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At any rate, in surge the terrorists, automatic weapons blazing. Noise, smoke, bodies falling. In the confusion, Linda and Deal are taken hostage together, suffer a variety of cruelties and deprivations, and, through pluck—and some luck—also survive together.
Through it all, they grow to care for each other, and it is this ripening of a special relationship that forms the strength of Standiford's story. Though not everything happening makes perfect sense, the scenes shared by Deal and Linda are so neatly crafted that suspending disbelief is a breeze. A very good Deal indeed.
"I'm thinking this was not such a good idea." It was the man in the plaid Bermuda shorts and purple Georgetown University sweatshirt speaking.
He wasn't looking at Salazar, who sat in stylish linens on the marble bench beside him. He had his gaze fixed instead upon the enormous, brightly lit visage of Abraham Lincoln that loomed in its niche nearby.
It was a balmy night, not quite ten, the early summer heat dissipated into invitation, even promise, the stars glittering overhead. Tourists still lolled about the Mall. Knots of schoolchildren roamed here and there, shepherded by their chaperones, chattering, shrieking, clambering up and down the ghostly steps of the monument.
"And why is that?" Salazar responded, his voice mild.
He turned, saw that Salazar was watching on a willowy girl in a plaid uniform jumper and knee-high socks standing several yards away. The girl, tall, serene, her features about to transform themselves from childish beauty into loveliness, had drifted apart from her group, an especially rowdy bunch, to stare up at the statue of Lincoln, intent.
"No one who works in this town ever goes sightseeing," he said.
"Yes," Salazar said, his eyes still on the girl. "And that is why no one you know will see you here."
The girl turned. Sixteen, possibly seventeen, going on ageless. She couldn't have heard, but it seemed as if she had. Her glance flickered over him, held for a moment on Salazar. He had learned long ago that his was a face that did not attract the attention of women. He did all right at close quarters, but someone with Salazar's dark allure, well ...
There was some shift of expression there, a narrowing of the girl's eyes, maybe ... then she turned away, moving back toward her group with a toss of her long hair.
She knows what this man is, he found himself thinking. And still she would have him.
"I have presented you with the solution to all your problems," Salazar said. His eyes followed the knot of schoolchildren as they drifted away into the darkness. Finally he turned. "And now it is time for you to accept my proposal."
He shook his head. He'd known it was coming. He cursed himself for even agreeing to meet Salazar this night. But there had been times when he'd needed Salazar, hadn't there? He owed him the courtesy of a face-to-face, at least.
He drew a breath, met Salazar's gaze. "I've thought about it, but we'll take our chances by ourselves," he said.
"And you will lose the election."
"You seem awfully certain."
"I've read the same reports that you have, my friend. Malcolm Jesse is your analyst, not Senator Hollingsworth's, is it not so?
He stared back, poker-faced. Malcolm Jesse had produced three sets of data: one for official release, with projections on the race so sunny he doubted even the dullest readers of the daily newspapers believed them; the second was a slightly less rosy set designed for unofficial "leakage" and intended to offset skepticism concerning the official report. The third set of figures told the truth, so far as Malcolm Jesse and his statistical gnomes could determine it. How Salazar had gained access to those carefully guarded figures, he had no idea.
"I have lived long because I make it my business to know such things," Salazar said.
He turned away, trying to hide his discomfort. What the hell was it? He'd been at the right hand of the President for nearly four years, had traveled the halls of power another dozen before that. He'd bluffed foreign leaders, sold transparent lies to U.S. congressmen. But Angel Salazar, provocateur, mercenary, lifelong opportunist, could look inside his head and read the thoughts as clearly as if in screaming neon: "Find a way to take Florida or we're dead!"
"President Sheldon cannot go hat in hand to Jorge Vas," he said flatly. "The man makes the NRA look like a pack of flaming liberals." Vas was the leader of the Cuban émigré community in the United States. His authority was unquestioned, as were his politics. And if Malcolm Jesse's third set of figures was to be believed, Vas held the key votes; he alone had the power to deliver the state of Florida, and the election, into Frank Sheldon's hands.
"If we proceed as I say, your president will not have to go hat in hand," Salazar said. "We will stage our little incident, laying the blame at the feet of the international cabal of communism, and your president will issue a stinging rebuke of these actions, and Jorge Vas will have appropriate reason to lend his support as a result. It is perfect public theater and everyone can save the precious face."
He heard the bitterness in Salazar's intentional twisting of the phrase. There was a child's shriek from somewhere in the darkness, an answering burst of laughter. He conjured up the face of the young girl whom he had watched, teetering on the cusp: on one side all the ideals chiseled in marble, on the other the truth of Salazar's leer.
"What's in it for you, Salazar?" he asked.
Salazar raised his shoulders in the slightest of shrugs. "There is some expense involved, of course," he said, pausing thoughtfully.
"Let us say five million dollars."
Salazar shrugged again. "One million now. The rest after the election." He smiled. "Politics aside, I'd prefer the continuity. It's always difficult, breaking in a new administration."
He stifled the urge to laugh. "Just call up the Treasury, have them cut a check, is that it?"
Salazar's smile never left him. "You have a war chest, my friend. This is war."
He stood, fed up. Most of his adult life had been spent cutting deals, proclaiming an interest in spreading democracy, then sitting down with men like Salazar to do the opposite, all in the name of necessity. Two steps forward, one step back, that's how the process was justified, but it more often seemed like one step forward, two steps back. Now Salazar wanted five million dollars to stage a "controlled" riot in Miami—like saying he wanted to pull the trigger on the A-bomb but cut off the reaction before the mushroom cloud appeared, wasn't it?—so that these dances of deception could continue indefinitely.
"You've wasted my evening," he said. "Even if it worked ..."
"It will work," Salazar cut in.
"Forget it." He turned abruptly, jostling a tourist who'd been backing toward them, camera pointed at the monument and his beaming, snowy-haired wife.
"Excuse me," he muttered at the man, moving away across the Mall. He heard more shrieks from the darkness, no answering laughter this time. There was a distant wail of a siren, but it seemed to be receding, not approaching.
He had taken half a dozen steps, no more, when he felt Salazar's hand grip his arm. Thumb by his elbow, fingers in the soft flesh beneath his biceps. He started to turn, to order the man away, when he felt the incredible pain. Though he willed himself to keep going, he felt his breath constrict, his legs go leaden. If Salazar had not been holding him tightly, he would have pitched face-first against the pavement.
He saw a park policeman up ahead, the officer hurrying off toward the darkness and those unending shrieks. Call out for help, he thought, put an end to this insanity once and for all.
"You will help me," Salazar repeated, his voice rasping, the man's breath hot at his cheek. "We have too much history, my friend. And the world will learn everything, every last detail, every little secret, every agreement, every favor I have arranged at your behest. You, your president and his precious liberal's façade, there is too much at risk here, do you understand me?"
He felt the pressure loosen at his arm then, and the pain disappeared, as if by magic. He could breathe again, and he stumbled forward, feeling his feet regain their rhythm. He felt a renewed burst of outrage, and though the park policeman had vanished into the darkness, this was something he could take care of on his own. He was an important man in this town, for God's sake, even if he was, at this moment, wearing some idiot's disguise of floppy shorts and purple sweatshirt, and he would not be treated this way by a subhuman creature who had been well paid for a few necessary favors. He would never agree to his plans in a million years.
He drew a breath and turned, ready to set Salazar straight once and for all. There was Lincoln gazing down from his perch, sirens and shrieks behind him, flashbulbs and nervous glances into the darkness ...
He met Salazar's eyes. "Goddammit," he said, his chest heaving. He paused, drew another breath, felt the weariness rising like a tide until it seemed he would choke on it.
"A controlled disturbance, you said. Break a couple of windows, fire a few shots in the air. That's all ..." He heard the words coming from his mouth as if from a stranger's.
Salazar in turn was nodding, his smile playing about the corners of his mouth. "Do not concern yourself with details," he said soothingly. "I am very good at what I do."
He stared back, feeling exhausted, as if he'd just stumbled to the end of some marathon run. His head was leaden, and throbbing ... and he was nodding in response, a motion almost casual, seeming quite apart from will.
What awful cries from the darkness now.
News item: Washington Times
Heroes' Ceremony Moves to Miami
Washington, June 24 (UPI)—
The White House announced today that the National Medal of Valor ceremonies, a Rose Garden staple since the awards were conceived in 1963, would be held this year in Miami, Florida, during a campaign stopover by President Frank Sheldon. Earlier this week, Miami had been added to the list of cities the President would visit during his "Town Meeting" tour. Recipients of the so-called Local Hero awards are individuals nominated by various governmental and civic agencies around the country in recognition of "acts of valor and courage on behalf of others well beyond the norm." It is a designation often referred to as the civilian equivalent of the military's Medal of Honor.
"This is a further reflection of the President's commitment to carrying government to the people, beyond the Beltway," advisor John Groshner said during the weekly press briefing. "And Miami is the perfect site for this year's Medal of Valor program. The city and its people have a long history of quiet heroism, having provided safe haven for untold thousands fleeing dictatorships and political oppression in Latin America for the entire last half of this century."
Response was immediate from the camp of Senator Charles Hollingsworth, the President's opponent in the forthcoming election. "It's nothing more than an attempt to add luster to a failed campaign strategy," a Hollingsworth aide said. "The President's slipping so badly in the polls that he'd promise to move the White House itself if he thought it would get him the votes he needs."
Cuda had the right ring to it. Bad-ass fish, more teeth than you could count, stick your hand in Ray Brisa's water, see how much comes out. He smiled at the thought of it, at the way his mind worked, surprise a minute, million minutes in a day.
He heard the sound of an engine, then glanced down the deserted street toward Biscayne Boulevard, the direction from which Zito and Luis would naturally come. He'd been waiting for an hour and a half, breathing in all the seawater air that was turning his skin to scales, keeping an eye on the building, making sure that when and if the other two showed up, they'd be alone, though there wasn't too much to worry about, the neighborhood that surrounded the area of warehouses and shops where he waited being so bad that even the lowlifes hung out someplace else.
Ray wasn't personally concerned. He knew no one from this or any other neighborhood was about to mess with him. No one ever messed with him, no one in his right mind, anyway. Not that he was so big, not that he worked on looking so bad, it had just always been that way, from the time he was four years old, it was as if the other kids could feel something pulsing out of his brain, some signal on the street-kid wavelength that said, "Leave this twisted mother alone."
Ray couldn't remember actually doing much to create this apprehension beyond the fact of always coming out on top of the usual street-corner scraps, though he could date his understanding of just how feared he had become back to the time six other kids jumped him and held him down and one kid on top of him with a baseball bat aimed at his head—Ray saw the look in the kid's eye and knew the kid wanted to kill him out of pure fear, like "Wipe this sonofabitch out before we all die"—but then, wouldn't you know it, a police cruiser happened around the corner and Ray got to live after all, the kid with the bat moved away with his family a week or so after.
Ray leaned back against the wall of the building, found the edge of a brick he could use to dig into the muscles of his back, work out some kink that had arisen there. A hell of a thing to remember, wasn't it, you're maybe eight or nine years old and realize another person wants to kill you for reasons you don't even know?
Meantime, still no Zito, no Luis. He checked his watch. He should have gone along with them, and would have, except that he never liked to take a chance on being surprised, never again. There could be somebody with a bat come up on you when you least expected it, that was Ray Brisa's philosophy, one of the many hard lessons of his youth.
Nothing he'd worked consciously on, of course. It was just the way his mind worked. Like the one law of physics Ray remembered from his desultory years of high school, a cartoon movie with some Donald Duck character demonstrating, pound one end of a teeter-totter with a big hammer, the other end fires your ass into outer space—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, so if you've got trouble in mind, stay far the fuck away from Ray Brisa.
End of story, he nodded, for Zito and Luis were pulling up to the curb in a shiny new Suburban now, both of them grinning, jerking around in their seats to the beat of whatever song they had tuned to the max on the sound system of the vehicle they'd stolen. Big Zito behind the wheel, his pupils shrunk to the size of pencil points, whatever he was taking, Ray was surprised he could even see. Probably he couldn't. It was Luis looking around for where Ray might be, half-assed kind of looking, of course. Ray shook his head, stepping out of the shadows toward them. If he was a barracuda, any kind of fish, then these two had to be sea worms.
He hit the hood of the Suburban with the flat of his palm and the two inside jumped. "Whoa, man," Luis said as the passenger window glided down. "Scare the shit out of me."
"Then there'd be nothing left," Ray said. "Turn that radio off."
"There a hitch on this thing?" Ray asked.
"You said get a truck with a hitch, that's what we got," Luis said. "There was a big-ass boat behind it, too. Zito wanted to take it along, drop it somewhere we could come back to, but I told him we didn't have time."
Zito gave Luis a look. "Was Luis wanted the boat," he said.
"Fuck you," Luis said.
"Shut up," Ray said. "Both of you."
There was silence.
Ray listened to the purr of the big V-8 beneath the hood of the Suburban, calming down, readying himself, arranging every atom for the task at hand. Not even sea worms, he thought. What was it that fish ate? Plank ton, wasn't it? Then that's what Zito and Luis were, plankton with arms and legs and faces.
Excerpted from Presidential Deal by Les Standiford Copyright © 1998 by Les Standiford. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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