Read The Lasko Tangent Online

Authors: Richard North Patterson

The Lasko Tangent (5 page)

The last suggestion startled her for a second. Then she tagged it as an idle threat, and dismissed it. She started to look for my new pigeonhole. “Well, then, what’s your understanding of your role?”

“I’ll keep you posted, as I have. If something major comes up, I’ll let you know before I do anything.” I didn’t like this; I clung to the loophole word “major.” “But I can’t loiter around your office like a truant with his parole officer, seeking advice. I’d never get anything done.”

She wasn’t mollified. “Christopher Kenyon Paget is a pretty name.” Her careful voice lingered on “Kenyon,” as if reading an indictment of false pride. What it told me was that she had read my personnel file. “It doesn’t go with taking direction. But you’re going to have to learn.”

That got me. “The nice thing about being Christopher Kenyon Paget”—I mocked her diction—“is that I can make these decisions for myself.”

She reached her own decision, put down her half-finished drink and snatched at her purse, ready to leave. “This has been fairly disagreeable.”

“Yes,” I said agreeably, “and it’s been so easy.”

We stood and left, single file. Then we grabbed the elevator and walked to her car. She broke the uneasy silence only to ask if I wanted a ride home. We set a new world’s record for non-communication, all the way to my apartment.

I opened the door as soon as we had stopped. “You forgot to thank me for a lovely evening,” I said. I meant it as self-mockery, but it came out wrong, like everything else. She gave me a cold look back to tell me that she wasn’t wasting more time, and leaned over to shut my door.

I was thrilled with myself. Paget the wit. Paget the charming. Paget the amateur psychologist. I had screwed up with Mary, and I had to learn to handle her better were I to keep the case. If it wasn’t too late. And there was an ephemeral personal regret. At least she wasn’t boring. Of course, I told myself, someone had probably once said that about Lucretia Borgia.

My apartment was on the first floor of a seventy-year-old red brick former townhouse, on the six hundred block of East Capitol. My landlord had largely gutted it in the process of preparing to charge $500 a month. The neighborhood had a healthy crime rate, and I didn’t walk around at night. But the place suited me. The fireplace and the fine old wood floors were still there. The living room was large, with a chandelier and shuttered windows which looked out on a garden. And there were two bedrooms and plenty of room for my paintings and books.

I opened the door and knocked over my tennis racket. I had forgotten to play this evening. I plodded to the kitchen nook, poured myself a careless martini, and stuck a frozen pizza into the oven. I bolted the first martini and, in a reckless mood, poured a second. Then I pulled the pizza from the oven. I ate hungrily, my good-taste buds desensitized by gin, then contemplated an empty evening. I was rereading War and Peace, but wasn’t in the mood, and was dating a couple of girls, whom I didn’t want to see. In desperation, I flicked on my seldom-used television. It carried a special treat, a press conference starring Lasko’s friend, the President. I felt neither antipathy nor admiration. I looked over the image for something I had missed. If he lived anywhere other than deep within himself, it was in the eyes. He was poised enough, but on the occasional question, the eyes blinked for a moment, as if in doubt of their owner’s adequacy. I wondered what accounted for that. His well-ventilated early poverty, perhaps. That could twist some people into admiring a Lasko and doubting themselves.

I decided to listen to the words. “And so, in response to the justified concern of our citizens, I am proposing to the Congress the Safe Streets and Neighborhoods Act. My study of history persuades me that at the heart of every fallen civilization which has preceded us was the lack of will to resist crime and disorder. Our administration is already moving to eliminate the root causes of crime—racism, poverty and deprivation.” The head shook disapprovingly at the words. I found myself wondering where he stood on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Now with the pledge of five billion dollars to assist and augment local law enforcement, we promise to all Americans safety, security, and freedom from fear in their streets and neighborhoods.”

I turned him off. Then I advanced to my window to see if the neighborhood looked safer. I couldn’t see any difference. A police siren whined in the distance. I went to bed disappointed.

Six

 

 

The day before he died was clear and bright.

I went to the office early, closed my door, and finished Sam Green’s subpoena. I was just signing it when Marty Gubner telephoned.

“Christopher, how are you?” Gubner’s strong New York voice carried friendly irony. He was one of those lawyers who made his living representing the people we investigated. In a way, we were his personal Works Projects Administration. Gubner and I liked each other well enough; we took our work seriously, but related in an offhand way. After all, we had to get along.

“Fine, Marty. Are you calling because you miss the sound of my voice? I didn’t know we were doing business at the moment.”

“I didn’t know until this morning. I hear you’re investigating Lasko Devices.”

I didn’t bother denying it. “Where did you hear that?”

“Ike Feiner sent a subpoena to Lasko Devices asking for trading records. The subpoena showed you as investigating officer.”

“All right,” I said. Gubner’s voice carried a strange undertone, more tentative than usual. I waited to find out what it was.

“I’m calling on behalf of someone who wants to talk about Lasko Devices. He’s asked me to set up a meeting.”

“Sure. Who is he?”

Gubner remained silent. “Marty?”

“I can’t tell you right now.”

It was a first. “This is fun,” I said. “Let me guess. Is it Judge Crater?” The silence was deafening. “How about Martin Bormann?”

“I’m serious.”

“Hang on. Does his name start with a consonant?”

“Look, Chris, I called up to give you some information, not solicit your little funnies.”

I hesitated. The anger was real and seemed to include himself. “OK, let’s take it from the top.”

“My guy is close to Lasko Devices. When the subpoena hit, it got him thinking that he should talk to you. Apparently, there’s something going on up there, although he won’t tell me what it is over the phone. I’m going to Boston today to see him.”

“Why all the secrecy?”

“I’m not sure. It’s clear he’s pretty scared. One reason he doesn’t want to give his name is so you can’t go after him with a subpoena.”

It made a cockeyed kind of sense, except for one thing. “So why are you calling me now, if he isn’t sure he wants to see me?”

“He wants to set it up in a hurry, if he decides to do it. He’s under some kind of time pressure; I don’t know what. It’s sort of half-baked.”

I was half-exasperated. “All this is pretty vague.”

Gubner sounded a little exasperated himself. “I didn’t write this scenario. He wrote it. All I could do was decide whether to represent him or to tell him to take his business elsewhere. But I didn’t, for reasons personal to me. Are you going to meet him or not?”

I was getting very curious. “Just exactly what does our mystery guest have in mind?”

“You’re to meet us at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon by the Boston Common, unless you hear from me otherwise.”

My own willingness surprised me. “Can I spot you by your trench coat and sunglasses?”

“Meet us in the area by Commonwealth Avenue. The Public Garden. As I recall, you know Boston.”

“I know Boston.”

The question hung in the air. Finally, he asked it. “So will you meet him?”

“I’ll meet him.”

I heard a faint exhaling sound as if Gubner had been holding his breath. “Thanks much, Chris. I appreciate it. See you tomorrow, hopefully.” He sounded relieved; I wondered what his relationship was to the nameless client. But I said good-bye and hung up.

I sat and thought about it. I had the feeling that the case was falling into my lap, for no good reason. It was disconcerting. I went to see Robinson, and told him about Gubner. He was pensive.

“Have you told McGuire?” he asked.

“Not yet. I’ve been waiting to figure out how to put it to him.”

“He’s going to think you’re crazy.”

“Probably. What would you do?”

He thought for a moment. “I’d go. It’s pretty screwy but you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Something hit me, for no particular reason. “Our subpoena to Lasko only covers documents relating to stock transactions. It doesn’t ask for financial stuff—like books and records or the records of their outside accountant from their yearly audit. Do you think you could draft a subpoena to get me that?”

Robinson gave his fingernails a doubtful look. “Sure. But you really don’t have any grounds for fishing in the company’s financial records. McGuire may not let you do it—let alone Woods.”

Woods’ name reminded me of Mary Carelli. “I’ll try to figure something out.”

Robinson smiled at me skeptically. “OK. I’d rather have my job than yours. I’ll get the subpoena out this afternoon. Incidentally, you might pay a courtesy call on Ike Feiner, at least for the sake of the case. You may be the only thing which makes him look good,” he added dryly, “but Feiner tends to forget how grateful he should be. You may have felt those little knives in your back.”

I shrugged. “This should be invaluable.” Robinson’s semi-smile followed me out the door.

Feiner was sitting in his book-lined office. He looked up with the trapped, wary look of a cop drafted to bring in a rabid dog. I was clearly something beyond his life experience, and he’d already been burnt on the Lasko case. I sat down across from a bust of Martin Luther King, which Feiner had acquired at a safe distance from the sixties. “I need to go to Boston.”

Feiner considered this. “Why?”

I told him. He grimaced. “You’d better ask Joe. I’m keeping out of this one.”

“I can see how you’d feel that way,” I said, with a voice too full of understanding.

Feiner looked annoyed, as I had intended. His tone was didactic. “Cases like this should be handled at the top.”

Maybe I should write that down, I thought. Instead, I left.

McGuire was alone when I cracked open his door. He looked up with narrow eyes, as if surprised to see me. Then he remembered that he wanted to know what I was doing. So I told him about Sam Green, skipping my clash with Mary. McGuire cleared Green’s subpoena. Then I explained Gubner’s call. He propped his feet on the desk and folded his hands, listening.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said, when I’d finished.

I felt defensive. “That’s what I told Marty. But I either go or I don’t go. I want to push this thing to see what I get.”

McGuire screwed his mouth to one side. “This business of sneaking around the Boston Common—,” he waved his arm in dismissal, letting the phrase speak for itself.

I felt the chance slipping away. “Gubner’s not an idiot. And if this is a waterhaul, all we’ve lost is one day of my time.”

“And the taxpayers’ money,” he retorted.

McGuire was reaching. “I didn’t know you were an advocate of thrift in government,” I said.

“We can’t be wasting the public’s money on things like this.”

“Jesus Christ, Joe, if you really cared about that, you’d pass out cyanide tablets to half the civil servants in town. How do you seriously justify not doing this?” My suspicions of McGuire shadowed the words.

“It’s not your ass if we look like fools.”

At least that was closer to home, I thought. “If it were my ass, Joe, I’d do it.”

McGuire clasped his hands again, then stared at them as if in prayer. He looked up. “OK. Let me know what you find.”

I waited for more, astonished at the concession. There wasn’t any more. I felt as if I had just won Wimbledon by default. It was as though McGuire had been playing along, having already decided that if I pushed hard enough, I won. As he had known I would. I couldn’t figure it out.

So I tried selling McGuire on a subpoena for Lasko’s financial records. The idea seemed to revive him. “That subpoena absolutely will not go out. There’s no justification for it.”

McGuire gave me his determined Newsweek look, from which there was no appeal. I was both frustrated and relieved. The refusal at least fit with my suspicions. I told myself I had a compulsion to impose order on events. So I dismissed it, and fished for a way around McGuire. The plan hit me on the way out the door.

I went back to the office and called Mary Carelli. She answered on the third ring.

“Mary,” I said, “this is Chris Paget. What kind of apology would you like?”

Seven

 

 

Mary Carelli lived in Georgetown. So I walked home about a quarter to six, showered, and put on corduroy slacks and a faded blue work shirt. Then I got in my car and drove too fast through the Ellipse toward the Kennedy Center, mashing the buttons on my radio until I hit an FM station playing a Peter Frampton album. Then I reached under the seat to check the small cellophane bag of grass. Still there.

The little ritual amused me; I was grasping at corners of my college identity like an old woman fondling a scrapbook. I wondered which of my friends were doing it too—leaving jobs at places they had scorned in college to put on blue jeans and blow some great Colombian dope they had cadged from the guy next door. Knowing that this shallow alchemy trivialized all the differences they had felt, the things they would do or never be, but seizing it to avoid the unpleasant truth: they were just like Mom and Dad. So I drove Mom and Dad up Waterside Drive and onto Massachusetts past the embassies. I turned up the radio and listened very hard to Peter Frampton all the way down Wisconsin. By the time I hit Georgetown, I was alone.

Mary rented the basement of an old white brick three-story on R Street. It was a good part of Georgetown, where you could still park, away from M Street’s weekend circus. The house itself was at least one hundred years old and sat amid quiet oaks a good bit older, giving off the subtle aroma of money and good taste. A lot of the money probably belonged to someone else. When people said that they were dying to live in Georgetown, they usually meant financially.

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