Read The Lasko Tangent Online

Authors: Richard North Patterson

The Lasko Tangent (4 page)

Hearing the alternatives out loud gave me a bleak, wasted feeling. “So where am I?”

He answered me indirectly. “I hear you had another hassle with McGuire this morning.”

“News travels fast.”

“You gave Ike Feiner fifteen minutes alone to chortle.”

“I didn’t know he was capable of chortling.”

Robinson gave a smile which didn’t connect with his eyes. “Look, McGuire and Feiner are already pissed at you. If you start rattling the wrong cages, they could really screw you. On the outside too. Don’t think the firms in this town don’t ask around before they hire a government lawyer. If McGuire lets the word out you’re not welcome here, you’ll be as popular as the clap.”

That was right, I knew. But the rewards of good behavior seemed weightless. I didn’t know what I wanted and didn’t want what I could have. Perhaps McGuire was right about people like me. “I appreciate what you’ve said, Jim. But I just got it tucked to me on the Hartex case. The next time I go down kicking and screaming.”

He looked disturbed. “That may happen.”

“I’m running out of time here, anyhow.”

“It’s the only career you’ve got. I wouldn’t take it so lightly.”

“Believe me, I don’t.”

Robinson stared at me thoughtfully. “OK,” he finally said. “I called a friend of mine at Civil Service. Carelli got out of law school when you did. University of Chicago, top 10 per cent. Scholarship student. The records show that she went to work as a staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee, the bunch that keeps tabs on us. So I called a guy I know over at the committee. Turns out he knew her, but not as well as you might think. She keeps her private life to herself. He did say that she is very tough and very partisan. She didn’t have any rank on him, but he crossed her up on something and nearly lost his job. Turned out she had some senator’s ear. So my buddy’s not her biggest booster. But he admits that she is very smart. So that’s it,” he concluded in an unimpressed tone. “A typical Washington biography. If you hanged people in this town for being political, you wouldn’t have anyone left to answer the phone.”

He was still eyeing me. “All right,” I smiled, “I’ll put her on the back burner.”

Robinson looked relieved. I rose, then remembered McGuire’s lunch. “I heard a rumor,” I fabricated, “that one of the commissioners was leaving.” If one really was, it was news to me. “But I forgot who. Heard anything?”

“Yeah. I had lunch with Ludlow’s assistant the other day. He says Ludlow’s going back into private practice. But keep that down. He hasn’t announced it yet, and the White House hasn’t come up with a replacement.”

Joe McGuire would do nicely. “That’s too bad. I liked Ludlow. Well, I’d better get to work on a subpoena for Sam Green. Next Monday OK with you?”

“Fine.” He leaned back. “You know, this kind of case only makes careers in reverse. So stick to Lasko and leave the other alone.”

I knew what he meant. Robinson liked thinking about Green and Lasko much better than thinking about Mary Carelli. He had organized his world long ago. Carelli, he, and I were all “shirts” Green and Lasko were “skins.” I couldn’t really blame him. It made keeping score a lot easier.

I took some files back to my office to work on Green’s subpoena. Debbie had a phone message from Mary Carelli. The first tug on my leash. I thought about ignoring it. Then I headed out to see what she wanted.

Five

 

 

The trip to the Chairman’s office was upward, both literally and esthetically. The top floor suite was a soothing collection of rust shag rugs, white walls, padded leather, and impressionist paintings. What struck me, though, was the quiet, as if good taste swallowed noise. I was used to the third floor catacombs—sounds of typing, telephones, shouts, and footsteps ping-ponging between tile and cinder blocks. It was as though I had stepped from a rush hour subway directly into a library. The sensation was pleasant. I found myself wondering how it felt to McGuire.

The receptionist fit the room. She was a thin, birdlike woman who could have been the custodian of rare books. I stifled the urge to request the Summa Theologica and asked instead for Mary Carelli. I had barely sunk into one of the leather chairs when Chairman Woods surprised me.

“You’re Chris Paget, aren’t you? I’m Jack Woods.” He was tall—about six feet two—and broad shouldered, with short brown hair. He offered me a large, strong hand, and gestured toward his office with the other. “Come on in and chat for a second. Mary’s running a little late.” He had a deep, rich voice and a youthful lopsided smile which knocked several years off an age I gauged at late thirties. It was all very democratic. I trailed him into his office.

Woods waved me in and sat behind a simple cherry desk. I chose another padded chair and looked around. The office had the same look of shag and cool white. The walls were improved by two bright Chagall prints, from which effect I subtracted the stolid cheerlessness of one formal picture of the President. His books ranged from financial tomes to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, several Faulkner novels, and a volume of poetry by Dylan Thomas. I searched his face for clues as to whether he had read any of them. The dark blue eyes, strong jaw, and broad, open face were pleasant, but uninformative. Of more interest was his nose; it had once been aquiline but now featured a couple of detours to the right. I remembered that he had played football; someone’s elbow had lent his face some character. It gave a faintly jarring hint of subcutaneous tension to the nice-boy look. But it told me nothing about the books.

He had followed my eyes. “I don’t have much time for reading these days. Breaking into this job has been a real experience.” The engaging smile reappeared. “I hope I can keep up.”

I wasn’t used to commissioners seeking my encouragement. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

He looked thoughtfully at the Chagalls, as if they had some connection to his work. “Still, I’m concerned. A lot of commissioners come into agencies like this for PR value. They punch their tickets and leave. But they never really learn their jobs. Never really have an impact. I don’t want to be another one.” I agreed with him about ticket-punching. But if this was just for my benefit, he was an awfully quick study. I half-believed in his sincerity.

Woods waved up at the law school diploma which hung behind his desk. “You went there, too, didn’t you, Chris?”

I wondered whether he knew as much about McGuire’s other ninety-nine lawyers. “Yes, I did. I got out three years ago.”

Woods smiled slightly at the diploma, as if satisfied that we were peers. Then he turned his candid eyes to me. “I’m very concerned about the Lasko case.” He spoke seriously, leaning forward as if he wished to share the full weight of his concern.

I chose a neutral tone. “So I understand.”

The eyes seemed to at once accord trust and demand attention. He was very, very good. “I’m concerned for several reasons. To be honest, I know I’m young for this job. I want to do well here. And I don’t want this agency to act indiscreetly. That means both that I don’t want us to go out on a limb and that I don’t want inaccurate charges against Lasko to rub off on the President. Is that understandable?”

I said that it was. He continued. “But most of all, I want this investigation to be good. I don’t want anyone to say we dropped the ball, or pulled punches. It’s how an agency handles cases like this that sets the tone for whether it’s got basic integrity or is just another hack outfit. I’m political, sure, and I’ve existed in a political world. But I came over here to do a job.” His eyes locked in an intent, determined look. “And I believe the best politics, in the long run, is to do that job as fairly and honestly as I can.”

If that were true, I was all for him. “I’ll do what I can to help.”

“Just keep in touch with Mary,” he said easily. “I want to know what’s happening in this thing.” His voice dropped, and his words took on a slow rhythmic emphasis. “But if you need anything, any help at all, don’t hesitate to come to me direct. I’ll do anything reasonable to help you out.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good.” He rose. “You’ll be wanting to talk to Mary.” I wasn’t so sure, but my time was clearly up. We walked together to his door.

“Thanks, Chris.” He shook my hand again. “I hear you’re very good at this. I’ll look forward to seeing you.” The smile that went with the handshake said that he meant it. “And I’ll need your help on other things as I go along.” The warm voice bespoke pleasant hours of purposeful escape from my catacombs, amidst the impressionist serenity. He instructed the receptionist to get Mary Carelli, then backed into his office and closed the door. He left behind a bracing warmth, like a shot of good whiskey. I returned to the subject of the books. My best guess was that Woods read them, then recorded choice quotes on index cards to be fit into future speeches. Substance and surface rubbing together. It was a measure of his skill that I didn’t mind.

I was enjoying the padded chair when I noticed that it was 5:15. Mary Carelli emerged from her office and wordlessly waved me in. The experimental subject had been sealed and delivered. I liked her less than ever. When I got to the door, she was already behind her desk looking at a notepad and waiting for me to sit. So I leaned against the door frame until she looked up. Her eyes were watchful and didn’t change with her smile, which seemed to measure itself to the nearest millimeter. She nodded toward a chair. “Come on in and sit down.”

I looked at my watch with studied deliberation. “Does whatever we’re going to do have to be done today?”

She sat up in her chair and squared her shoulders. Set against the white walls and the hanging plants in her window, she looked mint cool. “Don’t be bureaucratic. I’d just as soon talk to you now.” The voice was cool too—a touch of scorn amidst a lot of indifference.

I didn’t move. “I’m not bureaucratic. Just thirsty. I’ve talked more today than I care to and listened to more than I like to hear. A good deal of it nonsense. So I’m thirsty—and bored.”

She sat holding her pad, still except for her left hand, which idly rubbed the pad between forefingers and thumb. It was as if all but her fingertips was under military occupation. She spoke with measured impatience. “So what do you suggest?”

“I’ve suggested to myself that I have a gin and tonic on the deck of the Hotel Washington, and marvel at our nation’s capitol. I’d be happy to buy you a drink and talk business there.” Once I’d asked, I wasn’t so sure. But it beat sitting at attention in her office by a comfortable margin.

Her body was a stiff parody of resistance. Finally, she willed it away. “All right. But I don’t intend to make a habit of this.”

I knew what she meant, but played dense. “Why?” I asked innocently. “You married?”

She looked at me askance. “No. Divorced.”

I believed it. We left, more or less in tandem.

The deck of the Hotel Washington overlooked the Potomac, the White House, and the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln memorials, surrounded by grass and trees. From this distance, the squalid brown of the Potomac was blue, and carried a toy armada of trim pleasure craft. Arlington Cemetery sat in soft green hills, an optimist’s glimpse of eternity. The vivid view had an odd unreality, like a mural of the tourists’ imagined Washington. It was possible here to drink oneself into a dazed belief in the dramatic Washington of political fiction: statesmen launching soliloquies at moonlit marble, musing over the fate of Western civilization. The real Washington sat around me: knit-suited bureaucrats, drinking gin with tight mouths, nibbling on salted peanuts and calculations of small chances for petty gains. I looked out again and decided that I had a mild case of overcynicism. On its merits, the view was lovely.

Mary and I sat in awkward silence staring out at the view. She was as remote as the marble. I would have preferred having a drink with the Washington Monument; it wasn’t so embarrassing when it didn’t talk to you. Instead I ordered two gin and tonics and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. Finally, I asked her what it was that she wanted. She told me. So I gave her the rundown she requested—what I had found and what I intended, including the subpoena to Sam Green. The last part caught her interest.

“Have you already sent the subpoena?”

“Yes,” I lied.

She looked angry and unsettled, for reasons I couldn’t fathom. She sat erect and marshalled her shoulders again. I was beginning to read her better. She seemed to expend a lot of energy just keeping herself under control. And the rest of it controlling others. “I thought it was understood that you would clear investigative steps with our office before you took them.”

“It was?”

She looked annoyed, like a teacher with an overaged discipline problem. “You don’t seem to understand the implications of this thing.”

“You know, I didn’t get the impression from your boss that you and I were going to be Siamese twins.”

She wasn’t sure what Woods and I had talked about. She shifted ground slightly. “You’re making this Sam Green come all the way to Washington on pretty weak evidence. It’s like a form of harassment.”

I thought of my pen pal, the jailbird stockbroker. I grinned. “Tell it to the American Civil Liberties Union. They’ve got a file on me. You can find it under ‘N,’ for ‘Nazi.’”

Her eyes seemed to look clear through me, as if I wasn’t there. Which was clearly her wish. She bunched her hands in a determined little gesture. “We’re going to have to get this situation straightened out. I don’t have time to sit here feeding you straight lines and watching you stuff your ego. Which is already overfed.”

I remembered Robinson’s friend at the committee, and his brush with unemployment. I suddenly realized that the day hadn’t been all bad; I didn’t want to lose this case before it began. “Look, please understand some things. I’m not used to this kind of supervision. I like to follow the facts where they take me. Anyhow, hauling in Sammy Green is routine, like bringing in a lifetime deviate after a sex crime. He’s our version of a jailhouse character, and all the facts point to him. Would you prefer that I subpoenaed Lasko?”

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