“You eat here a lot?” he asked. His voice was a rusted out car on a gravel road. “How do you stand all the damned tourists?”
We were outside the Czech Stop, a combination gas station and Czech bakery in West, Texas, about halfway between Dallas and Austin. I’d suggested it as a meeting place when Hay had called and said he was driving down from Dallas and wanted to talk. For the most part it looked like any other gas station, but there was a big parking lot to the side and there was always a line at the bakery counter.
“Best kolaches in the state,” I said. “If they served liquor I’d buy a camper and live in the parking lot.”
“I’ve done campaign events here,” he said. “Never again.
Everybody’s more interested in the fucking food than voting.” I couldn’t tell if he was stalling or reminding me who he was. “We’ve met before, you know.”
“I’m impressed you remember. That was twenty years ago, Tom Brennan’s ’88 Senate campaign.”
“You were with the Austin department then, on the family’s security detail,” Hay said. “Then you joined the Rangers. Then you retired, and now you’re private.”
“All true,” I said. “I assume you know I wasn’t popular with some of my coworkers.”
“Immaterial.” Hay was fifty years into a career as one of the most powerful political strategists, dealmakers and back-room hustlers in Texas. He hadn’t survived by talking to people before he knew their stories. “Major Andrews says you can be trusted completely.”
“Good to hear.” I sipped the to-go coffee I’d bought with my bag of pastries. “What can I do for you, Mr. Hay?”
He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “You were around the family in ’88. You must have met Jackie.”
He meant Jack Brennan, Tom’s son. Fifth generation of political Brennans, now halfway through his first term in the US House. “Sure,” I said. “He was, what, fifteen at the time. Sharp kid, if I recall right.”
“You do,” Hay said. “Top of his class at UT School of Law.”
Even through his torn-up throat Hay said UT like I was supposed to genuflect.
“And then the service,” I said.
Hay nodded. “Texas National Guard. Two tours in Iraq. Filed for his Congressional run the day he got out.”
“Got yourself a golden boy,” I said. “Tom must be proud.”
His mouth twitched at that. “Everything I’m about to tell you is in strictest confidence,” he said. “Jackie is on the short list to be Clinton’s running mate.”
I raised an eyebrow. “After one term in the House?”
“Hillary’s big negatives are going to be her age and her vote for the invasion. Not popular these days. Having a youthful war hero from a red state on the ticket checks a lot of boxes.”
“From what I read, her big problem is going to be Mr. Art of the Deal.”
Hay snorted. “I’ve been in this game a long time, Collins,” he said. “This country might, just might, be ready for a woman. It isn’t ready for a clown with a ridiculous combover and less brainpower than your average lab rat. Bank it, he’s just trying to boost his personal brand so he can slap his name on more ugly buildings.”
“Okay,” I said. “Vice President Brennan, and God bless Texas. Where do I come into this rosy picture?”
Hay reached into the back seat and handed me an envelope. “This was on my desk when I got to my office this morning.”
I took it, holding it by the edges from long training. It was a 9x12 manila envelope. Hay’s name had been written in block letters in marker, along with the word Personal, underlined three times.
“Somebody just walked in and left this?” I said. “Don’t you have security?”
“In theory,” Hay said. “Now you know why I’m coming to you instead.”
Inside the envelope was an 8x10 photograph. It was a little fuzzy, like it had been blown up from a smaller one, but the subjects were clear enough: four young men in khaki and camo, sitting around a folding table in front of a tent, desert visible in the background. Playing cards and bottles of beer were scattered on the table. The four men were looking at the camera, grinning and laughing. Jackie Brennan, his central casting good looks immediately identifiable, was one of the men. He had his arm around the shoulder of one of the others, a smaller man with jet black hair.
There was nothing else in the envelope. The back of the photo was blank. “I don’t get it,” I said.
“Look again at the guy by Jackie.” I peered at the face more closely. “Christ,” I said. “Is that Wilson Bloom?”
“Yeah,” Hay bit out. “Wilson fucking Bloom.”
I should have been quicker to recognize one of the most hated faces in America. Wilson Bloom was a good Baptist kid from Mississippi who, somehow, got radicalized during his tour in Iraq. Six months after being deployed he snuck a group of insurgents into his base in the middle of the night and joined them in a surprise attack. Twenty-nine American soldiers died, making Bloom the most famous traitor since Benedict Arnold. Four months ago he was finally captured. He was currently in a brig on an American destroyer while the brass tried to decide whether to put him on trial, send him to Gitmo, or just drop him off the side of the boat.
“Okay,” I said. “Not a great visual, but you could spin this. Say the betrayal toughened Jackie up. Or, hell, just say it was photoshopped.”
“Of course I can spin it,” Hay snapped, his voice breaking. “I’ve spun worse. But just the existence of that image is enough to keep Jackie off the ticket, maybe even keep him from holding his seat. And what worries me is there’s no note. No demand, no blackmail, no announcement that the picture is going to the press. I need to know who sent this and what the hell they want.”
“What does Jackie want to do?”
“Jackie doesn’t know about this until I decide he should. Which is never.”
I nodded. “I get four hundred a day and expenses.”
“Good enough. You want the job?”
I looked out the windshield. I could take 35 back the way I came and just keep going. Pick up Interstate 10 in Houston. Twenty-four hours of hard driving and I could be in Key West with a completely different group of tourists, waiting for the sunset and drinking something tropical. It sounded like a lot more fun than digging around in Jackie Brennan’s closets. But like my old man used to say, if it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you. “Sure,” I said.
Hay gave me a thousand dollars in hundreds and a thumb drive with the personnel files of the people in his office. He wouldn’t let me take the photo, and only when I got insistent did he reluctantly let me take a picture of it with my phone. I watched him have another volcanic coughing fit before he drove off, then sat in my own car looking at the image.
I could track backwards from Hay’s office, or forward from the picture. My gut told me the picture was more promising, but my client didn’t want me talking to Jackie, and I had a better chance of going bar hopping with George Clooney than of ever getting within a hundred miles of Wilson Bloom. That left the two other Marines in the picture, one a lanky redhead, the other bearded and dark with a gym rat’s physique. Neither was considerate enough to be wearing a nametag, and Hay hadn’t known their names. That was discouraging, so I looked at the pictures of Ben Franklin in my new stack of bills and felt a little better.
“The game is afoot,” I said out loud. A woman walking past my car turned and looked at me. I winked and drove away before she could ask me what the hell I was talking about.
Twenty-four hours later I still had no idea who the bearded Marine was, but I knew that the redhead’s name was Peter Mulligan and that he worked at one of the five hundred financial firms that had sprung up like weeds in Austin over the last couple of decades. I’d like to say that I got this information at a sleazy underworld bar from a slinky blonde in a painted-on dress, but mother told me never to lie. I got it the same way every other PI gets 90% of his info these days: by sitting in front of a keyboard and mercilessly pounding it into submission.
I couldn’t quickly get a list of everyone in Jackie’s unit, but I found a wire report from his initial deployment, quoting a bunkmate who said that the Senator’s son was getting no special treatment. The bunkmate had a wife, and the wife had a Facebook account and a few hundred friends, mostly the parents or partners of other soldiers. I sent friend requests to everyone on the list and enough of them accepted to give me access to reams of pictures and posts. It’s the digital equivalent of pushing every button in an apartment building’s foyer, knowing somebody will buzz you in.
Five hours in, just as my eyes were starting to cross, I found Mulligan, tagged in a group shot taken at a backyard barbecue the year before. He’d put on some weight in civilian life, but the shade of his hair and a mole on his cheek were unmistakable. That gave me his name and led me to his own Facebook page, which seemed to consist of nothing but links to stories about the UT football team. However, Mulligan’s mother posted several times a day. She was obsessed with breathlessly reporting her son’s triumphs and blissfully ignorant of privacy concerns. From Mama Mulligan I learned about Peter’s successful completion of the business degree he’d started in the service and his hiring, five months back, by an investment firm she wrote of in giddily hyperbolic terms. Since she was also giddily hyperbolic about her new coffee maker, I reserved judgment.
My back was aching, but I kept at it for another several hours before tumbling into bed at around three. I never saw the bearded man.
By eleven in the morning I was in the plaza outside the building where Mulligan worked, pretending to be engrossed in my phone. Back when I was first trained on surveillance, they told us that loitering like this was risky, too conspicuous. There’s only so long you can pretend to be reading one newspaper. Smartphones solved the hell out of this problem. Now you’re suspicious if you’re not sitting in one spot staring at your hand for hours on end.
At 12:40 Mulligan came out of the building carrying a paper bag and a bottled water. He walked two blocks to the 1st Street bridge and walked across. He wasn’t rushing, but he was a recent vet with thirty years advantage on me. I lost him for a couple of minutes before I spotted him strolling into the park. It was a pleasant spring day and there were lots of people around, walking dogs and pushing strollers. Mulligan found an empty bench near the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was halfway through his sandwich when I sat down beside him.
“Mr. Mulligan,” I said. He looked at me, smiling the smile of a man who hasn’t yet memorized all his clients’ faces. I held up my phone, letting him see the picture. “A few minutes of your time?”
The smile deflated as he absorbed what he was looking at. He looked around at the crowded park, seeing something different than he had a few minutes ago. “You a reporter or a cop?” he asked.
“Used to be a cop. Private now. Name’s Collins.” “Either way,” Mulligan said. He dropped the remaining part of his sandwich back into the bag. “I got nothing to say about Wilson Bloom.”
“Me neither,” I said. “What you got to say about Jack Brennan?”
That threw him. “Jackie?”
“The very same son of the lone star state.”
He shook his head. “You might as well walk away now. I got nothing to say about him either.”
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m not looking to hurt Brennan.” He shook his head slowly, staring off into the distance.
Pushing wasn’t going to do any good. I leaned back, looking around at the park. It was early in the year yet but you could pick out the tourists, taking pictures of the statue and the skyline across the river. The South by Southwest festival had been a couple of weeks back, flooding the city with hipsters and music nerds. I always find a reason to be out of town for the festival.
“A lot of vets I know wouldn’t come here,” I said. “The open spaces, the crowds.”
He was quiet for so long I thought he was just going to wait me out.
“I know those guys,” he said finally. He still didn’t look at me. “I don’t blame them. Me, I like it. I like watching people who aren’t looking over their shoulders all day.”
This time I was quiet.
“You never served,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“I didn’t,” I said. “I’ve been shot at. Shot back a few times.”
“I respect that,” he said. “But it ain’t the same.”
“No. It’s not.”
We were quiet together. There was a guy a dozen feet from us, spray painted silver and standing on a box, pretending to be another statue.
Every few minutes he jerked into a new position, sending nearby kids into screams of startled laughter. Over on Riverside Drive a bus pulled away from the curb at a bad angle and the mirror banged loudly against a steel traffic sign. Mulligan’s jerk was barely noticeable.
“I got ten minutes before I’m due back,” he said. “Say your piece.”
“The picture I showed you,” I said. “It turned up in Brennan’s offices. His people need to know if somebody’s sending a message, and what it is.”
He took a breath, considering.
“Look,” I said. “You got anything against Brennan?”
“I’d die for the man,” he said.
“Okay. So if I’m lying and I’m out to hurt him, I’ve already got the picture. That’s all anybody would need to sink him, so you can’t do any harm by talking to me. But if I’m telling the truth.”
“Yeah,” he said. “What do you need?”
I held the phone up again. “I need to know who the fourth guy is, and who took the picture.”
He frowned. “Can’t Jackie tell you that?”
“It’s politics, Peter. His people haven’t told him about this. They can’t, in case somebody asks.”
Mulligan shook his head. “He always said that would happen. That his family would wipe the sand off him and pour him into a suit. Always said that if the day came when we couldn’t come around for a beer to shoot him.”
“Had a beer with him lately?”
“I don’t get to Washington much.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If I never talk to him again he’s still my brother.”
“Okay,” I said. “Your brother doesn’t know it, but he needs help.”
He sighed. “Bearded guy is Stu Coleman,” he said. “Picture was taken by Andy Fleck.”
I wrote the names down. “Either of them have reason to be holding a grudge against Brennan?”
“Wouldn’t matter if they did,” Mulligan said. “They were both dead a week after that. Died in Bloom’s attack.” He stood up.
“Jesus,” I said. “Anybody else? Anyone in the unit who might come after Jackie?”
“Fuck no,” Mulligan said. “Jackie was a good guy. Kind of guy who’d carry your pack on top of his own and crack jokes the whole time.
Everybody loved him. Plus he saved at least twenty lives that night.”
“Okay,” I said. I got a card out of my wallet. “You think of anything else call me.”
He put the card in his pocket without looking at it. Another pricy piece of embossing wasted. “Anything I can do for Brennan,” he said. “You call me.”
“One last thing, Peter. You ever seen the picture before?”
“No,” he said. “And I hope to Christ I never see it again.”
I sat on the bench for a long time after Mulligan left. I was remembering the Jack Brennan I’d met twenty years ago, the handsome but awkward kid who seemed overwhelmed by everything happening to his family and just wanted to be left alone with his fantasy novels. Every time I saw Representative Brennan, the passionate social crusader, on TV, I had to remind myself it was the same person. A lot had changed since his dad’s time. It takes guts to be a Democrat in Texas these days, even if your district is reliably liberal Austin. And now there was this third Jack Brennan, the war hero, the universally popular GI. If I tracked down people he’d known at college I wondered if I’d hear about some fourth version. Brennan could play six degrees of separation all by himself. Then I remembered some things about who I was twenty years ago.
A drinker. Married.
I got off the bench. There was a job to do and I had two new names to play with.
As it turned out, I only needed one.
The offices of Hay Political Consulting took up one whole floor in a fairly anonymous office building just a couple of blocks from where Peter Mulligan worked. Hay could have had an office in any of the luxury skyscrapers that have sprung up in Austin recently, but he had never seen a reason to move out of the slightly seedy space he’d been in for half a century. His whole job, after all, was not to be overly visible.
He’d given me a pass for the building, and the day after I talked to Mulligan I used it. At ten in the morning I got off the elevator on Hay’s floor and strolled casually through the front door. There was no receptionist, just a maze of offices and open spaces. Everybody I could see was either on the phone or engrossed in a computer screen or both. Nobody challenged me. Nobody so much as glanced at me. Either Hay had fired his security or they were even worse than he’d said.
I followed the sound of copying machines to the bottom of the totem pole. The fourth door I poked my head into was what I was looking for. In a pinch three people might have fit into the room, if they were prepared to get to know each other very well. There was a desk that looked like the one I’d used in the first grade, a laptop computer, and a plain wooden chair. The young woman sitting on it had brown hair in an unruly pile on top of her head and was wearing a red power suit that looked like it had come straight off the set of Working Girl. She looked up, startled, as I lurked my way into blocking her door.
“Irma Helm?” I said.
“Um. Yes?” She picked up a pen, put it back down.
“Come with me.” I turned and walked back toward the central part of the office, hearing her scramble behind me to get around the tiny desk.
“Am I in trouble?” she asked, almost jogging to keep up with me. She was barely five feet tall, a good match for the room she’d been shoved into. “I swear I’ll have the Waco polls compiled by five.”
“No trouble,” I said. I didn’t want to give her the chance to start wondering who the hell I was. “Couple quick questions to clear up.” I’d spotted the door to Hay’s office on my first cycle. There was a desk for a receptionist but nobody was sitting at it. I knocked and opened the door without waiting for an answer. As soon as the door was open we could hear Hay, sounding like he was trying to forcibly evict a lung. Irma shrank back but I took her by the elbow and steered her in, closing the door behind us.
There was nothing opulent about Hay’s office. It was a working man’s space, with ancient metal filing cabinets along one wall. The shelves behind the desk were stacked high with papers and books, the desk itself bare aside from a computer and a rolodex the size of an engine block. The windows faced east but newer buildings blocked what must have once been an impressive view of the State Capitol building. The only sign of indulgence was a tray to the side of the desk with an assortment of bottles and glasses.
Hay was hunched over, hacking into a wad of tissues. He looked up in surprise as we came in and spun his chair to face away from us.
“We should go,” Irma said.
“He’ll be all right in a minute,” I said. I took her to one of the two chairs on this side of the desk and got her seated, then leaned against the wall.
Hay slowly came back to normal. He put his hands on his knees and took some deep breaths that only rattled a little. He dropped the tissues into a trash can and swung around to consider us as he drank from a glass of ice water. “Collins,” he rasped out. “You could knock.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Hay,” Irma said. “He made me come in.”
Hay looked at her. “I’ve seen you,” he said.
“Roger Hay, Irma Helm,” I said. “Irma has worked here for two months. She does data entry in an office that would make a housefly claustrophobic.”
“Right,” Hay said. “It’s a busy place, Collins. We’re working on about two dozen national and state campaigns.”
“I’m not complaining,” Irma said quickly. “I just want to help.”
“Irma was a good hire,” I said. “Impressive application. The degree in political science from UT jumps out at you, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find her emergency contact is her mother, Emily Fleck.” I shifted my attention to Irma. “Andy Fleck was your half-brother.”
“Yes,” she said. “But I don’t understand what’s happening here.”
“Who’s Andy Fleck?” Hay asked.
“A soldier and photographer,” I said. “He took the picture you saw a couple of days ago, and then shortly afterwards died when Wilson Bloom turned.” I walked over behind Irma’s chair and put a hand on her shoulder. “Andy sent the picture to you, didn’t he?”
She had clasped her hands between her knees and was looking at the floor. “It was an email just a few hours before he died,” she said. “Teasing me about how handsome Jack—Mr. Brennan was. How he was going to set us up when they came home.”
“All right,” I said, easing into the other chair. “Irma, do you blame Mr. Brennan for Andy’s death? Do you want to hurt his career?”
“What?” She looked startled, then angry. “Of course not! Jackie was Andy’s best friend. They took care of each other.” She turned to appeal to Hay. “Sir, I only came to work here because I was grateful. Because I wanted to give something back to him.”
“Then why did you give me this?” Hay wheezed out. He opened a side drawer of his desk and held up the folder.
She shook her head. “I don’t know what that is,” she said.
“It’s the picture, Irma,” I said. “Jackie with Wilson Bloom, plus Peter Mulligan and Stu Coleman. It was left on Mr. Hay’s desk two days ago.”
“I didn’t do that,” she said. “I swear. I printed the picture, but not for that.”
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“She gave it to me.”
I turned my head. The door was open and Jackie Brennan was leaning against the frame. He was wearing a tie but no jacket and had his sleeves rolled to his forearms. He looked for all the world like he was about to give a speech about American jobs to a bunch of guys in hard hats. I stood up as he came into the room, closing the door behind him. He walked over and shook my hand.
“Sit, please,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve—no, wait. We ha
ve met before.” He cocked his head. “But I seem to remember a uniform.” “Long time ago, sir,” I said. “My name’s Collins. I was on security for your father’s ’88 run.”
“Of course,” he said. He smiled, and it was easy to believe that he’d been waiting twenty years just to see me again. “Officer Collins. Thank you for all you did then, but,” he turned to Hay, “what are you doing here now, if I may ask?”
“She gave this to you,” Hay said. He had the picture out of the envelope.
“She did,” Jackie said. “Last weekend. It was very kind of her.”
“I thought he’d like to have it,” Irma said. “I wanted him to know how grateful to him I was. Did I do something wrong?”
“Of course not,” Jackie said. He went over and hitched up a leg to half perch on the window sill. I settled back into my chair. “It makes me happy to know that Andy spoke so well of me.”
u put the picture on Hay’s desk,” I said.
“I did.” “Why?” Hay sounded half crazed. “What the hell were you hoping would happen?” “Frankly, Roger,” Jackie said, “I was hoping you would retire, or at least drop this Clinton insanity. I know how hard you’ve been pushing her people. You need to stop. I can’t possibly be on the ticket.”
“Why not?” Hay demanded.
“Because I won’t do it,” Jackie said, and just that quickly all the political polish dropped out of his voice. It was like a new person had come into the room. Yet another Jackie. “After what happened. Not just Bloom. All of it. Everything I saw happen to people who didn’t deserve any of it. I won’t ever send a single American soldier into harm’s way, for any reason, anywhere in the world.”
“As I understand it,” I said quietly, “that’s kind of a central component of the job.”
Jackie nodded. “It is the job,” he said. “So I can’t do the job. I was hoping . . . I was hoping that the picture would save me from having to say that out loud.”
“You should say it,” Irma said. “Everybody should. Andy would still be alive.”
“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so,” I said.
“You won’t do it,” Hay hissed. I had never heard such contempt.
Jackie stirred uncomfortably. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done, Roger.”
“Grateful.” Hay put his hands on the desk and looked at Brennan. I could see a vein pulsing in his temple. “You little shit.”
“Fifty years,” Hay said. “Do you know where I was fifty years ago, you little shit? In an office just like this one, talking to your grandfather. The greatest man I ever knew. He’d just given me a job. He gave me my first real drink and had me toast with him. And do you know what we toasted? To President Brennan. To putting a member of the family in the White House.”
“Grandad was a dreamer,” Jackie said.
“Fifty goddamn years,” Hay said, enunciating every word. “Every goddamn day. The party wouldn’t touch him because his wife wouldn’t stop crawling into the bottle. Then there was your father, who was too fucking stupid even by Washington standards. And your uncle Frank, who couldn’t stay away from the girls, and your uncle Jim, who couldn’t stay away from the boys, and your cousin Tad, who couldn’t stay away from the goddamn track.”
“Easy now, Roger,” Jackie said.
Hay was breathing hard, his voice strangled. “And finally we get you. Smart, good-looking, all the right tools. This has been my life, you little shit. My life. And you won’t?”
“No, Roger,” Brennan said. “I won’t.”
“Fucking right,” Hay said. His hand went into the open drawer and came out with a revolver. I jerked out of my chair as Irma screamed and the gun came around to face Brennan. The sound was the same as it always is, flatter than TV makes you think it will be.
One other thing I was, twenty years ago.
Wow! Powerful story.ReplyDelete
Great detective piece!ReplyDelete