Karen stood by the window, her hair and nightgown motionless but looking like they ought to move. It was a freeze-frame. The April wind should be blowing things, but they’d closed the windows when a chill snuck in. It was winter again. Conor imagined he could see the moonlight outlining his wife through her nightgown, but he knew the illusion was a combination of exhaustion and hope.
“I’m sorry, Jim,” he heard her almost whisper.
“It’s not. It’s just that it’s hard to be . . . .”
“Yeah, I know.”
“... to be intimate with you after a day like this.”
“Yeah.” Maybe if he kept agreeing, she’d understand that he knew what she meant – that they didn’t need to have this talk now.
“I mean, after dinner and all, we really only had an hour or so that was just us. That’s just not long enough.”
We’re not teenagers any more, she was saying. Not that they had been when they’d met. He was thirty, she was twenty-five. Conor drifted, shook his head to wake himself. Had she said they weren’t teenagers, or had he just thought it? Either way…
She stared out the window for a while, then came back to the bed. She snuggled up to him, curled her fingers into the hair on his chest, stopped moving when it began to feel like more than tenderness. “I guess you’re a little stressed, too.”
“The responsibility must be a little scary. I don’t want to make it harder for you by pressuring you to quit but I don’t want to make it easier by not saying anything. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I understand that we’ve both got to deal with some contradictions.”
“Can anybody else do it?”
“I’m not the mayor, honey.”
“But if Charles goes . . .”
“I haven’t really thought about that yet.”
“You might be the only one in Smithy who hasn’t.”
He drifted again. Two months after the election the winners would be sworn in and the five members of the council would elect one of their number as mayor. He’d become so used to it being Charles that he really hadn’t thought of anybody else. But it would have to be one of the others. He’d paid his dues. He was leaving just as soon as he could.
It looked like a pulpit, but it felt like center stage.
City Councilman James F. Conor stepped out of the shadows Saturday at the funeral for developer and budding politician Jack Davenport, delivering a rousing eulogy that left little doubt who’ll be the de facto senior member of council if People Opposed to the Pipeline take over two seats next month.
Of the two other returning council members, Marlin Waters has been plagued by ethical issues, and Brad Sizemore is not widely viewed as leadership material.
“Smithy will always produce people who’ll step forward when they’re needed,” said Mayor Charles West in introducing Conor’s eulogy. Somebody will almost certainly be needed if West is defeated in the councilmanic elections, now barely three weeks away.
West will be on the ballot along with Smithy State University mathematics professor William Zaner and activist Elizabeth Wilson, both founding members of People Opposed to the Pipeline. Voters will choose two of the three candidates.
For reference, Zaner answers to Bill, Wilson to Betty, Conor to Jim, and the organization to POP. West answers to Charles or Mayor West.
West looks like an underdog, with last week’s C-A poll showing broad dissatisfaction with his plan to build a pipeline to the South Fork River. West also bore much of the blame for last year’s decision to bulldoze the remains of the county courthouse, destroyed during a freak storm.
Conor quit reading. At least now he had some idea what yesterday’s attention had been about. He noted that Christian’s story was short on fact, and it was hard to argue with impressions. Now that impression, so strong at Jack Davenport’s funeral, would be even stronger.
Karen came into the bedroom carrying their second coffees. She looked at the paper lying beside him as she set his on the bedside table. Her robe parted slightly as she set it down, and he tried to ignore the ache he felt. He reached for the Outlook section of the Post instead, and tried to interest himself in a story about U.S. relations with China.
She sat down on her side of the bed, sipped her coffee. “You read Mike’s column?” she asked, her back still to him.
“Did you not notice yesterday?”
“I’m not sure how you could miss it.”
“Was that a question?”
“I guess not.”
He had missed it, he thought, because he was there for a funeral. He was there to remember and bury his friend. He was there to make sure the final word on Jack Davenport didn’t come from the POP activists and from Courthouse Square gossip.
“I guess I was in denial. I’d pretty much counted on Jack taking the mayorship from Charles in July. Then I’d resign by the end of summer and they’d appoint somebody to my position. Charles would quit or die in a couple of years and that would be a new appointee. Two years from now Brad and Marlin would be up, along with one of the appointees. The new mayor would come from them when Jack moved on to the state Senate.”
“You talk like the seat was already his.”
“Nobody else had the money, and the mayor’s seat would have gotten his name out more. If he’d won the council seat, he’d have been the prohibitive favorite.”
“Who is now?”
“There’s not one.”
“Are you ready to turn down the mayor’s seat?”
He tried to think of a pretty way to phrase it, but none came. “I need to see what I can get for it.”
She picked up her coffee and left the room. He heard a door close, and a few minutes later, the shower running.
He picked up the Commercial-Appeal again. The paper’s name, he’d noted once to Christian, made it sound as if it appealed primarily to advertisers, a fact sometimes borne out by story placements that couldn’t be explained otherwise. “I got a boss, too, Jim,” was Christian’s only response. Conor didn’t. Not since he was 32 years old. Clients, yes, but no boss. Not since Donnie Whirt, and now that Johnson & Whirt was officially the city attorney, Conor was his boss.
Maybe not having had a boss for so long was why he had so much trouble agreeing to follow somebody else’s lead. A generally agreeable nature had led him to go along with some ideas he wished he hadn’t – the pipeline, moving to Richmond – but an independent streak made it hard to let anybody else decide how he carried them out. He made promises more vaguely than he should, perhaps, because he was used to deciding how he’d carry them out. He’d told Karen he’d join her and Jamie in Richmond. She’d put up with the lean years when he started his own practice, putting her own career as a copy-writer in the background. Then he’d helped her get a master’s in communications which she parlayed into a job with one of the state’s biggest PR firms. He’d promised to join her there, but he’d never promised, or decided, if he’d try to join a firm there, start on his own again, or seek a lucrative government post. He’s also never said when.
And he’d told Charles West he’d help get the pipeline started. He hadn’t said he’d do it before he left. He only said that to himself. It wasn’t something Charles needed to know. He hadn’t said he’d be mayor in order to do it, either. At the same time, he’d never said the deal was off if Charles lost his council seat, or if Jack Davenport got drunk and drove his truck off the worst curve in the county.
He tried to finish Christian’s column. There was more of Mike’s take on the poll, history on the pipeline dispute, a brief description of his tenure on council. He noticed how deftly Christian used information from their private conversations, while making it appear it came from observation. “Conor often sits through entire council meetings without speaking except to vote. Often a presence more than a power, Conor has been a place-keeper on the council, like the anonymous baseballer on the beer ads who intoned querulously, ‘I don’t know why they asked me to do this commercial.’”
And he’s supposed to be my friend, Conor muttered. He wondered idly which was the greater compromise for Christian: not using their private conversation, even when there was news in them, or finding other ways to bring out information he first heard over lunch. Conor picked up the phone, dialed a number he knew would give him voice-mail. Balancing the phone on his shoulder, he pulled on a pair of jeans while listening to the ringing and the message. “Good morning, Mike. Querulous means argumentative or prone to find fault. You probably meant questioningly or queryingly. And while I have you on the phone, does the council get to vote, or have you already appointed me? Have a nice day.” Conor tossed the receiver in the cradle, pulled on a sweatshirt. He took the rest of the paper downstairs and sprawled on the couch in the living room, watching the morning through the glass and wondering if it was colder than it looked. The way his day was going, probably.
A Style section later he heard Karen’s tread on the steps, its slight unevenness telling him she was carrying something. Her weekend duffle, he guessed. She left it in the hall when she came into the room, but she was fully dressed, enough to tell him the weekend was over.
“You’re taking off,” he said, as she perched on the edge of a chair. It wasn’t really a question.
“I have to pick Jamie up from Mom’s,” she said. But not right then. She didn’t really want to go or stay, he guessed.
“I was going to come down this weekend, but with the funeral and all …”
“Yeah. And all.”
He ignored it, determined not to get angry. “I don’t have much going on. I can come see you this coming weekend.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to see Jamie.”
“You might as well wait until after the election, Jim. You’ll be distracted and he’ll know it. It won’t do any good to come and spend the weekend in the yard on your cell phone.”
“How does the yard look?”
“The dogwoods are blooming.” They’d planted them the fall before, when she and Jamie were first moving into the small house in the West End. She smiled as she mentioned them. The dogwoods had been blooming the week Jamie was born. That would always make it the prettiest week of the year, he’d said then.
He felt more uncomfortable now, but couldn’t say why. He might as well wait until the end of the school year, he thought. He might as well wait until after the new council was sworn in. He’d wait for another delay before he decided it was a pattern.
“I’ll wait,” he said, struggling to stay calm.
“Jim, what do you want from me?” Karen was having her own struggle. Neither of them wanted to part, or to have this conversation.
“Karen, I had no way of knowing, when I ran for council, that you’d get this lucky, this fast.”
“Did you think it would take four years for me to find a job?”
“We only had the vague outlines of a plan, remember?”
“And that plan was to get out of here, remember?” She was spitting the words now. “I gave you ten years here. I know I can’t get you to move to a really big city, but Richmond seemed like a nice compromise.”
“It’s not that easy for me to walk away, Karen.”
“But it was easy to say you would? Jim the goddamned place is boring. It’s interesting to you because you grew up with so many of these people. God, you looked at those people yesterday and had histories with them, all I could do was wonder how many of the women you’d slept with.”
“Three, I think.”
“Thank you for sharing. It’s home to you, to those people, but to anybody else, it is dead, backwater, half-assed, slow-moving and boring.”
At least he didn’t have to ask her what her point was. “You know, there are Japanese gardeners who tend a single tree for a lifetime, waiting for the one time it will bloom, just so they can stare at it for a while.”
“What are you telling me, that you’re waiting for a tree to grow on Courthouse Square? Or for the courthouse to grow back.”
“I guess it’s best Jamie didn’t come with you. Did you know we were going to have this talk?”
“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to.”
“The three included you. And none since I met you.”
“I know that.”
“There’s an undertone here. I didn’t know if that was it.”
“No. I’m tired. I’m cranky. I liked Jack. He at least wanted to improve this place, even if he did think all it took was a better office building.”
“Some places it’s easy to be a visionary.”
“Come somewhere it’s hard. You can still do it.”
Conor felt his face drain of color, saw fear on Karen’s face. There’d always been a line of intimacy and privacy they’d never crossed. Even clenched together at night they’d never been this naked to one another. For him to know she felt that way, for her to see he feared it was true.
“I’m sorry, Jim. You didn’t deserve that.”
He wondered if he’d feel like this if he didn’t. It’s a little pond, he’d told West. Easier to say when he was talking about somebody else.
“Can I carry your bag out?”
“I can get it.”
He stepped forward to hug her. She raised her arms, held them between her and Jim, her hands on his shoulders. He remembered somebody, not Karen he didn’t think, telling him about that as a defense mechanism. The hug without the chests touching, the easy push-off. At least she gave him a moment. Then she was gone, stumbling for a moment as she turned the corner by the closet, moving as quickly as she could without outright running. He fell back to the couch, pictured Karen stopping the car a block away to cry.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat. Not long enough. He went up to take a shower, found the room still smelling of her soap, her shampoo, of her. He breathed deeply, leaned on the wall, slid down it until he was sitting on the floor. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there either.
They’d known each other long enough not to talk. All he and Suzie had said was, “Good morning.” Yet she’d managed to convey that it was ten-thirty and she’d noticed it, and he’d managed to convey that she needed to come into his office and confer.
He sat behind the desk and had a sip of coffee. He could come in at four in the afternoon and there’d be a fresh pot. God knows he needed it this morning. Last night had been … well, he’d had better ones. And today he had … something. Suzie would know.
“How do you always have a fresh pot of coffee ready no matter what time I get here?” he asked as she sat down in the chair at the end of his desk. She poised her legal pad on her knee and smiled at him. “I’m serious, Suzie, how do you do it? Do you have somebody in the neighborhood spying on me to tell you when I leave the house?”
“No, sir. I just start a fresh pot every little while until you get here.”
“Really? How much coffee do we waste then?”
“None, Mr. Conor, you just don’t drink quite as much as I make some days.” Not for nothing was she a legal secretary. The phrasing was impenetrable and irrefutable.
“Next question then. Why, after thirteen years, do I call you by your first name and you call me Mr.?”
“It will be fourteen years in August, sir.”
Which meant, he supposed, she wasn’t going to answer that one either.
“All right, then. Suzie, things are going to get hectic for a while, and you’ll probably wind up doing a lot of extra stuff. I want you to draft a letter to … who does our accounting?”
“Lambert and Lambert.”
“Draft a letter to them raising your salary 10 percent. Have it ready for me to sign this afternoon.”
“You’ve earned it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Conor. I appreciate this ….”
“If you say another word, I won’t sign the letter.”
“Yes, sir. Is there anything else?”
“You tell me.”
She looked at her legal pad for a moment. “You have three new appointments today and tomorrow. I tried to spread them out.”
“People who called for the first time this morning.”
She paused, expectantly, he thought. “What am I missing?”
“Well, they called after the story in the paper yesterday.”
“But not necessarily because of it. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.”
"Yes, sir. I spread them out. I wasn’t sure what else you’d be doing.”
“I know the feeling. I guess that’s why Gary called last Wednesday.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The city manager was the first one to jump on the Conor bandwagon, before I realized there was one.”
“I see. Mr. Conor, a lot of people in town are …” The pause was longer than usual for Suzie. He lifted an eyebrow and waited. “Well, they’re glad there is one.”
“Bandwagon, sir. A lot of people were afraid it would be Mr. Davenport taking over for Mr. West.”
“I don’t think that would have killed us, Suzie.”
“No, sir. It just wasn’t a lot of people’s first choice.”
“Yeah. I’ve got a list of calls to make. About half of Smithy. When’s my first appointment?”
“After lunch. One-thirty.”
“Thank you. That was a wise precaution. Gary Linden, Donnie Whirt, Bob Gardner. When I get off the phone with one, find the next one. And see if you can turn up the call lists and street sheets from the last campaign.”
“All right.” She paused by the chair. “I have to go to the grocery store at lunch. Do we need anything for the office?”
Now just what exactly was she asking? He could have her pick up some beer, but … but what? She’d pick up the wrong brand. Because she might not get the kind he wanted today. Some days it was stout for the taste and body, some days it was St. Pauli Girl just because he liked the name.
“Some flavored coffee creamers. Irish Crème or whatever. If I’m going to be drinking too much of the stuff the next three weeks, it might as well taste good.”
"Yes, sir. Thank you again for the raise.”
His gesture was half-nod, half-shrug. “You’ve earned it and you’ll continue to.”
He looked around the office as she left. Already the couch looked inviting. But he’d stay off it today. It nestled in a corner of an office that was – what, twelve by 20? – he’d known at one time, perhaps the last time he had it redecorated. The heavy doors, one to Suzie’s reception area, the other to the alley beside the building, for quick escapes or a shortcut to the courthouse. Not that he needed it that much now that the temporary courtrooms were upstairs in this building, which was, for reasons lost to any history he knew of, referred to as the Bank Building. The room was deathly quiet with the doors closed, and a seasonal chill meant he couldn’t open the window until later in the day. He glanced out that window, at the thickening leaves of late spring, as he hung his coat in the closet. Just a few more weeks until summer.
The phone rang. He settled into his chair and picked it up. “It’s Mr. Linden.”
Time to get started.
“Gary, anything I need to worry about today.”
“Nothing major down here, but you’ll probably want to talk to Bob.”
“On my list. Has Charles been downtown yet?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him … ”
“He’s not taking this very well, is he?”
“You’d know that better than me.”
A very Linden-esque answer, he thought. Linden stayed away from council politics – a legal requirement honored in the breach by less formal managers – and never had anything negative to say about a council member. If he had nothing to say, that meant he agreed. Charles was not acting like a man who had an election to win in three weeks.
“Thanks, Gary. Keep you head down; the campaign starts again today.”
“Yes. I understand you engineered the pause in campaigning?”
“I think it would have happened anyway.”
“Either way, I think it was a good idea. I don’t think it’s any secret that morale’s not great down at City Hall right now. A lot of the things people have said about the planning for the pipeline … well, some folks on city staff are taking them personally. There are rumors that the POP people will start replacing staff if they win.”
“Don’t people know they can only take two of five seats?”
“Well, they’re not all sure about all the current council members.” Linden’s way of saying they weren’t sure if they could trust Marlin Waters. “Anyway, I don’t know if the pause made much of a difference in the race, and it did cool things down for a while.”
“That’ll change if Wilson and Zaner win. The hottest part of summer will come early.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ll tell Mayor West you asked about him.”
So West had been to the City Hall exactly not at all since Davenport’s wreck. That wasn’t at all good. Maybe he was working on the campaign, calling and re-calling the hundreds of people in town he did know. That had been enough in the past, and would keep those people solid, but the fact was he lost a voter from that group with every obituary. It would take more than old acquaintances to win this one. It would take more than cash on hand, too.
The phone buzzed again. “Mr. Whirt.”
“Donnie, how are you?”
“Busy as hell. That was a good sendoff you gave Jack.”
“Thanks. Did you read yesterday’s C-A?”
“A little heavy-handed, but he had a point. Don’t let it go to your head.”
“I’ll try not to. Listen, we have a little situation with the campaign.”
“I spoke to JJ this morning.”
“And he said …”
“That you felt like his dad had committed to some support for Charles West, but he wasn’t sure how much. He was ready to trust you and me to figure it out.”
“But you already knew you could trust me, right?” Conor tried to ignore the pause, because if he didn’t he’d have to figure out what it meant.
“It’s still political. Jack’s the only man between the Twin Ridges who could get anything political on credit. And I take it there’s nothing in writing?”
“You know how Jack did business.”
“Yeah. I’d just as soon know we could write one check, preferably to your office, and not have it come up again.” Conor mulled the idea. He couldn’t think of any specific way that it violated an election law, but that was why election laws were written the way they were. To keep them guessing … he guessed. It probably broke one, but that would only be relevant if West won and somebody investigated.
“That works. How much are we talking about?”
“You tell me.”
Conor did some math in his head. “About twelve hundred.”
There was a long pause. “JJ seemed to think it would be more than that.”
“He’d been talking to Charles. Charles was looking at how much Jack would have spent. I’m looking at how much he’d actually committed.”
“Look, Jim, I work for you and Charles …”
“The perils of small-town conflict of interest, Donnie. But this doesn’t have anything to do with the city attorney business.”
“No, but … do you want Charles to lose?”
“Do you want him to lose? That guy in the C-A writes like that would make you the biggest man on campus.”
That guy in the C-A.
“What I want and what I expect are two different things, Donnie. Charles sold West Woods for a couple or three million. He’s not broke. Jack’s estate ought not pay more than what he’d already shook hands on.”
“All right, but … this is just us talking, right?”
“Sure.” That guy in the C-A would have said “off the record,” Conor was thinking.
“Jim, you’re not doing a whole lot of business lately, are you?”
“It’s steady, but not big. I could run the office for five years on the Whittington settlement.”
“You’d get a lot of new business if you were mayor.”
“I already didn’t particularly want the job, but thanks.”
“All I’m saying is, don’t let it look like that’s what’s happening.”
“Look, Donnie, do you think I want to be mayor?”
“I don’t know, Jim. And I’m not asking.”
“I appreciate that, Donnie. Thanks.”
At least it would only look like that was happening with him, Conor thought. The mayor before West, a plumbing contractor, had practically run his business out of the mayor’s office. Too bad Mike Christian wasn’t running the news operation then. West had never made any explicit deals that he knew of, but anyone who bought a lot of lumber knew he had a better chance of getting a rezoning taken care of. If, for reasons of propriety and appearance, Conor decided to limit new business for a couple of years, he’d have a hell of a time building it back up afterwards. That was assuming he would still have a shingle out in Smithy. The best thing, all in all, was not to be mayor. Betty Wilson could have it. He pictured her with the gavel in one hand and a protest sign in the other. It would be a hard image to get rid of. He was still smiling when the phone buzzed again.
“Mr. Conor, Chief Gardner asked me to make an appointment for you. I set it up for three at his office.”
“Didn’t we promise you a new building?”
Conor immediately cursed himself. He had just tried to joke with the most humorless man in Smithy. There’d been some kind of contact with Gardner a week ago when they went to the scene of Davenport’s wreck. Apparently it had been fleeting, and well short of bonding.
Bob Gardner stared back at him for a couple of seconds. “Things came up,” he said.
Like a building collapse and a limited water supply, Conor thought, but it would have been nice to build a new police station anyway. The current one had been a chicken hatchery at one time, and still smelled like it on rainy days. This wasn’t one, so it just smelled like a police station. The smell of bad luck, despair and paperwork.
“Do you have anything new on Jack?”
“No. The lab’s taking its time. But there’s some loose ends we might be able to tie up anyway.”
“You’d expected him to be at that meeting, didn’t you?”
“We all did. All the candidates have been showing up at the last few meetings. I’d noticed he wasn’t there. I guess some others had, too.”
“Any idea where he might have been going?”
“You know he had a cabin out on the South Fork?”
“You think that’s where he was going?”
“I’d be guessing.”
“Yeah. What did he do out there? Hunt? Fish?”
“Uh-huh. He had some kind of rapid-fire thing. He could turn a six-inch pine log to splinters with a couple of clips.”
“And he did this why?”
Well, Bob, you would have had to be there, to see Jack Davenport laughing like a madman, putting his whole body into keeping that weapon pointing at a single spot, even though it was sort of like aiming a fire hose and all he had to do was get in the same time zone as his target. You had to understand in what low esteem he held many of his fellow men, and how many of them he probably felt like he ought to be able to turn that gun on in a perfect world.
“He did it to vent.”
They sat for a few seconds. Conor decided he didn’t like it before the police chief did.
“Mind telling me what we’re talking about, Bob?”
“It just bothers me. Man’s running for council, skips a meeting to go joy-riding in the country, winds up upside-down in the mud.”
“’Death sets a thing significant, the eye had hurried by.’”
“It’s an Emily Dickinson poem. Sort of like the thing about hanging focusing the mind. What killed him, Bob?”
“I told you, we don’t have the lab reports yet, councilman.”
So it was councilman again.
“Can’t you guess? Isn’t flipping a pickup frequently deadly?”
“Jim, I’ve been doing this long enough that if I see someone with a knife through his heart I wait for the coroner to tell me he was stabbed. Yeah, wrecks kill people and it looks like this one did. I just wonder why he was out there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something came up.”
“Yeah. Like what?”
“Well, one time he went out there when he was sick.”
“You know how some people can’t stand to be around anybody else when they’re sick. Jack went out there a few years ago, just before he split up with his second wife … I never can remember her name.”
Gardner picked up a piece of paper from his desktop, scanned it. “Grace.”
“That’s what it says.”
“I’ll probably forget it again. Anyway, he had the flu, and a doctor told him he could treat it and be sick for two weeks or let it go and be sick for fourteen days.”
“Yeah, that’s an old one.”
“So he stayed at the cabin by himself for a week. Sick as a dog.”
“Didn’t want to be a burden to anyone?”
“No. Didn’t want anybody to see him weak. He wasn’t used to it.”
“That’s interesting. Probably too late to have the coroner see if he had the flu.”
Conor almost thought the chief had made a joke. But just to be on the safe side he didn’t laugh.
“What else did he do out there? Did he hunt?”
“No, but he … “
Gardner waited a few seconds. “He what?”
“Business meetings. He’d have people out there because he thought it would be less intimidating than his office.”
“That was in the place out next to the mall?”
“Yeah. Huge slate desk, big view of the East Ridge. Instead he’d invite people out to the cabin. I don’t know why he thought they’d be less intimidated in a cabin ten miles from anything in a room with a gun on the wall.”
“What kind of business?”
“Jack was always buying something, building something, putting together the pieces of his next project. He liked to work out the details before getting lawyers and accountants involved.”
“But you were there?”
Conor thought about it, thinking you don’t just tell a cop, “That’s different” without telling him why. “He liked to get my read on people. He had such a low opinion of most people … he’d have me come out and listen and tell him if somebody was any good.”
“And if they weren’t?”
Conor tried to think about an easy answer to that one. He couldn’t think of a straight answer, no clear rule for people who didn’t pass muster … but he could remember a story.
The guy wasn’t a builder. Maybe an agent for somebody. He wanted a contract for a road for one of his clients, bulldozing or paving or something. He was from out of town, looking for a hook into the Smithy construction market, when student housing was taking off. He and Davenport were on their second drinks, coffee cups full of some kind of expensive Scotch. The agent thought it was time to make his pitch. The second cup was getting to him, and Davenport was just getting warmed up. Conor sipped a beer and waited. He’d already decided Davenport wasn’t going to do business with this guy, but he wanted to see how it would all play out.
The briefcase was probably over the top. The agent flipped the latches, let the top spring open. Conor remembered wondering if it was tissue paper or ones under the top layer of hundred-dollar bills. Davenport’s expression never changed. He stared at the other man, watched his grin fade, waited for the discomfort to grow. He didn’t do it on purpose, he was just … curious.
“So he gave the money back?” Gardner asked. Conor wondered how long he’d paused telling the story.
“Not exactly. He said he had to consult with his attorney and we walked out back of the cabin, where the firewood was stacked.”
Mulch still made him think about it, the smell of freshly split oak, pungent and alive as flowing blood, drying under the squatting eaves of the cabin. Conor sipped his beer. He waited for Davenport to say something. Davenport took a long drink of Scotch, then emptied the rest of the cup with a casual flip of his wrist. He fished in his pocket, found a pack of matches, tossed them to Conor with a broad smile. He walked to the porch, to a set of metal shelves with a small hibachi, a bag of charcoal. He carefully refilled his coffee cup with lighter fluid.
The agent, the salesman, whatever he was, was still sitting at the table. He tried to get his grin back in place as they came back in. Davenport looked deadly serious, sat down on the other side of the table, was raising the cup to his lips – then quickly reached out and upended it into the briefcase. The agent started to stand up – the smell hadn’t hit him yet and he was still wondering why a man would waste perfectly good Scotch like that when Conor tossed a match in from the side. Jumping back from the sudden blaze, the agent backed into his chair, fell over backwards. He didn’t just spill his Scotch, he threw it in his own face. Davenport sat in the chair, his head tilted back and to one side, apparently amazed at how high the flames were rising as they licked at the low ceiling. The Scotch-soaked agent managed to scramble to his feet, made two stabs toward the flames before managing to slam the case shut, smothering the flames. He touched the case quickly, gingerly, checking to see how hot it was. He grabbed it and ran. Davenport was still staring at the dark patch on the ceiling when they heard the tires throwing gravel behind them in the driveway.
“Did he do business like that a lot?” Gardner asked, a slight curl at the corner of his mustache the only clue he’d enjoyed the story.
“Once usually did it.” Conor thought his voice sounded funny. He noticed the chief looking away, giving him a moment.
“So you don’t have any idea why he was going out to the cabin?”
Conor shook his head. He didn’t have any idea at all.
It would have been easier if Ashur Middle School had an auditorium, something laid out with right angles, and doors, and a backstage. Conor wasn’t even sure where the stage was. The large amphitheater-like space had a raised area at the front that he guessed was the stage. It had a table, and three chairs, and microphones, which Conor could recognize. As for the room itself, it was a forum and not an auditorium, according to the sign at what was sort of a door. It occurred to Conor that adolescence was confusing enough without having a room like this for a theater.
“There’s the backstage door,” Conor said, choosing one that looked likely. Brad Sizemore looked at it for a moment, turned the knob, and seemed gratified and surprised that it opened. Charles West turned and shook hands with Conor. “Wish me luck, Jimmy.”
“You won’t need it, Charles. We’ve hit all the high points and God knows you have the advantage on facts and figures about city government. Remember, just keep your cool, no name-calling, easy does it.”
“You told me all that. Now you go out there and plant some good questions. And pray too.”
“I’ll do that.” To begin with, he’d pray it was the right door, because Sizemore might not be up to the task of turning around and coming back out. He and Charles would spend the debate in the closet. So to speak. People sometimes asked how anybody like Sizemore got elected. The answer was that he took a good photograph, he claimed to be a fiscal conservative – though nobody ever made clear what difference that made for a junior VP at an agricultural supply firm – and there were only three people running for three seats two years ago. There were no issues, and times were good, and nobody really cared who was on council. Nobody noticed when Sizemore filed petitions in early January, but they began to get nervous when Marlin Waters did in February. Davenport planned to run one day, but was busy finishing a mall in Winchester. And the day Waters filed, Charles West was in Conor’s office in a near-panic.
Maybe he’d gotten it out of his system then, because he seemed calm enough tonight. He’d need to be. The room, such as it was, was rapidly filling up. Channel 4 was set up in the aisle, the C-A photographer was being a pain all around, and the radio station was broadcasting live. Conor watched a nervous woman from the League Of Women Voters slip through a curtain behind the stage. He wasn’t sure if he should envy her. She had one moment in the spotlight every two years, and whoever did best on stage, if the election was contested, would wind up on stage for four. Conor would deal with that level of fame tonight by drifting into a corner and scowling. He’d worked on that scowl at the grocery store the night before. It kept people at a distance while he filled the larder. Olive oil actually, but still.
Sizemore came up beside him, sandy-gray hair perfect, just like Louise fixed it probably. “Did you get Charles situated all right?”
“Yeah, they’re all back there chatting.”
“Well, Zaner and the Wilson woman are. Charles is just standing there.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say scowling …”
Scowling. Conor looked around, making sure the seats in the back hadn’t filled up yet. He didn’t notice the nervous organizer until she was right on them.
“Councilmen, we’ve saved you some seats right up front. If it’s not too much trouble for you to come on up now, it will be easier than trying to keep people away from them.”
Conor couldn’t think of a reasonable escape. Sizemore as usual enjoyed the attention. “We have some people with the other candidates sitting up here also,” the woman explained. “We weren’t sure how to handle it, but we wanted to be fair.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Conor said, hoping he sounded that way. “Your group does an excellent job putting on these events. I don’t know if anybody thanks you enough.”
“Well, thank you for saying that. We do think it’s important. Right over here.”
The front row was more of a padded bench extending the length of the riser, interrupted by armrests every few feet. Conor saw he wouldn’t be able to lean back without appearing to slouch. He also saw Marlin Waters already seated on the first third of a six-person section, and managed to maneuver Sizemore between them. Waters leaned forward and spoke across his fellow councilman. “Jim, I need to talk to you later, after this thing.” Conor translated from his thick country accent. “Uh needa tawk tyew later, ifeter ‘is thaing.”
“Yeah, Marlin, catch me outside.”
Conor wondered uncharitably what that could be about. He also noticed his patience was wearing thin. “I’m getting mad more than I used to,” he’d told Karen. Also irritated more. At least nothing else could go wrong tonight.
“I’ve saved places right up here,” the nervous woman was saying to Cathy Chandler and Simon Pershing as she ushered them onto the bench. “I’m sorry to rush you, but we’re almost ready to start.”
Conor was careful to turn his head just far enough to see her out of one eye, to make limited eye contact. “Ms. Chandler, good to see you again.”
“You too, councilman.” She was sitting too close. “I meant what I said the other say about us not necessarily being on opposite sides.”
“I appreciate that.” He had to turn his head a little more to be polite. “You know the pipeline is only one issue.” Dark eyes rested on cheekbones chiseled by a thousand years of Tuscan inbreeding. “Ninety percent of what council votes on is unanimous.” Skin glazed by Mediterranean sun. “We’ll all be on the same side soon enough.” Figuratively speaking, anyway. Probably Atlantic sun at Myrtle Beach. “Regardless of which one wins, Betty or Bill.”
“We sort of thought they’d both win.”
“Don’t believe everything you see in the C-A. They had Betty attacking me last week, remember?”
“I hope she didn’t hurt you too much.” Chandler punctuated the remark with a slightly too familiar nudge of shoulder and knee. Do women practice these things? he wondered. Does this woman remember that we’re on opposite sides of a heated campaign? He managed a glance at Pershing, and wondered how he’s sleep on the essentially backless bench. Conor considered asking Chandler to keep an eye on him, but decided that would be entirely too familiar.
The organizer was explaining the process. Opening statements, questions, rebuttals. Just keep your cool, Charles.
She should have sat somewhere else. And she shouldn’t have left her leg against him. But on this bench – it was better than having the old man on the other side leaning on her and dozing. She knew he was on their side, but she’d never figured out what he did. Did he sleep at night? That voice, though. She’d heard him speak at council meetings in a mellifluous southern thing, all rolling Rs and soft vowels and archaic constructions: “This pipeline will have us looking not to the West where our thoughts have always wandered, but to the East from whence we came.” He talked as if it was only yesterday, and not a quarter of a millennium ago, that a wave of German immigrants coming down from Pennsylvania met the Scotch-Irish rushing across the mountain gaps. But he sounded good.
So for that matter did Charles West, she had to admit. “I’ve loved two women in my life. One was my late wife, Dorothy, whom many of you remember. The other is the town of Smithy. I had forty-two good years with my wife, and I’ve had thirty-two good ones with Smithy. I hope to see it be another four.”
She’d been ten. And since then, the place had grown from an agricultural center with a teachers college to a booming city with a major university. She’d never really heard its growth described the way West was telling it. Thirty thousand people, besides the students, and eighteen thousand of them hadn’t been there when he first took office. Those who’d been reared there didn’t always like the choices that growth brought with it, just as many of those who’d come later wanted to keep Smithy the way it was by looking to what were good options in the past.
Nicely put, she thought. He’d managed to describe the disagreement over dam versus pipeline without making her mad. He was a real gentleman.
Which was more than she could say for the man to her left. He was completely ignoring the contact, but without the grace to pull away. But then the bench was sort of tight. Maybe he just couldn’t. But still, that was it. If he tried any of that accidental rub business, he’d get an elbow to the ribs so fast nobody would see her move. Let him explain it.
She had to admit she’d been angry about the pipeline. Still was, for that matter. But at least he was explaining it. There was only one thing he was leaving out, and she might have ignored it if the guy next to her hadn’t been so impolite.
“Why didn’t he mention that it was mainly the big developers who wanted the pipeline?” she whispered.
Conor leaned his head slightly toward her. “I don’t know of any evidence of that, Ms. Chandler.”
Besides the fact that they tried to bribe me. He remembered how the visits from the Twin Ridges Builders Council had affected his outlook, and how he’d never explained the changes to Charles. Nobody knew the whole story.
But what he knew, Charles was telling well. Three weeks like this, maybe Rotary and Kiwanis, get him to work the phones – it wasn’t hopeless. They just had to find some way to introduce a few hundred people who’d never met him to a man who loved his city and wanted to help guide it. And maybe find some way to make one of the others stumble in a major way.
Maybe Zaner. He had three minutes to open and Conor thought he was using it badly. Perhaps it was his background as a lecturer, or maybe he was just boring. Half of it was given over to a pedantic discussion of stream flow. “If the Fork drops below 85MGD in a non-drought year for more than 32 consecutive days, or if a dredging takes place during a semi-drought, the results will be similar.” To what, Conor wondered, trying to find the thread of what Zaner was saying. He had the feeling that what Zaner was saying was wrong, that he’d stumbled over three or four words and not used the ones he meant to. Conor could remember doing that a few times himself, but at least this time it didn’t matter. Zaner had lost the crowd anyway. The moderator had to cut him off after his three minutes. The crowd’s first impression of him was a plodding nit-picker. Lucky for him he was running as a team with Betty Wilson.
Wilson evoked “the people” at least three times in her opening. They didn’t want the pipeline, they didn’t want their heritage bulldozed, they didn’t want more of the same in city government. She managed to do it without being condescending or arrogant. And her makeup was perfect for the lighting. Zaner looked kind of washed out under the harsh stage lights, and West looked positively yellow. Wilson looked like she was twenty years old. The lights accented what she’d painted on, and she smiled with what seemed like genuine embarrassment at the burst of applause when she finished.
Conor missed the gist of the next couple of questions. What kind of future do you want to see for Smithy? The kind of question he’d been deeply concerned about when West showed up in his office telling him he should run. Now he worried more about questions like whether they’d have to raise the real estate tax rate two cents in order to keep four more cops on the streets Friday nights during the fall. After a while, it all became logistics. Such as, at the moment, the logistics of what to do with his right leg. He didn’t really want to move it away, both because it would seem unfriendly, and because it would mean moving closer to Brad Sizemore. And if he moved at all, even to shift his weight, she was going to be very aware of it, much as he was very aware of her at the moment. Aware of what, though? It was just a touch of shoulder, and the side of his leg, and he knew his awareness wasn’t creating any visible physiological changes, so it’s not like she knew there was any sort of reaction. And not really a reaction anyway, just an awareness. Sort of like being aware when the wind was blowing or the sun was shining. Sort of like being aware that he was holding his back very stiff, and was going to for another seventy-five minutes or so. Maybe she’d move first.
First thing she was going to do when he so much as breathed deeply was stretch and switch position somehow. Maybe there’d be a fire drill, or a standing ovation, or Simon Pershing would suddenly shift. That seemed unlikely though. His back curved, his hands in his lap, his head bowed, he appeared deep in thought, if you weren’t close enough to hear the quiet snoring. Maybe Zaner’s opening had done that to him.
Or any of the questions that followed, for that matter. The three people seemed to be trying hard not to say anything. She knew they’d planned differently. They’d spent the afternoon practicing, and she assumed the others had too. Pershing had shown a talent for asking probing questions about policy, but so far none of them had come up in reality. He had also shown a great patience with Zaner. Up to a point.
“Bill, I hope you understand that someone will be there with a stop-watch, and that you will be expected to complete your ruminations within a discrete period of time.”
Zaner had tried to explain the complexity of the issues, and why he found it daunting. Pershing had listened intently, his eyes focused, his head barely drooping. When Zaner finished, he said, “Bill, it took you two minutes and twenty-five seconds to tell me that.”
Now Zaner was barely finishing an answer in time and Chandler was having trouble remembering what the question had been. Certainly she couldn’t tell from his answer. Her husband had lectured in history. Surely he hadn’t been that listless.
The moderator picked up her notes again. “The next question will be answered first by candidate West, then Zaner, then Wilson.” She paused, perhaps considered the wording. “Why was it necessary to destroy the historic county courthouse so soon after tearing down the Ashur Building?”
“But that’s not what happened,” West protested.
The moderator looked worried, but held her ground. “We agreed to choose the questions randomly and read them as they were written, Mayor West. Please give us your answer.”
Chandler tried to remember if the clock started when the question ended or when the answer began. If the former, West was wasting precious seconds fuming.
“That question was loaded, and I guess it was intended to be. There was no connection between what happened with those two buildings. One of them was a piece of private property and its owner decided to tear it down and I’m not going to say or listen to anything bad about him right now. The other one was a danger to the community and there was no way we could have saved it. An architect told us that if he’d wanted to dynamite the county courthouse he’d have put the first charge right there where that truck wound up.” He turned toward Zaner as he continued, as if Zaner had asked the question. “Do you people think we wanted to tear down the courthouse? You’ve been acting as if we did it on purpose. You’d have done the same thing.”
And Jim Conor was thinking maybe they would have if they’d been on the wrong end of the political stick, but it was still a three-to-two vote on a five-person city council, and it wasn’t the cleanest or the clearest vote he’d ever seen. Not that anybody else in the room was thinking about that at the moment. They were all looking at Zaner, who seemed flustered by West’s question, and unsure if it was rhetorical or not. It was a draw so far, he decided. Whatever West had lost by being confrontational, Zaner had lost by being uncertain in his answer. “I don’t think you wanted to tear it down. But I’m not sure you had to either. There were various options that could have saved enough of the building for long enough to reconsider the alternatives.” He spoke about stress loads and weather patterns until the moderator cut him off.
Betty Wilson glanced at a note card for a moment, then turned it face down and looked directly into the television camera halfway up the side aisle. “Smithy is not just defined by its boundaries, but by its heritage. And we lost two pieces of that heritage we didn’t need to lose. I don’t have anything bad to say about the man who tore down the Ashur Building, but I do have something bad to say about a city council that would grant a demolition permit for a building of that much historical value, especially when it made a lot of money for one of its members.” Conor heard a sharp intake of breath from Marlin Waters, but ignored it. “And I have something bad to say about the way the decision was made. A move that destructive to our ancestors’ legacy to us should have been made with a wider consensus. It should have been made with a greater concern for the sensitivities of the community. And if there was any other way, it shouldn’t have been made at all. The two decisions were connected. They were connected by the belief that the city of Smithy is something to be run like a business, with an eye on the bottom line, and not like the sum of its people’s hopes and dreams. You can’t look to the future if you forget the past. And you can’t build a future by bulldozing the past.”
Conor took the opportunity to shift his weight as Chandler leaned forward to lead the applause. So Channel 4 had its sound bite, unless something else happened, and Wilson had obviously had the question planted. Still, he had to admire the way she’d threaded the play on “say something bad” throughout her answer. Too bad her ghostwriter – Pershing, Chandler? – hadn’t written as good an answer for Zaner. He could see that West was fuming now. The luck of the draw had left him unable to answer Wilson’s obvious shots at him. Calm down, Charles, he thought, hoping if he concentrated hard enough he’d project the idea onto the stage.
West gave a workmanlike answer to a question about streetlights that left Zaner ensconced in platitudes. Conor was thinking West was ahead on points. He let his mind drift to the idea of having some volunteers hand out pamphlets at a couple of the apartment complexes. It might be worth the effort. Seven hundred votes wasn’t that many. Sometimes the smallest personal touch – a phone call, a hand-delivered pamphlet – could be the difference.
Movement on the stage brought his attention back. Zaner had some sort of chart on a piece of poster board and was explaining something about budgets. Conor was pretty sure he was wrong, but couldn’t follow the reasoning well enough to be certain. Meanwhile the presence of a prop had drawn the camera’s attention. The reporter was leaned into her camera, making sure the focus and angle were right. West was shaking his head furiously. Conor had lost track of the order, and wasn’t sure who got to answer next. Please don’t let it be Charles, he asked of nobody in particular.
No such luck. Zaner stumbled to a finish. “Candidate West,” the moderator intoned. Conor held his breath.
West didn’t. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in this whole campaign,” he began, shaking his finger at Zaner and at his chart. Conor noted that the reporter was still interested. Maybe she had a new sound bite. “You damned hippies don’t know enough about a budget to buy groceries and you don’t have the sense to run a government. Anybody that votes for you will get what they deserve!” Insulting his opponents and the voters wasn’t enough. The flush in his cheeks stood out against the sallow skin, and the finger-shaking looked almost violent. Possibly because West meant it that way.
Conor glanced at Sizemore, who looked slightly stunned but not fully comprehending. Sizemore had seen Charles West this way in closed council meetings, and seemed to vaguely understand that doing this in public was different. Conor leaned to his left. “Which seat do you want?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Simon’s or Charles’s?”
Conor made a mental note to explain to Sizemore later what he’d meant. He glanced to his right. He supposed POP’s backers would be smiling, but Cathy Chandler was apparently too angry for that. Her jaw was clenched, her lips a thin line. She could kill somebody over this, he thought. Betty Wilson slowly turned her head and looked at West with the dignity of a queen. Bill Zaner lowered his head slightly and shook it gently from side to side. Conor didn’t hear the rest of the answer, and wondered if anyone heard him groan.
Conor thought about the news cycle as the debate wound down. TV and radio would have the outburst from West tonight and in the morning. Channel 4 might decide to seek comment on the topic, to give them an excuse to replay the tape at 6 and 11 Thursday. And if the C-A didn’t lead with it in Thursday’s paper, Christian would want an analysis for the next day when he heard about it.
In other words, West was in for three days of bad publicity, ending two weeks before the election. Unless something truly awful happened to Wilson and Zaner, it was all over. He’d have to start thinking about how to work with …
Cathy Chandler turned to him as they stood after the final question.
“Hippies?” she said.
Conor shrugged. “Well, Zaner does have a beard.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“Let’s just say Charles’s attitudes were formed a long time ago.”
“OK. Well, maybe I’ll see you at the next event.”
He wasn’t sure if it was a question. He paused, wondered if this was the best place.
“You know, when you first moved to town, I was in the middle of an election campaign. I didn’t know your husband had died until a couple of months after it happened.”
She dropped her gaze for a second, took a small breath and looked back at him.
“I understand that now. Maybe I didn’t then.”
“You know, you could call me Cathy instead of Ms. Chandler.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Cathy. And you could call me Jim as well.”
Her expression shifted from a schoolgirl’s smile to a grin of triumph as quickly as a cloud slides over the sun. “I’ll think about it, Councilman.”
Well, she’d certainly gotten the better of that exchange, he thought, looking around the middle school forum. There are probably 13-year-old boys standing right here feeling like this every single day. Chandler was across the room congratulating Wilson. Conor spied Waters rumbling over.
“Jim, have you got a minute?”
Conor glanced across the room to where Sizemore was talking to West. Yeah, he had a minute. He probably had about two weeks.
“What do you need, Marlin?”
“Can we …?” Waters pointed with a tilt of head.
They walked to the other edge of the stage. “What do you think’s gonna happen with this election, Jim?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Right now I’d say Charles and Betty.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. She looks good on TV and he’s been there forever. Nobody has any reason to vote for Zaner.”
“Except he ain’t Charles and he’s running with the girl.”
“I’ll tell her you called her a girl; it’ll make her day.”
“This is serious, Jim. I think Charles is pretty well finished.”
Waters was again standing too close. Conor battled the urge to reach out and push him away. The alternative was to back away, which would be too much of a win for the fat man. But then he wondered if Waters stood that way to be pushy or because he was so needy. There was a begging, wheedling aspect to the man that Conor often found cloying. Always in a suit, always with a flashy tie that fell to one side or the other of his fleshy gut, Waters always seemed to want something. For years he’d wanted people to buy real estate from him, now he wanted big building supply contracts. Sometimes he just wanted attention. Conor waited.
“Anyway, Jim, there’s somethin’ else you need to know about.”
“What’s that, Marlin?”
“I’m thinkin’ about getting’ in the race for state senate next year.”
“Would you jump in Jack’s grave that quick?”
“I’m not forgetting he’s in it, and I’m not gonna feel guilty about it. First one out of the gate has the best shot, you know that. I’m gonna be sayin’ somethin’ later this summer. I just didn’t want you to be surprised.”
“You couldn’t tell me later?”
“Well, you know how it is …?”
“’Cause you’re already talking to enough people that you expect me to hear about it soon.”
“I don’t want to waste any time, Jim.”
“Well, you haven’t, Marlin. Was there anything else we needed to chat about right now?”
“You don’t have to say it like that, Jim.”
“Look, Marlin, I know you need to get started early to raise money. I know it’s going to be the first real race in a long time, with Keith retiring and all. But I still think you could have given it two more weeks. I don’t care if you run. I just don’t feel like dealing with it right now. Thanks for telling me.”
Conor could have taken one more step around before passing Waters, then their shoulders wouldn’t have bumped and the other man wouldn’t have been thrown off balance for a second. His surprised, “Hey!” caused a few heads to turn. Conor didn’t notice who else was still in the room. He knew he should be congratulating everybody for a good job and shaking hands with the remaining spectators. Instead he walked as quickly as he could without seeming to hurry. Somebody, he knew, should be trying to stop Waters from taking the next step up the political ladder. He slowed for a few minutes in the hallway. Sizemore and West were heading out the main doors and he didn’t want to catch up with them. The old man was leaning forward, almost shuffling out the door that Sizemore was holding for him. Somebody should be trying to stop Waters and somebody should be trying to figure out what would happen after the election. But there’s nobody to do that, he thought as he watched West and Sizemore. There just wasn’t any damned body.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK