Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 4

The Conspiracy Beat

Every Sunday morning, Farnsworth and his old lady attended the 10:30 service at St. Mark’s United Methodist up off of Wisconsin. I shuffled in the cold across the street under a funeral parlor overhang and waited for church to let out. I wasn’t presentable – hell, I was still picking glass out of my coat sleeves – but mainly I hadn’t felt comfortable going to church ever since I got back from the war. Somewhere in Korea, me and God parted ways.

Folded in my pocket (the one that didn’t have Hugo’s tape in it) were the pages I’d typed on the Aranjuez story. It was some of my worst writing, but I wanted to get as much as possible on the record before the next time someone tried to put a bullet in me. I thumbed the sheets, obsessively checking to make sure they were there, when some guy in an overcoat passed by and gave me two quarters. I took them without thinking and only realized what had happened after the guy had turned the corner.

Great. I was now officially a bum.

When the congregation filed out around 11:45, I stubbed my cigarette and crossed the road. Mrs. Farnsworth spent a minute holding the pastor’s hand and congratulating him on his fine sermon. George kept checking his watch.

I caught his eye and tipped my hat. He mouthed the word “Jesus” when he got a load of my appearance, then pointed his thumb toward a leaf-covered walkway to the side of the church, next to a small cemetery. I nodded and shuffled through the herd of parishioners to wait for him.

“What in the name of all the Disciples happened to you?” he asked. “You spend the night in a dumpster?”

“More or less. My building blew up after a guy with a machine gun tried to kill me in my apartment. And how was your evening?”

He scowled as if he was waiting for a serious answer, then his face melted a little when he realized I already gave him one.

“Oh god, Jonesy. Thank Jesus you’re alive. Seriously, I mean that. If I had any idea this kind of thing would’ve happened I’d never let you on the case.”

“Well, we’re in it now.” I handed him my pages. “Leslie’s contact gave up a tip on Bordani. He’s involved with an outfit called Kestrel Security. I’m going to pay them a visit tomorrow when their office opens. And I’ve got an angle on Aranjuez. Someone told me to ‘follow the money’ and that got me thinking about those new banking regulations he put in place. San Magin’s got a rep as a tax haven, kind of a poor man’s Switzerland. He might have irritated some powerful people if he started charging rent for all their golden goose eggs. I want to call Roxy and have her look up—”

“Hold it there. I don’t want any more hit men coming after you, and I certainly don’t want them after Roxy. I’m killing the story.”

“The hell you are. This is too big, Georgie. It’ll put the Street on the map. Hell, it’ll put me on the map. You, me, Leslie, if we bust open this thing, we’ll finally get the respect—”

“Jones. Stop.” Farnsworth’s face went tight in a way that I usually associated with ‘Do not disturb, I’m writing an editorial.’ “First, never call me Georgie again. ‘Mr. Editor, Sir,’ will do nicely. And second, I’ve got plenty of respect, apparently from everyone except you. Now I’ve told you this before and I’ll tell you again until you drill it into your skull. The Street is not, I repeat, NOT a scandal rag. We’re not looking for that ‘one big story’ that’ll make us famous. Our magazine is reliable, professional, and trustworthy. That’s where our strength is, not in the headline scoops. You can’t count on scoops to pay the bills. At best, they put a target on your head. Haven’t you figured that out?”

I boiled under Farnsworth’s barrage. “Look,” I said, “I’m not backing down from this. People have died, and more will if we don’t sort this out.”

“So go to the cops!” His voice went up a whole register. “Fine, we don’t trust those NSA goons, but there’s got to be someone we can take it to. I’ve got an in with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I’ll call ‘em as soon as I get home, get this thing out in the open.”

“Fine, but I can’t leave it alone. Whoever you talk to has got to know that we’re not going to drop this. Sweeping this under the rug can’t be an option. It’s too big for that.”

“No, you’re right,” Farnsworth said. “And I hate it that you’re right. And I hate that of all my reporters, it’s you who had this fall in their lap.”

That stung. “Why do you say that?”

“Because you’re too desperate to prove yourself. It’s like you want to atone for the fact that you used to write for that trashy L.A. paper. And I could tell you a million times that a paying job is nothing to be ashamed of, and I know damned well you wouldn’t listen.”

I turned to look at the graveyard. Farnsworth was right, of course. I was ashamed of how I’d wasted five years in Los Angeles, and I was desperate to accomplish something important to make up for it. I was sick of Allan “Smithee” getting all the ink; I wanted Allan Jones to do something worth remembering before he ended up in the ground.

“Look, I’ll be careful, okay? I’ve got a… friend who’s helping me out. He pulled my ass out of the fire last night, and I’m lying low while I work the rest of this. I’m watching my back.”

“Fair enough, but I’m still calling my guy at the Attorney’s Office. And Allan… When was the last time you had anything to eat?”

“Lunch yesterday?” I honestly wasn’t sure.

Farnsworth pulled out his wallet and gave me a fiver. “Don’t stick your neck out too far. We’re not at war. No one expects you to lay down your life.”

“Maybe someone should,” I said. “Maybe people ought to do that more often.”

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I got off the trolley on Pennsylvania near a hot dog joint that was open for lunch on weekends. The streetcar was almost empty, so I noticed when a guy in an overcoat got off right behind me. I watched his reflection in storefront windows as he followed me down the block to the diner, and when I slipped inside I swear he turned to face me as he kept going.

I took note of everyone in the diner before I sat down. There was one waitress and four customers, all of whom were black. I relaxed. I doubted that power-hungry conspirators were hip on racial integration. I ordered two dogs and a coffee and kept a look-out for any white people who might follow me in.

I wondered if I was being overly paranoid or just paranoid in the wrong way. With all the scientific devices JANUS had, there could be twenty guys watching me and I’d never know it. Odds were that anyone I could actually see wasn’t a genuine threat. Still, it would be stupid to let down my guard.

After eating, I used the pay phone in the diner’s back corner to call Roxy. On the other end of the line, it rang five times before she picked up.

“Hello?” she said in the middle of a yawn.

“Hey, kid. It’s Smithee.”

“Allan!” She turned my name into a shriek. “What are you doing? Your apartment burned down!”

“You heard that, huh? Yeah, I’m calling from a phone on—”

“Don’t tell me! For Pete’s sake, is someone after you? Are you safe? Shouldn’t you get out of town?”

“Slow down, slow down,” I said. “I’ve got a place to stay, don’t worry, and I’m not going anywhere. Are you up to running an errand or two today?”

“Sure thing,” she said. “Just let me get dressed. I’ll do anything you need.”

“That’s great. You got a pen and paper?”

Roxy had already dug up the answer to one of the things I wanted to find out. Aranjuez was landing at noon on Tuesday at Friendship International just outside of Baltimore. Instead of using the main terminal he was going to disembark at the hanger for privately-owned airplanes on the far side of the field. I asked her for any details I might be able to use to finagle my way inside, or even a plan of the airport in case I had to sneak in. I’d have to get to Baltimore without my car if I wanted to be there in person.

The next stop was the Street. The weekend receptionist buzzed me in without looking up from her crochet. In the newsroom was the cleaning service, a couple of sports writers typing up Saturday’s college games, and a guy on the financial beat getting a jump on Monday’s starting numbers for the stock market. Lucky him, that’s the guy I wanted.

“Hey,” I said, “Robinson, right?”

“Nelson.” He rubbed his knuckles. “Robinson’s out on medical. What’s it to ya?”

“I’m working a story on this Caribbean island, supposed to be hot in the banking business. Where would I look up which banks are down there and who owns them?”

“We got a Bank Directory down in archives, but it’s about five years old. If these are offshore banks, they won’t be listed unless they’ve also got branches in the U.S. More likely, they’re just owned by board members and shareholders from stateside banks instead. Give me a week and fifty dollars and I can map it all out for you. After hours, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. “Should’ve got started on this sooner, huh?”

“All else fails, you could always call someone down there.”

Yeah, right. I doubted that San Magin had phone service, unless it was to a military base. But that got me thinking. I knew where Farnsworth stashed his little black book of contacts, and the cleaners had unlocked his office.

After an hour of phone calls (and lying through my teeth about my credentials) an editor at the Miami Herald gave me the number for an investment broker who specialized in companies doing business in the Caribbean. Another call later, I had a list of ten banks in San Magin and two known U.S. affiliations. I offered many thanks. Now I had something to work with when business opened in the morning.

It got dark early that time of year, and since I’d managed to go all day without getting shot, I didn’t want to press my luck walking the streets at night. I rode the trolley as close to my hotel as it went, popping into the last open grocery store find for a loaf of bread, some beans, a pint of milk, and a can opener. I could imagine everyone else I knew cozying up with their families to the dinner table. Christ, I would have killed for just a beer, but this was Sunday and there wasn’t any helping it, not unless I wanted to track all the way across town to Uncle Pepe’s “bottle club.”

I looked at my new dwellings from across the street and wondered what the hell I was doing. Was Farnsworth right about me? Here I was, coming home to a flea-trap hotel that catered to fugitives and prostitutes, about to have a healthy repast of cold bean sandwiches. And for what… the scoop? Fame? Respect? I couldn’t even respect myself in the state I was in.

And three stories up, someone had turned the light on in my room.

There were three rooms on my floor with their lights on, and I counted the windows – twice – to make sure that one was mine. Fifth from the right, no doubt about it. I most definitely had left it off.

I sighed. The weight of my groceries pulled down on my arm. What were my options? I could sleep under a bridge, I supposed. Find some lucky hobo to share my bounty with in exchange for shelter. Maybe I could get a room at the YMCA. Did they even have one in Washington? There was no one I could ask here on U Street on Sunday night, that was for damn sure. Maybe I should ask for sanctuary at a church. Did they still do that, or did that stop in the Middle Ages?

I had a gun stuffed in the back of my pants. The weight had been there all day, so much that I’d pretty much forgotten about it except as a pain in my ass. But it was a gun, with at least a dozen bullets if the Whisper hadn’t lied about its clip size, and it was sure to be untraceable, short of me being caught red handed.

Screw it. Whoever wanted to push me tonight, I was ready to push back.

There was a fire escape on the south side of the building. I left my groceries behind a trash can and jumped until my fingers caught the bottom rung and I could pull the ladder down. I climbed to the third floor landing, which opened onto the window at the end of the hall. Unlike in my apartment, the window wasn’t stuck, though it did take some pushing. Someone down the hall came out of their room and I crouched below the sill to listene hoping I’d be able to tell if they were coming my way or heading down the stairs.

Eventually I had to peek over the edge. I took off my hat so as not make too obvious a target.

The hall was empty. I pulled through the open window and trod as quietly as I could. The floorboards were anything but tight, so I set each foot down gingerly, keeping as close to the wall as possible. I pulled out the gun, ready to blow someone’s head off, but my hand shook so bad I’d have a hard time hitting anything I meant to.

I made it to my door without incident. There was light from underneath and through the open vent above. My heart pounded clean through my ribcage, and the insanity of what I was doing sank on my shoulders like a straightjacket. What was my plan – to run in and start shooting?

I caught two voices before I could answer.

“I spy with my little eye something beginning with B.”

“Shut up.”

“Bored, man. I’m bored out of my mind.”

“Bored isn’t a thing. It’s an adjective.”

“Well, look at you, fancy-ass college boy.”

“My god, I’m going to beat you so hard your mother’s going to feel it.”

“If I wanted to be on a stake out, I wouldn’t have left the Force.”

“You were thrown off the Force, asshole. What was it, incompetence?”

“Excessive brutality, if you really want to know. God damn it, how long ‘til this guy gets home?”

Two things were clear. One, my paranoia had been justified. Two, these guys weren’t JANUS. At best they were a couple of low-rent thugs. If they’d been like the guys who’d come after me the night before, I’d never have made it down the hallway alive. That didn’t make me want to shoot these bozos any less.

Time to see which of us was dumber. I knocked on the door, then stood to the side.

“The hell?” I could hear one of them say. There were two steps, then the door cracked open and the guy said, “What is it?”

I kicked the door open the rest of the way and leveled my gun at his face. “Hands up.”

The man complied. He was older and heavier than I’d guessed from his voice. His face turned bright red and his eyes went as round as teacups. His tie was cheap, he didn’t wear a coat, and I didn’t see a holster for a gun.

The other man cleared his throat. He wore a pinstripe suit, a green tie, round glasses and, like his companion, didn’t seem to be carrying a firearm. He too raised his hands, but spoke only with a tone of caution.

“Mr. Jones, I presume?”

“That’s right,” I said. “Who are you?”

“My name is Burke; the fellow sweating through his pants is McCreary. We’re employees of Kestrel Security.”

“Bordani’s outfit?”

“Indeed. I see you’re aware of our employer, so I’ll dispense with unnecessary explanations. I’m told your previous residence met with an unfortunate accident last night, Mr. Jones. Let me offer my sympathies to the difficulty you must be experiencing.”

“Is that some kind of threat?”

“Hardly.” His demeanor had completely changed from what I’d overheard in the hall. “Please, Mr. Jones, lower the gun. Neither of us is armed, and I would hate for any accidents to happen. You might find it hard to live with yourself.”

I waved for McCreary to step away, then pointed the gun at the floor.

“Fine,” I said. “What do you want?”

“Our employer,” said Burke, “recognizes the position you’re in and would like to offer assistance. It is a generous offer. I hope you consider it.”

“Go on.”

Burke pulled an envelope out of his pocket and set it next to my typewriter. “This is a cashier’s check for enough money to cover a nicer hotel than this…” He waved at our surroundings. “…and a train ticket.”

“To where?”

“Anywhere, Mr. Jones. Your choice. You can go anywhere you want. New York, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans. We don’t care. Mr. Bordani acknowledges your situation and is offering you an out, free and clear. I suggest you take it.”

“In exchange for what?”

He shrugged. “Leave Washington and never come back. You don’t have to turn over your notes. You don’t even have to give us the tape. All we want you to do is disappear and start over somewhere else. Neither our organization nor its clients will bother you again. Ever.”

He touched the envelope again to square it with the edge of the desk, then waved for McCreary to follow him. He walked around me without even looking at my gun.

“Consider the offer, Mr. Jones. Sleep on it if you have to. I’m sure you’ll come to the right decision. If you cash the check, that will signal to Mr. Bordani that you have accepted and agreed to his terms. Good evening.”

He closed the door behind him. I locked the deadbolt and sank on the bed. The envelope, unopened, stared at me. I could just walk away. I could start over. I could just into the woodwork.

I slipped the envelope open, just to see how much my life was worth. Burke had understated their offer. In my hand was a crisp, clean money order for one thousand dollars, mine for the taking.

My dinner was still outside behind a garbage can in the alley.

So my life was worth a thousand bucks. How much for my integrity? I wasn’t a journalist for the money. Sure, I had to admit that I was in it for the recognition, but a big part of it was that it gave me a chance to do the right thing. If I started over, would I ever get that chance again?

I looked at the cashier’s check more closely. The signature was illegible. The name of the bank was not. “Howlett & Moore.” It rang a bell. According to the list that Miami financier had given me earlier, Howlett & Moore was one of the stateside trading partners of the Banco Central de San Magin.

Gotcha.

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First thing Monday morning I took my last $20 to the nearest department store and bought a new outfit and some basic toiletries. I paid for the clothes, changed in the dressing room, and stuffed the hobo’s get-up I’d been wearing in the trash. I spruced up in the men’s room, then headed to work a solid hour late.

I ran into Roxy on the steps. She was on the way out, and in kind of a hurry, a bunch of folded papers stuck out of her handbag.

“Hey, kid,” I said. “What’s the rush?”

“Allan, hey! Sudden emergency. I’ve got a thing. Call me later? And can you tell Georgie I’m taking a sick day. Thanks!”

“Sick, what… Hey, you didn’t tell him yourself? Who’s on the switchboard?”

She mimed a telephone with her free hand and shouted, “Call me!” before running down the street.

Inside, I heard the commotion from the newsroom before I was even past the foyer. Every reporter on the payroll seemed to have shown up, and they were jabbering hot and fast in little circles around each other’s desks. Leslie saw me come in and broke away from his group to grab my arm.

“Hey, what gives?” I said. “The commies launch another Sputnik?”

“We’ve been bought out.”

“What!” I shouted, but the room was so loud no one noticed.

“It’s like it happened overnight. No one had any idea this was in the works. Some fat cat made the publisher an offer over the weekend, and it was a done deal as soon as the lawyers woke up this morning.”

“Christ, I saw Farnsworth yesterday, and he didn’t say anything. What happens now?”

“Now you meet the new boss,” Leslie whispered in my ear. “He asked to see you personally.”

He what? One scenario reared itself in my head: the Street had been sold to Bordani, and those Kestrel Security goons from last night would swoop in and break my arms for not leaving town. Leslie led me to Farnsworth’s office, where several silhouettes shifted behind the door’s frosted glass. It was with a mountain of trepidation that I stepped inside.

What I found there stopped me dead. Chatting with my editor was newsreel star and ace reporter Lane Young and her commandeering gentleman friend whose name completely escaped out of my head when my jaw hit the floor.

“Ah, Jones,” he said. “Good to see you again. What a strange coincidence, us bumping into each other over the weekend. I trust you’re doing well?”

I put myself back together and took a moment too long to answer. “Well? Sure, fine, I guess. I don’t under— I’m sorry, but I’ve …”

“Canton Marlston,” he filled in the blank. “Come now, Mr. Jones, a reporter ought to be better with names, don’t you think? Or maybe you’re just out of your element without your notepad. Should I wait while you collect it?”

Lane slapped the back of Marlston’s hand. “Don’t be rude, darling. You can see he’s put out. I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, I know you’ve had a lot to absorb in a short time this morning.”

“You can say that again.” I turned to Farnsworth. “Boss, what’s up?”

“What’s up is you were right,” he said. “This Aranjuez story is going to put the Street on the map. If this thing blows big enough, we could even take the magazine national.”

I needed to sit down. I wondered if Farnsworth would mind if I poured myself a drink. “Go on?”

“Your editor has been filling us in on this ‘death threat’ story,” said Marlston. “It’s all very exciting. I’m going to fund a full investigation, and I’ve made an offer to the State Department to personally host President Aranjuez on his visit. He’ll be under my protection for the duration of his stay.”

“Wait,” I said, putting a few things together. “You’re buying the Street because of my story?”

Marlston laughed. “Hardly. The timing is merely fortuitous. And it’s not ‘buying,’ it’s ‘bought.’ There’s nothing left but formalities.”

“Okay, then.” I still couldn’t figure if this was a good thing or bad. “I’ve had a few more developments on the case. I guess I’d better type them up.”

“Do that,” said Farnsworth. “You can share them with Ms. Young.”

“I can… what?”

“Lane is going to partner with you on this piece,” said Marlston. “She’ll be the public face of the investigation, to take some of the heat off of you in this matter. I understand it’s been pretty difficult for you. Besides, I think we can arrange for Lane to interview Mr. Aranjuez on the evening news. I can pull some strings.”

I looked Lane Young in the eyes. “You’re taking my story?”

“We’ll share the byline,” she said. “I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from you. But this is getting into national security matters. It’s bigger than any one reporter, no matter how intrepid.” She smiled with a little dimple that strangely reminded me of George Reeves condescending to Phyllis Coates, but if she was Clark Kent, that made me Lois Lane.

Son of a bitch. My hero, my idol, the person who’d inspired me to be a reporter in the first place, was poaching my story.

“Boss,” I said to Farnsworth, “I think I need to clear my head. You mind?”

“Go ahead,” he said. I nodded to Marlston and Young, then left.

I went outside, sat on the bench in front of the building, and pulled out my last cigarette. What the hell had just happened? Suddenly, being shot at by assassins who could walk through walls and rescued by an invisible man didn’t seem half as unusual as it should have. This, the sale of the paper and the deal with Lane Young, that completely pulled the rug out from under me.

And now my god damned lighter wouldn’t work. A black man walked up to me, I assumed to offer me a shoe shine.

“Not now, thanks,” I said. “But can I borrow a light?”

“Allan Jones?” the man said, pulling out a government badge. “Special Agent Powell, FBI. You’re wanted for questioning in the murder of Hugo Harvey.”

To Be Continued

***

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***


The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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