Read Miranda's War Online

Authors: Howard; Foster

Miranda's War (4 page)

“Jenny doesn't think like him,” Miranda said, referring to Archer's sister in Connecticut.

“No, but her husband is much less interesting than you. Now, help me with this painting,” she said to Miranda after placing the little bird back in its cage. Rebecca pointed to a huge impressionist painting in a gold-leaf frame over a chintz-covered couch. “What are you doing with it?”

“Selling it for whatever my picker can fetch.”

“Why?”

“Can't stand to look at it. What other reason could there be?”

“I want you to come to the Commission meeting on Monday night.”

“So I can tell them they're being pansies in person?”

“No, to watch. I want to know what you think of my performance up there. And if you think I'm going too far, give me a signal.”

Chapter Five

Rebecca was there, sitting in the front row of the Commission room with a hat, her wristwatches, a smartphone and accompanied by two friends who lived in Lincoln. Then there was Archer, and seated beyond him, Professor Blair Hull, a Harvard sociologist, the owner of the peace sign barn, wearing a tweed sports coat and gray slacks, and his wife. He fixed his gaze at Miranda and studied her face. She made small talk—a difficult task—with Nathan Griswold while they waited for Karl to arrive and begin. At 7:00 Karl took his seat and announced they were in session. The agenda, as everyone knew, consisted of several minor items, which were dispensed with in minutes. Then there was “the suggestion of Commissioner Dalton that the property at 101 Trapelo Road, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Blair Hull, is in violation of section 41(A) of the Zoning Ordinance.”

Karl recognized Professor Hull. He walked from his seat to a microphone and only then focused on Karl.

“Commissioners, our barn is a landmark in this town. It was painted in 1967, and we're the fourth owners since then. Each owner has carefully preserved it and respected the town's ordinance. As far as we knew, it was in compliance when we bought it eleven years ago. Commissioner Dalton says it's two shades off the color chart. She may be right, but the shades of green were chosen to blend in with the landscape. If you order us to change the color, we'll repaint it. It will cost us $6,000 and nobody will notice a difference. But I respectfully suggest this isn't about the color of our barn. Mrs. Dalton has a political motive here. Because she seems so concerned about my politics, I have looked into hers. She's a registered Republican. She gave money to Mitt Romney's campaign and George W. Bush.”

“Alright, Professor Hull,” Karl said, “we don't question each other's motives here. I assume the good faith of everyone who appears before us, unless there is some reason not to, and that's not a reason to doubt the Commissioner's motive. Am I right?”

He looked over at her sternly and the room stopped. She decided to double down, showing her unflappability under fire—the most important lesson General George Patton said one had to have in battle.

“Absolutely, Mr. Chairman. I noticed the barn because we all notice it. It demands attention. And my eye is trained to these things, the color code, diseased trees, an empty flowerpot at the center of town. I have no idea what Professor Hull's political affiliation is. If he owns that barn, he is subject to the Zoning Ordinance.”

It was a whopper, but she pulled it off with distinction. Rebecca was impressed. She nodded and gave a thumbs-up. And Karl believed it.

“Alright, Mr. Hull,” he said, “do you have anything else to say in your defense?”

“No, sir.”

But Hull was not convinced of Miranda's good faith. He stared at her with utter contempt.

Karl declared the debate over and asked for the vote to be taken on whether to approve the issuance of a notice of intent to fine Mr. and Mrs. Blair Hull for their “willful violation of section 41(A) of the Zoning Ordinance,” quoting the wording from Miranda's proposal with emphasis on the word “willful” so as to highlight its adversarial tone.

He asked Julia, seated at the right end of the dais, for her vote.

“I have to say I was quite skeptical of this approach when I first heard it, and I've done a great deal of reading about the broken glass theory of policing and some other things Commissioner Dalton has brought to my attention. I don't agree with all of them. I don't see us losing control of our town. But I'm convinced we need to send a strong signal to the larger community, the developers, that we will enforce our code to the letter even if it means litigation. We haven't done that in a long time. So I will vote for the resolution, keeping in mind that this is one vote in one case and that my mind will always be open in future cases.”

Karl looked nervously at the other commissioners for any signs of solidarity. The next to vote, Henry Gerstenzang, an ally of Karl's, voted no. Karl passed, as was customary, and then it was up to sixty-year-old Nathan Griswold, a management consultant, who Miranda knew had spent time with Julia over the last week. And he too tentatively voted yes. Then Karl cast his no vote and reluctantly declared that the resolution of Commissioner Dalton had passed.

Karl stared at Archer, in a way he had not done with anyone else. Archer responded by closing his eyes and looking down.

“The Notice of Intent to Fine shall be issued forthwith,” he stated.

Professor Hull jumped up and went back to the microphone.

“I'm being singled out because of my viewpoint. We all know this wouldn't be happening if I had a plain green barn with no peace sign.”

“Professor Hull, you're not recognized,” said Karl.

“Is Commissioner Dalton going to be on Fox News tonight talking about how she took on the left in Lincoln?” he blurted anyway.

“Sit down, Professor,” Karl said sternly.

He turned around and slowly walked back to his seat.

“You have thirty days to rectify the color-code violation. And you have the right to take this up to the Zoning Board of Appeals, though since the violation is admitted, I don't see any real chance you will prevail. I suggest you consider your options with a lawyer before you do or say anything further.”

Miranda typed an email to the Fox News affiliate in Boston: “I am on the Conservation Commission in Lincoln and we just forced the owner of the famous peace sign barn to repaint it. I'm available for an interview.”

“We will,” said Professor Hull. He and his wife got up and left before the meeting was adjourned.

Miranda forced herself not to rejoice. She had won round one. They were all on their heels.

“Well, how about that?” she said to Rebecca as the meeting ended and people dispersed. “The smug professor loses his cool.”

“You were very commanding up there, but I want to speak to you alone.”

They walked over to the side of the room.

“Karl gave Archer a signal. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but there's something going on between those two.”

“What kind of a signal?”

“Very subtle stare when the vote was over. I was watching his face the entire time. I can tell these things. Karl looks directly into people's eyes from time to time. He's a very manipulative fellow, a control freak in today's vernacular.”

“Can you talk to Archer and find out what's going on?”

“I intend to—at the right time. Not now.”

Chapter Six

Stephen Rokeby returned to his listless campaign office after another day of speaking engagements. Today it was a Rotary luncheon followed by a Western Suburban Coalition of Finance Professionals and Women's Republican Club. Each day bled into the next like a summer in a Cape Cod beach town. It seemed to make absolutely no difference how many appearances he made, whether the audience was fifteen or fifty, or whether the handful of checks collected met the daily target of $10,000. His Congressional campaign was way behind in his polls, unfocused, and on a day like this, pointless. His primary opponent, state Sen. Ann Cronin-Reynolds, had jumped into the race a week after him and immediately taken the lead. She was a social liberal, attractive, articulate, represented a third of the Congressional district and had a celebrity lesbian daughter with a nationally syndicated radio talk show. He had been assured, inaccurately, that Cronin-Reynolds was not going to run when he made the decision to get into the race. His consultants told him the district was ready for a non-politician, someone completely unlike the disgraced Thomas Relihan, convicted of financial improprieties, who resigned after representing the district for twenty-one years. And when he announced his candidacy for the special election six weeks ago, it appeared being a venture capitalist with no political résumé but a semi-infamous father might just be the right formula. And though the Third District had not elected a Republican in eighteen years, it was possible.

It also delighted his father, Harold Rokeby, the former state Attorney General who had resigned under a cloud of suspicion after Stephen's mother died of an apparent suicide in 1989. Since then Harold lived a reclusive life in a decaying house in the North Shore town of Boxford near the much grander house where Stephen and his sisters were brought up. The only satisfaction in his life was vicarious as he watched his children marry and rack up accomplishments. But those occasions were occurring less and less. Now Stephen's older sister, Renee, was barely surviving as an emerging artist in New York. His younger sister, Claire, married five years ago and lived with her husband in a Western Massachusetts farmhouse with one child. Stephen, the closest to him, still had great potential.

Stephen never wanted to be in politics. He loved making money too much and was the mushiest sort of Republican who felt free to vote for or contribute to anyone he liked. But when Relihan was indicted, Harold convinced him he had a path to be a Congressman. It was an open seat and the public was sick of politicians. Someone like him, clean, fresh, non-ideological, could catch on. His consultants, who were paid handsomely to create winning candidacies out of egos, agreed. Supposedly, there were enough independents to make it happen for him.

He knew he'd made the mistake of his life within an hour. Someone asked what he wanted to do to raise middle-class wages, a subject he knew a great deal about but had to give a misleading answer, suggesting the government could raise wages by “enacting smarter tax policies.” When the potential voter followed up, he dug the hole deeper by saying taxes should “encourage investment in new capital.” Investment in new capital would actually create more employment and therefore lower wages, he later explained to his consultant. But the consultant told him to stick to the answer and stop elaborating. The campaign wasn't “the place for a discussion of economics.”

Then there was the constant asking for money, which his investment firm did day in and day out. But he had never asked for himself. And every time he did, he felt a tinge of guilt, knowing he was throwing good money into a sort of black hole that had none of the qualities he looked for in an investment. The prospects for a stable rate of growth were awful, there was an unknowable risk, he was not in control of the operation, and the message was muddled. Rokeby was supposedly a “fresh, clean alternative.” His name was still associated with his father, who was anything but, and he'd never run for office before, making him inexperienced rather than fresh. There was a huge difference.

His driver parked the Buick SUV, which he was obliged to lease and drive instead of his BMW, behind the campaign office in downtown Framingham. It was a stiflingly hot day and given the spike in commodities prices that morning, Stephen figured he could have made $35,000 in fees if he had been working.

“I've got that list of questions from the woman in Westborough,” he said, referring to someone he'd met earlier that day who had said she would “follow up” on their forty-five-second discussion about global warming. “Should I give it to one of the interns?” asked Justin, his twenty-year-old driver, holding up his smartphone. “We said we'd get back to her with the answer.”

“An intern?” Stephen wondered.

“Who else?”

“The research director, Stanley, right?”

“He'll just give it to them. They put something together, he reads it and sends it out.”

“Does he ever do his own work?”

Justin laughed.

They went into the campaign suite, four rooms filled with rented furniture and computers. It had an empty, impromptu air, as did the entire campaign. Every time he walked through and saw the blank walls, he felt a profound embarrassment. He was thirty-eight, married, well educated, a candidate for Congress and had nothing of consequence to say.

“Hey, how's it going, Mr. Rokeby?” asked the attractive intern from Wellesley, who flirted with him whenever she had the chance.

“Not bad for a Monday.”

“What's going on out there on the trail?”

“Global warming. Want to take a crack at putting together a ten-point plan for dealing with it?”

“Sure, we've got a statement on the site.”

“Too generic. People want specifics, and I want something very detailed. In case you haven't noticed, we're having a very hot summer.”

“I noticed. And I'll work on it.”

“Send me the draft and cc Stanly.”

His inbox had forty-eight emails, four from Diane Terrien, his reputedly brilliant campaign manager, all with disappointing news. His pregnant wife, Alicia, forwarded various blog posts about the campaign with snide comments about his strategy. “It's not coming together,” said Alicia. “The comments are so negative. Cronin-Reynolds has the party people. Who has Stephen got?”

Alicia wanted him to drop out. The fundraising numbers for the second quarter were looking disappointing. He would have to put in another $100,000 of his own dwindling money to meet the target by next week.

And then he saw in the email from his Lincoln town coordinator a story from page five of the
Middlesex News
, “Famous Lincoln Barn Cited by Commission.”

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