They’d finally settled on the Hammers. But it hadn’t been easy. The school board had tried to very quietly change the team names at Smithy High School from the Blacksmiths to the Smiths. Conor had been in sixth grade. The change hadn’t gone as quietly as they’d hoped, but nothing did back then. First they found out how many parents didn’t care if African-American students – no, they were colored back then – were offended by the name on their jerseys. Then they found out how many people didn’t know what a smith was. Then they found out that in changing the name to the Hammers, they had to change the team colors from red to blue, because a lot of people thought a red hammer was just a step away from adding a red sickle and then where would they be?
Conor wished that was all he had to worry about. The Hammers logo was a stylized hammer, nothing a smith would ever use, with the H forming the head and the other letters forming the handle. It was painted across the water tower up the hill from the high school, and nobody thought about it any more. Conor thought about how they’d get water into the tank. And without giving Marlin Waters too much power. He’d dropped Jamie off, with a sleeping bag he’d barely unroll and a toothbrush he’d forget to use, at a friend’s house for a sleepover. Conor could remember telling ghost stories at that age. Jamie and his friend planned to play something called Diablo on the computer. Conor felt old.
Conor paused at a stop sign, checked behind him for traffic. He was the only thing on the street. He looked out over the city. Far to the east, bright lights and wide roads, the retail sprawl that had defined success for a city for so long. To the north, feed mills for the chicken growers. In front of him, the central city, the downtown that used to be Smithy, the university that had doubled in size, the grassy square where they’d bulldozed history and lost an election. He wanted to say it wasn’t his city any more. But it was a little late for that. Just when he decided he didn’t want it any more it had been handed to him. It was a good little town. All it needed was a water supply, a courthouse, a new police station, more sidewalks, a better road system.
He could see the older residential neighborhood on a rise above downtown. Cathy Chandler’s house was in there somewhere, and Charles West’s, and Betty Wilson’s. They all lived cheek by jowl and had managed to reach diametrically opposed positions on what the city was and what it needed to be. Everybody had the answers but him.
He decided to wait a while before heading home. It would be too quiet without Jamie there, even after just a couple of nights of his company, of reminding him to shower and pick up his things, and besides, he’d forgotten to pick up … well, actually he didn’t want to have any beer in the house with Jamie there. It was complicated, and one more thing Jamie didn’t need to worry about. There were a few in the refrigerator in his office. He probably had paperwork there he needed to look at anyway.
It felt strange pulling into the alley behind the office at this hour. He’d left this late a lot of times, but it had been a while since he’d come in, with downtown growing quiet and traffic thinning. The hallway had the déja vu feeling of a familiar place seen in unfamiliar ambience. The side hall looked different, mainly because he never came in this way at night, never saw the intersection of hallways lit only by the entry lights on either end of the main hall. The light seemed to come from nowhere, and illuminated nothing.
He left the overhead lights off, clicked on a small lamp at the end of the couch. He could sit there for a few minutes until he decided to get the paperwork out. He checked the door by habit, found it safely locked, shook the window frame a little to make sure it was tight as well. There were three beers left. He took one out, twisted the cap off, tossed it in the trash can as he walked past. He took a small sip, told himself he could take his time, he didn’t really need it. He took another small sip. It was a little off. Probably got too warm on the way from the store before he re-chilled it. He flexed his hand, looked at the marks the beer cap had left. If he drank slowly, they’d fade before he finished the beer.
Except that two of them already had. It was a strange effect. The line of marks on the edge of his palm were perfect, except for a small gap. Apparently the way the skin had folded … he picked up the beer, wrapped his hand around the top of the bottle. There was no way he could have folded his hand like that. The bottle cap must have … must have what? Conor told himself he was too stressed if he could worry about something like this. It wasn’t like … Conor ran the tip of his tongue across his lips. He wasn’t sure why, but a thought was nagging at him … no, not nagging, tingling.
Conor dashed to the small bathroom, knelt in the floor, forced his finger down his throat. It took him two tries before he heaved violently and threw up in the bowl. He leaned against the toilet, sweating, his sides hurting. He forced himself up, ran the water in the sink, drank great gulping handfuls. Then he stuck his finger down his throat and forced himself to vomit again. When he stopped, he felt cramped, achy. Flu-like symptoms? He forced himself to stand up, his sides stiff and painful, the muscles spasming. He walked to the door of the office, turned and walked to the window, then back to the bathroom door, then walked the same circuit again. He touched his lips with his fingertips, gently, knowing if he pressed too hard or squeezed he could create symptoms. He could feel pressure, touch, a tingling faint enough he might be imagining it. He felt his pulse, eyed the clock on the wall. A little fast, but then he was a little excited. He’d check every five minutes. If anything changed, he’d drive to the emergency room, or walk there if he still could. The inside of his mouth was definitely feeling odd. How much fish bile could go into a beer bottle without him tasting it. But then he had tasted … something. He walked to the trash can, fished out the beer cap. Two of the ridges were flattened, their points rounded just enough by … by somebody not quite strong enough to open the bottle, who used an opener instead and then tried to force the cap back into shape? He kept walking, describing a triangle as he walked from bathroom to door to window. A triangle, a golden triangle. He’d called her face that one time, although he was really thinking about the golden proportion.
He shook the window again on his next circuit. Still locked. So it had to have been somebody with a key. He’d have to tell them, tell the police, let Bob Gardner know, but only if he had to go to the emergency room. Why he didn’t have to tell them otherwise, he couldn’t say for sure, but it made sense to him. Made sense because … because this was between him and his … what, girlfriend? Lover? He wasn’t sure. Maybe he could ask her, but except for dancing, he’d avoided her since he found out she might have killed his friend. But that was a police issue, not a policy issue. So it wasn’t his problem. And the poison she’d put in his beer? That was personal. So there was no need to get Gardner involved. There was no need to do anything, in fact, except keep walking and keep checking for symptoms.
Like his stomach heaving again. He interrupted his circuit and made it to the bathroom just in time. This one was real. No finger down the throat. Something was making him sick. Maybe the fact that he still loved her. He’d loved, really loved, two women in his life, and he still loved both of them. One had left him and one had done this, and he still loved them. No, he thought, wrong time to laugh. Then cough. He choked, coughed, splashed water in his face. His throat burned. He walked again. He still had his necktie on, he must have left it on when he went to take Jamie to … wherever he was. He didn’t know where Jamie was. That is, he knew, he could drive right there, and he could drive to where either of the parents worked, and knew what position the older brother of Jamie’s friend played on the Hammers football team. He just couldn’t remember their names. Panic is like insomnia, he thought. If you think you’ve got it, you’ve got it. He checked his pulse again. Not much change. Nothing that walking a few hours and throwing up a few more times couldn’t cure. Because he couldn’t tell anybody about this. This was personal. Somebody had given him poison. A woman’s weapon.
And if he told anybody about this, he’d have to tell them why she had a key to his office, and why she had to wash the blanket, and why he always wound up on the couch, even when she wasn’t there, and why he was drinking a beer, because he really wasn’t supposed to any more, especially not this one. He grew tired of the office, walked into the hall, paced the empty corridor. He was in good shape, he reminded himself, his body could process this. He’d only had one sip, maybe two, before he’d guessed something was wrong, because nobody could fool him, he knew his St. Pauli Girl, he knew how long it took the marks to fade when he squeezed a beer cap. So if he was so smart, why was he leaning against the wall in the alley outside his office, and how had he gotten out here, and when would this chill pass? Seventy-eight degrees in the middle of the night, actually about ten o’clock, and here he was shivering. And walking. Commerce Street. German Street. The Commercial-Appeal, he could drop in and see Mike Christian. Hey, Mike, my girl friend poisoned me, but don’t tell anybody because I’m the mayor and I’m only telling you this because I’m your friend. Across Madison Street, people still walked here at night, nobody would notice him. He found the place easily enough. He leaned on a tree, ash maybe, on her front lawn. If he stayed right there, nobody could see him from either side, nobody would know he wasn’t part of the tree, which was good, because what would anybody say if they saw him, wing-tips and suit-pants, shirt soaked in sweat, leaning on a tree in the front yard of a single woman, his hair stringy with sweat, small vomit stains on the front of his shirt, his face pasty. It felt like it anyway. Maybe another panic symptom.
He watched a shadow cross a window. OK, she was in there. That was all he needed to know. Because he’d decided now he didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but he knew where she was, that was what mattered, because he was going to do something about this, just as soon as he … there was something else, he was fairly sure. Oh, yeah, just as soon as he’d done something about the pipeline. Or the water supply. Or whatever the hell it was. Water supply, that’s what he’d forgotten. He needed more water in his belly, because he was going to … false alarm, just a heave. He was pretty sure his office was around here somewhere, there was water there. Maybe his office wasn’t down this alley, but there was a garage there, and a wall he could lean on for just a few minutes. And maybe if he sat down for a second, just to catch his breath, and that sound, oh God, it was Betty Wilson laughing, he’d know that noise anywhere. And Cathy Chandler was laughing with her, they must be in on it together. He was dying in an alley beside his lover’s garage, and they were inside laughing about it.
Cathy Chandler came back with another glass of wine, looked at Betty Wilson's feet on the coffee table, wondered if she could ask her to take her shoes off. Somehow there’d been the feeling all along that things would get back to normal after the election, after the council took office. All she had to do was figure out what things, and what normal was. Somehow she’s thought Wilson wrecking her furniture was only part of the campaign. She’d never expected to like the woman. But then you never knew how things would turn out with people.
“I think you ought to quit being mad at Bill Zaner, Betty. He did what he thought was the best thing. Maybe you should have told him you were going to nominate him.”
“I thought he knew.”
“I don’t think it works that way now. You can’t either one be sure what the other’s thinking because … I don’t know, because you’re having to think about things harder, in more detail. You’re both so much more serious than during the campaign, it’s like … well, I take that back. Bill’s not more serious, he’s just less boring.”
“I know what you mean. He talks more about how much water we’ll have in two years and less about variegated flow stages.”
“Oh, Betty, we should be ashamed. It’s not that funny.”
“James F. Conor’s not funny. I didn’t know who he meant for a minute.”
Chandler giggled into her wine glass.
“But then he couldn’t call him Jimmy, I guess,” Wilson went on. “He tells me I shouldn’t either. I guess he’s too important for that now that he’s mayor.”
“You’re too hard on him, Betty.”
“No, I’m not. He’d do anything for this pipeline. He’s not even thinking about any other choices now.”
“He just wants this over, maybe he’ll change.”
“You sound like you’ve talked to him.”
“Well. … Yes.”
“At his office, at the gallery, when we danced.” But not since then, she didn’t add. It probably wasn’t easy for him either.
“Oh, then you’re not …”
What the hell.
“Actually, we are.”
Wilson bolted upright on the sofa, the heel of her shoe dragging across the finish on the coffee table. She leaned toward Chandler’s chair and grabbed her arm in both hands. “You’re sleeping with him?”
“Well, we’re not sleeping.”
And then they laughed together. It was OK. Nobody could hear them. They could have been the only two people alive on the face of the earth.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d lain there. It was longer than few seconds, and while he’d had no sensation of passing time, he knew somehow that it had passed. A few hours perhaps. How do people know these things, he wondered. He hadn’t noticed the moon, and the stars looked pretty much the same. But he knew it had been a while. He was still sitting in a flower bed beside a garage, but he no longer thought he was going to die. That was one of the symptoms Gardner had told him about two months ago. Panic and doom. Now he was just cold. Not a night chill, possible even in a southern July, but cold. His shirt hadn’t dried out, although maybe he had. He got to his feet, weak but not unsteady, and almost leaned on a metal trashcan before he realized what it was. Suppose he leaned on it, he conjectured, and it fell with a metallic crash, and the police came to investigate. He could tell them he was just tomcatting. Conor turned and leaned on the side of the garage, smothering his amusement against the back of his hand. The spasms of laughter were like punches on muscles already sore from heaving. The ensuing cough felt sharp, tangible, in his throat. He was exhausted again, wanted to sit down, was afraid he might not get back up. He stood without leaning, his arms out for balance. He took a few tentative steps, his legs with each step like a guitar string somebody had just plucked. But at least he was just sick and weak and tired. At least he didn’t feel like he was going to die.
He just wanted to.
He noticed his dirty footprints on the driveway, wondered if she’d see them. He started down the sidewalk, slowly, tired, but at least not staggering. His office was, he was pretty certain, no more than five minutes away. In good conditions. He wasn’t. But there were trees along the way. The old part of town had trees. He could lean on the trees. And lamp posts. There should be somebody to watch this, to do something about it. Could just anybody stumble through a neighborhood, in the middle of the night, stagger across the streets, wobble through the alleys, lurch up the steps to his office? So he’d left it unlocked, why not, what was somebody going to do, break in and poison him, steal his blanket? God, the chief had probably inadvertently marked him. Conor had avoided her after the chief said she was still a suspect, and that had been just enough to make her angry enough, to make her crazy enough, to try to kill him, just like she had Jack Davenport. Some people take their politics too seriously, he thought. He looked around the office. The beer bottle still sat on the end table by the couch, warming under the lamp. Somebody could have walked in and drunk it, while he was lying in Cathy Chandler’s flower bed. The liability implications were staggering, and, at the moment, incomprehensible to him. The bottle cap was in the middle of his desk blotter, his jacket was still over the back of a chair.
The bathroom was still there. He threw water in his face, drank several handfuls. He knew there was an easier way to do this. A cup. There were coffee cups somewhere on … through a door, too complicated. A couple of buttons popped off the shirt as he pulled it over his head. He balled it up with his undershirt, stuffed them into the trashcan. The effort exhausted him, made it harder to think. Two sips. What if he’d drunk the whole thing? He was sure it had the right amount. Her makeup, her perfume, both always perfect. Measuring just the exact portion was probably second nature. The beer bottle. He stood by the lamp, held the bottle, wondered is he could rest on the couch for a moment. No. No couch. Pour it out. Pour it out because … wasn’t he destroying evidence? Of course he was, if he didn’t somebody might find it. Was that the kind of logic, he wondered, that made people put poison in beers, even good ones? Pour it out, watch in swirl down the sink, rinse the sink well, put the bottle in the trash can with the shirts. Wasn’t he an officer of the court? He tried to remember. Yes, he was, but one who’d just been poisoned. He wasn’t supposed to make sense.
He put the jacket on, no shirt under it, wondered what she’d think of the look. He opened the door into the hall, checked for his keys, made sure it locked behind him. He looked both ways down the hall. He knew he usually went right, to where his car was, but he’d gone left earlier. He tried to remember why … that’s right, he’d been pacing because he’d been poisoned. He wasn’t poisoned now, just tired, weak, and stupid. He’d just had a sip, because he hadn’t finished the beer. Probably shouldn’t drink the stuff. He very carefully put the trash bag in the dumpster, fished his keys out of his pocket, got behind the wheel. It didn’t look too complicated. Gas, brake, steering wheel. Start the car, turn on the lights, put it in gear. Piece of cake. He checked everything again, touched the gear shift, toed the brake. If he turned the lights on when he started the car, he would only need to worry about the gas pedal, the brake, and the steering wheel. That was easy. But there was moisture on the windshield, damned dew-point must be a hundred degrees in this humidity. How tough could it be? He’d thought faster than this, in court, at council meetings, he could think of a way around this. He opened the car door again, slowly edged out. He could do this. He made it to the dumpster, leaned on it while he caught his breath. He dragged the trash bag back out, dug out the rejected shirt, tossed the bag back in, froze while glass clinked. It seemed loud, but then everything did. He stumbled back to the car, rubbed dew off the windshield, off the outside mirror, around the edges of the driver’s window, under the … ah, the thing had wipers, he could have used those. Wipers, damn, what a thing to forget.
He hunched over the wheel, drove slowly, watched carefully. He knew he shouldn’t be behind the wheel, and would have to speak to Gardner about it if he wasn’t arrested. Where were all the cops? Not that it mattered, this driving thing was fairly easy. Easier than it had been when he drove Jamie to his friend’s house, what was it, two or three days ago? No, it was a few hours, odd how that works. But then he’d been through a lot in those few hours. He’d been poisoned, and he’d taken a walk, and he’d had a nap in a flower bed. Definitely a big night. He glanced both ways before driving through the final red light – never a cop around when you needed one – then rolled down the road to his cul-de-sac. It took forever to get there, the car kept wanting to drop into first gear at that speed. He wondered if cruise control worked at that speed, he’d have to make a note to check later, later when he got back up, because right now he was in his own driveway, maybe just a little off to the side, and he had the keys out of the car, so nobody could break into it and poison him, he knew he had to worry about that, and then he was in his living room and he managed to kick off one shoe, but that would have to do it, because he was falling on the couch, and he wasn’t going to move for a few hours, and he probably ought to take off his suit coat, but he didn’t think he could manage it, and anyway his dry-cleaning bills would be enormous.
“Damn, boy, you look like you been bleached.”
“It’s too early in the morning to be yelling, Charles.”
“It’s two o'clock in the afternoon, Jim. What the hell happened to you?”
“I got hold of some bad food, Charles. I’ll be OK in a couple of days.”
“You don’t look like it. Maybe this job doesn’t agree with you.”
“Charles, please keep your voice down.”
The curtains onto Main Street were drawn, and Conor had left only a single lamp on in the mayor’s office. What he hadn’t counted on was the sheer volume of Charles West’s voice. It was an odd effect, he thought, like watching someone talking into a microphone, then hearing the vastly amplified sound come out somewhere else. West looked as if he were talking normally, but the sound reverberated in the office. No, it wasn’t in the office that it reverberated, it was bouncing around inside his skull, because there was nothing else in there except the worst hangover anybody had every had, and after only two sips of a bad beer. As a matter of fact, what with driving to pick up Jamie, the Fourth of July events – he hadn’t had a beer since last Friday, after the party at Ashur Park. He hadn’t seen Cathy Chandler alone since … longer than that. Not that it had helped. No beer, no adultery, Jamie was home, he was mayor. Not a bad week except for his girlfriend trying to poison him. And some discomfort. He’d eaten everything in sight for an hour after he finally woke up, drank as much as he could hold.
“What the hell is wrong with you Jim? You’re white as a sheet, sitting in a dark room looking like you’re going to pass out and you’re laughing? We got serious business to do, you need to get a grip.”
“I got serious business, Charles. You can trust me to do it.”
He knew he hadn’t said it too loud. He couldn’t. But the old man’s face looked as if he had. Charles West sat down – no, fell down – into a chair across from the mayor, on the side of the desk he hadn’t sat on for a dozen years. “I can still help you, Jimmy.”
“I don’t doubt it, Charles. But maybe you’ve earned a break.”
“I don’t want one just yet. What are we going to do about this pipeline?”
Conor rolled the words around in his head for a few seconds. He hadn’t said them yet and didn’t have any real idea what they’d sound like. West wasn’t the best choice perhaps, but still. “I’m thinking we might go with the dam, Charles.”
“You’re thinking what?” It really hadn’t sounded like much, he had to admit, but West looked like he thought it did. “Damnit, Jim, do you have any idea what this town will be like without enough water?”
“What? A Wal-Mart goes somewhere else, a few more housing developments are built further out in the county? The world won’t come to an end.”
West leaned forward, ready to yell, then paused. It was fascinating to watch, Conor thought. He could watch West’s thoughts, as if they physically present on his face. He could see West’s efforts to stifle his temper, to control his words. He wondered if West had shown this level of thoughtful constraint during the campaign whether their roles would be reversed now.
“Jimmy, you need to think about what future you might want. You could be thinking about state senate, or even being mayor for a few more years. You can’t do that if you keep skipping around, changing your votes. People want consistency.”
“What skipping around are you talking about?”
“Well, the courthouse. You were with Simon almost until the last minute.”
Conor wished for a rewind button. The vote that he’d made to help West. The one Marlin Waters had hijacked.
“I thought you liked that vote, Charles.”
The old man knew he was being baited, but for once had sense enough to do something about it. “I’m not talking about what I wanted, I’m talking about what you did. Those people voting for Waters for state senate aren’t going to care how I wanted you to vote, they’re just going to think you can’t stick.”
“What do you think, Charles?”
“I think you need to make up your mind.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
“Well, when are you going to know what you’re going to do?”
“When everybody else does, Charles. I get to vote last, I get to decide last.”
“You need to decide now.”
“Why is that, Charles?” He said it as quietly as he could. But he wasn’t sure if it still mattered. The noise didn’t hurt as much. He was settling back, watching the argument happening to somebody else. The sound didn’t feel right, but it wasn’t that it hurt. It was just uncomfortable. Like skiing for the first time. Once you got used to it, you were OK. If he just thought about it for a moment, imagined he was sliding downhill, winter wind in his face, legs locked in a clumsy snowplow.
“You need to let people know what’s going to happen. That’s what a leader does, boy.”
“Not this one. We’ll decide and we’ll vote. At the meeting. Like we’re supposed to. After I’ve had time to think about it.”
“You’ve had time, Jim.”
“Not about just the pipeline. About how long the fight’s gone on. About the kind of community we’re turning into. Plus … I’ve got to find a way to work with these people, and I need to keep in mind that they did win the election.”
“You can’t decide these things without disagreement, Jim.”
“Disagreement’s one thing. Charles. We’ve let this thing get blown up to a fever pitch. Face it, nobody died. Nobody’s going to go thirsty. The world’s not going to end because I vote for the dam instead of the pipeline. We might have a couple of slow years, but either way we’re going to have plenty of cool, clear water, today and tomorrow. Yeah, we might wind up having this same fight again in a generation or two, but we ought to be on our knees thanking God that’s all we have to fight about. We don’t have to worry about whether we’ll have water, only where it’s coming from and whether we’ll be able to water our lawns regularly. That’s a luxury, and we’re treating it like a crisis. I happen to think who wins this fight is less important than having it over with.”
“You don’t think solving this for a century instead of a generation is important?”
“I’m saying that’s not where I’m drawing the line. Yeah, I’d rather go longer term with the next solution. But we also need to have this fight over. Something’s got to give.”
“And you’re the expert in giving in, is that what you’re telling me?” Conor found himself thinking he should be angry. But that disconnection again. He should be hurt by West’s criticism. He had trouble grasping that it applied to him. He wanted, just for a moment, to try explaining one more time what his reasons were for considering the switch.
“Go screw yourself, Charlie.”
West stood up, laid his hands on the desktop, leaned across. “I don’t have to take that kind of talk from you, Jim Conor. I made this town what it is. I had the ideas and the vision to do it, and now you’re telling me we’re going to stop short of the goal because you can’t take the heat.”
“Go to hell, Charles. Somewhere along the line, your vision became hard-headedness. And let me remind you that I’m mayor now, and I am taking the heat, and I’ve got at least two years left of this and you can decide right now whether you plan to have any credibility with me for those two years or if you’re going to spend it in the wilderness because you think disagreeing with you is a character flaw. It might be that I’m a coward, it might be that I’m a fool, it might be that I’m a politician. And it might just be that you’re wrong.”
Conor could see the older man pausing, hesitating over what to say next. That in itself was a triumph. He pushed on the desktop, eased himself back to an upright position.
“You enjoy those two years, Jim. Because you can forget about the state senate, you can probably forget about even getting reelected to this council. People don’t vote for ideology, Jim, they vote for spine. You’re going to see that more and more. People are tired of somebody always giving in. They want the line drawn, and they want somebody to stand on it. You look at what’s happened. You make abortion OK and thirty years later we’re killing babies. We get rid of the draft and now boys are afraid to get into fistfights. We took the leadership out of politics and turned it into a debating society and now you can’t get anything to last past the next election. You can’t make long-range decisions with that kind of waffling and you can’t do it with that kind of people.”
Conor tried to raise himself for a reply. There was so much there to answer. But somehow it all fell apart because he and Charles didn’t have the same threshold. West told him he could kiss his political career goodbye, and the first reply he could think of was, “Promise?” All he had to do was lose. And he could go out a winner. Just so long as he could go out. And if the rest of the argument rested on his not preserving his standing for a race he didn’t want to make, then how could he argue with it? Why would he want to? Besides, this fight had to end. It came down to who could end it.
If he looked hard enough, Conor could see it. Something behind the old man’s obstinacy. A plea, almost. And a self-hatred because he had to make it. Give him his due, Conor thought. He doesn’t even know he’s arguing for himself. He thinks he’s arguing for the city. He really doesn’t know the difference. I wonder if knowing will make me a better mayor? Something should, he was thinking, because the one he was now had just chased an old man out of his office. Charles West was scuffling, shambling out the door. Conor was thinking he should say something, and probably would have if the whole damned thing had had anything at all to do with him. But it wasn’t him. Maybe it was Betty Wilson’s fault, because she’d organized the marches on city hall, over a water line of all things, whatever happened to marching for peace and justice? Or maybe it was Cathy Chandler’s fault, she had after all, prepared most of their signs, color-coordinated at that, although that was probably the least of her sins. Charles West’s fault for letting the debate get so far out of hand, or Jim Conor’s for being too distracted about his wife, his girl friend, his son, his dead friend, his practice, his life.
It was nobody’s fault really. That is, there was nobody there who could have prevented it. In a perfect world, yes. But this wasn’t. Never had been. Conor wasn’t going to get mad. I’m so improved, he thought, I can plan that. I’m not going to get mad. Anger eats at the soul and doesn’t do anybody any good. I’m not going to get mad, he was thinking, but at the same time he knew, of course he was getting angry. He could tell. So could anybody around him, he guessed, although they wouldn’t say anything to The Councilman. No, that’s right, he was The Mayor now. He walked out the office door, looked at the sign on it: Mayor’s office. That made everybody even less likely to say anything. He turned around, looked at the reception area. He might as well get mad at those books. Three loose-leaf binders, ranging in size from just under two inches to one that was just a little bit bigger than a horse turd in the middle of the parade route right in front of a nervous 15-year-old bass drummer trying desperately to keep in step. And he was supposed to read all that? And know it, and understand it? That made a whole lot of sense he thought. About as much sense as standing here in the reception area of the city manager’s office getting mad at a pile of books, which he was pretty sure he was doing, because all the signs were there. Everything around him was quiet. He knew it wasn’t, because he recognized the signs, but he just couldn’t hear anything. And everything seemed to be slowing down. I could throw a tantrum and it would be over before all these slow-moving people even noticed, he was thinking. But he wasn’t mad at the books. That would be stupid. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. But those books were just sitting there, mocking him, and then they weren’t sitting there any more, because he was sweeping them off the corner of the desk with his hand, not that he was mad at them or anything, and maybe he swept a little hard because the top two weren’t falling to the floor like the bottom one, the biggest one, because instead they were moving up, which was how he knew he had swept them a little hard. As a matter of fact they were moving up and reaching the apogee of a long arc just before they got to the window, so they were heading down when they got to the window and it was a good thing he was angry, because that did make things move more slowly, meaning he could watch as the long window bowed slightly into the hallway and then was just ready to spring back in when the stress got to it and he could almost see the shock wave, then he could hear it, because all of a sudden he could hear everything, including the gasp when the secretary sprang to her feet behind him, which was silly since anybody could see the glass was heading into the hall. It was still shattering as it went, because it would shatter until it was through. There were certain rules to the way glass behaved, he knew that. It didn’t really stop shattering for a while, a second or so in real time, which didn’t count because he had to admit he was a little bit keyed up, although that was getting better because he could hear things again, and the glass was about to stop moving as it continued catching the lights and tossing them around, shame it was fluorescent, he was thinking, because a few glaring bulbs, or even better, a fire of some kind, would have made a better show. He tried to picture the secretary’s face if he set the trash can on fire and then threw the books, not that he’d really thrown them, he’d just pushed them a little hard, but he’d have to stop thinking about fire, because nobody would believe it was just an impulse if he took that kind of time, plus that would be dangerous, where this was just a broken window. That was just the kind of thing you had to expect sometimes from The Mayor. He hoped they knew that. That is, he hoped they knew they’d have to put up with that sort of thing now and then and that it was just a window. You had to expect that sort of thing now and then because the whole town was crazy now and he was The Mayor, for some goddamned reason.
Things appeared to be back to normal speed now he noted, and he could hear things just fine, like Gary Linden saying, “Call Ralph to fix that window,” but he wasn’t talking to Conor, who didn’t even know how to use the phones if he had to call Ralph, or anybody for that matter. Then, oddly enough, Linden was walking past him carrying a coat rack of all things, empty in summer of course, the big one, from the end of the couch in the reception area, and he was setting it down, then gave it a shove for some reason, and it could have broken the window, except that the window was gone, somebody ought to do something about that, Conor was thinking. “And tell Ralph to put that coat rack somewhere else. Somebody could get hurt next time,” he was saying to the secretary, although there was no expression in his voice when he said it, and there was no expression on his face as he walked toward Conor, walked right up to him with no more expression than a wax dummy and as a matter of fact Conor was thinking he’d seen people lying in caskets with more expression on their faces, walking right up to him until Conor thought he’d run right into him. He stopped a few inches away. He was looking right at Conor. “Go home,” he said, so quietly the secretary probably didn’t hear. “You’re what we got, Jim. Go home.” You’re what we got, but he could have been saying, You’re all we got, which may have been what he meant. Conor could see that Linden was upset about the window. Not that he could blame him. It would probably be hell getting the slivers of glass out of the carpet.
Conor glanced back at the secretary, who wasn’t looking at him, probably on purpose. The city manager was still looking at him. He knew what they were all thinking. What if there had been somebody behind the glass? But there hadn’t. Why not? Because he was lucky? Or because it wasn’t a perfect world? He’d have to think about that later. It really wasn’t a perfect world. Never had been.
Of course that wasn’t the books’ fault.
Conor stepped through the opening where the window had been. He ducked under one long shard that was still stuck in the moldings, and heard the secretary gasp again. Something crunched under his shoe as he headed to the steps. He hoped Ralph could get that cleaned up. Conor was thinking his head was finally starting to clear, and it was about time, because he had to decide something, West had been right about that. He felt light-headed going down the stairs, thinking he’d drive home and take a nap maybe, let Jamie stay one more night at his friend’s house. He had to decide something and he was pretty sure this was the time to do it, because he hadn’t had a beer in days, just the couple of sips, and he felt amazingly clear-headed for somebody who’d slept in a suit jacket, not this one of course, and drug himself out of a flowerbed in the wee hours, and had just broken a window in City Hall and told a defeated old man to go to hell. A confused person couldn’t do all that. So it would be a good time to make a decision. Whether he wanted his wife back, whether he should tell Bob Gardner he’d covered up an attempted murder and destroyed evidence for reasons he couldn’t quite recall, but might when he got over being poisoned, which really had put a crimp in his week. Poisoned by somebody who was still out there walking around, a danger to the community, which he doubted, because he was pretty sure nobody had anything to worry about except him.
Conor slowly screwed the cap off the beer, tossed it in the trashcan. He set the beer on the drain board and looked at it. He pulled another beer cap out of his pocket, looked at the crushed ridges on one side. He dropped it back in his pocket. Slowly he picked up the beer, lifted it toward his face. He held it under his nose, smelled the yeast, the hops, felt the alcohol inches from his throat. Then he held it out and turned his hand, watched it pour into the sink, listened to the splash, watched drops of it splatter onto the countertop. He supposed he could have left it there, behind the jar of mayonnaise, until he needed it – but at the moment he didn’t. They didn’t keep that well anyway, he thought; look what happened to the last one he drank. The last one? Maybe. He’d thought that before. He needed something to tell him this was it. Like bells. Bells? Conor tossed the bottle in the recycling can, wiped his hands on a dishtowel, moved to answer the door. He hoped it was somebody he knew. The phone calls and emails were enough. He didn’t want people coming to his door as well. Windows bracketed the door almost the same as the one he’d … the one the coat rack had fallen through. Only there was someone on the other side of this one. Hair tied back. Demure business suit. He had to be hallucinating.
She was turned slightly away from him, probably hadn’t seen him brush the curtain aside and look out. He could walk back into the kitchen, she’d never know he was there. She could stand there and ring the doorbell all afternoon. But she was probably dressed too well for that….
… too well for the middle of the afternoon, but she had to let him know how seriously she took this visit. She had to let him know that she hadn’t come here to his house, his and Karen’s house, to … well, for anything but to help him. As a friend, not as a … whatever they were. She was more nervous than she’d been in his office, even though … even though there was nothing to be caught at here, no chance anybody would open the door and see anything except … well, you never could tell.
She caught her breath when she saw him. His skin was the color of bread dough, whole wheat maybe, but not toasted yet. His pupils looked unnaturally dark, the blank glassiness of taxidermy. He looked … not sweaty, but clammy, as if touching him could make her sweat like he did, forcefully but without vigor.
“Cathy. What brings you here?” His voice wooden, like greeting somebody at the PTA when you don’t really know what to say to them. Not like greeting a stranger, but colder, treating somebody like a stranger who’s anything but.
“Gary Linden called me.” Face twisted into an expression of puzzlement for a second, but apparently an expression too difficult to hold.
“He did? Why did he call you?”
“Don’t be stupid, Jim.” It was like the mayor’s election all over again, he’d be the last one in Smithy to know. Did he think nobody at the park had seen them dance? …
… tired of dancing with her, but not ready to come right out and say anything. She had to be here for a reason, but if Gary Linden knew she was here, he had to be safe. Unless Linden was helping her – not a chance – or she really was crazy.
“Have you been … drinking, Jim?”
“No. I haven’t had a beer in days.”
“Oh, well. Good. That’s good.” What did she mean by that? Good that he wasn’t drinking. Good that he hadn’t found the bad one yet. Good that she had to come up with something else because the beer hadn’t worked, good that she welcomed the challenge to try again. “Can I … are you going to ask me in?”
“I guess I should.”
“If you’re worried about what it’s going to look like if I come in … it’s going to look that much worse if I’m standing out here.”
Poor phrasing, really, because she really looked pretty good, standing anywhere, so long as she could rock on her heels a little bit, move her shoulders as she talked, try to figure out what to do with the purse. He stepped aside, held the door, watched her walk by, caught the whiff of perfume. The suit was a dark blue thing, almost as dark as the black widow outfit she’d worn to Jack Davenport’s funeral. They moved into the living room, her eyes darting about, looking for signs of Karen maybe, or just figuring the way to whatever room they were headed to. She seemed to have as little idea as he did how to act. He wondered when she’d gone back to his office. After they danced, and he didn’t follow up? After the mayor’s election? While he was driving to pick up Jamie? He had no way to tell if it was personal or political – like this visit.
“Did you come to talk politics, Cathy?”
“I came to see if you’re all right.”
“I think I am.”
“Gary said you were … a little out of it.”
“Out of control?”
She shrugged. “You don’t look healthy.”
“I got hold of some bad food. I’ll be OK.”
“Jim … have you seen a doctor?”
“I’ll be fine.” He fell into the chair, remembered to wave a hand toward the couch. She perched on the edge, shifted her knees, laid the purse beside her, moved it to the coffee table. He wasn’t watching her so much as he was aware of her, sensing her with all the savage sonar he’d have needed thousands of years ago if they’d met on a middle European plain and he had to decide whether to kill her or drag her back to his cave. He didn’t need those instincts now. At least he wasn’t supposed to. The social compact, the conventions and organizations of society were supposed to protect him from the dangers he couldn’t figure out. The only catch was he had to use those conventions. He had to tell somebody what was going on. But he had to decide which instinct was stronger first.
“Jim, I’m not … I don’t know what to say to you.”
Which he had to admit was going to make conversation difficult, since he didn’t have much idea either.
“Whatever it is, Cathy, now might not be the time to say it.”
“You mean because … I can’t even guess what you mean by that.”
“Just that I’m … a little under the weather right now.”
“Under the … Jim, are you sick, or is this stress from being mayor, or all that’s happened, or what?”
God, he’d love to have her for a client. He’d never have guessed. Even now he wanted nothing more than to cross the room, sit down next to her on that couch. That’s probably all he could manage, but still. There was a weird thrill to it. She was sitting there. So he and Karen must be finished. Or else she wouldn’t be here, in what had been Karen’s house. Wouldn’t have been in his office. He wouldn’t have been in her gallery. Now he’d have to go to her house. Would David be in the room with them there the way Karen sat with them now? Would his dead spirit resent Conor the way Karen’s live ghost accused Cathy Chandler in his thoughts?
“Jim, I don’t know … I’m not sure what we’ve got, where we’re going. But I want to help you. I want to be there for you. If this is … you haven’t really spoken since the night at the gallery. We danced and all, but I was sharing you with so many people that night. If it’s politics between us … do you remember I said I might have to come out for the pipeline just to prove that wasn’t why I came to your office?” It wasn’t exactly a relief, he thought, to find that politics wasn’t why she’d tried to … maybe she hadn’t put a full dose, just enough to make him sick, because … because he wanted to believe that? Because if she had tried, and if it wasn’t over politics, then it was because she was so unstable she might … God knows what. “Jim, what are you laughing at?”
“I’ve been thinking about voting to begin the permitting process for the dam.”
“You have?” Her face a strange, almost unreadable mix of relief, worry, anxiety, pleasure. Relief because now she didn’t have to try again? But that didn’t make sense either, if she was thinking about backing the pipeline, unless that was a feint of some sort to make him relax – no need to worry about that. He was still too weak, too dizzy, to sort out the complications.
“I should have let you get away with it,” he groaned.
“You what?” She had stood up, God help him, he wanted to get up too, go to her. “I didn’t get away with a damned thing you weren’t a willing part of.”
So now it’s my fault, he thought, because I was drinking. The dizziness wasn’t clearing up, but he realized it wasn’t just the conversation. He got up, maybe said “excuse me,” headed for the bathroom off the front hall, barely made it. He vomited fiercely, then sat in the floor, flopped against the wall, feeling himself sweat. The half-bath was too small for him; standing up he could barely turn around. Muscles in his back and legs complained as he twisted around enough to get his hands on the sink counter, to pull himself up. He threw water in his face too hard, realized he couldn’t shake his head to clear it. He toweled off his face, brushed his teeth, wondered if she’d still be out there.
She was, standing uncomfortably in the middle of the living room, wondering if she could sit back down. “You’re really sick, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Bad fish will do that to you.” She didn’t flinch. Damn, she was good.
“Jim, can I bring you anything, groceries, medicine …?”
“I’ll be fine. But … well, thanks.” He should have kept the beer bottle, should have called Bob Gardner, what the hell was he thinking?
“I should go. … Jim, what you said … I mean, about …”
“About ….?” About the fish? Was she ready to talk about it.
“About voting for the dam?”
“Please don’t share that with Betty. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m probably doing it for the wrong reasons anyway.”
She looked at him quizzically, head cocked like a puppy.
“My voting for it would take the swing vote away from Marlin Waters. His being in a position to decide which way this goes makes him the most powerful politician in town right now. He doesn’t deserve to be.”
“When did you decide that?”
“Later than you’d think. And I almost made the situation a lot worse?”
She still looked puzzled. He realized she’d probably never really followed the politics of the whole thing, the motivations maybe, the images perfectly, but not the interactions. And that was what he’d been best at except … except when those interactions were making him mayor before he knew it, but other than that … it was almost a relief somehow. Finding out how little they were alike … maybe what had happened, at the gallery, at his office, was just at some level they’d slipped to because they’d once had something and now they’d both lost somebody. Maybe that wasn’t enough to reach past the differences in them – and no way could it reach past the fact that she’d tried to kill him. He wasn’t ready to say it out loud yet, but he needed to start thinking about it. His reaction last night, destroying the evidence, pouring it down the sink, could put his law practice in jeopardy. He’d somehow made them co-conspirators, separated him from the protections society had to offer him. He’d put himself out here with her, one way or the other, and he needed to start thinking about a way to get back. If he wanted to.
If she wanted to. She took a step closer, eyes locked on his, raised her hand to his neck. He remembered what it had felt like, having her hand there Friday night at the park when she pulled him close to whisper something, remembered how hard it had been not to react with all those people watching, oh god, there were probably cameras. She moved her hand, along the line of his jaw, lingering on a couple of the cuts he’d left removing the morning’s stubble, lingered at his chin, moved her fingertips across his lips. Did she have any idea how hypnotized he was, did she know any better than he did if he’d kissed her fingertips or just parted his lips?
She turned and was gone. He remembered wondering how he’d react to Jack’s killer. Now he knew.
“Didn’t you get my message?”
“I haven’t listened to the machine.”
“Since when?” Christian asked.
Conor took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
“There are sometimes a dozen messages on there at night, telling me what I should do about the pipeline. I can’t listen to them all.”
“Isn’t that part of your job.”
“Trust me, Mike, you wouldn’t listen to them either.”
“So you don’t really have any idea why I wanted to talk to you. “
“No. what’s up?” Conor vaguely wondered what other messages he’d ignored.
“I was hoping you could tell me. My reporter tells me there’s something major up with the PD?”
“I was hoping you could give me some. A big drug bust coming up? Some kind of sting? What?”
“I can’t help you?”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I said I'd be quiet about this one.”
“OK. You’ll help me when it breaks?”
“If I can. I may not know any more than you do.”
“You should. You’re the drum major now. I hadn’t had a chance to congratulate you yet.”
Conor and Christian were walking around Courthouse Square, Conor waving vaguely every time a horn honked, Christian ignoring everything but their conversation.
“Not quite right, Michael.”
“I shouldn’t congratulate you?”
“Maybe that too. But I’m saying I’m less the drum major and more the bass drummer.”
“The bass drummer?”
“Yeah. He’s the guy who really has the pressure on him. The drum major can wave his baton, or twirl it, or blow the damned whistle until he’s blue in the face and there’s steam coming out of the whistle. It won’t matter at all unless he has a good bass drummer. Because people are going to march and play in time to the bass drummer. The other drummers are going to follow him, and the rest of the band is going to follow the drummers. And if he doesn’t keep up a steady two beats a second, and keep his feet coming down twice a second, then the whole damned band is going to falter. And then the bells player is going to do a stutter-step to get back in sync, and if she’s a half-pace too slow the brass section is going to run into her from behind and depending on where some jumpy trumpeter puts his coronet, we’re facing a sexual harassment suit on top of everything else. Now that’s pressure.”
“Uh-huh. You’ll be happy to know that’s off the record.”
“Is it any wonder newspaper reporting lacks depth?”
Sunlight glinted off the window of the Shiva, bounced off the road and sidewalks, heat and light like physical objects. Conor stopped at a corner, caught his breath.
“I thought you were all better,” Christian said.
“Is this …?”
“Is it what?”
“You said you hadn’t had a drink for a week …”
“OK. I this some kind of … withdrawal thing?”
“I wasn’t drinking enough for that. I got hold of some bad fish.” Conor realized he’d been using that story so much he could almost picture the fish, sometimes a blackened catfish, sometimes a baked trout.
“Jamie didn’t eat any?”
“He was at a friend’s house that night. But thank you for your concern.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m glad you’re not drinking.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
“You’d rather not talk about it, then?”
Conor shrugged. “It seems so … five minutes ago.”
“Really? I’d heard that phrase was.”
“Who told you that? One of your reporters?”
“When was that?”
“He dropped by the newsroom earlier today.”
“I knew he’d fall in with bad company if I gave him the run of downtown.”
“He’s been worried about you. … Why are you laughing? Shouldn’t he worry?”
Conor shook his head. “That’s just so … so Jamie. His parents are breaking up and he’s worried about me.”
“He’s a good kid, Jim. And he’s got a pretty good grasp of what’s going on with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you don’t? Have a good grasp, I mean?”
Conor stopped, faced Christian. “Where are you going with this, Mike? Are you working on a story?”
“If I was, I’d already have one. I’m just wondering if you have your head on straight.”
Conor thought they must make quite the sight. He wondered how many passers-by could lip-read.
“Damnit, Jim, do you have any idea how annoying that is when you start laughing like that? And just once, I’d like to get a clear idea what you’re laughing about.”
“Sorry. I was wondering how many people driving by can lip-read.”
“Jesus. The existentialist giggle. Look, Jim, I realize you have been through a lot. But you’re also mayor of Smithy. And eventually the fact that the mayor of Smithy is going through a lot becomes a story. I’ve got that story if I want to write it.”
“Is it a good one?”
“The mayor, who got that way because one man died and another lost the election, is breaking up with his wife and there are stories about him and a pretty widow …”
“Where’d you hear that one?”
“Something about you dancing with her at the POP party Friday night. And Betty Wilson swearing she didn’t see anything later in the parking lot.”
“Why’d he ask her that?”
“He didn’t. That’s what made it so interesting. Let’s see, there’s a story about you getting mad and throwing a coat rack at Charles West. Plus whatever you had planned with the mayoral election and the pipeline. Plus the fact that you’re a recovering alcoholic who apparently fell off the wagon during all this.”
“Maybe you should report the stories.”
“It’s tempting, but I don’t have enough to go on. Do you want to comment?”
“So you can create stories by making me deny them. No thanks. But I might point out you don’t have half the stories. It gets better.”
“Oh. And when will you tell me?”
“When it’s not a story any more. Look, Mike, I gave you hints I might be leaving town. It put you in a bad situation. I don’t want to do that to you again. God know there’s plenty to talk about without me breaking confidences to give you stories.”
“No, I don’t want you doing that.”
“You’re just selfish.”
“You don’t want me to break confidences, because then you couldn’t trust me, and then you couldn’t be sure if you could use the stories I gave you.”
“I’ll admit there’s a pragmatic side to journalistic ethics.”
They’d started walking again. Conor left the sidewalk, walked toward the center of the square. Christian followed him.
“Were you ever inside it, Mike?”
“Yeah. I covered the Whittington case, remember?”
“No, I mean after the crash.”
“No. Security was pretty tight.”
“Yeah, we were seriously worried about liability suits. The fire chief was ballistic when Jack and I went through it.”
“I wish you’d taken a photographer along.”
“I’ll bet. It was quite the sight. We were standing on the door to the Circuit Court room, looking at the clock tower. It was in the middle of the courtroom on its side. Twelve o'clock was pointing to four o'clock and the sun was shining in. It made me dizzy. It was like being in the middle of an earthquake.”
“Uh. Sort of like your life right now.”
“Are we back to that?”
“That or the pipeline.”
“Tough room, Christian.”
They stood in the middle of the square, Conor looking at the buildings lining the square, Christian looking at him. They were calling it the pipeline issue, not the water supply issue. It sounded like it had been decided.
“You understand that if we go with the dam instead of the pipeline, it could retard development for up to ten years?” Conor asked.
“Because new businesses won’t come to a town with water problems?”
“So wouldn’t a few years cooling off period be good? That retail mess out around the mall, the student housing areas. Wouldn’t that give the city time to figure out where it’s going?”
“Smithy’s just not big enough to make that choice on our own. Growth of some kind is what cities do if they want to survive.”
“So when does that start changing?”
“When we’re big enough, strong enough as a city to dictate how we’ll operate. We’re not yet.”
“But to be a different kind of city – one that doesn’t chase growth and development – is that what you’re talking about?”
“It’s the other possibility.”
“To just let the city become an oversized college town, let somebody else get the retail business?”
“That would be the option.”
“And you’re seriously considering this?”
“I’d warn you off a bad story, Mike.”
Christian walked away a few paces, looked off toward the Bank Building, the C-A plant. “You’re floating a trial balloon, trying to get reaction before Tuesday?”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’m just trying to change the subject from widows and coat racks. Which would you rather write about?”
“I’ll think about it. But … Jim, are you OK?”
“I don’t know.”
“This woman … is she a rebound thing?”
“We’ve got some history. It’s a long story.”
“Does Jamie know her?”
“No, that … that may be down the road. I don’t know right now. First things first.”
“You’re either babbling or rambling. What’s first?”
“The water source.”
“Yeah. This time next week, it will all be settled.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK