Vic White blinked away the stinging tears welling in his eyes. The tiny images on the nine-inch kitchen television blurred. He knew better, though, than to rub at the pain.
"Damn chilies," he muttered. He loved homemade salsa but could do without the mess. Manfully, he continued slicing the long, green garden salsa peppers. He had harvested a good handful earlier in the morning from the chipped, clay pots arrayed on the back deck.
The granite counter top swam in a sea of red juice and slippery seeds from the tomatoes he had already chopped up. The ragged pieces sat in a lopsided mound in the two-quart orange plastic bowl he used for these summer concoctions. As best he could, he ignored the low-key burning sensation in his fingers.
If Lynn saw him working again without gloves, she would doubtless shake her head at his obstinance. Vic knew what he should do. He hated the bother, though. The yellow rubber of the gloves robbed him of the tactile intimacy of salsa preparation. Besides, with the incipient arthritis he had inherited from his dad, the chemical heat should be a positive. After all, didn't they use capsicum -- the heat producing ingredient in hot peppers -- in a number of arthritis rubs? His way, he received the benefit directly, sans middlemen.
A muffled thump filtered through the noise of the Saturday afternoon movie he watched. Vic glanced up and around, his razor-sharp paring knife poised in mid-slice.
The sound did not repeat.
Vic shrugged. Probably one of the neighborhood teenagers slamming his car door. They had been so much cuter as children playing their anarchic games and bouncing perilously on the trampoline down the street. Full of hormones and cocksureness now, the Wilson kids and the Belden boys lacked a bit of that...quaintness...that had made them a joy to know. Between their booming car stereos and souped up engines designed to impress...somebody...Vic found it difficult to hold his tongue.
Especially on a Saturday when he wanted only to relax and to be left alone.
Scraping the thinly sliced pepper strands from the maple cutting board and into the bowl, Vic caught a glimpse of a familiar song. He grabbed the stainless steel rectangle he used to remove offending vegetable oils from his skin and rubbed it like a metal bar of soap along his fingers and palms under cold water. Lynn often raised a skeptical brow at his small indulgence. The birthday gift his mother had given him seemed to work, though.
Vic glanced over his shoulder as the commercial for the "Guardian Card" played through. He frowned. He hated their jingle. The catchy and omnipresent tune dug its nasty claws into his brain and refused to let go. Good advertising in the sense of product recognition, he supposed, but he wondered how many other people felt as he did and avoided any exposure to those slogans as best they could.
Shaking his hands to remove the worst of the water, he stepped to the far counter and pushed the off button.
Blessed silence descended upon their newly remodeled kitchen.
The tooth-grating peel of tires burning rubber cut across the calm.
Vic thinned his mouth. "Goddamned kids..."
Sometimes he wished he could afford a house in the country far from everyone. A few hundred acres. Heck, make it a few thousand as long as he was dreaming. A good fantasy cost no more than a mediocre one.
A thousand acres. A big, ten-thousand-square-foot house with wraparound porch and veranda. Maybe a courtyard in the middle with a large fountain and pool. Tropical trees and plants. A retractable roof, maybe. For sure, an enclosed Olympic-sized swimming pool so Lynn could swim at home rather than heading to the Y as she had that morning. Gardens: flower and vegetable. Trails in the woods. Tennis court (though he hadn't taken up a racket in years). Big shop filled with tools for those woodworking projects he'd never gotten around to; enough to make even that bearded guy on TV envious.
A distant wail of sirens intruded into his ponderings.
The insistent caterwauling dopplered higher and grew in intensity.
Wiping his hands on an old towel, Vic headed for the front hallway. More curious than alarmed, he opened the heavy, metal door and stepped onto the small porch.
While he had a passing acquaintance with a number of his neighbors on this dead-end street (thanks to a yearly block party), he could not claim great familiarity with any of the people populating this older development. Somewhat asocial by nature, Vic had more than enough interests of his own to occupy his time. While he enjoyed -- usually -- getting together with friends and such, he felt no great urge to socialize and didn't overly miss it when left to his own devices. Since marrying Lynn and watching his friends scatter to all corners of the country, he had grown used to his involuntary solitude.
He blinked as a fire truck roared down towards his home, the last one on the block. Involuntarily, he glanced at the roofs of the Wilsons and Beldens. No smoke. With a flash of alarm, he peered up at his own black-asphalt roof.
An ambulance chased the fire truck, its red and white lights painting pale, smeared swaths of light across the fronts of the homes it passed. Close behind it barreled a pair of police cars, the whooping yells of their sirens dying suddenly before the drive of Dave and Sandy Bergman.
Other neighbors attired in their summer shorts and tees stood on their lawns observing the unaccustomed commotion. Crossed-arms and nodding heads signaled both their concern and their interest.
Vic waved at the Centallis who returned the gesture.
Two husky paramedics emerged from the ambulance. Quickly but not hastily, they extracted a stretcher from the back of their vehicle and made their way to the Bergman's front door. The police officers -- one graying, older man, one younger woman, her brunette hair confined in a pigtail -- trotted across the recently mowed yard. Small yellow signs stuck along the edge of the grass warned of a chemical treatment. The cops ignored the flags.
The faint throbbing of his fingers reminded Vic he had a job to finish before Lynn completed her weekend errands. He turned and headed for the door.
A glimpse of motion in the corner of his eye diverted his attention. He paused, fingers around the knob, and saw the paramedics emerge with their stretcher between them. Bright red streaks smeared the once-white cover sheet. While Vic could not clearly make out the features, he knew that had to be blood splashed across Sandy Bergman's face.
A chill knot congealed in Vic's middle. His pulse accelerated as the jarring vision that could not be real but was branded itself into his mind. When the paramedics slammed shut the rear ambulance doors and sped off towards Mercy Hospital, he did not know whether to be relieved or further alarmed.
Did the ambulance abandoning the scene mean that Dave was...what? Dead? The perpetrator of the attack on Sandy? Not home?
Acting on impulse, Vic started towards the Bergman's. Before he had gone more than a few steps, the kitchen phone rang.
"Damn it!" Probably a stupid telemarketer.
Hurrying inside, he grabbed the white receiver from its cradle. "Hello?" he barked.
"Hey, what's the matter?" Lynn's voice. Annoyance battled with caution. "Something wrong?"
Vic inhaled a shuddery breath, tried to speak, and cleared his throat. "Sorry. Sorry," he said, lowering the volume. "I just... They..."
"What is it?" Ratcheting worry mounted in his wife's words.
Shaking his head, Vic tried again. "It's the Bergmans. They..." His free hand waved ineffectually. If he ever bit the bullet and installed a televideo connection, that old habit of his of gesturing while on the phone might even come in handy.
"Are they all right? I just spoke with them on Wednesday. They seemed fine then. Are they --"
"I don't know, I don't know. An ambulance came. Must have been a 911. Fire department and cops came, too. They took Sandy to the hospital."
"Oh, dear... Heart attack? Stroke?"
The image of that ravaged face loomed before his vision. "No. No, I don't think so." He massaged his forehead. "There was... She was... Blood. On her face."
"How the hell should I know?" Vic clenched his teeth as soon as the words escaped him. "Sorry. I'm just..."
But Vic could hear Lynn struggling to contain her own anger at his outburst.
"No sign of Dave," Vic said, clamping down on his agitation. Wishing he had grabbed the portable in the family room, he walked as far as the cord permitted. It did not quite reach the front hallway. "I don't know what happened or if Dave is involved or hurt or... Christ! It's Saturday morning."
"Have you asked the neighbors yet?"
"No. It just happened." Whatever "it" was. "I'll go check and get back to you. You're on your cell?"
"Yeah. Let me know as soon as you find out."
"Sure. Say, you called. What did you want?"
"Oh. Just wanted to remind you I was going to the mall before coming home. I'm supposed to meet Karen for tea at the book store. I'd call her, but you know how she feels about cell phones and such."
"That's all right. Nothing you could do here, anyway. Might as well enjoy your tea. I'll let you know what I find out."
Replacing the receiver, Vic headed again for the door. Before he reached it, the bell rang.
John Wilson's portly form stood on the concrete porch, his gaze shifting towards the scene of the action.
"Hey, John," Vic said, joining his neighbor outside. "Heard anything yet?"
"Hi, Vic." John shook his balding head. "What a shame. What a damned shame."
Vic lifted a brow.
John hooked a finger over his shoulder. Sweat stained the armpits of his bright blue golf shirt. "They took Sandy to the hospital."
Vic nodded as patiently as he could. John had a tendency to ramble. He worked at a local media firm. Public relations.
"I managed to overhear the cops talking with the fire guys." He blew out a breath.
"What did they say?" Vic asked, hoping to nudge his neighbor along.
"Oh." John blinked sweat from his eyes. "Awfully hot for this early in the day."
"Yes, it is." Vic waited a beat. "What did they say?"
"I've known them for nearly twenty-five years. Hell. Our children grew up together. My oldest, Charlene, dated their Petey for a few months."
Gently but firmly, Vic grabbed John's upper arm. "What happened, John?"
The ruddy color flushing John's face drained. "He's dead," he said with sober matter-of-factness. "Dave's dead. Beaten to death."
Vic dropped his suddenly heavy arm to his side. His eyes darted to the scene of the crime. "Dead? Murdered?"
Somberly, John nodded. "Looks like it. Hell of a note. Neighborhood like this. Sweet folks like them." Without a word, the potbellied PR director started walking away. Halfway across the street, he called out over his shoulder. "Better lock your doors and windows tonight. None of us are going to feel safe until they catch the nut who did this."
Retreating into his home and snapping shut the recalcitrant dead bolt, Vic could only agree with that dire assessment.
In the quiet of his own thoughts, the detestable music of the Guardian Card clamored for his attention.
Absently, Mel Youst gripped his knees. With practiced skill, he concentrated on slowing his breathing. No matter how often mishaps occurred, he still could not clamp down quickly enough on his emotions. Not like Chad. His heart thudded against his ribs in heavy counterpoint to the pulse thrumming in his ears. The weight of his gun in its shoulder holster dragged on his left side.
The suburban landscape melting past the car windows barely registered on Mel's awareness. Patiently, he waited for Chad to settle down. He knew how pointless -- and dangerous -- it could be to intrude into his partner's moods.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
Bit by bit the stress from this fiasco drained from his limbs. Loosening his fingers, he held his hands an inch above his legs. The trembling would not be noticeable to a casual observer.
Not for the first time, he wondered if it wasn't time for him to retire from this business.
Easing into the leather bucket seat, Mel shifted his gaze towards Chad.
Blood still suffused Chad's gaunt cheeks. Blood from the Bergmans speckled his tense face and dotted his gray suit, red tie, and pink shirt.
No one had ever accused Chad of enjoying a fashion sense.
With narrow-eyed intensity, Chad fixed his gaze on the street ahead of them. Gradually, he eased up on the gas pedal. The speed of their sedan slowed to a few miles over the posted limit. His white fingers lessened their strangle hold on the padded steering wheel. After another block of middle-class homes drifted behind them, Chad sniffed, a sure sign he had returned to the land of the living.
"Fucked that up bad," he said matter-of-factly.
Mel raised a brow.
"Christ," Chad said, his voice bordering on a snarl. "How are we supposed to do our job if they can't get us the right information?"
Mel let that rhetorical question pass.
"The bitch shouldn't have screamed." Chad glanced sidelong at his cohort. "You know I can't stand to hear a woman yowling."
"I know," Mel said conversationally.
Chad's lips thinned. His right fist smacked the wheel. "Damn it! Now we have to go back."
Wearily, Mel reflected on the accuracy of that assessment. Regardless of who had screwed up the street address, he and Chad still had to finish their assignment. Now White would be alerted. Maybe. Probably.
He forced a smile. "You know these guys. They always think the bad things happen to someone else."
Chad mumbled something under his breath. A beat passed. "We've got a reputation. Crap like this doesn't help."
"Not our fault." Mel knew Mr. Deklen would be sympathetic. He understood. He always understood...as long as you eventually succeeded. Failure could generate other...responses. "We'll consult with Mr. Deklen. See how he wants us to handle this."
"Yeah, yeah." Chad tapped the brake.
From the corner of his eye, Mel saw a police car zoom by. The officer inside paid the two men not the slightest attention.
Chad grinned toothily. "Sure enjoyed the Milan job, though."
You enjoy every job, Mel thought but did not say. He knew better.
A quick bark of laughter broke from Chad's lips. "Bumping a guy on a motorcycle... What a slick way to take him out. No helmet, either." Another smile. "Brains all over the highway. He won't be talking ever again."
Mel winced. The picture of Kent Milan careening and skidding across the concrete, his blond head dragging along the rough surface at sixty-miles-an-hour. The ragged streak of red marking his path towards death...
Chad had slowed briefly to observe his handiwork then driven off humming an off-tune melody. The messier the better.
"No," Mel said quietly. "He won't."
"Wonder what it was he knew?"
Mel shrugged. "Hard to say." He figured that in his line of business, ignorance was bliss. Tally them up. Check them off. Who cared why? "Why" only got you into trouble.
Mel glanced at the in-dash clock. Almost noon.
"Gettin' hungry?" Chad asked. "I am. Where do you want to eat?"
Mel resisted the urge to roll his eyes. That would set Chad off, for certain. As for food... His stomach gurgled at the thought.
"Probably should get you cleaned up first, don't you think?"
Chad surveyed his front then peeked into the rearview mirror. "Guess you're right. Don't want to have to explain this. We'll head for the hotel."
Propping his elbow on the car door, Mel rested his head on his palm.
What really sounded good was a vacation. A nice long one away from Chad, Deklen, and that whole menagerie.
That choice, however, was not his to make.
A shaft of late-afternoon sunshine slanted through Nate Deklen's tall office windows. The yellow-white light washed across his crowded desk. Piles of bulging folders, fat books, and scattered papers buried the polished oak surface. An unfinished cup of coffee -- two sugars, two creams -- in a red, ceramic mug decorated with cacti that his wife had picked up at some art store in Santa Fe last year rested neatly on the stone coaster she had purchased as a Christmas gift. He didn't care much for the mug's design, but if Bernice ever came to visit him, she would ask about it. Easier to have it readily visible.
Nate squinted, frowned, then stood.
Smoothing out his neatly pressed, hand-tailored suit, he strolled towards the window. He grasped the cord to close the heavy, brown drapes. On the lawn surrounding the lieutenant-governor's office, a nondescript Hispanic gardener in blue overalls and red baseball cap rode a green lawn mower. The profusion of colors did not register with Nate.
For a few seconds, he watched the grounds keeper weave his intricate ballet among the trees, bushes, and flowers adorning the lawn. Nate's gaze lifted to the governor's office building across the street, half-again the size of that occupied by his boss.
Soon, he thought. Very soon.
Slowly drawing the curtains closed, the lieutenant governor's chief-of-staff returned to his work.
A discrete knock tapped at the door.
"Yes?" he asked, subconsciously cocking his head.
The door opened a few inches, just enough for his secretary, Janice Plotz to squeeze her head through.
"A couple of..." Janice peered over her thin shoulder. "...gentlemen are here to see you. Misters Youst and Lehman. They said you were expecting them?"
Nate pushed back from his desk and nodded. "Yes," he said, waving a hand. "See them in."
Warily, Mrs. Plotz eased open the door. Her jaundiced eyes weighed the pair who pushed past her into Deklen's office and found them wanting.
Nate smiled indulgently. "Thank you, Mrs. Plotz. That'll be all."
"Hmm." She lifted her chin ever-so-slightly and shut the door behind her.
Chad jerked a thumb behind him. "Christ, what's with that old bat? She acted like we were going to rape her or something."
Nate's expression hardened. "I would strongly suggest you watch your mouth, Mr. Lehman."
Chad's smile drooped into neutral. "Yes, sir."
Nate knew his operative did not relish being reprimanded. Indeed, the volatile Mr. Lehman undoubtedly fantasized that very moment about slicing his boss's throat.
Nothing to worry over. What mattered was that the crude-mannered lout obeyed orders without question. Luckily for all of them, though, Mr. Youst accompanied the big-boned blow-hard on all his forays. Somehow the meeker of the two managed to keep Mr. Lehman at least tenuously tethered to reality.
Skipping the pleasantries, Nate said, "I heard what happened." Pointedly, he sighed. "Not what I've come to expect of you two."
"No, sir," Mr. Youst said hurriedly.
"Still, a good supervisor does not expect perfection...though, of course, that is precisely what he must constantly strive for."
"Yes, sir," Mr. Youst said mechanically.
Nate examined the gold pen the governor had awarded him for ten years of service. His initials -- NJD; Nathan James Deklen -- adorned the barrel in elegant script. "I've received no communications as of yet from Mr. White. I'm beginning to wonder whether he realizes precisely what it is he has uncovered."
"No concern of ours," Chad said.
Nate smiled. "One thing I've always admired in you, Mr. Lehman: bluntness. Almost to the point of insubordination. But never quite over the line."
Uncertainty danced across Chad's features. "Uh. Okay..."
Carefully, Nate placed the pen across the report he had been studying. He steepled his fingers and gazed across their tips at his underlings. "You are quite right, of course, Mr. Lehman. The rationale behind your missions are irrelevant. Indeed, they might well interfere with the completion of your tasks." Though empty chairs sat at angles to his desk, he did not ask his visitors to sit.
"We know that certain...documents...found their way into Mr. White's possession," Nate said. "As the state archivist, many items of interest are delivered to him for cataloging and entry into data storage. These particular items, though, contain...privileged...information we are not yet prepared to release. The sensitive nature of these salient facts precludes us from sharing them. The Lieutenant-Governor would not be amused should he discover the sloppiness of certain guilty parties in this affair."
In his own subdued approach, Lieutenant-Governor Abraham Call-Me-Abe Franklin put even the inestimable Mr. Lehman to shame.
"We know he took the documents home. We can surmise he has yet to examine them...or we would have heard from him already. We can guess he will study them before he returns to work on Monday morning. Do I make myself clear?"
Both men nodded.
"Good. Good." Nate lowered his gaze to the paper before him. "I'll expect this venture to conclude as have the others."
When he heard the door close, Nate permitted himself a real sigh. Despite his show of calm leadership, he realized how much lay at stake in this not-so-tiny blip. If Mr. Vic White unearthed the truth buried in that internal memorandum, Abe Franklin -- and Nate Deklen -- would never make the move across the street to the governor's office. And if they failed in that quest, then all they hoped to accomplish for the good of their state would never come to fruition. If those plans blew away in blackened ashes, then Franklin's implicit dream of capturing the presidency would likewise disintegrate. With it would vanish all hope of implementing their maturing programs on a national level.
Such a catastrophe could not be tolerated. Essential goals could not be blithefully abandoned. A single mishap committed by some lowly file clerk stumbling upon an envelope tragically mis-routed to an undistinguished public servant had to be corrected. His future...their future...the country's future depended upon that.
With determined resolve, Nate settled his troubled thoughts and dug into the latest report detailing the blueprint for their projected strategy.
Delegate and rely upon your subordinates. The aging and half-senile governor Daniel Cross relied upon Abe. Abe relied upon his chief-of-staff, Nate Deklen. Nate relied upon Chad Lehman and Mel Youst.
And Mr. Vic White...?
He could rely upon the end of his life sooner than he could possibly realize.