Desert Spring
Setting the scene

There’s a big business merger looming in small-town Dumont, and when Mark Manning arrives at his newspaper office on Tuesday morning, he finds the CEO of one of the merging companies waiting for him, along with the accountant who is performing due diligence. Some minor bookkeeping errors have been detected in the other company’s spreadsheets, but the deal seems to be on track. When the meeting ends, Manning soon becomes bored and eventually decides to step outside for a walk, taking advantage of the pleasant October weather. Along the way, he has a conversation with an old friend.

Excerpt from the text of Bitch Slap

       Tuesday had all the makings of a slow news day. It had peaked early, with the worrisome concerns expressed during Perry Schield and Tyler Pennell’s visit, but otherwise, I found little else to occupy my time or my mind as the hours slid noonward. Even the morning mail proved humdrum. After one too many strolls through the newsroom, having exhausted all reasonable options for chitchat, I could tell that the staff was beginning to feel pestered, wondering why I wasn’t huddled in an important meeting somewhere.
       So shortly after eleven, I decided to get some fresh air. I would walk the few blocks to Neil’s office, drop in unexpectedly, and pester him till it was time for us to move onward to lunch.
       Stepping to the desk in my inner office, I donned my jacket and checked my pockets for wallet, keys, pen, and notepad—an old habit, as an experienced reporter had no way of telling when a story might break. I also made sure that a pair of reading glasses was tucked in my breast pocket—a newer habit, one I had resisted, necessitated by the first ravages of middle age. And finally, I plucked a phone from its charger on the desk and slipped it into a side pocket of my coat—a brand-new habit that still made me uncomfortable.
       I hate cell phones. Once the cutting-edge technology of heart surgeons and others who might legitimately be interrupted at dinner on a matter of life or death, these intrusive gadgets have become so ubiquitous that most adolescents now carry them—and use them—to the constant annoyance of society at large. I had once thought that the mark of true success was to be disconnected. I reasoned that if I was important enough, and if someone needed to reach me, that was his problem, not mine. Now, apparently, I needed to keep myself at the disposal of anyone with the whim to dial my number.
       It was Lucy who finally convinced me that my reticence to carry a phone was stodgy and contrarian. Journalism, she lectured, was an increasingly electronic medium; lost minutes could mean missed deadlines. She needed me, the Register needed me, twenty-four-seven. So a week ago, against my better instincts, I told her to get me a phone—with the strict caveat that only she would know the number, a condition to which she readily agreed. (Naturally, I shared the number with Neil, but only after securing his promise never to use it.)
       As of that Tuesday morning, the gizmo had never once rung. On the one hand, I found its silence a matter of great relief; my fears had been unfounded. On the other hand, I had begun to suspect that the phone simply didn’t work, so out of sheer curiosity, before leaving my office, I flipped it open and decided to check the local weather number. It was then that I discovered that the timing of two recent incursions into my life had proved ironically propitious—in my pocket I had glasses at the ready, which I needed in order to read the damn buttons on the phone.
       Learning that the afternoon would remain cool but sunny, I decided there was no need for the trench coat I kept at the office, so I pocketed the phone, pocketed the glasses, and headed out, crossing the newsroom, descending the stairs, waving to Connie, and emerging through the glass doors onto the street.
       First Avenue was quiet; sleepy little Dumont’s noon “rush” was some forty minutes off. There was a snap to my step as I ambled along the sidewalk, peering into shop windows as if they might contain something new. At the corner, I waited for the light to turn, even though there wasn’t a moving car in sight. Then, crossing the street, I began to whistle some unnameable tune. Feeling suddenly foolish, I laughed at myself, enjoying the bright fall day. As I headed toward Neil’s office, my pace quickened in anticipation of seeing him.
       And the phone began to warble.
       Good Lord, I thought, had some catastrophe befallen the world? Was Lucy running wild through the newsroom, shrieking to stop the presses, trying desperately to reach me?
       I turned on my heel to head back to the paper, then realized the phone was still ringing and decided I’d better answer it. Stepping beneath the awning of a dark corner tavern, I extracted the phone from my pocket, flipped it open, and fumbled with the buttons. Squinting, I couldn’t quite read them, but the green one seemed a reasonable choice, so I punched it. Lifting the phone to my face, I asked uncertainly, “Yes?”
       “Uh . . . Mark?”
       “Yes, Lucy.”
       “Lucy? It’s Roxanne. What’s wrong, Mark? You sound weird.”
       Sounding more perturbed than weird, I asked bluntly, “How on earth did you get this number?”
       “I called you at the paper, and the receptionist said you’d stepped out. So she suggested I try your new cell phone. Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mark.”
       I muttered, “More like, welcome to hell . . .”
       “Awww. Rough day, sweetcakes?”
       Allowing a laugh, I conceded, “Not really. It’s been a slow day.”
       “Then I’m not interrupting. Got a minute?”
       “Sure, Rox. For you, anytime.” If we were going to talk awhile, I didn’t care to loiter in the tavern’s shadow, so I crossed First Avenue toward a little park, a patch of green that marked the center of town. A rusty cannon roosted on a chunk of granite with a plaque displaying rows of names etched in bronze. A green-enameled park bench, not unlike the one where I had perched in my dream earlier that morning, sat nearby, affording a partial view of the street, truncated by the cannon’s snout. I settled on the bench, alone in this bellicose Eden.
       “. . . ever since the election,” Roxanne was saying.
She was referring to the election of the previous fall, in which her husband, Carl Creighton, had lost his bid to become lieutenant governor of Illinois. They had since resumed their careers as high-power attorneys in Chicago.
       “How’s Carl taking it?” I asked.
       “The loss? He’s fine. You know Carl—unflappable as they come. Besides, it wasn’t political ambition that motivated him to run. It was his sense of public duty. A lot of people thought he was right for the job.”
       I hesitated. “And you?”
       “What about me?” As she said the words, I visualized her smirk. “Did I think Carl was right for the job? Of course I—”
       “I meant, how have you been handling the disappointment of last November?”
       “Christ, Mark, that was a year ago. I’m a big girl—and a city girl. Springfield just isn’t ‘my kind of town.’”
       Roxanne and I were old friends; in fact, she had introduced me to Neil. She and I spoke often, but the opportunity had never seemed right for a heart-to-heart regarding the impact of the lost election on her emotions. I’d been reluctant to ask about it because I’d assumed I wouldn’t get a straight answer.
       I reminded her, “You were getting into it, the whirl of the campaign. Don’t try to pretend you didn’t find a certain allure in the prospect of becoming the lieutenant governor’s wife.”
       “Why do you think I married him?” she quipped.
       Given the timing of their marriage mere weeks before the election, anyone who didn’t know her as well as I did might have judged her decision to wed, after several years of foot-dragging, as patently opportunistic. “Nonsense,” I told her. “You love Carl for all the right reasons. Rox, you’ve got a life now.”
       “I’d be insulted if you weren’t so insightful. It’s true—he fills a void.” Her tone was so blasé, anyone eavesdropping would have thought that Carl merely amused her, or gave a good back rub, or helped with a few household chores. But I knew their love to be deep and genuine. Though Roxanne still clung to her veneer of wisecracking ennui, she was, inside, a changed woman. And the changes, I happily observed, were all for the better.
       With quiet sincerity, I told her, “We miss you up here.”
       “I miss you guys, too. Sorry the visits have tapered off.”
       “Nothing planned? The guest room’s always ready for you.”
       “No, ’fraid not. As you’ve already noted, I’ve got a life now.”
       I laughed. “And Chicago offers a few more social diversions than Dumont. You don’t need to drive four hours to find fun with friends.”
       “To each his own. Dumont seems to work for you.”
       “We weren’t talking about me.”
       “I certainly didn’t intend to talk about me. I called you, remember.”
“Okay, Roxanne”—I crossed my legs, lounging lazily on the bench—“what can I do for you?”
       “Well,” she waffled, groping for a topic to justify her call, “I was wondering how the plans for the big merger are proceeding. Everything on track?”
       “Hope so. Tyler Pennell says he came across some wrinkle in the Ashton Mills books, but it’s probably nothing. When it comes to the numbers, that company is no slouch.”
       “So I’ve seen.” Roxanne had been involved in some early discussions that were held when both companies were sniffing each other like nosy, horny dogs. It was largely on the basis of her blessing that I had subsequently championed the merger to both boards.
       “I suggested that Tyler should voice his concerns directly to Gillian Reece.”
       “Miss Congeniality?” asked Roxanne through a low chortle.
       “She’s an accounting wiz as well as a first-class administrator.” While singing these praises to Roxanne, I noticed, out on First Avenue, Gillian’s husband, Esmond Reece, parking at the curb. He got out of his car, locked it, and strode away with purpose, heading up the sidewalk in the same direction I had been walking when my phone had rung. I told Roxanne, “If Tyler has questions, I’m sure Gillian has answers.”
       “I’m sure.” Roxanne was a true master at infusing agreement with cynicism.
       “Don’t be so hard on her. I thought you admired strong women.”
       “Oh, I admire her,” Roxanne told me. “I just don’t much like her.”
       Fair enough, I thought.
       “By the way, how goes construction of the mansion? Have they installed milady’s drawbridge yet? Have they filled the moat?”
       “Neil is hard at work wrapping up the project. I think they’re basically down to decorating. I get the grand tour this afternoon.”
       “Don’t make me jealous, Mark. I’m apt to slash my wrists.”
       “Well, I have been eager to see the place. Neil’s proud of it.”
“Of course he is.” No cynicism colored these words. Roxanne loved Neil as much as I did (but that’s another story). “Gillian is lucky to have someone of Neil’s talents available right there in Dumont.”
       “Neil is lucky to have such an extravagant client—nothing but the best. They’re bringing up some hot-shot curtain guy from Chicago.”
       “Todd Draper?”
       “You’ve heard of him?”
       “And you call yourself a journalist. Where have you been, Mark, under a rock?”
       “Well, I . . . uh . . .”
       Roxanne laughed with delight. “Just kidding, precious. I wouldn’t have known Todd Draper from Adam, but Neil used him for the rebuild of our condo.” After Carl had lost the election, he and Roxanne decided to nurse the wound of defeat by splurging on a complete redo of their high-rise apartment in Chicago, gutting it to the girders. They turned to Neil for the overall design, and he, in turn, chose the various decorating contractors.
       “Hngh,” I said, impressed, “it sounds as if this Draper guy really is good.”
       “Not only that . . .” Roxanne paused enticingly before telling me, “Todd Draper is quite the dish.”
       “Mm-hmm,” she purred.
       “He’s driving up tonight—staying at our place.”
       “My, my, my. Isn’t that a promising setup? Now, you must promise me, Mark—no sneaking into his room tomorrow to roll in his dirty sheets. Don’t embarrass yourself.”
       “My God, you have a lurid mind.”
       “Don’t I, though?”

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