E. G. Fabricant
|From Matters Familiar. A scandal-plagued politician contemplates suicide, but checks in with his cousin first to sort things out.
Recreational soul mates Zev Brannan and Barney Isleton bobbed and dozed in Zev’s 18-foot Alumacraft northwest of the pier at Pinole Point, near where the Sacramento River empties into San Pablo Bay. As the silent November dawn cracked behind them, they shared the unspoken hope that not all the King salmon had found their way upriver, pursuing their evolutionary suicides. Sure, they’d settle for a trout or two; truth be told, they were grateful just to be out of the house—and on a Sunday morning, to boot. Barney cradled his rod and fished a beer out of the cooler, opening it with some difficulty. “Durned arthur-itis.” He neglected to rotate the EZ-open tab a quarter turn and it tore out a mustache hair at the first draught. “Gol-DANG it!”
Zev reeled in his bait, inspected it, and recast. “You rather be in church with the old lady this mornin’?”
“Point made,” Barney said. He stood to stretch, and his eye caught a lumpy mass riding the current about 70 yards to starboard. “Hey! What you suppose that is?”
Zev peered through the mist layering the opaque olive waters. “Looks like deadfall to me.”
“Let’s check it out.” They laid aside their gear, and Zev fired up the Evinrude while Barney hauled in the drift anchor. As they motored alongside, Barney hooked the shape’s far edge with a gaff and rolled it over.
Zev flinched. “Mother a God!”
A male face, handsome in spite of its pale bloat, surfaced, the well-dressed trunk and appendages sinking away from it. “What do you suppose—”
“Hold on a minute,” Barney said. “I know this guy!”
The Commissioner admired the sapphire blue California sky over Vallejo through the front passenger window. All the clouds, it seemed, were inside his head. He studied the pump-action shotgun bracket-mounted vertically above the transmission hump. At the wheel in plainclothes, California Highway Patrol Sergeant Ernesto Nuñez noticed, and prepared himself for the usual question—but with more steel. Ernie: Don’t laugh this time; it wouldn’t be appropriate.
“So, Ernie,” Insurance Commissioner John Quincy “Jack” Quisenberry asked, “when are you going to let me break that bad boy out and squeeze off a few?”
Ernie checked his left outside mirror in case he softened prematurely. “No can do, sir.” He couldn’t help himself; he cracked a smile and turned back. “When you going to stop asking me?”
Jack wasn’t smiling this time. “Well, Ernie, my man—since the hearings start Monday, that may have been the last time.”
Shit, Ernie thought. Nice going, pendejo—the only statewide elected official in memory who’s treated his details as equals is going down, and you go and stick your foot in it! He focused on his hands gripping the wheel and the horizon beyond them.
Jack read Sgt. Nuñez’s discomfort; by reflex he came to his rescue. “Cheer up, Ernie. Maybe the next guy will drink real beer, instead of that Colorado Kool-Aid I like.” Satisfied at seeing his driver’s jaw and fingers relax, Jack resumed his dark reverie. How did it come to this? he wondered. Military combat pilot. High-concept marriage. Business credentials. Three Assembly terms as a journeyman moderate. Elected and re-elected to a third-rail office, to which I brought management skills and, God forbid, results. Now I’m probably a fortnight away from being run out of Sacramento—and without benefit of electorate, unlike the other guy. He came out of it when he saw the Maritime Academy exit sign.
“The Carquinez coming up, sir.” Sgt. Nuñez eased the Dark Blue Pearl Crown Victoria over and onto the right shoulder, pulling in behind a white CalTrans pickup. A hard-hatted employee in engineer semi-formal and orange safety vest got out and presumed to guide him to a stop.
Jack produced a business card and scribbled on the back. He handed it to Sgt. Nuñez. “Here, Ernie. After you drop me, head into the City and pick up this guy at the Chronicle. He’s expecting you; his office number is on here. Bring him here and call me when you arrive. You’ve got my cell number, right?”
The sergeant nodded. Jack stepped out and the sergeant pulled away. Jack had scarcely buttoned his topcoat before the excitable engineer was on him. “Good afternoon, Commissioner,” he said. “Supervising Engineer Steve Soblett at your service.” His fellow bureaucrat shook Jack’s hand vigorously, telegraphing that he hadn’t been this far above his station too many times. “Your driver radioed us you were coming by. To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“Call me Jack,” the Commissioner said and clothed himself in amiable officiousness. “As you know, Engineer Soblett—”
“Call me Steve, sir?”
“—Of course…Steve, it is. As you know, I’m a member of the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge Dedication Steering Committee. I had business in the Bay Area,” he lied, “and I wanted to take a minute to check on things before Saturday’s ceremony. You know, before things get crazy here, generally and—well, for me, next week in the Capitol. You think that’d be okay, Steve?” He treated his conscripted host to a megawatt campaign smile.
“Uh, a bit irregular, sir—uh, Jack,” Steve said, massaging his neck. “A little late in the day to get clearance from Sacramento…I don’t suppose it would do any harm, though.”
“That’s great, Steve. I always appreciate initiative—never miss a chance to reward it in my own department. Walk me over to the South Tower?”
“Uh—the South Tower, Commissioner?”
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