Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Freemasonry of the Brush

 


Sitting, sipping coffee and reading a book, in a warm house with a cold, sun-sharp windy April afternoon blowing and glaring outside, with nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do, feeling truly at home for the first time in years. Not visiting, not commuting, not counting down the days until the next slog up 95 and the long groaning churn of the ferry ride across Nantucket Sound, but simply living, secure and settled. Back to work again on Monday, after the long Easter weekend, but that’s fine. It’s work I know and even enjoy. The ease with which I slipped into this new painting crew, side by side with the gang of tough old carpenters, surprised me a little. I always knew that painting houses was a trade I could take up anywhere, but this is more than a job. The building trades have their own lively Freemasonry, and it’s as effortless to talk about favorite brushes(we all favor Wooster) and despised “luxury” paint brands (I’m looking at you, Farrow & Ball) as it was to chat about point-of-view or image patterning with a friendly stranger in an MFA dining hall.

The world of the construction site is so familiar, with the universal tang of sawdust, the tangled snakes of power cords, the grinding saws, and the bad music, that it hardly seems like you’ve come to a new place at all. Even the characters remain the same: the seldom-seen but exigent GC; the strutting and hilariously self-important architect,  the demanding but oblivious owners; the same fuck-ups and epic stories of fuck-ups past. There’s the inevitable cabinet maker with OCD, the painter with the drinking problem, the landscaper waiting for his green card. We all understand each other, we’ve all been there and we’re all still here. I feel like I could join a crew in Athens or Tokyo or Helsinki and it would be the same. It’s a fraternity and you have to earn your place in it. The quiet look of approval the first time you cut a ceiling or glaze a window tells you what you most want to know – not that you can do the job, but that you’re welcome to the club. You’ve already paid the dues, in spilled paint and broken panes of antique glass, in the twenty-hour weekends ahead of the furniture or the floor guys, in the all-nighters under the halogens to get that final check before Christmas.

It’s nothing special – just another day on the job. We’re all in it for the long haul, picking up where we left off, stripping it off to put it back on, finishing the job, and starting the next one. It’s a living, and surprisingly, I realize after more than thirty years,  it’s a life.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Character Connundrum

 




Scrolling through TikTok’s array of writing experts, and trying to absorb their tips about character development, I’ve become increasingly baffled. Their advice bears no relation to my own experience. I’ve never used a white board or a flow chart, never listed personality traits or ginned up a biography, complete with childhood traumas. In fact, I believe that real writers have all their characters already inside them, fully formed but inert. The act of writing brings them alive and leads them out of the shadows, with no analytical thinking and technical trickery required. You just need to trust your unconscious mind, which does most of the heavy lifting, anyway.

All my favorite characters have ambushed me, wrenching the narrative into a new direction which turned out to be the inevitable way the story was meant to unfold from the beginning. Who knew? Not me. A runaway 16-year-old boy named Rickey Muller upended my new thriller  “White Crow” … and then somehow became the crucial centerpiece of the plot and the novel’s moral compass. I fought it for a  while, but finally I was smart enough to give in. His traits, his biography, his “character arc”? Those I discovered in the course of the book, just as the reader will. Rickey led the way; I just paid attention. This somewhat nerve-wracking renunciation of control made the book more fresh and lively, with an improvisational edge that I would have been hard-pressed to construct by will power and conscious thought. The stigma of mechanical engineering, the smell of engine oil and metal shavings, rises from that mass of online instruction -- all those computer programs and structural guidelines, all those tricks and gimmicks and hacks. Forget about them. Your characters are all inside you. Just let them out -- and let them take over.

You’ll be glad you did

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Nantucket Plunder, A Henry Kennis short story

 





Mike Henderson was in trouble again.

His brushes with the law had never amounted to much – in fact they had become a small private joke between us. The time he managed to give himself the best possible motive and no alibi for the most notorious murder in the island’s history, or the time he was seen walking away from a murder scene with what looked like blood all over his hands. He was cleared both times – coincidence and paint.

            But this was different. This was serious.

            Five customers had filed theft reports on houses where Mike had been working over the winter. They’d arrived for the summer season, opened their houses and found things missing. The five lists together made an impressive inventory: Tiffany silver, Reyes lightship baskets, a stash of Kruggerands. And there was a startling amount of original art gone missing: Rauschenberg collages, Jim Dine hearts, Hockney swimming pools, along with several pieces of Stickley furniture and collections of Staffordshire dogs and Rookwood pottery.

            “This is no smash and grab break in artist,” Haden Krakauer said after I finished going through the missing property lists. My assistant chief was shrewd and cynical and he knew the island much better than me. He grew up on Nantucket and knew everyone and their families and their family scandals going back three generations. “This is a connoisseur. These robberies were curated.”

            “So ignore the usual suspects?”

            “Well …”

            Neither of us wanted to be accused of profiling but the fact remained that most of the house robberies on the island were committed either by drunk high school kids who had the alarm codes or by desperate immigrants trying to keep up with the rent, the food prices or a shiny new all-American opioid addiction. It could be a landscaper from Jamaica, a mason’s apprentice from Ecuador, a bus boy from Belarus – single or married, with kids or without. But those thefts all had a common accent, a familiar grammar -- like English spoken badly. Those thieves stole bling and electronics – Apple Watches and X-box systems, flat screens and costume jewelry. Lots of fake diamond rings and pearl necklaces along with the occasional valuable item, because they didn’t know the difference.

            This guy knew the difference. This was an educated, discerning thief who had access to the most well-guarded and expensively alarmed houses on the island. Which narrowed things down drastically – that was what Haden meant.

            “I need the next list,” I told him. “The list with the names of everyone who worked on those houses over the winter. Put Kyle Donnelly on it.”

            It took Kyle a few days, leveraging a lifetime of island contacts to pry information out of the close-knit community of builders and contractors. My friend Pat Folger had put up a guest cottage for one of the burglary victims; Billy Delavane had built the custom staircase. Kyle got a list of all Folger’s subs -- from electricians and plumbers to plasterers and painters.  The other houses had no large-scale projects going on through the winter months, but Kyle contacted the owners, and through them he found the caretakers, and the caretakers gave him lists. Some owed him favors (a warning instead of a DUI), some had been pals with his grandfather. Some accepted the standard bribe: a Bud Lite 18 pack.

            When the roll call was complete, Kyle surprised me by taking the next step. I’d been teaching him for five years; he was finally starting to learn something. Baby steps – simple procedure. But I made sure to give him what my old boss in L.A. used to all an “attaboy” when he laid the five long lists -- and the one short list -- my desk the next Monday morning.

            He had done the cross referencing. Only three people had worked in all the burglarized houses in the off-season. Arturo Maturo, the plumber, Tom Danziger, the electrician – and Mike Henderson, the painter. They had all worked on the Lomax house a few years back and had all been suspects, briefly. They all had other secrets they were reluctant to share and by the end of the investigation I felt more like a parish priest than a police officer. I gave them the only absolution I could – I let them go with a thank you and an apology.

            But now they were all on the blotter again.

            I cleared the first two quickly. Maturo had been draining the pipes after one of the families came up for Christmas and kids had come up in March to grab some summer clothes. Their selfies showed most of the loot in the background. That let Maturo off the hook.

Danziger had done extensive re-wiring in two of the houses, and the inspector remembered various stolen objects still in place when came over to sign off on the work.

None of that cleared them of every house on the list, but we were assuming one thief and one modus operandi for all the crimes. Beyond that, Danziger and Maturo were unlikely suspects. Plumbers and Electricians ruled as blue collar royalty on Nantucket. They had no need for petty theft to augment their incomes and no reason to jeopardize their standing in the hierarchy of the building trades by stealing from their customers.  At around two hundred bucks an hour, most people thought they were stealing anyway.

That left Mike Henderson.

As usual, he had no alibi. All the circumstantial evidence was against him. He had worked in all the houses, mostly alone. He had often remarked that painting was a socially sanctioned form of trespassing, and more than one client had fired him, accusing him of that very crime. He was always broke, scrounging a living from job to job, so he was motivated to pick up a few extra dollars by theft. He charged according to the model of car he found in the garage and felt no compunction about gouging the wealthy. So why not help himself to the odd silver tea pot or lightship basket?

But was angry and baffled when I brought him in for questioning. It’s hard to fake that level of outrage.

“Check my bank account! See if you can find all this money I’m supposed to be stealing. I hope you do find it! I could use it. We’re a month behind on our mortgage payments right now.”

I pushed against the edge of my desk, rolled my chair back a few inches. We were talking in my office, much to Haden Krakauer’s dismay. He liked doing things by the book. As far as my Assistant Chief was concerned, Mike was a suspect in a string of B&E felonies, and ought to be treated that way. I wasn’t so sure. I hadn’t arrested Mike, and I didn’t want to Mirandize him. I wanted to talk, but I wasn’t going to shove him into an interrogation room like a common criminal.

At least not yet. “Your bank account is the last place I’d expect you to stash stolen money, Mike. You told me yourself – small-time house-painters are the last stalwarts of the cash economy.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You don’t work for big contractors. You don’t carry Workmen’s Comp. Not since the Lomax job. You don’t have big crew anymore, either -- or a big payroll to meet. When you need a 40-foot ladder, or someone you trust to roll a ceiling, you ask your friends. Right?”

“Right.”

“It’s a collective. You all fly under the radar and you all prefer cash payments, rolls of hundreds –“

“Nantucket Sawbucks.”

“Exactly.”

“Some people call them Nantucket tens, but that sounds like a political movement.”

“Maybe you are a political movement. Guerilla painting – steal from the rich and give to the poor. Which would be you, I assume. Unless you’re also donating to the Food Bank.”

“I can’t afford to donate to anyone! It’s like my dad used to say – I have to take out a loan to pay attention.”

“And yet your wife is driving a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

“That was a gift. From her father.”

“And you can prove that.”

“Do I have to?”

“You might.”

“So you can just … audit my whole life over some random accusation?”

I shrugged. “It’s one way to prove you’re innocent.”

“When we asked Cindy’s dad to help us pay for Montessori school, it was just like this. ‘Should you really be going out to dinner in your financial situation?’ ‘That sounds like quite the expensive vacation for a fellow in your straightened circumstances.’”

“So what did you do?”

“I told him to take his money and go fuck himself, and I put the kids in public school.”

“Good for you.”

“That wouldn’t really work in this case.”

“No, but I’ll tell you something, Mike. I’m going to stick the foundational assumption of American jurisprudence -- that you’re innocent until proved guilty. Still, someone’s been stealing stuff out of the houses you work on.”

“So … what are you going to do?”

I gave him my best encouraging smile. “Catch them.”

 

Unfortunately, I had another criminal matter to deal with that day, one much closer to home. It had begun the week before, with Jane Stiles’ yard sale. Rain had forced the event inside and we spent the morning hastily arranging antique furniture, glassware, rugs and runners and a rack of vintage women’s dresses in the cramped confines of her cottage.

Otherwise the sale was normal: advertised for ten o’clock, with the first early birds showing up at eight, helping themselves to a Downeyflake donut from the traditional box of a dozen Jane always set out for the shoppers.

The usual crowd appeared by the formal start of the sale – long-time customers (Jane’s family ran a legendary consignment store back in the day), old friends and the small tribe of local hoarders and collectors, along with the occasional tourist.

The scroungers were a diverse group – from High School history teacher Roy Danvers to Sam Trikilis, my garbage man; from landscapers and masons to Sheriff Bob Bulmer and a dot com millionaire who had just bought the giant house next door. The music from his parties on those early summer nights made Jane feel like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

The kids all pitched in, Caroline talking up the merchandise and horse-trading the prices, Tim manning the cash box. Jane’s son Sam helped carry the smaller items to the cars. The sale went well and the rain let up in the early afternoon, with a fresh south wind tearing the clouds apart, revealing ragged patches of blue sky. In accordance with another long-standing Stiles family tradition, we skimmed some of the cash proceeds and treated ourselves to dinner for five at the Sconset cafĂ©.

That was Sunday night. Tuesday morning Jane noticed that her fore-edge books were missing. She hadn’t included them in the sale and never would. They had belonged to her grandfather and she had inherited them after a scuffle with her sister, who had taken the five volumes from the old man’s house the day he died, along with a Matisse screen and various other valuables. Fortunately the will specified that Jane got the books, and she managed to recover them. Her sister already had them packaged up and ready to auction off on e-Bay.

I had never seen a fore-edge book before and neither had my kids. They’re the perfect artifact for a detective, because the art they feature – in the case of Jane’s books, paintings of various Nantucket landmarks – is hidden. The images only appear on the outside edge of the pages when you fan the book open. With the book closed, there’s no way to know the pictures exist.

It’s a book! It’s a toy! Tim seemed particularly fascinated with the trick, as well as the subject matter, Many of the featured destinations no longer existed – the black Washing Pond water tower, the old Straight Wharf theater. He even said he’d love to buy one if he only had the money and Jane was willing to part with it. I think she found his enthusiasm touching.

But then, on Tuesday, she saw him riding away from her cottage on his bike with his school backpack bulging.

And the books were gone.

It may seem like an open-and-shut case from this brief description: Tim had motive and opportunity. But Jane was mostly living with me that summer, and only used the cottage for a writing studio. Most of the time the place was deserted and she’d never even owned a key to the front door. Anyone who’d been snooping around at the sale could have come back for what my old boss in L.A., Chuck Obremski, used to call a “five-finger discount”. Everyone there had a motive, and anyone who took the time to study Jane’s routines had an opportunity.

But Tim was the only one Jane saw at the scene of the crime.

“I hate to even bring this up,” she said that night after dinner. We had strolled into town and were walking along Easy Street. She sat down on one of the benches facing the harbor.

“Tell me,” I said.

So she did.

We sat in silence for a while.

“You know he didn’t do it,” I said finally.

“I hope he didn’t. But he was out there by himself the day after the sale. What was he doing there?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re going to have to ask him.”

“Yeah.” Then after a few moments: “How would it work in one of your books?”

She relaxed a little, reached out a hand to let a passing Labradoodle take a sniff. She had time for one quick ruffle behind the ears before the owner, a slim blond in a yoga outfit, yanked him away. Jane squinted in thought. “You’d need parts of all five books to crack a code. Or maybe they’d be clues to some kind of crazy scavenger hunt.”

“How about someone just taking them and selling them to collectors?”

“Naaa. Too boring.”

“But this is the real world, and they’re worth a lot of money.”

“I guess.”

“Tim doesn’t need money. He’s a kid. He gets an allowance.”

“Unless he’s on drugs. Or something.”

“But he’s not. I know the signs. And so do you.”

She nodded. We sat for a while more. An artist started setting up to paint the view. “You still need to talk to him,” she said.

I shrugged. “Interrogations are my specialty.”

“Innocent until proven guilty,” Mike Henderson said, the next day, riding shotgun i9n my cruiser. “Not too many people really believe that. In America it’s more like you’re guilty even after you’re proved innocent – like O.J. Simpson, or that car guy. DeLorean. He was acquitted, too. But everybody knows he sold coke to finance his car company.”

“You’re a cynical man, Mike,” I said.

“Which makes me normal. And you’re not cynical at all – which makes you kind of a freak, to be honest.  But in a good way.”

“Especially right now.”

I was investigating the burglarized job sites, talking to the families. I had Mike with me because I wanted his painter’s eye on the crime scenes, and I was curious to see how he’d react to the victims. More importantly, I wanted them to see Mike  on good terms wioth the Chief, and cooperating with law enforcement.

Nothing we had found out so far made his case look any better. Two houses had surveillance cameras working year-round, and both had been crudely disabled. One had a piece of the burlap landscapers used to wrap shrubs against the cold blocking it. Hungry deer chewed through the burlap sometimes, and the wind could have blown a scrap against the lens. But this piece of fabric was cut cleanly, with a knife – like the Swiss Army knife that Mike always carried. The other house was even more damning. What looked like bird droppings obscuring the camera lens turned out to be paint – the very paint Mike had been using on the job.

The victims didn’t share my quaint beliefs about innocence and guilt any more than Mike did. They weren’t pleased to see him, but they had to pretend to welcome me. At least I got detailed inventories of the missing items. “My belongings,” one of the women moaned to me.

“A Stickley table, two Tiffany lamps, a first edition of the 1930 Random House Moby Dick with the Rockwell Kent illustrations. You have quite an eye, buddy,” he said to Mike.

“Someone does.”

I sighed. “It’s hard to hate a criminal who loves Rockwell Kent.”

“He doesn’t love Rockwell Kent! He knows he can get a couple of grand for the book. He’s probably sold it already.”

Cynic.

We caught a break on the last house Mike had painted. A hulking pile on Medouwe Creek road in Polpis, Mike still had the keys and the alarm codes. The family wasn’t going to arrive for another week. As usual they had threatened to be on island by Memorial Day to crack the whip on the tradesmen, but weren’t actually due until the Fourth of July. “They think we work because we’re afraid of them,” Mike said. “Actually we work because we want to get paid. False panic is not required.”

It was a perfect late June day, the island lush and green after a rainy spring, the sky a flawless blue. Even the humidity had broken. We approached the silent house over the perfectly manicured lawn and Mike said, “This is what they pay the million dollars for. A day like this. But look --” he pointed to the small squat city of air conditioning condensers buzzing at the side of the house. “The most delicious sea breeze in America and they never even open their windows. That’s the new money around here in a nutshell.”

“An impeccably climate controlled nutshell,” I added.

“Exactly. Well, here we are.”

He let us in, and poked the alarm code into the pad by the front door.

“Did you notice anything missing?” I asked as we walked in the hotel lobby chill of the foyer.

He shrugged. “I really don’t pay that much attention.”

“Not a great slogan for a house painter.”

“Come on, Chief! I notice a bad cut in, okay? I’m the king of latex touch up. But I’m not casing the joint when I’m supposed to be stripping the trim.”

I looked around the massive “great room” with its thirty foot ceiling and wall of fifteen light French doors. “So you’re finished here.”

“Yeah. We packed up yesterday.”

“But the cleaning people haven’t started.”

“I think they come in tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s a plus.”

I found the stain ten minutes later. I saw it as an irregularity in the pattern of a woven cotton area rug, sticking out from the hem of the cloth draping an end table. I was on my knees sniffing it when Mike walked up behind me.

“Did you spill coffee here?” I said, moving the table aside. The lamp teetered and Mike reached out to steady it.

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“No coffee on the job. That’s one of my rules. People leave the cups around, or knock them over. It looks bad – unprofessional. Most of my customers don’t even let their kids eat anywhere but the kitchen. They’re neat freaks. You have to respect that.”

I nodded. “Well someone spilled hazelnut coffee here. Take a sniff.”

He got down, put his nose to the rug. Standing, he said, “Yeah. And it’s fresh. Maybe a couple of days old, tops.”

I pointed down to the wedge of carpet between the couch and the end table.

“Crumbs,” he said.

I smiled. “A trail of bread crumbs. Just a like a fairy tale.”

He bent down, picked one up on a moistened finger tip, touched it to his tongue. “But this was a cookie.”

We moved the table aside and found a small triangular wedge hidden under the skirt of the couch. I pulled on a latex glove, took an evidence bag and a pair of tweezers from my pocket and dropped the cookie chunk inside. “Now we figure out where this came from and who ordered it with a hazelnut coffee.”

Mike shook his head in amused disgust. “And learn what kind of lazy pig brings treats and coffee to his own crime scene.”

“And spills the coffee and laughs because he knows they’ll blame it on the painter.”

“Story of my life.”

The next part was easy. Michelle at Fast Forward – we’d been friends since I gave her a copy of The House at Pooh Corner to exorcise the Disney demons from her daughter’s mind – identified my evidence instantly.

She took it on her tongue for a few seconds, wincing at where it had been, then spit it out onto a napkin and gave it back. “That’s one of Dany’s health cookies. No dairy, no eggs, no sugar. She makes them with tahini. They’re totally unique.”

“So … does anyone order hazelnut coffee and one of these?”

She thought for a minute or two while she poured a few cups of coffee for nervous customers. I was wearing my uniform and everyone was feeling guilty about something.

Michelle made change for someone and turned to the other girl behind the counter. “Angie? Can you think of anyone?”

“Just Bob Bulmer. The Sheriff? But he drinks decaf. Does it matter if it’s decaf?”
            “Not really.”

“Is he in trouble?” Michelle asked.

“No, no. Though you have to wonder about someone who drinks hazelnut decaf.”

“Now what?” Mike asked me later as I drove him back to his job site.

I looked up at the imposing three-story shingled pile, dormers lined up on the steep roof, presided over by the freshly painted widow’s walk. “Now we stake out this place -- and catch him in the act.”

But we were too late. Mike had been working downstairs and hadn’t ventured into the finished bedrooms for weeks. A quick walk-though the second floor told the tale like a tour guide: picture hooks where paintings had hung, end tables with circles in the dust, dents in the carpet where an antique dresser had stood.

Mike looked like he was about to cry. “If we don’t find this stuff before the Binghams show up … Jesus. Someone hates me.”

“Someone’s stalking you,” I said.

“What?”

“It’s the only way they could get in to these houses. You unlock the doors. You disable the alarms.”

“Yeah. But I’m always – oh shit.”

“What?”

“I drive into town for lunch, or to pick up some supplies from Marine, and sometimes I – it’s a hassle locking up and setting the alarms if I’m only going to be gone for half an hour. And also … they monitor the systems. I don’t want my customers knowing when I’m gone or how long I take for lunch. It’s none of their business.”

“And who’s going to know? Or notice?”

“Exactly! This isn’t inner-city Detroit. What is a burglar supposed to do? Try every mansion and hope for an unlocked on and then try every unlocked one for a disconnected alarm?”

“No, Mike. He’s supposed to choose a house painter, track his movements and use the time, however long it is, when he leaves the house open, to do the burglaries. Then the burglar just waits. The homeowners come back in the summer and the painter gets the blame. If he really does hate you, it’s a win-win.”

“So this is about the Bradley?”

Bulmer had pushed a warrant through Town Meeting the year before. He wanted the town to buy him a U.S Army surplus Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Some prominent citizens took his side in the debate including Jonathan Pell, the new CEO of Logran Corporation and a consortium of real estate brokers who were concerned about property values.

But you have to see a Bradley to realize how crazy this idea was. It’s a small tank, perfect for enforcing Martial Law in a conquered city – a deranged and surreal choice for Nantucket.

Mike had said some harsh things about Bulmer – calling him a would-be tin-pot dictator and a fascist blowhard. David Trezize ran Mike’s guest editorial in the Nantucket Shoals, and the link on the little newspaper’s website had been shared more than a thousand times.

The Bradley was voted down by acclamation.

A bad defeat; and Bulmer was famous for his grudges. That sounded like a motive to me. And as Sheriff, Bulmer’s main job was driving around – mostly he delivered summonses. He had plenty of free time for surveillance.

But some wild conjectures, a coffee stain and a handful of cookie crumbs weren’t enough to arrest him for.

And I had another suspect to deal with.

The next day I took Tim to Something Natural. We got a pair of lobster salad sandwiches, some Matt Fee tea and a couple of bags of chips. We drove out to the new standpipe on Washing Pond Road. The gate was open and we cruised past the giant white metal water tank to the grassy verge that overlooked the jumble of houses that edged the western moors. I explained the situation while we ate. The strong south wind nudged my cruiser.

“I didn’t take those books,” he said. “I swear. Where would I even put them? Someone would see them. Carrie would tell on me.”

I nodded, finished my iced tea. “So what were you doing out there?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on. That’s a long bike ride for nothing.”

“Dad!”

“Tell me.”

“It’s private.”

He stared away, out the car window, following a red-tailed hawk as it circled the valley. I was going to have to put this one together myself. Jane had seen him at the bookshelf. The comment about the fore-edge book, must have been a hasty improvisation to cover whatever it was he was really doing there. The sudden interest in antique end paper watercolors had struck me as a little odd anyway. I had studied Jane’s library myself and there was no adolescent contraband there, nothing racy beyond a copy of Lolita. But Jane kept some photographs her ex-husband had taken off her, the only ones where she had ever looked good, or so she said. She was planning to crop one of them for a new dust-jacket portrait. “The whole picture might sell more copies,” she had joked when she showed it to me. She was topless, coming out of the water at Pickle beach, our informal nude bathing strand. And Jane was right – she looked great in the photo - -sea nymph, slim and girlish, perfect fodder for a seventh grade crush.

Tim would never admit to finding that picture and I would never force him to. I needed a new tactic.

“Okay,” I said. “I have to tell Jane something, so let’s think of a reason you might have been out there. Not the real reason – whatever it was. That’s none of my business. As long as you didn’t actually steal anything.”

“Are you kidding? I would never do that.”

I keyed the car and started backing up. “Here’s a lesson from the adult world. If you’re suspected of something, confess to something else. Something not as bad but maybe … a little embarrassing?”

“Like what?”

“Well … Jane has a collection of vintage Barbies at the cottage. Maybe you were playing with them.”

“But those are girls’ toys!”

“Exactly. So you wouldn’t automatically admit it, the initial denial is explained … and no one ever thinks about whatever it was you were really looking at.”

He thought about this as we turned off Washing Pond Road and headed back into town. “You’re sneaky,” he said.

“But for a good cause.”

“Barbies? Really?”

“It’ll be great. Jane will think you’re a budding feminist.”

“I am a budding feminist.”

I patted his knee. “Good for you.”

I was on a roll that week – Mike Henderson’s case came together the next day.

Pat Folger called to tell me he had found squatters in one of the houses he did caretaking for. The illegal tenants were brothers from Ecuador who worked for Quidnet Land Design, one of the biggest gardening firms on the island. Pat knew I was interested in squatters and their stories. These three had been evicted from Bob Bulmer’s house on Essex Road. The area was known for its barracks-style housing, with as many as twenty people crammed into three or four bedrooms, all paying a thousand dollars a month for the privilege of heat, running water and a roof over their heads. It was a great deal for the landlord, though.

So why would Bulmer have evicted them?

Maybe he had an even more profitable venture going. Maybe he needed the space for storage.

But how to find out? I decided to reverse the tactic I had shared with Tim. Bulmer’s barracks housing scheme was illegal, but fairly common, and we cracked down on the worst offenders from time to time. Bob knew he got a free pass from the town because of his law enforcement position. But that was going to change. I called Paul Higgins, our Building Inspector, and he agreed to make a surprise visit to the Essex Road house, looking for safety violations or an overtaxed septic system.

I’d be there to check out the real crime.

Bob had no idea I suspected him of anything beyond some building code violations and so he was happy to give us a tour of his now-empty house.

I found Jane’s fore-edge books prominently displayed on the mantel, between two of her sitting-dog bookends.

Bob waved a pudgy hand around the living room. “No illegal tenants! Are we good?”

I hefted one of Jane’s books. “I’m good, Bob. But you’re busted.”

When I told Jane the story later that night she said “Bullmer, ugh. I think he was rifling through my photographs, too. They’re all in different order now.”

“Does it bother you? Him seeing, you know -- the uncropped versions?”

She shrugged. “A little. But what the hell. Boys will be boys.”

“Right you are.”

I remembered my boy, as we sat by the water tower, his face turned away in shame, and thought, you’ll never know how right.

But that secret was safe with me.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Pressure Group: A Mitchell Stone short story.

 

      



 

1

 

Senator Graham Farley (D. Tennessee) was staying for a week at the Kerry house on Hulbert Avenue – that was what gave Mitch the idea. The “centrist” lawmaker had been single-handedly stalling his party’s agenda in Congress for months, and you didn’t need a think-tank research paper to know that if all the big bills stalled out before 2022, the Republicans would take control of Washington again, and as far as a practical man like Mitchell Stone could see, that would more or less constitute the end of the world. The world was close enough to the edge as it was, with hairline congressional majorities that could be overturned by one ignorant southern cracker in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mitch had become friendly with Police Chief Henry Kennis’ outspoken mother, and often visited her at the Island Home. She had put it best on his last visit: “You can’t get a decent education in the south, even if you’re white.” Farley was the ideal case-in-point: he seemed to think the filibuster was written into the Constitution. In fact, the Founding Fathers had required a supermajority for some matters – approving treaties, over-riding vetoes, voting for impeachment.

          But not for ordinary legislation. Hadn’t anyone told Farley that? They must have. But ordinary forms of persuasion had clearly not worked and people rarely changed their minds on any subject, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Medicine changed “one funeral at a time” because even so obvious an advance as scrubbing before surgery was fought literally to the death by the older generation of doctors.

          You couldn’t convince a doctor to wash his hands.

          How were you going to convince “Grappling Hook” Graham Farley to vote down the filibuster?

          You weren’t. You couldn’t.

          Mitch had other plans. He had toyed with them while doing easy mindless jobs, installing strip oak flooring, shingling a house. He liked to think that his active operations days were behind him … apart from breaking up the occasional bar fight or  performing an occasional bit of DIY mask enforcement. He wasn’t going to stalk Farley through Washington D.C., or break into the man’s Signal Mountain estate. Mitch had retired from intelligence work, he had a real job, he had a kid to raise. He wasn’t going out of his way to disrupt the life he had expended so much effort to construct for himself.

          But now Farley had come to him, spending the congressional recess at a friend’s house on Nantucket.

          The temptation was irresistible.

 

          Mitch did a couple of drive-bys in the next few days, once in Billy Delavane’s truck, once on a rental moped, once more in his adopted son Alex’s rebuilt Range Rover. He cruised the house on foot, both from the street and the beach. The doors and windows were alarmed and a detail of six Secret Service agents guarded the placee 24-7. They had taken over the mansion across the street for an observation post – Mitch could see the glint of cameras and rifle scopes from the upstairs windows.

          The house sported a “widow’s walk” a roof deck used for fighting roof fires in the whaling days, but now a luxurious venue for evening cocktails or a quiet afternoon with a book. The hatches that opened onto attic stairs were rarely wired against intruders; the sole Secret Service agent Mitch had seen on point up there confirmed the speculation. Even the man’s presence was a formality – you’d have to climb the house to access the widow’s walk, and the climb presented a sheer cliff of grey cedar shakes more than forty feet high, every inch of it visible from below.

          Of course, to see a human fly on that wall, you’d have to be conscious. Knocking out the sentries would be easy enough but the primary tactical asset was built into the house itself. The corner boards featured a rising series of rectangular blocks called quoins. Originally used as structural re-inforcements, they were primarily decorative now, but they made excellent hand and foot holds.

          Mitch had no idea how long Farley was staying on-island – the Senator could cut his visit short at any time and for any reason -- so he had to move fast. The next night was cloudy with a waning moon. At a little before two in the morning, when people were tired and attention was lax, Mitch dressed in black, grabbed work clothes for the next day, slipped his K-bar knife into a sheath on his belt and drove to Madaket, at the west end of the island. He borrowed Billy Delavane’s big paddle board; he’d done it many times before.

          Mitch drove back toward town, passing few cars and no police vehicles. He took the left on Eel Point Road and cruised past the boulder that marked the path to the public beach at Dionis. Two houses farther along, a giant mansion loomed above the street on low hill. Pat Folger was building an addition, to house the  the owner’s  absurdly elaborate model train set. The family was safely off island, self-quarantining in their Bel Air compound, three thousand miles away. No one would look twice at a truck in the driveway.

          He let himself into the house, tapped in the alarm code and set his work clothes – vintage Killen construction “Death and Resurrection” t-shirt, jeans, steel-toed boots, socks and underwear, on top of Pat Folger’s tool chest in the great room. Mitch was always the first person on the job site, so no one would be surprised to see him banging up crown moldings when they arrived.

          The job-site was an hour’s walk from Hulbert Avenue. It would have been quicker to launch from Children’s beach or even Steps; but Mitch wasn’t planning to be anywhere near town when he was making his getaway. Too much could go wrong. Town was a trap.

          He closed up the house, hauled the big surfboard out of the truck bed and started back toward the beach. The walk took ten minutes, including a scramble over the high dunes that blocked the Sound. Then the real hike began. Jogging on the packed sand near the water for part of the time, he closed the distance in just forty-five minutes. fifty yards from the mansion, he settled in to study the place, setting the board on the sand and sitting on it among the over turned kayaks and canoes and row-boats, a darker shadow among the other shadows.

After half an hour one of the guards walked out to check the beach, lighting a cigarette and looking out over the still, inky harbor to the breakwater. When the cigarette was finished, he turned back to the house. Mitch picked up the board and followed.

          He had to decide: take out all the guards or try not to disturb any of them. The corner of the mansion was in shadow. The one camera mounted on the building was pointed at the street. He saw no one nearby.

He chose stealth.

A quick dash to the south side of the shingled chateau, then he had his first hand-hold. He pulled himself up from quoin to quoin, a four-legged spider on a drainpipe. As he came level with the second floor he heard a movement below him, and he froze, finger joints aching, check pressed to the damp glossy paint. A pale breeze carrying the hint of rain touched his face. The guard below spoke into a walkie talkie. Mitch heard the static rush of the connection but couldn’t make out the words. Footsteps crunched over the shell driveway toward the front entrance. Another minute and then Mitch resumed the climb.

          He reached the gutter and moved hand over hand along it, dangling over the second-floor deck. When he judged he was below one of the big dormer windows, he pulled himself upright, got his feet under him and balanced on the wooden lip. He straightened up and leaned forward until his palms brushed the edge of the dormer roof. With a firm grip on the rake, he walked up two steps up the pitch, mounted the dormer and hoisted himself to its peak. Standing there, he shoved off to grab one of the widow’s walk supports. A moment later he was peering through the spindles.

          The Secret Service agent snored softly, stretched out on a teakwood beach chair. Mitch expelled a long breath. This was a violation of article 113 of the UCMJ. The guy wouldn’t be executed, we weren’t at war, but he could face some serious time in the stockade if they caught him snoozing.

          Mitch eased over the railing, ghosted past the guy, eased open the hatch and poured himself down the ladder to the third floor hall.

          Mitch guessed Farley would be in the guest suite one floor down. He eased the door open a crack and slipped into the living room. A couch, two chairs, a flat screen over the fireplace; a door to the master bedroom and a short passage showing two more doors. A  bathroom and a smaller bedroom. A quick peek: a woman in her late fifties was sleeping alone. That would be Sandra Farley, the wife. Separate bedrooms. Maybe Farley snored. Maybe he hogged the bed; maybe something worse. Happily married couples slept together, that was Mitch’s experience. Even his own parents, however much they fought during the day, wound up in bed together at night.

          He back-tracked to the master, entered and closed the door behind him. It was Farley, all right, and the snoring had been another good guess.

          The Senator woke up with Mitch’s K-bar knife-blade pressed against his throat.

“What the --”

“Shhhhhh.”

          The eyes bulged but the old man kept his voice down. “Who are you? What do you want? How did you get in here?”

          Mitch patted the air in front of Farley’s head. “Whoa, whoa. One question at a time. In order – I’m a patriot. And I want you to act like one. Getting into places like this is one of my specialties.”

          “You’re KGB! Putin sent you to kill me!”

          Mitch had to choke back a startled laugh. “Are you kidding? I’m sure Putin is thrilled with you, Senator. His bots made two million robo-calls during your last campaign. They accused your primary challenger of wanting to disband the police, force women to get abortions and turn Tennessee into a Socialist gulag. Once all the bibles and guns were confiscated.”

          “That’s not far from the truth.”

          “Are you kidding me? It’s not even related to the truth enough to be a lie.”

          “Now you listen –”

          “What is socialism?”

          “What?”

          “Just define it for me. It’s all you talk about on the campaign trail. So what is it?”

          “It’s communism with a smiley face! It’s mob rule.”

          “Wrong, sorry. The word derives from the Latin – Sociare. To share. It means Government oversight over corporations, and workers having a say in the businesses they work for, and a security net like the Medicaid expansion you voted against last year. It’s capitalism with a leash on.”

          Farley thrashed himself to a sitting position. Mitch pulled the knife away before it could cut the old man. “This is insane! It’s almost three o’clock in the morning. I have to be in Washington tomorrow. I have an early plane to catch. I can’t be debating politics with some random lunatic. I demand --”

          “You’re in no position to demand anything. Raise your voice and I’ll cut your throat.”

          He subsided against the headboard. “What do you want?”

          “Tomorrow you’re going to inform Nancy Pelosi that you plan to vote with her to end the filibuster.”

          “So, you’re a lobbyist!” He laughed and Mitch laughed with him. “It’s satisfying to meet an honest authentic thug who comes at you with a knife instead of bag of cash. I’d rather be mugged than bribed.”

          “So don’t take the money.”

          “I have to take the money. You might as well say don’t breathe the air.”

          They stared at each other for a few seconds. “Just vote down the filibuster.”

          “Or what? You’ll kill me? And my wife? Oh yes, you’d have to kill her too because she would just take over my seat and she believes in the filibuster and the glory of bipartisan legislation even more than I do. You’ll turn us into martyrs. They’ll say we died to save Democracy. Can you allow that to happen?”

          “I’m willing.”

          “But are you able? If I tell you that I’ll vote the way you want, you’ll have to believe me or this whole fantastic charade would be futile. And if I am lying -- and  by God, young man I most certainly would be! -- you’d never get this close to me again. I’ll be a hundred times better protected than I was tonight, with a detailed memory of your face to give the FBI.  The manhunt for you will flood this island like a storm surge. They’ll hound you to the ends of the earth and crucify you as a traitor.”

          “I can take that chance. Can you?”

          “It doesn’t matter. Because I can see looking into your eyes that you’re not a killer. Oh, you talk a good game. I have no doubt you’ve taken a life or two, on the battlefield, on some secret mission or other, maybe in the street, in self-defense. But not in cold blood. You’re not an assassin. Not anymore.”

Mitch stood up and sheathed his knife. Farley was right.  He was shrewd and he was tough. It made sense. You didn’t become a Democratic Senator in a state like Tennessee if you didn’t know how to read people – and call their bluffs.

          Mitch stared down at the jowly, sleep-rumpled face. “So what can we do? You can’t be bullied and you can’t be threatened. And nothing will change that stubborn, still-born mind of yours.”

          Plus, time was running short. Mitch knew he couldn’t linger here much longer. Was that a footstep from beyond the door? One of the Secret Service people? He held his breath, listening. Farley squinted up at him, baffled – too deaf to catch the creak of a floor board in another room. A  minute passed; then another, with no sound but the freshening wind murmuring in the leaves outside. A car growled past, heading for town. A cop, no doubt.

          The creak must have been the house settling. It was an old house, probably built at the end of the eighteenth century. They made their own noises in the night, just like old people did.

          Farley cleared his throat. “If you leave now, I won’t report you. There’s a French word – I studied a year at the Sorbonne, you know— desmesure. Are you familiar with it?” Mitch shook his head. “It translates, roughly, as an unfortunate excess of passion. We have a lot of it, in America, we always have, from the John Birch Society to Occupy Wall Street to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Stop the Steal’ rioters.”

          “And me.”

          “And you.”

          Farley smiled, thoroughly in control now. He was famous for taming rowdy Town Hall assemblies, ‘a cool cloth for the fevered brow’ he liked to call himself. Mitch felt like a high school kid who had broken into the local Judge’s house on a dare. He had actually been that kid, once upon a time. And the Judge had caught him, and the Judge had let him go with a finger-wag and a warning.

          Mitch felt his will deflating, a punctured tire losing air fast. He’d be driving on the rim soon. But there had to be something he could do or say, some leverage he could exert. He looked around the shadowed bedroom – chair and desk, shelves and end tables.

          Nothing.

          But wait. Farley had shifted towards Mitch as he looked at the desk, some little defensive movement that Mitch recognized from decades of dirty work in the world’s dark corners. The Abu Sayyaf operative in Mindanao who had twitched into an unnatural stillness when Mitch approached the hollowed-out television where had had hidden the bricks of C-4; the Al Nusrah assassin in Damascus who had flinched when Mitch stepped on the floorboard that concealed his stash of  Ak-47 assault rifles. The body had dozens of small tells, and even if you could control your face, the clench of your shoulders or the bracing of your knees could give you away as clearly as a signed confession. Mitch turned back to the desk.

          The computer.

          There was something on Farley’s MacBook Pro that he didn’t want Mitch to see – most likely his search history. Mitch took a step toward the desk.

          “Wait!” Farley’s hoarse whisper sounded like a shout smothered by a pillow.

          Two steps and Mitch was at the desk. He reached under the flower-patterned shade to turn on the light, then opened the slim computer, revealing the screen and keyboard. He laughed – a low grunt of appreciation. Boomers! They made it so easy. Farley had a post-it with his pin numbers and passwords stuck to the screen.

          “Stop – don’t – you can’t --”

          Mitch turned on the computer and the chime of the apple chord silenced the old man behind him. The pin numbers and passwords were correct; the search history was damning. Farley didn’t even know how to clear it! Mitch could have tracked the old man’s web searches anyway, but it would have taken longer, and he would have needed some expert help.

          There was a rustle of sheets and then heavy footfalls on the floor. Still typing with his left hand, Mitch reached around behind him and caught Farley at the throat. The Senator’s frantic lunge stopped short as if he’d walked into a wall.

          Mitch read the website names aloud. “Pouting Pixies? Sweet Sixteen, Horse Girls? Jesus, Graham. This is disgusting.” He opened the Horse Girls site. It was exactly what he’d thought it would be. “You didn’t even cover your tracks. Ever hear of the Tor network?”

          Farley gagged against the hard circle of Mitch’s thumb and forefinger. “Thas private. You cann ook aaa it.”

          Mitch eased his grip. “Nothing’s private any more, Senator. You ought to know that by now.”

          The old man gaped at him. “What … what … are you going to do?”

          “I’m going to keep this computer. And you’re going to go back to Washington and start voting like a real Democrat, starting with the filibuster. Your glory days are over. You’re not the most powerful man in America any more, you’re just part of the team again. And I will bench your ass in a heartbeat if you ever forget that.” He gave a short push and Farley staggered backward. The edge of the bed caught the back of his knees and he plopped down on the tangled sheets.

          “This is where I should ask if we understand each other,” Mitch said. “But I know we do. Try to get some sleep, Senator. I want you to be fresh tomorrow. You’re going to have a busy day.”

          Mitch grabbed the computer and the charger, stuffed the cord in his pocket strode to bedroom door and opened it.

          Farley’s wife was frozen at the threshold in her nightgown and curlers, her face as white as her hair. She had obviously been standing there since that floorboard had creaked under her slippers.

          She had heard everything.

          Sandra Farley gaped at Mitch, wild eyed, her mouth moving silently, as if dozens of questions were crowding there, like desperate fans at a festival seating rock concert. Someone was going to be trampled to death before the first outraged question got through the door, but Mitch didn’t have time for the carnage. Farley’s ruined marriage was his own problem. The woman held out her hand to him in the sudden stillness and silence – to implore him, to stop him, to ask some impossible question?

          It didn’t matter. He had to go.

          Mitch spun and bolted for the door to the guest suite.

          One of the security detail was moving up the hall. He must have heard something – Farley’s heavy footfalls, or their voices. He froze when he saw Mitch. The man running up behind him already had his gun out.

          “Halt! Larry, get down!”

          Larry dove for the floor. Mitch lifted the MacBook as the guard squeezed off a shot. The round slammed into the computer and knocked it out of his hand. He twisted to catch it as it fell,  and threw it hard, like a rectangular frisbee. It hit the shooter in the forehead – an axe blow that crumpled him. Mitch launched from his kneeling position and slammed into Larry as he scrambled to his feet, whipping a knife hand edge strike into the guard’s neck at the carotid artery. The blow was a guarantee – like pulling the master switch on an electric panel.

          Larry was out, and Mitch was dashing for the back stairs before the body hit the carpet. He could hear footsteps on the front stairs, more agents following the first two. There would be a moment of confusion when they realized he was gone. He emerged into the kitchen, crossed to the French doors and slipped out onto the patio that faced the beach. The cigarette smoker’s walkie-talkie crackled to life and Mitch could hear the timbre, if not the exact words, of the desperate orders shouted from the second floor landing.

          He looked up and saw Mitch as a moving shadow. Then he was down and Mitch was bounding over the body to the beach. He grabbed the surfboard, slid it into the water, pulled himself onto sticky fiberglass surface and started to paddle, angling out into the dark water, before setting his course parallel to the shore.

Arc lights came on and scoured the beach, but the beach was empty. Mitch heard sirens in the distance. The Secret Service would never involve the local police, but some neighbor must have heard the gun shot and dialed 911.

          He paddled hard, every stroke taking him closer to safety and farther from the blast radius of his mission. But the mission had failed. He windmilled his arms, digging out the mild water, lurching him forward, an efficient engine of passage, watching the nose of the board skim the surface, gritting his teeth in frustration. It wasn’t just that the gunshot had destroyed the computer, or even that he had been forced to use it as a weapon and abandon it. He hadn’t planned for the MacBook, and there was no way he could have carried it on the paddle board without drenching it in brine. That improvisation would have hit a dead end no matter what happened. Even abandoning the computer in the Sound would have been preferable, though. The wrecked laptop would let Farley know his secrets were safe. The old man’s luck was famous – he had won the Tennessee Powerball lottery twice and famously been bumped off flight 93 on 9/11.  The “Farley Good Fortune” had come up three cherries again. Despite Mitch’s best efforts, the Senator was in the clear, free to pontificate and preen in the spotlight while the country burned and the entire Democratic party from the President on down kneeled to kiss his ring.

          It was maddening – to come so close. And Farley was right – with the inevitable increased security, Mitch would never get another chance. He’d had just one shot, and he’d blown it.

          One minor consolation --- the getaway plan worked. While police blocked the choke points on the island roads and threw a dragnet over the town, Mitch was first on the job as usual, cutting trim with a miter box,  Billy’s surfboard resting in the bed of his truck, his wet clothes stuffed into a contractor garbage bag. Mitch was unusually quiet at work that day, in a foul mood that not even Billy Delavane tried to lighten. The Op was burnt, life was hopeless and the world was doomed.

Or so it seemed.

          Then he went home and watched the evening news.

 

Mitch was sitting on the old stained canvas sofa – still solid and comfortable after thirty-five years, unlike the pricey love-seat he his sister Susie had bought from Marine Home Center three years before, which was already falling apart – watching The Situation Room on CNN. Vicky was tucked in under his arm, Alex sat at the far end of the couch, splitting the difference with his ubiquitous iPhone. Susie was slumped down in her Dad’s old leather arm chair.

          They all sat forward when Wolf Blitzer began his lead story, and even the somber news-anchor’s face showed an unguarded amazement at the text he was reading. Was it a prank? Had someone hacked into the teleprompter?

          But no, it was just the news – good news, at last, after weeks of super storms,  Congressional gridlock, Delta variant carnage, and wild fires:

          “In a startling and as yet unexplained change of direction for the Tennessee Senator, Graham Farley has agreed to join with the Democratic majority, voting to end the filibuster for basic legislative priorities. This is a crucial step for the enactment President Biden’s ambitious first term agenda, potentially clearing the way for both the 3.5 Trillion dollar infrastructure bill and the voting rights bill H.R, which would solidify and strengthen the voting rights act of 1965, weakened by a series of Supreme Court decisions in the last decade. Jim Acosta is at the Capital building with more on this breaking story. Jim?”

          In bed, later, Vicky rolled over onto Mitch’s stomach, and braced herself on her forearms to look into his eyes. “I don’t get it.”

          “I know.”

          “You lost the evidence.”

          “I know.”

          “Then how …? Did he have a change of heart?”

          “No way.”

          “You talked him into it.”

          “I didn’t.”

          “Then …”

          Mitch thought of that strange, beseeching look on Sandra Farley’s face, that outstretched arm in the shadowed room, in the darkest hour of the autumn night.

“There’s only one possible explanation. But it makes no sense.

 

          Graham Farley and his wife stood in the third floor living room of the C Street Center, a red brick townhouse behind the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. The building was crowded with other Republicans when the Senate was in session, none of them very happy with Graham Farley tonight – but it was a five-minute walk from the Capitol and Farley hated to drive.

          At a little after midnight, they had the residence to themselves. Farley stood at the window looking down at the rainy street. Sandra followed him and stood at his back. A taxi with the new design – red with that funnel shaped stripe long the side – rolled past. A couple walked arm in arm toward D Steet. The woman laughed and the man pulled her closer. Sandra watched them stroll out of sight. Had she and Farley ever been like that? She couldn’t remember.

Finally she asked, “Who was he?”

          “I have no idea.”

          “There must have been an investigation.”

          “Of course, there was an investigation! I made sure Ted Mandler shut it down.”

           “He’s one of six Deputies. The AAG would never --”

          “Ted has his ways. And he understands the Big Picture.”

          Graham was very much a student of the “Big Picture”. It usually showed him making the proper, principled choices, no matter how corrupt and self-serving they were. You just had to stand back far enough. With enough decorative shade trees, a suburb could look like a forest from the proper height, when the leaves were out in summer. But it was still a miserable set of tract houses where kids used to pick raspberries.

          Sandra expelled a tired breath. “And what exactly is the ‘Big Picture’ here, Graham?”

          “And investigation serves no one. It’s a lose-lose. It makes the Secret Service look bad. It makes the Nantucket cops look bad. That guy was some kind of self-styled hero. He probably wants to get caught! We don’t need to turn some fanatic into a media darling. It would just bring out the copy-cats. Every wild-eyed Marxist  break-and enter artist would be crawling out of the woodwork to terrorize anyone they disagreed with! No one would be safe.”

          Sandra waited out the rationalizations, as she has waited out the airplane noise when she had lived in Playa Del Rey. When Graham had landed his 747, she said quietly, “And then there’s the search history on your computer.”

          “Sandra --”

          “If that comes out it, will ruin you.”

          “I have the computer. The idiot left it at the house.”

          “With a bullet in the hard drive.”

          “Exactly!”

          “You don’t think people will wonder why exactly he was stealing it in the first place? Once reporters get a sniff of scandal, they don’t stop, they just keep coming. Those sites you … visit – they use cookies. Then can trace you, they can find you, and then --”

          “That’s what I’m trying to say! That’s the whole point, Sandra. We don’t let them start. Nothing happened, no one was hurt. It’s a non-event.”

          He turned from the window, walked to the armchair across the room and sat down heavily. Sandra listened to the speckle of rain against the glass and let it soothe her. She had always loved the sound of rain outside a warm house where she was dry and safe.

          “I still want to know who he is. There must have been finger prints on the iBook.”

          “There were.”

          “So?”

          “So, there were no matches. On any database. The guy never had a brush with the law, never had a job that required a security clearance, never served in the military.”

          “But he did. That was what you told me.”

          “I said he acted like some kind on intelligence operative. I said he had the kind of skills you’d learn in the Seals or a Marine Recon unit. But that doesn’t mean anything. There’s plenty of dangerous people out there who never got a form 214. You can pick most of that stuff up on Youtube! The internet is incredible.
          She gave him a thin smile. “You should know.”

          “Hey, come on, honey, please --”

          It was a mean-spirited jab, and off-topic. She forged ahead. “If this intruder was some sort of spy, his organization could have wiped his records. The NSA can do that. They probably do it all the time. My bet is that this guy worked for some CAD splinter group.”

          “Okay, maybe. That could be true. But what makes you think anyone at the Clandestine Action Directorate would talk to me? They don’t even talk to the President.”

          “You know Jerry Skinner.”

          “He hates me.”

          “You got him his funding last year. How many department budgets did you have to skim to make that happen?”

          “Fine, yes, he uses me. But he still hates me. He thinks I’m a worm. He said that. A worm! Actually, he said I was the worm in the apple. Everything in front of me white and fresh, everything behind me brown and rotten.” Sandra laughed – it was so perfect. Graham glared at her as he went on. “The miserable little prick even told me I don’t deserve you. Can you believe that? As if it was any of his business! Said I was punching above my weight. I was tempted to show him a thing or two about punching!”

          “But you didn’t.”

          “Of course, I didn’t! I’m a U.S. Senator! I can’t be involved in street brawls with every little creep who makes a remark.”

          “He’s not a ‘little creep’, Graham. He’s actually quite a gentleman. And he stands over six feet tall. He’s had a little crush on me for years. I got him a table at the Anchor Foundation gala, remember? I danced with him that night, and we flirted a little. He does quite a respectable Rumba.”

          “Jesus Christ.”

          “Call him tomorrow, Graham. Tell him we need to talk.”

 

Mitchell Stone and Billy Delavane were pulling the clapboards of a house on Gardner Street when the limousine pulled up at the curb. The job was a favor to local painting contractor Mike Henderson. The paint was peeling, and he knew it had to be water penetrating the wood from inside the house. Clapboards were supposed to be “encapsulated”, sealed with paint front and back, but contractors often skipped the crucial step of back-priming the siding boards. Mike’s guess was right. The strips of wood were bare against the house, completely saturated and heavy as iron.

          “We dry these puppies out for two weeks, they’ll be light as balsa wood,” Billy said as they pulled the last one loose. “Then Mike can soak em in a couple of coats of good oil primer and bingo. Problem solved.”

          Mitch grinned. “And Mike gets paid.”

          “Maybe. But the bitch who owns this place is notorious for stiffing people. And least she’ll have to find another excuse.”

          Mitch jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Is this her?”

          Billy turned to see a woman climbing out of a black Chrysler 300. “Erica Haddon?,” he said. “ No way. She drives an old Subarau. She’s tight as a tick.”

          The woman was clicking across the street in high heels. “Mitchell Stone?”

          Billy shot him a look. “You know her?”

          Mitch nodded, though Sandra Farley looked very different, coiffed and made-up in the morning sunlight.

          “Could I have a word with you, Mr. Stone? It will just take a moment. Perhaps you could ride with me?”

          “Sure.”

          Mrs. Farley turned to Billy. “He’ll only be a moment. Can I could buy you coffee and a scone? It’s that time of the morning. How do you take your coffee?”

          Billy smiled. “Black. Thanks.”

          Mitch crossed the street behind the Senator’s wife, and climbed into the dry cool air of the leather back seat after her. He was a dirty sweaty mess, but she didn’t seem to mind.

          “Where’s good?” she asked.

          “There’s a new bakery on Centre Street. Born and Bread.”

          She smiled “Clever.” She leaned forward, “Find a place to park near Center street, Harris.”

          As they took the right turn onto India Street, she said, “I’m sorry to disrupt your day, but I very much wanted to thank you.” She twisted around to extend her hand. Mitch shook it. “Sandra Farley.”

          He smiled. “Good to see you again, Mrs. Farley.”

          “Sandra, please.”

          “Sandra.”

          “I imagine you’re wondering how I found you, since the incident on Hulbert Avenue was effectively hushed up, and there’s been no local or Federal investigation of the break in.”

          “The thought crossed my mind.”

          “Jerry Skinner directed me to you.”

          “Hold on -- ”

          “No, no, no … he instructed me to tell you that neither your actions, your … ‘Quixotic shenanigans’ he called them, nor this meeting, have any effect on your … arrangement. He said that would reassure you. Does it?”

          “Quixotic shenanigans. That sounds like him, anyway.”

          “You have nothing to fear from Jerry Skinner.”

          “For the moment.”

          “Yes. I cannot speak to the ultimate disposition of your association with Jerry. But for now, all of that is off the table. We’re just two people talking, this morning. Two citizens. With a common goal.” They had reached bakery. It had a line out the door, and the only open parking space on Centre Street was handicapped reserved. “Go around the block, Harris,” Sandra told the driver. “I’ll run in. Black for you?”

          Mitch nodded and she was out the door. The big car pulled away and turned down Broad Street.

          “Nice lady,” Harris remarked.

          “Yeah.”

          “I take my coffee with cream and two sugars. She gives me shit about that with my weight and all. But she always remembers. Hell, she even remembers my daughter’s birthday. She got Kelly a Lego Harry Potter set last year. All I could think was – wish I’d thought of that. Kelly’s mom passed two years ago and … I’m not picking up the slack that great. I was just figuring out how to do it with a partner. Anyway … Sandy doesn’t say much. She just helps out.”

          “I like that.”

          “She says you do the same thing.”

          “Not as much as I should.”

          Harris grunted a laugh. “Join the club, brother.”

          When Sandra climbed back into the limo, she handed out the cups and napkins and treats, took a sip, nodded her approval and said, “You’re puzzled.”

          “You husband told me the two you agreed on everything.”

          “Did he?”

          “But you obviously made this happen. You talked him into changing his mind.”

          “I wouldn’t put it that way, Mr. Stone.”

          He smiled. “Mitch.”

          “I blackmailed him, Mitch. Just as you were planning to do.”

          “That’s cold.”

          “Well, things have been cooling between us for quite a while.”

          “And you don’t agree on everything.”

          “I never did. I listened and smiled. There’s a Frank Loesser song – ‘Marry the Man Today and Change His Ways Tomorrow’.”

          “Maybe he’s leaving town.”

          She laughed. “A millennial who knows Guys and Dolls.

          “We did it in high school.”

          “Who did you play?”

          “I worked the light board.”

          “How appropriate.”

          They drove in silence for a while, down the long straight stretch that led to Jetties Beach, past the big mansions standing on reclaimed wetlands with their perfect landscaping and their flooded basements. Those houses would all be gone in a few years, as the waters rose. A hundred more years, it would all be a swamp again. Reality was a tenacious motherfucker.

          “So why did you come here?” Mitch asked as they started up cobblestone hill toward Lincoln Circle.

          “Just to see you for myself. And thank you. So … thank you.”

          “My pleasure.”

          “We need to get your friend his coffee, before it gets cold.”

          Before Mitch climbed out of the car he said. “Are you going to divorce him?”

          Her smile was bright and dangerous. “Heavens no, Mitch. We have a lot of work to do! And so do you. There’s still that repellant little shrew in Colorado to de-program.”

          Mitch grinned. “I bought my plane ticket last night. ACK to BOS to DEN. JetBlue flight 266.”

          “Good for you. Get home safe.”

          Harris tipped his cap, and the big Chevy pulled away. It was good to have an ally. He handed Billy Delavane his coffee and scone as the limo disappeared around the corner of India Street He felt an exotic lightness of heart so strange it took him a moment to identify it.

          He was feeling hope and hope felt good.

          He drained the last of his coffee and got back to work.