Free Fiction Monday: FOL
Jonathan Alexander Nicholas Ashworth the Fourth—called Nico—fears nothing. He lives a life of power, prestige, money. He makes his own way, but when that fails, he uses fixers, the best money can buy. Until FoL begins targeting him. Against FoL, fixers can’t help him. Can he help himself? Or will FoL win?
A powerful story about truth and consequences.
“FOL” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available in ebook here.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
RED LIGHTS CHURNING against the black sky: fire engines, ambulances, cop cars—all red lights; flames flaring, then collapsing, sending red sparks into the darkness; faces red from the heat, black from the smoke. Nico stood on the other side of the driveway, facing the burning frat house. His back was cold, but his face, arms, and legs felt hot. If he took a step closer, he’d be enveloped by the heat radiating off the frat.
The sirens echoed. The noise level rose, low conversation, screams, shouts, the spray of the hoses, music from the nearby sorority, a car horn honking in the distance.
Nico’s mouth tasted of smoke—the air tasted of smoke. Someone had wrapped him in a blanket, and he didn’t remember who or how.
He stared at the frat. He hadn’t even been there. He’d been in the history library, doing the damn primary research for Professor Chadwick’s all-or-nothing, 30-page paper. Nico hated the dumb library card catalog stored in those bulky alphabetized drawers, the even dumber microfiche machines, the dorky gloves he had to wear before anyone would let him touch old newspapers.
Do not leave this for the last minute, Old Chad had said. You won’t be able to get it done.
Well, Nico’d had no choice. The stupid idiot he’d hired to write the paper—an overpaid intellectual snob who’d come highly recommended—bailed two days ago, actually handing the money back and stammering something about seeing the light. The other dweebs who wrote term papers for money wouldn’t take the assignment—No time to do a new one, man. Old Chad’s seen all my papers on this one. Sorry.
Nico couldn’t fail, not Old Chad’s class. Not if he wanted to get into a good law school. He’d been thinking of calling one of his dad’s fixers when someone he didn’t really know—one of the real dorks, floppy hair, cheap clothes, clearly on scholarship—ran into the second floor room and yelled that Nico’s frat was burning.
Nico ran here, got here ahead of the trucks, and tried to run in, only to get pushed back by flames. The frat had gone up like a pile of matches, and the alarms hadn’t gone off. But none of the guys had been inside. Someone said—jeez, who? Everything was blurring—they’d heard Nico’s voice through a bullhorn, telling them to get out.
It hadn’t been him. He’d been in the history library or running, but he kinda liked that they saw him as a hero. As the voice that’d saved them. He was the de facto leader of the house, even if he didn’t hold the official position. Some men didn’t need titles to show power.
Not that there was any power left.
The firefighters had given up. They were hosing down nearby buildings, the grass, cars, to keep the fire from spreading. Voices—loud, authoritative—said the fire was abnormally hot, very strong. Clearly arson. Probably started in the upper west corner of the building.
His stuff. Jesus. Everything he’d brought—clothes, shoes, the twenty grand he kept in a lockbox under his bed (pin money, his mom called it), the dope he’d bought just two days ago, not that no one’d ever see it. Papers, books, a few trophies—and pictures.
Christ on a crutch. His pictures—three and a half years of frat life, pictures he’d never take to his folks’ house. Gone. Everything. Gone.
He tried to wrap his mind around it, couldn’t stop staring at the bits of ash floating in the air, tiny bats against the burning sky.
“Awww. Lookie little Nico. Gonna have to call Daddy for some fresh underwear.”
A girl’s voice.
He turned, saw Valda, fucking feminist lesbian bitch, wrapped in a shapeless coat, leg warmers over her fat unshaved thighs, hair in its usual messy knot. She looked uncommonly pleased—and she didn’t even have her usual “Take Back The Night” entourage.
“You do this?” he snapped.
“Wouldn’t you like it if I did?” She tugged on her fingerless gloves, pretending nonchalance. “Wow, Nico. Now you’ll get to see how the other half lives.”
She smiled. He’d never seen her smile before. She almost looked like a real girl. Then she waved at him and wandered down the sidewalk, into the growing crowd.
He didn’t give her a second thought until—
The cops woke him up. He was sleeping on the floor in Bruce’s dorm room, showered, wearing borrowed jeans, and an old sweatshirt that smelled faintly of piss. Still couldn’t get the stench of smoke out of his nose. Wasn’t really sleeping either. Heard the cops below—they were investigating everywhere, barging in, taking control, scaring kids not used to authority.
Two cops came through Bruce’s door, fat middle-aged guys with round bellies and dead eyes, followed by two in uniform, trim and in shape. With guns.
“Jonathan Alexander Nicholas Ashworth?” the fattest cop asked.
Nico got up, smoothed the smelly sweatshirt, drew himself to his full height, and said in his driest, most dismissive voice, “You need to be clearer, officer. I’m Jonathan Alexander Nicholas Ashworth the Fourth. The Third is at his bungalow in the Vineyard, the Second is in Palm Beach because the winters are getting too cold for his thin skin, and the First is in Sun Valley with the rest of the elite, plotting the end of the world.”
“We’re looking for the one called Nico,” the cop said, clearly humor-impaired.
“Which is so much better than Kiddo or Junior or Sonny Boy, or Trey like they call my poor father,” Nico said.
“You’re Nico?” the cop said.
“Jesus, what do I have to do, spell it out for you?” This time, Nico had his mother’s tone, the one she used with housekeepers on the verge of instant and involuntary retirement.
“Perhaps I need to spell it out for you, son,” the cop said. “You need to take us seriously. The fire started in your room, with a gasoline accelerant. Your gas-covered clothes were found in a Dumpster not a block away. And two witnesses saw you light the match and place it on the gas trail, then watch it run from the street to your window, before you walked calmly away.”
Nico’s stomach clenched. He hadn’t done that. He wouldn’t do that. But he was his father’s son, and he’d learned early how badly things went when he didn’t let his father’s people step in.
So he stopped talking, let the uniformed officers lead him out of the dorm, saying only, “There’s no need to use the handcuffs,” not because he was afraid of them, he was afraid of the photograph that someone might take, the photograph that would then go into the papers and the tabloids and follow him for the rest of his life.
He went quietly out the back, and said only one more thing—a request for a lawyer—and clammed up the rest of the way. Thinking about the fake witnesses, thinking about Valda and her snide Now you’ll get to see how the other half lives.
He used that—or actually, his father’s lawyers used that—and they used the strange letter he got two days later to his campus post office box. A charred photo of him and the rest of the frat—not his photo, but one half-burned, and a business card with an odd logo. FoL. And nothing else.
FoL. Fool. That’s what the lawyers thought. That’s what his dad’s fixer thought too. The charges went away as if they had never been. The witnesses vanished. And the frat got rebuilt, bigger and better—not just with insurance money, but with a little of the Ashworth family fortune.
Not that Nico got to live in the new palatial digs. He’d moved on to the best law school in the country because his family insisted he learn a trade. Trust me, his grandfather said, someday you’ll need something to do with your time.
But by the time his grandfather had given him that nugget of wisdom, Nico had already figured it out. He did a lot of thinking that night in the jail, wearing the borrowed clothes whose piss-smell didn’t quite overwhelm the odor of sweat and fear that surrounded him. Not to mention the foul toilet at the far end of the room. Or the men who leered at him and called him Pretty Boy.
He would have wagered that even Valda didn’t know how the other half lived—how this half lived. She just envied his money, even though she wasn’t that poor herself. She wasn’t a scholarship student. Her family just didn’t have as much money as his.
Not many families did.
He’d always thought his dad a sanctimonious asshole for talking about the obligation of the haves to the have-nots. And the have-nots in the jail didn’t exactly inspire him. But that moment, standing outside in the strange ash-covered hot-cold night as he watched a world disappear in flames, that moment had.
He couldn’t do anything much about the have-nots. Trying to stop poverty was like putting your finger in a river, in an attempt to create a dam. His mother’s paraphrase of Matthew 26:11, the one she used when his father got too preachy, stuck in his mind: The poor shall always be with us. No matter what we do.
He didn’t want to use a finger to dam the river. But he needed a purpose, and law was as good as any.
He even thought of criminal law, but decided he didn’t want to set foot into too many more piss-scented jails, and you had to do that, no matter what side you took. So he followed most of his classmates toward corporate—not for the money (Lord knew, he didn’t need money) but so he could understand what he and his siblings would inherit one day.
It all went swimmingly until his third and final interview with the most prestigious law firm in New York—the most prestigious law firm in the country, really. What should’ve been a hale-fellow-and-well-met moment felt furtive, Daniel Jorgensen, the partner pushing his candidacy, closing the door to the plush office, frowning, and saying, “I don’t appreciate being lied to.”
Nico hadn’t even sat down in his usual chair, the thick leather one to the left of the desk. Instead he stood in the middle of the room, uncertain what to do with his hands. Through the glass window beside the door, he saw associates peering at him, one of them giggling behind her hand before someone hurried her down the hall.
“I haven’t lied to anyone,” Nico said, and he hadn’t. He even told them about the arson arrest, although he didn’t have to, since the charges vanished, and the entire incident got dropped.
“Sixteen letters say otherwise.” Jorgensen was a friend of Nico’s father from some charity board or another. Nico’s grandfather had wanted Nico at an old D.C. firm, the one the family had used since the first million accumulated, back in the Depression.
“Letters about what?” Nico asked.
“Your character,” Jorgensen said. “Considering one of them is from a major client in this firm, our interest in you is officially terminated.”
“Terminated?” Nico asked, feeling slow. “But I haven’t lied about anything.”
“Sorry,” Jorgensen said, without a trace of sympathy. “My hands are tied.”
“Shouldn’t I know what people are saying? Shouldn’t I know who is making the accusations?” Nico’s palms were damp. He resisted the urge to wipe them on the front of his suit.
“If it were just one person, we’d consider telling you. But sixteen, from various parts of the country….” Jorgensen shook his head. “We can’t take the risk. Clearly, there’s a lot more to you than your family, your excellent grades, and your seat on the Law Review. You’re not the right material for this firm.”
“I’m sure you know the way out.” Jorgensen sat heavily behind his desk, and stared at Nico.
Nico stood for just a moment, unable to move. He hadn’t done anything. Unlike some of the other guys he knew, guys whose families were as rich and influential as his, he actually worked hard in law school. He didn’t end up in the middle of his class. He had good grades and a brain and a stellar record. He’d even given up drinking—to excess anyway. No more parties. A beer now and then. Some good wine from the family cellar over the holidays. Nothing more.
He had no skeletons—
“Do I have to call security?” Jorgensen asked.
“No, sir. Sorry, sir.” And Nico let himself out.
He walked through the wide, carpeted corridor, toward the elevator, conscious of the associates still watching him, smiling at his defeat.
He wasn’t sure why he wanted law anyway, or why he needed a place like this. He had money. He even had influence if he wanted it. He could get the power, reflected glory off his family.
He’d just wanted to do it himself.
He got in the elevator, with its rich wood paneling and gold trim. There were other options. Maybe the D.C. firm wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe.
He turned over possibilities in his mind as he made his way back to the apartment his family kept near Central Park. And as he walked in, the doorman handed him a letter, addressed to him. Plain white envelope, just his name in gorgeous calligraphy.
Nico turned it over in his hands. “Who left it?” he asked.
“Bike messenger,” the doorman said. “I was to give it to you as soon as you came in.”
Nico nodded, and opened the envelope.
Inside, a business card embossed with three letters.
His father agreed: whoever had sent the business card had sabotaged Nico’s chances at the New York law firm. And the entire family did damage control with their D.C. firm, the kind of damage control Nico hated: the threats of lost business, the demands that Nico join or else.
Nico didn’t want that. He didn’t need that. His dad’s fixer had found the sixteen letter writers—none of whom had ever met Nico. They’d all been paid a fee to tell a variation of the same story, a story of sticky fingers and cheating on exams, a story of other iffy evenings that ended in gasoline-induced fires.
The fixer couldn’t find who had paid the letter writers. Nico’s father hired several private detectives and they couldn’t track the funds either.
Nico couldn’t think of anyone who would go after him like this. He figured—and his family figured—that a nutcase was harassing him because he was wealthy. Eventually, we’ll catch him, the fixer said, and Nico believed him.
Maybe if Nico cared more about the New York job, he would have fought for another interview. Instead, he felt a bit relieved. He understood why they hadn’t hired him.
Nico wouldn’t have hired himself either, if any of the charges were true, which they weren’t. And as his father said all the firm had had to do was investigate; they’d’ve realized these were lies.
But his grandfather pointed out there was no reason to investigate. The lies were enough. There were always a lot of sons of privilege looking for a sinecure at a prestigious law firm. They didn’t need to take Nico, not without the family tie. So they didn’t.
But the D.C. firm did.
And Nico settled into the expected role as the son of privilege whose ambition took a back seat to the silver spoon dangling ostentatiously from his mouth.
Not that it made him happy. None of it made him happy—the same old people, the same old clubs, the summers in the Hamptons or the Cape, the winters in Palm Beach or Malibu or Aruba. He’d done all of this since he could remember, and his work at the firm was to keep people like him and his father and his grandfather happy, which he was unbelievably good at, because—after all—he’d been doing it since birth.
The only bright spot was Molly. Molly, whose real name was Caroline Modestina Havier, who hated the family pressures as much as he did, who called herself Molly because it irritated her mother. The family called her Caro, her enemies—and she had a few—called her Modesty, and those who loved her, truly loved her like Nico did, called her Molly.
She’d had an actual debut in Washington society. She’d had another in Paris, because of all the family ties. Her gowns were written up in Vogue, her Paris debut became the subject of a column on the children of the rich and powerful in Vanity Fair, her good works made her the darling of the society page of The New York Times.
She was, as his father said, a catch.
But Nico cared less about who she was and more about how she made him feel. He’d finally found a kindred spirit, one as lost in this world as he was, doing the expected thing, but rebelling in tiny ways.
She had a loft in Soho—all hers, hip and beautiful, inspiring him to find a place in D.C. instead of the family manse. She insisted on vacationing in Madera and St. Petersburg, none of the usual places. She hated dressage, and loved Las Vegas. Her only real nod to the privilege she’d grown up in—the only place among the rich and powerful (or the R&P, as she called them) that she truly loved—were the fashion shows. She took time away from her job at an upscale New York P.R. firm, a job as much of a joke as his, to go to Milan and Paris for each fashion season.
That spring, he didn’t go along—he saw no need to. She didn’t really want him there. Besides, they’d already had their big moment in a cheesy diner outside Saratoga Springs where they’d gone because she wanted to see “the ponies.”
The ring he gave her probably cost more than the diner itself. But the patrons had waited breathlessly when he got on one knee on the filthy linoleum floor, and proposed, and applauded when she accepted.
They had to have a big society wedding because, after all, It Was Expected. She had debuted, and he was the eldest in his family, and their union was to Society as important as a corporate merger.
They picked a date one year away. They wanted to marry in three months, but his mother had a fit. They tried to find something within six, but her mother caught them, and straightened them out. No one should expect their friends to clear their calendars for a marriage, unless, of course, there was a reason for the haste…?
It took him a while to realize she thought her daughter might be pregnant. But he couldn’t understand why, in that case, she’d want to wait even six months.
Even though he’d been born to this world, he didn’t always understand it.
They booked a date at all the proper venues. A famous fashion photographer, a friend of Molly’s, took their engagement photo—or, more accurately, photos, so that a different one could go to the Times, Le Monde, and the Post. Molly wore a specially designed dress, which got them in Vogue, and his family threw a special party for the elite, which got them into Town and Country.
It was a Big Deal, perhaps the largest thing he’d ever been involved in, and required more troops than the Invasion of Normandy, or so it felt to him. Even though no one insisted he pick his groomsmen with care, they did insist that his friends (some of whom were societally challenged) go through an extensive three-week evening course on the social graces.
The courses were underway, the hall paid for, the chamber orchestra booked, when he went to Molly’s Soho apartment to pick her up for their first quiet evening out in nearly a month.
He knocked, the sound echoing on the empty floor. The only thing he didn’t like about her loft was that it was on the top floor of a warehouse in a neighborhood that could be dodgy at night.
When she didn’t answer, he knocked again, feeling his heart pound.
Finally, the door banged open. Molly was barefoot, wearing her oversized U-Conn sweatshirt and a pair of briefs with sweetie written in hearts across her delectable ass. Only he didn’t dare say anything, since her face was blotchy with tears. She held a Big Gulp cup in her left hand, and judging from the smell, that cup was filled with beer.
“What the hell do you want?” she asked.
He frowned. “I thought we had a date.”
Her mouth curled upward and she mimicked his tone. “I thought we had a date. Moron. Why the hell would I date you?”
He was beginning to recognize this feeling, this the-world-has-shifted-on-me feeling. “We, um, planned the date yesterday…?”
She snorted. “Yesterday. Yesterday’s gone, asshole. Didn’t you get my message?”
“I haven’t been home,” he said.
“Home,” she sneered. “You don’t check voice mail?”
“I came straight here.”
“Of course you did,” she said in a tone that meant she didn’t believe him. “Well, go home, asshole. You’ll know what happened then.”
He put a hand against the door, meaning to slip into the loft, but she blocked him. “Tell me what happened now.”
“I sent your fucking ring back, that’s what happened,” she said. “It’s off. You’re a damn pig, and I can’t believe I fell in love with you. Piggy.”
He hadn’t seen her. He hadn’t sent a message. He hadn’t told anyone to talk with her. He hadn’t done anything.
“What went wrong, Molly?” he asked.
“You.” She shoved him away from the door, but he didn’t budge. “Get out of here.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re harassing me, that’s what’s going on. Get. Out.”
She shoved him again, and when he held his ground, she brought her knee up sharply and hit him full force in the balls. Pain radiated through him. He bent in half, and she slammed the door. For a moment, he thought he was going to puke. He clutched the wall, unable to catch his breath. When he did—when he finally did—he turned toward the door.
The deadbolts clicked shut, one after another, until all three were engaged. She’d been watching him, and had done that deliberately, just so that he would know that he wasn’t welcome.
“Molly!” he shouted.
“Calling 911,” she shouted back. “You wanna be in the news? I’m calling the tabloids first. Your daddy would love to see you on the front page of the Enquirer.”
She knew how much both families would hate that.
He stood for a minute, uncertain what to do.
“I’m dialing,” she shouted.
He raised his hands in supplication, but knew it would do no good. So he turned his back and headed for the stairs. He’d call her in the morning when she sobered up. He’d apologize for whatever the hell she imagined that he had done, and he’d make it up to her with an even nicer ring and maybe a matching necklace. Something custom-made, specially designed just for Molly.
He limped down the stairs and took a cab back to the family place, where the doorman—a different one—handed him an envelope.
Nico looked down, expecting calligraphy. Instead, he saw a font used in 1970s rock posters. He held the envelope between his thumb and forefinger, and asked the doorman for a letter opener. The doorman had one and watched with great interest as Nico slit the envelope open.
A business card fell out. Embossed in gold in the same font as the envelope, the card said simply: FoL.
This time, he got mad. Not why-me self-pitying mad, but full-blown anger, powerful enough to scare the doorman. An anger that Nico hadn’t indulged in since he stopped drinking. It took all of his strength to maintain control.
Nico used the phone in the lobby to call his father, who called in all the fixers, who were going to solve this.
And so was Nico.
Nico hadn’t really cared about the NY job. The loss had been a blow to his pride, and it had angered him that someone had messed with him and his life.
But he loved Molly, and he wasn’t going to let go without a fight. He called her, and left messages, which she didn’t answer. He didn’t go to her loft—she had made that clear, and his father reiterated it (the last thing you want the press to call you is a stalker, boy), but he sent her mail and he called and he sent a few friends over, all to no avail.
Soon he found out why.
His father’s best fixer, a burly man named Stansbury who had rumored CIA connections, came over with copies of “the evidence.” He poured photo after photo on the dining room table, and within minutes, Nico was glad he was the only family member in attendance at the family apartment.
Photos—graphic photos—of every sexual encounter he’d had since college. The girls, sometimes unrecognizable, always looked pained, or drugged, even though they weren’t. He’d stopped combining sex and drinking after the fire, and he’d made damn sure that every girl he’d been with since then had given sober and aware consent.
Some of the articles about the fire had postulated that a group of girls, angry at the way the frat boys took advantage at drunken parties, had gotten their revenge. He never thought so because if that were the case, the girls would’ve gone after one other frat, the one that prided itself on screwing the most unscrewable girls. Someone there even claimed that a member had gotten Valda into bed.
Nico hadn’t believed that either.
But these photos—jeez, they did make him look like a pig. Especially so many of them, especially with the women’s eyes closed or their faces in a pre-orgasmic grimace.
Molly had known he wasn’t a virgin. She’d even known he wasn’t a saint. But she hadn’t known how many women there had been. Even if these women had all been smiling, she would’ve been angry.
The fact that they weren’t—
Well, that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part were the letters. Dozens of them, supposedly from the girls, saying that he’d paid them and they hadn’t enjoyed it.
The letters were fakes. They didn’t have the right names, not that it mattered. The girls in the photos were mostly unrecognizable.
And Nico had never paid for it in his life, not that that was a defense.
“Did my dad see these?” he asked Stansbury who gave him a whadda-you-think-kid look.
Nico nodded, and sighed. Then he handed Stansbury the envelope with the FoL business card.
“We have to find these people,” he said. “They’re ruining my life.”
Stansbury did a tremendous job. He tracked down the girls—the real ones—and they were all willing to defend Nico (after Stansbury explained that Nico hadn’t taken the pictures, someone else had without Nico’s permission). Stansbury tracked down the fake girls too, and found they’d been paid just like the letter writers from the NY case. He even found the photographers—some human and some operating remote cameras planted in Nico’s various bedrooms.
Lawsuits, harassment suits, criminal investigations, all of them public at Nico’s insistence, didn’t sway Molly.
She talked to him, though, long enough to say, through tears, that she’d never ever ever get those pictures of him out of her mind. She was sorry, but the wedding was off. The relationship was off. She’d never been so humiliated in her entire life.
You? he wanted to shout. What about me? I just found out that I’ve been watched at the most intimate moments of my life. I’m humiliated.
And violated. And shaken.
But he didn’t pursue her any longer. Although his father talked to hers, gently letting the man know that whoever had photographed Nico had also photographed Molly. They’d gotten those pictures from the various photographers with more finesse than they’d used on the others, just to protect her privacy.
Not that it did much good.
The flunkies all went to jail. But no one could trace the perpetrator of these crimes.
“It’s gotta be personal,” Stansbury said. “It’s gone on too long to be otherwise. Know anyone who hates you with a passion, kid?”
Nico didn’t. But he’d never paid attention to the haters. The only one he remembered was Valda and that was because of her comments on that fiery night all those years before.
His father put the full resources of two upscale private detection firms on the problem. They found nothing. But they did do a profile for the family, a profile that Nico could’ve done for free.
In fact, Nico had already figured out most of it. The perpetrator, whom they were calling by the letters of that business card—F. O. L.—for lack of a better name, seemed provoked by the press. The law school had published an interview schedule for its best candidates, including Nico, and of course, his engagement to Molly had made societal news worldwide. The only attack that couldn’t be explained was the frat fire, and there was no real proof that it was aimed at Nico. None of the other frat members remembered getting a letter with a business card stashed inside, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t.
Still, the detectives figured there was a campus connection.
They just couldn’t find out what it was.
Nico let them look. He already had his solution.
He was leaving the East Coast, leaving his prominent position in the family, stepping out of the limelight and into obscurity.
He went to California and didn’t move into any of the family houses. He bought a modest house in Santa Cruz because he liked the hippie vibe. He didn’t even buy anything with a view of the ocean. And he drove a VW Bug.
He started going by Jan Ashworth (which he pronounced Yahn)—J.A.N. being his first three initials—and he quietly invested in some interesting companies, all start-ups, all worth his time, all either at the cutting edge of technology or with some admirable social goals.
He became, as his great-grandfather sneered, a hippy-dippy California type, completely unrecognizable from the frat boy who went into the family law firm and nearly married the most eligible deb in all of society. His great-grandfather might sneer, but Nico was finally happy.
And he finally felt free.
Eventually, he married, and made his own fortune, based on his own business savvy and his ability to manage the tech bubble. His wife, also Caroline, only this one adored her name, knew his entire past from the boy he’d been to the dark frat years to the strange FoL incidents.
She saw the pictures before he’d let her say yes to the engagement, and she’d laughed, saying that if someone took a picture at the wrong moment during sex, everyone would look unhappy. She read the detective reports, listened to the stories, and declared herself unconcerned.
She lived up to that, too, bearing him two daughters and raising them with a firm hand. Supporting him in his unwillingness to go to the family haunts, instead insisting on meeting his family off-the-beaten path, or at least, off the R&P path. He never went to Aspen or Vail or Palm Beach or the Hamptons or the Cape. He didn’t use the family apartment on the few visits he made to New York. He bought his own condo in D.C. for the necessary business trips.
And for twenty years, he didn’t hear from FoL. In fact, entire years went by without anyone giving a thought to those business cards. The incidents were, he assumed, long in his past.
They didn’t come up when he moved to San Francisco and got elected to the City Council. They didn’t come up when he took his place in the California legislature.
He wasn’t private any longer. He’d become a political animal with Caroline’s enthusiastic support. And he was good at politics—that natural charm combined with the deference he’d learned at his father’s knee. He knew how to get the most intransigent people to compromise by appealing to their better selves and their own best interest.
He was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and the LA Times, a Politician To Watch.
He got his own fixers—not at the level of his dad’s—but just in case. He’d learned that lesson long ago. And a group of backers approached him, convinced him that—at fifty—he had the chops to follow the Golden California Path. Legislature to Governor, Governor to Senator, Senator to President. Or maybe he could skip the Senator to President step. Reagan had.
Nico was good: He gave the handlers all of the information, had them search for FoL, gave them the photos and the history which his handlers slowly leaked to the press, putting his spin on everything.
It wasn’t smooth sailing, but the bumps weren’t extreme. He came off as human, a man who had lived and had shed the burdens of his heritage. Eventually, it looked like he might be a shoo-in for his party’s nomination, depending on the debate.
The debate. No one watched debates, particularly primary debates between candidates vying for their party’s nomination. No one, except the party faithful and the press, who would use the occasion to eviscerate anyone who made a gaffe.
Nico was usually gaffe-proof. Not because he was robotic, but because he was good at debate. He’d excelled in it at law school, which was one of the reasons he’d nearly decided to go into criminal law. He didn’t skip the prep then, and he didn’t skip the prep now. In fact he over prepared, particularly when it became clear that his opponent was the formidable Tinsley Monroe.
Tinsley Monroe, a tall striking blonde with a history amazingly similar to his. An Ivy League education, a top sorority, a top law school, and a refusal to debut. She had moved to California to pursue her own dreams regardless of the family demands. She hadn’t married money, and she’d come up through the ranks just like he had. Unlike his, her daughters had returned to the Ivy, and were already making names for themselves. His daughters had gone into the UC system and kept a low profile, which he applauded.
He’d run into Tinsley a hundred times since he’d started his political career. She’d been helpful, even contributing to his campaign for City Council. Her help stopped, understandably, when she entered politics herself. Her agenda was proto-feminist, although she didn’t use the words: programs for women and children, better work laws, more shelters. He’d supported those initiatives as well, and still tried to have a pro-business attitude. He figured the pro-business side would help him in the larger campaign, but he never counted Tinsley out.
If anyone could best him in a verbal contest, it was Tinsley Monroe.
So when he met her backstage at the largest auditorium on the UCLA campus, television cameras set up, podiums on their marks, he silently congratulated himself for his tendency to over prepare. Not because he thought he’d win, but because he would at least have a fighting chance.
She looked stunning—a mane of golden hair around her well-made-up face, glasses that caught the highlights of her dress and made her look like a particularly intelligent CEO. She wore a simple black dress, which slimmed her, and heels that showed off her tremendous legs.
He didn’t have the flash—what man could in a simple suit?—but he knew he looked as serious and intelligent as she did.
He extended his hand, and she smiled a moment before she took it looking, he thought, like a particularly well-satisfied cat.
She slipped paper into his palm. He looked.
A business card that read FoL.
His heart lurched. “Who gave this to you?”
She tilted her head, more catlike than ever—a lioness with her prey. “No one, Nico,” she said. She called him Nico. Before, she had always called him Jan. “I’m a member of FoL.”
“A member of…?”
“Friends of Liz. You remember Liz Bodey, right?”
For a moment he didn’t. For a moment, the name was just a name, and then he did remember.
“You knew Liz Bodey?” he asked.
“Still do,” she said, and headed toward the stage.
His handler pushed him forward. Nico had missed the bell, warning him that he was about to go on. He knew he looked ashen, knew he was shaken. For a half second, he debated walking out, then decided that no one would chase him away.
The lights glared; it was already hot. They had practiced the on-stage handshake, only this time, she pulled him close and whispered:
“I’m not going to mention Liz in the debate. I don’t see any need to invade her privacy.”
Instead of reassuring him, the sentence shook him worse. He found his podium, listened to the introduction and damn near forgot his opening speech.
Liz Bodey. He could still see her face, swollen so badly on one side that she looked deformed. She’d been a virgin—he hadn’t known that—she’d been sober and unwilling and terrified, and he hadn’t been any of those things. She had been tiny and he could hold her down so easily. It wasn’t until the end that he realized his slap to her face had actually broken her jaw, the twist he’d given her wrist had snapped it.
He’d been drunk, but not that drunk. He’d known he fucked up. Literally. The hospital report disappeared, the police case vanished—if one had ever started. His final indiscretion—that was what his father called it, an indiscretion, just like all the others— that final indiscretion had cost a quarter of a million dollars plus legal fees for the confidentiality agreement. That was just for Liz Bodey. He had no idea who else had gotten paid.
Nico stammered his way through the debate’s first few questions, tried to shake it off, couldn’t, not quite. The answers to his entire past were right beside him. Tinsley answered debate questions smoothly, sweetly, even offering to give him a moment to gather himself.
He looked at her, saw the glint in her eyes. Friends of Liz. FoL. God, no wonder they couldn’t track anyone down. There wasn’t one person to track.
The debate went on forever. He got belligerent when it came to the women’s issues questions. He’d done enough, more than enough, he had daughters for heaven’s sake, he understood what women went through. Every guy is insensitive young, some worse than others, but men—the best men—learned, improved, helped, grew.
Tinsley let the statements stand, didn’t argue, didn’t walk through that open door. She was professional, competent, and she won on points. He could tell that, with fifteen minutes to go.
Off stage, finally, he pushed past his handler, headed toward the men’s room. Tinsley found him, stopped him.
“There was a bunch of you, wasn’t there?” he asked.
She nodded. “We all saw her that night, took her to the hospital, helped her. We knew you’d pay people off. We knew there’d be no case. We all come from money too. We know how it’s done.”
The room spun. He felt ill. He put a hand on the wall. “You could’ve brought it up years ago. I’d’ve owned up to it. I’d’ve apologized and helped her more if she needed help.”
“Ah,” she said, “but that’s what people like you miss. What happened to Liz wasn’t a one-time event. People like Liz live with the trauma—the memory—every day of their lives. She has post-traumatic stress. Attacks show up at the strangest times. She’ll pay forever for what you did.”
“So I have to too?” he asked.
“Shouldn’t you?” Tinsley asked.
He didn’t answer that. He knew what answer she wanted, and he wasn’t going to give it.
“What do you want?” he asked. “Me to leave the campaign?”
She smiled. She looked so sweet when she smiled. “You will, but not because I want it. Wait until your backers see that performance.”
“You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?” he asked.
“I probably will,” she said. “But I don’t know if Liz’s other friends will.”
“You committed arson,” he said.
“When?” she asked. “Your frat fire? I was in an entirely different town, taking an exam. With a hundred other witnesses. Really, Nico. You’re paranoid.”
“I can tie you to this now,” he said, feeling desperate, feeling angry. “I have the card. With your fingerprints.”
He held it up, expecting her to grab it.
“That business card?” she asked. “The one you dropped before the event? The one I picked up for you?”
His breath caught.
She patted his shoulder, the perfect example of a graceful winner to anyone watching from a distance. “Think it through, Nico. Who has the most resources here? And who is the most determined?”
He couldn’t think it through. Not even after she walked away, not after he stumbled into the men’s room and lost the steak dinner he’d consumed with his best backers before his woeful performance.
He’d reformed. Dammit. He’d been respectful and nice from that night on. He stopped drinking. He changed his attitude. He donated time and money to women’s causes, shelters, rape crisis centers.
He had daughters, for god’s sake.
He paid. He was paying.
And he paid some more.
Cold hard cash, to his fixers, his father’s fixers, detectives. Once Tinsley told him who FoL was, it was easy to find the other members. Only nothing tied them to any attacks. No money trail, no leaks on the arson, alibis everywhere.
Ten women, all with the same resources he had. With fixers of their own, people to hide the evidence, bury the past, sink anyone who got in their way.
Like he had.
He knew how the game was played.
From the other side.
Usually he stood with the winners.
Except when he faced off with the FoL.
Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Fiction River Special Edition: Crime, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, WMG Publishing, March, 2014
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2018 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Lassedesignen/Dreamstime