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The Arranger

Murder, money, scandal, power, politics. REGARDIES’ Magazine sponsored two national contests for short fiction about “power in Washington.” I took first place in the first contest with my story “The Train.” The next year, “The Arranger,” scored second. In the summer of 1992 when I wrote “The Arranger,” no one knew whether Mel’s adventure would take place on Clinton or Bush’s inauguration, so that detail is fudged, but such details don’t matter: this is a story about timeless events: the passing of the guard in America’s official corridors of power and in our noir secret places.

What I want to know," Mel Schenck said into the telephone, "is when are they gonna put me on a T-shirt?"

Mel wore a sleeveless undershirt. No face or logo adorned it, though dozens of tailored shirts in his closet were monogrammed with his initials.

"Look at Ollie North," Mel continued. "The guy can't beat the rap, but he's on T -shirts all over America. I saw this marine jogging past the Capitol. You know what was on his T-shirt ?"

"No," sighed the man Mel had called.

"Said I LOVE OLLIE NORTH. Just like that. In red, white, and blue. Soaking up the sweat."

Sweat haunted Mel that Inauguration Day. Winter reigned out- side his seventh-story Connecticut Avenue condo. Typical Washington January. Not as snowy as Jack Kennedy's inaugural nor as bone-chilling windy as Jimmy Carter's, when that Southern dark horse left his limo to walk along Independence Avenue and wave to the mulled crowds. Man of the people, thought Mel, and the people damn near froze to death watching him walk to the White House.

Ronald Reagan had great weather for his inauguration. A freak springtime. Shirtsleeve weather. Mel went to the White House Ball that balmy night, danced the shoes off his 30-years-younger date and soaked his tuxedo. Such labored sweat didn't bother Mel: something comes from everything. But an idle sweat worried him: everything comes from something, and an idle sweat could be the rain of fear.

"The Gipper had great luck," he mumbled.

"What?" said the man on the other end of the phone.

"Forget it," answered Mel, looking at his thin bare arms. Gray light flowing through the windows glistened on his flesh.

Not nerves, he told himself. It's not nerves.

Radiators hissed throughout Mel's high-ceilinged, eight-room home. The place felt like a jungle. White orchids in the crystal vase beside the silver-framed picture of his dead wife on the mantel were spread open and wide, loving it. Outside it was 19 degrees. Ice city. In Mel's condo, where the radiators had been stuck on since long before dawn, the thermostat read 84.

Which was why at 9:16 in the morning, hours after he'd left his useless bed to at least get some work done, he still wore only an undershirt, boxer shorts, calf-high black socks, and maroon slippers.

It's just the heat, thought Mel. My sweat is innocent.

The man Mel had called said, "We were talking about—”

"T-shirts," said Met "The other day when I left your office, I figured, ‘can't make decent time for the dollar in a cab. So I hike up Connecticut Avenue to the stevedores' union building. Cut through Dupont Circle. All those bicycle messengers, brown baggin' it on the benches. There's a Nicaraguan guy- I can tell Nic from Mex or—”

"I know," interrupted the voice in Mel's phone. "But what's important is—”

"So this Nic is like 20. Unzipped black leather jacket and a black T-shirt stenciled with a silver skull. Only it's not just a skull: it's figures of naked women in the shape of a skull. I can't believe it! Broad daylight, middle of Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, and it's a T-shirt of naked women! Just a couple of steps' glance, but I can still count the potatoes.”

"So it seems."

"The Nic kid gets a skull of naked women, Ollie North gets his name on aT-shirt, and you know what I get? This grief! You call that justice?"

Mel shook his head; his hair was wispy and white.

"Ollie North is a Johnny-come-lately!" yelled Mel into the phone. "He was still in boot camp when I was brokering our Nic Somoza with shiploads of hardware. Ollie shows up years later, gets peanuts for the guys who wanna ax the guys who bumped Somoza, but Ollie North gets a T-shirt! I get nothing!

"Hell," added Mel, "worse than nothing."

"That's what I'm for," said the man Mel had called. His name was J. Ferrin Williams, and for one hour of his time, he charged 59 times the federal minimum wage.

"Ferrin," said Mel, "what good are you doing me?"

Mel's top plate of false teeth fell loose.

" 'st a min'a'!" Mel sputtered. He dropped the phone onto the flat antique desk, cupped his hands over his mouth, and ran out of the living room, through his bedroom, into the bathroom's mirrored glare.

Within two minutes he'd washed the rebellious dentistry, squeezed a thick line of peppermint adhesive cream onto the ridge of the plate, pushed the teeth onto his gums, and, skinny arms pumping, scurried his wispy-white-haired, half-dressed frame back to the living room and the flattop antique desk to grab the phone.

"I'm back!" he shouted into the receiver.

"They've got you," said J. Ferrin Williams before Mel could say anything else.

"What do you mean they've got me? They ain't even gone to grand jury!"

"You asked if we could make a few phone calls, ascertain the correctness of—”

"Two gumshoes from the FBI and a snot-nosed U.S. Attorney ring my doorbell. Tell me my card says go straight to jail, no pretrial bail. The max on the table. Plus more in the pipeline. Subpoenas. Tax man. All that grief, I want a damn sight more out of you than 'a few phone calls!' "

"Based on previous representations of your interests, I agreed to-"

"What is this crap, Ferrin? You've taken truckloads of my money in the past 20 years, now you're playing me speeches? Why? They can't wire a Joe and his lawyer.”

"In my opinion, your legal interests would be best served by retaining other counsel.”

The taste of dead coffee in his stomach overpowered the peppermint denture cream in Mel's mouth. He saw nothing. He saw the meager rack of gray suits in his father's clothing store in Cleveland. The gutted brick shell, blackened timbers from the fire in '62.

"Our firm's practice is moving away from—”

"Don't bullshit a bull. You got that guy who had a couple special prosecutor gigs. You didn't make him a partner to hustle old ladies' wills.”

"He's too busy to take on new cases—”

"Like hell.”

"Go to another firm, Mel. I can suggest—”

"What is it with you guys? Huh? You and the feds both!"

"The government thinks it's got a great case. They won't negotiate beyond whatever offer was suggested by—”

"Are you nuts? They want me to rat! Wear a wire on—”

"Don't tell me any details!" yelled Ferrin.

"...play the rat on this plus work up something new, be a rat on their string the first chance I get to—”

"1 said," interrupted Ferrin, "don't tell me!"

"They're mad about the last time, aren't they?" asked Mel.

"As such, that history did not—”

"No shit," said Mel. "They thought they had me then, too. Them and their damn videotapes and rat.”

"Purely in my opinion, you were very lucky, Mel.”

"Luck like that, I should leave town! The rat drops all over the three state employees' union guys, me and—”

"I know the case," said Ferrin.

"I made some introductions! That's what 1 do! That's who I am! And the feds called me a crook! I raised money for the J. Edgar Hoover memorial! Hell, I help the State Department boys keep their striped pants clean! Racketeering, wire fraud, insurance fraud, bribery, Christ, interstate travel! They set up that rat's phony insurance company! A lie like that should be a crime among honest businessmen! The jury didn't buy their bullshit. Sent me out of Kansas City an innocent man!"

"You were the only one acquitted."

"I tell you this, Ferrin," whispered Mel. "The longest, nakedest walk of my life was down those courthouse steps."

The radiator hissed.

"If I'd pulled out the checkbook," said Mel, "you'd have done that one for me.”

"That was then."

"Another day, another dollar. Lawyers don't turn down money. What's the matter? My case not good enough for you? Or is it too good?" Mel's smile was thin.

"They say," Mel continued, "now they say I dirtied the Colorado banker, forced the union pension fund into his bank because I knew the wrong guys with the right levers. Hell, you can't corrupt an honest man. Sure, I steered big loans to the bank, got a broker's fee. How the banker paid himself isn't my concern. And it wasn't my fault loans went bad -- if the guys had been made of gold, they wouldn't have needed to borrow money! Bailing out the bank, the pension fund: that's Uncle Sam's lookout, not mine."

"They don't care about you," blurted the lawyer. "You know that. You know what they want. Who. Nobody cares about you.”

"Even my old lawyer?"

"Ex-lawyer."

"What's your angle?" asked Mel. "DC ain't a bottom-line town like New York. Here everybody figures the federal cow will never run dry. But everything's got an angle, even if it ain't money. What's so important to you that you don't want your firm linked to my racketeering case? A dime-a-dozen bank fraud?"

"There was talk of drug money laundering.”

"I don't know that talk," said Mel.

"You know the people."

"I know everybody," said Mel. "That's my business.”

"You're 70 years old, Mel. The government has your nuts in their vise. You're out of business."

"Seventy-two," corrected Mel. "So you won't be my lawyer -- dumb call, but if everybody were a genius, I'd be outta business. Forget it. You and I got other things working."

"What are you talking about?"

"I represent some Louisiana rice growers. Your firm carries water for Japanese rice combines. They got my guys locked out of their country. We buy their damn cars, and—”

"You're facing prison for the rest of your life and you're lobbying me about—”

"Day I quit doing business is the day I'm done."

"I've got somebody waiting," said the lawyer. He hung up.

The phone buzzed in Mel's ear.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm a busy man, too."

Mel slumped onto an antique chair and stared at his desk with its three phones and piles of paper, a box of glazed donuts, and a drawer with a dozen checkbooks.

Then he remembered he'd forgotten to ask Ferrin if he had tickets for the inaugural at the Capitol. Or any of the galas.

"Son of a bitch wouldn't come up with them, either," Mel told the room. He knew no one who hadn't already turned down his requests for a ticket with one lame excuse or another.

The dead green eye of his color TV stared at Mel.

"Ain't needed you to see an inaugural since LBJ, and I don't need you now!" he promised the lifeless appliance.

Alone in his sunny home, with its Chinese antiques, cut flowers, and hissing radiators, Mel listened for the echoes of events unseen, the cricket clickety-click of computer keyboards in Justice's gray stone monolith on Constitution Avenue or laughter in the pink marbled Hoover building across the street. He tried to hear where his name was being spoken -- and where it wasn't. What were the whispers in New Orleans? Again he was glad that all the clocks in his home made no noise.

What were the whispers in New Orleans?

A checkbook lay on the desk, waiting for Mel to finish.

"Don't stop doing business and you don't stop doing business," he said out loud.

The place was so damn quiet, he thought, as he opened the checkbook and reached for his pen.

For 72 years, music had meant little to Mel: unavoidable noise, or the official reason you put on a tuxedo and went to Carnegie or the Kennedy Center. His wife had loved show tunes, and hell, whatever made Mimi happy, Mel liked; he gave the stuff a smile and that was enough for her. But lately, Mel had started to notice music; to hear it, and --damnedest thing, he thought -- to listen to it. Lot of days, whether he was in his office downtown or at home, Mel would use time he could be working to walk across the room and turn on a radio. He'd found a station that played just tunes, light and breezy stuff. Catchy, made you pause and. ..

Hell, he didn't know. But these days he was listening, liking it, though he had a nagging feeling that there'd been a time when he should have learned the songs. Heard words his station didn't play.

I’ll do the radio when I get up, he thought. Don't waste a trip. Another big check to the cancer people, damn their lollygagging.

A check to that woman who lobbied for kids; she knew her onions. A check for the Blacks, a check for the Jews, a check for the Arabs, a check for the Nics, Mexes, and other barrio-horns-with-shoes on U.S. soil and somebody speaking the gimmes and gotchya’s for them in DC. A stack of checks he'd carry into the office tomorrow for his secretary to mail out, cross-reference, and tax-deduct She'd paperclip one of his business cards to each check: just his name, address, and phone number, no job title.

Never limit yourself: thought Mel.

Next on his list beside the checkbook were the anti-torture people, amnesty askers. He smiled, sent them a big check, made a note for his secretary to messenger, not mail, it over.

The gorilla group. How many years ago did that start? Mel wondered. One of his Hollywood trips. His clients invited him to a screening about some crazy woman who lived in the jungle with gorillas. Mel went. Never say no to a chance to say yes. No new business came out of that screening, but damned if Mel didn't go wet-eyed when they killed the big gorilla. Ever since then, Mel had sent a yearly check to a gorilla foundation.

What the hell. It gave him clout with the tree huggers.

Besides, the whole gorilla thing exemplified a fundamental principle for Mel: You don't kill gorillas; you work a deal with them. Dead, business is over, and a smart guy can always find a new way to do business with an old associate. The movie proved his point: it made a couple of hundred million for the producers and nothing but grief for the guys who'd whacked the big gorilla. On principle, murder was shortsighted, bad business --and the smart guys knew it. In Hollywood. In DC.

In New Orleans.

The blue phone rang.

"Good morning!" said Mel, upbeat and, of course, calm.

"Ah, Mis-tah Schenck," rumbled a deep bass voice in Mel's ear. British tone, African modulation.

"Colonel Njouma," said Mel, "you've got problems'"

Bass laughter rolled through the phone into Mel's ear. He imagined Njouma -- big as a bear, bright-eyed and no-necked, top-rate British blue suit-sitting at his desk in the dinky townhouse on a side street far off Embassy Row.

"Problems are my country's greatest population:' The African sighed. "If only we had as many minerals as problems.”

"Like we discussed," Mel told him, "I made some calls. I know what you got. And what you want. Computers.”

"For purely domestic, humanitarian needs."

"Sure," said Mel.

"Why does a rich and powerful country like America have such things as" -- Njouma pronounced each word reverently -- "the Export Administrative Act of 1979 and its section 6J?"

"Not everybody knows business comes first.”

"Can you help us?"

"That's my business," said Mel. "And it is a business."

"Of course, of course.”

"If I carve a hole in the ban on trade with your country, then I get to broker the computers you buy. I get a 5 percent commission from your end on the overall purchase price, and I get it when the papers are signed-before any shipments."

Plus the 5 percent I'll charge the sellers, thought Mel.

"I think, Mis-tah Schenck, your figures are wrong.”

"It's the deal I do. Nobody else can—”

"I would not want to search America's jungles for anyone else to help my poor country, Mr. Schenck. Who better than you could I find? Even though my staff says that the cola company that once registered you as its lobbyist to Congress, the Teamsters, and even the country of Dhtamana no longer employ your services.”

"You worried about my juice?"

"Your...juice is your juice, Mr. Schenck. If it can bring you what you need, you will receive what you want.”

"Clients come and go, Colonel. Not every trip is on the books:'

The colonel chuckled.

"What's your beef with my numbers?" asked Mel. "It's no skin off your back."

"Such an American saying is delicate to a person from my country," replied Njouma. "If you check your calculations, you will perhaps find that your commission is 7 percent. Not 5.”

"Ah," said Mel. "And the two extra points: you can provide a bank account number for their transfer?"

"Two numbers," said the colonel. Mel imagined Njouma's shrug as he said, "A point each. My cousin, the president—”

"A deal's a deal," said Mel. "You got one;”

"Splendid;”

"If…”

"If?"

"Your cousin, the president, is our problem."

"We must be most careful here;”

"If he'd been careful, we wouldn't have our deal," said Mel. "Section 6J is the human rights clause, gross violations of all international standards."

"Terrorism requires stem action;”

"About 10,000 of your people are in prison, and from what I hear, terror is what they got;”

"Prison is never a pleasant place;”

"Don't give me that shit!" blurted Mel.

What the hell? he thought. Where did that. ..

"Mr. Schenck—”

"Sorry," said Mel. "Something must've been on my mind. "Look, we gotta get the striped pants at State to loosen up, to certify to the bean counters at Commerce that your country has seen the light -- or is at least looking. You need to budge to move Uncle Sam."

"Budge?"

"I need a budge to make the fix."

"What kind of. ..budge?"

"Your cousin's gotta get some bodies free. Women and kids would be nice. Plus announce reforms, fair trial, procedures -- you know the list, you've been hearing it for years;”

"Announcements, good intentions, these are possible, but my cousin, he is a very cautious man."

"He's a president without computers or any other good shit from America," said Mel. "How much caution is that?"

The colonel kept Mel waiting almost a minute while he calculated. "How. ..how may bodies?" asked Njouma.

"At least a thousand. Two thousand would be best;”

"I will tell the president I bargained you down to 800. Then he can perhaps accept;”

"That's his choice; it's his deal. Another thing;”

"I thought we had the done deal."

"This is advice. The day your president announces the reforms, have him organize a big bonfire. Burn a bunch of those electric cattle prods. Be sure to invite our embassy people and all the foreign reporters you can.”

Njouma laughed. "An excellent idea!"

"That's how I make my money." Mel bit down firmly; the denture seemed to be holding.

"By the way," he said, "you're invited to a party I'm throwing in a suite at the Watergate this afternoon. It's cold outside, and we'll need to warm up after the swearing-in and before the ball;”

"Unfortunately, even our ambassador... Well, between the smallness of our country and the largeness of your government's anger. ..We received no tickets to the inaugural.”

"Too bad," sighed Mel, scenarios dissolving. "Don't worry if I'm late. Traffic getting back from these things can be murder.

"You could bring your wife, of course," said Mel. "And the ambassador. Make him feel like he wasn't forgotten.”

Njouma thanked him, promised to attend, and hung up.

The new suburban Virginia phone number Mel wanted he'd already gotten from directory assistance; the guy hadn't learned to be unlisted. Yet.

"Hello?" said the woman who answered Mel's call. Midwest twang and probably pretty; tired, excited, nervous.

"Good morning. It's Mel Schenck for Dave Jasper.”

"Ah...I'll get him."

Too soon for her to have a list, Mel knew. In the background, he heard a teenage girl whine: "But it wasn't my idea to move to Washington!"

"This is David Jasper," said a tenor.

"Dave, Mel Schenck. Burt Harris over at the National Committee told me to call you."

"Uh-huh," said Jasper, suspecting something close to the truth, that Harris had merely told Mel who'd been given the germane political appointment. Still, the new man in Washington couldn't keep the edge of excitement out of his voice. He was being called!

"I gotta talk fast because the limo will be here any second," said Mel. "When Harris told me you guys were scrambling for things to do in the First 100 Days Into the Future program the man's going to announce in his speech, he said this would be perfect.”

"I don't know you, Mister—”

"Schenck, Mel Schenck. I been around forever and gonna stay a little longer. Deal is—”

"I'm not buying.”

"I'm not selling. Truth is, I'm doing a payback, and you're the guy who's supposed to catch."

The specter of duty silenced the new Deputy Under Assistant Secretary of State for International Affairs. He knew how to run a steel company in receivership and he knew that a smart man never shuts his ears without knowing the source; but for this town, he secretly feared he didn't understand the game.

"Nutshell time," said Mel, checking his notes. "Tahroo is an African country the size of Wyoming with 20 times the people and nothing we want. Dictator's named Moirisa Ndiaye, you've heard of him, right?"

"I'm listening."

"He's a real ball buster. But this is a hell of an opportunity for the administration to get off with a bang -- and a chance for you to be the guy with his finger on the trigger."

"What—”

"I was going to talk to you about this today at the Capitol," said Mel, "but hell, the ceremony is no place for business, and besides, I couldn't be sure to find you in the crowd.

"Basically," Mel continued, "I'm putting something together to get the human rights people hepped up for your team and help our balance of payments mess. Your bureau at State certifies for section 6J-the torture stuff. With my connections, I think we can persuade President Ndiaye to free about 500 political prisoners from his hellholes -- and get your administration all the credit! They'll eat it up on the Hill!"

"Persuade how?" Jasper had been a businessman before he became a diplomat. He understood deals.

"Don't give them what they want; just ease up on 6J a little. No military trade. Business stuff. Office machines, wheat -- the farm lobby'll love that.”

"And he'll free 500 prisoners?"

"I can try for that number.”

"Who'll complain about this?"

"That's the beauty of it!" said Mel. "Nobody! I'll get the amnesty group to ask State for the modification as a gesture of reciprocated goodwill. They'll get 500 free bodies, so they'll love it. Keep any heat off you, put you in great light."

Plus whatever computer company I go to will turn its lobbyists loose on your people, thought Mel.

"It's a win-win." he told Jasper.

"What do you win?" asked Jasper.

"Whole truth?" said Mel. "Door opens over there, maybe I can arrange some business for me. I'm a lone old man, but I'm nobody's fool. And if I open doors for you guys, maybe someday you'll open a door for me.”

"Government is not about barter," said the public servant.

"Of course not," said Mel. "We're talking about common interests for the common good.”

"Look, I'm dressing now and if..."

"Don't worry about if I'll line up all the ducks by next week, all official, all kosher, all smiles for everybody.”

"Well—”

"Hey, I gotta go, the limo's here. You get a chance, swing by the Watergate for the party I'm throwing after the parade. I'll put you on the list. Don't worry if you can't make it. I'll give your best to Burt Harris, steal a dance with your pretty wife at the White House tonight, okay?"

The diplomat grunted his farewell, and Mel hung up.

Two bites into a glazed donut, he remembered. Picked up the red phone, then slid open his desk drawer. The lights on the security box still said no one was tapping any of his lines.

Beyond the dial tone, he heard the ghost of the FBI agent who'd sat on MeI's couch and said: We'll drop you in Lorton, general population. Your outside pals won't pick up any tabs for you. The homeboys will use you for a toothpick.

"The hell you say!" Mel yelled to the empty couch.

Forget that. Won't happen. Won't.

Can't.

He knew the number he called by heart; he knew a thousand phone numbers by heart. Forty-seven years earlier, the number of the pay phone on the wall in the woman's boardinghouse behind the Capitol had been MA 4444. One of the other young congres- sional typists would answer, yell "Mimi!" and she'd run down the hall to pick up the dangling receiver.

The number Mel dialed answered on the third ring.

"Hello?" A throaty woman's voice; she could be talking from her bed, but she wasn't asleep.

"Ellen, how the hell are you! It's Mel."

"Never too busy for you," she purred. "I've got three nice girls booked in for your party.

"Always take three," she confided. "Two look like a couple, three work the room. What about four?"

"Nah," laughed Mel. "My heart couldn't take it.”

"Honey, I don't do the heart.”

They laughed, then he said: "If anyone could, Ellen, it'd be you. No, I got some new embassy guys coming. Africans."

"They on your tab?"

"Not unless I give the nod. I buy the intro, the rest is up to them.

"You got any blonds?" he added.

"That only takes an hour.”

"But classy, right? I mean, I've invited two handfuls of congressmen, bunch of moneybags, and a judge. Some of 'em might bring a wife along, and I don't want any...I want discreet."

"Discreet enough. Better make it five," she added. "That's it, though. I'm booked out. And no overnighters. Elections always make me more business than I can handle."

"The business my guests do is their business," said Mel. As casually as he could, he asked: "Any of your girls get some freebies for the day?"

"Freebies? Honey, what are you talking about?"

"You know, some big shot who gives a ticket to the inaugural or a ball as kind of like a tip?"

"That shit goes to the wives. Why?"

"Oh, I, ah ...my tickets got wrapped up in a deal and—”

"And you gotta be seen on the street or risk being history."

"Nah," said Mel. Her words slid through his ribs like a knife.

They both knew he lied.

"Can't help you there, but tell you what, Mel. I got a girl, classy. Wants a one-nighter, one date, no strange. She owes me, and hell, I owe you—”

"We've always been square," said Mel.

"Come on, do it for me. You can't hang alone forever.”

"I wasn't," he said.

They finished their business with amenities.

Mel stared at his three phones that weren't ringing. He glanced at the mantel, at the silver-framed photo of his wife.

"I told you to quit smoking'" he yelled.

In the picture, her smile stayed the same.

A chill stroked him amidst the steamy heat. Ferrin was right. They had him. Mel knew he'd been careless, cocky and shaky at the same time, desperate to make the deal work, to come back from being the guy whose partners were doing time. From being the guy who'd finally slipped up, dominoed Vincent Testa into Lompoc -- and lived to walk free down the courthouse steps. This time, in the Colorado banking deal, Mel had worked so hard to prove himself standup and savvy that he'd stepped on his own dick. Again. Mel remembered phone calls. Wire transfers. Signed papers. Saying too much at this meeting, going to that one when he didn't have to, when he should have let it ride.

Trust! Hell, the feds probably owned the banker. Maybe dealt in a rat from the get-go. Videotapes.

"I ain't a Hollywood kind of guy," Mel joked to the crowd that wasn't there.

Mimi had been so pretty the day they'd had that picture taken! Reagan had been president. Things had looked better than ever. They hadn't been to the doctor in years.

They'd take the picture from him in prison. Not the guards. The losers.

I'm not a loser! he silently screamed. I can't be a loser! No fire can burn me down!

Or they'd draw on it. Crackwise and dirty-mouthed about a toothpick old man and his beautiful old lady's picture taped to the stone wall by his bunk. One way or another, they'd take the picture away from him.

"You can't lose what's in your heart," Mel prayed to the room, touching his chest with his fingertips, just as he had that last night in the hospital room when she couldn't hear or see him anymore, when only the humming machines had listened to his tears fall on the sheet.

Vincent Testa. The Kingfish.

Two weeks after the Kansas City trial that had been Testa's first conviction since he'd finagled a murder down to assault in '55, they'd met at his home outside New Orleans, the afternoon heavy with Louisiana heat. The Kingfish had sat in his frigidly air-conditioned office and watched his Washington connection for three decades sit in the hard chair on the other side of the mahogany desk.

And sweat.

" 's not your fault," Vincent Testa had finally told Mel. "These things. ..business."

"It was our kind of deal!" blurted Mel. "I keep telling you, I didn't know he was rat!"

Testa had touched his massive chest with cupped fingers, exactly as Mel had that night in the hospital room.

"I know," said Testa. "I don't blame you."

Then he'd pointed his meaty forefinger toward heaven and shook it at Mel. Just a little. Principal to schoolboy.

"Thank you!" said Mel. "I know. ..I mean. ..thank—”

"This kinda thing," Testa had drawled, Dixie courting Sicily in his gravelly voice, "it's like we should do more business! You're a certified innocent man!"

No one in that room had laughed louder than Mel.

"I'm an innocent man," Mel whispered to his steamy Washington home. To Mimi's smiling picture.

The doorbell rang.

The furnace man, thought Mel. A half-dozen phone calls to the manager later, the furnace man finally shows up.

"It's about time!" he yelled as he padded to the door. The hell with getting a bathrobe! Let him see what he'd done.

The radiators hissed as Mel swung open his door.

There were two men. They wore suits. Topcoats thrown over their arms. And smiles.

"How you doin', Mel?" said the man on the left. He had a great smile. Perfect teeth. Dark curly hair and a suntanned complexion. His name was Johnny Carmine, and the last time Mel had seen him was at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. Before the Colorado bank deal. Johnny had been the elbow man for his uncle, Salvadore Carmine, and Sal had summoned Mel down to New Orleans to explain how things are now, now that Kingfish Vincent Testa was spending a lot of time in the infirmary at Lompoc Correctional Institution.

Where Mel had put him.

"Nobody blames you, of course," Sal had told Mel.

Johnny had smiled.

Mel had shrugged.

And he knew that though Sal was the boss, Johnny had planned the early Monday morning meeting. Smart Johnny. A great elbow man. The Cafe du Monde, a tourist draw, a classic spot, an impossible rig for an FBI bug. Cinnamon walls, mirrored trim and chrome coffee urns, sunlight coming through the walls of French doors, ceiling fans whirling 30 feet overhead. Lots of chatter. Longtime waiters and waitresses in white shirts and black pants; no funny faces. Folks from Des Moines and shop girls with great legs and clicking heels who worked up the street in those new nationally franchised chain stores that were ruining the Quarter, as far as Mel was concerned. Steaming mugs of cafe au lait, saucers with powdered-sugared beignets.

And business. About how things are now.

One busted bank deal later, here was Johnny Carmine, ringing Mel's doorbell. With a stranger.

Blink, then Mel smiled and said, "Johnny! What are you doing here? Where's Sal?"

At the far end of the hall outside Met's condo, the gray-haired black nurse to the widow of a wealthy cabinet official in the Eisenhower administration was unlocking the widow's door, afraid that today would be the day she'd find her patient dead. The nurse glanced over her shoulder, saw two men standing in front of an open apartment door. Suddenly, the head and shoulders -- the naked shoulders -- of a wispy, white-haired white man popped between the two men in suits, twisted both ways to look up and down the hall like some ventriloquist's dummy, then popped back out of sight. The nurse frowned and let herself inside the widow's apartment. She heard the widow yell: `Is that you, Pearl?’

"What are you doing here, Johnny?" asked Mel. The hall was empty now. The nurse was gone-but she'd seen them.

Johnny Carmine smiled and spread his arms wide. "Aren't you going to ask us in?"

"Sure, sure." Mel backed into his home.

They followed.

"You know Rene? Rene Delgado?" asked Johnny, nodding toward the man beside him. They were inside.

Rene Delgado was taller than Johnny. Younger. Lean. There was a calmness about him, a stillness. His complexion was more copper than Johnny's, and his black hair held no curl. Rene's smile was polite, empty. Mel felt gravity in Rene's black eyes. He smelled of lime cologne. Rene wrapped his bare hand around Mel's shiny brass doorknob and gently shut the door.

"Never had the pleasure of making your acquaintance," Rene told Mel, and shook his hand with a strong, dry grip.

"He's all right, " Johnny told Mel.

"Everybody's all right," said Mel.

"We should talk about that," replied Johnny.

"Talk? Talk about what?"

"He's not dressed," said Rene.

"You got somebody here, Mel?" asked Johnny. "You banging a broad, want us to leave, come back a more convenient time?"

"No, nor' said Mel. "I'm alone -- I mean, nobody else is here -- yet. Not here yet."

"Ah," said Johnny.

"Nice place," said Rene, breathing in the steamy air. His eyes pulled at the French impressionist paintings on Mel's walls, the shelves of oriental figures, the piles of books and papers by the antique table desk.

"The heat's broken all to hell,” snapped his host.

"No, coos-en," drawled Rene. "It's nice. Like home."

"You can take the Creole out of the swamp, but you can't take the swamp out of the Creole," said Johnny. He shook his head. "Half-breeds.”

"Yeah," said Mel.

"Is that coffee I smell?" asked Johnny, crossing the room, heading toward the antique desk where the high-tech thermos-percolator sat -- and the phones. Moving between Mel and the desk.

The blue phone rang.

Quick as a bunny, Mel darted around Johnny, scurried past his sofa and coffee table, made it to the desk by the windows, and had his hand on the blue phone by its second ring.

"Mel Schenck!" he blurted into the phone.

"Mr. Schenck, it's Patrick Handley," said the man who'd called.

"Hello, Congressman!" said Mel. Loudly. Phone in hand, beaming at his two visitors. Look at me. Pay attention.

Johnny Carmine tossed his cashmere camel overcoat onto a chair, settled on the couch. Rene Delgado carefully draped his navy-blue topcoat on the outstretched arm of a five-foot-tall, 16th-century statue of the Hindu goddess Siva; she held the weight. Rene brushed imaginary lint off his suit. He stood by the mantel, let his eyes pull in Mimi's picture.

Mel's guests smiled at him as he talked on the phone.

"I'm afraid you're mistaken," said Mel's caller.

"I'm who I am and you're who you are," Mel told him.

"Not anymore," said Patrick Handley. "Not by a 1.4 percent. margin. One thousand forty-five votes.

"I'm in my office today," he continued. "My ex-office. His boxes are here. Mine are gone. Got till noon to.. .Just came by to pick up the last of my mail. Used to get 1,100 letters a week. Today, six bills, a pension notice -- and your letter.”

"Glad you got it," said Mel, leaning on the last word, "Congressman."

"That's. ..Look, I think you made a mistake."

"Mistakes aren't my business," said Mel.

"This check...I mean, $500 to the election committee of a guy's who's lost?"

"That's a temporary reversal," Mel told him. Careful, he told himself, choose the words you say carefully. "You're going to get back on track, mark my words.”

"You mean run again?"

"Absolutely. Can't keep either of us down.”

"You're the only one who seems to think so. My phone's never been so quiet And when I call...Well, I get a little nice and a lot of too bad. If anybody happens to be in.”

"I'm always here for you.”

"I only met you once. That dinner...I just...why?"

"A good man is worth his weight in gold." Mel licked his lips; they were dry and flecked with sweetness from the glazed donuts. He made his eyes drift away from Johnny, from Rene. “If you forget that, you're a fool.

"And I, for one," said Mel, "am not a fool.”

"I don't know much about what you are, Mr. Schenck, but you're the guy who didn't forget me. If I make it back here—”

"You will," said Mel. "Bank on it.”

"I won't forget you, either," said Handley.

"Well," said Mel, much louder than he needed to, "they say it's who you know that counts, and you can count on me.

"Listen," he added, "I'm throwing a party at the Watergate. After the speech. Drop by. There's some people you should meet."

"That's the only invitation I've... hell of a deal, huh?"

"Yeah," said Mel, "hell of a deal:' He listened while the congressman said: "Thanks again" and "Good-bye:' Hung up.

Into the dead phone, Mel said: "No problem, Congressman. I'll take care of you, you take care of me. And my best to your wife. See you this afternoon.”

The radiators hissed.

Mel hung up and turned to beam at his visitors.

"That was a congressman," he told them. Shrugged. "I helped him out of a jam. Again.”

Mel put his right hand into an imaginary front pants pocket and patted the side of his boxer shorts.

Johnny laughed. Then Rene. And Mel.

"Come sit, Mel," said Johnny, offering Mel the hospitality of his own home. "Talk a while."

Mel sat in the easy chair where he could watch Johnny on the couch to his left and Rene standing by the mantel to his right. They were between him and the door. He pressed his bare knees together. Sweat ran down his sides.

"I gotta ask," said Mel, "how's Vincent? I heard that thing with his stomach was better.”

Johnny held his hand out, wiggled it. "Vinnie Testa, he is where he is."

An elbow man like Johnny was supposed to say "Mr. Testa."

"The Kingfisher," said Johnny. He laughed.

"Two years," said Mel. "He'll be out and better."

"Two years is two years," said Johnny. "And Testa's an old man."

"How old are you, Mel?" asked Rene from his post by the mantel.

Johnny answered. "Mel goes way back, don't you, Mel?"

"Long enough to know everybody," said Mel. "Everybody:'

"Yeah," said Johnny. "Mel got tired of selling his old map's suits, doing deals on the side. He was working some kind of grift with government bucks right after Kennedy got whacked.”

"Expediter," said Mel, enunciating the title he'd made up for the countless government forms, "in the War on Poverty."

"Hey, Rene, listen to that, would you? That's history, that is. History. That's our Mel.

"The poverty war," he added. "That's when you and old man Testa started doing business together, wasn't it? Hustlin' grocery programs."

"We did business before you were born." Mel tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but he heard the edge.

If Johnny heard it, he made no sign.

"You know what gets me?" said Johnny. "In this town, they're always rappin' on friends of ours whenever there's a little dust up. 'Mob war,' they call it. Give it a rap. And this town, this is the town of a hundred wars! The War on Poverty! The War on Drugs! War on Illiteracy! Hypocrites!"

"You're a lot smarter than this, Johnny," said Mel. Rip the cards, take the risk. Too late for any other play. "Where's Sal? Nice to see you, but why are you here?"

"Sal's in the hotel," answered Johnny, his voice flat. "It's a big day in DC. Big changes. New guy on top, old guys…”

Johnny trailed off and Renl: chimed in, right on the beat: "What happens to the old guys, Mel?"

"They stick around and take care of business," he said, keeping his eyes on Johnny. "What are you taking care of?"

"We're passing through," said Johnny. "We'll be in New York tomorrow.”

"They’re are better plane connections. Why didn't Sal drop by?"

"Well, first, he thought maybe we should have a talk.”

"The Justice Department roust you guys, too??' said Mel. Beat 'em to the punch.

"Not yet," said Johnny, maximum cool, not even looking at Rene, who stood by the mantel. Rene didn't blink. “We heard they're waiting for something."

"What?" said Mel, knowing the worst.

"You," said Johnny.

"Then they got a long wait," said Mel. "I'm gonna skate. Hell, soon as I had it in place, soon as I knew they weren't following me and tapping my bills, I was going to set up a meet with Sal deal him into the lock.”

"Sal trusted you," said Johnny. "Even after you fucked Testa. Everybody figured it was a fluke. The dealer gets dealt a joker, he's an old man the jury likes, he walks when everybody else goes away. Fluke. So when things settled down, when the changes got in place, my uncle bought your deal with the Colorado bank. Took the meets. Worked the union for the pension fund. Trusted the loans you and the lasers set up and brokered in. All that was fine. Swell."

"Until," said Mel.

"Yeah, until." Johnny leaned forward. "A friend of ours at Justice passed on the news. And he says it's bad -- for you. For my uncle.”

"Not if everybody holds their mud."

"That's the big if," said Johnny.

Outrage carefully flashed through Mel's voice: "Does Sal think I'm gonna turn rat?"

He kept his eyes wide, his mouth open in dismay.

And saw they weren't buying it.

"You're an old man who deals," said Johnny. "Even Testa says so.”

The earth crumbled under Mel's chair, but he flashed triumph on his face.

"And that's how I'm gonna beat them!" he yelled, his mind racing.

Rene looked at Johnny. Blinked.

''It's beautiful! It's perfect, and it'll work only because I am who I am!"

He looked from man to man, coaxing their encouragement, while he pushed his tongue against his upper plate and worked his jaw from side to side.

"The deal is...' he said.

And his plate finally fell down.

" 'th a min'thl"

Mel cupped his hand over his mouth and scurried to the bathroom, where the bright mirrored glare would buy him time to think. If he had time.

Behind Mel, Rene flowed from the mantel and into the bedroom. Mel felt Rene's eyes on his back while he squeezed the peppermint adhesive on the plate, his mind racing.

Rene looked out to the living room. Johnny still sat on the couch. Rene shrugged.

"This isn't the place," said Johnny. Quietly.

Rene waited in the bedroom, walked Mel back to his seat.

"This is it," said Mel. "The best, smartest arrangement I ever came up with in my whole life. There's even room in it for Sal to make some money!"

"Don't jerk us around," said Johnny.

"The feds are putting on the heat, but they haven't indicted me -- they don't want to mess with my juice! Hell, I'll be up at the inaugural today, gabbing with the new Attorney General! You don't fuck with a man who knows people like that!"

Rene flicked his eyes to Johnny.

"The deal is, if they go to indict, they'll find out my lawyer walked. I made him walk. Change in counsel buys me six, seven months, and they don't want a long case."

"We don't want any case."

"But they won't even indict!" says Mel. "You know why?"

"Do you?" asked Rene.

"Of course!" lied Mel. "Because I just locked myself into the government!"

"You think that will make you popular with my uncle?"

“And you think that’ll make you shine for my uncle?”

"All the government ain't badges," said Mel. "Some of it's moneybags. And national security. And that's the top hand.”

"We understand security," said Rene.

"I'm the key man in a foreign-aid deal with a strategic African country that we're dying to swing over to our side. Without me, the whole deal goes south. Which will piss off every- body, including the State Department and the Pentagon and the National Security Council and the White House and the damn Africans! Some do-gooders, too! They all need me! And all those big guys carry more than enough water to drown any FBI heat!

"What's more," added Mel, on a roll, stabbing toward Johnny with a skinny forefinger. "I can cut Sal in on the deal, set him up to sell the Africans surplus computers at guaranteed top dollar!"

"You're such a bullshitter," said Johnny.

But Mel heard a waver in his voice.

"That's how Washington works," said Mel. "That's why you guys need me, that's why we do business, that's why Sal was right to send you guys to talk to me.”

That made Rene blink.

Time! thought Mel. All I need is time. To work a real deal. I can do that! I can do this!

"How you going to prove this to me?" said Johnny.

"I don't have to prove anything to you," said Mel. When the door is open, push like you're already inside. "It's Sal's deal. Or maybe my oId friend Mister Vincent Testa's.

"But just to show you I'm a man of good faith," Mel quickly added, leaning forward, tapping Johnny on the knee, the salesman's touch, "I'm going to let Sal meet the players.”

"You think he's nuts enough to—”

"Weren't you listening to me on the phone?" snapped Mel. "That was a congressman! He's coming to the reception I'm throwing for the African diplomats! Sal’s in town. He can breeze in, meet everybody! If he thinks I'm bullshitting, let him come down to the Watergate -- he's heard of that! Let Sal fade me there.”

Let them float, thought Mel. Cut 'em loose, let 'em float. Then they’ll think where you meet 'em is their idea.

"You don't want to bullshit us," Johnny finally said.

"In 50 years," Mel said truthfully, "I never have."

Which he knew they had to figure on. Which had to be one more item on the side of the scales. After all, they were businessmen, and Mel was a complex component of cost, profit and loss. The more complex, the better for Mel.

"These Washington things. ..always hard for a guy in the real country to figure.”

"That's why you got me," said Mel.

"I don't know," said Johnny. "We had to find out what we had to know, and I don't know."

"You know me," said Mel. "I'm a standup guy.”

"Yeah, and now we know the guy at Justice was right about the feds squeezing you. You were smart to cough that up."

"I didn't cough it up. I gave it to you. The hell with the feds. I'm like a nickel: they squeeze me, all they get is sweat.”

The men from New Orleans laughed.

Got 'em! thought Mel.

"What do you think, Rene?" asked Johnny.

Rene shrugged.

"Maybe we should let you talk to Sal," said Johnny.

"Call him up! Have him come over!"

"Hey!" said Rene. "Sal can't do streets without me.”

"It's just the three of us in town," said Johnny. "Don't want to draw attention. Just check on this, go up to the city.”

"You could come by the hotel," said Rene.

"You heard me on the phone. I got a party! I gotta go watch the guy who was and the one who is wave to the TV cameras! I'm expected!"

"I can clear up you and the FBI with my uncle," said Johnny. "Probably. If I'm satisfied he's covered, he's covered. But this African deal, he keeps his hands on the money.”

"That's why he's got the respect of Mister Testa and me and everybody.”

"Yeah.”

The uncle was tough and touchy, but he wasn't as smart as Johnny. If I'm past Johnny, thought Mel, I'm almost home.

"This party," said Rene. "You know Sal won't go. He don't mix well. But we're here overnight. There going to be any action there?"

"Am I nuts or what?" said Mel.

They laughed.

"You got something going?" asked Rene.

"My wife's been dead 10 years," answered Mel. "The memories are there."

"You do some Hollywood stuff," said Rene. "The guys said. Hollywood stars like it, this politics shit. Like that blond-what's her name? The skinny one."

"I know who you mean," lied Mel.

"She going to be there?"

"Better," said Mel. "And I'll fix you up persona!.”

"Coos-en!"

."First," said Johnny, "you go work the deal with Sa!.”

"I only got an hour, less.”

"Mel, you could sell glasses to a blind man in an hour."

They laughed.

"I'll get dressed," said Mel, standing. He wiped his brow. "I'm sweating like a pig."

"Hot in here," said Rene.

Mel went into the bedroom. Johnny stayed on the couch, looking at nothing. Rene walked around the living room, looking at Mel in pictures with famous politicians Rene didn't recognize.

Five minutes, and Mel joined them.

"How do I look?"

Blue shirt, navy pants, a gray checked blazer. A red silk handkerchief decorated his jacket pocket. He'd wiped his brow, stood firm in his black tasseled shoes. Mel was who he was; he had to be.

"Fine, coos, fine," said Rene, walking over to Mel. "Except for this."

He plucked the red silk handkerchief from Mel's pocket.

"You know Sal, he's a country kind of guy. Thinks flashy is fancy-pantsing him. I'll take care of this for you.”

The red silk handkerchief disappeared into Rene's pocket.

Mel said nothing.

"Better get a coat," said Johnny, standing, picking up his. "It's hot as hell in here but cold outside."

"You got taxi money, Mel?" asked Rene, lifting his topcoat off Siva's arm. "We don't wanna have to ride you back."

"You got a car?" said Mel, frowning.

"Privacy," said Johnny, waiting by the door.

"You know my uncle hates cabs.”

Rene walked Mel to the door.

"Be sure I know how to get to the party," said Rene.

"Sure," said Mel. "I can arrange that.”

"You can arrange anything, right?" said Johnny, leading Mel out into the hall.

Mel didn't answer as Johnny led him to the elevators.

For a moment, Rene stood in the open door and looked back into the empty home. His mouth broke into a dark grin of silent laughter. Just before he let the door swing shut, he used Mel's red silk handkerchief to carefully wipe the doorknob clean.

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