There was a fourth fax, a photo of Thomas Callahan, just for the record.
He placed his feet on the desk. It was almost nine-thirty, Tuesday. The newsroom hummed and rocked like a well-organized riot. He'd made eighty phone calls in the last twenty-four hours, and had nothing to show but the four photos and a stack of campaign finance forms. He was getting nowhere, and, really, why bother? She was about to tell all.
He skimmed the Post, and saw the strange story about one Gavin Verheek and his demise. The phone rang. It was Darby.
"Seen the Post?" she asked.
"I write the Post, remember."
She was not in the mood for small talk. "The story about the FBI lawyer murdered in New Orleans, have you seen it?"
I'm just reading it. Does it mean something to you?"
You could say that. Listen carefully, Grantham. Callahan gave the brief to Verheek, who was his best friend. Friday, Verheek came to New Orleans for the funeral. I talked to him by phone over the weekend. He wanted to help me, but I was scared. We agreed to meet yesterday at noon. Verheek was murdered in his room around eleven Sunday night. Got all that?"
"Yeah, I got it."
"Verheek didn't show for our meeting. He was, of course, dead by then. I got scared, and left the city. I'm in New York."
"Okay." Grantham wrote furiously. "Who killed Verheek?"
"I do not know. There's a lot more to the story. I've read the Post and the New York Times from front to back, and I've seen nothing about another killing in New Orleans. It happened to a man I was talking to and I thought was Verheek. It's a long story."
"Sounds like it. When do I get this long story?"
"When can you come to New York?"
"I can be there by noon."
"That's a little quick. Let's plan on tomorrow. I'll call you at this time tomorrow with instructions. You must be careful, Grantham."
He admired the jeans and the smile on the corkboard. "It's Gray, okay? Not Grantham."
"Whatever. There are some powerful people afraid of what I know. If I tell you, it could kill you. I've seen the bodies, okay, Gray? I've heard bombs and gunshots. I saw a man's brains yesterday, and I have no idea who he was or why he was killed, except that he knew about the pelican brief. I thought he was my friend. I trusted him with my life, and he was shot in the head in front of fifty people. As I watched him die, it occurred to me that perhaps he was not my friend. I read the paper this morning, and I realize he was definitely not my friend."
"Who killed him?"
"We'll talk about it when you get here."
"There's one small point to cover. I'll tell you everything I know, but you can never use my name. I've already written enough to get at least three people killed, and I'm quite confident I'll be next. But I don't want to ask for more trouble. I shall always be unidentified, okay, Gray?"
"It's a deal."
"I'm putting a lot of trust in you, and I'm not sure why. If I ever doubt you, I'll disappear."
"You have my word, Darby. I swear."
"I think you're making a mistake. This is not your average investigative job. This one could get you killed."
"By the same people who killed Rosenberg and Jensen?"
"Do you know who killed Rosenberg and Jensen?"
"I know who paid for the killings. I know his name. I know his business. I know his politics."
"And you'll tell me tomorrow?"
"If I'm still alive." There was a long pause as both thought of something appropriate.
"Perhaps we should talk immediately," he said.
"Perhaps. But I'll call you in the morning."
Grantham hung up, and for a moment admired the slightly blurred photo of this very beautiful law student who was convinced she was about to die. For a second he succumbed to thoughts of chivalry and gallantry and rescue. She was in her early twenties, liked older men, according to the photo of Callahan, and suddenly she trusted him to the exclusion of all others. He would make it work. And he would protect her.
THE MOTORCADE moved quietly out of downtown. He was due for a speech at College Park in an hour, and he relaxed in his limo with his jacket off, reading the words Mabry had put together. He shook his head and wrote in the margins. On a normal day, this would be a pleasant drive out of the city to a beautiful campus for a light little speech, but it wasn't working out. Coal was seated next to him in the limo.
The Chief of Staff routinely avoided these trips. He treasured the moments the President was out of the White House and he had the run of the place. But they needed to talk.
"I'm tired of Mabry's speeches," the President said in frustration.They're all sounding the same. I swear I gave this one last week at the Rotary convention."
"He's the best we've got, but I'm exploring," Coal said without looking up from his memo. He'd read the speech, and it wasn't that bad. But Mabry had been writing for six months, and the ideas were stale and Coal wanted to fire him anyway.
The President glanced at Coal's memo. "What's that?"
"The short list."
"Siler-Spence, Watson, and Calderon." Coal flipped a page.
"That's just great, Fletcher. A woman, a black, and a Cuban. Whatever happened to white men? I thought I said I wanted young white men. Young, tough, conservative judges with impeccable credentials and years to live. Didn't I say that?"
Coal kept reading. "They have to be confirmed, Chief."
"We'll get 'em confirmed. I'll twist arms until they break, but they'll be confirmed. Do you realize that nine of every ten white men in this country voted for me?"
"Right. So what's wrong with white men?"
"This is not exactly patronage."
"The hell it's not. It's patronage pure and simple. I reward my friends, and I punish my enemies. That's how you survive in politics. You dance with the ones that brought you. I can't believe you want a female and a black. You're getting soft, Fletcher."
Coal flipped another page. He'd heard this before. "I'm more concerned with reelection," he said quietly.
"And I'm not? I've appointed so many Asians and Hispanics and women and blacks you'd think I was a Democrat. Hell, Fletcher, what's wrong with white people? Look, there must be a hundred good, qualified, conservative judges out there, right? Why can't you find just two, only two, who look and think like I do?"
"You got ninety percent of the Cuban vote."
The President tossed the speech in a seat and picked up the morning's Post. "Okay, let's go with Calderon. How old is he?"
"Fifty-one. Married, eight kids, Catholic, poor background, worked his way through Yale, very solid. Very conservative. No warts or skeletons, except he was treated for alcoholism twenty years ago. He's been sober since. A teetotaler."
"Has he ever smoked dope?"
"He denies it."
"I like him." The President was reading the front page.
"So do I. Justice and FBI have checked his underwear, and he's very clean. Now, do you want Siler-Spence or Watson?"
"What kind of name is Siler-Spence? I mean, what's wrong with these women who use hyphens? What if her name was Skowinski, and she married a guy named Levondowski? Would her little liberated soul insist she go through life as F. Gwendolyn Skowinski-Levondowski? Give me a break. I'll never appoint a woman with a hyphen."
"You already have."
"Kay Jones-Roddy, ambassador to Brazil."
"Then call her home and fire her."
Coal managed a slight grin and placed the memo on the seat. He watched the traffic through his window. They would decide on number two later. Calderon was in the bag, and he wanted Linda Siler-Spence, so he would keep pushing the black and force the President to the woman. Basic manipulation.
"I think we should wait another two weeks before announcing them," he said.
"Whatever," the President mumbled as he read a story on page one. He would announce them when he got ready, regardless of Coal's timetable. He was not yet convinced they should be announced together.
"Judge Watson is a very conservative black judge with a reputation for toughness. He would be ideal."
"I don't know," the President mumbled as he read about Gavin Verheek.
Coal had seen the story on page two. Verheek was found dead in a room at the Hilton in New Orleans under strange circumstances. According to the story, official FBI was in the dark and had nothing to say about why Verheek was in New Orleans. Voyles was deeply saddened. Fine, loyal employee, etc.
The President flipped through the paper. "Our friend Grantham has been quiet."
"He's digging. I think he's heard of the brief, but just can't get a handle on it. He's called everyone in town, but doesn't know what to ask. He's chasing rabbits."
"Well, I played golf with Gminski yesterday," the President said smugly. "And he assures me everything's under control. We had a real heart-to-heart talk over eighteen holes. He's a horrible golfer, couldn't stay out of the sand and water. It was funny, really."
Coal had never touched a golf club, and hated the idle chatter about handicaps and such. "Do you think Voyles is investigating down there?"
"No. He gave me his word he would not. Not that I trust him, but Gminski didn't mention Voyles."
"How much do you trust Gminski?" Coal asked with a quick glance and frown at the President.
"None. But if he knew something about the pelican brief, I think he would tell me" The President's words trailed off, and he knew he sounded naive.
Coal grunted his disbelief.
They crossed the Anacostia River and were in Prince Georges County. The President picked up the speech and looked out his window. Two weeks after the killings, and the ratings were still above fifty percent. The Democrats had no visible candidate out there making noise. He was strong and getting stronger. Americans were tired of dope and crime, and noisy minorities getting all the attention, and liberal idiots interpreting the Constitution in favor of criminals and radicals. This was his moment. Two nominations to the Supreme Court at the same time. It would be his legacy.
He smiled to himself. What a wonderful tragedy.
THE TAXI stopped abruptly at the corner of Fifth and
Fifty-second, and Gray, doing exactly what he was told, paid quickly and jumped out with his bag. The car behind was honking and flipping birds, and he thought how nice it was to be back in New York City.
It was almost 5 P.M., and the pedestrians were thick on Fifth, and he figured that was precisely what she wanted. She had been specific. Take this flight from National to La Guardia. Take a cab to the Vista Hotel in the World Trade Center. Go to the bar, have a drink, maybe two, watch your rear, then after an hour catch a cab to the corner of Fifth and Fifty-second. Move quickly, wear sunglasses, and watch for everything because if he was being followed he could get them killed.
She made him write it all down. It was a bit silly, a bit of overkill, but she had a voice he couldn't argue with. Didn't want to, really. She was lucky to be alive, she said, and she would take no more chances. And if he wanted to talk to her, then he would do exactly as he was told.
He wrote it down. He fought the crowd and walked as fast as possible up Fifth to Fifty-ninth to the Plaza, up the steps and through its lobby, then out onto Central Park South. No one could follow him. And if she was this cautious, no one could follow her.
The sidewalk was packed along Central Park South, and as he neared Sixth Avenue he walked even faster. He was keyed up, and regardless of how restrained he tried to be, he was terribly excited about meeting her. On the phone she had been cool and methodical, but with a trace of fear and uncertainty. She was just a law student, she said, and she didn't know what she was doing, and she would probably be dead in a week if not sooner, but anyway this was the way the game would be played. Always assume you're being followed, she said. She had survived seven days of being chased by bloodhounds, so please do as she said.
She said to duck into the St. Moritz at the corner of Sixth, and he did. She had reserved a room for him under the name of Warren Clark. He paid cash for the room, and rode the elevator to the ninth floor. He was to wait. Just sit and wait, she'd said.
He stood in the window for an hour and watched Central Park grow dark. The phone rang.
"Mr. Clark?" a female asked.
"It's me. Did you arrive alone?"
"Yes. Where are you?"
"Six floors up. Take the elevator to the eighteenth, then walk down to the fifteenth. Room 1520."
"Yes. I'm waiting."
He brushed his teeth again, checked his hair, and ten minutes later was standing before room 1520. He felt like a sophomore on his first date. He hadn't had butterflies this bad since high school football.
But he was Gray Grantham of the Washington Post, and this was just another story and she was just another woman, so grab the reins, buddy.
He knocked, and waited. "Who is it?"
"Grantham," he said to the door.
The bolt clicked, and she opened the door slowly. The hair was gone, but she smiled, and there was the cover girl. She shook his hand firmly. "Come in."
She closed and bolted the door behind him. "Would you care for a drink?" she asked.
"Sure, what do you have?"
"Water, with ice."
She walked into a small sitting room where the television was on with no sound. "In here," she said. He set his bag on the table, and took a seat on the sofa. She was standing at the bar, and for a quick second he admired the jeans. No shoes. Extra-large sweatshirt with the collar to one side where a bra strap peeked through.
She handed him the water, and sat in a chair by the door.
"Thanks," he said.
"Have you eaten?" she asked.
"You didn't tell me to."
She chuckled at this. "Forgive me. I've been through a lot. Let's order room service."
He nodded and smiled at her. "Sure. Anything you want is fine with me."
"I'd love a greasy cheeseburger with fries and a cold beer."
She picked up the phone and ordered the food. Grantham walked to the window and watched the lights crawling along Fifth Avenue.
"I'm twenty-four. How old are you?" She was on the sofa now, sipping ice water.
He took the chair nearest to her. "Thirty-eight. Married once. Divorced seven years and three months ago. No children. Live alone with a cat. Why'd you pick the St. Moritz?"
"Rooms were available, and I convinced them it was important to pay with cash and present no identification. Do you like it?"
"It's fine. Sort of past its prime."
"This is not exactly a vacation."
"It's fine. How long do you think we might be here?"
She watched him carefully. He'd published a book six years earlier on HUD scandals, and though it didn't sell she'd found a copy in a public library in New Orleans. He looked six years older than the photo on the dust jacket, but he was aging nicely with a touch of gray over the ears.
"I don't know how long you'll stay," she said. "My plans are subject to change by the minute. I may see a face on the street and fly to New Zealand."
"When did you leave New Orleans?"
"Monday night. I took a cab to Baton Rouge, and that would have been easy to follow. I flew to Chicago, where I bought four tickets to four different cities, including Boise, where my mother lives. I jumped on the plane to La Guardia at the last moment. I don't think anyone followed."
"Maybe for the moment. We'll both be hunted when this story is published. Assuming it's published."
Gray rattled his ice and studied her. "Depends on what you tell me. And it depends on how much can be verified from other sources."
"The verification is up to you. I'll tell you what I know, and from there you're on your own."
"Okay. When do we start talking?"
"After dinner. I'd rather do it on a full stomach. You're in no hurry, are you?"
"Of course not. I've got all night, and all day tomorrow, and the next day and the next. I mean, you're talking about the biggest story in twenty years, so I'll hang around as long as you'll talk to me."
Darby smiled and looked away. Exactly a week ago, she and Thomas were waiting for dinner in the bar at Mouton's. He was wearing a black silk blazer, denim shirt, red paisley tie and heavily starched khakis. Shoes, but no socks. The shirt was unbuttoned and the tie was loose. They had talked about the Virgin Islands and Thanksgiving and Gavin Verheek while they waited on a table. He was drinking fast, and that was not unusual. He got drunk later, and it saved her life.
She had lived a year in the past seven days, and she was having a real conversation with a live person who did not wish her dead. She crossed her feet on the coffee table. It was not uncomfortable having him here in her room. She relaxed. His face said, "Trust me." And why not? Whom else could she trust?
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"It's been a long week. Seven days ago I was just another law student busting my tail to get to the top. Now look at me."
He was looking at her. Trying to be cool, not like a gawking sophomore, but he was looking. The hair was dark and very short, and quite stylish, but he liked the long version in yesterday's fax.
"Tell me about Thomas Callahan," he said.
"I don't know. He's part of the story, isn't he?"
"Yeah. I'll get to it later."
"Fine. Your mother lives in Boise?"
"Yes, but she knows nothing. Where's your mother?"
"Short Hills, New Jersey," he answered with a smile. He crunched on an ice cube and waited for her. She was thinking.
"What do you like about New York?" she asked.
"The airport. It's the quickest way out."
"Thomas and I were here in the summer. It's hotter than New Orleans."
Suddenly, Grantham realized she was not just a hot little coed, but a widow in mourning. The poor lady was suffering. She had not been checking out his hair or his clothes or his eyes. She was in pain. Dammit!
"I'm very sorry about Thomas," he said. "I won't ask about him again."
She smiled but said nothing.
There was a loud knock. Darby jerked her feet off the table, and glared at the door. Then she breathed deeply. It was the food.
"I'll get it," Gray said. "Just relax."
FOR CENTURIES, a quiet but mammoth battle of nature raged without interference along the coastline of what would become Louisiana. It was a battle for territory. No humans were involved until recent years. From the south, the ocean pushed inland with its tides and winds and floods. From the north, the Mississippi River hauled down an inexhaustible supply of freshwater and sediment, and fed the marshes with the soil they needed to vegetate and thrive. The saltwater from the Gulf eroded the coastline and burned the freshwater marshes by killing the grasses that held them together. The river responded by draining half the continent and depositing its soil in lower Louisiana. It slowly built a long succession of sedimentary deltas, each of which in turn eventually blocked the river's path and forced it to change course yet again. The lush wetlands were built by the deltas.
It was an epic struggle of give-and-take, with the forces of nature firmly in control. With the constant replenishment from the mighty river, the deltas not only held their own against the Gulf, but expanded.
The marshlands were a marvel of natural evolution. Using the rich sediment as food, they grew into a green paradise of cypress and oak and dense patches of pickerelweed and bulrush and cattails. The water was filled with crawfish, shrimp, oysters, red snappers, flounder, pompano, bream, crabs, and alligators.
The coastal plain was a sanctuary for wildlife. Hundreds of species of migratory birds came to roost.
The wetlands were vast and limitless, rich and abundant.
Then oil was discovered there in 1930, and the rape was on. The oil companies dredged ten thousand miles of canals to get to the riches. They crisscrossed the fragile delta with a slashing array of neat little ditches. They sliced the marshes to ribbons.
They drilled, found oil, then dredged like maniacs to get to it. Their canals were perfect conduits for the Gulf and its saltwater, which ate away at the marshes.
Since oil was found, tens of thousands of acres of wetlands have been devoured by the ocean. Sixty square miles of Louisiana vanishes every year. Every fourteen minutes, another acre disappears under water.
IN 1979, AN OIL COMPANY punched a hole deep in Terrebonne Parish and hit oil. It was a routine day on just another rig, but it was not a routine hit. There was a lot of oil. They drilled again an eighth of a mile away, and hit another big one. They backed off a mile, drilled, and hit an even bigger one. Three miles away, they struck gold again.
The oil company capped the wells and pondered the situation, which had all the markings of a major new field.
The oil company was owned by Victor Mattiece, a Cajun from Lafayette who'd made and lost several fortunes drilling for oil in south Louisiana. In 1979, he happened to be wealthy, and more importantly, he had access to other people's money. He was quickly convinced he had just tapped a major reserve. He began buying land around the capped wells.
Secrets are crucial but hard to keep in the oilfields. And Mattiece knew if he threw around too much money, there would soon be a mad rush of drilling around his new gold mine. A man of infinite patience and planning, he looked at the big picture and said no to the quick buck. He decided he would have it all. He huddled with his lawyers and other advisers, and devised a plan to methodically buy the surrounding land under a myriad of corporate names. They formed new companies, used some of his old ones, purchased all or portions of struggling firms, and went about the business of acquiring acreage.
Those in the business knew Mattiece, and knew he had money and could get more. Mattiece knew they knew, so he quietly unleashed two dozen faceless entities upon the landowners of Terrebonne Parish. It worked without a major hitch.
The plan was to consolidate territory, then dredge yet another channel through the hapless and beleaguered marshlands so that the men and their equipment could get to the rigs and the oil could be brought out with haste. The canal would be thirty-five miles long and twice as wide as the others. There would be a lot of traffic.
Because Mattiece had money, he was a popular man with the politicians and bureaucrats. He played their game skillfully. He sprinkled money around where needed. He loved politics, but hated publicity. He was paranoid and reclusive.
As the land acquisition sailed smoothly along, Mattiece suddenly found himself short of cash. The industry turned downward in the early eighties, and his other rigs stopped pumping. He needed big money, and he wanted partners adept at putting it up and remaining silent about it. So he stayed away from Texas. He went overseas and found some Arabs who studied his maps and believed his estimate of a mammoth reserve of crude and natural gas. They bought a piece of the action, and Mattiece had plenty of cash again.
He did the sprinkling act, and obtained official permission to gouge his way through the delicate marshes and cypress swamps. The pieces were falling majestically into place, and Victor Mattiece could smell a billion dollars. Maybe two or three.
Then an odd thing happened. A lawsuit was filed to stop the dredging and drilling. The plaintiff was an obscure environmental outfit known simply as Green Fund.
The lawsuit was unexpected because for fifty years Louisiana had allowed itself to be devoured and polluted by oil companies and people like Victor Mattiece. It had been a trade-off. The oil business employed many and paid well. The oil and gas taxes collected in Baton Rouge paid the salaries of state employees.