EVIL TOWN: Chapter Three | Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

EVIL TOWN: Chapter Three

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J. David Bethel has been published in popular consumer magazines and in respected political journals. For a selection of his current e-publications please visit Evil Town,  which is available on Amazon Kindle or Barnes & NobleNook.  For the next few weeks Baltimore Post-Examiner will publish a few chapters of this page-turner book Evil Town.  © 2012. Check what people say about it on Facebook. You won’t put this book down. Guaranteed. Read the previous chapters and the Prologue here.

Evil Town Summary:

The wife of popular Florida Congressman (and prospective Senatorial candidate) Clegg Caffery is murdered.  FBI Special Agent Matt Thurston begins an investigation that leads him from the Pentagon to the small town of Clewiston, Florida in search of a photographer responsible for the photo found in the murdered woman’s hand.  He arrives too late.  The man has committed suicide.  Although Thurston uncovers a strange and suspicious story about the dead photographer that he believes is worthy of continued investigation, he is abruptly steered away from the case by his superiors.

Angered by this turn of events, Thurston enlists the assistance of two reporters.  With their involvement, he begins to peel away layers of lies and deceit hiding the truth about the murder.  Along the way, Thurston slowly unravels a complex weave of story lines that includes a sex for hire plot involving the president’s wife; an attempt by computer magnate Norman Bremen to subvert the workings of Congress to ensure the survival of his sugar interests in Florida; and the revelation of a cover-up of a war crime in Vietnam that threatens the presidency.      

Evil Towncover.Although Evil Town is a work of fiction, it is based on historical and current events. The Vietnam element of the plot delves into the massacre of Vietnamese villagers at Co Luy.  This occurred on the same day as the My Lai killings and happened as described in the novel.  The military and political cover-up of the incident detailed in Evil Town is an interpretation of actual events that relegated Co Luy to the back pages of history.

The description of the political maneuvering related to the restoration of the Everglades, and to the “sugar wars” in Florida, is a dramatization of the intrigue currently being played out by power brokers, the media and Congress on this issue.

While it should come as no surprise that the drug war can be managed and waged for political purposes – a subplot in Evil Town – it is the subtleties of international politics that often allow this to happen.  The novel provides insight on how this is possible.

Through it all, Matt Thurston and his allies match wits with the most powerful in Washington putting themselves in harm’s way.  Truth, honor and justice are slippery concepts in this story of politics and fragile human relationships.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

“Good morning,” Norman Bremen greeted his nephew cheerfully. Garrett was seated at a long, stately dining room table covered with a white linen tablecloth.  Heavy embroidered drapes were pulled away from windows that wrapped around the room and looked across a rose garden toward a converted stone carriage house, which doubled as a garage and servants quarters.

Garrett wiped a napkin across his lips.  “Morning, Uncle Norman.”

Bremen stood at a side table and surveyed a row of serving dishes cradling eggs–poached, scrambled and fried.  Down the line were bacon, grits and a selection of breads neatly stacked in a warmer.  He tonged wheat toast onto a plate, slid poached eggs on top, poured himself a cup of coffee, and joined Garrett at the table set for two.

Bremen hesitated as he started to slice his fork through one of the perfectly round egg whites.  “What in the world happened to you?”

“A freak thing really,” Garrett said, fingering the bandage above his eye.  “I went to talk to….”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Good, good.”  Bremen lopped the egg in two spilling the yolk onto the toast.  “I have a job lead for you.  But first, it is about time you stopped calling me, ‘Uncle Norman’.  You are past that age.  I would prefer ‘Norman’.”

“Uh…well, okay,” Garrett stuttered, taken aback by the request.  He sounded out “Norman” in his head.  It wasn’t right. It wasn’t how he was taught.  The man was the family patriarch.  More.  He was their presence in Washington; the presence of an entire industry.  And he was Bremen Enterprises.  “Norman” Garrett mouthed.  It was uncomfortable.

“I have some job news of my own,” Garrett said after a beat of silence.  “I’ve got one.”

“Really?”  Bremen reached for a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.

“Well, I guess it’s more like a temporary thing that might lead to something permanent.”

“It sounds tentative.  I have an attractive option for you to consider.”

“You’ve done so much already, Uncle Norman that….”

“Norman.”

Garrett made a face.

“Really, I prefer it.”

“This is going to take some getting used to.”

Bremen stood and walked to the side table, where he filled a small bowl with grits and smothered the serving in melted butter. “Let me tell you about the opportunity I came across,” he said, his back to Garrett.  “Then we can discuss your alternatives.”

“I can’t let you do any more for me,” Garrett insisted as his uncle returned to the table.  “I mean, I’m very grateful for everything, of course.”  He swept his eyes around the room.  “Letting me stay here.  Providing a car.  You and Aunt Lorraine have been wonderful.”

“For Pete’s Sake, Garrett, we are family.”

“I know, but I think I should start taking the initiative.  Fend for myself more.”

Bremen smiled.  “You remind me of me at your age.  Anxious to carve out a path for myself.  Not wanting to depend on family.”

“Thanks, but you might be overstating the case a little.”  Garrett hiked his chair closer to the table.  “I talked to Preston Harmon at the Herald yesterday.  He agreed to let me work on a trial basis for two weeks.”

“Good.  It was nice of Joe Reddick to follow through with Preston.  What happens after two weeks?”

“I’ve got an opportunity and I’ll make the most of it.”  A broad smile animated Garrett’s face.  “He even gave me an assignment to work on.  You heard about that congressman’s wife being murdered, didn’t you?”

There was a momentary hitch in the movement of the spoon from Bremen’s bowl to his mouth.  “Yes, I read something about it.  Tragic.”

“Mr. Harmon wants me to nose around and see what I can come up with about her.  Who she was?  What kind of person?  That sort of thing.  If I find anything interesting, he might use it in a story about her.”

“Joanna Caffery.  I knew the woman.”

Garrett’s eyes widened.

“The company she worked for was conducting a management audit for us.  She was the lead analyst.”

“This is incredible.  You could be my first interview.  Do you have a few minutes?”

“For you?”  Bremen glanced at his watch.  “Certainly.”

Garrett pushed away from the table.  “Be right back.  I have to get something to write with…and on.”

As his nephew disappeared through the door, Bremen called, “Rafael, a phone.”  Almost before the last word was out of his mouth, a small, round man, starched white apron tied above his stomach, hurried through a swinging door near the serving table, a cell phone in his outstretched hand.

“Thank you,” Bremen said, punched at the numbered pad as Rafael turned on his heels and left as quickly as he came.

A groggy “hello” was followed by a fit of coughing.

“You should lay off those cigars, Senator.”

An irritated voice asked, “Who is this?”

“Norman Bremen, Will.”

“Norman, you begin the day awfully early.”  The voice remained groggy, but the tone was considerably more cordial.

Bremen talked quickly.  “Sometime this morning, my nephew will be calling to schedule an appointment with you.”

“I didn’t know you had a nephew here in town.”

“I do.  Please find time to talk with him today.”

“I’d be happy to.  What’s this all about?”

“He is working on a story for Preston Harmon at the Herald.”

“You have a nephew working at the Herald?  Why didn’t you ever say anything about this before?”

“I will call later with more details,” Bremen replied, his eyes on the door to the dining room.  “The story is about Joanna Caffery.”

“A horrible thing, what happened to her.”

“Yes, it was.  Garrett just told me that…”

“Who?”

“My nephew, Garrett.  He’s doing something with a story on Joanna Caffery and needs to talk to someone who knew her.  I’d like you to do that.”

“I really didn’t know the woman that well.”

“Not important.”

“But if she’s the story…?”

“Will,” Bremen interrupted.  “I cannot explain everything right now, but I want you to be prepared to give him a glowing talk about our future Senator Caffery.”

“Future Senator?  Jesus, Norman, the guy’s wife was just killed.  Don’t you think we should back off a little?”

“I think,” he said sharply, “that we want to make sure Joanna Caffery does not become the sob story of the week.  That would surely drive our man around the bend toward home.  We have to head that off and also keep Caffery’s name at the top of the candidate list.  We could easily lose him if we sit on our hands given what has happened.  And, at the risk of being crude, we do not have to worry about his wife’s opposition anymore.  We should take advantage of the way things have developed.”  Bremen came to his feet.  “What time will you be in your office?”  He cracked the door and peered down the hall.

“About 9:30, and I should be there most of the morning.”

“Not until 9:30,” Bremen said pensively as he returned to the table.  “When does your staff get in?”

“Someone’s always there by 8:00 or so.”

“Call your office and tell whoever you tell such things to expect a call from my nephew.  Make sure they understand you want to speak to him today.  This is important.”

“Okay,” Dawkins replied without enthusiasm.

Detecting the attitude, Bremen insisted, “Will, this is important to us.”

Garrett appeared and paused in the doorway when he saw his uncle on the phone.  Bremen motioned him into the room.  “I’ll get back to you later as promised,” he said, clicked off, and placed the cell on the table.  “Postponing an early appointment.”

“You didn’t have to do that.  I could’ve talked to you later.”

“No, we have to get you off to a good start.”

“All my brave talk about taking the initiative and here I am looking to you again for help,” Garrett said as he opened a spiral notebook and slid into a chair.

“Use your contacts wisely, whatever they are.  That is a key to success.  With that said, I must tell you that I did not know Joanna Caffery particularly well.  In fact, I met her only once.”

“It’s something.  What did you think of her?”

“She impressed me.  She really did.  She was all business, straightforward, and clearly very competent.”  Bremen reached for his coffee cup.  “I’m told she is, well, was extremely influential with her husband and was the backbone of the legendary campaign that got him to Washington.”

Garrett leaned in.  “Legendary how?”

“Well, Caffery ran against an incumbent from his own party. The odds were long against him, as you can imagine. He was also terribly under-funded, had no experience in the game, and from what I understand, only he and his wife were involved in the campaign.  A few volunteers maybe,” he said dismissively.

Garrett scribbled in his notebook, looking up to ask, “Has she been involved in what he does here?”

Bremen ignored the question.  “Congressman Caffery is an amazing person.  I’m hoping he will run for the Senate.  It would be wonderful for our state.”

”Has he said anything about running?”

“No, there is just speculation, as there always is during the year prior to any election.”

“I’d think the murder of his wife might change whatever political plans he had, don’t you?”

“Great men overcome, Garrett, and I think the Congressman has the stuff of greatness.  There might be some benefit to comparing this tragedy to similar ones, where people had to work through an unfortunate event.  Senator Biden, for example, was only recently elected when his wife and child were killed in an automobile accident.  He could have resigned, but stood strong and is today an icon in Washington.  Indeed, great men persevere.

Bremen walked to the serving table and filled his coffee cup as Garrett scribbled in his notebook.  “There is not much more I can tell you about her,” he said, returning to the table.  “I have an idea how we can put real meat on this story.  I know some people who can provide the information you need.”

“The people she worked with?”

Bremen swallowed a mouthful of coffee.  “Yes, and I can help you there.  I know the partners in the firm Mrs. Caffery worked for.  Ted Kupperman and Richard Brooks.  I will call to alert them that you will be in touch.”

Garrett nodded.  “That’d be great?”

“But I have another avenue for you that might prove more beneficial.”  Bremen scooted his chair away from the table and crossed his legs.  “Now, Preston Harmon knows the news business as well as anyone in this town.  But, very frankly, I think a story exclusively about Joanna Caffery might be a little, what?  Dry, really.  One of the reasons she was assigned to our project was because the woman was known to be a real workhorse and I wanted a workhorse.  We are K and B’s biggest client and Richard Brooks handpicked his best for the job.  When he sold her to me as the right person to lead the project, he said her job was her life.  She was exactly what I wanted but, very honestly, she does not sound like a very compelling subject as the lead for a story. A bit one-dimensional.”

“That’s not real encouraging.”

“No, no, Garrett.  Wrong attitude.  I just told you about her influence with her husband and the speculation about his running.  There’s your story and I think you can get what you need to fill it out with a little independent enterprise.”

“But Uncle Norman, this is my first assignment.  Shouldn’t I just do what I’ve been asked?  Maybe Mr. Harmon wants to see how well I handle direction.”

“That could very well be the case, and you might discover that the woman had dimensions to her life that will make a fascinating story, but my radar tells me otherwise.”  Bremen tilted his body toward his nephew.  “I am not advising you to ignore what Preston asked you to do.  I am merely suggesting filling in with compelling details.”

Garrett tapped his pencil on the notebook.  “Okay,” he answered tentatively.

“I know some people on the Hill who have been urging Caffery to run.  He has a great deal of support within the party, and from people at home.  The polls say he would win the race hands down.  I’m sure his supporters would be willing to stick with him through the grieving process in the hope that he makes the race. That might be the story…with the added information about his wife, of course.”

“A story about how a public figure puts his life back together after a tragedy?  Or doesn’t.  Is that what you’re getting at?”

Bremen shot forward in his chair.  “Precisely.  What is the political prognosis?  How does he reconcile personal tragedy with public duty?  Again, look at men like Senator Biden as role models, precursors.”

Garrett picked up on his uncle’s chant.  “Is he too devastated to continue?”

“Or does he find comfort and strength in the support and confidence of friends and the public?”  Bremen grimaced.  “That sounds a bit soap opera-ish, but there is something to it and it could have a positive spin.”

“I doubt the Congressman is going to want to talk about this anytime soon.”

“I am not suggesting that you talk with the Congressman himself.  That would be terribly insensitive.  But there are others.”  Bremen stared across the room.  “Let me see. I know Senator Dawkins has been instrumental in the effort to draft Caffery.”

“Do you think he would mind talking to me about this?  He won’t find it insensitive?”

“Only if he thought you were after something sensational, something shallow, which is not the case.”

“This could really piss off Mr. Harmon.  I’m only supposed to be gathering research on Mrs. Caffery.”

“Consider it a challenge.  It could be a way to make a mark.  A positive one.”

Garrett blew out a sigh.  “This is way more than he asked for.  It’s not even close.”

“Therein lies the opportunity.  I have Senator Dawkins’s number, if you would like it.”

“Sure.”  Garrett sat back in his chair.  “You know, I never let you finish telling me about the other job.”

“It was nothing,” Bremen said indifferently.  “We can call the Senator’s office from here.”  He gestured at the cell phone on the dining room table.  “It is a little early, but I am sure somebody will be in who can help you.”

“You’ll call the people where Joanna Caffery worked?”

“I will call Ted Kupperman and Richard Brooks as soon as I get into the office.  Count on it.”

***

Bremen descended the front steps of the house and waved off his driver, who was hustling around the side of the limousine.  He opened the rear door, slid across the soft leather seat, pulling the door closed, then lowered the tinted window.

“Good luck with Senator Dawkins,” he called to Garrett, who was on his way to the garage.

Garrett waved his acknowledgement.

“That young man reminds me of me at his age, Larry,” Bremen directed toward the front seat.  “He is anxious to make his own mark.”

“Yes, sir,” the driver replied, aiming the black car down a long, gravel driveway.

Bremen raised the window separating the passenger area from the front seat, dropping the compartment into near darkness.  He stared sightlessly at the rolling hills and the neatly painted paddocks of neighboring estates in Great Falls while the car sped toward the George Washington Parkway.

He trudged up the ornate cedar staircase, his eyes on the door to his father’s bedroom, where he had been summoned.  He dreaded meeting with the cancer-riddled old man.  Death hung in the air of the darkened room, which reeked of medicine and feces from the incontinent stick figure lying propped up slightly in a hospital bed, mouth gaping, eyes staring into the middle distance.

Norman stood in front of the door, his hand poised near the knob.

“Norman,” a voice rasped from the other side.  “Norman,” it called again, this time with surprising strength.

“Yes, father.  I’m here,” Norman answered, a chill snaked down his spine causing him to shiver as he entered the room.

The skeletal figure lifted a shaking, bony hand and pointed at a chair next to the bed.

Norman came forward, his eyes lowered, trying not to be obvious about his disgust.

“What have you decided?”  The voice sounded as if it was being forced from the man by bellows.

“I’ll stay.”

The old man shifted his expressionless gaze from his son and stared at the ceiling.  “If you had the means you would have left.”  He paused, collecting his strength.  “I had to find a way to keep you here.”

“You succeeded.”  The reply came sharply.  “This is what you wanted.  You have it.”

The old man turned his hollow face to his eldest son.  “Wrong, what I always wanted was someone who loved the land; loved”–he raised his arm and pointed it at curtained windows–”loved this.  Loved what our family created out of nothing; out of mosquito-infested swampland and….”

“I’ve heard it all before, father.  Every word.  A million times.  Fighting the elements.  Taming the harsh conditions.”

“You don’t feel it, Norman.  In fact, you don’t feel.”  The words came strongly, the man’s deep voice defeating his illness for a split second.  “You’ll stay on and help Joe Simpson run the place until your brother is ready to take over.  Arrangements have been made to give you your inheritance at that time.  Then, you can go.”

Norman came out of his chair.  “Are you happy now?  You forced me to agree and then announce this…this stupidity.  Joe Simpson,” he said with a laugh.  “And Bill.  One a dull-witted farmhand, the other a weakling.”

The old man lifted his head inches from his pillow, the strain of the effort showing in his chorded neck and reddening face.  “Strong men.  Principled.  Joe helped me and my father build American Sugar.”

“I know, I know.”  Norman went to the window and yanked open the drapes.  “Joe helped build all of that.  Wonderful, but he can’t keep it safe.  He’s a farmer, father.  It takes a businessman to run this place today.”

“Bill….”

“Oh, really.  Bill is a great guy but…well, that about says it all.  He is a great guy.”

Norman returned to the side of the bed.  “You’re right about one thing.  As soon as I have the means, I‘ll leave, but I’ll always protect my precious heritage.  Not because of ‘love’ or some mystical tie to the land you think should course through my blood.”

Norman leaned forward, ignoring the pungent odors and the frightening specter of the decimated figure that was so slight, so rail thin, that the hairless head barely made a crease in the pillow.  “I’ll protect what we have simply because I don’t want anyone else to have it, and because I’m smart enough to do it.”

“Empty,” echoed from deep in the old man’s throat.

“What?”

“You have an emptiness in you, Norman.  A void you’ve filled with anger and ruthlessness.  Maybe the anger never left you after your mother died.”

“Stop with the psycho-babble, father.  She died a hundred years ago.  I can’t even remember her.”

“Sad.”  The word was barely a breath.

“I can’t hear you.”

“It’s sad that you can’t remember your mother.”

“Why is it sad?  What is the point?  People die.  We have to deal with reality, which brings me back to Joe and Bill.  Neither man can handle the demands of this business.  We can’t simply grow sugar and sell it anymore.  Life is so much more complicated.”

Norman turned to the window and spread his arms. “There’s a whole world out there encroaching on us.  People want the land for water or they want to live on it.  The fight to keep what we have is going to be increasingly brutal.  And you’e going to entrust what you spent a lifetime building to Joe and then to Bill?  You might as well give it away now.”

“I know the dangers, but you would never be able to see us through.”

Bremen‘s eyes flashed.  “Of course I could.”

The old man shook his head slowly.  “You could never explain to anyone why.”

Norman sighed heavily.  “Why, what?”

“Why you want to stay.  What it means to you.”

“You’re right.  Absolutely right.  I couldn’t….  No, wrong word.  I wouldn’t waste my time with any explanations.  But I would definitely show them why they could never take it away.  I would find a way–any way–to show them that.”

“And you would fail.  You will fail.  Not just here, but wherever you go and at whatever you do because you have no humility.”

Bremen realized he was staring down at the Potomac River as the car cruised along the parkway.  “‘And you would fail.  You will fail.  Not just here, but wherever you go and at whatever you do.‘”  He played back the last words his father ever spoke to him and slowly closed his eyes.

***

Matt Thurston was perched on an ottoman sheathed in a plastic slipcover, his feet planted firmly on the floor to prevent him from sliding off.  The couch across from him, the coffee table pressing against his knees, and a vintage television set in a wooden cabinet, which also held a turntable, were the only other pieces of furniture in the small living room of an impeccably kept mobile home.

Thurston faced a frail, elderly woman whose curly white hair was bound in a thin black net.  She held her chin high as she blinked back tears brimming in her bloodshot eyes.

“I’m very sorry to intrude on you at a time like this,” Thurston said.

“I don’t know what I can tell you that I haven’t already told Sheriff Pasteris,” she said, sniffing and wiping at her red nose with a pink tissue.  “Maybe you should go speak to him.”

“I’ve spoken to the Sheriff, ma’am, but there are a few questions I think only you can help me with.”

She nodded without looking at Thurston.  The movement spilled a few tears onto her sunken cheeks.  She quickly wiped them away, folded the tissue neatly, then crumpled it in her hand.

“On the phone, I mentioned the photographs your son took in Vietnam.”

“And I told you, I don’t know anything about any photographs.”

“Maybe we can figure out a few things together.”

The little woman glared at Thurston.  “The politicians in Washington are responsible for this, you know.  I sent them a good boy to fight their dirty war and they sent me back a sad, beaten man.”

“I’m very sorry about your son, ma’am.”

“You don’t care about Thomas any more than the rest of those people in Washington do,” she said contemptuously.  “The government took a sweet, sensitive boy and killed him.  He was dead a long time before he put himself out of his misery.  Why won’t you let him rest in peace?”

“As I told you, Mrs. Wright, a congressman’s wife was murdered.  We want to make sure her husband is in no danger.  These people often receive threats….”

“Wait a minute,” the woman trampled on Thurston’s words.  “Do you think Thomas had something to do with that?”

He skirted her question.  “The murdered woman had a piece of a photograph in her hand when she was discovered.  It was a piece of one that your son took.”

“Thomas did not leave that house for more than 20 years.  I don’t know how that woman could have anything of his.  He had every right to hate those people in Washington, but he was harmless.”

“Ma’am, I’m only trying to figure out how a piece of a photograph that your son took in Vietnam almost forty years ago ended up in that woman’s hand in Washington.”

“How many ways can I say it?  I don’t know anything about any photographs,” she said and dug a pack of cigarettes and matches from the pocket of a blue housedress.

“Did your son have friends that I might be able to talk to? Maybe he kept in touch with some of the men he served with in the Army.”

“For an FBI man, you don’t listen so well,” she replied, lighted a cigarette and blew the smoke over her shoulder.  “I told you, he didn’t leave that house.  He wouldn’t let anyone come visit, except me.  I took him his food.  I took care of everything for him.  If there had been any photographs like you say, I would’ve seen them.”

“Could he possibly have kept in touch with anyone by mail?”

“No,” she replied angrily.  “He wouldn’t have kept in touch with anyone from Vietnam.”  She leaned her bony shoulders forward and spoke through gritted teeth.  “The government should have been helping him.  Those people should have seen to it that he was taken care of after what they put him through.  He was younger than you when they took his life away.  Just when he should have started living”–she made a chopping motion with her hand–”they stopped his life and he got nothing.”

“I’m sure he must have been receiving some help from the government,” Thurston said to mollify the woman.  “Some kind of disability, maybe.”

“Nothing,” she replied sharply.  “Nothing at all.  They said he wasn’t disabled.  I tried.”  She tapped the cigarette ash into the tissue she held.

Thurston straightened and flexed his back, which had stiffened while he sat on the backless seat curled like a question mark.  He glanced around the room.  A brown rug ran the length of the living area, which was partitioned behind the woman by a floor-to-ceiling accordion divider.  He leaned slightly to one side and looked through an opening where the divider was not flush with the wall.  He could see a kitchen counter and another door, which opened into a bedroom.

The woman noticed Thurston’s inspection.  “Thomas was a good boy.  He bought this for me.”

“He bought this home for you?”

“That’s right.”  She tugged at the disintegrating tissue.  “When Thomas got home from Vietnam, we lived together in the house he grew up in, but he got so bad he couldn’t stand to have anybody living with him.  He said he contaminated people with his sickness.”

“He was ill?”

“No…well, yes.  Not like a fever or anything, but he was sick all right.  He talked about being sick with sin, that kind of talk.  That he was spreading sin.  And he talked about it all the time.  Like non-stop.”

“What sins?”

“For being in Vietnam.  He said he couldn’t stop the killing.  Thomas said he should have stopped the killing.”  She slumped in the chair, letting her head drop.  Her shoulders sagged and she appeared to fold in on herself.

So, he thought he was contagious?”

“Can you imagine that?” she asked, almost in a whisper.  “He blamed himself for the killing and said it made him a sinner.  He wanted to cleanse his sins.  Wash them away.”

“Is that what kept him inside all those years?  This idea that he would spread his sin?”

She nodded.  “He wouldn’t even let his own mother live with him because he said he wasn’t clean and he had to wash away his sins.  Those were his exact words.  ‘I’m not clean.’  He repeated that to himself a thousand times every day.  ‘I’m not clean, dear Lord.  I’m not clean.’  He said it over and over and over again.”

“You left your own home and he bought you this place?”

“He was a good boy,” she said, took a deep drag off the cigarette, again tapping the ashes into her tissue.

“Mrs. Wright, if your son didn’t receive any support from the government, how did he live?  How did he pay for the food you bought for him?  How could he buy this place?”

She grew out of her slump, her faced contorted in anger.  “Why don’t you leave him alone?  Hasn’t the government done enough to Thomas?  Why don’t you leave him in peace now that he’s finally dead?  You have your pound of flesh.”

Thurston scooted forward on the ottoman.  “Ma’am,” he said softly, “it doesn’t appear likely that your son was directly involved in the incident I’m investigating.  From what you have said, and from what Sheriff Pasteris has also told me about Thomas, that’s highly unlikely.  I’m not looking to bring any additional misery into this situation, but a woman has been murdered.  Someone else could be in danger.  I’m simply trying to clear up a few loose ends, make some sense of it all.”

“Make some sense of it all?”  A mirthless laugh exploded from the woman, startling Thurston.  “Make some sense of it all?” she repeated, her voice thick with sarcasm.  “There’s no sense to be made.”

She fell silent.  Thurston relaxed, letting the moment pass before trying again.  “Do you think you can provide any information that might help me?”

“All’s I can tell you is that Thomas wasn’t quite so bad when he first came home.  He was very quiet, but he could work.  Maybe that’s where he got the money.”

“So he worked for a while.  Would that explain how he was able to buy this place for you?”

She nodded.  “He worked for American Sugar for about five years.  One day he stopped going to work.  He wouldn’t leave the house.  He wouldn’t even come out of his room when I was home.  It got worse and worse, until he gave me the money to buy this place and said I should move out.  That’s all I know.”

“But he saved enough money to live for all those years after he stopped working.”

“Well, I guess he must have.”

“He never said anything about what he did in Vietnam?  Nothing about his job taking photographs?”

“No.”

“He didn’t have any friends?”

“No.”

Thurston considered his next question carefully.  “Sheriff Pasteris told me that your son didn’t leave a note behind.  Did that surprise you?”

“No.  He had nothing to say to anyone.”

***

Garrett hiked up the timeworn stairs leading to the RussellSenateOfficeBuilding.  He stopped at the entryway, turned and looked across Pennsylvania Avenue.  His first view of the Capitol.  Something seemed wrong.  The scene wasn’t quite right.

He squinted in concentration and studied the grounds carefully.  An asphalt parking lot fronted the domed building.  A well-manicured lawn, going yellow as the year advanced, bordered the Capitol.  Bunker-like guard stations were positioned at the Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenue entrances to the grounds.  Thick stone barricades winged both sides of the stations and blocked public access.

Garrett adjusted his line-of-sight, framing the scene without the barricades.  Now it was a more familiar picture.

“Can I help you?” a voice called from behind him.

Garrett turned and faced a police officer standing in the doorway.  “I’m here to see Senator Dawkins.”

The officer motioned him inside and pointed to a door frame-shaped metal detector.  “Step through, please.”

As Garrett moved toward the device, the officer held out a plastic cup.  “Put any keys and coins in here.”  He indicated a table next to the metal detector.  “Place your personal belongings there.”

Garrett laid his backpack on the table, dropped a key ring into the cup, and passed through the detector.

The officer gave the backpack a cursory inspection and handed it to Garrett, along with his keys.  He glanced toward a Y-shaped marble staircase across a rotunda.  “Right hand side, straight up, turn left and the Senator’s office will be the third one on your right.”

When he reached the top of the staircase, Garrett stood for a moment studying a broad hallway, in which five or six people could walk abreast comfortably.  The hallway was deserted.  Most of the office doors along the way were closed.  The ones to reception areas were open.

Senator Nathan Quinn from New Hampshire.  Senator John Parker from Nevada.  Near the end of the corridor, Garrett found a door with a round state seal attached that identified the “Office of Senator Willard Dawkins, State of Florida.”

A young woman sorting through a massive stack of mail that hid her desktop smiled a greeting as Garrett stepped into the office.  “Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly, a thick sash of blond hair bobbed around her shoulders.

“I hope so.  I have an appointment with Senator Dawkins.”

The phone rang.  “Excuse me,” the woman said as she picked up the receiver.  “Good morning, Senator Dawkins’s office.”  The smile nailed to her face, she held her gaze on Garrett, making him uneasy.  “One moment, please.”  She pressed a button on the phone console.  “Tildy?  It’s for you,” she called aloud to someone unseen.  “I’m going to switch the phones over for a minute or two.  I’ve got someone here to see the Senator.”

She dug a thick appointment book from under the pile of envelopes on her desk.  “And you are?”

“Garrett Bremen.”

“Oh, Mr. Bremen.”  She closed the book with a thump and bounced from her chair.  “We’ve been waiting for you.  Please, follow me.”

The woman guided Garrett through a narrow passageway cluttered with dull green file cabinets and stacks of paper-filled boxes.  Garrett peeked into a line of offices along the way.  Each was crammed with several workstations divided by cloth-covered partitions that reached three-quarters of the way to cathedral ceilings.

The woman stopped at the end of the hall, knocked on a door, which she opened, then leaned the top half of her body across the entrance.  Garrett heard a muffled, “Mr. Bremen here to see you, Senator.”

“Thank you, Susan,” a voice boomed.  The woman pushed the door open and a large figure filled the threshold.

“Garrett?” the big man’s voice croaked warmly.

“Yes, sir.”

“Will Dawkins.”  He offered a huge hand and pulled Garrett into his office.

“Good to see you, son.”  Dawkins held on to Garrett’s hand as he guided him toward a desk at the far end of the office.

“I appreciate your making time for me,” Garrett said as he considered the broad-shouldered Dawkins, whose thick torso suggested a football lineman gone to seed.

“My pleasure.”  The Senator patted the back of a chair facing the desk.  “Sit,” he said insistently.

Garrett glanced around the roomy office.  A large fireplace filled the wall to his right.  The ornate marble mantelpiece held a nautical clock.  A brown leather couch and a coffee table were to Garrett’s left.  He looked at the crystal chandelier hovering over his head and considered the contrast between this office and the hovels he had just passed.

The clock began to chime.

“Eleven bells,” Dawkins said, plopping down into a large, well-padded chair.  “You’re punctual.”  A warm smile crossed his face.  “So, you’re going to be keeping us politicians honest, eh?”

Garrett missed the reference.

Dawkins continued, “Joining Preston Harmon at the Herald.  A budding journalist.  A watchdog over what goes on here in the nation’s capital.”

Garrett didn’t recall mentioning any of this when he called for an appointment.  “I hope to be.  This particular assignment is more of a freelance project.”

“Right.  Something about Congressman Caffery?”

That, Garrett did remember mentioning.  “Yes, sir.  And his wife.”

“A good man,” Dawkins responded enthusiastically.

“I’d like to get some of your personal insights on the Congressman,” Garrett said as he unhooked the flap of his backpack and removed a notebook and pen.  “Especially in light of the…”

“Awful,” Dawkins interjected.  “Tragic.”

“Any thoughts on how it might affect his future?” Garrett asked, quickly scolding himself for jumping in too quickly.  His question sounded harsh thrown out there without the padding of a build-up.  Without the softness of some context.

“Clegg is a fine leader and someone we hope to have in the Senate with the next election.  Going through a tough time now, though.”  Dawkins straightened some papers on his desk.  “Let me start by saying that we want what is best for Clegg.  The most immediate concern is for his well-being as he works his way through this”–he waved his hand–”awful thing.”

“Of course.”

“It’s just an awful, awful thing,” Dawkins said with a slow shake of his head.  “Really barbaric.”

“Have you talked to him?”

“Not directly.  I called his office and left word that I was here if he needed anything.  I’m sure the man wants some time to himself.”

“I understand his wife was a strong partner.”

“Yes,” Dawkins nodded.  “She was.”

“Can you tell me a little about her?”

“It would have to be a little.  Joanna didn’t really do things in the traditional way that most, well, many congressional wives do.  I’m going now largely from what my wife has told me.  She belongs to the Congressional Club, basically it is a congressional wives organization, although congresswomen are also members.  Anyway, Joanna never participated in any of the activities there, but she was always with Clegg when he went to the formal affairs, like the White House dinners and such.  She made the rounds with him when he was home and had the obligatory speeches and visits around his district.”

“She was a partner, then,” Garrett said.

“I suppose that description fits well.  Clegg did tell me he made certain to check with her when it came time to vote on budget matters, which makes perfect sense given her area of expertise,” Dawkins trailed off, almost as if he lost focus.  “Look, the bottom line here is that we would all certainly understand if Clegg retreated from public life.”

Garrett nodded as he filled the pages of his notebook.

“We’re all devastated.  Our hearts go out to him.  I think the best thing for Clegg to do right now is let himself grieve.  We’d also like to help him get back on the horse”–Dawkins raised a cautionary finger–”if that’s what he wants to do.  If he does, he’ll have all the support in the world.”

Garrett took a moment to complete some notes, then asked, “Do you think his wife would have wanted that?”

Dawkins turned his face away from Garrett and dropped his voice.  “Well, now, that sort of thing, you know, saying that so and so ‘would have wanted it that way’ is almost a cliché.  I know she would have wanted whatever is best for Clegg, and I think Clegg has enjoyed serving in Congress.”  Dawkins became more animated as he proceeded.  “I know his constituents believe he’s serving them well.  He’s run without opposition the last three elections, and the most recent polls show him the runaway favorite for the Senate.”

“Yes, sir,” Garrett said as he scribbled on the pad.

“Son, I’ve been in Congress for more years than I care to talk about, and I’ve seen a lot of good men come and go.”  Dawkins chuckled.  “A lot of real SOBs too.  But I can tell you that Clegg Caffery is one of the most genuine, most likeable and, I have to say, most original personalities we’ve ever had in Congress.

“Now don’t quote me on what I’m about to tell you.”  He pointed at the pen in Garrett’s hand.  “Put that thing down and just listen.  Congressman Caffery shouldn’t let this drag him down.  He needs to get off the mat and get on with his life right here in Washington.  If he doesn’t, it would be a hell of a loss not only to himself, but to the people of Florida, and the United States.”

“That’s high praise, Senator.”

“It’s deserving.  If you want to figure out a way to work that into your story–the “get off the mat’ part–paraphrase it and say a source close to the Congressman passed it along.”

“You’re not closing any doors on his running for office then?”

“Hell, no.  Those polls show the kind of support he has at home.  We need that man in the U.S. Senate.  And, as I indicated, I think he needs his work to help him get on with his life.”

“But that’s not for attribution.”

“Not those words.  Not from my mouth.  It would be seen as insensitive.”  He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the desk. “You know what might be useful to you?”

“I’m open for suggestions.”

“You should go talk to Paul Miller, the Congressman’s press secretary.  He’s about your age.  A few years older, maybe.  You two would get along real well.  He could kind of fill you in on how things work on the Hill.”  A smile played at the corners of Dawkins’s lips.  “Paul might even be able to give you some insight into the Congressman’s thinking.”

“Paul Miller,” Garrett said aloud as he wrote down the name. When he looked up, Dawkins had the telephone to his ear.

“Good morning back at you,” he said playfully.  “Is Paul Miller in?  This is Will Dawkins.”

Dawkins winked at Garrett.  “We’ll see if we can’t get you in with Paul.”

Garrett mouthed a “thank you” as the Senator’s attention returned to the phone.

“Paul, yeah, good to talk to you too.  Listen, I’ve got someone here who is doing a story on….”  He listened.  “I can imagine that it’s been hectic, but this young man is not interested in a hard piece of news, Paul.  He wants to do something thoughtful on Clegg and Joanna, something that I think will buck up his spirits.  Whaddya say?  Will you talk to him?”  Dawkins smiled at Garrett.  “How about tomorrow morning?  Can you carve out some time?”  He listened.  “About 10:30?”  Dawkins looked questioningly at Garrett, who nodded.  “That’s fine.  His name is Garrett Bremen.” He paused.  “Yes, his nephew, and he’ll come by at 10:30 sharp.  Spend some time with him now, Paul.”

Replacing the phone in its carriage, Dawkins gestured toward Garrett.  “That should help you.  Be sure and tell Paul what I said about my support and hopes for Clegg.  I think he’ll appreciate the sentiment.  It’s heartfelt.”

“Thanks again for talking to me and for arranging the meeting tomorrow,” Garrett said, and began packing up his belongings.

“My pleasure.”

“Senator?” Susan’s voice sang through his intercom.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry to bother you but I wanted to make sure and catch Mr. Bremen before he left.  His uncle called.  He said to tell him that he hasn’t been able to reach a Mr. Kupperman or a Mr. Brooks but that he’ll keep trying.”

***

Matt Thurston tossed the room key on his bed and collapsed into a rattan chair, a companion to the other pieces of rattan furniture in his motel room.  The furnishings were part of a tacky tropical motif.

After sitting motionless for a few minutes, Thurston reached slowly for the cell phone tucked in a belt holster, jabbed in a number and slouched in the creaking chair, trying to get comfortable.

“Larry?  Matt.  I think I’ve got some interesting stuff.  I’m not sure if it leads anywhere, but it is interesting.”  “Didn’t you get my message?” asked Larry Wallace, head of the Fugitives Unit in the FBI’s Violent Crimes Section.

“No, I didn’t check my messages before making this call.”

“Come on home.  This is out of our hands.”

Thurston struggled upright in his chair.  “What do you mean?”

“They found the guy who did it.  Found what was left of him anyway.”

Thurston waited for Wallace to fill in the details, but the line hummed in silence.  “So, what’s the deal?”

“Simple case of a robbery gone haywire.  It was a junkie.  Name was Robert Johnson, I think.  Not that it matters.  They found him with the Caffery lady’s purse, some jewelry he took from the house, and the murder weapon.”

“You said they found what was left of him.”

“Yeah, which takes us out of the picture.  Some of his fellow dopers apparently did him in for the stolen goods.”

“Let me get this straight.  The DC cops found this guy dead with the purse on him.  That’s how they tied him to Joanna Caffery.  And they think he was killed for the jewelry, which was still in the purse.  Is that the story?”

“That’s the story.”

“The guy is killed and there’s jewelry left in the purse?”  Again, Thurston waited in vain for a response.  “You don’t see anything wrong with that?”

“Who knows how much was taken from the house?  Maybe whoever killed the guy got some of it, got nervous and left before he could take all of it.  I don’t know, but it isn’t our concern anymore.  Metro’s got it now.”

“Okay, forget the jewelry.  Does it make sense to you that the guy takes the purse from the house?  Even if he took the purse, he doesn’t bother to ditch it?  What?  Did it match his outfit, or something?  He keeps the evidence of a murder with him?  That’s stupid for a lot of reasons.”

“Yeah, well, if he had been a Rhodes Scholar he wouldn’t be missing half his brains and lying on a slab in the morgue.”

“That’s something else.  The Caffery place was swept clean. Whoever killed her knew exactly how to wipe away his tracks.  You’re telling me the guy on the slab could have pulled that off?”

“I’m telling you it isn’t our problem anymore.”

“Where’d they find him?  Northeast?  Southeast?”

“Northeast, I think.”

“Black guy?”

“Yeah.”

“We have a black junkie who makes his way all the way across town into the swanky end of Georgetown to rob a townhouse in an area where he’d stick out like a sore thumb.”

“That’s what we were told.”

“We have someone desperate for dope who takes a chance in an area he’s probably not familiar with instead of hitting on the first person that comes along in his own neighborhood?”

“Matt, we’ve been called off.  The DC cops are satisfied they have the right guy.  He’s dead, end of story.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Well, unless you’ve found something in…where the hell are you again?”

“Clewiston, Florida.”

“Unless you have something indicating that the guy in the morgue was working with someone in Clewiston, Florida to do in the Congressman, we’ll just pass this along to our good friends in DC.  They can chalk one up in the win column, and we’ll maintain a nice cooperative relationship.”

“Listen to me for a second, Larry,” Thurston said, walking to the bed.

“You told me you’ve got nothing,” Wallace replied testily.

“No, I didn’t say nothing.”  Thurston pulled a pillow from under the lime green bedcover and propped it against the rattan headboard as he laid down.  “I said I found something ‘interesting.’”

“‘Interesting’ is nothing, Matt.  You’ve got nothing.”

“Would you at least hear me out?  I came all the way down here to the land of sugar, alligators and blistering heat so you might as well get something for the money.”

“Make it quick.”

“That piece of the photograph that Joanna Caffery had in her hands?  Well, the guy who took that is dead.”

“And.”

“He died yesterday.”

“And?”

“Yesterday, Larry.  The day after Joanna Caffery was killed.”

“How?”

“They say he killed himself.”

“It doesn’t sound like you believe it happened that way.”

“I don’t know.”

“Any reason to believe otherwise?  Did you see the body and read the coroner’s report?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“It looks like he shot himself.”

“Why are we having this conversation at the taxpayers’ expense?”

“Give me another few minutes for Chrissakes.”  Thurston took a deep breath.  “Wright was shy a few bricks.  That’s what everyone tells me, including his mother.  He had a thing about Vietnam.”

“Vietnam?”

“He was a photographer during the war.  I found out before I left that he was assigned to a public relations unit.  That’s how he ended up getting that photograph of Congressman Caffery, who also served in ‘Nam.  It was all in the report we discussed before I left, remember?”

“I’m following lots of things here, Matt.  We only talked  for maybe ten minutes before you were out the door to National and your report is way down on my ‘to do’ list.”

“Anyway, I found out that Wright came back from Vietnam all screwed up and eventually ended up a recluse.  Didn’t leave his house for something like 20 years.  The few people I found who knew him, or remembered him, said he was a real head case who evidently took all the sins for the war on himself.  Like it was his fault or something.”

“Come on, Matt,” Wallace groaned.  “This doesn’t sound like something we have to worry about.”

“Five more minutes, okay?  There are things that don’t add up about this guy.”

“Three minutes.  I’m timing you.”

“There is no apparent source for Wright’s support.  He didn’t work all those years he was hiding in his house.  I checked the banks in the area, no one’s heard of the guy.  But he had plenty of money.  He bought his mother a mobile home and kept himself alive somehow.”

“So what?” Wallace asked impatiently.  “Maybe a rich uncle died or something.”

“His own mother couldn’t tell me where his money came from.”

“What do we have?  A nut case with a few bucks in his pocket.  Does any of this work its way back to Congressman Caffery?”

“I’m not finished.  He obviously had some connection to the Congressman.  There’s the photograph.”

“What did Caffery say about him?  Did you ask him?”

“Of course I asked him.”  Thurston paused.  He knew what he had to say next wasn’t going to help his cause.

“And?”

“He didn’t remember Wright, or the photograph.”

“Give me a fucking break, Matt,” Wallace shouted into the phone.

Thurston shouted back, “I have a mentally unbalanced man who has a connection to a Congressman whose wife was killed.  And it appears that Wright had some mysterious means of support for almost two decades.”

“Wait a damn minute.  Hold on.  Do I hear some kind of conspiracy theory coming?  Like maybe the guy was supported by a mysterious organization bent on killing everyone who was in Vietnam, only for some reason he ends up dead before he can complete his mission?  You noticed that I didn’t even mention the guy was a hermit.”

“I think we should try and clear up some of these details before giving up on this guy, that’s all.  I have a hunch there’s something going on.”

“You’re saying this head case, as you described him, might be linked in some way to the doper here?” Wallace’s voice rose an octave.

“I’m not saying any of that, Larry.  I am saying there’s something here.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s worth looking into.”

“Come home,” Wallace bellowed into the phone.

Thurston sighed heavily.

“Sorry.”

“So, you do think that there’s something to this?”

“No, I haven’t a clue if there’s something there.  You really don’t either.”

“Okay, okay, but you will admit there are big holes in the explanation they’ve built around the junkie being the killer.  We could still have someone out there who poses a problem for the Congressman.”

“Metro says they have the guy who killed Joanna Caffery,” Wallace reiterated mechanically.  “He’s dead.  That ties a pretty bow around the whole thing.  I’ve got to get you back here working on things that Congress budgets us to work on.”

“I was working on something we’re budgeted to work on.”

“Not anymore.”

***

Norman Bremen and Ernest Regan stood gazing into the glass-enclosed atrium in the foyer of Bremen’s house.  A steady mist of water sprayed from almost invisible plastic tubes that wound around the inside of the glass.  The plants, some extending the full three-story height of the atrium, flourished in the artificial environment.

“This is magnificent,” Regan commented as he peered up at a rounded skylight that topped the enclosure.

“It is nice.  And especially welcome during the colder months when we spend so much time indoors.”

Bremen guided his guest to a set of double doors that opened into a sunken sitting room on the first floor of a turret-shaped wing on the west side of the house.  Windows on the far wall revealed a sloping landscape that disappeared into a forest of bare trees back-lighted by a setting sun.

A figure rose from a couch as the two men started down the few steps leading to light-colored, hardwood floors.

“Ernest, this is my brother, Bill.”

“It’s a great pleasure,” Regan said, bowing slightly at the waist.

“Likewise,” Bill Bremen responded.

Facing each other, the brothers looked like mirror images, a fact Ernest Regan couldn’t let pass without comment.  “The resemblance is astounding.”

“I’m not sure I should be complimented,” Bill Bremen said.  “He’s older.”

“And a bit grayer,” Norman Bremen added, gesturing toward a chair across from the couch where his brother had been sitting.  “Please, make yourself comfortable, Ernest.  A drink?”

“Bourbon neat,” Regan responded.  “So, you’re the keeper of the family sugar business?” he said to Bill Bremen as both men sat.

“A curse lately.”

Regan nodded a thank you to Norman Bremen, who handed him a crystal tumbler and a cigar.  Regan twirled the cigar between his fingers.  “Cohiba.  Cuban,” he said approvingly.  “I’ll have to get the name of your tobacconist.”

“A Canadian.  He ships them to me in candy tins.”

“Ingenious.”

Norman Bremen sat down next to his brother and patted his leg.  “I think we are going to lift that curse, Bill.  Ernest assures me that he can take care of everything for us.”

Regan acknowledged the comment with a knowing smile.  “I can’t take any credit for this.  Norman is the genius behind the whole thing.”

Bill Bremen glanced toward his brother, then back at Regan. “This must be good.”

Norman Bremen puffed deeply on his cigar, leaned toward Regan and offered a silver lighter.  “Go ahead Ernest.  Start from the beginning.”

Ernest Regan tilted his head back and blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling.  “Norman first came to me…oh, I guess it’s been six, maybe eight months now.”

The elder Bremen nodded.

“He asked if the firm could develop a campaign to represent your interests, change some perceptions, level the playing field a little for American Sugar and friends.”

“Level the playing field a lot,” Norman Bremen interjected.

“We conducted a study of the issues and did some preliminary polling on the Hill to gauge the climate in Congress.  We also looked at the reporting on the issue in the media and canvassed the major papers to see what their editorial policies were on the Everglades.  We do this sort of canvassing before we accept any project as large and enduring as your brother had in mind.  It makes sense for us.  We don’t want to be tilting at windmills.  It also makes sense for our clients, who don’t want to be spending huge sums of money on a lost cause.

“I discovered very quickly that what Norman was asking was a formidable…well, to put bluntly, an impossible task.”  Regan narrowed his eyes and swung a hand toward Norman Bremen.  “It was difficult getting your brother here to understand and accept the situation, but I eventually did.  If there is one area in this country where the environmentalists have an open and shut case in the court of public opinion, it’s in the Everglades.”

Bill Bremen frowned.  “I don’t know about that, Ernest.  I….”

Norman Bremen interrupted his brother.  “I am afraid it does not matter anymore what we think.  The reality of the situation is that this is a battle we are going to lose if we pursue it.  The Everglades is now the province of the environmentalists.  We just have to figure out how we can lose the battle, but win the war.”

“I’m either getting mixed messages or I’m not following the logic,” Bill Bremen responded.

“It will make perfect sense when Ernest has explained everything,” Norman Bremen said to his brother and nodded at Regan.

“Politically, you are the only constituency interested in moving slowly on the restoration,” Regan raised his hand and interrupted himself.  “Let me back up.  Looking at the big picture, most Americans are worried about the imminent danger to the environment in this country, and the Everglades is an easy target for their concerns.  It’s someplace they can insist that their politicians help without having to worry that any of this ‘help’ will inconvenience them.  Again, I’m speaking about the big picture.  Parochial interests will always be concerned when their ox is being gored.  It’s far from where most Americans live–even most Floridians–and it means nothing to their pocketbooks.  Directly, that is.  No one but the sugar growers and a few other farmers in that one area of the state depend on the land around the Everglades for their livelihood.  Believe me, if more people were going to get hit in the pocketbook by plans for the Everglades, we would have no trouble at all making your case.  Unfortunately, that’s not the situation we’re facing.”

Norman Bremen poked at the ice cubes in his glass.  “So we are going to have to be a little craftier than our opposition.”

“Exactly,” Regan agreed.

“We have designed a plan that will lose the battle but win the war.”

“Your brother uses the royal ‘we’,” Regan said as he carefully carved away the ash from his cigar along the ridge of a heavy glass ashtray, “but he deserves full credit for the approach we’re working on.  He definitely missed his calling when he went into business.  I think politics is his strong suit.”

“Business is politics,” Norman Bremen replied dryly.

“We’re really going to go through with it?” Bill Bremen asked, disbelief registering.  “We’re going to sell?”

“You’re jumping to the final chapter, Bill,” Norman Bremen said.  “Patience.”  To Regan, “Ernest.”

“My firm will conduct the classic public relations campaign.  All the bells and whistles.  Very slick and professional.”

“Which means?” Bill Bremen asked Ernest Regan.

“Which means, among other things, I will arrange editorial board meetings and individual press briefings with some of the larger media outlets.  Some are here in Washington, others are in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  I’ll be sure to find those people who I know are antagonistic to your point of view.  We’ll include the business publications and the web and cable media, of course. Bloomberg.  CNN.  CNBC.  Fox.  MSNBC.  The entire line up.  In most cases, if not all, your arguments will fall on unsympathetic ears.  And getting pilloried in the press certainly won’t help you on Capitol Hill.”

Bill Bremen looked at his brother.  “Sounds like surrender to me.”

Norman Bremen shook his head.  “Surrender implies losing.  That is not going to happen.  Like I said, we will win this war. Losing the battle is a part of the strategy.”  He gestured for Regan to continue.

“All of this should raise the profile on the issue. . . .”

“Even more than it already is?” Bill Bremen asked rhetorically.

“That will bring increased attention and most of it will be negative.”

Bill Bremen couldn’t help himself.  “So, it’s not surrender. It’s suicide.”

“I wouldn’t describe it that way,” Regan responded.  “In fact, this is very much an effort that will provide you with a great deal to live for.”

“A lot to live for,” Norman Bremen agreed.

“God, it sounds dreadful,” Bill Bremen complained.

“It will all be quite civilized.  I’m sure I’ll even receive phone calls notifying me before any unpleasant articles or editorials are generated.  I’ve done these people favors in the past, opened doors for interviews, been a source for stories, that sort of thing.  They’ll feel genuinely bad about having to oppose the presumed interests of my client.”  Regan smiled broadly.  “I hadn’t thought of this before, but I could probably milk the guilt to ensure better treatment for my other clients.”

“Maybe you should be paying me,” Norman Bremen said to Regan.  To his brother:  “When we find ourselves sinking on this one, I will call a meeting of the coalition and explain that despite our best efforts we cannot bring the powers that be around to our side.”

“And,” Bill Bremen asked.

“A few additional details,” Norman Bremen said.  “We put the plan in motion yesterday.  I met with Ernest and his partners to ask them to handle the account.”

Bill Bremen sat forward.  “His partners?”  He jabbed his cigar at Regan.  “Your partners are involved in this?”

“No,” Norman Bremen answered.  “Only the two of us.”  He nodded toward Regan.  “I should have clarified what I meant.  I did ask them to handle the account, but the meeting was a charade.”

Bill Bremen looked from one man to the other, puzzled.

“We had to position things properly,” Regan explained.  “A client is expected to present his case and make his expectations known, then listen to a song-and-dance from the firm.  Your brother and I did manage to present the ‘false case,’ if you will.”

Bill Bremen placed his glass on the small table in front of the couch.  “Ernest, I do have a question about how you’re going to pull this off if you say your firm doesn’t usually tilt at windmills.  Won’t all those people who researched this issue at your firm months ago wonder why you took us on?  Why you’re going ahead with a lost cause?”

“We contract out for research.  Different contractors handled different aspects of the study.  I am the only one at the firm with a full file of information.”

“Your partners have no idea where you’re going with this?”

Regan shook his head.  “I gave them enough of the research results to help everyone understand that this would be a challenge.  I also gave them a rough idea of how generous the contract terms would be, which I’m sure helped persuade them that despite the challenges, it’s worth attempting.”

“Then the only ones who know how we’re proceeding are in this room?”

“Now what?”

“I’ll defer to your brother,” Regan said, and settled in his chair.

Norman Bremen ran a finger around the lip of his glass.  “Once we have established that trying to get a fair hearing in Washington is a lost cause, we will offer to buy the land surrounding American Sugar at a price that will be set by the sinking market.  Our report on the situation will be bleak enough to leave the impression that condemnation is an option, in which case they would get nothing from the government for their lands, so our offer will carry the day.  Timing is everything.”

Bill Bremen looked hard at his brother.  “Aren’t they going to have questions about what we’re doing? Why would we want their land if the government could eventually end up taking it away from us?”

“Given the situation, I doubt they will look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“And you’re certain the government will buy from us?”

“The Minority Leader is going to see to that.”

“Will Dawkins knows about this?”

“Not yet.  I want him fighting the good fight against Bowles until the bitter end.  Telling him too soon might take the heart out of his efforts.  A good fight will help sell the coalition that we are doing all we can here in Washington.”

“When does he get clued in?”

“Whenever it becomes necessary.  The good Senator is a key to our success.  We will need his help getting Senator to-be Clegg Caffery appointed to the Parks, Historic Preservation, and Recreation Subcommittee in the Senate.  Caffery will be our point man.  He will argue for government purchase of the land, in the interest of environmental preservation, of course.  And at a very fair price given the ordeal the sugar industry has had to endure. Caffery’s credentials for this sort of assignment are impeccable. A man of the people and all that.”

“Caffery?” Bill Bremen questioned.  “The man’s wife was just killed.  He might have other plans for his life.”

“We are working to keep the pressure on him.  Once he is in office, I am sure we will be able to count on his support.”

Bill Bremen let his gaze drift.  “I don’t know.  He shook his head slowly.  “This is some hard core stuff.”

Norman Bremen placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder.   “Things are falling into place.  Have you spoken to Garrett lately?”

Bill Bremen adjusted his train of thought to respond to what seemed to be a non sequitur.  “Garrett?

“Yes, your son, Garrett,” Norman Bremen replied with a smile.

“Not yet.  I came straight here from the airport and he was still out.”

“I thought he might have called you about his job.”

“No, but he knows I’m in town.  Maybe he was holding the news until we had a chance to see each other.”

“I will let the cat out of the bag, but act surprised when he tells you.  He took a job at the Washington Herald.”

“That’s terrific.  How did he end up there?”

“I arranged an interview for him.  Young Garrett is working on a story about Congressman Caffery.”

Bill Bremen’s face clouded.  “You’re using Garrett in this?”

“Of course not, Bill.  Sometimes fate lends a hand.  He was asked to gather some background information on Joanna Caffery.”

“This is the Garrett you mentioned to me, no doubt,” Regan said.

“Yes,” Norman Bremen answered with a look that told Regan the discussion was closed.

Bill Bremen stood and walked to the window, the scene beyond now swallowed by darkness.  He mulled over what he had been told as his brother and Ernest Regan conversed quietly.  He considered that when things began to fall apart at home, he initially welcomed the challenge and took the lead, but he hadn’t been able to hold his ground.  He hadn’t been able to keep the predators at bay.  The bottom fell out and there were snickers about “the little brother.”  When the battle moved to Washington, his brother took over and he knew that many breathed a sigh of relief.  He had questions about what they were now planning, about how it would affect people, but the situation couldn’t get any worse.  They had to salvage something.

Norman Bremen joined his brother, their reflections clear against the dark panes of glass.

“Christ, Norman, there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle.”

“Nothing worthwhile comes easily.  There will be a dividend for our troubles.  The others were headed for extinction anyway. They are not equipped to survive.  A sad fact of life.  The key is getting the land and making it available before everything gets too far down the road.”

“Like I said, a lot of pieces,” the younger Bremen commented.

Regan stood and made three at the window.  A bright orange glow reflected in the dark glass as he pulled on his cigar.  “Bill, the politicians will fall all over themselves for an opportunity to save the Everglades.  They’re always searching for issues to champion and we’re moving quickly to provide them with a big one.  Our plan appears solid.  None of them will begrudge you coming out of this whole if the end result boosts their chances for reelection.”

“And as long as we continue contributing to their campaigns,” Norman Bremen added.

“Speaking of politics,” Regan said, “Ralph Mulligan, the astute political mind in our firm, thinks he sees a fly in the ointment.”

“I have to hand it to the man.  He picked up immediately that our plan will make noise where silence would ordinarily be preferable.”

“He was the only one of the three who spoke against taking this account when I met with the group.  He declared it a lost cause.  Ralph thinks that getting on the wrong side will damage our credibility.”

Bremen watched the smoke from his cigar float lazily up the windowpane.  “Will he cause us any problems?”

“Problems?  I’m not sure what you mean.  Philosophically, I think he might be on the other side on this one, but he’s a trooper.  He was outvoted.  The partners made a decision to take the account and he’ll work on it, which–ironically–could actually prolong the inevitable, given his talents.  He’ll push hard to get the sugar industry’s story told.”

Bremen jerked his head toward Regan.  “Maybe we should play it safe and get him off the account.”

“That would create problems.  The partners are expected to devote some of their time to all of our major accounts.  You are now a very major account.  Generally, clients like to know that the partners are contributing their time.  No, we can’t pull Ralph off.  That would raise too many questions.”

“And if he discovers what the real objective is?”

“How could that happen?”

“You indicated he was already suspicious.  This is not good, Ernest.  Not good at all.”

Regan considered his reflection in the dark glass.  “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“You do that,” Bremen said.  “I will too.  A very careful eye.”  He raised his glass.  “But let’s not dwell on the negative.  Gentlemen.  To success and a bright future.  Cheers.”


About the author

J. David Bethel

J. David Bethel is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been published in popular consumer magazines and respected political journals. He is the author of Evil Town, a novel of political intrigue that has received high praise from Washington opinion leaders, and is one of only a few novels available through Kindle that has been rewarded with Five-Stars by all readers who provided reviews. Bethel spent 35 years in politics and government. He served in the Senior Executive Service as a political appointee where he was Senior Adviser/Director of Speechwriting for the Secretary of Commerce; directed speechwriting offices for other Cabinet officials, serving as Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary of Education; and lead speechwriter in the Department of Transportation's Office of Policy and International Affairs. He also served as press secretary/speechwriter to members of U.S. Congress. Bethel authored the speech given by Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nevada) nominating then-Governor Ronald Reagan as the GOP candidate for President. Bethel works as a media consultant for a number of prominent communications management firms, including Burson Marsteller and The Wade Group. He writes speeches, opinion editorials and Congressional testimony for CEOs from the nation’s largest corporations, including the Monsanto Corporation, Hilton Hotels Corporation, and Royal Caribbean Lines. His op-ed pieces have appeared in The Washington Post and other prominent newspapers around the country. Bethel graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Tulane University and lives in Miami, Florida. Contact the author.
COMMENT POLICY
  • Don Kesler

    Evil Town is a chilling tale of corruption, power, and high level politics. The story is very believable and I enjoyed every page. It is good to know that Florida has spawned yet another high caliber novelist in J. David Bethel.

  • Jenni L

    Loved the book. Grabbed mr attention right away. Looking forward to reading David’s next book.

  • 41Self

    Great story line and insight into how a “fictitious” government/industry does business. A book that you can’t put down. Can’t wait for his next book.

  • Karla A

    It was a great read. David is an amazing author !

  • Anne L

    Really intriguing !

  • Candy C

    I had heard from friends this book was a must read. I am excited about reading more, they were right! My hat’s off to the author, David Bethel!

  • Karen C.

    A very good read…looking forward to reading more.

  • May Town

    I love a good political thriller. This is a great summer read.

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