Ends, p.1
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       Ends, p.1

           Jonathan Vaught
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  a short story

  * * *

  The father lumbered forward, squinting in the afternoon glare. His fist stamped a dent in the flowered wall. He didn't seem to notice.

  "She left us because of you, Dad! You ran her off with your drinking, and your temper, and you can't keep a simple job-" the boy was backpedaling, at seventeen not yet a match for his father in a fight. "They're going to know it was you that took the money from the cash drawer. What did you think would happen? Now you'll be unemployed and arrested. How could you be so stupid?"

  The boy sidestepped his father's charge, but only halfway. The older man's momentum carried them both backwards, glancing off a wall, then onto the threadbare sofa. Clumsy, roaring, he landed a blow on his son's temple and another on his rib cage. He didn't stop to wonder why the boy wasn't putting up more of a fight. So he just had time to be surprised when the gun, pulled from under a cushion, was placed between his eyes and fired.

  * * *

  "Come on man, three hundred is all I could get. Just please give me the stuff. I'll get you the last hundred tomorrow, I swear." The boy bounced on the balls of his feet, just outside the oval of sodium-yellow streetlight, Walkman headphones dangling around his neck.

  "Who do you think I am, your mama?"

  "Or you can have this. It's worth a hundred and twenty. I just got it yesterday." He fumbled with the Walkman on his belt, fouling his hand in the headphone cord. He offered it up. "Here man, just take it."

  "You stupid rich kids. I should take your money and your toys and leave you for the cops to clean up." The dealer plucked a knife from a pocket and motioned with it. "Give me the money. Now."

  The strobe of a muzzle flash lit the scene, an instant before the gunshot's crack split the alley open. The knife skittered away as the dealer collapsed, a red stain sprouting on his chest.

  The Walkman fell from the boy's hand. He turned to see the shooter step from behind a dumpster at the dark end of the alleyway. A boy about his own age, wearing a jacket and work gloves. The gun disappeared into his jacket pocket.

  "Wow man. You totally saved the day. I really thought he was going to cut me or something."

  The second boy stepped around the first, crouched, and retrieved several bags of powder from the dead man. The bags disappeared into the pocket opposite the gun. He picked up the knife and stood to face his peer. One eye was decorated with a fresh bruise. "So you want this stuff?"

  "Yeah, um, I mean if you don't?" There was something cold and snakelike in the other boy's face. Despite himself, Walkman took a step back.

  "Let me have your wallet then. Not just the money. The wallet."

  Walkman shrugged and handed over his wallet, hand trembling with relief, anticipation, or both. The shooter peeled off his jacket and held it out. "Put this on. Drugs are in the pocket."

  Walkman complied without hesitation and rooted eagerly in the pockets. "Thanks again. It is a little bit cold out here. Hey man, I really appreciate this, um, if you ever need any-"

  Walkman's gratitude was cut short by a grunt as the other boy flicked the knife into his chest several times. He thrashed, unable to get his hands untangled from the jacket. Seconds later he remembered the gun in one pocket, and managed to get off one wild shot before staggering to the pavement.

  He was much too late. The killer had already dropped the knife, scooped up the Walkman and fled into the dark.

  * * *

  "Mr. Sutton. A D? Did you have better things to do than study for midterms?"

  Thomas shrugged, crestfallen. He had had better things to do, or so it seemed at the time. Crashing a sorority party was not to be blown off for something as mundane as studying. He'd had the opportunity to cheat-last week someone had scored a copy of the exam and passed it around-but lacked the guts. He wished he had one of those decisions back. He hated Mondays.

  Dr. Sterling dropped the offending exam on the desk and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up too much, Thomas. Think of it as an educational incentive."

  Midterm grade notwithstanding, Thomas liked Modern American History. Dr. Sterling was friendly and approachable. Most of the freshman courses Thomas attended were presided over by distracted lecturers who stood at the front of a large hall, delivered their monologues, and left the student interaction to graduate assistants. Dr. Sterling made his large class feel like an intimate circle. He joked, asked direct questions, encouraged students to speak up. Most of the girls in the class swooned over his youth and good looks, despite (or perhaps because of) the family photos decorating his office desk.

  "Speaking of incentives, people, we're going to talk about broken windows today. A few years ago, New York had some of the worst crime in the world. Today, you won't find a safer big city. Why? Because they started cracking down on the small crimes. If your building has broken windows, and graffiti on the walls, you're less likely to care if there are cigarette butts lying around. Where there are cigarette butts, there's trash on the ground. Before you know it, there's a drug dealer standing on the corner. If you let the small problems go, you invite bigger problems."

  "The military figured this out a long time ago. When I was in basic training for the Marines, we had to make our beds perfectly. No lumps or wrinkles. You've seen the trick where the drill instructor bounces a quarter on the bed? It's real. At mealtime, we had to line up our trays and silver exactly right or we didn't eat. Discipline started with the details. If you want results, you don't compromise."

  Thomas made a note to remember that for the next exam.

  * * *

  When Thomas entered the lecture hall for Wednesday's class, the professor wasn't in his usual place by the door greeting students. At 9:13, Dr. Sterling was still absent. Thomas was about to bolt after the fifteen-minute grace period when a woman entered. She had all the unease of an administrator faced with non-theoretical students. "Class is canceled today. Dr. Sterling has had? a family tragedy."

  Thomas, already halfway out of his chair, sat back down. The room was silent except for the soft whoosh of the air conditioner.

  "Another professor will fill in on Friday." There were a few sniffles from the girls up front. One of them asked a question that Thomas didn't hear. "That's all the information we can give out at this time," the official said. She bustled out, unprepared for a task as intimate as consoling a room full of students.

  Thomas left the room amid more sniffles and a babble of questions.

  He found himself at the student union in hopes of an early lunch. A crowd-many of them his history classmates-clustered around a television news report. Thomas picked out the words "local college professor", "wife and child", "dead" and "home invasion". By the time he could see the screen, it was showing photographs of Dr. Sterling at the beach, with a very attractive woman and a small boy. Now the girls were sobbing.

  * * *

  Friday's Modern American History was full at 8:50. The mood was solemn but expectant. Someone had hung a wreath on the whiteboard, and a sympathy card was making the rounds. Thomas was just opening it to sign when the room went dead quiet. He glanced up and saw Dr. Sterling himself at the front of the room.

  "Good morning." The professor was pale, but his voice was steady. "As I'm sure you've heard, a lot has happened this week." He attempted a wisp of a smile and continued. "On Tuesday night, my family was the victim of a home invasion. We had just put our son to bed when we realized we were out of milk, so I drove to the store. I returned to find the front door smashed open. The invaders shot my wife in the kitchen"-here his voice began to break-"and then my son sleeping in his bed. They took less than four hundred dollars' worth of our things." He grew louder, angry. "Four hundred dollars!

  "The police have very few leads. There is a good chance that those? animals? will get away with stealing my wife and son from me."

  "When I was in the Marines, my job was to keep you safe from the enemy. Now I realize that there are more dangerous enemies right here at home. Now my job is to teach. You, and others."

  Sterling's voice was quavering but strong, like an opera singer Thomas had heard once. His eyes, though, were icy and resolute. "If you ever learn anything from me, learn this today. Families should be safe in their own homes. Instead, we hide inside them, in cages, as if we were the animals. This has got to stop."

  "So here's an assignment for the rest of the term. It's completely optional. Learn all you can about violent crime-what causes it, why it's getting worse, and what we can do about it. And we will do something about it."

  "Most of you will have families of your own one day. I want to make the world a safer place for them. So I'm asking for your help. Please help me fight these people."

  The next day, Professor John Sterling's wife and four-year-old son were buried at the old Episcopal church downtown. All the local news crews were there. So was every one of Dr. Sterling's students.

  * * *

  "John Sterling for Mayor, Public Relations, Erin Goddard speaking."

  There was a moment of silence on the other end, then: "Good morning. The operator said I should talk to you. About Mr. Sterling." The voice was a woman's. Older, cultured, tentative.

  "Yes, ma'am. What can I help you with?" Erin was technically a speechwriter, but fielded plenty of general inquiries, especially when a new volunteer was manning the phones. She'd been writing speeches for John Sterling for over a year, hired right out of college. She'd heard he favored students from his old school, and had just missed having him as a professor. She loved her job. A little grunt work was a small price to pay.

  "My name is Margaret Sterling. I live in Charleston. I'm-well, I saw him on the news the other day, and he said he was from here, and I need to know if-if he's my son."

  Erin blinked. She had a dozen prepared responses on the tip of her tongue, but none of them fit. She reached for her notebook and a pen. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but could you explain that?"

  "I haven't seen my son in twenty-five years. His name was-is-Richard. Richard John Sterling."

  Erin fell back on the official biography. "Dr. Sterling's parents died when he was young. He lived with his grandmother until graduating from high school, and then enlisted in the Marines. His grandmother passed away shortly after. Since his wife and son were killed seven years ago, he has no living relatives. I'm very sorry, Ms. Sterling, but this is some sort of coincidence."

  "I'm sure he's very busy, but? could I talk to him myself, please? Just to be sure?" The woman's voice was steadier, despite the obvious disappointment. If she'd been looking for someone for twenty-five years, Erin supposed she'd be more used to failure than success.

  "Dr. Sterling would be happy to talk to you, ma'am, but he's out of the office this morning. I will leave him a message for you, though, okay? He's very good about returning phone calls."

  "That'd be fine, dear." The other woman gave a phone number. "Thank you very much for your time." The line went silent.

  Erin opened a new email to her boss's Blackberry and realized she had no idea what to write.

  * * *

  She was finishing lunch at her desk when the door to the nearest office opened. Its occupant squinted in the glare. "Erin, do you have a minute?"

  She pushed her salad to one side and waved to the empty chair in her cubicle. "How's it going, Thomas?"

  Dr. Sterling's finance manager hesitated, then sat down. She didn't know him well; their departments didn't interact much. He'd been a student of the boss's at college, though, had known him as long as anyone, and she looked up to the core team. Most of them had joined his movement as volunteers while still in school. Thomas Sutton was one of them. "You talked to that woman on the phone this morning, right?"

  Erin wrinkled her nose. "You mean the one who thought Dr. Sterling was her son?" Yeah, I talked to her. I emailed him about it."

  Thomas's hands were clasped and restless in his lap, like two squirming children. "He told me about that. What did you think of her?"

  Erin shrugged. "We get calls from freaks all the time. All public personalities do. Last week I got a chain email saying that John Sterling was the Antichrist and the world was ending." She rolled her eyes.

  "So did she sound like a freak?"

  "No, she was a nice older lady. It was just mistaken identity. What's bothering you, Thomas?"

  Thomas exhaled and leaned back in the chair. "Look, you write speeches for a politician, right? Don't you ever have to? embellish the truth? It's technically lying, isn't it?"

  "We call it spin, Thomas. Don't you watch the cable news channels?" She grinned. "You have to take it in context. Sometimes you make the colors a little brighter, but you're not painting something that isn't there. You're selling something you believe in."

  "But you do believe in it?"

  "With all my heart. I couldn't imagine having a better job or a better boss. Dr. Sterling is making a difference, and I get to help change the world every day I come to work. Because of him, parents are beginning to feel safe again letting their children play outside. Just think of what he'll be able to accomplish as mayor. I wish I'd been in on it from the beginning, like you."

  "Yeah. It was really something. I remember the day he came into class after his family died. Changed the course of my life." Thomas stood up. "You get to paint pictures, but there's not much art in my job. Budgets and donations are pretty black and white." He gave a half-smile. "How do you guys work out here with all this fluorescent light? I keep mine turned off. A lamp is a lot easier on the eyes when you're staring at numbers all day."

  "You have an office," she pointed out. "You can do what you want." He winked, retreated into the relative gloom, and closed the door.

  * * *

  "Erin, this is fantastic stuff. It mentions the dismissal, but says nothing embarrassing about a former employee. I hate even having to bring it up, but I know she'll ask."

  She took the sheet of talking points back from Dr. Sterling. "I still have a couple of edits to make. Thomas is going to be a major topic of the interview. There's no getting around it."

  "It's no one else's business what happened. Just a difference of opinion. Sometimes I hate politics." Sterling pulled a rueful face.

  "That's why we all work for you, boss. Isn't it time to get your TV makeup on?"

  Her boss made another face and left, feigning reluctance. She grinned at his departing back. Like everyone else in the campaign, she did work for Dr. Sterling because of his idealism-and his character. He was every bit as loyal to his disciples as they were to him. So it didn't surprise her that no one seemed to know what had happened to Thomas. She hadn't seen him since their conversation two days ago.

  Dr. Sterling had called a staff meeting the next morning. He hadn't said whether Thomas had quit or been fired, just that he had left the organization. "I have immense respect for Thomas, and I would hate to see this incident damage his career. So I'd like you all to be discreet about it."

  With the TV interview coming up-for a national morning news show-Erin had approached the boss directly, so she could prepare a response.

  "Erin, I know you need to do your job, but I really can't go into details. It wouldn't be fair to Thomas and it would distract from what really matters in this campaign, which is to take our cause to the next level. Thomas and I had a disagreement and we decided to part ways. He's going to get a top-shelf recommendation from me to any job he wants."

  So Erin had done the best she could, which wasn't much. Dr. Sterling would have to improvise. Fortunately, he seemed good at that.

  * * *

  John Sterling reclined at a g
lass-topped table with the host, perfectly dressed, at ease amid the controlled chaos of the set. Erin watched from the green room, sipping at a bottled water and balancing a notebook on her knee.

  "John Sterling, good morning. It's wonderful to have you with us."

  They exchanged pleasantries for a few moments.

  "Dr. Sterling, you say you're on a mission to fight violent crime. You've had incredible success-first with your own grass-roots organization, and for the last year, as the head of the mayor's task force on violent crime. Now the mayor has said he wants you to have his job. He's endorsed you from the very beginning of your campaign. Can you really carry out your mission better from the mayor's office? Why deal with all the bureaucracy? If you're doing the work you were called to do-as you've put it-why not stay right where you are?"

  Erin smiled, having anticipated the softball.

  "Linda, I asked myself the same question when the mayor and I first began to discuss my campaign. In fact, I asked it when the mayor first approached me about working for the city. I believe that I have a purpose, and I examine everything in the light of that purpose. After the tragedy that took my family, I did a lot of soul-searching. I wasn't there when those animals invaded my home and murdered my wife and child in cold blood. I wondered-I still wonder-if I could have made a difference had I been home to protect them. I wasn't. All I can do now is try and protect others."

  "After I lost my family, I started a student group. A new family, if you will. The kids exceeded my expectations. They listened to police scanners. They put up flyers. They sponsored neighborhood crime watches. And things began to change. If there was a violent crime in your neighborhood, we would harass the police until they caught the perpetrators and stepped up patrols on your street tenfold. We've gone into schools and cracked down on gang recruitment. Breakins are drastically down over the last five years. In many areas of town, armed robbery is a thing of the past. The students did so well that they outgrew the school. I resigned my teaching position and took the group off campus. I wrote a book about my experiences."

  "Which has sold twenty-five million copies. Not too bad!"

  "Not too bad," Sterling smiled. "The mayor read my book, and was convinced enough to give me a new job. I've been advising him on issues of violent crime. We've talked strategy, discussed police budgets, ordinances, all the things I could never get on the inside of before. He's a fast learner." He winked. "Now the mayor is coming to the end of his term and wants to make sure that the changes we've begun will carry on. He thinks I'm the one to do it. I'm just trying to live up to his vision-and mine."

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