By Dave Reddall
Peter Wellington looked just like his campaign photo: hair neatly parted, boyish gee-whiz smile, and brown eyes as vacant as a brace of elevator shafts. A secretary wearing a tricolored boater handed the candidate a printout and shut the door behind her, leaving me with Wellington and his two top aides, Johnny “J. D.” Murtha and Evan Nickerson. They were managing Wellington’s bid for a seat in the State House.
“We want you to do a background check on Peter,” said Murtha. “Really dig in, see if you can find anything that could be construed as politically damaging.”
I looked at Wellington. “You’re alright with this?”
He flashed The Smile. “Sure. I’ve nothing to hide.”
“Then why go to the bother and expense of a background investigation?”
“Because,” said Johnny, “Peter’s opponent in this election, Paul Schrader, already has his oppos on the case, doing the same thing. Obviously, if there’s anything that could be turned against us we want to know about it first so we can bury it or put the proper spin on it. A preemptive strike, if you will.”
“The name of the game is dirt,” said Nickerson. “You run for office, you exploit every angle. For instance, if your opponent has missed important votes, neglected to pay his taxes, or accepted contributions from, say, corporate polluters.”
“Or chases skirts,” I said, “or owes his bookie, or uses too much Colombian marching powder.”
“We don’t do bedrooms, Stubblefield,” he sneered. “That’s why you’re here.”
“I don’t do bedrooms, either, Nickerson. I’ve already lowered my standards by being here. I promised my father I’d stay out of brothels.”
He recoiled as if I’d slapped him. “Get the hell out of here! You’re fired.”
“I’d say that’s up to Wellington, not you.”
Wellington glanced at Johnny who shook his head.
“He stays. J. D. likes him.”
“And I say this guy’s a smartass and a potential liability. I’ve said all along that this is a stupid idea.”
“Sure,” said Johnny, “until one of Schrader’s people finds out that, say, five years ago Peter attended a fundraiser for injured refugee children that was partially sponsored by an Islamic organization that may - may - have tenuous links to some terrorist group. Never mind that neither Peter nor the organizers was aware of that because, within a week of finding out about it Schrader will air an ad showing Peter wearing a khafiya and brandishing an assault rifle.”
“It’s your call,” said Nickerson stiffly. “I’ve made my feelings on the matter clear.”
After he’d left, Johnny smiled wryly. “Still a master of diplomacy, I see. Whatever happened to Alexander Theroux’s adage that silence is the unbearable repartee?”
I shrugged. “Guess he never met Nickerson. Where do you want me to start?”
“For now, don’t concern yourself with big political issues. Stick to Peter’s personal life, social functions, local politics, that sort of thing. Go back as far as you deem necessary. And I’m sure I need not remind you that discretion is of utmost importance.”
I gave my assurances, completed the necessary paperwork, then threaded my way out through the volunteers working at desks decorated with red, white, and blue bunting. Their energy and commitment were palpable. They believed that what they were doing would make a difference. I envied them. It had been a very long time since I’d felt that way about politics.
* * *
I walked two blocks to The Rudder and ordered coffee. Floyd, the owner, was reading the paper, enjoying the midmorning lull.
“You’re a political animal, Floyd. What’s your take on Peter Wellington?”
“Ah yes, Peter ‘Thanks Dad’ Wellington.” He pushed the paper aside and wiped his mustache with a napkin. “Rich kid. His old man made his fortune in real estate. Sent Peter to all the best schools. I mean all of them. Flunked out of one after the other, finally got a degree in business from some cow college. He manages the family business, but word is that if it wasn’t for his father’s hand on the helm that ship would soon founder. In short, he’s a vacuum with a good barber.”
“Why Floyd, how uncharitable of you.”
“Well, you asked. And given the level of intellect in politics today he’ll probably make a passable State Rep. Tell you this: Schrader’s going to have a hard time going negative on the lad, on his personal comportment, anyway. Married, two kids, not a whiff of monkey business. A family values kind of guy.”
“Never been in trouble?”
“Not unless being brain-dead is against the law.”
* * *
A couple of hours in the library revealed that Wellington’s political record was one of blameless and relentless mediocrity. There seemed to be little from which to launch a run at the Legislature, especially against the entrenched and wily Paul Schrader.
While I was at it, I checked several web sites that featured examples of negative campaigning. Among the thousands of entries were an even dozen where a candidate had been compared to Neville Chamberlain, several more to the Visigoths, hundreds referencing Hitler, Joe McCarthy, and even Dracula. One right-wing radio screamer had gone so far as to call a presidential candidate “a Socialist, a Communist, and a crack whore.”
Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “a means of livelihood affected by the more degraded portion of our criminal classes.” I left the library convinced that Bierce was an idealist.
* * *
At two A. M. a three-quarter moon was riding low in the western sky, deepening the shadows behind Wellington Realty. There was no sign of an alarm system and the lock soon yielded to my picks.
I’d spent the better part of three weeks researching Wellington and interviewing people who knew him. The results were the same: milk and apple pie. It was time to bear down.
I located Peter’s office and sat down at his desk. The checkbooks were in the bottom drawer. Follow the money, they say. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I figured, like the IRS, that if there were any anomalies, any peaks or valleys, they would be apparent. One was. Wellington gave to a number of charities. The amounts varied from fifty to five hundred dollars. Except for the Childhood Development Fund. In the past six months Wellington had written two checks to them, each for ten thousand. I waited for a prowl car to pass, then trained my pen light on the rolodex. The CDF had a post office box in West Eaton. I noted it, made sure everything was as I found it, and got out of there.
* * *
At nine o’clock the next morning I walked into the West Eaton Post Office. Wellington’s last two checks to the Childhood Development Fund were written on the first of March and June. Today was the second of September. If I was right, there would be a check arriving today or tomorrow for box 372.
I positioned myself at the table in the lobby from which I had a clear view of the box, opened the zip code directory, and made a show of copying a long list of numbers. By ten I was bored silly and my feet hurt, and I worried that the postal clerk might become suspicious. But patience was rewarded. A tall thin number approached the box and gave the dial a spin. He had narrow features dominated by a long sharp nose. With a receding hairline, he resembled an undernourished bird of prey.
I went out and started the car. He emerged a moment later and fired up a silver Mitsubishi sportster. Following him was dicey in a town as small as West Eaton, but a few minutes later he turned into a residential street and into the driveway of a neat three-quarter Cape. I drove to the end of the street and parked. The house was visible in my rearview mirror. So was the black Escalade that had tailed me from the post office. It was parked at the other end of the street. One of Schrader’s people, maybe, hoping to scoop me. If so, he would have had to follow me from Hyannis, and I was quite sure that hadn’t happened.
A woman came out of the house and began watering the flowers. She was blond, full-bodied, maybe forty. While she watered I checked out the neighborhood: small, attractive homes, big yards, lots of trees, no curbs, quiet. I wondered how long sleepy West Eaton would remain that way before the gentry “discovered” it and the realtors and developers descended, building starter castles, sending property taxes soaring and the common folk packing.
After a while the woman turned off the hose and went in. I’d seen all I could for now. I made a U-turn and drove past the Escalade, hoping for a look at the driver. No luck. Tinted windows. I headed out to the Mass pike and drove home. No one followed me.
* * *
It was raining Wednesday. The office smelled like low tide. I threw open the window on the lee side and turned on the fan. That, and the coffee maker, rendered the air breathable again.
I dialed up Leo Tillman. Leo is an information broker. He purchases access to a number of databases, including the motor vehicle registry. By using him I avoid computer anxiety and save time, if not money.
Leo has a voice like a belt sander. “Charles! Did you hear about the dyslexic who was so depressed he threw himself behind a bus?”
I held the receiver at arm’s length until he was through cackling.
“Leo, do you know what the definition of a gentleman is? Someone who knows many bad jokes and refrains from telling them. Trace a plate for me.” I gave him the plate number from the Escalade and rang off before he could regale me with more comedy.
Next I called the state Attorney General’s Division of Charities. The Childhood Development Fund was not registered with them. Leo called back to tell me that the Escalade was registered to Manny Fleck of Springfield, that the bill for his services was already in the mail, and that if you put Viagra in your bean soup you’ll get a stiff wind.
The phone was still warm when the office door opened. There were two of them, both incongruously dressed in raincoats and designer running outfits. The big one went two-fifty easy and had to duck coming through the doorway. The other was short and thin and held a very large automatic in one gloved hand.
“Delta Elite, 10 mm,” I said. “They never caught on. Too heavy, too much kick, especially for a little guy.”
“Shut up,” he said. He didn’t look like much if you took the gun away, but then Genghis Kahn was only five-four.
“Do you gentlemen require the services of a confidential investigator?”
“Said shut up,” said the little man
“And to think they say the art of conversation is dead,” I replied, getting up.
“Sit down,” said the hulk.
“Shut up, sit down — don’t you guys have any manners?”
“Let me dust the shmeggege,” said the gunner. “He’s hurtin’ my ears.”
“Cut it out,” I said. “If you were going to fry me in my own office in the middle of the morning you’d have a silencer on that cannon, wouldn’t you Manny?”
“He won’t shoot you unless he has to,” said his partner, “but nothin’ was said about we couldn’t beat you bowlegged if we felt like it. Now sit down and take a memo.”
I sat. He put his beefy hands on the desk and leaned over me, blocking out most of the room. “Here’s the memo: stay out of West Eaton. Forget you was ever in West Eaton. Don’t even think about West Eaton.”
“Or Manny’s going to dump you. We ain’t playin’ here.”
“Who’s the message from?”
He jerked a thumb at his chest. “From me.” He straightened up. “You’ve been told.”
Fleck paused on his way out. “Have a real nice day, pal.”
When they were gone I called Billy McDonough in Springfield, an operative with whom I’ve worked in the past, and asked him about Fleck.
“Manny works for Jack Sutro. Sutro is connected to the mob in Providence. What’s up?”
I told him about my visitors.
“The big guy is probably Bruno Gant. Used to be a fighter. Not known for his adroitness in the ring. Usually guys would just run out of gas from hitting him and fall down. Fleck is a head case. I shouldn’t care to have those two pay me a social call.”
“What’s Sutro’s racket?”
“Little of this, little of that: drugs, extortion, numbers, whatever pays the bills. Not above violence.”
I thanked Billy and got my feet up on the desk. Below, in the music store, Emilio was working over “In A Sentimental Mood” on the alto sax. It was very peaceful. The rain had stopped, sunlight was breaking through the clouds over Nantucket Sound, hum of traffic, the sweet sound of the horn. I’d have to go back to West Eaton. I didn’t want to. I was beset with fatigue and the futility of dealing with people like Wellington and his empty ambition, of cockroaches like Fleck and Gant and their boss, Sutro, and his bosses, too. To hell with them all.
Emilio shifted to Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood,” the most wrenching blues Bird ever recorded. When he was done I got up and went home.
* * *
The silver Mitsubishi was nowhere in sight when I arrived at the house in West Eaton. I parked several doors down and walked back. She answered on the first knock.
“My name is Stubblefield. I’m a private investigator from Hyannis. I think we should talk about Peter Wellington.”
She chewed her lower lip. “Very well.”
I followed her into the kitchen and we sat at the table.
“I don’t want anything to happen to Peter, really I don’t.”
“What could happen to him, and why?”
“Nothing is going to happen to Wellington,” said a voice behind me. “Unlike you.” The man from the post office, gun in hand.
“Call Jack,” he said to the woman.
“Artie, maybe we should —”
“Do it!” he snapped. “You’re stupid, Stubblefield. They told you to stay away and yet here you are. Manny’s going to enjoy putting you to sleep.”
The Browning was under my left arm, but Artie had thought of that and he took it away. Twenty minutes later two men arrived. One was tall, square, and good looking if you think Victor Mature was handsome. The other was Manny Fleck. He grinned.
“Some guys never learn.”
“Take his keys, Manny,” said Sutro. “Put his car in the garage.”
I handed Fleck the keys. “I don’t think your feet will reach the pedals — pal.”
For a second, something flickered in his eyes, then went out. “I’ll remember that.”
“He knows, Jack,” said Artie.
“Not all of it,” I said. “You’ve got something on Wellington. I figure you’d like to see him in the State House. He’d have more power, but he’d still be your boy. How do you plan to use him, assuming he wins?”
Sutro shrugged. “He could be useful in any number of ways. Like the vote coming up on whether to allow gambling casinos in the state. We’d like to see that, and any assistance we can get from our elected officials will be greatly appreciated.”
“What is it?” I said. “An illegitimate child somewhere? Or maybe an abortion. Bad press for a family values kind of guy.”
“That’s a good guess. Peter took a little walk on the wild side in his college years. Or did Barbara here already tell you?”
“No, but what else would be worth forty grand a year to a guy like Wellington?”
“What did you say?”
“I said — ”
He had a gun out now and his face was flushed. “You said forty grand. Where did you get that number?”
“Wellington’s check book.”
The automatic was pointed at Artie now. “You little chiseler.”
“Come on, Jack. He’s lying to save his own ass. Let’s just take him down to the gravel pit and shoot him like we planned.”
Sutro looked at Barbara. “You cash that check yet?”
“No.” She started to cry.
She fumbled in her pocketbook and handed Sutro a check. Artie began to blubber.
“Jack, hey man, Wellington’s made of dough. A little more don’t matter.”
“You idiot! We were taking a small bite just to keep him on the leash. And you have to go and jack him up. When did you plan on telling me? Or didn’t you?”
“I got expenses here, Jack. House, car, I got a lifestyle to maintain.”
“Not anymore you don’t.” The gun spat fire and thunder. A hole blossomed in Artie’s forehead and he crumpled, all the strings cut forever.
I moved with the shot, gripped the gun and slammed a fist to Sutro’s temple. He went down and out. Barbara huddled over Artie, weeping softly. I retrieved my gun, locked the back door, then ran to the front of the house and positioned myself behind the door.
Fleck came in fast and low. My first shot parted his hair. He tucked and rolled behind the couch. His gun hand came up and he started firing blindly. I raked the couch from end to end, slapped in a fresh clip, took cover behind the staircase. A groan from behind the couch. Fleck hauled himself upright, face and shirtfront bloody. I shot him twice in the chest and he slid from view. I stood for a minute, hands shaking, while dust and bits of wadding, illuminated by the afternoon sun, drifted down in the stunned silence. Then I went into the kitchen and called the cops.
* * *
Wellington, Murtha, and Nickerson were waiting for me at campaign headquarters.
“Hell of a job, Stubblefield!” shouted Nickerson, slamming down some papers.
“Scandal, murder — Peter’s just gone down in flames. You were supposed to be working for us.”
“So were you,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Peter, I’m not going to listen to any more of this guy’s crap.”
“Yes, you are,” I said. “You’re involved in this right up to your chrome yellow power tie.”
Murtha stepped between us. “Charles, couldn’t this have been handled quietly?”
“How? I can’t control Barbara, the police, or the press.”
Johnny eyed Nickerson. “What did you mean when you said Evan was involved?”
“He’s working for Sutro.”
“That’s absurd!” said Nickerson. “That’s an unfounded and slanderous accusation.”
“I started thinking about him when Fleck was waiting for me in West Eaton. How did he know I was coming? How did they know I was coming again two days ago? Not you, Johnny. Certainly not Wellington. And Schrader’s people don’t even know I’m working for you. That leaves Nickerson, who never wanted me here in the first place. I figure he had me followed from day one, and the guy was good. I never saw him. He told Nickerson I’d broken into Peter’s office. Nickerson knew that if I looked at the checkbook I’d do just what I did. There’s no other way it could have happened.”
Nickerson buttoned his jacket and walked to the door. “There isn’t a shred of evidence to support any of this nonsense. And I am no longer associated with this office.”
When he’d gone I turned to Wellington. “You should have stopped this a long time ago. Taken your lumps and gotten out from under. It would have been a lot cleaner. You had to know they would never let up otherwise.”
He nodded dully. “What am I going to do now?”
I had no answer for that so I went out of there, leaving him to stare at the wreckage of his ambition: the bunting, the silent phones on deserted desks, the smiling portraits on the posters that exuded confidence and optimism of which nothing remained now but a faint echo.
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