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Ablock later, the bus stopped again, and Anton stepped on, fumbling for change.

“Oh, man,” Anton said, counting out what he had.

“How much you need?” Jim said.

“I don’t know. A buck?”

“Here,” and Jim peeled off a dollar bill.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You owe the next guy.”

“I got that,” Anton said, sitting down across from Jim.

The bus took off and rumbled down the street. After six blocks or so, Anton leaned across the aisle.

“Buy you a beer?” Anton said to Jim.

“Sounds good,” and the two were out of the bus.

“There’s a place around the corner,” Anton said.

“Hester. I know it,” Jim said.

“Anton Evers,” holding out his hand to shake.

“Wallace, Jim Wallace,” shaking Anton back.

Both men instinctively thought they’d heard each other’s names before, somewhere.

The men walked in, eyeballed a booth and sat down. A cute waitress, Ebony, sauntered over.

“Couple a beers?” she said, wiping the table.

“That'd be fine,” Anton said.

“So, what are you doing out tonight?” Jim said.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Can’t do that unless you tell me.”

“So, I wrote this letter to the editor of the Bugle about two months back, about this kid who killed another gang member in my neighborhood,” Anton said.

“You’re gonna laugh,” Jim said.

“Why’s that?”

“Cause I wrote one, too. I knew I heard your name before,” Jim said.

“Wait a minute! You’re that guy who wrote the other letter!”

“That’s right,” Jim said.

“Man, a lot has happened to me since those letters appeared in the paper.”

“Once again, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. I met this woman and she convinced me to do all these speeches for one of the major political parties. I finally got sick of it. Gave the last one tonight, just before I got on the bus,” Anton said.

“In fact, a guy took a shot at me and my wife – she’s a cop – shot back while I skedaddled outta there.” Anton fumbled with his cell to call May.

“Wow, that is funny, because I have also been making speeches since a woman showed up at my door, wanting me to wait with her for a tow truck,” Jim said.

The two men looked at each other.

“What the hell is going on?” May said into her phone.

“I’m over at Hester, and you won’t believe who I’m with. What happened with the guy?” Anton said.

“We got him, and he’s on his way to the precinct station,” she said.

“Remember that guy I told you me and Tommy were after, years ago? It’s him, Fletcher. You all right? What are you doing at Hester?”

“No shit, Fletcher? I got on the bus, and I needed some money, and this guy lent me some, and it turns out, he’s the guy who wrote the other letter,” Anton said. May stopped walking out of the building.

“What do you mean, the other letter? The other letter they printed with yours?”

“That’s right,” Anton said, chugging the beer in his bottle, as Jim was finishing his.

“Where are you?”

“I got to go to the precinct. You know, we need a statement from you, right?”

“Yeah, I have to do something first,” Anton said.

“I’ll catch up to you in a little while,” and he hung up.

“Come on,” Anton said, and the two bid the bartender adios and left. Anton fished a business card from his coat pocket and dialed a number on his cell.

“Jefferson,” the reporter turned spy said.

“This is Anton Evers,” Anton said.

“Mr. Evers! How are you? What can I do for you?”

“Is there somewhere we can talk … now?” Anton said, looking at his watch.

“Where are you?”

“We’re at Hester, over on Divine,” Anton said.

“I know the place. Be there in 10.”

“Who’d you call?” Jim said.

“Chandler Jefferson, the political columnist for the Bugle. He asked me a question that I didn’t have the answer for, I think, until tonight.”

“Which is …?” Jim queried.

“The question was, why am I making the speeches? I mean, really, why? They’re not going to affect anything that happens to that boy we wrote about. I even changed my stance, since he got resentenced.”

“Look, the kid just escaped a death sentence because he admitted to killing the other kid,” Jim said.

“I’d say your letter and speeches might have had something to do with that.”

“What the fuck, it doesn’t matter now, anyway. I changed my mind, too,” Anton said with relief. Jim belly-laughed hard.

“So, the hawk becomes the dove, eh? Well, grab hold of your tail feathers, but that’s just exactly what I did, except the other way around. The dove became the hawk,” Jim said.

“Man, this is weird.”

“I’ll tell you what else was weird was making those speeches,” Anton said.

“Tell me about it. How did the woman get you to do them?” Jim said as the men re-entered the bar.


The men sat down and began to reveal the similar events of their immediate past lives after their letters printed.

In no time, Jefferson walked into Hester, saw Anton and came to the booth.

“Mr. Evers,” Jefferson said.

“Chandler Jefferson, I want you to meet Jim Wallace,” Anton said.

Jefferson immediately knew who Wallace was: the other letter writer. Jefferson stood, silently stooping to slide into the booth, next to Anton.

“What are you two guys doing together?” Jefferson said.

“What do you mean?” Jim said.

“We just met tonight, on the bus.”

“Really? Unbelievable,” Jefferson said.

“We just figured out that we wrote the letters about that boy Tick, the ones that printed on the same day in the Bugle,” Jim said.

“And we just discovered that we both have been making speeches about those letters,” Anton said.

“And that’s the reason I called you. You asked me after that speech, why I was making the speeches, and I didn’t give you an answer.”

“We think we may know why, now,” Jim said.

“Okay, you first,” Jefferson said, coyly.

“What do you mean, first? Do you already know why we’ve been making these speeches?” Anton said.

“Before I tell you what I know, tell me what you’ve both been told, and by whomever,” Jefferson said, pulling out his phone and clicking it to record.

The two men then detailed their lives since their letters, ending with meeting on the bus that night.

“Okay, now you,” Anton said to Jefferson.

“Okay. There’s a very good chance that the two major political parties have had you two making these speeches to keep the people fired up. One might almost say, at war with each other -- a civil war,” Jefferson said.

“What does that mean?” Jim asked.

“It means that the parties are colluding with each other to keep the U.S. voting public at odds with each other, politically, for the sole purpose of justifying the existence of the two parties,” Jefferson said.

“It’s a confusing conflict. Almost all elected officials belong to one or the other of the two big parties. On the surface, the conflict looks legitimate, and it appears to serve the people, well, some of them, anyway.

“However, there is a secret deal between the two parties, in which they coordinate behind the scenes, to keep America divided,” Jefferson said.

“Yep, that’s civil war,” Anton said.

“We gotta do something,” Jim said.

“How do you know all this?” Anton asked.

“Well, I can’t tell you everything, because I don’t have all the proof,” Jefferson said.

“That why I haven’t read anything in the paper about this?” Jim said.

“That, and because I don’t technically work at the paper anymore,” Jefferson said.

“I’m working for the Neighbor Party, as a kind of press liaison,” Jefferson said.

“Undercover,” he said, under his breath.

“Yep, and it just got a whole lot more interesting,” Jefferson said, shaking hands with Anton and Jim.

The three men agreed to meet the following day, midday, in a park, where they figured there would be less chance of being seen or recorded.


Keystone Park was deserted, except for two old ladies, walking with each other, arguing.

“You know, this whole thing doesn’t mean shit if you can’t prove anything,” Anton said to Jefferson.

“May wanted me to remind you that she’s a detective with Philly PD. She said she might be able to help you out, some way.”

“Cops? If I need them, it will be too late for me. I’m the only direct link to what I heard, the first time. We have the recording, but that’s all we have, until I -- or we -- can get more,” Jefferson said.

“The only way Anton and I are going to get anything is if we reconnect with Mara and Marilyn. I don’t know about Anton, but right now, that’s the furthest from my mind. I’m just glad to be done, making those damn speeches,” Jim said.

“What about you?” Jefferson asked Anton.

“I gotta say that, I wouldn’t mind seeing Marilyn again. Maybe I’m just talking with my johnson,” Anton said.

“Sounds like they picked the right two women for the job,” Jim said.

“That leaves it up to you,” Anton said to Jefferson.

“What they’re doing has to be stopped.”

“And how do you propose doing that?” Jim asked.

“What needs to happen is, I need to get some proof that The Exercise exists, today,” Jefferson said.

“Those sisters? You gotta get one of them to confess,” Jim said.

The three men stood silently, letting Jim’s statement sink in. They had drilled down to the most essential level of the conflict. Any person further up the ladder would suffer from an instant bout of plausible deniability. The sisters, and …

“So, I have this meeting in a little bit. I might have more information. I still need to do in-depth interviews with both of you, to establish your timelines,” Jefferson said.

Anton and Jim looked at each other. They nodded in the affirmative to each other, and the men departed in three different directions, to connect later.


Two blocks from PP headquarters is a little sandwich shop, Kostas. Mr. Kostas came from Lebanon and opened the shop in the 1960s. He survived riots, burglaries, robberies, two daughters and one cantankerous wife, Ella.

Arguably, his best attribute was having the best coffee in Downtown Philadelphia, which is saying something. All the big hitters are there: Dunkin, Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Peets, and other chains.

Part of his secret was coffee from Benedetti Brothers Colombian Coffee, a small coffee importer. Kostas also took pride in keeping the giant percolators in brand-new condition.

Years of coffee stain in traditional coffeemakers ruined the flavor of the coffee, so Kostas’ 99 cent large coffee was a bargain in more ways than one.

The daughters, Krista and Kaylee, were spitting images of their Papa. Tall, slender, with waist-length black hair, the sisters waitressed in the shop from, well, since they could write and take an order at the counter and reach the wheel where food order checks spun happily.

In Krista’s case, she was 10 when she placed her first food order. Kaylee, two years younger, tried to show up her sister, so she developed a two-footed hop to jam the 3x5-inch paper slip under one of the spring-loaded knobs on the wobbly silver order wheel.

Now, Kostas sits in the front of the place, holding court. Kaylee’s husband, Gino Benedetti, handles the cooking, while Krista continues as mostly a cashier and occasional waitress. Kostas, who has never revealed his first name, continues one job: cleaning the coffeemakers daily.

Isabel and Kate entered.

“Good morning!” Kostas said to the two women.

“Kostas!” they both said, bee-lining for the old man sitting at the four-top by himself. The women both gave lean-over standing hugs.

“And your Papa? Where is he this morning?” Kostas said to Isabel.

“Probably at work,” Kate said.

“You know, he only works two blocks away. You should go see him,” Isabel said.

“No, he is too busy. He doesn’t have time for Kostas anymore, now that he’s a big shot,” Kostas said.

“He’s not so big that he doesn’t have time for an old friend,” Kate said.

“Who’s old?” flashing a smile at the two women he’d seen grow up from little girls to ... spies.

“Krista is behind the counter. Table in back for you.”

“Thanks, Kostas, we’ll see you,” Isabel said. Isabel gently tapped the old man’s shoulder with one finger and they walked to the rear of the eatery.

An empty booth with a “Reserved” sign waited between two booths, which each had one woman seated. On the left, a blue-haired young woman, listening to her phone through earbuds. On the right, a 30-something businesswoman, reading the Bugle.

It was not by coincidence that the sisters’ booth was available. Kostas staked it out, per a phone call from Edgar Smith Wilson that morning, requesting him to do so.

Kostas did not need to know why.

Seated at his four-top, Kostas faced the door. He also did not want to see what went on in the booths.


At the same time the sisters arrived at Kostas, Jefferson walked down a hall at NP headquarters. The party occupied two floors, but Jefferson was on 16, the uppermost, a floor he should not have been on.

Some years ago, the IBM Corp. labeled each person’s office, not with the occupant’s name, but with the word “Think.”

Marketing at its purest, and the idea caught on.

On each door on 16 were the words “Please knock.” Jefferson stopped and looked down the hall.

All of a sudden, a door to his left opened and Thatcher Williams stepped into the hall. Williams looked up, surprised to see Jefferson.

“Hello!” Williams said, sticking out his hand to shake Jefferson’s. The shake was real, but that was all, as far as Williams was concerned.

“What’s going on? You have a meeting up here?”

“No, I heard there was some bad-ass coffee room up here and I was hungry,” Jefferson said.

“Well, let me show you the way.”

Williams turned and walked down the hall. Jefferson followed him into the alluring smell of a kitchen.

“Great, huh? Even though there are two sets of doors, you can still smell the food and coffee.

”Meeting rooms are across the hall. Meetings don’t tend to last long, since you can smell food. I’m pretty sure there’s some science involved in that,” Williams said, opening and holding the door for Jefferson.

Inside was just what his nose had told him in the hall: home. The room was a big rectangle, with a cafeteria-style kitchen on the left, and 30 vending machines on the right, tables and chairs in between.

“What’s your pleasure? Let’s see, there’s always a special. You can get one if you get here early enough. Oh, wow, carnitas,” Williams said.

“The cook is from Mexico, and her carnitas and mole are legendary.”

Sooner or later, Jefferson thought, he’d be escorted out.

“I think just coffee,” Jefferson said, heading to the coffee station.

“I’ll have the carnitas, please. Corn tortillas. Thanks,” Williams said to the cook.

“I’ll see you later,” Jefferson said.

The elevators on 16 opened directly in front of the reception area, staffed 24-7. Jefferson didn’t know if they tracked the floors of elevator cars. One would have to be psychic to do that, so he took a chance. He hit the button for 15 and began to have a mini-panic attack.

“Shit,” he said, as the quick elevator opened on 15. He looked at the display of the floor number. 15.

“You’re here, Mr. Jefferson,” a staffer said.

“Have you been joyriding?” a second staffer said.

Jefferson took his cue and stepped off, smiling to hide every other emotion coursing through him at that time. The first staffer looked down at her computer screen.

“Your meeting starts in 10 minutes. Do you know where you’re going?” the first staffer said.

“Good question,” Jefferson said, revealing, yet not.

“You’re going that way,” the second staffer pointed to Jefferson’s right, “and you’re in the Garden Room.”

“Does it say that on the door? I thought every door had 'Please knock,'" he asked.

“You haven’t been in there? This floor used to be occupied by the city’s largest florist. When they vacated, must be more than a year, they left behind over a hundred plants, trees and flower settings.

“Our office manager turned a set of conference rooms into the Garden Room,” the first staffer said.

“People love to have meetings in there, because it smells great, like you’re in a jungle,” the second said.

Jefferson smiled and walked the few feet to the door. He opened the door to The Garden Room and, for a moment, thought he’d stepped into a jungle.

The area immediately inside the door was replete with tall, potted greenery, creating a hallway to the left. He walked toward an opening, following the sound of talking. Hundreds of potted greenery of every shape and adaptable size formed little areas, with small tables and chairs.

Isabel saw him and rose. She got a little neck sensation at seeing Jefferson, whom she fancied.

“Hi, come in,” she said, coming to meet him. He stopped short of her and extended his hand. He, too, felt a stirring, except his was in South America.

“This is quite a place.”

“Over here,” she directed, pointing to two chairs.

“Something to drink?” she said, pressing a button Jefferson didn’t see.

“Yes?” a voice came over.

“Can we please have coffee?” Jefferson nodded and held up his cup.

“Coffee for one with cream and sugar, please, and thank you,” she said.

“Coming right up, and you are welcome.” Jefferson was curious if he was going to be read into whatever scheme they had in store for him, and Isabel.

“So, what’s up? We starting on the project?”

“It’s already started. I must say that I have had my reservations since the committee recommended you. For one, your background, reporter, pretty good one, from all accounts,” she said, looking down at some papers. He recognized his last column.

“Thanks. Yeah, it was a good ride, but as I told Mr. Williams at my interview, I think I can do better here, for you,” flashing an almost too-big smile.

“We’ll see about that. What we have in mind for you is some surveillance,” she said, looking for another paper.

“We want you to observe two people.”

She handed him a peel-off note, just two names printed. Anton Evers and Cornell Willingham.

“Anton Evers?”

“We have a schedule we’d like you to keep, watching him and the other guy,” she said.

“Cornell Willingham? Really?”

“If you can do it, fine. If not, we can find someone else,” she said.

“I’ve done this type of work before, that’s not a problem. What do you want in the way of a report?”

“Times, places, other parties. I suggest you do one round and see who’s active, then concentrate your time and get that one done first. We’re most interested in locations and other parties, obviously,” she said.

“How long do I have?”

“As I said, you’ll want to start today. Spend a day with each of them, then pick one, do two additional days, then move on to the other,” she said.

“And is this, around the clock?”

“Get them to their home for the night on the first round, but after that, it’s 24-7,” she said.

“Report to you? I’ll need your number,” his heart racing. She scribbled it.

“Call me tomorrow. Thanks,” she said, rising to leave.

Instead of spying on the party, he had just become a spy for the party, on the party. He went back to his office to collect his things.

His laptop, which he remembered being open, was now closed.

He quickly did an activity trace, to make sure nothing unsavory would follow him home.

No hits.

He disconnected and bagged the box and his papers, notebook and pens. Downstairs, he scooted out the door, straight into going-home foot traffic on the street.

Jefferson walked down the street, to catch the bus home. He got to the stop and moved into a queue of people waiting next to the shelter.

His mind had been racing with his new assignment, which didn’t seem like it was going to get him any closer to Isabel or her sister, or the facts he needed to bust this thing wide open.

Wide open. That phrase stuck in his mind.

The bus stopped and he let an old lady cut in front of him in the line, just before the doors closed.

“Sorry, that’s all I can take,” the driver shouted through the closed door.

The bus drove off, and Jefferson turned to face the others in line.

“Can you believe that? Did we literally just miss the bus?” and everybody behind him laughed.

Just then, another bus pulled up. A collective “yeah” rose up as they embarked.

At home, Jefferson unpacked his satchel.

The list came out first.

Thinking out loud came next.

“Why the fuck are they having me do this?”

He reviewed the names.

Anton Evers, PP civilian spokesman. Cornell Willingham, NP shotcaller.

“Why do they want to know about Willingham?”

More talking out loud.

“Anton is going to love this,” he said, reaching for his phone. Before dialing or texting Anton, he had another call to make.

“So?” O’Grady said.

“You’re not going to believe it! They want me to follow Cornell Willingham, the NP shotcaller, and Anton Evers, one of the letter writers.”

“Shit,” O’Grady said. “What’s next?”

“I’m supposed to do one round of surveillance, then pick one to watch in depth, and then, do it.”

“You said you were going to try and get close to this Smith Wilson woman. How’s that going?”

“She gave me the assignment. This was my second interaction with her. She’s been pretty much all business when I’ve seen her,” Jefferson said.

"Her office is on the next floor up from mine. I’m not really supposed to be up there, except they have this amazing cafeteria. Good cappuccino.”

“That’s nice. Good biscotti, too, I suppose. If those women are at the point of this thing, we need proof. I got a meeting. Call me after 6,” O'Grady said, and hung up.