Drummond was up at dawn, his usual awakening time in the desert. From the front deck of the house, sipping coffee, he watched the sun rise over the San Bernadino Mountains, which formed the eastern boundary of the valley.
The house was spacious, two-bedrooms, single-storey, built almost entirely of glass to capture the views on all sides. There was a bedroom, unoccupied, at the rear of the attached double garage.
Eighteen months ago, Drummond had chosen the house for its comparative isolation. But gradually he had grown to appreciate not only its location but the house itself and the views it offered, and never more so than at this time of day.
Situated at the end of a minor, steeply-rising road, the house commanded a 180 degree panorama that encompassed almost the entire valley. To Drummond’s right, the view extended above and beyond the lush tree-tops of the Ironwood Country Club and the granite hills of the Living Desert Reserve to the distant reaches of the San Bernadino range. Ahead, Drummond looked down upon tree-lined avenues of Palm Desert; and to his left, he could follow the main artery, Highway One-Eleven, out of the valley, to Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and Palm Springs.
Even though most desert-dwellers were early risers, and he could see traffic movement along the distant One-Eleven, at this time of day Drummond felt he had the world to himself. At this modest altitude the air was cool and clear and clean, and, after the fog of Los Angeles, a joy to inhale.
Watching the blazing sun emerge from behind the San Bernadino peaks, savouring the air, Drummond was suffused with a heady awareness of the advent of a brand new day in these moments, and felt the stir of faith that on one such day he, too, would feel reborn, renewed, able to start again. It was a feeling he could never have experienced in Los Angeles, or in any city. The desert was magical.
At six o’clock he joined the modest traffic on the One-Eleven, also known as Palm Canyon Drive, and ran easily through elegant Rancho Mirage with its pristine country clubs and its cross-streets named to honour famous local residents – Bob Hope Drive; Frank Sinatra Drive; through less-exalted Cathedral City; then into the jewel itself, Palm Springs, and on into the desert, the immediate transition from emerald oasis to barren scrub never failing to astound Drummond.
Born in mountainous, fertile, arboreal Northern California, where the physiognomy of the land remained fairly constant, he had, since his first visit, remained amazed at the miraculous transformations that perpetually took place in the Valley.
Sumptuous housing developments, set in verdant, exotically landscaped golf courses, shot up overnight like mushrooms out of the raw, stone desert. It was possible to drive along a road and see a prestigious development of homes on one side, desert on the other, then to drive that road again a few weeks later and find the desert gone, replaced by a golfer’s paradise.
For Drummond, the Valley seemed vibrant with creative energy, yet it was not the frenzied, neurotic power that drove Los Angeles or New York. Here, perhaps because of the heat, activity seemed slower, yet things still got done. The Valley had a soul, and, gradually, Drummond was growing to feel part of it.
A few miles north of Palm Springs, the One-Eleven joined the Interstate Ten, the highway that stretched east across the continent to Florida, and would take Drummond west, almost to his front door in Malibu.
At this junction of the highways, the San Bernadino range pressed close to the San Jacinto Mountains, forming a gap that Drummond regarded as a psychological gateway to and from his California Shangri-La.
From this point on, all things were different. Here, suddenly, was the dirty, noisy, frenzied outside world. Traffic boomed along the I-10 with a manic urgency unheard of in the Valley, and Drummond had to quickly shift into mental high gear, accelerate hard, as a giant tractor-trailer bore down on him from the rear, air-horns blaring.
He smiled wryly to himself. How many times had he, on precisely this stretch of highway, questioned his sanity – and his motives – in returning to the city? But what transpired was always the same schizoid condition – half his mind telling him the sane thing to do was about-turn at the next exit and fly back to Shangr-La the other half compelling him towards Malibu.
His inability to decide and take action annoyed him, and yet he knew, professionally, that the dilemma was a common human condition. He recalled treating a teenage girl, the only child of divorced parents, who, torn between living either with her mother in San Francisco or her father in LA, was so stressed with indecision that she attempted suicide.
The facile solution was to share, but that, as he now knew from personal experience, was no answer at all. The girl, in a chronic state of stress, had told him, “When I’m there, I want to be here; and when I’m here, I want to be there. I just want to die.”
There were certain decisions in life that seemed impossible to make. His treatment for the girl was concentrated suggestion therapy for mental relaxation, and the advice: ‘Wait. Circumstances change. Life is constant change.’ In the girl’s case, she did not have to wait long. Her mother re-united with her father and moved back to Los Angeles. But the kicker was, within six months the girl fell in love and moved to Duluth with her boyfriend.
‘Wait. Circumstances change’ was advice Drummond had given himself many times in the past eighteen months, and he did so again now. Accelerating into the fast lane, he turned on the radio, found quiet, uninterrupted music, applied suggestion therapy for his own mental relaxation, and settled into the journey.
Moments later, into his reverie, passed a shadow of prescience that on this return to Los Angeles his circumstances would change. Wishful thinking? With a mental shrug, the shadow was gone.
Cruising, relaxed, cocooned by the music and the flow of traffic, Drummond glanced reflexively at the dashboard dials and saw he was low on gas. The Daimler was equipped with dual tanks. He pressed the switching mechanism, waited for the needle to rise, and groaned. The second tank was empty. Since moving to the Valley, where his mileage was minimal, he’d lost his LA habit of always ensuring the spare tank was full.
Moving to the inside lane, he took the exit ramp for Upland, turned right into the town and found an Exxon station almost immediately. He had filled the empty tank and was topping up the second when a voice behind him asked, “Sir . . . you heading for LA?”
Drummond turned, gave the young man a slow, thorough appraisal. The threat of hitchhiker robbery notwithstanding, Drummond liked to talk to these young people, usually found their histories interesting, invariably learned something from them, occasionally could offer help. This one, medium height, blonde curly hair, wearing glasses, clean jeans and a good black leather jacket, looked studious and okay. He met Drummond’s gaze with an understanding, whimsical grin and said, “I haven’t mugged anyone all day, honest.”
Drummond returned the grin. “Okay, you pay for the gas, I’ll take you in.” The kid winced at the pump tab. “Sir, if I had eighteen bucks, I’d have been on the bus yesterday.” Drummond sighed. “Why is it I never pick up rich hitch-hikers?” He crossed to the office, paid the bill, motioned the young man to get in as he returned.
“Paul Drummond,” he said, firing the engine.
“Alan Forrest. Thanks a million, I was getting desperate. Boy, would you listen to that engine. This is the first time I’ve been in a Jag.”
“Daimler, but close. Why desperate, Alan?”
“I’m heading back to UCLA. My aunt died in Phoenix, she brought me up. I’ve taken a week off for the funeral and sorting things out, and I’m missing lectures. Also I work nights off campus, in a hamburger joint, and I should’ve been back last night. I hope I’ve still got the job.”
“UCLA was my Alma Mater.”
“No kidding! What was your major?”
“Psychology. What’s yours?”
“Law – with Politics a close second.”
“What’s your ambition?”
Forrest gave his amiable grin and a shrug. “To be president.”
Drummond nodded. “Why not?”
There was silence while Drummond negotiated their entrance back onto the I-10, slipping skilfully into the stream of thundering trucks and out into the fast lane with a burst of acceleration that brought a gasp of admiration from Forrest.
“No doubt you’re studying the current dogfight very intently?”
“The campaign? Yes, sir.”
They were referring to the presidential election, to the increasingly vociferous contest that was developing between the candidates – Democrat Senator Milton Byrne and Republican Jack Crane, Governor of California.
With only four weeks to go before the general election, the race was building into a knock-down, drag-out battle, the tactics of which were becoming increasingly questionable, and were even beginning to capture the attention of the politically indifferent public.
“Yes, sir,” Forrest repeated, thoughtfully. “That guy Crane – he’s something else. It’ll be a sad day for the USA when he gets in.”
“ ‘When’? Not ‘if’?” smiled Drummond.
Forrest shook his blonde locks. “He’ll get in. Milton Byrne is a nice guy, but he’s a wimp, an innocent. Crane will eat him alive.”
“Crane comes highly recommended,” said Drummond, not argumentatively, just to draw Forrest out, hear his views. “War hero, effective state senator and governor. And he has a popular platform – anti-crime, anti-drugs.
“But have you heard his rhetoric?” protested Forrest, and gave a rueful laugh. “He comes on like General Midwinter in The Billion Dollar Brain. ‘I love my country with a deep and abiding passion – and will fight to the death those who wish to destroy her!’ Jesus.”
“And you don’t approve of such patriotism? Don’t you think it’s time somebody did wage war on crime and drugs in this country?”
“Oh, hell, yes. Of course it is. But,” Forrest sought the words, “it’s the guy. It’s Crane. There’s something about him.” He looked sideways at Drummond. “Are you something in Psych now?”
Drummond dipped into the breast pocket of his dark blue suit and produced a business card.
Forrest grinned. “Yeh, you’re something in Psych. Well, you ought to be able to get inside Jack Crane’s head.”
“To be honest, I haven’t given him or the election much thought. I hear the issues, but tend to ignore the games. There is a theory that a man can become presidential material only after he’s elected president. It all depends on how he responds to the greatness thrust upon him. We’ve seen weak men become strong in office, and vice versa. There’s no way of knowing what kind of president Jack Crane will make if,” he smiled, gave a deferential nod, “when he gets into the White House. Anyway, what makes you so sure? Come on, now, I want some profound and learned argument.”
Forrest nodded, enjoying the challenge. “Okay, point one – Jack Crane is one tough sonofabitch. He was a Vietnam War hero, and a shoo-in into state politics as a war hero, he didn’t have to try. During his terms in the state capitol he made a lot of powerful friends in very high places, and when it came to the gubernatorial race, there was no contest. The sub-points here are – (a) the guy doesn’t know what it means to lose, so he’s coming over now as super-confident, and (b) he’s still got all those powerful pals behind him – and all the money in the world.
“Point two – because he’s got all the money in the world behind him – and Milton Byrne hasn’t – Crane is going to lay down an advertising campaign like a napalm strike. He’ll incinerate Byrne over the next four weeks with a campaign of ‘negative attacks’ – what Crane’s political consultants euphemistically call ‘contrast’ or ‘comparative’ campaigning, but which means Crane’s cronies are going to dig up as much dirt about Byrne as they can find – and probably plenty they can’t find – and splash it across the nation’s screens nightly.
“Point three –” Forrest held up three fingers, “Crane has, by virtue of his financial backing, by far the superior management team. Hell, he’s got an army – and they’re the best in the business. And with his army he’s going to wage an air war like you wouldn’t believe.”
“You mean the ad campaign?” said Drummond, slowing as he encountered a traffic build-up, harbinger of the inevitable rush-hour crawl. “No, that’s something else. I mean the manipulation of TV time by Crane’s professionals. You’ll see, they’ll produce an agenda for him that will dominate the networks’ newscasts. He’ll be on every major newscast – Crane-crowing and Byrne-bashing to fifty million Americans – every night.”
Drummond laughed. “ ‘Crane-crowing and Byrne-bashing’. I like that. But what will poor old Byrne be doing in the meantime? Surely he’ll be doing his share of ‘Crane-clobbering and Byrne-boosting’?”
“Touché,” grinned Forrest. “But no, he won’t. Byrne hasn’t got it in him. He’s a scholar, an idealist. He just isn’t capable of dirty tricks. He’s going to pin his hopes on the television debates with Crane – which no doubt Byrne will win hands down – but they’ll have nowhere near the effect of Crane’s fire-storm attacks. Any day now, Crane will go on the offensive, Byrne will be slammed back on the defensive, and he’ll never recover. Bet good money on it, Doc – come next January, Jack Crane will be taking the presidential oath – and God help us all.”
Drummond looked at him, frowning. “Why are you so frightened of him, Alan?”
Forrest gave a pensive sigh. “I’ve met Jack Crane. I’ve been around him during his gubernatorial campaigns, a bunch of us kids did gopher work for him. The guy’s a pig, Doc. He’s got a mouth like a Brooklyn hood. In public he comes on like the Messiah, the saviour of America, the guy who’s steeped in the old-fashioned virtues of truth, honesty, and respect for the law, and who’s going to restore those virtues to America. In private, I believe he’s all opportunist and a thug. I really don’t think we can afford Jack Crane as our president.”
Drummond raised his brows. “That’s pretty scathing stuff.”
“I mean it. You had to be there, see him in action. They used to say Tricky Dick was a cold fish, but Crane, boy, when the cameras aren’t turning, that’s one ice-cold sonofabitch.”
“What d’you expect he might do that could hurt the country?”
Forrest shrugged. “I dunno. Look what Tricky Dicky did. I can’t imagine anything specific. It’s more a feeling that the mood of the country will change. Y’know, things are pretty good for us right now – we’re getting on better with the Communists than we ever did. And the rest of the world, even the Arabs, thinks we’re okay. I think Crane could change all that.”
“Why should he want to?”
Forrest thought about it. “Because everything’s too damned slow and quiet. No new president can shine when things are so peaceful. Jack Crane hates the status quo. He’s a military animal, a bloody war hero. He needs conflict, confrontation – and where there isn’t any, he’ll create it, in order to shine when he puts it down.”
“Well, he’s got plenty to be going on with, right here in LA – the crime, the gang wars, drugs.”
Forrest grinned, acknowledging that Drummond was proving his point. “Exactly. Hence his campaign platform.”
“But it’s what the voters want!” Drummond laughingly protested. “Presumably, it’s why Crane was elected Republican candidate – the delegates want a strong man in the White House.”
“Strong, yes. We all want a strong president. But it’s a question of degree . . . and how that strength is used. In many respects, Nixon was a strong president – and we got Watergate. Kennedy was strong – and we got the Cuban missile confrontation and the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And let’s not forget that other little head-to-head . . . what was it called? . . . oh, yeah, Vietnam.”
Drummond capitulated with a grin. “I was going to say we’ve got Congress to keep an eye on any potential abuse, but I guess you just shot me down. Well, if Crane is, as you believe, an opportunist and a thug – and, as you predict, a certainty for the White House – all we can do is hope that elevation to the presidency will elevate his morality. I’ll tell you one thing, though . . . no, two things. From now on I’ll be watching and listening to Jack Crane with more interest than I would have if I hadn’t met you.”
“Good. He sure needs watching. And the second thing?”
“You ought to skip law and go straight into politics. Your country needs you.”
By now they were in the thick of morning traffic, and well into the centre of the vast, formless sprawl that was Los Angeles. The I-10 had by now assumed an additional title – the Santa Monica Freeway – which cleaved the city in a virtually straight east-west line, running south of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Westwood Village, the latter accommodating the huge campus of UCLA – the University of California at Los Angeles.
Approaching Mar Vista, and the junction with the north-bound I-405, the San Diego Freeway, Drummond checked the time and made a decision.
Even though, from this point, UCLA was less than three miles distant, such was the structure of the city that, without a car, his young passenger might take half a day to get there.
“I’ll take you in,” he said, running off the I-10 onto the 405.
“To campus? Wow, thanks, Doc, I really appreciate it.”
“My pleasure. I appreciated the political thesis.”
Forrest grinned. “Hope I didn’t run off at the mouth too much. Where Jack Crane is concerned, I tend to get pretty opinionated.”
They both laughed.
“It’s been terrific meeting you,” said Forrest, as Drummond left the 405 and joined Sunset Boulevard for the short run into the campus grounds. “If I ever need analysis, I’ll be sure to call you.”
With the time at just after eight o’clock, Drummond reached out and switched on the radio. And with uncanny coincidence, as he brought the Daimler to a halt and Forrest opened his door, a familiar voice, steel-hard and righteously acerbic, crackled from the multi-speaker system.
“…there are elements in this great country of ours that would bring this country down … Godless elements who thrive on crime … on drugs … on violence … who bring terror into the lives of decent, God-fearing citizens … and would turn the United States of America – my United States of America – into a vile, drug-ridden cesspool for their own despicable ends. Well, I’m here to tell you folks - JACK CRANE AIN’T ABOUT TO LET IT HAPPEN!” Thunderous applause, cheering, whistling. Over it, quelling it, “Jack Crane spent four hard years of his life fighting the Godless in someone else’s country …” more cheers, whistles, shouts of approbation, “... but that fight was nothing to what you’re going to see around here when I get to the White House!”
Tumultuous applause, and as it subsided, “I hear there’s another guy in this contest. I haven’t actually seen him, myself, because he’s such a nonentity he tends to disappear into the wallpaper!” Roar of laughter. “But I hear things about him. I hear he’s hot on education – which is just dandy, provided we’ve got any schools and students left after the muggers and the pushers and the arsonists have finished with them. And I hear he’s hot on rehabilitating criminals … and on disarming the people, so they can’t defend themselves against the criminals, who are going to be the only ones who do carry weapons! My, my! What a glorious day for this great country if, God forbid, he should get into the White House. Well, folks, I’m here tonight to tell you . . . JACK CRANE AIN’T ABOUT TO LET IT HAPPEN! . . . JACK CRANE AIN’T ABOUT TO LET IT HAPPEN! . . . JACK CRANE AIN’T ABOUT TO LET IT HAPPEN!...”
As the audience took up the chant, filling the car with deafening, hysterical fervour, Drummond switched off the radio and raised his brows to Alan Forrest.
Forrest grinned. “There’s just nothin’ like the smell of napalm in the morning. Apocalypse Now.” He held out his hand. “Thanks a billion, Doc.”
“Good luck, Alan. Listen, if you need help – call. I don’t mean therapy. Any help at all.”
He watched Forrest walk away, turn and wave, and disappear into the trees.
Driving out onto Sunset Boulevard, Drummond again switched on the radio, catching a political commentator in mid-sentence. “…tone of his entire campaign since the Republican convention. Crane rode to state power on his war record and he’s doing it again now. He’s a warrior – and he’s selling war … war against crime, poverty, drugs, violence…”
A female voice cut in. “Yes, fine, but these are mostly urban matters. What does Jack Crane know – or care – about the broader issues? How knowledgeable is he about foreign affairs? Where does he stand on national defence? All I seem to have heard from this guy throughout his entire time on the stump has been a kind of jingoistic jackboot march back to a nineteen-thirties’ isolationism.”
“Well,” said the male voice, “time and the television debates will tell. Milton Byrne is bound to hammer this very point.”
The woman laughed scornfully. “ ‘Hammer’ is not a word one uses in association with ‘Milton Byrne’, Cy. And certainly never in Jack Crane’s presence. Byrne is already reeling from Crane’s attacks. I really can’t see much changing in the debates.”
“Well, as I said, time will tell. That’s all from the campaign trail for now … back to the newsroom for.”
Drummond turned off the radio. “Jingoistic jackboot march” he mused aloud. “Nice ringing phrase.”
As he passed beneath the 405, heading for Malibu, he added mentally: nice . . . and deadly.