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Bright-eyed Marlys Purdy carried a steel bucket around to the side of the garage to the rabbit hutches, which were stacked up on top of each other like Manhattan walkups. She paused there for a moment, considering the possibilities. A dozen New Zealand whites peered through the screened windows, their pink noses twitching and pale eyes watching the intruder, their long ears turning like radar dishes, trying to parse their immediate future: Was this dinner, or death?
A car went by on the gravel road, on the far side of a ditch-line of lavender yarrow and clumps of black-eyed susans and purple cone flowers, throwing a cloud of dust into the late-afternoon sun. Marlys turned to look. Lori Schaeffer, who lived three more miles out. Didn’t bother to wave.
Marlys was a sturdy woman in her fifties, white curls clinging to her scalp like vanilla frosting. She wore rimless glasses, a homemade red-checked gingham dress and low-topped Nikes. Short-nosed and pale, she had a small pink mouth that habitually pursed in thought, or disapproval.
She popped the door on one of the hutches and pulled the rabbit out by its hind feet.
The animal smelled of rabbit food and rabbit poop and the pine shavings used as bedding. A twelve-inch Craftsman crescent wrench, its working end rusted shut, lay on top of the hutches. Marlys stretched the rabbit over her thigh and held it tight until it stopped wriggling, then picked up the crescent wrench and whacked the rabbit on the back of the head, separating the skull from the spine.
So it was death.
The rabbit went limp, but a few seconds later, began twitching as its nerves fired against oxygen starvation. That went on for a bit and then the rabbit went quiet again.
Some years before, Marlys had mounted a plank on the side of the garage, at head-height. Before mounting the board, she’d driven two twenty-penny common nails through it, so that an inch of nail protruded, angling upward. Every year or so, she’d use a bastard file to sharpen up the nails.
Now she positioned the bucket, with a used plastic shopping bag on the inside, under the board with the nails. She pushed the dead rabbit’s feet onto the nails, until the nails stuck through; and, in a minute or so, had stripped the rabbit’s fur, pulled off its head, and gutted it, all the unwanted parts and most of the blood draining into plastic bag in the bucket
Not all of the blood: a dinner-plate-sized blotch of old black blood stains marred the wooden side of the garage, supplemented by new red blotches from this last butchery. She carried the bloody meat back to the house, paused to tie up the top of the plastic bag and drop it into the garbage can, and in the kitchen, washed the meat.
During the entire five-minute process of killing and butchering the rabbit, she’d never once thought about either the animal, or the process. All of that was automatic, like pulling beets or picking wax beans.
Marlys’ brain was consumed with other thoughts.
If and when, and where and how, and with what.
Marlys was a woman of ordinary appearance, if seen in a supermarket or library, dressed in homemade or Walmart dresses or slacks, a little too heavy, but fighting it, white-haired, ruddy-faced.
In her heart, though, she housed a rage that knew no bounds. The rage fully possessed her at times and she might be seen sitting in her truck at a stoplight, pounding the steering wheel with the palms of her hands; or walking through the noodle aisle at the supermarket with a teeth-baring snarl. She had frightened strangers, who might look at her and catch the flames of rage, quickly extinguished when Marlys realized she was being watched.
The rage was social and political and occasionally personal, based on her hatred of obvious injustice, the crushing of the small and helpless by the steel wheels of American plutocracy.
Jesse walked into the kitchen, running a hand over his close-cropped hair. He peered over her shoulder into the sink. “What are we having?”
“Rabbit fettuccine alfredo,” Marlys said to her blue-eyed son. “We’re eating early, ’cause I got to get over to Mt. Pleasant. You go on out and get me some broccoli and a tomato. Where’s your brother?”
“Messin’ around with that .22,” Jesse said. He put a hand to his left cheek, a gesture of thought or weariness in others, but in Jesse, an unconscious move to cover the port wine stain that marked his neck and the bottom of his cheek. “He says there’s nothing wrong with it that a good cleaning won’t fix.”
“Well, he knows his guns. Go get me that broccoli. We’ll eat in an hour.”
Marlys and her younger son, Cole, lived on a nine-acre place north of Pella, Iowa, in a weathered clapboard farmhouse with three bedrooms and a bathroom up, a living room, parlor, a half-bath and a kitchen down, and a rock-walled basement under all of that.
The basement held the mechanical equipment for the house, and a twenty-one-cubic-foot Whirlpool freezer that Marlys filled with corn, green and wax beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, that kept them eating all winter. Applesauce from a half-dozen apple trees went in Ball jars, stored on dusty wooden shelves next to the freezer.
Her older son, Jesse, until recently had lived in an apartment in town with his wife and daughter, and sold Purdy produce at most of the big farmers’ markets between Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
Cole worked in the truck gardens and ran the mower at the country club during golf season. The two sons would jacklight four to six deer during the various hunting seasons, and the venison steaks and sausage, supplemented by the rabbits, filled out their meat requirements. They’d once had a chicken yard, but a mid-winter spate of accounting several years earlier had convinced Marlys that chickens were cheaper to buy at the supermarket, than to raise at home, even given the bonus eggs.
In the winter, to raise cash, Marlys made hand-stitched quilts which she sold through an Amish store in Des Moines. She wasn’t Amish, but nobody much cared, as long as the quilts moved.
The Purdys weren’t rich, but they did all right, not counting the possibly inherited tendency to psychosis.
Jesse walked down to the closest garden, cut a few broccoli heads – they were big and tough, being the last harvest of the first season, but good enough when chopped – and got a nice ripe tomato. All of that took only a minute, but by the time he started back to the house, he was sweating.
There’d been a lot of rain that Spring and everything was looking lush and fine. At the moment, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the low nineties, with the humidity close to eighty percent.
The local farmers, of course, were bitching because the bean and corn harvests were going to be huge and the prices depressed. Of course, if it hadn’t rained, they’d be bitching because their crops were small, even if the prices were high. You couldn’t win with farmers.
For Marlys and her sons, the frequent rain was nothing but a blessing: more food than they could eat, so many apples that they’d have to cull them before they were mature to keep the apple tree branches from breaking; enough raspberries and Concord grapes to make jam enough for five years of toast. Marlys had been talking of buying an upright freezer for the kitchen. She could freeze a year’s worth of cinnamon apple slices and they all did like apple pie.
As Jesse walked back to the house, he noticed a pale haziness on the western horizon, above the afterglow left by the sun, hinting of a new weather system moving in, even more rain. All right with him. Looking up at the top floor of the house, he saw Cole sitting behind the bedroom window screen with his rifle, which he had reassembled.
“You don’t go shooting nobody,” he called up to his brother.
Cole didn’t say anything, but lifted a hand.
Gray-eyed Cole sat in his bedroom window, looking out over the road, a scoped Ruger 10-22 in his hands. Squirrel rifle. Below him, a quilt hung on the wire clothesline, airing out. Before the end of the day, the quilt would smell like early-summer fields, with a little gravel dust mixed in. A wonderful smell, a smell like home.
An aging green pickup was motoring over the hill to the south, about to take the curve in front of the house. Cole tracked it with the scope, watching David Souther horse the truck around the curve heading south toward Pella. He whispered to himself, “Bang!”
One dead Souther.
Souther was a hippy kind of guy and had a hundred and twenty acres given over to sheep, which he’d shear so his wife could wash, spin, dye and weave the fleece into blankets and wall-hangings, which they sold at a store at the Amana Colonies. Souther was also a poet and sometimes had a book published. The Purdys had two of his books, which Souther had given them, but Cole had never read any of the poems.
Cole had nothing at all against Souther or his wife. They worked hard and they didn’t get rich, but they did all right, he supposed. Janette Souther was the shyest woman Cole had ever met: she couldn’t even look at another human being. How she and Souther ever gotten together, he had no idea. Of course, they had no kids, so maybe they hadn’t exactly gotten together, Souther being a poet and all.
Another truck came over the hill to the south.
Cole put his scope on it...
Cole had been to Iraq twice with the National Guard. He’d been a truck driver, not a combat troop, but in Iraq, even the truck drivers were on the front lines. He’d been in his truck on two occasions when IEDs went off at the side of the road, once a short distance ahead of him, once behind him, artillery shells fired with cell phones.
He hadn’t exactly been wounded either time, but he’d been hurt. He couldn’t hear anything for a while after the second explosion and never could hear as well as he had when he enlisted. Right after the IEDs, he’d been too dizzy to drive for a while, and nauseous for a couple of days, but the Army told him that he was okay, and the VA had waved him off – they had more important things to do.
He wasn’t entirely sure about how okay he really was. Hadn’t been able to sleep since he got back, and that was nine years now; and he’d had a bell-like ringing in his ears since the first explosion, sometimes so loud that he thought it would drive him crazy.
And maybe it had.
The approaching truck went into the turn: Sherm Miller, who had a farm up the road, nine hundred and sixty acres, one of the richer people around, his land alone probably worth seven or eight million.
Cole whispered, “Bang!”
Jesse dropped the broccoli and tomato with his mother, and said, “I’m running down to Henry’s to get some cigs. You want anything?”
“Mmm, get me a box of those hundred-calorie fudge bars. You stay away from Willie.” Willie was Jesse’s estranged wife.
“We gotta get that sorted out soon,” Jesse said. “I can’t be living here for the rest of my life.”
Marlys paused in her dinner prep: “Well, you could. You could have your old bedroom back permanently. You know you’re welcome.”
“Gotta get away from here sooner or later, ma,” Jesse said. “Then I won’t have to listen to any more of that political bullshit from you and Cole. That Michaela Bowden bullshit. You guys are a little fucked up on the subject.”
“Quiet! You be quiet!” Marlys said. “I don’t want to hear anything about her.”
“Nobody here but us,” Jesse said.
Marlys pointed toward the ceiling: the NSA satellites were watching everything and everybody, and sorting, sorting, sorting. She was on forums that said so. The feds would be listening for the name “Michaela Bowden.” Mention it the wrong way and the black helicopters would be all over your butt.
“You go on, but be back for dinner,” Marlys said. And, “Stay away from Willie.”
Jesse said, “Yeah,” and “Cole’s up in his window again,” and walked out.
When Jesse was gone, Marlys went back to thinking about what she’d been thinking about for the past year: getting the right man in the White House.
That would mean killing Michaela Bowden, the leading candidate on the Democratic side. Bowden was a sure thing, everybody thought. Sure to get the nomination, sure to win the election.
She might already have some Secret Service protection, but the convention was still a year off. Bowden was running around the countryside, pumping up the base, trying to brick up the nomination, trying to fend off any possible competition, stretching to win Iowa’s political caucuses, now only five months away. She was out in the open and the Secret Service protection would be light, compared to what it’d be after the convention.
If they were going to get her, now was the time.
Right now. They couldn’t wait.
Jesse got back to the house with the cigarettes, and two minutes later, his wife showed up with the kid. His wife, whose name was Wilma, but who everybody called Willie, was dropping the daughter, Caralee, for the weekend.
Marlys heard Willie and Jesse collide at the front door and thought, “Uh-oh,” and hurried that way, in time to hear Jesse saying, “I ain’t payin’ to support that asshole no way. You want to suck his lazy cock, you go right ahead, but you ain’t seeing no more money from me...”
“I’ll get the court after you again, you ugly piece of shit,” Willie said.
Marlys called, “Hey, hey, you all shut up. Both of you. Willie, you get the hell out of here, you aren’t welcome inside the house. You know that.”
Caralee was sucking on a binkie and had the dried remnants of green baby food dribbled down her shirt. A small, round-headed blonde, she looked frightened, her eyes switching nervously between her parents, and Marlys got down on one knee and said, “Come on to Grandma, honey, come on, it’s okay.”
Willie left, banging the screen door behind her and shouting, “Fuck all you Purdys,” and Jesse shouted back, “Suck on it, bitch,” and Willie threw a finger over her shoulder. Upstairs, Cole put the scope’s crosshairs on Willie’s back and said to himself, “Bang.”
That evening, after dinner, as Jesse, Cole and Caralee settled down to watch a Cubs game on television, Marlys drove to Mt. Pleasant. On the way, she felt the anger burning through her, as it always did, when she got together with the other members of the Lost Tribes of Iowa.
Found herself hunched over the steering wheel, her knuckles white, remembering.
It had been thirty years since the Purdys lost the farm. Four hundred and eighty acres of good black soil, gone with low crop prices and high interest rates. Gone with it was the three hundred thousand dollars that her parents had loaned to the newlyweds as a down payment on the mortgage loan, and to buy basic equipment. The loss of the three hundred thousand had crippled her father’s retirement. He’d planned to travel, to do great things in his final years; maybe even buy a February time-share down in Fort Myers. He’d been left as an old man staring at a TV screen, sitting out the Iowa winters.
Two years after the disaster, Marlys’s husband, Wilt, left their rented house, climbed in the rust-bucket Chevy, wound it up to ninety miles an hour and pointed it into a concrete pillar on a railroad underpass. He’d been killed instantly, or, at least, that’s what the cops said.
Marlys had never remarried, had never gone with another man: no time, no inclination, and not many offers. Maybe a few, turned away before they had a chance to become real. She still flashed to the day of Wilt’s death, the sight of the sheriff and the Baptist minister coming up the flagstone path on the rental house...Sometimes at night, she could roll over in bed, and see the back of Wilt’s head on the next pillow, silhouetted in the silvery moonlight, and she’d reach out and touch an empty pillow and whisper, “Wilt.”
All she had left of Wilt was Cole’s wide gray eyes.
The highway patrol kindly ruled Wilt’s death an accident and the insurance company had been forced to fork over the money that bought the current house and the acreage outside of Pella.
When they bought it, the house had essentially been abandoned, inhabited by bats and mice and even a raccoon that had nested in the thin attic insulation. Marlys put the kids in school and worked two parttime jobs during the day and then worked half the night fixing up the house and barn, planting her trees and berries and grapes, paying for the compact John Deere tractor she needed to work her gardens.
The kids worked with her: they’d had to.
She’d almost gotten straight with herself and with Wilt’s death, when Cole went off to Iraq in ’07 and came back funny. The next year, the economy collapsed and friends and neighbors began losing jobs and homes again.
She could see so clearly that it was not their fault.
The system was rotten. The Administration was rotten, the Congress was rotten, the banks were rotten, the oil companies were rotten, the media were liars and thieves. Michaela Bowden was their instrument, mixed right in there with them.
Something had to be done to save America. The county needed a strong President whose heart was in the right place, who’d take care of the struggling folks at the bottom of the economic heap.
Somebody like Minnesota’s governor, Elmer Henderson.
The Mt. Pleasant meeting was in the home of Joseph Likely, an aging activist and gasbag who nevertheless knew a lot of history, and how history seemed to work through certain small moments – the assassination of John Kennedy or the 9/11 attacks. Moments that changed the world, usually for the worse.
But not always. Not always, Marlys thought.
At Likely’s house, Marlys got out of the car and took the insulated pizza-delivery bag, left from one of her parttime jobs, from the passenger seat. The bag was still warm. She climbed the porch and knocked on the door. She could see a dozen or so people already sitting in the living room and then Joe Likely threading his way through them. Likely was a sixties leftover, with a nicotine-stained beard and eyebrows like tumbleweeds.
He opened the door and smiled and said, “I hope to hell that’s apple pie you’re carrying.”
“Two of them. How are you, Joe?”
“Getting older,” Likely said. “Hoping to make it until Christmas.”
She followed him into the living room, where ten other people were sitting on metal folding chairs. She knew them all. Joe said, “Marlys has brought pie.”
A few people said, “Yay,” and “Thanks, Marlys,” and Joe took the pies into the kitchen, then came back and stood at the front of the room.
“Like I was saying before Marlys got here, the news isn’t real good, but I guess you all know that. Right now, politically, we’ve got nowhere to go. The Republicans, as usual, are batshit crazy, and with the Democrats, well, choose your poison. Dan Grady has filed papers to run for governor...” There was a smattering of applause. “...but even those of us who like Dan, know that he won’t get even two percent of the vote. We’re back in survival mode. I have to admit that our network is getting thinner, not stronger. So, the question is, what do we do? We need fresh ideas.”
Fresh ideas from this group was virtually an oxymoron, Marlys thought, wriggling her butt against the comfortless chair..
She heard the same old things about organizing, about reaching out to young people, about getting in touch with the unions, about starting a website. The ideas were mostly inane; a few were actively goofy. None of them had even a touch of realism about them. Given what happened to her pies during the break, she began to wonder how many people still came to the meetings only for the free dessert.
She looked around: long-time acquaintances and friends now grown shabby, tired, broken. Cinders. In the old days, they’d all burned with righteous fire.
Anson Palmer stood up and said that he was talking to a press in Iowa City about publishing his book. His book was three thousand pages long now. Palmer suffered from an idée fixe, that is, that the Jews controlled everything. Everything. He was writing down every single human process he could think of, and tracing it back to Jewish control, like tracing every human being through six degrees to Kevin Bacon.
His three thousand pages only scratched the surface. His talks with the press were not far advanced, he admitted. He really needed an agent, but guess-what about most agents?
Marlys hadn’t met many Jews and those she had seemed ordinary enough – but it was clear to her who ran the banks, the media, the corporations. Or for that matter, the literary agencies. But with Jews, there was no leverage. Sure, you could go around blaming the Jews if you wanted, but they were so dispersed, there was nothing you could really do about them. They weren’t a fulcrum that you use to move the world.
Michaela Bowden was.
If she were elected President, it would be the same-ol’ same-ol: sucking up to, and taking care of, the powers-that-be, the banks, Wall Street, the corporations, the foundations. Nothing but crumbs for the little people.
With Elmer Henderson, things would be a whole lot different. Henderson was independently wealthy and didn’t have to suck up to anyone. He came from a farm state, and even owned a farm, she’d learned. He knew what had happened to the average folks back in the 80s, and then in the 2000s. His heart was in the right place. If he became President, there was a chance for change.
Among the whole bunch, Marlys knew, she was the only one who had a real practical idea, that might actually move the world. No way she could talk about it, not even here.
She let Anson Palmer’s words flow around her, eyes half closed. The people here, in this room, were right-enough in their thinking, in their hopeless way. They knew something had to be done – but they didn’t know what, and they wouldn’t do it if they did know.
And she would.
August, with the late afternoon sun glittering off the ripples in the lake outside the double doors; a pleasant silence after the whine of the table saw.
Lucas Davenport sat in a battered office chair with a bottle of Leinie’s, looking at the unfinished interior of the room he was adding to his Wisconsin cabin. The place smelled of sawdust and coffee, with a hint of the piney woods that surrounded the house, and the beer in his hand. Through the plastic sheet that separated the new room from the rest of the cabin, he could hear Delbert McClinton singing “Two More Bottles of Wine” over the computer speakers.
The carpenter had left, taking her coffee with her, after installing the tongue-in-groove pine planks on the wall facing the lake. Lucas had been doing the cutting, on the table saw, while the carpenter did the final fitting and nailing. Another two days and the walls would all be in, and then they’d start on the finish work. Jesus don’t tarry and the creek don’t rise, the room would be done before winter, with weeks to spare.
Of course, he’d heard that story before. In his experience with house construction, the creek did rise, or Jesus did tarry, or both. So far, though, they were on schedule.
Delbert had finished “Two More Bottles” and had gone to work on “Gold Plated Fool,” when Lucas’s phone rang. His wife, he thought, checking in after work. He dug his phone out of his pocket and looked at the screen.
A single word hung there: Mitford.
Neil Mitford was chief weasel for the governor of Minnesota. A finger of pure pleasure touched Lucas’s heart: Something was up. Mitford never called unless he had to.
Lucas clicked on Answer and asked, “What happened?”
“The governor needs to see you,” Mitford said. “Soon as possible.”
“He get caught with a teenager?”
“Don’t even think that,” Mitford said, as if thinking it might make it happen.
“Yeah, well, in case you hadn’t noticed, I no longer work for the state,” Lucas said.
“He needs to see you anyway.”
“I’m up at my cabin. I could probably make it down tomorrow afternoon.”
“Unfortunately, we’re in Iowa. We just left Fort Madison...” Lucas heard somebody in the background call, “Fort Dodge,” and Mitford said, “...Fort Dodge, on our way to Ames. We’ve got a noon speech there, tomorrow, followed by a reception at the student union. That’ll go on ’til two o’clock. We’d like you to be there by the end of the reception.”
“What’s the problem?” Lucas asked, because there would be a problem.
“I can’t tell you that because we’re talking on radios,” Mitford said. “Be here at two.”
“I’m a private citizen now and I don’t necessarily jump when the governor...”
“Two o’clock,” Mitford said, and he was gone.
Lucas smiled at the phone: something was up.
“Good,” said his wife, Weather, when she called to check in. “He’s got something for you to do. You’ll stop driving Jimi nuts and I’ll get to see you tonight.”
“Treat me right, I might even throw you a quickie,” Lucas said.
“As opposed to what?”
“Very funny,” Lucas said. “And I’m not driving Jimi nuts.”
Jimi was the carpenter. “Yes, you are. Nuts. Like you did when you drove the contractor nuts on this house. Then you spend all day looking at Jimi’s ass, up on that scaffold. Which might explain the quickiness.”
“She does have an exceptionally nice scaffold,” Lucas said. “Anyway, see you about seven o’clock. Maybe we can sneak out for a bite.”
“Before or after the quickie?” Weather asked.
“Big talk, big guy.”
Lucas was a big guy, but not a lunk.
He was a few pounds under two hundred, now, after much of a summer working on the cabin for three days each week. He’d had no easy access to restaurant food, the big killer, and so had been cooking on his own, mostly microwave stuff. He’d been running twice a day and doing early-morning weight work. Although he was a natural clothes-horse, he’d spent the summer in jeans, t-shirts and lace-up boots, and was beginning to miss the feel of high-end Italian wool and silk and English shoes.
Lucas was a dark-haired man, with a long thin scar tracking down from his hairline, across his tanned forehead and over one eye to his cheek; not, as some people thought, cop-related, but an artifact from a fishing misadventure. Another pink/white scar showed on his throat, left over from the day a young girl shot him in the throat. A surgeon – who was not yet his wife – saved his life by cutting open an airway with a borrowed jackknife.
He was no longer a cop. He’d quit Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension when a combination of personality conflict and paperwork had finally done what street work hadn’t been able to do: push him out.
When he was a cop, still working with the BCA, he’d done a number of quiet jobs for the governor and they’d grown to somewhat trust each other. Only somewhat: politicians could rationalize the Crucifixion of Christ. And had.
The governor, Elmer Henderson, was currently campaigning for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, though that’s not what he said he was doing. He claimed to be campaigning for the presidency, but he knew quite well that rumors about his early interest in three-and four-way sex with young Seven Sisters co-eds and fellow Ivy Leaguers, as well as in the life-enhancing effects of cocaine, would eventually get out and keep him from the nomination.
However, he was liberal enough that he could nail down the lefty fringe of the party for a candidate who ran more toward the middle; and he had a half-billion dollars, which would come in handy during a national campaign. The sex-and-drugs thing wouldn’t keep him from something as insignificant as the vice-presidency.
He had a shot.
After the call from Weather, Lucas showered and shaved, put a Band-Aid and some antiseptic on his index finger, above the knuckle, where he’d picked up a splinter earlier in the day, and put on some fresh clothes. He took ten minutes to vacuum up an accumulation of Asian ladybugs that had found their way through the windowless addition, and bagged up the garbage and trash. He called Jimi to tell her he’d be gone for a short time, no more than a few days.
“Thank god,” she’d said.
“I mean...that the time’ll be short,” the carpenter said.
Closing down the cabin took fifteen minutes. He hauled the garbage bag to his Mercedes SUV, locked up the cabin, and was on the dirt road out.
That night, Lucas’s friend Del Capslock and his wife came over for barbequed steaks and salad, and they sat around speculating on the governor’s problem. “It better not involve a woman,” Weather said. “If he’s been caught with his hand in the wrong pair of pants, that’s not a problem I want you to solve.”
“A hand wouldn’t be such a big problem – a pregnancy would be,” Del said. “But Elmer’s not that dumb.”
“His penis might be,” Del’s wife said.
“He has a well-schooled cock; he only impregnates what he wants to impregnate,” Del said.
“Hope you’re right,” Lucas said. “If it’s that kind of problem, he’s on his own. I’ll turn the truck around and go back to the cabin.”
Lucas’s youngest kid, Gabrielle, was now old enough to sit in her own chair at the table. She pointed a spoon at Del and said, “Cock.”
“Oh my God,” Weather said.
Lucas’s son, Sam, now in third grade, said to Weather, “Mom, Gabby said ‘cock.’”
Del’s wife rapped Del on the head with a soup spoon.
And the next morning, leaving behind a wife and two small children – Lucas had an older adoptive daughter going to college at Stanford, and another daughter who lived with the family of an ex-girlfriend – he put the Benz on I-35 and pointed it south for Iowa.
Weather waved from the doorstep. She was smiling.
“Quickie, my ass,” he thought, as he rolled out of the driveway.
From St. Paul to Des Moines was three hours, more or less straight down I-35. Ames was a half-hour short of Des Moines, and a college town – Iowa State. A few miles out of St. Paul, Lucas was into the corn and soybeans, and corn and beans it would remain, all the way to Ames, the grain fields punctuated by snaky lines of junk trees along the flatland creeks, the windbreaks around farmhouses, and the occasional cow.
After he’d quit the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas and Weather had taken a vacation trip to France. They’d spent most of their time in Paris, with a one-day run by train to London, but had also spent a week driving around the South of France, where they’d encountered a fundamental difference between European and American farmlands.
In Europe, it seemed, farmers mostly lived in villages, and during the day, went out to their farms. In America, they lived on their farms and during the day, went into the villages.
The European way seemed more...congenial. There’d always be somebody to talk to at night. Especially on long winter nights. When you were as far north as St. Paul or Paris, the nights began at four o’clock in the afternoon and ended at eight in the morning; Lucas had been surprised to learn that Paris was further north than the Minnesota-Canada border. Looking at some of the old farmsteads out on the prairie, Lucas thought he might well have died if forced to sit through a winter in one of those isolated farmhouses, back in pre-TV days, nothing for companionship except the wind and a wood stove and a Sears Roebuck catalog...
Halfway down to Ames, Virgil Flowers, a former BCA subordinate, called: “Me’n Johnson Johnson are going over to Vilas County to rape the lakes of all their muskies,” Flowers said. “You want to come along? You might learn something.”
“I’ve done more fishing this summer than any summer in my life,” Lucas said. “So no. Besides, I’m on my way to Ames to meet the governor. He might have an errand for me.”
“You got your gun?” Flowers asked.
“In the car, not on me,” Lucas said.
“Stay in touch, I want to hear about it,” Flowers said. “Especially if it involves a woman.”
Ames was a different kind of college town than those of Lucas’s experience. The University of Minnesota, where he’d played four years of hockey, not counting a fifth year as a rare hockey redshirt, was built on the banks of the Mississippi, and was a thoroughly urban campus, within walking distance of downtown Minneapolis and the strip of bars and music clubs on Hennepin Avenue.
The other college towns he’d visited as part of the hockey team, or on Big-Ten related sports trips, were also pretty interesting, even when small: often a little shabby, with old-line bars and riverside or lakeside walks, and long-haired hipsters and lots of girls reading Kahlil Gibran. The presence of The Prophet had always, in his experience, boosted the potential for hasty romances. He even knew a few handy lines: Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup. And you could take that any way you wanted...
Ames, on the other hand, was flat and dry, or almost so; and the main street facing the campus looked like it had been built by recent refugees from the old Soviet Union, who’d been allowed to use bricks instead of concrete. The coeds – not too many, in the dead of summer – all looked like they were majoring in something that required math or rubber gloves and weren’t carrying copies of The Prophet. There wasn’t a hipster in sight.
Lucas followed the trucks’s nav system down Lincoln, spotted the student union, drove around for a couple of minutes and found a parking spot outside a Jimmy Johns sub restaurant, which was a good thing. He plugged the meter and ambled on over to the student union.
Checked his watch: 1:45.
He could see Henderson’s political rally from the far side of the street, a crowd of brightly dressed young people overflowing down the steps of a concrete terrace off the left side of the student union. He crossed the street and climbed the steps to the terrace, where he found Neil Mitford, a pale balding man with a sun-pinked face, in a blue-and-white striped seersucker suit, leaning against a terrace wall, a drink in one hand. The terrace was packed, a hundred and fifty people pounding on a drinks-and-snacks table like ravenous wolves.
Mitford nodded at Lucas and said, “Right on time.”
From where he was standing, Lucas could see another, higher, level to the terrace, as crowded as the one they were on, with the governor standing in the center of it, surrounded by the co-eds that Lucas hadn’t seen on the streets.
“You needed a bigger space,” Lucas said.
“Which tells me how much you know about politics,” Mitford said. “If you think five people are going to show up, you hold the rally in a phone booth. If it’s twenty-five, you hold it in a garage. If it’s five hundred, it’s this place – it’s a place where not quite everybody can get in, so the press says you’re attracting overflow crowds.”
“You’ve mentioned that before,” Lucas said. “I forgot it because it wasn’t important.”
“And because you’re not a political influential, like me.”
“I gotta admit, I didn’t think the crowd would be this big, this early in the campaign,” Lucas said. There were probably a hundred young women in royal blue-and gold t-shirts, Henderson’s campaign colors.
Mitford said, “Four words: college campus, free food.”
“Ah. What does Elmer want me to do?” Lucas asked. “Something criminal?”
Mitford shrugged: “Maybe, but I’ll let him tell you about it. It’ll take some of your time, though, so you better cancel everything else.”
“I’m not going to do it if it involves Elmer’s sex life,” Lucas said.
“Good. Anyway, I charge four hundred bucks an hour,” Lucas said. “Eight hundred if it involves something criminal.”
Mitford made a farting noise with his lips, then said, “The governor expects you to contribute your time, since you’re already richer than Croesus.” He paused, then said, “Croesus was...”
“I know who Croesus was,” Lucas said. “I was a hockey player, not a moron.”
“Sorry. But you know, get hit in the head by too many pucks...By the way, we haven’t actually seen your name on our donors’ list.”
“Must have missed it,” Lucas said.
On the lawn below the terrace, a fight had broken out. Lucas felt no compulsion to do anything about it, other than to look past Mitford’s shoulder and say, “Fight.”
Mitford turned to look, where two middle-aged men were rolling around on the grass next to a pond and a fallen political sign.
“Oh, that guy,” Mitford said, leaning over the terrace wall, watching with interest. “The one in the white shirt. He’s got these big signs that bounce up and down on a spring, on top of a pole that’s about fifteen feet high. One says, ‘The Henderson Hoagie, Two Girls Better Than One,’ and the other one says, ‘Henderson Equals Godless Comminism.’ That’s c-o-m-m-I-n-i-s-m.”
“Must be one of your rightwing intellectuals,” Lucas said.
A crowd encircled the two fighting men, but nobody seemed about to intervene, except a woman in a yellow blouse who kept pleading, “Is this the way to settle anything? Is this the way adults...” She stopped and dabbed at a spot of blood that spattered on her blouse.
Lucas wondered briefly if she were intellectually challenged: In his experience, fights settled all sorts of things. Some of them, permanently.
“He’s been following us around the state. He’s harmless, but embarrassing,” Mitford said. Now four men were trying to pull the fighters apart, but the guy on top got in a last three or four good-looking shots to the face, and Mitford shouted, “Hit him again, Walt.”
Lucas: “Walt? You hired that guy?”
“Of course not. That would be wrong. But we’re pretty sure Bowden hired the guy with the sign.” Mitford went back to his drink.
The fighters were dragged apart, the winner disappearing with professional discretion into the crowd, while the loser tried to sop up the blood from his nose with a blue cowboy handkerchief.
A woman’s arm slipped around Lucas’s waist and he looked down at a redhead who was slender in all the right places.
“How are you?” he asked.
Alice Green looked up at him and smiled, her green eyes a little tired. He could feel the gun on her hip.
“Having a good time?” Lucas asked.
Her eyes slipped away. “I guess. Working pretty hard.”
Lucas looked at her for a moment and she never looked back, and he pulled her a few steps away from Mitford and said, “Don’t tell me...”
“I don’t want to hear a fuckin’ word about it, Lucas,” she said. “I knew you’d figure it out, right away, and I don’t want to hear a single fuckin’ word.”
“Does Neil know?”
“I’m sure he does,” she said.
“How long?” he asked.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Lucas said.
“Depends on what you mean by ‘going.’ He’s not going to marry me, but I could come out of it with a hell of a job in Washington.”
“Ah, man...I hope you know what you’re doing,” Lucas said.
“I don’t, entirely,” she said. “I really like him and he really likes me. Trouble is, there are a lot of women who really like him and he really likes them back. And his wife is basically Darth Vader in an Oscar De La Renta dress.”
“Really? I always thought she looked like a decorator lamp with a twenty-five watt bulb.”
“The lamp part is right, the dim bulb not so much,” Green said. “She’s at least half the brains in the family and she’s not going anywhere.”
Green headed Henderson’s security detail. Lucas had introduced them at the end of a U.S. Senate campaign in which Green, a former Secret Service agent, had been working for a psychopathic Senate candidate named Taryn Grant. Lucas was positive that Grant had orchestrated the murders of several people during a Senate campaign in Minnesota.
Lucas asked, “You hear anything from Taryn?”
“No. She was unhappy when I quit, so I don’t think I will,” Green said. “You still thinking about her?”
“From time to time,” Lucas said. “I know goddamn well that she was behind those killings.”
“Won’t get her, not after all this time,” Green said.
“Not for those,” Lucas said. “She’ll go after somebody else, though – freaks like her do it for the thrill of it and they get addicted to the risk. She’ll screw up somewhere along the line. I’d like to be there when she does.”
“You’d need a new cop job,” Green said.
“I could see myself coming back, under the right circumstances,” Lucas said. “I just haven’t figured out exactly what the job would be.”
“Nobody likes a free-lancer,” she said.
“Including me. I wouldn’t go free-lance. I’d like a real badge, but it’s got to be the right one,” he said. And, “Do you have any idea what Elmer wants?”
“Yes, but I’ll let him tell you. The governor speaks for himself.” A group of young women dressed all in black were picking up the leftover food and dumping it into garbage sacks and stacking up unused paper plates, signaling the end of the party. Green said, “Let’s go talk to the guy.”
Henderson, a tall, slender man with blond hair, was still surrounded by co-eds and the kind of soft-faced young men who walked around with policy manuals under their elbows. They’d all wind up in Washington where, even if they never did good, they’d certainly do well.
The governor saw Lucas and lifted a hand and said to the people around him, “My muscle has arrived. We’ve got to go talk. I’ll be back; I’d like somebody to show me those pool tables.”
Several young things volunteered and the governor, babbling a variety of assurances and clichés, waded through the crowd, shook hands with Lucas and said, “Come on, let’s go across the street.”
He led the way down the steps to the street level, Mitford, Green and another security guy running interference for them. They crossed the street and Henderson waved back at the crowd, then took Lucas’s elbow and led him onto a sidewalk that bordered a large winding pond.
“So what’s up?” Lucas asked, as they walked along.
“Let me turn my music on,” Henderson said. He took an iPhone from his pocket, pushed some buttons, and J.D. McPherson started singing “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Lucas looked around. “Boom mikes?”
“Can never tell,” Henderson said. He held the rockin’ iPhone between them. “Better to not take a chance.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Don’t know,” Henderson said. “But it’s got a nasty vibe.”
Henderson outlined some background that Lucas already knew: that he wasn’t really running for the presidency, but for the vice-presidency, and that most political insiders knew that.
“I’d like to be President someday and this is my only chance – I can’t get to it without getting the vice presidency first. That whole Henderson Hoagie business, and too many people know that I fooled around with some cocaine...well. Since 1901, seven vice-presidents – Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush the First, got to be President, for a whole variety of different reasons. There’s no sure thing, but if I can get there, get to be the VP, I’ve got a fair chance at the top job. Bowden has almost got the nomination sewn up. Jack Gardner’s still hanging around, but he’s well back in third place and he’s too wimpy for any major job. I’m a perfect fit for the vice presidency. I’m popular in the Midwest, where Bowden’s weak, I’m a Catholic and she’s a Protestant...”
“Male and female, tall and short, blond and brunette, leftwing crazy and moderate centrist...” Lucas added.
“Exactly,” said the leftwing crazy. “We’ve gotten some strong signals from her camp that if I don’t say anything too rude, I’m at the top of the list. If I beat her here in Iowa and ease up and let her take New Hampshire, it’s a done deal.”
“But. There’s gotta be a ‘but.’”
“There is.” He paused, then, “I was working the rope line down at the Des Moines airport and this chubby white-haired middle-aged lady took my hand and held onto it, walked along with me for a way, and she said, ‘Governor, you’ve got to move to the center. You have to be ready for the nomination, in case Bowden doesn’t make it, in case something happens to her.’ She was quite intense, very sincere, and I think a little unhinged.”
“Uh-huh. What’d you say?”
“I rolled out a cliché or two and kept trying to get my hand back. Eventually I did, but the incident was odd enough that I remembered it, because she had this scary intensity about her. A few days later, I was in Waterloo and this farm kinda guy took my hand and said, “Governor, you gotta move to the center. We know where your heart is, but you’ve got to pretend to move to the center if you want the nomination. You gotta be ready if Bowden goes down.’ The thing is, this guy had these pale gray eyes, you really felt them. Creepy. And he looked like the chubby lady, except he had a thin face and the gray eyes...the features were hers, you know what I mean? The mouth and the nose...and he said the same thing she had, almost exactly the same words. And when he said it, I had the feeling that something bad might happen to Bowden. He had that look about him – like somebody had slapped him on the side of the head with a flatiron.”
“That’s pretty serious,” Lucas said. “You talk to Bowden’s security people?”
“I didn’t myself. What I did was, I called Bowden directly and told her I was worried. She said she’d talk to her security. One of her guys came over to talk to me and I couldn’t give him anything but those gray eyes, that curly white hair on the old lady – she wore rimless glasses – and the dates of the encounters.”
“Did they take you seriously?”
“Sure, but I didn’t give them much to work with,” Henderson said. “These guys really aren’t investigators. They’re security people, bodyguards.”
“You want me to find the chubby lady...”
“Wait one,” Henderson said. He waved at a couple walking along the sideway, and they cooed at him, and they went on their way. “Bowden and I had that little get-together in Sioux City, along with the also-rans. I’m looking out at the crowd, and here’s this farmy-looking guy again. He looks like those pictures you see of Confederate soldiers. Those flat gray eyes, shaggy hair, too skinny. He was staring at Bowden, fixing on her, then he glances at me and sees that I’m fixed on him. Alice was right off the stage and I excused myself for a minute and I grabbed her and told her about him and she tried to get a picture of the guy with her cell phone, but he was moving away, fast. The photo she got is less than half-assed. Anyway, we passed it all along to Bowden.”
“What’d she do?” Lucas asked.
“Got more security, I hope – but she’s got this weasel working for her, Norman Clay, and he comes by and he says, ‘You’re not trying to push Secretary Bowden out of Iowa, are you, Elmer?”
“And you said?”
“I said, ‘Go fuck yourself, Norm. I wouldn’t pull that kind of bullshit on you.’ He went away, but she’s still here and I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought I was trying to get her out of the state. We’re dealing with some serious skepticism over there.”
“One chubby lady with curly white hair and glasses and a guy with gray eyes who looks like a Confederate soldier, and one bad cell-phone photo. That’s all you’ve got.”
“There’s a little more,” Henderson said. “Our website is inundated with e-mail. We have a few guys going through it looking for two things: possible donors and possible threats. There have been four emails from somebody named ‘Babs.’ They read like nutty political position papers and they also urge me to move toward the center. One of them says that the author knows my heart’s in the right place, but I can’t get the nomination unless I pretend to move to the center.”
“Exactly what the chubby lady told you,” Lucas said.
“Precisely the same words. But, instead of a momentary contact, there are also these position papers. It’s the position papers that tell you these people may be crazy and may be dangerous. You’ll have to read them. They want a revolution. If a few eggs have to be broken, that’s the only way to make an omelet.”
“Okay. What do you want me to do?” Lucas asked.
“I want you to find these people and find out what they’re up to,” Henderson said. “And do it fast. I’m really afraid something could happen here. When you find them, we’ll get the Iowa cops to sit on them.”
“If something did happen to Bowden, how would that affect your chances?” Lucas asked.
“What a rotten, cynical question to ask. I’m proud of you,” Henderson said.
“What’s the answer?”
Henderson shook his head. “I’d be done. I can’t take the nomination straight out. I’m too far left. There’s no way I could pretend to move to the center and Minnesota isn’t a swing state. If Bowden went down, Carl Bartley from Ohio would jump into the middle of it, and maybe Doug Jensen from Missouri. If either one of them got the nomination, neither one would offer me the vice-presidency, because I don’t match up so well with them. They’re both midwesterners, for one thing. They’d go for a woman or a big-state guy, somebody from one of the coasts. North Carolina or Florida or Washington.”
“All right. I’ll go talk to Alice, see what she has to say, and see if I can figure something out,” Lucas said.
“Alice...” Henderson said. He glanced at Lucas.
“Did you really have to do that, governor?” Lucas asked.
Henderson spread his hands. “You know I’ve always had a trouble with pretty women. Especially redheads. And blondes.”
“And brunettes and Hispanics and Asians and a few long-legged African-Americans...”
“I know. I feel bad about Alice when we’re not actually...you know,” Henderson said.
“When you get to Washington, you’ll take care of her?” Lucas asked.
“Oh, yeah. Even if I don’t make VP. I’ve already started talking to her about it. You know she comes from Virginia?”
“There’s a weak-ass Republican congressman, right from her hometown, who needs to be replaced,” Henderson said. “Three years out, our Alice could be looking at a major promotion.”
“Think she’s up to it?”
“I know it,” Henderson said. He stopped to look back at Green, who flashed him a smile. “She’s smart, got great red hair, great green eyes, great smile...”
“Don’t give me any shit about that, Lucas – not with your history,“ Henderson said, irritated. „No matter what happens with me, I’ll get her an impressive-sounding staff job in Washington, something involving Virginia agriculture and natural resources,” Henderson said. “I’ll buy her some top-end TV training, some good threads, lean on my friends for donations. A hot, female, law-and-order Democrat who carries a gun, and has major experience in D.C.? Are you kiddin’ me? That tea-party asshole won’t know what hit him. He’ll be like Toto in the fuckin’ tornado.”
They wandered back to the party and the governor lied about how he wished he were doing something simple and earthy, maybe working on his cabin, like Lucas was – Lucas didn’t believe a word of it, as Henderson’s main cabin was the size of a downtown Holiday Inn and he owned the lake it was sitting on. Then they were back, and Henderson left him to wrap up the lingering co-eds.
Lucas stepped over to Green and Mitford, and said, “Okay, I got it. I need that photo, Alice, and copies of those emails.”
“Give me your cell phone number and I’ll get it all to you in one minute, though the photo is virtually useless,” she said, taking her phone out of her shoulder bag.
Lucas gave her the number, and one minute later, the photo popped up on his phone. It wasn’t as bad as Lucas had feared – she’d taken it from behind the farm-looking guy, and he’d glanced back at her as she took the picture. Only a slice of his face was visible, but his haircut, the way he dressed in a high-collared, hunting-style shirt, and the way he carried himself, was all there. Lucas thought he might recognize him if he saw him.
She sent the texts as emails; he’d look at them later.
“I’ve only got one question,” Green said.
“Would that be, ‘Why does the governor have his hand on that girl’s ass?’” Mitford asked.
Lucas and Green turned to look.
“He’s completely unaware of it and she loves it,” Mitford marveled. “If I did that, I’d be imprisoned for aggravated lubricity.”
The governor took his hand off the girl’s ass and continued talking to her enthusiastically about something they couldn’t hear. “He really doesn’t know,” Green said.
“He can’t do that – we’ve got to get him trained,” Mitford said. “Maybe we could get one of those electric dog collars and every time he does it, we spark him up. ’Cause that’s not gonna work once the voting starts. Once the TV gets heavy, and they start looking for it.”
They watched for a moment as the governor kept working the remaining crowd, then Green turned back to Lucas and said, “That wasn’t my question. My question is, since you aren’t a cop anymore, where are you going to start on this? You’ve got no resources. You got nothin’.”
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 John Sandford