Wednesday, February 8, 2012

EXCERPT: Where There's Smoke

Title: Where There's Smoke
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Loose Id, LLC
Format(s): eBook


Chapter One


“I’m assuming this isn’t just a friendly drink.” Cradling the stem of my glass between my middle and third fingers, I rested my elbow on the wrought-iron armrest.

From the opposite side of the glass-topped veranda table, Roger Cameron mirrored me. “You know me too well, don’t you?”

I brought my drink to my lips and took a sip, but the white wine barely registered on my tongue. I was too focused on him, on trying to figure out what this was all about. Roger only contacted me when he needed me, which he hadn’t since he’d retired from the Senate two years ago. Unless he was coming out of retirement, this was…unusual.

He looked at the table for a long moment, a contemplative expression pulling his thick eyebrows together above his distant eyes. Finally, he drew a breath and set his shoulders back like he was about to propose some sort of legislation to Congress.

“John Casey has almost secured the Republican nomination for governor,” he said.

I scowled. “I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on the polls.”

“Then you’ve also been keeping an eye on the creatures the Democrats have been putting up to potentially run against him, yes?”

I nodded, blowing out a breath. The political scene in California was a mess, and thanks to the cluster fuck going on in the Democratic Party, the Republicans had a significant lead in the polls in spite of backing one of the worst gubernatorial candidates I’d ever seen. The man’s policies were devastating to education, inhumane to immigrants, crippling to small businesses and property owners, and lovingly sucked the collective cock of every corporate fat cat in the state. I’d already looked into property in Arizona, Nevada, even places on the East Coast, so I could vacate California the second Casey won the election.

I took a long swallow of wine. As I set my glass on the table with a quiet clink, I said, “You’ll make my entire year if you tell me you want to come out of retirement and have me run your campaign.”

He laughed quietly, shaking his head. “No, I’m afraid not.” He tapped the center of his chest with two fingers. “The old ticker will quit on me if I even consider it.”

I steepled my fingers under my chin. “Then why are we having this conversation?”

Roger gave me that JFK tilt he always used to woo the public during speeches and debates. I wasn’t the public, though, and he’d have to work harder than that to pique my interest in whatever he had in mind.

“I want you to manage a campaign, Anthony,” he said. “But not mine. Getting him elected will be a long shot, but we need someone better than what the party is producing.”

I chewed the inside of my cheek but said nothing. My stomach twisted into knots, wondering whom he had in mind. With Casey’s popularity, this race needed a long shot like I needed to smoke another pack a day.

Roger shifted in his chair and looked me square in the eye. “I want you to get my nephew elected.”

I blinked. “Your…nephew?”

He nodded.

It took everything I had not to either laugh or throw my not-just-a-friendly drink in his face to snap him out of whatever delusional state he was in. Two of Roger’s spoiled idiot nephews had no business campaigning for employee of the month at a supermarket, never mind governor of California. The third wasn’t much better.

I curled the edge of my napkin around my finger. “Dare I ask which of Michael’s boys thinks he has a shot in politics?” Please say Nate. Please say Nate. Please --


I couldn’t help groaning. “You’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”

He shook his head slowly.

“Roger, for God’s sake.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Jesse Cameron. You want me to try to get Jesse Cameron elected. As governor.” I glared at him. “Is this a joke? Really?”

“No, it’s not a joke,” he said.

“What makes you think he even stands a chance in this race?”

“Well, he does have name recognition,” Roger said.

“Not in politics, he doesn’t. His name is known in showbiz and the fucking tabloids. Not political circles.”

Roger raised an eyebrow. “He’s my nephew, son.”

I exhaled. “Face it. People hear the name Jesse Cameron, they don’t associate him with you, they associate him with his parents.” I paused, reaching into my pocket to pull out my cigarettes and lighter. “Either that, or his ‘acting career,’ if one would call it that.”

Roger inclined his head. “That’s where you come in.”

“Whoa, whoa.” I put up my hands. “I’m a campaign manager, not a fucking miracle worker.” I withdrew a cigarette from the pack. Just before I put it between my lips, I added, “I mean, what exactly makes you think he’s remotely qualified to run, let alone win?”

“The kid is smarter than you think.” A fond grin pulled at his lips. “You do know he’s a Harvard Law grad, don’t you?”

Cupping my hand around my lighter and cigarette, I raised an eyebrow. As I lowered the lighter from my unlit cigarette, I said, “I’m also aware of how easy it is for someone who comes from influence and affluence to skate through with passing grades.” I brought the lighter up again. “The gentleman’s C, I believe they call it?”

Roger’s grin faded, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “He graduated fourth in his class.”

For a second time, I lowered the lighter before I’d lit the cigarette. “You’re kidding.”

“Not at all. And I’ve been grooming that boy for a political career for years. Just kept him under the radar since I had hoped to have more time, but then Casey announced he was running.” He shifted, resting his elbow on the table. “Jesse’s more than ready for the job. We -- and by that I mean you -- just need to convince the voters of that.”

I took the still unlit cigarette from between my lips. “Oh, sure, that’s easy.” I tried not to roll my eyes and almost succeeded. “The primaries are a few months away, and you want me to persuade the public they should vote for Fuckup McHollywood, who also happens to be a political nobody, just because he has a name and a law degree?” I shook my head and put the cigarette in my mouth again. “Even a prestigious law degree and name association with you won’t make up for what the public does and doesn’t know about him.” This time I finally managed to light my cigarette and took a long, much-needed drag.

Roger let me smoke for a moment. An ex-smoker himself, he undoubtedly understood the need to get some nicotine into my blood before we went on.

I was halfway through my cigarette when he continued.

“I don’t expect this to be an easy election.” Roger’s voice had a hard, nonnegotiable edge to it. “But if anyone can get Jesse elected, it’s you. Unless, of course, you want John Casey to win.”

I turned my head and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the clear, late afternoon air. “I don’t want Casey anywhere near Sacramento, but I need a viable candidate to run against him.”

“Understood,” he said with a nod that was so slight I didn’t have any illusion he was conceding anything more than that simple acknowledgment. “Quite honestly, on his own, thanks to his father’s reputation and his own stint in Hollywood, Jesse barely stands a chance. Short of Casey admitting to a closet full of homosexual skeletons and illegal aliens with links to al Qaeda, Jesse’s chances are slim to none.”

I tapped my cigarette in the red glass ashtray. “Then I’ll ask you again: why are we having this conversation?”

“Because Jesse still has a better chance than the candidates the party is trying to put on the ballot,” he said. “Most of them have horrible track records, and the voters know it.”

“Unlike Jesse, who has the next worst thing” -- I brought the cigarette to my mouth again -- “which is no track record.”

“But” -- Roger held up one finger and shot me a deathly serious look -- “Jesse is also the most competent candidate. Half of the idiots the party is pushing into the primary aren’t much better than Casey himself. If I thought one of them stood a chance of beating Casey and pulling off the governorship without the entire state falling apart, I wouldn’t be pushing Jesse to run. Not now. Not until he’s had a chance to cut his teeth in smaller seats.”

“So you want me to run him against the Democrats on the platform that the rest of the Democrats are corrupt morons?” I laughed and smothered my cigarette in the ashtray. As I picked up my wineglass, I said, “I’d like to eat lunch in this town again, thank you.”

“No.” His expression hardened. “Jesse won’t run as a Democrat.”

I froze with my glass halfway to my mouth. “If you tell me you’re putting my name on a Libertarian’s campaign, so help me --”

“Not Libertarian. He’s running as an Independent.” Roger chuckled and shook his head. “I’ve tried to convince him he stands a better chance on the Democratic ticket, but he wants nothing to do with either party.”

I let my head fall back, and stared up at the sky. There wasn’t enough alcohol or nicotine in the world… “You’re killing me, Roger.” I set the glass down and looked at him. “I’m not even kidding.”

“Look, the last thing this state needs is John Casey as its governor,” he said. “Jesse is a solid candidate. He has a squeaky-clean personal life, and --”

“Squeaky-clean?” I snorted. I pulled out another cigarette and set it between my lips. “I seem to recall some not so clean indiscretions when he was younger.”

“Well, he’s a son of Hollywood.” Roger grinned. “Would you expect any less?”

“I’ll be sure to mention that to the voters,” I said drily. “At this point, the only thing about him that’ll say ‘politician’ to voters is that trophy wife of his.”

Roger laughed but then turned serious. “Listen, he’s got a tidier past than even the cleanest congressman. The fact that he’s my nephew will gain him Democratic voters. The fact that he refuses to run on a Democratic ticket will gain him Republican votes.”

“Uh-huh.” I eyed him through the breath of smoke I released. “And he’ll lose support from voters on both sides who will only vote for their parties’ tickets, and that group is even bigger than the clump of idiots you’re asking me to bank on.”

Roger started to speak, but the sliding glass door opened and Janet, his wife, stepped out onto the veranda. We both stood, and he kissed her cheek. Then she sat, and we took our seats again.

“Good to see you, Janet,” I said.

“You too.” She smiled, and at least she was one Cameron whose smile didn’t come across as fake. Probably a result of marrying into the clan rather than being bred into it. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have had Marguerite make something different so you can stay for dinner. But…” She gave an apologetic shrug. “She’d already planned on making steak.”

Resisting the urge to grimace, I said, “That’s all right. I can’t stay very late anyway.” I shifted my attention back to her husband. “Especially since it sounds like I’m going to have my work cut out for me for a while if I agree to this.”

“If anyone can run this campaign,” Roger said, “it’s you. I have complete faith in you.”

“As do I,” I muttered. “It’s my lack of faith in the candidate that concerns me.”

“Well, unless you want Casey wearing the title of governor, Anthony, do what you have to do to get Jesse into office.” His tone was sharp again. “Convince the voters that Jesse is a good, solid leader. Show them how incompetent Casey is.” He waved a hand. “They all want to believe Casey’s a saint because of his military record, but they need to know the last thing California needs is someone as fiscally retarded --”

“Roger.” Janet shot him a pointed look.

He shrugged. “All right, someone as incapable as Casey of managing even his own checkbook.”

His wife scowled. I just gritted my teeth. Sometimes I wished Roger wasn’t comfortable enough with me to drop the flawless gentleman front he presented in public. That side of him was fake but decidedly less irritating.

“Look,” I said. “I need to talk to Jesse. Feel him out. Figure out if he knows what the hell he’s doing. How do I get in touch with him?”

“SoCal Tonight is interviewing Jesse at his home tomorrow afternoon.” Roger withdrew a card from his wallet and slid it across the table. “Here’s his address. I’ll let him know you’ll be there to talk to him after the interview’s over.”

“What? You’ve already got interviews lined up for him? Before you brought me into this?” Just what I needed: this idiot screwing up his campaign on television before I had a chance to tell him how not to shoot himself in the foot. Or put that foot in his mouth.

Roger chuckled and put his hands up. “I won’t jump the chain of command again, son. I promise.”

I wasn’t amused. I picked up the card and forced myself not to scowl at the Malibu address. Getting a spoiled rich kid elected? Oh, this would be so much fun. As I tucked the card under my lighter so the wind wouldn’t pick it up, I said, “What’s the interview about?”

“He’s the first Cameron in four generations to make it to his fifth wedding anniversary without some sort of sensationalized scandal.” Roger grinned. “So when SoCal agreed to interview him about his and Simone’s marriage, we decided this would be a fine time for him to get his candidacy on the public’s radar.”

I rested my elbow on the table and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Roger. Jesus.” I dropped my hand to the table hard enough to rattle both my lighter and our glasses. “I’m not kidding. You want me to run this campaign, I need to know every move he makes before he makes it, especially if that move is going to be in front of television cameras.”

He smiled, completely unfettered. “Well. The interview won’t air for another three weeks. The same day SoCal’s magazine hits newsstands with my nephew and his wife smiling on the cover.”

I groaned.

“Listen, Anthony.” Roger sat back and folded his hands across his lap. “The Cameron family is notorious for marriages that spend more time in the tabloids than not. This article and television interview will be the first hint to the public that Jesse is nothing like his parents or his siblings or his grandparents.”

“Or his uncle?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Janet giggled. At least she had a sense of humor about being the fourth Mrs. Roger Cameron.

Her husband laughed drily but gave a slight nod. “Or his uncle.” His expression turned more serious. “Jesse won’t be addressing political subjects in this interview. He’ll announce his intent to run and defer any questions to a press conference.”

I cringed. “You’ve already scheduled the press conference, haven’t you?”

He nodded.

“The day the magazine drops and the interview airs, isn’t it?”

Another nod.

I blew out a breath. Well, at least that gave me some time to make sure Jesse kept his foot out of his mouth. “All right, Roger. I’ll go meet him before the interview, and I’m tentatively agreeing to run his campaign.”

“Tentatively?” The frown said he was anything but happy with that answer.

“You and he have already jumped the gun and put him in the public eye,” I said. “I’ll run a campaign, but I will not resurrect one that’s already been irreparably screwed. And I need to feel him out to make sure he knows what he’s getting into, he’s ready for this, and he stands a Liberal’s chance in Utah of winning this thing before I agree to put in the time and energy it takes to get a new face into a political office.”

He regarded me silently for a long moment. Then he nodded once and extended his hand across the table. “Sounds like a plan, son.”

I stood, reached past my cigarettes and drink, and shook his hand.

And as Roger gave me that bill-just-passed grin, I wondered what the fuck I’d gotten myself into.

* * * * *

Ah, Malibu. Home of the rich, the privileged, and the has-no-business-in-politics. My favorite place on the fucking planet.

I drove past huge houses and immaculate yards. Not a leaf or a roof tile out of place in this area. After all, everyone paid -- if one could call it that -- Mexican immigrants to do all their dirty grunt work. Landscaping, housekeeping, raising the kids they’d produced for Christmas card photos.

That thought twisted the knots in my gut a little tighter. Every person on Jesse’s payroll damn well better have a green card and an I-9, or he was on his own. I wasn’t going to be at the helm of a campaign that sank over an illegal immigrant scandal, and I sure as fuck wasn’t busting my ass to get a man elected if he exploited the poor.

I reached the end of the driveway with the address that matched the one on the card Roger had given me. He’d also given me a five-digit code, so I punched it into the keypad and the black metal gate groaned into motion, sliding out of the way so I could continue up the driveway.

The house wasn’t one of the gargantuan, palatial homes I was accustomed to in this area. It wasn’t exactly small, but it was closer to the modest end of the spectrum than I’d anticipated. Stucco, of course, though it had been painted an unusual brown with rust-colored trim. Hardy desert-dwelling plants lined the curving driveway and surrounded the pale stone fountain at the center of the roundabout in front of the house.

Several cars and a white van were parked along one side of the roundabout. Producers and crew for SoCal Tonight, I guessed. Any vehicles belonging to Jesse or his wife were undoubtedly behind the four doors covering the garage. I couldn’t imagine someone of his stature owning anything as proletariat as the everyday cars and plain van lining the driveway.

I parked behind a lackluster blue sedan. Then I followed the stone walkway that wound through a cactus garden to the front door.

I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

Well, here goes nothing.

Sharp, solid footsteps approached on what must have been hard floors, and when the door opened a beautiful black-haired, brown-skinned woman greeted me. East Indian, I guessed from her features. She was dressed casually but carried herself like she wore a power suit, and she made the kind of unflinching eye contact I usually scared out of people.

“You must be Anthony.” She extended her hand, a couple of silver bracelets jingling in the otherwise quiet doorway. “Jesse’s uncle said you’d be coming.”

I cleared my throat and shook her hand, noting she had quite the firm grip. “Yeah, Anthony Hunter. And you are…?”

“Jesse’s assistant,” she said. “Ranya.”

“Ranya,” I said. “Do you have a last name?”

“I do,” she said with a slight nod, releasing my hand and gesturing for me to come in. “Most people pull a muscle or three trying to pronounce it, though, so just call me Ranya.”

I laughed and followed her inside. “And you’re his assistant, so I can count on you to keep him in line?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” she said, a hint of a conspiratorial giggle in her voice. “But I do make sure he gets wherever he needs to be on time.”

I chuckled. “You and I will get along just fine, then.”

Ranya closed the door behind us. “For the sake of Jesse’s sanity, let’s hope so.” Her bracelets jingled again as she gestured down the hall. “This way. They’re out on the back deck.”

She started walking, and I followed. Her high heels cracked emphatically on the floor with every step, the sound echoing boldly through the cavernous hall. She was no church mouse, this woman, and right off the bat, I liked her. She radiated confidence, like she had it together and wouldn’t take crap from anyone. Not me, not Jesse, not anyone. Out on the campaign trail, a personal assistant like her was a godsend.

On the way down the hall, I asked, “Has he been interviewed yet?”

“Not yet.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The photo shoot should be wrapping up soon, and then they’ll be doing the interview in the living room.”

“Good,” I said quietly. At least then I’d have a chance to talk to him before the interviewer.

Ranya led me through the living room, which was already full of people and equipment, and to the glass doors leading out to the expansive deck. She reached for the door but halted. She pulled a softly chirping cell phone out of her pocket and threw me an apologetic glance. “I need to take this. Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” I said.

She smiled and stepped away, discreetly answering the phone as I showed myself out onto the deck.

Lights, camera equipment, and about half a dozen people surrounded the patio furniture on which the Jesse sat with his wife on his lap.

I’d been wound up since yesterday’s conversation with Roger, but now that I was in Jesse’s presence, reality was sinking in fast. I was going to campaign him? The washed-up actor-turned-wannabe-lawyer cuddling his trophy wife for the cameras behind a house in fucking Malibu?

I ground my teeth but forced my expression to remain neutral. No sense making him nervous and screwing up the whole “look how happy my wife and I are” atmosphere. Jesse’s rival candidate was notorious for his womanizing and string of broken marriages. Every candidate who’d ever run against him made sure to capitalize on that, and I had no doubt Roger had advised Jesse to use this article to do the same.

I hung back behind the crew and equipment, watching from a more or less comfortable distance. In spite of my irritation with the situation, I had to admit the two of them really were the picture-perfect couple. Simone Lancaster was a former model and two-time Oscar-winning actress, and she looked both parts. Tall. Slim. Flawless. When the gentle wind off the ocean played with her long hair, she still maintained a look of perfection, as if every hair blowing in the breeze was supposed to be like that. She looked just as amazing now in jeans and an understated yellow blouse as she did on the red carpet or the silver screen. I was one hundred percent unshakably gay, but I could certainly see why legions of men coveted her.

But her husband. Holy shit. The Camerons were a blessed family when it came to good looks and quiet charisma, and Jesse had inherited both in spades, not to mention the sizeable helping that came from his late mother. In his youth, he’d usually sported long, sun-bleached, “I don’t give a fuck” surfer hair or something wild, but now his look had mellowed to short, dark, and neatly groomed. Even from this far away, it was clear the magazines and such over the years hadn’t doctored his photos: his eyes really were that green.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen him in photos or on television, and I’d met him very, very briefly in the past, but now, even from a distance, he was almost disarming. He had a playful, youthful air about him, laughing like a kid when his wife made some joke only they heard. But then a moment later, when he looked up at her and brushed a strand of perfectly displaced hair out of her face, his whole aura changed to one of intense quietude. Then Simone made another comment, and they both erupted into laughter again. They weren’t goofing off and ignoring the photographer, they were just relaxed and comfortable with each other. With the whole situation.

At least he had some dignity and control. That was more than I could say about his brothers or his father. Not enough to effortlessly win him an election, but it was a damned good start. For that matter, he had a boyish smile that would melt the hearts of voters. Okay, so maybe Roger was on to something with this whole photo spread. When the voters saw the adoration in Jesse’s eyes whenever he gazed at his wife, the entire state of California would collectively swoon over him. Maybe I’d just been single too long, but I’d have killed for a man to look at me like Jesse looked at Simone.

“All right,” the photographer said, pulling his camera strap over his head. “I think that’s enough.” He handed the camera off to his assistant.

Simone and Jesse both exhaled. She rolled her shoulders and got up off his lap. He stood, stretching like he had a kink in his neck, before extending his hand to the photographer.

Now was my chance. I started toward him, hoping to catch him in time to introduce myself -- and maybe offer some strongly worded advice before the interview -- but a man in a suit elbowed past me and beat me to Jesse.

Damn it.

“Before the interview,” I said, “any chance I can have a minute with Mr. Cameron?”

“No time,” the man said tersely, herding the happy couple toward the house. “We’re already behind schedule and need to wrap up this interview.”

Jesse and I made eye contact as he was half dragged past me, and for the first time, the cracks in the surface showed. He’d been smooth and confident sitting in front of the camera with his wife, but now? Now the nerves were there in the creases of his brow and the tightness of his lips.

Shit. Now he wasn’t just going into the interview without talking to me. He was nervous too.

I blew out a breath and looked skyward, silently asking the smog-tinted clouds for the serenity to not choke anyone before this day was over.

Then I followed everyone inside.

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