Book cover


Isabel entered the restaurant, and Kate and their father, Edgar Smith Wilson, waved her over. He dutifully kissed and hugged both girls, his girls.

“Can you believe, we’ve never been to this place?” Isabel said, placing her cloth napkin on her lap. Sister Kate looked at Dad.

“I, uh, that is, we came here, but only once before,” he said, looking into his lap.

“Really? When was that?” Isabel said.

“The night … we took you to Pleasant Gardens,” Kate said.

“We needed a good meal and this place was close,” Edgar said.

“Yeah, Pleasant Gardens. Kind of makes me hungry for a big salad. Can you believe that? What am I, a veg-head? Hell no, I need a steak,” Isabel said, closing her Ten Commandments tablet-sized menu and letting it fall into the fourth, unoccupied seat at the four-top.

“What’d you find out?” Edgar said.

“The malls in Rome weren’t built to be shopped in one day,” Kate said.

“Crab cakes! That’s me,” Isabel said.

“Two,” Dad said.

“Copycats,” Kate said.

The meal concluded, time for talk. Edgar reviewed the plan of the Exercise. Short and sweet.

“Do you think this is crazy?” Edgar asked.

“What do you mean, like we’re crazy for being part of it, or the idea of it is crazy?” Isabel said.

“Both!” all three said in unison.

“The weird and totally fucked up part of the whole thing is, there’s no payoff. We do all this work, take all these chances, and for what?” he said.

“A shot,” Isabel said, waving the waiter over.

“Make it two,” Kate said.

“Copycats,” Edgar said.


An hour later, in the offices of The Bugle, Editor Lynette O’Grady looked out the huge window of her office. The intercom buzzed.

“Lynette, they’re ready for you,” a voice said.

She put up her right hand on the glass. Then, she gently leaned forward, forehead to the glass. She looked down.

Every time she needed to review her perspective, her forehead made it to the glass. Her office was high enough to obscure the ground and life going on there, on the sidewalks, streets, everywhere but here.

She took a deep breath and exhaled onto the glass. She made a smiley face on the temporary fog, turned and went to the meeting.

The table in the conference room was crowded. Something important was happening.

“Where are we?” O’Grady asked. Tom Katz, managing editor, stood.

“We better start at the beginning. We don’t have a lot, but it’s good,” Katz said.

“Okay, go,” O’Grady said.

“Jefferson?” Katz said.

“Okay. I went to the Neighbor Party offices today to follow up on a tip. I ended up applying for a job, which I should hear back on in a few days,” Jefferson said.

“Is this your way of giving notice?” O’Grady said.

“Not if you want, maybe, the story of the year.”

“Go ahead.”

“So I’m there, and I hear the receptionist refer to a woman by the last name of Smith Wilson. Two common names, but they also happen to belong to a Progress Party shotcaller, Edgar Smith Wilson. It turns out she’s his daughter, one of them anyway,” he said.

More murmurs.

“I followed her to a restaurant. She met another woman, her sister, I believe, and the dad himself, Edgar Smith Wilson. I was able to sit at the next table and I heard something very interesting.

“The two political parties are colluding over something,” Jefferson said.

“Did you record any of this?” O’Grady said. “We can’t use it anywhere outside this room, I might add.”

“I would have been the next one to say it,” Jefferson said.

He pulled out his phone, which he used to secretly record the conversation of Kate and Isabel with their father, Edgar. He played the recording and the room fell silent.

The conversation, in 30 seconds, spelled out just about the entire plan of The Exercise.

“So, the voters still aren’t aware we’re working to keep them apart. In public at least, it's politicians at work. It’s a perfect smoke screen,” Edgar said.

“Normally, the two parties don’t share any data, analytics, nothing. We now share, out of the public eye, every bit of data we have, except for results of polls the parties individually pay for. The Exercise doesn’t need much of a budget, because it runs underneath daily operations,” Edgar said.

“And how long’s it supposed to last?” Isabel asked.

“If it does its job, as it’s expected to, you will probably continue to see something like it for the foreseeable future, unless the people find out,” Edgar said.

“What happens then?” Kate asked innocently.

“We go back to Rome,” Isabel said. “But we will be too poor to shop.”

“Both political parties will continue to use their letter-writer champions to incite the constituencies. With business as usual on Capitol Hill, the champions will push the people apart, further than they are now. The political landscape almost assures that,” Edgar summarized.

The recording stopped, and the room was still silent.

“Did I hear that correctly? A complete political plot and the end result is business as usual?” O’Grady said.


“What’s wrong with that?” a meek voice asked for all in the room.

“Isn’t that what politics is all about? The constant struggle? Isn’t that … our freedom?” said Shelley Winslow, newest reporter.

Again, silence.

“What did we actually hear? And what’s the context of it, considering one of the women at that table may now work for the opposition party of her father. Who are these people?” O’Grady demanded.

“The woman I saw is Isabel Smith Wilson. She has a sister, Kate, whom I believe was the other woman at the table. And their father, Edgar Smith Wilson, is a Progress Party shotcaller,” Jefferson said.

“My wife’s voted opposite me since we got married, possibly for that reason,” said another in the room, which drew a laugh from the crowd.

“Wait a minute,” O’Grady said. “NP and PP officials meet every day in government. What’s so special about this interaction?”

A long pause.

“What Ms. O’Grady is saying is: sure, they work with each other every day, supposedly for the voting public. If this trio is any indication, I would say the purpose is to maintain the parties’ very existence,” Jefferson said.

“That’s a problem … for the people.”

“If the public knew the parties are colluding to keep America divided, even more so then when America sees them divided in their daily duties? Well, I think we would have some major problems,” Katz said.

“Such as?” O’Grady said. Voices around the table filled in the blanks.

“Armed insurrection.”

“Strikes and riots.”

“The takeover of government offices.”




“Now what?” Katz said.

A phone on the credenza next to the room's only door broke the silence.

“Conference room,” the person answering said.

“Miss O’Grady, it’s upstairs,” he said, holding the receiver out. O’Grady hurried to it.

“O’Grady. No, I can’t come up now. We have something interesting and we’d like you to join us, right now, if you can, please? Okay,” she said, hanging up.

“We’re going to have some visitors from upstairs. I’m going to repeat the previous request of secrecy when they get here. Everyone, sit tight. We’ll get going again in a few minutes,” O’Grady said.

Two women and a man entered the conference room a few minutes later.

“Well, I hope this isn’t my going-away party,” publisher Sharon Steel, said to some laughs. Her secretary Megan and associate publisher Rob Fulton trailed Steel. Seats at the table were vacated for the three of them.

After Jefferson recounted his day, he played the recording again.

“I need to hear that again, please,” Steel said, motioning with a finger. The recording was quickly replayed.

“Jesus,” Steel said, sitting back in her chair.

“Lynette, what are you thinking? I know, we literally can’t use any of the content outside this room, without corroboration, but we have to start nosing around on this,” Steel said.

“I am suspicious of a few things, not the least of which is the real reason the parties are doing this. Isn’t America divided enough?”

“It may be, but keeping America divided to justify the parties’ existence looks like the end game,” Jefferson said.

Again, silence.

“That’s perpetual civil war,” Steel said.

“The prime connection appears to rest with the two sisters and their father,” Fulton said.

“Edgar Smith Wilson is so far behind the scenes, we only have one photo of him. I took the liberty of pulling up some photos while the recording was playing,” Fulton said, tapping keys on the table to activate the large screen on one side of the room.

On it, he’d arranged a side-by-side representation of the top people in both parties. Near the bottom of the Progress Party side were the photo of Edgar Smith Wilson, and blank boxes for Isabel and Kate.

“And you said Isabel was at NP headquarters, and looked like a respected visitor?” Steel said.

“That’s right, ma’am,” Jefferson said.

“I have a suggestion for how we should proceed, but you’re not gonna like it,” Steel said to O’Grady.

“Go ahead.”

“We have to get someone inside, deep inside, to flesh this thing out. There’s no way we can do any kind of story without tipping our hand, or worse, without that inside information first,” Steel said.

“I’m waiting to hear back in a few days on a job at NP headquarters that I applied for today,” Jefferson said.

“Really? Lynette, that okay with you?”

“It won’t be our only action. We don’t want to tip our hand, so we are not going to have anything on this until, well, until there is something to report on, and something to follow up on,” O’Grady said.

“Before we go any further, I need Megan to take attendance and capture signatures on an NDA, so we keep a legal lid on this. I wish our attorney was here today. Anyone know where he is?” Steel said.

“He’s in court, where you need to go, pretty soon,” Megan said, standing to maintain a checkpoint.

“Don’t anyone leave after you sign. We need to keep talking this out for a while,” O’Grady said, reasserting.

The conference room was a beehive of activity and noise. O’Grady, Steel and Fulton gathered in a corner while the others circled by Megan to sign their non-disclosure agreements, until she asked kindly if they could form a line. Fulton and Steel looked at each other.

“Unbelievable,” Fulton said. “It also might fall into the category of ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’”

“Oh, God,” O’Grady said.

“Lynette? Listen. I gotta get to court, but talk this out some more with your people and come up with a plan, for after Jefferson hears back from them. We need facts, but we also need to think about this, about the possibilities of every type of angle. And, we still have the midnight feed and tomorrow’s print editions to deal with. Rob and I will be back after court, and we’ll come to your office,” Steel said.

“Okay, Sharon,” Lynette said, turning to her compatriots as Steel and Fulton left the room.


Tick sat in his cell, hands on his knees, looking at the gray faded paint on the cell floor. It matched the walls. In fact, his entire enclosure was gray.

Ten years. He knew he was lucky. For now, the government didn’t look like it wanted to seek a stiffer sentence, like life, or death, both of which were on the table originally. A guard walked up.

“That priest is here, wants to see you. That’s Father Fancy, isn’t it?” the guard said.

“Yeah, ‘ol Fancy man. He don’t give up,” Tick said.

As they walked down the corridor to the visitor’s pen, the guard stopped and looked at Tick.

“You know, Father Fancy got me off a B&E when I was your age,” he said. The guard, who towered over Tick, stared him down.

“You’re a cop!” Tick said.

“The judge told my Moms that I had three choices: the Army, the police, or prison.”

“I’d have chose the Army. At least you get to shoot guns,” Tick said. The tall guard slowly bent down to come face to face with Tick.

“Killin’ a man ain’t the real crime. It’s livin’ with it, afterwards, forever,” he said.

“You never forget. And if you start to forget, you start thinking about how you yourself is gonna die. You ain’t gonna die in prison, convict. Someone’s gonna shoot you dead.”

Father Fancy sat on the other side of the glass. He and Tick picked up the phone handsets.

“Ronald, I just spoke to the judge. They’re fixin’ to transfer you upstate. I won’t be seeing you for a while, but I will come up as soon as I can,” the priest said.

“Ain’t no thang, Father,” Tick said, waving his hand. “You got your flock to tend to.”

“You’re part of that flock, my son,” Father Fancy said, trying to reassure.

“No, I ain’t. I was once, long time ago. You know my Moms, don't you?”

“A finer woman never lived, except maybe for my own Ma,” Fancy said.

“She still around?”

“Yeah, she’s tough as nails. She’s 88 now, living by herself. She got a cat and two goldfish. She comes to 10 o'clock Mass every Sunday and stands at the back of the church with me after Mass, saying goodbye to everybody,” the priest said with a laugh.

“That’s nice,”

“You eating regular?” Father Fancy asked.

“Mostly. Try not to eat too much bread. They put somethin’ in it,” he whispered. He then looked both ways, and pointed down.

“They do, huh? Well, bread don’t keep you regular, if you know what I mean,” Father Fancy said.

“I want to thank you for coming down and talkin’ to me, Father. I did what I did and I’m gonna pay for it, that’s for certain. I was bound to do it, you know? Bound by loyalty to my brothers,” he said, clenching a fist.

“Ronald, the Lord has a plan for all of us, and I am pretty sure His plan for you did not include killing.

“That killing took everything away from you but one thing: your free will not to do it again. You got to decide, as soon as possible.”

Tick looked at the priest and put his hand on the glass. Father Fancy did the same.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go, in peace, Ronald. I’ll see you soon,” the tall man of Christ said.


Anton Evers had made a total of five speeches to various groups. Marilyn Ece wrote all the speeches, which delayed Anton learning of the connection to the Progress Party.

Were he not as astute a man, he also might not have noticed that the tone of the speeches had turned, sharply to the right, or as Marilyn put it, “... to the middle of what’s right.”

But he did notice, and so did May, who’d heard all of them, including the one tonight.

Newspapers from around the country and the wire services, as well as the Bugle, crowded the first row to cover the speech.

Before the speech, Jefferson headed backstage and stood in the wings. Pad on top, phone as recorder on the bottom, pen at the ready. Anton’s speech this night was the keynote to the American Brotherhood of Factory Workers two-day convention in Philly.

“Today, it is no longer enough to talk about freedom. We have seen our freedoms ripped away, by all branches of the government.

“To live the life that we deserve, we must continue to fight for our freedom.

“It is sadly ironic that our fundamental freedoms can only be stopped by death. But when that death occurs, it should not be forgotten. Neither should the victim become a martyr,” Anton said.

“If there are any victims in America, they are the citizens of this great land. Our economy is not being shaped by those who want to do right by our country. It is being preyed upon by a group of people who are unwilling to work for their keep.

“The rest of us – all of us – do our jobs, raise our families and protect this nation, either physically, as they do in the military branches, or ideologically, as we do when it comes time to vote.

“We must not forget that it is our nation which binds us together. Without our nation, we have no freedom. Without our freedom, we have no nation. Thank you.”

Anton walked off to a standing ovation. He stopped, waved, posed for a few photos, and headed offstage, directly at Jefferson. Anton recognized Jefferson, whose photo ran above his column.

“Mr. Evers, I’m Chandler Jefferson, from the Bugle.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Anton said.

“You’re big news now,” Jefferson said.

May Evers surveyed the scene from a nearby staircase to the upper reaches of the theater’s backstage. That was her post, offstage but close to Anton.

“Who exactly have you been making these speeches for? I mean, I know who sponsored them, but how did you get involved, after your letter?”

“Well, Marilyn Ece kind of recruited me. She works for some political publications. I just try to speak about why I wrote the letter,” Anton said.

“You know, the organization that brought you here tonight, they are big-time Progress Party donors, I didn’t know if you knew,” Jefferson said.

“I know it now. Honey?” Anton looked up at May, who was now down from her post and walking up to Anton and Jefferson.

“This is Mr. Jefferson, from the Bugle. My wife May. I’m sorry, Detective May Evers, PPD.”

“Pleased to meet you, Detective,” Jefferson said, shaking her hand.

“You too, Mr. Jefferson. We both read your column,” she said, nodding approval.

“Thanks for that. I’m glad someone does,” Jefferson said.

“What I wanted to know is, tell me about how Ms. Ece found you, and got you here tonight,” Jefferson asked.

“And, we are on the record, unless you ask otherwise and I agree.”

Anton looked at May and took a quick breath.

“Okay. So, I wrote the letter. The Bugle published it, alongside one from a guy named Wallace. I took one stance and Mr. Wallace took the opposite.

“A day or so after that, Ms. Ece showed up at my door, telling us about her publishing organizations and a bunch of other stuff,” Anton said.

“She asked me to speak to different groups about how the letter came to be. Pretty simple, when you think about it, I thought,” Anton said, as Jefferson wrote quickly.

“I think the main reason I wrote the letter was because of how my Mom died. She died, shielding me from a drive-by shooting when I was 6 years old,” Anton said.

“The police never even had any suspects. So, we have a young man, who did wrong and admitted it. Now, he is going to take his consequences. Ten years doesn't seem like a lot for a life.

“I heard the judge even told him he has to get his high school equivalence before he gets out.”

“So, are you saying this punishment is connected to never finding your mother’s killer?” Jefferson asked.

“No, nothing can make up for her killing, or never finding her killer. They’re bad enough to stand on their own. I’m not gonna get retribution,” Anton said.

“That all?” Anton asked.

“Thanks. I’ll catch you later,” Jefferson said, shaking Anton’s hand, then placing a business card in it.

Jefferson still didn't know if there was a direct connection to the Progress Party. He sat down, backstage, and began to scribble in his notebook. He shut off the phone’s recording app and shoved the phone into his coat pocket.

Evers at the point, Smith Wilson girls at the handle. Maybe Wallace at the other point. This double-bladed sword is poised to fall on the people, Jefferson scribbled. O’Grady would never print that, but it felt good to write it, Jefferson thought.


Anton and May had several discussions about the speechmaking.

“As long as you keep making these speeches, people are going to react, good and bad, and that’s a fact,” May said that morning.

“You keep putting yourself out there, and regardless of what you say, someone is going to take a shot at you.”

“What, you mean, like a shot, a gunshot? I thought about that, but Marilyn …”

“And another thing. I notice she’s not a kisser or a hugger. She’s a hand-shaker. Why do you think that is?” May asked, trying to get Anton to reveal possible feelings for Marilyn; natural curiosity.

“What? I never thought about it. I mean, I think she's attractive and all, but no man, including me, has come closer than a handshake. Maybe she’s just not a hugger,” he said.

“Yeah. I’m so sure,” May said, under her breath.

And that was that. An issue unresolved for the present.

Mara had successfully created her cover story with Jim and Toby, too. She first asked him to address her “colleagues” after work one night at a local university. Turned out, 100 people attended the meeting of local NP supporters and donors.

“So, this is our boy,” said one man to Jim, as he walked to the podium from the floor, Mara trailing. That caught Jim off-guard.

“I just want you to talk about the letter, and the reason you decided to write it. You’ll see, it will be well received,” Mara said leading him to the podium and standing in front of it to introduce him.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Mara Trent. I’d like to thank the staff and faculty of the school for allowing us to meet here. Mr. Jim Wallace wrote a simple letter to the editor, some weeks back. It had an important message that still rings true. Tonight, we’re going to hear about that message. Mr. Jim Wallace,” at which point everybody stood and applauded loudly.

Mara stepped back and Jim approached the podium. He’d spoken to groups this size before, a few times, but only for business. However, with each step toward the microphone, he began to doubt his own decision to cooperate.

“Thank you. Well, where do I start? I decided to write the letter about the one boy killing another because we, all of us, see this violence every day. And not just among the young. I don’t want to sound corny, but the way I was brought up, the greater the sin, the greater the forgiveness. I didn’t always think that way, until my wife showed me the error of my ways.

“She also taught me that the measure of that forgiveness is the feeling you carry inside, afterward.

“When a life is taken, the forgiveness must be complete. I think the Colonial Quakers had it right, when they said the person doing the injuring act suffers the most.

“To me, there can be no greater punishment than this. And so, taking another life in protest does not make sense, to me, and maybe, it doesn’t make sense to some of you as well.”

At that point, the crowd again rose, applauding loudly. Jim held up his hand.

“I also want to say that there is a connection between killing and justice. It is what comes after, in the public consciousness. I think even the punishers eventually feel that punishment. If that’s the case, no punishment can befit the crime. Thank you.” Jim stepped back and Mara walked up from behind him and shook his hand.

He waved and walked to the stairs leading down into the audience, where he was besieged. After what seemed like a century of glad-handing, Jim and Mara broke through the crowd and out of the doors at the back of the lecture hall.

“Wow,” she said, hugging Jim.

“Yeah, I surprised myself too,” he said. Jim and Mara walked on a deserted sidewalk of the college.

It was night, the air was crisp, and they walked slowly. Jim mentally processed what had come out of his mouth. Why had he spoken in such earnest?

“What the hell happened tonight?” Jim said, stopping.

“You know, you talked about your letter,” she said.

“I know, but what was that ‘our boy’ bullshit? That guy sounded like he knew who I was and why I was there.”

“He did know, both of those things,” she said.

“Jim, this country is sick, and it’s a kind of mental sickness. The immediacy that technology provides makes us look for quick solutions to complex problems. Many times, the answers don’t match up well, like killing and capital punishment. It does not fit the crime, even though the crime may be loss of life.

“Your letter so succinctly told the fallacy of capital punishment that, well, I thought, and some others, that you might be a voice for that message,” she said.

“A speechmaker?”

“You said you surprised yourself,” she recounted.

“It did feel good to speak. And I believed what I said.”

“Let’s go. I’m sure Toby will want to know how everything went,” she said.

Toby did want to know, but he was brain-deep in Mr. Hagerstrom’s latest Calculus homework nightmare.

Toby was on his third pencil before getting even one solution written out correctly. The battery-powered pencil sharpener was working overtime.

“Stinkin' Calculus,” he said, looking at the jumble of letters and numbers.

Chicken scratch, he thought, letters and numbers. That’s what his Dad called it, the last time he reviewed Toby’s homework.

“Son, this is chicken scratch. You got a chicken living here I don’t know about?” Jim said.

“Chicken make lousy house pet,” Toby said, mimicking a once-famous comic’s line. Toby gave the chicken a rest. He dropped the pencil, just as Jim and Mara walked in.

“So?” Toby asked.

“So, there were a hundred people there. I don’t think I spoke more than one or two minutes, but it was received quite well,” Jim said.

“What’d you say?” Toby asked.

“I can’t remember.”

“Well, I gotta get going. My group leaves for New York in the morning. Will I see you before my train?” Mara said.

“I think so. I have one meeting, but it’s early. I can meet you at the station,” Jim said.

“That’s fine. Well, Toby, I hope to see you again. Thank you for making me feel welcome in your home,” she said, sticking out her hand to shake.

Toby shook her hand, and he felt an almost electric connection, a warm buzzing that, if he held too long, he might get a shock, so Toby pulled away.

“Glad to meet you,” Toby said. “Dad was happy when you were around. That hasn’t happened in a while, so thanks,” he said, turning and going upstairs.

“Wow,” Jim said.

“Yeah,” Mara added.

The next morning, at the train station, Mara kept her plates spinning.

“So, we’re in New York for a month, but my weekends are free, and I keep my hotel room. Why don’t you and Toby come up and we can take in the sights, maybe see a show?” she asked.

“Sounds good. Text me?” he said, kissing her on the cheek. She grabbed his face and planted one directly on his lips. Neither of them flinched.

Mara’s plan was beautiful in its simplicity. She leaves town after capturing Jim’s heart, what with her being a dead ringer of his beloved wife. He’d made it through a speech, so he proved, to her at least, that he could do it.

Once Mara got settled in New York and took care of some personal business, she’d have him speaking.

Their first weekend together in New York City, Mara secured an additional room, for Toby and Jim.

“Who’s paying for our room?” Jim asked the clerk.

“Mara Trent. She also left the account open, in case you want to charge anything to your room,” the clerk said.

“I see,” Jim said. “Thanks.”

He took the key cards and they went to their room.Any New York City hotel room had to cost a pretty penny, and on the weekend, probably between $500 and $1,000 a night, maybe more. They walked into the room and there was an envelope with “Jim and Toby” written on the outside. In it was a note from Mara.

“Hi, hope your trip was good. I’m still at work for a little while. Jim, I’ll call your cell when I get done. I have dinner reservations for the three of us. Toby, I think you might like it. It’s strictly New York City, you know? Actors as waiters, and vice versa. It’s a fun experience, you’ll see. I’m anxious to see you both. Mara.”

“Nice note,” Jim said.

“From her?”

“Mara, yeah. Did you ever notice …”

“How much she looks like Ma? Yeah, I did. Obviously, you did too. That why you like her? Cause she looks like Ma and you … miss her?”

Jim looked at the boy, who seemed to all of a sudden transform into a man, someone he now would have to deal with on the no-bullshit level.

“No, that part kind of creeped me out, at first, the whole experience of meeting her and hanging out with her, while we waited …”

“I know, while you waited for the tow truck,” Toby said.

“Didn’t her car start right up?”

“Yeah, it did, that was strange. But, she is so genuine. I liked her from the start,” Jim said.

“I know. Me too.”

“Good,” Jim said, shaking Toby’s hand. “Thanks.”

“You gonna marry her?”

“Not before dinner,” Jim said from the bathroom.


At this point, the daily lives of Jim and Anton become a jumble of speaking engagements. The public’s engagement at the events was mixed. Each speaking event was heavily attended by friends of party and the media.

The Exercise motored on, underneath the surface, like a submarine on its way to destroy a target. On the surface, the two parties continued their opposition, acting more like spoiled siblings than adults in elected service.

In other words, politics as usual.

However, a downswing in the number of recall petitions, and fewer voters at the polls signaled something to both parties: the public was getting bored with politics.

Was The Exercise working, or failing?

Jefferson also hadn’t discovered any evidence that The Exercise existed, only the recording of the Smith Wilsons’ dinner conversation.

To top that off, he had not received one phone call or visitor during the first few days in his small office.

Then, the phone rang. His first phone call. He cleared his throat and picked up the handset.


“Can you join us in Mr. Willingham’s office, please? It’s on 16,” Isabel said.

“Who’s calling?”

“Meet you at the elevator,” she said before hanging up.

Jefferson hung up and headed to the elevator. Coming out on the 16th floor, Jefferson turned right toward the floor receptionist and ran into Isabel.

“Oh, it’s you!” she exclaimed.

“We meet again,” he said, stepping back a respectful step.

“Isabel Smith Wilson,” stepping forward, sticking out her hand to shake.

“Chandler Jefferson. Call me Jefferson,” returning the shake.

She turned to lead him to Willingham’s office, at the very end of the hall.

Of course, if you’re a shotcaller, you get an office at the end of the hall. Jack Barns has one.

They walked a few seconds. Jefferson had to fire the opening shot.

“Willingham. Is that Cornell Willingham?”

“That’s right,” she said, looking straight ahead.

“Will I meet anyone else, you know, important, besides yourself, that is,” he said with a smack of charm.

“We’ll see,” she said too sweetly.

They entered Willingham’s office, the outer office, where Willingham’s assistant, Solange Benson, sat. Benson rose and walked from behind her desk.

“He’s expecting you two,” she said with a smile to both. Benson opened the door and Isabel and Jefferson walked in.

Willingham stood, back to them, looking out his window wall to the world. He turned to greet them.

“Isabel, and this is Chandler Jefferson, who I’ve heard so much about. Welcome,” he said, walking toward Jefferson to shake hands, but diverting at the last second to shake Isabel’s first, then Jefferson.

“Please, be seated,” Willingham said.

“So, you ready to get to work, it’s, Jefferson, isn’t it, the name you go by?”

“That’s right, sir. Yeah, that’s why I’m here.” Willingham looked at Isabel.

“Yes, well, your project, it hasn’t become formalized yet. The committee should be done with it soon,” she said.

“Can you tell me about it?” Jefferson said.

“When the time comes,” Willingham said.

“I can tell you this. It will test you, not just because we are still more than a little suspicious of you, and why you’re here. I suspect that will go away with time. It will test you in ways, well, I think Isabel is better qualified to speak to that. She faced some of the same tests herself.”

She nodded and smiled back.

“Perhaps she could enlighten you … in her office. I have another meeting coming up,” Willingham said.

He rose, they shook hands, and parted company. Jefferson got a nice smile from Benson on the way out. Out in the hall, they walked toward the elevator and what Jefferson thought was Isabel’s office.

“Let’s go to your office,” she said, pushing the “Down” button.

“I'll meet you down there. I gotta get something out of my office,” she said.

She turned and walked away. Back in his office, Jefferson's cell phone rang. O'Grady.

“Look, you’re not getting anywhere near where we need to be,” O’Grady said in a low tone.

“I know.”

“I have an idea,” O’Grady said. “Maybe we’re going at this the wrong way.”

“I’m already spying. More like stalking, really. Isabel is beautiful, and someone looking in from the outside might see me that way,” he said.

“That’s nice. When’s the wedding? You need to get closer to Smith Wilson, at the point where she and her sister meet with someone from either party, or both, would be ideal,” O'Grady ordered.

“I have a meeting coming up. I’ll contact you later, after,” Jefferson said, hanging up. Someone knocked on the door to Jefferson’s office.

“Come on in,” he said, rising from behind his desk. In walked Isabel. She sat without being asked.

“I can’t read you in right now, but what I do want to know is your upcoming availability, I mean, for the next few weeks to a few months,” she said.

“Okay, lemme see if I got this straight. You want me to work on something you can’t talk about?”

“Well, yeah,” she said.

“A few details might be nice,” he said, his heart racing. Isabel stood and walked over to the large window, the office's one redeeming quality, and looked out.

“Nice office,” she said.

“What do I have to do to keep it?” Jefferson said.


The ride to the prison reminded Tick of the first time he stole a car. Trying to elude the cops, he turned into an old street that had been ripped up in some spots. He swerved to avoid the first big pothole, and T-boned a parked car.

Finally at the prison, the bus door opened and Tick stepped off, in leg irons and arm restraints.

A chorus of howls from the general population greeted each new piece of prison meat.

It was loud and vulgar. Those confined held nothing back.

An hour later, Tick was alone, in an isolation cell, standard operating procedure. He’d only gotten 10 years, even after the District Attorney shuffle.

Unsatisfied with the sentence, district attorney Alvin Jeffers shuttled Tick to different facilities, just out of reach of the state prison commission, until he was 18.

Nice 18th birthday present, a ride to prison.

Jeffers had another card up his sleeve. He wanted Tick to stay in prison a lot longer than 10 years, so he curried favor where he could get it, starting with the judiciary, many of whom were up for election. No judge ever won an election by being soft on crime, especially gun crime that resulted in death.

Tick got the news that his sentence was increased to life without parole for 25 years days after it happened. He found out from Father Fancy, his first visitor.

“Ronald, how you doing?” Father Fancy said, sitting down after hugging the much-shorter Tick.

“I’m okay, Father. I’m just trying to stay out of trouble. It ain’t easy. There’s two other Front Street Boyz in here, and they’re wanting me to …”

“Ronald, you must resist the temptations. Remember what I told you. They’ve taken everything away from you, except your free will to not do it again.”

“I know,” Tick said.

“I have some bad news. The district attorney appealed your sentence, and got it changed to life without parole, for 25 years.”

“What? How’d that happen? I didn’t hear nothing, not even from my lawyer!” Tick said.

“I didn’t see anything about it in the paper until after the sentence was changed.”

“Shit. Life. Twenty five years? You better go, Fancy,” Tick said, standing.

“You don’t belong here.”

Tick walked toward the door back to confinement. He turned back to Father Fancy.

“I do,” he said, and he disappeared.

Back in Philly, news of Tick’s resentencing had expected effects at both party offices. The NP was fast at work, tracking public sentiment.

Mara Trent, meanwhile, was doing everything she could, allegedly from afar. One night, she called Jim with TV noise in the background that made it sound as if she were at a riot. At one point, she said she was ducking into a café to hear Jim better. She just turned her TV down.

“That is something,” she said. “I wonder how they got his sentence changed.”

“I guess he’s up in prison now. Went there on his 18th birthday, paper said. Happy birthday to you. You know, I never did ask, what city do you actually live in?”

“Well, most of my stuff is at my sister’s in Virginia, outside D.C. I have an apartment in Philly, and I share some space with some of my election study team in Los Angeles, because we’re there so much. And our group is based in San Francisco, so I usually just stay with someone in the group. My Philly place is more like a time-share. Wish I got there more,” she said.

“Me, too.”

“Okay. Looks like they’re closing up and the crowd has moved on. Hi to Toby, see you soon,” she said, disconnecting. He didn’t even get to say goodbye.


The following day, Toby walked slowly through his school's front gate, expecting to see B-drop, as he had, every morning, since they entered high school. But he didn’t.

Toby stopped and waited instinctively. The first bell rang and everyone began moving inside for first period.

Toby would never see B-drop alive again. At that very moment, B-drop was in a fight for his life with members of the gang whose member Tick shot.

They were on top of him, punching and pounding him mercilessly. Wearing gloves, one smacked B-drop in the head hard with the only book in B-drop’s backpack: a thick, U.S. history book, for Sanders’ government class. The blow sent B-drop over backwards and to the ground, hard.

“That’s right, fly-boy, you fly real good,” one said.

“Almost time for you to get to school,” the other said, kicking B-drop in the gut. Almost no response.

“School? He ain’t gonna get educated. He’s too stupid,” the first said.

“Look at him. He don’t even know how to bleed,” at which point the first kicked B-drop in the side of the head. B-drop began to bleed from his nose and ears.

About two hours later, the garbage guys swung their rig into the alley quickly, almost running B-drop over.

It wouldn’t have mattered.

A short item on the news that night told about B-drop, said he belonged to the gang Tick belonged to, and that his death was believed to be in retribution for the killing by Tick. Toby got the call at home, from Evie Pierce.

“Toby, it’s Evie,” she said. No texts for this girl, especially with this info.

“You knew B-drop, didn’t you? You and Tick were his friends, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Looks like he got killed this morning, beat to death and left in the alley behind the Chicken Shack. I just found out after I got home. Sorry.”

“Geez, B-drop. I can’t believe it. Dad, B-drop got killed this morning. He was in the Boyz with Tick,” Toby said, as Jim brought food to the table.

“You know anything else?”

“Naw. It might be on the news. Prolly retribution for the kid Tick killed,” she said.

“Thanks for calling,” he said, before hanging up. Toby sat at the table, silent, and sad.

“I think we say a prayer for this food, and one for B-drop. What was his real name?” Jim inquired.

Toby was already into his phone, searching the web for news on B-drop.

“Bartholomew Simpson.” Toby guessed how he got the nickname.

“I kept the B and dropped the rest,” he imagined his dead friend saying with a laugh.


At PP headquarters, Anton sat at a table with Jack Barns and Marilyn.

“Marilyn said you wanted to see me,” Anton said.

“That’s right. Did you hear about that guy, Tick? They changed his sentence to life, with possibility of parole in 25 years,” Barns said.

“They did? Really! Well, that’s a step in the right direction,” Anton said.

“We’d like you to speak at a gathering tonight, here in town.”

“I wanted to talk with you and Marilyn about that,” Anton said.

“What’s up, Anton?” Marilyn said, sitting forward in her chair.

“I’ve been talking with May, my wife, and I think for the present, I’m done making speeches. The way things are going, what with Tick getting life, I think the message has been received,” Anton said.

“I have to disagree with you,” Barns said.

“Why? When does it all end?” Anton said.

Barns looked at Marilyn. They knew, never, if possible.

“Tonight. You make this one, last speech, and I think we can then consider it message received,” Barns said.

“Why? Who is the speech to?”

“Mostly party people, some press, and a few others,” Barns said.

“There are people coming tonight from all over the Eastern seaboard,” Marilyn said.

“How about it, Anton?” Barns said.

“One last speech,” Anton said with resignation.

At home, May busied herself at the make-up mirror. She was not happy Anton would speak again, but at least, it would be his last speech.

“What made you want to do one more speech? I thought we had this thing figured out?” May said, brushing her cheek and looking at Anton in the mirror.

“I told them about what you -- what we -- said. I agree, I don’t like being a target. After tonight, it won’t matter, because I’ll be done,” he said, as he fixed his tie.

Meanwhile, Kate and Isabel sat in their hotel room, drinking.

“I met this guy,” Isabel said, perusing sheets of paper.

“Really? Who?” Kate asked, stopping her primping to focus on her sister.

“His name is Jefferson, Chandler Jefferson. I think I kinda like him.”

“Where’s he from?” Kate said.

“You don’t know? He was the Bugle’s top political reporter and then, he suddenly disappears and shows up, working at NP headquarters. The committee picked him to be part of our team.”

That Chandler Jefferson? He works for the party now? Wow!” Kate said.

“What wow?” Isabel perked up.

“Yeah, he did disappear from the Bugle. They printed some letters from readers wanting to know where the hell he went,” Kate said.

“He’s working for us, or the NP, now,” Isabel said.

“You know, we’re about to reach a milestone, and it wouldn’t be good for you to screw things up.”

“I know. He just seems so genuine. You know how I like that,” Isabel said.

“You might be in the wrong line of work,” Kate said, the sister sage.

Mara Trent also got the word from the NP committee that they wanted Jim to speak in Philly that night as well, a short bus ride from where Anton was scheduled to speak.


Anton’s final speech was in front of a group of party people and venture capitalists from around the world. The PP had its fingers in more than just domestic pies. Marilyn sat backstage with Anton and May.

“So, who are these people?” May said.

“Party folks, mostly. Some venture capitalists, and some others,” Marilyn said.

“I don’t think I’ll need the speech tonight,” Anton said, handing it back to Marilyn.

“Really? Why not? What are you going to say?”

“I want to talk about freedom,” Anton said. May brightened up.

“Good, that sounds good,” Marilyn said, still rifling through the five papers of his speech.

“Mr. Evers? Thirty seconds,” a technician said. Marilyn shoved the papers back into Anton’s left hand and shook his right.

“One more time,” Marilyn said, looking deeply into Anton’s eyes.

“The last time,” Anton said, grabbing the speech, folding the pages and sliding them into an outer jacket pocket as he walked to his off-stage, ready position.

After his introduction, Anton walked onto the stage to the applause of what sounded like a thousand people. He didn't wave, but he did smile, or tried to. At the podium, he braced himself.

“Thank you and good evening,” he said calmly.

“Tonight, I want to talk about freedom. I wrote a letter …” at which point the crowd, almost on demand, began clapping. Anton raised his hand to quiet the crowd, but it didn’t comply all that quickly.

“And in that letter, I asked that a boy who committed a cold-blooded murder be made to pay with his own life for that crime. The boy’s sentence was just changed, from 10 years in prison, to life in prison, without possibility of parole for 25 years,” at which point, the crowd started applauding again.

“However,” Anton said, again trying to quiet the crowd, “what does that have to do with freedom? I’ll tell you.

“After the boy was originally sentenced to 10 years, I was angry, because I thought he should be made to pay more dearly.

“Now ...” Anton said, stopping. The crowd murmured. “Now, I think they ought to let him go,” he said, stepping away from the microphone and walking offstage to booing and yelling.

He walked right past Marilyn, who turned to follow him. He motioned to May that they were about to leave from the stage door.

“Anton? Anton, what are you doing?” Marilyn said, grabbing him by the arm.

“Where are you going?” Marilyn said.

“Out of here,” Anton said.

At that moment, Fletcher stepped out of the backstage crowd, about 15 feet from Anton, and raised his right hand, which held a pistol.

He fired two shots: one hit the floor at Anton’s feet and the second flew overhead and hit some stage apparatus.

May instinctively drew her gun from her hip. She returned fire, three shots, not hitting him once, aiming low and missing with all three.

“Go!” she shouted to Anton, as she peered up from behind a crate. Anton headed out the door as five people jumped on Fletcher.

As May approached, gun drawn, Fletcher somehow managed to free himself from the scrum. He ran straight into the muzzle of May’s pistol.

Anton ran down the ramp from the stage door to the sidewalk, and just around the corner of the building. The building where Jim was to deliver his speech was a short bus ride away. Anton headed for the bus stop.


Inside the building, Jim stood, looking down, wondering how he’d gotten there, metaphorically.

“You ready?” Mara said, sidling up to Jim.

“Yeah,” he said, turning away from her.

“Mr. James Wallace,” the person doing his intro said. Jim walked to the podium to loud applause.

Jim did not wave.

“Thank you. I want you all to know how proud I am to be speaking a message of peace. It’s a message that, apparently, not everyone hears. I wrote a letter,” at which point the crowd of several hundred began to cheer.

“I wrote a letter about a young man, a young man I happen to know. I know his mother. I watched this boy grow up in our neighborhood and get involved with a gang, just after his father passed away.

“He dropped out of school but stayed in the gang. Then, he killed someone, just for driving down the wrong street.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I considered it a victory that he was originally sentence to 10 years. But, his sentence was recently changed to life, without possibility of parole for 25 years. I believe the people responsible for changing the sentence felt they had a duty, but I also have one, tonight.

“I have changed my stance on the issue. I now believe the new sentence is closer to the crime, and the criminal,” Jim said.

A hush fell over the crowd.

“We are a society, held together by our laws. When laws cease to be enforced, as was the case with the young man’s original sentence, changes need to be made. This resentencing is, I believe, an appropriate change,” he said.

Boos came from audience.

“Thank you,” Jim said, walking off stage, past Mara, and out of the building. No one applauded.

Out on the sidewalk, Mara caught up to Jim as he was about to cross the street for the bus stop.

“What happened in there?” she asked.

“I guess you can say I had a change of heart.”

“And that’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I thought you were committed to leniency for the kid,” reaching to hold his hand, which he pulled away slowly.

“I was, but now, I don’t think so.”

“Now what?”

“About what?”

“About … us,” playing her last card.

“Look, you’re nice and all, and I really like being around you, just like Toby said,” Jim said, edging closer to Mara.

He held her, not too close, and looked into her eyes.

“I just don’t think it’s gonna work out. Your gig has you traveling all around the country, and I guess we wouldn’t see each other that much. I just don’t want a vacation girlfriend.”

“What’s that?” She knew the answer.

“A girlfriend that you see so infrequently, that when you do see her, it’s like a vacation. Vacations are nice, but eventually, you have to go home,” Jim said.

He lowered down and kissed her briefly on the lips, held her cheek in his hand, turned, and stepped onto the bus, out of Mara’s life, for that day, at least.