by Myles Abroad
You don't always get who or what you vote for, but sometimes...
Word Count: 2000
The banner-waving crowd heaves in the sultry auditorium...
My heart hammers as I swing a glance at my principal, who continues booming his inspired message. Relieved, I scan the throng until Martinez's voice crackles in my earpiece, "Balloons, boss."
Damn! I'm getting too old for this...
Unfazed, Marty Gibson fills the podium as one born to political life. He'll be a good governor, but not how his supporters expect. Like his predecessors, Marty will do as told. The governorship a stepping-stone for the big prize.
Front row, a hysterical lady wears a MARTY-CAN-HAVE-MY-VOTE-AND-ME! T-shirt. Young, good-looking, and magnetic, Marty draws women, like a rock star's cult following, and he's not shy about tasting their devotion. Having a wife and daughter should give him pause, even if a loveless, political marriage. I screw my face in disgust. How many career-ending messes have I cleaned up? Another Ray-will-fix-it duty I detest.
"...everyone has a right to affordable health insurance."
Deafening applause greets the candidate. Several rows back, a ROMANS 8-28 placard lifts above the bopping heads where my eyes slide past a black-suited man...Wait! I know him, do I? My spine tingles. More like someone I never want to know.
My breath catches when, centre-stage, a pony-tailed hippy slips a hand inside his jacket. Taking quick strides, I reach for my holster. When the idiot removes a phone, a shaking sigh escapes my lips before I resume my position.
... and so together, we can hope for a cleaner and more sustainable future. Thank you, God bless you and DON'T STOP BELIEVING!"
The candidate's supporters thunder his slogan as Freemont's High School Marching Band strikes up Journey's, Don't Stop Believin. The crowd surges, crushing the front row against the barricade. My heart thudding, I bark, "Eyes peeled," before leaping on stage to shield my charge.
Carmen appears from the offstage shadows, leading three-year-old Teresa to her father. In the limelight, Marty cradles his daughter while Carmen encircles her husband's waist. A picture-perfect family. The media's folly.
Sweat beading on my forehead, I cup Marty's elbow, whispering, "Let's go." My protectee complies, leading his wife by the hand. Silence descends in the corridor backstage, leaching tension from my shoulders. For one eyebrow-climbing-instant, I'm floored when instead of stalking off, Carmen lingers. Listening to her man's chatter, a warm smile twitches her lips. When we stop at intersecting hallways, the reformed husband kisses her goodbye before his young family takes the left passageway.
"You and Carmen patching things up?" I ask while glancing down the opposite flickering corridor. I exhale a relieved breath. Empty.
After returning Teresa's over-the-shoulder wave, her father gives me his I-screwed-up face. "Guess I took your advice." Some advice! I'd shaken him till he pissed, screaming morality's finer points into his face. Not exactly Counselling 101.
"Well, I'm glad." I slap his back and look away, clearing my throat. "Say, rousing speech. Almost sounded like you believed it,"
"'Cause I do, Ray."
His words slice through my discomfort, and I clamp his arm. "Say what?"
Marty's face softens. So young. "Why not?" he says. "They're real issues. People's lives. I could make a difference." His eyes gleam a fervour I've not seen before.
Unease clenches my belly, and I drop my grip. "You nuts?" I hiss. "El Patron won't like that. Even your old man can't protect you."
The evangelised contender knits his brow. "I'll deal with Dad..." Marty's obese campaign manager backs into the corridor ahead, struggling to shield us from a group of journalists. We share a grin before the rebellious kid joins the fray with a smirked, "Better rescue Boswell."
About to follow, I squint at an insurance disclaimer stuck to the wall. It's auditorium capacity of 3000 crossed out, 828 scrawled below. Strange. My neck hairs rise before movement in the empty hallway catches my eye. Under the blinking fluorescents, the man I'd recognized earlier leans against the back wall, studying me. As I march towards him, the trespasser mock-salutes and disappears around the corner. I break into a sprint. When I round the corridor, he's vanished, the passageway ending in locked doors.
"We've an intruder," I hiss into the mike. "He disappeared down the right-hand hallway backstage. short blond hair, six-one-or-two, black suit, white shirt, scar on left cheek..." My mouth clicks shut, fingering my own scar. No wonder he looked familiar...
"Eh, jefe," Monica's throaty voice cuts in. "You lookin' in da mirror?"
In the murk, my seared cheek pulsates. Burnt flesh and thick cigar smoke fill my nostrils, weakening my nauseated bowels. A door slams, jolting me from a drooling stupor before a bright light blinds me. Squinting across a bare, chipped table, I focus on El Patron's smouldering brown eyes. A mirthless grin cracks the old man's weathered face while he fists a cigar, puffing clouds of smoke. Dread climbs my spine.
"So, Ramon. Eight months and twenty-eight days. Time to be our insurance," he rasps, placing a Magnum on the table. I follow his flicked glance towards the head of the table where someone materializes. My heart stops. Marty.
"You know what to do," the old devil hisses.
Retrieving the weapon, I aim at the candidate's dull, lifeless eyes...
Strangled in sweat-soaked sheets, I lean over the edge of the bed and retch. The alarm clock's green digits glow, 8:28. Gasping, I run trembling fingers across my throbbing scar. What the hell's wrong with me? A decade since losing a year of memories to the Columbian Jungle, and always the same dream. Except, now Marty's there.
The nightmare's vestiges cling like a fine spider's web as I slink into Marty's hectic campaign headquarters where a conversational buzz dominates, punctuated by ringtones. Barely acknowledging brushed good-mornings, I pour a cup of java while scanning the open-plan bedlam. Nothing's wrong, but something lingers...
I jump, sloshing my coffee, and glare into Boswell's porky face. "You look like hell. Late night?" he says, placing a thick arm around my shoulder to guide me into his office. As I sink into a chair, the campaign manager eases onto a couch and links his fingers across an ample belly. Jest falls from his face. "You gotta step up security. Marty's been getting more death threats."
My cup of joe loses its appeal. "You thinking, El Patron?"
"Who knows, but we got this Town Hall Debate tomorrow night and Marty's gone off-script. I gotta bad feelin'."
"How 'bout we change his itinerary. Maybe stay in town afterwards."
Boswell nods. "Good idea. I'll set it up." A grin touches his plump lips. "After he demolishes Governor Weylen, he'll have a clear run for office." He jabs a pudgy finger at me. "You remember the date, August 28, the night Marty won the governor's race." Bile rises in my throat as sweat pinpricks my neck: 8-28, again.
Like an over-protective hen, I shadow Marty as we cross Mutual Insurance Plaza, the slow revolving doors of the Hilton high-rise beckoning. Since leaving the Town Hall Debate, a smile plasters the candidate's face. No one doubted his empathy for each person who addressed their concerns. A gentle touch while he stood with them. His warm, attentive listening ear. The compassionate, measured response. He felt their pain, and that makes me nervous.
When I receive the all-clear from the advance security detail, we push through the wide, marbled foyer. I narrow my eyes at the receptionist, frown at his assistant. Tanned, floppy-haired, and dressed to impress, the Hilton's frontman ignores me, focussing an oily smile on Marty. "It's a pleasure to have you staying with us, Mr. Gibson. We've put you in our executive suite, 828..."
My jaw unhinges. I push Marty aside, grabbing the mewling swine by the collar. "We're not taking that room!"
The receptionist morphs from cocky-tanned to pasty-white. "It-It's the suite you asked for."
"I don't care," I scream. "Get us another."
"Cut it out, Ray," Marty hisses, shouldering me away. I drop my grip, and the cowering hotel staffer runs a finger along his collar. The candidate pats him on the shoulder. "Sorry about my friend. He's under a lot of strain." My pal shoots me a glare. "And we'll have that suite."
Crossing the lobby towards the elevator, Marty gives me an exasperated, "What the hell's wrong with you?"
"828 pops up everywhere..."
"Coincidence!" he gasps before a supporter steals his attention. The elevator door bings open, revealing the black-suited blond man. Nausea constricts my throat as I stare into my face. He grins, raises an index-finger-gun, and pulls the trigger before the door closes.
"The intruder from the other night's in the elevator," I yell into the mike. "All units, each floor, converge on the elevator." The elevator display counts through floors, stopping at eight.
Silence. My earpiece rasps Martinez's exasperated voice. "Iss empty, boss."
With the suite checked, inch-by-inch, and both Martinez and Monica posted outside, I begin to relax. My Latino henchmen shared that boss-is-losin'-it look, but I know what I saw.
Marty flops on the couch, easing his tie off while perusing a report. The teasing layabout chuckles. "Hey, Ray. Here's that number again. Says there's been 828 fraudulent insurance claims..."
Am I going nuts? Scrubbing my eyes, I flee to my bedroom and lean against the shut door, controlling each breath in blissful silence. Calmed, I remove my jacket, throw it on the bed, and place the Magnum on the small spindled corner table. After switching on the bathroom light, I splash water on my face, the cold shock tempering my tension. The mirror reflects my smile. Hard to admit, but Marty made me proud.
Swish. Imperceptible. A stealthy step. Poised, I slip into the doorway, scanning the room. The .357 lies only three feet away. Leaping towards it, I'm hit from behind, someone's weight barrelling me into the rickety table. Wood splinters beneath us, and we crash to the floor, my assailant crushing my face into the carpet. Grappling, I hook an arm around his neck, roll, and straddle his chest. One hand clamping his throat, I reach for the gun lying beside us. With the muzzle pressed against his head, he stops struggling. I reel as blue, hate-filled eyes pin me. My eyes. My face.
The door bangs open, and Marty shouts, "What the..."
"Get Martinez in here before I shoot this piece of shit."
"Ray. Take it easy. It's just you and me."
"What? My gun's in his face..."
"Ray. Put it down. We can talk about this."
My lookalike grins, whispering, "You know what to do, Ramon." He shimmers, melting into me. My vision blurs.
Cold steel rests against my temple. Easing the Magnum from my head, the nightmares become my reality. My past. My terror until devotion for El Patron exerts control. I stare at the weak, stupefied nominee we controlled. Our Judas. A breath passes my lips as I train the weapon on my target.
Marty raises his hands, retreating a step. "What... Ray! Why?"
I clench my jaw, hissing, "Why'd you change?"
Pounding on the hotel door causes my trigger-finger to falter. The candidate spreads his palms, begging understanding. "You, Ray. I've been selfish. With Carmen, with the campaign. These people need me. You made me see that."
Me? Memories flick. Marty and Carmen's sprouting love. Hope blooming in the Town Hall Debate. My aim wavers, and a weak whispered, "I warned you," escapes. "You don't know what these people will do-what they did to me."
"Please. We'll work this out. We're friends." Honesty saturates his rounded eyes.
A murmured "My friend," echoes deep inside me as a tear slips down my cheek. "No!" I wail, hardening my grip. "It'll never stop!" Marty's face blanches, his lips miming as though in silent prayer.
My gun-toting colleagues crash through the door, shattering my resolve. Screaming, I force the Magnum away from my friend. Gunmetal tingles my lips before I pull the trigger.