EVIL TOWN: Chapter Two - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

EVIL TOWN: Chapter Two

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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.lAlthough 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 TWO

“Great,” Garrett Bremen hissed under his breath.  He gripped the steering wheel tightly as he bounced down a pothole pitted street in a neighborhood that was a confusion of aging, rundown single-family homes and low-rent commercial properties.  He glanced at the passenger seat and briefly studied a handwritten note that directed him into the District from Virginia.  Garrett had no idea where he took the wrong turn that deposited him in a part of town that was making him very uncomfortable.

He punched the lock button on the door panel and pressed hard on the gas pedal trying to beat a red light.  A cab stopped in front of Garrett forcing him to a screeching halt.  He really wished that he had not taken the Mercedes.  He felt like a magnet for a car jacking.

Two elderly men standing under a glass and metal bus stop shelter, their belongings spilling from industrial size orange plastic bags, eyed Garrett curiously.  A third man sitting on the sidewalk hugged a bagged bottle, a filthy blanket covered his legs.  He gestured in Garrett’s direction and yelled something unintelligible.

The light changed and Garrett sped away.  He considered stopping at a corner gas station to ask directions, slowing long enough to identify a group of teenagers gathered in front of the cashier’s pay station, where a large poster board made it clear that, “The attendant never has more than $20.”  He watched the small crowd gyrating to a blasting boom box and decided to keep moving.

Garrett popped open the glove compartment and pawed through the contents for a map.  Nothing.  He slammed it shut and groaned as he approached a busy intersection, where he spotted a McDonald’s.  The Drive Through.  He would order something and see if he could get directions.

Garrett’s head swiveled as he searched for an opening in traffic.  From the corner of his eye he caught sight of a placard advertising The National Arboretum.  He gazed at the sign.  It struck a chord.  He consulted the piece of paper, which directed him “up New York Avenue past the National Arboretum.”  Garrett craned his neck across the steering wheel and searched for a street sign as he approached the intersection.  New York Avenue.

New York Avenue was a divided highway flanked by cheap motels.  Rooms by the hour.  A pool in one motel was filled with an almost iridescent green liquid.

“Finally,” popped out of Garrett’s mouth when he spotted a heavily fenced area surrounding a number of squat warehouses with signage promoting the Washington Herald.  Delivery trucks were parked in bays where large reams of paper were being unloaded.

A short distance beyond this compound, an exit pointed the way to the Herald via a service road that ran parallel to New York Avenue.  Garrett followed the road to a large, multi-storied, blocky structure painted a neutral color.  The sterile appearance reminded him of a hospital complex.

Garrett parked and flipped the sheet with the directions.  He studied Preston Harmon’s name and office number.  His uncle told him that Harmon was one of the best managing editors in the business.  He had come to the Herald from Newsweek Magazine when the newspaper began publishing a decade earlier.  Preston Harmon’s name on the masthead brought the Herald instant cachet, if not success, which the newspaper was still struggling to earn as the upstart conservative alternative to the more liberal and established Washington Post.

Garrett slipped the piece of paper into his suit pocket, got out of the car and bent toward the mirror on the driver’s side door.  He straightened his tie and combed his fingers through his thick head of hair.  Every time Garrett looked into a mirror he regretted his red mop, although the regret was easing with the years as the shade lightened from an embarrassing orange to a more acceptable strawberry blond.

He smoothed the front of his jacket and started toward the drab building.  As he neared the front door, Garrett thought he noticed a shadow above his line of sight, like a bird coming at him very fast.

***

“Redemption,” the man cried anxiously.  “I’ve waited with the patience of Job to wash away the sin.  We will be the avenging angels.  Praise the Lord.”

The man was dressed in a clean white shirt, freshly pressed black pants and black wingtip shoes.  He was cleanly shaved and his hair was carefully combed.  A Bible was open in his lap and he stared straight ahead.  He had not moved from his chair since admitting Squier into his small, sparsely furnished house.

“I knew it was time the minute you appeared at my door,” he said, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks.  “I’ve been waiting everyday for….”  He hesitated and blinked rapidly.  “For more than 30 years.  My God….”  He began to sob.  “It’s been so long.”

Squier initially thought he had frightened the man, who sat stiffly, his eyes as round as saucers.  But the man had remained calm and paid little attention to his visitor.  The bugged eyes kept their vigil on something distant and Squier soon realized that whatever was frightening the man had nothing at all to do with him.

“I had almost given up hope.  I thought the Lord had forsaken me…given up on my blackened soul.”  The man choked in a sob.  “I didn’t know how much longer I could have kept going.  Day after day hearing those voices begging, screaming, pleading.”

The man reached slowly for his ears, which he covered with his hands.  “I can hear everything, you know.”

Squier walked to the side of the chair and kneeled.  The man never let his eyes wander from a spot somewhere in front of him, as if afraid of what he might see if he shifted his focus.

“Thank the Lord,” he whimpered, his face wet, tears dripping from his chin, his nose running.  “We’re going to avenge the innocents.  Stop the voices and give them peace.”

The man was getting loud and Squier knew it had to be done quickly.  He pulled a .45 caliber automatic from his pocket and was prepared to restrain the man, but the sobbing figure remained still.  Squier tilted the gun slightly, calculating the angle the man would hold the weapon if putting it to his own temple.

“The children’s voices are the worst,” the man said just before Squier pulled the trigger.  His expression never changed. He died with his eyes wide open.

***

Norman Bremen strode off the elevator with Cameron Phillips in tow.  They stepped into a reception area furnished with large, upholstered chairs and accompanying side tables, each with an individual humidor and a reading lamp, giving the room the appearance of an exclusive men’s club.

Ernest Regan, Robert Logan, Mary Sowell and Ralph Mulligan of Washington Communications were waiting.  Regan stepped forward, offering his hand.  “Ernest Regan, Mr. Bremen.”

“Call me Norman, please, Mr. Secretary.”

The tall, stately, white-haired Regan smiled appreciatively and bobbed his head slightly.  “Only if you’ll call me Ernest.  I try not to let a few years at the State Department define me.” He pivoted toward his three partners, who were hovering behind him. “This is Robert Logan.”

The short, balding Logan smiled.

“Of course, Robert,” Bremen said, greeting the man familiarly.  “We had some dealings when you were at the Federal Aviation Administration about a helipad I was considering for the top of my building in Rosslyn.  I eventually decided against it. Too much trouble, what with all the clearances needed because of ReaganNationalAirport, the no-fly zones and whatnot.  You were the administrator’s chief-of-staff, if I am not mistaken.”

Robert Logan’s round face evidenced surprise as he extended a pudgy hand toward Bremen.  “I’m flattered you’d remember,” he replied.  “That helipad was a sticky proposition.”

Regan directed Bremen to a homely but elegantly coifed woman.  “Mary Sowell.”

“I know Ms. Sowell by reputation,” Bremen said, quickly adding, “and it is a fine reputation.  You are well respected on the Hill for the work you did as Senator Tyler’s administrative assistant.”

“Make that Mary, and I’d like the names of the people you talked to about me,” she said with a grin.  “Owe them lunch.  It certainly can’t be anybody on the Senator’s staff.  I was a tough taskmaster.  Developed a reputation.”

“I will have those names to you tomorrow.”

“This is Ralph Mulligan,” Regan concluded the introductions, ushering a tall, angular man toward Bremen.

“Yes, Ralph and I have met.  A few months ago at a fundraiser for the Corcoran Gallery, I believe it was.”

“Exactly,” Mulligan replied, a broad smile animating his long face.

“I must confess it was that meeting that prompted me to start asking around about this firm.  After Ralph reminded me of his work on the President’s campaign, and mentioned this team, I had a feeling you could help me.”

“Well, then, I’m certainly glad I let my wife drag me to that stuffy cocktail party,” Mulligan said.

Bremen turned and motioned toward Cameron Phillips, who was standing behind him.  Phillips, sartorially elegant in an expensive, double-breasted Italian suit, which hung perfectly on his athletic, broad-shouldered physique, stepped forward.  “Gentlemen, this is my Vice President for Legislative Affairs and Corporate Communications, Cameron Phillips.  I am actually borrowing Cam from Bremen Enterprises to help me explain the matter I would like to discuss with you.  It has to do with a secondary interest of mine that is fast becoming a primary concern.”

“Oh,” Regan said, leading the round of handshaking with Phillips, “then this isn’t about Bremen Enterprises?”

Bremen shook his head.  “No, that is not where my needs are.”

Ernest Regan guided Bremen and Phillips into a glass-fronted conference room that looked out on the reception area.  The group circled a highly polished, oblong conference table which reflected the glare from recessed track lighting.  A room-length mahogany credenza lined the wall opposite the glass partition.

Regan stopped at the head of the table and pointed Bremen to his right while the others claimed their places.

“Norman,” Regan began as everyone settled into their chairs, “let me start by saying that we’re flattered you would consider us.”

“Not ‘consider’,” Bremen replied.  “This is the agency I want to handle my business.  You are schooled at issues management and you know what buttons to push in Washington.”  He smiled.  “That is politically correct, I believe.  Issues management?  We do not say lobbying or public relations in this town anymore, do we?”

Regan gave a quick shake of his head.   “It’s really just semantics.  Issues management.  Communications management.  Our strength is helping clients craft their messages to make certain that what they have to say is framed properly and then relayed to the right people.”  He gestured around the table.  “We know which doors to knock on and how to get in.”

Bremen reached out and patted Regan on the forearm.  “I told you, Ernest, the job is yours.”

“Old habits die hard.  Now, what can we do for you?”

“Before Cam and I get to that, let me say that my decision to come to you is well-considered.  I did a little homework and found out about the wonders you are performing for the Climate Change Coalition.  That group is particularly pleased with how you repositioned the debate on the issue from global warming to climate change.

“A bit less shrill,” offered Regan.

“Indeed,” agreed Bremen, “and your campaign promoting the upside of climate change was brilliant.  That business about the ice melt helping advance Greenland’s independence from Denmark was great stuff.  And I loved the added bit about the return there of warm weather cod, and the first-time appearance of locally produced vegetables.   Yes, great stuff.  Ed Podolak and Harvey Warner are huge fans.”

“Two of the CCC’s most active members,” Regan noted.  “You picked the right people.”

“And two old friends of mine,” Bremen added.  “Ed said the National Automobile Manufacturers Association could not be happier with what you have accomplished.  Harvey was even more effusive.  He said you have managed to keep the environmentalists off balance which, in his words, ‘has brought a bounce to the step of everyone in the coal industry.’”

“We have a solid issue,” Regan replied.  “It isn’t so much keeping the environmentalists off balance as it is presenting all the facts.  I’d prefer to think that we added much needed balance to the debate.”

“And so you have.  I am counting on your doing the same for me.”

“Did Ed and Harvey tell you how we work?” Logan asked as he laid a meerschaum pipe and a plaid tobacco pouch on the table.  “Specifically, how we managed to add complexity to the debate on climate change?”

“Not in any detail,” Bremen answered.  “The bottom-line, as I see it, is you have managed to add credibility to an opposing point of view about climate change – that’s it’s quite possibly a cyclical phenomenon.  That’s commendable.  No longer are those who happen to see things differently reflexively branded as Neanderthals, or stubborn contrarians.”  He looked around the table.  “Are any of you familiar with the American Sugar Company?”

Taking a survey of the blank faces, Regan answered, “Perhaps not specifically, but I believe we’re all aware that your family is in the business.  The sugar business.”

Bremen leaned forward and jabbed a finger on the table.  “Our industry is now facing many of the same pressures that plague members of the CCC.  We are being attacked by extreme elements in the environmental movement, hysterical attacks that are largely overblown and many are without merit altogether.”

“Your company is located in Florida.  Correct?” Regan asked.

“Yes, it is.  We cultivate almost 200,000 acres of farmland north of the Everglades, near the small town of Clewiston.  I would wager that none of you are familiar with Clewiston.”

Head shaking all around.

“But I am sure you know that the Everglades has been targeted by environmentalists as an endangered area.  Basically, they are proposing to eliminate the sugar interests.  They claim we are polluting the wetlands with the run-off from our fertilizers.  They believe that the only way to save the Everglades is by returning it to its natural state, which would entail flooding vast areas of our farmlands.  With your particular experience and contacts”–he nodded toward Regan–”I believe you are the people who can best represent my family’s interests, and those of the rest of the sugar growers in Florida.”

“All the sugar companies are threatened by these developments?” Logan asked, pointing the stem of his pipe at Bremen.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, gentlemen and Mary, but the American Sugar Company is the sugar industry in Florida.  Nevertheless, I am talking about the smaller growers as well.  And I am speaking for the industry in soliciting your help with this matter.”

“We appreciate the confidence,” Regan said.  “Just so there’s no misunderstanding about what we can accomplish for you, I think it’s important to know that we have been successful with our climate change campaign because the issue was ripe for some balance.  First, the proponents of warming have been far too strident and we presented our case with a great deal more calm and reason.  This appeals to most Americans, who aren’t ready for ‘end of the world’ scenarios.  Second, they did not corral all the experts in the field and we were able to cherry pick a number of them to make a case that…well, basically said the world as we know it is not going to burn up into a charcoal briquette.  And we explained the economic toll that would be inflicted on the average citizen by some of the radical policies being advocated to reverse the effects of climate change.

Regan waved his hand in the air. “But I sound like I’m on a soap box here.  My point is that we were able to add some reason to the discussion because there was some reason to be added.  We can only do that if our clients have a good case to be made on their behalf.”

“Exactly,” Bremen responded.  “You will find that we also have a reasonable case for caution.  We have strong arguments for a more balanced approach, one that will not destroy the livelihood of many thousands of people.  The other side is aiming to destroy the sugar industry with programs that offer little or no benefit for the Everglades.”

“We’ll be bucking the President,” Ralph Mulligan cautioned.

Bremen smiled.  “That is manageable.  Ralph, having been with the campaign you should know better than anyone that President Warren made promises during the primaries to appease the left wing of the party so he could secure the nomination.  Agreeing to clean up the Everglades solidified his liberal credentials.  I have received assurances from various people close to the President that if we give the White House strong arguments on which they can build very reasonable and moderate policy, it will happen.”

Mulligan raised his eyebrows in question and tapped the end of his pipe against his lower lip.

Sensing Mulligan’s skepticism, Bremen spread his arms and gestured at those gathered around the table.  “The President does not have to genuflect to the liberals anymore.  That is not his philosophical home anyway.  He basically ignored them during the election campaign three years ago and has not included their interests in his agenda since taking office.  The man is a pragmatist.  Practically a Blue Dog.  He wants to get reelected so he is looking to appeal to the broad middle belt of voters.  The Everglades is not a concern to this constituency.  To borrow from a previous presidential campaign, ‘It’s the economy stupid.’ I’m sure with a little imagination, the haranguing by enviros about the need to put the sugar and other farming concerns out of business can be turned against them since it would cripple the region’s economy and, as you will hear in a moment, will do next to nothing to save the Everglades.”

“Coffee?” Regan asked, as two women stepped into the conference room.  One placed cups and saucers in front of each person.  The other set a silver service in the center of the table.

“Tea, please,” Bremen said.

Regan gestured at one of the women, who hurried from the room.  Then, to Bremen:  “Can we get some material from you that will fill us in on your situation?”

“I can do that right now.  Actually, Cam will.  He has brought along an armload of information to leave with you.”

Phillips reached into an accordion file and pulled out six thick manila folders.  “I’ve put together a lot of background material, including a sampling of white papers, scientific research and other studies the coalition of sugar growers had prepared.”

“A working coalition already exists?” Regan asked.

Bremen nodded.  “Oh, yes.  We’ve been fighting this battle on the state front for some time.”

Mulligan leafed through the documents Phillips slid in front of him.  “Are all the sugar growers involved in the coalition?”

“Every single one of them.  ‘True Friends of the Everglades.’”

Mulligan leaned toward Bremen.  “Excuse me?”

“That is the name of the coalition.  ‘True Friends of the Everglades.’”

“True friends.”  Mulligan smiled tightly.  “That’s very good.  We don’t even have to come up with a workable name for the group.  And it’s good to hear that you have everyone pulling in the same direction.  Sometimes it’s hard to get people together on something like this.  After spending a lifetime building a business, people usually have pretty strong ideas on how they want it protected.”

“We have everybody together,” Bremen said intently.  “I promise you that.”

“A solid, active organization with a motivated membership,” Mary Sowell spoke up.  “Politicians see that as a ready-made bloc of votes and a good source for campaign funds.  The perfect incentives to get them on the right side of the issue.”

Regan furrowed his brow in concentration as he leafed through the documents in the folder.  “Where exactly do you stand with Capitol Hill today?”

“That has been a problem,” Bremen responded as he smiled curtly at a young woman who placed a china pot at his elbow and presented him with a large wooden box displaying an array of exotic teas from which he selected Earl Grey.  “Aside from some work we have done with Senator Dawkins, we have not had much of a presence in Washington.  It was not necessary.  All of this was primarily a state concern.  However, the Department of Interior has allied itself with the environmental community in Florida and Secretary Bowles is planning on making this a federal matter, so to speak.”

Regan looked up from what he had been reading.  “How long has Interior has been a player?”

“Secretary Bowles insinuated himself into the matter when Everglades cleanup bills were being debated in the Florida State Legislature.  He said he wanted to play peacemaker between the factions.”  Bremen’s eyes narrowed, “We all know that William Bowles has plans to return to Pennsylvania to run for governor.  The man is looking for ways to raise his profile.  To do that he came to my state and bullied the legislature into going along with most of the environmentalists’ programs for the Everglades. He has since brought his crusade to Washington and…,” Bremen paused and leaned forward.  “You’ll find this amusing.  Bowles is trying to persuade the administration and Congress to approve a tax on sugar growers to support the purchase of our lands.”

“But if I recall correctly,” said Mary Sowell, “he’s framing his call for the tax as a sort of payback by farmers for the damage inflicted on the Everglades by decades of farming.  He said the monies collected will be plowed back into the renovation efforts.  Right?”

“Right,” Bremen agreed, “but we can demonstrate that the renovation plan will not work.”  He nodded toward Phillips.  “Cam, why don’t you give them a little background on the science.”  Bremen shook his head. “Wrong choice of words.  I should say the pseudo-science that is being used to justify this crusade.”

Phillips squared his shoulders and consulted a stack of index cards.  “Mr. Bremen has already told you that the environmentalists claim the runoff from the fertilizers is polluting the waters in the Everglades.  They say the phosphorous content is encouraging the growth of plants that are choking the natural vegetation and driving various types of wildlife from the area.”

“A lot of nonsense,” Bremen interjected.

Reading from the index cards, Phillips continued.  “It’s their contention that anything over 10 parts per billion is harmful.  There’s simply no evidence to support this.  Areas of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have around 400 parts per billion.”

Ergo,” Bremen said, “it is quite possible that the growth of the flora in the Everglades that has the environmentalists up in arms is being caused by something altogether unrelated to the phosphorus runoff.  Sorry, Cam, go ahead.”

“The state legislature,” Phillips read from his cards, “passed a cleanup bill….”

“Which I opposed,” noted Bremen.

“…that forced the growers to reduce their use of phosphorous and pay a share of the cleanup costs, which includes paying for the construction of a system of marshes that will filter the farm runoff.”

“At an initial cost of $700 million,” Bremen said, and nodded at Phillips, who returned to his cards.

“Aside from the phosphorous issue and the programs aimed at reducing the effluent, another program has been proposed to replumb the Everglades.  The aim is to return the system of waterways that run through the park to their original flow patterns.  These patterns were altered in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding.  The replumbing will return water to areas that have been drained or to where the water level was reduced and, according to the environmentalists, brought serious damage to the natural habitat.”

“And was there damage?” Regan asked.

“There has been some damage,” Bremen conceded, “but we’re dealing with extremists who are perverting the concept of acceptable risk.  They are determined to drive our industry out of business weighing the benefits against the costs.”

Phillips waited until he was sure Bremen had nothing more to add before consulting his cards.  “As far as returning the canals to their original flow patterns to restore various wetlands, even the proponents of this course admit there is no guarantee that reflooding the dry areas will lead to the results they want.  Furthermore, it could bring back the flooding problems that caused the Corps of Engineers to alter the shape of the canals in the first place.”

“This is where I see your experience being put to use,” Bremen said.  “The arguments made by the extremist groups that have foisted this Everglades restoration plan upon us simply do not hold water.”  He smiled slyly.  “Forgive the pun.”

Regan agreed, “Some of the tactics we fashioned for CCC have transference for your issues.”

Bremen straightened in his chair and his smile faded.  “Secretary Bowles essentially blackmailed the sugar growers into agreeing to the Everglades cleanup operation he brokered in the state legislature.  He indicated that if we did not sign on the dotted line he would find some way to compel our cooperation.  But if we agreed, he would insert language in the deal that promised Washington would not impose any new taxes or cleanup regulations for at least a decade.  He has reneged on his promise already.”

“I know Bowles from the campaign,” Mulligan said.  “He plays hardball.”

“Political hardball I can stomach,” Bremen said.  “This man is deceitful.  And he is dangerous.  The broadened Everglades restoration plan he is championing would force us to surrender most of our farmlands, which would then be flooded.  Obviously, we would be out of business.”

“These allies of yours in the White House,” Regan directed at Bremen, “you’re sure they would oppose Bowles?”

“Just give them some ammunition, Ernest.  Devise arguments that will resonate with the people running his reelection effort and we will be fine.  Give them a Greenland with its new found excitement for independence, warm water cod and home grown vegetable.”

“Speaking of ammunition,” Cam Phillips said, “you’ll find a cost breakdown for the entire restoration plan in the information packets I distributed.  The replumbing of the 14,000 square miles of wetlands will cost roughly $11 billion.”

“Eleven billion?” Mary Sowell asked incredulously.  “With a ‘b’?”

“With a ‘b’,” Bremen answered.  “Half of which comes from federal funds, the other half from the state.  When you consider the problems that could be caused by the program–the flooding–and the uncertainties about the science that are driving this effort, I am sure you can break the political will to stick with the project.  Eleven billion dollars is a great deal of money to ask the taxpayers to spend on programs fraught with problems and uncertainties.  And all of this is on top of the state Everglades Forever Act that has cost almost $2 billion already.”

“It looks like we have some solid material to work with,” Regan said.  “Off the top, we have a very, very expensive taxpayer funded program that will put a vast economic sector out of business in the middle of an economic downturn.”

Bremen nodded vigorously.

“Incidentally,” Regan added, “Senator Dawkins is not a bad ally to have.  The Minority Leader of the Senate does carry weight.”

“He has been a good friend,” Bremen acknowledged.

“‘The Senator from Sugar’,” Robert Logan said through a puff of pipe smoke.

“Yes, thanks to clever headline writers at The Miami Tribune.”  Bremen spit out the words contemptuously.  “But he won’t be cowed.  He has requested hearings by the Appropriations Committee and other committees which exercise jurisdiction over the federal agencies responsible for overseeing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to completion.”

“On what grounds?” Mulligan asked.

“On fiscal grounds.  To make sure the funds are being spent wisely.”

“To stop the expenditure.  That’s really his aim, isn’t it,” Mulligan pronounced.

“I do not speak for the Senator,” Bremen responded, “but that would certainly be a positive and welcome outcome.”

Mulligan leaned into his words.  “He’s got to be hoping to do this quietly, call in some IOUs, do some schmoozing, and see what he can accomplish without making waves.  I mean, whether or not Warren intends to actively support the restoration, he’s on record as favoring an Everglades cleanup.  I doubt Dawkins wants to broadcast his own opposition to something the White House is supporting.  He’s probably trying to work this slowly, build a case in the committees, where he’ll put Interior, among other agencies, on the spot and ask everyone to justify their expenditures.  As long as Dawkins keeps it under the surface, and avoids making a big issue out of it, Warren won’t be called upon to defend the project.”

The group around the table kept their focus on Mulligan, expectantly.

“Which brings me to my point.  Dawkins might actually prefer that we didn’t rock the boat right now.”

Bremen eyed Mulligan carefully before responding.  “I understand what you are saying, and it would be nice to think the Senator could get our job done for us quietly, without any messy infighting.  But I am not willing to sit on the sidelines and take that gamble.  I am not even sure those efforts are as sophisticated as you paint them to be.”  Bremen sat up stiffly.  “I will not allow this restoration nonsense to get too far down the road and possibly gain traction.

Bremen turned his attention to Ernest Regan.  “You know as well as I do, Ralph, that every politician wants to be recognized as an environmentalist, regardless of party affiliation.  I do not want some Senator from Illinois or a Congressman from Idaho deciding to polish his environmental credentials.  We must stop this now before it becomes one of those ‘feel-good’ programs that everyone on the Hill can point to as evidence of their concern for the environment.”

Mulligan flicked a quick glance at Regan and nodded understandingly.  “I’d just hate to have the Minority Leader jump out of the boat we’re all supposed to be rowing together if things get dicey and the administration puts pressure on him and all Democrats to conform.”

“I told you, I believe we can forestall the possibility that the White House will push the matter strongly,” Bremen stated flatly.  “I’ve been assured of that.”

Regan broke the tension.  “That’s good to know.  I think we can design a program that keeps Dawkins in the boat, and one that also brings a few others in to row with us.  The costs of the restoration effort should cause people to sit up and take notice, especially in a shaky economy.”

Ernest Regan offered his hand to Bremen.  “A contract will be drawn up after we have had an opportunity to see what kind of expenses will be involved.”

“Fine.  I would like to ask a small favor.  When you come to a final figure on the contract, would it be a problem to add, oh, say $60,000?  I would like to offer my nephew the opportunity to work with you on this.  That amount could cover his salary.”

“Well…,” Regan hesitated, collecting his thoughts.  “I suppose that could be worked out.  I’m sure we would have to hire additional staff to service the account.”

“I would appreciate anything you can arrange.  He is here in Washington looking into various opportunities, but I want the young man to have a backup in case his other options fall short.” Bremen pushed away from the table and leaned out of his chair.

Following Bremen’s cue, everyone stood and Regan led the group from the conference room.  “What is your nephew interested in…media, advertising, politics?” Regan asked as he and Bremen neared the elevator.

“I am not sure.  Garrett is a bright, talented young man.  Eager to learn.  He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt.  I am sure he will fit in wherever you think best.  I promised my brother, who runs the business in Florida by the way, that I would watch over Garrett.”

“We’ll do what we can for him, Norman.  If he comes aboard, I’m sure he’ll learn a little about how this town works and enjoy himself in the process.”

“I have no doubt about that,” Bremen said as the elevator doors slid open.  “Ralph, speaking of people in our boat, I fully expect to have both of Florida’s Senators with us on this matter. I am confident that Congressman Caffery will seek the vacant seat of retiring Senator Roswein, and I am sure he will see things our way.”

“Caffery?” Regan said, his hand traveling to his chin.  “That’s the poor man whose wife was killed in that brutal murder last night, isn’t it?”

“This country is becoming a jungle,” Bremen said.  “That terrible murder is an example.  And we are being asked to spend billions on a swamp.  It makes no sense.  Our priorities need to be adjusted.”

As soon as Norman Bremen and Cameron Phillips disappeared behind the elevator doors, Ralph Mulligan asked, “Is it just me, or is there something strange about this?”

The others stared quizzically at their partner.

“Maybe it’s me then, but here’s a guy who’s got one of the most successful businesses in the country and he’s taking the lead on this thing?  Can you imagine Steve Jobs taking the time to save an avocado farm in California?”

“Ranch,” said Mary Sowell.

Mulligan raised his shoulders.  “What?”

“I think it’s called an avocado ranch,” she explained, “not an avocado farm.”

“Farm, ranch, whatever.  It’s strange.”

“It’s the family business,” Regan noted.  “There’s a sentimental attachment, I suppose.”

“I don’t know, maybe,” Mulligan said, shaking his head as he walked away.

***

“Oh, Preston,” a voice sing-songed into Preston Harmon’s office.

Harmon lifted his heavily-lidded eyes from what he was reading.  An attractive, raven-haired woman was standing in his doorway, hand on her shapely hip.

“You’ve got a visitor.”

Harmon sighed and ran a pudgy hand across his shiny, bald pate.  “It’s that Bremen kid I was telling you about isn’t it?  I hate this.  Reddick says see him so”–Harmon rose laboriously–”send him in.”

“I think you’re going to have to go to him.”

Harmon frowned.  “Whaddya mean, I have to go to him?  Is he in Reddick’s office or something?”  He hiked his sagging pants over his prodigious stomach as he talked.  “I’m not going crawling to Reddick’s office to make nice to some rich kid because the powers that be want to do someone a favor.”  Harmon plopped down in his chair defiantly.

“No, he’s not in Reddick’s office,” the woman replied, letting herself fall gently against the door frame.  “He’s in the nurse’s office.”

Harmon’s thick eyebrows shot up in question.  “The nurse’s office?”  He considered this a moment.  “I didn’t know we had a nurse’s office.  What’s he doing there?”

“He got hit with something that came off the roof while he was walking into the building.”  She pointed at the ceiling.  “They’re putting in that new air conditioning unit and someone must’ve kicked something off.”

Harmon was up on his thick legs again.  “Jesus, is he okay?”

“I didn’t see him,” she said, her tone impatient.  “I just took the call for you.  Your line rang over to mine.  Why don’t you answer your own dammed phone?”

“I was going over a story,” Harmon explained.  He liked Darlene Aiken.  She was a good reporter and very easy to look at. He would have told her so in a previous lifetime, before everything changed.  Before he was assigned an administrative assistant who didn’t answer phones or get coffee, or even sit at her desk very often.  Before it all got very confusing.

Harmon came around the side of his desk.  His head down.  Bull-like, he charged toward the doorway.

“Excuse me, Mr. Harmon?”

Harmon pivoted toward the voice.  A tow-headed young man walked toward him, a shy smile flicked across his lips.  A small piece of tape covered his left eyebrow.

Garrett mistook the troubled look on Harmon’s face for confusion.  “I’m sorry, I’m looking for Preston Harmon.  I was told this is his office.”

“It is,” Harmon growled.  “You found him.”

Garrett held out his hand tentatively.  “I’m Garrett Bremen.  I apologize for being late but….”

“I know,” Harmon replied, staring at Garrett’s head.  “You okay?”

“Oh, sure.  A small piece of wood got knocked off a pallet on the roof.  A nick is all.  Someone said you’re getting a new air conditioning unit.”

Harmon pointed at a chair facing his desk.  “Would you have a seat for just a second?  I’ll be right with you.”

As Garrett walked into his office, Harmon motioned for Darlene.  They retreated to one side of the newsroom.

“Now I hafta give this kid something to do, right?” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth.  “I was going to make Reddick happy by talking to him and then blow him off with a ‘we’ll keep you in mind’.”  He tugged at his double chin.  “Can’t do that now, can I?”

“Have you got the budget?”

Harmon shrugged.  “Maybe.”

“Let’s consider this from Norman Bremen’s point of view,” Darlene turned to face Harmon’s office.  “He asks the publisher of the paper to do something for his nephew.  The nephew comes over here, gets decked by some debris from the roof, and then you send him away after a cursory interview.  So Bremen calls Reddick….”

“Okay, okay,” Harmon said disgustedly and started toward his office.

“Besides he’s not a bad looking guy,” Darlene called after Harmon.  “Nice butt.  Ryan Phillipe-type.”

Harmon turned and flashed a broad grin.  “Watch that language, ­­­Aiken.  It’s inappropriate in this office.”  He closed one eye, the smile disappeared.  “Who the hell’s Ryan Phillipe?”

“Actor.  The movie ‘Breach’?”

Harmon looked blankly at Darlene.

“Uh, ‘Stop Loss’?  Reese Witherspoon’s ex?”

Harmon shrugged.  “The name Witherspoon rings a bell.”

Darlene shook her head.  “Don’t get out much, do you, Preston?  Hire him.  The rest of the men around here look like shit.”  Her hand went quickly to her mouth.  “Whoops, was that inappropriate?”

Garrett stood as Harmon walked through the door.  “Sit, sit,” the managing editor commanded.

“I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me.”

“No problem.”  Harmon sat down heavily.  “You have an interest in the news business I’m told,” he said as cheerfully as his foul mood would allow.

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Journalism major?”

“No, sir.  Political science, but I worked on the newspaper at school.  At Vanderbilt.”  He laid a resume on Harmon’s desk.

Harmon ignored the piece of paper and tried to emit a noise that indicated interest, but it came out as a groan.  “We don’t have much here, son.”

“I’d be more than willing to work for free for a while to prove myself.  I’ll do anything.  Run errands, whatever.  Then if something opened up, I’d appreciate the consideration.”

Harmon turned a letter opener over in his hand and considered what an easy sacrifice this must be for a Bremen.  Still, it showed a streak of industriousness.  “Well, I wouldn’t ask anyone to work for free.”  Because he knew he couldn’t ask Garrett Bremen to do that.  He couldn’t ask him to sweep the halls either.  That wouldn’t get Reddick off his back.

Harmon glanced at the morning Herald sitting on his desk.  The story above the fold was headlined, “Congressman’s Wife Found Dead.”

“Why don’t we try this,” he said, tapping the blade of the letter opener on the newspaper.  “This thing on the murder of the congressman’s wife.”  He turned the paper toward Garrett.  “We talked about doing a human interest thing on her…who she was, where she came from, that sort of stuff.  But I haven’t gotten around to doing much with it.  Interested in helping out on something like that?  Doing a little background research”

Garrett sat up straight in the chair.  “Yes, sir.  Very.”

“Why don’t you poke around and see what you can find out?  Was she known for any charity work?  Maybe there’s something noteworthy about her family.  I don’t know.  Dig in.  See what you can come up with.”

Garrett pulled the newspaper into his lap.  “I wasn’t expecting to jump in like this,” he said excitedly.

“No, no,” Harmon replied, shaking his head vigorously.  “No jumping in.  You won’t really be jumping in to anything.  Just find out where she worked, if she worked.  Maybe check with the Congressional Wives Club.”  Harmon paused.  “I think that’s what it’s called.  Anyway, get some background on her.  If it looks like she had any kind of life, maybe we can do something with it.”

Garrett smiled broadly.  This concerned Harmon.

“You understand that I’m not asking you to do anything more than some research.  No story.  No investigative journalism.  A little poking around.  That’s all.  Okay?”

Garrett stood and reached across the desk.  “Thank you very much, Mr. Harmon.  I’ll do my best.”

Harmon smiled.  He did good.  Keep the kid around a couple of weeks chasing his tail and then point him out the door with a promise to call if something comes up.  Reddick owed him.  Big time.

Garrett turned to leave.  “Oh,” Harmon said, stopping him.  “Go to Personnel.  Second floor, I think.  Tell them you’re doing some consulting work for me.  Two fifty a week for a couple of weeks.  Have them call if there are any questions.”

Garrett was backing toward the door when he realized he had the newspaper in his hand.  “You need this?”

“You keep it.  We have plenty more of those around here.”

***

Matt Thurston sat in a straight-backed wooden chair across from Clegg’s desk.

“Did you find anything at the house that will help you?” Clegg asked.

Thurston studied Clegg, who looked ill, his complexion sallow, his eyes sunken.  He decided it wasn’t the best time to mention that the murder investigation was in someone else’s court; that his responsibility was to ensure Clegg’s safety until the investigation was wrapped up.  “I haven’t spoken to all of the officers yet today.”

Clegg pushed himself upright and checked the knot in his tie.  “Sorry if I look a little scruffy.”  He gestured toward a couch near the door to his office.  “I spent the night here.  I cleaned up in the Member’s gym but I didn’t remember to bring a change of clothes.”

“You look fine,” Thurston lied.

Clegg cleared his throat.  “I’m rambling.”  Tears began to well in his eyes.

Thurston was grateful for the soft knock on the door.  The tiny woman who had ushered him into the office poked her head into the room.  “Can I get you anything, Congressman?”

“No, thank you, Rosa.  I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?  I’m going to pick up a late afternoon snack from the carryout.  You haven’t eaten a thing all day.  I’d be happy to bring you something.”

“Really, I’m okay.”

“Well, if you need anything…,” her reedy voice trailed off as she backed out of the room.

“So what can I do for you, Agent Thurston?  Is it Agent Thurston, or Special Agent Thurston?”

“Matt’s fine.  I’m here because there’s something curious about that torn piece of paper I showed you last night.”

Clegg shook his head slowly not recalling.

“The torn corner of….”  Thurston held up the baggie.

“Oh, right.  A lot of last night is…uh, kind of vague.”

“I understand,” Thurston said, and immediately regretted the words.  How could he possibly understand?

“I mentioned that I thought it might be a piece of a photograph.”

“I remember now.”

“Well, it is, and the photographer is a man named Thomas Wright.  Does that name mean anything to you?”

“Not offhand, no.  How in the world were you able to identify the photographer so quickly?”

“The wizards in our lab picked out some distinctive markings on the paper that led us to the Pentagon.”

Clegg sat forward.  “The Pentagon?”

“A photo morgue in the Pentagon, actually.  From there it was a matter of culling through file drawers where the older stuff is still kept in hard copy, not stored in a computer,” Thurston said. “We managed to match the markings on the piece we have to a file copy.”

“Wasn’t that a little like finding a needle in a haystack?”

“A lot like that.  But the paper could be dated within a range of a few years.  We still had to go through forty or fifty file cabinets, but we managed to come up with a match.  Getting the name of the photographer was the easy part.”

Thurston slid a grainy black and white photograph across the desk.  Clegg stared at the image of seven soldiers gathered in front of a chest-high barricade of sandbags that protected a shelter covered with camouflage netting.  Four of the men kneeled.  Three stood.  The men standing had their arms draped across each other’s shoulders.  The young faces were unshaven.  The bodies shirtless.  All wore fatigue pants and combat boots.  Those kneeling were cradling rifles.

Clegg looked up at Thurston and back down at the photograph.  “This was taken in Vietnam.”

“Yes, sir.  Wright was a photographer with an Army public relations unit.  I don’t have any more on him, but we should have his service records sometime today.”  He glanced at his watch.  “Make that tomorrow, unless they were delivered to my office during the last half hour.”

“This had to have been taken in 1968 or ’69,” Clegg said softly as he ran his fingertips across the photograph.

Thurston reached across the desk and pointed at one of the figures in the shot.  “You?”

“Yes, it is.”  Clegg turned the photograph face down on his desk.  “So, what do you make of it?”

“I was hoping you could help me out with that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”  Clegg kept his hand pressed tightly against the photograph.  “I don’t remember this being taken.”

“It isn’t something from your collection?  From a family album?”

“No.  Absolutely not.  I got rid of everything that had anything to do with Vietnam a long time ago.  Long before I ever met Joanna.”

“And the name Thomas Wright doesn’t ring a bell?”

“No, it doesn’t.”  Clegg lifted his hand off the photograph. “You see a connection between Wright and what happened last night?”

Thurston spread his arms in question.  “Your wife had something in her hand that you say doesn’t belong to you.  The only thing I have to go on is the name of the person who took that photograph.”

“What now?”

“Like you said, last night was a bad time and a few things probably got lost in the explaining.  I don’t know if you remember me telling you that my primary responsibility is to find out if what happened poses a threat to you.  The DC police are investigating your wife’s murder.”

“I had forgotten that.”  Clegg’s face tightened.

“I’m focused on your welfare.  I want to make sure you understand why I’m searching for relationships between events and you.  That’s our portfolio at the Bureau…to make sure you’re safe.”

“Fine.”

“Do you keep in touch with any of the men in the photograph?”

“They’re all dead.”

The answer caught Thurston off guard.  “Oh, I see.”  He was expecting a list of names and had removed a pen and note pad from his pocket.  He played with the pen.  “I asked you last night if you could think of anyone who might hold a grudge, or if you had received any threatening mail.”

“I did remember that, and this morning I checked with the people here in the office who open and answer the mail.  No one could recall anything suspicious.”

Thurston gestured toward the photograph.  “Now that you know where this came from, and what it relates to….”

“I haven’t kept in touch with anyone from that period in my life and no one has ever tried to contact me.”

“Well, I think it would be worth checking in with Mr. Wright.”

“This could just be a terrible coincidence.”

The remark surprised Thurston.  “A coincidence?”

Clegg leaned his elbows on his desk and cradled his head.  “I don’t know.  Maybe Joanna did find that photograph someplace around the house.  This Wright thing seems like such a long shot.”

Thurston looked intently into Clegg’s weary, pained eyes.  “Congressman, what are the chances your wife stumbled upon the photograph in your house?”

Clegg sighed deeply.  “Not possible.  Like I said, I got rid of everything that had anything at all to do with Vietnam.  Not a happy time in my life and there was no need to share it with Joanna.”

“I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve talked with Thomas Wright,” Thurston said, and got up to leave.  “By the way, is Clewiston in your district?”

“No, it’s in a neighboring district.  Why?”

“That’s where Thomas Wright lives.”

“You’re going to Clewiston?”

“These things are better handled face to face.”

As soon as the door closed behind Thurston, Clegg stood, threw open the window and breathed in the cold evening air as he tried to control a gripping nausea.  He’d done his best to excise Vietnam from his life and, until now, he thought he had succeeded.


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
  • George Albright

    Outstanding work. It grabs a hold early on and doesn’t let up.

  • Mary Knapp

    Beautifully written…I’m doling it out to myself on the Kindle but will probably succumb and finish it today. Too hard to put down!

  • Don Thureau

    After having read the excerpt, I downloaded the Kindle edition. Thanks for the sneak preview…it’s a juicy novel perfect for me and my recliner on any afternoon.

  • Marilyn Cole

    Judging from the first two chapters I can tell it’s the kind of book I’ll get and not put down until I’m done. Glad to find out about it here.

  • Georgeanna Vagias

    Just read chapter two and all the intrigue and subterfuge of the novel came back to me. I have already read the book about a year ago. It was one of those you stay up all night reading. When I finished the book, I was disappointed as I wanted more! I know readers of these excerpts will want more as well. All I can say is ENJOY!

  • Alec Bash

    Fascinating, sounds all too true. Looking forward to the book!

  • cheryl jossie

    I am really looking forward to finishing reading the novel now. Great excerpts.

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