K is for Killer Page 91


One by one members of the audience were able to approach the podium, addressing the board members with prepared statements. These they read aloud in their best singsong public speaking voices, managing somehow to deliver their comments without any spontaneity, humor, or warmth. As in church, the combination of body heat and hot air was bringing the surrounding air temperature up to anesthetic levels. For someone as sleep-deprived as I'd been for the last five days, it was hard to keep from toppling off my chair sideways.

I'm ashamed to confess I actually nodded off once, a sort of dip in consciousness that I became aware of only because my head dropped. It must have happened again, because just as I began to enjoy a much needed snooze, I was jerked upright by a heated verbal exchange. Belatedly, I realized I'd missed the opening round. '

Clark Esselmann was on his feet, stabbing a finger at the man at the podium. "It's people like you who're ruining this county."

The man he was addressing had to be John "Stubby" Stockton. He was maybe five feet tall and very heavyset, with a round baby face and dark thinning hair. He was a man who perspired heavily, and throughout the interchange he mopped at his face with his handkerchief. "People like me? Oh, really, sir. Let's leave personalities out of this. This is not about me. This is not about you. This is about jobs for this community. This is about growth and progress for the citizens of this county, the-"

"Hogwash! This is about you making money, you damn son of a bitch. What do you care about the citizens of this county? By the time this… this abomination comes to pass, you'll be well out of it. Counting your profits while the rest of us are stuck with this eyesore for centuries to come."

Like lovers, Clark Esselmann and John Stockton, having once engaged, seemed to have eyes only for each other. The room was electrified, a ripple of excitement undulating through the audience.

Stockton's voice was syrupy with loathing. "Sir, at the risk of offending, let me ask you this. What have you done to generate employment or housing or financial security for the citizens of Santa Teresa County? Would you care to answer that?"

"Don't change the subject-"

"Because the answer is nothing. You haven't contributed a stick, not a nickel or a brick to the fiscal health and well-being of the community you live in."

"That is untrue… that is untrue!" Esselmann shouted.

Stockton forged on. "You've blocked economic growth, you've obstructed employment opportunities. You've denounced development, impeded all progress. And why not? You've got yours. What do you care what happens to the rest of us? We can all go jump in the ocean as far as you're concerned."

"You're damn right you can jump in the ocean! Go jump in the ocean."

"Gentlemen!" The president had risen.

"Well, let me tell you something. You'll be long gone and the opportunity for growth will be long gone, and who's going to pay the price for your failure of imagination?"

"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!''

The president was banging his gavel on the table without any particular effectiveness. Serena was on her feet, but her father was waving her aside with the kind of peremptory motion that had probably intimidated her from childhood. I saw her sink back down while he shouted, trembling, "Save your speeches for the Rotary, young man. I'm sick of listening to this self-serving poppycock. The truth is, you're in this for the almighty buck, and you know it. If you're so interested in growth and economic opportunity, then donate the land and all the profits you stand to make. Don't hide behind rhetoric-"

"You donate. Why don't you give something? You've got more than the rest of us put together. And don't talk to me about hiding behind rhetoric, you pompous ass…"

A uniformed security guard materialized at Stockton's side and took him by the elbow. Stockton shook him off, enraged, but a business associate appeared on the other side of him, and between the two of them he was eased out of the room. Esselmann remained on his feet, his eyes glittering with anger.

In the general swell of side conversations that followed, I leaned over to the man next to me. "I hate to seem ignorant, but what was that about?"

"John Stockton's trying to get water permits for a big parcel of land he wants to turn around and sell to Marcus Petroleum."

"I thought stuff like that had to go through the county board of supervisors," I said.

"It does. It was approved last month by a five-oh vote on the condition that they use reclaimed water from the Colgate Water District. It looked like it was going to pass without opposition, but now Esselmann is mounting a counterattack."

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