Maren Kane could barely make out the yellow dividing line a few feet in front of her through the thick, grey valley fog. Her shoulders tensed as she gripped the steering wheel, unsure which direction the narrow country highway would take next. The speed limit sign at 50 in reflective paint seemed a cruel joke.
Maren was in her fourth year as chief lobbyist at Ecobabe Inc., a start-up specializing in modern, environmentally-friendly toys and games without screens—child-size entertainment that didn’t need to be plugged in. She was late to a breakfast fundraiser with a local legislator in Clarksburg, fourteen miles south of her home in Sacramento.
A headache was building behind her eyes. Heavy mist wrapped the windshield like layers of gauze, rendering the wipers useless. Then she saw two glowing red spots ahead of her in the gloom—brake lights. Relieved at having someone else to rely upon to navigate, Maren released one hand from the wheel and cranked up the heat. It was forty-eight degrees outside and her old VW Beetle lacked insulation. She had just begun to relax when the red lights that had briefly been her guide rose vertically in the air and vanished. No screeching, no crashing sounds—just floating lights in space, then nothing. Maren braked, straining to see where the lead car might have gone.
Able to make out a yellow mileage marker on the far side of the road—clear evidence of solid ground—she headed towards it, her Beetle coming to rest crookedly on the opposite shoulder. Heart pumping, she pulled on her coat, pushed the door open, and stepped out onto the blank landscape. Her long skirt already felt damp, her thick, dark hair heavy against her neck. But her boots provided steady purchase on the slippery concrete.
Crossing, she could see the sudden turn the driver had missed, continuing instead straight off the unguarded edge of the road. The white sedan lay upside down in a deep drainage ditch full from recent rains. Only the tires and bottom half were visible above the waterline, like an albino turtle stuck on its back.
Her chest constricted as she imagined what the driver must be feeling trapped inside—assuming he or she could feel anything. She stretched her neck side to side, quickly, as though preparing for a race. Maren was on her school swim team as a kid and could still beat the clock at the pool.
Removing her boots and jacket, she sat down on the edge of the ditch and lowered feet first into the freezing, dirty water. It smelled agricultural and industrial at the same time, of horses, cows, and solvent. She couldn’t quite touch bottom. Stroking head-up until even with the car, she inhaled deeply and went under.
Maren could see three figures, the driver in front and two small children in back. All suspended, inverted—feet up, heads down—held in by their seatbelts as water slowly filled the vehicle through gaps in the metal, the windows tightly closed. A toddler, her fine brown hair in pink-ribboned pigtails, kicked and struggled against the restraints, crying frantically. A boy next to her, no more than five or six, was surprisingly stoic, reaching out his hand to pat his baby sister’s arm.
The elderly woman behind the wheel appeared unconscious, eyes closed and mouth slack. Her arms hung loosely in midair, the tips of her fingers submerged an inch deep in water pooling on the car’s ceiling, which now served as its floor.
Maren tried both front and back door handles—locked. The boy’s eyes widened, his mouth opened at the mermaid-like apparition, Maren’s face close to the glass, her dark, curly hair flowing with the current.
Gasping for air, Maren came up to consider her strategy in time to see a man striding across the road, out of the fog. Tall, with short dark hair and black-framed glasses, he wore a white dress shirt, red tie, and charcoal-grey suit pants—a lawyer or accountant who had also stopped to help. Then she noticed the large handgun he was holding by his side.
Breaking into a jog, the man pulled off his glasses and dropped them to the pavement, then jumped into the overflowing drainage ditch, splashing gritty water in her face.
Is he planning to kill the car?
Maren submerged to find he had the gun flush against the front side window, angled up towards the floor. He pulled the trigger, the sound muffled, then repeated the process on the back window, aiming carefully above the young passengers’ feet. The toddler’s cries escalated to shrieks, audible even underwater.
On the plus side, he had opened an escape route by blasting out the glass. But the benefits were sure to be short-lived as water rushed into the car threatening to envelope the occupants, helpless in their seats.
Maren surfaced, filled her lungs with air again, and dove down hard, swimming into the hull of the vehicle. She ignored the needle-like jabs on her right arm as she scraped across broken glass atop the door, and focused on working the booster seat clasp open for the older child as water rose rapidly around them. On the other side, the man was wielding a large bowie knife to cut the webbed straps on the girl’s car seat.
Maren mimed to the boy to take a deep breath. He complied as she pulled him to her, kicking against the current. As she and the boy broke the surface he coughed violently. Once out of the ditch, Maren retrieved her coat from below the fog and wrapped it around the shaking child. Although pale, he stopped coughing and seemed to be breathing regularly. The man, his dress shoes sloshing and water dripping from his hair and clothes, appeared with the toddler. A muscular chest and well-defined arms clearly visible through his soaked shirt caused Maren to revise her earlier assessment of his profession—this was no desk jockey. She wondered if he might be an off-duty police officer or firefighter.
The girl was bawling loudly. When she saw her brother she tried to wriggle out of the man’s arms, her round face getting redder as she gathered steam.
Maren scooped up the man’s glasses just before he stepped on them. He freed one hand to take them, then gestured with his chin towards the fog-shrouded image of a large blue Ranger ahead by the side of the road, engine rumbling, lights on, and heater blasting.
“Please, get in the truck,” he said. “We have to get the kids into town and medical care.” His voice was calm despite the writhing girl in his charge.
He doesn’t sound like a weapons dealer, Maren thought. Although traveling with a handgun and bowie knife does raise questions.
Then she remembered the woman.
“What about the driver?” she mouthed, not wanting the children to hear.
He shook his head.
She pursed her lips tightly at the realization the woman hadn’t made it.
The older child felt something between them. “I want Grandma,” he said looking up at Maren with clear, brown eyes and a deep frown, still shivering despite the jacket.
“We’ll come back for her,” Maren said, hating what that really meant, offering what she hoped would be true to soften it. “She would want us to get you somewhere warm.”
As she spoke she became aware of a sensation of lightheadedness and weakness, the aftermath of the excess adrenalin she’d fired off in the rescue. Her arms threatened to give way under the weight of the boy.
The man was already at the truck, the toddler wailing now as the space between her and her brother had grown. Maren adjusted the boy more firmly against her hip, ignoring the resulting strain, and willed her legs to carry them across the road.
The large blue truck smelled like mint and something sweeter. As Maren opened the passenger door the little girl let out a sob of relief at the sight of her brother. Maren set him on the bench seat of the truck. His sister crawled onto his lap, her thumb in her mouth as she laid her head against his small chest.
Although the truck didn’t look new, the interior was spotless—not a speck of dust in the nooks and crannies of the dashboard. The only thing out of place was a donut box askew on the floor. She lifted and opened it to give the girl a chocolate-covered donut. The child’s crying as she took a tentative bite, then another, alternately whimpering and chewing. The boy refused the treat. Arms wrapped tightly around his sister, his eyes were focused in the distance towards the water. Maren felt a chill as she wondered whether the intensity of the young boy’s stare meant he was waiting for his grandma, or saying goodbye.
As Maren climbed in next to the two children, she noticed in the extended cab on the floor behind the driver’s side a new-looking briefcase. It was emblazoned in gold with the initials “AJ” above an imprint of the official California State Seal.
“It’s great to see you,” Maren said, rising to give Noel a hug. He stood stiffly—not stepping away, but unresponsive. Maren knew Noel had difficulty with demonstrations of affection, but she occasionally needed to touch him. He was, after all, her baby brother. She smiled, for a moment able to leave behind thoughts of the submerged car.
Maren had secured one of the few remaining noon hour window seats at Café Trista. Two blocks from the capitol building, it was typical of casual eating spots in Sacramento—comfortable without being cozy, with tables far enough apart to avoid being easily overheard and ample lighting to see and be seen. In the familiar environment it seemed to Maren that days instead of only hours separated her from the morning’s events.
In the emergency room a nurse had spirited away the children while Maren was ushered to a treatment room where another nurse cleaned her arm of glass from the car window. A tall, dour hospital representative appeared briefly to explain that the boy was able to provide a phone number for his parents, who were on their way. She also learned that her fellow Good Samaritan, “AJ”, had stated he was unhurt and declined observation before leaving.
Once home, Maren had taken a hot shower then made a cup of herbal tea. Settled on the sofa, she placed a call to Polly Grey, a state administrator originally from England who lived across the street and over the past five years had become Maren’s closest friend. As Maren recounted the story to Polly she felt a lessening of her fatigue. Still, even her friend’s reassuring words couldn’t silence echoes of the fear Maren had felt when successful rescue of the children had seemed anything but certain. Nor had being safe at home eased Maren’s memory of the driver’s limp form, the elderly woman oblivious to the rushing water as it had engulfed her.
Maren forced her thoughts to the present.
“Why don’t you order?” she asked Noel. “I’ll hold our table.”
Noel turned towards the counter abruptly, as though directed by remote control rather than a warm, sisterly suggestion. She watched his retreating figure. Tall and thin in an oversized, slouchy beige trench coat and 1930s-style fedora, he looked more like a wannabe FBI agent or a flasher than his true identity—a thirty-four-year-old scientist and epidemiology professor at the nearby University of California campus in Davis.
Maren and Noel shared piercing blue eyes, but the resemblance ended there. Noel’s hair was sandy and Maren’s deep auburn, nearly black. Maren, with high cheekbones, arched brows, and a beautiful smile was generally viewed as on the right side of pretty. But while Noel had a nice face and strong chin, he missed being attractive due to an indefinable coldness that descended wherever he went. Not a Dementor-level chill, but enough to make people start looking for the exit and a warmer setting not long after he arrived.
“You made the news,” Noel said, returning with a heavy blue mug and joining her at the tiny table without removing his coat or hat. “Top of the hour, local and national.”
Maren sighed, removed her teabag, and set it on the saucer. When she’d learned that her partner in the roadside rescue wasn’t Clark Kent sans Superman garb but instead Alec Joben, a former marine and newly elected state senator, she knew the already dramatic incident would be irresistible to the press. That, and the use of a gun and knife in the rescue—who doesn’t love a gun and knife story with a happy ending? Happy, since the death of the driver, Simone Booth, a longtime journalist turned freelance writer, appeared all but forgotten by everyone in the excitement and joy over the rescue of the two children. Everyone except the little boy, who asked Maren in the emergency room when they were going back to get Grandma.
Maren had seen Alec Joben on TV that morning. Shoulders back, the senator’s military bearing was offset by a softness around his dark eyes. She liked that Joben didn’t smile throughout the interview. He appeared to be genuinely affected by the tragic accident and disinterested in the attention he was getting for his role in the rescue.
Early reports were that it wasn’t fog that had caused the older woman to miss the turn—her heart had failed. It cut too close to home for Maren, who was only eleven when she and Noel found their mother lying on the kitchen floor, her face contorted, documenting the terrible pain of a heart attack. Pieces of a broken green bowl and salad were everywhere, and dinner never did get made. In only two days the doctors pronounced the situation hopeless, pulled the plug in intensive care, and their mother was gone. Their father disappeared a few weeks later, leaving the children with their grandmother. Maren and Noel still didn’t know where he was—if he was anywhere anymore.
Noel had never fully recovered. He’d learned too early that getting close to someone was a precursor to abandonment. Maren sometimes wondered what scars she carried that she didn’t see. For the sixteen years since her mother’s death and her father’s abandonment Maren had worn her mother’s simple gold wedding ring on a thin chain on her neck. Given to her mother by her father, it reminded Maren that she hadn’t always been without them.
Maren glanced at her watch, confirming that she needed to leave for her scheduled lobbying appointment or she’d be late. After a last bite of blueberry scone she asked Noel whether he had time to walk with her to the capitol building—perhaps his stern expression and inability to make small talk would shield her from colleagues with questions about her newsworthy experience.
Noel didn’t answer. She followed his gaze to his nearly full mug and wasn’t surprised when he stood and returned to the counter to wait his turn politely behind several customers placing long orders even though all he needed was a disposable cup. In apparent compensation for the discomfort he knew he generated, her brother adhered to a strict code of manners to make his way through the world. If Noel were born today, Maren suspected he would be tagged in childhood with one or more psychological or medical diagnoses—perhaps to a good end, perhaps not. She’d seen it go both ways.
While Noel navigated the coffee crowd Maren watched out the window as the morning parade of legislators and lobbyists passed by. Most were in their Sacramento uniforms—dark suits, skirts, and sensible pumps for women, and red or blue ties for men. Maren dressed that way when she first started coming to Sacramento but learned over time that embracing her unique fashion sense yielded advantages. Legislators might not remember Maren Kane’s name, but when they saw her red, western-style boots, they knew they could pick up on a conversation with her started months earlier.
Maren donned her coat and the siblings crossed L Street, passing through the rose garden behind the large, white-domed building that housed California legislators and their staff since the 1860s. Built in the same Roman style as the congressional building in Washington, DC, though on a smaller scale, the designers of California’s capitol building opted to literally guild the lily, setting a gold cupola atop the white dome and capping that with a large copper ball, nearly three feet in diameter, plated in gold coins. Maren once reflected that while Hollywood might be California’s uncontested modern seat of glamour, Sacramento had set the stage by dressing up its legislative quarters years earlier.
* * *
“You don’t need to take those off.”
The young man in front of Maren was kneeling, untying one shoe, his belt already unbuckled.
“It’s not like the airport,” Maren said. “The metal detector here is old school. With luck a gun might be enough to set it off.”
Besides, she thought, in the capitol elected officials are most likely to kill one another, and they don’t always get screened. She had an image of Alec Joben running, gun in hand.
Maren hadn’t processed Joben’s looks at the time of the rescue. In retrospect, she found he was undeniably “tall, dark, and handsome,” almost to the point of cliché. Not a bad thing, but Maren was more intrigued by his demeanor and apparent compassion when he was interviewed about the accident. She found herself curious as to whether the new senator was married.
The young man stood awkwardly, restoring his belt to status quo while taking in Maren Kane’s curly, dark hair and western-style boots. “Are you one of the artists?” he asked.
Artists? Then she saw his name, scrawled on a sticker placed at a skewed angle on his chest. “Ed Howard, California Artists Association, Lobby Day in Sacramento.”
She was interrupted by Tamara Barnes, a young aide to the governor dressed in a chic, cream-colored suit with a pleated skirt and fitted jacket calling to her from the other side of security. Maren stepped out of line as a capitol guard approached her. “Ms. Kane, Ms. Barnes asked that you be given priority entrance.”
By the time Maren produced her ID, twenty-six-year old Tamara had started down the hall, her stylish grey pumps clicking efficiently on the tiled floor. She motioned to Maren to catch up.
Tamara Barnes had a classic Irish look, shoulder-length, red-orange hair that could never have come from a bottle, translucent skin peppered with barely there freckles, and a lithe, dancer’s physique. It was rumored, bolstered by her new, baby-blue BMW coupe, that she was a trust fund baby who didn’t need a job but who chose public interest work for that rarest of reasons, a pure heart.
“I heard about this morning, the accident. Two children trapped—that must have been so frightening,” Tamara said.
“It was, “ Maren said. “But once I was able to go home, dry off, and change it felt better to be here.”
Tamara nodded. A compulsion to work was a prerequisite to success in the capitol. They turned the corner and skirted three legislators in heated debate by the elevator. The two women stopped when they reached the heavy, wooden double doors marking the outer entrance to the governor’s suite of offices.
“Ecobabe have anything interesting this year?” Tamara asked.
Maren’s Sacramento-based organization was known for sponsoring bills intended to protect children from environmental and safety hazards—time-consuming work, but consistent with the fledgling firm’s desire to stand out in the highly competitive toy and game market. With a varied background that included economic and legal training, Maren juggled multiple responsibilities at the small start-up. But her primary role was as their registered lobbyist, enabling her to personally sell policymakers on Ecobabe’s legislative ideas and, not incidentally, to save Ecobabe investors the hefty cost of external lobbying fees.
“Senate Bill 770, a ban on cell phone use while driving,” Maren said.
“Didn’t we do that already?” Tamara frowned, delicate lines creasing her forehead.
“Last year’s law requires driver cell phones to be hands-free—with a headset or speakerphone. Our new proposal would prohibit all mobile phone use while operating a car in California, hands-free or not.”
“That’s not far afield for a toy company?” Tamara asked.
Market studies indicated that Ecobabe’s promotion of the company’s legislative activism on behalf of children’s safety was instrumental in building the firm’s small but loyal customer base. Far afield? Maybe. But definitely smart.
“Safer, screen-free driving will save lives,” Maren said. “And it reflects Ecobabe’s ethos that simpler is better.”
A reedy voice cut in. Caleb Waterston was out of breath, having hurried to intercept them. “Tamara, so good to see you. And Maren, I’d know those red boots anywhere, heh heh heh.”
A successful contract lobbyist in his early fifties, Waterston was known for taking any client if the money was good. He also had a soft spot for Hollywood types. He had once bartered his lobbying services to a B movie mogul who was seeking favorable zoning laws, in exchange for Waterston’s name as an assistant producer when the credits rolled.
Maren regarded Caleb’s ruddy, wizened face, the nearly colorless, deep-set grey eyes, and pencil-thin reddish mustache. His trendy suit and wild abstract art tie were expensive but did little to complement his Ichabod-Crane-like physique. Not an ounce of fat anywhere, Waterston’s ungainly head—the only big thing about him—seemed to perch precariously on his narrow neck. He reminded Maren of the “bobbleheads” they gave out at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when she went to baseball games there as a kid.
“I’m looking forward to our meeting, Tamara,” he said. “Pointing the compass north, heh heh. I’ll see you then.”
Pointing the compass? The man makes no sense, Maren thought.
Waterston leaned in and kissed Tamara lightly on the cheek before leaving. Maren recoiled involuntarily despite the fact that Caleb hadn’t touched her. But she noticed Tamara’s expression was oddly flat. While some lobbyists were more touchy-feely than others, Maren didn’t remember Waterston being one of them. In any case, such familiarity rarely extended to the governor’s staff.
Tamara disappeared inside the suite without comment. She seemed to have forgotten Maren was there. But within a minute she’d returned—Maren was only a few steps down the hall.
“I’m sorry. That was rude of me,” Tamara said.
“No, it’s fine.”
Tamara persisted. “I’d like to see your new bill on cell phones and driving—Senator Rickman’s, is it?”
Tamara’s parting offer to Maren was generous since lobbyists queued up to get the attention of the governor’s staff. And Tamara was unaware that Maren’s private history with Governor Raymond Fernandez meant Maren could ask him to look at the cell phone bill herself.
* * *
Senator Rorie Rickman’s reception area was like a Minnie Mouse version of the real thing—two little chairs, a tiny desk, and a candy bowl. Maren was greeted by the senator’s scheduler, Hannah Smart. Her dishwater blonde hair was in a ponytail. She wore no makeup and likely weighed in at under one hundred pounds.
Maybe she’s all they have room for.
Still, Hannah seemed to know the drill, accepting Maren’s Ecobabe business card and entering something on her computer in a professional manner. But whether it was Maren’s vitals or the girl’s Facebook status update, Maren couldn’t tell.
As Maren was looking for a seat that would support a grown-up, Sean Verston, Senator Rickman’s chief of staff, came out from a back office to greet her. Twenty-seven years old, over six feet tall with short, rusty-brown hair ending in bangs that flopped at odd angles over his forehead, there was something of an oversized, happy golden retriever in his demeanor.
“Nice tie,” Maren said, a standing joke between them.
When Sean Verston graduated from Georgetown University he interned for a summer in Maren’s office. When she decided to rent the attached studio at her new home he was her first tenant, staying until he completed his Masters in Public Policy at Sacramento State. He moved closer to the capitol building when he entered the Young Fellows program, before being promoted by Rickman to be her right-hand man. Maren had recommended him for the position.
Maren felt maternal towards Sean, similar to the role she had with her brother Noel but amplified by the fact that she experienced Sean as much younger than his chronological age. Partly it was Sean’s looks—he could have passed for twenty. But it was also that he didn’t seem to have matured in the time she’d known him. A week rarely went by that he didn’t check in with her with a question or a funny anecdote about a legislator’s gaffe in the same manner and tone as when he was fresh out of college. For her part, Maren took seriously her role as Sean’s mentor as he rose through the ranks of legislative staffers.
In all that time, Maren had never seen Sean take a fashion risk. He had many ties, but they were all some version of blue with red stripes. A few might be red with blue stripes, but really, that was it.
Sean’s phone vibrated and they were called inside.
Rorie Rickman gestured for Maren to sit in one of the plush chairs across from her. Sean took the other.
“Good of you to wait,” said the senator. “Are you ok? I saw the news.”
A pediatrician and the only physician in the legislature, Rickman was in her sixties. Her southern California birthright showed. Tall, lean, with stylish, short blonde hair, she looked like a lifeguard who had aged well. A small gold cross on a chain around her neck, she was known to be a devout Catholic who carried do-gooder bills like the cell phone proposal and volunteered her medical services at the free clinic for homeless and foster children in West Sacramento. Rickman was rumored to be planning a run for governor when she finished her term as senator.
“It was … hard,” Maren replied, searching for the right word. “But the doctors said the children will be fine.” She didn’t mention the journalist, not wanting to extend conversation about the morning’s events. She sat up straight, all business, hoping Rickman would take the cue. “I’ll have the press release ready for your office this afternoon. It highlights new evidence that driving using a hands-free cell phone is no safer than driving while holding the phone. It’s the distraction that matters.”
“Still, Health Committee won’t be a walk in the park,” Sean said. As he spoke he rested his phone on his thigh so he could eye incoming texts, using one hand to scroll down the screen.
“Sean’s right,” Maren said.
He looked up, grinning. “Could that be in doubt?”
Maren let out a breath, unaware she’d been holding it in. She realized Sean’s was the first real smile directed at her that day. News of the accident and her perceived heroics had spread rapidly through the capitol—everyone seemed eager to convey concern, support, and sadness. But while it might have been immature of Sean to fail to take the early morning tragedy or her role in it to heart, she found the moment of normalcy to be exactly what she needed.
“We’ll get the bill out of committee, we have the votes,” Maren said. “But if there’s a partisan fight, it will be tough to move it off the senate floor.”
Rickman was reviewing a file on her desk while listening to the exchange— everyone in the capitol had to do two things at once most of the time. But at Maren’s confirmation of potential problems, she pushed the folder aside. “Governor Raymond Fernandez ran on being able to forge bipartisan bonds. We’ll need votes from both parties to get his signature.” The senator’s lips pursed tightly as she looked at Maren.
“Republican leadership will be tough to get on board,” Maren acknowledged. “They’ll likely view the bill as a government takeover of personal rights—not an unreasonable concern to raise. But evidence that driving while on the phone, hands-free or not, endangers others is compelling. Hilary Garrisey’s death will make the case for us.”
Ms. Garrisey, a high school prom queen from Huntington Beach, Orange County, died on her seventeenth birthday when her boyfriend, driving while joking with a buddy via a hands-free phone, misjudged a lane change and collided with another car. Killing Hilary Garrisey instantly and putting a six-year-old child in the other vehicle in the hospital with two broken legs.
Sean looked at Maren to be sure she had finished. Then he turned his full attention to his boss. “That’s true, we might pick up Republican votes there.” Maren nodded. First stop would be the senator who represented the district where Hilary’s tragic accident occurred, building from there.
The plan settled, Maren was gathering her things in preparation to stand and shake the senator’s hand when she heard raised voices. Rickman’s receptionist came in just ahead of Tamara Barnes, both looking flushed and upset.
“Senator, so sorry to disrupt the meeting, but Ms. Barnes …”
“That’s alright, Hannah. Tamara, what is it?” Rickman looked, unsmiling, from one young woman to the other. The governor usually stayed out of the development of bills unless he had a serious objection, so an unscheduled visit from his staff was rarely good news for a legislator.
“She’s here to see Sean,” Hannah said.
Rickman’s shoulders visibly relaxed.
“Hannah, thank you. Sean, you and Ms. Barnes may use my office, I have to get to a caucus meeting.”
Maren reached for her bag to follow the senator out but stopped when she observed the expression on Tamara’s face, eyes glassy, near tears as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“I don’t know what to do,” Tamara said, focused only on Sean.
“It’s ok,” he said, placing an arm around her shoulder and guiding her towards the chair the senator had vacated. Tamara leaned against him, allowing herself to be helped into the seat. He knelt next to her, eye level, as one would do with a child.
“What is it?”
She didn’t answer, tears now overflowing her bright green eyes.
Sean spoke softly. “Tamara. It’s me. It’s alright.”
“I have to show you something,” she said. “The governor … it’s really too much to believe.” The young woman was trembling, gripping the small, heart-shaped gold locket she was wearing as though it would hold her together. “We’ve done something awful,” Tamara said. “I didn’t know how awful.”
“I’d like the Vegie Korma.”
Maren placed her order with the counter clerk at Saleha’s and headed to one of the many vacant tables. Although bustling at lunchtime, few of the small, casual restaurants around the capitol building stayed open in the evening. They lacked the large and active bar considered essential by most lobbyists and legislators to unwind or to continue political dealmaking. But Maren was looking only to relieve her hunger without running into more people who might ask about the morning news.
The delicious smell of curry and basil from the tiny kitchen convinced her she’d made the right choice.
Outside, the sun was down and the temperature was in the forties. Maren had her scarf off and one arm out of her coat and was considering what might be the cause of Tamara Barnes’s distress—and how Ray Fernandez, who had only been governor for three months, could possibly be involved—when she saw Senator Joe Mathis seated at a table against the opposite wall, obscured by a tall, potted ficus plant.
Smaller in number than the student body of many high schools and with group dynamics nearly as adolescent, the 120 state-level California legislators and their staff and lobbyists formed an exclusive Sacramento insider community. Members rarely ventured outside the capitol building or the few blocks around it during the workweek, leading to an “everyone in everybody’s business” small town atmosphere. This was made worse by the intensely confrontational nature of two-party politics—like the Hatfields and McCoys or the Capulets and Montagues, but in three-piece suits. Still, while Joe Mathis and Maren Kane had been adversaries on many bills, both knew it was nothing personal, just part of their respective jobs.
In his early 70s with a full head of graying hair, still trim and fit, the powerful leader of the Senate Republican Caucus raised his fork in greeting, his mouth full. Maren wondered why the senator was eating alone when his senate sistrict was local and he lived nearby. Then she remembered having heard that his wife died recently after a long illness. Maren collected her coat and scarf and walked towards him.
“I’ve just started,” Mathis said. “Join me?” Over thirty years her senior, Joe Mathis’s voice was soft as he stood to pull out a molded plastic chair for her then slid his dish over to make room on the small table.
It was an opportunity to educate Mathis on the merits of Ecobabe’s cell phone bill and perhaps defuse Republican opposition. But weariness in the senator’s eyes made Maren hold off. She smiled as she sat down.
Swallowing a bite of spicy chicken, Mathis coughed and reached for his water before asking, “Long day?” The waiter set Maren’s colorful vegetable dish and a basket of freshly made flatbread in front of her. “I knew Simone Booth,” Mathis said. “ Funny old bird, but I remember when she was feted for her role in ferreting out the so-called ’Soft-Shell Killers’ in New York —nominated for a Pulitzer, I think.”
It was Maren’s turn to cough and reach for water as she bit down hard on a small, hot chili. Before she recovered Mathis continued—tired or not, he didn’t need her to respond to carry on a conversation. Not an unusual trait in a powerful politician.
“A ring of hijackers would stop trucks at night filled with the day’s fresh catch—lobster, fish, and soft-shell crabs—passing from Maryland into New York,” Mathis said. “They’d sell the contents of the heist to restaurants with ties to organized crime—ones that weren’t too picky about where they got their raw materials for the fancy dishes they served their clientele. A mobster in the mood for fresh seafood was not to be denied. It was the perfect crime since the evidence was eaten daily.” Mathis smiled impishly at the thought. The pall that surrounded him lifted and he looked years younger.
“I know that story,” Maren said. “Wasn’t there a policeman who happened by one of the trucks as it was being robbed, tried to intervene, and was killed?”
“Yes. And Booth’s dogged reporting brought so much pressure on the gang—she seemed close to uncovering their identities—that one of them broke, confessed, and the whole lot went down. Death penalty for the shooters. Quite dramatic.”
But Maren had lost the thread. She paled as the thought of Simone’s body returned to her.
Mathis cleared his throat and moved to easier topics—the unusually cold weather for March, the annoying construction on the north side of town. The rest of the meal passed pleasantly enough.
“Can I give you a lift?” Mathis asked as they bussed their dishes. He spoke casually, not looking at her. She suspected he was putting off the inevitability of being alone. Maren usually walked the fifteen blocks between the capitol and her home in Sacramento’s midtown—a way to fit exercise into her busy life. But she said yes to Joe Mathis. No harm in a warm ride home.
The senator wanted to retrieve a file from his office before picking up his car, so he and Maren walked to the capitol building first. As Mathis used his key card to access the private entrance for legislators and staff, they agreed they would meet by the governor’s suite once Mathis had what he needed from his office upstairs. In the meantime, the multiple cups of tea and water Maren had drunk to offset her spicy entrée prompted her to visit the women’s bathroom.
The halls of the statehouse were empty. In a place where conversation was prime currency the quiet was unsettling. Maren dismissed the prickly feeling as she passed the bronze statue of a grizzly bear donated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was in office, the public restroom in sight. Her heavy satchel in one hand, she used her shoulder to push open the door. It was a large space meant to accommodate tourists, with places to sit and take a break from the crowded hallways. A room-freshener-style lavender scent did little to mask the odor of disinfectant. Bright fluorescent lights buzzed overhead.
Tamara Barnes lay on her back on a short sofa by the wall, just inside the entry. A full-length mirror reflected the girl’s pale skin and soft features. Her eyes were lightly closed, her mouth relaxed, and her arms crossed over her stomach. Maren might have thought Tamara was resting if not for the blood covering the front of her cream-colored jacket and pooling on the cushions beneath her.
For a moment Maren wondered why people in movies were depicted as letting out a shrill scream when they saw a body. She was certain she couldn’t make a sound if her life depended on it. Legs shaky, she crossed to the sofa and pressed her fingertips to the inside of the young woman’s wrist. She couldn’t locate a pulse. She leaned in, her cheek inches from Tamara’s mouth, hoping to feel her breath.
Maren became acutely aware of her own heartbeat. It felt loud and uneven. She struggled to swallow. Two bodies in one day.
But she got hold of herself and retrieved her cell phone from her shoulder bag.
“9-1-1,” the operator answered, his voice matter-of-fact.
“There’s been … an accident,” Maren said, her mouth dry, the words barely audible. She saw more blood—on the wall and on the floor. Deeper in tone than the girl’s glossy hair, the splatter created a grotesque palette of reds in the white-tiled room.
Maren’s vision blurred. She felt nauseous and cold.
“Ma’am? Are you there?” The dispatch operator tried again. “Ma’am, respond if you can.”
His voice centered Maren, if only barely. She mumbled, “I’m here,” and then did as she was told, leaving the line open as she tucked the phone into her jacket pocket.
Pressing a palm flat against the wall to steady herself, Maren eased into a sitting position on the near end of the sofa. Concentrating on slowing her breathing, she gently lifted Tamara’s hand and held it, offering comfort that could not be taken, and waited.