Lynn White and her mother, Jane Carruthers, glanced up from their conversation as the waiter materialized beside their cloth-covered table.
With a practiced eye, Lynn automatically sized up the young man. Around six-feet in height. Richly dark brown hair, tastefully cut, a lock of which dangled recalcitrantly, enticingly, above his well-shaped brows. The waiter's easy smile revealed the white teeth of a young person who had yet to consume too much coffee, too much tea, too much cola. The symmetry behind that unselfconscious grin could no doubt be attributed in large part to his parents' insistence on braces when he had turned thirteen.
"Hi. My name is Will. I'll be your waiter this afternoon. Are you ready to order? Or do you need a few more minutes?"
Lynn noted her mother's approving wink and barely curved lips. With little success, Lynn tried to suppress her own smile. Studiously, she gazed at the plastic-coated menu. "I'll have a glass of iced tea, unsweetened. With lemon, if you have it."
"Hmm. I'd like a chicken Caesar salad with the dressing on the side."
Graciously accepting Lynn's folded menu, Will turned his attention to the older woman. "And you, Miss? What can I get for you?"
Coughing into her napkin, Lynn let that straight line lie untested and unchallenged.
Jane cleared her throat and peered through her bifocals. "Bring me a plate of your spinach lasagna, please. A glass of chardonnay, too."
"Very good," Will said, taking the second menu. "I'll be right back with some bread sticks for you ladies."
As their waiter retreated from sight, Jane leaned forward and said in a stage-whisper, "Nice butt."
"Mother!" Lynn did her best to maintain a shocked expression. The indignation soon melted into giggles, however. "You're a bad influence on me."
Leaning back, Jane laughed. "From what you've told me of your checkered college days, anything I might say or do now could hardly make a difference."
A fount of heat radiated through Lynn's chest and surged into her face. Gulping down a slug of water, she fanned her red face with both hands. "How did you ever survive menopause?"
"Are you sure this isn't from those two glasses of wine we had at the bar?"
Blowing out a breath, Lynn pulled at her damp silk blouse with thumb and forefinger. "I wish it were that simple."
"Why don't you go on hormone replacement therapy? I hear it's supposed to help."
Wielding her white linen napkin, Lynn patted at the moisture beading her forehead. "Maybe I should. I read such conflicting information about its costs and benefits, though."
"At least give vitamin E a shot. Regina told me it helped her. Four-hundred units a day. That should be safe enough. If you don't notice an improvement in a month, nothing much lost."
With her internal boiler fading as rapidly as it had fired up, Lynn leaned over and spoke in a confidential tone. "I've got to try something. This is crazy. And annoying. Not to mention embarrassing."
"Welcome to the sisterhood of 'mature' women."
Mother and daughter paused in their conversation as Will arrived to efficiently deliver their drinks and bread sticks. "Your meals will be ready shortly," he assured them.
Lynn took a long finger of bread from the basket and waved it like a baton before biting off a healthy hunk. "Thanks for taking me out to lunch, Mom."
Jane nodded indulgently. "You moping around the house wasn't doing either of us any good. Plus you were driving your father crazy."
Lynn rolled her eyes in mock amazement. "Men..."
"He means well, of course," Jane said, sipping at her wine. "He never knew what to say to help when you were a teenager." She set the glass down. "He's become only marginally better at it since he retired."
"I know he cares about me. Unfortunately, his advice usually come across more as commands than suggestions."
"A man's first impulse is to 'solve' a problem. Even if that's not what you really need." Jane's gaze drifted away for a few seconds. Shaking her head ever-so-slightly at unrevealed inner thoughts, she reached across and squeezed her daughter's hand. "They prefer to express their love through action. Simply sitting and listening doesn't set well with most men. Too passive an approach."
"I suppose so. I hate it, though, when he tells me I 'shouldn't feel like that.' It's almost like he's scolding me. Like I'm too incompetent to know what I'm really feeling. Like I should feel guilty for being upset. Well, he'd be upset, too, if one of his neighbors had been beaten to death and --"
"Dear. Dear. I can hear you." Jane shifted her eyes from side to side, indicating the other patrons. A few men and women -- mostly women -- discretely glanced at Lynn and her mother.
Forcing herself to relax, Lynn patted the air with her palms. "Sorry, sorry." Slowing shaking her head, she closed her eyes. "I'm just not used to that kind of violence." She blinked away incipient tears and tossed a hand. "It's not like we live in the inner city, a ghetto or something. We moved there because we wanted a quiet neighborhood. For something like this to happen is so disturbing, so..."
"What did Vic say? How does he feel about it."
Lynn assayed a weak grin. "Men..." She squeezed the thick half-moon slice of lemon into her tea then dried her fingers. "No, Vic was great. He listened. He always does. He was the one who said I should visit you."
"I'm glad he did. That you did. We don't see you -- you two -- nearly enough."
"True. But the road runs both ways, you know. You and Dad haven't exactly been regular visitors, either."
"Yes, dear. I know. Your father, though..."
"Still not feeling very well, is he." Lynn made it a statement of fact.
"He's so damned stubborn." Jane lifted a brow. "Of course, I don't know anyone else like that..."
"He refuses to get a second opinion. Thinks because he's a veteran that he should go to a vet's hospital. Even though the physicians there are rarely top-notch...or they'd be practicing somewhere else."
Smoothly, Will brought their meals. To each customer in turn, he asked, "Grated cheese?" Both women accepted.
After the young man departed, Lynn said, "It's a vicious circle." She poured a bit of the dressing onto the heaping mound of lettuce topped with grilled chicken. "He doesn't feel well, so he doesn't exercise. But the less he exercises, the worse he feels. He needs to get up and out. Even if it's only to have coffee with his friends in the morning. He needs a purpose in life. Something to look forward to everyday."
"Of course. Try telling him that." Jane frowned. "This isn't exactly the kind of retirement I envisioned for us."
"I know you really had your heart set on traveling more."
Jane shrugged and snapped open her linen napkin. Slipping it over her lap, she forked a piece of lasagna. The small square of cheese and pasta and spinach steamed. "One of these days I may just do that on my own," she said, not looking up. "Before I get too old and crotchety to enjoy it."
Not knowing precisely how to respond to that mini-revelation, Lynn merely nodded and stabbed halfheartedly at her salad.
Chewing thoughtfully, Jane swallowed. "In a lot of ways, Vic reminds me of your father."
Startled, Lynn stared at her mother. "Vic? Like Dad? But Vic goes out of his way to listen to me. He loves to travel. Goes shopping with me -- even for clothes -- with hardly a peep. Walks a lot. Remembers my birthday, out anniversary...better than I do...and --"
"And he doesn't mind being alone, can survive not seeing his friends for months -- years -- at a time, yells at the talking heads on television, has difficulty throwing anything away, is stubborn as hell, loves to read and make puns..."
Almost wincing, Lynn conceded the point. "I suppose so. Never really thought of him like that."
Jane chuckled. "Don't look so glum! You're hardly the first woman to metaphorically marry her father. I bet if you asked him, Vic would see a lot in you that he admires in his own mom."
"Just life, dear."
"As I said: scary."
After a pause, Jane said, "So Vic's defending the home turf?"
Lynn speared a chunk of chicken and lettuce. "Yeah. Said he was going to get a start on a new pile of documents this evening."
"He's not worried?"
"Vic? I'm the worrier of the family. Nothing seems to faze him much. Unless it has to do with history and politics. Those, he gets agitated about." Lynn smiled. "That and video games."
"I have to say, I am really glad you two got married."
Lynn raised a quizzical brow. "Hmm?"
"You two balance each other so beautifully. As far as I can tell, you get along very well...?"
"...enjoy each other's company. Good in bed together?"
Jane said, "Sorry," but she did not really sound apologetic. "I know you two have your ups and downs. Everyone does. But I hear my friends and their daughters complaining about husbands who drink or gamble too much, who spend every night and weekend with the boys drinking, hunting, or fishing. Husbands who cheat or never talk to them or yell at them or hit them or..."
"Mom!" Lynn said. "What are you trying to tell me? Has Dad ever..."
"No, no. Nothing like that. I love your dad. I wouldn't have stayed with him for over five decades if I didn't. Not in today's world." She winked. "And not with the money your grandparents left me." She cut another piece of pasta. "What I mean is, what I'm trying to say is..." She bit savagely into the lasagna, chewed, swallowed, took another drink of chardonnay. "Those women would be thrilled to death if their husbands did nothing worse than what you complain to me about Vic. In the bigger scheme of things, minor, minor stuff. Just...keep things in perspective."
Lynn mulled over what her mother had said but offered no comment.
"Your father's of a different generation. His heart's in the right place even if the rest of him doesn't always quite follow through." Jane adjusted her napkin. "Maybe you reaching menopause has set me to thinking. I don't know. Just... I simply want you to realize what you've got in Vic. I want more for you than...those other women have. What they have to put up with."
"Are you sure everything's okay between you and Dad? Do you want to --"
Firmly, Jane waved that question aside. "No." A smile fluttered across her face, a twitching butterfly glimpsed a moment before disappearing into the weeds. "Besides, today's not about me. We're two hot babes out having a good time."
Lynn let the incongruous phrasing pass. "Sure."
"Does Vic ever regret leaving teaching?"
Taking the sharp turn in topic smoothly in stride, Lynn said, "Not that I can tell. Students' attitudes and abilities have changed a lot since we were in school."
"That sounds familiar."
"Yeah, I suppose every generation says the same thing. Maybe it's even true. What do you do, though, when your students brag about cheating on tests, when your students -- your college students, people who are supposed to be among the brightest in their classes -- are barely literate. They live in the eternal now. History is a mystery to them. Facts and logic are 'tools of male oppression.' All opinions -- except yours, of course -- are equally valid and free of any need for explanation or validation. They're hypersensitive to imagined slights, sullen and resentful, blame you for their problems, and feel entitled to good grades without having to earn them."
"Sounds like young people from time immemorial. Feckless, irresponsible, and ignorant."
"Maybe you're right. But the difference is that now the inmates are in charge of the asylum. The deans pay attention only to the greasy wheels regardless of the truth of their complaints. Administrators bend over backward to cater to stupidity, emphasizing style over substance, emotion over content. Objective standards are out the window. What you know no longer matters. Just how happy the students are. Whether they feel 'entertained' or not. That situation is new. It's a wonder Vic managed to suffer those idiots as long as he did."
Remembering the times her husband came home, upset and ranting, miserable after attempting to show his students how to think, how to reason, how to break free of their constricted mental boxes, Lynn felt her own anger mounting.
She inhaled a shuddery breath. "I'm glad he quit. He doesn't make a lot of money as the state archivist, but at least he's relatively independent. My realty income makes up any difference."
"I didn't realize how bad colleges had gotten. He never discussed it much when we visited."
"I'm sure he didn't want to spoil our get-togethers. As he says, 'Don't get me started...!'"
"The only bad thing is that now the students are being taught by people who will kowtow to them, who don't demand anything of them, who aren't concerned with the truth."
"There is that. But Vic's not out to save the world. I wouldn't want him to. Neither one of us beliefs in being martyrs in a hopeless cause."
The two women finished their meal in relative silence.
When she finished, Jane leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table. "You know what I think?" she asked conspiratorially.
Slipping easily into her role, Lynn emulated her mother. "No, what?" she whispered.
"I think we should each have a slice of that Death by Chocolate I saw on the menu. To hell with the diets."
Nodding in satisfied agreement, Lynn said, "Nothing like chocolate to sooth the savage beast. Or hormones."
Straightening, Jane stuck an arm into the air and waved. "Oh, Will...!"
Lieutenant Governor Abe Franklin picked up the phone on the third ring. He disliked being interrupted at home during one of his few free evenings. Such demands on his time, however, came with the job.
Taking his time, he used the black wedge of the remote to lower the television volume and to pause the movie, "Unbound." A pacer when he talked, he stood and pressed the red receive button.
His wife, Inez, did not bother to glance up from the paperback propped in her lap.
"This is Lieutenant Governor Franklin." His bass voice rumbled with authority. "How may I help you?"
"Abe? Abe? Where are you?"
Lowering the portable to his side, Franklin squeezed shut his lids. A hiss of aggravation escaped him. The tinny, high-pitched phone continued its worried queries from the receiver.
Franklin straightened and held the phone to his ear. "What is it, Governor?" Forced patience kept his tone level and soothing.
"Abe? Abe? Is that you?"
"Yes, Daniel. Did you want to talk to me?"
Silence pulsed from the other end. "Did I want to talk to you? Sure. What's up?"
"You called me, Daniel," Franklin said with gentle emphasis.
"I did? Oh, yes. Of course, I did. Hmm. Are those bills ready for me to sign, Abe? The ones we discussed?"
They had not argued over any legislation for months. Nothing pending required Cross's increasingly wobbly signature.
The Lieutenant Governor guided needed laws through subcommittees, full committees, nursed it in the House and the Senate, and harangued, cajoled, and threatened in the conference committees to implement the early stages of his overall strategy. Then and only then did it reach the governor's oak desk. The aging statesman signed the sheets placed before him without question or comment, smiling warmly as he had all his political life, then handed out pens before retreating into his rapidly shrinking intellectual world.
"Yes, of course, Daniel. Don't you remember? We have a meeting tomorrow morning to schedule the signing."
"Oh. I see."
But, of course, the governor did not see. Yet even given his diminished capacity, Cross sought to protect his image, both to himself and to others.
"Where's your aide, Daniel?" In reality, the "aide" served as nurse and guardian. With Cross's wife dead for nearly three years, the governor could no longer be depended on not to injure himself. Franklin insisted that his mentor be protected from himself. Even a man as physically frail and tentative as Cross could do real damage if left alone too long.
Franklin could hear the scowl in the governor's voice. "Brent?" The older man's words dropped to a whisper. "He's sitting in the sofa across the room. Staring at me. He's always staring at me. Tell me, Abe. What should I do? Call a trooper? Have him arrested and thrown in jail?"
Rubbing his forehead, Franklin said, "No, Abe. Mr. Bargetti is there solely to help you." He injected a hint of humor into his voice and said, "You are getting a bit more forgetful, Daniel."
"Okay," Cross said, his suspicions still evident despite his agreement. "If you say so."
"I say so, Daniel. Now," he said more forcefully, "have Mr. Bargetti help you get ready for bed. You need your rest, you know. Especially if you're going to be ready for that meeting tomorrow."
"All right," Cross said docilely. Fear and sadness trembled between his words. The distress and apprehension that laced so much of the governor's deteriorating existence warred with the swelling sorrow and resignation his more lucid moments provided. "Good night, Abraham."
"Good night, Governor."
The line clicked off.
"I feel so sorry for him," Inez said from her leather chair.
Dropping the phone onto the side table, Franklin nodded. "It can't be easy for him." Pensive, he crossed his arms. "He's worse in the evening -- sundowner's syndrome -- but during the day he realizes he's losing it."
Inez leaned her chin on the back of her hand. "It must be incredibly frustrating for him. He was always so brilliant, sharp, on top of everything. Now..."
"I'll be glad when the election comes."
"Will he last that long? Sarah Eidelman says there's growing pressure for his resignation."
"Won't happen," Franklin snapped. His nostrils flared briefly. "All he has to do is last a bit longer. He deserves to finish out his term. After all he's done for this state -- for me -- the bastards clamoring for his hide can bloody well put up with a bit of 'eccentricity.' We keep close tabs on him. He'll have his dignity or I'll have a few hides nailed to the wall after I'm sworn in." He tapped his broad chin with the knuckles of his right fist. "Besides, I want to win this on my own. If I step in at the last moment to replace him, some voters will see me as a lame duck. At best, they'll believe I'm too weak to take the election on my own." Decisively, he shook his head. "That, I won't allow. Too much is at stake for me to cripple myself before I've barely begun."
Inez raised her brows at this observation then returned her attention to Sunrise Over the Amazon.
"I'll be in my office."
Distractedly, Inez nodded.
Franklin turned off the electronic gear, then palmed the glass of burgundy setting on the glass-topped coffee table in front of the couch. The movie had started slowly, anyway. He would give it another chance when he felt more in the mood.
At the arched doorway leading towards the curving stairs to the second floor, Franklin let his gaze linger on his wife. Even at her age, she kept her figure trim and appealing. She sat now in her chair, the smooth curves of her legs and thighs tucked under her shorts. The simple, white blouse with its delicate decorations accented the swell of breasts large enough to catch a man's eyes, yet not so excessive as to ruin her proportions.
The oblong pool of yellow light from the shaded floor lamp mellowed the faint lines tracing the edges of her blue eyes and full lips. The glowing bulb backlit the spun-gold aura of her shoulder-length hair, well-styled yet not too trendy for a politician's wife. Whether she colored it now or not, Franklin neither knew nor cared. She still possessed the ability to turn heads and charm his opponents. Her talents had influenced more of the opposition over the years than any of his heartfelt speeches managed to do.
The reading glasses perched on the end of her pleasing nose added more a touch of charm than any suggestion of aging.
If she noted his unusual scrutiny, she gave no indication.
The lieutenant governor rapped lightly on the doorjamb then proceeded down the hallway past the stairs. Entering his office, he flicked on the overhead lights, locked the door, and sat behind his desk. His half-empty wine glass rested off to one side. Seconds ticked by. Finally, he pulled a small key from his pants pocket and, after opening the bottom right drawer, extracted an unmarked, standard-sized manila envelope.
Carefully, he set the file before him, nudging it into the exact center of the desktop. The tip of his tongue darted along his dry lips.
With an inner twinge, he undid the clasp and slowly withdrew the contents of the envelope. Like an old-time gambler, he fanned the papers and photos in a spreading arc.
For a long moment, he stared at the back of the six-paneled walnut door separating him from the rest of the mansion. Haltingly yet inexorably, he let his gaze drop to the material in front of him.
He loved his wife. He truly did. For a couple their age, they had a generally satisfactory sex life. He did all within his power to make Inez's routine pleasant and fulfilling. He denied her little. In return, she accomplished all he asked of her: attending the right luncheons, parties, and dinners; chairing the proper social organizations. Hurting her guided neither his thoughts nor his intentions.
Could he help it, however, if her diminished interest in intimacy and her conservative tastes could not quench certain urges of his? He had never flaunted his proclivities. Never compelled her to accede to behavior he knew she would find distasteful. His goal, as always, was to protect her, to save her from embarrassment or worse.
Franklin selected a letter at random from the pile and scanned the lines he knew only too well.
Setting the sheet aside, he placed a fingertip on the first of the color photos. Gingerly he pushed the picture up until the subject captured by the camera hidden in that apartment swam disturbingly into view.
As he studied that stark image, the lieutenant governor felt his initial sadness and regret hardening into implacable anger and outrage.
Abruptly, roughly, he grabbed the packet and marched to the shredder resting against the back wall. Turning it on, he fed the sheets one-by-one into the crosscut machine. The satisfying whine of the slicing blades filled the room. Only when he had offered the last photo into the maw of this technological censor did he become aware of his quickened breathing.
Mechanically, he yanked out the waste receptacle and hurried into the bathroom. Slamming open the white, wooden lid on the stool, he upended the basket and shook the bits of confetti into the toilet. He flushed the swirling bits then jerked the lever again for good measure.
Minutes later, he returned to his desk. Gulping down the rest of his wine, he grasped the stem, resisting an impulse to smash it against the wall.
From now on, he vowed silently to himself, there would be no more extended relationships. Short, single encounters would have to suffice. He could do it. He would do it. An appetite -- a hunger -- did not have to be obeyed. He retained control. In all things and in all ways, that truth reigned supreme.
Unlike the others, he knew he would one day be part of something far greater than himself. Unlike the others, he would be the prime agent of that transformation. Unlike the others, he would allow nothing to stand in his way.
His eyes flickered towards the darkened bathroom.
Nothing, at all.