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The Chairman died the way he had lived: alone. Sometime between two and four A.M. on a muggy Wednesday in late July, while the rest of the New York City sweltered through the worst heat wave in history, 66-year-old James L. Dwyer walked into the bathroom of his East 58th Street townhouse, ingested a mix of prescription drugs, ironically manufactured by our own corporation, left a note on his study desk and convulsed into permanent sleep.
At least that's the way it seemed to the Filipino house-man who found Dwyer when he let himself in at four to prepare the Chairman's usual steak and eggs breakfast. Dwyer had always been a punctual riser.
The houseman, Aguinaldo, was a former Manila EMS attendant who checked for a pulse and tried CPR, but the body was cold, the color gone. He phoned me instead of the police.
"The Chairman always told me, if there's a robbery, or any reason to call the cops, phone Mr. Acela if you can't reach me. He said there might be important papers here. He said–"
Aguinaldo was starting to ramble, so I interrupted. I told him he had done the right thing. I calmed him enough so he could answer questions. "Was the front door locked when you arrived?" I asked.
"Yes, Mr. Acela."
"What about the patio door and the windows?"
Aguinaldo took some minutes to check. "All locked from inside except his bedroom window. That one was open by an inch, but it's on the third floor."
"Any furniture out of place, drawers open?"
"It does not look like a break-in, sir."
"Did you touch anything besides the body?"
"I read the note. But it makes no sense for him to do this. Did you read the Wall Street Journal article about his big deal last month? It called him Lucky Jim."
"Don't touch anything else. Don't phone anyone. I'll be there in half an hour."
I hung up and sat for an instant, stunned, in my den in Devil's Bay, Brooklyn, the boyhood neighborhood to which I'd recently moved back after twenty-six years away. The first-floor windows were open in my remodeled Cape Cod, and I could hear the sound of surf half a block away. I hadn't been sleeping. I'd been glued to my TV for the last few hours, watching the disturbing news from Washington. The President–a good and fair man–had resigned tonight, citing health reasons, handing the reins of power to his number two, a man known for extreme right-wing inclinations.
In fact, the summer so far had been marked by numerous sudden departures in the capital: a Supreme Court Justice; a crusading Washington Post editor; the head of the FBI, my old boss, another good man.
I shut off the TV, remembering the rest of what Aguinaldo had said.
A contract to come up with antidotes for chemical and biological weapons, sir. The Journal called it one of the richest pharmaceutical deals in history.
The shock was sinking in. I'd visited the Chairman just hours ago in his townhouse for one of our periodic late-night report sessions, and found him furious and drinking too much rather than confident, his usual self. It was not unusual for him to conduct business at home at ten P.M. I think he did it to have company.
I think I've made a terrible mistake, he'd muttered at one point.
And a few minutes later, God help us all–the whole country–if I'm right.
He stared at me and I'd had the oddest feeling that he could see inside me. Then he'd nodded as if he approved. I can trust you. He'd added, bitterly, Not like some other people who I thought were friends.
Because of this, and because scandals in the company three years ago–graft we'd dealt with in private–still left tensions, I discarded the idea of sharing the news with other officers until I saw for myself what had happened. I showered and shaved quickly, trying to clear my mind for what would be a long, grief-filled day. I'd be looking at the body of a man who had become a mentor late in my life, and might, with time, have become a friend. I'd be explaining to angry detectives why they'd not been summoned before me. I'd be briefing Lenox's acting CEO–a man I did not like–on what I found, as well as news reporters, depending upon how our Public-ity people decided to explain the ultimate indignity that a man–rich or poor–can inflict upon himself, his own death.
"Your reputation is like your soul," Dwyer had told me when he hired me away from the FBI. "You don't notice it when you have it. But lose it and go to hell."
I also remembered more of what he'd muttered tonight, while pouring a double scotch. They'd like me to disappear. Maybe I should.
Had these been words of a man so distraught that he'd kill himself soon after, or a cry from a man in danger, I asked myself now.
I chose a somber summer-weight dark blue pin-striped Armani suit, a crisp white shirt and a somber tie in quiet cobalt. It would convey grief and power. I would need both today. I slipped into shined Bruno Maglis. My silver watch was a wafer-thin Rolex, my wallet Florentine leather. The haircut came from Madison Avenue, not Sal's Clip Joint on Duane Street anymore, not since I'd left government employ, and the black BMW waiting in my driveway was new, leased by the corporation.
I was 44 that night, at the peak of my success and the brink of disaster. I headed security for one of the world's richest pharmaceutical corporations. My ironclad contract guaranteed me two years of high income whether I lost my job or not. Hundreds of men and women–security guards, bodyguards, corporate investigators and even quasi-military protectors in Latin America–reported to me in three continents. I had the use of the Lenox Pharmaceuticals jet, and a company apartment on Fifth Avenue on nights I slept in Manhattan. My expense account was quadruple anything I'd ever enjoyed in the Corporate Crime office at the FBI.
I even had access to a luxury company condo in Venezuela, where I'd occasionally taken feminine companions, other type-A New Yorkers who understood the rules of our sun-drenched tote-n-totes: to meet and enjoy the bed, to fly home and part as friends, to take on no personal obligations impeding our separate climbs and lives.
These days it was only at dawn and only rarely, in that brief period of clarity that precedes the rising sun, to be swept away by the day's distractions, that I'd started to suspect that I–Mike, for Michelangelo, as my now dead parents had dreamed of greatness for their only child; last name Acela, for the village outside of Naples from which my peasant grandparents emigrated–had transformed myself into a lonely man.
There was no time to think about that now. I poured espresso–my personal drug of choice–into a silver go-cup, and starting the BMW, flashed back to Dwyer's words on the day he interviewed me to replace Lenox's retiring head of Security. An accountant had come to the Chairman with suspicions of corporate malfeasance: fraud, dummy subsidiaries, links between executives and organized crime. Dwyer needed to know if the story was true.
"Mike, if you come to work here, you'll do whatever has to be done to clean us up, even if it means bringing down a Board member, even if that person is my friend. You'll run a private security force protecting our forty-eight thousand employees. Your jurisdiction will extend from our boardroom to our factories, loading docks, labs, computer records. But it will stop there."
"Meaning what?" I'd asked, suspicious but impressed with his quiet confidence. We'd been in his sun-drenched corner office at headquarters near Battery Park, in a new tower completed since the World Trade Center disaster. The Chairman was always a booster of the city in which he had grown up.
"Meaning that justice is private in our world. You'll have a free hand inside the corporation, but the rule is, come to me when you find things out. I'll fix them. Not the FBI or the police. If you can't live with that, walk out now and I'll respect you for it."
"I won't break laws for you."
"No, but you'll bend them, just like you do for the FBI. You'll make deals to protect people and achieve greater good. At the Bureau you have the luxury of letting your superiors decide which suspect gets arrested and which gets a deal. Who gets protected and who gets prosecuted. Here, I decide. I choose how to keep the company strong. It's still justice."
"I'll report to you first," I agreed after a moment. "But if you ignore things I find out, I'll go my own way," meaning that my self-respect was not for sale. Only my ability. "The question is, can you live with that?"
He'd surprised me then–laughed at our bull-male posturing, poured two scotches and we'd toasted our devil's bargain, dangerous trust between strangers. A month later I'd come to Lenox and started collecting my FBI pension after twenty years on the job. Until then the Bureau had been the only place I'd worked since I was 18, a lucky summer intern chosen from thousands of applicants for two precious slots.
Within six months at Lenox I'd confirmed the stories the Chairman had heard. Our Chief Financial Officer had been fired and was still paying back monies he'd diverted. The Deputy Chief had "resigned" to "spend time with his family" and eleven million dollars had been chalked up to operating losses. They'd looted the company to pay for lavish lifestyles. But our stock had remained high, our investors had saved millions and no one outside Lenox–not the Justice Department Fraud Task Force, not the Wall Street Journal, not even the families of the fired execs–had ever learned the truth.
"Nobody screws with my company," the Chairman had told me back then. "I take everything that happens here personally."
Now I threaded the BMW through the zigzag streets of Devil's Bay, local name for the blue-collar enclave that had established itself over a century ago, at a time when rich New Yorkers bought their property in Westchester, not Brooklyn. The pipe fitters and bridge and tunnel la-borers who built their shotgun shacks and saltbox brick houses here never dreamed that one day their oceanfront properties would turn prime, that as a new century began modern homes would begin replacing the old ones. An architect's glass tower, a Wall Street lawyer's restored Colonial, a screenwriter's California-style stucco-roofed ranch and swimming pool would replace the old one-story boxes.
Manhattan had discovered Devil's Bay.
Lights were on in a few older houses, where men and women were making breakfast, getting ready to head out for blue-collar jobs. The stars were out and the sky velvet over the flat Atlantic. The sickle moon rippled on the cattail-filled estuary of Devil's Bay-an old Depression-era rum-runner's cove–and glinted on a jet angling into JFK from Europe after a night flight, beginning its swerving missile-avoidance descent. Early morning, and the city was already hot with the kind of urban stickiness that marks the worst weeks of summer. As if a metropolis itself–even buildings–can sweat.
I headed onto the Prospect Expressway, toward Manhattan. Air-conditioning cooled the BMW, but in summer the heavy oxygen seemed harder to draw in.
I realized that I needed more information to help me analyze whatever I found at Dwyer's house. I took a chance on calling one person in the company who I trusted and who might help. Punching in numbers, I envisioned a white bedside phone ringing in an East Village loft apartment. I saw a petite, dark-haired woman lying on a baby blue pillow, and a lean, beautiful arm groping above an Appalachian patchwork quilt. Kim Pendergraph–Dwyer's personal assistant for twelve years–shared my fierce loyalty to him, and we had a special kind of friendship, the deep kind that exists between a man and woman who are attracted to each other but have never slept together, who have recognized some special quality in the other, one that they value over experimenting in bed. We'd dated. We'd pulled back before consummating our feelings physically.
"It's Mike. I'm sorry to wake you."
She started crying softly when I told her what had happened.
"I can't believe he'd kill himself, Mike. He's been acting angry lately. But Dwyer handles problems decisively. He doesn't run."
"No strange phone calls? Meetings?"
"Yesterday morning he walked out of his office and just stared at me for a minute, before he flew to Washington. He said he'd not valued the right things. It was odd."
Which is the way he looked at me tonight too.
"What did he do in Washington?"
"Testified before the Senate subcommittee looking into the antidote deal. And visited a small lab we own in Maryland. Naturetech."
"And after he got home?"
"I scheduled a dinner at the Hamilton Club with Schwadron and Keating," she said, naming two of Lenox's most powerful Board members, who were rumored to hate each other. "They're his kitchen cabinet.
He runs ideas past those two before he makes decisions. You know Dwyer. He never brings something before the whole Board until he figures out what he wants beforehand."
Are those the men he didn't trust?
"Did he mention any special reason for the dinner?"
"I had the impression there was a purpose, but he didn't tell me. Sometimes those three just catch up."
Fifteen minutes from the apartment now, I approached the Battery Tunnel. I saw Manhattan's towers across the harbor, lit and tall, cordoning off the southern tip of the island. This close to the heart of the city the air seemed to pressurize like seawater at dangerous depths. Maybe the huge buildings created the sensation, the pressing tons of brick and girder. Or maybe the mass of people out there, slumbering or stirring before dawn, actually thickened the atmosphere through sheer human presence. I couldn't see them but I could feel them and sometimes even sense the ones who'd come before. It's the Italian in me, I guess. The superstitious peasant inside the modern man. But I believe that human history has physical weight. That the air is filled with ghosts of desire and accumulated want, with all those bits of conflicting will colliding as they try to bend fate, time and love to personal control.
"Any problems with his family?" I asked Kim, referring to Dwyer's relationship–or lack of it–with his daughter, Gabrielle. I'd never met his last living relative, but the newspapers occasionally showed photos of the stunning beauty at a social event. The Wild One, the Post called her.
"They haven't spoken in over a year."
"Visits to doctors? Maybe he got bad news."
"As far as I know, he was as healthy as you," she said, her voice breaking again.
She agreed to keep the news to herself but made me promise to call and tell her what I found. In the end, Kim Pendergraph knew Dwyer as well as anyone, but no one knew him thoroughly. He had too many private places. And as I drove into the tunnel, that thought flashed me back to our final conversation on the day I'd been hired.
"One small favor," he'd said as I turned to leave his office. Despite his strong personality, which had earned him the nickname "General Dwyer" inside Lenox, physically he'd been unimpressive. He was bald and chubby and wore rimless glasses on his pale cheeks. His nondescript appearance was accentuated by shapeless gray suits of the finest Scottish wool. All the power was in his gray-green eyes, his calm voice. I'd done preliminary research on him before the interview, and knew that he was said to be un-forgiving with his enemies, generous to friends, a Lenox lifer and a politically active right-winger who'd started his corporate education at age five, on the knee of his father, the former CEO. I knew he'd beaten bone cancer a couple of years back, and survived his wife's death. I knew that his daughter had stopped talking to him. And I knew that blows like these tended to remind a certain kind of man to pay more attention to his mortality and legacy, but I did not yet know if Dwyer was that kind of man.
"Now that you're with us, Mr. Acela, perhaps you could meet with our attorneys to advise them on what to expect from Liebenthal," he'd said, naming the lawyer heading the Justice Department Fraud Task Force, which at the time was investigating drug pricing for Medicare recipients. "Are they looking at us?"
"I'm FBI, not Justice," I'd said with growing fury, seeing suddenly why the job had been offered to me.
Dwyer had nodded. "Surely there's some cooperation between the Bureau and Justice. Perhaps you could make a call or two, unofficially. As a favor to me."
I'd told Dwyer angrily that our deal was off. I said that we'd misjudged each other. He should find another lackey. I knew nothing about the task force probe and wasn't about to use my connections to try to find out. In fact, had I known anything to start with about an investigation of Lenox, I would have never come in for the interview, I said.
I pulled open the door to leave but Dwyer had called me back and I'd seen relief in his face, which puzzled me until I came to know him better. "Forgive the crude test, Mr. Acela," he said. "If you'd accepted my offer I would have never hired you. A man who betrays his former boss will sooner or later betray his current one, I've found."