Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
God, it's all falling apart, he thought.
Joe had always realized that he was able to be something of a perfectionist mostly because other people were weighing the consequences and making the judgments. Starting in the army, Joe's orders were the action climax of weeks, months, maybe years of thinking, considering, strategizing, and eliminating all viable alternatives.
By the time Joe was called in, everything that could have solved the problem hadn't and he was expected to wrap things up tidily which he always had.
He never had to consider, or even know about, the ramifications of his actions. His role in the little scenario was as clean as a surgeon's; cleaner, really, since surgeons usually follow up with a courtesy call.
Joe's only courtesy was making it quick.
He slumped into the window bench, forcing himself not to pace, to slow down and sharpen his focus.
The main problem was that nothing in his normal course of action applied here. This was a situation that could only become worse—and finally intolerable—if he obeyed his instincts.
The goal was clear; preserve his solitude. Whatever was being built across the valley involved the presence of a lot of people in the building and probably many, many more when it was done. If it was a road, that meant more traffic, which meant more hikers and ATV riders. If it was housing of some kind, that meant nosy kids crossing through his woods, weekend walkers, nutcases with guns and no hunting licenses.
If it was a public project, that meant perimeters, public scrutiny, even the unthinkable - a new police barracks mean dozens to hundreds of armed, hyper-suspicious men less than five miles away; extremely cautious men with a fixation for knowing all about all their neighbors.
Joe went back to the rocky pinnacle that evening at sunset, but now it was tainted. The dusky rose of previous sunsets was now blood red. The brilliant yellows, caution lights. The dark purples, the lividity of a stale corpse.
He went home that night and ate a dinner he barely tasted, skipped his two evening scotches, gritted his teeth and hooked up his satellite phone.
It was answered on the second ring. The voice on the other end betrayed no shock, no alarm, even though Joe knew he must be feeling both.
At least, Joe thought, I know what questions to ask.
He asked. The voice answered. And the call continued well into the dead of night.
By the pale light of a new dawn, Joe was coming out of his skin. Not only did his friend not offer any solutions, he had actually discouraged him from doing anything at all. Think about it, the friend said, you survive by keeping your head down, becoming invisible. This is the opposite of that. Anything you do calls attention to you. If you complain, people come out and register the complaints. They take notice of you. Other people take notice. You have to keep talking about it, answer questions, have your name in print. Sooner or later, even if his motives weren't suspect, law enforcement would be involved. His name would be run through computers.
His security wasn't in keeping a low profile. It was in having none. No trace of him must be found. Given a clue of any kind, the state and tribal police would dig like manic prairie dogs until, at very best, they discovered a solitary neighbor who had no history at all. Then, he'd go straight to the top of their lists.
He wanted no particular harm for those involved with the project. After all, they had no way of knowing what they had started would bother anyone, except maybe for some die-hard tree huggers. He just wanted them to go away.
He sat on his porch for over an hour, thinking, considering. Then he sat with his cell phone and made two very important calls.
I made arrangements for Sylvia Souther, the daughter of my friend Dan and Clyde's favorite kid, to feed and walk Clyde and then had my office and home phones routed to my answering service. You can get voice mail for me but I'm old fashioned. I want callers to get a human, even if it's not me.
I pay an exclusive to have my calls answered by one or the other of two women: Jayne I
uen or Denise Lambert, both of whom also do occasional temp work for me. Denise—"D," as she insists I call her—does my accounts payable and receivable, while Jayne, a former law clerk, does my administrative work and taxes.
They make sure my phones are always covered and I pay for custom ringing so they can answer as my receptionist at home and on their cells, as well as at the service.
They both practice a certain lack of respect with me that I pretend to abhor but secretly love.
Jayne got me onto a Horizon direct flight to Spokane and arranged to rent a Chevy Blazer at the airport. I was at Sea-Tac and in the air by 8 p.m. and into Spokane before 10.
On my way out to Sea-Tac, the cell rang and I fumbled it to my ear while steering with my knees.
"Well, what the fuck do you want now?" a voice chuckled.
"Nice language from a corporate president and pillar of his community, Bud," I smiled, "How's it hangin', Gerald?"
"Sales are up, panties are down. Life's good," he chirped. Jerry Meinhardt may be the most happily-married man on the planet and for the best of reasons. He and Liz, his bride of 24 years, will hop a plane to San Francisco for lunch. Their efforts at keeping it fresh are the stuff of Seattle legend. She casually mentioned, one Wednesday, that she'd like to have French food for their Friday date night. Jerry flew them to Cannes and had a full dinner served to them on a terrace overlooking the ocean. They're an inspiration to all of us who think that a marriage has to peter out after the first ten years.
And a pain in the ass to those of us who aren't in relationships.
"I don't want to hear it," I sighed, "You two should get a room."
"We have eighteen of 'em here, sport," he laughed, "How many more do we need?"
"You busy?" I asked.
"Just relaxing with a beer and a two-foot pile of overdue paperwork. What's up?"
"I need to ask about one of your former guys, Rod Hooks," I replied.
"Roddy?" he sighed, "The one that got away. Best right-hand guy I ever found and those limey bastards snatched him right out from under me. What about him?"
"His London firm is one of the principals in a thing I'm working on right now," I yawned, "Sorry. He's...he's a good guy, then?"
"Great guy," Jerry said, "Frighteningly smart, personable, articulate...well, a tad glib, really, but not pedantic about it. Completely trustworthy. Only thing negative I can say about him is that he wasn't properly Northwest laid-back and complacent. Too much ambition. He always wanted to see the world - like we don't have enough world to nose around in right here - so the London job was a slam dunk, especially at what they offered. They're small but any paper company on earth would love to have their bottom line."
We talked for a few more minutes about Hooks and then about stuff for another fifteen. We made plans to get together at his place when I returned from Spokane and I hung up just as I pulled into long-term parking.
At eight the next morning, I was sitting in Art's cushy conference room with a fresh latté and a blueberry muffin, bleary-eyed but somewhat functional.
"I told my guy you were coming over and he flew out here last night," Art said with no preamble as he swept into the room, trailing a wake of associates and law clerks.
"Mornin', Art," I yawned.
"Morning', Tru," he grinned. "Did Lauren get you coffee?"
"Some impossibly beautiful young woman brought me this latté and a blueberry muffin," I chuckled. "I'm trying to figure out what to do with them right now."
"You'll handle it," Art smiled. "Let me introduce you."
Art named everybody in the room, quickly enough that I gave up trying to sort them out by the third name. Lauren was sorta hard to forget, so I smiled feebly at her and figured to learn the rest later.
"Art," I managed.
"Since I'm about to meet him, anyway," I asked, "do you think I could have something to call him other than 'my guy'?"
That drew a chuckle from Art and a couple of the associates. The clerks managed small, constipated smiles.
"Sorry, Tru," Art said, shaking his head. "Lawyers, huh? His name is Jack Bartinelli. He's from Silver Spring, Maryland, and he owns a company called Synchronous Systems."
"Huh," I murmured. "Sounds like a software company."
"It is," Art nodded, handing a sheaf of papers to one of the clerks, who began circulating them around the room. "He runs Syn/Sys—the trade name—as a sort of mini-conglomerate. Has four divisions, annual gross revenues about a billion Somolians, 180 on staff. There's the software division and the development division, both tremendously profitable, the web-hosting division, which is under-performing a tad and may wind up being sold, and what Jack calls the projects division, which spearheads public service stuff like restoration of historic buildings, helping hunger and homelessness charities get off the ground, and funding for medical research."
"Three hands raking it in, one passing it out," I nodded.
"He can afford it," Art smiled. "He's a sole proprietor."
"You're kidding," I snorted.
"Nope," Art replied. "Gets eat up in personal taxes but he doesn't care. I think you'll like him, Tru. He's hard-headed, impulsive, and persistent as jock itch. Your kinda guy."
"Talkin' about me again, Arthur?" came a voice from the doorway.
Jack Bartinelli was as different from my mental image of him as scotch is from soda pop.
I had pictured this short, stocky, balding guy with slicked-back hair, a three-piece Armani suit, and Bruno Magli loafers, about 60 and oozing greasy charm.
What I got was a sandy-haired 45, in full Eddie Bauer turnout, about my height, with a physique that bespoke serious gym time and one of those rare, unforced smiles that makes it seem as if he's truly delighted to be here—wherever "here" might be.
He had brown eyes with laugh lines and was clearly the focus of every woman in the room.
"All I heard was 'jock itch,''" Jack chuckled. "I'd love to hear the rest of that one."
"'Hard-headed, impulsive, and persistent as jock itch,' I think," Art smiled. "Just giving Tru a thumbnail sketch."
"Bout sums it up, I guess," Bartinelli nodded. He came over and extended his hand. "Truman North, I presume."
"Tru, to my friends, and I let Art call me that, too."
Jack Bartinelli had a good, genuine laugh; not overdone, back of the throat, and it sounded like something he might do pretty often.
"Call me Jack," he grinned. "University of Maryland, class of '73, M.F.A. in…theatre, wasn't it?"
"They called it 'drama' back then," I nodded. "How did you…"
"Buddy of mine runs the alumni office," he replied. "I Googled you and then asked him to look you up. I'm class of '80."
"Go Terps," I smiled.
"I'm still dining out on the '01 basketball team," he laughed. "Artful over there was foolish enough to bet on Gonzaga."
"Not that bad a bet," I nodded.
"Sorry to interrupt," Art sighed, "but, a) the Zags are sort of a sore spot for me, even yet, and b) we've got work to do."
"Amen to both," I said.
Jack sat next to me and nodded at Lauren, who blushed furiously. Jack seemed not to notice.