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Excerpt for Sinister Justice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Sinister Justice

By Steve Pickens

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Steve Pickens

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Sinister Justice

Arrow Bay: a picturesque seaside city of parks, mountain trails, incredible views…and corpses. An unidentified vigilante, unhappy with plans to alter the idyllic character of Jake Finnigan’s hometown, goes to extreme ends—in disturbingly creative and fatal ways—to express their displeasure. The citizens of the village are growing increasingly concerned and agitated, wondering who will be next and if the killer walks among them. Jake and his partner Sam O’Conner, who insist that they do not poke their noses into murder investigations, suddenly land in the middle of an increasingly complex and bizarre case, and as the body count grows, find themselves falling under suspicion.

Sinister Justice

© 2018 By Steve Pickens. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-095-5


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: January 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Jerry L. Wheeler

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Tammy Seidick

By the Author

Final Departure


Sinister Justice

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Jerry Wheeler for once again making the editing process easy and painless, and to all the talented folks at Bold Strokes for their hard work and help in getting Jake into print.

Dedication

For Ang, my beautiful friend, who is never afraid to drag me back to reality—frequently by my ear.


And, always, for B.

Chapter One

Once upon a time in a quiet little village named Arrow Bay lived a handsome young man and his loving husband. They lived in a neat little house with a trim green yard filled with flowers and Japanese maples. In the front yard grew an ancient apple tree, its boughs laden with fruit turning bright red in the late September sun. In the breeze, golden leaves from two old maples drifted across the yard languidly like gilded pages from a book of fairy tales. A smart-looking beagle lay asleep in a patch of sun at the base of the tree, while the handsome man raked up the leaves. Every time he raked up the leaves, more and more drifted in from the beautiful old trees next door, so many that the handsome young man thought he’d never finish, that he’d rake and rake until the end of time, like Sisyphus pushing the large boulder up the hill for all eternity, only to have it come rolling back down. Rake and rake and rake…

“Samuel Patrick O’Conner,” said Jake Finnigan, shaking a warning finger at his bearded husband, “If you don’t stow it right this second, you’re going to be working out here alone.” The Bigleaf maples from the Crenshaws’ house across the street showered another wave of golden leaves across their front yard.

Sam laughed, unable to help himself. Jake stood scowling, his blue flannel shirt tied across his waist, the sun glistening off his biceps.

Sam found himself thinking how good Jake looked in his work boots, faded jeans and a white T-shirt that clung to his muscular torso. He knew the two hours a day Jake spent working out with weights and exercise equipment were not out of vanity, but out of his desire to eat junk food and fight off the “fat kid” stigma he’d suffered all through his childhood.

“Just for that, kiddo, you’re on the hook for dinner tonight,” said Jake. He tossed his rake aside in disgust. “Oh, this is hopeless. Until the wind shifts back to the west, I’m not even going to bother.”

“We’re lucky, actually.” Sam dropped a small gardening shovel into the loop of his work pants while peering over the chain link fence next door. The yellow house had red shutters with hearts cut into them, and a concrete walkway leading to the front door flanked by ceramic figurines of the Seven Dwarfs. Strewn about the creeping myrtle were Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and some frog that neither Sam nor Jake had ever been able to pin to any Disney film. Currently the entire yard was almost totally obscured by a healthy layer of elephant-ear sized maple leaves the color of butterscotch.

“Brother,” said Jake, shaking his head. “Poor Al and Phyllis. They’re going to catch hell for that.”

“Isn’t much old lady Weinberg can do about the leaves. Those trees are on the town’s heritage list. They’re well over two hundred years old.” Sam buttoned up his blue flannel shirt against the chill.

“I know. I love those old trees. Except for the three weeks a year when they shed their leaves.” Jake walked over to the apple tree, patting Barnaby, the couple’s beagle, on the head. Ella Fitzgerald began singing “It’s De-Lovely” from the radio they had propped up against the tree.

“Well,” said Sam, returning to the flowerbed he’d just planted. “That’s that for now. We’ll have plenty of ‘Blushing Bride’ tulips come spring.”

Sam glanced around the front yard, with its tidy flowerbeds on either side of the walk and the boxes full of late fall flowers on the porch.

“I know what you’re going to say,” said Jake, retrieving his rake.

“We’ve got to do something with that backyard,” replied Sam.

“At least we got rid of that damn boxwood.”

“True, but that blackthorn behind the garage is going wild, and you know—”

The sound of a black ’99 Lincoln Town Car pulling into the driveway next door cut him off. The garage door screeched as it opened, making both Sam and Jake grimace. The Lincoln jerked forward into the garage. The engine gunned twice, spewing a cloud of black exhaust. With a final rumble it cut off. A moment later, the car door opened, then slammed shut. The sound of heels on concrete echoed from the garage. An angular woman with a monochrome pineapple of steel-gray hair popped out of the doorframe. She paused, ogling her yard with beady eyes before letting out a short grunt, the cuff of her gray tweed coat flapping about her ankles. Leona Weinberg turned her hatchet face from her yard, looked briefly at their house then across the street where the maples shed another wheelbarrow full of leaves across her property.

Jake and Sam immediately went back to their yard work, pretending not to have noticed the arrival of their neighbor. Leona stomped around her yard, kicking leaves and cursing under her breath. “Son of a mongrel dog, no good heathens, mealy mouthed, caca, dang blamed inconsiderate no good so-and-so’s.”

Barnaby woke from his slumber and started barking. Sam stood up and shouted, “Quiet, Barnaby, sit!” The dog responded at once and sat back down on his patch of earth under the elderly Red Delicious apple tree. It was not, however, quick enough for Mrs. Weinberg.

“You keep that dog quiet, Mr. O’Conner or I’ll have the law on you!” she shrieked from across the chain link fence.

Jake threw down his rake. “Listen, you—”

Sam kicked Jake in the shin.

“Ow! What the hell did you do that for?”

“We’ll keep him quiet, Mrs. Weinberg.” Sam was grinning, perhaps the worst, most plastic grin he’d ever seen in his life. Jake burst out laughing.

“I don’t see what is so funny, Mr. Finnigan. And would you please turn that devil music down!” she barked, just as Sarah Vaughan came on singing “Poor Butterfly.”

“Devil music?” said Jake, irritated. “That’s Sarah Vaughan!”

“I know who it is. And I know what station it is coming from. Turn it down, or—”

“You’ll have the law on us. Yes, yes, I know,” said Jake, going back to his raking.

“Jake…” Just then, Phyllis Crenshaw pulled her white Dodge into her drive, parked, and got out, waving at Sam and Jake as she retrieved the mail from her box. A gentle, generous woman of about forty-five, Phyllis had short-cropped blonde hair framing a heart-shaped face with dimples. She wore silver-rimmed glasses over sparkling blue eyes. Phyllis Crenshaw had a hearty laugh and was thoughtful and intelligent, with a wonderful sense of humor. She worked for the ferry system, which was where Jake had met her, and the two had become quite chummy.

“Afternoon, fellows!” she called. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Jake. “How’s life on B watch?”

“Going well. Julie Crawford is out, she had her baby—”

“Mrs. Crenshaw,” interrupted Leona Weinberg. “What are you going to do about these leaves?”

“Which leaves, Mrs. Weinberg?”

“The leaves your filthy trees dumped all over my yard. What are you going to do about them?”

“Do? Well, nothing. God seems to have wanted them there or he wouldn’t have had the wind blow that way,” she said, winking at Jake and Sam. Sam had to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep from laughing.

“You have a lot of gall bringing up God when you attend that heathen church in town.”

“And you have a lot of gall bringing up leaves to me when you have a gardening service attend to your yard. You should give them a call. Good day to you, Leona,” said Phyllis. She got back in her car, waving to Sam and Jake, and drove up the rest of the length of her driveway.

“Well, I never!” cried Leona Weinberg.

“And you never will, either,” said Jake under his breath. This time Sam wasn’t able to contain his laughter and instead erupted into a coughing fit.

Leona Weinberg stared at them with her beady pig eyes and whirled away, stomping up the walkway to her front door and assaulting it with her keys before throwing it open and disappearing into the depths of her house.

Another gust of wind blew in from the southeast, showering High Street with a shower of golden leaves. Sam and Jake laughed until their sides hurt.

Chapter Two

After spending that afternoon working in the yard, neither Jake nor Sam felt like cooking. As the sun slipped lower on the horizon, they showered and dressed, then jumped into Jake’s electric blue PT Cruiser and headed down to the Bitter End Bar and Grill.

The Bitter End, named after the nautical term for the free end of a rope or chain on a vessel, was the type of place locals flocked to loyally but until recently tourists hadn’t discovered. The ones who did their homework stumbled on to something the locals of Arrow Bay had known for decades: the Bitter End served the best food and drinks in town. Aside from basic burgers and French fries, the Bitter End served an abundance of fresh fish, salmon, mussels, and local seafoods along with fresh pies made with locally picked berries, homemade ice cream and cakes, fresh baked bread and doughnuts. Word of mouth usually kept the place almost always packed to capacity from the moment the doors opened until closing time.

That Wednesday evening, however, the restaurant was only at about half capacity. Jake and Sam sat at their favorite table just to the left of the end of the bar. Jake ordered a Jameson and Pepsi and Sam a Green River soda. They greeted their friend, the Bitter End’s best bartender, Caleb Rivers, with a hearty hello. A barrel-chested man about thirty with arresting opalescent blue eyes, short goatee, and cropped brown hair, Caleb also had nicely defined biceps and pectoral muscles under a black Bitter End T-shirt that neither Jake nor Sam had ever seen him without. Of medium height and graced with a bashful, engaging smile and personality, Caleb had legendary bartending skills. He knew the most obscure drinks, and Sam and Jake’s repeated efforts to stump him had led to them both downing some fairly toxic concoctions.

Caleb was straight but not the least bit narrow-minded. Over the years, a casual acquaintance had become a very strong friendship, Jake and Sam offering sage advice and sympathy concerning Caleb’s never-ending series of short-lived relationships with a profusion of women.

He brought their drinks over and sat down at the table with them. “Evenin’, guys. What brings you out on a Wednesday?”

“The fundamental inability to come up with anything interesting for dinner,” replied Jake, taking a sip of his drink. “Excellent as always.”

“Thanks. It’s so difficult to mix whiskey and cola together.”

“I could have said you were skimping on the Jameson but decided to be polite.”

“That’s because you feared being smited for lying.”

“That’s smote,” Sam corrected him.

“Okay, smote. And I wouldn’t be so cocky for someone who’s in check.”

“What?” Sam exclaimed, alarmed. He turned to the chessboard that sat at the corner of the bar. Caleb and Sam had a game going at all times, sometimes lasting for months. Sam hopped off the chair and went over to the chess set, pushing his glasses up his nose while scowling down at the board.

“Pretty quiet tonight,” Jake said.

“Town council meeting. Wait until about nine thirty when everyone comes in for a drink after that bunch of cut-throats is finished.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “God, now what?”

“Wilde Park. Longhoffer is determined to plow the sucker under.”

Jake looked aghast. “What for?”

“Oh, just what Arrow Bay needs. A big name box store cluttering up the waterfront.”

“Can they even do that? I mean, Wilde Park is right up against a residential neighborhood, not to mention the channel!”

“It’s zoned commercial at that end,” said Sam, returning from the chessboard. “Longhoffer does have some precedent. There are a few small businesses strewn into the old homes in that part of town.” Sam fixed Jake with a steely eye. “You’d know all this if you read the Arrow Bay Examiner.”

“Or listened to KABW,” Caleb said. “Randy Burrows is always going on about it. He’s on the council, you know.”

“I know, I voted for him, and I do listen to KABW,” said Jake, thinking about how they’d ended up with a council as a governing body in the first place.

Twenty years prior, Mayor Alderbrook absconded with the town treasury and fled to Brazil. In a backlash, the citizens of Arrow Bay voted to dissolve the office of mayor in favor of a six-person city council, figuring that not everyone could have their fingers in the pie all at one time. Jake wasn’t sure that move had been successful with the conservatives on the council, whom he and many others suspected of conspiring together to supplant their agenda on the town. Reed Longhoffer, Verna Monger, and their neighbor Leona Weinberg didn’t have their collective digits in some scheme to steal city funds, but they did seem bent on trying to make Arrow Bay as stuffily conservative and uptight as they were.

Until recently, they had been able to bowl over the liberals on the council, but notoriously wishy-washy Jerome Beaverton had dropped a small anvil on his foot at work and had been forced to move to a drier climate when arthritis set in. In his stead, Emma Kennedy, owner of the Illahee Inn and a staunch liberal, had been elected, causing a three-three deadlock more and more over the last several months. That very deadlock and the seemingly glacial pace at which things moved in Arrow Bay had caused Jake to quit paying much attention to any of the issues that had faced the town in the last two years. And after the problems he’d faced last fall…

He took another drink of his Jameson and Pepsi and decided on fish and chips for dinner while Sam opted for the roast beef pepper dip.

“I wish you wouldn’t put it quite like that,” said Jake.

“Hmm?” Sam said, taking his eyes off the large flat-screen TV.

“You know, about the paper.”

Sam shrugged. “It’s true. We get it dumped on the porch once a week, and you never even take it out of the wrapper.”

“The crossword sucks,” said Jake.

“You really should, though. I mean, not much goes on in Arrow Bay, but when things like this Wilde Park mess arise, you’ll be on top of things, and I won’t inadvertently embarrass you in front of the bartender at the Bitter End,” said Sam, grinning slyly.

Jake chose to ignore the last part. “Well, all right, I’ll start reading it. Meanwhile, what is the scoop with the park?”

“Basically what Caleb said. Longhoffer wants to plow the park under and put up a SuperLoMart on the spot. Or so the rumor goes.”

“Well, on the one hand it would be nice to have something like that.”

Sam looked as if Jake had doused him with cold water. “You, a union man, are saying you’d like to have a SuperLoMart in town?”

“My point is,” continued Jake, “and keep your voice down, Sam. You can’t even buy a bloody pair of socks in this town. You have to go clear to Mount Burlington to get anything like that. And no, I don’t support either destroying Wilde Park or shopping at SuperLoMart. A nice union store like Inabinett’s Market would be great, tastefully done and stuck, say, on that vacant land near Safeway. Not Wilde Park.”

“I have very fond memories of that park. Feeding the ducks in the pond, taking Barnaby for walks, listening to you cursing a blue streak after you slipped and fell in the creek.”

“Har har, a laugh riot that was.” Jake stuck his tongue out at his husband. “Still, you know, it is a beautiful little oasis in town. You’ve got the marsh land which is full of ducks and birds, the creek, that nice stretch of beach…”

“Not to mention it’s the centerpiece of the Sky to Sea trail loop,” said Sam. “Blow out Wilde Park, and you’ll have a trail that begins and ends at a SuperLoMart.”

“Maybe that’s Longhoffer’s plan,” said Jake glumly, thinking of the bike and foot trail that was nearly complete after fifteen years in the making. Sky to Sea had been the brainchild of one of the last living town founders, who had left a substantial portion of his estate to the city—including all of McDougal Lake—to be used as a park. The multi-use trail would be an unbroken circle bordering the city, including miles of beach, lake, and mountain land. Bit by bit, the city had been purchasing property to finish the trail, and it was now nearly complete.

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Reed doesn’t strike me as the naturalist type. Did you know there are over fifty species of birds and well over three hundred examples of native flora and fauna in Wilde Park alone?” Sam asked. “The trails are all maintained on a volunteer basis and there are monthly work groups there to make sure that trash isn’t left behind and the park is kept up.”

“Are you their spokesman or something?”

“No, but when I read of all their troubles, I joined the Save Our Park Foundation.” He paused for a moment as their food arrived. “Er, so did you. In fact we donated fifteen hundred dollars to the cause.”

Jake nearly spit out his drink. “Fifteen hund—I don’t have that kind of money lying around!”

Sam shrugged. “You don’t. We do. It was for a good cause.”

Money was one of the unspoken things about their relationship. Jake made good money from the state working as an on-call mate or, more often, his usual job of quartermaster on the Chelan, but he couldn’t compete with Sam’s income. As one of the top maritime designers in his field, Sam was in demand and commanded prices accordingly. He no longer had to worry about cash. Sam had made a personal goal of being able to retire by forty, and he was well on his way to making it. Jake had taken a leave of absence from work and wasn’t contributing any money at the moment, so it bothered him to be relying on Sam’s income.

“He’ll never get it through,” said Jake, thanking the waitress as the food arrived.

“He might. Longhoffer isn’t afraid of bulldozing his own agenda through. I’m not at all convinced going to the town council form of government was entirely a good thing,” said Sam, shaking some ketchup onto his plate for his fries.

“Particularly now, split down the middle. Only Walter Lugar is sort of the middle of the road. Verna Monger, Reed Longhoffer, and our happy neighbor Leona Weinberg are all die-hard conservatives, and Emma Kennedy and Randy Burrows are die-hard liberals. Walter definitely votes from his convictions. I’ve seen him side with Longhoffer and the others a few times, and I’ve seen him side with Kennedy and Burrows,” said Jake.

“He’s with Kennedy and Burrows most of the time. He leans toward labor, the environment, and preservation. I think the park issue is a dead split, though,” said Sam. “Good fries.”

“I suppose we should attend more town meetings.”

“Non-political you?”

“Oh, I’m plenty political, so much it almost got me expelled in high school, if you’ll remember,” said Jake. “I was known for my acidic editorials against censorship, pro stances on gay rights, and the environment. Not exactly a popular stance in a mill town.”

“You weren’t exactly ‘out’ in high school though. I mean, you never actually hid it…”

“No, I wasn’t. Not exactly, anyway. I don’t think anyone thought about it one way or the other. If they did, my friendship with the captain of the football team kind of squashed it.”

“An unlikely ally, considering he was your first boyfriend.”

“Which no one knew,” Jake said. “Excellent fish and chips.”

“Anyway, I think it’d be good for you to get more involved with our adopted home town. Particularly with lunkheads like Weinberg, Longhoffer, and Monger in there. I dread what’ll happen if they get another conservative on the board. I know for a fact Walt Lugar is getting tired of the backstabbing and the partisan politics of it all.”

“How so?”

“He told me down at the shipyard the other day. This thing on the park has really exhausted him.”

Jake shook his head. “That’s too bad. Walter’s a good man. I’d hate to see Longhoffer and the others drive him off.”

“As would I.”

“It would be easier if someone would just bump the conservatives off, Starting with our neighbor. Or is that bordering on being anti-Semitic?”

“You won’t get an argument out of me, and no,” Sam said. “She isn’t Jewish. Her husband was, and he was a peach of a fellow from what I’ve heard. She made him convert. The rumor, according to my mother, was that she married him for his money. So no, it isn’t anti-Semitic to want her bumped off.”

Jake looked at him, surprised. “You, oh Ghandi-like one, are endorsing violence?”

“Don’t be daft, Jacob. I’m just saying that in…a mythic kind of way, it would solve a lot of problems.”

“Wouldn’t it just?”

They finished their meal in near silence after that, enjoying the food and the ambiance of the Bitter End. Dusk fell quietly, the sky faded to purple while the wind kicked up crimson leaves outside the door of the bar.

They paid their bill and said good-bye to Caleb and were just about out the door when they heard him yell, “Son of a bitch! O’Conner, you—you—”

“Yes?” Sam asked innocently.

“How did you do that?”

“Do what?” Sam said with a wink as he and Jake exited the Bitter End.

Shaking his head as he watched the couple leave, Caleb returned his attention to the chessboard where he was now in check.

Chapter Three

Since they had been discussing it, Jake and Sam stopped by Wilde Park on the way home. They decided to make a quick walk of the main trail, listening to the gentle trickle of water as Enetai Creek gurgled its way to the bay. The air smelled slightly of wood smoke and salt water, with a hint of the coming frost. The stars were burning sharp and clear and a gentle breeze ruffled the cattails and low alders along the gravel path as they walked.

“I can’t stand the thought of this park being plowed under,” Jake said again.

“Well, hopefully it won’t come to that.”

“Here’s hoping. Jake furrowed his brow and tilted his head slightly, trying to hear something more clearly.

“What is it?”

“I thought I heard something,” he said, pointing off the pathway. “Over there in the brush.”

Sam pulled out a Maglite from the pocket of one of the waistcoats he always wore. Jake found himself again thinking of them as something along the lines of Mary Poppins’s carpetbag—there always seemed to the right tool, appliance, or flashlight appearing from Sam’s black vests.

“See anything?”

“No…wait a minute…okay, you, come out!”

A bulky woman dressed in duck boots emerged from a thicket of salal and sword ferns. She wore a heavy green plaid skirt covered by an open wool overcoat the color of bruised plums. Perched on her head was a green bucket hat. Her green eyes seemed slightly out of focus and she had a smudge of dirt on one cheek. Her aged face was wary, but had once been pretty, with very distinctive cheekbones and a strong, noble chin, but now it was pallid and slightly sunken, with deep lines around the eyes.

“You gave us quite a scare, Gladys,” said Sam.

“I thought you were Paige Farelley,” she said warily. “Have you seen Paige Farelley?”

“No, Gladys.”

She pointed a rather battered black umbrella at Jake. “How about you? Have you seen Paige Farelley? Have you?”

“No Gladys, I’m afraid not.”

“You’d tell me if you did though, wouldn’t you?”

They nodded in unison.

Gladys Nyberg stood up straight, a haughty expression crossing her face. “I thought you’d say that,” she said.

“What are you doing in the bushes, Gladys?” asked Sam.

“I’m on my way home. This is a shortcut. I had to make sure you weren’t Paige Farelley before I went home. She’d follow me.”

“Hmm. Well, you can see we’re not Paige Farelley, so you can go on home now. You’ll be safe.”

She looked suspiciously at Sam. “I know about you two.”

“You do?”

“You’ve got a dog.”

“That’s right,” said Jake, looking to Sam for help.

“He’s a nice dog. Is he with you?”

“No, we had dinner out. He’s at home where it’s warm.”

“You take care of him,” said Gladys, stepping into the bushes again and disappearing from sight.

Jake let out a deep breath, suddenly realizing he’d been holding it for the last several seconds. “What was that about?”

“Paige Farelley? I’m not at all sure anyone really knows. Gladys hasn’t ever hurt anyone. Oh, she’s smacked people with her umbrella a time or two, but no one who didn’t deserve it. Really, she’s harmless. Just talk to her kind of slowly but not condescendingly and you’ll be fine.” He thought for a moment. “And don’t lie to her. She seems to know when she’s being lied to.”

“I can’t imagine having a reason to lie to her,” said Jake. “She likes Barnaby?”

“Oh yeah, she loves him. And he’s quite taken with her.”

Jake felt himself relaxing. If their beagle liked Gladys Nyberg, she must be okay.

They continued down the shadowy path, which would eventually lead them back to the parking lot on Ashton Avenue. They walked close together, their breath hanging in pale clouds about them as the temperature continued to drop. The creek gurgled and muttered to itself, and, in a fit of romanticism, Sam stopped in the middle of the path and planted a sloppy kiss on Jake.

“What was that for?”

“Nothing at all. I’m just very thankful to have you as my husband, is all.”

Jake knew he was blushing. “Me too. This last year has been great.”

“It has at that,” said Sam, knowing the feeling sprang from more than the fear from the previous year, when Sam had very nearly lost his life.

“You know what I mean. If anything I feel closer to you than I ever have.” He paused, sitting on a damp log on which frost was already forming, looking into the swirling depths of Enetai Creek. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, you know,” said Jake.

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere, remember?”

Jake smiled. “I know. But after last year, I want you to know I don’t ever take you for granted.”

Sam shrugged. “I know you don’t. I never thought you did.” He sighed, exhaling a great cloud of steam into the night sky. “This is getting all too serious.”

“I agree. I’m also freezing my ass off.”

“And a lovely ass it is too.”

“Thank you,” he said, chuckling. “Seriously though, what I mean is this, Sam. I love you and want to be with you always.”

“I feel the same, Jake. I really do.”

They embraced for a moment, slipping off the half-frozen log, quickening their pace back to the parking lot. They were just about to round the corner when they nearly ran smack into a slight, pointed figure in a long green tweed coat with matching hat and purple ascot walking a charcoal grey standard poodle.

“Oh, good heavens!” squeaked the man.

“Professor Mills?” Jake said.

“Mr. Finnigan?” His voice had always reminded Jake of what a hedgehog must sound like were it able to talk—slightly nasal but at the same time cute.

“It’s me and Sam, Professor. How are you?”

Professor Mills adjusted his ascot. “Ah, there you are. Hello there! I’m fine, fine. And how are you both?”

“Well, thank you,” said Jake.

“How are you adjusting to town?” Sam asked.

“Oh, the house is lovely, just lovely. The greenhouse, alas…so tiny!” Professor Mills lamented. “But the place in the mountains was just too big for me to handle any longer, and I really couldn’t afford help. Gretel can only help her old master along so much,” said the professor, patting the poodle.

“We’ll have to have you up to the house so you can see where some of your stock ended up,” said Sam.

“Oh, I’d like that very much, thank you. I’m afraid right now that I must get Gretel through her paces in the park,” he said, brandishing a pooper-scooper. “Then it’s off to bed for us. It’s chilly tonight. I hope she doesn’t take too long.”

“Good luck,” said Jake, as the professor and his dog disappeared down the shadowed path.

A few more yards brought them out into the parking lot where the professor’s tidy red Toyota Prius stood parked next to the Electric Blue PT Cruiser.

“Kind of an odd fellow,” Jake said once they had gotten into the car.

“He is. I’ve always attributed that to his intelligence being off the charts. He was a brilliant teacher. And a wizard with plants,” said Sam.

“What was he a professor of?” He pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto Ashton Avenue.

“His PhD was in engineering and calculus. I had him for the engineering part. I always thought he had one in botany, but he referred to the greenhouse he had as a hobby so I’m not entirely sure.”

“Ugh…poodles,” said Jake. “Actually, it’s not the dog so much as those stupid haircuts.”

“I know it. Gretel is a sweet dog.”

“Poor humiliated dog.”

“You know what I’m thinking? I was thinking a nice slice of that pie Mom dropped by the other day would be good about now, with a big scoop of ice cream.”

“How about we drop the pie and the ice cream in the blender and make a shake out of it?” said Jake.

“Have I ever told you how much I love that wonderful creativity you have?” marveled Sam.

“The mark of a true genius is being able to combine two desserts into one calorie-laden gut bomb.”

Sam chuckled. “Home, Jacob. There’s pie waiting.”

* * *

The next morning, Sam drove down to his office at Sutherland Shipyard to do some project oversight. Jake puttered around the house, knowing from old habits that he had a difficult time writing so much as a letter before noon.

He’d only just sat down when the mail flopped through the slot in the door. Among the bills, a package from Tony Graham. Jake tore it open, finding a paperback copy of Tony’s book, Ending Stereotypes: Coming Out, Standing Up, and Being Proud, and inside that another carefully written letter which he observed with some annoyance was addressed to Jacob again, something only Sam, Rachel or his mother ever dared to call him.

Sighing, Jake tore open the letter, several pages long, all in Tony’s florid, exceedingly exact cursive.


Dear Jake,

I’m glad my letter spurred some good. I can see by your reply that there are still some hard feelings. I cannot blame you. I handled things abysmally. Please remember I was scared and not able to handle what I was feeling. I didn’t have the capacity to face the truth. Only growing and maturing has helped that, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for my cowardice at ending our relationship.

You were always light years ahead in adulthood and always more comfortable with yourself, for which I was truly envious. Many, many times I longed to tell the world to go to hell and be who I was, but at that time wasn’t ready to face it. As a result, I threw away the best friendship I ever had.

I hope you enjoy the book. Your mother said she found it enlightening and tremendously insightful.

“Mother? What is she, my press agent?” Jake said aloud.

Jake turned his attention back to Tony’s letter, which once again handwritten carefully on blue stationery that distinctly smelled of Acqua di Gio, as if he’d sprayed the letter directly.


I hope perhaps someday soon when my schedule opens up to visit you and meet Sam. I’d like to see the man you’ve become and the home you’ve made for yourself. Again, I am so pleased you’re happy and healthy and that you’ve taken up with your physical health as well. I’m curious as to what your workout routine is like!

My own life since leaving Port Jefferson has been long and complex, of which you know a good deal. I know you’re aware of the public circumstances of my coming out and the strife it cost me, even if my career with the NFL was over. I finally found it necessary to cut a lot of ties with my pro-sport friends and pursue my PhD at Evergreen State. I’ve just finished up my doctoral dissertation. With any luck it’ll be accepted, and I’ll be Dr. Anthony Graham, PhD in Psychology with an emphasis on Gay and Lesbian Studies.

I’ve been offered jobs teaching at some of the more progressive universities and have found one I think I can settle into a nice, long teaching career at. I will be sure to keep you posted on that as soon as I know!

My personal life, ah well, there’s the rub! Lovers, yes. Husband, alas, no. I’m seeing a man right now who is fun and interesting and a good person. He works as my personal assistant, but he’s hardly someone I can picture myself sharing the rest of my life with.

My days of youth after leaving sports behind were consumed with a relentless obsession for physical perfection. While achieving this I was spotted by someone at Stud Studios, that legendary factory of male erotica. I was flat broke and they offered more money than I’d make in six months as a personal trainer, so I worked as a model for them. It wasn’t a career choice for me, but it did pay for a great deal of my master’s degree.


Stud Studios? Stud Studio was legendary for male erotica. Aside from the typical naked men calendars they produced, they also did out-and-out hardcore pornography. Jake wondered what name Tony had used and why this particular little fact hadn’t come to light before. He suspected Tony of buying up all the copies he could and having the master files destroyed. It would be just like Tony, trying to erase a potentially embarrassing element from his past.


I’ve had a string of talented, enlightened men wander through my life, but none of them have had the honesty and basic human decency you possess. The world in which I work I find too many simpletons, radicals, phonies and politicos for my taste. You set the bar rather high, Jake, and I thank you for that. No one should settle for second best.

I hope that you can set the past aside and renew our bonds of friendship so that I may once again bask in your honesty. Again, I hope you can forgive me for the terrible mistakes I made and find room in that big heart of yours to give me a second chance at friendship.

As ever yours,

Tony


“What utter bullshit,” said Jake, although he already knew his resolve to stay angry was fading. It took much effort, and he found himself not wanting to emulate his mother’s legendary ability to remember any slight, no matter how minor, for decades.

He found himself troubled by the tone of Tony’s letter. What did he mean by “as ever yours,” and was he hinting about something more than friendship? Jake certainly hoped not. The love of his life was in his life. He didn’t need any complications or anyone trying to horn in.

Jake opened the basement door and patted his thigh to get Barnaby out of his kitchen basket and follow him down, which the dog dutifully did, promptly moving to his basement basket to continue his nap. Jake gave him a pat before going over to his computer to compose a reply. Forgive Tony? Yes, he could do that. However, he’d always have a sliver of titanium skepticism in his heart when it came to Anthony Graham.

Chapter Four

That evening, Sam came home from work exhausted. Alex had ordered another dozen changes to the Chinook, including the conversion of the former wheelhouse and officers’ quarters into his private suite, figuring it would save money if he lived aboard. Sam had readily agreed to that, but after four hours had come and gone with Alex changing things as arbitrary as coat hooks in the restaurant, Sam had put his foot down and banned his employer from the restoration project until it was done.

“Banned?” Alex had sputtered, amused. “You can’t—”

“I can,” Sam assured him. “Take a look at your contract.”

As a conciliatory act, Alex had taken Sam to lunch, promising not to meddle any further.

Sam had just locked the Subaru into the garage when the autumn quite abruptly shattered with a banshee-like wail emanating from Leona’s next door.

“Oooooo nooooo! Noooo! Dang dirty no good so-and-sos…. Nooooooooooo!” Sam shut the door to the Subaru and walked cautiously toward the front door, glancing over the chain link fence. Leona clutched the remains of shattered crockery to her chest. Sam ignored her and crept toward the front porches as quietly as he could when Leona fixed him with a slit-eyed gaze and brandished an accusing finger at him. “You!” she hissed.

“Drat, so close,” he said to himself, staring at his foot which had just missed landing on the first step of the porch.

“You!” Leona hissed again.

Sam cleared his throat. “Me?”

“You dirty sodomite. This is your fault. Your filthy devil dog broke my Bashful.”

“Broke your what?”

“My Bashful, you nitwit. My dwarf! My limited edition hand-painted Bavarian lawn dwarf!”

“Mrs. Weinberg,” Sam started coolly. “I’m sure—”

“Oh shut up, shut up, you…dirty…buggerer!”

Sam couldn’t help it. The archaic word sounded so bizarre coming from his buttoned up neighbor he burst out laughing.

“You think this is funny? You just wait. I’ll have Animal Control on you. I’ll have the law on your sinning behind. They’ll shoot that mutt.”

The front door banged open and Jake emerged from the foyer, still drying his hands on a dishtowel. “What the hell is going on?”

“Mrs. Weinberg thinks that Barnaby broke her lawn dwarf…er…Belchie.”

“That’s Bashful, you filthy queer!”

Sam’s eyes shot over to Jake, filled with trepidation. His husband’s malachite green eyes had gone flinty, his jaw set. “Jake,” said Sam warningly. “Be careful.”

“Okay, you buck-toothed old mummy, let me tell you something. My dog has been inside. All day. He hasn’t set so much as a paw outside since two this afternoon when I took him down to Wilde Park for a walk—on his leash, no less! Even if he had been out in the yard, you’ll note that the hideous chain link fence you have installed would have completely prevented him from entering your yard. Our yard is likewise fenced, though much more attractively, I’ll add, for the express purpose of keeping him in. In short, no way in hell could Barnaby have gotten out and broken any of your gawdawful, garish, cheap looking lawn trash!”

“I—”

“Furthermore, if you utter another threatening word aimed at my husband or myself I will file a formal complaint against you for a hate crime. I’m sure you are aware you cannot hurl epithets like that at people these days, Mrs. Weinberg. It is a crime. I will also document that you threatened to shoot my dog.”

“Actually, she said she’d have him shot.”

“Don’t correct me, Sam, I’m on a roll.”

“I said no such thing!” Mrs. Weinberg protested.

There was no deterring Jake at this point. “I will also see to it that the Arrow Bay Examiner has a front page story on your threats and slurs, that the ASPCA is informed, and that KABW has gotten a full report on your hate-filled vocabulary. Verbatim. Is that the kind of publicity you wish to garner, Mrs. Weinberg, with an election coming up? Perhaps you’d like me to bring everything you’ve just done up at the city council meeting tonight?”

Leona Weinberg had flushed a deep shade of puce. Her mouth opened once and snapped shut. She seemed about to fly apart at the seams. “I’ll get you, you filthy sodomite. You just wait.”

“Go home, Mrs. Weinberg, before you do yourself any more harm.”

She marched into her house, her heels clacking on the pavement like gunshots.

“I’m not sure you should have done that, Jake,” said Sam, once the front door had slammed.

“Hateful old witch. It’d serve her right if something unpleasant happened to her. Like falling into a threshing machine.”

Sam laughed. “You’re terrible, you know that?”

Jake shrugged, the fury ebbing from his body. “Nah, just focused.”

“You know what I love about you?” asked Sam as he shut the door behind them.

“Hmm? No, what?”

“Your uncanny ability to stay perfectly calm, cool, and collected under pressure.”

“Oh ho ho, O’Conner. Go and get ready for dinner, you filthy sodomite.”

* * *

Arrow Bay’s City Hall was the largest structure in town, built as part of a WPA project in 1935. The front façade of the art deco building was finished in gray slate, with a center structure of stacked, progressively smaller triangles over the glass and copper double-doors, ending in a pyramid with a copper top. Sam and Jake had always loved the building, and had spent many hours in the courtyard in front of the hall having lunch and admiring it.

“We’ll probably be the only ones there,” groused Jake. “Us and Gladys Nyberg with her trusty umbrella.”

“If that’s the case, I hope she gives old Reed Longhoffer a good smack with it,” said Sam, watching the octogenarian hoof it into the building, his maroon fedora squashed on his head like a thimbleberry. Longhoffer was hardly alone heading into the hall. Streams of people were trickling in from the north parking lot in twos and threes.

“Something’s up,” said Sam.

“Hmm?”

“What is that you’ve got there?” asked Sam, seeing something in Jake’s hand. “Is that a crossword puzzle?”

“No, it’s not a crossword puzzle.”

“Give it here.”

“Aw, Sam.”

“Give it here, Jacob,” Sam insisted, holding out his hand.

Jake handed over a thin paperback book. Sam examined it, noting the brawny, bare-chested man on the cover, shirt ripped open, breeches riding so low that a tuft of public hair was revealed. Behind him, the bear of the animal sort stood roaring behind him, and at his feet a small, though no less hirsute man lay prone, in grave peril. Given the title, Survival of the Fittest, Sam had little doubt that not only would the man be saved, but that his gratitude would be shown in various tawdry ways.

“You brought porn to the town meeting?”

Erotica, thank you. Okay, it’s porn. But I needed something to keep me awake.”

“Look around, Jake. You really think that’s going to be a problem?”

“Okay, fine, I’ll pay attention. You’ll give me the book back after the meeting.”

“I don’t know,” said Sam, glancing at the cover again before tucking it into his inside coat pocket. “They say smut ruins your mind.”

“Says the man with the collection of Ursine Studios DVDs.”

“Art films.” Sam sniffed defensively.

“Oh look,” said Jake, grinning. “It’s Professor Mills. Professor?”

The willowy little man gave a jump, but smiled upon seeing Jake, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I’m so happy to see you here, Jake. Always good to take civic interest in the place you call home, particularly when an issue of this importance comes up.”

“Er, yes,” said Jake as they crossed the marble floor into the Town Council Chambers.

Sam and Jake’s jaws dropped. The room was nearly full. The council members were already seated at their table. On the right, muttering to one another were Reed Longhoffer, editor of the Examiner, and Leona Weinberg, wearing an aqua silk dress and turban. Verna Monger, who was about fifteen years younger than Weinberg, was dressed in an eye-watering fuchsia blazer and black blouse. Her hair was teased up in a brown halo around her head, her mouth clamped shut in a tight screw of lipstick that matched her blazer.

On the other side of the long oak table were Walter Lugar, dressed in clean jeans and tweed blazer, Emma Kennedy, her long hair uncharacteristically pulled up, looking sharp in a no-nonsense blue shirt and vest, and Randy Burrows, whose jovial face was deep in concentration as he hooked up the live feed for KABW.

Jake, Sam, and Professor Mills found three seats in the fifth row just as Randy Burrows started testing the microphone. Chief Sanderson of the Arrow Bay Police Department strode over to the microphone and tapped it several times.

“Folks, the room is nearly at capacity and we’re not letting any more in. I am sorry, but it’s a violation of the fire code. Please take your seats.”

Not taking a seat, Jake noted, was Baldo Ludich. A strikingly handsome man in his late fifties, Baldo stood over six feet tall. He had a thick head of iron gray hair and a beard the same color. His sharp dark brown eyes surveyed the room, few people able to meet such an intense gaze. Baldo looked as if he would be more at home commanding submarines or knocking out international criminals. Jake found himself hoping he aged as well as Ludich. Baldo was glaring at Reed Longhoffer, though Longhoffer seemed blissfully unaware.

“There’s Marion Burd,” said Sam, pointing out the elegant woman in the front row, a steno pad in her hand. She was chatting with Sam’s mother Evelyn, who waved at them.

“And your mother,” said Jake, waving back. “How’s her teaching going?”

“Very well,” said Sam, still looking around the room. “Good God, everyone is here but Crazy Gladys.”

“Ha, you spoke too soon,” said Jake, as Gladys Nyberg strode in with her infamous umbrella just as they closed the door.

“Who’s the Rubenesque lady with the nice smile talking to Mom?” Sam asked.

“Oh…I think that’s Reverend Crawford. She’s the new pastor of the Unitarian Church. There was a small and unflattering photo of her in the paper. She’s really much better looking in person.”

“It was probably Jonas Brennan who took the photo,” said Professor Mills. “He won’t retire from the Examiner, even though he’s eighty-one and has cataracts so badly he can’t tell a buffalo from a shopping cart. Poor old man. He’s really a sweet person.”

“The Examiner could use an overhaul,” said Sam.

“Particularly ditching its editor,” said Jake.

“Reed shouldn’t even have the job. After Jasper Longhoffer died, the paper was supposed to go the youngest son, David,” wheezed Professor Mills. “But David is in Europe.” He leaned in closer to Jake and Sam. “The rumor is Reed hasn’t even told his brother their father is dead, though I find that hard to believe. David was always corresponding with Jasper, and I think the letters falling off would be a clue that something is wrong.”

“You’d think,” said Jake.

“There is going to be hell to pay when David comes back, you can count on it.”

“And when might that be?”

Professor Mills shrugged. “Two months? Four? Who can say? Seems every time he’s set to come back, something keeps him in Europe.”

Jake was about to ask what kept David Longhoffer in Europe when brother Reed banged his gavel with such fierceness, it sounded like gunshots echoing through the chamber; Police Chief Sanderson involuntarily flinched and looked as if he was about to dive under the table.

The meeting was about to begin.

Chapter Five

“Order now! Order!” barked Longhoffer, his glasses sliding down his beaky nose. He continued banging the gavel a few more times even though the room had already become very quiet. He looked around the room with an expression of deepest loathing and cleared his throat. “We’re gathered here today at this unnecessary special meeting—”

Emma Kennedy and Walter Lugar both looked as if they were about to say something, but Randy Burrows held up his hand, silencing them. Baldo Ludich smiled very smugly.

“He’s up to something,” Jake whispered to Sam, noting Ludich. “Just you wait.”

“—on the issue of so-called Wilde Park. Now it is already a foregone conclusion that the land is to be developed.”

“Only to you, Longhoffer,” said Ludich in his booming, commanding voice, which was greeted with hearty applause.

“Now you just wait until you’re recognized, Ludich. You’ve been warned about this type of behavior before!”

“So much for genteel politeness and working together,” said Sam in a low voice.

“I’m afraid I agree with Mr. Ludich,” said Walter Lugar. “It does seem to be a foregone conclusion only to you, Reed, and perhaps the council members to your left. Fully one half of this governing board has not been apprised of this plan for SuperLoMart to be built on Wilde Park, nor has the city attorney, which I confirmed this afternoon.”

“And I confirmed this afternoon,” said Emma Kennedy, as though she just bitten into a slug, “that preliminary contracts have already been signed with the company, by you, Mr. Longhoffer.”

“And I might add today that there are now surveyor tags all over the park,” said Randy Burrows, fiddling with a microphone.

“This is outrageous!” cried Baldo Ludich. “How dare you circumnavigate not only the city council, but the entire populace of Arrow Bay!”

The audience grew restless, a general discontented murmur rising. Miranda Zimmerman appeared to be looking through a document with great interest while Baldo Ludich had a piece of paper rolled in one fist. Longhoffer began banging the gavel loudly again.

“People, settle down! Be quiet!” he crowed, as the noise died down. “Now before you go off half-cocked, Miss Kennedy, what I signed was a confirmation that I had received a prospectus on SuperLoMart’s plans for development. That is all. There has been no effort to deceive anyone—”

“Baloney!” yelled someone from the audience, to general approval.

A skinny man stood up and pointed an accusing finger at Reed Longhoffer. “What have you got to gain from this, Longhoffer?! You’ve never done a thing in your life unless it has had some personal benefit for you.”

The crowd murmured as one again, significantly louder this time.

“Who was that?” Sam asked Jake.

“Milton Bloomquest Junior. His father was in some business dealings with Reed back in the 50s. Ended up getting the bad end of the deal and lost his shirt. Reed came out with a wheelbarrow full of money, and no one is quite sure how he did it,” said Professor Mills.

“Professor Mills has done his homework,” said Jake to Sam, impressed.

“This whole deal stinks!”

“People! You must wait to be recognized!”

A blonde, horse-faced woman with a prominent Adam’s apple stood up, raising her hand.

“Uh oh,” said Jake under his breath.

“Who is that?”

“Rebecca Windsor. She owns that new age shop on 35th. Thinks flashing colored lights at you can cure you of cancer, among other things. You know, it’s got some stupid name…”

“‘Heal Thy Self’.”

“That’s the place. She’s totally wacko. I give her about thirty seconds before she mentions the devil.”

“The devil? I thought you said she was a new age type?”

“Well, it’s complicated.”

“I, for one, am for the development of that piece of land,” she said in a rather reedy voice, as she brushed her hair out of her face.

“This ought to be good,” said Jake as several people made discontented noises.

“The council recognizes Miss Windsor,” said Reed, seemingly happy to have found an ally.

“I have been to Wilde Park,” she said. “It is a place of deceptive beauty. Many times have I felt an evil presence in that park. I have been stalked by it. I have seen the shadows that move, and I have looked at the tortured trees that grow there.”

The room had become very quiet. The citizens, as a whole, had become mesmerized by the sheer absurdity of what they were hearing.

“It is my feeling—no—my belief that Wilde Park is inhabited by the devil.”

“You owe me a nickel,” whispered Jake.

“I don’t actually recall betting.”

“Miss Windsor,” said Longhoffer, unable to hide the irritation in his voice. “Please—”

“It is my belief,” she continued, cutting him off, “that this land would best be utilized for commercial purposes, so that people will not be harmed by the negative influence of the land and be driven to commit sordid acts of an unspeakable nature.”

“What the hell does she mean by that?” whispered Longhoffer to Leona Weinberg, but the mic picked it up.

“Clearing the land will wipe the slate clean. It will purify it. It will make it whole again once I perform the cleansing ritual, which can be done quickly, efficiently, and relatively inexpensively.”

Windsor’s last statement was met with groans of disgust from the audience and several shouts for her to shut up. One man finally was able to get her to sit down when he shouted, “Pipe down, Moon Unit, we’ve got real problems here!” which was greeted with gales of laughter. Red-faced, Rebecca Windsor sat down.

“People!” shouted Leona Weinberg, standing up. “Let us not be intimidated by the far left that would have us believe that this land is anything other than worthless swamp. It is filled with the stench of decay and attracts drug abusers, alcoholics and,” she said, looking directly at Sam and Jake, “perverts.”

“Now that was uncalled for, truly that was,” said Professor Mills to Jake, clearly flustered. “There was no doubt she was directing that at you two.”

Longhoffer and Monger seemed oblivious, but Burrows, Kennedy, and Lugar were all staring at her open-mouthed. Kennedy looked furious and for a moment, Jake thought he saw the Reverend Crawford holding Evelyn O’Conner in her seat.

“Commerce,” continued Leona, “is the cornerstone of our economy. It is the very foundation of which this nation is…founded…upon.”

“How’s that for articulate?” said Jake, not lowering his voice.

“Our Christian forefathers,” Weinberg continued, glaring at Jake. “Used commerce to build the base on which our country now stands. Progress has always been the American way, from the expansion westward to the founding of our great industries that continue to employ us, feed us, make our families strong and independent, and keep us steadfast in our ongoing struggle to vanquish communism.”

“You’re joking, right?” said Walter Lugar, his bright green eyes incredulous. “SuperLoMart? Ninety-nine percent of their stock comes from China.”

“And it is through the use of industry that America will topple communism, Mr. Lugar,” replied Leona acidly.

“Our forefathers were deists, and furthermore, every example you gave came at the expense of the native populations and the environment. Dinosaurs like you are ruining this planet and choking us off with your greenhouse gasses,” yelled a familiar voice from the back of the room.

Sam and Jake looked at each other and said in unison, “Alex.”

“That’s fine coming from you, Mr. Blackburn, given what you’ve done with your property,” said Leona Weinberg.

Alex strode into the aisle and instantly all eyes were upon him. He was wearing a black leather car coat, maroon sweater, and very tight fitting jeans. Jake figured Alex could have been reciting the phone book and elicited the same rapt attention of the audience.

“Well, Madam Council, that is part of the answer there. My property. Wilde Park is not privately held property, It is entrusted to the city. Secondly, the development of my land has actually restored five acres of wetland and salmon habitat. The Chinook is a non-invasive addition to the environment and the area reserved for parking has added fifty trees and cleaned up some of the most contaminated ground in Arrow Bay.”

There were murmurs of approval all around. Miranda Zimmerman giving Alex a somewhat bemused look before returning to her note taking.

“I’d be a hypocrite if I said I wasn’t for commerce,” said Alex, once again taking command over the audience. “But exercised correctly, with the proper permitting, public input,” he paused, looking at Jake and Alex, winking, “and of course submitting to the State and County environmental review process. And on that note, I’ll let Mr. Ludich take over.”

“He isn’t recognized!” shouted Reed Longhoffer. “And neither were you!”

“I recognize Baldo Ludich,” said Emma Kennedy, her voice booming over the hall.

Jake was once again in awe that such a powerful voice could come from a woman of such slight stature and build. “This ought to be good, if Alex had a hand in it,” said Jake to Sam.


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