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Right now, he was surrounded by the others.
Looking out at the mob of seniors and single moms, all he saw was bloodlust in their eyes. Even the toddlers were sharpening their incisors on their teething rings.
But no one looked more furious than Tootie Vogler, who showed up at every single informational meeting, with her Sunday hat and her white gloves and so much anger in her eighty-year-old body she nearly levitated.
"Mrs. Vogler," Carter said with as much calm as he could muster, which couldn't have been much because she bristled, her white curls practically going straight. "Mrs. Vogler, hear me out. As I've explained, the activities and services that are currently offered here will be held in the new building."
"But," she said, standing in the front row of the small gathering being held in the decaying belly of the Jimmie Simpson Community Center, "what happens while you're building that new building?"
It took every muscle in his body to stop himself from rolling his eyes.
"Yeah," one of the mothers said, jiggling a baby in her arms while her toddler ran amuck in the corner, grabbing the cookies they'd laid out. Seriously, she needed to be watching that kid instead of asking the same damn questions he'd heard—and answered— a thousand times already. "How long is it going to take?"
"Once we tear down the existing building it will take a year—"
"A year!" Another one of the mothers cried as if he'd just said he wanted to eat her kid for lunch.
"Well," Mrs. Vogler said, "that's what you say now, but what about what happened over at the Glenview Community Center?"
There were rumbles of agreement, and frankly, the others weren't wrong. The Glenview sat, half-built, a total waste of time and money. There was simply no way the city could finish that project with the limited tax money they had while the existing community centers were in such terrible shape. Never mind the fact that Jimmie Simpson was in low-income Beauregard Town where the programs offered by the center were at capacity and Glenview was over in up-and-coming Spanish Town, where there wasn't nearly the demand for day care and after-school programs.
He'd tried to explain this, but the message was never received and frankly, Carter was feeling like a broken record. A broken record speaking Swahili.
The Glenview Community Center was this administration's albatross. And, since Carter wanted to be voted in when the current mayor's term was up next year, it was his giant hole-in-the-ground cross to bear. "As I've explained numerous times," he said, "that project was spearheaded by a previous administration. And while it's not currently a priority, we are looking into ways to complete the job."
What he couldn't say, though everyone knew it to some degree, was that the previous administration had been so dirty, so backhanded and money hungry, that he still spent half his days trying to make right the terrible wrongs that the former mayor and his staff had perpetrated on this city. But Carter couldn't say that. Nope, diplomacy was his task.
"Well, why doesn't your administration go fix that mess and leave this community center be?" Mrs. Vogler said, rallying the troops behind her.
"Mrs. Vogler—may I call you Tootie?"
His composure started to snap and fray.
"Fine. Mrs. Vogler, we can't leave this community center alone because this community center is falling down," he cried, pointing to the chipped paint and flickering lightbulbs.
"So," Tootie said. "Fix what's wrong. We're not arguing that nothing needs to be done around here, but why are you tearing the whole thing down?"
"Everything needs to be redone here. Plumbing, electrical, a new roof, a new pool. Part of the foundation was damaged during the storms six years ago and I'm telling you the truth—it will cost more to fix Jimmie Simpson, in the long run, than it will cost to rebuild it. I know your lives will be disrupted—"
"I count on the day care here, Mr. O'Neill," one of the mothers said, steely-eyed and angry. He'd blown it again. This wasn't even part of his official job as mayor pro tempore, or president of City Council. He'd taken it on at the mayor's behest, since the totally deserted and decimated Office of Neighborhoods and the overworked Parks and Rec department couldn't do it. But now he was regretting it; he'd had more trouble with the public than any one man could handle.
"Look," he said, inwardly sighing and trying to start fresh. Again. "I've started this off on the wrong foot."
"I'd say," Mrs. Vogler muttered, and he gritted his teeth.
"The parks and recreation department," who should be handling this mess, he thought but didn't say, "are working to move your programs to other centers in the city."
"I don't have a car, Mr. O'Neill," a woman said. "It just won't work!"
"For you," he said and then winced as everyone sucked in a scandalized breath. Backtrack, Carter. Backtrack. "This is going to be better for this neighborhood in the long run—"
"And what would you know about Beauregard?" another woman asked, who he couldn't see. She was short and in the back, but he caught a glimpse of black hair and pointy features. She looked like an elf.
Great. He even had elves after him.
Honestly, he wanted to go back to his office and get to work on the budget. Or poke himself in the eye with a pencil. Anything would be better than this.
"Are there any more questions?" he asked, admitting defeat. "About things that haven't already been covered?"
"Yeah." A young man, partially hidden behind Mrs. Vogler, stood and revealed himself. Blood instantly boiled behind Carter's eyes.
All he needed today was this.
"No press," he told Jim Blackwell, who, for a month, had been chasing him from function to function like a hound after a fox. And there wasn't much farther Carter could run.
"I'm just a concerned citizen, Deputy Mayor," Jim said. Smarmy bastard. Carter's title wasn't Deputy Mayor; there wasn't even a deputy mayor position in this city. But when Carter took over the neighborhood issue task force, the Gazette had run a political cartoon of him on the front page with a ten-gallon hat, shotgun and a deputy star. In the background, the mayor, as sheriff, snored at his desk.
The deputy part of the joke had stuck.
"Are you aware your father's arraignment has been postponed?" Jim asked.
The question drew whispers and gasps from the women in the crowd.
"I do not discuss my family with the press," he finally said, trying to keep what was left of his dignity in front of the suddenly wide-eyed crowd. He'd worked long and hard to put the Notorious O'Neills behind him, but his father's arrest last month had stirred up all the old rumors.
"I have a question." It was the elf again, waving her arm in the back row, but Jim talked right over her.
"Last month, your father was arrested in possession of The Pacific Diamond, which was initially part of the Ancient Treasures exhibit stolen from the Bellagio seven years ago. The Pacific Diamond, Ruby and Emerald were all taken." Jim flipped his notes, putting on a heck of a show for the spellbound public. "One man was arrested at that time, a Joel Woods, who had the emerald in his pocket. He served seven years, claiming all along that he'd worked alone."
"What is your point, Mr. Blackwell?" Carter asked, biting every word.
"Well—" Jim smiled, looking around at the crowd he held in the palm of his hand "—this is interesting, though slightly off topic, but Joel Woods's son is now dating your sister? Is that right?"
Carter didn't say anything.
"Right, sorry, off topic. Back to your father. According to the D.A., they're postponing the arraignment in order to reexamine your father's involvement with the original theft. Both your parents were questioned during the initial investigation."
"Excuse me?" elf girl was saying, but Carter held up a hand, putting her off. Rude, he knew, but he had a fire to put out. A city-politics mosquito to slap down.
"Whatever my father has or has not done, I'm sure will be handled by the appropriate authorities. I have no contact with him."
"What about your mother?"
"My mother?" he asked, startled by the question.
Don't tell me she's gone and gotten arrested, too.
"I haven't seen her in years."
"Would you say ten?" Jim asked, consulting his notebook, and suddenly the room spun. Carter was dizzy. Sick.
There is no way he could know, he told himself. No way.
"Am I right?" Jim asked. "You would have seen her when you testified on her behalf in court ten years ago." Jim held out his tape recorder, his bland face crowned with conceit.
Jim had made a career of shining a light into the dark corners of the previous administration, but for the last two-and-a-half years, Jim Blackwell had been stymied in his efforts to pull up any dirt on the current administration.
But Carter's father's arrest was changing all that.
"You've already done this story, Mr. Blackwell," Carter said. "When my father was arrested, you took great care in giving the residents of Baton Rouge a good look at my bloodline. And I say now what I said then—I am not my family. I have very little contact with my family. I do not discuss them. I think you're repeating yourself," he said.
"I'm just trying to get my time line straight. You testified on your mother's behalf in a breaking and entering case ten years ago. You seem a bit fuzzy on the specifics, which makes me wonder what else you're fuzzy on. There is, after all, a thirty-carat ruby still on the loose."
"We're done here," he said stacking his cards, getting ready to leave. Amanda, his assistant and soon-to-be campaign manager, swung up on his left.
"Answer the damn questions," she breathed in his ear. "Or it looks like you have something to hide."
And then she swung away.
Nausea rolled through him. He did have something to hide. He had a whole family tree of criminals and rogues that needed burying. But Carter gritted his teeth, and stayed. "Yes, it has been ten years since I've seen my mother. We are not in contact. And I have no idea where the ruby is."
"You were her alibi in the breaking and entering case," Jim said. "The charges against her were dismissed on the basis of your testimony," Jim said "What is your question?" he asked, knowing in his stomach what the question was going to be.
"No question," Jim said, and Carter nearly sighed in relief. "Just getting my facts straight."
So you can come at me later. Carter had no illusions that Jim Blackwell was just here to get his facts straight. Jim Blackwell was throwing down a gauntlet, right here in front of him, Mrs. Vogler, and the kid with a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookies in the back.
His nausea vanished and he was suddenly clearheaded, sharp-eyed. Jim Blackwell was starting a fight, and Carter loved a fight.
"I feel it's necessary to remind you of my law degree from Old Miss," Carter said. "I understand the legalities of libel better than the previous administration, and I would say after your last article about my family, you are skating on thin ice."
"Is that a threat, Mr. O'Neill?"
"Just helping you get your facts straight, Mr. Blackwell." He glanced over at Amanda, whose smile was sharp, approving. Apparently he'd handled that right. Score one for the Notorious O'Neills.
"We're done here," Carter said and stepped away from the podium toward Amanda, who had pulled out her BlackBerry and was, no doubt, already on damage control.
"Your father is giving me heartburn," she muttered, shooting him one poisonous look. "And now I've got to look out for your mother?"
"No one has any idea where my mother is," he said. "She's a nonissue."
"Excuse me!" a woman cried, and he knew, just knew it was elf girl, and he just wasn't up for more questions about how these women would live their lives without this community center.
It was bad politics, he knew that, but he pretended not to hear her.
"Wait a second!" she yelled, her voice sharper. Carter reluctantly turned.
The elf had gotten on a chair. Great. she was lovely, actually. Her long, shapeless coat had some kind of wild embroidery on it, and her short, ink-black hair sparkled in the light coming through the dirty windows.
She slowly pushed back her long coat to reveal the swell of a very pregnant belly.
Maybe it was the way this day had been going; maybe it was the bloodthirsty toddlers, but some warning system in Carter's head went: uh-oh.
"Where have you been for the last five months?" the elf asked, her eyes snapping. Her hands cupped her belly, and Mrs. Vogler sat down like a stone.
"Oh," she sighed. "You're a bad, bad man."
The whispers started immediately, and the only thought buzzing through Carter's suddenly decimated brain was, thank God there were no cameras.
Jim Blackwell lifted his cell phone and snapped a shot of the pregnant elf on the chair.
"Oh, crap," Amanda said.
"I've never seen this woman in my life," he said to Amanda and to the crowd.
Elf girl shook her head and got off the chair. "I knew you'd say that," she whispered, convincingly heartbroken.
Thank God, the little liar started to walk away.
"You need to go after her," Amanda said, furiously whispering in his ear.
"Are you nuts?"
Amanda pointed to Jim Blackwell, who was writing everything down. "Get to the bottom of it, before he does," she said. "We can't let that guy get the drop on us any more than he has."
Amanda was right. He pushed his notes into her hand, and she immediately stepped forward and began spinning the situation, but it was like waving a tissue in front of a bull. Carter felt every eye, especially Jim Blackwell's, on his back as he approached the girl.
He caught up with her at the front door and put one hand under her elbow. Carefully, so it didn't look as if he was manhandling her, he spun her around and led her back around toward the pool, and the second exit onto an alley, where things would be less busy.
"I'm sorry," she said right away, her voice breathy. "Really, really sorry. I didn't know what else to do."
"About what?" he snapped. "Ruining my career?"
Posted November 18, 2010
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