Chapter One, Shades of Truth
Warren stared at the pistol – a small one, all things considered. Damn, why hadn’t he seen it coming? It was a stubby piece that hadn’t made so much as a bulge in Jonah’s briefcase. Hell, he hadn’t even blinked when he reached in and pulled it out.
“Now, Jonah,” he said in a surprisingly steady voice as he clutched the edge of the massive black walnut desk to keep his hands from trembling. “There’s no call for this.”
Jonah Shepard stood stiffly. He had risen from the upholstered chair that was placed at a slight angle, an angle chosen to make a visitor feel comfortable, yet aware of his suppliant posture as opposed to the power position of the man who sat behind the desk.
Jonah held the pistol tightly in his right hand, his voice devoid of the pleasant tone he had used when Lila, Warren’s secretary, greeted him, kept him waiting for ten minutes and then ushered him into the senator’s office. Jonah was a man who didn’t make an immediate impression – nice looking, neither particularly handsome nor ugly – nothing striking about him. The revolver was not as easy to overlook.
“You may be right, but I want to make sure I have your full attention,” Jonah said and motioned for Warren to sit. “I’m not surprised you thought I would sell Lottie out, but I was curious to see what you thought my sister’s life was worth,” he continued as Warren eased into the brown leather, ergonomically designed executive chair.
“I meant no offense, Jonah,” Warren replied, breathing as regularly as his palpitating heart allowed. “I merely meant I always understood Lottie’s death was hard on you and your folks and there are ways I can help now.” He slowly moved his foot beneath the desk searching for the alarm covered by an unobtrusive bump of carpet. There, two quick presses! If Mike was doing his fucking job, he’d switch on the hidden camera. Three or four minutes to stall.
“My parents are both dead, you son-of-a-bitch,” Jonah said, his voice choking on dead. “The only things I want from you are statements to the state attorney general and the press.” He waved the gun to the clean legal pad resting inches from Warren’s left elbow. “Pick up that fancy pen and start writing.”
Warren lifted the gold Mont Blanc from the black marble holder. “A statement? What kind of statement?”
“We’ll start with your relationship with the gentleman in Chicago, then go back to what you did to my sister,” Jonah said coldly. “You don’t have to put in too many details. The basic connections will generate plenty of questions that you won’t be able to lie your way out of for once. People will finally know what you really are. You’re going to pay for it all – for everything you’ve gotten away with your whole life.”
Warren held the pen over the pad, his eyes fixed on Jonah’s determined face. If he swung his gaze to the nearly invisible adjoining office door, Jonah would notice it too.
“Drop it and then freeze!” a voice commanded as Warren bailed from the chair to the floor. “Don’t shoot!” he cried on his way down. A shot cracked almost as soon as the words left his mouth and he flinched at the explosion.
There was a gurgling sound, the heavy desk wobbled only a bit and then he heard his security chief. “You hurt?”
“Mike?” came simultaneously from the doorway and Warren lifted his head to see Rusty through the door, pistol ready. The ruddy-faced, barrel-chested young assistant stopped and looked at the points of the human triangle: Mike stepping to the body; the man slumped against the desk, eyes open in surprise, blood blossoming across his chest; the senator scrambling to his feet.
“Is he dead?” Warren asked in alarm.
Mike knelt, found the pulse in the neck and put his ear close as Jonah tried to speak and then stopped moving.
“Damn it, I said not to shoot,” Warren said, raked his hand across his photogenic face and wondered if he was pale.
“He didn’t drop the gun,” the security chief replied calmly. “Standard procedure,” – as if killing a man was equivalent to remembering to switch on the alarm system when you left the house.
“Yeah, well, in this case…” Warren started and pressed his lips together as he heard male voices in the outer office.
“The West Palm guys,” Rusty said in response to Warren’s glare. “Standard procedure,” he finished in a tepid mimic of Mike as he moved forward to open the double doors.
“Shit,” Warren muttered and replaced his scowl with an appropriately grave demeanor. Lila led two city policemen into the office, her contact lens-enhanced green eyes wide in fear. She put a hand to her mouth when she took in the scene.
“Oh, my God,” she started in a shaky voice, “Senator, I’m so sorry, I had no idea, oh, I…”
“Lila, honey, everything is under control,” Warren said smoothly and crossed the sculpted taupe carpet to take her by the elbow. The older policemen knelt next to the body while Mike handed his pistol, butt first, to the other one.
Lila was still stammering an apology for what Warren assumed was her perceived failure in not having known that the Mr. Stanley Jonah who made an appointment was in actuality Jonah Shepard, a man with a dangerous agenda. A fucking numbers geek with a gun – go figure. Hell, it had taken him nearly five minutes to realize the deception. The last person he’d ever expected to see in his office was Jonah.
“Lila, take a deep breath and listen to me,” Warren said, his best baby-kissing, back-slapping, hand-shaking sincerity coming to the forefront. He maneuvered her into the outer office as the men behind him began an exchange of questions and answers. Damn, he had to get back in there and buy some time!
“It’s going to get real crazy soon and the media will be on us like ticks on a hound dog, so I’m going to need you to get a pretty smile on and make sure no one except the police and Freddy Hartwell gets past your desk. Oh, and we’ll probably need some fresh coffee and plenty of Cokes. Can you do that for me, Lila?”
Lila nodded her head so vigorously that a strand of sun-streaked blonde hair almost slipped out of its moussed, sprayed poof. Her teardrop gold earrings jiggled and she spoke with something close to her normal efficiency. “Yes, sir, if you’re sure you’re all right. I mean, when I heard the shot, I was just so afraid, well, I thought…” her voice caught again.
Warren squelched a sigh and smiled instead. “Certainly I understand, but everything is going to be all right and I need to get back inside,” he said as all three telephone lines rang at once.
The action triggered the expected Pavlovian response. Lila dropped into her chair and reached for the receiver with deep-red lips in an automatic curve, her charming drawl ready to shield her boss from unwanted queries.
Her concern was far more likely due to the fleeting idea of the loss of a prestigious and perk-filled job than for his physical being, but he could hardly begrudge her that.
He heard the elevator ping an arrival and swiftly went into his office. That was probably the medical team and homicide personnel would be next, soon followed by an assortment of other officials. He raised his voice just enough to remind the four men in the room of who the hell the big dog was.
“Gentlemen,” he began solemnly, “I know there will be many questions and I’ll answer you as quickly as possible, but I must take Mr. Noonan next door for a few minutes on another matter. Rusty, you carry on here.”
Warren turned toward the conference room without the slightest thought his instructions would not be followed and side-stepped the two-person emergency medical team hurrying in from the hallway.
Mike Noonan was on his heels when they cleared the reception room. Warren swiveled abruptly. “Close the door, for Christ’s sake, and why in the hell did you have to kill him?”
Noonan pushed his palm against the solid, soundproof door and raised one eyebrow with no discernible emotion. “To save your life?” he responded in the dry Midwestern tone made even more characterless when he was surrounded by Florida good-old-boys or displaced New Jersey and New York accents.
Warren backed up two steps to give Noonan more space and pressed his hands into the headrest of a leather conference room chair. “Mike, I know you did what you thought was right and believe me, under other circumstances, I would be thrilled, but there’s a complication.”
Noonan stood motionless, apparently not disturbed by having killed a man ten minutes earlier, nor by being told that perhaps he’d made a mistake. He merely lifted his gray eyes that reminded Warren of cold fog and waited.
Warren paced beside the polished mahogany table with its sixteen comfortable chairs. “Jonah Shepard, the man who presented himself as Stanley Jonah, is, I mean, was, no, is, a potential problem for me, that is, for us.” Warren paused and looked directly at Noonan. “I don’t want to get into a lot of detail, but he claims to have, and quite probably does have, documents that would have serious consequences if put into the wrong hands.”
Noonan still didn’t move, except to arch the other eyebrow. “And you wanted him left alive?”
“Until we had the fucking documents,” Warren snapped and resumed his pacing. “When I pressed the goddamn buzzer, I thought you would come in and disarm him, for Christ’s sake, not put a hole in his chest.”
“My mistake,” Mike said flatly. “Now, tell me what you want done.”
Warren stopped and fingered one of his brushed gold cuff links. “Jonah told me he didn’t have the documents with him, so maybe he left them at home somewhere. If you can find out where that is, and if we can keep everyone focused here, then maybe you and Rusty can get to wherever there is and find the damn documents before anyone else does. Then we give the straight story of Jonah as a whacko who came gunning for me.” Warren paused again. “Some shit from a long time ago will be coming up, but I can contain it.”
“I won’t be able to leave immediately,” Noonan pointed out. “I’ve got to give my statement to the cops.”
“I know that, for God’s sake,” Warren replied. “The last thing I want to do is get people to thinking there’s more here than it looks like. I’ll come up with some reason for his name not to be released, but I probably can’t buy you more than twenty-four hours, maybe less. You cooperate fully about the shooting, get the information on Jonah and get your ass on the road. I want this kept totally fucking quiet. I wouldn’t have you take Rusty, but I don’t know what you’re going to find and there wouldn’t be time to send him if you need help. Can he keep his mouth shut, no matter what you run into?”
Noonan nodded curtly. “He’s still learning, but he’s close enough and he likes being on the inside. He’ll do what he’s told. What are we looking for?”
Warren twisted his other cuff link a full turn. “I’m pretty sure it’s financial papers, maybe some kind of ledger or could be on a computer – accountant kind of shit. You’ll recognize a few names if Jonah was on the level.”
Noonan nodded again. “How about a wife, kids, home, office?”
“Hell if I know and he sure as hell can’t tell us,” Warren snarled and looked past Noonan’s shoulder. The light blinked above the door indicating someone wanted in. He looked at his gold Piaget watch. Fifteen minutes had passed.
“I suspect we have visitors Lila can’t stall,” he said and stared at Noonan’s calm face. His eyes, if you knew what to look for, held the expression of a brain kicked into full planning mode. He was plotting out the tactics of an operation and Warren relaxed a bit. “I may not have a chance to talk to you before you leave,” he said and swept past to open the door. “Use my personal cell phone if you have to and if it’s not safe to talk, I’ll find a way to call you back.”
He remolded his face into a now-don’t-y’all-worry-about-me, everything-is-just-fine façade as he emerged from the room into a small crowd of men milling around engaged on telephones, with cameras and so forth.
Lila waved him toward Freddy Hartwell, his chief of staff, political advisor and spin master, not to mention ass-kisser of his father-in-law. Freddy did not have a don’t-worry look on his square face. Warren clasped him on the shoulder in a comradely way and within seconds he was spouting the story that should stand up under police and media probing. Thank God the recorder was on the blink – the film would support his version of events.
Three hours later, Warren was finished with the police and the first quick press conference as he reiterated that, no, they couldn’t provide the man’s identity just yet and, yes, he was immensely grateful to, etc., etc. He’d spoken reassuringly to his wife during a brief call and promised his father-in-law that no harm was done, well, at least not to the grand personage of Senator Warren Blaine Randall. He’d been over the story with Freddy so many times it sounded true. Mike Noonan was released by the homicide detectives, gave him a silent thumbs-up signal from the doorway and melted out of the knot of men before Warren could get a verbal confirmation.
Warren sat safely behind his desk again with a well-deserved double Scotch with a splash of water and was only half-listening as Freddy bounced around the office with a cell phone clamped to his ear. He declined Lila’s offer to call the Council for the Preservation of the Everglades to cancel his evening speaking engagement. A politician couldn’t buy this kind of publicity – a dedicated public servant bravely making an appearance only hours after a brush with death.
Even better, Cecilia would no doubt be too distraught to accompany him. If he worked the timing properly, he could make a late night stop to see delectable little Amber. Lila made for damn fine eye candy in the office, but banging one’s assistant was as stupid as a man could be. Amber was distanced enough from his circle and unlike Cecilia, she would physically and enthusiastically demonstrate her relief that he survived such a frightening ordeal. Maybe she would greet him in the black demi-bra and thong lingerie set he’d given her the week before. No, the red corset and stockings with those spiky heels.
Warren swished Scotch in his mouth as Freddy punched his phone off and started yammering about tomorrow’s press conference. The only problem Warren could see at this point was it would be difficult for him to speak with Mike if he called. Fortunately, Mike was the kind of man who rarely needed guidance and the odds were he wouldn’t call anyway.
Warren forced himself to pay attention to Freddy and hoped Mike would be back with the documents in hand before the nine a.m. press conference. If so, the pathetic Shepard family would be out of his life for good.
Copyright © 2001-2017, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.