Read The Lasko Tangent Online

Authors: Richard North Patterson

The Lasko Tangent (7 page)

Gubner sat on a wood bench, about thirty yards to my left. He was alone. It appeared that he had been watching me, but hadn’t moved. I walked toward him. Gubner sat frozen, looking as unreal as the swans. But he rose when I reached the bench. The handshake was firm, but the smile was less jaunty than usual. He had the pale, sandbagged look of someone who had just been punched in the kidneys.

“Hello, Chris.”

“Hello, Marty.” I looked past him. “Where’s your friend?”

“Over at the Ritz.” He stood hunched against some unseen threat, his hands jammed in his pocket. “I’d like to talk with you first.” The voice was off, a tinny, shallow rasp. Someone else’s troubles were leeching Gubner like a symbiotic plant.

“This bench looks good enough.” I sat down gingerly, feeling somehow that it was an act of commitment.

It was Gubner’s turn to stare at the swanboats.

“Let’s have it,” I said.

He turned to face me. Gubner usually looked raffish; today he seemed strained.

“His name is Alexander Lehman,” he began. “He was my friend, at Brandeis, twenty years ago. My best friend. Still is. I was in his wedding, things like that. None of which you give a shit about. But he’s also the controller at Lasko Devices. It looks like he’s involved in some pretty bad things. And you’re about to help him cut his own throat.”

“How so?”

Gubner’s eyes hardened. “That subpoena your boys sent scared the piss out of him. So now he wants to spill his guts. And when you vultures are through, he’ll be out a job—with no career, and maybe no marriage.”

“I’m just doing my job. I didn’t ask your boy to do these ‘pretty bad things.’ And I didn’t ask for this little chat.”

“Fuck you, Chris,” he said without feeling.

I let it pass. “Look, Marty. I’m sorry your friend went sour. But it’s no good holding a wake. Make sure I get everything he knows, and I’ll try to help him.”

Gubner tugged at his thick black hair as if trying to find a handle on himself. “You can’t promise for McGuire.”

“Would you rather tell it to him?”

He shook his head. “No. I want you to carry the mail for him. Remind people that he helped.”

“I’ll suspend judgment until I hear his story.”

“What about immunity for testimony?” It was a gesture; his voice wasn’t hopeful.

I shook my head. “You’ve got no cards, Marty. Anything else?”

“No, I’ll let him tell it himself. I’ll be hearing most of it for the first time anyhow.”

I was surprised. “Why are you letting him talk before you know what he’s going to say?”

Gubner looked away at nothing. “Christ, I’d almost rather shoot him. But he’s got some hangup—he’d rather tell it to the government. Says he doesn’t want me in the middle. I’m just holding his hand.” Gubner’s anger mingled Lehman, himself, and me in a disillusioned mix. I wondered why Lehman inspired that much grief.

“Ready?” I asked. Gubner got up without a word. We walked with our separate thoughts out of the park and over to the Ritz. I had missed something in Gubner. He had always projected the studied cynicism of a shell-game artist who dared you to find the pea. I supposed he had his reasons. But Gubner had done himself a disservice; he was better than that. I wondered if as much could be said for Alexander Lehman.

The Ritz bar was a soft-lit room off the lobby, as understated as a grey pinstripe and as quiet as a bank vault. The marble tables focused on a large window which looked back to the Garden. Most of the tables were empty. In one corner two middle-aged gentlemen sat in quiet conversation. Both wore grey suits with handkerchiefs carefully arranged in their breast pockets, and talked with the attentive gravity of serious men discussing money. I liked the place well enough. But today it seemed funereal. I half-expected to find Lehman stretched out on a table, made up for burying.

But Lehman was alive enough. Gubner steered me toward a man who sat facing the window. I moved toward the table, feeling edgy. This seemed the wrong place to be doing our business. Lehman’s back conveyed queasiness like a contagion.

I reached the table and stood over him. My imagined Alexander Lehman was tall and slender. The real one was short and pale, with brown hair and the boyish roundness of a child comic.

“Mr. Lehman?”

“You’re Mr. Paget.” He said it with the sad expectancy of a man who had been formally introduced to a terminal disease. “Please sit down.” The voice went with the face; it had the youthfulness of an adolescent’s. But at second glance there was something older in him, like seeing your paperboy grown up and disappointed. His eyes were a sad light blue which looked as though they had the life bleached out. We sat down.

His eyes searched me, as if trying to learn whether I were really fatal. “Marty has explained my situation?”

“Generally. We’re both waiting to hear it from you.”

“I wish I shared your sense of anticipation.” Lehman seemed to be gliding elliptically around his problems. I waited. I noticed that he had long piano player’s fingers, which noiselessly drummed the table. They seemed constantly in motion, like nervous antennae feeling out his relation to the world.

“I don’t expect you to understand how I got involved in this,” he finally said.

“I can listen, Mr. Lehman.” I seemed to have been chosen as the one to whom Lehman would make his personal accounting. I was all wrong for the role; I was neither wife, friend, nor psychiatrist. It struck me that he was a lonely man.

“I knew what Lasko was doing when he hired me. That’s the worst part. I was in debt and my business had gone bust. I’d quit my old job and started a fast food chain in New Jersey that didn’t fly. Borrowed $10,000 from my wife’s parents. This was a couple of years ago. So, I was broke and out of a job. He found me through one of those executive placement deals. When I came to Boston, Lasko went through my finances with me. More even than my qualifications. Then he offered me the job. You can see how it worked out.” He stopped abruptly, like a man reaching a rest point in a grubby and unpleasant job.

I had a notion how it had worked out, but didn’t say so. I chose some neutral words. “I’d appreciate it if you would explain.”

Lehman looked both eager and reluctant, as if unsure whether he would be helped or humiliated. Gubner broke in softly. “Go ahead, Alec.”

Lehman nodded slowly. “My wife was afraid. Hell, I was afraid too. I was a middle-aged, broke business failure in a buyer’s market, with two kids.” His words picked up speed. “Lasko was pushing me to come to Boston. He even offered to loan me down-payment money and to guarantee my mortgage. And I owed my in-laws $10,000. Have you ever owed your in-laws money?”

“I’m not married.”

“Hell, I’d sooner owe money to the Mafia. They might kill you, but you don’t have to eat dinner with them.” He looked at me to see if his little joke had taken. I was beginning to get a handle on him. At the center of him were other people looking back. And now it was me.

“The thing about being dead, Mr. Lehman, is that there’s no future in it.”

His smile was bleak. “So I took it all. I took the job, which was better than I’d expected, and I moved to Boston. Then, I took the loan. Lasko kept pressuring me to get a good house, so I did. A nice old white frame house in Newton, with oaks in the front. My family loved it. And Lasko gave me the loan and set up the mortgage, and I was controller of Lasko Devices, with a house in Newton.” The sad face made it seem as attractive as acquiring leprosy. Lehman’s features were astonishingly mobile. I wondered if it came from practice.

A not-so-wild guess hit me. “Mr. Lehman, were you the one who called McGuire a week ago to talk about stock manipulation?”

He looked surprised. “No. What manipulation?”

It was my turn for surprise. But Lehman hadn’t finished his confessional. “The thing is, I knew why Lasko wanted me. I used to be a CPA with a national accounting firm. You learn pretty fast to figure out your clients. I knew Lasko wanted someone that he owned, that sooner or later I would do something I didn’t like. But I had bought into the whole thing a long time ago. The house, the job, all the expectations. All the deferred gratifications.”

“And when it didn’t work, you folded up.” I said it quietly, looking at him.

He stared at the table. “There wasn’t enough in me. You know, I knew that I was a born lackey.” The voice had gone starkly bitter. “In college I was the class clown.” Gubner smiled faintly in rueful recollection. “Between then and now I must have kissed enough ass to fill a stadium. The one time I tried to get out from under myself is when I started my own business. I was going to be a boss. But I wasn’t cut out for being a boss. I kept looking for someone to please, for someone to tell me what to do. Or what to be.” He paused, then pronounced judgment on himself in a final tone. “And that’s the bottom line on me, Mr. Paget. I’m someone else’s boy.”

And now he was my boy. The thought must have shown in my face. “What do they call you, Mr. Paget?”

“Chris.”

“Tell me, Chris, have you ever wanted to please someone else, even when you thought it was wrong?”

“More often than I’d like.”

“What keeps you from doing it?”

I thought. “I honestly don’t know, Mr. Lehman. I guess I’m afraid to.”

Lehman nodded; he knew what I meant. For a moment, we were almost friends. But he was a witness, and I needed to use him. I decided to put a cap on self-analysis. “Let’s just say that I understand what you’ve told me.”

But Lehman was looking beyond me at some middle distance. The bar reverberated with the echo of a long-ago psychic explosion, of which the current Lehman was the remains, a crazy quilt of roles with no stuffing. The act of contrition was the only thing which was making Lehman real to himself. But I was going to have to push it to the end.

“Let’s talk about what you’ve got for me,” I said.

Lehman snapped to as if wrenched out of hypnosis. “I don’t know about any manipulation. But I’ve got proof of something different. A lot worse.” Whatever it was lent an awed tone to his words. “I’ve got a memo at home that will deliver the whole thing.” He looked around. “But we can’t talk about it here.”

I felt impatient. “Look, you’ve got to tell me sometime.”

Lehman’s voice was thick with knowledge. “Mr. Paget, you don’t want to talk about this here either. I know I’m doing a mental striptease. But I didn’t want to sit in a government office, like a criminal. You’ve been very decent. Come to my place after dinner tonight, and I’ll show you what I’ve got. You can handle it the way you think best.” His voice slowed to a low, emphatic rhythm. “And you are going to want to think about it.”

It was a strange scene and sad. The man had wanted to see me—be friends—before he put his future in my hands. But I couldn’t give him that. “You know, Mr. Lehman, I can question you, under oath, any time. And have you sent up for perjury if you lie.”

Gubner cut in sharply. “He knows that.” I looked from Gubner to Lehman. He nodded.

“All right, Mr. Lehman, 7:30 tonight. And I hope it’s good.”

Lehman stood up, smiling in a lifeless way which made my words sound foolish. “It’s better than you imagine. Or from my perspective, worse.” He paused. “You should remember, Mr. Paget, that Lasko is a very ruthless man.”

He should know, I thought. But Lehman seemed like a weak reed for Lasko to be trusting. “One thing bothers me. Just why does Lasko trust you with whatever this is?”

The bleak smile held. “Because I’m his controller,” he said with irony. “Besides, he’s got me by the balls.”

I could see that. “Then why are you here?”

He exhaled, staring at his feet. Then he looked directly at me. “Because this is my last chance to like myself.”

I nodded. He turned to Gubner. The two friends looked at each other for a moment. Gubner wore the rueful half-smile. Lehman saw it and reached out with one hand to touch Gubner’s arm. Then he turned and walked from the bar. Gubner stared after him, as if regret had turned him to stone.

I let him stare for a moment, then spoke. “Marty, I’ll buy you a martini. They’re good here, and you could use one.”

Gubner turned, then sat down heavily. I ordered two martinis, straight up. They arrived in record time. I pushed one toward Gubner and picked up mine. I felt pretty good, sort of. But not perfect. Lehman appeared in the window, walking with the comic stagger of a penguin. He looked as if he had been shot, but didn’t know he was dead. Which he was, in a way. I sipped on the martini and watched my new star witness walk across the street.

I saw the black car before I knew what it meant. It seemed to have pulled out from the sidewalk. Lehman was crossing Arlington, not looking. From the bar, I saw the car accelerating silently toward him. I half-rose, a strangled yell in my throat which tasted like gin.

Then Lehman saw the car. He stood stock still for a split second, as if he had expected it. Then he gave a pathetic little skip, stretching forward to the sidewalk. The car smashed into Lehman in mid-stretch, his hands reaching toward the Garden. I saw him flying above the car in slow motion, arms flailing like a spastic rag doll. He seemed to snap in mid-air as the black car moved by. Then he fell in a precipitous dive, hit on his head, and folded into a shapeless heap. The heap didn’t move.

Gubner’s mouth was hanging open. I ran from the table, shouting for an ambulance. I smashed into someone in the entrance of the bar and bounced him off the wall. I kept moving. Lehman lay where he had fallen, alone. A few pedestrians stared at him from the sidewalk. A sticky splotch of blood spread like oil from his head. I reached him and felt for his pulse. Nothing. Then I looked at his face. It was a garish nightmare. But out of it stared one pale blue eye. It still looked sad.

Nine

 

 

Gubner was squatting next to me, chanting “Oh, my God” over and over, like an incantation. I got up, feeling sick. A lump of passers-by were gawking at me. I went for the nearest one, a thin middle-aged man, and grabbed him by the lapels. “Be useful, you moron. Go to the Ritz and make sure the cops come.” The voice I heard was very clear and very cold. It was mine. The man nodded soundlessly, gaping at my bloody hands. I stared at him for a second, then dropped him from my grasp. He clambered off to the Ritz. I watched him to the door. Then I went to the iron fence, grabbed it, and threw up.

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