Read The Lasko Tangent Online

Authors: Richard North Patterson

The Lasko Tangent (2 page)

Two

 

 

McGuire’s munchkin opened the door, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Miss Carelli’s here,” she bubbled.

She was eclipsed by a striking young woman. Tall and slender, her long hair was as black as her eyes, which took us in with a quick, opaque stare. The eyes were her startling feature; they were wide set on high Indian cheekbones. I figured her for my age, twenty-nine, but she threw off a primal force.

The impact was softened a bit by her delayed smile; the flash of white teeth gave her an amused adventurous look. “Gentlemen,” she nodded. The word was faintly sardonic. I watched her as the gentlemen said their hellos. It struck me that she thought that she was slumming.

Feiner whisked out a chair with the expertise of a butler. She sat, long legs flashing as they crossed under her simple white dress. The dress set off a dark tan which had been acquired with some trouble. The little vanity was curious; it made her seem less remote. I filed the thought away and sat back.

“I appreciate your time, Mr. McGuire.” Her voice was low and carefully modulated. The effect was almost consciously well bred.

McGuire was unusually formal. “Of course. The Lasko case is a complicated matter.”

She nodded. “Chairman Woods has asked me to monitor the case. I’d like someone here to keep me up to date.” The language and tone mixed command with request. But the eyes didn’t miss anything. I revised my opinion. She wasn’t slumming; she was an anthropologist.

McGuire’s interest in the girl was strictly derivative; he spoke through her as if she were a microphone wired to the Chairman’s ear. “We’ll be happy to do that. I’ve assigned Chris here”—his thumb jabbed at me—“to keep your office informed.”

She had forgotten my name. She looked at me now with the cool appraising air of a scientist touring a dog pound, searching for experimental subjects. I hoped she would pass me up.

“Now you’re who?”

“I’m Christopher Paget.”

She nodded briskly. “OK, I’d appreciate it if you would come by my office this afternoon.” It was not a request. The Chairman was becoming a palpable presence.

“I’ll be sure and do that,” I said dryly.

McGuire shifted uncomfortably and looked through the ceiling at the Chairman’s office, four stories up. The girl made a quick mental calculation and decided to overlook it. “I’ll call you to set up a time.”

I nodded. She looked at me a split-second more, then turned back to McGuire. She spoke with more assurance, as if knowing that my annoyance signaled McGuire’s compliance. “Anything surrounding Lasko is very delicate. The Chairman wants to clear investigative steps before they happen. He’s concerned that this case not hurt the agency.” Her eyes flashed to me. “We have to keep out of trouble.” I figured she intended to keep me well out of trouble. I kept silent, and made a mental reservation about the frequency of my reports.

McGuire was nodding for me. “Chris will keep in touch. Is there anything else we can do?” His solicitous voice still seemed to waft upwards.

“Not now.” Ms. Carelli knew when to get off stage. She rose quickly. “Thank you for your time.” She swept us with a quick, obligatory smile, and let herself out. The closing door cut off the last probe of the black eyes, looking at me.

“Terrific,” I said, to no one in particular.

McGuire turned. “Just what’s your problem?”

“Other than Typhoid Mary?” It might as well be now, I thought. “The Hartex case. This one is starting like Hartex ended up.”

McGuire’s eyes showed both defensiveness and anger. “Go on,” he challenged.

“Look, I worked on Hartex for a year. I talked to people who had lost their shirts. There wasn’t a week I didn’t have some ruined life haunting my office like Hamlet’s father. I told them we would help. Then I go on vacation for a week. I call in last Thursday and discover you’ve settled the case. While I’m gone, the Hartex people send down a Wall Street type, the one who used to be Deputy Secretary of State. He tells you how much he respects you, and how a lot of trouble can be saved. In return for no jail, he agrees to an injunction promising that his clients will never swindle anyone again. They don’t need to, because they’ve just waltzed into affluent retirement. And we issue a press release that makes this out as the biggest coup since Tricky Dick turned back into a pumpkin. I tell you, Joe, the way we play the game is really amazing.”

McGuire’s eyes were stupid with surprise. He slowly turned to look out at the Capitol, as if calling upon it for support. Apparently, he got it. He pivoted with an expression of righteous contempt. “Look, I don’t run this place just to please you. Every year I have to justify my budget to the commission and Congress—show them I close my cases. How do you think I’ve gotten here?” Now McGuire was shouting; each word thrust him out over the table toward me. Somehow I thought of an earthmover. “I can’t let you get tied up on a frigging crusade. Your job is to question witnesses and get me the facts, not make policy. So if I don’t have time to consult with you that’s tough shit.”

McGuire’s face was an attractive red. Feiner had the bleak satisfied look of a Jesuit who had rooted out a heresy. But disillusion pushed me on. “The Hartex people should have been indicted, prosecuted, and jailed. And we could have helped get some money back. Instead, our settlement shafted the stockholders. The only places it will ever look good are in our press releases and reports to Congress. Both of which are unadulterated bullshit.”

McGuire smashed his palm on the table like a murderer squashing a fly. Feiner winced as if he were the next fly. He was all caged tension with nowhere to go. McGuire stared at the dead invisible fly, then at me. “I don’t get this crap from the other guys.” Feiner nodded on behalf of the other guys.

I shrugged. “They’re not my problem, Joe.”

“So what makes you so courageous?” This was half inquiry, half sarcasm.

“Because I have to live with myself.”

This last echoed back to me with an unhappily pompous ring. Suddenly I was tired of McGuire, tired of the argument, and tired of myself. Most of all I was tired of feeling cynical, and wishing I didn’t.

McGuire was just tired of me. “Maybe people like you don’t have to pay your dues,” he said in a flat oblique voice. McGuire had never had money; he’d had a lifetime to consider his attitude toward people like me. It wasn’t hard to see how the former Deputy Secretary had cut his deal. He was a fine old WASP who treated McGuire with deference. The deference was McGuire’s reward; it made punishment negotiable.

The insight didn’t help me. I felt superior and disliked myself for it. The fight had taken on a whining undertone of buried resentments older than Hartex and bigger than the ECC. I tried to end it. “OK, I’ve said what I wanted to say.”

McGuire hesitated, as if distracted by his failure to have the last word. The thought got the best of him. “You think because you’re a hotshot, I have to put up with this. I don’t.”

“That’s true. You don’t.” One day, I thought, I would push it too far. But I had Feiner to remind me of what I didn’t want to be. His face was a frozen mask of attention, turned to McGuire. I figured he must spend his nights chiseling McGuire’s every word in marble.

McGuire was looking me over, as if sizing me for a firing. “You’d better get with it,” he finally said.

There was nothing more to say. I left, his sourness trailing after me.

I walked back to my office. I wasn’t happy. The Lasko case came complete with White House interest, a meddling Chairman, and a supercilious female lawyer. I was on a very short leash, and didn’t know who was holding the other end. So I decided to call Jim Robinson.

“Hello?” he answered.

“What’s Mary Carelli?”

“I don’t know, Chris. Maybe if you take penicillin it will go away.”

I laughed. “I’m especially interested in political connections, how she got her job—stuff like that.”

“You a lawyer or a reporter today?”

“I just want to know what I’m dealing with.”

He paused. “I’ll see.”

“Thanks. Catch you this afternoon.”

I depressed the receiver and called Lane Greenfeld at the Washington Post. After that I got the Lasko file. I riffled it for an hour or so. Then I checked my watch and left the building.

Three

 

 

Greenfeld and I had agreed to lunch near the Hill.

I beat him to the restaurant and secured a table which was jammed to the side of a darkish room. The decor was instant men’s club: brick walls, stained brown beams, and heavy furniture. I ordered a light rum and tonic and looked over the clientele. The faces moved through intense talk, explosive laughter, and professionally amiable smiles. In one corner a squat man with a lobbyist’s beefy confidence was jabbing a stubby finger at an obscure and worried-looking junior senator. I resolved out of boredom to watch whether the senator’s attention broke. He was still hanging on when Greenfeld cut off my line of sight.

He grinned. “Is this déjà vu, malaise, or ennui?”

I considered my answer with mock gravity. “Fin de siècle,” I concluded. I inspected his Cardin suit. “Are you bucking for Paris correspondent?”

He sat down. “Just fashion editor.” Greenfeld was a taut testament to good metabolism. He had black hair, large, perceptive eyes, and a faintly amused look. The eyes suggested that he was amused because he understood more than the rest of us. “Now, you”—he stretched out the words—“look the very figure of entrenched capitalist privilege.”

I smiled. The banter was typical. Greenfeld’s reporting was spartanly self-edited; the excess found refuge in his speech. He liked wordplay, sonorous phrases, and verbal sparring. His conversation was a pleasure which sometimes required strict attention. I had the pleasure fairly often; we were what passed for close friends among people too busy to achieve intimacy. The knowledge reminded me unhappily of how little time I’d had since school.

Greenfeld ordered an old-fashioned. “How are things at the commission?”

“Kafka lives.” I tried to contain my problems with the place. “And the Post?”

He turned his palms upward in a little shrugging gesture. “They keep the pressure on.” He didn’t seem terribly impressed. It was one of the things I liked about him.

I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks and had to stretch for his roommate’s name. I retrieved it. “How’s Lynette?”

The boyish face became guarded and he stared at his cuffs. They seemed to interest him. Finally he spoke to his old-fashioned. “She hasn’t been around lately.” The words were uninflected, as if someone had unplugged his personality.

It seemed less awkward to finish than to switch subjects. I stumbled on. “What happened?”

He shifted slightly in his chair. “It wasn’t working.” Greenfeld was an observer, not a revealer; he discussed the personal only by indirection. I guessed that he had called it off. But his friendship required recognition of limits I probably understood better than most. I tried to slide out on a light note.

“You’re a hard man, Lane.”

Greenfeld gave me a wry, sour smile. “I guess it’s just part of ‘being cool in the seventies.’” He used the phrase to mock his own detachment. But he could already identify a time when he had liked himself better. I wondered if that were the problem.

Greenfeld snapped to the realization that his second persona was warring with his first. “I can give you a pretty good rundown on Lasko. He’s a splendid fellow.” Quickly Greenfeld was back on balance, his voice animated, as if his own working competence had given him a foothold.

“One of America’s heroes,” I smiled. “Give me what you’ve got.”

“Tell me what you know and I’ll fill in the rest.”

“OK. Lasko’s about forty-five. Very smart. Son of a steel worker from Youngstown, Ohio. Nice place. Ran with a pretty tough crowd when he was growing up. Apparently he’s kept some for friends. Got drafted and became a Korean War hero of sorts, based on a not-too-surprising talent for killing people. He went to college on the GI Bill and then got an M.B.A. So far, a heartwarming but typical story of upward mobility. Then he somehow managed to get himself involved in Florida real estate, which is where he made his first money. Also did some land deals in Arizona. Supposedly, these were pretty sleazy—a lot of it involved selling undeveloped land to Mom and Pop pensioner types, although presumably he had no inherent objection to ripping off widows and orphans either. Things got sticky for him after a while, so he sold out his interests and bought a chain of nursing centers. Apparently he’d decided to make a specialty of the aged. From what I hear the nursing centers were better than Bergen-Belsen, but worse than Fort Benning. He sold them at a profit just before the state legal authorities decided to investigate. Which left him wealthy, but underemployed.” Greenfeld had reassumed the amused look. Occasionally, his eyes would focus on a fact, as if indexing it in proper order with his own information. I paused. He nodded me on.

“The next part is more directly relevant. Lasko decided to become a captain of industry. In the early sixties, he bought a small outfit in Boston called Technical Instrument, which was into computer and electronic equipment. Lasko renamed it Lasko Devices, and built it up. Among his supposed techniques were strong-arming and blackmailing competitors, as well as industrial espionage. None of that has ever been proven. When the company got larger in the mid-sixties, he came out with a public stock offering. It’s traded on the New York Exchange. He also joined the conglomerate movement, and was sued for looting one of his acquisitions. He settled that one out of court.

“Lasko Devices is still his main interest, though. He’s landed some good contracts with the Department of Defense and the company has increasingly taken over certain parts of the electronics industry. He’s also gotten more respectable. His success was helped along by mere garden-variety violations of the antitrust laws, like price-cutting. About four years ago, the Department of Justice sued to force Lasko to give up certain holdings of Lasko Devices so that he couldn’t monopolize parts of the electronics market. That would really hurt him and he’s fighting it in court. Other than that, Lasko has cleaned up his act. He’s traded in his white shoes for pin-striped suits. Lectures at business schools. Visits the White House. Has audiences with the Pope. Holds seminars on world poverty. He’s famous. He’s a prince. I love him.” Greenfeld smiled. I was out of material. “Does that do it?”

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