Read an Excerpt
The Butcher's ThumbA Novel
By Greg Haas Robert Loss
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Greg Haas with Robert Loss
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNear two in the morning, a cheer erupted through the hotel. In a sixteenth-floor bar outfitted with old saddles, framed photos of cowboys, and Broncos pennants, power brokers and contributors and desperate hangers-on raised their glasses, spilling expensive alcohol, and shook hands, hugged, kissed. Those who'd been competitors within the campaign laid down their swords long enough to toast. In the swirl of applause and shouting, Matt Risen watched the big-screen television where an excited political commentator had just finished scribbling on his dry erase board a barely legible 254 under Al Thornton, and a bold 285 underneath Will Kensington.
"And there you have it!" the commentator said emphatically. "We're reversing our earlier prediction and are now declaring Republican William Kensington the winner in Ohio, which puts him over the minimum of 270 electoral votes." The slightly overweight commentator's eyes bulged and twinkled as he tried to speak slowly for the rest of America. He had a slight smile and a regular Joe haircut, not the blow-dry look of the majority of these network goons. "Even if Thornton picks up Iowa and New Mexico, he can't overcome 270. But remember the big picture here, folks. The country-you-have voted for a massive shift in ideas."
It sounded like he was calling a baseball game; his excitement about the process certainly covered up any bias ... a true pro.
"You tell 'em, buddy," said Matt before he broke away from the television into a crowd of hands and grinning teeth and martini glasses. It was a goddamn nipple-tingle, all right: everyone clapping him on the shoulders, congratulating his work, reminding him that he was going places, straight to the top. And the women! Beautiful young staffers and elegant senators' wives planting kisses on his cheeks. The drug of victory, a super-charged shot of Viagra to the pride, a thrill that emanated from his nipples and washed over his entire body. He'd felt it before, but never at such a high level.
Like some pale midget bull, Stephen Shay parted the crowd, angling for Matt.
"Hot damn!" Matt shouted to him.
"We have work to do," Shay grunted.
"Stop for a second and congratulate yourself, Stephen."
But even as he'd said it, Matt knew it wasn't going to happen. Shay grabbed him at the elbow and bullied them through the rest of the crowd. Despite their celebration, everyone who watched Shay did so with fear. One fool made the mistake of smacking him on the shoulder, and Shay practically growled at him. Yes, he was the architect of the underwhelming president-elect's rise to power, but he preferred the shadows, preferred intimidation over adoration, preferred to control the images of others rather than craft one of himself. Though his face had a hawkish point to it, otherwise it was bland as an egg.
In fact, his looks were unremarkable, except for his preposterously large head, which Matt followed through the packed hallways. The crowds thinned as they reached the suites Matt liked to call the inner sanctum.
"How does the State Capitol look for the acceptance speech?" Shay said, sipping a scotch.
"Great, but the speech sucks."
Shay smirked. "The speech doesn't matter now. Like I always tell you, words don't matter much anymore-"
"It's the visual, I know. But look, I'm the press secretary. Essentially I tell stories, so words sorta kinda gotta matter to me."
Shay shrugged. "Why do you think they call it the big picture?"
An anonymous staffer appeared at Shay's side and nervously whispered that Kensington was about to take a call from Thornton. Shay bolted as fast as his pudgy body could take him into the president-elect's suite, and Matt drifted to a mirror. His shirt was soaked. And was that a stain? He snapped his fingers to the staffer and told the kid to bring him a fresh shirt from his suitcase. The kid didn't look surprised, of course; Matt changed shirts at least twice a day. A necessity of the campaign-and one he enjoyed, coming from a little town in Ohio, having grown up so poor he'd worn shirts with holes in them. Watching himself in the mirror, he loosened his tie and stripped off his tailored suit jacket and the stained shirt. This was the kind of victory that made you think you could talk to the press shirtless, with women hanging onto you, a glass of McCutcheon in hand, a cigar dangling from your mouth. He brushed back his hair, twisting a lock with a dab of forming crème so it looked just a little askew. Didn't want them thinking he'd been lazing around all night. Shit, he'd never been in such a big election.
Twenty minutes later, dressed in the new shirt and pumped up by Thornton's concession-the entire suite had cheered-Matt was once again hustling down the hallway with Shay, this time part of an entourage headed for the elevators to the lobby downstairs. Matt noticed the dandruff on Shay's rumpled jacket and understood again why Shay avoided the cameras.
"Look," Shay said, "when we get to the Capitol, just tell the press that when Thornton conceded, it was very cordial, and leave it at that."
"I thought I'd maybe tell them that Thornton cried."
"That robot? They'd never believe you."
As they rode in the elevators, Matt watched the bodyguards and aides study Shay's enormous head. Though it was covered amply with silver hair, the head looked like a lollipop in danger of falling off its stick. Not that anyone would tell that to Stephen. Oh, maybe someone had, long ago, and now that person was most likely buried in an unmarked grave in the Badlands. Shay didn't even mind that people called him "The S.S." Actually found it flattering. Shay's arm stretched up to Matt's shoulder, his small hand awkwardly giving him a squeeze. Back when they'd met, shortly after Matt had left Ohio to represent a tobacco coalition, Shay had been all bluster and intimidation and had nearly reduced Matt to tears in front of his lobbyist bosses. But he'd stuck, Shay said, and learned. Learned quickly. Well, you tended to do that when a flamethrower was pointed at you.
When the elevator opened, a deafening roar greeted them from the throng filling the ornate lobby. Camera flashes blinded him, and if not for the guards bullying their way through, Matt would have gotten lost. But then an even louder cheer went up. Matt looked over his shoulder and saw, just behind him and to the right, that the secured elevator door had opened to reveal exiting Secret Service agents and the faithful's new commander-in-chief, William Kensington.
He leaned down into Shay's ear and shouted through the din, "I made them cut that God's Will bullshit out of the speech."
"It was in there?"
"Practically screamed divine intervention." He hopped into the backseat of the number one staff car, a tricked-out Escalade he wouldn't mind owning, and extended a hand to Shay, whose stubby legs needed some help. "I figured we'd actually want to take up residence in the White House before we get back to that kind of talk."
"That's campaign rhetoric. Good thinking." Shay looked ahead as Kensington was being escorted into the limo ahead of them. "Should I ride with him?" Before Matt could respond, Shay muttered to himself, "No, I'll just stay here." He snapped his seatbelt and pounded the back of the driver's seat with his tiny fists.
The motorcade lurched into a slow crawl toward the Capitol building. Through the tinted windows, Matt observed the shadowy figures lining the sidewalks, waving their flags, holding up homemade posters. He'd made it. The scrawny, orphaned kid from Marion, Ohio, had totally fucking made it, all right. Riding one car behind the president-elect, learning from one of the greatest political minds of the twentieth century, favored by this man whose preposterously large head suggested the cunning ruthlessness inside it, the total lack of sentimentality. Shay did not take a liking to many. He hated men younger than him. But here Matt was. And why? Because he'd clawed his way into it, because he'd ordered those tailored suits before he could really afford them, and because America rewarded you when you worked your ass off.
Shay's phone rang. "Shit. Thornton's personal number." He flipped it shut. "No good reason for a call like that."
A second later Matt's cell vibrated. That bastard Kelly yakked into his ear, and he hung up. "Lead limo," he said.
"Thornton's calling them, isn't he? Tell me they didn't answer."
"Well, the governor's going over the speech, but I think they're about to."
"I knew I should have ridden with him." Shay lunged toward the driver. "Stop the fucking car!"
The young volunteer, who had been rewarded for six months of her hard work by being allowed to drive Shay's car in the motorcade, instinctively locked on the brakes. Matt clutched the door and then was rocked forward by a collision from behind. "What the hell?" he shouted. The third vehicle, directly behind them, was humping their bumper.
Unfazed, Shay sprinted toward the limo which carried the would-be president and his parents and spouse, along with the staffer Kelly and three Secret Services agents, one of whom was behind the wheel. His lollipop head on his tiny body made it look as if he were about to topple forward.
Matt popped out of the SUV. "Shay, wait!"
The lead limo peeled off. Not good, Matt thought. Protocol required the agent driving the president to hit the gas pedal, dart ahead in case there was some kind of assault on the motorcade, and allow additional security from the local safety forces to surround him. But in the thick mayhem on the streets, the limo could only get so far, and it stopped again as local leos-cops on foot, horseback, and motorcycle-swarmed.
Shay had never stopped his pursuit. In the noise on the street, Matt could hear Shay's tinny voice screaming, and then he spotted a couple of black suits closing in. They would only see a large-headed man with wild hair and a wild look in his eyes charging the car. "Not good," Matt muttered to himself as Shay was tackled to the street.
Matt slammed the door shut and sprinted ahead. "It's Shay!" he screamed. "Get him up off the fucking ground!"
The agent who'd pinned Shay down pulled himself up. Before anyone could help him, Shay rolled over on his back, sat upright, leaned forward, and pushed off the ground with his hands, despite their being chained together with handcuffs. It was fucking acrobatic. He stumbled toward the door of the limo. A wide-eyed Kelly recognized him and threw open the door.
"Somebody uncuff him, for God's sake," Matt shouted as he caught up. "Stephen, what's the big deal about a call-"
"Take his phone," said Shay, pointing with his bound hands to Kelly.
"My phone?" said Kelly.
"Sorry," said Matt as he stripped the cell phone away from the twit; he'd never liked the way Kelly called him Matt Raisin, or the fact that Kelly had cock-blocked him at a party last June.
"Throw it on the ground," said Shay, and once Matt dutifully had, Shay went all Riverdance on it, stomping it into pieces. Nothing had been boring since Matt had ducked under the wing of Shay.
Kelly stared at Shay, his eyes syrupy. "Why did you do that to my cell phone?"
"We will speak to Thornton after the acceptance speech."
"But the Governor's already on the phone with Thornton."
Shay screeched, "No! Will, get off the phone! Someone get me out of these goddamn cuffs!"
The frustrated agent behind him shouted, "Then stand still!" and Shay froze until he'd been freed.
Matt slumped against the hull of the limo, finally connecting the dots: the robotic Thornton was having a change of heart. Something must have gone wrong, terribly ass-backward wrong. And now he understood what Shay was doing; if Kensington's announcement that Thornton had conceded was televised, by inference it would present a clear image that Kensington was the president-elect. The public wouldn't question that fact.
Sitting in the rear seat on the passenger side, governor Kensington spoke into the phone, wearing his typical look of confusion. "I don't understand," he was mumbling into the cell phone. "You just conceded half an hour ago." Shay forced his way into the limo, leaning over Kensington's classy wife like a drunk on spring break.
Kensington stammered, "Well, Al, don't believe what your people are telling you about Ohio-"
"Will, let me talk to him," said Shay, and when the dumbfounded candidate held it out, Shay barked into the phone, as if he were talking to an obscene caller. "The networks have declared us the winner. Your people don't know shit! The secretary of state is sure, we're sure, everyone's sure: we carried Ohio. You lose, buddy!" He snapped the phone shut and tossed it back to Kensington.
Ohio, Matt thought. Great.
Shay reached inside the limo, grabbed Kelly, and pulled him out of the car. "You're fired. Do not get back in the motorcade." He grabbed the nickel-sized credential pinned to Kelly's lapel and tore it free, with part of the suit cloth still attached.
Looking as if he'd been hit in the stomach, Kelly asked, to no one in particular, "Why?"
Shay was already headed back to their SUV, so Matt leaned into the dumbfuck's face. "I'll tell you why. Because you didn't call Shay or me to clear that phone call. If we had already given the acceptance speech, Thornton would look like an idiot saying he changed his mind and tried to call us back! What did you think he was going to do, offer some helpful hints for the speech?"
Shay had returned, and instead of glowering at Kelly, he was grinning at Matt and nodding.
"Matt, what do you think about the speech?" said Kensington. "Should we go ahead?"
"No!" Shay said, pacing beside the limo.
"I need to get over there now and find out what the press corps knows," said Matt. "That cocksucker, Fagan, was probably letting them know about the call as it was happening. Maybe even bringing the networks into it live."
"Go," Shay hissed. "Fire 'em up. We may need a mob before this is over." Shay held a small finger up to Matt's chin. "Project victory! It's Thornton who's confused. We know we won."
Once Shay had turned back, Matt leaned in toward Kelly. He was dumber than shit, sometimes, but loyal. No one deserved what he'd gotten. "Here," said Matt, handing Kelly his card. "Call me in a week, and we'll find you something new, okay?"
Chapter Two"Typical lefty backpedaling," Matt said to his flock. He smiled easily and eyed a blonde reporter from Fox. "Thornton looked at the numbers-the facts-and conceded. If he has rescinded his concession, well, I can only assume that his emotions got the better of him. For once."
The flock of reporters tittered. They'd surrounded him, sweat-drenched, their collective breathing emitting a fog. Behind them, on the temporary stage in front of the capitol building, an empty podium beckoned as the world waited.
"What do you know about that second call?" shouted the blonde. Stunning lips on her, like little pillows.
"Nothing detailed. For all I know, Vice President Thornton wanted to talk about global warming. Again."
That got a laugh.
"So is Kensington going to speak?" crowed a humorless old-timer.
Matt felt his face warm and struggled to relax. Always tough to talk to reporters when you had no idea what the fuck was going on. He probably looked like Kensington right now; the would-be president only had two expressions: confused or arrogant.
"Like I said, I don't know the details."
"Is the motorcade heading back to the hotel?"
"I haven't heard, but look, the important thing here is that Thornton did concede. And if there is a recount, we'll win again. Thank you."
He twirled around and tried to make it through the flock-they who brought him to the rest of the world, put him on televisions across America, and now wanted their pound of flesh. They nearly trampled him on their way to their next spin-meister.
Excerpted from The Butcher's Thumb by Greg Haas Robert Loss Copyright © 2010 by Greg Haas with Robert Loss. Excerpted by permission.
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