Monday, October 3, 2011

Chapter Seventeen: Jester

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

“No way.  No way in hell!”
The Vice President was dead-set against allowing any meeting between Edward and the man who shot him, as he was against giving in to any of his demands.
Agent Jones, on the hand, saw no other way to proceed. “Joe, I sympathize, but we’ve got nothing else here to go on, and I’m curious what might come out of it.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit reckless, Terry? When we could just hold him here indefinitely?”
“Call his bluff?  See what his associates will do next? Who’s being reckless now, Joe?”
“His ‘bluff’ constitutes a direct threat to the President of the United States, regardless of how he chooses to characterize it!  We can hold him on that basis alone!”
Agent Jones raised one hand and grasped the Vice President’s arm with the other, in order to calm him. “Joe there in no question here that you have the ability to hold him, and could easily find some justification for it.  That’s not what's in question.  The issue here is whether or not that’s the right decision!  Think  about it… If he’s bluffing?  And he’s got no associates, nor any connection to all of this, beyond what he’s told us?  You’ve got no REASON to want to hold him in the first place.  And if he’s as dangerous and as well connected as he would need to be to pull of something like what happened? Would you REALLY want to call his bluff without getting a better idea of what his capabilities are?”
The President had been silent during this entire exchange, but was ready to hear the Agent’s proposal. “What would you suggest?” he finally asked.
“Well, first of all, let him meet with West.  See what he has to say to him. And second? Presuming he doesn’t have any other demands? Let him go. Track him, of course,” he added quickly to placate the Vice-President, “but let him go. And see what he does next.  He says he’s not going anywhere, and I actually believe him.  He’s made no effort thus far to hide his involvement – in fact, he’s rubbing our faces in it!  But until we can figure out exactly what happened?  We’re stuck, legally, especially if he actually DOES have people waiting for him to contact them.  And if you really want to keep a lid on the whole crazy, conspiracy side of the story? The last thing you want is for whoever is out there to spill what they know!”
“And suppose there IS no one else?” the Vice President asked derisively.
“Then at least you’ll know and you can act accordingly.”
“Where is Agent West, at the moment?” the President asked.
“He’s in custody, charged with shooting our friend here.” Jones answered.
“OK. Bring him in. Now. Let’s see where this goes.”
Edward agreed to wait in the conference room until West could be brought in.  Once he arrived, Edward was escorted to another room, this one back down in the secured corridor where he himself had been simultaneously convalescing and incarcerated.  When they opened the door, he was shocked at what he saw.  In contrast to the man’s former appearance, stoic and professional in his crisp suit and upright posture, the man he saw before looked utterly defeated.  He wore a rumpled orange jumpsuit, and sat dejectedly, slumped over with his once perfectly styled hair now hanging in his face in ragged, unkempt fashion.  What finally made this image hit home with Edward was the sight of the restraints that shackled him to the floor.
Edward turned to Agent Jones, who had escorted him along with Agent Kim and two Secret Service Agents who’s name were not given to him. “Oh, for fuck’s sake! Unshackle the man, will ya?!”
One of the nameless Secret Service Agents was clearly confused by this request. “Sir, this man tried to kill you!”
Edward once again pulled open his black, bloodstained shirt. “Really? Doesn’t look like he tried very hard now, does it? Unshackle him.”
The agent saw something in Edward’s eyes that made him flinch. He felt as if Edward was holding a gun to him, even though he was completely unarmed.  The Agent knew then, as did Agent Jones, that he was looking into the eyes of a killer.  He looked over at Jones, who just nodded, and they went into the interrogation room to unlock and remove West’s shackles.  He carried them out with him and left, leaving Edward alone with West as he closed the door behind him.
“Agent West?” Edward asked quietly, in contrast to his previously angry tone.
West looked up and knew immediately that he was looking at the face of the man he shot; the man he had last seen fighting off medics as he bled, presumably to death, on the floor of his jail cell.   His eyes widened and his mouth hung open in amazement. “Oh… my… God…!”
“Agent West, I’m afraid I owe you one HELL of an apology,” Edward stated as he sat down across from his former assailant.
“What…? How…? I… shot you!”
Edward just nodded.
“I shot you, and… I watched as you bled!  You were… dying!  I shot you and… here you are… saying… YOU owe ME an apology?!”
Edward leaned forward and placed his hand on the man’s forearm. “You have been put through a lot in that past two days on my account, and I want you to know that I am truly, deeply sorry for what you have suffered.  You were manipulated.  You were made to do things.  You thought you killed a man on a whim. And you’ve been relieved of your position and charged with several crimes.  I cannot apologize to you enough for this, and I do not expect you to forgive me until I have made everything right by you.  Will you allow me to do that?”
West just nodded, still awestruck by what he was witnessing.
“First of all… Can you tell me how you felt when you escorted me into the Oval Office? You remember doing that now, don’t you?”
West took a deep breath and ran his hand through his blonde hair, pushing back most of what was hanging in his face. “Yes. Yes, I do, but… It’s like remembering a dream. It was… It was like I wasn’t even me; like I was watching a movie of my life, from the first-person perspective.  I had no control, and yet… Nothing felt… wrong about it. At least… not at the time. And even afterwards… It didn’t fully register what I had done, or that I shouldn’t have done it. At the time it was a natural as breathing and yet, afterwards…” He just shivered.
“Did you feel the same way, when you shot me?”
West was confused by this, as he could barely reconcile the fact that he had shot this man, at point blank range in the chest, and yet was talking to him right now. “Um… Yes, I suppose I did. Although in that case the feeling of wrongness set in almost immediately.”
“I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.  So, listen to me, as my first act of penance to you, let me give you my solemn promise, my most sincere and personal word, my absolute guarantee that you will never be used in that way, or feel that way again.  From now, until the day you die, you will live according to your own choices, and no one will ever be able to take that from you again.”
West had questions about that statement, but rather than say anything he just nodded.
“Second, you’re changed with killing me. But as you can see: I’m just fine. In fact, other than the eyewitness accounts, and this…” Edward held up the section of his short with the bullet hole in it, “…there isn’t a scrap of evidence that ANY such thing ever happened.  No wound…” Edward pointed to the now pristine area on his chest where the bullet had passed through, “… And? No bullet. Anywhere. SO… I don’t think getting these charges dismissed will be all that difficult. I certainly don’t plan to press any. And the State? Simply has no case.  Does that ease your mind a bit?”
Again, West just nodded. 
“Now… With the charges dismissed, you’d think that it would not be too difficult for them to reinstate you.  But there’s a hitch there. They don’t trust me. And I can’t say I blame them. But because all this involves me, and because they’re reinstating you at my request, consequently they won’t trust you. You’re tainted, you see. And there is very little I can do about that. It’s just not conceivable that you will be reassigned to guarding the President. But I think there might be an assignment that they'll give you instead: Me.”
“You?!” West asked incredulously.
“Well… They’ll want to keep an eye on me. So they’ll assign one of their people to do that. Ostensibly for my ‘protection.’” Edward made air-quotes as he said that. “Also, if they think you’re connected to me, then it's better that they keep us in the same place, rather than have me doing my thing while you act as my man on the inside. Savvy? So it makes perfect sense for them to assign you and maybe one other agent to watch me.  And if you two are partnered, it won’t be too hard for him to keep tabs on you that way as well.”
“Makes sense.” West conceded, nodding.
“The thing is… Guarding some schmo like me presumably isn’t what you went into the Secret Service for. You achieved a Presidential appointment, and now you’ll be babysitting some random doofus. No matter how you look at it, if I’m to make amends for everything, I still owe you something.”
If West had an opinion one way or the other about this, he was keeping it to himself.  As Edward looking at the man’s dispassionate face, he made a mental note never to play poker with him.
“So here’s what I propose.  Once you’re done with the SS… sorry, bad joke… the Secret Service, you’ll come to work for me.  In fact, you’re welcome to start right away, if you prefer.  Hell, if it wouldn’t get you in trouble, I’d gladly hire you while you were still employed with the Government.”
“Hire me for what?”
“As my own personal protection and security director, of course.  If the President can trust you with his life, I assume I can trust you with mine.”
West’s previously stony expression softened a bit and Edward could tell he was not taking this very seriously.
“Here’s what I’m offering, and you may feel free to negotiate, if you wish: Double your current salary – that’s above and beyond any pension you’ll draw.  And… the same protection I had with me the day you shot me.”
“Wait… what?
“Call it… God’s own bullet-proof vest.  There a REASON I survived that attack and will continue to survive anything that’s likely to come my way.  And it’s something that I have the ability to give you… IF you decide to accept my offer, and work for me.”
West sat back in his chair. He didn’t know what to make of what he was just told.  Under any other circumstances he would have laughed and assumed that Edward was either joking or crazy.  But half a dozen people SAW him shoot this man, at point blank range, in the chest. Unless he had an identical twin, and there was a corpse somewhere he didn’t know about, it was an incredible enough event that it opened his mind to additional, otherwise incredible possibities. He tilted his head to one side and narrowed his gaze slightly. “So what will this… bullet proof vest give me?”
“Eternal youth, perfect health and the ability to heal, quickly, from most wounds - including getting shot. And – in the interest of full disclosure – I’ll have to admit that for you it will only last for about 200 years.  There are others, myself included, for whom it will last indefinitely, but due to my own lack of foresight, I’m afraid I can only give you two-hundred years. Hopefully you can live with that.”
West laughed.  “OK. Let’s get one thing strait… I don’t necessarily believe any of this, but you’ve piqued my interest.  If you can get me my old job back – even if it’s just guarding you? I’ll consider your offer. I’ll still have some questions though.”
“And I will do my best to answer them, assuming I can trust you. I'll tell you what… I’ll leave you my address in McLain. Why don’t you come by tomorrow night, for dinner?”
“Yeah. Assuming I’m released, I’ll take you up on that.”
“Of you’ll be released.  One thing...  There’s this staffer upstairs that I’d like you to give a ride to as well…”
After their meeting, Edward secured an agreement to have all charges against West dropped.  There was simply no attempted murder case to be made, and it was agreed that they would look the other way on the fact that he escorted an unauthorized civilian into a secured area in exchange for Edwards continued cooperation.  And, as it turned out, they had no further questions at the moment for Edward and allowed for his release as well.  His long, black wool coat was returned to him, and he was escorted back to the East gate and allowed to depart. The return train stub for the Metro remained in his chest pocket.  It was cold, and there remained a foot of snow on the ground but he could cope with it.  He waved to his security escort as he started back down Pennsylvania Avenue, in search of a Metro station.
By the time he reached the mall, he was pretty sure he was being followed.  That was fine, and hardly unexpected.  And being that it was midafternoon, the day after a holiday, but too still cold for most tourists, he was not surprised to find the platform empty.  As he stepped off at the bottom of the escalator, he looked back at the top to see a pair of suits, whom he assumed were his tail, appear at the top.
‘They’re not even trying to hide,’ he thought to himself.  He walked over the pay phones on the platform and used his credit card number to called Epiphany.
“Hello?” she answered tentatively.
“I’m on my way home.” Edward said.
“Oh my God, where are you?”
“I’m at Metro Center Station, waiting for a train.”
“Are you being followed?” she asked, nervously.
“Of course.”
“Eddie – they’re watching the house!”
“Really? How could you tell?” Edward laughed.
“Eddie, it’s not funny! There was this Black Taurus with tinted windows parked next to our spots! You know anyone with a car like that?”
“Nope.  So, either you’re right, or there was a drug deal going on.” Edward chuckled again, but Epiphany was not amused. “OK, listen, it will be fine. Where are you right now?”
“I’m in a motel, out of town.  I couldn’t even go back…”
“Do you have the tablet?!” Edward panicked at the thought of it being left behind.
“Yes, I have the tablet! And the tears! I have that, my phone and some cash. But I couldn’t even get back to pack! I’ve been wearing the same pair of underpants for three days!”
Edward chuckled at the thought. “Why didn’t you go to the store?”
“Because I’m hiding out and scared to leave, you insensitive fuckwad!”
Now he was laughing out loud. “Yeah, well, if it’s any consolation, my weekend’s been pretty rough as well. Tell you what: Stay where you are tonight.  I’ll check out the house and contact you one way or the other tomorrow morning.  You have your charger?”
“For my cell? Yeah, well, the one in the car.”
“That’s fine, just stay by your phone.  I’ll check things out and let you know when to come back.  We’ll catch up in the morning.  I hear the train coming, I’ve got to go. Love you!”
“Yeah, love you too,” she said, somewhat wearily.
Edward hung up and made his way toward the yellow line to wait for the train.  The two suits did the same, though they maintained an appreciable distance between themselves and him.  Rush hour wouldn’t start for another hour or so, but by the time the train arrived there were a few other people starting to trickle onto the platform.  Even so, it was impossible for the two men not to stand out.  Not surprisingly they got on the same car that Edward did. 
Edward did not mind that they were following him. They knew where he lived, and he fully expected them to keep an eye on him.  As the train pulled out of the station he looked over to them and nodded his head upwards.  They stared right back and nodded downward in acknowledgement.  Edward just smiled and shook his head.   After several minutes in the dark, Edward decided he would have some fun with them at the next station.
Once the train had stopped, and the doors open, Edward looked back as the two men.  They were still seated and only one glanced over at him.  Yeah – they knew where he lived and they knew where his stop was. As soon as the bell rang and the doors began to close, Edward leapt from his seat, twisted his body sideways and cleared the doors without contacting them.  He had to roll out of this near-dive on the hard concrete of the platform, but the resulting pain was worth it to see the look on the faces of the two men through the train window as it pulled out of the station.  He waved at them, laughing as they passed.  One stood up, dumbfounded, while other remained seated, his shaking his downcast head in disbelief.
“Meh, they know where I live, so screw ‘em.  I don’t have to make it that easy,” he said to himself before getting on the next train a few minutes later.  He didn’t want to break any habit they might have of underestimating him, but if they were slow enough to fall for that, he was beginning to think that he might be overestimating them.  He also wondered if he would have been able to make that jump before the Tears – twenty years older, forty pounds heavier and with the extra girth that went with it. As it was, he cleared the door by inches and if he’d hit them the doors would have re-opened for another few seconds; easily enough time for them to react. “Yeah, that was pretty cool,” he added as he stepped onto the next train.
The remainder of the trip home – both on the train, and the drive – was uneventful.  He looked around when he pulled into the parking area in front of the townhouse, but could see no sign of the black Ford Taurus that Epiphany had described.  He didn’t make a habit of memorizing his neighbor’s cars, but most of them had not come back from work yet anyway and none of the few imports that were there were occupied, or looked suspicious.  If anyone was still watching him, they were doing a better job of hiding themselves.
But Edward wasn’t the least bit concerned of what they might see.  There was nothing going on here tonight anyway.  After scratching together a simple dinner with what he had on hand that wasn’t spoiled, Edward lied down to get what he assumed would be his most restful sleep for some time.

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