Two days before I was arrested for attempted murder, I was driving down the snow-covered collection of ruts that mark my driveway when I spotted the man standing outside my home on Tyler Beach, New Hampshire. To get to my driveway, one has to pass through the parking lot of the Lafayette House, a huge Victorian-style hotel set on the opposite side of Atlantic Avenue, and past the odd collection of SUVs and luxury vehicles that belong to guests at the hotel. The past month or so had seen a rash of break-ins among the guests' parked vehicles, but I didn't see any broken glass as I drove through the lot, so maybe the forces of light were winning over the forces of darkness, or at least, the forces of vandalism.
What I did eventually see was my unanticipated visitor. The man standing at the doorway did not seem to be a hotel guest; there was no apparent luggage in sight. He was in his early thirties, slim, wearing a dark gray heavy coat that reached midthigh, dark pants, and some sort of sensible winter shoe. He looked at me andI looked at him as I pulled into the unattached shed that served as a garage, right next to my home.
I gathered up my mail--retrieved a while ago from my PO box at the Tyler post office--and got out of my Ford Explorer, knowing I would probably have to go back to town later in the day to take care of a forgotten errand at my local bank. Outside, the cold salt air felt refreshing, but I didn't like the look of the guy as I approached him. He had sharp hunter's eyes, and his black hair was cut close and trim, and looked perfect, like it had been trimmed by someone who charged three figures for a haircut. Up close, I could see that he was wearing a blue striped shirt and a red necktie underneath the long coat. There was a light snow falling from the gray sky.
"Lewis Cole?" he asked.
"That's right," I said. "What can I do for you?"
He said, "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you don't mind."
Being the middle of January, it was cold, and I wondered how long my visitor had been waiting for me outside. "Sorry, I do mind."
"I said, I'm sorry, I do mind. I don't know you, and I don't know why I should answer your questions."
He nodded. "A good point. My apologies."
He reached into his coat pocket, took out a thin leather wallet, and flipped it open. As I looked at his photo and the cardboard identification slip and the nice shiny badge, the man decided to be redundant and announce himself.
"Mr. Cole, the name is Spenser Harris. And I'm an agent with the Secret Service, from the Boston office."
I looked up to his sharp face. "All right," I said. "I guess I don't mind after all. Let's get inside."
I unlocked the door, kicked the snow off my boots, and wentinside. Before me was a closet and closed door that led to a small cellar, flanked by a stairway that aimed up to the second floor. To the left was the small living room and sliding glass doors for the rear deck. Next to the sliding glass doors was a tiny kitchen that had a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean. Most every room in my house was described as being small, which happens when one's house is more than a hundred years old and once was a lifeboat station that rescued mariners on their way in and out of Porter Harbor, just up the coast.
I tossed the mail on the couch and followed it up by my coat, and looked over at my guest, standing there, slim and polite. I said, "Curious to know why the Secret Service is visiting here today."
"Strictly routine," he said, offering me a smile that said the visit was anything but. He started unbuttoning his clean coat and said, "Mind if I sit down?"
"Go right ahead."
Any other guest I would have offered tea or coffee or some other liquid refreshment, but I didn't like the look of Agent Harris, and I didn't like the way he had barged in on my day, standing out there like that. He could have easily called me to make an appointment, away from my house, like at a coffee shop or something. Instead, he had stood outside in the cold January weather, knowing I'd be back soon. Which meant some sort of surveillance, which meant some sort of effort on the Secret Service's part, which meant this visit wasn't routine, no matter his cheery nature.
From his coat he took out a small notebook, flipped it open with an experienced toss of the wrist, and said, "Mr. Cole, in just over a week, the New Hampshire primary will take place."
"As a resident of New Hampshire, I don't think I need the reminder."
"I'm sure," he said. "And part of our duties within the Secret Service is to do a threat assessment of the area whenever prominent candidates come by to make an appearance. For example, tomorrow Senator Jackson Hale will be stopping by the Tyler Conference Center."
"So I've heard."
"And my job is to interview those people who appear on our list of ... well, people we're interested in."
This was becoming fascinating. I eyed him and said, "Are you telling me that the Secret Service considers me a threat?"
"Not at all," he said, protesting just a bit too much. "It's just that we have a list of people who have come to our attention over the years. Most of the time, it's just cranks. Guys who tend to hate anything and everything. Guys who've been overheard at bars making threats against prominent candidates. There are also a couple of high school students on the list as well, who've written e-mails threatening to kill the president. Unfortunately for them, they're going to get visited every few years if they come within a certain distance of the president or a presidential candidate."
"And how did I come to appear on your little list?"
"Something about your background, Mr. Cole."
"I'm sure," I said. "But I've been a resident of New Hampshire for a number of years. Why now?"
He shrugged. "I gather that we've been tasked to be more wide-ranging and thorough in our reviews. Now, from the records I've reviewed, I see that you used to be with the Department of Defense. Correct?"
"You were a research analyst with a little-known intelligence interpretation group within the department."
"Now," he said, shifting his weight on my couch, "this is where it gets a bit interesting. According to the records we've been able to review, you left this group under ... under questionable circumstances. And being with the Department of the Treasury, we were also able to ascertain that you receive a monthly compensation payment from a certain disbursement fund within the Department of Defense. It appears that for a number of years, evenwith your position as a columnist for Shoreline magazine, that you have received a healthy payment from the government."
I looked at Agent Harris and wondered if I should boost the thermostat up a notch, for there was a wicked wind coming off the Atlantic, finding its way through some odd nooks and crannies by the sliding glass doors.
I kept on looking at him.
"Well?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear your reply."
"Oh," I said. "I'm equally sorry. I didn't hear a question."
There was a tiny bit of a struggle on that composed face, and I wasn't sure if I had angered him or humored him, but he pressed on and said, "I guess I'm just asking you to confirm what I've just said."
Well, there you go. Aloud I said, "I'm sorry, when I left the employ of the Department of Defense, I signed a standard nondisclosure form. I have nothing to say."
"Can you tell me why you left the Department of Defense, Mr. Cole?"
"No, I cannot."
"Can you tell me if your departure had anything to do with your mental state or capacity?"
I was going to say something rude and sarcastic about that question, but thought better of it. Open that door, just a tiny bit, and Agent Harris could slip in and raise merry hell for the rest of the day, poking and probing. I was going to have none of that. So I said, "I'm sorry, I can't say anything more than what I just said."
"Can you tell me if your experiences in the Department of Defense have left you angry? Bitter? Holding a grudge?"
"Yes, yes, no," I said. "Clear enough for you?"
"But it'll have to do. I'm sorry."
A flip of the page. "Do you have any opinions about Senator Hale?"
I shrugged. "Last I checked, he's one of four candidates for his party's nomination. Having won the Iowa caucuses, he might be unbeatable if he were to win in New Hampshire."
"Excuse me, Mr. Cole, but that's not an opinion. That's a news report."
"Maybe so, but my opinions I keep to myself."
A tiny bit of a smile. "Good for you then."
"Are we almost done?"
"I believe that you are ... let's say romantically involved with a member of Senator Hale's campaign staff. Correct?"
"Partially correct," I said. "She's a volunteer. She's not a member of his paid staff. That I know of."
"But you and a ... Miss Annie Wynn have been together now for a few months. True?"
"Also true, and none of your damn business."
"Have you attended any of Senator Hale's political functions in the past?"
"Do you plan to attend the rally tomorrow?"
"Depends," I said.
"And what might that depend on?"
I looked him squarely in the eye. "It depends on whether my attendance there will improve my chances of later wining, dining, and bedding his fair campaign aide."
That brought a smile. He closed the notebook. "Very good, Mr. Cole."
I walked him outside and by then, he had transformed himself from Chilly Secret Service Agent to Tired Guy with Lots of Work to Do. He said, "Sorry about being so inquisitive and such, but in thesetimes, it's better to look at things more closely than have something slip by. There's a list and each name on that list has to be checked off by an agent who's juggling lots of cases. For every ninety-nine interviews like yours, we'll get one where a guy is sitting in his living room with a dozen dogs in the house, piles of pizza boxes on the floor, pictures of the candidate plastered on the walls, and an AK-47 across his lap."
"Seen any AK-47s lately?"
"It certainly isn't for lack of trying," he said. Outside he rebuttoned his coat, shivered. It was now dark. It got dark early in New Hampshire in January, a law of nature, but it didn't mean it was a law I particularly liked. The falling snow had stopped but no doubt it would return the next day, next week, and next month.
Agent Harris said, "In these particular times, you really have to make the extra effort to nail everything down. One missed appointment, one follow-up you don't make ... well, if that guy shows up with a bow and arrow at a campaign appearance, and it could have been prevented by you, it's a hell of a thing."
"I can imagine."
"Sure. The news coverage alone would send you to a field office in Nome ... but on days like this, Nome seems a hell of a lot warmer."
"Been here before?"
"Sure. Primary season, four years ago. When all the candidates, news media, and assorted hangers-on and campaign staff bustle around your fair state, the Secret Service follows."
"Sounds like the guy whose job at the circus is to follow the elephants with a broom and big shovel."
That got a laugh from him as he turned to me and said, "Thanks again for your cooperation."
"Not a problem. Are we done?"
Even in the poor light coming from my house, I could make out the smile on his otherwise serious face. "Sure we're done. Justdon't write any threatening letters with crayon and grocery bag paper, and we won't ever see you again."
"It's a deal."
One brief handshake later, he trudged up the hill to the parking lot, and I watched him until he was out of sight. I shivered from the cold, walked into the house, stamped off snow from my boots, and went inside, shaking my head at what had just happened. Poorly run job, if this was what passed as Secret Service agents nowadays.
For I had a connection to the fair senator, a rather intimate connection, and I was surprised that the Secret Service agent hadn't called me on it.
But surprises and the thought of surprises could wait. It was time for dinner, and a special guest. My planned trip to the bank would have to wait. I turned on the outside lights for my guest, and went to work.
I went to the stove and began with the basic bachelor cooking technique, i.e., boiling water, and started two pots, one large, the other small. When they had boiled long enough and hard enough, I went into the refrigerator and took out a small paper bag, nestled within a plastic bag, secured earlier this day on a shopping expedition. I opened the bag and carefully reached in twice, pulling out two pound-and-a-half lobsters. Saying, "Sorry about that, guys," I tossed them into the water and put the cover on the larger pot. There was a faint clatter and then silence.
With the other, smaller pot boiling merrily along, I threw in some fettuccine noodles and set the timer. About ten minutes to go, which gave me time to microwave an Alfredo sauce I had made that morning, and to wash and tear some chunks of romaine lettuce. When the simple salads were complete, the lobsters were done and I pulled them out of the pot with a set of metal tongs.
There was a sound at the door. I turned, one steaming red lobster held in my hand, water dripping on my kitchen floor.
A redheaded woman came into the kitchen, wearing black slacks, small winter boots, and a heavy red cloth jacket, which she was shrugging out of as she came up to me. She dropped a leather purse and a soft black leather overnight bag on the floor. A quick kiss and Annie Wynn said, "Honey, I'm home."
"That you are," I said. "Thanks for coming back on time."
"Hungry?" I asked.
"Good. Earn your keep, why don't you, and set the table."
That earned me a swat on the rump, and she grabbed some silverware and dishware as I cracked open the lobster, washed the meat in the sink, and cut it up in small pieces. The fettuccine was done, which meant a trip to the strainer, and in a minute or two, we were at the bar side of the kitchen countertop, sharing the dinner, and a bottle of Australian pinot noir as well.
"How's things with you?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Most of the people at Hale headquarters are eating two-day-old pizza. I, on the other hand, told my coworkers that I had a man waiting for me, a man waiting to cook me dinner. Be thankful I got out of Manchester in time."
"Thankful I am. How goes the campaign?"
"It goes," she said. "It goes. I've been doing a lot of phone work, trying to winnow out a list of campaign contributors here in the state that have yet to pull out their checkbooks or bank account for the good of the party."
"Are you good at taking money away from citizens?"
She smiled. "Quite good. Which will no doubt serve me well when I get my law degree, also known as a license to make money."
"Just what the world needs. A good-looking redhead lawyer who likes money."
"And likes magazine writers as well."
I smiled back. "Lucky me."
"Damn straight," she said, and we ate for a while longer, and she said, "So, what's new with you?"
"Well," I said. "When I came back from the post office today, like you, there was a man waiting for me at the house. But he wasn't here to make dinner."
"Really? A campaign volunteer?"
"Not really," I said. "A Secret Service agent. From their Boston office. Seems he's in the area, doing prep work for tomorrow's rally for Senator Hale."
"What kind of prep work?"
If I do say so, the fettuccine and lobster dish was delicious, and I hurried in another bite before replying. "The Secret Service maintains a list of what they call 'persons of interest' that they interview before a campaign appearance by a presidential candidate. Guys who write threatening letters to the UN. Guys who're known to be stalkers. Guys with interesting criminal records."
"You've got any of those things in your background?"
She pursed her fine lips. "Then you must be interesting indeed. Did he take you down to headquarters? Pull out the rubber hoses? The folded-over phone books?"
"None of the above, Counselor. We had a nice little chat in the living room, he determined that I'm not watching for black helicopters to come kidnap me, and then he left. End of visit."
Another forkful of dinner went into her mouth. "So why the interest in you?"
"Because of my years at the Department of Defense, I imagine."
She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I think it's becauseof what happened to you at the DoD, and the circumstances of your departure. That's why."
I didn't reply. She was skating into an area I really didn't want to visit, and I think she sensed it, for she smiled and said, "I guess they were looking for a disgruntled nut and came up empty."
I returned the smile. "I may be a nut, but I'm not disgruntled. If anything, I'm very gruntled."
That made her laugh and she tossed her napkin at me, and in a matter of minutes, dinner was complete.
In the living room I started a fire in the fireplace, and Annie took the couch and watched one of the early evening cable network shows, as I did cleanup in the kitchen. Before I started I gave her a kiss and she said, "Lacey, one of the communications people back in Manchester, she said if she had a man waiting to make her dinner and clean up afterward, she'd jump him on the kitchen table when he was done."
"Sounds like marvelous campaign advice."
She touched my cheek and said, "Kitchen tables can be so uncomfortable."
I nodded in agreement. "Sure. Crumbs. Butter dishes. Odd pieces of silverware."
"But your bed is nice and wide and warm."
"Hurry up in the kitchen then, sport."
I walked back. "Free advice from a lawyer-to-be. Better not let the Massachusetts Bar Association hear about that."
I thought she'd say something sharp in reply, but by then, she was curled up on the couch, remote control in her red-painted fingernails. I kept an occasional eye on her as I scrubbed out the pots and washed the dishes and silverware and glassware. There were no leftovers--thankfully, for usually leftovers in my refrigerator transmute themselves into science experiments within a week or so--but there was entertainment as I worked. Annie takes her workand her politics quite seriously, and from the kitchen I heard her shout back at the television, "Moron!
"No, you're behind in the polls because your candidate can only debate the issues when a script is written for him!"
I kept on cleaning and then wiped down the kitchen countertop, and when things were dried and put away and the lobster shells were put into the trash, I went out into the living room.
The television was still on, another cable news show was broadcasting a couple of campaign operatives screaming at each other, the fire had died down, and Annie Wynn, my Annie Wynn, was lightly snoring on the couch, the remote still in her fingers.
I gingerly pried the remote from her hand, set the television timer to shut down in fifteen minutes so the sudden quiet wouldn't wake her, and I gently picked her up. She started murmuring and through a quiet yet forceful touch, I got her off the couch and upstairs in my bed in just a manner of minutes, holding on to her tight as we maneuvered up the stairway. There were two highlights of bringing her into my bedroom: undressing her and seeing what manner of undergarments she had chosen that day, and the sweet wine-tasted kiss I got from her as I slid her under the sheets, and the way she murmured, "Thank you so much for taking care of me."
I pulled the sheet and blankets up. Taking care of someone. It had been a very long time since I had taken care of anyone, and though I was seriously out of practice, I found that to my surprise, I was liking it.
I checked the clock. It was not even 9:00 P.M. I wasn't tired but I didn't want to go downstairs and watch television by myself, so I got undressed and slipped inside the cool bedding, and switched on a reading lamp. By now I was learning about Annie and her habits and foibles, and one thing I knew was that once she had fallen asleep, it would take something on the order of a tidal wave to wake her up.
So I read for a long while, a biography of Winston Churchill,and I enjoyed the sensation of being warm and safe and having a woman slumbering in bed with me. I read until the book seemed to gain weight in my hands and fall on my chest, and soon enough, the reading lamp was out and I was asleep.
The touch woke me up, and I was startled for just a moment, wondering where I was, wondering where my weapons were. Then I felt the touch again, the light scraping of fingernails against my back. I kept still and silent, just liking the touch of her hand upon me, and then her lips were at my ear, whispering, "Are you awake?"
"I am now."
The scratches were wider on my back. She kissed and licked and nibbled at my ear, and then her hand moved about, so it was now scratching at my chest. She snuggled up against me, her warm skin upon my back and rear and legs, and she said, her voice still quiet, "I meant to tell you something earlier, but I forgot."
"You did, did you. What is it?"
Another kiss, a flick of her tongue against my ear. "You're a secretive man, Lewis, but I have secrets of my own."
"Keep on talking."
She giggled. "I'm part of a confidential organization, providing technical support to the Secret Service. And I've been tasked to subject you to a severe interrogation."
I rolled over and she was in my arms, and I kissed her and she kissed me back, and I looked up at her in the faint moonlight, and said, "I surrender."
She moved about, so that she was gently straddling me, and the bed suddenly got warmer. She bent down, her red hair tickling my nose. "Have you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?"
She started moving on top of me. I held her tight, with my hands against her side, her flesh smooth and warm. "Have you now,or have you ever been, a member of a group advocating the violent overthrow of the government of the United States?"
"No ... ma'am."
I kissed her and she lightly moaned, and said, "Have you now, or have you ever been, a male with extensive lovemaking fantasies?"
"Guilty as charged," I managed to say.
"Good," she said, holding on to me with her strong hands. "Interrogation over."
"Best news I've heard all night."
"Oh, stop talking already," she said.
"You started it."
And she didn't say anything for a while after that, and neither did I.
PRIMARY STORM. Copyright © 2006 by Brendan DuBois. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.