When a journalist anoints herself Robespierre with a guillotine, it's off with their heads for two of Senator Leland's fellow conservatives.
The sun-splashed Trout River was as beautiful as George Leland had ever seen it in forty summers of coming here. He watched as a speck on the western horizon glided closer and lower, slowing as it approached, soaring in a lazy half-circle to land atop a dead tree on the opposite bank a hundred yards upstream.
It was the bald eagle a park ranger had told them about yesterday when he and his son and grandson were making camp. Would it stay put long enough for him to snap a picture? George ducked into the tent and found his phone in a duffel.
Family rules called for checking messages no more than once a day when out in the woods, but as he was sighting on the bird, a text marked Urgent caught his eye. “Jill needs you ASAP,” his wife had written. “Awful story in Herald.”
Leland slapped the phone against his thigh and swore in disgust. Not something he’d want the boy to hear, but Lee and his dad Marc were off on a morning hike up Cemetery Ridge.
What was Hamilton’s last surviving daily paper, reliable mouthpiece of liberals and the Service Party, alleging about the Senate minority caucus and the Covenant Party this time, he wondered. “This better not cut our trip short,” George thought foully, cursing aloud again.
Two hours later they were in Senator Leland’s pickup, headed back to the city. Ten-year-old Lee was in the back seat, headphones on, watching “Nacho Libre” for the eighth time. Marc was telling George to stop kicking himself for not having driven down in two cars; going home early was okay, the river would still be there a month from now.
What George had learned from Dr. Jill Green, his closest conservative ally in the state Senate, after climbing a half-mile up the ridge trail to get a cell signal, was that the Capitol media were on fire with allegations of misconduct in Green’s family counseling practice that could destroy her professionally and politically.
The match that touched it off was apparently struck by Hamilton Herald gossip columnist Lisa Kilgore, Jill said just before the call dropped. The last thing George heard was, “I need you, Rev. It’s getting worse by the hour.”
Coming in from the south, afternoon traffic wasn’t bad on this Friday in August. Dropping the guys off at Marc’s house a mile from his own, Leland laughed at the gentle jab from Lee: “So, Grampa, I guess that 14-inch rainbow trout is safe for another few weeks, huh?”
“I’ll catch him for you next time, Leebo,” he said, winking. It pleased George that the boy was learning to tease like a Leland with the best of them. Take life seriously, take right and wrong seriously, but take yourself with a smile, his own grandfather had taught him long ago.
Hence his dubbing Jill Green as “Doc” when they were Senate freshmen together in 2015. Hence her naming him “Rev” in return, a nod to his previous life as a pastor.
But the Doc’s situation right now was as serious as a heart attack, Leland reflected as he pulled out of the subdivision. Politics had always been a blood sport – ask the Caesars – but politics in the age of saturation media was now bloody beyond belief. Sure, Green had the truth on her side, but much good might it do her against Lisa’s high-tech lies.
His phone chimed with yet another text, this one from Covenant minority leader Tom Wilson: “Someone should kill that goddam Kilgore, George. Call me soonest, okay?”
The light changed, the car behind him honked, and he dictated a hasty reply: “Cool the threats. Remember everything is discoverable. Talk later.”
Starting when their kids were teenagers, and now continuing in their empty-nest years, summer evenings at the Lelands’ big house in West Hamilton often featured what Fran called her 3P supper – pizza and Pepsis on the patio.
Especially tonight, with the good senator not having been expected home till Sunday and with last-minute guests, that was the menu to go with.
The Domino’s guy rang the bell at 6:55 and the others at 7:00 – senators Jill Green, Tom Wilson, and Mary Jo Miller, along with Leland’s aide, still in college but battle-tested, Mike Loomis.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” was Fran’s quick grace as the six held hands in a circle. George, while driving back from the woods, had directed Mike to pull together a situation report and document dump. The pizza was passed and the aide began giving that.
Everything pivoted on a short but sensational item from the previous day’s Kilgore Kolumn, posted online at 8:00 pm Thursday and hitting print at 4:00 am Friday. Mike looked down at the printout, up at Jill, and froze. “You, um, you’ve all seen this.”
“Go ahead, son, read it out,” Green said quietly. He began in a shaky voice:
Licensure lifted? Expulsion from office? Criminal charges? Speculation is rife under the Capitol dome as hints have surfaced of an improper relationship between state Sen. Jill Green (C-Waterville) and the teenage son of another senator, whose name is withheld as a minor.
Sexually explicit text messages are said to have flown between them after the boy was seen as a patient in Green’s family counseling practice.
We were unable to reach the senator for comment. She was elected in 2014 as an outspoken Christian conservative and leads a controversial weekly Bible study for fellow legislators.
Minority Leader Tom Wilson broke the silence: “How low can they go, for God’s sake? Twenty-two hours and counting, nonstop, Twitter, Facebook, TV, talk radio. Pound, pound, pound it in.
“I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Fran, it’s my son Ryan they’re talking about. His name is out there, of course, never mind Kilgore’s sanctimonious crap about protecting a minor. Protect their own ass – excuse me, ladies – protect their scorched-earth, character-assassinating, progressive jihad agenda, and the rest of the world be damned.
“The truth be damned. Human decency be damned. My boy. My innocent, vulnerable boy. Smeared. Shattered. I’m telling you, George, someone will pay for this. Someone--” The big man bent forward and put his head in his hands.
Jill Green, sitting next to Wilson, touched his shoulder for a moment and said almost in a whisper, “They won’t win, Tom. We’ll solve this. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll see Ryan’s name cleared.”
Then she looked around the table, squared her shoulders, set her jaw, and spoke with icy calm: “I hope I don’t need to tell the four of you – the five of you – there were never any such text messages. Never. Not a one. Three or four brief exchanges about his appointment times. Nothing else.
“A sensitive kid, barely 16, depressed over his best friend’s suicide, coming in for counseling with a colleague of his dad’s. And they do this to him, just to get at me? And through me, get at Trump? What scum.”
Mary Jo Miller, one of the state’s leading trial lawyers, still in her first year as a senator, swatted away a mosquito and got to her feet with evident agitation. She motioned to Fran to turn off the little garden fountain a few feet away. “Sorry, distracting me for some reason,” she said.
“Look, George, thanks for having us. You were away, these two are personally under siege, so maybe I have the best perspective at this point. I’d love to sue them bankrupt, the Herald in general and Kilgore in particular, but libel law doesn’t work that way.
“Tom’s boy hasn’t been named, and Jill is a public figure, pretty much fair game, all the more so for having supported Trump last year. I’m afraid Lisa and her miserable leftist rag are judgment-proof.
“We have to find some other route to a retraction. Some kind of counter-threat. Or maybe moral suasion, if that’s not a contradiction in terms for these vermin.
“Lisa’s dirty innuendo and the firestorm around it are obviously the fakest kind of fake news. Yet she must be basing it on something. How do we track it back and begin to stamp it out? Tom, Jill, I’m so sorry. I wish I saw the answer.”
The quiet was funereal. George Leland tapped his fingers softly on the table, three times three. “MJ, I think it’s what you said. Moral suasion. Appeal to Lisa Kilgore’s conscience. And her editor, Scott James. He’s got a soul. We worship together, believe it or not. Moral suasion is worth a try.”
The Hamilton Herald had recently sold off its iconic Greek Revival building on River Boulevard and moved into the second floor of a former department store off Broadway, one digitally- decimated industry cannibalizing another.
Neither Senator Leland nor Senator Miller had visited the new offices before. George raised his eyebrows at Mary Jo as they waited with two other visitors in the dingy elevator lobby. How the mighty have fallen, he thought.
Upstairs, Scott James, dressed down for Saturday, beer gut filling out his golf shirt, showed them to a windowless conference room where Lisa Kilgore sat scanning her phone.
Her attractive features, impeccably made up, broke into a dazzling smile. She rose and shook hands, first MJ, then Leland. “Senators, good morning. Everything good in your world? Making America great day by day, are we?”
Mary Jo Miller, grim-faced behind rimless glasses, took the lead. “Things are not good when your paper uses its ink barrel to defame people with baseless rumors, Ms. Kilgore, Mr. James. We appreciate the meeting, but we don’t appreciate the gutter journalism. What in hell do you think you’re doing?”
The columnist started to reply, but the editor stopped her with a gesture and said mildly, “Just informing the public, Senator. It’s all we ever do. Just standing on the First Amendment.”
“As is your right, Scott,” conceded Leland. “But remember, you and I were raised on commandments, not just amendments.”
“Seems to me the Golden Rule still counts for something,” Miller put in. “Suppose it was your teenage son caught up in something like this, Lisa.”
“We’re not naming the Wilson boy,” Kilgore spat.
“You named him just this minute, in front of three witnesses,” Miller shot back. “Has it become total war, left versus right, no quarter, no mercy?”
“It has at the legislature, Mary Jo,” Scott James said. “Covenant Party versus Service Party, knives out, all partisan all the time.”
Leland raised his voice a notch. “Actually not quite, friends. Would it surprise you to know that Service Party leaders Bill Martin and Linda Maldonado both called Senator Green and Senator Wilson last night to express their sympathy and support? This has gone too far.”
“No, what’s gone too far is a xenophobic, racist mass movement putting a crypto-Nazi in the White House with his finger on the nuclear button.” Lisa Kilgore’s smirk was now a sneer.
“The old rules no longer apply, golden or otherwise. It’s a new day in our country, a dark day. The Jill Greens of this world, political battered wives enabling the alt-right, have to be stopped.”
Scott James was looking down at his shoes. Mary Jo Miller took off her glasses and ran a hand through her close-cropped gray hair. “Down, girl. Take a breath. There’s an answer. We’ll find it. Don’t give Scott a coronary.”
“Look, everyone, I need a bathroom break,” George Leland said, forcing a weak smile. “In the chamber we have something called a ‘senatorial five,’ essentially a timeout to regroup. Can we take one now, clear our heads, and try to resume in a few minutes?”
The stuffy room emptied quickly. Rancor and relief hung in the air. They never reconvened. The embarrassed editor sent his overwrought columnist home, pulled the senators into his cluttered little office overlooking a dumpster, and closed the door.
“I apologize for that outburst,” he began. “She gets that way. Unprofessional as hell. But the publisher lets her stay. The Kilgore Kolumn drives circulation. What can I say?”
Mary Jo wasn’t buying it. “So that excuses her from sourcing a defamatory story? You just let her run wild? I’ve tried a lot of cases, Mr. James. There’s something else going on here.”
“It was sourced from social media. She said it was solid. Maybe I should have pushed back. Jill Green didn’t return her calls.”
“Scott, my friend, that part is a flat lie,” George objected. “There were no calls. Lisa faked that.”
Mary Jo pressed in. “I have to ask again. What aren’t you telling us?”
His face was agonized. “Attorney-client?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, not this time. But confidential to the death, word of honor.”
“It never leaves this room,” George confirmed.
The editor swiveled in his chair, pushed the window open, and lit a cigarette. “Just a couple drags,” he apologized. “Gotta have it. I hate this."
He stubbed out the butt in an ancient ashtray and exhaled for a long few seconds. “I’m boxed in, George. You and Fran have known Gail and me for what, ten years? Her heart would break if Kilgore ever told on me. Damn broad saw a call girl coming out of my hotel room at a convention last year. I’m checkmated. Kilgore essentially owns me.”
“How awful,” Senator Miller said
“How awful,” Senator Leland echoed.
Walking to their cars, George and MJ distilled the morning to three takeaways. One, this was even more of a soap opera than they had bargained for. Two, they were no closer to solving Jill Green’s problem. And three, if the fake-news hit job had originated on social media – where else – better get a millennial involved.
So Leland would call Mike Loomis as he drove home and have him start sweeping Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, all of them, for some kind of thread.
Next he’d return a call to Dr. Jill, who was afraid young Ryan Wilson could turn suicidal. And one to the chronically nervous state party chairman, Ed Barrett, who wanted to cut Senator Green loose. And one to his pastor, Bret Sandberg, who was offering to start a prayer chain.
Wow, thought George, do we ever need that.
By four o’clock the aide was back on the Lelands’ patio, papers spilling out of his backpack, flushed with the excitement of the chase. He laid five printed screenshots on the table, overlapped like a poker hand. George had asked Fran, his political alter ego, to join them. “Okay, boss,” Mike said, “here’s how I think it went down.”
Exhibit A was a tweet from @SocialJusticeWarrior, dated four days ago:
Betcha #SenJillGreen dreams of doing the dirty with Bad Daddy Trump. She reminds me of that cougar HS teacher who seduced 3 boys last year.
To this, @FightFascism had replied within the hour:
Yeah, written all over her. That was in Waterville where Jill lives. You don’t suppose some of those hunky boys she “counsels” are FB’s?
And one more tweet the same afternoon, this one from @BernBabyBern:
Another senator’s son is seeing her. Wilson, I think. Maybe for “initiation”? Sexting tripped up that teacher. Cops should look in Jill’s phone.
George could see the chain reaction starting to spiral, speculation rising toward accusation with each reckless keystroke. Mike’s next find was a Facebook post a day later from someone called Nikki Haynes:
Is it just me, or does Jill Green, the state senator and Trump shill, look like sisters with Barb Terry, that teacher at Waterville High who got caught sexting with the quarterback?
Twitterverse has noticed Green has some teen guys as therapy patients. Wonder what goes on in those sessions. Inquiring minds want to know.
Below were side-by-side photos of the legislator and the teacher, 40-ish brunettes with similar hairdos.
“Sisters, my foot,” Fran said. “That’s a reach – and totally irrelevant anyway.”
“Cyberspace is a sewer,” her husband sighed.
“This one is where it all blends,” said Mike Loomis, pushing a fifth screenshot across to them. It was another Facebook post from someone calling himself Robespierre.
They had dug up an apparently genuine picture of Jill in a bikini top, holding an umbrella drink. The post read:
Trump looks guiltier and guiltier in the Russian scandal, but we need our own Robert Mueller to investigate the bad smell around Trump’s biggest booster in the state, Dr. Jill Green.
The right-wing senator does “family counseling” when she’s not harassing immigrants, and rumor has it her phone records are being scrutinized for steamy text traffic with a 16-year-old patient, Ryan Wilson. @KilgoreKolumn should look into this. Your move, Lisa.
“Wild, huh?” Mike commented. “It’s like Telephone, that circle game my parents used to make us play. Something plain and simple gets tangled and twisted beyond recognition when it passes through a few people.”
“Especially when there are malicious motives, and a willingness to believe the worst,” George agreed.
“But won’t the Herald have to retract if you take this to the editor and show him how Kilgore had nothing to go on except sick political porn from the Web?”
Fran Leland shook her head sadly and said nothing. The senator sighed again and put his arm around the aide. “I wish it was that easy, Mike. Your great detective work ought to to be the solution, and Scott James should be part of that solution. Unfortunately, he’s part of the problem.”
Leland was withdrawn and irritable at dinner, and he was irritated with himself for being that way. The bleak mood fed on itself. He felt, in his own way, as checkmated as the editor was.
Jill and Ryan were all but cleared. Yet they wouldn’t be cleared unless Lisa Kilgore had a change of heart – and nothing in her tantrum that morning furnished any grounds for hope.
George whiled away the evening with a Red Sox-Yankees game on cable, and he was about to turn in when the phone rang. It was Bret Sandberg, the young pastor who had succeeded him at St. Barnabas after the 2014 election.
“I was praying about this attack on Jill Green, and I got a lightning bolt from the Lord.”
“A lightning bolt?”
“Well, that or a lightning bug. We’ll see. But I wanted to get your permission before I moved.”
“I read the Kilgore Kolumn fairly often, sort of as penance, and I’ve seen her mention attending All Souls Catholic Church in East Hamilton. Who would have guessed, right? She definitely puts the ‘all’ in All Souls.
“Anyway, I’ve met the priest over there, Father Dominic Dezzutti, through the ministerial alliance. Why don’t I call him for some intel on Lisa? Can’t hurt.”
“Bret, my brother, that’s inspired. Father Dom is an institution, the heartbeat of East Hamilton. See what he says, absolutely. Maybe he’s our key.”
Sunday afternoon found the pastor and the senator sitting in a back pew at the century-old, red brick All Souls Church in the city’s poorest neighborhood as a steady rain fell outside.
Father Dominic had been instantly responsive when Bret Sandberg reached him early that morning. He voiced his disgust with the Green-Wilson innuendoes and suggested Sandberg and Leland attend his 4:30 mass, where Lisa was usually present.
There she was now, several rows ahead of them, conspicuous among the 50 modest worshipers with her Burberry coat and expensively coiffed black mane. The Protestant visitors hadn’t yet come to her notice.
In making the invitation, the tough old priest had told Bret he was confident his parishioner could be brought around to “smoke the peace pipe” with them. “I’ve mediated between Latino gangs,” he said. “Hell, I faced the police dogs at Selma.
“How does that Scripture go? ‘Gideon and the sword of the Lord’? You and your man come on over. We’ll handle this.”
As soon as George was looped into the plan, he called Jill Green and caught her up. She had looked through Mike’s social media dossier, which she said buoyed her, but had slept poorly thinking about Lisa’s rant at the Herald meeting.
“If she relents, great,” Jill had concluded. “If she doesn’t, I’m prepared for that too. I’ll get through this either way. And we’ll get Ryan through. The truth frees us, right? And that’s truth from God, not from some hack reporter.”’
The service ended and the sanctuary emptied. George felt his adrenaline kick in; he wished he had Jill’s steely nerves. Dominic Dezzutti was as affable as a Disney guide, gathering up his three guests and escorting them to his study, musty with pipe smoke and incense. Lisa Kilgore, affecting boredom, jibed as they all found seats, “So, Father, I guess journalists aren’t the only ones who do ambushes.”
The priest mumbled a brief prayer that Leland couldn’t follow, except for some Latin at the end: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sanctu.” He thanked everyone for going out of their comfort zone to be here, then faced Lisa.
“My child, our guests feel you and the Herald are harming innocent people. They approached me to tell them why. I cannot. Can you?"
“Father, respectfully, my paper has one job every day: speaking truth to power. I thank God for the opportunity to be a small part of that. Any discomfort that Senator Green or Senator Wilson or Senator Leland may experience as a result is not my problem. It’s the business we’re in, Pastor Sandberg: afflicting the comfortable.”
“Ms. Kilgore, the senators have shown me the Twitter and Facebook garbage on which you based this devastating false charge against Dr. Green, someone who has knelt and prayed with me,” Bret replied evenly. “Is that the business you’re in?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but Jill Green has it coming. And if the Wilson boy is collateral damage, so be it. Most of those jocks are rapists in waiting anyway. Retribution to the wicked, pastor. Open any page of the Old Testament.”
“And the New Testament, child?” Leland could see Dezzutti’s patience fraying. This was no Bing Crosby movie priest.
“We’ve had that discussion, Dom,” Lisa shot back. “The New Testament is history written by the victors. Men in collars keeping women down, twenty centuries and counting. I love the Eucharist, I love Mother Church, but that doesn’t mean I have to love all this other BS.”
“How about loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, loving the children as Christ commanded?” Leland broke in. “Could you really look Ryan Wilson’s mom and dad in the eye after the hell you’ve caused that family?”
The priest stood, took off his jacket, and turned up the window air conditioner. “Hottest it’s been at All Souls since Cesar Chavez preached here in the ‘70s,” he quipped.
The columnist brushed the hair off her forehead and dug her fists into both eyes, trying to drain off some the tension she had been concealing until a moment ago. She pursed air out through her lips in a soundless whistle.
“Let me answer that in a different way, George. While you politicos and clergymen were buzzing the phones yesterday, I made an important call of my own. I reached Scott James out on the golf course mid-afternoon. I wanted to make sure our little bargain about last year’s convention was solid. He told me no, it’s not.
“Turns out Scott had sat down and confessed everything to Gail himself just an hour before that. So nothing I might tell her would matter any more. Good for the soul, right, Father? New ballgame.”
Leland recalled Sandberg’s half-joking words from last night, “a lightning bolt from God.” Here was a wrinkle he hadn’t foreseen. No checkmate after all.
“Lisa, I’m glad to hear that, though you probably aren’t. So tomorrow I take Jill and Tom and the social media dossier and we go see Scott. Then what happens?”
Kilgore shrugged. Something in her body language said she would walk out of church today a freer woman than she had walked in. “Anybody’s guess. We talked through it a little. He could fire me, but he probably won’t. I could retract, but I probably won’t.
“Scott will put Blake Peters and a whole team on establishing the fakeness of my story. I will drop the sexting thing but stay after Green and all you Covenant Party SOB’s on every issue I can find or the Resistance can bring me. Full-on jihad, George. But understand, nothing personal.”
“So you apologize?” Bret Sandberg pressed.
“I do not. No, sir. Apology not offered. Forget it. Maybe you three gentlemen do happy endings, but in my business we don’t. We do cold reality. I’m giving you something a little less cold than we started with. Take it and run.”
Father Dominic leaned across the desk and frowned at her. “But Lisa dear, the Wilson boy. Depressed. Devastated. I’m told potentially suicidal. No apology there either? Young woman, that’s monstrous.”
On the battered sofa in the crowded study, George Leland suddenly felt he might throw up. His emotions were a maelstrom. Jumbled relief and anger at this amoral endgame. Dread and sadness at the condition of his country. Giddy haste to reach the Greens and Wilsons. Stolid resolve for the hard grind still ahead of them to work through all this.
He didn’t want to bolt but had no stomach for more. “Father, you have been so kind. I must excuse myself now to go and call Jill. Good afternoon.”
The senator and his pastor left, no word to the columnist, not even a glance at her. As the door closed behind them, she found her voice, a meeker one than the priest had ever heard Kilgore use in a dozen years’ acquaintance:
“Father Dom, you’re right. That’s not who I want to be. That kid doesn’t belong in the line of fire. I’ll make it right with him and his parents, not sure how. Can I sleep on it and see you tomorrow?”
Was it resentment in her eyes, or pain? Grief? Remorse? The priest, expert in reading faces, couldn’t quite read this one. He placed both his hands on top of Lisa’s and said, “Of course you can, my child. Nine in the morning, right after the early mass. Right here.”
This is the fourth story in the Senator Leland series.