Read The Knowland Retribution Online

Authors: Richard Greener

Tags: #mystery, #fiction, #kit, #frazier, #midnight, #ink, #locator, #bones, #spinoff

The Knowland Retribution (23 page)

She turned off the water and stepped outside. It wasn't a night for a moon. The sky was black. She did not attempt to dry herself, but slid on the T-shirt she'd pilfered from Walter's room. She looked in the mirror. It stuck to her. She tied her hair behind, touched scent to herself, and went upstairs.

Walter heard her coming, smelled her coming, knew she was coming before she came. That drove his heart faster than fear ever had. The sight of her and the meaning in her eyes had him shaking. She knelt in front, undid his belt, and took him into her mouth. The act sent vibrations through her and she looked up into his eyes to let him see that. The sounds he made stroked her insides; she wanted them louder, and making them louder was all that mattered. When the throbbing started she forced herself back, sat on her heels, let him see her breasts rise with her rapid breathing, then stood. She pulled the T-shirt over her head and said, “Let's go to bed.”

He took her first smoothly, expertly, with more than enough crazed urgency to set her off within seconds. He was strong and he quickly understood what she needed most. He showed remarkable stamina and excellent self-control. He shuddered when she wanted him to and he could get sounds out of her at will. It was like they'd been at it forever; like they knew each other before they'd begun. And then they began experimenting, and to Isobel's overflowing amazement, everything worked as well as it ever had. And when she could think, she thought she was getting what someone had been missing out on for years. She fell asleep after coming again—wondering whether it was the fourth or the fifth . . . and awoke still joined with him, awkwardly, at right angles. He was sleeping too. It was just after three in the morning. She watched the rise and fall of his gut. She shivered seeing the white of her leg against his dark brown belly. Walter was her first old man, the first one close to her father's age. He was a revelation, all right. But was he a one-time wonder? Could he ever do it—quite that way—again? Was it Viagra?

Walter woke up alone. Seven-fifteen. Clara would sleep till nine. He sniffed. Nothing was brewing or toasting now. He creaked out of bed, stepped into his shorts, made his way upstairs. He realized that he was smiling; he imagined his smile painted on, like a clown's. It occurred to him that he had not thought of his wife—not from the moment Isobel told him to wait. Not when she came to him on the deck, or in the blazing mindlessness that followed, or in the dreams that followed that. That was a first in twenty-five years. Walter felt better than fine. He did not dwell on the fact that he was thinking of Gloria now.

Nobody on the deck. He took the stairway down to the guest room. He found her asleep, on her belly, facing the shower and the ocean. A sheet had drifted over the small of her back, but her shoulders were bare, and most of her backside, and both of her legs, one of them bent at the knee. He noticed a twitch at the top of one shoulder; waited to see it again. Her mouth was open, just slightly. She didn't look nearly as pretty as she had. Her eyes seemed smaller, her nose somewhat thinner at the bridge, her skin looked like normal skin. He liked her a good deal better this way. She must have heard his boxers hit the floor. She smiled before she opened her eyes. When she saw him, she said, “Oh, m-m-y,” and maneuvered onto her back with her arms outstretched.

Nashville

They arrived at the
Nashville airport in late afternoon. The flight from Atlanta was short and uneventful. They looked like any two
businessmen in town to make a sale, attend a seminar, or talk about a merger—each with a bulging attaché case in hand and a lightweight garment bag over his shoulder. Nicholas Stevenson, the older, bigger man, silver mane expertly layered and routinely trimmed, took long, easy strides. Harvey Daniels, the shorter man, dark-haired, rumpled, nervous, momentarily fell behind, quickened his step, fell behind again.

Through airport windows they saw Nashville blazing with Christmas lights refracted by pouring rain. They didn't join the line for cabs to the Renaissance or The Hermitage Hotel. Instead, they made their way to the rental cars and took the white Camero reserved for them. “They don't make Cameros the way they used to,” Harvey griped.

The tallest of Tennessee's skyscrapers showed off bright decorations. “Sure as hell rather spend the night here,” said Nick. He was thinking of dozens of times he'd been on Music Row, in the bars and clubs that line Nashville's streets, open night after night, proving, to his way of thinking, that Nashville will always be the musical heart of the South. And he said as much as they drove.

“You go to New Orleans to eat and fool around,” agreed Harvey unconvincingly, not out of any great experience. “You're right Nick. Nashville is the only place for music.”

The older man spoke slowly, more to himself or to the rain than to the one beside him. He said that young singers and songwriters flood this city. Some have honest-to-goodness talent. Others have little or none. “Kids come along and wash dishes in kitchens in all those bars all the time, dreaming of the stars, and once in a while, one of them makes it. That's the genuine optimism. That's the spirit that brings them here. That's the spirit that gives the city its deep-down sound and its moving force.”

Harvey looked through the drizzle, “Everyone's getting ready for Christmas.” Then he grasped another, more interesting thought: “You ever been to Branson?”

Nick Stevenson made a slow right turn and said, enjoying himself as he did, “If Nashville's the cradle of country music, Harvey, Branson's the nursing home. We went there once. Didn't like it a bit. It's like the elephant's graveyard—except they won't stop singing.”

He drove the Camero on the darkened, rain-slick interstate to Clarksville, a Tennessee border town close to Illinois and Kentucky—home to the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne division: Air Assault! The signs shouted the mission at the headlights. The Camero pulled off I-24 and they registered at the Holiday Inn, just before you get to the mall and cinema complex. They took separate one-night rooms and paid cash. They signed in as Smith and Jones. An hour later they sat at a corner table in the motel's modest restaurant.

Debra Melissa Wallis showed them their seats. She figured them
to order dinners off the menu; these were not buffet guys. They had things to talk about. They didn't want to be rushed. The manager, K. J. Singh, often asked her, “How in the world do you know such things?” She told him, “You just know.” She figured these two for a good 20 percent; they were not local yokels. They were from someplace, here for a reason, money in their pockets.

The two were joined within minutes by a younger man, also wearing a business suit, but so bony-fingered and pencil-necked and seemingly fragile inside his clothes that his jacket flapped around him with every move—a scarecrow is pretty much what he looked like.

He smiled at the two at the table, and sat across from them. No names were exchanged that Debra Melissa could hear, no handshakes, although they clearly knew each other. She took their drink order. Scotch for the older gentleman. Margarita for his nervous companion. Amstel Light for the skinny one. Beyond that, not a peep, no small talk at all, just a long, unbroken silence; eyes in the distance, drinks, for the most part, ignored.

The fourth man showed up at seven thirty. He wore jeans, a blue down jacket, and a well-worn, brown, felt cowboy hat. The three stood; the cowboy held out both hands as if to say “no touching,” and they sat.

He threw his coat and hat to a nearby chair, and sat next to the third one, the younger, skinny guy who arrived before he did. The older gentleman and his nervous friend made statements, like quick little speeches. Debra could not hear much, but they seemed to be using a lot of words she'd never heard before. By the time she'd worked her way close enough, all she got was the older one saying “turn yourself in” and the cowboy replying, “Thank you. I'll think about it.”

They ordered steak and chicken, except for the cowboy, who wanted a caesar salad with hard-boiled eggs. When the entrees were placed before them, they started talking. They spoke until almost ten, the hour when the kitchen closed and the last remaining diners were chased away, when the minimum-wage employees made their way home, a chance to rest, to prepare to do it all over again tomorrow. Debra Melissa stayed to the bitter end, watching discreetly, betting her time on her intuition. These guys
are
big tippers—she was certain of that.

At the start, the young man sitting next to the cowboy opened an attaché case. He removed a stack of papers and publications: charts, spreadsheets, official-looking documents printed in tiny letters on flimsy tissue-thin paper; copies of memos, letters, and e-mails. From time to time the nervous one picked up a sheet of paper from the table, looked at it closely, and seemed to ask a question. Each time, the skinny one or the cowboy supplied an answer, and everyone seemed pleased with that. She heard some numbers tossed around, and for just a moment she was sure she heard “billions.” “I must be hearing things,” she told herself.

Eventually that work was done. There seemed to be no more questions. Now the cowboy ordered a sweetened ice tea. After that he talked for nearly an hour. From a distance he looked strong and sexy to Debra Melissa, determination all over his salt-and-pepper bearded face. After the tea he drank water, which she refilled several times. The two businessmen sometimes interrupted. The cowboy answered each question very slowly, taking his time, selecting his words carefully. When the cowboy was done they all looked at each other—not like businessmen do, but into each other's eyes for an awful long time. Debra Melissa didn't quite know what to make of that. Then they stood and started hugging, patting each other's backs. Each man went from one to the other until everyone hugged everyone else. The nervous guy held on to the cowboy the longest. He didn't want to let go. This was really something special, something she had only seen in the movies; movies about the mafia.

The cowboy put on his jacket and hat. The skinny one who came alone, the one who had all the papers on the table, left first. The gray-haired, distinguished-looking one, the oldest of the group, put his hand on the cowboy's cheek, touching it gently like they were kin, caressing the face like the waitress had seen wives do when the 101st deployed and they worried they'd never see their men again. The skinny-necked younger man paid the bill with his credit card and, sure enough, put down a 25 percent tip. Then the older guy, who knew the bill was already paid, put cash on the table, two twenties. He never looked back, but if he had, Debra Melissa Wallis would have offered her very special smile. She'd had it in mind all along that he was a gentleman you could be proud to know.

In the morning the two Atlanta lawyers checked out, drove back to Nashville, and flew home. The skinny one who stayed at a different motel one exit farther east on I-24 hit the road before six and planned to drive straight through the whole way home. The cowboy awoke from his hard, wooden sleep at seven. He showered and then enjoyed the complementary continental breakfast offered at his motel. He thought about why they called it that: a continental breakfast. He was sure Europe was
the continent,
and he'd never heard it called that there. He read
USA Today
with his coffee. The
New York Times
isn't sold at the Motel-6 near Clarksville. With coffee, cantaloupe, a small, round waffle, and three hard-boiled eggs inside him, he tossed his tall hat onto the seat of his SUV, turned west onto I-24, and headed for New Mexico.

West Texas

Leonard Martin was smiling.

Meeting with Isobel Gitlin had been a risk. He'd gone into it aware of the danger, unable to fully discount it. There were other ways he could have made his point, protected Harlan Jennings, prevented future cops under pressure from putting up other patsies. He could have done all that without compromising himself. If she had seen him . . . but she hadn't, had she? Had he, even by accident, revealed his strikingly different physical package, he might well have risked his anonymity. Leonard had taken a gamble, all right. And now, drinking coffee in a west Texas roadside diner, a day west of Clarksville and less than another's drive from Santa Fe, he knew he'd won.

Isobel Gitlin was no enemy. She might even be a friend. He'd just learned as much from the front page of today's
New York Times.
Isobel's two-column story ran in the upper right, the spot reserved for the day's number one event.

E. Coli Disaster Survivor Admits 4 Corporate Shootings

And below, in a smaller face:

Leonard Martin of Georgia Vows Others Will Die

What pleased him most was the picture above the fold, middle of the page. It was taken at a closing, one of the last he'd attended. It was cropped to show only him and the shoulder and arm of the buyer or seller—whoever was standing beside him. Leonard didn't remember the man or the closing. The picture showed him in a tan suit. The buttons were open, the double-breasted jacket parted over his bulky stomach and torso. His dark tie had flown away from his shirt. It stuck out crookedly over the front of his suit. The knot of his tie was askew and the top shirt button open. The suit was clearly wrinkled. He looked awful, and thought the paper's reproduction process made him appear even worse: pathetic. So much the better.

In the picture, Leonard looked distant and dazed. He was not smiling the way he always did in closing shots
before
. His face held only a vacant gaze. Nothing meant anything to him
after
, and it showed. His long hair was straggly, messy, uncombed. He was very fat. Even now he took a small shock on seeing how fat he had been. The caption read: “Leonard Martin in a Photograph Taken Three Years Ago.”

The story told how Isobel had been blindfolded throughout the interview. She was unable to describe his appearance or confirm his identity as Leonard Martin—visually. Despite that limitation, she wrote that there existed no question the man she met was Leonard Martin. She was betting her reputation and future on it; so too, if to a lesser extent, was the
New York Times
. No need now to shave his beard, grow his hair, or keep the bottle of Grecian Formula bought on a fearful impulse somewhere in New Jersey. Meeting Isobel Gitlin had not given him away.

He assumed that faced with a situation in which Isobel could not or would not say she saw Leonard Martin, her editors had grilled her hard on her identification and bought into her position. He was absolutely correct. The photo editors at the
Times
had plenty of pictures to choose from, and Leonard was sure Isobel Gitlin was not consulted about which one to run.

He found no surprises in what she wrote. She described in detail how a gray sedan picked her up and drove her to the meeting. She did her best to draw a picture of the driver. She identified the meeting place as “an undisclosed location in New York City.” She called Leonard simply “a well-to-do real estate lawyer from Alpharetta, Georgia.” Isobel wrote about Nina Martin, Ellen Lawrence, and Ellen's two sons, Mark and Scott. She wrote that Leonard Martin had lost them all to an especially virulent and new strain of E. coli poisoning carried by Knowland & Sons' tainted meat. She described, very accurately he thought, Leonard's implacable anger, his determination to kill those he held responsible. Leonard was more than content with what she wrote and how she wrote it. She'd told the world what he told her.

The article described the deaths of Christopher Hopman, Billy MacNeal, Floyd Ochs, and Pat Grath with details that could only be attributed to the killer. He'd mentioned his practice on a small trampoline—a preparation vital to shooting Pat Grath from a small boat bobbing in the waters of Lake Mead—and she printed it. Her article stated that the
New York Times
had handed over “vital physical evidence” to federal authorities. It described the rifles and ammunition Leonard used and then left with Isobel's doorman. She wrote that the
Times
had also retrieved the Pat Grath murder weapon—an expensive, one-of-a-kind, Holland & Holland double rifle. It was found in the Nevada desert several miles east of Las Vegas (where he'd told her to look), and had also been put, by the
New York Times
, in the hands
of the proper authorities. Leonard's second letter was printed in full within a half-tone margin. Reading it, Leonard did not think she could have done better.

Of course, she didn't tell everything she knew. Leonard correctly assumed that she was looking to other days and editions. En route to New York from St. Thomas, Isobel had in fact remembered a senior editor whom she met once, in her first week at the paper. He did his best to impress her in thirty seconds or less by saying, “Never forget, we have to print another one tomorrow.” It sounded like tinny wisdom then. She'd made it an iron precept by the time the plane touched down.

Inside section one, the
Times
ran a half-page box showing guns and ammo with small-type insets on technical specs and retail prices. On the opposite page it ran a mafia-style table of organization. There were small headshots of all the players, with lines connecting one to the other: Leonard, his wife, daughter, and grandsons; Wayne Korman and Floyd Ochs from Knowland & Sons in Lucas; Harlan Jennings off to the side; Billy MacNeal and Pat Grath of Second Houston Holding; Christopher Hopman from Alliance; the Wall Street gang of four—still alive and breathing—perspiring, Leonard hoped, to the point of dehydration.

Dr. Ganga Roy's name was nowhere to be found. Leonard thought that the
Times
' bright lawyers might have fixed on the paper's relationship with the Rockefeller Institute and related liabilities. Leonard knew that Isobel could not
prove
the material he provided was, to a certainty, Dr. Roy's work product. Therefore, he suspected, the lawyers vetoed using her name. Isobel and her editors probably yelled themselves blue in the face. But as a lawyer he also knew that in the absence of proof absolute, legal had the better of the case.

Instead, the story credited “scientific data in the possession of the
Times
” together with “reliable sources” in support of their description of what took place in Nathan Stein's office. Leonard recognized everything Isobel wrote as the truth.

Isobel's news report, distinguished by her exclusive ID of America's most notorious home-grown desperado, offered no judgments on his crimes. Macmillan lobbied for a list of words and phrases: “corporate-terrorist,” “serial killer,” “unstable,” even “deranged,” a word that was dismissed by a quick, harsh look from the Moose. In light of his exasperation, that one wasn't even considered. The others were talked through and all rejected. Macmillan offered his ideas in a high-level meeting attended by Gold and other senior types. A senior editor suggested three names—all seasoned, experienced
Times
reporters, who might “step in and help you out.” Isobel assured him, and everyone else, that she needed no help.

The same editor then offered the idea that Isobel ought not to write the story at all. “After all,” he said, “to some degree she's now part of it. How can she be expected to write it?” He again brought up the same three names she previously rejected, and proposed they write the story “about you, and, of course, with your input.” Isobel recognized each of the three named reporters. She'd had not so much as a “good morning” from any of them. She knew them only by reputation.

“I thought they thought the story was b-b-bullshit,” she said. “You know, crap, and not the kind of crap that belongs in the
New York Times.
” The Moose couldn't help laughing. He quickly reached for a glass of water. Isobel said, “I don't need help, and,” she smiled sweetly, “I always did poorly on the ‘works well with others' marks.” They all backed off except Macmillan. A few minutes later he submitted a paragraph questioning Leonard Martin's sanity, and citing the work of two forensic psychiatrists.

Had she asked him to, the Moose would have canned Macmillan right then, even in front of the others. Ed never knew how close he came to sniffing around the
Daily News
. Isobel felt her power building, not unlike the frightening force of a hurricane picking up steam over warm waters, hell-bent for landfall, God knows where.

The
Times
' unmasking of Leonard Martin dominated the media. Papers across the country drowned it in full-color ink. The Europeans noted it prominently, and even in Japan one paper's front page screamed “Crazy American”
across the same picture of Leonard Martin the
New York Times
printed. The cable networks and talk radio raised the story yet again, like Lazarus from a shallow grave. Isobel was more than a property now. As she once saw Kevin Costner remark in
Bull Durham
, she was in “the Show.” A second cover on
Newsweek,
and one on
Time
also confirmed it. Now the talking heads treated her differently—she was no longer the waif reporter. She had acquired gravitas. “I always believed in Isobel” pretty much summed up the general feeling. One deadpan prime-time showman used exactly those words. In New Mexico, Leonard watched it all unfold with more genuine pleasure than he had felt in years.

Isobel got calls from Time Warner and
Newsweek
offering her obscene amounts to join their stables. Rupert Murdoch himself called Isobel, his tacky accent bringing a whiff of Fiji bars that attracted Australians with schemes or lines of merchandise to sell. Rupert suggested that she decide precisely what it was that was she wanted, design herself a compensation package, and call him back. He emphasized that he felt she'd fit well on the air and in print. “Whatever you want, I already agree.” He even crammed a delightful smile somewhere into his voice.

After thanking Rupert and promising to do as asked, Isobel reflected that, like Alice, she was now in a world where things had spun out of control. Later on, the Moose told her Murdoch was well known to make such calls himself. “I suppose he gets off on it,” said Gold, adding that from what he heard Murdoch always reneged on the money part. The
New Yorker
and
Rolling Stone
were asking her for cover stories. “Write about Leonard Martin,” she was told by one. “Write any damn thing you want,” said the other.

Page six in the
New York Post
, and even the hometown London tabloids, linked her to a new job daily. If, as in olden days, the
New York Post
published twice a day, she'd have been changing employment twice as often. The silliness reached ridiculous proportions when the supermarket tabloids reported on her fight against cancer, her joyful pregnancy, her fun-filled weekend in the Swiss Alps with a European prince who was twenty years her senior. “How do they get those pictures?” she asked as she and the Moose studied a photo of Isobel on the high Tibetan plateau, arm-in-arm with a movie star she'd never met and didn't recognize.

The heads of programming from every major cable news channel called with escalating numbers, some of which stood up handsomely against the print offers pouring in. They were encouraged no doubt by their edgy producers and highly stressed news directors. ABC and NBC let it be known that no cable outfit could make an offer that they would not match and exceed. CBS, hard-pressed to pay its ancient news performers whose packages reflected seniority and therefore weighed the network down, was forced to abstain from the frenzy.

Mysteriously, or so it seemed to many after the fact, no one in authority gave any thought to the notion that Isobel Gitlin might jump ship. She was not a contract employee. She worked at the pleasure of management; people
departed
at management's pleasure. Thus it had always been and would always be. A
New York Times
senior vice president's wife raised the subject at dinner one evening and was rebuked. In front of others, her husband told her, “People do not
leave
the
New York Times
. The
New York Times
is where they come to
be
!”

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