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Mulkern said, “And what would you have then?”

“I’d have you in the same position you’re ready to put me in. And hell if it wouldn’t make my day.” I reached down, picked up my beer, finished it. “Still want to wreck my name, Sterl?”

Mulkern held the envelope in his hand. He said, “Brian Paulson’s a good man. A good politician. And these photos are almost seven years old. Why bring this to the surface now? It’s old news.”

I smiled and quoted him: “‘Everything but yesterday seems young,’ Senator.” I nudged Jim with my elbow. “Ain’t that always the way?”

THIRTY-TWO

We tried to have a conversation with Richie in the parking lot but it was like trying to talk to someone as he passed by on a jet. He was rocking forward on his feet and he kept interrupting to say, “Hold that thought, would you?” Then he’d whisper something into his handheld tape recorder. Probably wrote most of his column standing in the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency.

We said our good-nights and he bounced on the balls of his feet all the way to his car. We might have killed Socia, but Richie was going to bury Paulson.

We took a cab home; the still streets were littered with the residue of fireworks; the wind carried a bitter tang of gunpowder. The rush of burying Mulkern’s whipping boy in front of him was already beginning to dissipate, leaking out of the cab onto those desolate streets, drifting off somewhere into the shadows that swept over us between the streetlights.

When we reached my place, Angie went straight to the fridge, took a bottle of zinfandel from the door. She took a glass too, though after watching her drink it, there didn’t seem much point; the only way she could have gone through it any faster would have been intravenously. I took a couple of beers and we sat in the living room with the windows open, listening to the breeze blow a beer can down the avenue, tipping it against the asphalt, rolling it steadily toward the corner.

I knew that in a week or so, I’d look back on this with pleasure, savor the look on Mulkern’s face as he realized he’d just paid me a large sum of money to blow a hole in his life. Somehow I’d managed to pull off the rarest of feats I’d made someone in the State House accountable. In a week or so, that would feel good. Not now though. Now we were facing something else entirely, the air heavy with the impending weight of our own consciences.

Angie was halfway through the bottle when she said, “What’s going on?”

She stood up, the wine bottle hanging loosely between her index and middle fingers, tapping against her thigh.

I got up, not sure I was ready to face this yet. I got two more beers, came back. I said, “We killed someone.” It sounded simple.

“In cold blood.”

“In cold blood.” I opened one beer, placed the other on the floor beside the chair.

She drained her glass, poured some more. “He wasn’t dangerous to us.”

“Not at that moment, no.”

“But we killed him anyway,” I said. It was numbing and repetitious, this conversation, but I had the feeling we were each trying to say exactly what we’d done, no bullshit, no lies to come back and haunt us later.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because he repulsed us. Morally.” I drank some beer. It could have been water for all I tasted it.

“A lot of people morally repulse us,” she said. “We going to kill them too?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Not enough bullets.”

She said, “I don’t want to joke about this. Not now.”

She was right. I said, “Sorry.”

She said, “In the exact same situation, we’d do it again.” I thought of Socia holding up the photograph, running his finger between his son’s legs. I said, “Yes, we would.”

“He was a predator,” she said.

I nodded.

“He allowed his child to be molested for money, so we killed him.” She drank some more wine, not quite inhaling it anymore. She was standing in the middle of the floor, pivoting slowly on her left foot every now and then, the bottle swinging like a pendulum between her fingers.

I said, “That’s about the size of it.”

She said, “Paulson did similar things. He molested that child, probably hundreds of others. We knew that. We didn’t kill him.”

I said, “Killing Socia was an impulse. We didn’t know we were going to do it when we met him.”

She laughed, a short harsh sound. “We didn’t, huh? Why’d we take a silencer with us?”

I let the question fall between us, tried not to answer it Eventually I said, “Maybe we did go there knowing we’d kill him given half an excuse. He deserved it.”

“So did Paulson. He’s alive.”

“We’d go to jail if we killed Paulson. Nobody cared about Socia. They’ll chalk it up to the gang war, be happy he’s gone.”

“How convenient for us.”

I stood up, came across to her. I put my hands on her shoulders, stopped her lazy pivot. I said, “We killed Socia on impulse.” If I said it enough, maybe it’d become true. “We couldn’t get to Paulson. He’s too well insulated. But we took care of him.”

“In very civilized fashion.” She said “civilized” the way some people say “taxes.”

“Yes,” I said.

“So we took care of Socia according to the laws of the jungle, and we dispatched Paulson in accordance with the laws of civilization.”

“Exactly.”

She looked into my eyes and hers were swimming with alcohol and exhaustion and ghosts. She said, “Civilization seems to be something we choose when it fits our purpose.”

Not much I could argue with there. A black pimp was dead and a white child molester was preparing a press release over a bottle of Chivas somewhere, each one as guilty as the other.

People like Paulson would always be able to hide behind power. They might face disgrace, they might even do six months in a federal country club and face public castigation, but they’d breathe. Paulson might actually come out of this OK. A few years back, a congressman who’d admitted to having sex with a fifteen-year-old boy was reelected. I guess, to some people, even statutory rape is relative.

And people like Socia could slip through for a while, maybe a long while. They’d kill and maim and make the lives of everyone around them ugly and bleak, but sooner or later, they usually ended up like Socia himself brain leaking out under an expressway. They ended up on page thirteen of the Metro section and the cops shrugged and didn’t work too hard to find their killers.

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