People of like disposition are quick to get on with each other, but in the case of Babs and Chris, both women were amazed that, in spite of enormous dissimilarities, they were drawn together by a feeling of admiration and sympathy.
Barbara Hershel was a socially polished, intellectually adroit and very articulate woman. She was well-read. As the expert for the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, she made it clear that she enjoyed the trappings of power, seeing them as a necessary part of working on Capitol Hill, a form of advertising and intimidation. Thanks to her close relationship with Democratic Senator Ted Backhoe, she enjoyed being met at airports and being whisked in a shiny limousine to some formal dinner with the local hosts fussing over her, happy to sit at the head table. Babs was only at home with people who knew the extent of her influence in the Congress and who acknowledged her place in the power structure.
Chris Seabridge worked for The Washington Express-Tribune, and lived by herself except for an affectionate cat named Pythagoras. She claimed that cats could read people’s hearts. Pythagoras had a sweet, gentle and affectionate nature except when you had stepped on his tail.
A loner by nature, Chris was happy to spend hours by herself reading, learning, thinking, and judging. When she became curious about something, she became totally absorbed by it and disliked thinking of anything else. She would live, work and breathe the object of her interest. In addition, Chris was reluctant to act until she was in full possession of the facts of a situation.
She was suspicious of people like politicians, whose ambition was to mount step by step up the ladder of promotion in the hope of obtaining the topmost rung. That goal had no charm for her. Chris believed that people who didn’t fit in, people like her, were likely to be more receptive to new ideas and information. She believed that it was people like her who had the knack for spotting trends, the first to hear a new melody amid the background noise.
Her friendship with Babs had developed quickly. They had been introduced by mutual friends, and now saw each other often. She and her boyfriend would go up to Babs’ townhouse near the Capitol to have dinners with her and her husband, and those gatherings were always pleasant and friendly. Babs’ husband, Howard, was a big wig for some advertising firm, but to Chris, his was a meager fire. The couple, married twenty years, had two young children: Zera, an old Hebrew name, thirteen, and Tom who was 10 years old.
It was the way Babs talked about American politics that had first won over the reporter’s admiration. On one busy Friday night in April, the two of them sat outside in a sidewalk café near the Capitol, having vodka martinis together.
Pedestrians with intent, tired, harassed faces passed by their table. Out on the broad avenue, the ceaseless, noisy traffic was rolling down Capitol Hill, as white collar workers headed off to their homes in Georgetown or the Virginia or Maryland suburbs. The noisy café today was full. Everyone was drinking to relax; Capitol Hill staffers worked long hours.
Babs was saying, “I truly believe that our time requires reform, instead of everyone scrambling to get rich off of other people’s vices.” Babs had a husky, throaty voice that Chris envied and found attractive.
“So you want a revolution?” Chris asked, smiling from ear to ear. A revolution was not Babs’ style.
Babs tossed her chin at that. “We’re too sunk in comfort for that. Any eruption of discontent would interrupt the workings of the giant American business machine. The result would be widespread horror.” Babs gazed at the street with her keen, gray eyes. “When it comes to the money machine, you can try to beat them or join them, but you cannot ignore them,” Babs added.
“Which means what?” Chris was puzzled.
“Well, for most people, the idea of gain is the only goal of their lives. Amassing personal wealth. Everything that doesn’t contribute to it is pushed aside or thrown overboard. Wealth is always held in greater esteem than honor. The idea of honor stirs nothing in ordinary people.”
Chris was silent. She disagreed.
“It is no use complaining about the low aims of ordinary people – they rule the world,” Babs said, taking a prim sip of her drink.
And each secretly rejoiced in having found a friend whose character and intelligence was equal to her own.
Babs was extremely handsome, a well-kept woman of beauty and social position, who, at 48-years-old, had been asked to endorse a beauty product that she never used. The makers of it offered her $5,000 and a photo in Washington Weekly Magazine, but Babs dismissed it as a cheap bribe and had refused. She could still boast of being beautiful.
Chris, 33, had light brown hair which she wore in bangs, and she was always brushing it back from her eyes with a quick swipe of her right hand. Her striking face displayed creamy skin, shapely black eyebrows set above deep, thoughtful, penetrating brown eyes that mirrored whatever was passing in her mind. She was a slender woman who stood at five eight, two to three inches taller than Babs, but she didn’t draw men’s eyes to her the way Babs did. Babs had the better figure, longer legs with thin ankles, plus she stayed in splendid shape by playing tennis all the time. Chris worked out, but did not play tennis. When the two of them went out together, the consensus was that they both were “awfully good looking.”
When her six-part series exploded on the pages of The Washington Express-Tribune the next month, Chris suddenly found herself the center of attention. She had unearthed a network of former U.S. Army sergeants who had set up a system of bars through Vietnam, Thailand and Southeast Asia, using U.S. military flights to smuggle heroin into the continental U.S. Since The Express-Tribune was the news powerhouse in the Capitol, the series got a lot of attention, and Chris, a modest, earnest person, suddenly found herself admired and pointed out. She disliked personal attention, and preferred being ignored rather than being noticed, even for praise.
One day in her office, Babs had called to congratulate her, “My God, you must be thrilled. I read your first article in the airport. Your name was all over hell.”
Chris, very touched, thanked her.
“Hey. I’m not surprised. Not in the least.” A few days later, Babs invited Chris up to The Hill for lunch. The mood was celebratory and jovial. They two of them gesticulated with their forks as they ate, nodded, shrugged their shoulders, laughed heartily, and talked with their mouths’ full. Then, suddenly, Babs grew serious. Spearing a piece of food with her fork, she said, “Health care fraud is becoming a hot topic on The Hill. The senator has been an outspoken advocate of the elderly. He has taken a strong stand, in fact. But the fact is that the American people are aging. They are aging very rapidly in great numbers, and many of them need to live in nursing homes where they will be cared for with compassion, and get good medical treatment.
“Instead, we have a growing national scandal mainly because greedy nursing home owners are getting rich by exploiting helpless patients and extracting huge sums of money from state and federal governments. It’s a system that doesn’t seem to care for either the patients or the taxpayers.” It was then that Babs offered Chris a job on The Hill. Babs wanted to hire Chris as an investigator for a new set of hearings on health care fraud.
Bill Orchard, the chief of staff of the Senate Committee on Aging, had a fleshy face with small, cold eyes like grey stones set closely together. Right now, they were fixed steadfastly on her face. He was a dour man ruled by making his subjects feel uneasy and uncertain in his presence. His cold, remote manner, verging on hostility, made people self conscious by trying to have them lose their poise and self-command. She felt that he measured his own personal power by his ability to produce this effect and took some deep rooted pleasure in it.
Bill, of course, had barely greeted her on her arrival, seeing the interview as another tedious task.
They were seated at a table in the Senate across from each other. Bill had asked her to shut the door. Probably to prevent her from escaping. Her brown eyes watched him alertly. He was a dumpy, laundry bag of a man.
She had dealt with drug dealers and other infamous characters and she would deal with Bill, but it was already costing an effort.
“I’m glad to see that you are finally able to join us,” he said. His voice was a disagreeable, frigid, hoarse baritone.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I thought we were expecting you last week, on the tenth,” he said.
“I’m sorry?” she said, quite taken aback
“Weren’t you due to start here on the tenth?”
“Not to my knowledge,” she said. “Babs said I was to begin today – the 17th.”
Bill sat back and watched her with no expression.
“I’m almost positive it was today,” she said sincerely. She had already stopped staring into his eyes. Staring into his eyes cost too much mental energy. Instead, she had fastened her eyes on his cheek just below his left eye. It was a trick her editor, Peter Fielding, had taught her, who used it when talking to spies and other people who listened with their eyes. It would make her gaze look as odd and coldly focused as his. Meeting the spiritual force of another drained yours very quickly.
“I must have gotten confused,” Bill said coldly. “In a few minutes Susan, one of our staff, will show you to your desk. If you need any supplies talk to Allison.” Allison would prove to be very pretty and about 18 years old.
He tried to fix her eyes with his. “I spoke with your supervisors at The Express-Tribune. They seemed to think you were more than adequate in your performance there, they said. They appeared to think you would, at some point, develop into a major performer,” he said.
“More than adequate?” she was very touchy when it came to matters of self-esteem. So he was going to undersell her reputation in preparation for giving her less salary, she thought.
She had switched her eyes from his cheek to his eyes, boring into them with all her might.
“First, there are things I must make clear,” he said. “In return for taking our money, you will give us your talents, but in return, you have to carry out our plans and designs, and our programs. Is that clear?”
“It’s very clear.”
“We welcome ideas, of course.” There was a sudden noise outside in the long hallway.
“I said, we welcome ideas,” he repeated.
“I wasn’t sure I heard what you said because of that noise.”
“I’ll repeat,” he winced and said condescendingly. “Ideas are always welcome. But they must be ideas as to how to best advance the interests of this office. How best to publicize and strengthen the accomplishments of the senator over the years. Our job is to avoid mistakes or misstatements or any errors of fact that could allow his intentions to be…misinterpreted. Are you following me?”
She wanted to say, “Yes, but only the little words,” but didn’t. She was inwardly tapping her foot, but tried to look attentive.
“There is a reason that I go into all of this. Are you listening?”
“Oh, I’m listening,” she said.
“I only want to go over this once, so please pay attention.”
“Because what I am saying must be said, so I only want to say it once,” he said.
That makes twice, she thought.
“Well, let me make clear to you the basis of your employment. You are our employee. That sounds simple, but many people do not understand what it means. It means that in return for our paying you money, you will give us your effort and your time. You will place your aims and programs and goals subordinate to ours.”
She waited, listening, alert with caution.
“So what will matter here, with us, is how well you fit in, how smoothly what you do meshes with what we need to have done, how well your colleagues consider how you blend in and augment their efforts. There aren’t any stars here. There is no time here for a one-man show.”
“I’m not a man, of course.”
This flustered him immeasurably. “No, of course you’re not. I apologize. Of course, you’re not. Pardon me. I meant a one-person show. One person. In any case, it will be the opinions of your superiors, not the public that will decide if your performance is adequate and pleasing. You will be serving our priorities not yours. Can you do that?”
“Yes. I think I can.”
“You think or you know?”
One of those, she thought. “I know I can.”
“Are you okay with that?”
“And that appeals to you? Placing the committee’s interest above your own?”
“Yes. I am prepared to advance the committee’s interests.”
“Once you know what they are.”
“Once I know what they are. Yes.”
“Well, you strike me as an unusual young lady. So then let me welcome you to your position. You will get $42,000 a year to start. And I think, maybe you’ll do well. Unfortunately, we need results promptly. The senator wants us to look good at these hearings. We want to appear to be hard-hitting. This is an issue with a lot of public appeal.”
“I have no idea yet of what the case is about.”
He looked up and stared. “Babs told me you were quite well-informed on health care fraud issues.”
“I’m afraid, she flatters me. It’s not a field I’ve read much in.”
“Oh? Perhaps I misunderstood her.”
“Well, I don’t want to mislead you. I am very much at sea in this area. Aristotle once said that to ask the right question is half the right answer. I don’t know which questions to ask yet.”
“Then I suggest you spend the good part of today reading a committee document on health care issues and campaign spending practices. I think you might find it quite helpful.”
“Thank you. I will.”
“And if you need anything please inform me. I will try and make sure you have it,” Bill said.
He stood up. He was short and squat. His white shirt was badly wrinkled. His big belly hung over his leather belt. He gave her a hand that had long, off-putting black hairs growing from the back of it. He tried to look benign and she tried to look deeply respectful. She had a sense that neither was successful. They shook hands.
“Then I will see you at the meeting this afternoon.”
The smell of brewing coffee wafted gently through the alcove. The Pyrex pots were warming on the two hot plates. Chris stared down at the memo spread across the top of her desk. It said:
“U.S. Senate Committee on Aging
“By: Barbara Hershel, Associate Counsel
“Re: Alleged Trading of Campaign Contributions for Political Influence in California Involving the State’s Pilot Program for Nursing Home Patients”
In the upper right corner a stamp proclaimed in bold letters of black alarm: “CONFIDENTIAL: FOR COMMITTEE USE ONLY”. The sight of it made her feel involved in something very important.
The target was one Gerald Mahr, who had headed the California State Department of Health and had run for the U.S. Senate but was defeated in the primary. The document alleged that bribes were paid to obtain approval for five pilot projects meant to improve the welfare of the developmentally disabled including those with cerebral palsy, epilepsy or other neurological handicaps. The program was passed on “an emergency basis” which meant no public hearings, but it was law.
The document also said that Mahr had received bribes from nursing home owners to pay off his campaign debts. One of the chief witnesses was Herbert Dreizer, a pharmacist who had laundered a bribe to Mahr. Two owners of nursing homes were highlighted: Glen Kelso and Harold Roost. The homes of each were listed. There was also a list of names which had no meaning for her, mainly employees at the California State Department of Health.
Greg Prewitt was the chief witness for the committee. He said he had seen an effort to collect bribes for Mahr.
Then at the end of the document Chris saw: “San Diego DA’s office is holding back a report that claims that campaign contributions to Mahr’s campaign for the U.S. Senate allegedly used corporate funds which is a violation of federal law. The San Diego DA said it uncovered no supporting evidence.” Babs’ document ended: “Regarding these allegations, there are only two individuals who have first hand testimony. Unfortunately, we have been unable to advance beyond hearsay.”
A little while later, Chris sat at the long, central table with her staff, Ellen, Tom and Susan. She looked at them and thought, my God, they were young. She had shoes older than they were. They had just graduated from college. Ellen was very refined, very Westchester County, very Junior League. She wore a nice blouse with a sweater. She had been to Vassar and had done very well there, majoring in art history. Susan, dark-haired and energetic, had gone to Bryn Mawr. Both of her parents had been heavy supporters of Senator Backhoe. Tom was attractive, gangly but sincere. He was from Brown University. All were children from well-to-do families, and all were well spoken and polite. Their magpie scrutiny was now fixed on her. To her, there was only one rule when you talked to a staff: be brief and be gone.
If she believed in anything, she believed in her own success, and that belief acted to put fresh heart into the people around her. So she said to them, “We are going to succeed. This will be a cooperative effort. We rise or fall as a group, but we will succeed,” Chris said, glancing at each curious, rapt face. “But please coordinate. What we don’t want is to overlap each other. No one wants to talk to a source of ours only to hear them say, ‘Oh. I just talked with Susan or Tom or Ellen in your office. What the hell goes on back there?’ Nothing makes an effort look more asinine than that.”
A few minutes later, Chris was at her office desk studying the names of the nursing home owners: Glen Kelso and Harold Roost. Napoleon had said that saying things aloud speeds up memorization, and staffers could soon hear Chris in her office, saying the names aloud. They exchanged looks.
Fielding, one of her editors, had told another editor at the paper that Chris was better than all the other reporters using the phone; she was almost a magician with it. Her mind was quick and her fingers were quicker; as she ended one call, her fingers would flick across the phone to start a new one. Her voice was smooth and slightly husky, and she was extraordinarily articulate, knowing that she could rewrite and rephrase in an instant. She would call people other reporters would never think of calling. She had the gift of friendship when she called people, and many of the people she interviewed would indeed be her friends afterwards.
At the beginning of a call, she would lay back, unassertive, listening, but carefully measuring. To Chris, her real strengths lay in her ability to do an instant assessment of what lay in the responder’s tone. She was a master of instant readjustment to the personality she was talking to. What was the psychology of the mind behind the talker, what was the psychology prompting his remarks? If he were irritable, she would retreat gracefully, hastily reframing her questions; if he were truly rude, she would instantly become belligerent. She also knew that you skirted strong points and embedded obstacles, and you had to find new avenues of approach, wildly different from the first one, attacking at the topic at flanks or the rear to gain your object. She knew that the subject of health care was unfamiliar to her but her gifts had never failed her before; why would they now?
She sat in her office, stewing, reluctant to begin. To investigate meant living with the unresolved. What did she know about Mahr? Friends, contacts, associates, background, career, military service? Who was the writer that advised that when accounts of an event differ, don’t think that both might be true, rather think that both might be false. She had to be suspicious of all sources and information. Did the people she was interviewing harbor hidden agendas meant to mislead? Were they dupes? Was she? Her focus had to be the California Health Department: each unit, each department, its functions, its personnel, its channels of command. Her head began to spin.
Her first call was the Orange County Register. No one was in. The reporter, John Bell, was on vacation. She called the Sacramento Herald and the Sacramento Telegraph, starting with the public health and medical reporters.
Chris finally got a reporter there. Yes, they knew about Mahr: he was a heavy-hitter. President Bush had recently picked Mahr to head the Veteran’s Administration. The rumor was that the heads of nursing home chains had given bribes to Mahr for his U.S. Senate campaign, but the press had no proof. Chris then read the names from the document into the phone. No go.
Then a reporter at the Sacramento Bee told her, “I’ll bet they’re near LA. Why don’t you try there?”
Chris went back and called Peach Tree Manor, their chief witness Prewitt’s nursing home. It was based in Los Angeles.
“Yes?” said a harried voice. It was Prewitt. When she finished introducing herself, he replied, “I have already said everything I plan to say on this matter.” And he hung up on her. When she called back, he wouldn’t come to the phone.
She was mystified – Prewitt was supposed to be their major, hotshot witness.
Nettled, she called his nursing home again. A secretary answered. Chris asked the woman if she had a number for Glen Kelso.
“He’s a friend of Mr. Prewitt,” the secretary said.
“Does he own a nursing home? I don’t mean Prewitt, I mean Mr. Kelso.”
“Well, of course, he does. Mr. Kelso owns Bluff’s Edge Manor and several others.” Then, “Wait a minute,” she said. “Who is this?”
Before she hung up, Chris said to her, “Please tell Mr. Prewitt I’ll call him right back.” A sharp needle for his backside, she thought.
She went down the hall, past the staffers and men in suits and entered Sen. McKatchen’s office. He was from California and an aide of his gave her California phone books that had 714 area codes in them. She found Glen Kelso’s number.
When she got back, she called the San Diego papers, and found a reporter from the San Diego Telegraph, Bob Hayes, who told her that Kelso was not only a nursing home owner but a prominent Republican Party fundraiser. Hayes had a pleasant voice, and he told her that Kelso was in very tight with Mahr. He also told her that Roost likes to pal around with shady characters, and the name of a bank came up, The National Bank of Oxnard. He told Chris that his paper had written articles about Kelso. Did she want them? She did.
“I need everything about him, family, associates, his kids, everything,” Chris said cheerfully.
“Don’t I know your name?” Hayes asked her. “Didn’t you do a series about veterans who operated bars in Southeast Asia that were used to transport heroin into the U.S.? That was a great series, outstanding,” he said with enthusiasm. “So you resigned to go to the Senate?”
“I did. Yes.”
“Well, I hope they know what they’re getting. Anyway, nice to talk to you. I’ll send this stuff right away. If you break an exclusive on this, can you promise me a head start?”
Babs took a week off. Some incident in the family. Chris fretted, vexed. Babs had earlier promised Chris that she would call the Federal Election Commission to alert one Bill Mamet of their probe. Three days passed. Finally, Chris called Mamet, but she was abruptly surprised: he was sour and disagreeable. He no longer did investigations, and he couldn’t help. Chris was stung, then called the FEC office and asked for the chief of investigations. It wasn’t Mamet. The man’s name was Duane Peterson. He was a suave black man, sure of himself, polite and clearly full of ambition.
She took a taxi to his office. They discovered an instantaneous liking for the other.
She asked Duane if he could send her the audits of the Kelso case in San Diego or anything else about Roost. He happily agreed. As she was leaving, they shook hands with real warmth. He asked her to stay in touch. He’d send the documents.
For the next three days, she found herself plunged into a bewildering jungle of dead ends. The case was stalled. Then one night, Chris was alone in her apartment, feeding Py, when the phone rang. She thought of letting it go to the answering machine, but suddenly picked up.
“Do you know a guy named Bill Hayes?” She didn’t like the voice. It was coarse and unpolished.
“He’s a gentleman.”
“He told me to call you. This is Jonas Kyd.”
“And you called me at home.” Chris was very touchy when it came to her privacy. Unwanted calls were an invasion of it.
“I don’t trust phones,” he said.
“You seem adept at using one all the same,” she shot back.
Early the next day she called in sick and, just after dawn, flew out to Los Angeles where she rented a car and drove down to Long Beach. Apparently, Hayes told Kyd that Chris was the real thing. He had urged Kyd to talk to her.
Chris and Kyd met at the Velvet Whale. It was noon time, and the place was busy and noisy. No one approached her. She sat annoyed and impatient, in a bright red settle, gazing impatiently at the array of plastic flowers and the huddled packets of mustard and ketchup. Kyd finally showed up and came over. He was a middle-sized man, wearing a bright, imitation tweed jacket. He had sandy hair and full, ugly lips in a crude, commonplace face. Distaste sank her spirits. They had Bloody Marys and then ordered lunch.
Kyd had just stuffed his mouth with a huge clot of hamburger when he said, through his food, “See, I used to work for Roost,” he said. He told Chris that Roost had been approached by two state investigators who had him solid on laundering a corporate check from a pharmacy to one of his nursing homes.
“Dreizer,” she said.
“Good for you.”
She glowered silently.
“Anyway, Roost asked for immunity. The state told him he’d get immunity when water ran uphill,” and then Kyd explained that two years ago last August, the state said it was cancelling the Pilot Program, which left a lot of the owners sucking their knuckles. Then Roost got this phone call. It was from Mahr. Mahr told Roost that if he didn’t come up with the money within 24 hours, he would be out of the program. So Roost got busy, and a day later, a staffer at his facility at Bluff’s Edge, discovered that a $12,000 bonus had been paid to Roost’s wife.
Instantly, she grasped the meaning of this information.
“You told this to Bob Hayes?”
“Hayes is okay. No, I didn’t tell him. Anyway, Hayes thinks you are hot stuff – no jokes intended.” He had blushed fishily.
“How do you know Mahr got it?” She pretended a sudden interest in her food.
“Because Roost turned to the staffer and pointed to the bonus, and he said to him, ‘do you see this? It means we have that prick Mahr off of our backs.’ Another staffer told the same story. ‘We have that prick Mahr off of our backs.’”
Chris stopped. “So it was facility money that Roost gave.”
“You said two staffers. Were you one of them?”
“Nice try,” he said. He took a huge bite, spilling a piece on his lap. “Then the FBI got involved.” His lips had a shiny gloss from his burger as he chewed. “I’m telling you what I told the FBI. The FBI also interviewed Roost and Kelso.
“The FBI interviewed you?” she tried acting very casual, but her heart had tightened in her chest. She realized that she was going to be the hero of the office if this worked.
Kyd turned to one side to smother a quiet belch in his napkin. “Talk to Joan Michello. She was the head nurse of the facility. Talk to her, and then call me later. Where are you staying?”
“I have to leave tonight.”
Chris left the lunch, elated, because at one stroke her investigation had gone from a $2,000 laundered bribe from a pharmacist to a $12,000 bribe paid by Roost for Mahr’s campaign debts.
Back in her room, after putting her notebook in her lap, she got Joan Michello on the phone.
“Yes, I saw it,” the nurse said. She had a kindly, grandmotherly voice. “Jonas showed it to me.” Then she told Chris that the bonus had been listed under “Operating Expenses,” under the subtitle, “Employee Benefits.”
“But Mahr had lost his Senate primary, I thought.”
“He lost, but he owed big debts. Something like $700,000. Roost had political aspirations, and Mahr traded on them. Mr. Roost made a lot of trips to Sacramento. With Mahr in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Roost knew he would have it made, and so he collected money for Mahr’s primary.”
“What can you tell me about Roost?”
Michello told her that Harold Roost used to be a preacher at the Pentecostal Church. He was thrown out of Seattle. His nursing homes had a tendency to catch fire and burn or go bankrupt. Roost, she said, was very close to a man named Glen Kelso, a developer, who at one point owned his own construction company. Mr. Roost had two sons, Marvin and John. Mr. Roost worked in construction with Kelso at some point. They sold out to a group of bankers. Chris asked if she remembered the group’s name, but she didn’t. She would look for it.
Chris’ pen was flying over the pages as she took notes.
Michello said that Martin, the father of Harold Roost, had a bank holding company and a mortgage company and a consumer finance company. John, Marvin’s younger brother, also worked for it. “In fact,” she said, “I think that’s where John got the money to construct nursing homes. The Roost and Kelso families are very close,” she said.
“Who were Roost’s contacts in Sacramento?”
“Some man named Peter Churchill,” the nurse said, adding that Churchill was the puppet head of the Health Department for Mahr at the time. His name was in the memo, she realized.
“How long did Jonas Kyd work for Roost?”
“A year and a half. From October to the next year. Jonas accused Roost of skimming profits from the facility. He was fired on Jan. 14. I was there for six years. Roost and Kelso were raking in sky high profits. Roost was making over $10,800 a month, I knew that for a fact.”
“Have you ever heard of the National Bank of Oxnard?”
“Certainly. They gave big loans to Mr. Roost and Mr. Kelso. If I were you I’d dig into some of those odd groups scattered around San Diego like Edison, or HMS or The George Mason Group.” Chris scribbled notes.
Chris worked up her nerve and asked had she ever seen a copy of the bonus.
“Jonas has a copy. When I saw it at the end of the year, it was listed differently. Roost had moved it. The print out showed the maiden name of Mr. Roost’s wife.”
She could barely contain herself. “Do you remember what her maiden name was?”
“Oh, sure. It was Kent. Jenny Kent. I knew her parents too, Bob and Agatha.”
“So Roost moved it?”
“He gave it a new title. Jonas knows.”
“Can you think of anyone in state Facility Licensing I could talk to about Roost or Kelso?”
“Talk to Sherry Kendrick. She was number two in the Licensing Division. She knew what was happening. She tried to close their places down.”
“Mr. Roost and Mr. Kelso’s places. She was furious with them. People like Roost and Kelso make the patients feel they are a failure in life, but they are merely old. Many have a life of accomplishment stretching behind them. Living in a facility should be a time of their lives when they are feeling joy at the good luck that has taken them this far. They aren’t finished. Of course, it’s hard to feel sympathy for people you feel no affection for, isn’t it?”
Chris asked who else knew what she did? Who could she talk to about Kelso?
Michello said that she knew a comptroller there, a man named Jack Varner who worked for Kelso. He finally quit, he was so disgusted.
“How you spell it?”
Michello said she would call back with Varner’s number. Chris warmly thanked her. “Well if you find anything, anything at all, no matter how insignificant it looks, will you call me?”
“I’d be glad to, dear,” she said.
“Well, thank you so much for your help,” Chris said.
“I really hope that some good comes from this, dear. I really do,” Michello said.
Chris quickly phoned Kyd. He answered at once. “Joan Michello says you’re a straight shooter.”
“You sound surprised.”
“Michello said that when you saw the bonus, it was no longer listed as an Employment Benefit but as something else.”
“Correct. Roost had changed it.”
“What was it listed as after that?”
“Just a second.” She waited, hearing a sound of rustling.
She was impatient. “Can you recall what it said?”
“Just a second. Hold the line a second.” She heard rustling then more rustling. His voice came back. “On the print out, the bonus was listed as ‘ancillary (NET) – 412,141 – minus revenue.’”
“You’re reading from the print out,” she almost yelled. Pouncing excitement seized her all of a sudden, releasing a fresh, rushing cascade of energy in her soul. “You have a copy of the goddamn thing don’t you?”
“Why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I didn’t know if you were honest. Congressional staffers are people with eight faces. They are beyond two-faced. Your office in Washington leaks like a strainer. No one trusts it. I had to make sure you were honest.”
The overweight, old guard at the door didn’t ask to see her ID. He knew her face by now and gave her a gracious, respectful greeting which she returned. There were a few staffers trooping the long, hard, marble Senate office building corridor, and she passed endless rows of shut doors. A plump woman went by carrying a hefty wedge of papers crooked in one arm. She was out of breath and acted put upon. She didn’t return Chris’ smile. Her own steps clacked loud and briskly down the echoing corridor.
Chris put her big purse on the desk top, and then went into the next room. Babs was there, and the kids were seated around the table studying papers. They looked up when they saw her. Chris exchanged warm greetings with them.
“How are you?” Susan asked. “We were told you were sick. You must have eaten in the cafeteria.”
“I’m fine,” she said, grateful for the concern.
Babs’ face looked brightened and relieved at the sight of her. “Can I talk to you for just a second?” she asked Chris.
“Ah, oh, here comes the interrogation,” Tom said. The group tittered. The three of them went out.
Babs was dressed in another stunning outfit. “So are you all right?” Babs asked. “I was worried about you. I left messages for you at home.”
“I wasn’t sick,” she said. “I went to California.”
Bab’s eyebrows shot up. “You went to California? When?” Babs was entirely bewildered, almost suspicious.
Babs was baffled. “How? Did you fly on your own money?”
“Yes. I went to see this guy, Jonas Kyd.”
“You are nuts,” Babs said, partly in admiration and partly in fear.
Some instinct held her back from naming Hayes as the source that had set it in motion. “Listen, Kyd knows his stuff. Did you know about the big FBI probe?”
This seemed to confuse Babs. “What probe? What was the FBI looking at for God’s sake?” she seemed rattled.
“Federal monies. And listen to this, Babs.” Babs froze. “We have evidence of a new felony.”
Bab’s face suddenly widened in surprise and dismay. Chris quickly took her through the new information about the laundered bonus. Chris was telling her more about Kyd, but Babs’ reaction began to puzzle her; she didn’t look pleased.
“Yeah, but he was fired,” Babs said.
“So?” Chris found this petty.
Babs shrugged, “Disgruntled ex-employees don’t make the most credible witnesses.”
Chris bridled. “The chief nurse at the facility supported his story, and she wasn’t fired. Anyway, that’s a defense attorney’s argument!”
Babs gave her a long, hostile look. “It may be, but not everyone who gets fired is fired for being too good at their jobs.”
“Getting fired doesn’t mean they were brain-dead and blind on the job, either,” she said. “And by the way, Prewitt is becoming a pretty murky witness.”
Babs frowned. “What’s wrong with Prewitt?” she asked.
“Some witness! He was part of a group collecting funds for Mahr,” Chris said. “He’s refusing to cooperate.”
“Will you take it easy?” Babs said, observing her anger. “We’re all friends here.”
“Well, it pisses me off,” Chris said. She hated to find a lukewarm response when her own internal furnace was raging at full power.
Babs made a mocking face. “I know – we all must feel whatever you feel.” It was a bit snide, and Babs looked a bit ashamed after saying it.
Chris exploded. “We’ve got copies! This isn’t a personal opinion! We’ve got documents!”
“And the head nurse confirmed it. She wasn’t fired.”
Babs absorbed that patiently. She watched as Chris calmed down.
“So what’s next?”
Chris told her.
Babs had turned thoughtful. “We have to be careful of that copy. The bonus stuff. It won’t stand up in court if it’s a copy.”
“It won’t stand up in court, that’s all I’m saying.”
Chris stared and then said, “We are not going to trial. I thought this was a hearing.”
Babs blushed. “Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking.” Then, she exulted: “We've got a case. We’ve got fresh evidence. I told you we needed you. Remember: don’t tell any of this to the Republicans. Not a word. Stay clear of a guy named Peter Churchill especially. He ran the California Health Department after Mahr left. He’s a Republican. He was a total tool of Mahr.”
“What’s his name again?” Chris asked. Babs repeated it.
“I thought we had to keep them up-to-date,” Chris said.
“Not yet we don’t. Let’s get a case first.” Then Babs asked her, “How fast can you pull all this stuff together? We are very constrained by time.”
“The kids are getting stuff from state auditors and the FEC. It’s all weird, Babs. The whole campaign is laced with illegality.”
Babs said excitedly, gazing at her. “This is dynamite. You’ve done wonderfully! I can check with the courts in San Diego to see if the DA’s office issued any subpoenas. Then we ought to go to the FEC and see what you can find there. I’ll start to call some of my contacts in California.”
“We are already talking to the FEC.”
Babs looked off balance. “You talked to Bill Mamet?”
“He was of no help at all. I’ve got a new source over there in a senior position. He’ll send us FEC audits tomorrow.” She didn’t name Duane.
“Wow!” Babs exulted, but then a frown crossed her face.
“Are you mad about something?” Chris asked.
“Not mad. Just tell me first before you run off. I don’t mind reimbursing you for your flight, but Bill at some point will want to look at the trip report. I mean if he asked who you were seeing, what would I tell him?”
Ah yes, Bill, she thought.
“I told you I am willing to pay for it.”
“You won’t have to, sweetie. I’ll see to it. But you see my concern.”
“I see your concern.” She didn’t, really.
Then Babs brightened again. “Do we have a copy of that bonus?”
Chris showed her.
Babs now seemed aglow. “What a downfall for Mahr! The promised child of the Republicans. Did you know that President Bush wanted him to head the Veteran’s Administration. Mahr is filth; he is utterly corrupt.”
A few days later, Chris talked to Sherry Kendrick in Licensing, a woman in her mid or late forties, a personality of unrefined gusto. Kelso, she said, was nothing but “vulgar, shit-sniffing filth” and a “venomous little hemorrhoid.” She told Chris that Kelso’s facilities ran up 185 violations in two years. His homes were among the very worst in the nation. “We tried to shut Kelso down, but Kelso had too much power. No, his facilities were dumps. A doctor at one of Kelso’s places wanted to pull eight healthy teeth of an old woman patient and give her full dentures because he was too lazy to repair partial bridgework. A nurse there stopped that doctor. Later, she was fired.”
“The nurse was fired?”
“Oh, because she had integrity. No, it was horrible,” and Kendrick went on to air grievances as Chris busily took notes.
“Where is Mahr now, since he’s out of office?” Chris asked her.
“He may be out of office, but he still controls the department. Plus I heard that he got offered some big job in Washington.”
It took Chris a week to get to Varner. He had a nice, earnest voice except it sounded very worn out. He had the same story to tell as Kyd. “Kelso was on the phone, I started to leave when he started beckoning at me to stay, and I went in and sat down, and suddenly he hangs up the phone. He had this look of triumph and says, ‘We just bought Jerry Mahr.’ Those were his very words. ‘We just bought Jerry Mahr.’”
“Who was he talking to on the phone?”
“Harold Roost. He’s a nursing home owner.”
“What methods did he used to make payments to Mahr?”
“The same as in the earlier case,” said Varner.
The room was still as a corpse.
“What earlier case?” Chris asked in a faint voice.
“These violations occurred in May two years ago. All Kelso’s employees were reimbursed in advance by Kelso’s secretary, Arlene Walker.”
“See, the money was given to the campaign of a San Diego county supervisor, Juan Peterson, who was running a tough campaign urging reform of ‘despicable conditions’ in some San Diego chains especially those of Kelso. Publicly Kelso threatened to sue, but privately, Kelso had bought him off. Peterson was re-elected.
“How did Kelso get caught?”
“The state caught him. Kelso pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of violating state election code rules. He was fined $1,500 and placed on three years probation.”
“Were there other election code violations?”
“Federal.” Again, her heart tightened. “See, in San Diego, there’s a county ordinance that says it’s illegal to make political contributions to a single candidate in excess of $500. Kelso wanted to give another $2,000 to Mahr, so he divided up the amount again. He disguised the ultimate source and misrepresented who the real contributors were.”
“Like last time.”
“Just like last time. Hal Kune distributed it.”
“Who is Kune again?
“Kune is Kelso’s son-in-law. There is a little circle at Bluff’s Edge Manor that was very loyal to Kelso because Kelso stood on their necks.”
“Why did Kelso plead guilty if no one was talking?”
“To quell publicity. Kelso wanted it all to go away. He had been nailed, and he was afraid that if more violations were found, it could affect his standing. At bottom, he was afraid that other illegal payments he was making around the state might surface. You have to understand that Kune bragged to me and others that there were a great many illegal payments being made, not just to Mahr.”
He warned her that Kelso and Roost were both prima donnas. “Do you know what you get if you put two prima donnas in the same bag?” She waited. “Not an instant’s peace.”
The next Monday, Chris and her staff sat down and began to sort the audits and memos that the FEC had sent. As a team leader, Chris was not harsh or demanding. Instead, she inspired and listened very carefully to what her team was saying. Chris was a driver, and she had begun to infuse that relentless drive in her staff.
“They sent us the fucking Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Tom said, annoyed.
“Or Warren Beatty’s address book,” said Susan. They all sat there in a cramped room in the office around a long table surrounded by tightly shelved beige law books with their red and gold backings, making new files. Excitement was in the air.
By now, they all knew that not completely filling out documents accurately was illegal under state and county laws. Under existing campaign laws, nursing home reports must have the full name, address, city and state, occupation, employer, and amount of donation for each individual contributor. They now had five employees who listed themselves as businessmen while one was listed as a banker. One employee gave no address, but listed a local bank, The National Bank of Oxnard.
“What the hell is that?” asked Susan.
They kept studying the documents.
Chris paged through the FEC Schedule A document, brushing her back. Her staff had already been briefed on her Varner interview.
“What are you looking for?” Tom asked her
Ellen found it first. May 14. Except none of the employees Varner had named could be found in FEC lists. Chris and Ellen and Susan went over it twice. “Shit!” Ellen said, her face vexed.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked.
“They’ve laundered the whole list,” Ellen said.
Chris looked again at the list, extremely annoyed.
All of them began frantically turning pages.
Then Tom said excitedly, “Here they are.” There in the list they found the employees of Mar Vista: Kune $350, Paul Kessler $250, Ethel Block $250, Yeltzin $450, Walker $425, Ken Myles, $300.
Then Susan found one “donor” who told of reimbursement. There was a photo of Walter, “Bud” Yeltzin, the staff director at Coast Vista, a Kelso facility. He was listed as a consultant to the facilities, a violation of state law right there, she pointed out.
Suddenly Chris jerked to full alert. On an FEC document she saw, “Roost, John, Seattle, Washington. Excellent Eldcare.” There was nothing else on the document.
“What the fuck?” Susan said, reading it.
Chris said. “Who owns this Eldcare?” Michello had mentioned it. None of them knew. Chris dialed information in San Diego and asked for Excellent Eldcare as the rest returned to study the audits. Eldcare didn’t answer. It was not yet nine in California.
At nine, she called the California Golden Gate Nursing Home Association. They kept records of all the chains. “Where is Excellent Eldcare based, please? I need their number.”
It was located in San Diego. When Chris got the number, she called and a young woman answered.
“Mr. John Roost, please?” Chris said.
“Can I please tell him who’s calling?”
“I’m Beverly Huff from the National Bank of Oxnard. Can you give me Mr. Roost’s direct number please?”
“Hello?” said a voice. It was a harsh, deep and grating voice, a farmer’s voice. It was hard to guess its age.
“What do you want?”
“Is this John Roost, the owner of Excellent Eldcare? This is Chris Seabridge with the U.S. Senate.”
“Why are you calling?” The tone was heavy with distaste.
“I have before me a record of a contribution of $2,000 that you gave to Gerald Mahr for his Senate campaign. Is that the correct amount?” She was running a dangerous bluff, and she knew it.
“I thought you were with some bank. And you, young lady, are a liar. Anyway, I never gave to Jerry Mahr’s campaign.”
“But your employees did.”
The click rang sharply in her ear. He had severed the connection. She was stunned and outraged. She redialed in a cold fury.
“Yes?” Impatient, nasty.
“This is Chris Seabridge again.”
“Look. Get lost.”
“How long have you been in southern California, Mr. Roost?”
The question took him by surprise. “Me? Hell, I don’t know. The last fifteen years Why? Anyway, what business is it of yours?” It was a poisonous sneer.
“And you are from Seattle.”
“I was from Seattle,” he condescended. “Now I live in southern California. Please stop bothering me.” Click! He had hung up on her again.
“Look – take the clue, bitch.”
“If you live in southern California, why did you give your address to the FEC as Seattle?”
“So what if I did? I used to be from Seattle.”
“Did you know that misidentifying a donation is a violation of federal law, Mr. Roost?"
A violent click! She had pulled her ear away in time. But she had caught him in two violations. The FEC record had him down only as a “businessman, retired,” plus he’d misstated his address.
When she finally got Varner, she read him several names, but they meant nothing to him. Suddenly she read out the name, H.L. Newman, and he said abruptly, “Those are Arlene’s parents.”
“Kelso’s secretary?” she couldn’t believe her ears.
“I’m almost certain.”
She continued to read down the list until she reached one “George Rodgers, businessman, owner of Rodger’s Rangers, retired.” Varner snorted. “I know a George Rodgers,” he said. “He was a patient at Bluff’s Edge Manor. A retired janitor. I’d check the date of his gift.”
“What do you mean?”
“What date was his contribution?”
“I think he died there in March. Listen, Kelso once had a facility closed because he was using dead people to give contributions,” Varner said.
She asked Varner if she could call him right back? She called a Roost facility, Bluff’s Edge Manor. She gave her name as Edith Millson, clerk at Grammercy Insurance. They were working on a death benefit claim, and Chris said that she needed to have the exact date of Mr. Rodgers’ death. The young woman quickly came back. “I’m afraid that Mr. Rodgers passed away on April 3.”
Chris walked exultantly from her desk into the room next door with the big table. Ellen was on the phone, and Tim and Susan were bent over documents like trolls with hunchbacks.
“Well, that’s astounding,” Chris announced. They turned; Ellen put her hand over her phone. “At Bluff’s Edge on May 14, one George Rodgers gave $350 to Mahr.”
“Why is that astounding?” Susan asked.
“Because he died on April 3.”
The staff was on fire now. More violations piled up: two $10,000 bonuses given in the maiden name of Roost’s wife, a $450 contribution in the name of his stepson, and $1,000 in the name of his mother who was 92 years old, suffering severe Alzheimer’s, and who could no longer handle her own affairs. By the end of the day, they had 15 new violations.
The results of the four-week effort led by Chris and her staff were stunning. The FBI had launched a full field investigation into the new violations, and the San Diego DA was also doing a new probe of Kelso, while Duane over at the FEC had launched a new investigation into the two nursing home owners.
One day Chris was talking to the San Diego DA, Addison Wills, an earnest, pleasant young man who gave Chris the name of one Judge Graham Fuller of San Diego, who had presided over the earlier Kelso case. Chris heard the voice of a soft-spoken but firm old man. “You realize that you have painted Kelso into a corner,” he said to her.
Chris asked him why.
“Well, Kelso is still on probation.” Her breath froze: she had forgotten that fact. Judge Fuller told Chris that he was willing to swear out a bench warrant for Kelso’s arrest, but it required her boss to call him to okay the warrant. “Have your boss call me.” Chris assured him that Babs would call. She was pursuing the case with energy. After hanging up, she forwarded to his office the list of new violations plus notarized affidavits. Unbridled joy surged through her.
That morning she went into Bill’s cramped office where Babs was sitting. Chris was beaming. Fresh resolution had filled her sails. When she told the two of them about the bench warrant, she expected congratulations or joy, but she had entirely misjudged the mood. Babs and Bill sat gazing at her in stunned silence.
Exhilarated and overjoyed, Chris ignored their glum mood. “This is good news all the same,” she said and left.
Chris continued to interview Kendrick, Kyd and Michello. The more they talked, the more she learned. One morning, Bob Hayes sent her an article that claimed that old man Roost, Marvin, had looted American National Bank in San Diego a decade ago. A federal court charged him with self-dealing, giving special loans to companies he owed, and the documents explained how Roost bribed an auditor to get good audits, and when the Feds grabbed him, they found that several big holders of the bank’s stock had made huge withdrawals just before the Feds froze the monies. Marvin was dragged into court, and pled guilty of plundering $3,790,000, but he got only a $95,000 fine and probation. Then he suddenly died. She could imagine the Earth sending up loud shouts of rejoicing.
It was a hot day in late May, and as it was nearing noon Chris was seated at her desk, needing to eat. She was about to leave and have lunch when Bill’s squat form appeared in the doorway.
“Could you please come to my office?”
She went in and sat down, docile. He closed the door. She was expecting compliments on her work, when suddenly, Bill cleared his throat, and said, “It’s not working out. I’m afraid we are going to have to let you go.”
Her mouth opened as if to gasp for air. The words were a sharp blow to the stomach. She felt like an eviscerated fish. She felt a weakness flooding her senses, a vacuum opening in her mind. Surprised pain had left her helpless.
“What’s not working?” she said, inane.
A little while later, her angry face full of sullen shame, Chris began packing her personal things into a cardboard box, her office door shut. She packed the copies of the Senate memo, plus interviews and the new affidavits that she and her staff had obtained. Babs was out of the office. When the office staff went out to lunch, Chris left, clumsily carrying her box down the long row of locked doors and out into the bright street and called a cab.
The next day, when the two friends met at lunch, Babs tried to console her. She said vehemently, “The fix is in! It’s not you, sweetie. It’s the fucking Republicans in the Senate! That fucking Churchill!” She made a woebegone face meant to pity and shook her head. “The fix is in.”
“What do you mean what fix? The Republicans are trying to screw us.”
Then Babs had leaned across the table to grab her friend’s hand. “Look, I think it’s fair to say that we can’t really point out where you end and I begin, we are that close.” Chris was looking away, distraught, when Babs said to her, “I know you – you just want to hole up in your apartment, don’t do that. Promise me.” Chris raised her grieving, pinched face and wet eyes to her. “Don’t despair. I’ll find you a new job. Keep going, that’s all I ask,” and Chris impulsively kissed her friend’s freckled hand.
But Chris didn’t keep going – she was inconsolable. By the end of each day, she was half-drunk from red wine, listening to somber music, and only left her flat to buy groceries. She knew that what gives most of us courage and ambition is the knowledge that our friends and associates regard us with respect and admiration. Alone in her flat, dressed in pale pink PJs, Chris felt the deep grief that one feels at the loss of a friend or a pet – a sorrow that comes from the knowledge that in every bond there is something that no words can express because that bond contains feelings that are unique to it and the loss of them is irreparable. Even Py seemed to sense her inner agony; he incessantly climbed up into her lap to be held and stroked. She also sorely missed her staff; she had grown fond of them.
Dismally, she realized she had lost two jobs.
But her firing by Bill had stung her so deeply that it felt like a painful splinter lodged deep under the skin that never went away. Chris knew that she could only dislodge the splinter when an occasion gave her the chance to inflect on the splinter a force equal to the one that had put it there in the first place. Quietly, she vowed that day would come.
Four weeks later, Chris, dressed in her PJs, was idly paging through a Wall Street Journal when she, by chance, saw an article about an international pharmaceutical company that was fighting a takeover attempt. She was rapidly scanning it, about to lay it down, when her eyes almost leapt out of her head: the man leading the takeover was no other than Gerald Mahr!
She immediately got the phone number of ICC Pharmaceuticals which was fighting the takeover. The company was based in Newport Beach, a town south of Los Angeles. It had hired a law firm, Hall and Demetrious, and she finally got a company lawyer, David Hall, on the phone. His voice was craggy, deliberate and acute. She told him that the documents she had showed Mahr was corrupt. She had no car, but if Hall and his attorneys agreed to pay for a round trip taxi fare and a six pack of beer, she would deliver the Senate documents to Dulles airport.
After enduring three days of torturing suspense, the call came: ICC had hired her on the spot, Hall said. She could name her own price. Chris hurriedly packed her bag, got a friend in her building to take care of Py, and left for Los Angeles. Hall met her at the airport. He had a head too big for his body, was handsome, dressed in an expensive black suit and gold cufflinks. He had brown hair, pale, piercing eyes, and a red chap-bitten face, as if he habitually drank too much. But he had charm and was penetrating and direct in laying out what ICC wanted from her.
ICC had booked her a room at the Newport Beach Inn. At the end of her first day, as they were going down the company corridor out to the street, David had offhandedly asked her, “How many people did you interview today?” She had replied, "Nineteen,” and he had looked extremely impressed.
David’s speech was logical and concise, plus he had a phenomenal memory. He had a fly paper mind. To test each other’s memory, she and David both read the same Wall Street Journal articles and then one would put in what the other had left out. She also discovered that David liked cocaine. One day, she met him at the John Wayne Airport after he arrived from a flight from New York. He looked tired, and quickly went into the Men’s Room. When he came out, he was a different person; his fatigue had vanished, and after he picked up his car, he wanted to race her back to her hotel. What followed was the most hair-raising drive she had ever had in her life. She never used drugs. Red wine was good enough.
David and his stunning blonde wife lived nearby. She and Chris soon became friends.
One early morning, Chris was studying Gerald Mahr’s résumé. She paged through the pictures of him. Mahr had a handsome face ringed by full dark hair. His brown eyes were interesting; their gaze held you. She paged through the photos, Mahr posing with President George W. Bush; Mahr posing with Donald Rumsfeld. She glanced through his speeches, all full of references to a brighter future and a more hopeful and prosperous America. His speeches were so bemired in clichés and common-places, its promises so old and still undelivered, she stopped reading. Mahr cloaked his greed for power in idealism.
She laid the documents down, disconcerted. Something was missing. It was a feeling she had harbored for days. What had she overlooked about Mahr? She felt alarm. Something was missing.
Two weeks later, she came back to D.C. to pick up Py and to have a farewell lunch with Babs. They went to their favorite outdoor café. It was noisy and busy and seated eaters were in the shade of patio umbrellas. Taxis and cars were passing by in the street. Babs was in rare form, talking about the philosopher David Hume: “What you don’t want is a general, colorless, unimaginative view of life. Hume uses cat-like touches of malice, hinting at claws beneath the velvet,” and on and on she went. But suddenly, Babs grew serious. “So how long will you be gone, sweetie?”
“I don’t have any idea.”
“Well, I am sure you will do well in LA. Remember to stay away from Mahr’s men like Churchill. Remember, honey. The fix is in. Don’t forget. ”
Some wayward impulse led her to return to the Senate building for the last time. She timidly entered the wide, cavernous, circular room. It displayed drab orange walls and seven double doors. The spindly, dark mahogany desks were arranged in a semi-circle in four shallow tiers. They looked old-fashioned like school kids’ desks. The floor was covered by some sort of worn, dingy gray carpet. Above them rose dark galleries of dark wood, and just above them, set in niches, were the sculpted busts of the first twenty-one U.S. vice presidents. The sight flooded her with awe and respect. She gazed raptly at the huge ceiling, a white oval ceiling pierced by small black holes So much history, so many struggles here.
Some senators in their suits and ties were out of their seats talking or else were standing against the walls while onlookers gawked from the galleries. The mood was one of apathy. The pace of the place was drowsy, unenergetic, the interest slack and desultory.
She stepped outside to leave when she ran into none other than Peter Churchill, Mahr’s supposed bag man. He was tall, well built, nice features including amazing deep, blue eyes. She hated him on sight and was trying to get past him, but he called out her name.
“I heard you were fired,” he said. The expression on the face was sympathetic.
“Thanks to you,” her voice was utterly venomous. She brushed her hair back.
Churchill acted with startled surprise. He was wearing a nice blue blazer and gray slacks. “Why thanks to me?”
“You know what I mean,” and again, she tried to get past him.
“Why thanks to me?” he stared at her with keen, piercing eyes. “Are you really telling me that you have never looked into Babs’ background?”
“Why would I? She’s a friend,” she said hotly. But the question surprised her.
“Why?” Churchill seemed dumbfounded. “Didn’t you ever wonder why your lead with Prewitt never panned out? Or why Bill Mamet at the FEC refused to help you? Don’t you ever think?”
Fury rose in her. She could have hit him.
“In case you didn’t know, dear old Babs is mad for money, in case you don’t know! Dear old Babs is always talking to anyone who has ears, about how ‘low aims rule the world,’ but, in fact, she’s completely in the grip of them.” Churchill’s blue eyes snapped angrily. “She banks in shady places. She has offshore accounts. She owns a lot of property under her mother’s name. She contaminates everything she touches!”
“And why should I believe you?”
“You mean, because I am a Republican?” He gave her a pitying look. “I thought you were the hot shot investigator.”
Chris had frozen, but then Churchill told her how Babs had alerted every source in the California Health Department and the nursing home owners about every new discovery she and her staff had made.
Churchill was shaking his head in amazement. “You are very gullible.”
“Why should I believe you? You worked for Mahr.” She had to hit back with something.
Churchill simply shook his head in disbelief. Both of them were blocking the corridor, talking, and they moved to one side to let people pass. “Don’t you understand? Babs wanted you to fail,” he said intensely. “Babs gave you a weak case and having a good reporter on it was going to lend credulity to a weak effort. Did she give you a competent and experienced staff? She had a vested interest in your failure. But your success surprised her, so dear old Babs went and asked Bill to fire you.”
His words struck her mind like tiny hammers. Chris was glaring hatred at him. She stood, pale and confused, and Churchill stared back at her.
“For all of your drive and commitment, you are very credulous,” he said and walked off, head down, shaking his head in rue.
But his words had changed everything. Like a twist of a kaleidoscope, she suddenly began to see Babs differently.
One day sitting at her desk in the ICC office, she realized that one of the chief mental errors rests with the mistaken conviction that one knows familiar factsinside and out. Now, she had to overcome her laziness. She realized that she had to start to review all of her interviews to see old information with new eyes. That is what it would take to succeed.
So she began to reread all the notes of her interviews, starting with the early California reporter interviews. Mahr, heavy hitter, in tight with the Republicans. Then suddenly there it was. The sentence was by one of the first reporters she had talked to. “President Bush had nominated Mahr to head the Veterans Administration.” She had read this at least twenty times. She sat back. Why didn’t Mahr take the job? Was this the big Washington job Kendrick had alluded to?
They met at a restaurant near San Diego. The former California state investigator’s name was Henry Keep. He was a thin, dark-haired man who stood over six feet. His face was handsome enough, but it displayed broken-hearted brown eyes: acute suffering sat in them. And clearly he wasn’t pleased by her presence, but she quickly saw that whatever else he was, he was a good and careful listener. As she talked to him, he would avert his eyes to the side, gazing into the distance with an absent-minded air, then would suddenly fix her in his gaze and ask her penetrating questions. You did not lie to such a face, she thought.
Keep was saying, “A pickpocket is a bad character. A guy who loots the Vatican of its art treasures, is not only a bad character, he is a monster. But how do you classify people like Kelso and Roost who pay bonuses to their cooks if they feed patients on seventy cents a day? They are obscene.”
Keep told her that Kelso’s and Roost’s organizations including Eldcare, Edison Bank and the National Bank of Oxnard were “a rat’s nest” of illegal accounting, off the book accounts, and slush funds. Roost’s and Kelso’s banks swapped funds with companies they owned, and many were front companies led by made up characters. In one case, a Kelso company, Excellent Eldcare, turned out to be located at a filling station, yet they got millions of dollars a year in state contracts. He sounded very bitter and disillusioned.
Keep was staring out at the street across the sunlit tables with the seated eaters and the café had sprouted with umbrellas. Finally, he said, “I assume you know about the Mob in the industry.” She became very alert. He went on: “See, the Mob has quietly been infiltrating the nursing home industry for years. I assume you knew that.”
“Only vaguely,” she said. That was a lie.
“Well, no case is worth ending up permanently mediating in the trunk of someone’s car.”
“My partner was Walt Cooper. He was a state investigator like me, and he had sources telling him how the National Bank of Oxnard was entirely crooked, and Mob guys banked there. Then after Walt was killed in a car crash, I started looking into it. One night at home, a guy with a boorish, gruff voice called me up and threatened me to lay off. Fuck that. So I kept working and he called again: ordering me to back off, or it was going to end badly. It was chilling, let me tell you. Later I tried to convert him into a confidential source, but it didn’t work.”
“Did he give you a number?
Keep shook his head. He sipped his drink. “Talk to the FBI.”
“You can’t give me a name?”
“No. He’s a source. If he agrees, then you can have it.”
“Did your guy name other mobsters?”
“Boy, did he!” Keep came alive. “One was Guy Flabbert; he’s a mob lawyer. Kelso uses him, but Flabbert had clients like Danny Ceililo, Tony Ratzmin and ‘Donkey Dick’ Mazzuto. Mahr was palling around with them. We heard that Mahr had a secret interest in some sleazy Las Vegas nightclub Ratzmin and Mazzuto owned. We suspected that was why he didn’t get the VA job, but we couldn’t prove it. We tried.”
“You never found out why he didn’t get it?” Chris knew that any potential senior federal official had to be investigated before he accepted the job.
“We could never find out. Lots of rumors, but no facts.” Then he asked her, how did you find out about the Mob angle?”
Chris told him a heavily redacted version of how one night at the Newport Inn, she ran into a man in a Hawaiian shirt who had looked unattractive after two glasses of wine, but who looked like Brad Pitt after seven. They had gone up to her room and had sex. He left early, and she was so hung over, that she had to drink a beer and take two aspirin before she was able to endure the needlings of the shower. By noon, she still felt utterly ravaged, and to resurrect her spirits she ordered a double scotch. There were three men up at the bar, one wearing a burnt orange turtleneck, the other two in leisure suits. The burnt orange turtleneck offered to buy her drink, and then asked her what she did for a living. She told him that she was a writer for the National Geographic which was doing an article about the California health care system, one of the best in the country, thanks to Gerald Mahr.
The face of the burnt orange turtleneck clouded over. “Mahr was doing real well until he got mixed up with the wrong people.”
The words just hung there. “You mean organized crime,” and the man nodded. Her answer occurred out of nowhere. It had no place in logic.
Keep was impressed. “Well, you certainly have good instincts, but be careful with these guys. They are bad news.”
Then, gazing at her, he said, “You have to understand,” and his voice dropped to a tone of deepest conspiracy. “This whole setup is designed to be impenetrable. To fool experts. These owners see honest people as obstacles, dangerous obstacles.”
“What whole setup?”
“All of this. It’s a bunch of dummy companies, fake accounts, front men. The aim of its operations is to escape detection and any sort of regulation.”
“What whole setup?”
“This whole thing! The bribes, pay off monies going under the table.” It was very intensely said.
As they were leaving, they locked eyes. “I’m sorry about your partner,” she said sincerely, gazing at him.
He looked terribly sad. “Thank you. Walt would have appreciated that.”
A few days later, she called one of her sources in the FBI office in San Diego. They had exchanged several calls during the committee probe, but so far, whenever she brought up the Mob, she ran into blank silence. Chris liked the agent, who had a deep, interesting voice and a thoughtful manner, but today when she mentioned the Mob, his whole manner changed. “Your sources are right. Mahr is vomit, a stink in heaven’s nostrils.” She could hear him blush. “Pardon my language.”
She could care less. Then she asked him, “Have you ever wondered why Mahr didn’t get the VA job?”
He didn’t reply. Chris quickly told him, “One source told me it was because of organized crime, but there is no proof beyond hearsay.” She was silently urging him: “Come on, come on.” She was about to burst, when, he said to her, “I’ve watched your work. You can analyze. You are all tenacity.” He paused again. Another pause. She was about to climb the walls.
Then, “Ok. I am going to give you the number of someone who might help you. He was with the Bureau but left to become a Catholic priest. He lives in San Francisco. His name is Paul Johnson. He was one of the two Bureau guys who did the background check on Mahr.”
She could not believe her ears or her good luck.
“Wait. What happened to the other one?” she asked.
“He died of a heart attack. Call Johnson. I’ll give Paul a heads up.”
The next day she called Johnson, but got no answer. She called him twice more, waited, hung up, and called again. This time, he picked up. He agreed to be taped. He told her that Mahr had no chance of getting the VA job. Johnson and his partner discovered secret ties between Mahr, who had a hidden interest in a Las Vegas casino and a Mob bank; the casino owners were Ratzmin and Mazzuto. “The IRS finally got Ratzmin, who was sent to prison. They got Mazzuto on tax evasion. He got three years. But once we discovered the connection, Mahr was out of the running for the VA job.”
He added, “We had phone taps and interviews confirming this. Not enough to charge him, but enough to block his getting the job. Do you want copies?”
Johnson then promised to send Chris a notarized affidavit of what he had told her. She put down the phone in an exhilarated daze.
The next day, she played the Johnson tape for David Hall who looked as if he were trying to grow wings to fly. He hugged her for a long time. It was the only clinch they had ever had.
Within days, the takeover attempt collapsed. Mahr vanished into Israel. Chris had never met him.
Seized by jubilant gratitude, Chris began to call people and thank them. First came her staff, then came Kyd, Michello, Varner, Kendrick, and next came Duane at the FEC, the sources in the State Department of Health, the San Diego DA’s office and then the FBI. Lastly, she called reporters, beginning with Bob Hayes.
A few days later, she packed up Py and her belongings. She was sitting back at her desk, about to leave her room, when, on a sudden impulse, she paged through her address book and was able to get the San Diego Judge, Graham Fuller, on the line.
He didn’t recognize her name at first, but then said with genuine warmth, “Oh, I remember you. I remember you very well. I was terribly disappointed that your office never phoned me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was all set to approve a bench warrant for Kelso because he had violated his probation, but your boss never called me.”
Why was she not surprised? “You mean Babs Hershel?”
“What’s her name?”
Chris told him.
“Hershel, yes. I waited and waited, and then one day she sent me a letter, and I responded. I told her that ‘per your request, we will not swear out a warrant for Kelso.’ I have a copy of her letter, if you need it. Later I was told she had canceled the hearings,” he said. The last twist of the knife, Chris thought.
After they hung up, she just sat for a moment hearing Py cry.
She and David Hall hugged, and his eyes in hers, he promised to use her on other cases. Then, she sent off all of her notarized affidavits and documents to a prominent Washington columnist.
Chris returned to Washington and set up a Tuesday lunch with Babs. Babs was sitting at a table at their usual café, superbly decked out, in a lovely sweater, droplet earrings and grey slacks, a foot crossed. Babs was poised to welcome back her friend, her bright face displaying a warm look, but when she saw the look on Chris’ face, her spirits retreated. By now, Chris’ soul had become a storehouse of festering wrath. As soon as Chris sat down, she began to hurl questions at her friend. Babs turned as white as candle wax. Chris didn’t care: “Is it true you have shady banking connections? Is it true that you own a lot of properties under your mother’s name. Once you told me that friendship comes into being because of likeness and similarity, remember? Isn’t that what you said?”
Babes suddenly turned loud and offensive, “You’re so smart. What is my mother’s name?”
“Jopheson.” Then, speaking rapidly, between clenched teeth, precisely enunciating every word, Chris said, “You are vomit.” But as Chris, white-faced, started to leave, Babs yelled at her back, “Yeah, well I have a good record, and I’ll stand on it! I’m proud of it! And who are you anyway? You are just someone I fired!” Her smile had become a little malicious flame.
Chris stopped and came stomping back. Her mouth was a tight, seamless line, and she spoke with untempered bitterness.
“It wasn’t the first time you fired an investigator was it?” she hissed. “You hired another investigator just like me, and you told her to her face she was doing outstanding work, but then you told Bill the exact opposite. And Bill fired her at your urging. Isn’t that true? Chris’ tone was coldly lethal, and then Chris stormed out of the restaurant as the pale and startled faces of the patrons looked up because of the shouting.
“Yeah, well I have a good record and I’ll stand on it” Babs kept yelling as Chris was leaving. “President George Bush once called me an extraordinary human being!”
But the splinter in Chris’ soul was gone.
Two years passed and Chris and Babs hadn’t traded a word. Henry Keep was now Chris’ boyfriend. He would fly into Washington, and she would fly out to LA. They were in love.
One morning Chris read in the San Diego papers that the National Bank of Oxnard collapsed, allegedly looted by Kelso, who had fled the country. Three months later, Chris read in the newspapers about a lawsuit and she called the law firm handling the bank’s liquidation on behalf of the investors who had been ruthlessly victimized. One of the lawyers was puzzling over a $230,000 certificate of deposit issued to Zera K. Tom. There were several complex financial transactions involved, but the attorney said that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the name. Who was Zera K. Tom?
Chris didn’t have a clue. The attorney left his number.
She had gotten over Babs’ betrayal. Chris knew that she misjudged Babs because, out of affection, she had added qualities to Babs that the older woman did not possess. To hate such people was like condemning a stone. The stone wasn’t going to change.
One day, reading a newspaper and seeing a photo of Babs and her husband, Howard, featured in an article, she went to her file on Babs. Suddenly it struck her. On the third card, carefully printed, were the names of Babs’ children, Zera and Tom.
Chris reached for her phone.
It took months, but Babs was indicted on 19 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and perjury. A year later, she pled no contest to three felonies and income tax evasion, plus admitting she had paid $20,000 in kickbacks. She was ordered to pay $53,000 in reparations and was sentenced to seven years probation.
Babs disappeared. She had changed her name. She had dumped her husband and children. It was rumored that she and a rich, younger boyfriend were living somewhere near Las Vegas.