Born Out of Due Time, Part II, Chapter 23, Conclusion
An Old Fashioned Country House Murder
When they got down to the docks, the wind had risen, and the small craft were rocking in the short but savage chop of the waves. They were among the first to get on the ferry, and they were cordially welcomed by Frank Asbury, who was wearing a clerical collar. He explained somewhat sheepishly that he had accepted an invitation to preach at the funeral of a Methodist pastor he knew in Bayport.
“I’m still on the rolls as a preacher. I know the whole Methodist Church is going to Hell with ELCA and the Congregationalists, but out here in the sticks they are still Christians.”
Anterus, who rarely touched people unnecessarily, patted Frank on the shoulder.
“You’ll handle it I’m sure, just as you have to handle a much greater conflict.”
Asbury looked at him, as if expecting elaboration.
“Don’t worry, Frank. Your secret is safe with me. Let your watchword be ‘Ora et Labora,’ though some day you have to bring the two into harmony.”
They excused themselves to go up on the upper deck, where they soon encountered Dyson talking with a board member from Nadir, who had come with his wife. Corey, and Shawn were on board and informed them that the Rosses and Justin had arrived early, with the chairman, to make arrangements for the meeting at the Chequamegon Bay Inn. Monsignor Villanova, who had come from New York and changed plans in Chicago, was flying into Bayport a half hour away, where Mrs. Dyson, who was driving in from St. Paul, would pick him up at 5.
On the pretext of wanting to smoke, Dyson steered Smith to the stern of the boat and leaned out on the taffrail and talked toward the water.
“Any news from Katie—about her exam?”
“No, apart from the doctor’s unexpected courtesy. He should have the results perhaps today or tomorrow. Then we’ll know something. How about our friend the lieutenant? Did you go see him?”
“I’m not looking to have a fatal accident.”
“Were you able to see Yunis before you left?”
“No. I spoke with his secretary a second time on the telephone. She said he’d had some car trouble on the way.”
“Do you think he’ll come through for us? I don’t suppose the secretary mentioned if he seemed nervous or upset?”
“In fact, Steve’s phone was out of range, so the garage called her. The breakfast date was only tentative anyway. Otherwise, the plan was to meet him here. He may have arrived already. It will still be a relief to see him.”
“Wright is in the thick of it—along with Freeman. That much I’m sure of.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Smith gave him a brief resume of the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game he had played, adding,
“Wright was certainly the interrogator, but he’s too dumb to have come up with any of it on his own. I also met with him briefly. He’s desperate to know what we know, but if he wants to play smart, I can play dumb without trying half as hard.”
“Any further word on Mario?”
“Not much change to note when you’re dead. I guess that’s some relief, anyway.”
“What, being dead?”
“No, in knowing someday none of this sh-t will matter anymore. But, there’s still his brother who’s going all over Nadir swearing vengeance on “Guido Almighty.” I don’t think Caruana will lose any sleep. I expect he’s also planning to show up on the island, like the uninvited fairy godmother at the christening. I’ve got a man stationed at the docks, and he’ll let us know if—or rather when—he shows up.”
“Who’s losing sleep?” It was Shawn coming up from behind.
Smith turned his head back from looking at the water: “You’ll be losing more than sleep, kid, if you don’t quit sneaking up on people….” And looking back at the rapidly enlarging shoreline, “We’re almost there. Better get back to the cars.”
As they walked back to the cars, they ran into Corey, who put on the friendly redneck act that always put Smith on his guard. He was standing next to the front end of his car, and Dyson noticed some damage on the front bumper.
“Had an accident?”
“Just a fender-bender. As I was getting gas in Nadir, some Chicagoan backed into me, and, before I could stop him or get his Illinois license number, the jerk drove off like lightning. Probably a Bears fan from the suburbs. Rich son-of-a-bitch.”
A young deckhand was telling people to get in the cars, and Dyson asked him what happened during a bad storm.
“Just about anything. Ferry don’t run, for one thing. Power can go off on the island, some time for days.”
When Anterus asked if there were emergency generators at the Inn, the deckhand looked at him for a second.
“Sure, but they have limited use, and all the WiFi goes down.”
“What about telephones?”
“Phone service over there is always spotty, and with a little wind—doesn’t have to be a real blow—it’ll get knocked out.”
“What about cellular service?”
“Even worse. It’s like goin back in time 30 years. What’s the difference? Nothing happens over there—I ought know, I’ve lived there my whole life. On da Res. To be honest witchya, I don’t think nothing really happens to people anywhere. You watch enough TV, you think stuff is going on, but it’s not. I’ve went to Minneapolis a couple times, and, to he honest, I’d just as soon be ice fishin.”
“You like ice fishing?”
“Hell, no. But it’s not as boring as the Twins.”
The ferry landing was in the little settlement of Cadotte, and the hotel had been contacted to send a van for people who preferred to leave their cars at the public lot without driving down the long rutted track to the lodge. Smith was still talking with the deckhand as he walked off the ferry and waited for Caterina to drive the car off. An elderly man, clearly Ojibwa, approached and greeted the deckhand,
“Sam, your mother told me to tell you not to hang around town. She’s holding off supper till you get home.”
“Okay, grandpa.” Smith started to walk away to leave them alone, when the old man touched his elbow.
“I know you, sure I do. You’re Al McFarland’s boy, but no, that was a long time ago. I must be mistaken. When you’re old, your mind lives in the past, though I guess you could be his grandson. Is your name McFarland?”
“My name’s Smith..”
“Right, Smith. Well, you’re a dead ringer for Al McFarland in Nadir. My father guided for Mr. McFarland, and I was about the same age as his son Andy. Well, I’m gettin old. We all do. You will too some day, boy.” Then looking into his eyes, as if he saw something, added:
“Maybe you won’t. You’ve got medicine. My grandfather, he was Medewiwinn—I think you know what I’m talking about—and he gave me the shells I always carry with me.“ Pulling a small polished shell from his pocket, he held it out.
“Seen one of these? It’s a migiis shell. Come all the way from the Pacific Ocean, people say, they do.”
“Yes, it’s a kind of cowrie. I have one like it.”
“I knew you’d know. My father gave one to Mr. McFarland, and he maybe gave it to whoever gave it to you.”
The old man started to walk away, then turned around. “I have a little of my grandfather’s gift. You are troubled—I can see that. Me and the grandson live on the Res—you come see me, I’m Gene Charette, Old Gene Charette. Everybody knows me.”
The young man grinned at Smith. “Grandad’s getting a little strange, but he means well. It’s just that the older he gets, the more he turns to old Indian ways the rest of us don’t know much about. But he meant his invitation. Come see us on the Res, if you’ve got time.” He pulled a mud-stained card out of his buttoned pocket.
“Here’s a card with my cell number. I’m Sam Denomie. Ask for me, and I’ll take you to Gene.”
* * *
The original proprietors of the Chequamegon Inn had turned a stately (by Northwoods standards) summer retreat once owned by a Chicago pork-packing plutocrat into a rather elegant (again by Northwoods standards) resort hotel. The furniture was mahogany and the windows were draped in red velvet, but the walls were paneled with knotty pine, and polished brass nautical instruments—compasses, telescopes, sextants, barometers—gleamed from every wall and display case. There were pictures of ore boats and ancient fishing schooners. The main floor held a “saloon,” a conference room, and a small dining room and bar open only to guests. The other two floors were occupied by guest rooms and the manager’s suite. Each floor was enveloped by unscreened balconies with views either of the lake or of the wooded hillside that sloped up from the shore.
There were only nine guest rooms, including the third floor master suite, which went, naturally to the Rosses. Caterina and Sarah Goodine (there to take notes and supervise) had an adjoining room to the left and the Dysons were in a suite to the right. Shawn and Corey were bunking together, as were the two local board members who went on fishing trips together. This left separate rooms for the chairman, Dr. Yunis, Msgr. Villanova, Brent Moriarity, and Anterus Smith. Fidelity Blunt had asked for a one-bedroom cabin separate from the lodge but on the property.
By the time Smith and the other ferry passengers arrived, it was already after three. The guests were all shown to their rooms to relax until five, when drinks would be served in the saloon, followed by dinner at 6:30. Mrs. Dyson was making a detour to the nearest airport to pick up the monsignor. They should be arriving within a half hour. Before going to their rooms, the Rosses had invited Caterina for tea in their suite, and Smith and Dyson had made an arrangement to meet on the porch an hour later for a walk around the property.
After Smith had unpacked and cleaned up, he went down to the bar and asked for a coffee with a shot of bourbon, One of the local board members, who was drinking a Leinenkugel at a little table, asked Smith to join him.
“Hi, Gene Jespersen. My first name’s really Deacon, but everybody calls me Jeeno. You’re that Smith guy, right?”
“Right you are, Mr. Jespersen. Your mother must be Italian.”
“You’re a smart man. That’s right. I’m the Pizza Baron of the Northwoods.”
After an uncomfortable pause, the Pizza Baron broke the ice:
“Say, I’ve never been to one of these retreats or anything like it. Never had the time to come. You must know something about what’s going on?”
“Not a bit. I’ve only been at Veritas for a week or so.”
“Yah shur, but you’re some kind of professor, right? You’ll be way aheada me, I bet. Maybe I shouldn’t be talkin about it, but Moriarity called me up and said something important had to be decided. He said Ross wants to step down, though maybe he’s havin second thoughts. Know anything about that?”
“They say he trusts you…”
“I’m really too new to have much of an opinion, but Ross hasn’t given me any indication he wants to leave.”
“Companies sometimes need new blood. I’m retiring this year and turning the company over to the kids. Why wouldn’t Ross do the same?”
“You’ll have to ask him. Just making a guess, though, it’s possible maybe Ross has invested more of himself into Veritas than most CEO’s.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no. Take me. I inherited a pizza joint that had a little sideline, selling frozen product. Now I’ve got a company doing a couple hundred million a year. You think I haven’t invested myself into that?”
“I’m sure you have.”
“Say, you bet I have. There’s a lot more to building a frozen food product industry than you might think. When you’re back in Nadir, call me up and I’ll give you the grand tour—over in Zenith, of course. I started in Nadir, but let me tell you one thing, that town is dead. Even Zenith is not much to brag about. Me and the wife have been driving around the country, looking for a place to retire to—Louisiana, Florida, Arizona, Texas.”
“Don’t you have friends up here?”
“Of course we’ve got friends, some of the best folks you’d wanna meet, but you can make friends anywhere. We may keep our summer place at the lake and go there for a month or two, but we can’t take the winters anymore. That’s what I don’t get about Ross. He’s not even from up here. He and Penny could go anywhere. He probably thinks his shop can’t do without him.”
“Maybe they can’t.”
“Nonsense, that Justin Wright is a real go-getter, and the Monsignor is even smarter than Ross—seems to have been everywhere and know everyone. Why, he even know the Pope. Think about that. They’ll do just fine, if he‘ll let em.”
“You could be right…”
“Course I’m right, and Ross’d agree with us, if only he could break away for a while. This diabetes thing he had might just be the shock he needs. Show’s he’s been workin too hard.”
“Perhaps, but you do know, it was not a simple accident—his monitor was defective, maybe even tampered with.”
“That’s all BS. They can’t fool me. Look, I like Mac and Penny a lot. They’re fine people, but maybe if he took—what do you call it, a sabbatical?—for a year or two, he’d realize it’s time to turn the operation over to another generation with fresh ideas. I’m gonna propose that to him tonight.”
“Surely, not in the group?”
“Course not. I’m not a complete idiot. No, in his suite. I’m gonna invite myself for a drink—me and the wife. It’d be good if you could come too. Are you game.”
“If you think it will help, Mr. Jespersen.”
“Jeeno, call me Jeeno. Behind my back they call me Jeeno Gianucci, the half-Dago who’s more Dago than the full-Dagos.”
“All right, then, Jeeno. Thanks for the invitation. Just let me know. I’ll speak with you later.
Smith, who had seen Dyson coming down the stairs, stood up and signaled to go to the porch. He had had, for the moment, enough of Jeeno Gianucci’s exercise in strategic vision.
Before setting off, they stopped on the porch long enough to light their cigarettes before going out into the wind. Then they crunched along the gravel path that led down to the lake, though not toward the landing. The wind had stiffened, and they could hear it rattling the birches and maples and soughing through the pines.
“We could be in for it,” observed Smith, dredging the weather lore out of some forgotten part of his past.
“Other than the wind and the clouds, what makes you think so?”
“Look at the ants headed back home in a hurry, and the cows lying down over in the pasture. Besides, ‘I saw the new moon late yestreen with the old moon in her arms…”
“The weather report calls for a thunderstorm or two tonight, and then it’s supposed to clear up and turn cold.”
“They’re probably right, but up here the lake can surprise you.”
“‘When the gales of November came early…’. I can quote song lyrics, too.”
Dyson looked out across the lake to the mainland: “I hope my wife makes it over with the monsignor…”
“She will, but you may be sorry that she does.”
“Turning prophet, Anterus? I’m not even going to ask why I’m going to be sorry.”
Smith dropped his cigarette on the pebbles and crushed it with his toe.
“No prophecies, but the way this party is shaping up, and it may be no place for wives or children. Where’s Doc Yunis? If he were going to arrive this late, he might have picked up Monsignor Villanova and spared ..”
“He was supposed to arrive about the time we did.”
“What happens this evening?”
“Last year, when they were trying to recruit me as a board member, they invited me to join the retreat. This year, they think I’m going to join the board, but I’m not too sure. Anyway, if we follow last year’s pattern, we’ll be treated to a brief tour and history of the lodge, have some drinks, and make the awkward conversation people make when they only see each other once a year. The board members will fawn all over Mac and Penny, while they are really jockeying for position. Then dinner, and, when some of them are loosened up enough, they’ll be firing some opening shots. At these sort of retreats, there is always one master-plot and at least one counter-plot. And in each of them there are several dupes who believe whatever line they’ve been fed by the one or two who know what they’re doing, I think we pretty much know the big picture, but they’re all trying to be coy.”
“I talked to Geltner yesterday, and asked him frankly what he expected to get out of the meeting. He looked me in the eye and told me he had no expectations except for what he called a “good visit” with a “fruitful exchange of views.” He’s a damned good liar—unlike Justin and Moriarity—but not good enough.”
“Maybe good enough to fool politicos and other amateurs but not a trained liar like you.”
“Right the first time, chum. There’s no point wondering about the hijinks in advance—it’s like anticipating the predictable twists and turns of a 50’s sitcom. It’s not the kind of thing you can enjoy with a clear head. More like a Bruce Willis movie you can only stand to watch after two drinks. Speaking of which… ”
Dyson flicked his cigarette into the water: “Non-filter—it’s organic.”
Smith would have asked who Bruce Willis was, but he preferred to follow Dyson’s hint. “As the governor of North Carolina said to the governor of South Carolina..”
“The hell you say, we haven’t even had our first yet.”
Smith bent over and, picking up his butt, put it into the pocket of his jacket. Walking into the bar, they saw the greater part of the group had already assembled. Dyson cocked his head to one side at an angle,
“I’m not ready for this. I’ve got some Lagavulin 16 in my room. Let’s have one up there and then get dressed for the evening. This is the country, and no neckties are needed.”
After the drink with Dyson, Smith took a short nap, and by the time he had showered and dressed—a tweed suit, a dark khaki shirt and burgundy wool tie, he was fifteen minutes late for the reception. As he walked in, Dyson raised an eyebrow,
“I thought I told you it was to be casual.”
“I obviously haven’t told you how to dress. Turn about is fair play.”
Dyson, dressed in uncreased corduroys and a checked wool shirt, affected regret.
“Come with me, Beau, drinks are on me.”
“That makes you the house…”
Dyson took him around to say hello to the Rosses who were talking with Ben Freeman, Caterina, and a beautiful young woman, who was dressed for Hot Springs, Virginia, and not the Northwoods. In an earlier generation, John P. Marquand might have described her as poised.
“Caroline, I’d like you to meet my friend and colleague, Anterus Smith.”
“Mr. Smith, my husband has told me so much about you. How do you do?”
“Very well, thank you. You mustn’t believe any of the stretchers Rick has made up. It’s a pleasure to meet you, or have we met before somewhere?”
“I’m sure I would have remembered…” Caroline Dyson stretched out her hand, and Smith was about to kiss it in mock gallantry until he caught Caterina’s nosed wrinkled in disapproval and took her hand for a split second.
Rick, not concealing his grin, announced:
“We’ll have a chance to talk later, but our landlord is about to make his presentation.” Anterus turned back to Mrs. Dyson, and said, “Pleased to meet you, Myra.” She smiled as if she had no idea in the worlwhat he was talking about.
Toby Nova the proprietor, dressed somewhere between preppy casual and hunting lodge elegant, treated them to a well-rehearsed history of the pork-packer’s summer retreat that had hosted famous millionaires, whose names no one could recall, Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, and Fred Allen. He knew he had to explain who Fred Allen was to the younger generation that knew not Joe E. Lewis.
At the end of his brief history of the lodge, Sly Geltner, who had positioned himself in front of the Veritas party, clapped loudly and raised his glass.
“Toby, sir, this is one damn fine place you’ve established here, and we’re all grateful—I know I am” looking around smiling, as if issuing a friendly challenge to anyone who would say otherwise, “to have this opportunity to fellowship with you. I propose a toast, ‘To our host.’
The rest chimed in in a somewhat lugubrious chorus that reminded Smith of a movie he had seen with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
“What is the law?” bellows Laughton, and Lugosi, more beast than man answers,
“The law is to walk on two legs. Are we not men?’
The chorus of beast-humans grunt, howl, and snarl the the response,
“Are we not men?”
Walking out to the terrace that wrapped around the lodge, he took them past a small apiary with neat wooden bee boxes and one or two hives mounted on platforms, “Just to give an idea of what they really look like.”
They guests expressed their appreciation. A woman, whom Dyson informed him was Fidelity Blunt, asked if they’d be getting some of the honey for breakfast.
“Absolutely, and there will be a jar of honey in the gift basket you’ll all be leaving with…..I’m hoping to make the lodge a high-tech retreat for people who respect the earth. So we just recently had a crew in here installing an entirely new internet system that we have tried out in every corner of every room. We have the strongest signal and the most reliable connection in the Northwoods.”
Finally something that interested Shawn: “That must have cost a bundle.”
“Surprisingly, no. The company did the job at under cost. They’re working on a government grant to develop new technologies, and they were looking for a really difficult problem to solve. The cost was very low, and I’ll make it up in lower fees in a few months. I simply couldn’t refuse. But highspeed internet is only part of our masterplan. You’ve seen the bees, and over there, facing the south, we have a new green house that will allow us to start seedlings in the Winter and be picking vegetables all Summer long, and therefore we keep the bees, grow our own vegetables…”
Walking them around to the back of the main house, he pointed up to the roof, which held a set of ugly solar panels that, fortunately, could not be seen from the front of the house. They are state of the art, and we are already producing much of the power we need for the lodge.”
“Isn’t that a little counter-productive up here?” The voice was surly, and the tone was meant to intimidate.
Dyson, without lowering his voice, told Smith: “That’s Moriarity. He always has opinions about things he knows nothing of. That means he has an opinion on every subject.”
“…You must lose a lot of money on that stuff, and then, what? You pass on the expense to the paying guests who may not share your Green philosophy.”
Toby Nova, whose skin had been hardened by his contact with the rich, smiled and conceded.
“You’re half right. They don’t really pay for themselves—yet. The technology is still in development.” As Moriarity started to speak again, the proprietor broadened his smile and held up his hand, “but in the meantime, we are getting a federal grant, which actually puts us considerably ahead. So in fact we can pass on the savings to our guests.”
Everyone began talking at once, and Geltner was heard to use the word “boondoggle,” when Dyson, in the loud voice a friendly pastor uses to quiet down his congregation at the beginning of a service,
“Good luck on this, you clearly know what you’re doing. Whether any of us likes it or not, we have to face the Green Revolution and the least we can do is take advantage of what it offers. Sure, it’s costing the taxpayers, but that’s not your fault, any more than it’s Moriarity’s fault that the tax laws are written to benefit Wall Street Lawyers that drew up the code.”
They all laughed indulgently. They might not all be rich as Brent Moriarity, whose father had drafted revisions that exempted his petroleum investments, but they were all grateful to the Wall Street lawyers that had drawn up the IRS regs that permitted them to shield a good deal of their income from taxation.
As they walked back into the lodge, Dyson took Smith to the bar for another drink. Smith, who never ceased to look for hidden significance in names asked:
“What kind of a name is Toby Nova—sounds pretty hotdog.”
“I believe he was born Tobias Novak. Maybe Czech or Slovak. I’m sure you’ll find a mystery in it.”
“Makes sense—a man that can change someone’s vacation home into money. You can make all the jokes you like, but I’ve solved one mystery.”
Dyson handed him his drink.
“You mean Callie. She was in the Agency. That’s where we met. She was mostly an analyst, but sometimes she was sent out to do some fieldwork, when we needed a bombshell to confuse someone. No, she never did anything dangerous or even seedy, but she wanted to be more active, and she knows she would have been good at it.”
“Not what, but who? I happened, and when we started going together, I made sure she was not sent out on assignment. She knows and understands, but she’s a little like the professional pianist who gives up her concert career to teach lessons and raise a family. She still has dreams of glory.”
“You didn’t put her up to her bizarre performance?”
“Absolutely not, but I did make the mistake of telling her about the case. After all, she had worked for the agency. Anyway, she felt sorry for you and thought she might be able to steer you away from trouble. She’s preternaturally fond of her husband, though no one can figure out why, but she has observed that many of the people I have met in a professional way come to grief.”
"So I have been noticing."
“That part seems true enough, though it’s not her fault, but I’m in worse trouble than ever, though I do understand the bit about confusing people.”
Wanting to change the subject, Dyson proposed to introduce Smith to Monsignor Villanova and piloted him over to a knot of people, but since the Monsignor was occupied in holding forth to a gaggle of admirers—Geltner, Jeeno, and the three staffers, Dyson steered him to Brent Moriarity and Fidelity Blunt, who were talking politics. As they approached, Smith caught the word “Heritage” and several unfamiliar names. He halted for a moment and asked Dyson,
“Who’s Paul Ryan?”
“Someone from ancient history.”
Dyson made the introductions, and before the board members could ask any of the right questions, Sly Geltner, on the other side of the room, clanged a tall glass with a mixing spoon and declared in a stentorian voice,
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here these next few days to do some good for the Veritas Foundation. Let us drink a toast to the people who made this wonderful institution possible: To Penny and Mac Ross. You created Veritas over a decade ago, and here’s to many more decades of success..”
Smith looked around and caught the knowing leer on Justin’s face, the wise and almost reverent smile of Dr. Freeman, and in Corey something of a look of sneering and resentment.
“To Mac and Penny,” they all chorused in a cacophonous discord in which he heard again the creatures of Dr. Moreau.
“Mr. Smith…[this from Fidelity Blunt], we were just talking about how significant Veritas is becoming. Our President has few real well-wishers these days, and none of them has the intellectual resources that are in this room. We’ve been waiting in the wings a long time, and now is the time for us to step into the limelight.”
Smith took a good luck at the lady. She was in her 70’s but her jet black hair without a hint of gray was bobbed and sculpted without a strand out of place, and there was not a wrinkle in her bone-china face. To keep such smooth skin, he thought, she must have spent her life not smiling, though there might be a simpler explanation.
“If anyone deserves recognition, Ma’am, it is certainly Dr. Ross.”
“Of course he does, but he’s just a little myopic—or do I mean the opposite? What would that be when you are too far-sighted to see things up close?”
“Perhaps the word you are looking for is hyperopia, though Dickens referred to telescopic phil-…”
“Thank you, yes. Hyperopic. Visionaries and mystics are fine in their own way, and if you can be six months ahead in DC, you’re some kind of genius, but if you’re five years ahead, you’re just a crank.”
“You may recall reading something about prophets being without honor in their own country…”
She gave Smith one of those looks that suggest, without a word being said, that he’d better watch his step, if he intended to get smart.
“I see you are a reader of the Bible. It’s an excellent book, so long as you take it in small doses and a grain of salt.” Then, turning on a dime, “We seem to be losing some of the Evangelical support we used to have under Reagan and Bush. That’s the price you pay for being too intellectual.”
Smith, who had no idea of who this “we” was, much less of what she was talking about, turned to Moriarity. “How much of a problem does this create, do you think?”
“Big, very big. Religion is a good thing for most people, and religious people used to support us. But with all of this concentration on ancient Greece and Italy and all that, we’re just treading water. We are beginning to attract grant money—and that’s largely the result of Doc Freeman’s work and his connections—but they spend it as soon as they get it. I guess the plan is just circle the wagons and eat the seed corn.”
A muted cow bell was rung—or rather clunked—announcing dinner. Smith was about to excuse himself, when Fidelity touched his arm and said,
“I’d be pleased if you would escort me into dinner. You seem like a young man who knows how to treat a lady.”
As he walked into the dining room, with Fidelity in one hand and a double whiskey in the other, Caterina caught his eye and with a slight toss of the head indicated a place between Penny Ross and herself. She seemed eager to communicate something, but his rueful expression told her it would have to wait. He soon found himself seated at a table between Fidelity and Moriarity and across from Dyson, the pizza baron, and Ben Freeman. Smith asked himself how long he could stand up to the stream of charming chitchat laced with rattlesnake venom. He was wondering if his new friend Rick would give the game away, but Dyson’s opening comment reassured him.
“I’m honored to be sitting at the power table. I propose we drink a toast to the bright future ahead of us—and to two people who will be a key to our success, Dr. Freeman and our newest find, Anterus Smith.” Everyone, including Freeman looked steadily at Smith as they lifted their glasses.
As if on cue, Fidelity canvassed the table:
“This is a retreat, and at a retreat they like to play mind games. What if each of us imagines we were solely in charge of Veritas, starting tomorrow. What’s the first innovation you would propose” and added in a gracious tone, “Deacon, you’re a hard-headed businessman. Why don’t you start?”
“I think we should see about hiring a full-time business manager and fund-raiser.”
When Dyson asked if that wasn’t treading on Justin Wright, Moriarity broke in:
“Of course this new guy would report to Justin, but if our plans gel, he’ll have too much on his plate.”
“Any Jello is too much on my plate.”
Morality pushed on: “Jeeno’s right, of course, and we all agree, but I think the business manager should have his office in Washington, where he can do the most good. That’s where the action is. You know, care and feeding, client-facing the people who matter. ”
Fidelity chimed in with her endorsement and said she could recommend one or two men she knew could do a good job, but Jeeno demurred.
“I know Nadir and Zenith are not Washington or New York—or even Phoenix or Ft. Lauderdale—but it’s where we are and it’s why I’m on the board, that and my respect for Mac Ross. It almost sounds like he’s being pushed aside, or have I misread the situation? I know you fellows can easily do without me…”
Fidelity shot a look at Moriarity that told him to slow down and count the votes. As Brent rushed in to repair the breach,
“Jeeno, we all love Mac and Penny, and we wouldn’t dream of moving Veritas, but you agree with us, I know, that it’s tine to take this thing to the next level… This is our come-to-Jesus moment.”
Fidelity turned to the next suspect, “Now, Mr. Dyson, I know you’re not yet on the board, though you have been invited, you’e been quite successful in business, I understand, what’s the first thing you would propose to do?”
Dyson did a good impression of a man trying to answer a serious question.
“The first thing I’d do with any company is to assess the strengths and weaknesses. For Veritas, perhaps the biggest question is market niche. I know the board is eager to move forward to make a more active political contribution—and from what I’ve seen of the new program, that is virtually our patriotic duty. We’ve got dynamite that could of course be misused, but we know it can be turned to enormous and productive good, if we entrust it to the right hands…”
Fidelity smiled approval that came close to benediction.
“…at the same time, we should keep in mind what got us to this point. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the board went with Brent’s excellent idea of a business manager in DC? Well, why not go further and move the whole operation? Remember, this is just for the sake of argument…”
Moriarity broke in, “Now you’re talking my language—of course we’d keep an office here…”
Dyson lifted his hands and separated them, as if trying to placate Moriarity: “Whether we did or not… Now suppose the reaction was that Mac and some key players threw up their hands and said, ‘That’s it?’ Where would we be?”
“That will never happen..”
“But just suppose it did? Wouldn’t we lose a lot of momentum, confuse our branding? I’m not saying that it’s not worth the risk, but assessing that risk would be of the utmost necessary, then, if we decided to move ahead rapidly, we’d have a plan of action.”
Fidelity smiled on him. “I can see why so young a man has been so successful. You’re like a good general—willing to make bold moves but insisting on picking his battles. That’s what Napoleon did.”
“Yeah,” snapped Moriarity, “and look how he ended up.” He started to continue but his fire was quenched by Fidelity’s look. Her smile almost cracked her porcelain, and Moriarity continued in a lower tone.
“Of course, you’re right. We’ve got to be careful. That’s what carpenters say, “Measure twice, cut once. I get it. So long as we don’t just sit on our thumbs and whistle ‘Dixie’. I know Ross likes the South, but they lost the war. We can’t afford a fail. ”
Fidelity turned her attention to Anterus.
“And you, Mr. Smith, you’ve only recently joined the staff, but you’ve struck everyone as energetic, a man of action. What would you do?”
“I agree with most of what’s already been said. Dr. Ross is very lucky to have picked board members who are both astute and loyal to him and his vision. Boards that give carte blanche to the founding genius are not displaying loyalty so much as blind faith. Like Rick, I would underscore the importance of thinking the matter through. Mrs. Blunt..”
“Oh, please, call me Fidelity…”
“Fidelity, then, I would put the question to you with a slightly different twist,” and here Smith almost grimaced at the cliché he was trotting out, “Where do you see Veritas ten years from now? After all, to know in what direction we should set off, we should have a clear idea of where we’re heading.”
“I knew I had spotted the right man! Ward Sleeman and I have been discussing this very point. Both of us realize how important the cultural work has been here, and it’s really an essential part of Veritas.”
“That’s right,” chimed in Moriarity, the classics stuff gives us something the other think tanks don’t have…and, Smith, you’re the guy who can make it happen.”
Smith continued his sermon to the choir.
“We might start sponsoring seminars for professors and graduate students on important topics, like the classical origins of democratic capitalism. We could develop a cadre of conservative academics, who could then arrange for us to put on programs at their universities. In the meantime, we’d be going full speed ahead on the real meat—the VSET research, which is already showing so much potential. We could play a significant role in any Republican administration.”
“I’m glad to hear someone say that, Fidelity, (Moriarity chiming in), we’ve got the power, but we need to get it to where the rubber hits the road.”
As they all started talking at once, Anterus tasted the wine and went back go the whiskey glass he had taken with him to the table.
To distract his mind and keep it from getting sucked into the void that was opening up, Anterus started counting. The revolutionaries could count on Fidelity, Brent, and probably Sleeman and Jespersen. They were also depending on Yunis, who was going to surprise them. The reactionaries had—in addition to Yunis—Sottili, and Dyson, if he accepted the invitation immediately. Ross insisted they had the vote of the film director Harry Weyerhaeuser. Harry couldn’t attend the meeting but he had left a number at which he could be reached, when the vote came. Ross had been historical and literary advisor on several of his extravagant films based on Greek mythology, and he had only joined the board as a gesture of friendship. Ross was a voting member, but he would probably recuse himself. Even if the Pizza Baron got scared off by Moriarty’s bullying and abandoned the rebellion, Veritas’ future looked none too bright.
Now that the conversational waters had been tasted, the talk moved on to the dinner—nothing to write home about, unless your parents owned a banquet hall that specialized in suburban wedding receptions—to politics, and to the next epoch-making contest between the Bears and the Packers. Anterus was not exactly a patient man, but reciting the opening lines of the Iliad kept his mind occupied with pleasanter matters to contemplate than the tv virtual reality of politics and sports: things like sex and death, and the conflict of wills between two violent men, who, for all their arrogance, possessed the rudiments of right and wrong.
Of all the sceptre-bearing chiefs, you are most hateful to me, for always strife and fights and wars are dear to you. If you really are the stronger man, it is a god somehow that’s given you a gift….