Reginald Cranston’s living room stretched the width of his house. A fifty-two inch wide-screen television took up the narrow wall that abutted the hallway. A couch was centered on the long interior wall. Just beyond the center of the room, which showcased a fine Persian rug, Reginald’s plush leather recliner faced the television. Overhead, a fan slowly churned, slicing the humid air.
The AC would dry it out in half a heartbeat, but Margie had felt colder than usual lately, so she didn’t want to run it. She was in her sewing room most of the time anyway. He thought about closing her vents and turning on the AC anyway, but it really wasn’t worth the hassle.
Besides sitting in his recliner he was comfortable enough with only the fan. He was still dressed in his work clothes except for his jacket and his shoes. He hadn’t even loosened his tie yet. And it wasn’t like he was sweating.
Plus at the moment, he had more important things on his mind than air conditioning. He was watching Simon Stark’s press conference. It was on all the channels, so there was no escaping it anyway. And he was trying very hard not to sneer.
Why hadn’t Susanne simply told him it was Stark? There had been rumors for weeks that he might be about to toss his hat into the ring. Instead she had sounded very mysterious when she called him to announce she was quitting her job. Quitting the law firm where only six months earlier she had been named a junior partner.
How many other women could claim to have made partnership in a prestigious law firm in such a short time? Christ, the woman had to be mental.
But whatever the case, this very morning she had resigned to work with some mysterious figure who was going to make headlines.
And now he found it was only Stark after all. “Complete and utter fools, both of them.”
He reached up to adjust his glasses, then took them off and wiped them with his handkerchief. He put them back on and stared at the screen again.
And what a clown Stark was anyway. Who was he trying to impress? The man obviously was an imbecile, and a naïve imbecile at that. Did he really believe honesty was the best policy?
The American people, most of them, were buffoons and lummoxes. They not only deserved to be lied to, but they demanded it. As Nicholson said in that movie that time, most of them couldn’t handle the truth. Had this guy learned nothing in his, what, thirty-five, forty years?
He scrutinized Stark. He looked younger than thirty-five, but he had to be at least thirty-five to run for president. Well, youth certainly wasn’t everything. It certainly wasn’t.
The problem was, most Americans wouldn’t even know the truth if it raced up and bit them on the ass. And they didn’t care to. It didn’t matter to them. All that mattered was the next so-called reality show on television. Or the next gossipy, sensational news story, which most often also was a lie. He snorted. Or the next handout. The next freebie.
Cranston adjusted himself in his plush leather recliner. These days, everybody was looking for luxury but nobody wanted to earn it. Stark was pushing out the same tired old lies that had been political staples forever. He simply said them in different words.
As Simon Stark turned and walked into the wings at stage left, Cranston watched carefully, searching for any sign of Susanne Devereaux. The way she had talked earlier, she would be standing alongside him at the podium. But she was nowhere in evidence.
Cranston sneered. Probably the blowhard of a pretender offered her a position for a certain very personal fee. Smitten with Stark’s slick façade, she had quit her job on a whim, with really no notice at all. Now she more than likely was too embarrassed to ask for her job back.
Probably she was afraid Reginald would hold her youthful faux pas against her. Of course, he would never do such a thing. She also probably was too embarrassed to seek employment with another law firm. Such scandals follow people who are involved in such an intimate circle.
She would have to move out of state to find another job. That would necessitate studying for and passing another bar exam. And at this very moment the poor girl probably was feeling overwhelmed. Probably she was nursing her emotional wounds somewhere. Probably she was wondering how in the world she would make ends meet after her savings ran out.
He frowned. Where did they say the press conference had taken place?
As if in response to his question, as the audience filed out, the channel switched to an outside camera.
Cranston smirked, as if finding out something Stark had preferred would remain hidden. “That’s the Mahalia Jackson Theater. I’d know that building anywhere.”
Cranston uncrossed his sock feet, turned off the television and pushed the footrest of the recliner down so he was upright. He adjusted his glasses. “Blowhard,” he muttered, and shook his head. Then he got up and padded into the kitchen to fix himself a drink.
He took a rocks glass from the cabinet and set it on the counter. Then he twisted open the cap on a bottle of Glenlivet 21 Year Old Archive Scotch. But as he tipped it over the glass, he paused. Then he put the cap back on it and twisted it closed again.
He set the glass and bottle back in the cabinet, then walked back into the living room. His loafers were still beside his chair where he’d left them. He slipped his feet into them, then turned to retrieve his jacket and his fedora from the rack beside the front door.
He reached for the door knob, but paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Margie,” he yelled, “I’m going out. I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
From somewhere down the hallway came the faint sounds of a sewing machine and his wife’s voice. “All right, dear. Do be careful.”
He shook his head, then opened the door, pushed open the screen, and pulled the door closed behind him. “Careful indeed.”
He had no time for being careful.
He was going to effect a rescue.
The air was heavy and cool. Was there a light mist falling? He thought he felt it on his hands but he couldn’t be sure.
He walked through the open bay into the garage. He got into his Lexus and put his fedora in the passenger seat, then backed quickly out of the garage and into the street. As he shifted the car into Drive, mist began to gather on the windshield. He clicked on the wipers to their lowest setting and thought again about Susanne.
The wiper blades stuttered across the windshield. He frowned. He should have waited until there was more moisture on the window.
The poor girl had called him earlier in the day, and she was all but giddy with excitement. It hadn’t escaped his attention that she had called him specifically and not anyone else at the firm. She was young and vibrant and filled with naïveté. He was certain she was making a huge mistake.
Of course, he couldn’t have told her that at the time. Doing so would have driven her away all the more quickly.
But more than once during the day he had thought of different scenarios surrounding the press conference.
The wiper blades stuttered across the window again.
Cranston frowned at the noise. Life, it seemed sometimes, was one big interruption.
Anyway, there was Susanne standing alongside her mystery man at the podium, her arm interlaced with his, beaming as she waved, princess like, to her admirers.
Of course, that was only a fairy tale from which she would experience at best a rude awakening.
The man would dismiss her out of hand when the cameras were turned off, and Susanne would be destroyed.
Or there was Susanne standing just behind the man and to one side. Her fingers were interlocked before her at her waist. Her position subliminally indicated her unwavering support for him from her place in his shadow.
The wiper blades stuttered across the window.
He frowned. Her place. Her position in Stark’s shadow.
Cranston knew Susanne Devereaux better than she knew herself, and certainly better than that upstart, Stark. She deserved a great deal more than to be in any man’s shadow.
Or there was Susanne having a successful evening with the man. She attended the press conference with him. Then she left with him, her head just enough in the clouds to believe she was ascending in the direction of the heights with him.
But she would never make it to the heights.
The wiper blades stuttered across the window. Cranston angrily pressed the Washer button on the end of the wiper control. A bit of water sprayed up, mostly in foam. The thing was empty. He would have to remember to have Manuel check that the next time he had the car in the garage for a checkup.
Still, the wipers moved more easily, at least the first two trips. The third time they stuttered, but not as dramatically as before.
Men like that— crass, worthless politicians— they were users. Even if he kept her around for a year or two, eventually he would leave her a broken woman.
Each scenario ended with a vague notion of himself, Reginald Cranston, happening across the man— of course, now he knew it was Stark— and Susanne.
Boldly, he would insinuate himself between them.
The wiper blades stuttered across the window.
Damn it! He glared at the driver’s side wiper blade just as if it could know.
He would insinuate himself between them and he would defend Susanne against the man.
And when the man— when Stark— saw that Cranston was on to him, he would admit everything from the depths of his black heart. He would laugh at Susanne in all her foolishness, and his laughter would crush her like the very fragile flower she was.
How could men treat women so crassly? Well, real men couldn’t.
But Reginald Cranston would be there. He would slip his right arm protectively around Susanne.
She would glare through her tears at the man who had treated her so despicably, and then she would turn fully to Reginald. She would put her tender head against his chest. She would weep and sob until all her sorrow and embarrassment were soaked into his shirt. And she would know the truth once and for all— that he was anything but a father figure.
He frowned. What in the world had ever possessed her to think of him as a father figure in the first place?
The wiper blades stuttered across the window.
He glared at it.
It’s true that there was a gap in their ages, not that the wiper blades could know that. She was twenty-nine and Reginald was sixty-four, but they were very much on the same page in every way imaginable. Very much. Certainly she knew he was “with it,” as the youngsters all said. And that was something that couldn’t be said of any father figure.
But yes, at last she would know the truth. And then, before she could force herself to beg him to give her job back, he would magnanimously ask her please to come back to work.
Of course, she would say yes, her eyes wide with disbelief at his grand generosity.
And he would laugh, wag his hand in the air, dismiss the act just as if it were nothing. “The sign was still up out front, after all,” he would say. “Cranston, Cranston, Swain and Devereaux.” And her name was still stenciled on her door because he knew she would be back. Probably he wouldn’t say that part.
And when she did come back he would surprise her with a raise. One that would enable her to slip away on vacation twice each year to the most exotic places.
With many of those exotic places, of course, Reginald himself already was more than familiar. He would be the perfect guide.
The wiper blades stuttered across the window.
It was annoying. Very annoying.
Susanne would understand at last, and she would be grateful. Endlessly grateful.
But now— now he wouldn’t have to go poking through restaurants hoping for a chance encounter. He had seen the press conference himself. He had waited and waited for Susanne to join Stark on stage, but she had remained absent.
For whatever reason, Stark had abandoned her before the press conference even began. No wonder he looked so smug.
But that was all right. Well, at least it would be all right.
She wasn’t at the press conference, so he knew precisely where to find her. His beautiful, fragile flower was at this moment curled up in her pajamas on her couch with a quart of ice cream. Tears were streaming down both cheeks as she replayed the press conference over and over and over. As she watched the cad, Simon Stark, turn his back on her and stride off the stage. Over and over and over again.
Fifteen minutes later Cranston pulled over and parked across the street from Susanne’s building. He straightened his glasses.
The wiper blades started across the window, but he turned off the engine, stranding them halfway up. See if they liked being disrespected the same way they annoyed and disrespected him. He glared at the one currently splitting the driver’s side of the windshield, then flung open the door.
The inside light came on, and he turned to reach through the door with his left leg. But as he tried to lift himself from the plush seat, the seat belt jerked him back.
His landing hard in the seat again caused the door to slam shut. The light clicked off.
In the sudden darkness, the dim glow of a distant street lamp illuminated the water droplets building up on the windshield. Rain-X. He would have Manuel apply Rain-X the next time he had the car in the garage for servicing.
He would have the man check that annoying beeping sound too.
He looked down at his lap, then felt with his right hand.
The seat belt. He hadn’t released the stupid, asinine, foolish imbecile of a seat belt.
“Oh bother!” Again he looked down at his waist. His glasses slipped halfway down his nose. Wonderful. He was beginning to perspire.
Angry at his own impatience, he flung his right hand down to his side, the thumb extended, to hit the seat belt release button.
But he missed.
The calm beeping continued.
He hit the end of the buckle mechanism and jammed his thumb.
Fiery pain shot up through his forearm and past the inside of his elbow. The inside of his bicep tingled.
“Agh!” He quickly raised his thumb to his mouth and sucked on it for a moment, soothing it.
Then, anger surging through him again, he twisted violently to the right in the seat and reached across his body with his left hand to unbuckle the seat belt. When it was finally free, he shouldered it off angrily and tugged on the door handle.
The beeping continued calmly. Of course it did. It had no purpose in life. Nobody to save. Nothing to do but be annoying.
He shoved the door open with his left foot and stepped out of the car.
While he was battling the seat belt, the mist had turned into a light rain.
He turned and glared at the seat for a moment, gripped the door with his left hand, drew it back and slammed it. Hard.
At least that stupid beeping stopped. Finally.
Then he felt the rain pattering on his bald spot. A few drops streaked down his glasses.
His hat was in the passenger seat, calm and dry, as if waiting for a ride.
He tugged on the door handle. It was locked.
“Well, bother!” He reached into his left front pocket.
His keys weren’t there.
He peered through the driver’s side window of his car, twisting his neck up and around.
Of course. The keys were in the ignition. That must’ve been what the annoying beeping was about while he was fighting with the seat belt. Well it certainly didn’t sound like the keys were in the ignition.
That moment was the closest he’d ever come to hitting his car with his fist. Only the thought of broken knuckles stopped him. At sixty-four, his bones were considerably more brittle than they had been when he was younger.
He put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath.
Not a problem. No worries. He would tend to Susanne first. After all, that was his mission. Afterward, later tonight or possibly in the morning, he would call for a locksmith. Or something. Nothing to worry about at the moment.
He took another deep breath and glanced around. At least it was dark. He took his handkerchief, the one he carried in his right front pocket, and mopped his brow. Then he wiped the lenses of his glasses with it and shoved it back into his pocket.
He put on the glasses, but they were smeared. Still, it wasn’t too bad. He looked down at the driver’s side window as if he could see his reflection, and smoothed his hair back with his palms.
It felt different. It seemed less somehow. The rain, probably, was making it feel that way.
He crouched alongside the car, then pressed the side-view mirror with his left thumb to turn it outward a bit. He looked into the mirror, turned his head this way, then that.
Well, it was simply a fact that he didn’t have as much hair as he used to. He wished all the more he had remembered to put on his hat.
But Susanne wouldn’t mind anyway. That simply wasn’t who she was. Especially in her current frame of mind. She would be thinking of a thousand things other than Reginald’s hair.
That was the first time a correct thought had crossed his mind all day.
Reginald took one more look into the side-view mirror, then thumbed it generally back into place. He reminded himself to straighten it electronically when he got back in the car and before he pulled out into traffic.
Then he straightened, pivoted on the ball of his right foot, turned and stepped off with his left.
And ran straight into the right front fender of a car. His momentum caused him to bend over it, and the water on the slick hood soaked into the forearms of his coat sleeves.
Before the driver could stop, the right side-view mirror thumped Reginald just above the left hip, turning him slightly.
Then the car did stop and the horn blared and Reginald launched himself backward.
The driver’s side-view mirror of his own car dug into his back.
He frowned, glaring at the car in front of him. What in the world was wrong with those people? Couldn’t they see a man plainly standing in the road? And what a strange looking car anyway. What in the world kind of a car was—
He took a second look. It was a limousine.
It was a limousine and the rear passenger window was moving down in that inexorable, slow way of electric windows. Especially in mystery movies. On dark and rainy nights.
Then Susanne’s face came into view. And Stark’s face appeared beside hers.
The second face frowned. “Terribly, terribly sorry, sir. Are you all right?”
The first face just looked at him for a moment. Then it frowned too, and cocked itself slightly to one side. It— well, Susanne— said, “Reginald? Reginald, is that you? Reginald?”
“Susanne. I— Uh— Are you all right?”
“What?” She cocked her head again, the slight frown still on her face. “I’m fine, Reginald. I— We’re going away for a few days. Strategy planning, all that sort of thing. Going by my apartment to pack some things.”
Then her mouth formed a surprised O. “Oh, Reginald, by the way, I said this morning I’d be by the office to pick up my things this week. Would it be all right if I make that next week instead?”
Reginald looked at her, saw her mouth moving, heard something, maybe words. He wasn’t sure he had heard what she said though.
It was raining a little harder. Rain was dripping from his forehead down over his glasses. Off his nose. Off his chin. He must look ridiculous. Did he look ridiculous? “What? I’m sorry, I— What?”
“I mean, if you need the space right away, you could ask Marissa or Joanne to box up my things and put them in the supply closet. There really isn’t much. Would that be all right?”
“Uh. So you’re going away?”
Susanne nodded. “Uh huh. For a few days, but maybe as long as a week. Strategy planning. You know, for the election. So I can stop by next week? That would be okay?”
“Oh. Oh, certainly, Susanne. Certainly. Stop by any time you like. Any time.” He frowned. “So you’re all right?”
She beamed. To make it worse, she actually giggled. “Of course. Oh Reginald, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” She frowned. “But are you okay? Is your car all right? Can we drop you somewhere? I’ll only be a few minutes in the apartment. Then we’d be more than happy to—”
“No. No, I’m fine.”
Rain dripped off his forehead, off his glasses. It dripped off his ears and nose and chin. He looked at Susanne. He realized he had never seen her truly happy before.
But why would he? What in the world was he thinking? What in the world?
“You kids run along, have a good time.” He shrugged. “Margie. You know. Have to get back to Margie.”
* * * * * * *
Note: This story is excerpted from currently untitle forthcoming SF novel. The main character is Simon Stark.