Rodney Jessup, the pious presidential candidate from THE COMBAT ZONE, asks Cody Harper for help. Someone is threatening Jessup's life and it's up to Cody to find the perpetrator. When Cody arrives at Jessup's palatial estate in Virginia, he meets Tony Vargas, a man Jessup has hired to be his bodyguard. Cody and Tony's attraction heats up while a killer stalks Jessup and his family.
New York City--1996
Bill Clinton won the presidential election in November. To say I was underwhelmed was an understatement. The news came in over the television networks as I drank an espresso at a Greenwich Village coffee shop. Bob Dole and Ross Perot had failed to unseat Clinton and I wanted the whole election process to be over. A few patrons stood, lifted their coffee cups high, and applauded. I lit a cigarette, took another sip, and returned to a book of poetry by J. D. McClatchy.
As far as I was concerned, the whole Reverend Rodney Jessup affair had ended any faint love affair I had with politics.
Like a stumbling race horse, Jessup never made it out of the gate. He was disgraced--as washed up as the plastic bottles that littered the Hudson. The preacher turned presidential candidate took his exit sometime in April when he withdrew his candidacy from the race. That's what a sex scandal will do to a pretender to the throne. John Dresser, Stephen Cross's boyfriend, had precipitated Jessup's fall after I found Stephen, a victim of the Combat Zone killer, dead. All it took was the Reverend's recovered thumbprint and the name of a New York City porn theater written on one of his old business cards. The fact that Stephen's former New Haven address was scrawled on the card didn't hurt either. Jessup was kaput, gone bye-bye, a brief sputtering comet in the world of presidential politics.
He was done and so was I.
I closed my book, still salivating over McClatchy's beautiful lines, dropped a few bucks as a tip on the table, zipped up my leather jacket, and headed for the street. The evening was breezy and cool, but not bone chilling. I had walked uptown in a lot worse weather. It was my night off from my employment as a dishwasher at Han's Chinese, a job I'd held for more than a year. Mr Han was a small Cantonese man with shining black hair and equally glittering eyes. No fool he. He knew he was getting a good deal at my hourly rate, but I often surprised myself at how much I enjoyed my new profession. I had learned a smattering of Cantonese and had been welcomed into an extended family of sons, daughters, relatives, and aging grandparents. Besides, I liked sticking my hands in soapy dishwater Sometimes the itch to apply for a bodyguard's license, or to leave New York, rose up like ants crawling under my skin, and when it did those warm, comfy suds calmed me down. There'd be a lot less murders in the world if everyone was required to stick their hands in hot water for eight hours a day.
I looked east down Thirty-fourth and the Empire State Building shone back, its top tiers swathed in stratified layers of red, white, and blue lights. This, I presumed, was in celebration of our wonderful electoral process--a system I had never participated in. I was much more about action than process, be it physical or intellectual. The lights would blink out at some point and everyone would get back business as usual now that the election had ended.
After Stephen disappeared, I moved into a basement apartment near Forty-seventh and Tenth. I had been tempted to leave a couple of times when the cockroaches decided to eat off the plate with me, or when I felt too sun deprived, but the rent was cheap and I had come to think of it as my own little 'nest'. Gross to say, but I thought of it like a rat's burrow. God knows, there were enough rats in New York City without my contribution. But I liked the close comfort it provided. I had dropped out of sight after Stephen's disappearance, as much out of safety as out of grief for my unrequited love for Stephen Cross. I didn't want anyone to find me while I shed a bad pile of memories. And no one had.
A late model black Mercedes idled one space down from my door. Some gentrification had begun in Hell's Kitchen now that Mayor Giuliani was cleaning up Forty-second Street; however, a luxury sedan in my neighborhood was an oddity. I didn't routinely carry heat these days, unless you considered dishpan hands a dangerous weapon. The sight of the car gave me the creeps. For the first time in a couple of years, I felt exposed and naked. Something about the black vehicle sent a shiver up my spine, call it my gift of prophecy or the fact I had read about Rodney Jessup's Mercedes in Stephen's diary.
I stopped about a half-block away and studied the car. No exhaust poured out, but that didn't mean anything. The car, could have been idling long enough to mask any fumes dispersing into the chilly air. Its windows were dark and tinted, any occupant hidden behind the smoked glass.
I stood for a few more minutes before lighting another cigarette. When my lighter flared, the driver's side window slid down about a third of the way. Reason number one hundred and one not to smoke--you give away your cover. I caught sight of something--a pair of eyes peering above the opening. The window glided silently up and the brief show was over.
I'd had enough paranoia. I didn't think anyone would shoot me on the street, but knowing my history of small-time drug dealing, hustling, and to die-for drag, anything could happen. I threw caution to the wind, somewhat, and walked down the block, away from the Mercedes, so I could circle behind the car to my apartment. The tag was hard to read, but as I got closer I saw it wasn't from New York. It had Virginia plates.
My heart thumped in my chest and the back of my neck burned like I had been out in the sun too long.
I stayed on the sidewalk, close to the doorways in case I needed to duck inside. When I was parallel to the car, the passenger side window hissed down revealing a pair of jeaned legs under the steering column, hands on the wheel, and a man in the passenger seat who looked familiar. I picked up my pace.
"Mr Harper?" a voice called out.
I recognized the southern lilt, the slight drawl that spun like silk over my name. I'd last heard that voice in a church more than a year ago in Manchester, New Hampshire.
The passenger leaned toward the window and a face came into view--the thin white face of the Reverend Rodney Jessup.
"Cody... I need to talk to you," he said. "It's important."
I wasn't sure what to say, but I sputtered, "The election's over, Reverend. You lost."