The sink was running. It had been running for almost 20 minutes; the same amount of time I had spent in the bathroom. I reached my hands under the cold water then splashed the water up on my face, repeating the same motion I had made countless times already. I looked at myself in the mirror, seeing the same conventionally handsome face I saw in the mirror every morning. Same blue eyes I had seen stare back at me from television screens countless times. Same strong jawline that regularly graced the front page of local papers.
One thing wasn’t the same, however. I turned my head slightly to the left and reached my fingers up to touch my face as if to verify that what I was seeing was real. A small clump of grey hairs, maybe four or five of them, stood out against the well-groomed sea of coal black surrounding them. They had popped up at my temple. I ran my fingers across them, back and forth.
“Jesus, only 33-years-old and I’m already going grey,” I muttered to myself.
A knock came at the door. Not a loud knock, nor a fast one, but with an insistent quality.
“Arthur,” a voice said from the other side of the door. Not a question, just a statement of my name. A simple statement on the surface, but one which carried a grave undercurrent.
“Arthur we can’t wait any longer,” the voice said.
“Just a few more minutes,” I said, reaching down to gather cold water in my hands and bring it to my face once more.
“No, Arthur, I’ve already given you too much time. Come out now,” the voice said.
I knew there was no use fighting it. Clark Skinner, the sallow-faced man who owned the voice, was not a man generally known for his patience or his pity. The fact that he had let me stay in here this long said something about how much he respected me, but I knew that even for me his patience was by no means infinite.
Slowly, with hands that could not stop shaking in spite of my best efforts, I turned off the sink, watching as the last of the water ran down through through the drain at the bottom of the expensive stoneware bowl. The whole bathroom was filled with expensive stone and tile work. It was the kind of bathroom I never would have dreamed of owning growing up in my parents’ simple country house. Like the rest of the house, as well as my three luxury automobiles, my lakeside cottage, and virtually everything else I owned, I owed it to Skinner. Skinner, the intimidating old man who had taken me under his wing and asked so little in return.
I unlocked the door and stepped out into the brightly lit hall where Skinner stood waiting, along with another man; a bodyguard whose name I couldn’t remember. Skinner stared at me intently; dark brown eyes surrounded by thin wire-frame glasses. The look on his aged face was not harsh or mean, but simply resolute.
“Go start the car,” he said, waving to the bodyguard without looking at him. The bulky but well-dressed man disappeared at his command.
“Skinner,” I said, “I’m sorry, I just-”
Skinner cut me off with another motion of his bony hand.
“I do not blame you for your reticence,” he said, “there is no pleasure in this business, but it cannot be avoided.”
I nodded, feeling numb. Skinner reached past me to a small wooden table next to the bathroom door, picking up two tumblers half-filled with what I immediately knew would be whiskey. To my surprise, he raised his glass as if expecting me to toast with him.
“No offense, Skinner, but this doesn’t feel like cause for celebration,” I said.
“Ah, but it is,” Skinner said, smiling faintly, “for when tonight’s grim business is laid to rest, there will be nothing left standing between you and the governorship of this wretched state.”
I did not move my hand, so Skinner brought his glass to mine where they clinked together faintly.
I did not recognize the car we were in. The bodyguard, whose name I remembered was Fred something-or-other, was driving fast, but not fast enough to draw attention. The windows were darkly tinted so no one would recognize us. The car was a fairly nice but slightly older cadillac. I wondered where Skinner had gotten it. Did he own this car, or had he called in some favor to make sure there would be no chance of us being recognized on the road, I wondered. Curious as I was, I did not ask; I preferred to leave Skinner’s work to him and stay out of it.
“Why are you making me do this?” I asked, triggered by my thoughts, “this is the sort of thing I pay you to take care of.”
Skinner sighed, and poured us both another drink from the bar conveniently hidden behind the driver’s seat. He handed me a glass and then ran his free hand through his thin, white hair.
“It is precisely because you expect me to take care of matters such as this that I insist you come along for this one,” he said, “You’ve become too complacent, too sloppy. You run around behaving like you’re untouchable.”
“That’s not fair,” I said, and started to say more before a sharp glare from Skinner cut me off.
“It is perfectly fair,” he said, “In the past year you’ve run around like a puppy without an owner, pissing on everything and never worrying about the poor bastard whose job it is to get the stains out before someone sees what you’ve done.”
I swallowed hard several times, trying to find the words to protest but I couldn’t. Skinner sipped his drink thoughtfully, letting the silence build between us. As much as I didn’t want to admit that he was right, I knew in my heart that he was. Wealth and power came with the ability to bend some rules, but I had taken far more liberties than I should have. Drugs, prostitutes, violent altercations, and car wrecks had dotted the landscape of my life for the past 12 months. Each incident had been swept under the rug and none of them had affected my political career yet, but it was only a matter of time before the police chief stopped accepting bribes, or I made a fool of myself in front of a few too many witnesses to cover it up.
“Fine, okay?” I said, “You’re right. I’ve been behaving like an ass and I’m sorry.”
A faint smile showed on Skinner’s thin lips.
“You know I have a lot of faith in you, Arthur. I think I’ve you shown that,” he said.
“You certainly have,” I said.
Skinner reached out and patted me on the shoulder, still smiling. I smiled back. This time, it was I who reached out my glass to meet with his.
“Well, Skinner, as usual you’ve taught me a valuable lesson in humility,” I said, “Now can you take care of this without me? I’ve got a press conference in the morning-”
I was cut off by the look on Skinner’s face.
“Oh come on, I’m only kidding,” I said.
“No, you aren’t,” Skinner said, “and that’s the problem.”
I sighed, setting my drink on the tray of the car’s micro-bar.
“It’s just…” I started, but found myself unable to continue. Skinner said nothing, only stared at me with his hard eyes as I struggled to find the right words.
“It’s just, I’ve never had to, you know… kill anyone before,” I stammered.
“You killed your father,” Skinner said.
“That doesn’t count,” I said, “I hated my father, and all I did was pull the miserable old bastard’s plug.”
“You still killed him,” he said.
“Call it what you want, it wasn’t anything like this,” I said, “I mean, isn’t there some other way to resolve this?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said, “This foolish situation you created has gotten too far out of hand this time. We need to nip your little problem in the bud. We must be both thorough and decisive. You’ve left us with no other choice.”
“I didn’t cause this,” I said, “Senator Vernor is the one who is really to blame here.”
“You must certainly did cause this,” Skinner shot back, “You caused this the same way you’ve caused so many other messes lately, by thinking with your cock first and your brain second.”
“It was just a fling!” I said, “How was I supposed to know it would turn into this?”
“You would have known precisely what this could become if you had followed protocol,” he said. “If you would have just done what you were supposed to and let me run background on your sexual partners first, these things wouldn’t happen.”
“Easier said than done,” I said.
“That may be so, but it’s a mistake you cannot continue to make, Arthur,” he said, “Nor is it a mistake I expect you to make again after tonight.”
I swallowed hard again, retrieving my glass and filling it from the bar’s glass decanter. I sipped at the whiskey, trying to find comfort in the warmth it provided, but finding none.
“How did Vernor find out about this?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Skinner said, “Which, I admit, is troubling. However he found out, it didn’t take him long to realize what he had on his hands. We barely caught up with her in time; tomorrow he had her booked for two different talk shows, one local, one national.”
“That fucking slimy bastard,” I said, “What did he hope to gain from this?”
“My guess is he wants to run,” he said, “It’s a bit late in the race to start a campaign, but if he could bury you thoroughly enough, he might actually stand a chance. And what could bury you, with your tough-as-nails stance on immigration, as wholly and completely as the revelation that you’ve been fucking an undocumented whore?”
“She’s not a whore,” I snapped back.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “In the eyes of the press that’s what she’d be.”
I finished my drink and returned the glass to the bar before burying my head in my hands.
“Jesus, Skinner, what have I done?” I asked.
When Skinner spoke, I was startled by the soothing tone his voice had suddenly taken on.
“Now now, Arthur,” he said, “It’s okay. This is going to be fine.”
Skinner put an arm around my shoulders and, as if on cue, I began to sob into my hands, not daring to look up. For all his rough edges, Skinner was like a father to me, had been since my first run for city council, all the way through now with me poised to become the state’s youngest governor in more than fifty years. Even though every part of me wanted to rebel against this horrible errand, I knew that I could not. Everything I had, I owed to Skinner, and now it was time for me to prove that I was worth his patronage.
The building we arrived at was an old chemical processing plant at the end of a forgettable gravel road. I didn’t know where we were and my view on every side was obscured by forest as we stepped out of the car into the cold night air. Skinner came quickly around to my side and gripped my arm firmly as we walked. The action was comforting, but also acted as a gentle reminder that there was no escaping this.
As we walked, Skinner went over the plan with me again several times as I listened numbly, trying to take in what he was saying. Fred, the bodyguard, lead the way, unlocking a series of gates and doors with a combination of keys and magnetic cards.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Oh, just an old investment property I picked up for a song a while back,” Skinner said.
I nodded, continuing to follow as we passed through dull grey doors and hallways dimly illuminated by emergency lights. Occasionally we passed windows overlooking large areas filled with dusty equipment. Eventually Fred stopped in front of a non-descript door and looked at Skinner intently.
“She’s in here,” he said quietly.
A small table stood by the door. Skinner walked over to the table and began handing some things to myself and to the bodyguard. Latex gloves, a hairnet, a small bottle filled with a clear liquid, a couple of plastic cups, a taser. The gloves and hairnets we all donned immediately at Skinner’s instruction.
“Keep this hidden on you,” he said about the taser, “we will only use this in case of an emergency. Now, are you clear on the plan or do you need to go over it one more time?”
I shook my head.
“I’m ready,” I said, doing my best to mean it.
Skinner nodded to the bodyguard who unlocked the door. The door swung open to reveal some kind of storage room, mostly empty save for a few dusty shelves and a couple of uncomfortable-looking metal chairs. In one of the chairs sat the woman, Maria. She had been tied to the chair with a great deal She looked frightened and a like she had been roughed up slightly, but she was still as beautiful as ever with her flowing brown curls matched up against dark tan skin and matching dark eyes. I grabbed one of the chairs and moved towards her.
As I approached her she looked up at me and gasped slightly. In that moment I saw something in her eyes that I wasn’t expecting. To me it looked like relief, maybe even hope or gratitude.
“Arthur,” she said with the distinctive accent of one who has learned english too late in life to ever master it.
“Arthur,” she repeated, “I am so glad you found me. What is going on?”
I said nothing, just dragged a chair over and sat down facing her. Skinner and Fred something-or-other stood behind me, just in the shadows. She looked at both of them.
“Who are they?” she asked, relief quickly leaving her face and voice.
“Just some close friends,” I said.
“Is this about Vernor?” she asked, stammering.
I said nothing, instead I poured some of the clear liquid into one of the cups as I had been instructed. I marveled at how little my hands shook. I could still feel the anxious part of me nagging at the back of my mind but it was a faint feeling. There seemed only to be room for cold purpose now.
“Are you thirsty?” I asked, flashing a smile.
“Si, Arthur, I am very thirsty,” she said, “I have been here alone for hours. Will you please tell me —”
“Here, have a drink,” I said, cutting her off, thrusting the cup towards her mouth and tilting it back.
She drank greedily at first, but quickly realized what she was getting wasn’t water. She coughed, spitting up some of the strong grain alcohol.
“Arthur, no, I don’t want this,” she begged. I tried to force her to drink more and she continued to spit it up.
I shot a glance back at Skinner, silently begging for him to step in, for him to do this. The look on his face told me there would be no help coming from him. Again I tried to force her to drink and again she resisted, spitting up the alcohol.
“Please Arthur, please,” she begged, tears beginning to stream down her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “But you should have kept your mouth shut.”
The coldness of my own words shocked me. I marveled at the person I had become under Skinner’s tutelage. A person who had committed horrible crimes and covered them up without a thought. Looking into Maria’s eyes I could remember our nights of fun and passion, remember how that thick accent had sounded when it was being used to whisper dirty thoughts to me in the dark, but none of that seemed to matter now. All I could see in front of me was an obstacle between me and everything I wanted, everything I had worked so hard to achieve. For every part of me that wanted to stop, there were 10 more parts that screamed out to silence this woman who had betrayed me, who threatened to ruin everything I had built.
“You don’t understand, Vernor threatened not just me, he threatened my family, he said he’d have my parents deported,” she sobbed, but I was no longer listening.
I took the bottle of grain alcohol and shoved the neck into her mouth, then held her nose shut with a gloved hand. She resisted for a moment but soon she had no choice but to drink as her body screamed for oxygen and instead received that cruel, harsh liquor. After I had forced more than half the bottle into her I relented. She coughed and sputtered as I removed the bottle from her mouth and released her nose.
“Please,” she sobbed as soon as she could find the breath, and she repeated the word many times.
Although she continued to beg softly I could see in her eyes that she had already given up on some level. She was neither stupid nor a fool, and she must have understood that there was no way out of this situation. I started to reach for her face again, but Skinner spoke up.
“Give it a few minutes,” he said, speaking for the first time since we’d entered the room.
I stood, ignoring her continued sobs and pleads, stepping out of the room. Skinner followed me out into the hall. The bodyguard stayed behind at a gesture from Skinner. When the door was closed behind us he put his hand on my shoulder.
“You’re doing well,” he said, “I’m proud of you for having the courage to fix your mistake.”
“It’s not like you gave me much of a choice,” I said.
“Even still,” he said, “You’re handling this better than I expected.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling the word in my mouth like a cold, wet lump.
We stood there in silence for a length of time that could have been minutes or hours. After a while Skinner spoke again.
“Let’s finish this,” he said.
I nodded dumbly and we went back into the cold, grey room. Maria was still sobbing softly and now she appeared to be praying in spanish. She did not look up at our return, but just kept hanging her head and muttering to herself. I sat back down facing her.
“I do not feel well,” she said after a time, looking up at me with those dark brown eyes that had once sparkled at me as we made love, but which were now dull.
Without speaking I reached my hands towards her. With one hand I pinched her nose shut again, then forced more alcohol down her throat. She barely resisted this time. After she had drank what I offered, I shoved two fingers down the back of her throat. Immediately she began to gag, and soon she began to vomit. As soon as I saw that sick coming up I slammed my free hand over her mouth, keeping her nose shut. Her eyes went wide as she realized what was happening.
For a while she struggled as she alternated between choking and retching behind my firm hand. Her chair scooted back and forth, making arcs on the dusty floor. Puke seeped through my gloved fingers but I held firm, forcing myself not to breathe through my nose. She shook and tossed for a long time and a few times she even tried to scream, but all that came out was a muffled gurgle of sound that I did my best to shut out.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity the struggling began to slow. Her eyes glazed over slowly and her movements became involuntary jerks. I kept my hands firmly closed over her nose and mouth until all movement stopped. When I let go her head lolled forward lifelessly and puke spilled onto her clothing.
I realized I was breathing hard and now I was finally shaking the way I had expected to. For some time I just stared at her lifeless body. After what felt like an eternity I felt feeling return to my body and soon I began to retch. Fred brought over a wastebasket and I puked violently into it, emptying the entire contents of my stomach. Skinner was patting me on the back, saying comforting words that I could not hear.
The night air outside had a cleansing quality that helped my shakiness. Fred and Skinner both had supported me on my way out, but once I felt that cool air I shrugged them off and managed to keep my feet under me. I was still shaking horribly, but I was surprised by how collected I felt. I had not cried, and no longer felt the urge to vomit.
“I have someone coming to collect her,” Skinner said, “When they police find the body they’ll rule it as a simple case of overdrinking and move on. Vernor can try to tell people his story, but he’ll have no proof now.”
“T-thank you,” I managed.
“Come on,” Skinner said, “Let’s get you home. You’ve had a long night.”
It was just after five-in-the-morning when Skinner left my house. He had insisted on staying as long as I needed him, but I had assured him many times that I was fine and eventually he conceded that he was ready to go home himself and left. After he left, I jumped in the shower and tried to wash away the unclean feeling that hung to me like a sticky film, but no amount of scrubbing could make it go away. Eventually, I gave up and wrapped myself up in a towel, determined to get as much sleep as I could before the press conference.
Before I stepped out of my bathroom, I stopped to glance at myself in the mirror and paused for a moment. On either side of my head, right at the temple, there now were two large, unmistakable patches of grey hair.