Gardner’s office. The chief sat at the desk, calmly waiting for him. “Thanks, Porter. Wait outside, would you?” Gardner nodded as Conor sat down across from him.
“Where is she, Bob?”
“Down in the lobby. Porter was supposed to bring you by her.”
Conor looked back at the chief. Cathy Chandler hadn’t been in the lobby. He was sure he’d have recognized her. The chief thought he was talking about the blonde woman, and Conor was left wondering what she had to do with anything.
“Why’d you want me to see her, Bob?”
“Waters bragged to her. She got scared.”
“Yeah. Councilman Waters.”
Conor knew he could stare for a few seconds, that he had that long to get a grip and push through the clouds in his head. “He killed Jack?”
“Who’d you think?”
“I was wrong about her.”
“We made some bad guesses. “
Gardner would probably give him another whack at the clouds. “So do you apologize now?”
“You were the only one who knew we were looking at her. I'd just as soon not bring it up with her.”
“I might have to at some point.”
“That’s not any of my business. And it’s not my problem.”
“Yeah. How’d you find out it was Marlin.”
“He bragged about it to that woman. Not his wife. Somebody from his office he’s been carrying on with.”
“She got scared, came to you?”
“Yeah. Sometimes it’s just not that complicated. And … well, also, the sushi chef dimed him out.”
“Where’s you find him?
“A place in Roanoke. The woman downstairs told us about him. Marlin had met him on some kind of sales trip. They got to talking. The guy needed money. One thing led to another.”
One thing led to another. It all locked together. Marlin Waters wanted to move up. Jack Davenport was in his way. Jack Davenport was a big man. Waters was just fat.
“I’ll need ten minutes alone with him. But I need to use a computer and printer for a few minutes first.”
“I need to type out a resignation letter for him to sign.”
Gardner mulled the thought for a few seconds. “Do you think he’ll sign it?”
“I’ll have to convince him. But it has to be done. I can’t have him on council.” Conor waited. “I’m a lawyer, Bob. I won’t hurt your case.”
“You can use the computer here. Call me when you’re done. I’ll let the girl from the prosecutor’s office know you need to see him.”
“Bob, we need to tell the C-A tonight.”
“I’d just as soon wait.”
“Look, I’m going to tell them. You can go first.”
“Fine. Waters will be in the interrogation room when you’re ready.”
He typed for a few minutes, tried some variations, finally settled for, “I hereby resign my office as Smithy City Council member, effective immediately.”
While the printer hummed, he called Gary Linden’s cell number. “Gary, this is Jim Conor. I need you to come down to the PD.”
“I’m on the way. Bob called me.”
“I’m going to have Marlin sign a letter of resignation. It’s official when it’s presented to you.”
“Are you sure that’s how it works?”
“Yeah. I had Donnie look it up. I was thinking of quitting.”
“Oh. I didn’t … I’m glad you didn’t, but … I guess we’ll have to talk about that later.”
“Will he sign it?”
“Yeah. I’m going to have a political talk with him. Plus council can eject a member under extreme circumstances. We’ll probably do that tomorrow night.”
“I guess I’ll be in Bob’s office.”
Conor looked at the letter, wondered just how to handle it. It probably wouldn’t be worth the ink by the time Waters signed it, but nobody would really know that until somebody else was in his chair. Conor knew there was nothing in the code that said he had to handle this paper with any particular care. He folded it lengthwise, put it in his inside coat pocket.
He followed the officer down the hall. They passed a door where Conor knew other cops could watch through a two-way mirror. He stopped, opened the door.
“Sir, you’re not supposed to …”
Conor ignored him, looked at the tinted window. Waters sat with his mass squeezed between the arms of a metal chair, his cuffed hands in his lap, looking toward the window. He knew what it was. He had a monogrammed shirt, but no tie, no jacket. “Close the blind,” Conor said.
“Sir, I can’t …”
“I’m an attorney, Officer Porter, this is a privileged conversation. Close the blind. You can ask the chief if it’s OK, but I need the blind closed and I need to be in there with Councilman Waters.”
The officer looked at him for a few seconds, then reached over and pushed a button. The blind gave a metallic rattle, whirred as it came down. Waters looked toward it, wondered what was going on. The officer led Conor to the next door, held it open for him. Waters turned away from the mirror, looked at Conor as he came in, sat down at the end of the table, Waters to his right. The fat man looked curious, but not very, and not much else. He just didn’t know what had happened yet.
“Do you understand you’re facing the death penalty, Marlin?”
The big man didn’t get it. Conor could have been talking about a ball game. “I think I ought to talk to my lawyer, Jimmy.”
“I don’t think it’s time for that yet, Marlin. There’s not going to be any lawyer yet. First you and I have to discuss something.”
“I don’t think I ought to do that, Jim.”
The only way to deal with a bully is to face him. The only way to deal with a sneak is out in the open. Conor had told that to Jamie so many times … along with not putting beans up his nose. “What are you smiling at, Jim?”
“Shut up and listen, Marlin. Let me tell you what they do. They bring you into a room sort of like this one, except there are three windows. One for cops, one for witnesses, one for media. They strap you up on a table, not wearing much more than pajamas. Then they stick a tube in you, and if they can’t get a vein – and that happens a lot with fat people – they cut a hole in your arm to find one. Then they pump you full of drugs – some people call it the Valium cocktail – and they all watch you die. Now do you know why they’re going to do that to you, Marlin?”
“Jim, I …”
“I asked you a question, Marlin.” He had the fat man’s attention, now, oddly enough because Conor had called him fat. Not that he might die, but that Conor had called him fat. “Now do you know why they’re going to do that to you, Marlin?”
The big man shook his head. A strand of hair fell free. Waters reached up with cuffed hands and pushed it back into place.
“It’s a capital crime because you tried to do it twice. That’s why they can strap you to the table, Marlin.”
“Jim, come on. You know I didn’t …”
Conor tossed the beer cap into the middle of the table. Waters looked at it, slowly realized what it was.
“How’d you get into my office, Marlin?”
“I had a pass key to the Bank building. I’d shown offices there when I was in real estate. I always made copies of keys. You’d never changed the one on your office.”
“Guess I will now. You had trouble getting the cap back on the bottle?”
“Yeah. It wouldn’t go. I had to tap it a little bit on the side of the refrigerator. I’m sorry about that, Jimmy. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Waters said it with such sincerity, Conor wasn’t sure if he was apologizing for attempted murder or if he’d scratched the finish on the refrigerator.
“Shut up, Marlin, and don’t say anything unless I ask you a question. Now the way they’ll know you tried it twice is they’ll compare the DNA of the poison in the beer bottle with the samples from Jack’s body. And they’ve pretty well got you on Jack, I think you know that. But I haven’t told anybody about that beer bottle yet, Marlin, and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll help you avoid getting strapped to that table.”
The shrewd pig eyes were taking on a little life, Conor thought. The prospect of a deal, the opportunity to sell him something. “You know I never …”
“Shut up, Marlin. All you need to understand right now is that I own your fat ass. Do you understand that?”
“Jimmy, I think we can …”
“The blows that a life of self-control, spares to strike for the common good.”
The soft flesh of the man’s sagging face protected Conor’s hand somewhat. But it didn’t protect Waters when the inside of his cheek smashed into his teeth. His body moved to the side a little, more of a sway, his movement limited by how tightly he was wedged in the chair. He stayed that way for a second, cowering, looking sideways at Conor to see if another blow was coming. He slowly brought his head straight, leaned it back a little, putting a few more inches between him and Conor.
“You can’t do that to me, Jim Conor. I got my rights.”
Conor tried a backhand, snapping Waters’ head the other way. Conor could see that he was pushing against the chair, trying to move away. Conor remembered the chairs were bolted to the floor. Waters hair hung almost to his collar where it had fallen out of place.
“You need to resign from council, Marlin.”
Waters shook his head, ever so slightly. Conor aided the movement with a third slap. His arm hurt to the elbow. He couldn’t help thinking he’d planned this badly. If one or two more slaps didn’t do it, he’d have to start using the other hand. He wondered if he could get the big man to move to the other side of the table. Probably not. Because he couldn’t get the big man to do much of anything in a couple more minutes. Everything was going from Waters’ face. It was as blank as a pie plate. The feral cunning, the animal shrewdness, was all that had kept him human. Now he couldn’t connect. He couldn’t make sense of what was happening. He had always appealed to people by needing their approval and attention. But the man across from him didn’t care how much he wanted affection. He’d learned to sell things. But Waters didn’t have anything left to sell, and Conor didn’t want it anyway.
“Now, Marlin, you understand I can sit here and do this all night. And nobody’s going to open that door, because if they do, I’m going to give Bob Gardner that beer bottle and then you’re not just looking at life in prison. And if you want me to go back to my office and pour out that beer, all you have to do is sign a letter. You think you can do that for me, Marlin?”
Waters didn’t say anything. Conor didn’t hit him as hard this time, but a dead-on fist to the nose doesn’t have to be moving very fast. Just enough to move the head back, make a crunching noise. He didn’t pull his hand back, but let his open hand lie against the side of Waters’ head. He dug his thumb into the cheek, turned the head so Waters was looking right at him, stared at him for several seconds, hoped he was reading Waters right.
Conor stood up, walked behind Waters. Waters turned his head as much as he could, watched Conor in the mirror. Conor pulled the letter out of his pocket, unfolded it, laid it on the table in front of Waters. He pulled a pen out of his coat pocket, and leaned over him with the intimacy of a hangman. “Sign it right there, Marlin.”
Waters raised his hands to the table top, leaned forward with Conor’s hands on his shoulders. A drop of blood rolled from his nose, landed on a bottom corner of the letter. He picked up the pen. Conor squeezed his shoulder, tight enough he could almost feel the cloth of the shirt tearing. Waters signed the letter with a shaky scrawl. Conor picked up the letter, looked at the drop of blood. Still standing behind the big man, he blotted the page on the shoulder of his monogrammed shirt, then folded it, put it back in his pocket, headed for the door. Waters’ voice stopped him.
“You’ll help me, won’t you, Jim? You promised.” (Yewull hep me, wantcha, Jeeyim? Yew promised.)
Somehow he’d wound up breaking a promise to everybody he loved. At least then he hadn’t meant to. Did that make a difference? He’d decide later. Now here was this man who’d done so much damage for such useless reasons, asking him if he’d keep a promise. The wheedling sound, the pleading. God, Conor hated that noise, hated having to feel sorry for anybody. Especially this man. Conor had pushed things too close to the edge. His marriage, the politics. But he could still have salvaged things if this fat bastard hadn’t pulled the trigger. No, he didn’t even pull the trigger. He couldn’t even look Jack in the eye. He poured some poison in his drink and slunk away.
He turned around, looked at Waters’ begging face. “I lied, Marlin. Kiss my ass.”
He would have hoped to get more satisfaction out of watching the color drain from the big man’s face. The fact that he didn’t would at least make it easier to live with himself.
He walked past the officer at the door, headed into Gardner’s office. Gary Linden was waiting, hopped to his feet when Conor came in. Conor handed him the letter. Linden looked at it, read it again, appeared uncertain what to do with it.
“Write on there the date and time you received that, and from whom, and sign it.”
Linden looked at his watch, began making a note on the corner of the letter. “Is this legally binding, Jim?”
“Just sign it, Gary. He’s going to be too busy to try contesting it.”
Gardner came into the office, glanced at Linden, looked hard at Conor. “I underestimated you, Mayor.”
Conor shrugged. “Gary, can you excuse us for a minute or two.”
Linden looked at the two men, handed the letter to Conor. “I’m glad you got this, Jim.” Conor and Gardner waited while he went out.
“Are you drinking, Jim?”
“I quit nine days ago.”
“Didn’t you quit before?”
“All right. I haven’t had a drink in nine days.”
“Uh-huh. Jim, if I’d had any idea what was going to happen in that room … I’ve been a cop for 32 years and there’s not a man on the force I wouldn’t fire for that without a second thought.”
“You can do what you want, Bob. But I wasn’t going to have that man on council tomorrow. I wasn’t going to let him make this decision. I had to get this signed.”
“You need copies of that, Jim? … Porter. Make six copies of this, keep one for the file, give the rest to the mayor.”
Gardner lowered himself into his desk chair, didn’t look at Conor. They sat without speaking for a couple of minutes. Porter came back in with the handful of pages.
“There was a blob of something on there, Mayor.”
“Yeah. Did it copy?”
“It was mostly dried. I put some white-out on it.”
“Get your ass out of my police station, Mayor.”
“So you’ve known how long?” Christian was holding his oversized white coffee mug in front of his face, smelling what was left of his coffee, half-hiding behind the cup, glasses and gray eyes the only things visible.
“And you didn’t tell me because?”
“I said I wouldn’t.”
“And you’re backing the pipeline because?”
“I said I would.”
“I wish there were a little less gray area about when you decide things are black and white.”
“So do I. You make one compromise, you lose your excuse not to make another one.”
“Yeah.” Christian sipped the coffee, scowled at it. Conor sipped his. It wasn’t that bad. “What happened to your hand?”
“Banged it on something.”
“And last time I saw you, you looked like death warmed over. This job’s been hard on you so far.”
“Look what it did to Jack. And he was just running for it.”
“Good point. I should get back to work.” But he didn’t make a move to get up, Conor noted.
“I thought we were working here.”
“I suppose I should get a quote from you, have you talk to a reporter.”
“Can the chat with the reporter wait for a follow-up?”
“Yeah, I guess so. A murder, a resignation, a tie vote on the pipeline project – that should be enough for one day. I could use a statement from the mayor, though.”
“I think Marlin Waters is a disgrace to his office and to the whole concept of representative government. He’s committed an inexcusable crime solely for personal gain and no penalty could be too harsh in dealing with him.”
Christian took a final drink from his coffee cup, studied something in the bottom of it. “You want an allegedly or two in there, Jim.”
“Repeat it for me.”
Conor did, watching Christian’s lips move. Christian made a few scribbles on a legal pad. “It was a little long,” he said, almost apologetically.
“Yeah. This summer has been too.”
“Uh-huh. So … let me put this together again. The wreck didn’t kill Davenport?”
“No. The poison did. A huge dose.”
“And that poison matches something found at Waters’ home?”
“I didn’t tell you that. And I’m not.”
“Fine. And the symptoms are what?”
“Flu-like symptoms, nausea, panic, doom.”
Conor stared back at Christian, waited for him to ask. “So how are you feeling?”
“What do you mean, Mike?”
“Relieved to have this … resolved?”
Conor laughed. He wasn’t sure how Christian took it. “Not to hair-split, but I don’t think anything is.”
“But Waters is out of your hair?”
“There’s that. Uh, Mike …” Christian raised his eyebrows. “I’d like to tell you this whole story sometime.”
“I’d like that too, Jim.” Christian stood up, extended his hand. “Congratulations again, Mayor.”
Conor’s hand hurt.
That was the main thing he could think about as he pulled into the mayor’s parking slot at the municipal building. His hand hurt. The big center knuckle on his right hand was flatter than on his left, and the heel of his palm was a pulpy bruise. Not the sort of thing he wanted to do every day, but then there weren’t all that many serial poisoners on council, he guessed.
He walked up to the rear door of City Hall, noted there was no officer there. The last time he’d used – almost used – that door to enter a council meeting had been three months ago. Charles West was mayor and Conor was planning to leave Smithy by the end of summer. Jack Davenport was the heir apparent, Betty Wilson and Bill Zaner were irritants who’d go away soon. Cathy Chandler was a surprise waiting to happen.
A photo of Davenport’s wreck scene dominated the front page of the Commercial-Appeal. A copy was on a chair in the hallway. Mug shots of Marlin Waters and Davenport, a box describing the effects of tetrodotoxin poisoning, a description of how to fill a vacancy on council. Somewhere in there was probably a story, Conor thought. “Waters busted, quits,” screamed a huge black headline. Conor counted letters, did some quick math in his head. If Christian had used “Waters Flushed” for a headline, he could have made the type fifty percent bigger.
“Jimmy Conor, it’s good to see you smiling again.”
“Oh, that’s right, you want to be called mayor now.” Conor thought it would be a bad precedent to hit more than one council member a week. Besides, his hand really hurt. “Is Marlin Waters going to make bail?”
“He has the money, with the lumberyard and all. It’s up to the judge.”
“He did it, didn’t he?”
“I’d kill him myself. Jack wasn’t my favorite person but he didn’t deserve that. Jim, did he really die hanging there in that truck?”
“I wasn’t there, Betty. But don’t worry about Marlin. The law will take care of him. It grinds slowly. That should be the worst part for him. He’ll be humiliated for six months to a year and then locked up for good.”
“I hope so. Donnie Whirt said we might have to do something about him tonight?”
“Yeah. Donnie should have the details. Listen, Betty, I need you to do me a favor …….”
... favor her with a glance or just keep talking as if she didn’t exist. She couldn’t believe how tired he looked, wondered if it was being mayor, if he was still getting over being sick, or if it was Davenport’s murder or Waters’ arrest. Or maybe it was his marriage and … and whatever they had. It had been three weeks since she had held him. Had some kind of guilt trip kicked in for him, or was it because Jamie was with him? He was looking at her now, tentatively like … almost like he was ashamed of something. Had he suddenly dropped all the denial about what they were doing, the way he had almost done before, just before David’s first heart attack? She remembered how he’d gotten then, as if he’d sobered up and realized what he’d done. Maybe he had gotten to that point faster this time, because guilt was progressive, you picked up where you left off, much like her ailment, much like alcoholism. Maybe he had just suddenly decided what they were doing was wrong, and he just hadn’t told her yet.
Then again maybe he just hadn’t had time, and she needed to go to his office one afternoon and … maybe in the mayor’s office. He was walking toward her now, running the hallway gauntlet, shaking hands, chatting, maybe looking for somebody who didn’t want anything. She’d wait, just in case. In case … he was holding his hand out, she took it, tried to shake hands in a businesslike way, but he held on while he spoke, a politician’s stance, hand on her shoulder, holding the handshake, rubbing the back of her hand lightly with his thumb, but with an oddly light grip. Did he have any idea how many men in her life had been stiff-armed for that kind of thing, how arrogant it was of him to think he wouldn’t, how irritated she was with herself because she didn’t?
“You know, I remembered who mentioned the sushi place you’d asked about,” she was saying. “It was Marlin Waters. At one of our rallies. Bill and I were talking about good restaurants and he wanted to join in, act sophisticated. I didn’t think he really knew what sushi was.”
“He’s a salesman. He only knew what he could do with it, what he could get out of it.”
“If I’d remembered that day … would it have made any difference? I mean, as far as catching Marlin?”
“Who knows? Doesn’t matter now. He’s safely locked up. But … I’ve got a meeting to get to.”
And he was on to the next person, Bill Zaner, shaking his hand, not doing the thing with the thumb. If she’d known he was going to just walk away, with no mention of … well without anything personal, she might not have tolerated the thumb. She wondered if anybody else had noticed. She listened, tried to make sense of the parliamentary chat he and Zaner were having.
“Just make the motion, Bill. I’ll vote for it.”
“But doesn’t the change make that moot, I mean, don’t we have to start over again?”
“We don’t have time. We need to make a decision. Make the motion, Bill.”
Conor continued to the council chambers, leaving Zaner looking puzzled. She wondered why Conor couldn’t have stayed and explained whatever it was. Not her problem, she guessed.
Betty Wilson laughed at something down the hall. Chandler looked for her, waited for her to make her way down the hall.
“Cathy, honey, is that the only blouse you have?”
“It’s the loosest one I have. It’s hot out, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Uh-huh. It’s going to get hot in here tonight. But at least we’ll be done.”
“The dam, you mean?”
“Or something? We might wind up flipping a damn coin. … But, hey, guess who’s panhandling meals?”
“Mr. Mayor. He asked me to invite him and Jamie to dinner.”
“So you can laugh at his jokes and hang on his wisdom?”
“Don’t be so hard on him, honey. He asked me to invite you too. … damn you, girl, I didn’t think you knew how to blush. …”
… at first blush, it looked like a short agenda. Maybe it would be. But it wouldn’t be dull. It hardly seemed fair, he thought, looking at the slight boy in the front row with the notepad and pencil. The kid would get two good stories in half an hour.
“Mr. Whirt, could you describe, briefly, section 3-2-6 of the city charter.”
“Basically, it says that council may remove one of its own members for malfeasance, misfeasance, or conduct that brings dishonor to the council.”
“And that dishonor might include …”
“At the time this was written, I think it would have included a councilman having an affair.” Conor kept his eyes on Donnie Whirt, tried not to think about how many people in the room might be looking at his expression. “But certainly the conscience of that time and of ours would include a charge of murder in that definition.”
“What would be the options of a councilman who wanted to challenge that decision?”
“He’d have to appeal it first to the circuit court …”
“Well, he’ll be there anyway.” The chuckle in the room was nervous, uncomfortable. “I’ll entertain a motion from a council member.”
Conor counted two beats, three. Betty Wilson spoke up. “I’ll move that – Donnie, you tell me if I’m wording this wrong – I move that we remove councilman Marlin Waters from the Smithy City Council for conduct bringing dishonor to the council.”
“How can we throw him off?” Sizemore asked. “Didn’t he already resign?”
“Let’s dig him up and shoot him again, Brad,” Wilson said, drawing more chuckles. “I think we ought to let him know it’s not just his idea.”
Not like it was anyway, Conor thought. “There’s a technicality, Brad,” Conor explained. “Waters can withdraw his resignation any time up until we accept applications for a replacement.”
“Oh, then I’ll second the motion.”
“Any discussion. Sensing none, all in favor, signify by saying aye.”
The first vote, Conor thought. Not one he would have anticipated, but it had gone smoothly….
… handling his first meeting rather smoothly. And that looked like a new suit. Dinner at Betty’s? With his son? Gary Linden was speaking, describing some sort of bond application procedures. There were maps on the display screens behind the council members, showing a line to the river in the east, a line to a dam that was a dotted line on the West Ridge. Sizemore was looking at Conor, who wasn’t looking back at him. Nobody was looking at the empty chair on Waters’ side of the table.
Zaner, she noticed, was staring at the floor between the wings of the horseshoe-shaped table. She wondered what was taking so long? They’d been talking about this for six months. Everybody knew all the facts and figures. There was little left to do but decide.
“I would entertain a motion,” Conor was saying at last.
Betty Wilson and Bill Zaner looked at one another for a moment. Then Zaner turned to the microphone, cleared his throat, waited for the echoes to die down. “I’d, uh, I’m going to … I move that we authorize the city manager to move forward with the bonding application for a raw water pipeline to the South Fork River.
Brad Sizemore’s customary look of surprise was more pronounced than usual. He was the only one in the room likely to second the vote, and would probably be the last one, Chandler guessed, to realize it. Betty Wilson was scowling, and a well of tears was obvious behind the dam of her makeup. But she had laid her hand on Zaner’s wrist. Chandler shook her head. Would Zaner be at dinner too? Everybody seemed to be staring at Sizemore. Except Conor. He was looking at Zaner, with an expression she couldn’t quite read. Admiration? Relief? She’d have to ask him later. Maybe over dinner.
They took a break after the vote. She stayed in her front row seat, watching the informal mingling. She wasn’t sure what had happened. She wasn’t following a lot of it. Later she’d have to ask Conor what Charles West meant when he walked to the mayor’s chair, shook Conor’s hand, and said, “Congratulations, Senator.”