Chapter 1

© Copyright 2006 by Kendra Cornell

Karen Cook’s adrenaline was pumping. She lived for this! Her candidate had just plowed his opponent on local television, and the mayoral race was all but secured. Under the hot lights, Thomas Delaney looked calm, cool, and collected. He took one more opportunity to look straight into the camera, drawing every viewer into seeming familiarity as he bid them goodnight.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the camera operator signaled that they were off the air, Karen and her boss strode over to congratulate him. She stayed coldly professional while firmly shaking his hand.

“You did it, Tom. You nailed every question- immigration reform, the tax burden, even the downtown parking. We just have to keep you in the public forefront until Tuesday, and you’re going to be moving into the mayor’s office in a couple of months,” she said, aggressively looking him right in the eye.

Her boss, Jack Jenkins gave her an approving nod.

“She’s right, Tom. The rehearsals did it- we put you through the wringer and you couldn’t have done better.”

Jack was speaking of the hours of practice debate sessions that his political consulting firm had organized as the result of a lukewarm response at the first debate. Karen herself had acted as both moderator and opponent, and had gone for the jugular in an effort to push Tom harder- to make him think faster… and it had paid off handsomely.

Karen stood in the small studio of Channel 8 News in her navy pin-striped power suit. It was tailored to fit her slim figure and accented her blue eyes and light blonde hair, which currently was swept into a sleek French twist. She quickly scanned her ever-present clipboard, and informed Tom of several more meetings they had scheduled at campaign headquarters this evening before they were through for the night.

She stood another moment, reviewing her list, while Jack and Tom strode off together in quiet conversation. Jeff Yendale, a Channel 8 personality and guest moderator for the evening’s debate, caught her as she turned to leave and held out one pale, manicured hand.

“Jeff Yendale… Wanted to introduce myself before you disappeared again,” he said with impossibly white teeth glinting in the harsh studio lighting.

“Karen Cook… Nice to meet you,” said Karen turning in impatience to dismiss the unwanted attention.

“Wait, please. Here,” he said handing her a business card. “If you ever need a good contact here at Channel 8, just give me a call.” His countenance was hopeful.

“I’ll do that. Thank-you.” Karen walked away from Jeff Yendale and his now disappointed and disgruntled expression. Who had time for this? Many might have called her cold. Karen thought of herself simply as effective.

The newsroom was packed with desks and televisions featuring different news outlets. One monitor displayed wreckage from an early-season tornado, apparently in Oklahoma. A rotund woman in pink curlers and a matching housedress was doing her best to point out the tornado’s route through the copse of trees in the background, but she kept turning away from the microphone, her voice fading in and out. The reporter followed her in frustration, but must have realized that the pair almost looked like they were playing the child’s game of ‘Ring around the Rosy,’ because he finally turned back to the camera and attempted to pick up the report with assorted stammers and stutters. Rolling her eyes, Karen laughed to herself. It did truly take all kinds…

The wet night was typical for April in Denver. Karen loved the city in the rain- the way the street lights and neon were softened and blurred. Everything seemed… safer somehow. She strolled to her black Audi A6 which was parked next to Jack’s car. Jack leaned against the sleek vehicle, his tailored jacket slung over one arm, as if he had specifically been waiting for her. The rain had mostly let up, leaving the atmosphere cool and damp.

“Karen, I have a few more things we need to go over after the session tonight with Tom. It shouldn’t take long,” he said, standing up.

“No problem, Jack. Whatever it takes. I’ll see you over there,” she returned, climbing into her car with a quick wave.

As she pulled out of the station’s lot and onto the glistening street, Karen cleared her mind. She needed to focus on the rest of the night, despite the fatigue that was catching up with her. She looked at the buildings that she passed; pharmacies with brightly lit neon signs, liquor stores supposedly offering the best deals in town. She remembered a similar scene from the time her mother had taken her downtown on the bus when Karen had been just a little girl. That day dawned wet and gray, much as this night was. Karen gripped a package of chocolate-mint candies in hands clammy with youth and excitement. As the bus hit a pothole, some of the candy had spilled onto the filthy, black rubber floor of the city bus.

Squealing in protest, Karen had scampered down to retrieve the rare treats, when she felt her mother’s cold hands pull her back. Karen remembered bursting into tears, not comprehending why she’d been kept from the candy that had made the day so special. Mother had simply looked down at her- fatigue and sadness etched into her features, before she turned again to gaze unseeingly out the window at the dark, gray city that flowed by. Hot tears slid silently down Karen’s cheeks, making the glow of the lights even more nebulous. A twinge of pain entered the adult Karen’s heart for just a moment, but it was one moment too many. She didn’t allow herself to go back to those memories very often, and she had zero desire to do so now.

Karen had worked too long and too hard to consider breaking her stride yet. Coming from a family with little money and no interest in college, she had put herself through Metro State waiting tables, depending on financial aid to cover the rest. Karen’s sharp intellect and good looks had attracted the interest of one of her professors- a self-made woman as well who owned one of the most powerful political consulting firms in Denver. The woman instinctively knew that Karen had everything it took to become an asset to her company, and she had been proven correct time and time again. Starting at the bottom, Karen worked hard to prove herself. In only a matter of years, she was on her way to successfully handling her own clients and issue-based campaigns.

Karen had the reputation of a bulldog- a woman who went after what she wanted and got it. Karen enjoyed the money. Admittedly, she thrived on the power. Most of all, she loved the game. The strategy and the never-ending challenge constantly engaged her intellect and kept her personally involved. Thus, it had come as a huge shock when Jack Jenkin’s consulting firm had called to offer her a job six months past. Twice she refused, having had little to no experience with managing candidate campaigns and no interest in leaving a well-entrenched position with her own firm. But finally, Jack got Karen to consent to a meeting.

Over lunch at a swank downtown restaurant, Jack made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Jack Jenkin’s firm almost certainly would clinch the campaign for governor if his candidate won the mayoral race. Karen knew well that the success of a political firm was entirely dependent on its win/loss ratio. If he ran a successful campaign to get the governor into the mansion on Capitol Hill, there was talk of a Presidential bid in 2008. And Jack offered her a front-seat ride to the biggest game in American politics. Karen had honed her skills to a fine edge over the years. She was a master of the art of using her femininity as a cover for an aggressive nature that had served her well. And Karen knew that all these factors could catapult her to the forefront of the business if given the right opportunity. So she had taken the risk, and ended up as the number two man on Tom Delaney’s campaign.

Pulling up in front of campaign headquarters, Karen noticed the lack of occupants. Celebrating volunteers and well-wishers had already left to gather at the Palomino- a bar Karen had never heard of. The cracked and crumbling lot contained only a few cars. The long low adobe building had seen better days, but there weren’t a lot of options for short term leases around here. Chunks of plaster had fallen around the base of the building to mix with weeds of an unknown variety. Crushed plastic cups and old fast-food wrappers blew in the gutters. The glass doors were darkened and led to a large, open room that had been subdivided with fabric-covered panels onto which had been pinned various leaflets: Delaney for Mayor!, Did You Know… You CAN Vote with a Criminal Record, and Cold-Calling Strategies That Work. These outlined brief information for those unlucky enough to sit in the cold, hard chairs that now sat empty in the darkened room. A back door led to their conference center, not-so-affectionately known as the War Room. That was where Karen headed next to discuss the strategy for the final days with Jack and Tom.

Greeting them again briefly, Karen started right in.

“Tom, you have to stay strong. Your conservative base has really gathered force. You effectively mobilized the religious right, and you managed to strike the perfect tone with Hispanic voters over immigration reform. In my opinion, the only weakness we have to watch out for is Dade’s strength with the undecideds. All the polls suggest that independents and undecideds support his non-partisan stance…” Here, she took a moment to look over her notes, and then placed her clipboard on the table, crossed her arms and looked up at Tom. “We took the risk to establish ourselves on the right, and I believe that it’s going to pay off,” she finished.

Tom still had his stage make-up on and appeared flushed in the harsh fluorescent light of the room. With just a touch of condescension, he said, “Karen, most of your risks have paid off thus far. You’ve been able to read the voters better than I ever could. That’s why I hired Jack,” said Tom, slapping Jack on the shoulder. “I knew he gave me the best chance of getting into office. I’m not going to play the prima donna at the eleventh hour. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

It was clear that Karen had still to attain the kind of respect from Tom that she had earned among the others involved in the campaign. With her eyes narrowed slightly, she watched as he and Jack exchanged a few more words before Tom left to make a short visit to his well-wishers before heading home for the night.

“What do you think?” asked Karen as she finally let herself sit down for the first time in hours.

Jack leaned on the table and looked down at her.

“I think we did it. You read the polls well, Karen. I knew I made the right decision pursuing you.” Jack’s eyes glimmered with doublespeak. He was an attractive, well-built man, but was fifteen years her senior, if a day. Regardless, Karen never mixed business with her personal life.

“Thanks anyway, Jack. I’m heading home. Tomorrow, here, at 7am?”

Fleeting disappointment crossed his well-chiseled features. “You got it, kiddo. I’ll be right behind you. Take it easy.” Jack turned away, studying the printouts in his hand, his interest already invested in another issue.

Karen gathered up her things and pushed her way through the door that led into the lobby. Exhaling, she rolled her eyes at Jack’s lame come-on. She continually put him off, but he didn’t seem the least bit offended. He almost seemed to enjoy the banter.

Entering the great room, Karen was hidden from view by the maze of cubicle dividers, but easily discernable were the makings of an argument. A woman’s hysterical verbal jibes volleyed with a man’s angered replies. Rounding one of the cubicles, Karen’s eyes fell on a petite brunette woman whose once-carefully coiffed hair was falling in disarray around her mascara-streaked face. Her arms violently flayed Tom’s chest, her words distorted by the sobbing.

“You will not do this to me now Thomas Delaney! I have done too much, and put up with this far too long to get thrown aside now. I have stood by your side and kept your secrets for years. What do you think? You can just throw me away like yesterday’s garbage? Because it isn’t going to happen buddy.” She poked him in the chest, her tone becoming more threatening. “Don’t even try it… I know too much about you.” Eyes narrowing, Tom forcibly put distance between the two of them. “And you know it, don’t you?” the woman said. “I am warning you Tom… Don’t do this. You will be sorry,” she added with venom and an obvious threat in her voice.

One thing Karen knew for certain- this woman could never be mistaken for Tom’s wife. Tom had married a statuesque blonde with a penchant for family politics. Ellen Delaney knew when to step in and when to step out. A genuinely nice person, she also had the dubious distinction of being the consummate politician’s wife. Karen and Ellen had little in common, but Karen continually found her to be a wonderful addition to the challenging campaign. Ellen was someone to whom many women voters could really relate, a plus in a close campaign like this one, and she had a lot of good ideas that Karen had ended up integrating into her strategy. A critical component as well, Ellen characteristically stayed calm and collected at all times.

This creature however, was Ellen’s polar antithesis. Clearly, she knew Tom Delaney well. Karen cognitively understood it- there were always women attracted to the money and the power and the fame. But that didn’t mean she had to like it. Clearing her throat, she stepped forward, a taupe overcoat slung over one arm and her briefcase in the other.

“Tom, is everything okay here?” she asked.

He turned, startled. “Uh… yes Karen, thanks. I can handle this.” Physically shielding the petite woman, he added with a handshake and a smile, “Go home Karen… Get some rest. I need you to get me in the mayor’s office, and to do that, you have to be fresh and full of ideas in the morning.” His patronizing attempt to dismiss Karen didn’t set well with her.

The brunette glared and muttered from behind Tom’s back as Karen slowly walked by the pair. The woman seemed to be attempting to verbally attack her, as though she, Karen, had offended this woman in some way, but Tom kept cutting her off. Uncomfortable, Karen looked once more, assessed the situation, and decided that some things were out of her league. And deescalating this situation was one of them tonight.

Karen left the dilapidated building and climbed into her car. With an inaudible sigh of relief, Karen pulled out of headquarters and navigated the short distance back up Broadway to south Denver where she turned into her turn of the century neighborhood. Massive Victorians mixed with two and three bedroom bungalows. Ever since the early 90’s, this neighborhood’s property values had sky-rocketed and a good combination of hip, urban professionals and young families combined to form an interesting mix. Karen loved the narrow streets lined with huge elms, oaks, and maples. Her block was gorgeous year-round, with the exception of the dead of winter. And usefully, the location was close enough to alleviate the headaches of commuting, but far enough away to get her out of the city on the evenings and weekends.

Karen’s mind didn’t stop working on the drive home. She digested details of the debate, her agenda for the next day, and what still needed to be done before Tuesday. But the argument she had just witnessed continued to dominate her thoughts. Clearly, Tom hadn’t wanted Karen to see what was going on. But it was her job to know. Problem-solving was part of her contractual obligation- completely confidentially, of course. A non-disclosure agreement was pretty standard when dealing with other people’s private lives. Hysterics aside, this woman was likely an integral part of Tom Delaney’s personal life.

Odd, she thought. That was really odd. And if there’s something going on there that we need to know about, he had better be prepared to tell us everything in the morning.

HEY! and don't forget to e-mail Kendra Cornell if you have a comment! She would really like to hear from you.

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