An excerpt from
Favors and Lies
The cab pulled to the curb on one of the city’s myriad one-way streets and Dan spoke through the holes drilled in the security glass. “What’s the damage?”
Dan stepped from the back of the cab and slipped a twenty through the front passenger window. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks, big spender,” the burly driver replied, shoving the cash into the front pocket of his sweaty shirt.
Dan bent at the waist, his manila folder in hand, and peered into the open window. The glare from Dan’s light blue eyes subdued the driver’s bravado, bringing a moment of long-sought silence to the interior of the car. The cabbie muttered something unintelligible and the car pulled away into the evening rush-hour traffic.
Dan straightened his dark blue suit and red tie before heading down H Street. The business side of the White House sat just beyond Lafayette Square to his left. As a white male in a suit, within spitting distance of the White House, Dan was perfectly camouflaged. Despite the changing face of American society and the dual terms of President Obama, those making the rules remained largely as they always had been—lily white. An hour watching C-Span was the only proof needed.
Dan walked deliberately to the corner of H and Sixteenth streets and silently mingled with a half-dozen likeminded suits waiting for the light. The pedestrian signal changed from an illuminated red hand to the depiction of a person walking. The crowd moved. Dan took three steps towards the street and then froze at the edge of the curb. He scanned his environment for a mirror reaction from anyone in the vicinity. Sometimes the best way to see if you are being followed is to stop. It was a standard counter-surveillance move, an ancient ritual likely perfected a hundred thousand years ago by an animal on the Serengeti trying to avoid becoming dinner.
The sidewalk around Dan emptied as the pedestrian signal on the far side of the street began to countdown. Dan swiveled his head slowly, finishing with a glance over each shoulder. No one, he thought. At least no one on foot. Walking against traffic on a one-way street mitigated most of the possibilities of being trailed by car.
He waited until the countdown on the pedestrian signal reached five and then crossed the street illegally in the opposite direction, dissecting a group of lawyers and think-tankers on their way to a local watering hole to finish their briefs and pontifications for the evening.
On the far side of the street, Dan turned right and headed back in the direction from which he had come. Once again he checked for surveillance. Nothing.
Near the end of the block, with a taxi queue ten yards ahead, Dan checked his watch with a casual glance and turned left down an alley without looking back.
He passed several Dumpsters and looked up at the darkening sky framed by the buildings on both sides of the alley. A light scent of urine wafted through the air. Under a fire escape near the corner of the building Dan turned again. He followed a staircase downward, his hand running along a worn metal handrail, his shoes trampling cracked concrete steps. Three stories above the urban crevasse, room rates started at eight hundred a night.
Dan forced himself to relax. Feeling out of place was the single greatest contributor for being spotted in an area where one had no earthly business. But with the appropriate behavior and movement, a man in a suit in an alley was no more out of place than a man in overalls in the lobby of an office building. Properly portrayed, every appearance could be overlooked.
Dan reached the bottom of the stairs and admired the collection of discarded cigarette butts thrown half-heartedly at an empty coffee can resting just outside the door. He took one more calming breath and pushed through an unlocked metal door that read “Exit Only” in neat white print.
Unlocked doors were goldmines. Half the buildings in the nation’s capital were circumventing million dollar security systems with propped open doors. A brick here. A doorstop there. If you knew where to look, an employee with a smoking habit could be better than a week of surveillance. Not to mention cheaper and less risky than paying off a doorman.
Inside the building, Dan entered an elbow-wide foyer facing another door. He watched the light under the closed door and waited for the telltale movement of people on the other side to abate. When the timing was right and the movement ceased, he pulled the knob.
An attractive blonde in an off-the-shoulder red dress took a breath of surprise. Dan muted his response and without pausing pointed towards the men’s room with his chin. “Wrong door.”
The lady in red smiled and Dan followed through on his impromptu ruse and entered the restroom.
“Shit,” Dan whispered, looking into the mirror over a granite sink with gold fixtures. He had rules. One adjustment in the plan was standard. Two put him on notice. Three unforeseen adjustments to a plan and he aborted—immediately and without exception. There was little he could do about the woman in the hall so he pushed it aside. That’s one, he thought. A little early for an adjustment.
The lower-level backdoor at the Hay Adams Hotel was a direct line into the living room of the elite. Off the Record—the appropriately named bar in the basement of the Hay Adams Hotel—boasted a history as long as its client list. It was where the rich blew off steam. People with faces too famous to enjoy a quiet drink in Georgetown or along Connecticut Avenue. Faces from the morning paper and the evening news. Off the Record embraced customers who didn’t mind overpaying for drinks or the forty bucks it cost to valet their cars. Money was rapidly becoming the last legal barrier for keeping out the riffraff.
The Hay Adams Hotel, and its subterranean watering hole, was public. Dan could have chosen to walk through the lobby. He could have nodded at the bellhop and doorman as he strolled in unquestioned and unmolested. He could have slowly crossed the ornate wood-paneled entrance and past the polite scrutiny of the front desk as he made his way to the stairs. But why announce your arrival when you didn’t have to? Especially so close to payday.
In the mirror in the bathroom, Dan checked his hair, his face, his glasses, his teeth, his fingers. He peeked inside his manila folder. He exited the room and walked through the lone swinging door into the bar. He located his target before his first foot hit the deep burgundy carpet. He completed his room assessment by the time his second foot landed. Nine men and four women, he calculated, parsing his headcount before anyone noticed he was in the room. Five men at the bar, two of them seated together, most likely coworkers. Two women alone at a table on the far side of the room in similar black dresses. Waiting for dates, he thought. A table of three huddled in the opposite corner, far enough away to be out of most contingency scenarios. Dan added four more to the headcount for the bartender and waitresses, and a final addition for the lady in red who was now in the bathroom.
Dan stepped out from the dark corner near the bathroom and approached a man in his early fifties sitting alone at a table, his hand caressing a glass of Maker’s Mark.
“Judge McMichael,” Dan said, sitting quickly without invitation.
The judge tried not to look surprised but the corners of his eyes betrayed him as they danced towards the entrance of the bar.
“The back door?” the judge asked.
“Bathroom window,” Dan replied straight-faced.
“Am I at the correct table?”
“Yes. Thank you for following instructions.”
Dan didn’t take his eyes off the judge. The judge looked older than his pictures in the press. More stately. Fifty and fit with large hands and sharp eyes. The lighting was romantic—enough light to see the judge, but dark enough to erase cosmetic imperfections from across the table. Perfect call-girl ambiance.
The judge stared back across the table at a short grey mop of curls and wild blue eyes dancing behind thick black-framed glasses. The judge’s eyes dropped to Dan’s hands and the manila folder on the table. Dan noticed the judge’s attention and he covered one hand with the other, both on top of the folder.
“Why don’t we both agree to keep our hands on the table,” Dan suggested before getting to work.“See the two guys at the far end of the bar?”
The judge turned his head slightly.
“They are with me.”
The judge nodded.
“I will make this short and sweet. Your wife has divorce papers for you to sign. She also has an agreement regarding alimony and the custody of your stepson and stepdaughter. She says you have been refusing to sign these documents and have threatened her and her children.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes. Judge Terrance J. McMichael. Born in Naperville, Illinois. Educated at Princeton. Law School at Dartmouth. Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit . . . also known as the DC Circuit. Wife is named Cindy. Stepdaughter is Caroline. Stepson is Craig.”
“And you are?”
“Someone willing to ruin your life. Your wife hired me to make a request on her behalf. You are a highly intelligent man so I’m going to assume you heard my request the first time and that I don’t need to repeat myself.” Dan paused for effect. “You are going to sign the papers.”
“Do you have any idea what I can do to you?”
Dan slid the manila folder into the middle of the table and opened it. The first photograph showed the judge’s wife with raccoon eyes, her nose broken, swollen to twice its normal size. Her torn and blood-drenched clothes were on full display next to her. The photo was taken in a bathroom, the reflection of the cameraman, the judge’s stepson, clear in the mirror.
“She fell,” the judge said.
“Well, as convenient as that explanation may be, I think sympathy will wane when the public sees the next pictures.”
The judge waited for Dan to turn the next photo in the stack. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Those are bruises on a ten-year-old girl. Your stepdaughter.” Dan flipped to another photo. “If you notice, there is a telling shoe print on her back, which I imagine is a little bigger than your wife’s size.”
“What do you want?”
“I told you what I want.”
“Whatever she is paying, I’ll pay more.”
“It’s not about the money . . . well, not entirely. Besides, whatever she pays me is your money anyway.”
“You motherfucker,” the judge quietly hissed. The veins in his neck bulged.
“Certainly all those years of schooling must have linguistically prepared you better than that.”
The judge took a sip of his drink, his hands shaking slightly. Dan stole a glance of the room as the judge’s eyes dipped beneath the edge of the upturned glass.
The judge returned his glass to the table but didn’t release his grip. “You are aware that blackmail is illegal.”
“I’m asking for your cooperation. I’m not asking for money. Though, now that you have offered money, it wouldn’t be blackmail if I accepted.”
“You won’t get away with this. You don’t become a DC Circuit judge without friends. You don’t serve on a court that has bred more Supreme Court Justices than any other without knowing people.”
“Don’t let pride get the better of you. You’re not the first person I’ve made a deal with. You won’t be the last. Not in this city.”
Dan let the statement sink in before he continued.
“You have one week to sign the papers and file them with the court. If I don’t hear from your wife by then, I will release the story to the press and to certain people at the Justice Department who may not share your enthusiasm for unmitigated power. Certain people who believe the oath they took means something. I should also mention if something should happen to your wife between now and the filing of the papers, the photos and taped testimony from your wife and children will go public. If your wife mysteriously changes her mind in the next, say, month or so, the photos and her testimony still go public.”
“How do I know you won’t go public after I sign the papers?”
“You don’t.” Dan paused. “Are you familiar with the Lady Justice Statue, the one with a woman holding a set of scales?”
“I am a judge.”
“I appreciate that sentiment, but given your non-judicial behavior on other fronts, I didn’t want to take anything for granted.”
“Your point?” Judge McMichael grunted.
“The Lady Justice Statue depicts your current situation. On the one hand you have the possibility of me going public if I don’t hear from your wife by next week. The weight of this possibility is driving down one side of the scale in Lady Justice’s hand. On the other side of the scale is the possibility I will go public with your information regardless of what you do. I would consider this side of the scale far lighter than the other.”
The judge glanced quickly at the front door of the bar. “I can’t do it in a week. I need more time for my attorney to review the documents before they are filed.”
“Judge McMichael, a man of your talents can have this done before you get up from your seat.”
The judge finished his drink and he set the glass on the table with a thud. “Anything else?”
“One thing.” Dan pulled out the last photo in the folder. “I recognize the woman in this photo so I’m sure you do as well, particularly given the lack of clothing. Nice socks, by the way. And your partner’s knee-high red fishnets are very naughty. So before you do anything rash, remember it’s more than just you and your ego at stake.”
The judge brooded, his anger visible in his eyes, the corner of his lips quivering.
Dan continued. “I’m offering you the path of least resistance. I suggest you take it.” Dan took another look around the room and waved at the two men at the bar who waved back in a look of inebriated recognition before turning towards one another and resuming their conversation. The rest of the bar’s occupants were still in their respective places. All systems checked. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Dan readied to stand and added another condition. “And if something happens to me in the near future, before or after the documents get filed with the court, the photos and taped testimony go to the press. I have a secure website with some unique programming. If I don’t log on in pre-determined increments, well, you get the picture. And so will everyone else.”
“Are we done?”
“Follow the rules and you will never see me again.” Dan stood. He gestured towards the folder on the table. “You can keep those copies for your records.”