Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
Before the erupting crowd, Bilton wore the same postsurgical expression that had frozen Quayle's face after Lloyd Bentsen told him he was no Jack Kennedy. I'd seen it live, but the replay was just as enjoyable.
Bilton produced his same even smile, and I almost felt sorry for him. A dutiful front man for his party, he was a pleasant-looking guy who filled out a suit nicely, spoke in clean, on-message paragraphs, and gave off an old-fashioned, subdued authority. But against Caruthers's aquiline nose, brilliant green eyes, and explosive charm, he seemed reduced to a divorce lawyer playing himself in a commercial.
I checked the clock again. Did I have to wait for the doctor before I could get out of here?
To soothe myself, I clicked over to Cartoon Network. A favorite--Bugs as a snake charmer teased an electric razor out of a clay bowl to pursue a hapless Elmer Fudd across an opera stage.
I love Looney Tunes. I love how Acme makes everything from flypaper to disintegrating pistols. I love how when a character goes through a wall, he leaves behind a perfect silhouette. I love how
steaks are always shaped the same and make everyone drool.
I love how no one really dies.
A tap at the door and Reid Sever entered. I stiffened, unsure and a bit rattled. The door sucked closed behind him, and he took note of my reaction and smiled--not an expression that came naturally. "Congratulations, hero."
Telling my muscles to relax, I pulled my ruined clothes into my lap.
"We'll pick you out something nice from the gift shop. Or we can send an agent to your place, get whatever you need. Hell, after what you did for us?" Sever gave a little shrug. The civilian clothes accented his solid build. "Your bill's covered, too. We understand that your COBRA insurance isn't the greatest." He waited for a reaction, but I didn't give him one. "Listen, I have a couple questions I need to run through with you. I'm sorry to do it so shortly after you've come to, but. . ."
"Did the terrorist give you a fake last name also?"
I dug through the pajama bottoms, found my money clip in the pocket. "I'm not following."
"The nurse said you referred to him as Charlie. Did he give you a last name?"
It took me a moment to get my head around the nurse's reporting back to Sever. Or was the room bugged?
"No," I said slowly. "Just Charlie."
"His real name was Mike Milligan."
"The guy I met in there may have been a nutcase, but he wasn't a terrorist."
"You've dealt with a lot of terrorists?" A follow
up smile sprang up fast on Sever's face, an attempt to extenuate his tone.
I fanned my thumb across the money clip. At the center of the bills, I always kept my driver's license and credit card back-to-back to protect the magnetic strip. But the credit card was flipped the wrong way. A lazy effort by whoever had searched my pockets, but then I was just an average dipshit who wouldn't notice. My heart rate ticked up another notch.
"Did you guys talk at all before we called?" Sever pressed. "You and Milligan?"
I pictured the loose flesh beneath Charlie's eye, how it hadn't moved with the rest of his face when he'd winked at me. Trust no one.
I said, "There wasn't much time."
"So does that mean 'no,' or 'a little'?" A tight smile. "He asked specifically for you. He must have said something when you first got there?"
"Nope. You pretty much blew him up first."
"Well, we can all exhale now."
"Yup. Our intel shows Milligan was just a loose cannon looking to cause a disruption before the elections. We're convinced he was acting alone."
Before I could respond, the door opened and
Wydell entered breathlessly, as if he'd rushed over. He nodded at Sever, who stepped back deferentially, ceding the stage to his boss. Wydell crossed and sat bedside. "How you feeling?"
I just looked at him.
"You did a great thing."
"Listen, Mr. Wydell--"
"Joe." His lean features had arranged themselves into an accommodating expression.
"Okay, Joe. You almost killed me in there. And you lied to me--"
"We never lied to you, Nick. We misled you, and I apologize for that, but we needed you calm. You're not an agent, and unlike everyone else in L.A., you're not an actor. We couldn't send you into that building knowing you were delivering a cell phone packed with C-4. It wouldn't have worked, and if you think about it, you know that. We weren't only concerned with the bigger picture. Your own safety was at stake." Wydell studied me, waiting for a reaction he didn't get. "A major terrorist act was prevented, thanks to you."
"A major terrorist act," I repeated.
I sensed he wanted to ask if I knew that there'd been no bomb, but there was no way he could without showing his hand. Instead he said, "This can be an enormous opportunity for you. Son of a former Secret Service agent, the whole thing. We have a press conference in an hour. We'd like you to be included."
"I'm not gonna talk about my relationship with Frank."
"You don't have to. There's plenty else to talk about after what you accomplished last night."
"I'm not going to any press conference. I don't want my name released."
Sever looked surprised at that--maybe even confused. "Anything you do want?" he asked. "This is a pretty big moment for you. A lot of powerful people will be looking to express their gratitude."
I thought about what Frank had said that night I'd come upon him watching the Zapruder film, how people damn themselves with a thousand small decisions. One compromised choice leads to six more, and it goes from there.
"I don't want anything," I said. "You guys tricked me. I wasn't a hero. I was just the dupe who carried the bomb."
"I think that's the least flattering interpretation possible."
The bedside phone sounded, and Sever picked it up on a half ring. He'd been waiting right next to it. "Yes, he's here." He pressed the handset to his considerable chest. "President Bilton wants to express his gratitude to you."
I swallowed dryly. "As in the commander in chief?"
"That's right. He'll have a window in about half an hour."
I glanced from my scorched clothes to the clean
white walls, my lungs feeling tight. "Sorry, but I need to get out of here. I, uh . . Claustrophobia gripped me, and I couldn't finish the thought.
Sever looked at me, his mouth slightly agape. Then he muttered something into the phone and hung up.
Wydell fixed his dark brown eyes on mine. "If you want to stay off the radar, that's fine by us. But it's important--no, essential--to national security that we don't confuse the press or the public. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
"The threat is over. It's important that the public be made to feel at ease again."
"Listen," I said, "I don't want to have to go home and puzzle out what you're trying to say. So just be clear about what you mean. Please."
His brow furrowed. "Okay. If you choose not to be officially recognized, we'd like you not to talk about the events of early this morning. Least of all to the press or media. It's a closed chapter that's best left that way. If there's anything you have to say about it--anything at all, ever--our understanding is that you're to come to us first. And as I said earlier, if there's any way we can thank you for what you did, please let us know."
"There is one thing I'd like," I said.
I looked across at Sever. "Evelyn Plotkin, my neighbor. The one you shoved back into her apartment. She's a nice lady. Collects Hummels. Member of Amnesty International. T-shirt with a picture of her grandkids on the front. That sort of stuff. I'd like you to apologize to her."
Sever's tan face flexed, accenting the muscle beneath his cheeks.
Wydell said, "That's it? That's all you want?"
He nodded at Sever. "I think we can arrange that."
I pulled on my sneakers. "Oh--sorry. One other thing."
Sever looked less obliging now. "What's that?"
I stood, cinching the hospital gown around my waist as best I could. "Can you help me get home?"
I followed them out, Charlie's key rattling soundlessly inside the heel of my shoe.
A few ribbons of yellow crime-scene tape had been stretched haphazardly across the open doorway, a spiderweb that had lost its momentum. My door rested flat in the middle of my torn-up living room. I stood for a few moments in the hall, contemplating the mess. I was wearing an I L.A. T-shirt and baggy muscle pants from the hospital gift shop. My head was throbbing--I could feel the pulse intensified in the cut on my cheek--and the
hallway lights seemed unusually bright. My mouth tasted bitter, like the rind of some fruit. I had been looking forward to getting home so much that it hadn't occurred to me what would be waiting.
I stepped through the tape, picked up the door, and rested it carefully back in place. I walked around and checked all the locks. Stupid, I know, given that the door was leaning against the frame, but old habits are hard to kill. I closed all the blinds, then surveyed the condo. When I got home, I usually checked that none of my things were out of place, another part of the ritual, but what was the point? Every drawer had been dumped. My books, bills, and papers had been rifled through and dropped unceremoniously.
The TV had been moved to the carpet and Frank's old steamer trunk flipped, jaws to the carpet, its contents strewn around my bedroom. I hadn't gone through them in years. My first baseball trophy, broken at the base. The Punisher's debut in Spider-Man. My dad, still smoking, still smiling in Kodachrome. All these artifacts, imprinted in my memory so strongly that seeing them felt like deja vu. But they were also somehow altered, diminished. The shine of the trophy had worn off. The baseball cards looked faded. My father's smile wasn't as relaxed as I'd remembered, and it held an element of self-righteousness.
Callie's sketches had landed over by the IKEA bureau. The back porch of Frank's house.
Fernando Valenzuela at the near-topple phase of his Charlie Brown windup. A pear on our battle
scarred kitchen table. They transported me back in time as swiftly and vividly as the smell of fresh
mowed outfield grass. I unrolled the portrait of Frank and sat cross-legged on the floor with it. I'd forgotten how capable Callie was. She'd accented Frank's lips and given him the benefit of the doubt on his nose, making him not more handsome but perhaps more refined. Yet she'd captured precisely the creases in his face, the depth and vigilance of those dark pupils.
An image knifed into consciousness--me cradling that face while the body beneath it shuddered and failed. Half my life I'd spent running from that spotlit moment and the fallout from it.
The ache in my knees drew me back into my present confusion. Tufts of couch stuffing, key in my shoe, the charcoal portrait of Frank in my lap. The acid flicking at the walls of my stomach reminded me why I'd consigned the sketch to the trunk, why the trunk had stayed closed. I rolled up the drawing and put it away with everything else, then set the TV back on the trunk to prevent it from leaping open like a horror-movie effect.
My discomfort came to life as an itch under my skin. I clicked the remote, hoping the background noise would make me feel less alone. A "Reelect Bilton" spot oozed from the TV with an inspiring symphonic track. The commander in chief decked
out in a sweater and khakis before the Oval Office desk, his high-school sweetheart still sedated at his side, surrounded by three generations of Biltons-- grown children, it-generation grandkids, and a few burbling great-grandsons. "Senator Caruthers says he doesn't 'understand family values.' Do you really want someone in the White House who's proud to make that claim?"
Three channels over I found Wile E. Coyote on a precipice, about to misjudge his pendulum swing.
I took a deep breath, contemplated my next move. I'd missed a morning interview, not good considering I was beholden to my ex-girlfriend for setting it up. Induma, a software engineer when we'd dated, had sold a storage-management application to IBM or Oracle for an obscene amount of money and for stock options that turned out to be worth even more. She now acted as a part-time guru, helping troubleshoot for the hundreds of companies and institutions using her system. They included Pepperdine, which offered a joint M.B.A./Master of Public Policy I'd had my eye on for a while.
In the last eight years, I'd worked my way from soup-kitchen ladler to co-executive director of an umbrella charity that channeled money to various programs for L.A.'s homeless. At thirty-five I had just convinced myself I was ready for something bigger. Last week I'd left to explore options and start studying for the standardized tests required for Pepperdine's joint-degree program. And Induma had hooked me up with an informational interview with a dean of admissions; I didn't want to screw up my chances, but even more I didn't want to make her look bad.