Read an Excerpt
St. John looked at himself in the mirror. The scar was less vivid than usual this morning, perhaps because there wasn't much tan to contrast with the thin, long ridge that slashed along the right side of his jaw. That happened when you hid inside most of the time, he told himself.
Coward was definitely the word, he added silently.
He'd been hiding more than usual lately. Not that there had been more problems at Redstone. The opposite in fact; things were going well on all fronts. The Hawk V jet was ready for delivery. The damage done by the snake in their midst at Research and Development was finally under control, losses minimized and security rebuilt. That had inspired their resident inventor to a new round of genius, including a couple of revolutionary concepts that had made even Josh Redstone blink; the idea of an implanted microchip to help stroke victims with residual tremors would never have occurred to him as a Redstone offshoot. But Ian Gamble had done it, and it had worked well in initial trials, was ready for further
testing. Josh's philosophy of hiring the best continued to pay off; Redstone's people were its true strength.
Unfortunately for St. John, they were also the problem. Not that there was anything wrong with them. To the contrary, they were indeed the best. And happy. Very happy. Deliriously happy.
Of late, annoyingly happy.
If I have to go to one more Redstone wedding.… He couldn't even finish the thought.
It wasn't that he begrudged them. He'd made peace long ago with the fact that such things were not for him. It was simply that he didn't like the unaccustomed ache he'd begun to feel at the seemingly endless line of successful Redstone relationships and weddings. Even Redstone kids were starting to appear. And the only good thing he found in it all for himself was a bitter sort of thankfulness that none of them would ever face what he'd once faced.
" A d d whiner to that coward," he muttered aloud, aware even as he said it that doing so spoke volumes about his state of mind; most of the time he barely spoke to other people, let alone himself.
He glanced at his watch as he pulled it on: 4:30 a.m. He was running a bit late. But it had been peaceful for weeks now, no late-night calls from some far-flung outpost of the Redstone empire, from people looking for help, information or advice. Just as well, he didn't like delving into those interpersonal situations that popped up anyway. Business situations were just that; the personal problems dragged emotions into it, which was the moment when he wanted out.
But now that he was out, for the time being anyway, he found himself oddly unsettled. He had the unwelcome feeling that helping Redstone people with their personal problems had been his substitute for human contact, and when that was gone…
Be careful what you wish for.
The old axiom had never held much water with him,
since he'd painfully learned at an early age that wishing accomplished nothing. If it had, he'd have wished himself away back then.
He ran his fingers through his still-damp hair. Haircut, he noted, mentally filing the task. Of course, he'd noted it daily since it started to brush past his collar, but since it would require a visit to the barbershop down the street, and Willis could talk like nobody else he knew, he kept putting it off.
He wasn't in the mood for chatter. An observation that anyone at Redstone would laugh at; as if he ever was. He knew the joke that had become a Redstone staple: "Why use one word when none will do?" What had begun as self-protection as a child had become a long-ingrained habit at thirty-five, and he didn't see the need to change it. He got his job done, and well, that was what mattered.
He took the stairs down to the next level, even though his legs were still a bit tired from his pre-dawn workout. Another habit ingrained long ago: if you ever had to run, it helped if you could.
His spacious office was on the west side of Redstone Headquarters. In the early morning darkness, the spread of lights below from this floor was impressive. Distracting, but impressive. The wall of glass was treated with Ian Gamble's special anti-glare coating that allowed full visibility yet made it possible to easily read each of the computer monitors behind him even in full daylight.
He sett led i nto what Josh laugh ingly ca lled h is battle st at ion. He supposed it looked like one, this U-shaped arrangement with the bank of four monitors on one side, the multiline phone he'd customized to his needs—from anonymous lines to lines labeled with various useful names and locations—on the next and the actual desk on the last.
He would have preferred having his back to the expansive view, which included a distant glimpse of the Pacific, but the office designer had assumed whoever would occupy this office would, of course, want the view.
A reasonable assumption, he told himself as he sat down. For anyone else.
He booted up the bank of computers. One was connected to the Redstone internal network, but the others were his own, independent and carefully secured. Not to protect the data on them, not here inside Redstone, but to protect Redstone from his less traditional methods of inquiry.
He was finalizing his attack plan for the day when a quiet beep alerted him that his news-tracking program had posted an alert. The Gordon merger, he thought as he turned to look at the screen. Or maybe a development in Arethusa, the Caribbean island in close proximity to the Redstone Bay Resort; the self-styled rebels who were in truth drug traffickers were getting restless again. So far it wasn't serious as far as Redstone was concerned, but—
The brief abstract on the automated search return sat there quietly, dark letters on a glowing screen. Some part of his mind, the part not blasted into numbness, registered that the sky had lightened. But that was in the periphery. His focus was on the words on the screen.
It was a simple enough announcement. It would seem unimportant to most in the Redstone world, indeed, in the entire world. After all, what did it matter who chose to run for mayor of a little town like Cedar, Oregon?
It shouldn't matter to you, either.
The stern voice in his head brought him back to his surroundings. The chill faded.
It didn't matter. Not after all these years.
He shut the alert window. Turned back to his work. Wondered once more if he should just bite the bullet and have this whole battle station turned around so he wouldn't have to face the sunrise every day. Josh wouldn't care, he knew that. Except perhaps to comment, in that low, slow drawl that tended to fool foolish people into thinking his mind was slow, as well, that turning his back on the world wouldn't make it go away.
True. But he could pretend for a while. And ignore the fact that that had never helped all those years ago, either.
Jessa had heard the rumblings weeks ago, when the town council had finally announced the upcoming special election, but had been too busy to pay much attention. Keeping Hill Feed and Supply going took most of her time and energy, and her mother and dog used up the rest. She wasn't complaining. In fact, she was glad of the dawn-to-dark busyness; it kept her from constantly thinking about how much she missed her dad.
But now it appeared the rumblings were official.
"Everybody in town loves you," Marion Wagman said enthusiastically. "Always have."
Well, no, Jessa thought as she lifted the last bag of dog food onto the shelf. Jim Stanton came to mind. She could laugh about it now, but at the time, her senior year in high school, it had stung that his need to be out of small-town life far surpassed his desire to be with her.
"It would be a given," Marion was saying. "Your name is all it would take."
Jessa listened only absently as she considered her progress; she now tossed around forty-pound bags of dog food and managed even heavier bags of livestock feed with at least some amount of ease. A far cry from when she'd had to take over eight months ago.
Jessa smothered a sigh as she pushed her bangs off her forehead. She'd long ago cut her blond locks gamine short for convenience, but keeping it in any kind of shape sometimes seemed to take more time than when she'd had hair halfway down her back. And time was something she had too little of these days.
"You can't really want your father's office to go to someone else."
Marion's voice had taken on a tone of determination Jessa
had learned well when the woman had been her ninth-grade history teacher. That's what this was, she thought. The woman just liked history, and since a Hill had been in the mayor's office for nearly four decades, the idea of having another appealed to her. Never mind that Jessa barely had time to breathe, let alone take on something as time-consuming as what Marion was proposing. Even if she wanted to. Which she didn't.
"It's not my father's office, and it wasn't my grandfather's," she said. "It's the mayor's office. It belongs to whoever is elected."
And the idea of that being her was beyond absurd. Her father had been wonderful at it because he'd had the respect and liking of almost the entire population of Cedar—all nine thousand of them—for nearly thirty years.
But he'd had a knack she'd never had, and frankly never wanted. How many times as a child had she grown impatient with the fact that they couldn't simply walk down the street from the post office to the library without him being stopped a dozen times by people who wanted to thank, gripe to, congratulate or simply chat with their personal and personable mayor? While she, after the expected adult-to-child patter, was mostly ignored?
The ignoring part actually suited her fine; in her mind she was already in the library, picking out the books that would teach and transport her for weeks on end. She'd learn how to teach a horse to do a flying change of leads, and how to stop her otherwise perfect dog, Kula, from carrying home—completely unharmed—Mr. Carpenter's pet pigeons, and then she'd get lost in the latest visit to her favorite literary fantasy kingdom.
"You're the only one who can do this, Jessa," Marion was saying now. "People will vote for you because you're your father's girl. You're the only one who can beat him."
Jessa stopped then, the clipboard she'd just made a note
on—her father had been resistant to a completely computerized system—still in her hands.
"You have something against Mr. Alden?" she asked carefully.
"I just think a Hill should continue as our mayor." Marion dismissed Jessa's cautious question with a wave.
"There's always Uncle Larry," Jessa said.
Marion's eyes widened, and Jessa smothered a smile. Her uncle, who lived in the small cottage on the edge of town that was known mainly for the swarm of garden gnomes that infested his yard, was known in turn to be slightly…eccentric. Oddly wise, but definitely eccentric.
"Can you imagine how quiet council meetings would be, waiting to see what he'd say?" Jessa said.
The mere thought accomplished what Jessa hadn't yet been able to do; Marion made her excuses and left the store.
Jessa went back to work, focusing on the next task, restocking the salt blocks. Doc Halperin, the local vet, would be needing them for his horses. She ignored the glass case beside the shelves, and the glitter and colors, mostly blue, of the trophies and ribbons inside. She'd often told her father they should remove it for a bit more valuable sales space in the already crowded store. The mementos of her glory days on the local horse show circuit were ancient history now, she'd said. But he'd been steadfast, proud of her success, perhaps even more than she had been.
She could change it now, she thought once more. He wasn't here to nix her suggestions anymore. Not that he had rejected all of them. He'd okayed her idea to add the line of horse-themed greeting cards done by a local artist who also happened to be an old classmate of hers, in a rack by the cash register where people had time to look as they waited for their purchases to be rung up. Their success had pleased her nearly as much as that state championship cup and ribbon, because she'd had to convince her dad to do it and had been proven right.
Yes, she could change anything she wanted now, do all the things she'd wanted to when he was here and, in her eyes, too slow to embrace change. But now that her father was gone, she perversely clung to things exactly as they were, as if changing anything would be an insult to his memory.
Or admitting he's really gone, she thought.
The ache she hadn't found a way to avoid built up in her. Quickly, her mind tried to dodge the pain, and the first haven she found was Marion Wagman's ridiculous suggestion. It was funny, really, and it would be nice to smile instead of cry.
However, the now officially declared candidacy of Albert Alden put a hitch in the whole gallop, she thought. And now that her father was gone, he was smugly assuming no one would dare oppose him, and that the election was a mere formality. It was also because, unlike the seeming majority of Cedar residents, she didn't have a stellar opinion of the smoothest man in town. Alden might be wealthy—he certainly was by Cedar standards—and polished, and have a fancy degree from an elite eastern college on his office wall, but Jessa knew there was more, under the surface. Much more.
Problem was, she was probably the only one in town who didn't believe the man's polished exterior, artfully tinged with a practiced sadness over the tragedies in his life, went any deeper than his bright, white smile.
So, isn't that practically a requirement for a politician? she asked herself rhetorically.
But the joke sounded feeble even in her head. Especially when stacked up against what she knew about Cedar's most well-known pillar of the community. That she couldn't prove any of it didn't change the slight nausea she felt, even after all these years. And part of it was guilt; she'd only been a child at the time, but she still felt she should have done something. That the one who had the biggest stake in it begged her not to say a word was the only thing that had kept her silent.
But now she was an adult. And surely there was no statute
of limitations on such things? But with the victim long dead, what could she do now?