Trigger Warning: Profuse swearing including use of the f-word, mention of rape, violence and attempted murder, and extensive descriptions of alcohol and drinking. (If you don't know what a trigger warning is, you can probably ignore this.)
Here is a riddle.
Two Senators sit in a bar. They open a tab.
The first Senator is on his second drink. The second is on her third. The first Senator is a wealthy Democrat from New York. The second is a working-class Republican from New Jersey. The first Senator owns a yacht moored in Bermuda. The second owns a two-story house with a white picket fence in north Jersey. The first Senator had his aide drive him to the bar. The second took the bus.
The first Senator sits hunched by the counter, sweat glinting on his dark skin, barely visible beneath the dim light of the high-class bar. The second leans against the counter beside him, tired fingers pushing her soft blond hair behind sagging shoulders. The first Senator has his eyes focused on the breaking news report as a viewer discretion warning appears on the screen. The second is watching the bartender, imagining what he looks like naked.
Neither wants to return home.
Neither wants to be in the office in the morning with a nasty hangover and fuzzy memories.
Neither wants to see the next morning?s headlines.
Which of them will pay?
More importantly, which of them will pay more?
Peter Ward is a short man with wide shoulders and stumpy arms and legs. He has a soft, warm laugh, and when he smiles, everyone around can see his perfectly white teeth in stark contrast to his dark brown flesh. He is fifty-nine, but his wife tells him he can pass for forty. He doesn?t believe her, but he nods and smiles anyway. It is his second term in office and he?s facing a Republican candidate who won?t stand a chance in his liberal state.
He perches on a bar stool made of polished oak wood, his feet tucked onto one of the rungs. So far, he has avoided soiling his suit. His smooth-palmed hand grips a glass of beer and moves unsteadily along the nicked countertop before nearly slamming the drink onto its surface.
Yvette Neumeier stands beside him. Her gray suit jacket is missing, draped over another bar stool while small, damp circles appear under the arms of her fuchsia blouse. She takes a swig of her scotch. Yvette is a tall, lanky woman with a lean figure more fitting for a runner or a swimmer than for a politician. Her sister tells her she should have been a model, but Yvette has always scoffed at what she calls superficial careers. Her dream has always been to walk the halls of the Capitol as a Senator. It took her forty years, but she?s made it. It is her first term in office, and she?s terrified of the upcoming election. She won?t admit it though, not in front of Peter.
The broadcaster is talking about a series of murders. The photographs are gruesome, and the only reason the cable news service is getting away with showing them on live broadcast is because it?s eleven at night, and most children of decent, respectable families have long since gone to bed. No young eyes unready for the harsh realities of human depravity will see this broadcast.
The photographs were released to the media, the anchor says, repeating what everyone in the bar already knows. Yvette doesn?t bother straining to hear the reporter?s voice over the din of conversations from the several dozen other patrons. She knows what he?s talking about. All of them do.
She finds it more interesting to watch Peter. He was laughing only a few minutes ago at some coarse joke that she knows he only found funny because he?s on his way to getting drunk. Alcohol loosens the tongue, gives serious men a sense of humor and humorous men a sense of honesty. She learned this in her fourth year at Rutgers at a frat party when a group of freshman boys decided to empty a barrel alone.
But now, Peter isn?t laughing. He has his eyes fixed on the screen. His knuckles are white around the glass. His jaw is set, and the sheen on his forehead seems brighter than it did a few minutes ago, back when he?d been joking about priests in dark alleys with little boys. Some eighties rock music is blaring in the bar, making it hard for anyone to hear what anyone else is saying. She leans forward when Peter opens his mouth.
How long until they find the suspect? he asks, hiccupping before she can answer. It can?t be too long, can it? Open and shut case. Horrible isn?t it.
She shrugs, tilts her head to the side, woozy from two and a half drinks and debating whether she will finish her third. Don?t know, she says. Could be days. Could be years. What does it matter to us, anyway? We?ve got tax initiatives and bailouts to worry about. Healthcare reform. Shit like that. Leave this shit to the FBI.
Peter feels the inside of his mouth go dry. His stomach lurches, and for a few seconds, he has a sudden, powerful urge to rush to the nearest bathroom. I think I need another drink, he says. He wants to black out. They talked about it during freshman orientation at Yale, about what happens when you drink too much. He remembers. You?ll forget everything that happened that night, the counselor said. And you don?t want to do that.
But he does.
Peter swallows the rest of his beer and asks the bartender for another glass.
I?m going to win this thing, he says. I?m going to win it.
No one is watching Saniya Sivarajan as she wades through the empty parking lot of a strip mall off the freeway, finished with a cheap, greasy Chinese takeout meal and ready to return to surveillance duties with her partner on the other side of town.
As she approaches her car, she reaches for her cell phone, her fingers dialing Kincade?s number from memory. He doesn?t answer. When it goes to message, she pauses outside the driver?s door and inhales sharply. Hey, Kincade, she says. It?s me. When you get this, call me back, okay? I?m heading back to post, should be there in twenty minutes or something like that.
Defeated, her finger depresses on the end key. She opens the door, the car lights blink, and she climbs into the driver?s seat. Key in the ignition, gear in drive. This is a routine. It is habit. It is familiar and she hardly has to think about what she?s doing.
And that?s the problem.
As soon as she leaves the parking lot, pulling onto the freeway, someone is watching her.
Her phone rings. Sivarajan, hey, says Kincade. Her car automatically puts his voice on speakerphone, and she smiles at the sound of his familiar baritone. Sorry I missed your call. Guess I set my phone on vibrate or something.
Or something, she replies. I?m on the freeway now. Not much traffic, so should be there soon.
Cool. There?s a pause before Kincade speaks again, and she can hear him rustling something. Hey, so I?m looking at this note we got from the SAC about this Massino guy, you know, Bernie, the stand-up guy you were talking to the other day. Have you seen this yet?
She frowns, trying to remember. Don?t think so, she says. What?s it say?
That?s the problem, says Kincade. I can?t read Hillard?s handwriting. I?ve never been able to. It?s like trying to read something from a fucking first grader.
You don?t have any idea what it says? she asks. There is an exit sign ahead, but she doesn?t take it.
Not a goddamn clue. It?s like, I don?t know. There?s an M. Probably says Massino. But that?s one word, one fucking word out of like an entire puzzle. It?s like a riddle. I bet Hillard does this on purpose, you know. I bet he likes watching everyone squirm and guess his handwriting. Some kinda sadistic game.
I doubt he thinks that much about it, Saniya says. He?s probably just oblivious. Lot of people are.
Saniya only sees her own brown eyes gleaming in the rearview mirror. Her mother?s qawwali CD is playing again. Another car speeds past her, veering around her and driving halfway over the line for the breakdown lane. Her eyes peel away from the road in front of her to the sleek black sports car that?s probably going something close to ninety.
That?s her mistake.
There is a sudden explosion of sound as her tires blow on the spikes she hadn?t seen. Her car spins, and she grabs at the wheel, turning in the direction of the skid just like she was taught at Quantico.
Kincade, my tires just got blown, she yells. I?m near exit 34.
The car comes to a stop straddling the breakdown lane and the overgrown weeds alongside the freeway. Her headlights remain steady, and she can no longer hear the other car, the one that passed her earlier. Are you okay? she hears Kincade. Do you need backup?
Seconds later, before she can answer, she is interrupted by a hail of bullets as the windshield shatters, showering her with tiny bits of glass.
Yvette has never seen Peter drunk. But she figures there?s a first time for everything.
Peter is riveted to the broadcast. The reporter is talking about leads, useless leads probably, that the FBI is pursuing in the tri-state area. It?s not going to interfere with the election, right? he asks.
She gives him a puzzled look. Don?t know what you mean. I mean, unless you or your chief of staff did it. She laughs. He doesn?t. Come on, Peter, she says. Lighten up. She punches him in the arm. He stiffens.
I can?t afford to lose this year, Peter says. I can?t.
You?re eight points ahead last I checked, replies Yvette. You?re not going to lose, much as I?d love to see a Republican outta your state.
Peter shakes his head. It?s all I?ve got, he says. This career. You know. All I?ve ever worked for, all these years.
You have your family. And you have your life outside the Senate, says Yvette. Besides, I just told you and you know it, you?re not going to lose. Stop throwing yourself a pity party and trying to fish for attention I don?t want to give you.
Why do you do it? Peter asks. The bartender appears with his third drink and he reaches immediately for it, taking a long swig. Across the bar, a pair of men have begun clapping loudly, jumping to their feet. What made you decide to be a Senator?
She pauses. Well, she begins. She traces her fingers over her jaw, peering through soft green eyes at her counterpart. When I was a kid in school, my daddy died overseas in a terrorist attack. And that night, our Senator came to our house and spent the whole night long with my mom. Just being with her. I didn?t know it at the time, but the Senator made sure my brothers and I made it through school, kept checking in on us every year. Helped my mom with some of the grocery bills after we stopped getting my father?s pension. I wanted to be like him, you know. Be a part of the community. Fight for the community, for local families. Take care of people hitting hard times.
Peter nods, listening, his eyes never leaving Yvette?s face while she speaks. He even turns on his stool so he?s facing her, looking her directly in the eye. I?ve wanted this my whole life, he says, downing another swig of his beer. My dad and my granddad were both in politics. My granddad was governor of New York and my dad was representative in Congress for good near sixty years right up til the day he died?in his office, hunched over his desk. And I wanted to be just like him. In eighth grade, I won election for student president. When I was at Yale, I was the class president again, all four years. Even as a freshman. I?m made for this, you know. I live it, I breathe it. It?s my world. Policies, regulations, little amendments to bills with hundreds of pages. It?s the perfection in the minute details. Senate hearings. God, yes, Senate hearings.
He continues. It?s like I?m sitting in the perfect place to see everything?action, reaction. Motion. It?s the feeling you get right before we take a vote, and you just?you just know what?s going to happen. I live for that. And I don?t, I don?t ever want to lose this feeling.
Peter knows who did it. He remembers Paul better than he?d ever wanted to. But he?s tried to forget about him, tried to forget about all the mangled bodies of rats and other small animals half-heartedly buried in shallow graves in the Ward family?s backyard. That?s why, he thinks. That?s why he got the photographs in the mail.
He?s taunting me, goddamnit, Peter swears, slamming his glass onto the counter. The bartender glares. Yvette gives the other Senator a questioning look. Sorry, says Peter. Sorry. I didn?t mean to do that.
Are you okay? Yvette asks. Should we call a cab?
Peter shakes his head. No, I?m fine, he says. But he can?t get his mind off of Paul, can?t stop seeing his brother?s face even though they last time he?d seen the punk, Paul was sitting comfortably behind a glass barrier in a prison visiting room. When his aide had discreetly forwarded him the escape notification ten years ago, Peter had conveniently slipped the announcement beneath a stack of old tax returns to be shredded. He hadn?t wanted to remember.
And that was his mistake.
And Paul knew it.
I?ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow, Peter says. It always gets hectic close to elections. You?ll learn that, too, this year and every other election you have.
Saniya?s first instinct is to reach for her weapon, a standard issue Glock .22 favored by most of the Bureau?s agents in the field. It is the weapon the Quantico firearms instructors spend weeks training the new agents how to use?on the range, in the artificial town, kneeling, squatting, standing, lying stomach-down. She ducks, swearing.
Sivarajan. Saniya. Saniya. She hears Kincade calling her name, but she doesn?t have time to respond. Her lips won?t cooperate. Something acrid bothers her taste buds, and it takes her a few seconds to realize it?s her own blood, dripping from where she?s bit through her lip.
She lies still, listening for motion, any motion.
Saniya, if you don?t get out of there, you?re gonna be a sitting duck. Who the hell?s shooting? Saniya? She hears Kincade breathing heavily, is sure that he?s already rushing for his own car. He?d abandon post before he?d let her die. He?s a good partner, and Saniya knows that. She met him two years ago, when he was newly assigned to New York, and remembered the way he?d made his entrance to the office, falling through the elevator doors and spilling Hillard?s coffee all over his fancy suit. Hillard had never let Kincade live that down.
Hold on, she says, speaking as quietly as possible. Some son of a bitch is trying to fucking kill me, and I don?t think he wants to sit around while we discuss it.
Another volley of automatic fire underscores her point.
She huddles beneath the dashboard, her knees drawn to her chest, her weapon clutched in both hands. The car is decimated, bullet holes everywhere, all the glass completely destroyed. She notices the weather?s cool out, now that it?s late and the sun is gone. The gunfire is coming from the other side of the road. So Saniya slips toward the door facing the woodland adjacent to the freeway, her fingers curling slowly, ever so slowly, around the handle, and pushes the door open.
Immediately, she is met with more gunfire, and before she can stop herself, she yelps in pain as a bullet tears through the hand she?d used to open the door, reducing her weapon hand to meat and bone.
Bastard?s got expanding rounds or some shit like that, she manages to gasp as tears form around the corners of her eyes. Gotta go. Getting out of the car.
Wait. I?m coming for you, Saniya. I?m coming. She almost smiles at the sound of Kincade?s voice, but she can?t help but wonder if she?ll ever hear it again.
She eyes her cell phone, lying on the passenger seat, strangely untouched and pristine, as if it were still brand new. But before she can contemplate it further, someone starts shooting again.
Damnit, she whispers, ducking and running outside the car, shielded now by the car and shrouded by the weeds that had grown taller than her. Blood drips from her right hand, and she holds her gun in her left, cradling her wounded hand closer to her body as she moves at a low squat, keeping as close to the ground as she can. There are trees about ten feet ahead.
As ridiculous as it makes her feel, she tries to remember the last time she played a chase game, and all she can think of is a fifth grade field trip to a national park where the boys and girls split into groups to chase each other.
But I?m not losing this time, you motherfucker, she mutters.
The trees are close.
Here is a riddle.
A Senator receives a packet of photos in the mail from his long lost brother. The photos constitute evidence of close to forty torture-rape-murders. The Senator calls his brother, pleads with him to turn himself in. The brother laughs and hangs up, but not before telling the Senator that the same photos are headed for the media. Faced with the choice of informing the police immediately or pretending the encounter never happened, the Senator hides the entire package in a locked back drawer.
The FBI knows who did it. The perpetrator?s DNA and fingerprints are already in NCIC from prior convictions. So they send an agent knocking on the Senator?s door. After the agent leaves, the Senator calls an old friend and asks for a favor. The friend knows what the Senator means even though they haven?t spoken in close to twenty years.
The FBI agent doesn?t realize she?s been targeted for a hit. She?s running for her life in the woods beside a highway while her wife and daughter are safely at home, unconcerned for her because they believe her to be safe and sound. The Senator is drinking for the first time since college halfway across town, pretending that he didn?t make either phone call.
Neither knows how much this will cost them.
Neither is more than vaguely aware of the other?s existence.
Neither has realized the fragility of their own lives?until now.
Which of them will pay?
More importantly, which of them will pay more?