Monday June 9, 11 a.m.
In one respect Carl Barclay looked forward to the monthly delivery. He loved the blast of heat that welcomed him as he stepped out of Victor Wallingford’s plane in Burbank. In that moment he would think about retiring and getting out of Seattle permanently to somewhere warm. Who cared if the Southern California sky was never really blue?
There was nothing else he enjoyed about the trip. Pulling the carry-on bag, he walked the 20 or 30 yards to the car, always a silver or black Beamer or Mercedes, always with deeply tinted windows. The chauffeur, dark suit complete with cap (fucking pretentious, Carl thought), opened the back door for him. Carl shoved the bag onto the seat and got in beside it, fastened his seat belt. The bodyguard, bigger than Carl’s 6’2” and in shape the way Carl hadn’t been in 25 years, got in the other side and patted the carry-on, grinning, satisfied. Waves of heat rising from the pavement in front of them, they rolled past a dozen other private jets and out a back gate.
Carl froze on the drive as the car’s air conditioning pumped full blast. On his first trip the driver yelled at him to “Keep the fucking window shut” and that was all the instruction he needed in local customs. Each month it was a different high-end hotel – Omni, Four Seasons, Mondrian, a couple others – and they always drove directly into the garage. Two more guys dressed like the big guy in the back seat – cream raw silk sport coats, black slacks and black tees with an indecipherable black on black corporate logo embroidered above the heart – appeared beside the car as they parked.
Upstairs in an elegant suite, Carl shared a room service lunch with Adrian. No last name. Just Adrian, a guy impeccably dressed for air-conditioned Beverly Hills business deals, double breasted navy blazer, pin-striped dark blue shirt with a white spread collar, gray slacks, perfectly dimpled tie and sleek shoes so fine you could hardly tell them from slippers.
Victor knew this guy. This was Victor’s deal and it was just like Victor all these months not to tell Carl the guy’s full name or anything much about the guy. Victor always kept bits and pieces of things to himself. No one else knew the whole picture. That was the way he operated. OK then, Carl’s policy was no questions. Still, he searched the Internet every which way for L.A. characters first named Adrian. Top of his finds was a guy named Adrian Topping, head of a company that provided and managed support services for the film industry, lighting experts, sound techs, stand-ins, stunt performers, key grips, best boys, carpenters and all the rest that keep the credits running five minutes after the movie ends. Given the Hollywood crowd, Carl figured Adrian wouldn’t have had a lot of trouble expanding his business to include the distribution of hard drugs.
Carl thought Adrian was a wussy name for a gangster. But maybe Adrian wasn’t just a gangster. Maybe he got into it the way Victor did, as a kind of spinoff of what he mostly did. Victor was a venture capitalist in the dope business, not a street-smart dealer who fought his way to the top. Maybe that was Adrian, too, the new American way. Maybe nobody was strictly legit anymore. Maybe legitimate businesses really owned the street gangs. You could imagine them listed as “narcotics marketing subsidiaries” on the org charts. Carl smiled at the thought. It almost seemed possible. That was how Victor set his operation up, protected by reams of perfectly clean corporate paper.
“Ah, the courier. How are you Mr. Barclay? Nice flight? Not so cramped anymore? I hear our Vic has a new plane, a used something or other, but more headroom than the Lear from the last century, eh? And now lunch.” He shook Carl’s hand, his left hand warmly clasping Carl’s elbow.
Lunch was always there when Carl arrived, under silver covers, warmed in chafing dishes. Handoff complete, the goons retreated. The door clicked shut. Carl imagined them standing guard in the hallway, like in the movies.
Adrian talked, a gourmet’s anticipation of the meal, gossip about celebrity chefs he seemed to know. Carl wondered if Adrian owned restaurants, good places to launder money. He rolled the carry-on across the carpet, pushed the handle into its slots and set it on a suitcase stand next to an identical black Briggs and Riley.
Adrian kept at his polite patter, slightly accented, maybe from somewhere in Europe, finished with British vowels. Carl thought it sounded phony. Wearing the same corporate uniform as the muscle, a slim, slight fellow with a thin moustache served them, always the same guy. Carl thought of him as Adrian’s taster, the guy who took the poison for his boss in medieval times.
Accompanying the seared fois gras and chevre, Adrian described the force feeding of geese and complained gently about the over use of truffle oil in restaurants these days. With the tiny rack of lamb he recounted a visit to an organic ranch in the Sierras and after a meditative tasting wondered how the complex Cabernet from Walla Walla – a Washington wine to please Carl, he said – could be so young.
With the cigars, big ones – like sucking a cock, Carl thought – Adrian turned to politics. The first delivery, almost two years ago now, Carl thought this just polite curiosity. What real interest could this man have in Seattle and Washington State politics? But by his second or third trip Carl could tell the questions were informed, astute and, he noted, often about Governor Maureen Collins.
Politics was Carl’s turf. He’d been – unabashedly – a political hack most of his life, though for the last 20 years the title had been “public affairs consultant,” which brought in a lot of business from outfits fighting regulations and taxes. And, of course, that’s how he’d met Victor and ended up lobbying for the interests of Wallingford Evergreen.
Carl loved the irony of an old labor Democrat like himself working for the tassel-loafer crowd, spreading Republican money around Olympia, lots of it into the hands of the Democratic leadership. Most of the time the D’s controlled the House if not the Senate and Carl Barclay Associates was connected. With Democrats he had access, a salable commodity. The papers called him “the dean of Seattle political consultants.”
But that was back home. Here in this hotel room with Adrian he was just Victor’s mule, towing a black suitcase worth more than his six-member firm grossed in a year and God knows how much more when Adrian put it out on the street. Here with a guy whose clothes said he never left his guarded, air-conditioned cocoon except maybe for the golf course, Carl couldn’t generate the flair or the wit or the chutzpah to energize the aura of importance he carried into every room in Seattle. It was the fear. He knew it. It dripped corrosively in his stomach and stank in his armpits. It attacked without warning like a nightmare. Carl had never gotten through lunch without imagining narcs kicking in the gold-trimmed double doors and slamming him against the wall, handcuffed. Fear was the unifying emotion of the monthly trips, polite talk but everything in slow motion, the cutlery heavy as lead. A four-star meal that could as easily have been stale bread for all he could taste. This was what he had to retire from. He had to retire from Victor.
Adrian asked about Gov. Collins, her son and daughter, as though he knew the family. Carl wasn’t close to Maureen or Richard Collins. Never had been. He knew her, of course, but not surprisingly she’d never been a client. Her husband, Richard, was East Coast – they met at Harvard Law – and very old-family Republican, not Carl’s side of the street, really, despite his business clients. The business guys were less ideological. How old were the kids now? Where did they go to school? Carl wasn’t sure. The boy was still in high school, he thought, boarding at Lakeside in Seattle, prepping to follow his father’s legacy in the East.
“And your Seattle mayor, Mr. McCracken, isn’t it? Don’t you think he should have waited another four years before taking her on? The papers, even the papers here, say she is raising lots more money than he is. Perhaps this is a trial run for him. What do you think, Mr. Barclay?” Unsure what drove Adrian’s interest and because he was still a sometime advisor to the mayor, Carl hemmed and hawed noncommittally when the questions probed toward Sonny McCracken. The evasiveness was unlike him, but the drug dealer wasn’t just making idle conversation, much as he tried to give that impression. Carl figured it was better not to gamble when he didn’t know what the stakes were.
After the strawberries and a goat cheese from a boutique farm in the Napa Valley, Adrian rose, dropping his napkin on his chair. Lunch was over. He walked over and unzipped Carl’s carry-on and took out one of the ten plastic-wrapped bricks of pure crystal methamphetamine. He held it up in both hands and laughed. “Perfect, my friend, perfect.” Backlit by a window, the crystal brick glowed. “Look at that fire in there, Mr. Barclay. We’re staring through the gates of Hell, no?”
Carl made polite parting sounds, shook hands and pulled the bag he got from Adrian, identical to the one he arrived with, into the hall. He knew it contained at least $1 million in cash but he never looked. What good would it do? The muscle appeared and escorted him to the elevator. In less than an hour, he’d be airborne having a couple single malts, another month behind him. That the plane returned to Seattle with a thousand pounds of chemicals for the meth lab carefully packed in the cargo bay, he never knew.
Chapter 3, Vera’s
Tuesday June 10, 7:30 a.m.
“Mr. Falconer?” A woman maybe 40, maybe 45, stood by his table. She looked like she’d been up all night or wasn’t good at makeup, or both.
“I’m one of them. There are eight of us in the phone book.” Tipsters were a part of life like pit bulls you hoped stayed leashed. At best one in 50 had a vein of gold but those were lots better odds than the state lottery so from long experience Falconer made it a habit to listen long enough to sort the private grievances from the potential Pulitzers. He already had one of those from a series back in the 90s exposing private colleges designed more to saddle students with debt than get them through two or four years with usable degrees. With tipsters, most of the time he ended up bummed, voyeur to an obsession better treated by a shrink than the law, not stories for the public. If these were insights into the human core, it was a bleak place. He hated these encounters.
“Mr. Falconer, what I have to tell you, you really, really want to hear.” There was something out-of-date about her. Falconer thought she’d modeled herself on some famous actress from the 50’s, straight black skirt tight along heavy thighs, red hair in a shoulder-length flip, a turquoise satin blouse hanging open on generous, well-supported breasts as she slid into the booth, worldly, sexy, complete with bedroom voice. Everybody’s playing somebody, Falconer thought.
“OK lady. You get the same chance as everybody. Give me the one-minute version: main characters, summary of the plot. Then if I don’t ‘really, really want to hear it,’ you go away and I eat breakfast in peace and read the paper.” He picked up his coffee cup and looked out at the street, deliberately denying her the credibility of eye contact. “Fire away.”
“It’s about the governor,” she began in a breathy whiskey-voiced whisper, the tone of secrets passed, of scandal. “In college she had a baby nobody knows about. She got pregnant and left for a semester and had a baby girl and gave her up for adoption. Now Maureen has a family and no one knows she ever did that and her daughter she gave away doesn’t know her real mom. Isn’t that awful? Now her daughter has her own little boy and he doesn’t know his grandma, but there she is in Olympia, in the governor’s mansion, famous. Doesn’t that just break your heart?”
“No, not really.” Falconer was honestly indifferent. “Who told you all this?”
“No one. I was in college with her. She said it was mono. She went to California, San Diego, to recover, but some of us knew.”
“Lady, you look like you’ve been up all night, but even with those party-hearty bags under your eyes you don’t come within ten years of Maureen Collins’ age. You weren’t in college with her unless they let you in when you were seven. Who sent you? Or maybe I should ask who hired you? And why does he – or she – want me to know this?”
“It’s so sad, isn’t it, Mr. Falconer? But you can find the daughter and write about it and bring them together. Don’t you think people will just love that story?”
“I get that part. But it doesn’t get told until I talk to your boss or boyfriend or whoever it is wants this out, and maybe not then. Whoever sent you is not doing this to gild the governor’s image. Don’t you get that?”
“It’s your call, Falconer,” she said, a staccato, tough-girl voice suddenly replacing the warm, seductive notes of the character she’d played. “San Diego, 1973. You can find it.” Long confident strides, spike heels that matched her blouse clacking on the linoleum and in a few seconds the door slammed behind her.
Falconer waved at Kinsey for more coffee. Vera’s was an old-style lunch counter that hadn’t changed much in 50 years. Since Starbucks they’d gone to a local coffee roaster for beans and learned not to leave the coffee on the hot plate more than an hour and in a bow to trendier menus, there was now a choice of link sausages. Chicken-fennel had been added, red potatoes an option competing with hash browns. The décor was still vibrantly vinyl and Formica, some of it pink. Falconer ordered his usual: two eggs over easy with pork links and the red potatoes.
It was a great story. The family-values Republican governor, just barely elected thanks to the religious conservatives who stayed with her despite her moderate environmental views, revealed to have a long-lost love child. That was the tabloid version. Hell, that was everybody’s version these days, the dailies’ and television’s and all the bloggers’. How much would it hurt? Any bad press would be enough if it drove the values voters away or, feeling betrayed again, they just stay home on election day, Falconer thought. At least it wasn’t an abortion. She gave the child up, just what the right-to-lifers preach. Falconer had no doubt he could find the girl, a woman in her mid-thirties now. But for now he wouldn’t look. The bigger story was who wanted to see the governor out, probably a long list. But how many would dig deep into dirty tricks like this? Had to be somebody who knew her back then, or knew somebody who did, assuming the story was true. Hard to get enough mileage out of it, if it weren’t. Whoever was peddling the information, sooner or later he’d hook a willing reporter. The story was a bomb, once detonated with the campaign already in full swing, likely to deny Maureen Collins a second term.
Still mulling over the story, Falconer paid and left. Outside under a featureless high, white sky, the morning was still cool. He walked down 22nd and turned into Ballard Avenue. Overhead, three float planes in the gold and white livery of Kenmore Air ploughed northward. Just after eight, the first wave of the summer day, taking tourists to Victoria, the San Juan Islands and farther north to fish. At building height, seagulls glided above the street, moving without effort, as though it was always all downhill up there.
At the corner with Vernon Place, Falconer entered the Starlight Hotel, a once rundown, by-the-week joint he’d bought and remodeled, more than doubling its size with an addition filling the lot next door, vacant for 20 years after a fire. He knew plenty of the locals still hated him for building on the lot. It had become an informal neighborhood park and a place for overflow from the Sunday farmers’ market. Hell, they even resented him for changing the old hotel, though it didn’t look much different except for the color. He’d gagged on the mustard stucco and had it painted a faded brick red to fit in with the rest of the historic street. Inside, Falconer used his key to send the elevator to the fourth-floor of the addition, the penthouse that was his home and office.