Happy Ground Hog Day!
To celebrate the fact that here in sunny San Francisco there is no snow on the ground let alone any critters looking like groundhogs, I'm joining many other authors in giving away books—in my case, a copy of my political thriller, THE CANDIDATE—as part of the Facebook Group Bookish Road Trip's Groundhog Giveaway Contest.
Click here to go to the contest: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bookish.road.trip
Good luck! —Josie
THE CANDIDATE (Political Thriller)
It was an unseasonably warm New Year’s Eve, and the throbbing mass of partygoers centered around the fountain at the Bellagio was for the most part feeling no pain.
One, in particular, was especially numb. His captors had made sure of it, doping him up with a cocktail of drugs—a potent mix of zombie cucumber, scopolamine, and some botulism thrown in for good measure—that left him too paralyzed to move, to speak, to cry, let alone to shout out to the crowd that he was, quite literally, a ticking time bomb.
As the Bellagio’s famous fountain pulsated to the sensual sounds of Sinatra, Carlos Rodriguez glared hard at those around him in the hope that someone —anyone—might be able to read the fear in his eyes, if not for his sake, then for the rest of them. Illuminated in the hotel’s many roving spotlights, their faces melded into a living collage: flirting, blowing horns, laughing, and screaming.
He tried to scream, too, but nothing came out. Not a whisper. The drugs ensured that.
Then there it was: The countdown.
The last three months passed before his eyes, starting with the moment when that emotionless U.S. Customs official pulled him out of the employee line crawling down the gangplank of the Carnival Cruise ship on his one night of shore leave in Miami. If he had assumed that his Venezuelan passport wouldn’t raise any flags with her, he was wrong. She asked him some seemingly innocuous questions about his purpose for coming into the country.
His answers, innocent enough, still landed him in some hot, dusty hellhole.
There, Carlos was stripped naked, shackled in a fetal position, or made to squat in his own waste. During the scalding heat of the day, he was given little water to quench his thirst, and no blanket when the night temperatures dropped to freezing. As bad as the daily beatings were, the threat of being drowned, tortured, or bitten by his captors’ hounds of Hell was even worse.
He was no longer a man, only a number. They called him Catorce—the number, fourteen, in Spanish.
From the scared whispers and coded taps he heard from the other young Venezuelaños also isolated in the prison’s catacomb of cells, Carlos learned that, like him, they had all come from poor remote villages. None raised any flags with her, he was wrong. She asked him some seemingly innocuous questions about his purpose for coming into the country.
In time, the capitano of their captors, the human devil named “Smith,” told them that they were to play very important roles in the freedom and prosperity of both their old and new countries.
And that was how they were told that they were to be suicide bombers.
When that day—today—finally came, the men were taped down the front and back with the bombs, then dressed in nice slacks, collared sweaters, and beige cashmere jackets, their hair lightened and spiked. Yes, now they could easily pass as well-to-do gringos. Then they were drugged.
Two hours later, seven vans carrying the human bombs pulled up in front of the seven hotels hosting Las Vegas’ world-famous fireworks: the Flamingo, the MGM Grand, Circus Circus, Treasure Island, the Venetian, and the Bellagio, all the way north to the Stratosphere.
Only Carlos had been paired with another bomber: some kid, maybe seventeen or so, who had entered their hellhole only the day before. His captors called him Trece, the Spanish word for the number thirteen. Although muscle paralysis had set in quickly, Carlos’s mind was still alert. He could tell that the boy, Trece, was also trying to fight the effects of the drugs. The look in his eyes over at him.
By her quizzical look, he could tell she’d noticed his tears. She waved at him. Of course, he couldn’t wave back. No matter. Undeterred, she swam against the deep wave of humanity between them, to his side.
A burly red-haired man, watching the exchange, glared hard at Carlos. The fact that he didn’t respond irritated the man, like a red flag waved at a moody bull. He grabbed the woman’s arm, she tried to shake him off, but he shoved past her, hell-bent on reaching Carlos first.
Her boyfriend perhaps, determined to win her back? Que lastima! Perhaps the lovers could make amends in heaven because in a mere twenty-two seconds, the bomb strapped to Carlos’ chest would blow all of them to pieces...
December 30th, One Year Earlier...
“I hear you’re one smooth sonofabitch.”
Thanks to the hustle and flow of the Tilt’n Diner’s dinnertime crowd, Republican Senator Andrew Jackson Mansfield’s genial jibe was just loud enough to be heard by its intended party: Democratic political campaign strategist Ben Brinker.
Ben washed down a mouthful of the diner’s whoopee cake pie with the last sip of his coffee and winked knowingly at his hosts—a couple of New Hampshire Democratic Party chairs—before facing his accuser. “Senator, if I’ve made you sit up and take notice, then I must be doing something right.”
Unlike Mansfield’s smile, Ben’s was genuine, for good reason: at that moment his client, Congressman and recently declared presidential hopeful Richard Calder, was sharing his cozy vision of a Calder presidency with a reverential Megyn Kelly and all of America, including the New Hampshire voters gazing up at the television mounted over the diner’s short-order grill.
The flop sweat on the very young, very green campaign aide who was trailing Mansfield evidenced his relief that the senator’s pique had been directed at Ben and not him. Ben, on the other hand, was used to being called all sorts of things by all sorts of people—especially those who, like Mansfield, were running for president, but didn’t have a seasoned A-List sonofabitch of their own.
Specifically, one who could get them an exclusive with Megyn this early in the game.
To be honest about it, even Ben’s clients were known to label him with a colorful name or two, particularly during a campaign. Smartass for sure. Bastard without a doubt. And yes, sonofabitch was a given. In Ben’s mind that was all par for the course. Better he should piss off a client with a much-needed reality check than watch him show his ass in public.
In any event, all was forgiven by the time the votes were tallied, because with Ben on your team it was a given that you would win.
Which is why the smart clients inevitably shut up, listened, and followed his advice.
And why, for the past twelve years, Beltway insiders had placed their bets on Brinker.
Even his dark horses were winners, and had been since his very first high profile campaign—for an incumbent senator whose unappreciated stance against his own party’s policies put him some thirty points behind in the polls. But by election day, Ben had conjured up a slim but incontestable lead by doing his usual voodoo: discerning the grittiest issues; crafting surefire sound bites that rallied those who might not otherwise go to the polls, and most importantly choosing an easy-on-the-eye candidate who appealed to female voters.
So when Ben jumped onboard Calder’s presidential exploratory committee, bets on all the other Democratic candidates—both unannounced and already declared—were off. Hell, the kowtowing of these two state New Hampshire DNC party bigwigs between bites of the diner’s celebrated White Mountain meatloaf was proof of that. Despite a field of six other party contenders, their initial polls of both declared Dems and independents were making Ben very happy. One had even slipped up and called the congressman “President Calder.”
Hence, Andy Mansfield’s crude albeit admiring declaration. Yep, Ben Brinker was his party’s consummate kingmaker, and everyone knew it. Why else had the dimpled Megyn, gushing sweetness and light, put in the call herself yesterday, requesting that Calder grace her celebrated couch?
Forget George Stephanopoulos or Anderson Cooper, or that constantly PMSing coven at The View. For his client, Ben had scored the queen of political commentators!
As he shook Mansfield’s hand, Ben couldn’t help but size him up as a candidate. No doubt about it the senator had a lot going for him. The fact that he was six foot two, with a full head of hair and square-jawed good looks all certainly worked in his favor. It also helped that he hailed from North Carolina, a state coveted by both sides of the aisle for its swing electoral votes. Sons of the South rarely had problems garnering the votes of neighboring states, particularly if they were Republicans like Mansfield. He was a populist, but he had somehow skirted his party’s Tea Party pressure cooker politics.
At forty-six years of age, he would be the youngest candidate in the race. But in a presidential election, youth only reinforced any perceived inexperience.
Granted, others had sidestepped that deficit: Clinton for one, not to mention Obama. Ben certainly knew how he’d make it a non issue for Mansfield: focus on his seven years as a senator, his middle-of-the-road voting history; his exemplary military record as a Marine fighter pilot with the renowned Checkerboards Squadron 312; and his seat on the Senate Arms Services Committee. And he’d have to make sure that the planks in his solidly populist platform were well-positioned with the media—
From Mansfield’s gaze, Ben realized that the senator was also contemplating what might have been, if fate had played them different hands. And yet both men knew it was a moot exercise. In the first place, Ben worked exclusively with Democrats. Even if that weren’t the case, from the looks of things the Republican powers-that-be were going to be backing Vice President Clemson Talbot, not some GOP upstart, no matter how ideal a candidate he might be. Maybe that’s why Mansfield is here without a real handler, thought Ben.
He’s lucky his wife–what’s her name, Alice? Abigail?–has deep pockets. It’s his only hope to hang in there.
Reality having set in, both men turned back to the TV just in time to see Richard Calder lose any chance of ever getting elected as Megyn asked him, in a quiet but firm voice: “So tell me, Congressman, does the name Jenna McElvoy ring a bell?”
All the color drained out from under Calder’s pancake makeup as she directed him to the monitor beside her. What materialized on it was Calder’s long-time lover, a slight, pretty woman in her mid-thirties.
Fuck, no. Oh no, Ben thought.
Sitting beside Jenna was the love child she’d had with Calder: a cute four- year-old tyke named Cole. The boy was small for his age, listless and pale, even for television.
Then again, having a congenital heart disease will do that to a kid. So yeah, Megyn had contrived another perfect gotcha! moment. If there was any doubt to the contrary, she laid it to rest as she held up the next day’s issue of the Enquirer and asked the congressman when, if ever, he planned on introducing Jenna to Sarah, his wife of thirty-one years.
“Holy shit!” Mansfield’s aide hadn’t realized that he’d uttered the oath out loud until he saw the doom in Ben’s eyes. The kid stared down at his snow-spattered Florsheims.
In that nanosecond, Ben realized that his career had imploded along with his client’s.
And if that wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the strangled moans from the two New Hampshire Dem chairs said it all. They gathered their coats and scurried away from Ben without a backward glance. The snickers emanating from the Tilt’n Diner’s counter regulars had them practically running out the door.
“Tough break, Brinker.” Mansfield’s sympathy seemed real. “I guess Calder’s little extracurricular activity slipped by your vetting process.”
Vetting process? Yeah sure, there was a time when Ben actually cared if his clients withstood a sniff test. But that was years ago, when he was still young and idealistic. It only took a campaign or two before Ben caught on to the fact that all politicians had skeletons in their closets. The goal was to keep them from popping out during the race. Why should one personal misguided indiscretion stop a good candidate’s quest to improve the lives of all Americans?
He thought he had locked up Calder’s good and tight—thanks to a $3,000-a-week cash withdrawal from a generous trust fund established by a cabal of Calder’s closest good-ol’-boy supporters.
Obviously the Enquirer’s offer had been somewhat more generous.
The smile Ben gave the senator this time was less cocky. “Yeah, well, pristine politicians are few and far between. If you know of one, give him my number.”
Mansfield took out a business card and handed it to Ben. “Looks like you’ll be having some free time on your hands. Headed back to D.C. tonight?”
Ben shrugged and nodded. No reason to stick around now.
“Great. Then why don’t you stop by the Fairmont tomorrow evening, say, around eleven? The Colonnade Room. There’s a little event being thrown, and I’m the guest of honor. Should give you a feel of what I’m about.” With that the senator was gone.
Yeah, as if I’d ever work for a Republican, thought Ben. Even I am not that desperate.
He heard the buzz of his cell phone and pulled it out of his pocket. Chris Matthews’ producer. He hit the mute button.
There was no good way to spin the Calder fiasco. But in good conscience, Ben couldn’t yet turn in his resignation until Calder formally pulled out of the race. No doubt that would happen later that evening. Or even earlier, if Calder’s wife had already gotten wind of the fiasco and was on her way down to the courthouse to file for divorce.
If he hurried, he could still make the last United non-stop back to D.C.
Copyright 2014 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.