The Degas was real.
I had seen the painting of the ballerina at the Minneapolis Institute of Art about a year earlier. The Institute sold it at auction soon after, despite much criticism, claiming it required the income to cover overhead and pursue new acquisitions. Only the auction was less public than MIA members had been led to expect, and gossip swirled that the man who eventually purchased the painting had simply seen it, wanted it, and used his considerable connections to get it.
I was admiring the painting in the lobby on the top floor of that man’s bank, thinking it actually looked pretty good hanging there. My escort stood close by. He was wearing a gray trench coat with the belt cinched at the waist, looking like an extra in a bad Humphrey Bogart movie---actually, there are no bad Humphrey Bogart movies, but you get my drift. He gestured for me to move along with the pocket of the trench coat. There was a gun in the pocket, a stainless steel Charter Arms .38 wheel gun, but I ignored him. If he didn’t shoot me when we were alone, I doubted he would do it now, in a lobby filled with purposeful business people. I spoke loud enough for most of them to hear.
“Hey, pal. Do you have a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
My escort’s face went from pale to crimson so quickly you would’ve thought I bitch-slapped him, which I had every intention of doing at the first decent opportunity.
I heard the gallop of footsteps behind me, followed by a woman’s voice.
“Come,” my escort said, taking my arm. I shook it free and pointed at the Degas.
“Have either of you ever stopped to look at this painting? You’ve probably passed it a thousand times, but have you ever taken a moment to really look at it? The lines, the blending of color, the woeful expression on the ballerina’s face? Critics didn’t like the ballerinas that Degas painted. They said he was vulgar and cruel. But he was neither. It’s just that while everyone else at the time was painting dancers in all their resplendent glory, Degas wanted to capture them offstage, catch them when they were worn down by tedious tryouts and exhausting rehearsals. He wanted to show us the pain they endured, the suffering that went into their art. Perhaps he thought it would help us to appreciate them more.”
“Don’t tell me,” the woman said. “You’re the expert on nineteenth-century art we were told to expect.”
“Merely a gifted amateur.”
“You be sure to give Mr. Muehlenhaus your opinion of French Impressionists. I’m curious to hear his reaction.”
“Let me guess. Muehlenhaus is one of those guys who knows nothing about art but knows what he likes.”
The woman stared at me with smart brown eyes and an expression that suggested I was mad.
“Mister Muehlenhaus knows when he has been kept waiting for thirty minutes. This way.”
She moved toward a pair of glass doors; I could see offices and workers beyond them. I followed. It was only polite. After all, the man had gone to such extremes just to meet me. The woman opened the doors for us and my escort gave me an unnecessary shove through them.
“You’re pushing your luck,” I told him, but I don’t think he believed me.
Immediately, I could detect a soft, pleasant hum---the noise of many people performing complicated tasks with the efficiency of a Maytag. Voices rose and fell as I passed small offices and cubicles and there was an occasional peal of laughter. I wondered what would happen if I suddenly shouted, “Help! I’m being kidnapped!” Would anyone come to my rescue? Would someone tell my escort, “Unhand that man”? I was tempted to give it a try, but the woman turned abruptly, leading us down a narrow corridor.
There was a large double door at the end of the corridor made from wood I didn’t recognize. The woman rapped twice and opened one side. My escort nudged me forward into a large, richly appointed conference room. It looked as if the decorator had been admonished to fill the room with an air of grandeur, which he accomplished with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with leather-bound books and drawings by Picasso that could have been originals for all I knew. The far wall was entirely glass and provided a panoramic view of downtown Minneapolis with the Mississippi River beyond. In front of the window was a gleaming wood table long enough for a dozen English lords to have sat around while discussing the colonial tea tax two hundred and fifty years ago. A handful of men sat at the table, four at the end farthest from the door, a clear pitcher of water and several long-stemmed glasses arranged on a sterling silver tray in front of them. A much older fifth man was seated alone at the near end of the table, his ancient hands folded on top of a black leather file folder. Like the room, the inhabitants also were richly appointed, each in a suit that cost more than season tickets to the Vikings. Truth be told, I would have been impressed with both the room and the men if not for a persistent odor that for some reason reminded me of the inside of a shoe store.
My escort said, “Here he is,” and shoved me again.
“Thank you, Norman,” the older man said.
Enough is enough, I decided.
I pivoted swiftly on my left foot and drove my right fist just as hard as I could into Norman’s solar plexus. The shock and pain doubled him over. I stepped behind him, yanked down the top of his trench coat, pinning his arms against his body, reached into his pocket and pulled out the .38. I shoved him toward the table. He lost his balance, fell against the table, hitting his face on the gleaming top, and slid to the floor.
I pointed the .38 more or less at the table. The four men at the far end were on their feet now and looking helpless. The fifth man never stirred from his chair. He looked at me with an expression of quiet curiosity.
Norman managed to free himself from his trench coat and struggled to his feet. He didn’t want to take me on, but he would have if he were told to. The old man shook his head, and my escort made his way to a chair against the far wall and sat down. He fingered his nose, apparently relieved that it wasn’t broken.
I held up the gun for everyone to see. The four men at the end of the table were obviously frightened. I liked that. I broke open the wheel gun and dumped the five cartridges on the carpet one at a time, making a production of it, then flicked the gun shut and tossed it on the table. I arranged myself in a nonthreatening posture in a chair opposite the old man, right elbow resting on the arm, my chin cupped in my palm, adopting an expression that I hoped said, “Bored.”
“Mister Muehlenhaus, I presume.”
Muehlenhaus was elderly-looking but fit---or at least as fit as someone on the far side of eighty years could be. His face was the color of old paper and framed by wisps of silver hair. He had the strong eyes of a man who knew what he wanted and usually got it, yet when he smiled---which he was doing now---he became the kindly uncle who always had toys and candy hidden in his pockets for the kids.
He said, “Was that necessary?”
“Given the nature of our relationship, I thought it was prudent to make a statement early.”
The other four were sitting again, but they didn’t seem comfortable. Three of them were in their sixties and looked like the only exercise they ever engaged in was walking to their limousines. The fourth was younger---I guessed late forties.
One of the older men was wearing a politician’s uniform---dark blue suit, white shirt, and solid red tie. He said, “What statement?”
The old man answered for me.
“He’s not afraid of us.”
“He should be,” the politician said.
I grabbed the .38 and skipped it hard across the table. It bounced twice before smashing into the pitcher and two of the glasses. Water and glass shards spilled over the tray, table, and the four men. They jumped to their feet and brushed at the debris like it was acid.
“I’m sorry,” I told Muehlenhaus. “Was that crystal?”
“Your behavior is inappropriate, Mr. McKenzie.”
“Someone might say that your behavior is even more---what’s the word---indecorous? I’m not suggesting for a moment that you gentlemen are above kidnapping and assault, but to do it so openly? To bring it into your office? In front of witnesses? Someone with experience in these matters might think you were putting him to some sort of test. Or playing a practical joke, although none of you look like you have much of a sense of humor. So, which is it? Why did you bring me here?”
Muehlenhaus carefully opened the leather folder in front of him. He looked down on the white sheets of typed paper therein as he slipped a silver fountain pen from his pocket and prepared it to write.
I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen one. When I was a kid at St. Mark’s Elementary School the nuns made us use fountain pens thinking it would help us learn to write with a graceful hand, except I kept breaking off the nibs.
Muehlenhaus said, “You were a member of the St. Paul Police Department, respected, decorated, poised for promotion, until you killed a perpetrator---”
“Suspect,” I corrected him. “They only say perpetrator on television.”
“Suspect, thank you. You killed an armed suspect in a convenience store robbery. There was some trouble concerning the use of unnecessary force---you killed him with a shotgun. You have, in fact, killed several men . . .”
“None of this is answering my question, Muehlenhaus. Why am I here?”
A lightning hit of anger flared in his eyes, but passed quickly. I don’t know if he disliked being interrupted or if he expected to hear a “mister” in front of his name, probably both. He continued reciting the details of my life.
“You quit the police force in order to collect a reward for recovering money stolen by a rather industrious embezzler named Thomas Teachwell. I knew Thomas. I remain astonished by his audacity. The finder’s fee amounted to several million dollars, which you have since doubled due to some rather insightful investments. Very impressive.”
I tilted my head at the compliment, even though it was misplaced. For practical purposes, I was financially illiterate. All my so-called insightful investments had been made by a twenty-seven-year-old former homecoming queen living in a houseboat on the St. Croix who played the market the way some people played Texas hold ‘em.
“You are known for doing favors for friends,” Muehlenhaus continued. “We are aware of your dealings with the so-called Entrepreneur’s Club, for example, and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation last Spring.”
“Do you have a point, Mr. Muehlenhaus?” I don’t know why I used the “mister.” Maybe it was because, bravado aside, he was starting to frighten me.
Muehlenhaus carefully screwed his fountain pen back together and returned it to his pocket. He hadn’t written a word. He closed the leather folder and folded his hands on top of it. It was a clever ploy, making me wait, playing off my insecurities. I was beginning to think he was clever in other ways, too.
“You are currently performing a favor for the first lady,” he said.
It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer.
“You met with her this afternoon.”
I had no reason to deny it.
“You are friends.” Muehlenhaus made the word sound like an accusation.
I stood slowly, trying to maintain the same bored expression. Norman did the same. Despite the bloodstained handkerchief he held to his nose, he looked like he was perfectly willing to go another round. I gestured toward the Picassos on the wall.
“Gentlemen, do I need to break more stuff?”
“Mr. McKenzie, please.” The youngest of the four men at the end of the table moved toward me. “Please.” He gestured toward my chair. I took a seat.
“First, allow me to apologize for the clumsy manner in which we brought you here today,” he said, but there was neither remorse nor regret in his voice. “We were all quite anxious to speak with you and to judge for ourselves your capabilities?”
“Indeed,” Muehlenhaus said.
“I’m Troy Donovan. Allow me to introduce my colleagues.”
While Donovan recited the names, I attached numbers gleaned from the St. Paul Pioneer Press business section---something I never read until I became filthy, stinking rich. Through his banks and investment groups, Muehlenhaus held paper on a large chunk of the metropolitan area. If the Twin Cities were a corporation, he’d be the senior partner. Prescott Coole ruled an empire of over two hundred convenience stores and gas stations throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Glen Gunhus made a quarter from every railroad car that rolled into and out of the state of Minnesota. Carroll Mahoney, probably considered middle class by his colleagues, was founder and first president of the 22,000-member Federation of Minnesota State County and Municipal Employees and therefore a valuable friend regardless of income. I had never heard of Donovan, yet somehow I didn’t believe he had gained access to this exclusive circle by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Collectively, they and their friends were known as the Brotherhood by us peons, and they moved and shook the Twin Cities into whatever shape that suited them.
Each of the men nodded when he was introduced to me, but none smiled and none of them made an attempt to shake my hand. Except for Troy Donovan. He rounded the conference table, took my hand, and gave it a firm squeeze. He smiled. True, it was a smile devoid of humor or goodwill and the tone of his voice was politely demanding, like he was speaking to a trespasser, but at least he made an effort.
“I’ll be blunt, if I may.” Donovan glanced at Muehlenhaus. The old man nodded and Donovan said, “We have been informed that the first lady has been made quite upset over something the past few days and we wish to learn what it is.”
I felt the icy grip of panic on my shoulder. The answer Donovan sought was folded twice and resting inside my jacket pocket.
Lindsey Bauer Barrett was the most attractive first lady in the history of Minnesota, maybe in the history of all fifty states. The week after her husband was elected governor they were both featured in People
magazine. The following week it was Glamour
. By my estimate, her face must have appeared at least a dozen times in national publications during the two years since the inauguration and Lord knows how many times in the local media. Which made the heavy knit hat and sunglasses all the sillier. Who was she kidding?
I found her sitting alone at the Groveland Tap in an old-fashioned wooden booth, the kind with high backs that you can’t see over. It wasn’t hard.
“Honestly, Zee. You need to work on your disguise.”
“McKenzie,” she whispered. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the booth while glancing around to see if anyone had noticed her.
The Groveland Tap was a neighborhood joint in St. Paul where you could get a cold beer, a bowl of chili, watch the ball game on one of a half dozen TVs, and shoot some stick in the back room. In the evenings it was crowded with college kids from St. Catherine, St. Thomas, and Macalester. During the day it belonged to the families and business folk that lived and worked in the Macalester-Groveland area. The lunch hour crowd filled most of the tables and booths, but no one paid attention to Lindsey except a heavyset man with relentless eyes who sat alone near the door.
I sat across from her. She removed the sunglasses and smiled, her eyes sparkling like ice water. Lindsey had always possessed a kind of Renaissance quality that came very close to real beauty. Not the kind of fragile beauty flaunted so carelessly by teenage rock princesses, beauty that erodes inexorably with time. Rather it was a lasting beauty, the kind that inspires the imagination, like the canvas of a Pre-Raphaelite master that a discerning collector might study for hours, days, perhaps even a lifetime; examining, evaluating, analyzing each line, each curve, each brush stroke until he falls helplessly, hopelessly, permanently in love. I had thought so even when I was a kid, even before I knew what fine art looked like.
“It’s good to see you,” I said.
“Long time,” she told me.
A waitress appeared, set two menus before us, and asked for drink orders. Lindsey requested iced tea after first being assured that the Groveland Tap brewed its own. I had the same.
The waitress grinned brightly. “It’ll be just a moment, Mrs. Barrett.” Lindsey nodded her approval. The waitress departed and Lindsey sighed deeply, pulled off the knit hat and dropped it on the bench next to her.
“Ah, the joys of celebrity,” I told her.
“I wanted our meeting to be secret.”
The waitress reappeared. I wondered when I had last seen such brisk service.
“Here you go, hon,” she said, setting the beverages before us. “Would you like to order now?”
“Later, perhaps,” Lindsey said.
“I’m Terry, Mrs. Barrett. You just give me a wave when you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Terry.”
The waitress left without once looking at me.
“Shake it off, Zee,” I said, like she was a teammate who had just gone down swinging. “You grew up not far from here. People would recognize you even if you weren’t the first lady.”
“Zee. Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a good, long time.”
“How’s Linda?” I asked, just to be polite.
“Working on her fourth marriage.”
“She should have stayed with you.”
“We were children when we knew each other. If we had stayed together, it would have only ended up being the first marriage for both of us.”
“You never did marry, did you?”
“What’s holding you back?”
“I’m still waiting for you to realize that I’m the man you’ve been searching for your entire life and that you made a terrible, terrible mistake marrying Barrett. That’s why you called, right?”
“McKenzie, you are a terrible flirt.”
“When you say that, do you mean I flirt a lot or that I don’t do it well?”
“Why did you call?”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she gazed at our drinks for a few moments, and then at the walls of the booth and finally at me. She was dressed in silk and cashmere; a long, charcoal-colored wool coat hung on the hook next to the booth. She looked like she had never wanted for anything, but that was merely a carefully cultivated illusion. I knew her when she worked the camera counter at Walgreen’s to put herself through school.
“What is it, Zee?”
“Probably nothing. It’s just--- It just makes me so angry.”
“I heard that you do favors for people.”
“Sometimes. For friends.”
“Am I a friend?”
“You know you are.”
“Perhaps you can do a favor for me---for old time’s sake.”
“Be careful. You haven’t heard what it is yet.”
“Doesn’t matter. If I can help you, I will---for old time’s sake.”
Her voice was serious, yet her mouth formed a smile that was almost giddy, as if she had gone some time without hearing good news. Lindsey reached into her bag and brought out an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of white paper folded twice and slid it across the table to me. I unfolded it. It was a hard copy of an e-mail. It read:
John Allen Barrett murdered his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Rogers, in Victoria, Minnesota, and the police covered it up so he could become a basketball hero. If he runs for the U.S. Senate, I will expose him to the world.
“Whoa,” I said.
“It’s a lie.” She spoke the word like she had just discovered its meaning. “A big lie.”
“I should hope so.”
I examined the e-mail more closely. It was unsigned. The gobbledy gook in the “from” field was unpronounceable. It had been addressed to Lindsey Bauer and sent at 6:57 p.m. Friday, three days earlier. The subject line was empty.
“Lindsey Bauer,” I said.
“It was sent to my dot-com account,” Lindsey said. “I have a dot-gov address through the state, but this was sent to my private e-mail address.”
“How many people have your private address?”
“I don’t know. Not many.”
I folded the paper and slid it across the table to her. “What do you want me to do?”
She slid it back. “This is political, I know it is. Someone is trying to mess with Jack through me, and I want to know who.”
“You want to know who sent the e-mail?”
“Can you do it?”
“Sure, but . . .” I gestured toward the heavyset man near the door. “Why not use your own people?”
“Because then it becomes public record. My e-mails through the state, all of Jack’s e-mails---that’s public record. You can get copies through the Freedom of Information Act. But what’s sent to me personally, that’s private.”
“Unless you make it public.”
“It could be that’s what all this is about. It would make a nice headline, wouldn’t it: First Lady Asks Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, ‘Is the Governor a Murderer?’”
She smiled slightly, and in that moment I knew she was hiding something. I didn’t know why I knew, yet I did. Probably it was because I had seen her smile often when she was younger and I recognized that it wasn’t the same. All of my internal alarm systems fired at once. The noise was so loud in my head I was amazed that everyone in the restaurant wasn’t diving for the door.
“What the e-mail says, is it true?”
Her eyes were sharp, but not angry, as she considered the question.
“Of course it’s not true.”
“Because that would have been my first question.”
“It’s an outrageous lie.”
“Not who sent it, but if it’s true.”
“I’m sure that’s exactly what the writer wants you to ask.”
“Have you spoken to the governor about it?”
“Does he even know about the e-mail?”
“He has enough to worry about without this nonsense.”
The alarm bells just kept getting louder and louder. I felt sweat on my forehead and trickling down my back. I considered removing my bomber jacket, decided to leave it on.
“Was the e-mail sent to anyone else? To the governor?”
“I don’t know. If Jack received one, he didn’t tell me.”
“Why send it to you?”
“To drive a wedge between us.”
“Between you and the governor.”
“If that was the case, why accuse the governor of murder? Why not just say he’s sleeping with one of his assistants?”
“If I knew who sent the e-mail, maybe then I’d know the answer to that, too.”
She had me there.
“Is Jack running for the Senate?”
“People have been asking him about it, only he hasn’t decided, yet. That’s confidential, by the way.”
“Apparently not.” I slid the paper off the table and into my inside jacket pocket. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, though. The threat goes into effect if Jack runs for senator, not governor.”
“I’ve been thinking about it almost constantly since I received the e-mail. I have no answers. You will help me, though, won’t you, McKenzie?”
“You know I will. But, Zee, I gotta ask, why me?”
“I told you.”
“You told me why you didn’t go to the state, not why you came to me.”
“You’re smart. You’re tough.”
“If I’ve learned one thing as a politician’s wife, I’ve learned this---plausible deniability. I go to a private investigator, someone that can be compelled to talk, and the media learns about it, what can I say, what can I do? I go to you, an old friend from the neighborhood, who’s to know, and if they did . . . ?” She shrugged.
“I could rat you out?”
“No. Not you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you never told anyone why you broke up with my sister the evening of the senior prom, not in all these years.” She smiled at me. “It’s true, isn’t it? You’ve never told anyone. Not even your good friend Bobby Dunston.”
“Not even Bobby.”
“And you never told anyone about us.”
“Most men would have. Certainly most men who were seventeen years old would have. They’d have bragged about it every chance they could. Not you.”
“You’re an honorable man, McKenzie. You were an honorable man even when you were a kid.”
I supposed she was paying me a compliment, so I said, “Thank you.”
“Do you ever think of that evening?”
“What do you think?”
The question made me squirm against the back of the wooden booth. “Let’s just say I cherish it and let it go at that.”
“Do you really?”
“I always feel guilty.”
“I always feel like I used you.”
“In what way?”
“After the night of the prom when I learned that my sister was sleeping with my boyfriend, that they had been together that entire spring---you know, I would have married Michael that spring if he had asked me.”
“That’s what made it so--- Is ‘sordid’ the right word?”
Lindsey nodded and stared at her tea. When she looked back at me her eyes were moist.
“I didn’t behave much better,” she said. “The evening I invited you over to the house, it wasn’t to return all those gifts that my sister had taken from you---your records, your sweatshirt. It was because she had taken something from me and I wanted to prove I could just as easily take something that belonged to her.”
“I didn’t belong to her, Zee. That evening I was all yours, body and soul. And I have to tell you,---even though it happened only that once---it’s like the song says, ‘I feel a glow just thinking of you.’”
“You will help me then.”
“Of course I will.”
In the back of my mind I was thinking, You’re a schnook. Lindsey was using the memory of that one night we spent together to hook me into doing her bidding, and I was going to let her.
“So, are you going to the gala tonight? Jack’s big charity do? I know you have an invitation. I saw your name on the guest list.”
“I’m not a gala kind of guy.”
“You should come. I’ll introduce you to the governor. You’ll like him. I know you will.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Oh, no, I’m running late,” Lindsey said suddenly. “I have to go.” She was standing now, pulling on her coat. The heavyset man at the door was standing as well. Lindsey gestured at the drinks. “I always forget to bring money. Can you get these?”
Lindsey leaned into the booth and kissed my cheek.
“It was so good to see you again, McKenzie.”
She put on her hat and sunglasses and moved toward the door. The heavyset man held it open and icy air swirled into the restaurant. I called to her.
“How do I reach you?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll find you.”
“Zee. The e-mail? How can you be sure it’s not true?”
Lindsey turned. I couldn’t see her eyes for the sunglasses. She said, “You’re a dear,” and hustled out of the door.
I don’t care for cell phones and the lack oened the tiny phone book I carry, found the correct page, and thumbed ten numbers on the keypad of the cell.
“McKenzie,” Kim Truong shouted after two rings. I guessed she had read my name on her caller ID. “How are you, you stud muffin?”
“Same old, Kimmy. Same old. How are you? Staying out of trouble?”
“What can I say? Thank God for the morning-after pill. Tell me you called because you dumped the girlfriend.”
“Oh baby, oh baby,” I answered and Kim chuckled. I had never known a woman to speak the way she did, but then I’ve never known a woman quite like her, either---young, petite, pretty, a transplanted South Korean computer genius with a barroom personality that would make a sailor blush.
“Whaddaya need?” she asked.
“I have a job for you.”
“Hmm, I like the sound of that.”
“Can you track down the owner of an e-mail address?”
“With just the address?”
“Easy. What is it?”
I recited the long, seemingly meaningless series of letters and numbers in the “from” field on Lindsey’s e-mail.
Kim was using her surfer’s voice, carrying on a conversation with me while simultaneously surfing the web, reading e-mails or trading instant messages, so I wasn’t surprised when she said, “Wait, wait, wait . . .” Seconds later Kim said, “Tell me again.”
“When did you get the e-mail?”
“Three days ago.”
“Shoulda called then, Mac. We coulda tapped into the ISP’s short-term memory cache before new records replaced the old records, know what I mean?”
I pretended that I did.
“Don’t worry. If your friend’s using a route account with a concrete street address like Eudora or Outlook, it’ll be like looking up a phone number. If he’s using a Web-based account like Yahoo or Hotmail that exists only in cyberland, or even an anonymizer, one of those sites created to mask information about the original sender---and right now I’m thinking that’s what this looks like---it’ll be tougher, but a babe like me, I can handle it.”
“How long will it take?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes once I start. Can’t do it now. Some delinquent launched a particularly nasty little virus and my accounts are screaming for me to purge their systems before the entire Western economy collapses around them, so I’m gonna have to get back to you.”
I had often wondered if Kim had ever launched a few viruses of her own in order to drum up business---it would have made for a nifty extortion racket---but I never asked.
“As soon as you can get to it, I’d appreciate it,” I told her.
“So, McKenzie. This e-mail. You got a stalker?”
“Would you like one?”
“I’ll let you know if there’s an opening.”
“Here’s the thing,” Kim said. “I can hack an ISP and trace the route back to the original sender, or at least to his computer. No muss, no fuss. Only we’re talking the violation of several federal privacy statutes . . .”
“For that kind of exposure, I’m gonna have to charge you.”
“You’re on. Just don’t go crazy out there, Kim. Protect yourself, okay?”
“Nothing to it.”
“Send me a bill.”
“What bill? I tell you how much it costs and you pay me in cash. It’s not called the underground economy for nothing. ‘Course, I might take the price out in trade, if you know what I mean.”
“You’ve got my number.”
“Pleasure talking to you.”
The sky was cloudless and pale; the sun fierce and white and glistening on the snow piled along the streets and sidewalks. Except the prettiness of the afternoon was just bait to lure unsuspecting prey out of doors. The sweat on my forehead froze so quickly in the frigid air when I left the Groveland Tap that the fingertips of my brown leather gloves came away encrusted with frost when I brushed my brow. I began to shiver as the rest of the perspiration on my body chilled, and it took an effort to keep my teeth from chattering.
At five degrees below zero---not to mention the minus twenty-three-degree windchill---Minnesotans understand that Nature gives the body a choice. Either lie down and die or run to some place warm. Me, I was running. I broke into a slow trot when I left the Tap, moving along St. Clair Avenue to my Audi parked half a block up. Not for the first time I marveled at those eccentric men and women who dash out of saunas, roll around in the snow or leap into a nearby frozen pond, then hurry back to the sauna before frostbite settles in.
I had just about reached my car when a man on the other side of the street called, “Excuse me.” He was dressed for business in a gray trench coat over black dress slacks and wingtips. He was carrying an unfolded map in both hands and looked hopelessly lost. It was one of the oldest ploys in the book, but I didn’t see it until he crossed the street and shoved the .38 into my gut. I blamed the weather. After all, how many muggers prowl the streets at five below looking for vics?
“My employer wishes to speak to you,” he said politely, his warm breath rising like mist.
“He could have called,” I said. “I’m in the book.”
A combination of cold fear and hot anger thrilled through me as he pressed the muzzle under my ribs. It was a dangerous combination for all involved---frightened, angry men don’t always do what’s in their best interests. I carefully reviewed his words in my head. “My employer wishes to speak with you.” I took that to mean that he didn’t want me killed, whoever he was---at least not for the time being. I decided to keep it uncomplicated, give my escort no reason to make any fatal mistakes. So, a moment later when a black Park Avenue pulled up, I said, “Is this our ride?”
My escort yanked open the back door.
“Inside,” he said calmly.
“After you,” I told him.
He gave me a gentle poke with the gun.
“Well, since you asked nicely.”
A few minutes later, we were on I-94, crossing the Mississippi River into Minneapolis---“Sin City” some of us St. Paulites call it, and not always in jest. A few minutes more and we were deep inside downtown Minneapolis, pulling into the parking ramp of one of the newer glass and steel towers. It was when we were on the public elevator with three other people going up that I realized the kidnapping was all for show and that I had little to fear.
“You’re new at this kidnapping thing, aren’t you,” I told my escort.
A panicked look spread across his face as our elevator mates glanced at him while pretending not to.
“I gotta tell you, though, the trouble with shooting through your pocket? You can’t really be sure where the gun is pointing.”
My escort’s face became a shade of red that you don’t often see in nature. Yet he didn’t speak. Nor did he take his hand out of his pocket. Instead, he stood motionless, watching the floor numbers change on the electronic display. Once the doors slid shut after our final companion departed the elevator, he turned toward me with an expression of snarling anger.
“Uh-uh,” I grunted and pointed toward the upper corner of the car. My escort followed my finger to a small security camera.
“You could end up on America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
He faced the door again and said nothing.
“Seriously,” I asked him. “What did you do before you got into this line of work?”
Now Norman, my escort, was sitting in a chair against the wall, nursing his pride. The three men at the far end of the table were all leaning forward, waiting to hear what I had to say. Muehlenhaus was sitting back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest like he already knew. Donovan was pacing, his hands behind his back like he was an eighteenth-century naval commander bestriding the deck. There was a streak of vanity in the man, I decided. It was long and wide.
“If the first lady is upset, I am unaware of it,” I announced calmly.
Mahoney---he was the one wearing the politician uniform---grunted loudly and looked at me as if he didn’t believe me, as if he hadn’t believed anything anyone had told him in years.
Donovan apparently agreed with him. He said, “I think you’re lying”
I said, “I don’t care.”
The pain in his expression was so severe, you’d think I shot him.
“Whom do you think you’re talking to?” he demanded.
“I’ll tell you when I get to know you better.”
The tension in the room was suddenly a thin wire stretched too tight. Just the slightest pressure and it would snap.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Muehlenhaus repeated in an attempt to calm us.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” I said. “Under what scenario can you imagine that I would betray the confidence of my friends to you?”
“We know how to reward our friends,” Gunhus said.
“I bet. But we’re not friends. We’re not even acquaintances, and if someone doesn’t start volunteering information in a hurry, I’m going to leave.”
Coole, Gunhus, and Mahoney looked at each other to see who would speak first. Donovan beat them all to it.
“Can we rely on your discretion?” he asked.
“Not even a little bit.”
They didn’t like my answer. I watched the five men discuss it with glances and gestures. Not a word was spoken---it was as if they communicated with ESP. I rotated in my chair and faced Muehlenhaus.
“What is it you want of me?”
He in turn made a nearly imperceptible gesture with his bloodless hand.
Donovan read it and said, “Mr. McKenzie, we have an assignment to discuss with you. One that requires fine sensibilities and good judgment, one that requires the utmost in secrecy.”
“You have already proven to us that you can keep a secret,” Muehlenhaus informed me.
I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms and ankles. And people say I watch too many movies. I half expected the theme from Mission Impossible to begin wafting through the room from hidden speakers.
“Do you know the governor?” Donovan asked.
“We’ve never met.”
“Do you like him?”
“We’ve never met,” I repeated.
“We have a great deal invested in Governor Barrett.”
“A great deal,” Mahoney confirmed.
“Just so,” said Muehlenhaus.
“We made him governor,” Donovan added. “We would like to make him a U.S. senator.”
“Why stop there?” I asked.
“We---as I’m sure you’ll appreciate---are prepared to protect that investment.”
“When we say ‘we,’ we’re referring to the party,” said Muehlenhaus.
“After decades of being in the minority, the party has made great strides in Minnesota,” said Coole. “Much of that is due to Governor Barrett. He’s comparatively young. Attractive. Charismatic. He’s well known in the state and becoming well known throughout the nation---a high school sports hero, a self-made man rising above small-town poverty to become successful in business, respected for his philanthropic activities. He has been a splendid standard-bearer. So much so, that many people are considering him for higher office, perhaps the highest office.”
“He’s also willing to spend as much as twenty million dollars of his own money on his campaign,” added Mahoney.
“There’s that, too,” said Coole.
“So, what’s the problem?” I asked.
“You tell us.” Donovan said.
Muehlenhaus leaned forward.
“The first lady asked you to do a favor for her---please, don’t deny it. The favors you perform for your friends don’t always bear up well to public scrutiny. We would like to understand what this particular favor entails, but we will no longer press you on the matter. We wish only to impress you with this one fact: If there is a problem with the first lady, we can make it go away. We are determined to make it go away. In that regard, are we not allies?”
“Mr. McKenzie,” said Donovan. “We are not asking you to help us. We are asking that you allow us to help you.”
“We’ll reward you well for your cooperation,” added Mahoney.
A feeling of excitement grew in my stomach and a kind of hollow feeling, too, that I couldn’t give a name. I couldn’t do anything about the feeling and wasn’t sure I wanted to. Like most people, I have been on the outside looking in while men and women I didn’t know manipulated events and made decisions that affected my life, sometimes gravely. Now I was being asked to participate, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner. It made me feel the way I had when I was a freshman in high school and the “cool” kids invited me to lunch at their table. It made me feel important.
Then Donovan had to ruin it all by saying, “At the same time, we will not allow you or anyone else to devalue our investment in the governor.”
Suddenly, I was a guy who found himself lost in an elaborate maze without a ball of string or a trail of bread crumbs to lead him to safety. The voice in the back of my head that I had learned to trust long ago was now screaming at me. These men can’t be trusted. ‘Course, I knew that before I even walked into the room.
“Gentlemen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I stood and rolled my chair under the table. “The first lady is my friend, that’s true. But if she has a problem, as you say, I am unaware of what it could be. ‘Course, if I did know, I wouldn’t discuss it with you or anyone else. That’s a promise I make to all of my friends and I never break my promises. Just to prove it, I’ll make you a promise. You fuck with me or my friends, I’ll fuck with you. I won’t pretend that you and your resources don’t scare me. They do. But you know what? I can be pretty scary, too.” I pointed at the file in front of Muehlenhaus. “Ask around.”
Coole, Gunhus, and Mahoney looked at each other to see if they were even remotely frightened by my remarks. Apparently not. Muehlenhaus seemed delighted. He clasped his hands together and laughed. Donovan laughed with him, just not as vigorously.
I was astonished by their reaction and probably looked it.
The old man said, “You’ll do, McKenzie. You’ll do fine.”
The thought I had at the Groveland Tap pushed itself from the back of my brain right up front. You are a schnook.
Copyright © 2006 by David Housewright