It was explained to his firm that Mr. Fisk would be in Jackson for the entire day, something to do with personal business. In other words, don't ask. As a partner he had earned the right to come and go as he pleased, though Fisk was so disciplined and organized that anyone in the firm could usually find him within five minutes.
He left Doreen on the front steps at dawn. She was invited to make the trip, but with a job and three kids it simply wasn't possible, not with such short notice.
Ron left the house without breakfast, not that time was a factor. Tony Zachary had said, "We'll eat on the plane," and this was enough to entice Ron to skip his bran flakes.
The Brookhaven airstrip was too small for the jet, so Ron happily agreed to rush off to the airport in Jackson. He had never been within a hundred yards of a private jet, and had never given much thought to flying on one. Tony Zachary was waiting at the general aviation terminal with a hearty handshake and a vigorous "Good morning, Your Honor." They walked purposefully across the tarmac, past a few old turboprops and pistons-smaller, inferior vessels. Waiting in the distance was a magnificent carrier, as sleek and exotic as a spaceship. Its navigation lights were flickering. Its handsome stairway was extended down, a splendid invitation to its special passengers. Ron followed Tony up the steps to the landing, where a pretty flight attendant in a short skirt welcomed them aboard, took their jackets, and showed them their selection of seats.
"Ever been on a Gulfstream before?" Tony asked as they settled in. One of the pilots said hello as he pushed a button to retract the stairway.
"No," Ron said, gawking at the polished mahogany and soft leather and gold trimmings.
"This is a G5, the Mercedes of private jets. This one could take us to Paris, nonstop."
Then let's go to Paris instead of Washington, Ron thought as he leaned into the aisle to absorb the length and size of the airplane. A quick count revealed seating for at least a dozen pampered folks. "It's beautiful," he said. He wanted to ask who owned it. Who was paying for the trip? Who was behind this gold-plated recruitment?
But to inquire would be rude, he told himself. Just relax, enjoy the trip, enjoy the day, and remember all the details because Doreen will want to hear them.
The flight attendant was back. She explained emergency procedures, then asked what they might like for breakfast. Tony wanted scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns.
Ron ordered the same.
"Bathroom and kitchen are in the back," Tony said, as if he traveled by G5 every day. "The sofa pulls out if you need a nap." Coffee arrived as they began to taxi.
The flight attendant offered a variety of newspapers. Tony grabbed one, yanked it open, waited a few seconds, then asked, "You keeping up with that Bowmore litigation?"
Ron pretended to look at a newspaper as he continued to soak in the luxury of the jet. "Somewhat," he said.
"They filed a class action yesterday," Tony said in disgust. "One of those national tort firms out of Philadelphia. I guess the vultures have arrived." It was his first comment to Ron on the subject, but it definitely would not be his last.
The G5 took off. It was one of three owned by various entities controlled by the Trudeau Group, and leased through a separate charter company that made it impossible to track the true owner. Ron watched the city of Jackson disappear below him. Minutes later, when they leveled off at forty-one thousand feet, he could smell the rich aroma of bacon in the skillet.
At Dulles general aviation, they were whisked into the rear of a long black limo, and forty minutes later they were in the District, on K Street. Tony explained enroute that they had a 10:00 a.m. meeting with one group of potential backers, then a quiet lunch, then a 2:00 p.m. meeting with another group. Ron would be home in time for dinner. He was almost dizzy from the excitement of such luxurious travel and feeling so important.
On the seventh floor of a new building, they stepped into the rather plain lobby of the American Family Alliance and spoke to an even plainer receptionist. Tony's summary on the jet had been: "This group is perhaps the most powerful of all the conservative Christian advocates. Lots of members, lots of cash, lots of clout. The Washington politicians love them and fear them. Run by a man named Walter Utley, a former congressman who got fed up with all the liberals in Congress and left to form his own group."
Fisk had heard of Walter Udey and his American Family Alliance.
They were escorted into a large conference room where Mr. Utley himself was waiting with a warm smile and handshake and several introductions to other men, all of whom had been included in Tony's briefing on the jet. They represented such groups as Prayer
Partnership, Global Light, Family Roundtable, Evangelical Initiative, and a few others. All significant players in national politics, according to Tony.
They settled around the table, behind notepads and briefing papers, as if they were about to place Mr. Fisk under oath and take his deposition. Tony led off with a summary of the Supreme Court of Mississippi and kept his comments generally positive. Most of the judges were good men with solid voting records. But, of course, there was the matter of Justice Sheila McCarthy and her closet liberalism. She couldn't be trusted on the issues.
She was divorced. She was rumored to have loose morals, but Tony stopped without going into specifics.
To challenge her, they needed Ron here to step forward and answer the bell. Tony ran through a quick biography of their man and, in doing so, did not offer a single fact that was not already known by those present. He handed off to Ron, who cleared his throat and thanked them for the invitation. He began talking about his life, education, upbringing, parents, wife, and kids. He was a devout Christian, a deacon in St. Luke's Baptist Church, a Sunday school teacher. Rotary Club, Ducks Unlimited, youth league baseball coach. He stretched his resume as far as he could, then shrugged as if to say, "There's nothing else."
He and his wife had been praying about this decision. They had even met with their pastor for yet more prayer, hopefully at a higher level. They were comfortable. They were ready.
Everyone was still warm, friendly, delighted he was there. They asked about his background-was there anything back there that could haunt him? An affair, a DUI, a stupid fraternity prank in college? Any ethics complaints? First and only marriage? Yes, good, we thought so. Any claims of sexual harassment from your staff? Anything like that? Anything whatsoever to do with sex because sex is the killer in a hot campaign? And while they were on the subject, what about gays? Gay marriage? Absolutely not! Civil unions?
No, sir, not in Mississippi. Gays adopting children? No, sir.
Abortion? Opposed. All abortions? Opposed.
Death penalty? Very much in favor.
No one seemed to grasp the contradiction between the two.
Guns, the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, and so on? Ron loved his guns, but was curious for a second about why these religious men were concerned about weapons.
Then it hit him-it's all about politics and getting elected. His lifetime of hunting pleased them mightily, and he dragged it out as much as possible. No animal seemed safe.
Then the squeaky-voiced director of the Family Roundtable pursued a line of questions dealing with the separation of church and state, and everybody seemed to nod off. Ron held his ground, answering thoughtfully, and seemed to satisfy those few who were listening. He also began to realize that it was all a show. Their minds had been made up long before he left Brookhaven that morning. He was their man, and at the moment he was simply preaching to the choir.
The next round of questions dealt with freedom of speech, especially religious speech.
"Should a small-town judge be allowed to hang the Ten Commandments in his courtroom?"
Was the question. Ron sensed that this issue intrigued them, and he was at first inclined to be perfectly honest and say no. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's a violation of the separation of church and state, and Ron happened to agree.
He did not, however, want to upset the party, so he said, "One of my heroes is my local circuit court judge in Brookhaven." He began to bob and weave. "A great man.
He's had the Ten Commandments hanging on his wall for thirty years, and I've always admired him."
A slick nonanswer that they recognized for what it was. They also recognized that it was a fine example of slickness that could help Mr. Fisk survive a heated campaign.
So there was no follow-up, no objection. They were, after all, battle-tested political operatives, and they could appreciate a savvy nonresponse when they heard one.
After an hour, Walter Utley glanced at his watch and announced that he was a bit behind schedule. The day held many more important meetings. He concluded the little meet and greet with a declaration that he was very impressed with Ron Fisk and saw no reason why his American Family Alliance could not only endorse him but hit the ground running down there and get some votes. Everyone nodded around the table, and Tony Zachary seemed as proud as a new father.
"There's been a change in our lunch plans," he said when they were once again tucked away in the limo. "Senator Rudd would like to see you."
"Senator Rudd?" Fisk asked in disbelief.
"You got it," Tony said proudly.
Myers Rudd was halfway through his seventh term (thirty-nine years) in the U.S. Senate, and for at least the last three elections he had scared away all opposition. He was despised by at least 40 percent of the people and loved by at least 60 percent, and he had perfected the art of helping those on his side of the street and dismissing all others. He was a legend in Mississippi politics, the fixer, the inveterate meddler in local races, the king who picked his candidates, the assassin who slaughtered those who ran against his candidates, the bank who could finance any race and funnel hoards of cash, the wise old man who led his party, and the thug who destroyed the others.
"Senator Rudd has an interest in this case?" Fisk asked, so innocently.
Tony gave him a wary look. How naive can one be? "Of course he does. Senator Rudd is very close to those folks you just met. He maintains a perfect voting record in their score books. Perfect, mind you. Not 95 percent, but perfect. One of only three in the Senate, and the other two are rookies."
What will Doreen say about this? Ron thought to himself. Lunch with Senator Rudd, in Washington! They were somewhere near the Capitol when the limo ducked into a one-way street. "Let's jump out here," Tony said before the driver could get out. They headed for a narrow door next to an old hotel called the Mercury. An ancient doorman in a green uniform frowned as they approached. "To see Senator Rudd," Tony said abruptly, and the frown lessened somewhat. Inside, they were led along the edge of an empty and gloomy dining room and down a passageway. "It's The Senator's private quarters,"
Tony said quietly. Ron was greatly impressed. Ron was noticing the worn carpet and peeling paint, but the old building had a strong dose of shabby elegance. It had a history. How many deals have been put together inside these walls? he asked himself.
At the end of the hallway, they walked into a small private dining room where all manner of serious power was on display. Senator Rudd was seated at the small table, cell phone stuck to his head. Ron had never met him, but he certainly looked familiar.
Dark suit, red tie, thick shiny gray hair plastered to the left and held in place with no small amount of spray, large round face that seemed to grow thicker each year. No fewer than four of his minders and handlers were hovering like bees, all engaged in urgent cell phone chats, probably with one another.
Tony and Fisk waited, watching the show. Government in action.
Suddenly The Senator slapped his phone shut, and the other four conversations were instantly concluded. "Clear out," the great man grunted, and his minions fled like mice. "How are you, Zachary?" he said, standing behind the table. Introductions were made, small talk pursued for a moment. Rudd seemed to know everyone back home in Brookhaven, an aunt once lived there, and he was honored to meet this Mr. Fisk that he'd heard so much about. At some predetermined point, Tony said, "I'll be back in an hour," and vanished. He was replaced by a waiter in a tuxedo.
"Sit down," Rudd insisted. "The food's not much, but the privacy is great. I eat here five times a week." The waiter ignored the comment and handed over menus.
"It's lovely," Ron said, looking around at the walls lined with books that had been neither read nor dusted in a hundred years. They were dining in a small library.
No wonder it's so private. They ordered soup and grilled swordfish. The waiter closed the door when he left.
"I have a meeting at one," Rudd said, "so let's talk fast." He began pouring sugar into his iced tea and stirring it with a soupspoon.
"You can win this race, Ron, and God knows we need you."
Words from the king, and hours later Ron would quote them over and over to Doreen.
It was a guarantee from a man who'd never lost, and from that opening volley Ron Fisk was a candidate.
"As you know," Rudd continued because he really wasn't accustomed to listening, especially in conversations with small-time politicians from back home, "I don't get involved in local races." Fisk's first impulse was to laugh, and loudly, but he quickly realized that The Senator was dead serious.
"However, this race is too important. I'll do what I can, which is nothing to sneeze at, you know?"
"I've made some powerful friends in this business, and they will be happy to support your campaign. Just takes a phone call from me."
Ron was nodding politely. Two months earlier, Newsweek ran a cover story on the mountains of special-interest cash in Washington and the politicians who took it. Rudd topped the list. He had over $11 million in his campaign war chest, yet had no foreseeable race. The notion of a viable opponent was too ridiculous to even consider. Big business owned him-banks, insurance, oil, coal, media, defense, pharmaceuticals-no segment of corporate America had escaped the tentacles of his fund-raising machine.
"Thank you," Ron said because he felt obligated.
"My folks can put together a lot of money. Plus, I know the people in the trenches.
The governor, the legislators, the mayors. Ever hear of Willie Tate Ferris?"
"He's a supervisor, beat four, Adams County, in your district. I kept his brother out of prison, twice. Willie Tate will walk the streets for me. And he is the most powerful politician in those parts. One phone call from me, and you got Adams County."
He snapped his fingers. Just like that the votes were falling in place.
"Ever hear of Link Kyzer? Sheriff in Wayne County?"
"Link's an old friend. Two years ago he needed new patrol cars, new radios, new bulletproof vests and guns and everything. County wouldn't give him crap, so he calls me. I go to Homeland Security, talk to some friends, twist some arms, and Wayne County suddenly gets six million bucks to fight terrorism. They got more patrol cars than they got cops to drive them. Their radio system is better than the navy's. And, lo and behold, the terrorists have decided to stay the hell out of Wayne County." He laughed at his own punch line, and Ron was obliged to guffaw along with him. Nothing like wasting a few more million tax dollars.
"You need Link, you got Link, and Wayne County," Rudd promised as he slugged down some tea.
With two counties under his belt, Ron began contemplating the other twenty-five in the southern district. Would the next hour be spent listening to war stories from all of them? He rather hoped not. The soup arrived.
"This gal, McCarthy," Rudd said between slurps. "She's never been on board." Which Ron took as an indictment on the grounds of not supporting Senator Rudd. "She's too liberal, plus, between us boys, she just ain't cut out for the black robe. Know what I mean?"
Ron nodded slightly as he studied his soup. Little wonder The Senator preferred dining in private. He doesn't know her first name, Ron said to himself. He knows very little about her, except that she is indeed female and, in his opinion, out of place.
To ease things away from the good ole white boy talk, Ron decided to interject a semi-intelligent question. "What about the Gulf Coast? I have very few contacts down there."
Predictably, Rudd scoffed at the question. No problem. "My wife's from Bay St. Louis," he said, as if that alone could guarantee a landslide for his chosen one. "You got those defense contractors, naval shipyards, NASA, hell, I own those people."
And they probably own you, Ron thought. Sort of a joint ownership.
A cell phone hummed next to The Senator's tea glass. He glanced at it, frowned, and said, "Gotta take this. It's the White House." He gave the impression of being quite irritated.
"Should I step outside?" Ron asked, at once impressed beyond words but also horrified that he might eavesdrop on some crucial matter.
"No, no," Rudd said as he waved him down. Fisk tried to concentrate on his soup, and tea, and roll, and though it was a lunch he would never forget, he suddenly wished it would quickly come to an end. The phone call did not. Rudd grunted and mumbled and gave no clue as to which crisis he was averting. The waiter returned with the swordfish, which sizzled a bit at first but soon cooled off. The white beets beside it were swimming in a large pool of butter.
When the world was safe again, Rudd hung up and stuck a fork into the center of his swordfish. "Sorry about that," he said. "Damned Russians. Anyway, I want you to run, Ron. It's important to the state. We have got to get our court in line."
"Yes, sir, but-"
"And you have my complete support. Nothing public, mind you, but I'll work my ass off in the background. I'll raise serious cash. I'll crack the whip, break some arms, the usual routine down there. It's my game, son, trust me."
"No one beats me in Mississippi. Just ask the governor. He was twenty points down with two months to go, and was trying to do it himself. Didn't need my help. I flew down, had a prayer meeting, the boy got converted, and he won in a landslide. I don't like to get involved down there, but I will. And this race is that important. Can you do it?"
"I think so."
"Don't be silly, Ron. This is a onetime chance to do something great. Think of it, you, at the age of, uh-"
"Thirty-nine, damned young, but you're on the Supreme Court of Mississippi. And once we get you there, you'll never leave. Just think about it."
"I'm thinking very hard, sir."
The phone hummed again, probably the president. "Sorry," Rudd said as he stuck it in his ear and took a huge bite of fish.
The third and final stop on the tour was at the office of the Tort Reform Network on Connecticut Avenue. With Tony back in charge, they blitzed through the introductions and short speeches. Fisk answered a few benign questions, much lighter fare than what had been served up by the religious boys that morning. Once again, he was overwhelmed by the impression that everyone was going through the motions. It was important for them to touch and hear their candidate, but there seemed to be little interest in a serious evaluation. They were relying on Tony, and since he'd found his man, then so had they.
Unknown to Ron Fisk, the entire forty-minute meeting was captured by a hidden camera and sent upstairs to a small media room where Barry Rinehart was watching carefully.
He had a thick file on Fisk, one with photos and various summaries, but he was anxious to hear his voice, watch his eyes and hands, listen to his answers. Was he photogenic, telegenic, well dressed, handsome enough? Was his voice reassuring, trustworthy?
Did he sound intelligent or dull? Was he nervous in front of such a group, or calm and confident? Could he be packaged and properly marketed?
After fifteen minutes, Barry was convinced. The only negative was a hint of nervousness, but then that was to be expected. Yank a man out of Brookhaven and thrust him before a strange crowd in a strange city and he's likely to stutter a few times. Nice voice, nice face, decent suit. Barry had certainly worked with less.
He would never meet Ron Fisk, and, as in all of Barry's campaigns, the candidate would never have the slightest clue about who was pulling the strings.
Flying home, Tony ordered a whiskey sour and tried to force a drink on Ron, who declined and stuck with coffee. It was the perfect setting for a drink-aboard a luxurious jet, with a gorgeous young lady as the bartender, at the end of a long and stressful day, with no one in the world watching and knowing.
"Just coffee," Ron said. Regardless of the setting, he knew he was still being evaluated.
Plus, he was a teetotaler anyway. The decision was easy.
Not that Tony was much of a drinker. He took a few sips of his cocktail, loosened his tie, settled deep into his seat, and eventually said, "Rumor has it that this McCarthy gal hits the booze pretty hard."
Ron simply shrugged. The rumor had not made its way to Brookhaven. He figured that at least 50 percent of the people there couldn't name any of the three justices from the southern district, let alone their habits, good or bad.
Another sip, and Tony kept going. "Both of her parents were heavy drinkers. Of course, they're from the Coast, so that's not unexpected. Her favorite hangout is a club called Tuesday's, near the reservoir. Ever hear of it?"
"Kind of a meat market for the middle-aged swingers, so I hear. Never been there myself."
Fisk refused to take the bait. Such low gossip seemed to bore him. This didn't bother Tony. In fact, he found it admirable. Let the candidate keep the high ground. The mud would be slung by others.
"How long have you known Senator Rudd?" Fisk asked, changing the subject.
"A long time." And for the remainder of the short trip they talked about their great senator and his colorful career.
Ron raced home, still floating from such a heady encounter with power and its trappings.
Doreen was waiting for the details. They ate warmed-up spaghetti while the kids finished homework and prepared for bed.
She had many questions, and Ron struggled with some of the answers. Why were so many diverse groups willing to spend so much on an unknown and thoroughly inexperienced politician? Because they were committed. Because they preferred bright, clean-cut young men with the right beliefs and without the baggage of prior service. And if Ron said no, they would find another candidate just like him. They were determined to win, to clean up the court. It was a national movement, and a critical one.
The fact that her husband had dined alone with Senator Myers Rudd was the clincher.
They would take a dramatic plunge into the unknown world of politics, and they would conquer.