Book cover


Lynette O’Grady had a habit of quickly and succinctly identifying a solution to a particular problem, part of what made her a good editor, and who she is.

This day, she indulged another habit: looking at a pair of shoes, in the House of Guillermo, served by Cesar.

“Yes, miss, how may I help you?” he said.

“Everything in here is so lovely. I’ve heard about this place, but this is my first time in. I don’t really need any shoes …”

“Oh, miss, please, never say those words,” he urged.

“A woman -- every woman -- occasionally needs new shoes. It is part of who you are, or perhaps, who you want to be.”

He flashed a smile as he took her elbow and led O'Grady to a wide display of low-heeled shoes.

The showroom was arranged, shoes on one side and other footwear on the other, both by height of heel. O’Grady saw the symmetry immediately.

“This is fascinating,” she commented.

“Let’s see, if we were to replace the shoes you have on with this outfit, I would suggest … Let’s see what size you are,” Cesar said as he led O’Grady to a chair.

In seconds, she was seated and measured and he was off.

“I don’t usually let them measure me,” a voice said.

O’Grady turned and saw Isabel Smith Wilson, with her sister a few feet away, looking at shoes.

“It’s my first time, and I’d hate to tell him the wrong size, God forbid,” O’Grady said.

“Your first time? Oh, here in the store,” Isabel said, smiling and laughing.

“Did you see this pump?” Kate said to her sister, who turned and walked away.

Cesar returned and sat on a stool. He slipped off her flats, and guided O'Grady's feet into the new shoes. When he urged her left heel in, he did it gently, looking into her eyes. Caught off-guard, O’Grady blushed.

“Good fit,” he said, standing and offering her a hand.

“Watch out for him,” Isabel said.

“They’re regulars,” he said.

“Wow, these feel good,” O’Grady said, strolling around.

“They are nice. How much?”

“Just $350,” he said.

“Is this the only color?”

“For what you are wearing, yes. We have a different sales experience here,” Cesar said.

“We recommend customers bring in or wear clothes to match the shoes and boots we sell. We find it brings a more positive experience for the customer.”

“I bought these here,” Isabel offered, modeling a purchase from a previous Exercise meeting.

“Very nice,” O’Grady said.

“Those shoes look good on you,” Kate said, having walked up from walking around.

“You think so? I don’t know,” O’Grady said, strolling over the floor length mirror. The shoes added a classiness to the blue and black tone-on-tone skirt suit O'Grady wore.

“They flatter the wearer,” Cesar said.

“He told me that, about these shoes,” Isabel said, doing a little twirl to show off her flowy skirt and the shoes.

“He was right,” O’Grady said, “then and now. I’ll take them,” she said, sitting down and stuffing her DSW flats into the box.

“I was just on my way to lunch. We haven’t met. I’m Lynette,” she said, reaching toward Isabel first.

“Isabel. This is my sister, Kate,” Isabel said.

“Pleasure to meet you both,” Lynette said.

“Lunch, huh? Where’d you have in mind?” Isabel said.

“I don’t work Downtown, I just came in for a meeting. Can you recommend any place good?"

“I think we know a place,” Kate said.

“Shall we?”

The three headed straight for Kostas, the place, where Kostas, the man, waved when he saw the sisters.

“Gina, table for three,” he shouted, barely looking up from the newspaper he read and the 4-top he occupied. Gina motioned the women to a table along the wall. O’Grady staked out the seat facing the door.

“Code of the west,” she said, like someone would call “shotgun” to sit in the front passenger seat of a car.

“Never sit with your back to the door,” Kate said, sitting in the chair next to the wall. She sat sideways to follow the code.

“So, Lynette, what do you do?” Isabel said.

“I work for a small marketing firm out in the suburbs. Just two of us so far. I got out of college and did the big-company thing, but there were, obstacles? Not what you’d think. The path to advancement was there, it just didn’t work out. I like working for a smaller company,” she said.

“So, what kind of clients do you have?” Kate asked.

“Oh, we do mostly local retailers. Occasionally, we’ll pick up some local work for a national or international company here. We did a thing with Apple last year,” lying through her teeth but sounding convincing.

“How about you two?”

“Let’s order first, or we won’t ever get out of here,” Isabel said, waving at her waitress.

“Everybody ready?” Gina asked.

“I’ll have a cup of lemon chicken soup and a junior gyro with fries, please, Gina, is it? And water,” Isabel said.

Gina nodded and tapped her name tag with her pen.

“Same, but I’ll have lentil soup,” Kate said.

“Wow, everything looks so good. I’ll go for the falafel, with a salad instead of fries. House dressing? And hot tea, please,” O’Grady said.

Gina looked at Isabel and smiled. O’Grady saw the interaction and figured the place to be a stomping ground for the sisters.

“So, I work a few blocks away in an office. Boring accounting job,” Isabel said.

“I’m independently wealthy, so I scoff at gainful employment,” Kate said.

“She’s joking. Our dad died a while back and he did leave us pretty well off, though. I wanted to work, I like accounting, but this company is boring. Kate likes to travel,” Isabel said.

“And drink wine, when we have it,” Kate said, holding her glass of water aloft with reverence.

“What shall we toast to?”

“I once saw a painting in an art gallery. It was titled ‘three ladies at lunch’,” O’Grady said.

“Three ladies at lunch,” the three said in unison, also clinking glasses in unison. O'Grady grabbed her phone and snapped a selfie of the three women.


This newest, third version of The Exercise was not the first to use data and surveys to make decisions about speeches and rallies that their citizen-figureheads took part in. This round of data usage was more sophisticated, with more parameters that only served to muddy the waters.

“So you got nothin’,” Jack Barns said, shouting at his desk-imbedded phone, or rather the phone call he was having.

“Look, the kid’s in prison for 25 years. It’s a done deal. We need to move on,” the voice said.

Barns looked out the window at the city below.

“To what?”

“To the next two people, or groups, or whatever, the next,” the voice said.

It was the voice of Cornell Willingham.

“We are as far as we can go with these two guys now. The data says so. The fact that national political news didn’t get any press in the five largest newspapers of the country, even on one random day, is saying something,” Barns said.

“But what? Is America as divided as it possibly can be? Do we need to divide it further?” Willingham said.

“There are two stages we haven’t played on yet, and that’s race and the LGBTQ crowd,” Barns said.

“There’s a reason for that,” Willingham said.

“Neither party controls the organizations aligned with those groups. We have input, but no control.”

“The next milestone is … one week from tomorrow. I should have an answer for you by then,” Barns said, disconnecting the call.

Barns stood, still leaning on the window, looking out. The desk buzzed.

“So?” Louise said on the intercom.

“Were you listening in?” looking at his desk.

“No,” Louise said from the open door.

“Yes. How much difference is that going to make in the grand scheme of things?”

“To us, no difference,” Barns said.

“To them? And I’m not talking about ‘them-them.’ I’m talking about those two men, Wallace and Evers.

“I’m talking about America,” Louise inquired.

“What about them?” Barns said curiously.

“We are messing with their lives. One of them almost got killed the other night. This thing needs to go away,” Louise said.

“Before the next milestone, we will revisit the issue, and decide to keep it or kill it. That good enough for you?” Barns inquired.

“Question is, will it be good enough for you?” she said.

Good enough for me, Barns thought.


The death of B-drop still weighed heavily on Toby's mind. Not seeing B every morning lowered Toby’s zest for life. Delivering newspapers in the morning before school, even from the comfortable confines of his car, was a painful experience.

Toby knew that, in the end, things would never be the same, ever again.

After word of B-drop’s demise made it around school, those who knew Toby and B-drop were friends, said something, discretely, to Toby.

The man-child from government class, Daniel Stevens, stood almost a foot taller than Toby. They were quite a contrast, standing next to each another.

Stevens, large and white, and Toby, a skinny, black kid with aspirations.

Stevens wandered up to Toby’s locker as Toby swapped out books for the upcoming Government class.

“Hey,” Stevens said, leaning on the lockers.

“Hey, man,” Toby said, closing his locker. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about B-drop. Remember how he used to complain about his real name? I think he changed it ’cuz we bugged him about it in grade school. Dang, we were mean,” Stevens said.

Stevens started to slap a closed locker door with his giant paw, but stopped short.

It would have been the shot heard round the halls.

“B asked me about you, been a while back, last season,” Toby said.

“Oh yeah?”

“I told him, ‘That big dumb ox is gonna kill someone out there,’” Toby said with a chuckle.

Stevens' wide smile of admiration turned quickly to brows furrowed by sadness.

Other brows were furrowed in sadness that day. Mara Trent and Marilyn’s lives took odd turns after Jim and Anton changed their stances. Mara typed up her final report.

“At the end of the last speech he gave, Jim Wallace announced that he had reversed his opinion in the Tick matter. His new opinion makes him unsuitable for our purposes for further operations. I recommend his part in The Exercise be eliminated, and he be allowed to go back to his life of social obscurity.”

She looked at the computer screen. Had she said it right?

He was no good for her, professionally, but personally? She, too, didn’t want to be a vacation girlfriend.

But, there was little hope she could turn away from her current job, and she knew it.

Jim was a decent guy, she thought, looking at the screen. She could see herself with him. He had a soul that spoke to hers, though short of one kiss on the train platform, their souls hadn’t said much else.

Marilyn Ece also had her hands full, since the events of the prior night’s speech and shooting.

She had never seen the shooter before, and didn’t want to again, though being an eyewitness, she was bound to see him again, in court.

That night, as she stood next to Anton and when the first shot went off, Marilyn thought for a fleeting instant it was meant for her, not Anton. She remembered the end of her conversation with Barns and company.

“I could end up dead. That, I would put on my resume.”

Edgar Smith Wilson made a phone call.

“That’s right, Chester Fletcher. Still there? When's the hearing?” Smith Wilson said. He hung up the phone, scribbling the details down.

“Dumb ass,” he said under his breath.


B-drop’s funeral was a closed casket affair. Jim couldn’t get free from work for the funeral.

Toby and two others asked permission to attend. Toby offered to drive Evie and Daniel to the church.

“I hate funerals,” Evie said.

“I don’t much like churches,” Stevens said.

“We won’t be there long,” Toby said. As they approached the car, Evie looked at Stevens.

“You better take shotgun,” she said.

“Thanks, Miss Evie,” he said with a smile.

“Miss Evie? Boy, you been hanging around my mama?” she said with a laugh.

“That’s what she called me if I ever got uppity. ‘Miss Evie, if you please,’ was what she always used to say.”

Once inside the church, Toby, Evie Pierce and Daniel Stevens made an odd-looking trio, standing in a pew.

Father Fancy did a nice job. B-drop’s dad and mom sat motionless in the front pew. The priest had plenty of good things to say. One thing stood out.

“Bartholomew came to me, about a year ago, asking me about a problem he had.

“Now, even though he’s left us, I can’t tell you what we talked about. But I can tell you what I told him.

“Your decision is just that: your decision. God is with you, watching you make the decision. You may have even spoken with Him about it, and that’s good.

“Ultimately, our free will, given by God, means the decision is yours.”

The service was short, just as Toby had predicted. B in a closed casket, headed to the cemetery.

“What do you got next period?” Toby asked Evie.

“English. Mrs. Secrist. You?” she asked.

“History,” Toby and Stevens said.

“Let’s see, cemetery? Or school?” Toby said.

“Cemetery?” he said, as all three raised a hand.

“Cemetery it is,” Toby said.

A box of roof flags sat at the rear door of the church, and Toby snatched one up. He dropped its magnetic base on the top of his car. “Funeral,” the purple flag said in golden letters.

Just a handful of people bade B good-bye: Father Fancy, the two altar boys, B’s parents, and the three kids, the same handful from church.

A gentle mist began to fall at the cemetery.

“Bartholomew, we commit your body to the Earth, but your soul and spirit to Our Father. May He bring you into His house,” the priest said, making the Sign of the Cross, the first and second fingers, pointed upward, toward heaven.


While Toby, Daniel Stevens and Evie Pierce were putting B to rest, Isabel and Kate prepared for a meeting with reps from both parties, at the same time.

Representing the NP would be Sgt. Tommy Haskins, PPD.

A veteran law enforcement officer, Haskins was not a cancer on the department, because of his political leanings and activities. But he was a mercenary.

In the beginning of his work with the party, he was only interested in getting paid. May never knew about any of Haskins’ activities. And now, they were cosmically linked.

Representing the PP would be a new face in the negotiations: Louise, secretary to party shotcaller Jack Barns.

The meeting in which he offered her the job was short. Barns buzzed for Louise.

“Come on in here for a minute, please, when you’re free,” he said. She was there in seconds.

“Take a seat, I want to talk with you about something. You won’t need that,” he said, motioning to her pen and paper.

“Well, it looks like you get your wish.”

“How’s that?” she said, thinking he knew she was thinking about more sex alongside the river, like they shared on their long weekend.

“We’re stopping The Exercise, for the present. You can represent us at the final meeting, if you want. You won’t even have to take notes.”

“Me? How’d I get picked?” she said incredulously.

“I relayed your comments to the committee. A majority agreed with you. Will you do it?”

“Yeah, sure. What do I have to do?”


Jefferson hadn’t thought twice about leaving the paper since he did it. He had his hands full with his current job, and the feelings he had for Isabel. O’Grady had other ideas.

“This is so much better than texting,” O’Grady said into her phone at work, gazing out onto the city skyline.

“Yeah. I don’t have a lot of time. What’s up?”

“Funny way to start a status report,” O’Grady observed.

“I don’t know what’s going on, that’s the trouble.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” O’Grady said. “I went to lunch with Isabel and her sister.”


“I went into this shoe store at lunch, and there they were. I got to know them and they invited me to lunch. I lied about who I was, of course,” she said.

“Who and what are you?” he asked.

“I used my real first name, but I said I worked for some small company in the suburbs.”

“Did you learn anything?” Jefferson said.

“Not a damn thing. Got a photo of the sisters, though. Have you started your surveillance?”

“That guy Evers never goes anywhere. I followed him to the market, and he and his wife ate out late last night,” Jefferson said.

“Willingham is another story. He’s the NP shotcaller, guy in charge. He’s next. Kind of hard to find. I’m headed out in a few to look for him,” Jefferson said.

“I still don’t have any idea about the next meeting between the sisters and the party contacts. Gotta go.”


Willingham was hard to find, because he spent little time at his office. He mostly sat on that dock and fished, controlling his fiefdom by phone.

Jefferson finally saw Willingham Downtown, and followed him to his spot along the Schuylkill. Jefferson parked in the same spot Fletcher had parked when he observed Willingham.

“Come over here, I guess I wish, I’d like to eat, a tasty fish, BOOYA,” Willingham said before jerking his line up from the water, a fish dangling.

“Dang,” Jefferson said, watching as Willingham slowly suffocated the flopping finned friend.

Jefferson noted the location and the details in a written log. He wanted to get closer, but hesitated.

So, he sat for about an hour, watching and noting, before going back to this car, and back Downtown, to his NP office.

Jefferson sat, waiting for Isabel, so he could give his reports. He wanted to seek her out one floor up, because heaven in a cup of cappuccino also awaited.

Right. It was still before noon, last call for cappuccino.

In a second, he was out his door, and had turned right before he almost ran into Isabel, who carried two cappuccinos. She side-stepped away from him.

“Er-oh,” Jefferson said, quickly backing away from her.

“Smooth move,” she said, swinging to one side to avoid the collision. She handed him one of the cups.

“Regular, no sugar, right?” she asked.

“That’s right, thanks,” Jefferson said.

“We need to talk,” she said, walking ahead of him into his office. He shut the door. She stood facing the window overlooking Downtown.

“This is a nice office. Better than mine. I’m gonna miss it,” she said.

“And so are you,” turning to face him.

“Why’s that?”

“We’ve decided to stop The …,” at which point she sipped her cup.

“Stop what?” he said, sipping as well.

“The … project you were working on. Circumstances … have dictated we go in another direction.”

“So, do you want my reports on the surveillance?”

“Yeah, I do. There’s something else,” putting her cup on his desk and turning to the look at the city skyline.

“What’s that?” He set his cup down and walked up behind her.

“I know you like me,” she said, quickly turning, putting her almost nose to nose with Jefferson.

“I saw you looking at me, you know, that way,” restraining her desire to reach out to him.

“Downstairs, coming out of the elevator?” he said.

“You ran into me.”

“Actually, I was pushed into you,” Isabel said.

Jefferson felt stirrings that made the klaxon go off in his head, reminding him that he’s a newspaper reporter, under cover, not fixing to get under covers, with her.

Jefferson was tempted to tempt fate and ask if she’d seen him, seated at the table next door, that evening, when he recorded the 30 seconds of a conversation that could change the U.S. political landscape for decades.

Or not.

If she knew, she certainly hid it well. Isabel opened the file folder containing printouts of his notes and observations from the rounds of surveillance of Anton Evers and Cornell Willingham.

“Evers leads a boring life, but Willingham? He’s an oddball. Doesn’t spend much time in the office. He’s not married, no kids, and he likes a fishing spot along the Schuylkill,” Jefferson said.

“Evers,” she said, still reading, hoping she hadn't detected Jefferson in league with Evers and Wallace.

“Somebody took a shot at him the other night, didn’t they?” she said innocently.

“Yeah, they got the shooter, though,” Jefferson said.

“That’s good,” and she closed the file.

“Look, there’s no easy way to say this, so … The committee feels that your service here is complete. This is for you, with our thanks,” she said.

On the job two weeks and already sacked.

Isabel handed Jefferson an envelope. Inside the business-length envelope was $10,000 in $100 bills.

“Cash? How much is here?”

“We didn’t do a check. Hope you don’t mind.”

“And my time here? Will I be able to put it on a resume, now that I’m looking for another job?”

“I’d say the answer to that is a hard no,” Isabel said.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m done in this town,” Jefferson said.

“The suburban papers won't touch me. I didn’t leave the Bugle under the best of circumstances.”

Jefferson looked down, hoping she bought it.

“We know.”

From the back of Jefferson’s mind came the sound of a clip-fed pistol being loaded, a “kachung-chung” sound. It startled him, because he thought it was real, so he spun toward her. She handed him his cappuccino.

“Now that we’re not co-workers anymore, I was wondering,” he said. Jefferson gently grasped her elbow to turn her toward him. She helped out.

“What were you wondering?” draping her arms on his shoulders and kissing him deeply.

My girlfriend is a spy, Jefferson thought, as he pulled her hair to one side, and kissed her exposed neck.

I hope I get to have sex with her before she kills me, he thought. She broke away.

“No,” she said.

“No what?” He hoped he hadn’t said it out loud.

“No, I mean, that is, well, I am stalling,” she said.

“Look, I like you.”

“I know. Me too,” he said.

“So, now what?”

“I gotta wrap some things up here, than I’m free for a few days. Think we can figure out something to do?”

“Almost certainly,” he said, backing away from her.

“I have something I need to do, too.”

They each took a step closer to the other, a small peck on the right cheek for both, and Isabel was gone.


Isabel’s thing was the meeting with Kate, Louise and the cop, the last meeting of this version of The Exercise.

Jefferson still lacked a single piece of evidence to write a story that could win him a Pulitzer.

And America?

But from where would Jefferson’s evidence come? It was all around him, in the bodies of people, one named Isabel.

Nothing of what he’d done in the employ of the party could be construed as being illegal, just suspicious.

It was just the type of thing less-reputable journalists would run with now and explain later. Not Jefferson, or O’Grady.

The answer, or at least Jefferson’s part of the answer, was printed in the midday edition of the Bugle, above the fold, on page 1.

“Priest shot, shooter captured,” the headline blared.

“Dang,” he said, stopping his sidewalk walking. He looked up to find the side of the building, against which he leaned and began to read the story, a well-written story that dispensed the facts of the case thus far.

“The Rev. Donald Fancy, 52, of Philadelphia, was shot Monday morning as he drove away from a state correctional facility in upstate Pennsylvania. Police have confirmed that  Chester Fletcher, 40, of Philadelphia, was the shooter.

“Fletcher was captured after leading five state police cars on a high-speed chase through the mountains near the prison, located in Skunk Hollow. Fletcher eventually went off the road, flipped his car, but was not hurt.

“Skunk Hollow Police Chief Orwin Keeney said Rev. Fancy sustained two gunshot wounds as he drove away from the prison. Rev. Fancy reportedly had just completed a visit with Front Street Boyz gang member Ronald ’Tick’ Walters, who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering a rival gang member.

“Rev. Fancy was taken to a local medical facility in stable condition. Fletcher, who was released days ago on $1 million bond after shooting at a Philadelphia man, appears to have laid in wait for Rev. Fancy to depart the prison, Keeney said.

“The forensic evidence says Fletcher waited for about an hour, then took two shots at Father Fancy, hitting him both times.

Then, Keeney said, Fletcher took off in his car, a late-model Camaro, but crashed at the east end of the chicane through Devil’s Gorge. Fletcher is in custody in Skunk Hollow.”

Jefferson hurried home and went to his stash of notebooks, which he’d been advised against keeping. Let the story in the paper stand, was the lawyers' stand.

“Fletcher. I thought I heard that name before,” he said, reviewing his notes.

“Now I just need Isabel to spill her guts, and I got a story,” he said, out loud to no one.


The final meeting of The Exercise was a quiet affair. The parking lot from where Fletcher watched Willingham was about as nondescript as it could get.

Sgt. Tommy Haskins knew the park well. He’d fished in this spot, many years' prior, when the dock wasn't there, and Haskins was a neighborhood n’ere-do-well.

Louise had never seen the place, but she too loved to fish, and remarked that it look like a good spot.

“Ya think? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to eat anything that came out of here,” Haskins said.

“I remember we used to swim in it,” Kate said.

“We were young and stupid,” Isabel said.

“I can’t believe either of you were ever stupid,” Haskins said.

“Nice,” Isabel said, deflecting it like she would a comment from a teen boy.

“We are unclear about a few things,” Louise said.

“We’re clear that the need for The Exercise still exists, but what we’re unclear on is, if we really have to, when do we start it up again?”

“That’s the feeling in our camp as well,” Haskins said.

“The people are doing just fine, hating each other. They barely need a nudge. The committee likes the fact it’s been such a well-kept secret. What they don’t like is, the longer it goes on, the more people learn about it. That creates a pool of people who, unfortunately, cannot be trusted with the information.”

“It’d be a shame if we had to, shall we say, drain the pool?” Louise said.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Isabel said.

“Let’s meet here in six months, on the 21st, same time, to see where we are,” Isabel said.

“If we’re still here,” Kate said, under her breath.

Louise departed, under the watchful eye of a PPD helicopter that flew over.

Kate and Isabel walked down to the dock with Haskins.

“I used to come down here all the time, even before there was a parking lot, or a dock,” he said, looking out at the narrow ribbon of shimmering, black water.

“After we found this place, our dad told us never to come down here,” Kate said.

“There was a pretty bad gang that used to hang out around here, at one time. The something boys?”

“Front Street Boyz,” Haskins said.

“They moved inland some. Once the police started their water patrols, they sorta cleared out and pulled their territory in.”

“Gee, you sound like …” Isabel said.

“Like one of them? Yeah, back then, I was,” he said.

“And now?" Isabel said, feigning interest.

“Now, I'm just hungry,” Haskins said as he turned to walk back to his car, leaving Kate and Isabel to watch the river.


Jefferson dialed O’Grady.

“Well?” O'Grady said into the phone.

Jefferson could hear her typing.

“We’re meeting later tonight and I’m just going to come out and tell her that we know what’s been going on, and that this is her best chance to get in front of the shit storm that’s gonna roll in.

“If she confesses by 9, I can make the midnight stream and maybe beat the rest of the world to print with the morning edition,” he said.

“And if she doesn’t confess?”

“Then, I got nothing,” Jefferson said.

“I’m going to write the story as I understand it, using the tape as an unnamed source.”

“That is not my first choice,” O’Grady said.

“Look, we really need this. I’m not going to say that we’re waiting, but we’re waiting. If you had to say so now, what would you say? Yea or nay on the story?”

“No question, right now? No,” he said.

“We’ve already missed the meeting at 6. I’ll call Sharon and tell her we need a second meeting, for if you file. What time can you file by? We’re cutting it close.”

“Gimme an hour. I’m gonna lay it on the line, and appeal to her sense of loyalty to her country. If that doesn’t work, I have a new bottle of tequila,” he said.

“Let me know,” O’Grady said, hanging up.

O’Grady punched her intercom to the front desk.

“Front desk,” the receptionist said.

“It’s Lynette O’Grady. How are you today, Miss Wheeler?” she said.

“Miss O’Grady, land sakes, it’s good to hear your voice. I hardly see you anymore. What can I do for you?”

“Is Mr. Chester in the building, please?” she asked.

“Let me see,” Miss Wheeler said, checking her comings and goings sheet of employees.

“Mr. Chester left for court at 8. He returned at 1, went back to court at 1:45 and, well, here he is, coming in the door!” Miss Wheeler said.

“Ask him to please come up to my office now, and thanks, Miss Wheeler, I’ll see you later. Goodbye!”

“Bye, Miss O’Grady,” she said, disconnecting the call.

Jack Chester, attorney at law for the Bugle, one of them anyway, walked up to Miss Wheeler’s beckoning.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said politely.

“Oh, your mama did raise you right, Jack Chester. Miss O’Grady called and was looking for you. I said you just came in and she said she’d like to see you in her office, right now, and she said please!”

“Okay, thanks, Miss Wheeler,” he said.

“Miss O’Grady wanted to see me, I heard,” Chester said to O’Grady’s secretary after walking up to his desk. The secretary punched the intercom.


“Mr. Chester is here.”

“Thanks. Send him in.”

Chester smiled and walked into O’Grady’s office. O’Grady stared out her office window.

“Better build yourself a drink,” she said without turning.

“That bad?” he said as he dumped his stuff into a chair and headed for her dry bar.

“We might go with the story on The Exercise tonight,” she said, as she sipped from a glass.

“You got your proof?” he asked.

“Well, if we’re going to get it, at least our first chance to really nail it …” at which point she laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. Anyway, Jefferson is supposed to get what he needs tonight around 9. He’s going to try and file by 10. That gives us two hours for fact-checking and editing before the feed and then, the morning edition. I need you here, every step of the way,” she said.

“The pleasure is to serve,” he said, clinking glasses with O’Grady, “and to drink your bourbon. You always did have good taste in bourbon. Bad taste in men, but good taste in bourbon.”

The two had history. Married in their first year of college. She got pregnant, aborted the baby, they broke up, then she moved to Oregon and married a guy who cleaned out her bank account the day after they opened it. She drifted for a while, joined the Navy and worked for Naval Public Relations.

She had been the top dog at the Bugle for a year when Jack Chester walked back into her life, five years’ prior. He hadn’t listed her as a reference when he applied to the Bugle legal staff.

A tough kid from the Bronx, Chester had to be, considering his height, 5 foot 5. He learned long ago that being short had one advantage: people almost always made better eye contact with people his size.

Chester secured college through his old man’s union’s college fund. After finishing four years in three while working as a bartender, Chester went to law school at night. He passed the bar the first time.

Chester’s final employment interview at the Bugle, which included O’Grady, was a short affair.

When he saw O’Grady at the interview, his heart skipped several beats.

“Jack Chester, this is our editor, Lynette O’Grady,” said HR honcho Everett Holmes.

“How you doin?” Chester said, New York-style.

“Fine, how you doin?” O’Grady replied in kind.

“We went to the same college together,” O’Grady volunteered.

“Always knew you’d end up on top,” Chester said.

“Yep, she and Sharon Steel are the bosses,” Holmes said.

“So, when do I start?” Chester said confidently.

“Not so fast,” O’Grady said. “We still have a few details to iron out.”

And they had been ironed out, years ago now.

Chester watched O’Grady. She looked out the window.

“What are you looking at?”

“Sometimes, I can see things.”

“Like what?”

“Like what we’re likely to run into with the stories on The Exercise. This is big, really big. I’m going into this, not even knowing if the thing is even still running.”

“Look, whatever happens, there’s plenty of time before the midnight feed. You’ve pulled the plug on stories before,” Chester said.

“Don’t sweat it. If and when it comes time to pull it, just do it. That’s my advice now and it will be my advice then … if you don’t have sources nailed down.”

“Thanks,” she said, clinking glasses.

“The greatest story of the century would produce a royal shitstorm of problems without those sources, you know. And with them?

“You know, there’s another alternative you probably didn’t consider,” Chester said.

“What’s that?” O'Grady asked.

“The original recording? They might have seen Jefferson at the next table, and played a game, to throw him off the scent of something else … maybe something bigger,” Chester said.

“Bigger than revolution? Shit, I’d hate to think of what that could be,” she said.

“Whatever it is, let's not think of it on an empty stomach," he said, reaching for her desk phone and dialing his secretary.

“Hi Joni, it’s me. I’m with Lynette O’Grady in her office. Could you please call Altobelli’s, and get two lasagnas with salad and bread, delivered to her office? Use my personal card. Thanks,” he said.

“Right away,” Joni said.

"Altobelli's?" O’Grady said. "Wasn't that where you proposed?"

Chester's smile reached ear to ear, and they clinked glasses, again.


Like some parties, The Exercise wasn't over when it ended.

Cornell Willingham sat in his chair on the dock, line in the water in the fading dusk.

He didn’t feel like singing, or flipping the line to attract a fish.

He didn’t even feel like fishing, but he was there.

His cell phone rang. It was Louise.

“Hello?” he said curiously.

“Mr. Willingham, this is Louise, Jack Barns’ secretary,” she said.

“Ah, yes, Louise, what can I do for you?”

“Do you have a minute to talk?” she said politely.

“Of course.”

“Our most recent project has ended, but there appear to be unforeseen residual effects,” she said. “

“What kind of effects?”

“Several … operatives continue to work for both parties and with the project comm channel down, we are having trouble keeping in touch with them,” she said.

“We have taken care of our people,” he said.

“There might be a need to take some sort of action. Mr. Barns wanted you to know.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“In case one of your people got caught up,” she said.

“Got anyone in mind?”

“You’ll have to speak with Mr. Barns about that. How have you been?” she asked. It took him by surprise.

“I guess I can tell you, I’m glad the thing is over,” he said.

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“I remembered what it used to be like to be an American,” he said.

“The worst thing we can do as a nation is let special interests take over.”

“Special interests … like us? You might be in the wrong line of work.”

“Looks like, either party’s no party,” Willingham said.

“Give my best to your boss.”

All of a sudden, a cold chill encompassed Willingham.

“Mama?” he called softly.

“That you?”


Father Fancy recuperated in a bigger hospital, since being transferred from the small facility near the prison.

Tick heard about the shooting. The only two prisoners who had spoken to Tick since his arrival were two of Johnny Spencer’s boys, Walsh and J.T.

“A priest that was visiting here got shot,” J.T. said as he passed in front of Tick in the yard.

“Dead?” Tick said.

“Naw,” J.T. said.

“Johnny wants to see you, over by the basketball court,” J.T. said.

“I can see him fine from here,” Tick said.

“He wants to see you, over there,” J.T. said emphatically.

The walk took all of 30 seconds. While Tick didn’t make a beeline for Johnny, the kingpin of the prison, he walked to and sat on the bleachers next to the courts.

Johnny Spencer and his men slid into position. Spencer stepped up to sit on the same level as Tick.

“Well, Mr. Tick, how you likin’ your new surroundings?” Spencer said mockingly.

“The company could be better, and the food sucks, but I’m gettin’ a tan, just the same.” Tick looked skyward defiantly.

“Just what a brotha needs: a prison suntan,” he said.

“What choo wanna see me about?” Tick said.

“I just wanted to extend my greetings to you, so’s you understand whereyou stand,” Spencer said.

“I was over there,” Tick said, pointing.

“Listen, this is how it is. Nothin’, and I mean nothin’ goes down in this prison without my say-so. And that includes whether a man lives … or dies. Now, I figure a made man like yourself deserves to be told up front, so’s he don’t fuck up, and thinks for hisself.”

“Well, I'm fixin’ to do my time, and stay the hell out of trouble, especially nothin’ stupid that could get my dumb ass killed. I hope that meets with your approval.”

“So far, kid, ain’t no thang. Boys be wantin’ to see what you’re made of, though, soon enough. I can help you with that, or not,” Spencer said.

Spencer rose and walked off the bleachers. His minion gathered around him.

The walk back inside felt different. Tick had stood nose to nose with the prison kingpin and was still alive, so far. There was a spring in his step, a swagger even. It didn’t last long.

“Warden wants to see you,” a huge guard said, corralling Tick by the arm. The guard led Tick to the warden’s office. His secretary didn’t even get a good “Hello” out. Once inside, the guard threw Tick into a wooden chair.

“Have a seat, Mr. Walters,” the warden said.

“Mr. Walters, I have a situation that I think you can help me with. After he left from visiting you the other night, Father Fancy was shot twice. The police chief is as worthless as chicken shit on a pump handle, but the good news is, Fancy didn’t die. He got transferred back to Philly. Still in the hospital, though.”

“That’s good. Least he’s still alive. He’s a tough old bird,” Tick said.

“Reason you’re here is, Father Fancy called me, and said he wouldn’t be able to come up to visit you for a good while, and he wanted me to give you a message.”

“What’s that?”

“He said for you, how did he put it? You’re supposed to remember that you got one thing left:               your will not to do wrong. It’s a good message,” the warden said.

Tick felt good, and bad. Good thing he wasn’t on the street, for Father Fancy’s shooter would soon be dead.

“I agree, warden,” Tick said. “They catch the guy?”

“That’s all,” the warden said, and the guard, this time, posted himself behind Tick as they walked out of the office and back to his cell. They walked next to each other.

“Listen, convict, what happened to that priest was bad. I hope I never see the man who did it,” he said. Tick looked up at the guard.

“Keep your eyes forward, convict,” the guard said, still not manhandling Tick, who complied. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

“Six eleven!” the guard shouted, to another guard who opened Tick’s cell door. Once in, he turned to face the guard.

“How you know Fancy?” Tick said.

“What’sa matter, convict, you don’t recognize an altar boy when you see one?” the guard quipped before slamming the door shut.

Nope, Tick thought.


The doorbell rang.

Jefferson jumped up from his seat, then bent over to reach for the remote to turn off the TV. Instead, he knocked the remote off the table and onto the floor with a clatter, feet away.

Ring, ring, ring, the damn doorbell rang.

He stepped quickly around the table and bent to get the remote.

“Be right there,” he called out. He grabbed the remote and punched off the tube, throwing the remote onto the couch.

He cupped his hand to check his breath, breathed, and found no telltale odor. He opened the door.

“What am I doing here?” Isabel said, storming past Jefferson into his Yoda-sized hovel.

“Geez!” she said, stopping short.

“We didn’t pay you enough,” she said, turning to face Jefferson, who had walked right up to her.

They met, face to face, inches away. Deep down inside both of them, a fire stirred. Jefferson felt the longing to touch Isabel, but he resisted.

“Do you drink?” he asked, thinking of himself.

“Tequila?” she said.

“Naturally,” he said assuredly, turning to walk two steps to his kitchen, which was really just a corner of the room.

Isabel surveyed the room. A photo of an older woman sat on a bookshelf. She wasn’t black.

“That your mom?” she said, pointing to it. Jefferson looked with amazement.

“How’d you know?” he asked.

“You have her nose,” Isabel said, walking up to the photo, and tracing her finger on it.

“Cute nose. Was -- or is -- she a nice lady?” Isabel said.

“Yes, and no,” Jefferson said.

“She was nice, but she took up with some spiritualist. She lives out in Colorado now.”

They kissed, without grasping, grabbing or even touching hands with each other.

“I don’t usually mix business with pleasure,” she said.

“Speaking of which, I wanted to talk with you about something,” he said, pecking back.

“What’s that?” she said, tenderly.

They continued to devour each other’s lips. Eventually, Jefferson pulled away.

“I need to ask you something. Or tell you something.”

“What’s that?”

“I know about The Exercise.”

He could feel her stiffen, though they still had not yet embraced. Her tenseness almost pushed him away. She stepped back, a step, and squinty-eyed Jefferson.


“I know.”

Isabel considered her alternatives. She could tell the truth or lie. A lie had worked before.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, stepping closer to him and kissing him.

Spy kissing spy.