11:45 A.M., Monday
STEVEN HART HAD to strain to hear what Jerry Wagoner was saying and wondered if Jerry was deliberately pitching his voice low just so he would miss part of the agenda. Hart wouldn't put it past him--Wagoner was a sadistic bastard who'd been on Hart's back ever since Governor de Young had authorized him to reorganize California's delegation to the Constitutional Convention. Of course, it was easier to pick on a political intern than a fellow delegate but why was Wagoner picking on him? Hadn't he started the first de Young for Governor campus committee when he was still an undergrad at USC? Hadn't his folks been more than generous with their contributions to de Young's campaign funds?
Hart hunched his shoulders against the chill--it was almost lunchtime but the Feds hadn't turned on the heat in the cavernous Pension Building yet--and cupped his ear to try and pick up Wagoner's words.
"You getting all this, Steve?" Wagoner was staring at him, a faint frown on his face.
"What, Jerry?" He pushed closer, smothering his embarrassment. At one time he had been included in all the caucuses held by the delegation, but ever since Wagoner's arrival he had become little more than a gofer.
"Ostland--he heads up the Montana delegation, Steve--will make a motion to reconstitute the floor committee. If we can get five votes out of Vermont, it'll pass. I'm going to meet with them this afternoon."
Hart nodded, then turned toward the stage as a voice boomed out over the microphone: "It's a privilege and an honor for me to welcome Rhode Island's All-State High School Marching Band." A blue-and-gold uniformed band stepped out smartly frombehind the speaker's rostrum and went oom-pahing down the center aisle past the almost empty rows of folding metal chairs.
A lot had changed, Hart thought, as he watched the band shuffle through the candy wrappers and styrofoam coffee cups that littered the center aisle. The convention had stalemated months ago, the media had lost interest, and Congress had reduced its appropriations so there wasn't even enough money for regular cleaning crews. The bunting that hung from the balconies along the sides of the hall was dusty and torn, and the huge photographs of past Presidents were water-stained from the leaky roof. Definitely tacky, Hart thought.
He turned back to the caucus, cupping his ears so he could hear over the mangled strains of a Sousa march. Mabel Sweet, a plump, middle-aged delegate from Pasadena, was giving Wagoner an argument. "I still think we're offering them too much," she said. "I can't imagine why anyone would object to the West running the floor committee during the rest of December. After all, the East--"
Wagoner cracked a pained smile. "Mabel, trust me. If we win, dinner's on me--at the Hay-Adams." Wagoner might be a bastard but you couldn't help admiring him, Hart thought. Jerry was smooth, bright, handsome, and definitely not the type to let himself go to fat on a desk job--he had once seen Wagoner jogging on the Mall in forty-degree weather. Somewhere along the line, Jerry had acquired a sense of authority and a tongue he used like a rapier, valuable assets for a former Beverly Hills ad exec in his mid-thirties, though he overused both in his role as delegation chairman.
Wagoner was also the most efficient man he had ever met. As soon as Jerry had arrived from Sacramento, he'd started building a tickler file on every delegate there, not just those from California, and he fed the information into the computer. Jerry knew Mabel not only had a passion for loud print dresses, she was also a sucker for expensive dinners.
Then Mabel's comment sank in and Hart became curious. "What's so important about December, Jerry?"
Maybe everyone in Wagoner's "in" group knew what was going on but he didn't. And he hadn't invested six months in theconvention to be kept in the dark just when it looked like things might be getting interesting. Ever since Wagoner had taken over, he had been frozen out. Half the memos that came in over the computer were coded and Wagoner had even brought lock cabinets into the caucus room to replace the regular files.
Wagoner stared at him, disapproving, then fished a bill out of his pocket. "Get me a Reuben and a Coke, Steve. I'll fill you in later."
Hart could feel his face flush. Wagoner was going out of his way to humiliate him. "Sure, Jerry, right away," he mumbled. He struggled up the aisle, angrily pushing past little groups of delegates swapping information, debating votes, or just deciding where to go for lunch. He ought to resign, he thought, he wasn't going anywhere as long as Wagoner was in charge.
He stopped at the entrance to the outside corridor for a last look at the convention floor. An Arizona delegate was on the podium, droning on about the manifest destiny of the West and the perfidy of the federal government. The California caucus had broken up and the delegates were filtering out over the floor--Wagoner was making sure that the votes for reconstituting the floor committee stayed in line.
On his way out, Hart stopped by the California office to pick up his parka. D.C. was a bitch this time of year. That morning, a cold rain followed by the first snowfall of the season had left a freezing dampness in the air.
Ray Griffin, the senior intern, had been working the copier and was already putting on his coat. "Watch the store while I grab some lunch, okay, Steve?"
"Can't--Wagoner wants me to pick up a Reuben for him at Reeves."
"Bullshit. Besides, you owe me for yesterday." Griffin hesitated at the door. "Uh, Steve, Jerry asked me to tell all the interns. that the files and correspondence drawers are off limits now and briefings will be on a need-to-know basis only."
Hart guessed from his self-important tone that Griffin had just been promoted to the inner circle.
"Meaning I should keep my nose out of where it doesn't belong."
"You said it, I didn't." And then Griffin was out the door and gone.
Griffin was even beginning to dress like Jerry, in addition to acting like him, Hart thought. He was turning into a Wagoner clone.
He poured himself a cup of coffee from the machine in the corner, took a minute to watch the floor action on the closed-circuit monitor and then another to read the bulletin board. Somebody had posted a sensational clipping about the effects of the renewed nuclear tests on the people who lived within a hundred-mile radius of the Montana test sites. The article said that infant birth deaths and leukemia were the leading causes of death for people under thirty-five. Hart felt another surge of anger, this time directed at the federal government His older sister and her family lived in Ely. It was bad enough that the Feds were ruining the West with their shale oil projects.
He didn't know what made him sit behind Wagoner's desk. Probably as a show of bravado because he was angry at Jerry, perhaps because Wagoner had a fetish about keeping his desk clean and today there was a small stack of papers in his "in" box.
He hesitated a moment, then glanced quickly through the box: two letters of introduction, an expense account voucher, a profile from Who's Who of the chairman of the Michigan delegation, and an invitation to a reception for Governor Mednick of Utah. Nothing much. He carefully put the papers back in the same order in which he found them.
He looked at his watch. A good twenty minutes before Griffin would be back. He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in Wagoner's swivel chair, pressing his knees against the underside of the middle drawer to brace himself. Why the hell was Wagoner such a prick? He had never--
The desk drawer suddenly sprang open and Hart tumbled backward, the drawer and its contents spilling out on the floor. Panicked, he hastily stuffed the supplies and papers back in the drawer, arranging them as best he could. At first he thought that Wagoner had forgotten to lock it, then noticed the bent tongue of the old lock and realized his weight must have forced it open.
He grabbed a cast-iron letter spike from another desk and hammered the tongue back far enough so the drawer would close. By the time Wagoner discovered it a lot of people would have been in and out of the room--he wouldn't be the only suspect.
He had tidied everything up and was feeling relieved when he noticed two envelopes that had slipped almost completely under the desk. He got down on his hands and knees and pulled them out with the help of a letter opener. He put one back in the drawer but the other had a red "CONFIDENTIAL" stamp on it and he lingered over it, curious. From Sacramento. From Governor de Young's office.
He slapped it in his hand several times. It wouldn't take long to steam it open over the coffee machine--Griffin had probably done it a number of times. For once, he'd know what was going on, whether Wagoner wanted him to or not.
"I thought you were going to get me a sandwich, Hart."
Wagoner, followed by Mabel Sweet and several other delegates, had just walked into the room.
Hart slipped the envelope into his parka pocket--it was too late to put it back in the drawer--and stood up all in one easy motion, quietly pushing the drawer in at the same time. "On my way, Jerry."
Wagoner's voice was acid. "Don't bother. I'll send Griffin when he gets back. I'd like to have it sometime today."
"Sorry, Jerry, really sorry." He felt sweaty and almost sick. If Wagoner found out the envelope was missing, he'd be sent back to California on the first plane. He sidled out of the room, red-faced, aware that the others were staring at him.
Once outside, he fumbled for his cell phone. Who the hell wanted an intern who went through the boss's e-mail? Nobody would believe it was an accident. Hell, he almost didn't believe it himself. He was almost certain Wagoner hadn't seen him pocket the envelope or close the drawer, but suppose Wagoner looked for the envelope that afternoon? He desperately needed to talk to somebody about what to do now.
Debbie, he thought.
He'd call Debbie Spindler. She was one of the few people in D.C. in whom he could confide, even though it seemed like their three-month affair was coming to an end. Besides, she had been with the convention from the start, as a member of the Wisconsin delegation. She'd know what he ought to do to get on Wagoner's good side.
She didn't like being pulled out of a Wisconsin caucus but agreed to meet him in the east wing of the National Gallery, by the huge orange-and-black Calder mobile. She could have sounded more enthusiastic, he thought, annoyed. But by the time he walked the six blocks between the convention hall and the gallery, the chill November wind and the slate-gray sky had helped put things in a more cheerful perspective. Wagoner had a full schedule through the afternoon and there were at least three receptions that began at five thirty and stretched on into the evening.
Jerry wouldn't have time to check his desk until the next day. If he got there early and slipped the envelope back, Wagoner would never know.
Debbie was waiting for him under the mobile, her short figure almost hidden by her scarf and overcoat. She didn't look delighted to see him and he suddenly had second thoughts.
"You sounded almost incoherent over the phone, Steve--what on earth is wrong?" He started to explain and she interrupted, glancing at her watch. "You have exactly two minutes. I've got a committee meeting right after lunch and I don't intend to miss it."
He couldn't tell her his problems cold-turkey, he thought. He'd sound like a wimp. He'd talk her into lunch and lead up to it gradually, describing everything that had happened since Wagoner had taken over as delegation chairman. Then he'd have to trust to luck that she didn't end up lecturing him like an eighth-grade civics teacher.
But somehow he knew he wasn't going to be that lucky.
THEY HAD LUNCH in the basement of the gallery and he complained about Jerry Wagoner and the changes he had made,especially how Wagoner had isolated him from the rest of the delegation.
Debbie interrupted him with a forkful of chicken salad halfway to her mouth. She had been growing increasingly impatient, frequently glancing at her watch. "Steve, I can't believe I came here just to listen to you complain about how you feel personally slighted. What happened today?"
Suddenly he felt miserable, pushed his plate away and told her about the accident behind Wagoner's desk and Wagoner walking in while he was trying to repair the damage.
The ends of Debbie's mouth curved downward in disapproval. "What possessed you to take it?" she accused.
He told her how he had tried to return it. As expected, she lectured him. "Being a convention intern isn't all fun and games, Steve--it's a lot of hard work. It's also a splendid opportunity. If you ruin it, you'll regret it the rest of your life." She had puckered up her face while talking and looked remarkably like Mr. Rankin, his home-room teacher in grammar school.
After lunch, she pecked him on the cheek and ran for a cab that had stopped to pick up three other passengers. All Hart could think of was that it was getting near Christmas and time for all good summer affairs to end.
He debated going back to the convention hall, then decided not to. If he did, he'd feel like he was following Debbie's advice to mind his own business, work hard, and consider the convention a learning experience. But he was still smarting from her holier-than-thou attitude and following her advice was the last thing he wanted to do. Besides, he had never really seen the museum before. He'd take the afternoon off, Wagoner would never miss him.
He didn't think of the envelope again until he was in his room at the Gramercy Inn that night. He was getting ready for bed and was emptying the pockets of his parka when he ran across it. He studied it a moment, then walked into the bathroom and ran the hot water in the shower until the small room was filled with steam. Back in the bedroom, he worked the flap open and fished out an e-mail.
He scanned the first page, thinking it was nice to know whatwas really happening for a change. Halfway through the second page, his pleasure at being on the "inside" faded. He quickly scanned the last page, then went back to the first and read the entire e-mail again, slowly. He could feel the sweat start to dampen his T-shirt.
He wished to God he had never read it, had been able to put it right back in Wagoner's desk drawer. Then he cursed himself for not having read it earlier when there would have been someplace to go with it, somebody official who would know what to do.
He thought of calling Debbie again, then decided against it. She wouldn't believe him. In any event, it would be unfair to involve her. He opened the phone book on the desk and ran his finger down the listings for "United States Government." He finally found the number and called the FBI. The night duty officer on the other end of the line listened politely, then suggested he bring the letter by in the morning.
He'd do that, Hart thought after hanging up. He'd surely do that. He looked around the room for a hiding place, then searched his wallet for a couple of stamps and stuck the three pages of the e-mail to the back of the dressing table mirror. It wasn't very clever--he'd cribbed the idea from a television movie--but it made more sense than leaving the e-mail in his coat pocket or on the nightstand.
Just before going to bed, he took three Valiums from the bottle he kept in the bathroom medicine cabinet and washed them down with a glass of water. Then he lay back and forced his mind to blank, letting the Valiums take effect. It was a good half hour before he slipped into a drugged, fitful sleep.
Never once, despite his anxiety, did he consider himself in physical danger.
HE NEVER HEARD the lock being opened with a pass key or the door chain being slipped off with a wire. He didn't hear the intruders until they were halfway across the room and one of them stumbled over a chair. And even when he jerked awake, there was still a split second when he hovered between dreams and wakefulness, trying to make up his mind which was reality.
He decided in favor of reality when the bed lamp was turned on full in his face, blinding him. He was still drugged and confused but sensed that there were three of them. He suddenly realized he was in trouble and started to roll off the bed.
They were all over him then, forcing him back on the mattress. He started to scream and one of them wrapped an arm around his face so tight he could taste the leather of the man's jacket.
"Where's the e-mail?" somebody asked.
He started to gag and one of the other men said, "Let him talk."
He was terrified. "Back of the mirror," he mumbled, "It's taped to the back of the mirror." And then he was ashamed of himself because he had wet the bed, he was so frightened.
"Got it," a voice said. There was only one man on top of him now and Hart suddenly doubled up, throwing the man off the bed. The others swarmed back, flipping him on his stomach and forcing his head into the pillow. One of them ripped back the blankets and sheet and somebody yanked off his shorts. My God, what were--
"Get the restraints," a voice murmured.
He fought silently, possessed of a desperate strength, and heard the bed table go crashing to the floor. Then two of them held him down while the third tied wide leather straps to his wrists and ankles and spread-eagled him on the mattress, pushing his face into the pillow again. His mouth was half open and he could feel his teeth cut the fabric. He started to choke on a mouthful of shredded polyurethane.
His head was swimming and he couldn't feel them on his back anymore. In fact, he couldn't feel the mattress anymore. He couldn't catch his breath, he couldn't breathe. It felt like they were doing something to his back but he couldn't tell what. Then he sensed his muscles weaken, suddenly relax. He heaved convulsively for the last time, his lungs bursting, before losing consciousness.
The last thing he thought of was that it would all be over before New Year's.
Copyright © 2004 by Frank M. Robinson and John F. Levin