Mayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.
Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.
He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book. And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.
Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.
Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.
“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”
“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”
Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.
“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”
“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”
“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”
“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”
“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”
She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”
“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.
“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”
“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”
Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.
She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.
For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.
As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.
“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”
Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.
“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”
“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”
“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”
“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”
“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”
“Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”
“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”
“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”
“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”
Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”
“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put a dozen choppers?”
“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”
“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”
She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”
“Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”
“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”
“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”
“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”
“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”
“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”
“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”
“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”
“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”
“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”
“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”
“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”
“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”
“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”
“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”
“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.
Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”
But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”
“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”
“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”
“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”
“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”
“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”
“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”
“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”
Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.
…to be continued…