VICTORIES MEANT LITTLE TO ISAAC SIDEL. He despised election campaigns, with their pomp and panoply, their bitter battles. He went up to the Bronx without his Secret Service man. He loved to stand on some hill and look down upon the firebombed streets. All that desolation seemed to soothe him. The Big Guy needed a strong pinch of chaos. That meadowland of gutted build- ings had a strange beauty, like a diorama of brick teeth.
He stood alone in Claremont Park and what he saw pricked his curiosity. Land surveyors and army engineers had climbed onto another hill with their tripods and magical measuring devices. This was no citizen’s group. An MP was guarding their equipment.
The Big Guy hiked over to the army engineers. They saluted him.
“Hello, Mr. President.”
“Jesus,” Isaac said, “I’m not in line to become your commander in chief. You’re looking at the bottom half of the ticket.”
The chief engineer smiled at him. There was no menace in his manner, no hidden darting of his eyes.
“You’re still our president,” he said.
“But what are you guys doing here? The Bronx isn’t much of a playground.”
“This is a practice session, sir. My engineers have to get used to all terrain.”
He produced a permit, signed by the NYPD. It still bothered Isaac—the cavalry invading Claremont Park. But he wouldn’t badger these engineers. They continued with their work.
“Good-bye, Mayor Sidel.”
He couldn’t disappear without creating a little storm of auto- graph seekers. He signed “Sidel” on bits of cardboard and the bills of baseball caps. A woman caressed his sleeve.
“We don’t want Michael,” she whispered. “We want you.”
Isaac skulked out of the park while the army engineers surveyed the South Bronx from their hill. His fans saluted him from fire escapes across the street. There was little Isaac could do about all the fury surrounding the election.
It was known as the slaughter of ’88. Democrats battered Republicans, knocked them out of the box. President Calder Cottonwood couldn’t even capture his own state. He lost Arizona in the very same landslide. But the Democratic Party was riddled with rancor. Its stan- dard bearer, J. Michael Storm, the czar of baseball and president-elect, was sinking fast in the polls. He was a flagrant Casanova. One of his mistresses had surfaced since the election and demanded hush money from the Dems. The Party would have to pay and pay and pay.
That wasn’t the worst of it. The Dems had to cover up J. Michael’s crooked land deals, the phony corporations he’d started with Clarice, his dipsomaniac of a wife. It’s lucky he had a running mate like Sidel, a former police commissioner who ran around with a Glock in his pants and captured criminals while he was on the campaign trail.
The Party couldn’t have won the election without Sidel. He was much more popular than a president or a baseball czar. He should have resigned his mayor’s job, but the citizens of New York wanted Isaac to govern them until the day he ran off to DC. Michael had moved into the Waldorf with his transition team. But Isaac stole whatever little thunder J. Michael had left with his daily shenani- gans. And so the Dems had to get him out of Manhattan.
Tim Seligman, the Party’s chief strategist, who’d been a fighter pilot in Nam, decided to send Isaac out on the road on some kind of quixotic quest. He could scream his head off about any subject under the sun as long as he didn’t mention J. Michael Storm. He was given his own touring bus, a gift from the Democratic National Committee. And Tim Seligman accompanied him as his babysitter. They flew to Dallas, where Isaac began his tour of Texas. He was the Democrats’ holy warrior. But he couldn’t ride with Marianna Storm, Michael’s twelve-year-old daughter, who was known as the Little First Lady. Voters had fallen in love with her during the election. She didn’t campaign with her father. She was always at Isaac’s side. The Big Guy needed a “consort.” Marianna had camped out with him at Gracie Mansion, because she couldn’t bear her mother and father, and had baked butternut cookies for Isaac and his staff. Now, Seligman banned her from Isaac’s bus, and Isaac turned on Tim, threatened to resign as the Democrats’ holy warrior unless he had the Little First Lady. But Tim had to deal with all the postelection flak. The Dems had a photo of Calder pissing in the Rose Garden and threatened to release it if the Republican machine continued to harp on Michael’s mistresses.
“Isaac, it’s a war out there,” Tim said. “The bombs are flying. Do you want to ruin that little girl?”
“By having her sit with me?”
“The Republicans are concocting a very tall tale. And how can we fight it? Unless Marianna disappears, they’ll accuse you of having a Lolita complex.”
“Isaac, it’s a smear. They’re talking pedophilia.”
The future vice president jumped on Tim, rocked the entire bus. The
Secret Service had to separate them. The boss of Isaac’s detail, Martin Boyle, an Oklahoman who was six foot two, had to beg the Big Guy.
“Sir, if I let you go, will you promise to behave?”
“Not before I murder Tim.”
“Then I’ll hold you here until kingdom come.”
“Perfect. I won’t have to tour Texas.”
“And President Cottonwood will jump on our backs,” Tim said. “He’s behind the smear. We went deep into Calder’s pockets. We captured his astrologer.”
“Calder has an astrologer? He’s like fucking Adolf Hitler.”
“He can’t make a move without her. He’s beside himself.”
“What’s her name?” Isaac had to ask.
“Markham, Mrs. Amanda Markham.”
“And how did you capture her, huh, Timmy? The Prez must have guarded this Amanda with his life.”
“Of her own free will? That’s a peach. She comes into our camp and offers her services, and you don’t smell a rat? What’s the matter with you? Calder’s crazed, so he lends us his favorite spy.”
“Isaac, we’re not dummies. We checked her out. We have tapes of her with the Prez.”
The Big Guy wasn’t amused. “You’ve been bugging the White House? Boyle, did you hear that?”
“No,” said Isaac’s Secret Service man. “I’m not allowed to listen to your conversations, sir. I’m only here to protect your life.”
“I can’t believe it. Nothing makes sense. . . . And what did you learn from the tapes, Timmy Boy?”
“A lot. About Calder’s pedophilia play. He’s been doctoring pho- tographs. Of you and Marianna. And that’s when Mrs. Markham started to rebel.”
“It disgusted her. She’s a big fan of yours. The Prez found out, and he broke her nose. That’s when she walked.”
“Where is this Mata Hari?” “On the bus, and she’s not Mata Hari.”
“She climbed aboard, and you never told me?”
“I wanted Amanda to study you without your being aware of her. She’s an astrologer, the best in the business. She’s preparing your chart. She can help us plot our future . . . yours and the Party’s.”
“Damn you,” Isaac said. “You steal Marianna and saddle me with a fucking star clerk.”
“Who’s a star clerk?”
Isaac had to crane his neck, or he couldn’t have discovered the source of that shrill cry. A roly-poly woman was perched at the back of the bus with a bandage on her nose. She hadn’t entered his field of vision until now. He should have noticed her. He’d been the Commish.
“Sidel, do you have a sore throat?”
He blinked at the fat witch. “How did you guess?”
“Taureans have a lot of problems with their throats. . . . ”
“Does Calder have the same affliction?”
“I never discuss my other clients,” she said.
“But you did talk to Tim about Marianna, and he took her from me.”
“That’s different. The child was in danger, and so were you. Sidel, I’m your survival kit.”
“I doubt that. You were Calder’s clairvoyant . . . until he broke your nose.”
“But I couldn’t save him. Nobody can.”
“Why? Was the moon in Virgo the moment he was born? And it captured his capriciousness?”
“You’re making fun of me, Sidel.”
“Yes, ma’am. Marianna’s the only moon I’ll ever need.”
HE’D CREATED MERLIN ON ACCOUNT of Marianna. She couldn’t function near her mom and dad, with all their feuds. She sulked like a diva, and Isaac had to do something. He brought her up to the badlands of the Bronx. They boycotted Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Express, which had ruined neighborhood after neighborhood, rip- ping into the Bronx’s fabric, destroying it a patch at a time. Isaac couldn’t save the borough, but he could rescue some of its kids. So he started Merlin, a school away from school, where the brainiest kids of a firebombed Bronx could meet with the best little wiz- ards of Manhattan right inside the mayor’s mansion. And Isaac had recruited Marianna—to enrich his own life, along with the wayward boys and girls of the Bronx. She began spending more time with him at Gracie Mansion. She ironed the Big Guy’s shirts, took over the kitchen, and baked butternut cookies. He couldn’t have survived without her. He also pitied Marianna, who had such a dismal mom and dad.
Now he was with that witch, Mrs. Markham, in the middle of Texas. He had his Glock and his own sixth sense. But he couldn’t understand why Timmy was with him in a yellow campaign bus and hadn’t returned to J. Michael, who stumbled wherever he went.
“Michael needs you, Tim.”
“He’s beyond repair,” the strategist said. “My one consolation is that Calder sank faster than he did. It’s a first in American politics. A presidential race where both guys couldn’t light the simplest fucking fire. If you get stuck in some scandal, Michael will disappear with the Waldorf. That’s why I couldn’t let Calder lock you into a Lolita complex. I had to grab Marianna.”
They’d arrived in San Antone, where Tim had scheduled a press conference in the old cattlemen’s bar at the Menger Hotel, across from the Alamo. The Dems wanted to turn Isaac into Davy Crock- ett, tear off his Manhattan skin. But Isaac wouldn’t fiddle with his own temperament, play some lost son of San Antonio. He wouldn’t wear cowboy boots, like other politicians, attend horse shows, or spit into a solid-gold spittoon. He talked about the blight of inner city schools in the ’80s, the eleven-year-old pistoleros who worked for drug lords and shot rival gangs to pieces, because they couldn’t be tried in open court.
“I don’t like coca kings hiding behind the skirts of children.”
“Then what do you like?” one of the reporters asked. “This is Crockett country. Would you hamper us with a gun-control bill?”
“I might,” Isaac said, “if I could get rid of eleven-year-old assassins.”
“This isn’t Brooklyn. Our kids don’t play with guns. We’d slap them silly, sir.”
The fat witch bumped into Isaac. “Make it short,” she whispered.
“Christ, Mrs. Markham. Are you my chief of staff?”
“The moon is in the middle of two houses. That’s dangerous. You’re on the cusp of something I don’t like at all. Scatter as fast as you can.”
“Run away from the Alamo? This is Texas, dear.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Mrs. Markham hissed and dug an elbow into Isaac’s back . . . as some crazy shooter appeared in the crowd. This shooter had caught Martin Boyle and his Secret Service men with their pants down. They’d been foraging through the Menger Bar for possible kooks and had landed on their own blind side. The shooter had been difficult to spot. He was dressed as a military man, with a silver eagle on his shoulder. But he had a thick, heavy tongue and eyes shot with blood. His mouth sat crooked on his face, as if someone had sewn it there.
“I’m the eye of god,” the shooter shouted, clutching a silver Colt with the longest barrel Isaac had ever seen. The Big Guy couldn’t grab his own Glock. He would have brought pandemonium to the Menger, might have started a massacre. He shielded Mrs. Markham and a little girl, who’d come to seek his autograph, thrust them out of the line of fire, and leapt on the shooter, who squeezed his trigger once, clipped Isaac, grazed him under the arm. The chandeliers rang like celestial chimes. But why, why did Isaac think of those army engineers on their hill in the Bronx just as he was about to topple? It had to be a sinister sign.
“The Citizen’s down, the Citizen’s down,” the Secret Service men sang into their button mikes. “The Citizen” was Isaac’s code name inside the Service. They’d already captured the shooter; fourof them, including Boyle, were lying on top of Isaac. Boyle’s own cheeks were covered in Isaac’s blood.
“Boyle,” Isaac whispered, “will you get the fuck off? I can’t breathe.”
And then he blacked out.