“He’s a fairly nasty bastard sometimes, isn’t he?” Cathy Chandler said as Conor walked by.
“Who, Jimmy? You’re just mad at everybody right now, aren’t you, Cathy?”
Betty Wilson wasn’t mad at anybody in the world. Her face glowed through her thick base of oddly colored powder, a rivulet of sweat from her hairline to her chin the only flaw. She was holding her note cards so tightly they’d crumpled.
“Why do you call him Jimmy?”
“That’s what we called him in high school. His dad was Jim.” Wilson paused to accept somebody’s congratulations, an older couple who Chandler thought looked more like West voters. They could vote for Betty, too, she thought. That would be an odd combo, but maybe not as odd as Zaner and Wilson. A man from Oregon with a Ph.D., and a woman from Smithy with a high school diploma, earned at the same high school where half the people in this room had graduated, including the leader of the political opposition. “Anyway, Jim Conor had died by the time Jimmy came back from law school so he became Jim when he started with … I forget who he did go to work for when he came home.”
“Johnson and Whirt.”
“That’s right. How’d you know?”
“He mentioned it at the funeral the other day, remember. Did you know him in high school?”
“Yeah, but I was a year ahead of him. No girl wants to be seen with an underclassman, does she?” Wilson and Chandler had moved behind a table, and Wilson's sentences came in between short conversations with people who leaned across to shake her hand. “Of course Jimmy was so good-looking even back then I might have made an exception.”
“So is his son Jimmy now?”
“No, they call him Jamie. Why all the questions about him anyway?”
“Just wondering what makes him tick. I sat next to him during the debate and I was just struck by how nasty he was.”
“Jimmy Conor? He’s been a little testy for the last little while, but it’s probably just the campaign. We better hope so anyway. Somebody has to bring things back together and go tell the good old boys they’re not getting their pipeline.”
“Yeah, somebody. Betty, why are we standing behind this table?”
“Because it’s bad enough having to shake all these hands. My hand feels like I’ve been gutting chickens all day long.”
Must be a country thing, Chandler thought. “So what does that have to do with standing behind the table?”
“Are you kidding, honey? If I had to hug everybody I know here tonight, I’d go home feeling as bruised as a cheerleader after the homecoming game.”
Chandler was quiet for a few minutes while Wilson shook more hands. Chandler took the time to look at some of the campaign literature. She knew some of it, but not all. Betty Wilson, 1973 graduate of Smithy High School, two years of community college, worked her was up at a poultry company to an important administrative position – junior management analyst, whatever that was – a son and two daughters, no mention of the ex-husband. Not that that was what Chandler was looking for anyway – she was wondering if the woman had been a cheerleader.
Conor recognized the clatter of the presses from half a block away. The Commercial-Appeal building was a short walk from his parking space behind his office. He always hated being in he building during the day – somebody was always trying to sell him an ad or a subscription or something – but there was a different ambiance at night. Bustle bordered on the soft edge of panic, no one wasted a motion, and the rapid clacking of keyboards flowed downstream to become ink on paper. The doors had electronic locks, but the press crew usually blocked open the back door with a chunk of cardboard. Conor remembered somebody telling him that people were the weakest link in any security system. The pressmen noted his presence, then ignored him as they went about their noisy business.
Conor found Mike Christian leaned over a table in the camera room, making small, indecipherable marks on a proof with a blue pencil.
“Why do you use blue?” Conor asked, knowing the answer already.
Christian looked up, nodded once, finished looking over the page. He waved it at a woman sitting at an oversized computer terminal, then began talking to Conor as she came over and took it from his hand.
“The camera doesn’t pick up blue for purposes of black and white. It’s the same reason they used to use it for background when they did special effects for television.”
“But they don’t now because …”
“Because TV isn’t black and white.”
“Neither is the newspaper. You use color pictures and charts every day.”
“Yes, but the type and graphics for ads and for last minute fill-ins …”
“But that’s not what you’re working with now.”
“No, but still, we use blue just in case somebody …”
“You use blue pencils because you always have.”
“Well, yes. And lawyers wear wigs because they’re sissies.”
“We don’t wear wigs any more.”
“I haven’t been to court in a while. What’s on your mind?”
The two men were walking through a hallway, then up a flight of stairs as they talked. Christian gave an offhand shrug or wave to people who spoke or greeted them. Conor realized his friend’s reaction wasn’t rudeness, more a way of dealing with the rush and concentration requirements of his job. Seven papers a week, two columns, and a newsroom full of the closest thing he could find to normal people who would still work the strange hours the job demanded.
“You’re getting old for 12-hour days.”
“I take Mondays off.”
“Last vacation was …”
“It’s been a while.”
A dozen people were still scattered among the thirty or so desks in the newsroom. Some of them were hunched over the terminals, some were in poses of sloppy relaxation that belied the tension of their work. Christian looked around the room with a detached curiosity, making sure there was nothing that required his attention. They moved to Christian’s long, glass-walled office along one side of the room. Christian closed the door with a glass-jarring slam that didn’t seem to get the attention of anybody in the room.
“I take it you wanted to talk privately,” he said. sitting down behind a desk covered with organized, but not neat piles of paper.
“How could you tell?”
“Because you’ve been wasting my time with bullshit while we’ve been walking up here.”
“I thought we were bonding.”
“Mike, I’m not leaving any time soon after the election, and not as a direct result of the election. Is that a story?”
Christian leaned back and stared at a corner of his office ceiling for several seconds.
“Did this have anything to do with the column Sunday?”
“Nothing major. It was just one more thing.”
“What were the others?”
“Are we on the record?”
Christian stared at him for a few seconds. “No, but I can still have a reporter ask you about anything we talk about.”
“Fair enough. Obviously, my plans to leave depended on Jack and Charles winning.”
“Which you didn’t mention when we talked about it before.”
“Because it never occurred to me they wouldn’t win.”
“Or that one of them would die and the other one would embarrass himself with a public temper tantrum?”
“I have to admit I didn’t plan for either of those eventualities.”
“Yeah, well, Martians might land before the election.”
“Charles would scare them off.”
“That’s a point, you know. We joked about it a week ago. You knew he had a temper.”
“And you knew Davenport drank,” Christian raised an eyebrow as if he were asking about more than Davenport. Conor let it pass.
“We don’t know that’s what happened?”
“When will anybody know?”
“I don’t know. A case like this can drag on. It’s not a top priority for the lab.”
“What are the other possibilities? He was driving too fast because he was too arrogant to understand the law applied to him?”
“Give it a rest, Mike. I don’t know much more than you do.”
“You said you don’t know much more than I do. How much is not much?” Christian’s gaze was steady, but his eyes were taking notes.
“Nothing worth a story probably,” Conor said.
“I’d like to decide that,” Christian said.
“I’m letting you decide on this story.”
“We’ll come back to Davenport sometime. You said you’re not leaving soon. How soon is soon?”
“I’ll be here at least six months.”
“Why’d you pick that?”
“Time to get the new council settled in. Decide the pipeline. Maybe figure out what we’re going to do about a courthouse.” And because it just seemed like a good number, Conor thought.
“You think you can do that in six months?”
“We can get it started.”
“We or you?”
“I don’t really know that either.”
“Can you bring these people to the same table?”
“State law will take care of that.”
“I meant figuratively. Obviously.”
“I don’t know.”
The two sat in silence for a full minute. Christian watched the activity in the newsroom through the window behind Conor. Conor watched a clock tick on the wall next to a window.
A woman stuck her head in the door. “The school board story?”
“Read it and let it go,” Christian said.
“Jeb wrote it.”
“Read it twice and let it go.”
“OK,” she said with a laugh. Her glance lingered on Conor for a moment before she closed the door.
“What do they think about your friend the councilman?” Conor asked.
“More what do they think about your friend the editor. They worry about my objectivity, then I write a column like Sunday’s and they’re OK. Then you come in here and we close the door on deadline and they worry again. Is that answer as clear as some of them I’ve gotten from you?”
“I should get back out there.”
“OK. Are you running shots of Charles?”
“Yeah. And the Wilson woman.”
“How does he look?
“That might gain him some votes.”
“Yeah. And the county might fix the Mill Road curve.”
“So, is it a story?”
“What’s it going to say?” Christian asked, getting up from his desk. “Councilman not leaving? Nothing happened today? I’m not stopping the presses for that.”
“Thanks,” Conor said, but Christian was already out the door.
Conor sat in his office and tried to remember how long it had been since he had talked to his wife. He had called Jamie every day, and sometimes she’d answered the phone, but that didn’t count. He had something he needed to ask her. He wasn’t sure how to phrase it, but he knew he needed to ask it. He didn’t think he should ask it over the phone, and he didn’t think he should wait until they saw one another again. That might be too long, and just waiting might change the answer.
He thought about just calling, and seeing if the conversation somehow came around to what he wanted to ask her. But he knew he should not do that while she was at work. She was now where he had been while she was raising Jamie in those early years. Focused, and striving, and trying to gain points without ever knowing who was keeping score. And he wasn’t sure if he should make the call while she was at home, because then if he could not get the conversation to the topic he wanted to discuss, then he might find there was nothing to talk about. He could accept that Karen might walk out in anger, but he did not want to create a situation where she might hang up out of boredom.
And so he sat some more and counted. Jack’s funeral had been April 8. They had talked, and parted in anger, on April 9. Today was May 2, and it was Election Day, and it was three weeks and two days since he had talked to his wife. Three weeks since she had suggested that he stayed where he was not because he’d made commitments he couldn’t get out of, but because he was afraid to try something new somewhere else. Maybe he needed to split the hair a little further, and argue that he might have made the commitments because he was trepidatious about moving on, but that he had still made them. But that wasn’t what he wanted to ask her. He didn’t want to call with an explanation of the problem, because that wasn’t what either of them wanted. Explaining it was no longer enough. How they got there wasn’t the issue.
And he didn’t want to call with a solution really, because they both knew there was only one. She would have to come back to Smithy, or he would have to go to Richmond. And he would go to Richmond, he was pretty sure, but not yet. Not just yet. He had a job to finish here, but that was a problem too, almost the same as the one with his marriage.
Because he couldn’t quite articulate the problem with his marriage. The problem there, the question, was whether he still had a marriage, and he could not bring himself to say it out loud, or even to think it with any clarity. And the problem at home – wasn’t that usually how people described marital tensions? – the problem in his home town was whether they really had a town any more.
And now he’d at least thought the phrases, so maybe he could get closer to a solution.
Did he have a marriage? He’d had one the summer before. Karen was happy, because she had a new job starting in Richmond in September. Jamie was happy; he was starting a new school in the fall and his dad was going to remain in Smithy for a year so he’d have a transition, and a way to stay in touch with his old friends. Jim was happy? He wasn’t unhappy. Most of his business in Smithy was done. He could wind down the law practice any time, he had money for the interim, and he didn’t need to worry about city council any more. There were no big issues, although a protest group was starting to bitch about the pipeline plan, and Jack Davenport was almost certain to run for council when Charles West ran for reelection. Then there would be no reason for him to stay. The responsibilities would all belong to someone else.
But did he have a marriage now? He had vowed to see Jamie every two weeks during the school year. Bad luck and bad timing had screwed that up one time after another. Now he hadn’t seen Jamie since his birthday at the end of March. Two visits before that was the last time he’d made love to his wife. The end of February, mud time along the Fall Line, six weeks ahead of the weather in Smithy. There’d be no springtime with her this year, here or there. Spring had passed in the lowlands, and would be gone here by the time things settled down after the election. They didn’t share the details of their days with one another. They didn’t have meals together. And it had been nine weeks and two days, but who was counting, since February 26, the last Saturday in February and the last time they’d both been relaxed enough and together enough and able to shoo Jamie off to bed early enough. It hadn’t been great, but it had been enough.
He was beginning to think he’d answered his question. Now he could move on to whether he could begin rebuilding a marriage if he waited until Christmas. He couldn’t control any part of that. And only Karen could control how long she’d wait.
Conor went to the refrigerator for another beer. He glanced at the clock. Five-thirty. The polls closed in an hour and a half.
So on to more immediate matters. He had a job to finish here and that job was – well it was hard to say. But he had six months to do it. It wasn’t just getting the pipeline project started, although that was sort of what he’d signed on for. And it wasn’t just getting the new council organized, because that wasn’t really his job. Rather that was – well it was also hard to say whose job it was. But it wasn’t hard to say it would be a hard job.
The problem tonight was that it was the first election of the new Smithy. He’d often thought of it that way, but couldn’t find anybody to discuss it with except Mike Christian, who insisted on phrasing it differently. But that was a problem for another day. Old Smithy was a town. Not in the legal sense. Taken that way, a town was part of the surrounding county but a city stood alone. In the ways that counted, though, Smithy – old Smithy – was a town. People walked. Everybody knew one another. Betty Wilson cut a swath through politics and he remembered her doing it through Smithy High School. Charles West tried to continue the dreams his uncle had had as mayor. You could almost predict who’d be on city council in ten years. When Conor left for college the chicken plants were getting big enough to start opening administrative offices in town and the teachers’ college had almost four thousand students.
It wasn’t just Smithy, of course. He looked across his office at the framed map on the wall. Atlanta had become a steel and glass economic miracle of the lower middle South. Miami was the capital of the Caribbean. Charlotte had more banking money that anybody but maybe New York. And Smithy – new Smithy – was a city now. Four poultry companies – it wasn’t just chicken any more – had offices and processing plants in Smithy. The university had seventeen thousand students. And Charles didn’t know everybody any more. Except for the downtown core, if you were going somewhere you had to drive. The PTAs were dominated by college professors and their spouses – their wives, he would’ve said ten years ago – and there were almost as many people who’d come here as had been born here.
And they all needed water.
In a few hours, Betty Wilson would win a seat on the council. That was almost a given. She had enough of the old Smithy votes – she’d dated half of them in high school – and enough of the new Smithy votes from her work with People Opposed to the Pipeline. The contest was between Charles West and Bill Zaner. Half of old Smithy distrusted anyone connected with the university, but half of them were against the pipeline, or said they were. All of new Smithy probably supported Zaner in principle, but he didn’t exactly inspire. Conor was certain Zaner could explain a Fourier transform in a way that sophomore physics majors would never forget. But he could explain most public policy issues in a fashion that nobody could remember five minutes later.
If Charles West won reelection, he would say it was a mandate for his leadership. And Brad Sizemore would believe him. And Marlin Waters would go along with them, depending on how many votes West got. If Zaner won, he and Wilson would be a solid bloc. Sizemore would still get most of his instructions – be generous, call it advice – from Charles West, and from Louise, and there’d be two wild cards. Waters would go where opportunity led him – what a civilized way to put it – and that would leave Conor to try deciding what was best for the city.
Nowhere in the bunch was a true leader. That was part of the problem. West had filled the role for years, cajoling, yelling, threatening, trading – getting things done. But those methods might not work with the new council, even if West won, even if he could find three votes to continue as mayor. That might be the hardest part for Conor. Somebody had to decide if West should keep being mayor, and somebody would have to tell him. Nobody had told him how badly he lost the first debate. He’d been in Conor’s office the next day cursing and throwing a section of the paper across the room, blaming the C-A for the way they’d reported it. Nothing had happened worth reporting at the second debate, although the C-A had run a story anyway. It has been at the high school, and he had sat in the back by himself. Charles had not lost his temper, nor any more votes. He had not gained any more either.
And he probably needed to. Conor thought Zaner would win. And there’d be nobody to lead the council. The problem was, somebody had to want to do that. Somebody had to want to make their personality dominant over somebody else’s, to lead the uncertain, to rally the faithful. Conor had always decided things alone, and expected everybody else to do the same. He didn’t need or want leading. That’s part of the reason he’d established his own practice before he was truly ready. And he didn’t need or want to lead on council. He wanted to vote and go home.
Just as he’d voted that afternoon. But he hadn’t gone home. He’d gone back here to brood. He’d sent Suzie home early, and turned the lights off and opened the window. And with most of the light coming from outside, the screen on the window might as well have been a blank wall from outside. Probably why the bluebird couldn’t see him. He could never figure out what that bird was doing. It wasn’t building a nest, and it wasn’t gathering any food that Conor could see. But he would come and hang out on the lee side of the tree, perching on a branch near Conor’s window to chirp and tweet and talk things over with the other bluebirds. “A bluebird come tenderly up to alight,” he whispered. Only thing tender he’d seen lately, he thought.
And with the thought, a streak of melancholy hit. Or perhaps a wave. Either way, he wanted so badly to go to the couch. But that would be a bad idea. He needed something to eat first. He could go to the couch tomorrow afternoon, but tonight he had to go from one place to another and figure out what he had to do next to make sure he could leave in six months and decide whether he wanted to.
He stretched and leaned back in his chair. His foot hit the trashcan and the beer bottles in it shifted position. The clinking noise startled his bluebird, which flew off without a backward glance. Conor finished his beer and put the bottle with the others. He pulled the trash bag out of the can and tied it off. He took it with him out the side door of his office, and down a short hall to the back door of the building. There was a small dumpster at the end of the alley where he parked his car. He tossed the bag in the dumpster and headed out. Betty Wilson would win, and so would one of the others. At least there would be no surprises tonight.
“Did you come to celebrate?” The POP members were partying at Claymore’s Restaurant. Conor hadn’t thought Cathy Chandler would be the first person he’d run into. She was dressed in jeans and a white peasant blouse that set off her olive skin and made his breath catch for a second.
“Actually I came here to congratulate, Ms. … Cathy. Bill and Betty here?”
“You mean William and Elizabeth? God, when I saw the way they were listed on the ballot I was afraid nobody would know who they were?”
“Apparently some folks recognized the names. I should go find them.”
“Not if I find you first.” Betty Wilson threw an arm over his shoulder and a breast against the back of his arm. She leaned in and planted a kiss that he assumed left a large lipstick stain somewhere just below his ear. Several of his senses told him she’d been celebrating for a while. “Congratulations, Councilman Conor. You get to be on council with me.”
Her laugh didn’t draw as many stares as he would have expected. Apparently most of the people in the room had already heard it that evening. “Congratulation to you, Betty. You earned quite a victory.”
“Somebody said I was the first council member ever to get more than three thousand votes. Is that true?”
“As far as I know. But remember, you’re not a council member yet. It’s two months until July 1.”
“But you’ll treat me like a council member, won’t you?”
“I’ll treat you right, Betty.”
The laugh again. This time strong enough to make her shift her weight so that he could move away slightly. “Speaking of which, a lot of people find out we went to high school and want to know if we got together back then.”
Speaking of what? He hadn’t known they were speaking of anything. He glanced at Chandler. Her expression was blank, but bordered on a smirk.
“Well, let me know what you told them, Betty, so I can confirm it if they ask me.”
“Is that one of those political things I’ll have to learn?”
“One of them.”
“Well, what I tell people is that we never got together but I’m damned if I can remember why.”
“Because you were a year older and way too much woman for me, Betty.”
The laugh. Somebody distracted Wilson with a fresh glass of wine. She drank it like it was spring water, Conor thought.
He turned back to Chandler. “I know you worked hard on this campaign too. Congratulations.”
“Thank you. It was a big vote for us. I think people were saying they don’t want the pipeline, don’t you?”
“I think they were saying they wanted Betty and Bill for council.”
“Does that mean we’re still on opposite sides?”
“I wouldn’t look at it that way.”
The slight boy from the C-A came up beside him. “Mr. Conor, do you have a minute?”
Chandler smiled slightly and slipped away.
“What can I help you with?”
“I just wondered what you were doing here, sir.”
“Visiting my neighbors.”
“I mean, why did you come here? Aren’t you with the other side?”
The youngster’s hair fell across his face when he looked down to make notes. Why didn’t Christian just clone himself, he wondered.
“We all live in the same town.”
The boy looked up from his notebook, shook his head to swing his hair out of his eyes. Twenty-three, maybe twenty-four, Conor guessed. Probably his first election.
“You’re not helping me very much, Mr. Conor.”
“It’s not my job to help you, son.”
“Did I do something to offend you, sir?”
“Betty stumbled. I caught her sign. She didn’t hit me.”
“I tried to ask you about that that night.”
“I was on my way to where Jack’s truck was wrecked.”
“I didn’t know that. I had no way to know.” There was a note of pleading in the young man’s voice that bothered Conor.
“I don’t give a shit what you know, son. I care what you print.”
Conor watched as he started to say something else, thought better of it. Conor looked around for Zaner, found Christian watching him.
“You were hard on the kid.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Good. What happens now?”
“I don’t know. Let Charles down easy. Give him a good parting.”
“That’s decent of you. Have you seen him yet?” Conor wondered if he heard a hint of reproach in Christian’s voice.
“I’m on my way there next.”
“Let me know if he’s up to taking a call.”
“That’s decent of you, Mike.”
“This is a big story. The man lost three-to-two. We’ll have enough without talking to him. All it gets him is a day’s break if you tell me not tonight.”
“That’s more like it.”
“On the record. What do you think?”
“I’m still taking it in. And we have two months to think about it.”
“I get Jeb’s point. Sometimes you’re not much help.”
Conor noticed a sharpness in Christian’s tone. He paused.
“I don’t know, Mike. I’ve been thinking about it since the poll and it’s like watching somebody die. It’s a big shift and it’s a sudden one. I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming or daunting, but it gives pause.”
Conor watched Christian’s lips moving for a few seconds. He knew his friend was mouthing the words to make them easier to remember with some accuracy later. The man had a phenomenal memory. It made it easier for him to get stories, because he could seduce a source with the absence of notebook or tape recorder. The only problem came when somebody asked him to prove they’d said something.
“Thanks,” Christian finally said. Conor waited. Christian was going to ask something else.
“Have you been drinking, Jim?”
Conor didn’t answer. He knew that answered for him.
“Yeah, a few beers. Is that a story?”
“No, it’s not a story because we’ve never run a story saying you didn’t and it’s not something you talk about publicly. It’s not the goddamned story I’m worried about.”
“Didn’t you and Davenport go to meetings together?”
“Drop it, Mike, I’m fine.”
“That’s one more thing you don’t need right now, Jim. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
“Yeah, I’ll let you know.” Conor tried not to think about how sharply he’d said it.
“Jim, I’m working and I need to get back to it, but listen to me for a second.” Conor wondered if the intensity of Christian's stare was drawing attention. “You haven’t realized yet how much is riding on you. You don’t seem to grasp the position you’re in. Or maybe you do and that’s the reason for this relapse. But for God’s sake, get a grip on this small part of yourself. Don’t let it become something that defines you. You’re going to be more in the public eye. Think about what you want people to see. Think about what you want Jamie to read about you.”
Conor knew that he was angry because of the truth of what Christian was saying, and that thinking about it would only make him angrier.
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’ve got to get busy. Call me about West.”
It was like watching somebody die. That was what he’d told Christian. He thought about it as he walked toward Goose’s Diner. Watching somebody die can mean denial, he thought. He remembered when his father was dying. He was in a coma for the last few days. On Monday the doctor said he’d go any time. By Wednesday the doctor was looking embarrassed. Thursday night Conor sat in a darkened hospital room, listened to the hiss of oxygen and wondering if by some miracle his dad would come back, if he could just be Jimmy again.
Friday morning he died, Conor remembered as he came into the back room at Goose’s. And it doesn’t matter how long you know something is coming, he thought, as he looked at Charles West’s face. The room was full of people, mostly men, mostly standing, drinking beer out of bottles, talking quietly. Plywood-paneled walls held the unwashable grime of decades of cooking grease and cigarette smoke. At least the smoke wasn’t too thick tonight, Conor thought. And at least this little chunk of Americana would never be bought up and converted by a chain. The closest anybody would come would be to buy the lot and tear it down. Wonder if POP would complain? He swallowed the smile as he approached West.
West shook his hand, raised the other hand to Conor’s shoulder, leaned toward him for a moment, much as he had at Davenport’s funeral. “You’ll take care of things, won’t you Jim?”
“Yeah. No problem, Charles.”
He guided West to a chair. West sat contemplating something miles or years away, smiling one moment, sagging the next. Conor sat for a while, then got up and talked to a few people. Nobody seemed to notice when he left. He wasn’t sure where he was headed. Maybe back to the Claymore for a bit. Maybe … maybe he’d figure out what that cop wanted. A patrol car flashed his overhead light once, but not the siren. Conor had the weird feeling for a second that Christian had called them. The driver brought it to the curb right beside where Conor was walking. The window slid down.
“Councilman, the chief asked me to see if I could find you.”
“OK. I’ll come peacefully.”
The officer chuckled, reached across the seat to push the door open. It doesn’t matter how long you know something is coming, Conor thought. The officer tried to make conversation. The radio crackled. Something beeped on the dash a couple of times, but the officer didn’t seem worried. The officer let him in the side door of the police station, walked with him to the chief’s office. Gary Linden was sitting in one of the chairs. Conor took the other.
“We got the lab tests back on Jack Davenport today. I’m sorry it took so long to call you in. I’ve been kind of busy.”
“I understand. So, was he drunk?”
“No, it doesn’t look like it.”
Conor wondered for a moment if he’d heard right. “No?” Gardner shook his head. Linden was still waiting for something, maybe for the chief to tell him something else, but Conor was still taking in the news. Odd that it would be such a relief. Jack wasn’t coming back. He was still dead. But at least it wasn’t because he was drunk.
“So, if he wasn’t drunk, what happened?”
“We think he probably passed out.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t drunk.”
“He wasn’t. He was poisoned.”
“He was poisoned. Somebody murdered him.”
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
Two Tramps in Mud Time
Conor looked at his coffee cup. He knew somebody had handed it to him. He wasn’t sure if it was Gardner or Linden. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring at it. He tried a sip. It was dreadful.
Linden was standing. “Jim, I have some other stuff to do tonight.”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Bill and Betty were at Claymore’s.”
“Well, I was just going to leave messages. We won’t be able to do anything until tomorrow. I’ll need to talk to you about the orientation.”
“OK. We don’t have to …” He looked at Linden, at Gardner. He felt light-headed, fumbling, but they seemed to be looking back at him normally. Maybe he was acting the way he was supposed to. But he just felt odd because … well, because he’d never been in this position before. He knew there were things he should be thinking about, but what he couldn’t get past was … it was hard to say. If Jack Davenport had been drunk when he wrecked, knowing that would have been the end of the story. Now it was still going on. And there had already been enough going on.
“Gary, I’m not … council doesn’t have to do anything, do we?” His voice didn’t sound right to him.
“No. I’ve usually handled the orientation for new members.”
“No, I mean … Jack. It’s just a police thing, right?”
“Yes. Council doesn’t have a role.”
“Does Charles know?”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
Linden stood for a moment, maybe waiting for another question, then left after a glance at each man. Gardner and Conor sat in silence.
“Who did it?” Conor finally asked.
“That’s the question,” Gardner answered.
“Who are you looking at?” Conor knew how hard it would be to get information about an active murder investigation from a police officer. But the pause was still too long. “Besides me,” he said quietly as the realization dawned.
“I know you too well to look at you very hard, but there are a couple of questions?”
“Taking a nap in my office.”
“That’s three times you’ve answered something nobody asked about yet.”
“What were the other two?”
“You knew the call was about him that night and you knew he was sick.”
“I guess you could look at it that way.”
“That’s what you pay me for.”
They waited a few more seconds. “But you don’t believe it, do you?” Conor said.
“No. But asking might help focus your mind.”
It did, but not on Davenport. Conor couldn’t quit thinking about Charles. This was really happening to him. It had cost him his council seat, and his political heir.
“So what was the poison?”
“What do you know about sushi?”
“I’m in Oz.”
“This is serious, Jim.”
“OK, go ahead. But try to make it a little less like pulling teeth. Just tell me what happened.”
“The poison is called tetrodotoxin. It’s from the blowfish, or fugu, which is a sushi delicacy. A meal of it in Japan can cost $400. But there’s poison in the liver and the …” Gardner glanced at a piece of paper on his desk. “And the gonads. A good chef can clean one slicker than I can filet a trout and it’s no more dangerous than fish sticks. If the cook makes a mistake, a few bites can kill you.”
“Jack was eating sushi at the club?”
“No. He was actually eating trout. And drinking vodka martinis. Two of them that night, but over a couple of hours. The combination probably masked the taste of the fugu.”
“Did you look up that pronunciation?” He knew he couldn’t even think of saying fugu, too. He knew he was thinking of it and struggled to keep his face calm. He’d never discussed a friend’s murder this close-up before. The leap from humor to hysteria might be short.
“No. We think it might have been in the drink, but that’s just a guess. Obviously, everything was cleaned up by the time we got the toxicology report back.”
“So I’m in this mess because of a goddamned fish,” Conor muttered under his breath.
“Jack’s dead because of a fish,” the chief pointed out quietly.
Conor stood up and walked to the window. He should be taking deep breaths, he thought. Instead he held it, making sure the breath streaking through his nostrils didn’t kill the sound from outside. It had turned into a beautiful early summer night. He hoped his new colleagues were taking advantage of it, maybe marching by torchlight somewhere, or whatever revolutionaries did now. If it could just stay like that for the whole summer. The wind was so light, the air so crisp, he could almost hear the leaves scraping against one another.
“Why so long?”
“Tissue samples from Jack were on a back shelf. One more dead drunk from the boondocks to confirm. It wasn’t a shooting from the projects in Portsmouth or Richmond. I moved it up to suspicious because things just didn’t add up. Jack should have been on his way to that meeting. Martinis or not.”
“You know how Jack was. That much wouldn’t really get him drunk. Just maintenance level.”
“Do you think he was headed to the cabin for his weapon?”
“The coroner – Fleming, you know him?”
“Years ago. I do all civil now.”
“Fleming said a reasonable man might have figured out he’d been poisoned.”
“So he was headed …”
“He thought he knew who and was going to shoot them. It’d be in character, wouldn’t it?”
“He didn’t need to go after a gun. He probably had a pistol in the glove compartment. Which I assume you already knew?”
“I need to know how much you know, councilman.”
“Because I’m still a suspect.”
“So I can be sure you’re not. Plus, you knew him pretty well. You might have already figured out why he was headed down Mill Road.”
“Stop playing, Bob. What do you think he was doing?” Conor had swallowed his irritation long enough. He felt like they were moving backwards.
“He was probably headed to the cabin because he was sick.”
“What would he have felt like?”
Again the glance at the papers on the desk. “Tingling in the mouth and extremities. Flu-like symptoms. Some nausea. Feeling of impending doom.”
“Yeah. And panic. Apparently somebody who’s had enough of this poison …”
“Go ahead, Bob.”
“He knows he’s going to die. At least he thinks he is. Not much difference in this case.”
Conor knew what he needed to do to help. Put himself in Jack Davenport’s shoes, figure out what he was doing, where he was going, give the police something to work backwards from. But this was different. This was different from …
He remembered a case out in the county when he was first with Johnson and Whirt. He was just along for the ride, and the case was just negotiation. A man had shot his wife at point-blank range with a shotgun. As they later pieced it together, the woman had been with somebody else, and the husband found out. He got out his shotgun and threatened her. She lit a cigarette and talked to him, in detail, about the other man, and she told him he was too weak to shoot her. He wasn’t. Conor remembered being fascinated by the black and white photos of the headless corpse, the burned-down cigarette still in its lifeless hand.
And he remembered sitting with the husband in the interrogation room at the jail, and wondering how they could get this man the lightest sentence, and how they could explain had done, and how they could paint the wife in the worst possible light. Because the husband was alive and there was something they could do for him, and she was dead and there wasn’t, and when you got right down to it, he was real to them and she wasn’t.
Conor wondered what it would be like sitting in a room with whoever poisoned Jack. Would he look at the living and forget Jack, or would he feel that fearsome drive for vengeance he’d seen so many times in those early days when he still did criminal work? He wondered if he’d get the chance to find out. And in the meantime, he wondered if he could separate himself enough to be any help.
“Who all are you looking at, Bob?”
“Everybody who could benefit. People Against the Pipeline, the rest of council, every builder in Smithy and most of them in the county, every …”
“Go on, Bob.”
“Well, I guess you ought to know. We heard some talk he was seeing a married woman.”
“Doesn’t matter. The story was pretty good, but … uh … it turned out to be somebody else.”
“You mean Jack was seeing somebody else? I’m not following you.”
“No. The rumor was about somebody else, not a candidate, but, … uh … another council member.”
Conor stared for a minute. Then another one. The police chief didn’t say anything.
“Tell me again why I need to know all this?”
“Well, it was kind of confusing for us for a little bit.”
“Who’d you hear it from?” Gardner shook his head slightly. “That was before Karen, Bob. It was 15 years ago.”
“Well, the story’s out there.”
“Damn. What does this have to do with Jack?”
“Apparently nothing, as it turned out. But I figured you’d want to know about it.”
“Great. So what’s the next step with Jack?”
“We’ll start talking to sushi chefs. There can’t be too many in the state. See if anybody’s tried to buy blowfish gonads.”
“By the way, they’re opposed to the pipeline, not against it.”
“To them. They’re POP, not PAP.”
“I may be out of town this weekend.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re not an active suspect. And I’m pretty sure you’ll never get very far from Smithy.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK