True blue, p.9
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       True Blue, p.9

           David Baldacci
 

  year ago of Beth being replaced.”

  Mace put down her cup. “I didn’t know that. She never said.”

  “Your sister internalizes things, sometimes too much.” He gazed keenly at Mace. “And I believe you share that attribute. Fortunately the mayor wisely put a stop to all talk of firing Beth.”

  “So what is it exactly that you do, Professor?” asked Roy.

  “Making the world, or at least the nation’s capital, a safer place by attacking problems before the fact and not after.”

  Roy nodded. “Education, preventative, that sort of thing?”

  “I mean giving people a real choice between good and evil, right and criminal. It’s been my experience that when a real choice is offered, invariably almost everyone chooses the law-abiding path.”

  Mace said, “Which brings us to why I’m here.”

  “Yes. The project I’m conducting is based on a research grant I was awarded.”

  “Beth said it involved going into some of the worse-off areas in D.C.”

  “Yes. Areas you used to work in when you were with the police force.”

  “What are you looking for?”

  “Hope.”

  “That’s tough to find in those places.”

  “Which is precisely why I picked them.”

  “So what would my duties involve?”

  “I want you to go and meet with certain people in those areas. I’ve worked with Social Services to identify ten of them. I want you to talk to them and explain my proposal. If they accept then we’ll go from there.”

  “So Mace would make the initial contacts?” asked Roy.

  “That’s right.” He glanced at Mace. “Is he your representative?”

  “Something like that. So what’s your proposal?” asked Mace.

  “An internship, I like to call it. We will take the people out of their current environment, place them in a totally different environment, and immerse them in a rigorous education and social refocusing program. We will gauge their interests and ambitions and help them to fulfill those goals. We will expose them to opportunities they would otherwise never have.”

  “Sounds sort of like My Fair Lady,” said Roy.

  “With a critical difference,” answered Abe. “The connection to their present world will not be severed. They will have full contact and indeed we will encourage that contact with their present life. The goal of the program is to foster and then spread hope. These folks will serve as ambassadors of hope, if you will.”

  “But no one can afford to do internships like that for everybody living in poverty,” said Mace. “Not even you. So aren’t you spreading false hope?”

  Altman smiled. “What you say is true. No one person can afford to lift all the folks that need help and place them in a different world. But if for every person we help it inspires just one other person to break out of the cycle of disempowerment they’re currently in, the benefits can be immeasurably positive. Then we have ten people outside the program who in turn can inspire others. What that also does is gain the attention of government. And government does have the financial wherewithal to help large numbers of people.”

  “Our government is pretty tapped out right now,” noted Roy.

  “But any government’s greatest resource is its citizens. Most studies conclude that less than half the adult population in this country is achieving its potential. If you want to equate that to financial terms, we’re speaking of trillions of lost dollars per year. Now, even the cynical folks in D.C. would sit up and take notice of numbers like that. And beyond the government you have the private sector that is constantly complaining that they can’t get decent help to fill their job requirements. I have to tell you that some of the most creative and quick-thinking people of my acquaintance are sitting in jail right now. For some folks they see justice in that. For me, I see wasted opportunity. I can’t make every criminal into a law-abiding citizen. But if I can make even twenty percent of them choose another path that would enable them to contribute to society instead of detracting from it, it would have an enormously beneficial impact.”

  “You’re definitely an optimist, Abe,” said Mace. “I agree that a lot of bandits are smart and savvy and could probably run circles around a lot of business types, but what you’re talking about doing is a tall order.”

  “I’ve lived my entire life through rose-colored glasses of sorts. Sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong, but I keep trying because I believe it’s worth it.”

  “But I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of years. I’m not sure how much help I’d be to you.”

  “I have no credibility with the people who live in those areas. I realize that. But you do. With you I really believe I can make a difference.” Altman took off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief. “So are you amenable to such an arrangement?”

  “Well, I don’t have—”

  Roy cut in. “So what sort of pay are we talking here? And benefits?”

  Altman’s eyes twinkled. “Now I understand why your friend is here.”

  “I’m not really good with business stuff,” explained Mace quickly.

  “I completely understand. Well, your salary will be three thousand a week, plus full health care, transportation, a reasonable expense account, and room and board. The project will last about a year, I would assume. So that would be about a hundred sixty-five thousand dollars as a base salary. And if the project is successful there will be more work to do at similar compensatory levels.”

  Roy looked at Mace and she looked back at him.

  “I think the salary is adequate,” Roy finally said, while Mace nodded vigorously in agreement.

  She said, “I already have transportation, but you said room and board?”

  “Hours for this sort of venture will be irregular. Much better if you stayed here at the guesthouse. It’s behind the gymnasium complex.”

  “Gymnasium complex?” asked Roy. “The big building on the left coming in?”

  “Yes, it has a full-size basketball court, weightlifting and cardio room, sauna, whirlpool, thirty-meter indoor pool, and a full kitchen and relaxation room.”

  “A full-size indoor basketball court?” said Roy.

  “Yes. I never played the game in school but it has always fascinated me and I love to watch it. Ever since moving to this area decades ago I’ve been a huge Maryland Terrapins fan. I almost never miss a home game, and have attended the last thirty-seven ACC tournaments.” Altman studied Roy. “You look familiar to me now.”

  “I played point for UVA about eight years ago.”

  Altman clapped his hands together. “Roy Kingman, of course! You were the one who beat us in the ACC finals.”

  “Well, I had a lot of help from my teammates.”

  “Let me see, thirty-two points, fourteen assists, seven rebounds, and three steals. And with six-tenths of a second left you drove to the basket, made a reverse layup, drew the foul, calmly made the free throw, and we lost by one.”

  “Pretty awesome memory, Abe.”

  Altman turned to Mace. “So will you do it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Excellent.” He pulled a key from his pocket and tossed it to Mace. “The key to the guesthouse. Taped to it is the gate code. Do you have a cell phone?”

  “Uh, no.”

  He opened a drawer, pulled out a cell phone, and handed it to her. “Now you do. Would you like to see where you’ll be staying?”

  They drove over in a golf cart. The guesthouse was set next to a small spring-fed pond. It was like a miniature of the main house and its level of comfort and the quality of the furnishings and amenities was beyond anything Mace had ever experienced.

  Roy looked around at the large, open spaces. “How big is this place?”

  “Oh, about six thousand square feet, I suppose. Bill and his family stayed here while their new home was being built.”

  Roy said, “My condo is twelve hundred square feet.”

 
My cell was eight by eight,” said Mace.

  As they rode back to the main house, Altman said, “It’s funny, you know.”

  “What’s that?” said Roy, who was sitting in the backseat of the four-person cart.

  “Growing up in Omaha with him, I never thought Warren Buffett would ever amount to much.”

  “People said the same thing about me,” Mace quipped.

  CHAPTER 19

  WHAT YOU’RE DOING is a mistake.”

  Beth had changed from her uniform into sweats. She’d pumped some dumbbells and done a half hour on the elliptical set up in the lower level of her house. It was nearly midnight yet neither sister seemed sleepy as they sat across from each other in the living room. Blind Man was curled up by Mace’s feet.

  “I thought you wanted me to take the job.”

  “I’m talking about Roy Kingman. You shouldn’t be hanging out with him.”

  “Why not?”

  “We haven’t cleared him as a suspect in the Tolliver murder, that’s why. You’re on probation. That means avoiding all contact with people of questionable character.”

  “But that’s the reason I am hanging out with him. To keep tabs on him.”

  “You could be passing time with a killer.”

  “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

  “You were undercover then.”

  “I’m sort of undercover now.”

  “You’re not a cop anymore.”

  “Once a cop always a cop.”

  “That’s not how it works. And I thought we had this discussion?”

  “Maybe we did.”

  “I’m working the case, Mace. You start poking around then it might get all blown up. And that hurts you and me. You need to focus on moving forward with your life.”

  Mace sat back and said resignedly, “Okay, okay, I hear you.”

  “Good, I’ll hold you to that. So when do you start with Altman?”

  “Two days. And he wants me to move into the guesthouse on his property.”

  Beth looked surprised. “I thought you’d stay with me for a while.”

  “I can actually do both. Hang here and hang there when work requires it.”

  “Okay,” Beth said, her disappointment clear.

  “I’m not abandoning you.”

  “I know. It’s just been two years without you. I need a big Mace Perry fix.”

  Mace gripped her sister’s arm. “You’ll get it. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

  “Before we get all blubbery, Mom called. She’d like to see you.”

  Mace punched a pillow she was holding. “That’s actually the only thing that could make me cry. When?”

  “How about tomorrow?”

  “Will you come with me?”

  “I’ve got a full schedule, sorry.”

  “Does she still live on the plantation with all the slaves?”

  “The last time I checked she was paying her staff a living wage.”

  “And hubby?”

  “Firmly under her thumb and usually not underfoot.”

  “How about instead of doing the visit I run naked through Trinidad in northeast with ‘DEA’ stenciled on my back?”

  “Might be safer, actually. Oh, Lowell Cassell said hello. And he also said, ‘You tell Mace that there is indeed a heaven and Mona Danforth will never make it there.’”

  “I knew I loved him. So what did he find?” She added quickly, “I’m not poking around, just curious.”

  “Tolliver was raped.”

  “Sperm leave-behind?”

  “Yes. He also found a couple of foreign pubic hairs and a bit of fiber. There were also soil stains on Tolliver’s clothing.”

  Mace rose. “Well, I guess I should get some sleep if I’m going to survive Mom. You turning in?”

  Beth had pulled out her BlackBerry and was answering e-mails. “Just two hundred and sixty-three to go.”

  “You still answer every e-mail in twenty-four hours?”

  “It’s part of the job.”

  “You still never turn it off, do you?”

  Beth looked up. “Like you ever did?”

  “I had some fun.”

  “I’ve had fun too.”

  “Yeah, your ex was a real barrel of laughs. I lost two years, sis, you lost eight.”

  “I’m not saying it was all Ted’s fault. My career—”

  “It wasn’t like he didn’t know that going in.”

  Beth stopped thumbing the BlackBerry. “Get some shuteye, you’re going to need all your energy for Mom.”

  CHAPTER 20

  MACE WAS FLYING along the winding roads leading out to horse country where old money melded, often uneasily, with new. She was going to see her mother but was now lost. Backtracking, she became even more turned around. Finally she stopped her bike at the end of a dirt path surrounded by trees. As she was trying to get her bearings she heard something move to her right. When she looked that way her heartbeat spiked. She reached for her gun, but of course she didn’t have one.

  “How the hell did you get out?” she screamed.

  Juanita the Cow was waddling toward her, Lily White Rose with the nineteen teeth right behind. Juanita carried a wide smile along with a Smith & Wesson .40, while Lily White had her gutting knife. Mace tried to start her bike, but the ignition wouldn’t catch. The two women started to run toward her.

  “Shit!” Mace jumped off the bike and sprinted to the woods, but her boot caught in a bump in the dirt and she fell sprawling. By the time she turned over the women were standing over her.

  “No big-sis bitch to help you now, baby,” cooed Juanita.

  Rose said nothing. She just cocked her blade arm back, waiting for the word from the queen bee to plunge the serrated edge into Mace’s jugular.

  “Do it, Lily White. Then we got to get the hell outta here.”

  The blade flew down with a speed that Mace was not prepared for. It hit her square in the neck.

  “No!”

  Mace fell out of the bed. She felt warm blood spurt out of her nose as it smacked against the nightstand. She landed awkwardly on the carpeted floor and just lay there.

  Blind Man, who’d been asleep on the floor next to where she’d fallen, licked her face and gave off little mournful noises in her ear.

  “It’s okay, Blind Man, I’m okay.”

 
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