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Jack Barns hung up his phone with a finger tap on the desk. He loved his desk, just like the one in the first Tron movie.

Screen, keyboard, phone, all touchscreen through the desktop glass. The only thing on the desktop was a bottle of mescal and a small glass, which Barns filled.

He grabbed the glass and walked to the floor to ceiling window of his office, looking out over Philadelphia. Louise entered the room, carrying some papers.

“Did you eat anything today?” she mothered.

“Those chicken wings at the lunch meeting, they were pretty good,” he said.

“Marilyn is here. Do you want to see her?”

“No. Send her in,” he said. Marilyn entered the room.

“Are you it? I thought we were having a meeting,” she said, heading to one of the few comfy seats in the room. She pulled out some papers and dropped her briefcase loudly on the floor, kicking it a few extra inches.

“Like a drink?” Barns said, tapping his desk.

“Can you get Ms. Ece a …” he got out before Louise entered and interrupted.

“She doesn’t need a drink,” Louise said, approaching Marilyn, whom she handed a piece of paper. A broad smile overcame Marilyn's face.

“We’re gonna have a ‘Rudy’ moment. My daughter’s going to Notre Dame!” Marilyn said.

“No shit, the Notre Dame?” Barns said.

“University of Notre Dame, I think,” Marilyn said.

“How did we get the news before you?” Barns said, looking up from his seat.

“Louise is on the alumni selection committee …”

“I know,” he said, standing.

“One question: What’s her major?”

“Political Science and Administration, double major,” Marilyn said.

“Good,” he said, shaking hands with her.

“Okay. Any other news?”

“Yes, I made contact last night,” Marilyn said.

“He’ll do it, but his wife is already sniffing around. Our web people tell me we had traffic from PPD on searches for the publications.”

“And the schedule?”

“What schedule? You never said anything about a schedule. I’m going to try and brainwash this guy, you know! This isn’t something you can do on a schedule.”

“How long? We have to keep up with … them,” he said.

“I dunno. Weeks, maybe a month. Part of it depends on how slow or fast the court system moves on …”

“Keep me informed,” Barns said.

Marilyn knew a goodbye when she heard one, and left through the door to reception, and Louise.


Fletcher poked at the fish frying in the pan. He was riverside, with a campfire. He hoped the cops wouldn’t see him. No houses were nearby, but a fire, even a shielded one, throws some light onto the water.

Some twigs cracked, and Fletcher rolled to his knees, pointing a pistol in protection.

“Thought I smelled campfire fish,” Willingham said, walking into the camp, plopping himself down to home.

“Come on in,” Fletcher said. “Coffee?”

“Yeah. Whiskey?” Willingham handed Fletcher a flask as Fletcher handed the coffee.

Fletcher dosed his coffee with flask liquid, something a savvy private detective would never do. He had to drink it now.

Fletcher handed the flask back and Willingham dosed his own coffee, deftly closing the flask with a single hand, as he'd done a thousand times prior.

“What shall we drink to?” Fletcher asked.

“Fish,” Willingham said, pointing at the pan on the fire.

“To fish,” Fletcher said.

“No, your fish is about to flame up and burn,” Willingham said, tapping cups.

Sure enough, the pan fired. Fletcher doused the flame slightly with coffee from the campfire pot. The flame sizzled out, and an invisible plume of fish odor wafted up from the pan.

They had a fine meal, fish by finger from a hot pan, like the hobos both men had dreamed of being as boys.

“Mind if I ask you something?” Fletcher said.

“No, go ahead.”

“I seen you down here, fishing. Don’t you have … any place to go? That sounds bad. You’re probably retired, right? A lot of time on your hands?” Fletcher said.

“That’s a fair question. Yeah, I guess I do spend a lot of time down here. My wife …”

Willingham looked down and sniffed.

“My wife Esther and me, we used to love to fish. We lived in the city – New York City – but the only time we got to fish was on vacation. She had folks here in Philly, so we spent some time by this river.

“What’s your excuse? You’re too young to be retired. I seen you watching me. You on the job, or something?”

“Me? Naw. I’m just a nosy, suspicious type. I like to fish, and I usually check out the spots before walking in like a dumb ass,” Fletcher said with a laugh and a lie.

“How’d you find me?”

“Simple mathematics. You spent time down here, and you also like to fish, as you say. Now, you’re out here, cooking fish, like a …”

“Like a hobo. I always wanted to be one,” Fletcher said.

”Maybe I wanted to be a wanderlust, or vagabond. An exciting character, with no strings to tie me down,” Fletcher said.

“No strings, but that fishing line,” Willingham said.

The men looked at each other, and laughed uproariously.


And so, the stage was set. Both parties had their shills, Marilyn for the PP, and Mara for the NP.

The marks were set, Anton for the PP, and Jim for the NP. Once the marks became comfortable with being champions, their true use would begin.

The idea was to use a common citizen to front for the party. The letters to the editor provided Anton and Jim's unintended job applications.

The job? Neither of the first two Exercises had gotten to this point, where members of both parties' rank and file became champions of the parties and their causes.

Kate Smith Wilson suggested that the champions begin making speeches, using their letters to the editor as content touchstones to reach an audience. In the grand scheme of things, two nobodies, making speeches, doesn't seem like it would add up to much.

But it should add up, party brain trusts hoped. People were just too distrustful of politicians, but the word still needed to get out.

Someone else -- someone the public could trust, like themselves -- was going to have to deliver the message, in speeches.

Exit polls of speeches would determine the true success of The Exercise. This level of cooperation demanded cooperative strategy.

That was where Isabel Smith Wilson and her sister Kate came in. They acted as a message clearinghouse for both parties, meeting with one party's agent, and the other's, keeping the lines of communication open, for The Exercise only.

In the public eye, however, the parties continued their diametric opposition.

And American citizens? They couldn't have been more divided.


Jim Wallace’s exercise that night was to make dinner for Mara Trent and Toby. Jim looked forward to getting to know Mara better.

Mara, on the other hand, wanted to do her job, get Jim speaking, and get the hell out of there.

She was anxious to be done, because she could see herself falling for Jim.

Jim, too, sensed something about Mara. He told Toby so, the day Jim and Mara met. He didn't tell Toby that Mara bore an amazing resemblance to his mother.

Mara arrived and knocked on the front door. Toby walked calmly to the door and opened it.

She was as his dad described, warm and gracious, and, thank God, she did not want to hug Toby or Jim.

Handshakes all around. The hair was different, but Mara did look like Vanessa.

“So, how did you and Dad meet?” Toby said, walking into the living room with Mara.

“Oh, he was very gallant. My car died in the street, and I walked right up to your door to see if someone was home who might wait with me for the tow truck; my granny taught me to do that.

“She always used to say. ‘I don’t mind waiting, but I hate to wait alone, don’t you?’”

“Yeah, I ’spose so,” Toby said.

“Mara is a sociologist at …”

“Penn, this week, at least,” she said.

“We get moved around every week. Our research project is studying public political opinion in different cities in the U.S.

“We go to New York City next week. I’m happy about that, because I like fried chicken. Oh God, that sounded racist, didn’t it? I do need some spicy chicken, though, and there’s a great place I know.

“I happened to see your Dad wrote a letter that printed in the paper, about that young man,” Mara said.

“He’s from this neighborhood,” Jim said. “I know his Mom.”

“He's my friend,” Toby said.

“So, are you researching this?”

“Not in my group. We focus on election-oriented stuff, you know, the process: registration drives, polling, the mechanical parts,” Mara said.

“What’s his story, your friend?”

“Well, it’s apparently like the original reports. The boy admits shooting the other boy. Gang or not, it’s still a killing,” Jim said. Mara glanced at Jim.

Was the spared rod suddenly being picked up?

“This girl in one of my classes read Dad’s letter in class a few days ago,” Toby said.

“Then, we took a vote, like we were a jury.”

“What was the result of the vote?” Mara asked.

“About half favored leniency. One wanted death. The rest voted prison.”

“How did you vote?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t feel like I can tell you, because we took the vote in private. Not even the teacher knows. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“I can respect that.”

The evening passed quickly. Soon, Toby excused himself from the table, to do some homework.

“I'm so glad to have met you, Toby,” Mara said with a genuine tone.

“You too, ma'am, I mean, Mara,” Toby said, remembering Mara's request that Toby call her Mara, and not ma'am.

“He seems like a fine, young man,” Mara said.

“He misses his mom. He was just 12 when she passed away,” Jim said.

Mara had not seen the one photo on the entry hallway wall of Jim, Vanessa and Toby, taken just a few weeks before Vanessa died.

They walked into the living room. Mara went directly to Vanessa's old chair.

“What a lovely chair,” Mara said. She sat in the chair and it felt like it had been made for her.

“Can I talk to you about something?” Mara said.

“Sure, what's that?” he said, sitting in his spot.

“Part of our group studies the effect of public speaking in the political process, and they're always on the look-out for people who have something valuable to say,” she said.

“There's the rub -- the valuable part,” Jim said.

“I know we've only talked a few times on the phone, and we don't really know each other that well, but when I heard about that opportunity, I thought of you.”

“Really? Why?” he said.

“Because you wrote something that has value, because it's something people can relate to. Were you serious about what you said?”

“Yes, I was,” he said.

“What would I have to do?”

“We'll craft a short speech, based on your letter. The group then will set up places for you to deliver the speech. Then, you'll make the speech, and we'll do the research,” Mara said.

“I don't know,” Jim said.

“Do one, and see what happens,” Mara urged.

“All right,” Jim said.


The meetings between Kate and Isabel and a revolving set of party contacts were now being held in shopping settings. Two pairs of shoes turned out to be cheaper than renting a hotel room or someplace out of the way.

Who knew evil could be frugal?

On the outside, it was supposed to look like just another interaction in public. Private meetings were prone to bugging, so meetings began in public, and that meant shopping.

Video surveillance was the norm, but usually no audio. Shops had not yet gotten that intrusive.

A party contact for this meeting was the shoe salesman at the sisters’ favorite bootery. With Kate’s flattish feet and Isabel’s square-footed dancer’s feet, they no longer bought shoes off the rack.

The world of custom-designed shoes exists in two genres: one, the largest, include shoemakers whose wares are sold by giant retailers.

The second genre includes designers who sell in their own retail spaces. It was one of these, the House of Guillermo, the sisters loved. Guillermo, likewise, usually couldn’t get enough of Kate and Isabel.

A writer once wrote a story about a schoolteacher, a woman of his acquaintance. Extremely enamored of her, she was, alas, married.

The writer instead wrote about her; if he could not have her in real life, he might have her in print.

Guillermo felt the same about Kate and Isabel. He made inquiries with both women, in the way only a man of mystery can, but he had been gently rebuffed.

So, if he could not possess their bodies or minds, he would possess their feet, a shoemaker's dream realized.

Though his past was muddy, he claimed to be from Portugal, although the sisters had only heard him speak English and Spanish, not Portuguese. They found him selling, at a New York City street fair.

His collection featured just two distinct styles: fancy, and costume-extreme, and whatever else customers could convince Guillermo to make.

The sisters walked into his New York City store, in Brooklyn. Kate spied Guillermo, seated at the table at the store’s rear right corner.

The sisters were to be helped by a salesman, Cesar, not pronounced like the Roman emperor, but SAY-zar.

“Senoritas, I am Cesar. I would be happy to help you,” he said.

“Cesar! I am Kate Smith Wilson and this is my sister, Isabel,” Kate said.

“Mucho gusto. Do you desire to speak with Guillermo now, or later?”

“We both have something ordered that should be ready. Let's start there,” Isabel said.

“Of course. I’ll just be a minute.” Cesar emerged from the back room, carrying two large shoe boxes.

“Please be seated, senoritas.”

The women sat, with Cesar on a stool between them, the boxes on the chair between them. He opened the top box.

“Miss Kate, I believe these are yours. They are lovely. Let’s slip off your shoes, shall we?”

“You don’t have a foot fetish, do you?” Kate said.

“Me? No, I had a job in high school, in Las Vegas, of all places. Every Saturday morning, the showgirls would come to my store. I got quite an education in what a lady wants … in shoes, that is.”

“What do you have for us, besides shoes?” Isabel said.

“It’s not good. There’s some good. The committee doesn’t believe Wallace is going to work out, but they want to keep going. He has not been totally eliminated from taking part yet, so they want to see it through to the end,” Cesar said, slipping a boot on Kate’s right foot.

“Evers has also made a few speeches. I can tell you the other party remains committed,” Isabel said.

“There is some good news,” Cesar said.

“Our analysis team has suggested the use of an active stalemate of some sort. We’re organizing platforms and timings for that now.”

Cesar slipped on Kate’s other boot. Kate rose and Cesar instinctively rose and gave her some space.

Kate stretch-walked, like a cat, toward a large mirror.

“Uh-hum,” Isabel cleared her throat loudly, watching Cesar watch Kate.

“I think you are really going to like what we’ve done with your selection, Miss Isabel,” Cesar said.

He opened it to reveal ankle boots that seemed to show miniature galaxies, from the way the light hit them. He slipped her boots on and gave the back of Isabel's ankle an extra squeeze after securing the clasp. He stood.

She held up a hand for assistance. She rose and he guided her to the mirror. Isabel could see Cesar in the mirror, gazing at her behind.

“How do they look?” she said, referring to the boots, but he did nothing to lower his eyes from her butt.

“The pants you’re wearing make a good color suggestion to match up with the boots,” Cesar said.

This job is more difficult than he was led to believe. You don’t apply to be a spy from a newspaper ad. His recruiter said nothing about the Smith Wilson sisters.

“You think so? There’s concern that Evers and Wallace will eventually meet. This must never happen. These are wonderful! I’ll take them,” Isabel said.

“I understand. Will there be anything else?” he said.


Tick walked into the courtroom, dragging his feet. His hands were manacled to his waist. He sat silently, as the crowd began to murmur.

Nungesser, Tick's attorney, thought Tick was close to the smartest kid he’d ever met, though he'd only made it through the 8th grade. Nungesser’s defense was based on Tick taking responsibility, and appealing for the mercy of the court.

Judge Evelyn Keys walked in and everybody in the courtroom stood. No bailiff announced her.

She sat, and the crowd sat. She paused a few seconds to open Tick's file and silently read the details. She closed the folder and took off her glasses and peered down at Tick.

She pointed at Tick, and he and Nungesser stood.

“Mr. Walters, you have pleaded guilty to one count of murder. You have waived your right to trial. I must say that I did not expect a plea in this case, until I read the initial police report, which included your confession.

“Therefore, I sentence you, Ronald Walters, to 10 years in a maximum security facility to be determined by the Bureau of Prisons. I want to say that I’m not sentencing you to life in prison because I see that you have only completed the 8th grade.

“You aren't going to make it very far in life like that,” the judge said.

“So, a second condition of your sentence is that you complete your high school equivalence exams before leaving prison. That’s all. We’ll break for lunch now, one hour,” the judge said, banging the gavel once.

She rose and walked out of the court.

A collective cry went up immediately from the family of the 16 year-old boy Tick killed.

“I can’t believe it!” and other epithets were hurled by the angry part of the crowd. Father Fancy looked across the aisle at the small mob, still complaining.

An older woman looked across the aisle at Father Fancy. She rose and walked up to him. He remained seated, not wanting to intimidate her.

“Well, Father, what brings you into court today? You come to pray for my boy, who got shot!” the woman said, snapping off the words like shots from a midnight special.

Pop, pop, pop.

“I pray for everyone. I’m sorry for your loss.”

He rose and extended a hand to shake. His tallness caught her off guard, and she looked at the bear paw he presented. Hers was small and dainty in comparison, but with rough fingers, which Father Fancy saw and felt.

He turned into the aisle and departed. A few minutes later, Father Fancy waited to see Tick.

“Fancy, I saw you in court. Why you here?” Tick said, sitting as the guard connected his cuffs to the table.

“I guess you can’t kneel down, so just bow your head.”

Tick lowered his head and the priest's two giant mandibles of faith clasped Tick's hands in prayer. They recited The Lord’s Prayer together.

“Father, 10 years ain’t nothin’.”

“The family of the victim claimed 10 years wasn’t near enough. When you get to where you’ll stay, I’ll swing in and check you out. Try to stay out of trouble,” the priest said.

“You're gonna serve the entire 10 years. Get that in your mind, right now.”

The priest rose, made the Sign of the Cross and departed the room.

No words from either party in parting.

Tick was doing what Father Fancy wanted: He thought about the next 10 years.

The Bugle the next morning carried Tick’s photo. The headline was, “Teen gunmen gets 10 years” and a subhead read, “Victim’s family suing to increase sentence.”


Unlike Jim Wallace, Anton Evers was anxious to get his message out, since writing the letter. He wanted his message to be heard by more people than in Philly. Marilyn and her group could make that happen.

Both men, for good or for bad, possessed a certain type of nobility. Occasional self-awareness of this nobility can be crippling, though.

The noble feel ennobled, but such nobility isn’t something one can put on and take off, like a shirt.

It requires commitment.

The strength of the argument in Anton’s letter was real and genuine, but it was also its Achilles’ heel.

People in favor of law and order, people of every color and background, still could associate with the hard line Anton presented in his letter.

But what happens after, after the letter, after meeting Marilyn, and after May came home from attending Tick’s trial?

“Did you go?” Anton said, fixing himself a cocktail. May watched, surprised it wasn’t his traditional cup of afternoon tea.

“Yeah, the judge gave him 10 years, no chance at parole,” she said.

“Ten years, huh? Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” he wondered aloud.

“I saw that lady, Marilyn, this afternoon,” he said.


“And they want me to speak at a law enforcement dinner tomorrow in New York City. Here’s the speech they want me to read,” he said, shoving typewritten pages in front of May.

“Who wrote the speech?”

“Marilyn said she wrote it,” he said.

May read the speech in silence. It was basically a regurgitation of Anton’s letter, with congratulatory notes to law enforcement from a citizen,

“blah, blah, blah,” she thought to herself.

“You sure you want to do this?” she asked.

“You mean, give the speech?”

“Yes, I mean, no. I mean be a part of this. I admire you for being a man of your own convictions. It’s quite another to blast your opinion from a public stage.

“You could make some real enemies beyond those who just plain disagree with you and say so. And your enemies could come from … anywhere,” May said.

“That’s what Marilyn said.”

“Sounds like she was thinking with your balls before you were,” May said.

“At least she wasn’t thinking about them,” Anton snarked.

“I’d almost prefer it,” May said with a laugh.

“Anton, I don’t like this. I’m your wife, and I expect you to listen to me, but I also want you to do what you want. You obviously wanted to express your opinion when you wrote the letter.

“What's going to happen after the speech?”

“There’s the dinner before the speech, the speech, then I get the hell out of there,” he said.

“And go where? I’m sure Marilyn has some after-party planned. And you’re staying the night, right? She say anything about that? And where will I be?”

“I didn’t even think. I guess I assumed you would stay in Philly and work,” Anton said.

“My husband is about to set himself up for something we have no idea about. I think I’ll just tag along, just to see you don’t get into too much trouble,” May said.

She pulled the Glock from her waistband holster, ejected the clip, and quickly snapped it back into place with a loud “clack.”

She holstered it and snapped the holster's holding tab closed. She put the weapon in the safe, under the window seat in the kitchen.

May then sat down on the seat and stared out of the bay window, into their backyard.

The waning light gave her no comfort.


Louise was worried about her boss, Jack Barns.

He had such a high-pressure job. She tried to take care of him as best he’d allow, and that wasn’t much.

Barns had dropped 30 pounds over the last two presidential elections. Louise punched her intercom button to Barns, who answered quickly.

“Yes, Louise?”

“Do you have a minute? Your next appointment isn’t for another half-hour.”

“Sure, come on in.”

She grabbed her notepad and pen and entered Barns’ office. She went directly to the comfy chair closest to his desk, where she never sat, usually, dropping her pad and pen on the desk and plopping down in the chair.

“I’m worried about you, Jack.”

“You are? Why?” he asked, looking at her directly.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight. I think you don't eat unless I bring it to you. Have you been getting any sleep?”

“The Exercise just started, so I’m awake for the duration,” he said.

“You could take a weekend and go somewhere … with me.”

“Why, Louise! I didn’t know you cared?” he said. She rose.

“I do,” she said with purpose, walking around the desk and in front of Barns, who knew enough about women to take whatever was coming in a standing position.

She reached up and draped her arms on his shoulders. They were close.

“Aren’t you married?” Barns said.

“My husband died a week before I got this job. I just said I was married, and that was true, then, even though I should have said something about it. I was married, when I applied for the job, anyway.”

“Let me see, that was …” Barns wondered aloud.

“Ten years … and change,” she said, pulling him down to kiss her.

It was a pretty good first kiss, as first kisses go.

Nothing but this would be written about it, and the half-finished shot of mescal on Barns’ desk did not burst into flame.

“Any place in particular you’d like to go?” he asked, his arms now securely wrapped around her waist.

“I dunno. Do you like to fish?”


The most maddening aspect of The Exercise: no one will notice it took place, unless someone found out about it.

If they did, would the people be shocked?

Maybe not, distrust of politicians is that high.

Nevertheless, the people would be shocked at the fact that, while a thousand organizations seek to better the lot of one person or group, familiar forces were working behind the scenes to keep the nation divided.

Simply said, then, there would be no future that isn’t like the present.

Regardless of how it is achieved, victory is supposed to have a frothy sense of elation for the victors.

The vanquished, the losers, have only what they can scare up or preserve: the lessons of defeat.

Cornell Willingham never thought about being a rich, powerful shotcaller in one of the top two parties.

The day after he graduated from Howard University, Willingham went to a department store and bought three white dress shirts, long sleeve, for his new job: Aide to Congressman William King, Neighbor Party representative from the great state of Montana.

He tried to work for politicians serving urban areas, but he wasn’t the only minority college graduate looking for a job. That year, he began to fish, in his case, for food.

They do a lot of fishing in Montana.

Now, sitting on his dock, looking at the Schuylkill, the hardness that had surrounded his heart, since he first cast a line in the water, began to crack.

“God, I miss her,” he said, shedding a tear as he thought about his mother, Eugenia Cochran Willingham.

“Cornell, now wipe your eyes and stop all this foolish thought,” her voice said in his head.

“It’s time for you to decide.”

“Decide what, Mama?” he said out loud, not even wondering who might be around to hear.

“It’s time for you to decide … if you’re going to do the right thing.”

“I try to do right, Mama,” he said.

“Cornell, if I was there, I’d be waving a cake of soap in your face to remind you that boys who tell fibs get their mouths washed out.”

“Geez, Mama, not that,” he said.

“I think I’m working for the greater good, even though it looks like keeping everything the way it is, and I mean everything.”

“Remember what I told you about reality, Cornell,” Mama said.

“What’s real is only real to you, but a shared reality is a society,” Willingham said along with Mama.

Willingham remembered scratching his head the first time Mama uttered that phrase.

He scratched his head, present day, then began rubbing his head in the soothing way Mama used to when he had a headache from too much studying.

Her statement inexorably showed Cornell two things: reality is subjective by person, with each person having his or her own reality, and that, despite that, it can be shared; no person, then, need live in a vacuum.

Willingham dropped his rod with a clatter onto the dock. He leaned his head back and looked up at the sky, clear and not obscured by clouds.

He closed his eyes and opened them again. The sky looked the same.

It was validation that what he did for a living – making sure things stayed the same – could be settled in his heart, to his satisfaction and to his Mama’s.

He fell asleep.


As it should, the Bugle continued to report the news, when it was good and bad, and it did that well.

But the two letters by Jim and Anton, and even Tick's sentencing, were no longer news.

The speeches being made by Jim and Anton continued largely under the media radar, except for Chandler Jefferson, seasoned Bugle reporter.

Jefferson took his political-beat column with a sense of duty, and the readers liked what he said.

And when that happens, people confided in him.

Today, it was a tip. Seems a young woman with a kind of unusual last name might be interviewing for a job with the opposing political party of her family.

He didn’t have a deadline for two days, with his weekly “Political Fronts” column, and this might lead to nothing, but he had to follow it up.

He usually gained entrance to places where his presence would not be appreciated by trying to look like he belonged there. In this case, NP headquarters in Philly.

However, in off-cycle times (no pending election), employment with political parties was even more “who you are than who you know.”

Jefferson tried to look experienced. He sat in the waiting room, staring blankly at a wall.

Just as he was about to doze off, Isabel Smith Wilson entered and immediately caught his attention, as she was prone to do.

“Hi, I’m Isabel Smith Wilson. I have an appointment with Mr. Willingham,” she said.

“Oh yes, ma’am. Have a seat and I’ll let him know you are here,” the receptionist said.

Jefferson’s ears perked up when he heard the woman’s last name.

Edgar Smith Wilson was a PP shotcaller. What the hell was his daughter (maybe) doing here, under her real name, with the opposing party?

Isabel took a seat directly across from Jefferson, who busied himself with a magazine. A woman opened a door to the office and stepped into the waiting area.

“We’re ready for you now, Miss Smith Wilson.”

Jefferson made mental notes of the entire sequence without looking up, which might give him away.

He reached inside his briefcase and began to pull out the distinctive reporter’s rectangular notepad, stopping short of revealing it. He tore one sheet out and folded it in half to disguise its distinctive shape before bringing it out of the briefcase.

He scribbled what he’d heard, where, and the time. He shoved it back into the briefcase, just in time to hear his name called.

He thought about the Luca Brasi sequence in The Godfather.

Pretend you’re unhappy with the family.

Later, you’ll be sleeping with the fishes.

Jefferson needed to get inside. Sooner or later, someone at work would want it anyway.

A skirt-suited woman escorted him to an office, with a desk, and two chairs, on opposite sides. No phone, no pool, no pets. He texted Lynette O’Grady, his editor at The Bugle.

“I M inside. Where r u?”

He quickly put away the phone, listening to the doorknob turning too slowly, like someone wanted to sneak up on him. By the time he positioned facing the wall – and not the door – a man opened the door and walked in.

“Mr. Jefferson? I’m Thatcher Williams.” Jefferson rose and shook his hand.

“Nice to meet you.” They sat.

“I have to tell you, we don’t get many people from the traditional media who want to work for the party,” Williams said.

“Yeah, well, I’m unhappy with the way things are going, for myself. I think I can do better. Here.”

“Sounds good,” Williams said.

“It’s also rare when a walk-in already has a file. We track the media, just as you track us. I’m going to be straight with you: we are suspicious of you, because some of the things you’ve written about the party have not been very flattering.”

“I noticed the party never asked for a retraction, or complained about the tone of the coverage, or the content, for that matter.”

“No, we … didn’t. We talked about it, though,” Williams said.

“However, since you waltzed in here, looking for a job that’s not listed on our website, a job that you don’t even know to exist, what are we supposed to think? Do you really want to sleep with the fishes, Mr. Jefferson?”

“I get seasick.

“But I’m a good writer, good enough for you to collect my clippings. My Mom would be proud. She’s been a loyal member of this party since she could vote.”

“Really? That’s nice,” Williams said, notating something inside Jefferson’s folder.

Jefferson glanced down at the folder as Williams wrote. He’d been able to read upside down for a while, but didn’t recognize anything but his clippings. There was, however, one piece of paper, folded in half, printed on green-bar, continuous-form computer printer paper.

This was odd, Jefferson thought, because nobody but government used such antiquated technology. Personal, single-sheet printing, or just looking at a screen had long since taken over.

An odd fact.

“I noticed your last few press releases named different people as media contacts. Maybe I could help out there,” Jefferson said.

“Possibly. I want to talk to a few people here and in Washington, and I should have an answer for you in a few days. Thanks for stopping by.”

Williams rose and shook Jefferson’s hand. He escorted Jefferson to the elevator.

“Talk with you soon, either way,” Williams said.

Out of the corner of Jefferson’s eye he saw Isabel. He held the elevator door open for her. It took a good 10 seconds for her to get there.

“Thank you, sir, for waiting for me,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Jefferson said.

They rode in silence to the ground floor, picking up no passengers along the way. A long, silence, during which Jefferson’s eyes tried to find just one sight line to her, and her beauty, that wasn't a sight line to danger.

“After you,” he said as the door opened.

A tall, young and good looking-man didn’t see Isabel and walked right into her, bouncing her back into Jefferson’s arms.

“Oh, excuse me, ma’am,” the bumper said. “You okay?”

“Yes, fine, thank you,” she said, standing up gracefully and taking off in a near trot out the door, no thank you, no nothing.

Jefferson exited the elevator and tailed her at a distance, almost losing her twice.

She ended up at a restaurant.