Conor caught Bob Gardner’s eye. The police chief nodded and headed out the side door. I’m following a cop outside to ask him about a murder investigation in order to get some good news, Conor was thinking. So soon after the vote to table the pipeline … it went beyond disconnected, bordering on existential. They stood in the parking lot. The lilac smell lingered in the humid night air, but would be gone in a week.
“Is there anything new, Bob?”
Gardner hesitated. “I know there’s political aspects to this, Jim. But I'd just as soon that not be my problem.”
“I was thinking more of motive, opportunity and weapon. Aren’t those the big three?” Gardner waited, not quite engaged yet. “That vote extends the motive, doesn’t it?”
“If that’s what the motive was,” Gardner conceded. Because if the motive was the pipeline, Conor was thinking, then the motive was still there. Who does that put in danger, he wondered. Me or Waters.
“I know you might get to that – to motive – last in the investigation of a killing. But I’m thinking prevention as well.”
“You’d be the next likely candidate, wouldn’t you?” Gardner asked. Conor shrugged. “I could have somebody keep an eye on you.” Conor shook his head.
“I just won’t eat at the club for a while.” Gardner half-smiled. “Opportunity’s on your list.”
“Everybody was through there that night. They had some kind of awards ceremony. Some arts thing. Davenport had dinner at the bar. No more than two hundred people could have done it.” He shook his head. “Weapon? We’re still checking. Poison … it’s a woman’s weapon. Or a coward’s.”
“Doesn’t even narrow it down to half the population, does it?”
Gardner almost smiled, shook his head again. “Jim, it’s none of my business, but …” Conor’s glance said he agreed. “… are you and your wife finished?”
“I don’t know, chief.”
“You better find out. You need to be in shape.”
“Things aren’t getting any better. I’d never have believed I’d be investigating a killing that might be over a utility line. It’s nuts.”
“No argument there. But … Bob, something else. You’d heard a story. A married woman, and a council member?”
“The Wilson woman made the guess about Davenport and … the woman with the gallery?”
“Thought we ought to know about.”
“Betty knows Jack was killed?”
“No. She thought that might be why he was drinking that night. We made some phone calls, talked to one of my former officers in Fredericksburg. His wife was a teacher, who knew somebody who knew her.”
“There aren’t any secrets, are there, Bob?”
“Sometimes for a while. Never forever. Everybody remembered her. She was a good teacher, her husband was popular at the college there. And she is sort of noticeable. And Daniels – that’s the guy I talked to – said there was some kind of rumor about a thing she had with somebody years ago, a lawyer, he thought. It apparently ended when her husband had a heart attack.”
They could hear the buzz of conversation at the front of the building. It started to fade as people headed back in. They heard the side door of the building open. “Jim, is that you out there?”
“Yeah, Gary. Are we ready to start again?”
“They’re waiting for you.”
Mike Christian looked around Goose’s Diner with the face of a man who’d just stepped in something. He glanced toward the grill with the face of somebody who was afraid to look at his shoe.
“Are you punishing me for something?”
“The picket sign picture?”
Conor nodded. But he was smiling.
“We ran a correction.”
“You ran a correction admitting you’d spelled my name wrong.”
“It was more than a week later before you told me about the caption being wrong. And you wouldn’t talk to Jeb David. And you managed to shut down both campaigns for a week. How did you manage that anyway?”
“OK. Betty Wilson said she had the distinct impression you would owe her a favor if she held off until after the funeral – and that you would make her life hell if she didn’t.”
“Impressions are a funny thing. Why didn’t you report that?”
“It wasn’t a story by itself, and nothing ever came up that we could fit it into. Hey, do they serve anything here that’s not ….”
“I could still run a correction.”
“This will make you more cautious in the future. Hello, Charles.”
The mayor had been stalking by, planning not to notice him. He stopped now, briefly shook hands. “Jimmy. Christian. How are you?”
“I’m fine. You know your newspaper cost me the election, don’t you?”
Christian shrugged. West glared a moment, walked away.
“Why’d you cost him the election, Mike?”
“Is he always like that?”
“Lately, yes. Last night made it worse.”
“So tell me about last night.”
“Tell you what?”
“What’s good here?”
“The hot dogs.”
“Two ounces of carcinogenic chemicals and animal entrails? Sounds great. Tell me what went on.”
“Didn’t you have a reporter there?”
“Yes, and you refused to talk to him.”
“Is that what he told you?”
Christian sipped his coffee, made a face. “What he told me, Jim, is that he tried to ask you a simple question and you snapped his head off.”
“He asked me why I'd changed my vote on the pipeline.”
“A fair question.”
The waitress stopped at the table. “Are y’all ready?”
“Yes, I’ll have one dog, all the way, and an order of fries. Mike?”
“And this is your turn to pay?”
“Do you have any kind of salad?”
“Yes, sir. Ranch, Italian or thousand island?”
“Would I be able to tell them apart?”
“Ranch. Thank you. So why did you change your vote?”
“We never voted on the pipeline.”
“Last night was the first time the Smithy City Council ever held any sort of vote on the topic of a raw water pipeline to the South Fork River. You want that again.”
“But you decided…”
“First time, Mike.”
“I’m not going to enjoy this conversation, am I?”
“There’s no reason why you should.”
“Start from the beginning. Oh, that was quick,”
The waitress arrived with a tray. Christian looked on with apparent horror as she unloaded fries and a hot dog with steaming chili in front of Conor, then set a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes covered with plastic wrap in front of him. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked as she set down a bottle of salad dressing.
“What more could a man ask for?” Christian said. “This is iceberg lettuce,” he said as she moved away. “It has the nutritional value of cardboard.”
“In November, Gary Linden gave us a preliminary report on potential water sources for the next several decades. The two primary options were another dam to the west, or a pipeline to the east. These options had both come up often in the twelve years Simon Pershing and Charles West had served on council together. So the discussion was primarily the two of them rehashing arguments they’d made before.”
“Why was it coming up now?”
“I’ll get to that. Charles liked the pipeline, because it could deliver water needs for the next hundred years. He wanted it to be his legacy. Simon liked the dam because it was cleaner water, and because he felt our legacy had been to tap rainwater from the west.”
“Brian told me there was always something you weren’t talking about.”
Conor decided to dodge for a moment. “How’s he doing, by the way?”
“He’s at the Daily Press, making more money than I am.”
“And you’re still here because…”
“Because you are. Go on with the story.”
“We were talking about it, just not in the open.”
Christian pushed the untouched salad aside, pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket, flopped it on the table. “You don’t mind if I write this down, do you?”
“I’ll have a few questions.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“What was your excuse for meeting in secret. Which exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act applied?”
“Potential legal action, possible land acquisition, new business.”
“An out-of-town firm might build the pipeline or the dam.”
“I was outvoted.”
“So you did vote on that?”
“Yes. But on the pipeline … We never voted, Mike. We were just deciding whether to give Gary the go-ahead for the prelims. Simon was against it, but he counted heads and said obviously we could go ahead. Waters waffled, but came down with Simon on waiting, then shut up when Simon said go ahead because the consensus was leaning against them. But we never voted.”
“But you were going to tell me why this became an issue.”
“Because we’re running out of water.”
“In ten years, right?”
Conor watched a waitress balance a tray of plates holding hot dogs, fries, Cokes and glasses of water. She kept it up on one hand, moving items from tray to table with the other, moving from one side to the other of the eye-level tray, keeping it delicately balanced until she’d emptied it. Conor imagined he could hear each glass of water as it hit the table.
“I’m sorry, Mike, what were you asking?”
“We have to start rationing water in ten years, right?”
Consideration of a new water source for Smithy has been driven by secret discussion of a potential shortfall and possible rationing within two years.
The information was released Wednesday by councilman Jim Conor, who had voted the night before to table a vote on the controversial pipeline until the new council takes office in July.
The impending shortfall became apparent six months ago, when the Smithy City Council received two reports showing that siltation and debris behind Rawley Dam had reduced the potential yield by half a million gallons a day, or .5MGD in water delivery jargon. That, combined with Census figures that show a population of 3,000 more people than previous estimates, means the western water source will supply the city’s needs for two years, instead of the previously estimated ten.
Conor declined to explain why the Council had chosen to keep the information secret throughout an election campaign that centered around the pipeline and saw the election of two candidates opposed to it. Betty Wilson and Bill Zaner take office July 1 and have sworn to stop the project.
Councilman Marlin Waters said the decision to keep the information secret was a desire to “avoid panic during the campaign.” Waters had voted with ousted Mayor Charles West and Councilman Brad Sizemore to discuss the information in closed session. Conor and retiring Councilman Simon Pershing were apparently the voices in favor of releasing the information earlier.
Asked why the issue was discussed in private, Pershing, a history professor emeritus at Smithy State University, replied, “Habit.”
Conor tossed the paper on his desk, took a deep breath. He didn’t have any appointments that afternoon, and wasn’t sure why he’d come in, even at eleven. Christian still hadn’t cleared up the fact that they never voted. Common knowledge of something that never happened. It was freakish. They had voted on the courthouse. That was where Charles West had really been screwed. The vote had ripped his guts out, and he’d been accused of being callous. He’d called that morning, twice, probably to complain about Conor talking to the C-A unilaterally. Conor might call him back tomorrow.
Maybe that’s him now, Conor thought as the phone buzzed.
“Your wife, sir.”
“Karen. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Jim. Mom wants to drive Jamie up this weekend. She’s visiting Sharon in Roanoke and could drop him on the way.”
“God, yes. Will you pick him up or do you want me to…”
“She has to come back through Sunday. She’ll pick him up.”
“Oh. I was thinking about coming down there,” Conor said, struggling to keep his voice even, despising the tightness in his throat. “I was thinking we might see each other.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
“Jim, what were you thinking?”
“I’m sorry. What are you…”
“I mean that vote on the pipeline Tuesday night. I read it in the C-A online. You could have been out of this. You could have decided the pipeline and had it over with. But you didn’t.”
“Karen, I can’t just ignore the election…”
“God, do you have any idea how little I care about your election, Jim? Your son and I are three hours away and you’re not with us; that’s what I care about.”
“Karen, my vote Tuesday night was the right way to handle it. I can still get the pipeline done, but that vote was the right thing to do. And so is getting the pipeline.”
“Did you promise to get the pipeline through because it was the right thing to do, or did you decide it was the right thing to do because you needed to justify promising to get it done?”
“Karen, that’s not fair.”
“It’s not fair trying to raise Jamie by myself because of your damned politics either, Jim.”
“Karen, it’s not politics, it’s getting the town enough drinking water.”
“Tell somebody else, Jim.” She paused, to collect herself, he knew. They’d joked for years that they couldn’t both lose their tempers at the same time. He knew it would happen if he spoke. “I once worried about losing you to Cathy Chandler, that you’d find a way to go back to her. Instead I’m losing you to Charles West.”
“Karen, for God’s sake…”
“Mom will be coming up Friday afternoon. I’ll tell her to call you.”
Conor sat for a while, noticed after a while that the door was closed, wondered if he’d closed it, and when. A bird chirped outside the window. He looked for the bluebird, but it was hard to see in the gloaming. He finally stood up, gathered up the beer bottles – four of them – and headed out the side door. He wondered how long he’d sat in the office. Most of the day, obviously. He left the car in the alley and walked. Across the empty courthouse square, down German Street a couple of blocks. He stood in front of an empty storefront, stared at the darkness inside. It had been a sandwich shop at the end, a newsstand when he was growing up. Jamie’s generation would grow up on mall bookstores instead. They had somebody down at city hall whose job it was to bring in new businesses. Would he find somebody for this place, or would he guide them to the few empty lots east of the Interstate, where the sales tax revenues were greater and there were lots of cars full of shoppers who didn’t know if they were in Smithy or on Mars? It wasn’t his hometown any more. He didn’t want to let it go and he didn’t know how to keep it the way it was. He walked some more, eventually shedding his necktie and stuffing it in his pocket. He crossed the tracks on Commerce Street, watched them trailing off toward a vanishing point in another city he’d never got to. He ran his fingertips along a brick wall as he approached the square again, then brought his fingers to his lips and felt the roughness where they’d scraped. When he stood for a few seconds, he could feel the heat in the sidewalk pushing up against the soles of his feet, like the warmth of Karen’s skin through her blouse. He stood staring at the square, and tried to hear the tolling of the bells in a tower that was no longer there.
I said I would, he thought. In the long run, what the hell did that mean? It meant his family wasn’t a family any more, his wife was somewhere else, he wouldn’t know his son in a few months at this rate. And what would happen if he left? In six months nobody but him would remember. Somebody would be there to fill the vacuum – he was, wasn’t he? – and people would gradually come to understand that he’d had to go, that it was just too much for one man to keep together. But he’d said he would. He wanted to get further behind that, to try and remember why he said he would, to try and remember why he got into this in the first place. But he wasn’t sure that was a good idea. He’d wind up mad at Charles, or disappointed in Jack, or giving himself hell. Better to just play it out, remember that he said he would.
He drove home reluctantly, found another beer, pulled out a sandwich he’d half eaten the night before. He’d slept on the couch the night before – even here he couldn’t keep from going to the couch – because if he stayed in these two rooms, the kitchen and the family room with no family, he wouldn’t know how empty the house really was. There was an empty living room, and if he opened the blinds over the sliding doors, a yard with nobody in it. There were empty bedrooms upstairs, and a bathroom that didn’t smell like his wife’s soap.
He’d pushed a movie into the VCR without checking what it was. There was probably a late notice for it in the mail somewhere. It was set in India, and he had no idea what was going on in it. People would talk for a while, and somebody would walk, and there’d be people talking again. He found himself watching a scene with two people in bed, lying next to each other, face down, their nude bottoms visible behind the gauze of mosquito netting. The woman’s reddish blond hair looked like Karen’s, and as the camera moved up on the backs of their heads, he could see her shoulders as well. Sometime he’d turned the volume so low he could barely hear it, and he watched, seeing only the back of her head, her shoulders, bare and tanned. Then the actress rolled over, with a brief flash of bare breast, and Conor realized he’d reached out toward the screen. He rewound the tape a minute or so, watched the whole scene again. He brushed wetness from his cheeks, told himself he wasn’t crying if he wasn’t making any sound. He lay down on the couch, oblivious to the tape still playing. He couldn’t hear whatever sound he was making if he buried his face in the pillow, so he must not be crying, because he was too old anyway, and he’d find some way later to explain why his shoulders were shaking and why it felt like he was sobbing and why he wondered if he’d ever stop.
It was hot. But then he’d never been here when it wasn’t.
West Woods was the last local lumberyard in Smithy. There were others further out, in the small towns, far enough out that it didn’t pay to haul stuff from the big box stores out by the Interstate. And it wasn’t really a lumberyard. The lumber stood out, Conor decided, because it was still stacked in rectangles. Conic piles of sand, pipe tied in equilateral triangles, bricks stacked in … OK so the bricks were in rectangles too. The lumber still looked different. He watched the ease with which a forklift driver scooped up a palette of cinder block and dropped it on a truck. He didn’t remember it that way. He remembered that even driving the forklift took tough young muscle, made you break a sweat. What was it Davenport had said years later? They were all strong as a pickup commercial.
Of course it had changed. He had to admit the faint smell of beer from his pores hadn’t. Not that anybody would notice here. They’d notice that he was in a damned suit. Occupational hazard.
The old office building was just storage now. He brushed some dirt off a window, looked into Charles West’s old office. Boxes mostly. Probably old files. Invoices for half the houses in Smithy at one time. At least half the ones built during West’s – what could he call it? West’s reign? His sway?
So whose time was it now? Maybe not Conor’s, but at least he got to decide.
Waters had finished the new building. West had started it before he decided to sell the place. A building for salesmen, and account reps, and people at desks doing something where they didn’t touch a board. It hadn’t been like that summers. The desk work was what they did after the real work was done. In the evenings, on Saturday mornings. Pencils and ledgers and invoices, and Charles West making it take twice as long because he had to look over their shoulders. He would no more trust anybody else with the details of the business than he would years later with the details of running Smithy. They didn’t call it control back then, Conor thought. Responsibility, maybe.
Marlin Waters sat behind a desk as big as West’s office had been. The sort of comparison he’d hear from Charles West, Conor thought. An old man’s thoughts. Waters’ suit was, as always, priceless. Twice Conor’s suit, he guessed, in yardage if not in cost. The pocket triangle perfectly matched the raw silk necktie. Conor tried to remember the last time he’d worn one. Certainly never in the middle of the afternoon. But then Conor didn’t have quite so much reason to compensate. Waters wasn’t attractive. His nose was a misshapen bulb between and just south of two raisins in a wad of bread dough. It hadn’t risen or taken shape in almost 50 years, and didn’t look like it ever would. His girth and his accent – “C’mawin eeyin, Jim” – made some people laugh at him. But for some reason, people liked him. Maybe because he wanted it so much. Maybe because he seemed to have the greedy gratitude of a hound when he got a little bit of affection or attention. Conor looked at him now, tried not to be annoyed by the huge smile. Waters was just like that.
“Jim, can I have one of the girls get you some coffee?”
“No, I’m fine Marlin. You’ve fixed this place up.”
“Yeah, it’s a whole different market now.” Waters looked around as if the market were in the room. “Gotta impress the clients.”
“I though I had clients and you had customers, Marlin. Hey, sorry, I was just kidding.” How could something as big as that face fall without making any noise, Conor wondered. He had to remember not to joke. Waters couldn’t take it. “I wanted to talk to you about the pipeline vote. Have you had a chance to think about it much?”
Waters looked away, studied the drapes, looked back, ducked his head again. Conor waited.
“I’ve had a few phone calls since you planted that bomb in the C-A.”
“I guess.” Conor had had a few himself. But a few didn’t seem like as many to him, for some reason. Sizemore could get one call and feel besieged. Maybe Waters was the same way. Pershing could stay on the phone all night with people who disagreed with him and nothing registered but a bit of bonhomie.
“Some people think you just did that to try and force the rest of us to vote for the pipeline.” Conor shrugged. Waters would make his own decision about that. “I think you should have asked the rest of us before you released that.”
“Maybe, Marlin. But it’s been three weeks since the election. The new council takes office in five weeks. People need time to think about it, they need time to call us if they want to. We can’t just sit down and take whatever action we want to without letting people know why we’re doing it.”
“Donnie said it was OK, didn’t he?”
Conor tried not to sigh. “Donnie Whirt said it was legal to discuss the water shortage in closed session. He also said it was stretching the law just a little bit. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Well, it’s not a water shortage yet, is it?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about either, Marlin.” The big man’s head moved around again. Conor took the opportunity to take a breath so deep it would have been as visible as Waters necktie had he been watching. “The thing is, people have the right to know what we’re talking about, how we’re making decisions. It’s how our system works.”
Conor paused. It sounded pro forma, not because he didn’t believe it, but because it would have no impact on Waters, except that he might have mentally filed it away for a future campaign. “Eeyit’s hayow are sy-stuum works.”
“What are you smilin’ at, Jim?”
“Aw, I was just thinking about how damned simple this all looked a few months ago. Jack was going to buy this election for him and Charles any way you look at it. Ads, mailings, phone banks, buses for turnout – Betty could bitch all she wanted to and it wouldn’t beat that. Then we would have voted to build the pipeline and the water shortage or any other damned thing wouldn’t have mattered either way.”
“That’s true, it would have been easier.”
“Then somebody killed Jack and everything changed.”
It was interesting to watch, Conor thought. Seeing the light gradually dawning on the big man’s wide face. Seeing the great head of hand-sprayed, combed-over colorless hair turning slowly toward him, then staring without remembering to look away.
“What did you say?”
“First off, Marlin, I need you to tell me you won’t share this with anybody. … Don’t just shrug, damnit, tell me you won’t say anything.”
“All right. I won’t say anything.”
“Good. Now I’m telling you this so you’ll understand that somebody is playing for keeps. I don’t know if it was personal, or the campaign, or the pipeline, or one of his deals or what. But you ought to know that there’s somebody involved in all this who’s willing to kill somebody else. Do you understand that?”
“Did they run him off the road?”
“Did somebody run Jack off the road?”
“I’m not as clear on the details as I could be.” Conor wondered why he said it that way, but went on. “The main thing to understand is that somebody, probably somebody we see every day, killed Jack Davenport. Whoever it is hasn’t been caught.”
“Why are you telling me this, Jim?” Conor felt better, more sure he was taking the right course. It would have been different if Waters first reaction had been concern for Davenport. But it wasn’t. Rather the big man’s first concern was why he himself needed to be privy to the information.
“Because he might have been killed by somebody against the pipeline. If he was, then whoever leads the fight for the pipeline could also be in danger.”
“I don’t know what that’s got to do with me, Jim. You know I haven’t decided which way to go on the pipeline.”
I could almost sugar-coat it, Conor thought, if I didn’t still have to live with myself afterwards. “I know you haven’t decided which vote is the most advantageous to you, Marlin. But you need to look at the odds, and I think you want to get out in front on this issue.”
Waters had moved his desk chair slightly to the side, so he had to turn his head slightly to look at Conor. It was the look of a runner, Conor thought, watching for the smoke, because sometimes you can see that before you hear the gunshot. Waters was ready to bolt when Conor fired the gun. But then he didn’t know what was in it. He looked toward Conor, not really at him, his eyes alert for danger, his head turned almost enough to give some definition to his neck.
“There are a few things that we need to avoid by voting to fund the pipeline next month Marlin. One is water rationing two or three years from now, and the other is continuing this fight any longer than we need to.”
“Simon doesn’t think rationing would be that bad, Jim.” Waters didn’t say it like he believed it, but as if it wasn’t his fault. Pershing didn’t think it would be that bad, and there was nothing Waters could do about that.
“Simon grew up in a more stately time, Marlin. Everybody would have pulled together and set buckets out and prayed for rain. Today, they’ll probably sue the individual council members if we start rationing water.”
“Can they do that?” (“Kin ay dew thet?”)
“Anybody can sue anybody they like, Marlin. They might not win, but the defendant still has the expense and the damage to his good name. But trust me, there will be a reaction, and hell won’t hold it. Remember when we raised the car tax a nickel. About half a dozen people showed up at the public hearing and four of them were for it. Then six months later the bills hit and the council meetings were mobbed for a month. It’s gonna be the same thing this time.”
“But we’re not raising the water bills, are we?” Conor wondered how anyone so shrewd could be so stupid.
“No, Marlin. What I mean is that the reaction won’t be now. You won’t get any guidance from the voters now. There’s nobody to do a poll. And even if you did, they wouldn’t care right now. They’ll care when the rationing starts. And I think I can get Betty and Bill to back me and Sizemore on starting the rationing early to conserve until we’re sure of a new source.”
“You mean start in the middle of the state senate campaign?”
“That’s one option.”
“You’d do that, wouldn’t you?”
Now he had the fat man’s attention. “Like I said, Marlin, it’s one option. The other one is for you to do something for me and I’ll return the favor.”
“How would you like to start your bid for state senate from the mayor’s office?”
Conor could see a tip of tongue as Waters drew shallow breaths between tense lips. Conor had to look away. He could hear Waters sucking air almost in tune with the hum of the air-conditioner.
“Why do you want this so bad, Jim? Is it somethin’ you’re doin’ for Charles?”
“Damnit, Marlin, the city needs a stable water supply. What’s so complicated about that?”
“Yeah, but we could get it from another dam.”
“Marlin, we’ve been debating this for six months. I’m tired of it. Do you want the job or not?”
“You’ve only got one vote, Jim.”
“Brad will do what I do. Once I nominate you, he’ll second you.”
“And what do I have to do?”
“Start talking in favor of the pipeline. If you’re not publicly committed by July 1, I’ll nominate Brad and then let the rest of you fight it out.”
“Well, Jim, what about …”
“No!” Conor took a breath. Waters head sunk into his wattles almost imperceptibly. “Marlin, you need to understand this is where the bargaining stops. Take it or leave it, but I’m not haggling over the details. And if you screw me on this, if you back out on this, I will make you sorry. It will be all I do. I will make it my career. Is that clear enough?” Conor stood up while he waited for the answer. But he’d watched Waters’ face closely enough he knew he didn’t need one.
“Yeah. I don’t want you for an enemy, Jim. Hell, we ran together.”
Conor was already halfway to the door. “We ran at the same time, Marlin.”
“Did I miss anything yesterday afternoon, Suzie?”
Conor sipped his coffee slowly, but it didn’t do any more than the previous night’s beers to get the taste of Waters’ office out of his head. He watched Suzie turning pages on the calendar book as if something would appear.
“When’s the last time we had a case, Suzie?”
“You’ve been getting calls, sir.”
Was that mild admonishment he heard? “We’ll return some of them once we get this other business taken care of, Suzie.”
“Yes, sir. And on … this other business. Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Conor?”
Conor let himself fall into the visitor’s chair across from her desk. “Suzie, you don’t know how much you do just keeping track of things for me.”
“Thank you, sir. But … well, I know you have a lot of responsibility and maybe you didn’t really want it, and … People ask me what’s going on and I tell them I have to keep confidential what happens in the office, but …”
“But the truth is you don’t always know what’s going on.”
He watched embarrassment compete for her face with relief at being able to talk about it.
“Yes, sir. And I think people know that. That I don’t have anything to tell them, I mean. And I don’t mind that but … but I would like to help if there’s something I can do. If there’s research about the water sources to be done, or anything like that.”
“I almost wish there were, Suzie. No, the research was all done months ago, now we’re just fighting about what it all means. It boils down to using a pipeline to the East and paying more to clean the water, or having less from the West and having to wait another couple of years for it, maybe rationing for a while. No, the only question now is who’ll vote how. And I’m not sure there’s anything else anybody can do on that.”
“So it’s really just five people and their … their consciences, I guess?”
Conor knew how hard it was for her to ask. And thought how easy it would be to just say that’s what it was.
“That’s what it is for me, I hope, maybe for Zaner. Brad Sizemore needs leading. Waters votes on pure self-interest and politics and Betty … How well do you know her?”
“Just from church. I know she’s never had it easy. Her father died when she was young, and I don’t think she was ever really happy with her husband.”
“Yeah. I wish there were some way to convince her …”
“No. She does hang on … fights when there’s nothing left to win and refuses to compromise when there’s nothing to lose.”
“That was well put, sir. And she has a reputation for being … uneven.”
“That was better put.” Conor rose to his feet, refilled his cup. “So what’s on my non-legal calendar today?”
He glanced over at her. The way she said it – she’d laugh if he let her.
“Ten. And then this afternoon, Cathy Chandler asked for an appointment. As late as possible, she said. I put her down for four.”
“So the wild women of POP caught my wife out of town and they’re double-teaming me.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, sir.”
“I probably wouldn’t either. Send Betty on in when she gets here. Ms. Chandler too, unless we find some business between now and then.”
Conor had never figured out just when Suzie washed the coffee cups. Did she take them home and do it? Because he thought it might take a pretty heavy-duty dishwasher to get the lipstick off it.
“So how goes the orientation, Betty?”
“Oh, lord, Jimmy. Did you know there are four hundred twenty-two lane-miles of paved street in the city of Smithy and that only twenty-three of that is maintained by the state DOT?”
“I probably did, Betty.”
He noticed the laugh was subdued. Maybe somebody was coaching her. Chandler? Or maybe she was just tired.
“Are you saying you’ve forgotten?”
“Sort of. After a while you realize a lot of that stuff is trivia you don’t need to know to make policy decisions. City staff trot that stuff out for new councilmen. Part of it is … well, actually about half of it you really need and half of it they’re just telling you to show you they know it.”
“How do you tell the difference?”
“Serve on council a year.”
At least she didn’t laugh. And the smile wasn’t bad. He’d have to start paying attention to women’s smiles again…
“Jimmy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing … I’m fine.”
“Good lord, Jimmy, you looked like somebody punched you.”
“I need more sleep, Betty. Maybe after we decide a few issues.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here to talk about.”
Conor hoped he didn’t flinch when she set the coffee cup down on the desk. It wasn’t exactly an antique, but still.
“Well, I had an interesting call last night.”
“You’ll get used to that.”
“Come on, Jimmy, you’ll never guess who called?”
“You’re damned right I won’t. Who called?”
“What? Well, anyway, Marlin Waters called. How’d he ever get on council, Jimmy?”
“Betty, two things. One, call me Jim on the council. I insist and I don’t want to discuss it. Two, why didn’t you run two years ago and keep Waters off the council? Why didn’t anybody? He walked into a job nobody wanted because times were good and there were no issues. And they say you get the government you deserve?”
“Oh, lord, I hope not. I hope he’s not what we deserve and I hope we don’t get him. He’s not really going to run for the state Senate, is he?”
“Looks like it. Who else is there?”
“Don’t be coy, Jim Conor.”
“Don’t go there, Betty. What did Marlin want?”
“He wanted to talk to me about getting my vote for mayor.”
Conor’s coffee cup was half in front of his face. He left it there.
“How was he going to get that?”
“By voting to build a new dam on West Ridge.”
“What’s wrong with the old one?”
“Stop it, Jimmy … Jim. Did he … I guess I’m asking … is that going to happen a lot?”
Conor was grateful she’d jumped off the subject for a moment. He’d never considered what it looked like from somewhere else. Now he knew.
“You mean people offering you deals?”
“Not usually so blatant.”
“What do you do, Jim?”
Besides make them, you mean? He couldn’t say that. But he did wonder …
“Haven’t you asked Simon about this?”
“Well … about deals in general. He said it’s part of the job to hear about them. You know how he can be sometimes.”
“Yes. A road you can only travel by yourself, but he’ll be glad to chat with you about it at the other end.”
“Something like that, I guess. But, what I’m wondering …”
“Is what to do?”
Well, he could encourage her to vote for the pipeline to make it moot. “Some deals you listen to, and some you don’t, Betty. There was dealing on the courthouse vote. We all talked about it. There was dealing on the pipeline and I threw the Builders Council out of my office.”
“You did what?” She leaned slightly forward, gripping the arms of the chair.
“Well it wasn’t as exciting as all that, Betty.”
“Oh, good for you. Tell me about it.”
“They wanted to make a big contribution to my campaign fund after the election. I could use the money for whatever I wanted. You can pay yourself a salary out of campaign funds, you know? Anyway, I told them to get out and they did.”
“Did you call the prosecutor?”
“No. There were five of them in my office and one of me. They didn’t come back, but nobody could have made a case.”
“So that was the end of it?” The look of disappointment on her face was almost clownish. He was glad there was more to tell her.
“No. I talked to Gary Linden, and told him to do all the paperwork for a raw waterline. Charles eventually agreed because he wasn’t sure if he’d need my vote.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Raw water means we treat it at the city plant, where the pipe comes in from West Ridge. The other option would be to treat it at a new plant at the river.”
“And then it would be useable all the way?”
“Potable, we call it, Betty. But, yeah. The Builders Council wanted to tap into it along Beldow Road, so they could develop subdivisions all the way back to Mill Road.”
“And now …”
“And now they’ll have to come to city council on their knees to see even a drop of water from the pipeline.”
“You’ve almost got me liking the pipeline, Jimmy. But why are they still backing it so hard?”
“Well, they’ve got five thousand dollars they were planning to spend on me, so I guess they feel like they ought to spend it.”
“They’re spending a lot more than that.”
Conor knew he was looking at two or three people. One was a wild girl he’d gone to high school with. One would be sitting at the table in a few weeks, and another was still on the other side of this fence from him. All of them were staring at him and waiting.
“They’re worried that there are two unknowns on city council. They figure that by running those ads about the pipeline they can sow doubts about you and Bill and try to cut down on your effectiveness. And they’re worried that if we have to ration water for two or three years development will drop off so bad they’ll all go broke.”
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“Can all those unemployed bricklayers and sheet-rock men come live at your house? But we can fight all that out later. What did you tell Waters?”
“I didn’t go to all this work to make back-room deals, Jim Conor.”
“So you told him no.”
“Actually, I told him to go to hell.”
“Be careful of that.”
“Telling somebody you won’t do something because of ethical concerns … a stand like that will drop out of sight. Telling somebody to go to hell will make the papers.”
“Oh. But … would you have taken Marlin’s offer?”
“That would depend on how bad I wanted a dam. What did the rest of POP say?”
“I didn’t talk to them about it yet. I’m trying to … well, don’t tell Cathy I talked to you first.”
“Where am I going to see her to tell her?”
“You two really don’t like each other, do you?”
“We have some history.”
Conor sipped his coffee. Betty Wilson was still looking at him, waiting for the rest of the story. He wondered just how often somebody had to tell her something was none of her business, and whether she ever got used to it. “You want the story, don’t you?”
“Well, it’s not what I came here for, but I’ll bet it’s a good one.”
“Maybe. Fifteen years ago, near Fredericksburg, Johnson and Whirt were representing an art teacher who worked with Cathy Chandler. It was an employment dispute. I can’t remember most of the details and it’s probably privileged anyway. I told the guy to settle, cut his losses, if the school board would help him get work elsewhere. Nobody wound up happy, but nobody wound up in court. Cathy Chandler was on the other side, arguing for fighting it all the way to the Supreme Court.”
“She doesn’t give up, that’s for sure. Was that the whole story?”
“You know you still haven’t told me much about what to do about Marlin.”
“Your choice. Just don’t forget we’re still on opposite sides of this discussion.”
She looked confused, tilted her head to one side. “You’re not saying you’d give me bad advice on purpose, would you, Jimmy?”
“Betty, so help me God, if you call me Jimmy at a council meeting … No, I wouldn’t give you bad advice. But pay attention if I’m not giving you any at all.”
“Well, I guess I’ll spend the rest of the day figuring that out.”
Cathy Chandler checked the front curtains just to be on the safe side, the checked the dress in the hall mirror one more time. She couldn’t help thinking how strange a room this was. She still called it a front hall, but it was really more of a foyer, basically a room larger than many people’s bathrooms, but designed to hold not much more than a mirror and a hall tree. Or was it a foyer tree? The house was just too big. With David dead, her oldest in D.C., her youngest in college, she just didn’t need this much space. But she still had this hall, and this mirror, and she’d miss them if she got rid of the place.
It felt good walking. Like being on the beach again. She’d always loved that. She didn’t tan very much, but after a few hours out in the sun, she glowed, and she knew people were looking at her. She wondered if it was like that for Jim. Was he always aware of eyes on him, of people wondering – what would they wonder about him? What he was thinking, what he would do next? And if somebody was always watching, how could he ever … better not go there yet. She’d lose her nerve.
The dress was a strange, thick synthetic, lined for some reason, and she couldn’t remember why she’d ever bought it. Probably for something like this. The heels were probably too damn much, though. Half a mile of sidewalks on modified stilettos, having to watch every step for cracks and clumps of grass. She guessed she could have carried them, but then she was traveling light. The clutch purse held not much more than a house key and an ID in case she got hit by a truck trying to cross Madison Street in these damn heels.
Of course it was nice that there was this one section of town where she could still walk, the older neighborhood between the college and downtown, where there were still sidewalks, where you could feel good walking. Charles West lived in walking distance, although she wasn’t sure why she’d ever care, and she could get to Betty Wilson’s on foot, although there were no sidewalks in those newer sections, some developers decided it was cheaper for people to walk in the street. The neighborhood was a strange mix, thriving to her, but she knew others saw it differently. There was an uneasy tension between the college kids, most of whom didn’t know she was alive, and the older residents, who probably did notice her. She wondered what some of the more traditional types, the Teutonic tight-asses, thought of her, a tall, thin woman in a dark dress, olive face half-hidden behind large, opaque sunglasses, high heels and bare legs in the middle of the day. Eat your hearts out.
She’d timed it well, walking through the front door of the building about two minutes before four. If Jim Conor kept his appointments on time, she shouldn’t have to wait very long, didn’t know if she could wait very long. Funny how once you’d reached a decision your patience went away, and if you waited too long anywhere along the way, so did the decision. But this really felt like the right thing to do. It had been building for weeks.
The woman behind the desk waved her through. That easy. No waiting, no second-guessing. She tried not to be too ostentatious about closing the door. Probably a lot of people did that when they entered a lawyer’s office, god knows what sorts of things people talked about in there…
…there she was, his last appointment of the day, and god knows what she could want to talk about. The campaign, personal affairs? Was she closing on a house? She was certainly closing the door, leaning toward the doorknob just a taste, straightening and turning. He tried not to stare, but for a heartbeat as she turned he would have sworn she didn’t have a thing on under that dress. It was so heavy he couldn’t really tell, and she was walking toward the desk now so he couldn’t look as closely, not that he should be anyway. But since he was thinking about it he had to sit down, not so quickly that she’d notice, he hoped, although better that than that she should notice his reaction, although she wasn’t looking either, just looking him straight in the …
…eyes locked on his, just because it had become the sort of stare where the first one to look away lost something. She needed to look him in the eye anyway, to make sure this was a good idea, to make sure it was the best thing. He looked so hard though, she didn’t remember him like this. She’d seen him shaking hands and schmoozing at the debates, a little reserved, but seeming open to everyone who came up to him. That face wasn’t open though. The jaw was set, and there wasn’t a hint of expression in those eyes …
…in the eyes and don’t look anywhere else, especially not if she decides to cross …
…cross her legs, just to delay for a second. Was there a flicker there? Maybe a couple more seconds delay, while she laid the sunglasses on the desk with her purse…
…purse seemed to be all she had with her, no papers, no folders. It must be about the campaign, about the pipeline. Get on with it, he thought.
“It seems strange being on opposite sides in this thing, Jim.”
“It’s not my first choice either.”
There was some kind of offer coming, he decided. Or a threat. Neither would be surprising. It was getting down to the short strokes now – bad thing to think about with Cathy sitting there – and both sides wanted to win. He wondered how many on either side could even remember why or what they wanted to win. At least he had it easier. He’d said he’d support the pipeline, and he’d given up too much not to. He’d listen to the offer, though. He was curious what they had. The money and the power was on the other side. All the opponents had were determination and two seats on council …
… “The two of you on council that support it seem pretty determined to stick to your guns.”
“You make it sound defensive, Cathy. It’s not. We made the commitment. I don’t feel under siege. About the pipeline.”
“And the election results?” Why was she even asking …
…asking about the election results and he hoped his voice didn’t betray him, falling into his speech and sound-bite tone, because he did want to be able to tell her more than just what was in the paper, and he had to admit he wanted to continue this conversation without the forced formality of their encounters at the funeral and the debates. “The voters were pissed off about the courthouse. They took it out on Charles. But I heard the voters. That’s why we delayed the vote.”
“What about the division in the community? Doesn’t that worry you?”
Not publicly, but then they weren’t, were they? Was she going to hold a press conference later about this conversation? “That’s probably the worst part of it,” Conor said, a concession that kept them on the same side, at least for this conversation, without really giving anything away …
… somebody had said you sometimes had to give something away in politics, even without a commitment in return, because then sometimes the other side would have to give something away just to keep up. “It feels like it’s worse now than it was toward the end of the campaign. Don’t you see any way to bring the two sides closer together?” She uncrossed her legs …
… knees together and turned slightly to the side, just enough to make his eyes flicker downward for a second, just a hint of movement, a sway of breast, that distracted him, made him forget for a second what she’d said, made him wonder for the first time why she was really here and just exactly what was about to go POP and what the opposition had to offer …
… make the offer now while he was still paused, not answering at all, like he hadn’t heard what she’d said or his mind was somewhere else. She’d practiced it before the mirror, chosen just the right dress, she could do it in two beats if her fingers didn’t fail her. She stood, quickly, but not hastily, knowing she had to keep the mood, this couldn’t be an act, it had to be real, now while he was still distracted, she stood moved her fingers toward her chest, they were working, they didn’t fail her, just flip the two buttons …
... buttons and as she moved her hand back down the dress was coming with it, so heavy it fell off her shoulders and slid down her body like a lecher’s glance and he was trying to remember when he’d last taken a breath …
… breathe in just to make them stand out a little and then the air conditioning hit and they stood up like turkey timers and that was probably just the effect she wanted but, God, it made her feel even more naked …
… naked as the day she was born, naked as the last time he’d seen her that way, and on first glance looked just as good, although he was still looking her in the eye, for some reason, because it felt like that’s what he should do, and because he’d forgotten just how dark those eyes…
… eyes locked on hers, but he was aware of her, every square inch of her, she could feel it, she knew he was looking, just like being on the beach, glowing, but not wearing quite so much …
… so much to take in, so quickly, it felt like overload, he was just so aware of her, and it was like she’d never been away, like the last fourteen years hadn’t happened, like it was somehow OK to have her standing here in high heels, not even …
… panties at least, but what the hell, this wasn’t discreet behavior to begin with, but she wished he’d react, move, shift his eyes. She knew she’d been standing there somewhere between two seconds and half an hour, but she couldn’t get any closer …
… closer and he wouldn’t be able to stop himself, if he could just sit there and enjoy her beauty and the offer of it, the implicit forgiveness for all they hadn’t had together, for the way it had ended, enjoy knowing this beautiful woman was willing to do this …
… do this much longer if he didn’t move, but then she was less and less aware of the air on her and more aware of his eyes, still locked on hers, so much more aware of him than if he were looking at her body, it was becoming a contest …
… contest to keep from looking at her now, and it didn’t have anything to do with politics, it was a guy thing now, he was going to let her know she was more than just a body …
…body was all his and he knew it and he could vote for two pipelines and it wouldn’t make any difference now …
…and he almost, almost, wanted to find some way to let her know how much he appreciated the gesture without their having to follow through, which was generous of him because he knew it was just a thought and he was going to the …
…going to get up or say something or just sit there and stare at her all day, was he scared or something, was it too sudden, should she have led up to it a little more …
…more than he could do to sit there much longer, without heading for the …
… for the first time she wondered if this wasn’t going to work, she just hadn’t thought about the possibility, not articulated it anyway, because it’s not the kind of thing you can do without full confidence, but was there any way now he could not …
… could not ignore the moment of uncertainty in her eyes, the surge of tenderness, he maybe could still have backed away, somehow, if it had been just a brazen offer, but that flicker of doubt was more girl on a first date than exotic seductress but it wasn’t like he could give her a consoling hug without touching a lot of bare flesh, and once he touched her they were almost certainly bound for the …
…bound to get up any minute and, yes, he was standing up, don’t look at his pants, you’ll know in a second when he gets around the desk …
… desk and walked toward the office door and …
…and he was going to walk out, oh, god, would the secretary see her when he opened the door, was he just going to leave her standing here without a word, glaring in these harsh fluorescents …
… fluorescents died when he hit the switch and god knew what Suzie would think or guess and he locked the door and now he could take a deep breath and turn around …
…turn around and face him and now he looked, from the heels to the hair, and she didn’t feel anywhere near as naked because soon, just seconds now, he was going to be …
… wrapped around her, his hands on her bare back, her hands up between them loosening his necktie …
… and if she could get that off and if he was as naked as she was then at least it wouldn’t feel quite so tawdry …
…tawdry if it had been anyone else, he couldn’t even imagine doing this with Karen – with who? – and he wondered if he’d known when she walked in, or maybe when he saw her name on his appointment calendar, that the appointment would end with them on the …
…at least they wouldn’t have to do it in the floor, or on his desk, although she would have, but instead they were going to go to …
… they were headed for the couch.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK