A redneck bar was not the place where Roman had planned to declare his love for Kristi, but if he didn’t do it on this night, he might never find the courage again. The White Horse Saloon in Boville was her favorite watering hole, so when she invited him to celebrate his homecoming from law school there, he accepted. When the two arrived, the music thumped, spirits were high and cowboys were boot scootin’ to the jukebox tunes.
“Give me two schooners, Manny,” she yelled over the din.
The stocky bartender winked at her and instantly produced two tall glasses of beer.
While she was ordering the drinks, Roman asked, “Have you seen my old friend, Willy?” But the loud music made it impossible to hear.
“Did you say something?” she shouted, leaning and turning an ear toward him.
He grinned at her and shook his head. He’d ask her about Willy later. He grabbed a beer and in perfect time with the music said, “Take this job and shove it! I ain’t workin’ here no more.” They both laughed. The craziness was definitely under way.
By the end of happy hour, they were happy indeed. It was then that he inquired about his friend again.
“So, about Willy, have you seen him lately?”
“The Knights shot that old coon almost a year ago,” she blurted.
Her use of the derogatory term didn’t bother him, but his stomach muscles corkscrewed at the news of his friend’s death.
When she saw Roman’s head draw back stiffly, she asked, “What? You didn’t hear?”
The Southern Knights were a solid stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. He’d heard about them since childhood. There leaked within their blood a history of fathers and grandfathers who owned Boville, Texas, a lineage of terror and power.
Roman had thought about visiting Willy the next day, but there were no tomorrows in the world of Willy Davis, not anymore.
“Did they catch the guy who did it? I mean the guy who shot Willy?”
Before she could answer, the music died. Manny shut off the jukebox and increased the volume on the large screen projection television. All eyes turned toward the monitor, focused on the image before them.
There, stood President Lucinda “Lucy” Bella, the first Hispanic woman President of the United States, giving a speech in downtown Dallas about crime, racism and illegal immigration.
The New Englander President spoke of the poor and the homeless, the huddled masses that came to this country centuries ago seeking a better life. She pleaded for peace in our streets and cooperation in the Republican Congress. Eventually, she raised a terribly unpopular issue in Texas. She wanted more gun control.
As she spoke, one of the drunken cowboys yelled at the screen. “You dumb-ass liberal! Go back to Washington. We don’t want you in Texas.”
The crowd in the bar cheered in approval. Another voice joined in, followed by a third. The jeering grew louder and more profane. Nasty slurs were hurled at the screen, the crowd feeding on itself like sharks in a frenzy.
This unusual ritual seemed to arouse Kristi immensely. This was a side of her Roman had never seen. Her eyes bulged as she breathed rapidly, apparently enjoying the excitement. It caused him deep concern to see his friend so easily consumed by the hysteria of the crowd, but it was on the heels of that rather unpleasant thought that he inexplicably came to like her even more.
When the news bulletin finished, the sports broadcast continued and the crowd returned to sipping their beer under a lazy spinning fan, catching up on old times.
A strange realization began to set in for Roman. Being away for seven years had made him long for Kristi’s companionship more than for his “official” girlfriend, Giselle. But his relationship with Giselle had withered away long ago.
His gaze raked over Kristi, sweeping her face, resting on her lips, before moving down. Her breasts were fuller now and her stomach, hips, legs and back were toned muscle. He looked again for a split second at her blissful smile as the breeze from the overhead fan flapped her neatly cropped hair. She was somewhere far away, inebriated like him, deep in thought.
Then she spoke with a calm excitement. “So you’re not going to work for a big law firm in Dallas?”
“No, I’m not after the big bucks.” He stared into his beer and shook his head. “I’m not sure why, but I really wanted to come back to Boville.”
But he did know why. He wanted to be with her. How would he confess his affection for her when he already had a girlfriend?
She looked away and swallowed. She appeared ashamed to have brought up the subject. Perhaps she felt it made her seem venal, small-minded, but he sensed she wasn’t really interested in his financial situation.
She glanced at him sideways and grinned with her near perfect teeth. “It’s good to be home, isn’t it?”
He cared only that he loved her, and he hoped, she’d feel the same about him. He carefully guided her chin back until she was forced to meet the knowing smile in his eyes. “Despite everything, yes.”
She was sporting her short denim cutoffs and white cotton blouse with an open collar in the front. Her face was softer than he recalled, and her figure had acquired more feminine curves. For a moment, he didn’t want to do anything but stare at her to soak in the woman she’d become.
When Percy Sledge came on the jukebox singing, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” she jumped up and extended her hand. “Come on, let’s dance.”
“Love to,” he said, following her lead, almost stumbling, to the middle of the dance floor. They swayed gently, trying unsuccessfully to avoid bumping into other couples. He felt a slight tingle of masculine awareness from his waist down to his toes as he held her. He pressed them hard against the inside of his shoes and silently insisted that his body behave.
Halfway through the song he muttered, “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“I love you.” He tightened his embrace. He felt her body tense up. “I’ve been in a fever. I’ve loved you for a long time with all my heart and I have to say this right now, this minute, this second.”
“Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed, leaning back to smile at him.
“I know. I know. It probably sounds shocking to you but I’ve been thinking about us since I left Boville.”
She pulled back and raised her eyebrows in pleasant curiosity. “You have? What exactly were you thinking?”
“I’ve thought about your eyes, your hair and your good heart and even your horse, Moses. I love them all.”
“Oh Roman, I think that’s the beer talking. Besides, what’s Giselle going to think about this?” A faint blush appeared to heat her cheeks.
He was unsure whether this was his moment to shine or to make a complete fool of himself, but he felt as if he could sway in her embrace forever. Time would cease. There was nothing now or ever he’d rather do than this. “Giselle is a friend and I still like her, but you’re different. We’re different.”
“You think differently. It’s the way you talk when you’re talking, not worrying about pleasing others all the time. It’s your independence and the look in your eyes when we’re together.”
She locked in on his eyes with a penetrating look and he felt a swagger in her motion. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I know, but you don’t have to say anything.”
She nestled her head in the curve of his neck, then whispered in his ear, “I’m not one of those pretty girls.”
Kristi was not the kind of woman who would stir up attention by walking into a room, but after being there for a while she could have a crowd around, drawn to her laughter and energetic spirit over perhaps more superficial charms of others.
“I don’t care,” he said with an inebriated sense of dignity. “You might think I’m not beautiful, but I think youuu are.”
“What did you say?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m nervous. You know wha. . . wha. . . what I mean.”
She stopped moving when Percy’s loving crooning faded away, then cupped his face in her hands. She held it so that she gazed straight into his eyes. “All right,” she said, her eyes glistening. “I can live with that.”
As she said those words, he felt something stronger. What he really wanted, was to go somewhere with her, slip into bed and merge her body with his, then wrap his arms around her as tightly as he could hold her.
He was jolted out of his reverie when Manny barked out.
“Hey everybody! The President is making a pit stop in good ole Boville. Can you believe it? They’re gonna be here in a few minutes. Hot damn!”
Agent Turner sat in the front seat of the rented limousine with Captain Garcia, the pilot of Air Force One. “Are you sure you can drive this thing?” Turner asked teasingly.
“Hey, I’m a Joaquin of all trades. Hell, at home, I even do windows,” he joked. He was one of the few persons the President’s Chief of Staff, John Bennett, had let in on the President’s plans for the covert excursion to Boville.
“You don’t look too surprised to be here. Garcia, do you know something I should know about?”
Garcia paused and gave Turner a slight grin. “Look, before leaving Washington, Bennett made me swear not to reveal the plans for stopping in Boville, even to the Secret Service Director. After all, like Bennett said, the President is the commander-in-chief and for me, this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He said that if I followed instructions and did what I was told, he’d get me a commendation letter from the President herself or something like that.”
“And you believed him?”
“Sure, why not? Bennett’s the Chief of Staff, man. You know I’m a damn good soldier. I got no problem keeping secrets if it comes from the top.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m a jack of all trades too, tonight,” said Turner with a lightheartedness he didn’t feel. “I was supposed to be with the 747 throughout this trip until I got the word a few minutes before takeoff, and now this.” He looked at the pilot’s grinning face. “You knew about this and didn’t tell me either, did you?”
Garcia flashed a quick smirk but said nothing.
The music was blaring again at the White Horse Saloon, but no one was dancing. Instead, the room buzzed with curious excitement, everyone wondering whether Manny was pulling a prank on them about the President’s visit. Even the romancing couples in the dark corners put aside their sexual obsessions.
Everybody in the bar was talking at the same time. I don’t believe it. Who invited that bitch here, anyway? I’d like to give her a piece of my mind.
One drunken cowboy leaned on the bar near undercover Special Agent Riley. He had no qualms expressing his distaste for the President. “She ought to be shot.”
Riley made a mental note to remember the drunken man’s face and pretended not to hear all the bad-mouth comments in the background. He grew more concerned by the minute. There was no telling what might happen if the crowd got out of hand when the President arrived.
“Are you getting all this,” Riley asked, talking into his lapel microphone.
“We got you covered,” came back the response in his earpiece.
Covered, my ass, he thought. The Bureau routinely had a backup plan for every event, but here, they were operating without the proverbial net. He’d only arrived here within the last twenty minutes. Even a small mistake would spell certain disaster.
Through the window he saw the white stretch limo stop squarely in front of the White Horse, remaining double-parked on the street. The short motorcade reminded him more of a wedding entourage than a presidential procession. The doors of the rental cars in front of and behind the limo opened first. Six men rushed to the door of the limo facing the door of the bar and assumed positions around it.
Riley and the other agents were simultaneously patched into the same audio channel. His ear picked up a whirring sound and then someone said, “Just one minute, Ma’am. Last check before we go in.” He checked his earpiece and felt the weapon under his left arm once again, as the President’s familiar voice came through Garcia’s microphone.
“This is going to be great,” she said, sounding like someone going to a stage play for the first time.
“I’m sure it’ll be great, Ma’am,” echoed a male voice close to her.
He took a second glance toward the limo and acknowledged the Chief of Staff, John Bennett, holding up a finger.
“But let’s not be in there too long,” he said. “Several minutes of footage will go a long way.”
To Riley, the President appeared visibly anxious. She kept taking quick looks at Bennett, as if seeking his approval.
“Is our cameraman ready?” she asked.
Garcia was standing outside the limo, facing the President and holding a portable video camera. “Ready to shoot, Ma’am.”
Riley’s muscles relaxed when the front doors opened and two men in blue blazers and gray slacks appeared. The agents looked out of place with their trademark sunglasses, strange because it was so dark outside. The one with a stone face and tall build immediately spotted Riley, as they nodded to each other in acknowledgment. The other, a shorter and more muscular man, spoke into his shirt cuff and Riley strained to listen but couldn’t make out the words.
Why couldn’t he hear them in his earpiece? He felt the hair rise along the back of his neck. It had to be that they were no longer transmitting on channel 23, his channel. The saloon was unexpectedly quieter, the voices still there, but much more subdued. He told himself the tension was natural, but he didn’t believe his inner voice.
There was mild applause and mock cheering as the President walked in behind Garcia, who looked every bit like a tourist filming his summer vacation. At five and a half feet, President Bella was average height for a Latina woman, but carried herself with elegance and a commanding presence, as if she were much taller. The President’s waving hand was obviously for the sake of camera, as she waved to parts of the room where there were no people. No one waved back at her.
“Over here, Madame President,” called Bennett from the bar a few feet away. He seemed determined to tape the necessary film footage and get out of there as quickly as possible. “This is Manny Norris. He owns this establishment.”
Manny smiled politely, rubbed his hand clean on his wipe rag and shook the President’s outstretched hand.
“This is a nice place you got here, Manny, very nice indeed.”
Manny smiled and nodded in agreement. He appeared to be trying to think of something witty to say, but his face remained blank. “Thank you,” was all he apparently could muster.
The President then walked over to three men wearing cowboy hats at a table next to Roman and Kristi. She patted one of the men on the back with one hand, as she accepted a long-necked beer bottle Bennett handed her. She saw that Garcia had missed the moment, so she waited till he was in a better position with the camera and repeated her gesture, accepting the bottle again.
“Howdy, gentlemen. How are you doing tonight?”
None of the three men looked directly at her. Their eyes fixated on the beers on the table.
“We’re fine,” said one coldly.
“We been fine all night,” said a second.
“Well that’s real good to hear,” the President said. “Maybe someday you can come visit me in Washington and have a beer with me there.”
As Riley saw it, the condescension was too obvious and insulting to everyone. The presidential visit wasn’t starting off well. Moreover, the alcohol had gotten the best of many of the patrons.
In his training, he learned beer usually gave some persons the courage to say things they otherwise might not say. Sometimes it wasn’t courage gained so much as a lowering of inhibitions. One such individual with false bravado was reacting to the President’s invitation.
“Get real,” blurted a clean-cut young man.
One of the agents rushed smoothly into position between the man and the president, facing him in a stance to repel any attack. Riley spoke softly into this lapel as he stood next to the man’s female partner in denim jeans. “Douglas, get us back up, right away. I got a bad feeling about what’s happening here.”
There was no immediate response and Riley felt a twinge of panic. He adjusted his earpiece and was relieved to hear Douglas’ voice again.
“It’s already on its way there. We have a chopper landing a few blocks from there at the supermarket parking lot.”
President Bella looked at the young man and his woman friend as the man rose quickly to his feet, almost dropping his friend in the process.
“We told you guys we’re fine so, why don’t you go campaign somewhere else?” said the young man. He didn’t seem like the outspoken or confrontational type, but everyone turned and looked at him. They applauded his remarks in approval, raising their glasses and bottles of beer in the air.
The agent nearest the young man took a step toward him during the applause and said in a low voice, “Sit down.”
The man raised a bottle as if to toast him, still standing. The agent put a gentle, but firm, hand on his shoulder and repeated, this time more sternly, “Sit down.”
Those words were all it took to set the woman off. “Don’t touch my friend!” she warned, as she stood, sticking out her chest. The music continued to play in the background, but beyond that, all were silent now.
The disconcerting tension on Bennett’s face troubled Riley. As chief of staff, it was Bennett’s responsibility to make sure all operations ran smoothly for the President. This snafu, no doubt, was exactly what Riley had feared. He now wondered when the place would explode into a brawl fest.
The agent turned to the woman with the flaring nostrils and pointed his finger at her face saying, “I’m not talking to you.”
“Well, you should be. Because I’m the one who’s gonna beat your ass!” she retorted with a wicked smile.
The President froze.
Through his earpiece, Riley heard Bennett whisper to her, “We gotta leave, right now. Don’t say another word.”
Riley silently agreed. The media were all somewhere else. No one would know about this fiasco.
Bennett urged her one more time. “It’s not working out, Ma’am. Let’s go.”
Then Riley caught a flash out of the corner of his eye. He registered a muffled explosion just as something struck him in the left upper chest.