Chapter 18, Assaggio
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m.
Falconer pulled out a chair and sat down opposite Carl Barclay who was eating lunch by himself. “Mind if I join you? I thought we could talk about a few things. You maybe could help me out.”
Barclay looked up from his paper. “Yes, I do. I mind. So fuck off, Falconer. I’m tired of talking to journalists. I came here to read. By myself.” He patted the New York Times open to the op-ed page beside his plate.
Falconer ignored him. “What I wanted to ask . . . I figured if anybody could, you could tell me, give me some kind of assessment . . .” Falconer performing in aw-shucks mode.
Barclay, feigning indifference, took a bite of pasta, penne dripping with cream and gorgonzola. Assaggio Ristorante, a high-end Italian place on Fourth, white tablecloths, bud vases with real flowers and an easy ten-minute walk from Barclay’s office, was one of the consultant’s favorite lunch spots. Falconer had learned that with only a couple calls.
“What I was wondering about is who might want to weaken the governor, you know, take her down a notch or two politically, maybe create a little doubt among the big donors she needs to write checks before the primary?”
Barclay paused, napkin to his lips, thoughtful, then he took the bait. “Lots of people.” This was politics, his game, not Victor’s. Safe ground, not the questions about the boat he had braced for.
“Maybe even you.” Falconer grinned. Barclay chuckled. Falconer knew Barclay’s interest had been with Andy Powell, the Democratic state senator Collins had defeated four years ago in the bitterest statewide race anyone had seen for years. This year it was the consultant’s good-old-boy connection with Sonny McCracken, though Barclay wasn’t officially part of the campaign. There had to be some humiliation, maybe some resentment, despite Barclay’s public equanimity and professed ability to work both sides when it came to the big issues.
“Maybe even me.”
“But supposing there’s someone who really wants to do it. Who tops the list?”
“You’re kind of far afield here, aren’t you, Falconer? You’re a true crime guy. My wife reads you all the time.”
“Apparently a lot of them do.”
“Wives. Lots of them.”
Barclay chuckled again. “No politics on your blog that I know of, so why do you want to know?”
“There are crimes in politics. Hell, Barclay, maybe politics is a crime.” Falconer laughed at himself. He hadn’t thought it would be this easy. Barclay’s hostility was gone, or at least set aside. “What do you make of her son’s arrest, drug charges, that bit?”
“I heard about it. Don’t know any details. What do you hear, Falconer, you’re the snoop?”
Falconer rattled off the summary: “Not that I imagine these Roosevelt and Lakeside kids are all that innocent but I think it was just a beer bash with the usual bit of weed and the hope of getting laid. The drugs arrived with three strangers none of the kids knew. I think they’re telling the truth about that. The party crashers set out a smorgasbord of junk on the coffee table – the usual fare for kids, weed, Ecstasy, but surprisingly even some meth. Apparently most of it was still there when the cops arrived. Neighbor called them – you know Victor Wallingford, don’t you? Lives on the water a couple houses closer to Webster Point.” Barclay paled, looked down at his pasta, hiding from Falconer the fear in his eyes. He felt sick. Fucking Victor.
“Yeah, I know Wallingford.” Spoken through a mouthful of pasta.
“I’ve done work for a couple of his companies. Him? I’m not close to him.” Barclay paused. Falconer heard the stress in his voice, wondered about it. “See him mostly at fundraisers. For the right cause, he’ll write a big check. Guy like that you want to have in your Rolodex.” Barclay had recovered his composure. “Or maybe these days have him as a Facebook friend.” He laughed. Falconer heard a bitterness.
“There’s some irony here since his own kid was arrested but it was Wallingford who called the cops, fire department, really, when he saw a fire down on the beach. Told the dispatcher he thought the Roberts’ boathouse was on fire. Cops came along, kids let them in and, lo and behold, the drugs. Off to jail for the three 18-year-olds including his daughter and poor, probably more or less innocent Will Collins. The dealers, pushers, party crashers, whatever you want to call them were long gone, of course. Not a trace. Kids said they probably set the fire, too. You all right?”
“Yeah, fine, thanks. Food’s too rich for me sometimes and I shouldn’t skip breakfast. ‘Eat regularly, small amounts.’ That’s what my doctor says. But you can’t beat this place, can you?” He took a deep draught of his wine, a Chianti Classico, bottle at hand next to the bud vase which held a pink rose. Barclay liked the richness of it, not a sissy wine. Robust he’d call it, if forced to use a wine-snob word. Victor would find overtones of chestnuts and truffles, or some shit like that. “What do you think?” he said, trying to deflect the conversation away from himself.
“About the Collins kid?”
“Yeah, bad luck or what?”
“Maybe a good old-fashioned frame up.” Falconer figured there was nothing to lose and maybe something to gain sharing suspicions with Barclay. And he didn’t want to rush getting to the real reason he was here, the reason Barclay assumed in the first place. This stuff about the Collins case – he was thinking of it that way now – however useful, was just the overture. “This frame up, if it is a frame up, could be aimed at any of the three 18-year-olds. Patricia Roberts, daughter of a federal judge. Judges have enemies coming out of the woodwork; Victor Wallingford, scion of an old Seattle timber family, nowadays a venture capitalist, highly visible, important guy in the community. Under the surface, though, always rumors about the people he’s screwed over, probably a few who’d want to give him grief over his beloved Amanda. Profile in Seattle Monthly last year said she’s the apple of his eye – wherever that old phrase comes from. And the governor’s son. So any one of the three.”
A waiter came by, lifted the bottle and poured for Barclay. The consultant gestured toward his glass. “You want some?”
Falconer declined, explained he was interviewing an elderly woman in an hour. Con artists raided her 401(k), grist for Falconerblog. “Not like the old days. A lot of people today frown on midday boozy breath. Well, you know that. Kind of like smoking: you’re no longer permitted to do it when and where you’d like. On the other hand, she could be half tanked on sherry when I get there. You never know.”
Barclay, happy to listen to Falconer’s rambling, probed a little further. “OK, any one of the three. But it’s not, really, is it? You’ve decided it’s part of some elaborate scheme to get at the governor politically. So why’s that? What else do you know?”
“Coincidence maybe, but . . .” Falconer reprised the out-of-wedlock-pregnancy-child-given-up-for-adoption story he’d been told by the woman at Vera’s, described the woman: mid forties, streaked hair, blonde highlights, darker eyebrows, gray eyes, no ring, maybe divorced.
“Lots of those around. I haven’t a clue. You actually looking for her?” Barclay forked up some more cream-dripping penne.
“No, but I wouldn’t mind finding whoever put her up to it. I think it’s someone who wants scandal, however old and desiccated, attached to the governor’s name. Maybe it’s a leap, but maybe it’s the same person who arranged for the party crashers loaded with drugs at the Roberts’ place.”
“And your interest is . . .?”
“Christ, Carl, you shouldn’t need to ask. It’s a great story.”
“And you’ll pursue it even if it hurts the governor?”
“Yes, assuming it’s factual. And if it’s a hoax then that becomes the story. In fact, for the moment assuming my hunch is on the mark, whoever’s behind these attempts to create mud – knowing there are plenty of folks ready to throw it – is probably the real story. That’s what, as a journalist, I want to get at. Am I deterred by the possible consequences to a politician who seems on balance to be doing a good job? No, because if I, or any other reporter or editor made that the standard, then we would quite quickly lose our way. If we started making decisions on what to write or how to write it based on what we thought was the best outcome and how the story would influence that, newspapers wouldn’t be worth much, would they?”
“And to think I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to get you guys to see it my way,” said Barclay, aiming a needle at Falconer’s bit of idealism. “Trying, and not always unsuccessfully, to influence the outcomes,”
“So it goes,” said Falconer, a little deflated but not interested in being combative in defense of the press, something he found increasingly difficult in the face of public attitudes hardened since he’d started in the business.
Barclay twirled his glass, stared for a moment at the dark wine, drank. “Two things. One is I’ve heard this rumor about a Maureen Collins bastard child a couple of times before, first time maybe six, seven years ago when she was still on the King County Council and starting to think about a statewide race. Does its reappearance increase the likelihood it’s true? Don’t get your hopes up. But the second thing maybe holds water. If what you say is true, somebody went to some trouble to set up both the stories here, hired an actress or some kind of down-on-her-luck floozy to plant the story with you, and rounded up – who? – maybe some smalltime junior dealers or just users to plant drugs at the Roberts’ house and then, assuming they lit the fire, make sure the cops showed up to find the nice little display they left behind. So I’d grant your hypothesis that someone’s out to smear Ms. Collins. Is that what you came to hear me say?”
“That’s part of it.”
Barclay braced himself for the rest, suddenly realizing the Collins thing was just preamble, the opening gambit. “It’s been nice talking to you, Falconer. But let’s stop here before you piss me off.” He finished his wine, poured more from the bottle. “Right now you’re my favorite journalist. It wouldn’t take much to change that.”
“Aren’t you interested in clearing yourself?” Falconer cursed himself. That was a dumb way to put that question, not likely to yield any openness from Barclay.
“Clearing myself? What the fuck are you talking about? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Barclay’s voice rose. A couple people at the nearer tables looked his way, prepared to be irritated. “I’ve been trying, as you so quaintly put it, ‘to clear myself’ all week. But you can’t prove a negative, can you? There’s no connection between A and B. I’ve said it a thousand times, and they say: ‘But there might be, Carl, we just haven’t found it yet.’ So nothing gets them off my back.” He stared at the wine glass for a moment, a little relieved to be talking about the murder boat as though he were completely disconnected but still wondering what would come next, how the cops could prove anything. Find the Swiss? Trace the cash paid for the moorage through some chain of lowlifes back to Victor. He took another drink. The bottle was three-fourths empty.
“Maybe a bad choice of words,” said Falconer. “What I meant was if you’re innocent – and you know the cops are wasting their time with you and you think it’s getting to be harassment – why don’t you put some effort into finding the real perps and what they were up to, find a lead, hand it to the cops? There are private guys around here who’ll do that kind of thing.”
“That’s the fucking cops’ job and they’re not doing it.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but proving you innocent is not their job, at least not the way they see it. Right now they love you, swarming around like flies on a fresh turd. You’re it. They’re not looking for alternatives.”
“Yeah, and they’re playing tag, following me around. Makes you feel guilty just walking down the street, you know, imagining what kind of spin they put on your actions, always looking for criminal intent, nothing at face value. ‘What’s he up to, going into that bar, who’s he going to meet?’ A client for a drink, for Christ’s sake, happens every day.”
“So tell me then. What’s this case all about? You’re not involved except for this . . . ‘coincidence.’ But that’s put you in the cops’ spotlight, center ring in the media circus since the boat was found. You’ve probably thought about the killer or killers’ motives, the reason for the stealth ‘Barclay boat,’ more than anybody. What’s your theory?”
“This is all for your newsletter or whatever you call it, isn’t it?”
“Why not? When they find the real bad guys and you’re exonerated, I write the only story that answers the questions people have about what it was like to be wrongly pursued by the cops, what was going on in your head and what you thought the cops ought to be doing. Hey, it’s bad enough to get a traffic ticket. Everybody hates it, figures the cops ought to be out in the woods chopping up meth labs with fire axes instead of catching commuters going 42 on Dexter Avenue. How much worse it must be to have them tailing you around downtown trying to pin a murder on you when all you’re doing is walking a few blocks to have lunch.”
“Nice try, Falconer, but we’re done. I’m not biting. Interview over. Beat it. I gotta read the paper.” The waiter stepped in and took the empty plate.
“Desert, Mr. Barclay?”
“Just coffee. Decaf. Thanks.”
Falconer stood up. With some venom, Barclay asked him, “Do you secretly tape these little assaults? I know you got enough of my ranting to give you a story.”
“You’ve been watching too much TV, Mr. Barclay. Without your consent, it’s still against the law. I’ll write down what I remember. Call me if you change your mind. Hell, call me if you want to hire an investigator. I know a few.” Falconer dropped his business card on the table. Barclay picked it up and looked at the peregrine in full color, yellow eye staring back at him.
“Here in the city they hunt pigeons, peregrines do,” said Falconer. “Take them right in flight, an explosion of feathers as if they were shot.” Falconer slipped between the tables and out onto Fourth Avenue.
When his coffee came, Barclay asked the waiter for a shot of Courvoisier. When that arrived he poured it into the coffee. Fear had him again. He could smell the sour sweat and he felt drops run cold under his shirt. Today, anytime now, Hanran or somebody in his organization would call. Carl knew he would tell them about the Swiss. But what good would that do them, or him? Dieter was gone, vanished, paid off handsomely by Victor, no doubt. He could be anywhere in the world, back in Asia or the Middle East or home in some tiny Swiss village – if he was really Swiss – having goat cheese and pastries for breakfast with his aging mom. That’s all Carl knew. Just about nothing. What more would they want?
His cell phone rang.
Chapter 19, Westin Hotel
Friday June 13, 6 p.m.
The Westin lobby was jammed. A convention had brought several thousand financial and income tax advisors and some of their spouses to town. For the unattached and those whose significant others didn’t make the trip, the bar against the windows on Fifth Avenue hardly needed to serve alcohol to pump up the hopes for hooking up. Single female tax accountants were in high demand. There was time for a few drinks before the sunset cruise around Elliott Bay.
Theresa Dalton skirted the edge of the excitement – the buzz of small talk from a hundred people, drinks in hand, scattered among groupings of uncomfortable furniture – and headed for the escalators that would take her up three flights to the Grand Ballroom.
The $100 she’d paid to the Coalition for Environmental Action got Theresa a name tag and chits for two free drinks at any of the bars set up in the lobby or in the corners of the ballroom where 80 round tables, each set for 10, awaited the diners. With nearly $200 of Falconer’s money, she’d bought a low-cut black dress of finely woven soft cotton that fit and flowed, revealing and concealing the curve of her hips as she walked. She expected it would buy her some conversation. Three guys in suits in line at one of the bars looked like a good place to start.
As soon as they noticed her move into line behind them, which, gratifyingly, took less than three seconds, Theresa stuck out her hand and introduced herself. She’d long ago learned that anything, no matter how inane or mundane, would do to start a conversation. “Which table are you guys at?”
The tallest one responded. “Tom and I are at one of the Washington General tables. WaGen is a platinum sponsor, the bank always puts fifteen, twenty thousand into the Coalition. Peter is with Pafeco. I’m William Billings, intergovernmental affairs for WaGen.”
“Tom Cartwright. I work with William, otherwise known as Double Bill or Bill Squared. Answers to anything, knows everybody.”
“I’m Peter Blankenship. Public affairs for Pafeco.”
“Pleased to meet you all. Nothing so grand for me. Just a former journalist. Now I do leadership training and capacity development consulting for . . . oh, for anybody who’ll hire me. You know how it is when you’re on your own.” Theresa laughed and they laughed with her.
“You used to be with the Times, right? About five years ago? You wrote a story about elder abuse in nursing homes, won a Pulitzer or something like that, if I recall.” This was Peter, the shortest of them, not quite Theresa’s 5’10”, round faced, smooth shaven, cheeks patted with some trendy aftershave. “I thought I knew your name.”
“You have an amazing memory . . . Peter? You see, I can barely remember a name for thirty seconds. Not a Pulitzer, though, just a couple wooden plaques from local organizations. I might still have them in a box somewhere.”
“You lobby, you gotta know the names of the players,” Peter replied, in a tone that said this was a burdensome fact of life, just part of a job he didn’t entirely care for. “They ran your picture with the series. I was pretty sure I recognized you.”
“Another amazing feat of memory!” But also, she thought, a little creepy and Theresa was glad she no longer had such a public face. She didn’t think the guy ever would have remembered Falconer or another male reporter from his picture in the paper.
The line moved ahead and the subject changed. “How about in support of small business, WaGen buys you a drink?” Double Bill offered. “What would you like.”
“A glass of white wine would be great. Thanks.”
Billings ordered. Wine, a couple micro brews, and for himself a “Blast for the Environment,” a green drink consisting mostly of vodka that the bartender drew from a reservoir in an ice sculpture of evergreen trees that formed a backdrop to the bar.
Drinks in hand, they stepped away from the crush around the bar. “Maybe you guys can help me out.” Theresa wanted to get what information she could before they drifted away. She could tell they were already looking past her, scanning the crowd for people they hoped to see, drop a word to, check with to assure support for industry legislation. “A friend of mine said I should introduce myself to Carl Barclay, that he was someone who could help me with contacts. Any of you know him? Seen him yet?”
They laughed, exchanged glances. Peter rolled his eyes.
“Here’s to Carl: mentor, scoundrel, powerful son of a bitch,” said Cartwright, raising his glass. “Haven’t seen him come in but if you can connect with him and do anything to help his clients, you’ve got yourself on the gravy train, Ms. Dalton.”
“Any suggestions for how I do that?”
It was Billings, the leader, who answered. “All clients need handholding. They hate Olympia even at the same time they’re using the legislative process to their own advantage. What business guys see in Olympia is too many people in on the deal. Most of the time they don’t understand the trade-offs that have to be made, a vote one legislator might have to give to another for support on something else, deals that don’t have anything to do with the client’s legislation. Multiply that dynamic by a hundred and you have an idea of the complexity. The clients hate that; they hate the uncertainty. Our job is to cushion that for them. They just want a business decision.
“Our companies, they think we’re pretty good,” added Cartwright. A pause and grins all around. Maybe good at pulling wool over eyes, Theresa thought. “After all, we still have jobs.” At this, all three laughed, which seemed to confirm Theresa’s suspicions about the insubstantiality of influence peddling. All balls in the air, all the time.
“But back at the office,” Billings continued, “when we try to explain what’s going on and why some treasured piece of legislation is being held up, our bosses don’t get it or if they do get it – because it’s really not that hard to figure out – they either tune out or get pissed and they wonder why they’re paying us so much for nothing. Barclay is a master at making sure a hundred side deals get cut so his client’s bills pass but if you can convince him that ‘leadership training and capacity development’ is handholding then maybe Barclay can see a way to use you. And to be quite frank, Ms. Dalton, there is still a lot of sexism around – I’m sure that’s not news to you – and Carl Barclay almost certainly has clients for whom your appearance would be an influential plus.”
The bluntness of that assessment and harshness of the underlying reality begged for a sharp counter but Theresa, knowing why she’d bought the dress, figured she couldn’t throw stones. “So what’s he like, Barclay? What kind of clients does he have?”
Double Bill must have sensed he’d worn out his welcome. “Tom, you and Peter try and answer Ms. Dalton’s question, OK? I’ve to talk to a guy over there about saving Puget Sound.” He waved at someone across the room and slalomed away through the crowd.
“Barclay used to do a lot more for the enviros like CEA ten, fifteen years ago and he still knows how to doctor a bill when his clients need enviro votes,” said Peter, “but he doesn’t really work for the environmental agenda anymore. He stays in touch, comes to all these kinds of fundraisers, gives good money. He’ll have donated a thousand or two thousand for tonight, probably bought a table or two, invited some clients but he won’t bother to stay for the auction if he can shake all the right hands before dinner.”
“I’m kinda surprised we haven’t seen him yet. The guy can really work a room and we’d know if he was here.” This from Cartwright. “He’s running with the venture capitalists these days, mostly biotechs, trying to keep regulations away from startups. I think he’s got some outfit doing wireless Internet, probably a dozen more retainers you can look up in the public disclosure files and one client that makes his life hard, a good old fashioned timber baron.”
“Anybody I know?”
“Oh yeah. You’ll have heard of him. Victor Wallingford, pioneer timber family and tree cutting madman in the 80s and 90s. Dumped all the earnings into tech startups. Made a lot and lost most of it in the dot-com bust. That’s what you hear, anyway.”
Tom emptied his beer and Peter took up the story with the relish of a gossip columnist. “Dumped seems to be the operative word, too. The rap is he came late to the venture capital game, made a lot of quick and rash investments, trying to catch up with the other old families – most of whom diversified way back in the middle of the last century – and got hammered when the value of techie stocks evaporated. They say he’s bitter about that. Blew his chance to put his family back on top and hasn’t got many more trees left to liquidate, though with this housing slowdown I don’t know what good it would do if he did. Anyway, in Olympia, he’s not a team player and that drives Barclay nuts. Wallingford won’t support business legislation unless he’s a direct beneficiary. Wearing his timber-baron blinders, Wallingford has torpedoed a couple of high stakes business-enviro compromises that Barclay worked really hard to put together. The implosion of those deals has really hurt Carl’s reputation and I’m amazed he hasn’t fired the client.”
“So Barclay’s maybe not so hot right now and maybe I should forget about trying to pitch him?”
“If it was me, yeah. I’d stay away,” said Peter.
“He’s not cool right now, Theresa. But you have us.” Tom grinning, an expression somewhere between sly and impish. “Give us your card. Maybe we’ll come across something. I know guys who do staff development inside the bank. They might have something. You could come in and talk to them.”
Appreciative thanks from Theresa, though she regretted giving her card to Peter. A bit of small talk and the three parted, the two men to schmooze with bigger fish. Tom took her hand in both of his when they shook and Theresa wondered if maybe the dress was over the top, working a little too well. She wound her way through the crowd back to the registration desk to find out if Carl Barclay had bought a table and what the number was so she could find it.