Craig was beginning to think this was all pointless. What exactly was he supposed to be gleaning from the emails Alex was forwarding him from Tanner? The kid alternated between bravado and a weird, almost childlike, deference to DuPlessis. Nothing had been leaked so far, but then Craig hadn’t expected anything. After all, the revelator was busy spying on Tanner Scott at the behest of Alex DuPlessis. Wrap your head around that, he thought. It felt strange just thinking about it, as if he were Bérenger watching the people around him mutate, only these guys were turning into angry, paranoid cranks afraid of their own Inboxes. I’d rather be a rhinoceros, Craig thought.
He’d had a long day full of meetings (Mormons like their meetings, don’t they?), and stuck in traffic on traffic on Beck Street near the refineries, he had noticed that the clutch on the BMW had begun to chatter. As he stepped out of the car into the hot garage, he could smell it: the pressure plate was going. He’d bought the car during the first of what now seemed like an endless series of midlife crises. Oh, well, that one had just saddled him with a hefty car payment and a ruined clutch. This latest one had turned his world upside down.
Ana had left a note saying she was off with the girls getting some potting soil for a Young Women’s service project. Craig never seemed to have time for such things anymore.
He sat down at the kitchen table, opened the laptop, and started reading the surreal exchanges between Tanner and DuPlessis. Each email to or from Tanner had been dutifully forwarded to Craig, with relevant portions highlighted in yellow. He felt like a zoologist observing the grooming rituals of a pair of chimps in the wild.
He never knew how to respond to these reports, so he would limit himself to brief comments such as “keep up the good work” or expressions of gratitude that DuPlessis had given him the honor of working with him.
“Whatcha doing, Dad?” Porter asked.
“Nothing that can’t wait,” Craig smiled, snapping the laptop shut. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing much,” Porter shrugged.
“How’s the garden going?”
“The tomatoes are much bigger, and the serranos are starting to look like real peppers–tiny, dark green ones, but they finally look like they should.”
“That’s a good sign,” Craig said. “How’s your friend–Loren, was it?”
“Much better. I think I’ve figured out how to deal with those guys.” Porter grabbed a cookie from a bag in the pantry.
“Oh? How’d you do that?” Craig took a couple from the bag, too. Ana wouldn’t be happy that he was blowing his diet, but then a good father had to make sacrifices when opportunities for father-son bonding arose.
“I just figured I’d make it more painful for them than it is for Loren. I’m bigger than any of those guys, and they know they’d get caught if they ganged up on me. So, I decided to take them on, one at a time. Every time someone bothered Loren, I bothered him. Whoever knocked him down got knocked down. By yours truly.” He seemed pleased.
“Don’t they tell the teacher?” Craig took a pair of glasses from the cupboard, retrieved a jug of milk from the fridge, and filled both glasses.
“They would, but then everyone would say they were the pussies. The funny thing about it is that Loren is actually pretty strong, and pretty soon he realized he didn’t need me anymore. Still, they’re not going to take both of us on, so we stick together.” He dunked his cookie into the milk.
“Well, officially, I can’t condone any physical violence, but I’m proud of you for standing up for Loren. I know what it’s like to be bullied when there’s no one around to help.” Craig dunked his cookie, for good measure.
“We’ve become friends, Dad. I thought he was weird, but he’s just quiet. Really funny when he does talk, though. I’ve been helping him with the flowers because there’s too much work for just one person. I even brought some roses home for Mom after school.” He pointed at a Mason jar with half a dozen pink roses on the counter. “I never knew you had to give them so much attention and care. My teacher says if you don’t prune and water and fertilize them just right, they grow wild, and the flowers are small and kind of ugly.”
“These are beautiful. You guys must be pretty good at it.”
“Yeah, just don’t tell anyone. I have a reputation to protect.” Porter laughed, taking another cookie from the bag. Craig took one, too. For the boy, he said to himself.
Later he opened yet another long rant from Tanner about how the “good guys” might have taken a few lumps, but they’d come back in fighting form. Craig had long believed that Tanner had never been able to distinguish between religious faith and team sports. Being an apologist was for him like being a season-ticket holder to BYU football, though very few BYU fans engaged in the kind of trash-talking and taunting that Tanner did. Suddenly it hit him: Tanner was a child, with the temperament and maturity of a pre-teen. He would gladly put Porter up against him any day. Tanner bullied those he perceived as weak, but Porter would defend them every time. It was Tanner who was weak, he could see that much.
He had taken a risk having DuPlessis invite Tanner first, but rather than proceed carefully, as Craig would have done, DuPlessis seemed to be egging him on every time he flew off the handle. Was DuPlessis actually feeding the kid’s rage? It sure seemed like it.
When Tanner speculated about the leaker, naming names, DuPlessis encouraged him. “Yes, I’ve never been convinced he was entirely on our side. Maybe your friend can find out more about him for us.” He had even agreed when Tanner suggested that Dalton Kane could possibly be the mole. DuPlessis had seemed almost delighted when Tanner referred to Kane as “that fat old blowhard.”
At the same time, DuPlessis went out of his way to stroke Tanner’s ego. “I reached out to you because I know I can trust you. You’re not like the older guys, who have divided loyalties because over the years they’ve become too friendly with the enemy. You’ve always stayed on the right side of the line.”
Apparently sensing that Craig might not approve of all this, DuPlessis had written, “I have to make him believe he’s safe with me. Until then, he will always have his guard up. We’ve got to convince him we aren’t setting him up.”
This made it official: Despite his well-known ego and self-proclaimed wit, DuPlessis was, well, quite an idiot. If any of the exchanges with Tanner ever made their way to Kane and the others, DuPlessis would be finished as an apologist. From Craig’s position, DuPlessis was risking everything–his reputation, his position among the apologists, and his most valued friendships–and there was no potential reward for the risk. The best DuPlessis could hope for would be that no one would ever find out about his plan. But it was plain that DuPlessis not only didn’t realize the risks he had taken but had not understood how foolish the “plan,” if it could be called that, was. For now, however, Craig let him play at puppetmaster, hoping that Tanner wouldn’t shoot his mouth off at the wrong moment.
It needs to be more painful for them, he thought.
“How long do you plan on keeping Tanner in the dark?” he had asked DuPlessis after he had received another email of play-by-play commentary on Tanner’s rising zeal.
“One month is enough,” DuPlessis had replied. Craig wondered how he had arrived at this arbitrary time limit, but then nothing DuPlessis was doing made any sense. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. It made perfect sense if DuPlessis were an angry dimwit, which he was, of course.
After three weeks, Tanner had pretty much attacked the characters of every member of the Short List, including Craig.
“I’ve met Craig,” Tanner had written. “I don’t like him. He tries so hard to be ‘nice,’ but we all know it’s an act. I don’t even know who invited him to the list in the first place. I wouldn’t have, anyway. The condescending bastard.”
Craig had met Tanner exactly twice, first at a dinner honoring Dalton Kane, when Tanner had sat across from Craig and had talked for two hours straight. Amused, Craig had let him talk, interjecting only to nod at appropriate moments. And then there had been the night he’d seen him at the church before the Young Women in Excellence program. As far as he could recollect, he’d never communicated directly with Tanner by email, phone, or any other way. Oh, well, he thought. Not exactly the kind of friend I want to have.
Ana looked over his shoulder. “I thought you were done with that stuff. You promised.” She set some bags from Home Depot and one from VerDon’s Crafts on the counter.
“I know I did,” he said, sheepishly. “It’s a long story, but I have to stop some bad things from happening.”
“What bad things?” she asked.
He tried to explain it all, from the attack on Arlen to Tanner’s mysterious friend to the collapse of the list. But it all sounded so silly, like the plot from an old episodes of The Avengers, a cheesy British spy show he’d watched as a boy after school. Only he wasn’t Steed, and he didn’t think Dalton Kane would look very good in a leather catsuit. He told her about Porter’s class and how he felt he was in the same position to do something about the bullies, but he didn’t sound convincing, not even to himself.
“I don’t understand any of it,” Ana said. “Those people are nuts. I’ve been telling you to walk away from that for years, but you never listen.”
“I know,” Craig said. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you really think something bad is going to happen?”
“Not if I can help it,” he said.
“You’re like children,” she said, shaking her head in disgust and walking away. “Time to grow up!”
She and the girls went out to the backyard to work on their project. Even Porter went out to help.
Craig went back to the emails, feeling a little slimy by the time he finished. He went out to the back patio to see how the project was coming. Porter was putting the last of the miniature rose plants into small ceramic pots.
“They’re for a program at the nursing home.” Ana said. Once a quarter, each ward in the stake was assigned to provide a “family night” at a nursing home within the stake boundaries. Craig had always thought the place was depressing, but the flowers might cheer things up until the next time the Angel of Death came calling.
As they loaded the trays of flowers into the back of the SUV, Craig wondered why he couldn’t force himself to be interested in something worthwhile. A few years before he had briefly volunteered as a Spanish translator at the county’s free medical clinic, but his schedule kept changing and he couldn’t keep it up. The only constant in his life, it seemed, was his obsessive-compulsive participation in these pointless message boards.
Tanner’s tirade continued over the next week, and Craig was starting to get bored. A child throwing a sustained tantrum isn’t interesting even at the beginning, and once the tantrum has reached its peak, even the most attentive parent learns to tune it out. Craig had stopped caring what Tanner was saying, but he wondered how long Tanner could sustain the ranting. Surely, he’d get tired eventually. Then he reminded himself that DuPlessis had maintained an unmatched level of righteous fury for some twenty years without interruption. Once, an apologist, trying to be charitable, suggested that DuPlessis may not have started out angry and nasty but had been pushed to it by constant attacks from anti-Mormons.
No, Craig had been there when DuPlessis had arrived on the old listserv boards, as angry and spiteful as he would ever be. Nothing had changed since then. Craig had been fresh out of grad school then and was still dating Ana. Since then he’d landed his dream job, married and had four beautiful children, and had lost his faith along the way. But had anything really changed for him, either?
Maybe it was time to give DuPlessis’ plan a little nudge to shake things up a little.