"Not at all. The package is in another room. Sorry, but I've been acting like a spy for too long."
"Not a bad practice for a man in your position."
"I guess it's now a way of life."
"Our technicians are still playing with the first two disks. It's really an impressive piece of work."
"My clients were smart boys, and good boys. Just got greedy, I guess. Like a few others."
There was a knock on the door, and Neal was back. He handed the envelope to Joel, who removed the two disks, then gave them to Roland. "Thanks," he said. "It took guts."
"Some people have more guts than brains, I guess."
The exchange was over. There was nothing left to say. Roland made his way to the door. He grabbed the doorknob, then thought of something else. "Just so you know," he said gravely, "the CIA is reasonably certain that Sammy Tin landed in New York this afternoon. The flight came from Milan."
"Thanks, I guess," Joel said.
When Roland left the hotel room with the envelope, Joel stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. Neal found two beers in the minibar and fell into a nearby chair. He waited a few minutes, sipped his beer, then finally said, "Dad, who is Sammy Tin?"
"You don't want to know."
"Oh, yeah. I want to know everything. And you're going to tell me."
At 6:00 p.m., Lisa's mother's car stopped outside a hair salon on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. Joel got out and said goodbye. And thanks. Neal sped away, anxious to get home.
Neal had made the appointment by phone a few hours earlier, bribing the receptionist with the promise of $500 in cash. A stout lady named Maureen was waiting, not too happy to be working late but nonetheless anxious to see who would drop that kind of money on a quick coloring job.
Joel paid first, thanked both the receptionist and Maureen for their flexibility, then sat in front of a mirror.
"You want it washed?" Maureen said.
"No. Lets hurry."
She put her fingers in his hair and said, "Who did this?"
"A lady in Italy."
"What color do you have in mind?"
"Gray, solid gray."
"No, beyond natural. Lets get it almost white."
She rolled her eyes at the receptionist. We get all kinds in here.
Maureen went to work. The receptionist went home, locking the door behind her. A few minutes into the project, Joel asked, "Are you working tomorrow?"
"Nope, it's my day off. Why?"
"Because I need to come in around noon for another session. I'll be in the mood for something darker tomorrow, something to hide the gray you're doing now."
Pier hands stopped. "What's with you?"
"Meet me here at noon, and I'll pay a thousand bucks in cash."
"Sure. What about the next day?"
"I'll be fine when some of the gray is gone."
Dan Sandberg had been loafing at his desk at the Post late in the afternoon when the call came. The gentleman on the other end identified himself as Joel Backman, said he wanted to talk. Sandberg's caller ID showed an unknown number.
"The real Joel Backman?" Sandberg said, scrambling for his laptop.
"The only one I know."
"A real pleasure. Last time I saw you, you were in court, pleading guilty to all sorts of bad stuff."
"All of which was wiped clean with a presidential pardon."
"I thought you were tucked away on the other side of the world."
"Yeah, I got tired of Europe. Kinda missed my old stomping grounds. I'm back now, ready to do business again."
"What kind of business?"
"My specialty, of course. That's what I wanted to talk about."
"I'd be delighted. But I'll have to ask questions about the pardon. Lots of wild rumors out there."
"That's the first thing we'll cover, Mr. Sandberg. How about tomorrow morning at nine?"
"I wouldn't miss it. Where do we meet?"
"I'll have the presidential suite at the Hay-Adams. Bring a photographer if you like. The broker is back in town."
Sandberg hung up and called Rusty Lowell, his best source at the CIA. Lowell was out, and as usual no one had any idea where he was. He tried another source at Langley, but found nothing.
Whitaker sat in the first-class section of the Alitalia flight from Milano to Dulles. Up front, the booze was free and free-flowing, and Whitaker tried his best to get hammered. The call from Julia Javier had been a shock. She had begun pleasantly enough with the question 'Anyone seen Marco over there, Whitaker?"
"No, but we're looking."
"Do you think you'll find him?"
"Yes, I'm quite sure he'll turn up."
"The director is very anxious right now, Whitaker. She wants to know if you're going to find Marco."
"Tell her yes, we'll find him!"
"And where are you looking, Whitaker?"
"Between here, in Milano, and Zurich.' "Well, you're wasting your time, Whitaker, because ol' Marco has popped up here in Washington. Met with the Pentagon this afternoon. Slipped right through your fingers, Whitaker, made us look stupid."
"Come home, Whitaker, and get here quickly."
Twenty-five rows back, Luigi was crouching low in coach, rubbing knees with a twelve-year-old girl who was listening to some of the raunchiest rap he'd ever heard. He was on his fourth drink himself. It wasn't free and he didn't care what it cost.
He knew Whitaker was up there making notes on exactly how to pin all the blame on Luigi. He should be doing the same, but for the moment he just wanted to drink. The next week in Washington would be quite unpleasant.
At 6:02 p.m., eastern standard time, the call came from Tel Aviv to halt the Backman killing. Stand down. Abort. Pack up and withdraw, there would be no dead body this time.
For the agents it was welcome news. They were trained to move in with great stealth, do their deed, disappear with no clues, no evidence, no trail. Bologna was a far better place than the crowded streets of Washington, D.C.
An hour later, Joel checked out of the Marriott and enjoyed a long walk through the cool air. He stayed on the busy streets, though, and didn't waste any time. This wasn't Bologna. This city was far dif ferent after hours. Once the commuters were gone and the traffic died down, things got dangerous.
The clerk at the Hay-Adams preferred credit, something plastic, something that would not upset the bookkeeping. Rarely did a client insist on paying in cash, but this client wouldn't take no for an answer. The reservation had been confirmed, and with a proper smile he handed over a key and welcomed Mr. Ferro to their hotel.
"Any bags, sir?"
And that was the end of their little conversation.
Mr. Ferro headed for the elevators carrying only a cheap black - leather briefcase.
The presidential suite at the Hay-Adams was on the eighth floor, with three large windows overlooking H Street, then Lafayette Park, then the White House. It had a king-size bedroom, a bathroom well appointed with brass and marble, and a sitting room with period antiques, a slightly out-of-date television and phones, and a fax machine that was seldom used. It went for $3,000 a night, but then what did the broker care about such things?
When Sandberg knocked on the door at nine, he waited only a second before it was yanked open and a hearty "Morning, Dan!" greeted him. Backman lunged for his right hand and as he pumped it furiously he dragged Sandberg into his domain.
"Glad you could make it," he said. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yeah, sure, black."
Sandberg dropped his satchel onto a chair and watched Backman pour from a silver coffeepot. Much thinner, with hair that was shorter and almost white, gaunt through the face. There was a slight resemblance to defendant Backman, but not much.
"Make yourself at home," Backman was saying. "I've ordered some breakfast. Should be up in a minute."
He carefully set two cups with saucers on the coffee table in front of the sofa, and said, "Let's work here. You plan to use a recorder?"
"If that's all right."
"I prefer it that way. Eliminates misunderstandings." They took their positions. Sandberg placed a small recorder on the table, then got his pad and pen ready. Backman was all smiles as he sat low in his chair, legs casually crossed, the confident air of a man who wasn't afraid of any question. Sandberg noticed the shoes, hard rubber soles that had barely been used. Not a scuff or speck of dirt anywhere on the black leather. Typically, the lawyer was put together-navy suit, bright white shirt with cuffs, gold links, a collar bar, a red-and-gold tie that begged for attention.
"Well, the first question is, where have you been?"
"Europe, knocking about, seeing the Continent."
"For two months?"
"Yep, that's enough."
"Anyplace in particular?"
"Not really. I spent a lot of time on the trains over there, a marvelous way to travel. You can see so much."
"Why have you returned?"
"This is home. Where else would I go? What else would I do? Bumming around Europe sounds like great fun, and it was, but you can't make a career out of it. I've got work to do."
"What kind of work?"
"The usual. Government relations, consulting."
"That means lobbying, right?"
"My firm will have a lobbying arm, yes. That will be a very important part of our business, but by no means the centerpiece."
"And what firm is that?"
"The new one."
"Help me out here, Mr. Backman."
"I'm opening a new firm, the Backman Group, offices here, New York, and San Francisco. We'll have six partners initially, should be up to twenty in a year or so."
"Who are these people?"
"Oh, I can't name them now. We're hammering out the details, negotiating the fine points, pretty sensitive stuff. We plan to cut the ribbon on the first of May, should be a big splash."
"No doubt. This will not be a law firm?"
"No, but we plan to add a legal section later."
"I thought you lost your license when..." ''I did, yes. But with the pardon, I'm now eligible to sit for the bar exam again. If I get a hankering to start suing people, then I'll brush up on the books and get a license. Not in the near future, though, there's just too much work to do."
"What kind of work?"
"Getting this thing off the ground, raising capital, and, most important, meeting with potential clients."
"Could you give me the names of some clients?"
"Of course not, but just hang on for a few weeks and that information will be available."
The phone on the desk rang, and Backman frowned at it. "Just a second. It's a call I've been waiting on.' He walked over and picked it up. Sandberg heard, "Backman, yes, hello, Bob. Yes, I'll be in New York tomorrow. Look, I'll call you back in an hour, okay? I'm in the middle of something." He hung up and said, "Sorry about that."
It was Neal, calling as planned, at exactly 9:15, and he would call every ten minutes for the next hour.
"No problem," said Sandberg. "Let's talk about your pardon. Have you seen the stories about the alleged buying of presidential pardons?"
"Have I seen the stories? I have a defense team in place, Dan. My guys are all over this. If and when the feds manage to put together a grand jury, if they ever get that far, I've informed them that I want to be the first witness. I have absolutely nothing to hide, and the suggestion that I paid for a pardon is actionable at law."
"You plan to sue?"
"Absolutely. My lawyers are preparing a massive libel action now against The New York Times and that hatchet man, Heath Frick. It'll be ugly. It'll be a nasty trial, and they're gonna pay me a bunch of money."
"You're sure you want me to print that?"
"Hell yes! And while we're at it, I commend you and your newspaper for the restraint you've shown so far. It's rather unusual, but admirable nonetheless."
Sandberg's story of this visit to the presidential suite was big enough to begin with. Now, however, it had just been thrust onto the front page, tomorrow morning.
"Just for the record, you deny paying for the pardon?"
"Categorically, vehemently denied. And I'll sue anybody who says I did."
"So why were you pardoned?"
Backman reshifted his weight and was about to launch into a long one when the door buzzer erupted. "Ah, breakfast," he said, jumping to his feet. He opened the door and a white-jacketed waiter pushed in a cart holding caviar and all the trimmings, scrambled eggs with truffles, and a bottle of Krug champagne in a bucket of ice. While Backman signed the check the waiter opened the bottle.
"One glass or two?" the waiter asked.
"A glass of champagne, Dan?"
Sandberg couldn't help but glance at his watch. Seemed a bit early to start with the booze, but then why not? How often would he be sitting in the presidential suite looking over at the White House sipping on bubbly that cost $300 a bottle? "Sure, but just a little."
The waiter filled two glasses, put the Krug back in the ice, and left the room just as the phone rang again. This time it was Randall from Boston, and he'd have to sit by the phone for another hour while Backman finished his business.
He slammed down the receiver and said, "Eat a bite, Dan, I ordered enough for the both us."
"No, thanks, I had a bagel earlier." He took the champagne and had a drink.
Backman dipped a wafer into a $500 pile of caviar and stuck it in his mouth, like a teenager with a corn chip and salsa. He chomped on it as he paced, glass in hand.
"My pardon?" he said. "I asked President Morgan to review my case. Frankly, I didn't think he had any interest, but he's a very astute person."
"Yes, very underrated as a president, Dan. He didn't deserve the shellacking he got. He will be missed. Anyway, the more Morgan studied the case, the more concerned he became. He saw through the government's smoke screen. He caught their lies. As an old defense lawyer himself, he understood the power of the feds when they want to nail an innocent person."
"Are you saying you were innocent?"
"Absolutely. I did nothing wrong."
"But you pled guilty."
"I had no choice. First, they indicted me and Jacy Hubbard on bogus charges. We didn't budge. 'Bring on the trial,' we said. 'Give us a jury.' We scared the feds so bad that they did what they always do. They went after our friends and families. Those gestapo idiots indicted my son, Dan, a kid fresh out of law school who knew nothing about my files. Why didn't you write about that?"
"I did."' "Anyway, I had no choice but to take the fall. It became a badge of honor for me. I pled guilty so all charges would be dropped against my son and my partners. President Morgan figured this out. That's why I was pardoned. I deserved it."
Another wafer, another mouthful of gold, another slurp of Krug to wash it all down. He was pacing back and forth, jacket off now, a man with many burdens to unload. Then he suddenly stopped and said, "Enough about the past, Dan. Let's talk about tomorrow. Look at that White House over there. Have you ever been there for a state dinner, black tie, marine color guard, slinky ladies in beautiful gowns?"
Backman was standing in the window, gazing at the White House. "Twice I've done that," he said with a trace of sadness. "And I'll be back. Give me two, maybe three years, and one day they'll hand deliver a thick invitation, heavy paper, gold embossed lettering: The President and First Lady request the honor of your presence..."
He turned and looked smugly at Sandberg. "That's power, Dan. That's what I live for."
Good copy, but not exactly what Sandberg was after. He jolted the broker back to reality with a sharp "Who killed Jacy Hubbard?"
Backman's shoulders dropped and he walked to the ice bucket for another round. "It was a suicide, Dan, plain and simple. Jacy was humiliated beyond belief. The feds destroyed him. He just couldn't handle it."
"Well, you're the only person in town who believes it was a suicide."
"And I'm the only person who knows the truth. Print that, would you."
"Let's talk about something else."
"Frankly, Mr. Backman, your past is much more interesting than your future. I have a pretty good source that tells me that you were pardoned because the CIA wanted you released, that Morgan caved under pressure from Teddy Maynard, and that they hid you somewhere so they could watch and see who nailed you first."
"You need new sources."
"So you deny-"
"I'm here!" Backman spread his arms so Sandberg could see everything. "I'm alive! If the CIA wanted me dead, then I'd be dead." He swallowed some champagne, and said, "Find a better source. You want some eggs? They're getting cold."
Backman scooped a large serving of scrambled eggs onto a small plate and ate them as he moved around the room, from window to window, never too far away from his view of the White House. "They're pretty good, got truffles."
"No thanks. How often do you have this for breakfast?"
"Not often enough."
"Did you know Bob Critz?"
"Sure, everybody knew Critz. He'd been around as long as I had."
"Where were you when he died?"
"San Francisco, staying with a friend, saw it on the news. Really sad. What's Critz got to do with me?"
"Does this mean you're out of questions?"
Sandberg was flipping back through his notes when the phone rang again. It was Ollie this time, and Backman would have to call him back.
"I have a photographer downstairs," Sandberg said. "My editor would like some photos."
Joel put on his jacket, checked his tie, hair, and teeth in a mirror, then had another scoop of caviar while the photographer arrived and unloaded some gear. He fiddled with the lighting while Sandberg kept the recorder on and tossed up a few questions.
The best shot, according to the photographer, but also one that Sandberg thought was quite nice, was a wide one of Joel on the burgundy leather sofa, with a portrait on the wall behind him. He posed for a few by the window, trying to get the White House in the distance.
The phone kept ringing, and Joel finally ignored it. Neal was supposed to call back every five minutes in the event a call went unanswered, ten if Joel picked up. After twenty minutes of shooting, the phone was driving them crazy.
The broker was a busy man.
The photographer finished, collected his gear, and left. Sandberg hung around for a few minutes, then finally headed for the door. As he was leaving he said, "Look, Mr. Backman, this will be a big story tomorrow, no doubt about that. But just so you know, I don't buy hah0 the crap you've told me today."
"You were guilty as hell. So was Hubbard. He didn't kill himself, and you ran to prison to save your ass. Maynard got you pardoned. Arthur Morgan didn't have a clue."
"Good. That half is not important."
"The broker is back. Make sure that's on the front page."
Maureen was in a much better mood. Her day off had never been worth a thousand bucks. She escorted Mr. Backman to a private parlor in the rear, away from the gaggle of ladies getting worked on in the front of the salon. Together, they studied colors and shades, and finally selected one that would be easy to maintain. To her, "maintain" meant the hope of SI,000 every five weeks.
Joel really didn't care. He'd never see her again.
She turned the white into gray and added enough brown to take five years off his face. Vanity was not at stake here.
Youth didn't matter. He just wanted to hide.
His last guests in the suite made him cry. Neal, the son he hardly knew, and Lisa, the daughter-in-law he'd never met, handed him Carrie, the two-year-old granddaughter he'd only dreamed about. She cried too, at first, but then settled down as her grandfather walked her around and showed her the White House just over there. He walked her from window to window, from room to room, bouncing her and chatting away as if he'd had experience with a dozen grandkids. Neal took more photos, but these were of a different man. Gone was the flashy suit; he was wearing chinos and a plaid button-down. Gone were the bluster and arrogance; he was a simple grandfather clinging to a beautiful little girl.
Room service delivered a late lunch of soups and salads. They enjoyed a quiet family meal, Joel's first in many, many years. He ate with only one hand because the other balanced Carrie on his knee, which never stopped its steady bounce.
He warned them of tomorrow's story in the Post, and explained the motives behind it. It was important for him to be seen in Washington, and in the most visible way possible. It would buy him some time, confuse everyone who might still be looking for him. It would create a splash, and be talked about for days, long after he was gone.
Lisa wanted answers as to how much danger he was in, and Joel confessed that he wasn't sure. He would drop out for a while, move around, always being careful. He'd learned a lot in the past two months.
"I'll be back in a few weeks," he said. "And I'll drop in from time to time. Hopefully, after a few years things will be safer."
"Where are you going now?" Neal asked.
"I'm taking the train to Philly, then I'll catch a flight to Oakland. I would like to visit my mother. It would be nice if you'd drop her a card. I'll take my time, eventually end up somewhere in Europe."
"Which passport will you use?"
"Not the ones I got yesterday."
"I'm not about to allow the CIA to monitor my movements. Barring an emergency, I'll never use them."
"So how do you travel?"
"I have another passport. A friend loaned it to me."
Neal gave him a look of suspicion, as if he knew what "friend" meant. Lisa missed it, though, and little Carrie picked that moment to relieve herself. Joel was quick to hand her to her mother.
While Lisa was in the bathroom changing the diaper, Joel lowered his voice and said, "Three things. First, get a security firm to sweep your home, office, and cars. You might be surprised. It'll cost about ten grand, and it must be done. Second, I'd like for you to locate an assisted-living place somewhere close to here. My mother, your grandmother, is stuck out there in Oakland with no one to check on her. A good place will cost three to four thousand a month."
"I take it you have the money."
"Third, yes, I have the money. It's in an account here at Maryland Trust. You're listed as one of the OAvners. Withdraw twenty-five thousand to cover the expenses you've incurred so far, and keep the rest close by." ''I don't need that much."
"Well, spend some, okay? Loosen up a little. Take the girl to Disney World."
"How will we correspond?"
"For now, e-mail, the Grinch routine. I'm quite the hacker, you know."
"How safe are you, Dad?"
"The worst is over."
Lisa was back with Carrie, who wanted to return to the bouncing knee. Joel held her for as long as he could.
Father and son entered Union Station together while Lisa and Carrie waited in the car. The bustle of activity made Joel anxious again; old habits would be hard to break. He pulled a small carry-on bag, loaded with all of his possessions.
He bought a ticket to Philadelphia, and as they slowly made their way to the platform area Neal said, "I really want to know where you're going."
Joel stopped and looked at him. "I'm going back to Bologna."
"There's a friend there, right?"
"Of the female variety?" Oh yes.
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Can't help it, son. It was always my weakness."
"Very much so. She's really special."
"They were all special."
"This one saved my life."
"Does she know you're coming back?"
"I think so."
"Please be careful, Dad."
"I'll see you in a month or so."
They hugged and said goodbye.