Murder in New Eden
by Charles C. Cole
Chapter 26: More Loners Than Lovers
Lois sits alone on a bench in Millennial Park, spitting distance from the pond, the paved walking path behind her. She holds a white scarf she’s found, which she’s tumbling in her hands. A woman walks by briskly, pushing a stroller.
A familiar man in sunglasses and black fedora approaches. Though we can’t see his eyes, his head twitches from left to right and back like an animatronic toyshop Santa, and we know he is casing his surroundings. He sits stiffly on the other end of the bench, as angular as a first-year typist. “Lois,” he says.
“Director Pelkey,” Lois replies. “I got your message. How can I help you?”
“When this thing breaks, I need someone up here to make it clear to the other topsiders that I’m on their side.”
“Our side.” He corrects himself.
“Did you tell the chief?”
“I tried. He doesn’t trust me.”
“What about Mayor Brandt?” asks Lois.
“I saw him. I wanted to talk. He wanted to play tennis. Guess which activity we did. He won, and then he won again.”
Lois glances around. Perhaps it’s due to paranoia, but she can sense curious eyes watching them. “You don’t think Dom might be having you followed, do you?”
“Why? I don’t know anything.”
“Just in case, let’s get this over with. Do you have any information for me to give the chief? Something that would convince him you’re on our side?”
“Dom doesn’t trust me, either, so no. I think he just keeps me around to spellcheck his speeches.”
“What do you want from me?” asks Lois, direct and to the point.
“A promise that I won’t get shot, knifed, beaten, immolated, drowned, or hung.”
“Not by me.”
“You know what I mean,” he says.
“Expecting violence, are we?”
“Aren’t we all?”
She still harbors hard feelings over his collusion with Dr. Valdez and, at least initially, has little sympathy for his circumstance. “In return, we get what?”
“The promise that I won’t do those same things to you or the people in the chief’s inner circle or any topsider.”
“That’s a meager offering, you know that.”
He reacts as if slapped across the face over a simple misunderstanding. “Lois, I’m trying. Ask me anything. If I know the answer, I’ll tell you, I swear. Or I will risk my life going back into that hellhole to find the answer.”
“When are they coming up? When should we expect them?”
“I have an idea, but I think Dom’s toying with me. He’s got a countdown sign. Every day he advances the number. We’re at 11. When we get to 15, he says it’s happening.”
“How does he know a day’s gone by, when to advance the number?”
“That’s a great question. I think he just guesses. It’s arbitrary. There’s no difference between day and night down there, from what I can see.”
“Do you have access to it?” asks Lois.
“Sure. It’s right in his office. Anybody has access to it.”
“What if you changed the number in the other direction, would he realize? Would it buy us more time?”
She’s really on the ball, thinking of nontraditional options, he notices. He’s impressed by the ‘decisive deviousness’ of the little old lady before him.
“Is that what you want me to do? It might work. It can’t hurt. He might not catch on. Dom gets distracted. He’s a visionary, a real motivator, but he’s not what you’d call a details guy. He leaves the mission minutiae to his minions, if you get me. So that’s it? I’m relieved. I had half-a-thought you might ask me to cut Dom’s throat while he slept, or something, not that I could have done it.”
They’re alone for a moment. He turns to her. As she meets his gaze, he observes a flesh-colored listening device nestled in her ear. Someone is giving her instructions! She covers the device with her hand self-consciously, almost as if it were a large mole she was hiding and for him to comment on it would be impolite.
Should he play along? Is it worth confronting her? It must be the chief, and his interest and involvement could only be a harbinger of good things ahead. “I’ll do it!” says Pelkey, a little louder than necessary for a confidential conversation that borders on mutiny, but he wants the chief to hear his commitment ‘directly’ while there’s time. “I can’t make any promises that it’ll make a difference, though. Say, what if it just ‘disappeared’? No, he’d notice that for sure. This is good. And easy. Come up with more tests of my loyalty, if it amuses you. I’ll do whatever you need. Short of stone-cold murder, I’m willing to earn my way back to the topside, you’ll see.”
Lois doesn’t answer immediately. She smiles but while staring beyond him toward the water, with one hand over her ear, like she’s either listening to a long instructional message from the chief or she somehow hasn’t heard a word he’s been saying.
“Director Pelkey,” she says at last, calmly but melodiously, perfectly mimicking Schiavelli’s practiced condescension for such times, “the chief says you have our attention and we wish you the best.”
“He said that? He just said that?” His voice cracks with genuine emotion. He turns to the nearest surveillance camera and salutes snappily, in case the chief is watching as well as listening.
“And,” adds Lois, moved to offer more than she’s been authorized, “he apologizes for not taking your previous offers seriously.”
“The hell I do!” snarls Schiavelli, sitting in his office, listening from afar. She winces as the volume jumps. “Stay on script, Lois, or I swear I’ll have Tabitha reorganize your filing system.”
“We look forward to your return to the mayor’s office where you belong.”
A cold bodiless voice only Lois can hear says, “We do? My mother always said if you put the frosting on too thick, it’s just going to fall off the butter knife.”
“Go downstairs, Toby. That’s where we need you. And don’t come back until you have something to report. It’s not worth the risk.”
“That’s more like it,” says the chief. “If he’s not going to help us, I sure as shooting don’t want him to hinder us.”
“Okay, I’ll stay away. I’ll do my part. Thanks for the chance. You tell the chief, if I had to do it over, I would have come to him earlier. I guess I figured it would have been my word, that of a self-admitted weaselly upstart politician, against the hallowed pronouncements of a local medical hero, Dr. Vittorio Valdez.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“Thanks for meeting me. You didn’t have to.”
“You deserved that much,” says Lois, sentiment from the heart.
Pelkey stands and looks down at Lois. He sighs. “That was pretty clever using my scarf to get my attention.”
“Is it yours? It was already here. You want it back?”
Lois hands it up to him. He take a step and freezes, memorizing her brave and loyal face, knowing full-well he should leave quickly while the terms are somewhat in his favor, but he has one more thing to add. “The first time I snuck up here, you were with Tabitha.”
“The granddaughter you’re taking care of while her parents are healing from Bernie’s meltdown.”
“Probably more important to you right now than anybody else on the station.”
“Where are you going with this, Toby?” Lois can almost “feel” the protective presence of the chief trying to will himself to her side through her ear-piece, to protect her from whatever’s next.
“I’ll kill him with my bare hands,” coos Schiavelli.
“I said I wouldn’t hurt any topsider, and I won’t. You have my sacred pledge. But if I see any of Dom’s aggressive thug-heads go anywhere near Tabitha, I promise I will do everything in my power to protect her, even if it means taking someone else’s life or sacrificing my own. Whatever happens in this coming war, she’s going to be okay. And I wanted you to know that.”
“Thank you, Toby.”
He makes a short bow and walks away.
“Well, that went better than expected,” whispers Schiavelli, followed by a long soft whistle.
“I’m going offline for a while. I can’t have you in my head right now,” says Lois, and she starts to remove the device from her ear. Interesting times.
“Wait there. I’ll drive by and pick you up,” says the chief.
Copyright © 2018 by Charles C. Cole