His Other Face
by Loren W. Cooper
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The old man moved slowly under the shadows of cold stone monuments, dragging a vast unseen weight, pulled grudgingly into a spiraling orbit around the center of power.
So it had always been; so it would always be.
At the East Front of the Capitol Building in Washington, Sara stepped out into the fading sunlight, unconsciously ran a careful hand along the sharp lapel of her suit jacket, looked down the steps at the ragged old man rising unsteadily to his feet from a seat at the bottom of the steps, and suppressed a sigh. As he began fumbling his way up the steps toward her, Sara went to meet him.
The old man’s miasma preceded him, a muscular scent of stale sweat and grime and the musky passage of time. As he approached, she set her briefcase on the step behind her. She caught one leathery hand with her own as the old man stumbled, gave him support, and managed a smile. “Better weather today, Ben, but it’s still cold out. You should be inside.”
Bright blue eyes, the delicate porcelain blue of a newborn’s, met her concerned gaze. “The sun’s out, at least. I love the light.”
She shook her head. “You’ll catch pneumonia. The snow’s on its way again. Have you gone to a shelter?”
He gave her a wry, gap-toothed smile. His face creased into countless lines. His age might be far less than it appeared, given the ravages of a life on the street, but the signs of a life of disappointment were clear to read. “I don’t like those places. Too much insincerity. Did it pass?”
Familiar with Ben’s obsessions, Sara wasn’t surprised at the question. “The Carver Bill? By a wide margin.”
Ben sighed heavily. “Mistake. Did you work for its support, Sara, or its downfall?”
She bent down to pick up her briefcase, refusing to look at him. “It was a good bill, Ben. There’s too much violence in the streets. The people wanted it. They needed it. It gives them security.”
He shrugged free of her hand. “Security? So it goes. Small freedoms always die away one by one in the name of security. How did Burns vote?”
She smoothed a stray lock of auburn hair from her face with an impatient gesture. “He came over reluctantly. It took the heart out of the opposition, to have their champion go to the other side.”
His head dropped to swing loosely between hunched shoulders. “I wondered when he’d make his move. Things will begin to fall into place for him now.”
“It wasn’t a good move for him,” Sara disagreed. “He sacrificed considerable support at home to vote his conscience.”
Ben gave her a bitter smile. “Listen to yourself, child. Such a one has no conscience. Open your eyes, Sara.”
Her lips quirked, and she stared at him for a moment in silence. “I don’t understand this unreasonable hatred you have for him.”
He shuffled down the steps as slowly and carefully as he had climbed them. He didn’t turn back to face her as he answered. “I assure you, Sara, that I have only the most reasonable hatred for him.”
As Ben reached the bottom of the steps and painfully retook his seat, a man in his late thirties, a little older than Sara, came to stand beside her. He wore his suit carelessly, creases starting to show at elbows and knees. “You have more tolerance than I do, Sara,” he said. “I don’t know how that old man stays alive on the streets.”
Sara gave the newcomer a long, flat look. “That old man could probably teach both of us a thing or two about survival, Richard.”
“Whatever.” He paused. “There’s been another one,” he said.
She checked his face for cues, but with his back to the sun, his features were cast in shadow. “What?”
He studied her from the darkness of the doorway. “The body was found in the retail district. In a shop, after hours. Care to comment? Off the record, of course.”
“Serial killers aren’t my line,” she told him bluntly. “You know that. I feed you enough information that you’d know of any movement in our elected representatives as soon as I would. Murder’s not a matter of daily business for a lobbyist, now is it?”
He came reluctantly into the light. “Depends on who’s involved.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You know something I don’t?”
Richard glanced at his watch. “We’re running late. We’ll talk more. Later. If you’re done with your grassroots constituency?”
Sara’s mouth tightened at Richard’s tone, but she said nothing as she turned back up the steps, retrieved her briefcase, and followed him down the steps and out into the street.
Ben watched them go, the sunlight shining in his eyes. People passed him by, coming and going on the business of their daily lives, and though he reached out to many, few even looked at him, and none of those few did more than thrust a crumpled bill into his hands. None stopped to talk. None regarded him as more than an obstacle. They couldn’t see past the mask, through the age-scarred flesh to all that lay beneath.
Crows skipped from tree to tree down the long boulevard, watching the people below. A stray yellow dog sniffed at a wrapper crumpled in the gutter. Cats prowled the shadows, eyes winking in the fading light.
Long after the sun had dropped below the horizon, the old man struggled to his feet, bent under a massive and invisible load, and shuffled off down the sidewalk under the streetlights, his shadow dragging thick and crooked behind him, like a chain.
* * *
“To a long, hard fight to keep our people safe!” Cheers and applause thundered through the ballroom. Sara clapped with the rest, smiling when she saw the familiar crown of golden hair float through the double doors at the end of the hall. Burns did know how to make an entrance, and his position behind the Speaker made it seem as if the applause was for him.
As if on cue, the Speaker of the House turned and held out a hand. “And here’s the man who made the difference in the Senate.”
Again the applause and cheers sounded, with no dampening of enthusiasm. Of course, Sara mused to herself, that crowd would cheer the Devil himself if he appeared as a supporter.
Burns took the applause gracefully, his smile slight, his expression sufficiently abashed to hint at his battle of conscience, but set enough to reflect the determination of a man bound to follow the dictates of that conscience. He had the face of a man to be trusted.
The crowd loved it. The applause lasted longer than Sara would have expected.
Richard leaned close enough for Sara to taste the sterile presence of vodka in his breath. “All that agonizing, and it turns out to be the best move he’s made yet. In terms of support, of course. According to the best sources, his original backers remain sympathetic, given his ethical struggle. None of us predicted that.”
Sara grinned. “Ben.”
“Ah, yes. Your grassroots constituency. Of course, according to the old man, Burns has hooves rather than feet. Cloven, naturally.” Richard snorted and took another hit from his glass: orange juice, only a little heavy on the vodka, as if no one would know or anyone would care.
It didn’t matter to Sara. Not then. It wasn’t as if Richard were alone in his celebration. And the other nights? Well, he wasn’t alone in that, either. D.C. wasn’t exactly the abode of saints.
Richard filled the murmuring silence as the crowd broke up to get serious about partying or networking, depending on which had been the main motivator for each person’s presence. “It hasn’t hit close enough to home yet.”
Sara nodded. “You mean the killings.”
Richard nodded, his eyes greedily fastened on the front of the room, where Burns moved in a circle of the bigger lobbyists and admiring politicians. “It’s stayed in the town, only taking street people. The ones who don’t vote. It’ll be different if one of them comes home to a body. They’ll be motivated then.”
Sara took her attention from the front of the room long enough to study Richard’s face. “Don’t wish that on anyone, Richard. Catching this bastard is only a matter of time.”
Richard spoke between breaths, his flushed face and shining eyes never wavering from the front of the room. “He’s taunting them, Sara. He’s showing them he can do what he wants, when he wants. It’s only a matter of time before he hits one of the politicians or a family member.”
Sara picked up on Richard’s mounting excitement and fought down a surge of disgust. “They’re sure it was him? This time?”
He grinned like a skull. “My colleagues on the homicide beat are. You know what an opportunity he is to them. Our own Ripper. There’s a Pulitzer there for someone.”
Sara felt her lip curl, and stepped away from him, moving deeper into the crowd.
Richard shot her a hungry glance. “We’ll talk later.” He moved purposely toward a heated discussion between two junior representatives and a well-known member of the Senate Ways and Means committee.
Sara hesitated. Her taste for mingling had just been fouled, and momentarily she wished for solitude and even a transient peace. But no lobbyist in her right mind would pass up such an opportunity. Then she felt a hand fall on her shoulder. She turned to look up into the smiling face of Burns. “Senator, congratulations.”
His blue-gray eyes traced the lines of her face. “Thank you, Sara. But you don’t seem to be celebrating.”
“Indigestion,” Sara said. The heat of his hand burned through the suit jacket to the flesh beneath the cloth. Sara shifted her weight from foot to foot, fighting the pressure of his presence.
“Ah.” Burns’ head turned to survey the crowd, lifting the weight of his gaze. “A pity. You should enjoy this moment more. It was our discussions that brought me to this point. Ironic, isn’t it, to be congratulated for conscience in Washington, of all places?”
She studied his profile and saw no sign of duplicity. “If you have such distaste for this place, why are you here?”
When he turned back, his smile had a hard edge, the lightest trace of mockery lurking beneath the surface. “Why, to change all that, of course. Why else play the game?”
She raised an eyebrow. “For power? It has no appeal?”
His smile blossomed to a grin. “Power? What power does a politician exercise, within so many limits, checks and balances? The system itself is constructed to prevent the abuse of individual power. It wisely relies not on good will or ethics but on the jealousy of other officeholders, who fear any diminishment of their own small spheres of influence.”
“Interesting point, Senator.” Richard appeared at Burns’ side, displaying the sense of timing that made him both dangerous and valuable to his editors on the Washington beat. “Would you say that power is more a matter of total rather than shared control?”
Burns nodded easily, his grin fading but not entirely disappearing, displaying no sign of discomfort at Richard’s appearance. “Yes. Power is all about control. The more absolute the control, the more absolute the power.”
Sara could see that predatory gleam in Richard’s eye that meant he thought he was on the scent of something juicy as he stepped closer to the Senator. “And there is no more absolute power than the power of life and death, is there?”
Burns’ eyes narrowed. Sara thought to protest, but the hint of hungry interest glinting in the depths of the Senator’s darkening gaze made her pause. She had the sudden incredulous impression that Burns enjoyed Richard’s probing.
“You’re talking about the murders, of course. Horrific. But you are correct. Find that killer, and you’ll find someone so obsessed with power that nothing but deciding the eternal question of life and death will bring satisfaction. Perhaps you’ll find someone disillusioned with politics.”
Richard chuckled politely, his teeth showing in an expression not quite a smile. “Perhaps. Then again, perhaps the killer has a stronger stomach than you think.”
The two of them locked eyes. Sara stood watching them, searching desperately for something to say. Before she discovered any words that might disarm the tension, Richard broke away and stumbled toward the door.
Sara shrugged helplessly as the Senator’s eyes flicked to her, and Burns’ smile returned easily, like the sun flashing between covering clouds. “It looks like Richard has had too much to drink, Sara.”
She nodded, watching shadows move in the depths of his eyes. A shiver worked its way up her spine. Burns’ eyes were cold, dappled with shades of light and darkness as if reflecting the light of a distant flame. Someone called his name and he turned, breaking the contact. He waved and, when he turned back to Sara, his eyes were the same flat blue-gray she had always known.
“Escort me, Sara?” He held out one arm courteously.
Sara could think of no good reason to refuse. She took his arm, and laughed at his jokes, and walked at his side as he moved through the crowd, a charming and strong presence in a troubling time. It didn’t surprise Sara that faces would turn toward such a man like flowers toward the sun. She felt the light and warmth of his charisma as powerfully as anyone in the room.
But she didn’t see Richard any more that night. And later, when she had made her way carefully back to the safety of her condo, she remembered none of the senator’s jokes, or the words he had spoken after the confrontation with Richard, but the image of icy eyes, dappled in shades of light and shadow, filled her dreams.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Loren W. Cooper