“Here we go again.” Carl grins. It’s time to play the game. He reaches into the hotel mini fridge and grabs a minuscule bottle of Grey Goose. He twists the cap off and tilts the bottle to his lips. Closing his eyes, he sucks in one swig. He prefers to have a bit of a buzz when he meets a new person. Loosen up a bit. First impressions are everything. Carl lowers the bottle and screws on the cap before placing it back in the fridge. He reaches up and switches on the flat screen. He stands there a moment, watching. A female lawyer is examining a witness. Carl examines her. He wishes real lawyers looked like that.
He slips his H. Huntsman pinstripe suit and requisite crisp white shirt out of the garment bag and lays them on the bed. He drapes a burgundy silk Charvet tie over the suit. An obnoxious jingle for a local carpet company blares from the set. Repetition drives home the message, no matter how insipid the delivery, he muses.
Carl walks over to the bathroom mirror and removes his toothbrush from its travel container. He squeezes out a glob of whitening toothpaste. As he rinses and spits, the music changes back to the legal drama’s theme. Beaming at himself in the mirror, he slicks back his shiny, black, precision-cut hair. He pats his cheeks, checking the closeness of his shave.
Carl strides back to the bed, toes sliding through the plush carpet. He rips open the plastic encasing his shirt.
“Breaking news. This is Adam Bartel with a News 32 alert.” Carl pivots to look at the screen. “We’ve got an update on the shots fired earlier this afternoon in the Cherry Creek subdivision. Reporter Olivia Cruz is at the scene.”
He perches at the foot of the bed, dragging on his suit pants as he watches. A helicopter hovers over a suburban neighborhood. Emergency vehicles are parked in front of a drab brick home. A reporter stands in the small front yard. Carl yanks on a sock. He yawns.
“Thanks, Adam. We have a much better understanding now of this unfolding tragedy,” the reporter says. “Out of respect for the family, since not all members have been notified, we are withholding the victim’s name at this time.” Carl leans down. He ties one sleek John Lobb wingtip, then the other.
Big-eyed and solemn, the reporter continues, “From what I’ve learned, at approximately four o’clock this afternoon, an 8-year boy visiting his grandparents found and discharged a firearm, fatally injuring himself. Though an emergency medical team was on scene within minutes, they were not able to revive the boy. They transported him to Southwest Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Back to you, Adam.”
Carl presses the off button on the remote. He groans, shaking his head. What a waste. Poor little kid. People really should be more responsible.
# # #
“Congressman Little, I’m Carleton Jeffries, from Americans for Second Amendment Rights. It’s an honor to finally meet you.” Carl leans across the table to grasp Little’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. Carl has a sixth sense for handshakes. He can generally tell who would prefer a manly grip over a more superficial clasp.
As he sits down, Carl looks across the brilliant white tablecloth and sizes up the newly-minted congressman. Hard to believe this guy has a medical degree. He looks like he could be an extra on “The Hills Have Eyes.”
“Say, I don’t know what the hurry was to talk with me,” Dewey Little drawls. “I haven’t even been sworn in yet. But if the Chairman says jump, I guess I have to ask how high.” Little gives a throaty chuckle. His eyes are so close together, they nearly cross. Carl flashes him a huge grin, and tries to focus his attention on the guy’s forehead.
“Chairman usually knows best.” Carl trots out his inner schmooze. “Besides, I hear this place gets great reviews.”
As the waiter scurries off with their orders, Carl settles in to show this goober how things are going to work. His group has been instrumental in electing the man to national office. Now it’s time for the tit for tat. Carl mirrors Little’s posture, slouching in his chair with one elbow planted next to the gold-rimmed china.
“Congressman, let’s talk.” Carl launches into his best mock western twang. He gets lots of practice using it. Voters and politicians alike seem to eat that stuff up. “ASAR was happy to be part of the campaign for a patriot like you. Now you’ve won, but the fight for freedom doesn’t stop. So, I’ve got a few simple requests for you. Time to get that ball rolling. You can really make a difference now.”
Little shifts in his seat, and clears his throat. His narrow eyes drift off to one side. “I’m not sure how much time I’ll have . . .” His nasal voice trails off.
“You’ll have time. My people will send your people a list of the current legislation. We need you to sign off on a couple of items. And we need you to smile for us while you do it.” It’s good to start small with the new ones. Give them little tasks they find hard to refuse. Once they start saying yes, they’ll keep saying yes.
“I’ve got some real good ideas – “
Carl jumps right in. Time to quash that crap.
“I’m sure you do, Dewey. May I call you Dewey?”
Little’s mouth hangs open a moment. “Well, sure, OK.”
“Dewey, we’ll touch base on your ideas later, after you’ve looked at the legislation.” Carl gives Little a gracious but firm smile. This is how it goes, friend.
Carl digs into his prime rib. The yokel bolts down his Wagyu rib-eye. Ninety dollars a pop. You’d think he would try to savor it a bit. When Little inhales and opens his mouth from time to time as if to speak, Carl slings out small tidbits of Beltway gossip. This appears to do the trick. They finish eating in relative silence.
Carl raises his arm and gives a smart snap. The supercilious waiter hurries over with their check. Carl pulls out his platinum card, then signs the slip. He reaches across the table to Little, who sits in a stupor in front of his bloody plate. His face is dazed. Carl grabs the man’s hand with an iron grip.
“We’ll be in touch.”
# # #
Carl blasts on the air conditioner in his rented Lexus. As he raises the volume on the radio, he considers his evening. It went off without a hitch, of course. He’s looking forward to celebrating by going back to his room and finishing off the bottle of Gray Goose. Then he’ll get a good night’s sleep and be out of this backwater first thing in the morning.
He starts to enter the ramp onto the Interstate. The GPS dings.
“Accident in 1.3 miles. Alternate route advised.”
Carl jerks the wheel to the right to stay on the feeder. The GPS directs him to turn left under an overpass, then right into a residential neighborhood.
Carl peers over his steering wheel. Trees overhang the road. McMansions hunker on acre-sized manicured lawns. Looks a lot like his folks’ neighborhood back home.
The GPS instructs him to take a left. He makes a leisurely swing onto an identical street. As he drives, he thinks he hears something. What is that? Screaming? He turns down the radio. Definitely screaming. Ahead of him, he sees something moving on the side of the road. As he gets closer, a young woman hops into the beams of his headlights. She is shrieking and trying to wave him down with frantic starfish hands. Someone is lying in the street next to the curb, but he can’t tell whether it is a man or a woman.
Without hesitation Carl pulls over. The young woman jumps up and down next to whatever is on the ground. Is that a dead body? Tense with dread, Carl steps out of the Lexus.
“Oh, please, oh, please, call an ambulance! Call the police. He shot her!” The young woman rushes up to him. Her ebony features are twisted with fear. She reaches out and clutches his sleeve. Carl looks down. Her hands are covered in blood.
As Carl fumbles in his pocket for his cell phone, he jerks his head around, looking up and down the street. “Is the person who did this still around somewhere?” He starts to dial 9-1-1.
“He’s in there!” She points at the closest McMansion. “We just wanted to use his phone – our car broke down – he shot her, he shot her!” She bursts into noisy tears.
Carl puts his arm around her and herds her over to the person on the ground as he waits to be connected with emergency services. The injured girl is lying on her back. Her eyes are closed. Blood covers her torso. Her dark face is ashen. She’s no more than twenty. How could this happen?
Carl drops to his knees next to her. His eyes dart between the bleeding girl and the house where the shooter is holed up. The crying girl follows and huddles next to him.
“What’s your name?” he asks, hoping to calm her.
“Lou – Louise,” she mewls out between sobs.
“What’s her name?” He nods down at her friend.
“Jessica,” Louise whimpers.
“9-1-1 services, what’s your emergency?”
Carl looks down at the injured girl. “Someone’s been shot. I don’t know what to do.” He sees blood pumping from a wound in her abdomen. Acting on instinct, he pulls away from Louise and jerks his suit jacket off. He wads it up and places it over the wound, holding it there with the heel of one hand.
“Sir, is the location secure? Are there still shots being fired? Where is the shooter? I see you are on Mariposa Lane. Try to remain calm. I’ve got police and ambulance en route.”
“I don’t know! I don’t know! This is just a kid – she’s been shot. Her friend says someone in a house here shot her. No one is shooting now. What do I do? What do I do?” Panic wells up in Carl’s throat. Though he is pressing down as much as he dares, he feels warm, viscous fluid flow over his knuckles.
“The shooter is nearby? Sir, please make sure you are in a secure location. What are you doing for the victim? What is her condition?”
“She’s shot. Her abdomen. I don’t know – I’m pressing on it but she’s still bleeding. We’re in the street.” Louise is still crying. She hiccups between whimpers. She reaches down and presses her hands over Carl’s hand. The blood might be slowing a bit. Carl hears a siren in the distance.
“Sir, are the police on scene yet?”
“No, but I hear them, I think. Or maybe it’s the ambulance.”
“Just keep applying pressure to the wound,” the operator says. Carl and Louise keep pressing. Jessica doesn’t move. He’s not sure she’s breathing. Carl tosses the phone down, and places his other hand on top of Louise’s hands.
“Sir, sir, are you still there?” Siren blaring, a police car pulls around the corner and jerks to a stop behind his Lexus. An ambulance follows close behind.
“They’re here! The police are here!” he yells at his phone, as two EMTs rush up and push him and Louise out of the way. They start working on the wounded girl as Carl and Louise hover on one side. Carl picks his phone up with bloody hands.
“OK, they’re here!” he says again.
“Thank you, sir. I have verification that the police and EMTs are on scene. I’m going to hang up so you can speak to them.”
Carl turns to face the two uniformed policemen hustling over to him and Louise. He puts his arm back around the young woman.
“Sir, what happened here? Where’s the shooter?”
Carl leads Louise toward the officers. He gives her shoulder a gentle push, encouraging her to face them.
“Louise here is the one you need to talk to, officers. I just got here a couple of minutes ago.”
“M’am, what happened here?” The taller policeman guides Louise a few feet away from Carl.
“Jessica and I were cutting through here to get to the highway.” Louise’s voice is numb. As if in a trance, she keeps her eyes trained on her injured friend. Carl is worried that Louise might be going into shock. He notices the other officer is approaching the house. The porch light flicks on, and Carl sees movement at the door.
Louise points. “Our car broke down over there. It just stopped. Jessica tried to call her dad, but her phone was dead, and I accidentally left mine at home. We thought someone would let us use their phone, or call for us. We thought it would be OK.”
While the officer presses Louise for more details, Carl watches the house. An older man has stepped out onto the porch to speak with the officer. His face is pale under the harsh porch spotlights. Why doesn’t the policeman have his gun drawn? Or the guy cuffed already? Carl is disturbed by the policeman’s nonchalant attitude as he talks with the gunman.
“They were knocking and yelling and they didn’t stop. They sounded like they were on drugs,” Carl hears the man tell the policeman. “They didn’t sound like they belonged here. I feared for my life, officer! There’s no way they belong here. I could barely understand what they were saying.” What the hell? How could that big husky guy be scared of these young women? He’s the one with the gun, not them. This is surreal. Carl hopes the officer isn’t buying this crap.
The officer says, “Sir, why don’t you come down to the station in the morning? We’ll write up your statement for you to sign.”
“One, two, three . . .”
He turns to see the EMTs lift Jessica onto a gurney. They carry her toward the waiting ambulance.
Louise pulls away from the tall policeman. “Please, can I go with her? And I’ve got to get her parents.” She runs toward the ambulance, the policeman following.
“M’am, you need to sign a statement first. We have to go down to the station. We’ll notify the parents.”
Louise starts crying. “But I want to go with Jessica.” The ambulance shoots off, lights flashing.
The other officer has walked up behind Carl. “Sir, can you come down to the station tomorrow and sign a statement?” Carl looks at the house. The porch light is off. The old man has gone back inside. Carl is troubled. Seems like the shooter is the one who should have to go to the station tonight, not the victim. Not Louise.
Carl answers, “I’ll do it tonight.”
# # #
Carl slides the access card into his hotel room door. The light flashes green.
Inside, he unbundles his suit jacket and spreads it over the side of the tub. Irregular, deep crimson flowers blotch most of the fabric.
He walks over to the bed and collapses on it. He stares up at the ceiling and groans. What a night. The events of the evening play over and over in his head. The screaming. The blood. The police station. Giving his statement. Louise’s scared face. Jessica.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed and heads for the mini fridge. The room phone rings. He walks back to the bed and picks up the receiver.
“Carl, for Pete’s sake, why haven’t you been picking up your cell? I have something for you to do.” Carl recognizes his boss’s voice. Ben is a senior lobbyist at ASAR, and gives Carl all his marching orders.
“Not up to it,” Carl says. He rolls his eyes and sighs.
“You don’t even know what it is – I’ve got a great opportunity for you,” Ben insists.
“Ben, what is it? I’ve had a god-awful night.”
“What’s the matter, Carl? Congressman Little give you problems?”
“No, that went fine. But I just got back from the police station.”
“Oh, my God, what happened? Are you all right?”
Carl feels like he needs to talk to someone, even if it is only Ben. He settles back on the bed. He tells Ben the whole story. Louise jumping in front of his car. He and Louise trying to keep Jessica from bleeding out. The officer treating the shooter with such deference. Going to the police station to give his statement. Louise’s face. Jessica’s blood. He waits for Ben to say something.
Ben says, “Oh, my gosh, that’s terrible. I know how you can get your mind off of it, though. If you can get to his house by 9:30, Congressman Alvarez will meet you tonight. You know we’ve been trying to get to him for months.”
Carl glances at his watch. 8 pm. “You don’t understand, Ben. I don’t know how I feel about anything anymore.”
“Just do this, Carl.” Ben snaps.
Carl says, “I think – “
Ben interrupts, “You aren’t paid to think, Carl. You’re paid to persuade. Do you really want to screw things up? You’re the best at your job. Don’t let this horrible accident color your perception of it. Just go do this, then maybe we’ll talk about some time off.”
Carl mutters, “That was no accident.”
“What?” Ben says.
“OK, I’ll do it, Ben.” Carl hangs up. His cell chimes with a text. He looks at it. Ben has sent Alvarez’s address.
Carl trudges toward the mini fridge, shoulders slumped. He opens the door, and takes out the little bottle of Gray Goose. He unscrews the lid.
“Here we go again.” Just before the bottle touches his lips, he pauses. He stands there a moment, then lowers the bottle. He screws on the lid, and puts the bottle back in the fridge.
He walks over and slumps onto the edge of the bed. He stares down at his feet. Bile rises in his throat.