Heroes, p.13
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       Heroes, p.13

           Leigh Barker
Christian Carter strode into the foyer of Senator Wakeman’s congressional office and up the marble steps with a real spring in his step. This was it. This was the meeting that was going to put his company in the big league. Wakeman was on the military procurement subcommittee and a key supporter of the Christian Diem Corporation’s bid to supply IED Early Detection Systems to the military.

  Melissa Bates saw him heading down the wide corridor with a broad smile on his tanned face, and her heart sank. She wanted him to get good news today, to keep the smile that lit up his face, but it wasn’t going to be. He was gorgeous. Six-five, dark and slim, with overlong hair swept back in waves off his face. He had eyes that were so dark, it was impossible to distinguish the pupils, but they flashed with laughter and mischief, even when his face was serious. He had long legs and a spring in his walk that told of super-fitness. A happy, sporting man, with looks that a movie star would die for. Or so she saw him. Others might have seen something a little more sinister, more unnerving.

  He stepped up to her desk, put his manicured hands flat on its surface, and leaned forward. “Good morning, Melissa. And how are you this fine day?”

  She couldn’t believe he knew her name, and had to check herself to make sure her mouth wasn’t open like a stupid kid’s. “I’m fine, thank you.” Okay, her voice was steady, thank God.

  Melissa wasn’t comfortable with men, or women, or kids for that matter, which was odd as she was the senator’s administrative assistant and her key role was interacting with people. And keeping the unsavory ones at arm’s length. But that was her professional role, and she could hide behind her title. Personal relationships, well… what are they? She’d had relationships, of course, but that was when she was young, before her father died and her mother fell apart.

  It had been a few days after her twentieth birthday when her father complained of feeling ill during dinner, fell off his chair and died. Just like that. People say that’s the best way to go, no suffering. But going that way puts all the suffering on the people left behind. He was sixty-three when he died, and her life ended.

  It didn’t just stop. At first, she really believed they would get through it, but her mother just came apart over the next weeks. She stopped talking, she stopped eating, and would explode at the smallest thing, smashing crockery, kicking the fridge, and lashing out at Melissa. Until one day, maybe four weeks after her father died and two days after they put him in the ground on that Tuesday morning in the torrential rain, she came home from her job at the diner and found her mother sitting in the big armchair as still as death. The doctor said she’d shut down from the pain of loss and would recover in time. But she hadn’t, and the shutdown had mutated into Alzheimer’s or senility, which one she couldn’t say, because the doctor had stopped coming around when she couldn’t pay his bills.

  Melissa stayed with the job at the diner that she’d taken temporarily while her mother had grieved for her husband. But now it was permanent, and any thought of moving to the city and starting her life was parked. And remained parked for sixteen years.

  She washed clothes and bathed her angry mother while her friends settled down, got married, had kids, a house, and a life. They called her Poor Melissa, but were glad it wasn’t them. It somehow made it easier that she’d been so popular at school, a sort of balancing of the books. But it was a shame, and they all said so.

  Her mother would have what they ironically called ‘lucid moments’, when she would recognize her daughter enough to call her a tramp and a slut, and threaten to haunt her from hell if she even thought about putting her in a home. The people across the street would keep a lookout during the day and put her back in the house when she wandered outside. But at night she was Melissa’s duty and burden. She’d loved her mother, but she no longer recognised this monster that slowly bled away her life.

  On Christmas Eve, with It’s a Wonderful Life playing on the TV, the old woman opened her eyes, smiled at her daughter, and died. Melissa wept for her mother, but also for the relief of it.

  She buried her in the graveyard of the Catholic church she’d never attended. The priest had asked the Lord to unite them again as one family while Melissa begged the Lord to do no such thing. Then he’d walked away, and she was alone at the graveside, crying tears for her mother she had lost so many years ago, years that had not been kind to her. Thirty-six now, and tired. She’d taken everything life had thrown at her, but some of it had stuck. She was too thin, from the stress, but also because she hadn’t had the energy to eat. Her superbly boned features that had turned so many boys’ heads in high school now looked haggard and worn. And her once tanned and lovely skin was now pale and lined around eyes that had lost their light and become dead and dark-rimmed.

  The bank took the house for the mortgage, and she threw everything else into the trash. Then bought a ticket on the first bus out of town, closed her eyes, and didn’t open them again until the town was a memory.

  The bus terminated in Washington, and she walked out of the bus station into a new life. It had been easy, though anything would have been easy compared with where she’d come from. She worked at another diner for a year and half while she got her degree in business studies. Long days at the counter and long nights with the books, but she’d loved every free moment of it. Without the weight of her mother dragging on her, she blossomed a little. Put on some weight in the right places, and got a little sun on her skin. But sun and a few good meals cannot undo the attrition of sixteen years. She would look at herself in the full-length mirror and cry a little while her mind overlaid the girl she had been on the prematurely middle-aged woman that looked back at her.

  She’d got the first office job she’d applied for and never knew she’d been chosen above the other applicants because of the way she looked; since all she would have in her life was work, she was a good bet. And they’d been right, but she’d liked working at the congressional offices, and over the next five years, rose up the ranks until now she was chief of staff. So that was a fair exchange, a good job, big income, power. In exchange for a life. And love. Sometimes, in the small hours, the loneliness crashed over her like a black wave and her breath would catch in her throat, suffocating her. Filling the future with nothing but blackness, sadness, and a death that would leave not even a small hole in the lives of the people who smiled at her at work and pretended they knew her. But she could dream.

  She stood up from the comfortable chair where she had been waiting for Christian Carter and led him to the senator’s office, closing the door quietly after he’d entered. She was sorry it was going to be such bad news. She liked him, and that was unusual. She could have just returned to her desk and got on with the day, but instead sat back in one of the chairs arranged around the glass coffee table, and waited.

  Christian Carter stepped up to the senator’s desk and put out his hand. “Senator, it is good of you to see me.”

  Senator Wakeman was a big man. Well over six foot and his body filled out the white shirt under the red braces equally in all directions, straining the fine silk to its tolerance point. His hair was too perfect to be real and had a gloss that had gone out of fashion about the time Elvis died. But he had a good face that radiated sincerity and friendly charm—an absolute prerequisite for any politician.

  He half rose from his big, leather seat and smiled the vote-winning smile. “Christian, so good to see you again.” He sat back down and the smile vanished. “Bad news, I’m afraid,” he said, getting to the spike as quickly as possible, as experience had taught him to do. “There’s going to be a delay in the decision.” He waved at the chair in front of his desk.

  Christian sat down heavily and fought to mask his disappointment and anger. “That is bad news, Senator. Is there anything I can do?”

  Wakeman shook his head, and his jowls wobbled gently. “I’m afraid not, Christian.” He leaned forward, his man-breasts resting on the desktop. “You’ll have heard about this business with General Davy?”

assassinated by terrorists. Tragic affair.”

  “Quite. General Davy was providing expert military input into the decision, I’m afraid.”

  Christian saw light. “Oh, I see. So we’re delayed until a suitable replacement can be found?”

  Wakeman licked his bright red lips with a wet, pink tongue. “Well, yes and no.”

  Christian remained silent. But there wasn’t much to say in response to that.

  The senator did what most people do when there’s a silence, he filled it. “However, General Davy was opposed to your company’s solution.”

  Christian remained silent. The hole was dug, and the senator jumped in.

  “He was one of three members who prefer the solution from General Dynamics.”

  So, thought Christian, four against. “Have I met the three members who oppose my company’s bid?”

  “I’m afraid it would be inappropriate of me to disclose their names.”

  Oh well, it was worth a try.

  “Of course,” said Christian. “I understand, and I wouldn’t want to put you on the spot.” Which was a lie. “But our bid has the majority vote?”

  Wakeman was silent for a moment. A moment too long. “Once again, I can’t discuss the bidding process until it’s complete.”

  Christian considered offering to support his campaign for re-election, but couldn’t think of a way of putting it that didn’t sound like the attempted bribe it was. He stood up and put out his hand. “Thank you, Senator. I value your support.” Which presupposed he was actually getting it.

  The senator stood and shook the offered hand. “It’s my pleasure, Christian. And if there’s anything I can do, please just ask.” The smile again.

  “Thank you. I’ll be sure to do just that.”

  Christian closed the door behind him and stood in the hallway while he replayed what had just happened. Today was to be the day, and now…

  He saw Melissa starting to stand and smiled. The game wasn’t over yet. Okay, she was on the wrong side of forty and dressed like an old maid, but in the right light, she could be pretty, and maybe was… once. But for eleven billion dollars, he’d smile at a rutting pig.

  She crossed the hall and returned the smile. “Short meeting.”

  “Yes,” said Christian with a shrug. “Delay in the process. Oh well, it’s to be expected with so many people to be satisfied.”

  “It’s a lot of money,” said Melissa, and then realised what a lame thing that was to say. “Everybody is careful about being seen as spenders at a time like this.”

  He nodded. “Understandable.” He smiled at her and pretended to start for the stairs, stopped and stepped back. “I’ve been coming to Washington for months now and have never seen the city. Perhaps I could buy you dinner and you could show me around.”

  She took an involuntary step back and was about to make an excuse and flee, but stopped. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, besides her cat. Yes, it would. “I’d love to show you around,” she said and hoped she wasn’t blushing on the outside like she was on the inside.

  “Then it’s a date,” he said with a big smile. “Seven?”

  “Yes, seven.” She watched him stride back down the marble steps and almost ran after him to the top. “Where will we meet?” It was almost desperate.

  He turned and winked. “Beautiful woman like you won’t be hard to find. I’ll send my driver for you.” He turned and skipped down the stairs.

  Melissa watched him go and then looked around in case someone had seen her making a damned fool of herself. The foyer was deserted, except for the security people, and they’re paid not to notice.

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