For the umpteenth time, Lynn White glanced at the glowing red letters of the small electric clock angled towards her on the nightstand.
2: 57. As in a.m.
In one bedroom window, an ancient box fan hummed, its dusty plastic grill rattling in that annoying way it had. While that fan expelled stale, muggy, interior air, in another window, a newer fan sucked in the relatively cooler night air. A wooden-bladed ceiling fan whupped quietly in a counterpoint of its own.
The currents of the artificial breeze felt good. At least the humidity had dropped after the thunderstorm Friday afternoon. The hail had been pea-sized and made an incredible racket striking the aluminum siding. Luckily, Lynn had already finished work for the day and parked her car in the garage.
Inhaling a deep breath, she rolled onto her side. She gripped the thick pillow in one arm.
"You asleep?" she asked softly.
The shadowy, indistinct form that was her husband stirred. His side of the sheet had migrated to his waist. Though he sported a slight middle-aged bulge, Vic's stomach muscles still retained a hint of that definition he had worked so hard to achieve in college. His right arm lay across his face like some parody of a silent screen star protesting her fate worse than death.
"Yes," he mumbled.
Lynn smiled. "That's good."
A few seconds ticked by. "Still upset by what happened today?"
Twin tears welled involuntarily in Lynn's eyes. "Yes. Some."
Vic lowered his arm to his side. "Pretty strange."
"Yes." Reaching out, Lynn placed her palm on Vic's left biceps.
Fumbling, Vic captured her hand in his and offered her a reassuring squeeze. "Be okay."
"I know," Lynn said softly. She glanced uneasily at Vic's nightstand and the holstered -- and loaded -- gun he had pulled from its usually resting place in the drawer.
Just in case, he had said.
Just in case... Anger struggled with her fears. When they had finally moved from their modest first home and escaped the druggies and the traffic and the noise, she had rejoiced to discover this quiet, friendly, and safe neighborhood.
Too bad the night that had once been her healing cocoon no longer felt so reassuring.
The outrage percolating through her demanded to know how such a tragedy could have happened. Why did it happen? Who could possibly have wanted to harm such a nice couple as the Bergmans? As far as their children could ascertain, nothing had been stolen from the residence. Sandy had not been...raped. Just beaten unconscious. And Dave...
Poor Dave. Dead. The back of his head caved in by his own aluminum baseball bat, the same one he used in that softball league he invested so much time in during his busy summer evenings.
Lynn's stomach roiled. Nausea churned her middle into an annoying reminder of what could happen to any of them. To her. Vic.
"You all right?" With an effort, Vic shifted position until he faced his wife.
"I don't know. Yes. No." She tossed a hand in the air. "This is all very upsetting."
"Have you slept at all tonight?"
Silently, Lynn shook her head.
"Hmm." Vic sidled closer and draped an arm over his wife. He gave her a hug, holding her near. "Maybe you should visit your folks for a couple of days. Get away for awhile. Your clients can survive without you."
Lynn chewed on her lower lip. "I don't want to leave you here alone..."
Vic nuzzled her neck. "I'll be fine."
She smiled. "Hmph. You'll probably just watch movies all day. Or play video games! Eat pizza and ice cream and --"
With a tickling attack, Vic diverted her attention. "You know me too well."
Giggling, Lynn wiggled free from Vic's clutches. "Darn right I do."
Vic subsided and lay back on the bed. His interlaced fingers supported his head. "Really, though. Whoever had it in for the Bergmans won't be back. They wouldn't dare. The neighborhood will be on high alert. Plus the cops promised to cruise a car down here more often over the next few days."
"Lot of good that'll do. What? Once or twice a night? Still leaves eight or nine hours of no patrol."
"Well, they can't eat donuts all the time, can they?"
Vic's arms enveloped her again. "I know. That's why you love me. That and John."
Lynn glanced at the sheet below her husband's waist. "Is John awake?" Probing with her long fingers, she discovered that, indeed, John had risen.
"Can't sleep anyway, right?"
As Vic worked his magic fingers, Lynn pushed aside her worries as best she could. Still, even as she responded wetly to Vic's advances, she realized that his suggestion had merit. A person might not be able to escape her problems completely, but she could darn sure put them out of sight for awhile...
Lieutenant-Governor Abraham Franklin loved Sunday mornings. An early riser, he could wander about the mansion while his wife slept in. She would rouse sometime around nine. He, however, surged out of bed fully awake every day at five. As Inez so sarcastically phrased it, he came from a long line of "disgustingly cheerful" morning people.
Orange-gold sunshine filtered through the line of pine trees stretching across the eastern edge of the manicured grounds. Long shadows fought against the light, reluctant to surrender their domain to the swelling sun.
Clad in his thick, white terry-cloth bathrobe after his "ablutions" in the marble bathroom adjoining the master suite, Abe strolled into what he termed the "reception" room. Designed for more intimate conferences than possible in his formal state office, the space sported a leather couch tucked against one wall. Clustered to one side, a circle of plush, overstuffed chairs huddled invitingly. There, he and his aides and colleagues crafted their strategies, honed their tactics, and firmed their goals. There, he had established the momentum that he hoped -- no, that he knew -- would eventually witness his ascendancy to another mansion, one all in white.
A smile forced itself onto his full, photogenic lips.
He had imagined the scene a thousand times already. The crowds, the accolades, the admiration, the...opportunities...
Even though he would have a scant eight years to erect the edifice for his heritage, the foundations of his gift to mankind...human-kind...already spread throughout his state and the nation. Since Governor's Cross near-senility could no longer be concealed from a temporarily sympathetic public, he would run for the top spot in next year's election. Two, maybe three terms as governor, openly pushing his programs and complaining about the "shortsighted" national politicians, and he would reluctantly but bravely enter the presidential fray. Though he would proclaim that he much preferred to continue his service to the local citizens, he would make the grand gesture, the great sacrifice and run, sad though he would be to prematurely terminate his governorship.
In rare moments, he feared his opponents would uncover his secrets. If divulged at a crucial moment, such knowledge might derail his endeavors. That, he could not -- would not -- permit. Eventually, of course, the facts would become public. By then, however, he would be firmly ensconced in the ultimate seat of power. The precedents set by those who had ruled in Washington before him had softened the ground. Expectations pulsing in those infamous "average citizens'" brains moved them differently than in prior eras.
The Twenty-First Century promised far fewer complications when full disclosure became inevitable.
Until that moment, his people proved themselves the best every day. No matter what the assignment, no matter how unpleasant the task, he counted on them to smooth the ripples threatening to rock the vessel of state. In his own quiet yet efficient manner, Nate Deklen removed disturbances before they reached a clamorous level.
As a good chief-of-staff, Nate insulated him from unpleasantries, both internal and external. Image triumphed over substance in the current "instant media" atmosphere. Nate realized that and frequently transformed what could be ticklish liabilities into firm assets.
With a dramatic flourish, Franklin pulled open the French doors leading onto the stone-tiled patio. Inhaling deeply of the cool air, he sat at the intricately decorated iron-legged table nestled beneath the bower. As usual, his neatly laid out breakfast awaited him: a tall glass of orange juice; a small one of milk; toast and a jar of cherry preserves; two eggs, over easy (and too hell with the Feds' prohibition); three strips of crisp bacon; a quarter of a deep orange cantaloupe. While he enjoyed the smell of coffee, he rarely indulged except at functions related to his office. He did not require caffeine to jump-start his body. Indeed, he resented the aftertaste that coated his tongue whenever he had to imbibe coffee for appearances' sake.
Just as he finished his meal, Maria -- a "legal" immigrant from...Guatemala? Mexico? -- brought him the morning newspaper.
"Good morning, sir." Maria had worked hard to eliminate her telltale accent. Not all of the state's inhabitants appreciated the rising influx of foreigners. The critics made the usual arguments against "losing" jobs and increased welfare costs. Of course, the aliens primarily found employment considered "beneath" the dignity of the "natives"...and usually at wages far below the going minimum.
Franklin appreciated such perks indulged in by his wealthier backers. Many of his friends made sub rosa payments to workers of questionable lineage and enjoyed lifestyles higher than their nominal incomes might otherwise allow. Being in the public eye, though, he could no longer avail himself of such indirect savings. Still, with the state paying Maria's salary, her reassuring presence created no hardship for him.
"Good morning, Maria," he said cheerfully. "Send Mr. Deklen in when he arrives."
The chubby, middle-aged woman bobbed her head. Streaks of gray highlighted the black hair she had pulled into a bun. "Certainly, sir."
He watched her plump form retreat. As she eased shut the doors, he wondered idly if she had family. Every morning without fail, she arrived at her job, managing his household, directing the staff members under her eagle-eyed supervision. Her early-morning schedule had to wreak havoc on her home life. Did her husband and children resent the time she spent away from home. Did she have a spouse or offspring?
One of these days, he would have to ask her.
Turning to the financial pages, he traced the rise -- and occasional fall -- of his stocks and mutual funds. If not for the appearance of impropriety, his investments would all be soaring. A few losers shielded him from excessive scrutiny. Technically, such monetary matters rested in a "blind" account. Friends and influence overcame such obstacles and assured his financial future. When the time arrived for funding his presidential bid -- the governorship was, in this state, his for the asking -- he would have the means to swat any upstarts who dared block his ascendancy in the party hierarchy.
By the time he finished reading the stories of interest -- and noting the editorial slant of the day -- spears of sunlight dappled the glass-topped table where he sat. Stretching, he rose to inhale the heavy aroma of the peach, pink, and red roses clustered near the doorway. His nostrils dilated at the luscious scent.
Some advice he delighted in taking literally...
A delicate tapping on glass caught his attention. He straightened.
"Nate. Good to see you. Have a seat," he said, waving towards the table.
"Thanks." Nate strolled purposefully to the proffered chair, his dapper form the essence of competence. He waited for his superior to sit before joining him.
Pulling a sheet from a manila folder, he handed it across the table. "Today's schedule."
Without examining it, Franklin accepted the paper, folded it once, and tucked it into a pocket of his robe.
"How is our special project progressing?" the lieutenant-governor asked offhandedly.
His blue eyes narrowed a fraction at the brief hesitation in Nate's reply.
"Quite well, actually." Nate cleared his throat. "As you're aware, certain complications are inescapable in an operation such as this."
A corner of his chief-of-staff's lips twitched.
"We unearth new connections. Experience minor difficulties in completing aspects of some assignments..." He waved a small hand. "Nothing we can't handle."
Franklin nodded. He sensed problems but preferred permitting his underlings to resolve such setbacks themselves. Micromanaging every aspect of an endeavor such as this only undermined their confidence and authority. Better to leave the details to the experts. Better, also, to safeguard him from the occasionally too perceptive reporters who had not yet learned the true meaning of "journalistic integrity."
"Glad to hear that." He lifted a thick brow. "As long as those...difficulties...don't spiral out of control."
"Oh, no, sir!" Nate said, leaning forward. "We should have this wrapped up within a couple of months. After that, we'll simply need to keep our ears tuned to any subsequent...aftershocks...if you will."
With minute precision, Franklin adjusted the position of his breakfast plate. "You should have all the assets and authority you require to finish this. If any of those 'complications' should suggest other resources necessary to continue the work, be sure to come to me soonest."
Franklin tapped a well-manicured index finger on the glass top. His eyes slid up to meet the intense gaze of his subordinate. "How goes the move to ease Cross from office?"
"I've contacted a number of the top physicians and psychiatrists in the state. They are well acquainted with the general parameters of the situation. When the appropriate time comes, they are fully ready to act swiftly and without hesitation."
"Cross's dignity will be respected..." The statement came with the faintest whiff of a threat.
Nate nodded. "Of course, sir."
Franklin tilted back his head and watched the oak leaves sheltering the patio rustle in the faint dawn breeze. "He helped me a lot in my early days. Brought me along to the capital. Taught me how to play the game." A frown lowered a corner of his mouth. "Too bad this had to happen." He caught Nate's eyes. "He deserved better."
Nate's lips firmed in silent affirmation.
"Anything else?" A thought struck Franklin. "What about Mrs. Franklin?"
Nate smiled. "Maria has her schedule in hand. Mrs. Franklin has lunch plans with the members of the state historical society. This afternoon includes a dedication of a children's arboretum at the Maple Creek nature center. Tonight she's attending a birthday party for the speaker's wife."
Franklin's head rocked gently up and down. "Good. Good." Pushing back his chair, he stood.
At the implied dismissal, Nate quickly rose.
"I may be...off-line...for an hour or so later today."
Nate's features paled. "Yes, sir."
Escorting Nate to the outer door of the reception room, Franklin wrapped a muscular arm around the other's shoulders. "I appreciate your work, Nate." He squeezed gently. "In the not too distant future, you'll be rewarded handsomely. Don't ever forget that."
"No, sir. I won't."
Closing the door behind Nate, Franklin headed for his large, walk-in closet. He knew he could rely upon his chief-of-staff implicitly. If he ever decided otherwise, that very important position would be empty before Nate could even blink an eye.