Megan Kelly strolled the central aisle of Lexington Market like a star. Hers was the role of a lifetime, the waif from Fells Point finally gaining the spotlight. Her audience knew it, of course. Half the stalls bore posters with her husband's picture. The other half weren't worth noticing and certainly would never see any of her trade. She was accompanied by her son, Matt, which made the afternoon truly perfect. Matt had a profile made for Mount Rushmore and a personality made for concealment. Most men as handsome as her son were destined for leadership. Matt, however, hated any kind of attention. Even fawning women left him uncomfortable. Matt Kelly had honed a talent for hiding in plain daylight. Which seemed odd only to those who did not know the reasons. And Megan Kelly knew her son very well.
So Megan did what only she could do for Matt, which was to draw him out, at least a little. She moved more slowly and shone more brilliantly, so that even Matt was illuminated by her presence. At every stall she shook the patron's hand and then said the same words, singing them with pride, "Have you met my handsome young man?"
Baltimore's Lexington Market was the oldest still operating in America, founded just after the Revolutionary War and seldom cleaned since. Early in the last century, when Baltimore's port serviced a burgeoning population, Lexington Market was the upscale place to shop. This neighborhood boasted the first skyscrapers south of New York, with their lower floors reserved for fashionable stores. From dawn to dusk the area served as America's first pedestrian zone.
But nothing remained the same for long in Baltimore. The high-rises had stood empty for a generation, and the acres of diamonds and furs had been replaced by pawnshops and dollar stores. The pedestrian streets were lined with hawkers and grifters and bums. Lexington Market stood as a citadel against the worst a modern world could offer.
Yet Baltimore remained the perpetual fighter, knocked about but never defeated. Megan's husband led a new consortium that had declared a block-by-block war. Downtown, as their development was called, was the largest inner-city project in Baltimore's history. Nine city blocks--thirty-three derelict skyscrapers--with Lexington Market at its heart. Small wonder the stallholders backed her husband's bid for the United States Senate.
Megan stopped by Polish Johnny's to buy a yard of kielbasa, sausage guaranteed to lift the diner's cholesterol level by double figures. The manager made a process of wiping his hands before reaching across to shake her own. She introduced her son, stating, "Matt has just graduated from some secret agent school I can never remember the name of. I went down for the ceremony, of course. He graduated first in his class. The head of the Secret Service himself pinned the medal on Matt's chest."
Megan had to shout against the market's din. But anybody raised in Fells Point, the worst of Baltimore's waterfront slums, knew how to make themselves heard. She pretended not to see her son's embarrassment as he shook the stallholder's hand and accepted congratulations from admirers on all sides. She handed Matt her latest purchase, started down the aisle, and asked her son, "What would you like for dinner tonight?"
"Peace and quiet."
"Don't be silly. What could be grander than this?" she asked.
Megan Kelly was overdressed, as always. Fashionable attire was her signature. Today it was a coarsely woven linen jacket with gold brocade and buttons, black silk dress, matching alligator purse and shoes. Her hair was sculpted gray, her eyes merry. They stopped for chocolate at Mary's, where the manager drew out her best wares from hidden shelves and proudly served this strange lady from another era. In this place, Megan Kelly could have worn the crown jewels and remained safe. Lexington Market protected its own.
Megan Kelly had worked equally as hard on her voice. The Fells Point slang had been left behind with the rags and the beer buckets and the stench of unfulfilled dreams. She introduced Matt to the next outstretched hand, "My son, the federal agent. Off to save the world."
As they left the market, Matt asked the inevitable, "How goes the race?"
"Same as when we talked last week. Neck and neck."
"Last week Zelbert was five points behind you." Rolf Zelbert was the Republican candidate, a dental surgeon and alderman from Annapolis.
Megan watched Matt stow the last of her packages in the trunk. "There are bound to be bumps here and there."
Matt stepped two paces away from the car as Megan greeted three passersby. No man as virile as Megan Kelly's son could make himself vanish entirely. But he tried. The cause of Matt's withdrawn nature was the one battle that left her perpetually defeated. Megan hid her sorrow behind an even grander smile, urged the ladies to vote for her husband, and found herself recalling a secret from Matt's childhood. In the lonely evenings when Paul Kelly was off fighting his dragons and she and Matt were alone, Matt would make her laugh for hours with his ability as a mimic. He could copy almost anyone's voice and stance, male or female. But Matt had refused to ever imitate his father. The few times she had made the request, he had frozen solid. Megan Kelly had become adept at not mentioning Paul Kelly any more than necessary around her son. She hid the sadness behind her laughter, down with all the other flaws knitted into both their lives.
But she would not dwell on such impossibilities now. Not with her son home and Washington beckoning. So when they were safely seated in the car and the world was locked outside, she replied to his repeated query with the truth. "Zelbert has gained four points."
"Zelbert's share has lifted four points in a week?"
"Your father has never lost a race."
"Two terms in the state legislature doesn't make for much of a history. Come on, Mom. The television cameras are off. It's just us here."
Matt Kelly could not have cared less about politics. Megan knew this. Matt asked because Megan Kelly loved politics with a ferocity that baffled her son. Megan Kelly lived for this. She could turn the latest opinion poll into a three-hour conversation. She looked forward to November like a child awaiting Christmas. Her voice rose two octaves just saying the word out loud: Washington.
And she could be far more honest with her son than she could ever be with her husband. These days, Paul Kelly was a volatile mixture of confidence and panic. He needed stroking on an hourly basis. If not from her, then from Sol, Paul's campaign manager and best friend. Megan said, "The national party is throwing money at Zelbert. He's got double our airtime. Sol is very worried."
"What about the DNC?"
"Our people keep promising funds but so far they haven't delivered." She banged her fist on a silk-clad leg. "We're right on Washington's doorstep. But all they can see is how Maryland has gone Democrat in every off-year election since the First World War. I'm out there every day, Matt. I hear what people are saying. The state is going red before our very eyes. I can't get anybody at national headquarters to listen."
Megan watched her son drive past Maryland General, headed for Martin Luther King Boulevard and home. Matt had an unflappable steadiness that was utterly at odds with her husband's explosive nature. Like so much else they did not hold in common. "Enough politics. Tell me what's happening in your life."
Matt deflected, as usual. "You just saw me at the graduation ceremony."
"I was so proud of you, Matt. Your father was immensely sorry he had to miss it, but you know the pressures he faces."
Matt glared. "I know all right."
She kept her tone bright. "First in your class, being honored by that general, what was his name?"
"Walton. He prefers to be called Ambassador."
"He's your new boss; is that right?"
"He's director of State Department Intelligence. He is also universally loathed. Word is, he eats young careers like Cheerios." Matt glanced over. "I've been approached by the CIA."
This was new. And unwelcome. "Surely you'd prefer to stay where you are."
"CIA has offered me a posting in ops."
"And this is a good thing?"
"It means action. And foreign assignments. Both of which I want."
Megan Kelly almost succeeded in suppressing her shudder. "But if you stay at State at least there is the possibility of moving in a civilized direction."
"Exactly what I want to avoid at all costs."
"Even at the risk of worrying your old mother to death?"
"You're not old."
It was a familiar argument, one she had already lost. She changed course with, "How is your young lady? I'm sorry, I don't remember . . ."
"Trish. She's fine. We're not." Matt drove slowly down Eutaw, hung a right on Wilson and then a left into the alley behind their home. He pulled up beside the carport and parked. "But it's okay."
Megan touched her son's arm, stopping him from opening his door. "I know you'd like the world to think you don't care about this stream of young ladies who treat your life like just another revolving door. I also know something is bothering you very deeply."
Matt had emerald eyes that changed in depth and tone. Which was odd, given that both her and her husband's gazes were gray. She always claimed Matt had inherited her mother's eyes, which had been a secret lifelong joke. Her mother had been a bartender since she was eleven, working in her own mother's corner dive. The only color Megan Kelly could recall in her mother's eyes was red.
Matt replied, "Trish says every time we get together it's like a first date."
Megan Kelly's phone rang. She could not turn it off, not with the election only five weeks away. She slipped it from her purse, checked the readout, and then clicked it shut. "I'm sorry. Please go on." When he remained silent, she softly pressed, "This is not the first time a young lady has accused you of being unreachable."
Megan wished she could do something about her son's desire to vanish. But he was a man now and had a man's inflexibility. Which truly frightened her. "Have I ever apologized for your early years?"
Matt could melt into any setting and become unseen. Which did not bode well in a society that rewarded the brash and the bold. Women were attracted to Matt's looks and his calm manner. And repelled by his ability to deflect. "You do go through young ladies at an astonishing rate."
Matt responded in his normal fashion to probing conversation. He opened his door and rose from the car.
Their pre-Civil War brownstone fronted Eutaw Place, a shaded lane that ran along the crest of Bolton Hill. When Paul Kelly had purchased the place, it had been just another ruin in a long line of once-grand townhomes. Now it was a singular prize and worth a small fortune.
The Kelly home had two entrances: double front doors on Eutaw, which no one used, and through a wrought-iron gate on Wilson. The house was built on a small incline, such that the basement became the ground floor in the rear and had been converted into a private apartment for Matt. The home's side entrance was up closer to the front, which made for quite a hike in the rain. Paul Kelly was always going on about building stairs to the wrought-iron kitchen balcony and a covered walk from the carport. But it was one of many chores that had to wait because of the campaign.
Matt collected the shopping bags from the car and followed his mother through the side gate. Then he stopped and looked back.
Megan thought she had seen it as well, an apparition drawn from a past so distant it belonged to another woman. "What is it?"
Matt must have noted the tremor in her voice. He shifted the packages to his other arm and reached inside his jacket.
"I left my gun in the car."
Her mind was racing now. She had a politico's ability to think of a dozen items and keep them all separate. The spot on the other side of the street was empty now, the place so quiet she could easily have told herself it was just stress. But she heard the worry in her son's voice, and something more. Matt was suddenly a different man. A professional who considered it natural to walk through life armed.
Matt set the packages on the ground. "I want you to go inside, Mom."
"What's the matter?"
"Probably nothing." But it was a stranger talking now, a man who charged the air with lethal tension.
"Do what I said." Matt passed back through the rear gate. "Now."
Megan hesitated, but not for long. She was a city girl, after all. She climbed the two stairs. She fumbled for her keys, her hands unwilling to obey the simplest command. She fitted them into the door. And her phone rang.
She turned the knob with one hand and opened her phone with the other.
Then the entire world erupted in a blast of flame.
The bomb blast hurled Matt Kelly over a line of parked cars and onto the street. He was aware of landing hard. But he felt nothing. He lay surrounded by the smell of explosive, staring at an afternoon sky stained by oily smoke. He tried to move his head, but couldn't, and soon forgot why it mattered.
There was a gentle tearing sensation. He found himself drifting in the air above his parents' home. Just another cloud, unnoticed in the mayhem and the screaming he could no longer hear. He hung there one instant only. Not even long enough to draw the entire vista into focus. He was a newborn all over again--staring down at a billion images, none of which made any sense. Even when he told himself he had to look carefully because something vitally important had happened. Even then. He could not bring himself to care.
Then the instant was over. Gone so fast he could easily have denied it had happened at all. He was back on the pavement and staring at the billowing smoke. He remained there long enough to hear the sirens wail in the distance and voices wail closer to where he lay. Long enough to feel the pain begin to seep into his awareness. Pain so intense it was hard to claim it as his own. Then he was gone.
The ease with which he drifted away made him certain that things were very bad indeed. Matt Kelly was not a quitter. Yet he released his hold on the sky and the pavement with a total absence of concern. Not even the screams and the sirens could keep him there. He did not shut his eyes. He simply stopped seeing.
He knew what had happened to him. There had been an explosion. He could no longer see. But he could hear, as though he were in some transitory phase and sound was either the last faculty to depart or the first to connect him to whatever it was that lay beyond.
The next sound Matt heard was wind chimes. He recognized the chimes instantly as being handblown crystal and antique. They had formed a vivid component of his early childhood. The chimes had hung from his grandparents' back porch near the Fells Point marina. His thoughts were not so clear on anything else.
He felt himself drifting off again. Matt used all his remaining time to decide he was okay with being dead.