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"Senator, you need to hurry or you're going to miss your flight."
Patrick Finn waved at his assistant to indicate he understood, then moved his cell phone from his right ear to his left.
"Look, Wilson, I just can't do that and keep my con-stituents happy come next election. I'm in this for the long haul. If I vote for your bill, I'll be selling out over half the population of my state. We make our living in cotton and tobacco, you know. I can't in good con-science cast my vote to keep your people happy and destroy the tobacco industry at the same time. I know you understand."
The knot in Senator Darren Wilson's gut pulled a little bit tighter. He stacked notepads in stacks of threes as he listened, unaware that his OCD had kicked in again. This couldn't be happening. If he didn't get this bill through Congress as he'd promised, his life wouldn't be worth a nickel. He was in this mess because of gambling. Passing this bill had been his way out of a quarter-million-dollar gambling note, and welshing on the people he owed was not an option. Neither was backing out of his word.
He stared down at the handful of photos he'd received in the mail yesterday. One of his ex-wife, one of his daughter, who hadn't spoken to him in three years, and two of his grandchildren playing outside on the playground of their Dallas grade school. The pictures were numbered from one to four. He got the message. If he failed to come through for the people he owed, they were going to go after his family in the order in which the photos were numbered.
And God help him, his ex-wife was number one. At this point in his life, she pretty much hated his guts, but he didn't have it in him to sacrifice her or any of them to get himself out of debt. Besides, he knew that wouldn't be the end of it. They would still do him in. He would just have the privilege of knowing that he'd wiped every single member of his family off the face of the earth before he died, too.
He closed his eyes, cleared his throat, then gave Patrick Finn one more push.
"Finn, you don't understand. I need your vote to keep my family alive."
Finn frowned. He knew that Wilson gambled. Everyone on the Hill knew it. It came as no surprise that he was probably in trouble with a casino owner some-where, or even some loan shark, but none of that was Finn's fault or business.
"I'm sorry, Darren, truly I am. But I can't sell out my state because you can't stay away from the poker tables."
"No! Wait! You"
"No, and that's my final answer," Finn said. "Now, I've got to go, or I'm going to miss my flight."
When the phone line went dead, Darren Wilson felt as if he wasn't far behind. He stared at the framed photos of his daughters and grandchildren on his desk, then shifted through the ones he'd gotten in the mail. Every aspect of from the bottom drawer of his desk, then walked toward a large painting hanging on the opposite wall.
He pulled it back, revealing the wall safe behind it. A few quick turns of the dial and the safe came open. Inside was his contingency plan: a fake passport and fifty thousand dollars in cash.
He put the money in the bag and the passport in his pocket, closed the safe and checked it three times before putting the painting back in place. That it had come to this was at best depressing, but he had no option. Damn Patrick Finn all to hell. Leaving wasn't what Darren wanted to do, but if he wanted to stay alive, it was his only way out.
He draped his overcoat over the small bag, grabbed his hat from a hook on the wall and headed out of the door, pausing at his secretary's desk long enough to issue one last order.
"Connie, please cancel all my appointments for this afternoon. Something has come up."
"Yes, sir. Do you want me to reschedule?"
"Not today. I'll let you know later." "Yes, sir," the secretary said again, and picked up the phone to do what she'd been told as Darren Wilson walked out the door.
A short while later, Patrick Finn was rushing through the D.C. airport, trying to catch his flight to Atlanta, where he lived. He had to swing by his home to pick up some clothes before heading out to Albuquerque, where he would rent a car and drive to Santa Fe, where he would spend Christmas. His wife and kids were already there with his parents, and he was looking forward to getting away for the holidays. He kept glancing at his watch as he ran, and knew it was going to be close. An accident on the freeway had left traffic at a standstill for more than thirty-five minutes. By the time the cab driver had pulled up at the airport, Finn was late.
He sprinted past stores that smelled of hot coffee and cinnamon buns, as well as pubs serving beer and sand-wiches to passengers with time to spare.
When he finally reached Gate 36, he was just in time to watch the plane pulling away from the ramp.
"Wait!" he yelled. "That's my plane. I have to be on that plane!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but you're too late," the attendant said.
"I can't be too late! I'm Senator Patrick Finn."
It was nothing the attendant hadn't heard before, and as the plane taxied toward the runway, she was already calmly booking Patrick Finn on the next plane to Atlanta. Considering it was the Christmas holidays, it was the best she could do for him.
Finn knew it, too, but it didn't make him any happier as he waited the two and a half hours for the flight on which he'd now been rebooked.
It was late evening when the plane landed in Atlanta, and by the time he got off, he'd already decided just to buy some clothes in Santa Fe rather than go home to pack, then try to make it back through evening traffic to catch his next flight. He called his wife, told her what was happening, then settled down to wait at the gate for boarding to begin.
An hour later, the process began. "Welcome aboard, sir," the attendant said, as he stepped off the ramp and onto the plane.
"Thank you," he said, nodding briefly as he scanned the aisles for his seat.
That it was not in first class was something he was going to have to live with. Holiday travel was hectic at best, and considering it was his fault he'd missed his first flight, he wasn't about to get picky about this one.
He thumped and bumped his one carry-on down the aisle until he got to his seat, smiling to himself as he realized it was on the aisle. He nodded to the pretty young woman in the seat behind him as he put his carry-on in the overhead compartment, then folded his coat and laid it on top of the bag.
"Good evening, miss," he said cordially, as he closed the door to the compartment.
"Good evening," she answered, then returned her at-tention to the magazine she was reading.
Patrick winked at the little boy sitting across the aisle, then dug in his pocket for one of the silver dollars for which he was famous for giving out during his cam-paigns. He pretended to pull it out of the little boy's ear, then handed it to him as a treat.
"Wow! Granddad, did you see that? He pulled that money out of my ear."
"I sure did, Johnny boy. Better put that in your pocket before you lose it."
The little boy was so thrilled, he reached into his other ear, checking to see if there might be one in there, as well, before dropping the oversize coin into the pocket of his pants.
The older couple who were with the boy laughed along with the senator, and the moment passed.
Finn sat down, straightening his clothes, and was reaching for his seat belt when he heard a familiar voice. He looked up, stunned by the coincidence and silently cursing the hands of fate that had done this to him.
"Wow. What are the odds of this happening?" Darren Wilson said. "I'm in the seat next to you." He waved his boarding pass to prove his point.
Patrick stood up without comment to let Darren be seated, then sat back down.
"This was meant to be," Darren said.
Patrick refused to be baited. "Going home for the holidays?" he asked.
In fact Darren Wilson was on his way out of the country, hopscotching on whatever flights were avail-able on such short notice, but he wasn't going to tell Patrick Finn that.
"Have a good flight," Patrick said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm joining the family in Santa Fe, so I'm planning on catching up on my sleep on the way."
Darren just smiled as he thought about what this could mean. Maybe this was one of those meant-to-be moments that would let him get out of trouble after all. He locked and unlocked his seat belt three times and then took a deep breath, before the urge to repeat finally ceased.
Patrick could pretend to sleep all he wanted, because whether Finn liked it or not, he was going to be Darren's captive audience for the next three hours. He went from a feeling of hopelessness to an adrenaline high. God was with him after all.