W ith three weeks to go in the Florida governor's race, the Tallahassee morning newspaper ran the following headline: “2 heads explode in separate incidents.”
T allahassee is the capital of Florida, up in the north end of the state near Georgia. The land is less flat, more wooded; the people not as hurried or transient. In the eighteenth century the population centers of old Florida were Pensacola in the panhandle and St. Augustine on the Atlantic -- too far apart to be managed under a single provisional government. Officials went looking for a spot in between. But the Talasi Indians were already on that spot, so the officials told the Indians they needed to borrow their village for about three hundred years.
Tallahassee was established the capital in 1823. East Tallahassee High School was established in 1971. On a balmy October evening in 2002, a banner hung in the high school’s auditorium. “Go Fighting Senators!” Another hung over the stage. “Welcome Governor Candidates.”
A smattering of people sat in the sea of folding chairs on the basketball court. Technicians taped electrical cables to the parquet floor and checked the sound system. Agents swept the school with bomb-sniffing German shepherds. Reporters shuffled around in a tight herd, stepping on each other’s shoelaces, interviewing The Man on the Street, then each other, looking for that fresh Pulitzer angle. The debate was less than two hours away.
T he majestic old Florida Capitol building, with its trademark red-and-white Kentucky Fried Chicken awnings, stands proudly at the foot of the Apalachee Parkway. Behind it is Tallahassee’s only skyscraper, the new Capitol, a sterile monolith built of the finest materials someone else’s money could buy.
At 5:46 p.m., a man in a dark suit and dark sunglasses stepped out a side service door of the Capitol and held it open. A man in a dark suit and dark sunglasses stepped out and held the door. A platoon of ten identically dressed men jogged out of the building. The tallest one had a stopwatch and wireless headset, and just as he reached Pensacola Street, a black super-stretch limo screeched up to the curb. The man with the stopwatch opened the back door of the limo, scanned the surroundings and turned to the rest of the men, who had taken up sentry positions across the Capitol lawn. He twirled a finger in the air, followed by a series of third-base coach signals. A clutch of elegantly dressed men and women emerged from the service door. The array of sentries collapsed around them to form a circle of human shields, then hustled the group to the curb and shoved them in the back of the limo, which sped north on Monroe Street. A pair of forest-green Hummers joined the limo, an escort in front and a trail vehicle in back. Two small flags snapped in the wind on each side of the limo’s hood. The flag on the right corner displayed the seal of the Florida governor’s office. The flag on the left used to have the same seal but now read: “The Outback Steakhouse Florida Governor’s Race.”
Local law enforcement was worried about security. Due to the state’s proliferation of military assault weapons, violent narcotics gangs and middle-aged loners in one-bedroom apartments, the capital police force reported it was no longer capable of providing what it deemed was adequate security for the governor, lieutenant governor and their families and mistresses. They said they knew of only one group who could get the job done.
The governor’s office hired the people who handled security for The Rolling Stones.
The governor and staff were violently tossed left, then right, as the limo slalomed the back roads of Tallahassee in textbook U.N. convoy maneuver. The governor and his campaign manager faced each other in the posh, opposing back seats. The manager flipped flash cards.
A bright yellow card: “Wetlands Despoilment.”
The governor scratched his head. “We for or against that?”
“For,” said the manager. “You feeling okay? That’s the third easy one you’ve missed.”
The governor nodded, but his thoughts were elsewhere. A political world that had been second-nature his entire life now seemed alien, oblique, clumsy. He felt light-headed, and the periphery of his vision dissolved with a hallucinatory tinge. He looked around the spacious interior of the limo that was packed with the usual suspects. The leather bench seating seemed to go on forever, all the way up to the chauffeur’s sound-proof partition, like a hall of mirrors. The governor squinted and took a hard look for the first time. Who the hell were all these people? They stared back at him, smiling and nodding -- handlers, trainers, therapists, linguists, donors, spokesmen, media consultants, speech writers, image makers, spin doctors, crisis teams, spiritual gurus, food tasters, pollsters, pundits, wags, wonks, interstate bagmen, unindicted co-conspirators, miscellaneous hangers-on, and three bimbos who looked like the Mandrell Sisters.
The campaign manager snapped his fingers in front of the governor’s face.
“Wake up! I have some people I want you to meet.”
The manager patted a bald man on the back. “Governor, this is Big Tobacco.” The manager then pointed to others who had wiggled their way back from the forward seats and now crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rear of the limo. “And this is Big Oil, Big Sugar, Big Insurance and Big Rental Car . . .”
The limo approached a sprawling compound north of the Tallahassee limits. A guard waved them through the twin white metal gates with musical notes that replicated the entrance at Graceland. The vehicle entered a tunnel of nineteenth-century oaks. The residence sat on an elevated bluff -- ten-thousand square feet, three stories, brick, with portico and columns of federal architecture. One hour until the debate, one last stop. Fund-raising. A high-end cocktail reception at the home of a man who needed no introduction other than “Perry.”
Periwinkle Belvedere, the most influential lobbyist and political tactician in the state of Florida, who only drank mint juleps. Perry would have been imposing, even frightening, if it wasn’t for his gamma-ray smile. Six-four and full head of obscenely red hair. He was trim, but his hands and head were extra large, and he greeted everyone with a fluid personal manner and a handshake that – through years of practice – precisely matched the pounds per square inch of his guest’s.
Power was everywhere in Tallahassee. Political, industrial, sexual. Puddled up all over the city. Periwinkle simply connected the puddles and organizing the water. Soon, he had a raging river on his hands, which he dredged, dammed, reservoired and viaducted according to his fee schedule.
But the times were changing. Laws limiting gifts, requiring disclosures, a full public accounting. The fun had already started to wheeze out of the capital balloon. Perry was mingling in the library, trying to hide his irritation at the legislators peeking through the blinds and curtains every few minutes, keeping an eye out for reporters like lookouts at a safe-cracking. Journalists, thought Perry, now there’s an attractive bunch. They could put a damper on an orgy.
If ever a place had an orgy in mind, it was Perry’s. The Roman fountain in the foyer pumped Dom Perignon. Inside the dining hall and out on the torch-lit patio: tables almost collapsing under Keys Lobsters, Beluga Caviar, Perigord Truffles, Peking Duck and Alaskan Salmon. All top shelf, except for the two Sterno trays at the end of the banquet table, specially ordered by Periwinkle to cater to the particular tastes of the Florida Speaker of the House. Pigs-in-a-blanket and Beenie Weenies.
When the lawmakers first reached the buffet tables, there was aggressive jockeying, the bright glint of cutlery and serving ladles, and finally a blinding pirana frenzy. In minutes, it was quiet again. The aftermath was chilling. Salmon stripped to the spinal column. Bleu cheese chunks bobbing in the punch bowl. Beluga flung across the linen like coffee grounds. Cocktail sauce splattered mob-hit-style.
But what really inspired Perry’s awe was their Light Brigade desiccation of the open bar. “My God,” he said in a reverent, hushed tone. “They’re worse than sportswriters.”
No matter how many parties Perry threw, he couldn’t get over one of nature’s marvels, the sights and sounds of lawmakers at the trough, storing up complex carbohydrates for the winter in their woodchuck cheeks and distensible pelican throats. Early on, Perry learned that perks had a curious Bermuda Triangle effect on lawmakers, sending the instrument needles spinning in their judgment cockpits. It worked out to about a dime on the dollar. Fifty bucks of complimentary food, drink and knickknacks bought as much influence as a five-hundred-dollar campaign contribution.
Despite the adorable government-in-the-sunshine reforms, Perry’s soiree tonight began to show signs of life, and a smile crossed his face as the foyer echoed with the hollow din of clinking glasses, self-important laughter and cell phones.
Another cell phone went off, and a half dozen people at the petit fours checked their jackets and purses. The ones who came up with non-ringing phones winced in public shame; the one with the activated phone smirked.
The smirk belonged to Todd Vanderbilt, who answered his cell phone loudly for the benefit of those around him: “It’s your dime!”
Todd was Perry Belvedere’s top lobbyist, and his cell phone rang every five minutes because he told his personal assistant to “call me every five minutes.”
“What do I say?”
“You don’t say anything.”
“I don’t understand.”
Between phone calls, Todd’s beeper went off. So did his palm-pilot, sky-pager and self-correcting wristwatch, receiving microwave data from the Atomic Clock in Colorado.
Another alarm went off somewhere on Todd. He reached in his jacket, pulled out an e-gizmo and grinned at the crowd. “Stock split!”
“Ha!” countered a rival. “The market’s closed!”
“Tokyo,” said Todd.
“Ooooooooooo,” the impressed crowd responded, then clapped.
Todd was everything Tallahassee was looking for: young, handsome, ambitious and completely full of shit. From his wardrobe to his manicure, everything was consciously in place. Except for one puzzle piece. The girl on his arm. His date was Sally Brewster, Perry Belvedere’s accounting wizard. She was twenty-three, which was right in Todd’s usual kill zone, but that’s where it ended. Sally had scored something like a million on her SATs and graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, where she had a full scholarship and no dating life. There were a number of reasons. Her long hours studying left little time for extracurricular activity. And she had a nose like a stromboli.
Consequently, Sally remained awkward and frumpish. Her brown hair was straight and stringy, and her clothes looked like the uniform at a Cracker Barrel. She was also sweet as they come. And when a girl is as intelligent and nice as Sally, nature - with its charming brand of whimsey – makes her have a crush on a guy like Todd.
Sally had hovered around Todd for months, running to get him coffee, baking him cookies and banana bread, laughing at jokes that were at her expense. He routinely took out frustrations on her because she was the path of least resistence, and she forgave him.
Last Friday morning, Todd checked the market action on his office computer and chewed with his mouth open. Sally stood demurely with a baking tray.
“Killer brownies,” said Todd, still chomping. “Hey, you wanna go to Perry’s party with me next week?” Todd thought Sally had gone into anaphylactic shock.
He got her a chair and a glass of water. “Tell me if you’re gonna be sick, okay? ’Cause I can’t get anything on this tie.” Sally spent the next week shopping. She ran up charges for clothes, her hair, everything. Even was fitted for contact lenses so she could ditch the granny glasses.
It would be nice to say the change was stunning, and that Sally emerged like a beautiful swan. It was not to be. She looked as natural and graceful as a rusting robot, stiffly hobbled on high heels, blinking rapidly from new contacts and bumping into things.
Periwinkle Belvedere glanced from his watch to the doorway, waiting for the governor. Standing with him was Elizabeth Sinclair, Perry’s office manager. Todd Vanderbilt may have been Perry’s hottest lobbyist, but Elizabeth was the glue of maturity that held his staff together. Dignified dark business suit and pearl stud earrings. Blond hair in a short, conservative Meg Ryan cut. She was forty-eight years old, wondered why she was still single, and remembered why every time she came to one of Perry’s parties.
“You certainly look nice tonight,” said Perry.
“Thank you,” said Elizabeth.
“Although we talked about your clothes.”
“I really wish you’d wear something a little more . . .”
“No, I don’t.”
Perry sighed. “Why can’t you be a team player like Todd?”
Elizabeth and Perry looked over to the faux fireplace, where a series of electronic beeps, pulses, tones and buzzers were going off all over Todd, who smiling and produced a device in each hand and announced: “The sound of success!” He flicked open the cell phone. “It’s your dime!”
Elizabeth turned to Perry. “Your star pupil.”
Perry shook his head. “Look, I’m depending on you–” Something across the room caught his eye and he perked up. “Here comes the governor. Try to be nice.”
Heads turned as the state’s chief executive crossed the ballroom. His campaign manager and press secretary trailed close behind, whispering over his shoulders, overlapping each other, identifying people just before the governor shook their hands. “There’s Helmut von Zeppelin, mega-developer . . .”
“And that’s Marshall Bellicose Leghorn, cattle baron . . .”
“Here’s ‘Little Tony’ Mezzanine, local organized crime . . .”
“And this is Elizabeth Sinclair, Belvedere’s office manager . . .”
Sinclair smiled with professional distance. “Pleasure to see you again, governor.”
She braced as they shook hands, determined to keep grinning through anything. She remembered shaking hands with him at the last party. “Wow, lady, that’s some grip you got on ya. Bet it comes in handy, if you know what I mean.” Wink.
The memory made her shiver.
Tonight, the governor shook her hand deferentially and averted his eyes. “Nice to see you again.”
That’s weird, she thought.
Suddenly, the governor and Elizabeth were knocked off-balance as Sally Brewster crashed into them. The pair steadied Sally before she could topple off her high heels.
“You okay?” asked the governor.
“New contacts,” said Sally.
Elizabeth fixed Sally’s bra strap so it wouldn’t show. “Let’s get a glass of wine.” She turned back to the governor: “It was nice seeing you again.”
The women moved to the bar and ordered cabernet.
“I’ve got some comfortable shoes out in the car,” offered Elizabeth, her bunched eyebrows betraying acute sympathy for her spastic friend.
“No, I’ve got to do this.”
“You’re way too smart and pretty for a jerk like Todd. What do you see in him, anyway?”
Sally just gave her that smitten look. It reminded Elizabeth of her own youth. Easier to reason with a wild bandicoot than a crush.
“You got it bad,” she said, and they touched wine glasses.
They sipped quietly next to a row of potted Ficus flanking the bar. A familiar voice boomed from the other side of the trees.
“Come on guys, fork it over! We had a bet!”
Elizabeth and Sally peeked through the leaves. It was Todd and two of his buddies, who pulled currency from their wallets and handed it grudgingly to Todd.
“Okay, okay, you win,” said one of the buddies. “You definitely have the dorkiest date at the party.”
Sally put a hand over her mouth, started crying and ran out of the party, but not before slamming into the governor again and taking an ugly tumble down the front steps.
Elizabeth marched around the end of the trees. “You son of a bitch!”
“What?” said Todd, then turned to see people running to help Sally. “Oh, her? She’ll get over it. She didn’t honestly think someone like me would actually go out with her. You see the honker on that chick? . . .” – something began beeping – “Hold on, I got a call.” He flicked open his phone. “It’s your dime!”
Elizabeth dumped her glass of cabernet on his chest.
“Hey! My shirt!”
She stomped off.
Todd stared down in horror at the purple stain spreading like a gunshot wound. Something walked by that made him forget about laundry. His eyes followed the lithe figure across the room. She was a Latin beauty with short hair and a nametag from the Brazilian Embassy.
“Salsa!” Todd said to himself. He licked his index finger, touched it to an imaginary location in the air and made a hissing sound. “Spicy hot!”
He trotted after her.
In the next room, a senator from Hialeah peeked through the blinds and saw what he had been dreading all night -- a reporter talking to the guard in the driveway, gesturing at the house with his notebook. The first ant at the picnic.
A minute later two more reporters arrived, then a few more, and soon a large motley throng clamored in the driveway. The senator closed the blinds and discreetly informed his colleagues.
They scattered in all directions. People ran into each other; women lost their heels. The Florida Speaker of the House stuffed a handful of pigs-in-a-blanket in each coat pocket, gripped another in his mouth, and joined the stampede spilling across the mansion’s driveway.
Cars patched out, fish-tailing on the lawn. Senator Mary Ellen Bilgewater was ambushed before she could get to her Saab. She came up swinging. “How dare you ruin this party! We deserve this! People don’t understand the sacrifice it takes . . .” - starting to sob - “. . . You don’t know how hard it is being a lawmaker! You just don’t get it!”
A half hour later, on the other side of town, the crowd that had gathered for the gubernatorial debate was growing restless in the auditorium of East Tallahassee High School. They began stomping their feet and singing. “. . . We will, we will rock you! . . .”
A network cameraman turned to a sound technician. “I hate that fucking song.”
The governor’s limo approached the auditorium, where a mob waited at the stage entrance: a tight flock of reporters, obsessed followers, and demonstrators with pickets. “Free Cuba!” “Medical Marijuana Now!” “Pick Me, Monty!”
The Reform Party candidate, Albert Fresco, was outside protesting that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the debate. Fresco and his staff wore T-shirts with his campaign slogan in large type: “I’m Madder Than a Sumbitch!”
The limo stopped as scripted a block from the auditorium. The head of Rolling Stones’ security spoke into his voice-activated headset. “Send in Jagger.”
A Mick Jagger impersonator got out of a sedan across the street from the auditorium and sprinted for another door around the side of the building. The mob shrieked and ran after him. The limo pulled up to the unattended stage entrance, and the governor’s entourage was whisked inside without incident.
The audience in the auditorium piped down as the event’s moderator, Florida Cable News correspondent Blaine Crease, laid down the League of Women Voters’ ground rules for the debate.
The candidates stood at identical podiums thirty feet apart. The Democratic challenger was the Florida Speaker of the House, Gomer Tatum, a fifty-eight-year-old, portly, perspiring, William Howard Taft-shaped man. He had fine black hair and an emerging bald pate. During commercial breaks in the debate, his dandruff blizzard would be carefully vacuumed and tweezered off the shoulders of his navy blue suit by a crack staff who worked him like a trauma team. But they could only do so much. Under the television lights, Tatum appeared pasty and wilting.
The Republican incumbent wore an identical blue suit, but a longer, slimmer cut. Governor Marlon Conrad, thirty-eight years old, and everything about him projected confidence, success and high poll numbers -- from the sound of his name to the Richard Gere good looks and Kennedy hair. If that wasn’t enough, there was the family legacy. Great-grandfather Cecil Conrad, citrus magnate whose vast land holdings north of Lake Okeechobee were still in the family and the source of its embarrassing wealth. Grandfather H.L. “Two-Fisted” Thadeus Conrad, twenty-term congressman who earned his nickname on the McCarthy committee. Father Dempsey “Tip” Conrad, former attorney general and current chairman of state Republican Party.
Moderator Blaine Crease signaled thirty seconds to air time.
Tatum’s campaign manager looked out on stage and saw something that almost gave her a stroke.
“Where did he get that!” The manager ran onto the stage and snatched a pig-in-a-blanket from the speaker’s mouth and stormed off. The speaker glanced furtively at his manager, then produced another pig-in-a-blanket from a coat pocket and resumed chewing.
Conrad’s people, along with everyone else, had considered the campaign a slam dunk. Marlon was supposed to put Tatum out like a wet cigar in the early weeks.
Then the stumbles, the missed opportunities. Conrad hadn’t been himself lately. The timing was gone, and there had been no knock-out punch. Tatum managed to hang ten to twelve percentage points back, a distant second, but still in range.
Tonight at East Tallahassee High, the televised debate was the first major statewide event of the campaign. Conrad’s staff was hopeful. Their man had been the stuff of vigor all day, and television was his medium. It certainly wasn’t Tatum’s.
As the debate opened, the governor’s people stood behind the stage curtains, leaning forward on the balls of their feet, waiting for the kill. Instead, Conrad sleep-walked through the event, dazed.
Near the end of the debate, moderator Blaine Crease was handed a note by a network aide. There had been a problem at the prison in Starke. Something with the state’s electric chair. Child torturer-murderer Calvin Rodney Buford had been set for execution at seven sharp. But one of the guards forgot to put the conductive jelly on the ankle strap. Also, they had failed to account for a metal plate in Buford’s head, which acted as a giant capacitor and heat sink. Two big jolts. Then a third. Still alive, although much more irritable. At 7:12 they gave it everything they had for four minutes, at the end of which Buford’s head let go like a stuffed pepper in a microwave.
The state of Florida had retired the electric chair two years earlier in favor of lethal injection. But in the last legislative session, a number of key incumbents faced a massive no-bid contract scandal that was only eclipsed by the revelation that they had blown thousands of taxpayer dollars on Internet pay sites involving humiliation and discipline. The issues wouldn’t go away. So, in the middle of the ethics hearings, the Legislature brought back the chair, and all was forgotten.
Moderator Crease recounted the news from Death Row for the candidates. “Gentlemen, in light of tonight’s development, and indeed a whole series of botched executions, wasn’t it a mistake to reinstate the electric chair?”
Backstage, Conrad’s manager smiled and pumped a fist. “Perfect timing! This is his best bully pulpit!”
On stage, Conrad stared at his hands. He looked up. “It’s something to think about.”
“What the fuck!” yelled his manager. He threw down a sheaf of papers. “It’s a no-brainer! I can answer that one in my sleep: ‘I hope all their heads explode! Then maybe they’ll think twice before they commit crimes in Florida!”
Crease turned to Tatum. “What about you, Mr. Speaker?”
The camera caught Tatum off-guard – eyes wide, bulging in terror, a pig-in-a-blanket protruding from his stuffed mouth. He inhaled it, gulped hard and hit himself in the chest with a fist. “Uh ... I hope all their heads explode? ... Uh ... then maybe they’ll think twice before they commit crimes in Florida?”
The audience went wild. Tatum looked around, startled at first, then grinned.
Florida Cable News had arranged for home viewers to register opinions live during the debate with special keypads. At East Tallahassee High, the results were displayed on the auditorium’s basketball scoreboard. After the electric chair question, Tatum’s stock slowly began rising . . . and kept rising. . . . The audience gasped when the numbers finally leveled off.
Three weeks left in the campaign, it was a dead heat.
F our hours after the debate, the auditorium swarmed with police. Shortly after the governor and audience had left the building, there had been an explosion.
The Tallahassee police detective in charge of the scene directed forensic photographers and gloved technicians through the debris in the balcony.
A tall man in a rumpled tweed jacket ducked under the yellow crime tape at the top of the stairs and approached the detective. He flashed a gold badge. “Mahoney, homicide.”
The detective studied the badge. Miami Metro-Dade.
“Mahoney, it looks like you’re out of your jurisdiction.”
“It’s all one big, sick jurisdiction now.”
“I hear ya.”
“Miami sent me up here because of a case we had. Miami thinks we may have a match.”
“Miami thinks a lot of things.”
“What do you think?”
“I think I have a dinner at home getting cold.”
“It’s a cold world.”
“Never heard that.”
Mahoney stared down at the lumpy sheet on the balcony floor. “What’s the skinny?”
“A witness says he saw the victim come up here with a young woman. My guess is he was trying to score a little nooky.”
“Nooky?” said Mahoney. “They still have that around these parts?”
“If you know the right people.”
Mahoney nodded. He pulled an antique silver flask from his tweed coat and took a pull, then offered it to the detective.
The detective waved off the flask. “I’m on the wagon.”
“What wagon’s that?”
“A big red one with stripes. What do you care? You’re Mr. Hot Shit from Miami.”
“Please, drop the mister.” Mahoney pointed down at the sheet. “We got a make on the vic?”
The detective flipped open a notepad. “One Todd Vanderbilt.”
Mahoney leaned down and lifted the sheet. The body was missing the head and right hand.
The detective held up a clear evidence bag filled with minuscule plastic chips and semiconductor shards.
“Cell phone?” asked Mahoney.
The detective nodded. “My guess would be C4 plastique explosive hidden in the speaker and wired to the answering button.”
Mahoney stared off into space. “I’d say he had the wrong calling plan.”
“A janitor was sweeping down below when it happened,” said the detective. “Claims he heard someone say, ‘It’s your dime!’ then kaboom. The victim’s head took off across the auditorium like an Olympic volleyball serve.”
Mahoney shook his head. “Isn’t that always the case?”
“Look at this.” The detective opened the victim’s shirt to reveal something written on his chest in magic marker:
"Kiss me - I just voted!"
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