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Authors: Joseph Finder

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BOOK: Guilty Minds
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14

T
he security director of the Hotel Monroe was a fussy little man named Kevin Chung. He wore a slim gray suit and a white shirt with short little collar points and a skinny black tie. The sides of his head were shaven so close you could see the white of his scalp, and on top of his head the black hair stood up in serried ranks of bristles. If the hair on top were longer, it would have been a Mohawk.

The walls of his small windowless office were covered with cheaply framed certificates for various security courses he’d completed and professional security organizations he belonged to. The surface of his desk was uncluttered, though: nothing more than a computer monitor and a desk set and a plaque with his name on it that faced the visitor’s chair, just in case you’d forgotten who you were talking to. The plaque was unnecessarily big: He obviously considered himself an important man.

“I wish I could help you, Mr. . . .”

“Heller.”

“Mr. Heller. But it’s a question of privacy. If I were to confirm whether this person was a guest in our hotel, I would be legally liable. I’m sure you understand. Anything else?”

His response didn’t surprise me. Most hotel security directors won’t cooperate with private investigators. You have to know the guy, or know somebody who knows the guy, so they’ll do it as a favor. But I was here cold. Some security directors you can slip a hundred to and buy cooperation. Sometimes it takes a more sizable bribe.

But Kevin Chung was an officious jerk, and I knew at once that a bribe wasn’t likely to work. I needed a different approach.

“That’s too bad,” I said. “I was hoping we could settle this case quietly, without dragging the hotel’s name into it.”

I caught a spark of concern in his eyes before he masked it with a studied neutrality. “I don’t follow,” he said.

“You remember when the Mayflower got caught up in that whole Eliot Spitzer thing. It was ugly.”

His cheeks flushed, and he sat up a little straighter in his chair. He knew immediately what I was talking about. Everyone in Washington remembered when the governor of New York had hired a call girl on several occasions. It was a huge scandal. One time he saw the prostitute at his room at the Mayflower Hotel. Room 871 at the Mayflower was briefly famous. As a result, the Mayflower’s reputation was tarnished a bit. Not a lot. But enough. Even today, if you Google “Mayflower Hotel Washington, DC,” one of the top auto-suggestions is “scandal.”

In reality, of course, call girls frequent the best hotels all the time. They just tend to be discreet about it. The management knows but says nothing. As long as it’s not blatant, there’s no need to interfere. But fine hotels don’t want news stories about call girls on their premises. It looks bad. Tacky, even. It damages the brand.

“What does the Mayflower have to do with us?”

I sighed. “Simple. Slander Sheet is working on a story claiming that Chief Justice Jeremiah Claflin met a prostitute here at the Monroe on three separate occasions.”

“Slander Sheet?” He looked appalled.

I nodded.

“Right, and of course it’s a hoax. Someone must have gotten hold of one of his credit card numbers and a fake ID and checked into the hotel under his name.”

“But . . . why?”

“He’s being set up. Extortion, maybe. I don’t know. But you can look in your property management system and prove he never stayed here. Which will kill the story. And which will keep the Monroe’s name out of Slander Sheet
.
That’s all it takes.”

Chung pulled out a keyboard tray and stared fiercely at his monitor. His fingers flew over the keys. “But . . . it does look like Mr. Claflin stayed here, let’s see, three different times in the past year.”

I nodded again. That didn’t surprise me. If I only wanted to establish whether Claflin had been a guest of the hotel on those dates, I could have slipped a fifty to Barb at the front desk. That was probably all the reporter from Slander Sheet had done.

I’d taken a walk through the hotel before coming to see Kevin Chung. I’d familiarized myself with the property. I’d noticed the security cameras behind the front desk and in the lobby and in the elevators and the hallways.

“Can you pull up video from the front desk camera and get an image of the guy when he checked in?”

He hesitated. “Depends on how long ago that was.”

“How long do you keep recorded video?”

“Our policy is seven days.”

“But in reality?”

“It varies. They’re all on motion sensors. Depends how much activity is recorded.”

It took me a moment to understand what he meant. Then I got it.
Security cameras now record not on tape but on hard drives. It’s all digital, not analog. The more activity a camera senses, the longer it records and the more disk space it takes up. When the hard disk gets full, it starts recording over the old stuff.

“Well, these three dates were, let’s see, a lot more than seven days ago,” I said. “The most recent was a little over a month.”

“We’re not going to have video that old.”

I nodded. That was a bummer.

Then I remembered something. The hotel, like most hotels these days, used proximity keycards. You held the keycard against an electronic reader mounted on the room door, and it beeped and flashed green and unlocked the door.

“Can you tell whether room keys were issued?”

Clackety-clack
. Then: “Yes. Two keys each time.”

If the Monroe was like any other hotel I’d ever stayed in, it used a piece of software called a property management system, which kept track of every time a guest room door was opened from the outside using a keycard. So there was always what’s called an audit trail.

“Okay. Now look at the first date. Can you tell whether anyone used that key to enter the assigned room?”

“Of course,” he said, sounding offended. He tapped and clacked some more. “He—strange. . . That key was never used.”

“Right. Check the next date.”

More clackety-clacking. “Wasn’t used then either.”

“Probably the same for the other date. So someone came by the hotel on three different days and checked into the hotel, but never actually went upstairs to the room.” The guy was impersonating a Supreme Court justice, and the less time he spent in the hotel, the better. The less chance of his image being captured on video.

Granted, without video of the impostor who was pretending to be
Justice Claflin, all I had was a negative: the fact that no one had checked into his room. But that wasn’t nothing—it proved that Claflin couldn’t have seen a call girl here.

Not in a room he never entered.

Whether this was enough to kill the Slander Sheet story, I was about to find out.

15

S
itting in a cab that smelled powerfully of curry, I reached Gideon Parnell at dinner. In the background I could hear the clinking of silverware against china, and crowd hubbub, and someone’s raucous laugh.

“I talked to the call girl.”

“You
what
? How?”

“A little research and a little footwork.” The less I told him about what we’d done, the better. We’d broken any number of laws, and he was a lawyer. “The bad news is that she’s well prepared and well rehearsed. I couldn’t shake her story, and I tried.”

“I didn’t think you’d be able to get to her. I’m impressed.”

I considered telling him about the watcher, the ex-DC cop, but decided to hold that back until I’d figured out whether the guy, Curtis Schmidt, was there to protect her or to monitor her. Also, I had more interesting news to give him.

“Whoever’s setting up Claflin is good. They had someone check into the Hotel Monroe under his name with a fake ID and credit card. But we found a hole in the setup. No one actually entered the room. They checked in but never stayed there.”

“Really? You can prove this?”

“Yes. That should be enough to jettison their story.”

There was a long pause. “I don’t think so,” Gideon said at last. “It’s subtle. Too subtle.”

“You think?”

“We need to determine who’s behind this. Who’s doing it. When we hit back, we need to hit back hard. We need to be as thorough as possible. We need to show those gossip mongers what a giant fraud this whole thing is.”

I sighed. Actually, he was right. The fact that no one checked into a room was enough to discredit the story in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion. In real journalism, but not in gossip. Slander Sheet operated in the world of perception, not the legal system.

“Well, we still have time,” I said. “A little over twenty-two hours, by my watch. When’s your interview with the reporter?”

“I’m seeing Ms. Seeger tomorrow morning at nine
A.M.

“I thought we had until tomorrow at five.”

“That’s when they press the button and the story goes live. Unless we disprove it before then. My deal with them, the way I bought forty-eight hours, was I’d give them an interview. And by the way, I’ll want you present for that.”

“Of course. But I want to talk to Seeger before that. Like tonight, if possible.”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

“I need to size them up. See what else she’s got.”

“Then be my guest. But be careful. These Slander Sheet people, they’re scorpions.”

Another call was coming in. After the 202 area code, the first three digits of the phone number were 224, which told me it was a Senate phone number. I said good-bye to Gideon and took the second call.

“Nick, it’s Kelly again.”

“Hi, Kelly.”

“The senator’s had a cancellation in his schedule. If you can get over to his hideaway office in the next fifteen minutes, I can get you in to see him before his dinner with constituents.”

I looked at my watch. It was seven o’clock. More like bourbon o’clock, for Senator Brennan. “How’s he doing—I mean, you know, this late in the day?”

Her reply sounded a little stiff. She knew what I was asking—how drunk was the guy?—but she was still the protective, and discreet, staff member. “He’s had nonstop meetings this afternoon, so he should be okay.” Meaning he hadn’t had a chance to take a nip, presumably. Though I wondered whether Pat Brennan carried a hip pocket flask around during the day. It wouldn’t surprise me. She gave me directions. I thanked her and hung up.

16

S
enator Pat Brennan’s hideaway office was on the third floor of the Capitol building, behind an unmarked door. I would never have been able to find it if the senator hadn’t dispatched an aide, a pretty young redhead, to meet me at security and take me through marble hallways and up winding staircases, through several locked doors.

All senators have hideaway offices in addition to their offices in the Senate office buildings nearby. Some are nicer than others. Some are cramped little closets. They’re given out based on seniority. They’re generally used for quick meetings, a place to escape the press of business, avoid reporters, take naps. During Prohibition, some senators used them as speakeasies. Lyndon Johnson used to invite young women in to “take dictation,” as he called it, in his hideaway. Most senators insist on keeping the location of their hideaways secret from all but their closest aides.

Senator Brennan opened the door himself. He was in shirtsleeves, his bow tie askew. He was a tall, chubby man with stooped shoulders, a ruddy face with a pixielike expression, a high domed forehead, and a shock of white hair that was usually mussed.

“Nicholas Heller!” he boomed. “Good Lord, how long has it been?”

“A couple of years, Senator.”

“In this office, I’m Pat. Please.”

I nodded. “Thanks for taking the time, Pat.”

“I bagged my evening fund-raising calls, which is an obligation I detest, so I should thank
you
. Come, come.”

He put a hand on my shoulder and escorted me in. I could smell the liquor on his breath. Based on the fluidity of his speech, his articulation, I concluded he was still on his first bourbon. Which was good. He was normally coherent through his first two or three drinks.

His hideaway office was one long and narrow room with a high arched ceiling. A marble fireplace, built-in bookcases, a bathroom; and, in one corner, a bar with a mini-fridge, where he led me.

“You, my friend, get the good stuff,” he said. “Pappy Van Winkle twenty-year-old Family Reserve.”

“I’m honored.”

He glugged a couple of fingers of bourbon into two glasses and handed one to me. Then he clinked his glass against mine. “In the words of Horace,
fecundi calices quem non fecere disertum
?” He paused, and then translated. “Whom have flowing cups not made eloquent?”

Brennan was a former professor of government at Harvard who’d served in the White House as adviser to the president and was later elected senator from Massachusetts. He was a classics major at Harvard, was erudite, and was obviously not shy about showing it off. The more he drank, it seemed, the more Latin he spoke.

He was also Jeremiah Claflin’s biggest champion. He’d pushed for Claflin’s nomination to the US Court of Appeals. Later, he’d lobbied the White House for Claflin’s appointment to the Supreme Court. They’d been Harvard colleagues—Claflin at the law school—and friends, and Brennan had quarterbacked his confirmation process in the Senate.

I took a sip. “Excellent,” I said. It was bourbon, it tasted fine, and it was no doubt wasted on me.

I’d done a job for Senator Brennan a few years back, when I was with Stoddard Associates in DC. He had a leaker on his staff who was causing him great damage. To make a long and complicated story short and simple, I smoked the traitor out.

He lowered himself heavily onto the corner of a yellow brocade sectional sofa next to a low table, and I sat in a chair facing him. “Let me get right to it,” I said. “I know your time is tight. I have to tell you something in absolute secrecy.” Though I’d signed an NDA, the urgent circumstances justified telling him, I decided. “Cone of silence, right?”

He put up his palms like a priest conferring a benediction. “
Sigillum confessionis
,” he said. “The seal of the confessional.”

Then I told him about the Slander Sheet story on Claflin.

“Oh, dear God,” he said when I finished, and he took a swig. He looked out the window. The view of the Washington Monument and the National Mall was postcard-perfect. “Slander Sheet
.
I detest that website with every fiber of my being.”

“Everyone does, but everyone reads it just the same.”

“It’s funny, Nicholas. Everything old becomes new again. Our republic had slander sheets even before it had newspapers. They were mudslingers, that’s all. Every printer belonged to a political faction, and they put out gazettes that endlessly circulated lies about their opponents. Defamation sluiced through those pages like sewage. Adams was declared a bugger, and Madison a spy, and Jefferson—what was it now?—was supposedly keeping a slave mistress!”

“Actually, about that—”

“So I will freely grant: our newborn electoral government was as shit-stained as any infant’s diaper. But something has changed, Nicholas. The Internet has supercharged the gossip pages. Weaponized them. These
low-minded rags are like those smallpox-infected blankets we once gave the Indians. The japes and jeers of old now form permanent lesions. And American politics has become gravely disfigured as a result.”

I nodded.

“Let me tell you a story. In confidence.” He arched his great white brows. “I know I can trust you.”

“Of course.”

“About a year and a half ago, one evening, I had a few drinks with some Senate colleagues. Right here, in fact. Maybe I had a few too many. Well, there’s no
maybe
about it, I had a few too many. I was driving back to my house on Foxhall Road, and I may have gone through a red light, though I still maintain it was yellow. And I was pulled over by the police, who wanted to know if I’d been drinking.”

“Was Congress in session?” I asked.

“Ah, very good. Unfortunately not.”

It’s a little-known fact that members of Congress cannot be arrested or detained while Congress is in session, except for treason or felony. “I told him who I was, and he said, ‘Shit,’ and he made a call. And after a long while he got out and told me to get into his cruiser and he took me home. And that was that, except for a nasty hangover. We managed to keep it quiet. Well, a few months after that, my office got a call from a reporter at Slander Sheet
.
Somehow they’d found out about the incident, and they were threatening to publish a story. You can imagine we went into something of a panic. What do you do? How do you induce them not to publish? Back in the day, if it was
The
Washington Post
, I’d call Ben Bradlee, and we’d do some horse trading. I’d offer him an exclusive on something . . . A splash more, Nicholas?” He poured himself another few fingers of bourbon.

I shook my head. “I’m good.”

“But Slander Sheet is a new creature entirely. Who owns it? Who calls the shots? The editor in chief is a loathsome little toad named
Julian Gunn, but he’s not the owner. And he doesn’t exactly play ball. My aides tried to negotiate with him, but no dice. So I called this Julian Gunn myself and said to him, ‘Look, what can we do here? Surely your readers don’t care about some antiquated senator from Massachusetts and what he does in his off hours!’ I promised him an exclusive, I offered him special access, but he wasn’t interested in any of that.”

“He wanted dirt,” I said.

“Exactly. Anything personal on the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, what have you. He wanted dirt, and he wasn’t going to settle.”

“You gave him something, I assume, because I never saw the drunk-driving story.”

Brennan bowed his head. A line of sweat beads had broken out across his forehead. “I did something I regret to this day.”

I nodded sympathetically and waited. He looked genuinely agonized.

“I gave them dirt. I gave them Steve Frazier.”

“The congressman?”

“Former.” He nodded. “And former friend.” Representative Steve Frazier was a powerful conservative congressman from upstate New York who’d recently resigned after Slander Sheet had published a story revealing that, in the course of some rocky divorce proceedings, his wife had filed a domestic violence complaint against him, which she later rescinded. “Someone in my office had learned about the allegation from someone in Frazier’s office. But I gave it to them. I gave them Steve Frazier’s head on a platter. Really, I traded my head for his. So that’s why I’m still here and Steve is gone.”

“But there’s a difference,” I said, “between your drunk-driving incident and the Claflin story. The DUI story was true. Whereas this thing about Justice Claflin is a lie.”

He was quiet for a long time. “Let me refresh your drink,” he said. I
offered him my glass this time, just to be sociable. He poured some more into my glass and then his own.

“Gideon and Claflin—” I began.

“Good men. A real partnership.”

“How so?”

“Well, Jerry Claflin is sort of Gideon’s protégé.”

“I figured.”

“I know I get all the credit for pushing his confirmation through the Senate, but the plain truth is, it was Gideon who greased the wheels behind the scenes. Prepared him for the big-time oppo that hits any candidate for the high court.” By “oppo,” he meant opposition research. “Which was a sort of passing of the baton, you might say, because back in the days when Gideon’s name was bounced around for the court—he’s too old at this point—Jerry played that role. He was Gideon’s cornerman, his defender and confidant. You see, the thing about Gideon and Claflin—their relationship is all about loyalty. In both directions. In a town where loyalty is as scarce as spotted owls.”

I nodded slowly, taking it in.

“Jerry Claflin is a deeply honorable man,” Brennan went on. “Perhaps a bit of a stickler, to my taste. But a brilliant jurist. You know, I’m sure, about his contribution to
mens rea
law.”


Mens rea
?
I forget . . .”

“Criminal intent. Literally, ‘guilty mind.’”

“Right.”

“It matters whether the defendant intended to commit the crime. What the defendant meant to do. Anyway, Jerry will always be celebrated for clarifying the vexed ‘conditional intent’ problem of
mens rea.
Adam Liptak in the
Times
compared his decision in
Hagedorn
to ‘a bed with hospital corners and sheets tucked so tight you could bounce a coin off them.’” He chuckled with pleasure.

“I didn’t know.”

“But this story is just scurrilous, and it will damage him. As Virgil tells us in
The Aeneid,
fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum.
There is no evil swifter than a rumor.”

“So who’s trying to destroy him?” I said. “Who has the animus and the resources to do something like this?”

“The proper question is, who’s driving the story? Is it a plant by someone angry about one of the court’s decisions, and Slander Sheet is innocent? Or did Slander Sheet initiate the attack?”

I nodded again. “If it originated with Slander Sheet, do you think it was political?”

“Here’s the thing, Nicholas. Most of the time, owners of magazines and newspapers don’t hide their ownership. They
want
to be known as the owners, right? They want to be courted and flattered. The fact that we don’t know who really owns Slander Sheet tells me it may
not
be someone with a political agenda. If you look at the pattern of their hit jobs, I’m not sure there’s a political slant. They came after me, and I’m a liberal, of course. In my place they took down Steve Frazier, who’s as right-wing as they come. Then again, maybe there’s a subtle figure in the carpet. Hard to say.”

“So who benefits from the destruction of Jeremiah Claflin’s career?”

“Ah. That old shopworn phrase
cui bono
—who benefits? And I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth. I don’t have the slightest idea. It’s a goddamned mystery.”

I got up. I had more work to do that night. “Can I give you a ride home?”

“Don’t worry,” said the senator. “I have a driver now.”

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