"It isn't certain yet," I answer automatically, surprised that the secret has spread up into the Rocky Mountains, and also not wanting Jack Ziegler anywhere near her nomination. He has already spoiled one judicial career too many. "She isn't the only candidate."
"I know this." The burning eyes are gleeful again. "I understand that a colleague of yours believes the job to be his for the taking. Some would call him the front-runner."
I am thrown, once more, by the breadth of his knowledge; I choose not to wonder how he knows what he knows. I am glad that Kimmer is not within earshot.
"I suppose so. But, look, I have to--"
"Listen, Talcott. Are you listening?" He has drawn close to me again. "I do not think he has the staying power, this colleague of yours. It is my understanding that a fairly large skeleton is rattling around in his closet. And we all know what that means, eh?" He coughs violently. "Sooner or later, it is bound to tumble out."
"What kind of skeleton?" I ask, sudden eagerness overwhelming my caution.
"I would not concern myself with such things if I were you. I would not share them with your lovely wife. I would wait patiently for the wheel to turn."
I am mystified, but not precisely unhappy. If there is information that would kill off Marc Hadley's chances, I can hardly wait for it to--what did he say?--tumble out. Even though Marc and I were once friends, I cannot resist a rising excitement. Perhaps America's obsession with the use of scandal to disqualify nominees for the bench is absurd, but this is my wife we are talking about.
Still, what can Jack Ziegler possibly know about Marc Hadley that nobody else does?
"Thank you, Uncle Jack," I say uncertainly.
"I am always happy to be of assistance to any of Oliver's children." His voice has assumed a curiously formal tone. I am chilled once more. Is the skeleton something that he has somehow created? Is a criminal maneuvering to help my wife attain her longed-for seat on the bench? I have to say something, and it is not easy to decide what.
"Uh, Uncle Jack, I . . . I'm grateful that you would think to help, but . . ."
His disintegrating eyebrows slowly rise. Otherwise his expression does not change. He knows what I am trying to say but has no intention of making it easy.
"Well, it's just that I think Kimmer . . . Kimberly . . . wants to have the selection go forward so that, um, the better candidate wins. On the merits. She wouldn't want anybody to . . . interfere." And I am suddenly sure, as I say the difficult words, that what I am telling him is true. My smart, ambitious wife never wants to be beholden to anybody, for anything. When we were students, she made a name for herself around the building with her outspoken opposition to affirmative action, which she saw as just another way for white liberals to place black people in their debt.
Maybe she was right.
Uncle Jack, meanwhile, has his answer ready: "Oh, Talcott, Talcott, please have no fear on that account. I am not proposing to . . . interfere." He chuckles lightly, then coughs. "I am only predicting what is to occur. I have information. I am not going to use it. Nor do you need to do so. Your colleague, your wife's rival, has many, many enemies. One of them is certain to unlock the door and allow the skeleton to tumble out. The service I am doing for you is simply to let you know. Nothing more."
I nod. Standing up to Jack Ziegler has drained me.
"And now it is your turn," he continues. "I think perhaps you, Talcott, might be of assistance to me."
I close my eyes briefly. What did I expect? He did not travel all this way to tell me that Marc Hadley's candidacy is going to collapse, or to pay his last respects to my father. He came because he wants something.
"Talcott, you must listen to me. Listen with care. I must ask you one question."
Excerpted from The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter Copyright 2002 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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