An hour before start of business for office staff, two men were in the Chairman’s corner office on the twentieth floor of the state office building. It offered a sweeping view of the city and the river that ran through it. Neither was interested in the view…continued below. (Wikipedia Commons image)

HARRISBURG, PA: THE PLOT THICKENS

State of Control Draft, copyright WRBJr Living Trust

7am Eastern Daylight Time

An hour before start of business for office staff, two men were in the Chairman’s corner office on the twentieth floor of the state office building. It offered a sweeping view of the city and the river that ran through it. Neither was interested in the view. The door was locked against early-bird clerks or favor-currying junior execs.

The Chairman read from an open file on his desk while his visitor shifted from foot to foot, trying not to be obvious about it. His boss would take it for nervousness. It was just that his feet hurt; he hadn’t had much sleep.

“So she’s missing.” The Chairman looked up from the file. “And it’s a big mess. Cops all over looking for her. Did you know the State Police chief called me at home in Gettysburg?”

“No, sir.” James Keyes took the opportunity to shift his stance again. “I did not know that.”

Keyes had been in the office all night working the phones, trying to correct the blunder in Denver, while the Chairman was home on his apple farm. Presumably out of the loop. Keyes should have known better. The wily old pol seldom missed a step.

The Chairman smiled faintly. Keyes thought the big man loved disasters. He was a vast heavy man over six feet tall, well over three hundred pounds. Spreading jowls around an epic nose. Full head of fading hair once red, according to legend. Keyes noted uncharitably that a lot of red had migrated to his nose, courtesy of countless free samples with which the liquor industry plied Board members.

The Chairman all his life had been a hard-drinking, hard-living working man with large appetites, muscling his way through the labor-union movement to a key council position. He neglected to stop eating so much when he hung up his electrician’s belt to don funereal suits he thought befitted his role as behind-the-scenes political kingmaker. He’d bragged to Keyes he never paid for lunch or dinner, or a drink, in thirty years. Bread-breaking went with deal-making, the weight piled on, and the Chairman wore his poundage with pride. His present position was reward for throwing his considerable clout behind a winning gubernatorial candidate a few years back. So now he filled his capacious gut daily off expense accounts of liquor peddlers.

This morning his suit was a sober navy, his tie an unfortunate wide splash of what Keyes privately dubbed Capone-couture. His starched white shirt was dazzling and he smelled of expensive aftershave. “You could use some sleep, Jim,” he said. “Oh stop dancing and sit down. Smoke ’em if you got ‘em.”

The Chairman’s large hairless paw shoved a pristine glass ash tray across the polished surface of a desk that could serve in a pinch as a helicopter landing-pad. Keyes sank gratefully into a green-leather visitor’s chair and lit a Pall Mall, only person permitted to smoke in this room. Cigarettes were one nasty habit the fat man had avoided. Keyes also was the only Board employee who could press this man. “The State Police chief?” he prompted.

“He offered to send a couple plainclothes troopers to Colorado, fixed with our U.S. Marshal to make them federal deputies.”

“You said no of course.”

“Never say no, Jim. I said wait, don’t ruffle official feathers out there till there’s something to go on.”

Keyes was tired enough to voice his deepest fear. “You think it’s possible some federal agency has her in protective custody?”

“There were a lot of RICO federales at the conference Thornton sent her to.” The Chairman wasn’t smiling anymore. “You think she might be?”

Keyes answered with a question. “Did Thornton know what she was up to?”

“Now Jim, I have no way to know. Not unless he volunteers it. Do I?”

“Does Thornton’s report give us any idea?” Keyes had learned early in his career to read upside-down documents.

“This is just the basics: one dead, one wounded, our gal missing. Cops link her to the victims since her purse and watch were found at the scene. No sign of her laptop in the garage, or her car, or her room.”

“The survivor is cool, well taken care of,” Keyes said quickly. “Smythe’s contacts secured local representation to put him in a convalescent center with private security guards. He hasn’t told cops a thing. He won’t. He’s a pro.”

“Some tough guys Smythe’s people turned loose on one lonesome little gal,” the Chairman said dryly.

Keyes knocked ash off his cigarette and glanced around surreptitiously. The Chairman laughed with his whole vast frame, jowls jiggling. Behind his back people called him Jabba the Hut. If he understood the reference he probably would consider it complimentary. “You worried about my politically incorrect terminology for women, Jim? Or a tape recorder?”

“You’re in high good humor this morning,” Keyes said tonelessly.

“Aww, Jim, you’re just tired. Don’t worry about any recordings. All us top leaders learned our lessons from Watergate. No recordings. As for notes, the perfect twentieth-century executive is illiterate and has a rotten memory.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We never write things down and can’t remember shit, Your Honor.” The Chairman’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe your surviving tough guy is executive quality.”

The big man always got like this when somebody screwed up. “They came well- recommended.” Keyes hated the supplication in his voice.

“Relax, Jim. If anybody fucked up it was me and my sexist attitudes. I told Smythe go for a simple strong-arm, no guns. Shake her up, maybe get her wetting her panties. Shouldn’t joke about having a lousy memory. I’ve got her personnel file here.” He gave a windy sigh. “Our little Annie Oakley out-shot all central-district’s enforcement officers on range qualification last year. Won going away.”

“Won?”

“Thornton thought it was funny, her out-shooting all those macho guys. Got me to sign her top-gun certificate myself. Her husband runs a damn gun store with an indoor range. He taught her well. You like foreign films, Jim?”

“Some,” Keyes said cautiously. “Why?”

“Your baboons took on our very own Femme Nikita.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Never mind. She’s missing. So is that damned laptop of hers. Everything is in a hell of an uproar.” Keyes realized he wasn’t calm as he acted. “That ain’t even the baddest news.”

“It’s bad enough,” Keyes said. “What else?”

“Thornton put Dillon Rice on the case, Jim.”

“What can Rice do the Colorado cops or a couple state troopers can’t?”

“Rice is a liquor-enforcement specialist, Jim. None of these others is. And Rice is the best there is. A shoo-in for cross-commission to the black-leg Cossacks if they take over our tied-house enforcement.”

Black-leg Cossacks: striking coal miners’ contemptuous appellation for the Pennsylvania State Police, viewed as no more than a mounted force of strikebreakers. Subsequent decades of professionalism stood for nothing in the Chairman’s fiercely pro-union book. A discussion not worth having again.

“What’s Rice going to do?”

“Backtrack everything our gal has done. Every case file since we transferred her to Enforcement from Central Stores audit.”

Keyes’ stomach knotted around his hasty breakfast. No one knew what Tory Poindexter might have left lying around in the way of hard copies. “Can’t you stall him?”

“Yeah. But I won’t. Thornton’s no fool. We can’t give him anything to get hold of. Not with cops playing this as a cop down in the line of duty. Thornton’s got too many friends among the tin-badge brotherhood.”

“So what do we do?”

“I told Thornton I want you to back Rice up. You used to be good at this paper-chase stuff before you were promoted.”

“That might work. But Rice doesn’t like me.”

“Work through Thornton.”

“Thornton doesn’t like me either.”

“What, you running for Miss Popularity all of a sudden?” The Chairman was smiling again. “Make ’em like it. And keep me posted. Often.”

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.