Chapter One, Gathering String

This is Chapter One of Gathering String, which you can buy at the Kindle Store for $5.99. You don’t need a Kindle to read it. You can use a Kindle app for iPad, iPhone or computer.
Swan August Erickson stood at the enormous bay window in his home office at Terrace Hill. The sun was setting. Looking down at the wide, sloping lawn, where the last of the autumn leaves skittered and writhed on the steadily increasing wind. Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, the Iowa governor looked more like the small-town grocer he used to be, when everyone just called him “Swede.”

He heard the door open behind him, but continued to stare at the ground below. The unseasonably warm weather was changing before his eyes. A sweeping cold front from the north was drawing down the damp, raw weather typical of Iowa’s late fall. On a sudden gust, a twisting spire of crusty leaves lunged up toward the window. It seemed everything inside him stopped: his breathe, his heart, his mind. He shut his eyes, overwhelmed with sensation that as the leaves dropped away he was falling with them.

The man behind him cleared his throat, and said softly, “Governor?”

“Yeah, Pat,” Erickson swung around with the warm smile that had won approval across the state.

“The ball is rolling back home for the announcement.” No matter where they had come from, everyone on Erickson’s staff called the Governor’s hometown of Lindsborg “back home.”

“We’ll leave about noon tomorrow. That’ll give you some time with your family there, and we can put the final touches on your speech. I just got off the phone with Larson Builders. They’ll start setting a dais up in the store’s parking lot tomorrow night after they close.”

Swede nodded. “Make sure they keep it real simple. No bunting. No plants or flowers, none of that crap. Just the state and national flags. Leave it plain and craggy, like me.” Both men laughed.

“They understand. Of course, I didn’t give them any details about the announcement, but obviously they know.”

“Well, they may be country folk, but they’re not stupid, Pat.”

Donnelly inclined his head in agreement. “Word is going to start seeping out in the next few hours. The press will …”

“Yes, the press,” Erickson nodded again, and when his gray eyes met Donnelly’s they were direct. “We’re only giving it to Jackie.”

“Sir?”

“I want Jack Westphal to break it. Just him. Tell him it’s embargoed until morning. Then he can plaster it on the Journal website. Hell, he’ll probably run a special print edition too. Let the national pack bust their humps getting here for the announcement. They’ll have enough time if they hustle.”

“Just the Journal? But Governor,” Donnelly’s brow knitted, “we’ve had major media outlets hanging for weeks. Starting out on their favorable side is a consideration, especially with your late entry.” Erickson didn’t respond, just turned back to the window. “Jack’s a hell of a guy and the Lindsborg Journal is a nice little news outlet, but …well … sir, you don’t want to …”

“Yeah, I do. I know what I want, Pat.” The words were genial enough, and Donnelly was tempted to argue, but when Erickson looked back at him, something in the Governor’s eyes stopped him. “Someone’s got to be first,” Erickson added, “and I want Jack. He knows me. He’s safe.” Donnelly frowned again, but Erickson didn’t notice as he reached up and jerked the gold curtains closed. “Besides, it’ll play well; the small town press launches the homegrown candidate.” The winning smile returned. “Think of it as classic understatement, Paddy. The electorate will eat it up.”

Erickson grinned Donnelly out the door. But at the soft click of the latch, his face fell. Alone again, he rubbed his eyes, trying to remember when he stopped being afraid.

*************************

Sam Waterman leaned against the doorframe as if reluctant to enter the room and join the meeting. The view from Politifix.com’s conference room was an iconic one. In the morning sunshine the Potomac sparkled 22 stories below, and across the river ran the unmistakable line of symbols that marked the nation’s capital: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome. Everyone who came on business or to tour the offices of the popular, and surprisingly profitable, political news website asked to see this view. In fact, a picture shot from the room’s east wall of windows was stripped across the top of the site’s homepage, a visual brand.

Waterman appeared to be taking it in now, staring out at the morning, but in truth he didn’t even notice.  He’d started taking the beauty of the city for granted a long time ago.

Envious fellow journalists often sarcastically referred to the black-haired, sharp-featured reporter as “The Dark Prince.” Acerbic, ego-driven and quick-tempered, Waterman was hard to take, but his work absolved him of many sins. Sam honed his reputation across the river in the downtown newsroom of the Washington Tribune, the paper that had ruled political news for over a hundred years. But like most ink-on-dead-tree media, the Trib had fallen on hard times. Sam’s cutthroat instincts kept him in the newsroom through the cutbacks and layoffs that thinned the staff to a shadow of what it had been. And he kept up with the shifting technology enough to get by. But his heart, if you believed he had one, was in the reporting and writing of the stories. Known for his hard living, drinking and chain smoking, most of his colleagues figured Sam would just drop dead at his desk one day. A few even hoped so.

So it made waves when Waterman took a buyout a year ago and jumped ship, following his friend and former Trib national editor, Steve Johnson, to the site called Politifix. Insider scuttlebutt claimed that Sam’s sudden exit had more to do with a photo department plot to assassinate him than the opportunity at the start-up. How the man had managed to alienate an entire Tribune department had been a topic of juicy gossip and innuendo for years.

But there was no doubt that Waterman was a survivor. He was as insightful, driven and ruthless online as he’d been in print. But it was also clear how he felt about his new medium. Contempt was one of Sam’s more easily accessible emotions.

“There hasn’t been a cocktease like this since the 1950s.” Better dressed than most journalists, Sam’s white shirt was crisply starched, but with the sleeves rolled up, he still managed to look rumpled. His distinctive Boston accent and hawkish eyes gave him an air of a cleaned-up street-tough. “I feel like I’m watching Rock Hudson run Doris Day to ground.”  Everyone in the room laughed, but Sam’s face remained stern. “I’ve dogged rumors about Swede Erickson’s candidacy for three fucking years.”

Those rumors began the night of the Iowa governor’s keynote speech at the last Republican convention. Powerful, direct and challenging, it left nearly every delegate asking why he wasn’t the candidate. And it was painful that he wasn’t. The Republicans lost that election. Before the new Democratic president was even sworn in, the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression brought the country to its knees. Now, with the national election just a year out, it looked like the unhappy electorate was ripe to change horses in mid-stream, but the hot-button question was whom the Republicans would nominate.

For the last two years the usual cadre of Republican governors, senators and congressmen stepped up to throw their hats into the ring. But all of them seemed to pale in the onslaught of the Minutemen movement. Sam had no patience for this groundswell of self-styled patriots yearning for a simpler, God-fearing time. In his view they were a rabble of noisemakers with short attention spans, distracted by strawman issues and delusional in their belief that prayer, catchphrases, and flag shirts would solve a world full of problems.

At the head of this populist tide rode one woman – Tamarack Fuller. Named for the mountain where her forefathers hunted in her home state of Idaho, Tami Fuller was a former state senator who parlayed a Sunday morning basic cable talk show into a multi-million-dollar brand when she was picked up by the national conservative network. Admired for her dedication to her handicapped husband, loved for her Christian values and mean-spirited quips, Fuller made sure she was constantly in the news. Dragging her wheelchair-bound husband and two busty daughters onto every available political stage, she habitually snarked about “media elitists” who tried to hold her to her outrageous comments, or blamed the current administration for everything from high unemployment to the lack of a new panda cub at the National Zoo. The fact that she was as popular as she was only confirmed for Sam that a disturbing number of the electorate liked their politicians dumb, noting that her chief qualification for public office lay in her ability to dilute any complexity to a sound bite delivered with an ingratiatingly spunky smile.

Fuller was, Sam was certain, the best hope the Democrats had of holding power. She had the entire Republican establishment shaking in their shoes.

So it was no wonder party leaders had pretty much dropped to one knee, plighting their everlasting troth if Swede Erickson would just lead them out of the valley of the shadow of Fuller and into the Promised Land. Smart, levelheaded and articulate, his popularity had slowly fermented over the years. Next to Fuller’s screechy carping and sweeping generalities, he was calm and specific. While Tami was the queen of the social conservatives, Swede was the only hope of the economic, business and defense stalwarts of the party.

A-political, Sam really didn’t give a shit who won the nomination. He was just sorry both Fuller and Erickson were from such small towns. More than anything he hated tracking pols into the back of beyond. He’d already made one foray into the Idaho outback to Fuller’s hometown of Elk City, population 2,000. If Sam believed in God, he would pray that he’d never have to return. And covering the Iowa caucus turned him epically foul every four years. If Erickson were getting in, it would mean even more time spent in the Hawkeye State.

But this late in the game, Erickson was still playing coy, tantalizingly high profile, yet coolly ambivalent to the lures of higher office. The negative flirtation drove the party’s gentry mad with lust for the man who could save them from the fringe and thrust them back into power. Now it was the November before the convention, just two months before the Iowa caucuses, and the speculation about Erickson had grown from a low-level buzz to a national obsession. In the last few days there was a persistent rumble that the Republicans were finally going to get lucky.

Mike Dodson, the Politifix General Manager, rolled his chair back from the conference table, put his hands behind his head, and fixed Waterman with a hard stare. “Well, where are we on this?”

Sam shrugged, “There’s a groundswell that’s lending a little credibility this time. I’ve got half-a-dozen sources saying they know he’s ready to consummate, but not one who’s heard it from Erickson himself. That mother-fucker Donnelly won’t confirm or deny.”

“Well, if it’s not now, I don’t think he’s ever putting out,” Steve Johnson, the site’s editor, sighed. “He’s got some serious catch-up with the other candidates in the field for two years or more. What about fund-raising?”

“His re-election committee has way more money than an Iowa governor needs. Plus there’s his own money.” This came from a reporter named Evie Bundy.

Sam straightened. “And his wife has serious gelt. Her family cashed in on fiber optics way back when.”

Dodson looked over his trademark half-glasses. “Steve’s right. The party isn’t going to wait for him to show up in the honeymoon suite much longer, especially with Morton making headway with the traditionalists.” Florida senator Frederick Morton had been on the trail for over a year, and with Erickson’s candidacy questionable, he was seen as the most likely fallback to thwart Fuller.

“Well, Erickson’s played it brilliantly,” Bundy said. “All the major news outlets are afraid to let him out of their sight until he breaks one way or the other. And if he is in, he comes across looking like Jesus the Savior, walking across the water to save a drowning party.”

“Bullshit,” Sam snorted, his sharp green eyes narrowed. He and Bundy were both former Triblets, and they had a history. She thought him arrogant, he thought her lazy. Sam’s outspoken criticism of her work was generally credited with labeling the ax with Bundy’s name on it during the first round of Trib layoffs. A lot of people said his animosity had more to do with Bundy’s avid gossiping about Sam’s personal life than anything professional. Whatever the case, it offended the hell out of him that she fetched up at Politifix along with him. “All this yes-means-no and no-means-yes shit pushed a lot of backers who wanted a sure thing into bed with Morton. Erickson’s squandered a lot of passion with his dithering. The important question here is why.”

Dodson nodded, but Bundy insisted, “He’s got the goods and knew it. He let the others shoot holes in each other for a year, and now he’s going to step out on the stage as the pristine virgin.” Her tone went mocking, “The smart ones don’t get rushed by an impressive hard-on, Sam.”

Sam’s jaw set. “You are so full of …”

He was cut off when Sarah Mills, the deputy editor, appeared in the doorway. “Twitter just lit up with a shitload of tweets that Erickson is in.”

Dodson leaned to his laptop keyboard, bringing in his Twitter feed and hitting a link. He read aloud, “Governor Swan August Erickson plans to announce his candidacy tomorrow at 11 a.m. central time in Lindsborg, Iowa …” He stopped to see which news site he was on and yelped, “The Lindsborg Journal? A copyright story in the Lindsborg fucking Journal?” No one else in the room said a word. “After all this, the SOB gave it to the hometown paper. Erickson just stuck it to us all.” He ran his hand down his face, then looked over at Steve Johnson. “Get Sherry to book a couple seats on the next flight out. We’ll need a shooter.”

“Rick Higgins is freelancing these days,” Johnson responded. A friend of both Sam and Steve, Rick’s head had rolled in the last Trib bloodletting. Johnson never failed to suggest the father of five for a shoot. It helped that his work was top-notch. “He’ll probably go stringing for HuffPo and maybe the LA Times too, to share the travel expenses.”

Dodson nodded. “Call him and get us in on it.”

As Johnson rose, Dodson glanced from Sam to Evie and then back again, jabbing a finger at Sam. “Saddle up. And kick it into high, Sam. No good comes from forcing Politifix to suck hind tit, and I want Erickson to know it. Get out in front of that bastard. Right now.” Sam nodded and hustled out the door.

Read Chapter Two and the rest of Gathering String by downloading it at the Kindle Store.

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