The 500: A Novelby Matthew Quirk
A gripping thriller debut, set deep in the heart of the world's most powerful political arena
A year ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Mike Ford landed his dream job at the Davies Group, Washington's most powerful consulting firm. Now, he's staring down the barrel of a gun, pursued by two of the world's most dangerous men. To get out, he'll have to do/b>… See more details below
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A gripping thriller debut, set deep in the heart of the world's most powerful political arena
A year ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Mike Ford landed his dream job at the Davies Group, Washington's most powerful consulting firm. Now, he's staring down the barrel of a gun, pursued by two of the world's most dangerous men. To get out, he'll have to do all the things he thought he'd never do again: lie, cheat, steal-and this time, maybe even kill.
Mike grew up in a world of small-stakes con men, learning lessons at his father's knee. His hard-won success in college and law school was his ticket out. As the Davies Group's rising star, he rubs shoulders with "The 500," the elite men and women who really run Washington and the world. But peddling influence, he soon learns, is familiar work: even with a pedigree, a con is still a con.
Combining the best elements of political intrigue and heart-stopping action, THE 500 is an explosive debut, one that calls to mind classic thrillers like The Firm and Presumed Innocent. In Mike Ford, readers will discover a new hero who learns that the higher the climb, the harder and deadlier the fall.
Quirk's engaging first novel transplants the milieu of Grisham's The Firm to the world of political lobbyists...Quirk supplies just enough characterization and journalistic detail of Washington, D.C. life to ground his story as he launches into a streamlined, gripping man-on-the-run thriller."Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
The 500A Novel
By Matthew Quirk
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2012 Matthew Quirk
All right reserved.
Miroslav and Aleksandar filled the front seats of the Range Rover across the street. They wore their customary diplomatic uniforms—dark Brionis tailored close—but the two Serbs looked angrier than usual. Aleksandar lifted his right hand high enough to flash me a glint of his Sig Sauer. A master of subtlety, that Alex. I wasn’t particularly worried about the two bruisers sitting up front, however. The worst thing they could do was kill me, and right now that looked like one of my better options.
The rear window rolled down and there was Rado, glaring. He preferred to make his threats with a dinner napkin. He lifted one up and dabbed gently at the corners of his mouth. They called him the King of Hearts because, well, he ate people’s hearts. The way I heard it was that he’d read an article in the Economist about some nineteen-year-old Liberian warlord with a taste for human flesh. Rado decided that sort of flagrant evil would give his criminal brand the edge it needed in a crowded global marketplace, so he picked up the habit.
I wasn’t even all that worried about him tucking into my heart. That’s usually fatal and, like I said, would greatly simplify my dilemma. The problem was that he knew about Annie. And my getting another loved one killed because of my mistakes was one of the things that made Rado’s fork look like the easy out.
I nodded to Rado and started up the street. It was a beautiful May morning in the nation’s capital, with a sky like blue porcelain. The blood that had soaked through my shirt was drying, stiff and scratchy. My left foot dragged on the asphalt. My knee had swollen to the size of a rugby ball. I tried to concentrate on the knee to keep my mind off the injury to my chest, because if I thought about that—not the pain so much as the sheer creepiness of it—I was sure I would pass out.
As I approached, the office looked as classy as ever: a three-story Federal mansion set back in the woods of Kalorama, among the embassies and chanceries. It was home to the Davies Group, Washington, DC’s most respected strategic consulting and government affairs firm, where I guess technically I may have still been employed. I fished my keys from my pocket and waved them in front of a gray pad beside the door lock. No go.
But Davies was expecting me. I looked up at the closed-circuit camera. The lock buzzed.
Inside the foyer, I greeted the head of security and noted the baby Glock he’d pulled from its holster and was holding tight near his thigh. Then I turned to Marcus, my boss, and nodded by way of hello. He stood on the other side of the metal detector, waved me through, then frisked me neck to ankle. He was checking for weapons, and for wires. Marcus had made a nice long career with those hands, killing.
“Strip,” Marcus said. I obliged, shirt and pants. Even Marcus winced when he saw the skin of my chest, puckering around the staples. He took a quick look inside my drawers, then seemed satisfied I wasn’t bugged. I suited back up.
“Envelope,” he said, and gestured to the manila one I was carrying.
“Not until we have a deal,” I said. The envelope was the only thing keeping me alive, so I was a little reluctant to let it go. “This will go wide if I disappear.”
Marcus nodded. That kind of insurance was standard industry practice. He’d taught me so himself. He led me upstairs to Davies’s office and stood guard by the door as I stepped inside.
There, standing by the windows, looking out over downtown DC, was the one thing I was worried about, the option that seemed much worse than getting carved up by Rado: it was Davies, who turned to me with a grandfather’s smile.
“It’s good to see you, Mike. I’m glad you decided to come back to us.”
He wanted a deal. He wanted to feel like he owned me again. And that’s what I was afraid of more than anything else, that I would say yes.
“I don’t know how things got this bad,” he said. “Your father…I’m sorry.”
Dead, as of last night. Marcus’s handiwork.
“I want you to know we didn’t have anything to do with that.”
I said nothing.
“You might want to ask your Serbian friends about it. We can protect you, Mike; we can protect the people you love.” He told me to sit down at the far end of the conference table, and he moved a little closer. “Just say it and all this is over. Come back to us, Mike. It only takes one word: yes.”
And that was the weird thing about all his games, all the torture. At the end of the day he really thought he was doing me a favor. He wanted me back, thought of me as a son, a younger version of himself. He had to corrupt me, to own me, or else everything he believed, his whole sordid world, was a lie.
My dad chose to die instead of playing ball with Davies. Die proud rather than live corrupted. He got out. It was so neat and clean. But I didn’t have that luxury. My death would be only the beginning of the pain. I had no good options. That’s why I was here, about to shake hands with the devil.
I placed the envelope on the table. Inside it was the only thing Henry was afraid of: evidence of a mostly forgotten murder. His only mistake. The one bit of carelessness in Davies’s long career. It was a piece of himself he’d lost fifty years before, and he wanted it back.
“This is the only real trust, Mike. When two people know each other’s secrets. When they have each other cornered. Mutually assured destruction. Anything else is bullshit sentimentality. I’m proud of you. It’s the same play I made when I was starting out.”
Henry always told me that every man has his price. He’d found mine. If I said yes, I’d have my life back—the house, the money, the friends, the respectable facade I’d always wanted. If I said no, it was all over, for me, for Annie.
“Name your price, Mike. You can have it. Anyone who’s anyone has made a deal like this on the way up. It’s how the game is played. What do you say?”
It was an old bargain. Swap your soul for all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. There would be haggling over details, of course. I wasn’t going to sell myself on the cheap, but that was quickly squared away.
“I will give you this evidence,” I said, tapping my finger on the envelope, “and guarantee that you will never have to worry about it again. In exchange, Rado goes away. The police leave me alone. I get my life back. And I become a full partner.”
“And from now on, you’re mine,” Henry said. “A full partner in the wet work too. When we find Rado, you’ll slit his throat.”
“Then we’re agreed,” Henry said. The devil held his hand out.
I shook it, and handed over my soul with the envelope.
But that was bullshit, another gamble. Die in infamy, honor intact, or live in glory, corrupted. I chose neither. There was nothing in the envelope. I was trying to barter empty-handed with the devil, so I really had only one choice: to beat him at his own game.
I was late. I checked myself out in one of the giant gilt mirrors they had hanging everywhere. There were dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep and a fresh patch of carpet burn on my forehead. Otherwise I looked like every other upwardly mobile grade-grubber streaming through Langdell Hall.
The seminar was called Politics and Strategy. I ducked inside. It was application only—sixteen spots—and had the reputation of being a launching pad for future leaders in finance, diplomacy, military, and government. Every year Harvard tapped a few mid- to late-career heavies from DC and New York and brought them up to lead the seminar. The class was essentially a chance for the wannabe big-deal professional students—and there was no shortage of them around campus—to show off their “big think” skills, hoping establishment dons would tap them and start them off on glittering careers. I looked around the table: hotshots from the law school, econ, philosophy, even a couple MD/PhDs. Ego poured through the room like central air.
It was my third year at the law school—I was doing a joint law and politics degree—and I had no idea how I’d managed to finagle my way into HLS or the seminar. That’d been pretty typical of the past ten years of my life, though, so I shrugged it off. Maybe it was all just a long series of clerical errors. My usual attitude was the fewer questions asked, the better.
Jacket, button-down, khakis: I mostly managed to look the part, if a little worn and frayed. We were in the thick of the conversation. The subject was World War I. And Professor Davies stared at us expectantly, sweating the answer out of us like an inquisitor.
“So,” Davies said. “Gavrilo Princip steps forward and pistol-whips a bystander with his little Browning 1910. He shoots the archduke in the jugular and then shoots his wife through the stomach as she shields the archduke with her body. He just so happens to trigger the Great War in the process. The question is: Why?”
He glowered around the table. “Don’t regurgitate what you read. Think.”
I watched the others squirm. Davies definitely qualified as a heavy. The other students in class had studied his career with jealous obsession. I knew less, but enough. He was an old Washington hand. Going back forty years, he knew everyone who mattered, the two layers of people below those who mattered, and, most important, where all the bodies were buried. He’d worked for Lyndon Johnson, jumped ship to Nixon, then put out his own shingle as a fixer. He now ran a high-end strategic consulting firm called the Davies Group, which always made me think of the Kinks (that should tell you a bit about how fit I am for cutthroat DC career climbing). Davies had influence and could trade on that for anything he wanted, including, as one of the guys in class pointed out, a mansion in McLean, a place in Tuscany, and a ten-thousand-acre ranch on the central California coast. He’d been guest-teaching the seminar for a few weeks now. My classmates were practically vibrating with anxiety; I’d never seen them so eager to impress. That led me to believe that in the various orbits of official Washington, Davies had pull like the sun.
Davies’s usual teaching method was to sit placidly and put a good face on his boredom, like he was listening to a bunch of second-graders spout dinosaur trivia. He wasn’t an especially large man, maybe five ten, five eleven, but he sort of…loomed. His pull, it was almost like you could see it spread out through a room. People stopped talking, all eyes turned to him, and soon enough he had everyone lined up around him like filings around a magnet.
But his voice: that was the odd thing. You’d expect it to boom out, but he always spoke softly. There was a scar on his neck, right between where his jawline met his ear. It was the source of some speculation, whether an old injury had something to do with his quiet tone, but no one knew what had happened. It didn’t matter much, since most rooms went silent when he opened his mouth. In class, though, his students were desperate to be heard, to be noticed by the master. Everyone had his answers to Davies’s questions marshaled. There’s an art to seminar: when to let others blabber, when to cut in. It’s like boxing or…I guess fencing or squash or one of those other Ivy League pastimes.
The guy who always went first and never had a point to make began talking about the Young Bosnia movement until Davies’s stare put the fear in him. The kid trailed off, mumbling. A feeding frenzy ensued as everyone smelled weakness and started barking over one another, spouting off about Greater Serbia versus the Southern Slavs, Bosnian versus Bosniak, irredentist Serbs and the Triple Entente and the two-power standard.
I was in awe. It wasn’t just the facts they’d assembled (and some of these guys seemed to know literally everything; I’d never managed to push them out of their depths). It was their manner. You could see the entitlement in every move; it was like they’d grown up toddling around the study as their fathers swirled single-malts and debated the fate of nations, like they’d spent the last twenty-five years boning up on diplomatic history just to kill time until their dads grew tired of running the world and let them take the wheel. They were just so…so goddamn respectable. I usually loved to watch them, loved the little toehold I’d managed to gain in this world, loved to think that I could finally pass for one of them.
But not today. I was having trouble. I couldn’t keep up with the give-and-take, the points and parries, let alone outdo them. On my good days I had a chance. But every time I tried to think about century-old Balkan micropolitics, I only saw a number, big and red and flashing. It was written in my notebook: $83,359, circled and underlined, and followed by a few other numbers: 43-23-65.
I hadn’t slept the night before. After work—I tended bar at a yuppie place called Barley—I went over to Kendra’s. I figured taking her up on her come-fuck-me look at the bar would do me more good than the ninety minutes of sleep I might have gotten before I had to wake up and read twelve hundred pages of densely written IR theory. She had black hair you could drown in, and a shape that invited lewd thoughts. But the principal appeal may have been that girls named Kendra who worked for tips and didn’t look you in the eye in bed were the exact opposite of everything I told myself I wanted.
I headed out from Kendra’s and got home around seven that morning. I knew something was up when I saw a few of my T-shirts on the stoop and my dad’s ratty old Barcalounger lying on its side on the sidewalk. The front door to my apartment had been forced, and not well. It looked like a mean black bear had done it. Gone: my bed, and most of the furniture, the lamps and small kitchen appliances. The rest of my stuff was scattered everywhere.
People were going through my shit on the sidewalk like it was the giveaway at the end of a yard sale. I shooed them off and gathered up what was left. The Barcalounger was safe: it weighed as much as a hatchback and would require some serious forethought and a couple of guys to haul it off.
As I straightened up inside the apartment, I noticed that Crenshaw Collection Services hadn’t seen the value of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War or the five-inch-thick stack of reading material that had to be finished before seminar in two hours. They had left me a little love note on the kitchen table: Furnishings taken as partial payment. Outstanding balance: $83,359. Outstanding. Spectacular, even. I knew enough law by then to recognize at a glance about seventeen fatal flaws in Crenshaw’s approach to debt collection, but they were as ruthless as bedbugs and I’d been too slammed trying to pay for school to sue them to a pulp. But that day would come.
Your parents’ debts are supposed to die with them, settled out of the estate. Not mine. The eighty-three grand was the balance due for my mother’s stomach cancer treatment. She was gone now. And if I may share one piece of advice, it’s this: if your mother is dying, don’t ever pay her bills with your own checkbook.
Because some unsavory creditors, folks like Crenshaw, will take that as a pretext to come after you once she’s dead. You’ve tacitly assumed the debts, they’ll say. It’s not exactly legal. But it’s not the kind of thing you know to look out for when you’re sixteen and the radiology bills start coming in and you’re trying to keep your mom alive by working overtime at Milwaukee Frozen Custard and your dad’s doing a twenty-four-year bid at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex.
I’d been through this sort of hassle too often to even waste time with anger. I’d do what I always did. The more all that stuff from the past tried to drag me down, the more I’d work my ass off to rise above it. And that meant putting a wall around this little disaster, meant plowing through as much work as I could before class so I wouldn’t sound like a moron in Davies’s seminar. I took my reading out to the sidewalk, then righted the recliner. I kicked back and dug into some Churchill essays as traffic cruised by.
By the time I made it to seminar, however, I’d crashed. My punchy up-all-night post-lay energy was gone, as was the jolt of enthusiasm I’d had to spite Crenshaw by nailing class. To get to seminar, I had to swipe my ID at the entrance to Langdell Hall. I joined the long queue of students swiping and hitting the turnstiles and hustling to class. But my card made the LED flash red, not green. The metal bar locked and bent my knees back. My upper half continued forward in one of those agonizingly slow falls where you realize what’s happening and can’t do a thing about it for the ten minutes it seems to take to eat shit headfirst onto a thin layer of carpet over cement.
The cute undergrad behind the circulation desk was nice enough to explain that I might want to check with the Student Receivables Office about unpaid tuition or fees. Then she treated herself to a little pump of hand sanitizer. Crenshaw must have gone after my bank accounts and screwed up my tuition payment, and Harvard was just as serious about getting paid as Crenshaw. I had to circle around the back of Langdell and sneak in behind a guy going out for a smoke by the shipping dock.
In class, I guess my fugue state was now pretty obvious. It felt like Davies was looking right at me. Then I felt it coming. I fought it with every muscle in my body but sometimes there’s nothing you can do. I had to yawn. And this one was big, lion big. There was no hiding it behind my hand.
Davies fixed me with a dagger look sharpened over God knows how many face-offs—he used to stare down labor bosses and KGB agents.
“Are we boring you, Mr. Ford?” he asked.
“No, sir.” An awful weightless feeling grew in my stomach. “I apologize.”
“Then why don’t you share your thoughts on the assassination?”
The others tried to hide their delight: one less grade-grubber to climb over. The particular thoughts distracting me went like this: Can’t shake Crenshaw until I have a law degree and a decent job and can’t get either until I shake Crenshaw, which leaves me with the eighty-three grand due Crenshaw and one hundred sixty due Harvard and no way to pay it back. Everything I’d worked my ass off for ten years to earn, all the respectability filling that room, was about to slip from my hands, and be gone for good. And at the root of it all: my father, the convict, who first got tangled up with Crenshaw, who left me the man of the house at twelve, who should have done the world a favor and kicked instead of my mom. I pictured him, pictured his smirk, and as much as I tried not to, all I could think about was…
“Revenge,” I said.
Davies brought the earpiece of his glasses up to his lips. He was waiting for me to go on.
“I mean Princip is dirt-poor, right? He has six siblings die, and his parents have to give him away because they can’t feed him. And he thinks the whole reason he can’t get ahead in life is that the Austrians have had their foot on his family’s neck since he was born. He’s scrawny; the guerrillas laughed him out of the room when he tried to join up. He was just a nobody trying to make a splash. The other assassins lost their nerve, but he…he was, well, pissed off like no one else. He had something to prove. Twenty-three years of resentment. So he’d do what he had to do to make his name, even if it meant killing. Especially if it meant killing. The more dangerous the target the better.”
My peers looked away in distaste. I didn’t talk much in seminar, and when I did I tried to use polished, high-sounding Harvard English like everyone else, not the regular-Mike tone I had just slipped into. I waited for Davies to tear me up. I sounded like a street kid, not a young establishment comer.
“Not bad,” he said. He thought for a moment, then looked around the room.
“Grand strategy, world war. You are all getting caught up in abstractions. Never lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day it comes down to men. Someone has to pull the trigger. If you want to lead nations, you have to start by understanding a single man, his wants and fears, the secrets he won’t admit to and may not even be aware of himself. Those are the levers that move the world. Every man has a price. And once you find it, you own him, body and soul.”
After class, I was in a rush to clean myself up and attend to the disaster back in my apartment. A hand on my shoulder stopped me. I half expected it to be Crenshaw, ready to humiliate me in front of the good people of Harvard.
That might’ve been preferable; it was Davies, with that dagger stare and whisper voice. “I would like to talk to you,” he said. “Ten forty-five, my office?”
“Terrific,” I said, my best attempt at calm. Maybe he’d saved the chewing-out for a private conference. Classy.
I needed food and sleep, but coffee would cover both for a while. I didn’t have time to go back to my apartment, and without really thinking about it, I walked over to Barley, the bar where I worked. The only thing filling my head was that number, $83,359, and the endless pathetic arithmetic of how I’d never be able to pay it off.
The bar was a pretentious box with too many windows. The only one in there was Oz, the manager, who bartended a few shifts a week. It wasn’t until I leaned against the oak bar and took the first bitter sip of coffee that I caught myself. I hadn’t come for caffeine. I cycled the numbers in my head: 46-79-35, 43-23-65, and so on. They were combinations for a Sentry safe.
Oz, who was also the owner’s son-in-law, was skimming. And not just here and there, the usual retail “shrinkage.” He was robbing the place. I’d been watching him up his game for a while, no sale–ing drinks and pocketing the money, comping his regulars half their tabs and never punching a thing into the register. Fishing that large a volume of stolen money from the cash drawer every night must have been a little difficult, since he had to do it while we were waiting around to be tipped out. So I was certain, dead certain, that this asshole was now keeping it in the safe. I could just tell. Probably because his act was basically a clumsy version of what I’d be doing if I were him and hadn’t sworn off grifting a long time ago. The academic term is alert opportunism. It means that if you have the eyes of a criminal, you see the world differently, as nothing more than a collection of unwatched candy jars. I was starting to worry about myself, because now that I needed money, badly, it was all jumping out at me again: unlocked cars, open doors, loose purses, cheap locks, dark entries.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t forget my apprenticeship, my ill-gotten expertise. I couldn’t ignore all those invitations to stray. People seem to think thieves have to pick locks and shinny up drainpipes and charm widows. Usually, though, they just have to keep their eyes open. The money is more or less left sitting out by honest folks who can’t quite believe people like me are walking around. The hidden key, the unlocked garage, the anniversary-date PIN code. It’s there for the taking. And that’s the funny thing: the straighter I became, the easier it was to be crooked. It was like people were constantly upping the temptations to keep testing me after all these years clean. As a harmless-looking grad student in a button-down, I could probably have walked out of Cambridge Savings and Trust with a trash bag full of hundreds and a revolver in my belt while the guard held the door and told me to have a nice weekend.
Alert opportunism. That’s how I picked up that Oz was day-locking the safe, so he only had to dial in the last number to open it. It’s how I knew that that number was 65. It’s how I recalled that Sentry safes came from the manufacturer preset with only a handful of codes—called tryouts—and so if Oz’s code ended in 65, it was almost certain that someone along the line had been too lazy to change the original factory combo from 43-23-65. It’s how I noted that Oz was barely able to calculate a tip, let alone keep his skim straight, and that his drinking had gone from bad to worse: at 10:30 a.m. he was already halfway through a five-second pour of Jameson in a mug with a splash of coffee on top. And even if he did notice something missing, who would he tell? No honor among thieves, right?
Oz had the cash drawers on the bar now. He took them into the office. I heard the safe open and shut. He came back out and said, “I’m going to grab some cigarettes. Can you keep an eye on the place?”
Opportunity knocked. I nodded.
I took my coffee, stepped into the office, and tried the handle on the safe. It was open. Jesus. He was practically begging me. Scanning the contents, I counted about forty-eight thousand dollars in bank bundles and maybe another ten grand or so in cash just piled up. Oz was way behind on the deposits.
There were two plays: I could nibble away at his skim and keep Crenshaw off my back long enough to get my degree. Or I could just rip off the Band-Aid, come in before dawn and clean it out. The bar’s back door was like Fort Knox, but the front you could pry open with a Wonderbar in a minute and a half—typical. No one would get hurt. As long as there are signs of forced entry, insurance pays out. I checked the top drawers of the desk, then the corkboard, and sure enough, there it was, tacked to the wall in Oz’s third-grader handwriting: 43-23-65—the combination. Begging me.
I needed to pay Harvard at least, that week. Or else no degree. All that work, gone. The blood was pumping. A thrill coursed through me. It felt good. Really good. I’d missed it. Ten years I’d been clean, the upstanding go-getter. I hadn’t strayed, hadn’t lifted so much as a malted-milk ball from the grocery-store candy bins.
Standing in front of that open safe felt good. It felt way too good. It was in my blood. And I knew that shit would destroy me—like it did my dad, like it did my family—if I gave it the slightest chance. I looked over my button-down shirt, my loafers, Thucydides staring up from the cover of my book.
“Fuck me,” I muttered. Who was I kidding? I was too damn respectable to be crooked. And somehow still too crooked to be respectable. I swallowed the last of my coffee, then looked down at the empty mug. I’d chosen honest a long time ago, to survive, and I was going to stick with it even if it killed me.
I clanked the safe door shut.
I had pictured Davies’s office like a World War II film set: a map room with man-size globes and him shoving around armies on table maps with a croupier’s rake. Instead, Harvard had put him in a spare office in Littauer Hall, all Office Depot cherry veneer and no windows.
Sitting across from him, I felt an eerie bit of déjà vu. He seemed to grow as he looked me over, and I remembered, from a long time ago, what it was like to be standing dead center in the courtroom with a judge staring down.
“I have to catch the shuttle back to DC in a few minutes,” Davies said. “But I wanted to talk to you. You were a summer associate at Damrosch and Cox?”
“You’re planning to work with them after you graduate?”
“No,” I said.
That’s pretty unusual. All the real work in law school is in the first year and a half, when you’re gunning for a summer associateship at a firm. Then they wine and dine and overpay you to do nothing in order to make up for the seven years of hell they’re going to make you pay as an actual associate. Once you’re in for the summer, you’re more or less guaranteed a job after you graduate unless you’re a major fuckup. Damrosch and Cox didn’t invite me back.
“Why not?” Davies asked.
“Tough economy,” I said. “And I know I’m not the typical candidate.”
Davies pulled out a few sheets of paper and looked them over. My résumé. He must have pulled it from the Office of Career Services.
“Your manager at Damrosch and Cox said you were excellent, a force of nature.”
“That’s very kind of him.”
Davies squared the papers and put them down on his desk.
“Damrosch and Cox are a couple white-shoe fucking snobs,” he said.
That was my working theory for why they didn’t hire me too, but it took me a second to process it coming from Davies. His firm had a rep that could easily out-white-shoe-fucking-snob the best of them.
“You join the navy at nineteen, when most of your chums in seminar here probably went to get drunk in Europe during their gap year. Top noncommissioned officer. A year at Pensacola Junior College, then you transfer to Florida State and graduate first in your class in two years. Damn near perfect LSATs. Now a joint degree from the Kennedy School and Harvard Law. And”—he checked another paper—“you’re doing the four-year degree in three. How are you paying for it?”
“About a hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”
“Give or take. And I tend bar.”
Davies seemed to check the circles under my eyes. “How many hours a week?”
“On top of class.” He shook his head. “I’ll ask you this, because you did a decent job figuring out what moved Princip. What lit the fire under you?”
So apparently this was a job interview. I tried to think of the usual platitudes about my work ethic, summon my inner grade-grubber, but I really didn’t know how to play this one. Davies made it easy.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t bullshit me,” he said. “I called you in here because, based on what you said in class, you actually seem to know something about the real world, what drives men. What’s driving you?”
He’d find out sooner or later, so I figured I might as well get it over with. It was expunged from the record, but I could never really erase it. People, like the partners at Damrosch and Cox, always managed to find out. It’s like they could smell it on me.
“I got into some trouble when I was young,” I said. “The judge gave me an easy choice: join up or go to prison. The navy straightened me out, and the discipline took. I liked the routine, the drive, and I put that into school.”
He lifted the files off the desk, dropped them in his attaché, then stood up. “Good,” he said. “I like to know who I’m working with.”
I looked at him, puzzled by the “working with” bit. Usually when people caught a hint of who I really was, they showed me the door (“tough economy” or “not our kind of man”). Not Davies.
“You’ll come work for me,” he said. “We’ll start you at two hundred a year. Thirty percent bonus based on performance.”
“Yes.” I heard myself say it before I even had a chance to think.
That night, I slept on a wheezing air mattress in my empty apartment. I had to get up every couple hours to pump it back up. Dawn was a long time coming, and at some point, I remember, I realized that when Davies said I was coming to DC, he’d been telling me, not asking.
The mahogany box wasn’t a coffin, but after I’d been trapped inside it for four hours, it started to feel distinctly tomblike. I found it hard to rest. That may have had something to do with the fact that most people in similar situations were lying on their backs, and dead. After a while, however, I learned that if I leaned my head forward and wedged it in a corner, I could catch a few winks.
The story of how I found myself in that box is a bit complicated. The short version is that I was stalking a guy named Ray Gould because I was in love—with a girl named Annie Clark in particular, and with my new job in general.
I’d been at the Davies Group for almost four months. The firm was a strange place, opaque by design. If you asked, they told you they did government affairs and strategic consulting. Usually that’s a euphemism for lobbying.
Picture a lobbyist and you probably call to mind the bought-and-paid-for, tasseled-loafer-wearing scum who funnel corporate and special-interest bribes to politicians, take generous skims for themselves, and ultimately make the world safe for lung cancer and poisoned rivers. There are plenty of those guys. But the go-go days of the 1970s and 1980s, when payoffs and vice flourished, are long gone. Now most lobbyists spend their days clicking through PowerPoint slides about obscure policies while bored junior congressional staff check their BlackBerrys under the table.
Those guys are the rabble. Comparing them to the folks at the Davies Group is like comparing Zales to Tiffany and Cartier. Davies is among a handful of strategic consulting firms that do very little formal lobbying. These outfits are run by Washington heavies—ex–House Speakers, ex–secretaries of state, ex–national security advisers—and they exert a far more powerful and lucrative influence through the Beltway’s back channels. They’re not registered as lobbyists. They don’t do volume. They don’t advertise. They have relationships. They’re discreet. And they’re very, very expensive. If you really need something done in Washington, and you have the money, and you know the people you have to know to even get a referral to a top firm, that’s where you go.
The Davies Group is at the peak of that cozy little world. It occupies a mansion in Kalorama, set among the trees and old European embassies, far from K Street downtown, where most lobbyists duke it out.
During those first days in DC, I started to realize that the Davies Group thought of itself less as a business and more as a secret society or shadow government. People I was used to seeing on the front page of the Post, or in history books, for God’s sake, would be strolling up and down the hallways or cursing at jammed laser printers.
Davies, like the other principals, spent his days doing essentially the same work he had done while in government. He marshaled decades of bureaucratic mastery: knowing exactly which string to tug, which functionary to pressure. It was a miracle how he made this sluggish, awkward, all-powerful yet barely functioning apparatus—the federal government—come alive and turn his whims into realities.
Once he’d had to answer to voters and donors and political parties. Now he answered to only himself. He was offered far more business than he could ever take and so had the luxury of taking only those clients whose cases fit with his own agenda.
None of this was said outright, of course. You had to pick up all the routines and rituals by keeping your eyes open and asking the right questions. The Davies Group was old-school. Most consulting firms still keep a little gentlemanly patina—the suits, the library, the hardwood trim. But any gentility has long ago been squeezed out by the number crunchers. Everyone measures his life by cells on a spreadsheet: hours billed. You have to hit your numbers. From day one, you’re on the hamster wheel. At Davies it was different. There were no orientations, no quotas or guidelines. There were only a half dozen or so new hires. Some years there were none.
They gave each new initiate an office, a secretary, and a paycheck for forty-six hundred dollars every other week. Beyond that it was up to you. You had to find the work. The principals and partners inhabited the third floor—to me it looked like a wing of Versailles—and the senior associates the second. We were the junior associates, new fish, and we were parked on the first floor with all the admin, HR, and research folks. Junior associate was basically probation. You had six months, maybe a year, to prove your worth to the company, or you were gone. No one taught you how to do it. You had to hustle your way past every associate’s door to learn the rules of the game, but you could never seem pushy. Tact and discretion were the cardinal virtues at Davies Group.
You’d scrounge for any little project at first, and typically they’d have you do research on a mark—sorry, that’s the old Mike’s lingo—on a “decision-maker” the firm wanted to influence. That meant you had to find out everything there was to know in the world, public and private, about your mark, and narrow it down to only the things that mattered for the case at hand and nothing more. That went into a memo, one page maximum. The partners called it “boiling the sea.” And what mattered? We junior associates had no idea, but we knew we had damned sure better get it right.
That was the worst part. The partners and associates knew that if they let you squirm, you would only work harder, desperate for a pat on the head. So they never said exactly what was right or wrong. A partner would just tent his fingers in front of his lips and say, “Why don’t you have another go?” then slide back across the desk the product of your endless nights and weekends at the office, always wanting more. If you were lucky, you would receive the rarest of gifts, a “not bad”—the equivalent of a panting orgasm at the Davies Group. And if you pulled the wrong grains of salt from the sea? You were gone. Sink or swim.
I was going to swim. I’d been hazed pretty hard starting out in the navy, and if staring at a computer was the worst they had for me, I was going to be fine. If I was awake (which I was for eighteen or nineteen hours a day), I was working.
The money was enough to keep Crenshaw off my back, and even with me saving 20 percent (I was still convinced that any day the rug would be pulled out) there was more left than I knew how to spend. I had to get used to going out for dinner without coupons and having an apartment decent enough to invite people over without shame.
Money wasn’t the only draw. In my short time at Davies, I started getting perks I hadn’t even known existed, things I wouldn’t even have known to want. They had sent movers up to Cambridge to pack up my old place. Young guys, they were nice enough not to laugh at my picked-over apartment. It took them a half hour to convince me I shouldn’t help. All I had to do was pack a bag for myself and drive my fifteen-year-old Jeep Cherokee down to DC. The shocks were gone, so it lurched on the leaf springs like a seesaw anytime I went over fifty-five. Davies put me up in the firm’s corporate apartment on Connecticut Ave., a nine-hundred-square-foot one-bedroom with a den, a balcony, a doorman, and a concierge.
“Take as long as you want to find a place,” Davies told me the first day. “We’ll set you up with a real estate agent, but if you’re focused on working instead of going to open houses, that’s fine with us.”
Even if I hadn’t been trying to save money, there was nothing I needed to buy. The firm had a car service, and most days my coworkers and I ended up eating catered breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the office.
My first week, I met my assistant, Christina, a petite Hungarian. She was so tiny, neat, and efficient that I half suspected she was a robot. She kept catching me as I tried to run my own errands. I’d ask where the post office was, or the dry cleaner’s. She would extend her hand, looking a little put out that I’d try to do some task myself, then take what I was holding and do whatever chore I needed done.
“Sorry for the tough love, Mr. Ford. Don’t think of it as a luxury. Think of it as Davies making sure he keeps you on task and gets his money’s worth out of you.”
That made it a little easier. The fifty annoying errands you have to do when you move—standing in line at the DMV, waiting for the cable guy—they just got done. And it kept up after that, all life’s little hassles gone. That’s when I started to understand. I’d always needed money to survive, for bare necessities month to month. I never really stopped to think about what it really brought, those countless graces that people wrap up in the word comfortable.
All that made me feel a bit uncomfortable, soft even. I liked to think of myself as hungry, driven. But when you have twelve interviews and fourteen hundred pages of documents to plow through a day, two weekly reports that can make or break you, and partners ready to drop by any time for a “little check-in” that could be your last, you don’t really have time to worry about going soft. I started to realize that Christina was right: some pad thai ordered in to the conference room and a Town Car home was a small price for Davies to pay to keep each employee humming along and billing out at two or three hundred bucks an hour, seventy hours a week.
I needed the money, and I liked the perks, but that’s not what pulled me out of bed every morning at 5:45. It was the ritual of shined shoes and a crisp shirt. It was crossing off eight tasks before 9:00 a.m. It was the soles of my Johnston & Murphy’s cracking across the marble floor of the Davies Group foyer and echoing back from the oak panels. It was walking through the halls and seeing wise men do work that mattered, seeing Henry Davies and an ex–CIA director in the courtyard laughing like old roommates and realizing that if I kept busting my ass, I might one day belong in their company. It was the same thing that had been driving me ever since a judge gave me a choice: the need to find something larger than myself to be a part of, some honest work to lose myself in; anything to hold off the criminal in my blood.
I was going to do everything it took to make it at Davies, to make that respectable world stick. And that’s how I found myself sealed up in the mahogany box.
Those first few months were like pledging a fraternity. Nobody said how exactly, but you knew you were being scrutinized at every step. Every so often someone would disappear and you had the feeling that in some clubby chamber at Davies Group the night before, ballots had been cast in secret, and black marks scratched beside the name of the unfit.
That was the chatter among the junior associates, at least. I thought it was a little much. But the piece of it I did buy was that your first real assignment was do-or-die. In the government affairs business, when you’re needling some politician or bureaucrat to give you what your client wants, there comes a moment called the ask. No matter how byzantine the issue, it ultimately comes down to one question: Will he give you what you need? Yes or no.
A partner does the actual ask. He is the august face of the company. The real work, however, is all left to the associate. And when you get your first case, you own it. If the mark says yes, you’re golden. No: you’re gone.
William Marcus gave me my first real case. He had the office next to Davies on the third floor. It was the executive corridor. An oak-paneled boardroom ran along one side. On the other there were six or seven suites, each as big as my apartment, all looking down over the District from this hilltop perch in Kalorama. Walking that hall made my hair stand on end. I would flash back to drills and forward march with thirty-inch steps, head, eyes, and body at attention.
The men on that hall had literally run the free world, and they daily, without a second thought, made or crushed the careers of dozens of strivers like me. Most of the principals at the firm had bios as long as your arm; that’s what the clients paid for. But Marcus’s background was a mystery. As far as I knew, I was the only junior associate he was keeping an eye on. It was either a very good or a very bad thing, and given the caliber of the talent I was up against, I figured the latter.
Marcus was in his late forties, maybe a little older; it was hard to tell. I took him for a triathlete or, given his build, maybe one of those white-collar guys who spend four nights a week trading leather at the boxing gym. He had reddish-brown hair trimmed short, a strong jaw, and drawn cheeks. He always seemed to be in a good mood, which cut down the intimidation factor a bit, but only until he had you alone in his office. Then the smiles and easy manner disappeared.
He put me on to my first ask. A giant multinational based in Germany (which I probably shouldn’t name outright, so I’ll just call it what we called it around the office: the Kaiser) had finagled a tax-and-tariff loophole and was using it to lowball American companies and drive them out of business. It was a typically complex international tax case, but in the end it came down to this: overseas companies that sell services to Americans pay way less in taxes and tariffs than companies that ship actual goods to the United States. The Kaiser people sure looked like they were selling goods to the United States. They claimed, however, that they were just offering a service, connecting American customers to overseas vendors and manufacturers, and so they should have to pay only the cheap tax on services. We’re just a middleman, the Kaiser would argue, who never actually takes possession of the goods. But once you looked at their supply chain, it was clear they were selling goods just like everybody else and simply dodging the higher taxes.
Still awake? Bravo. The folks who were getting driven out of business had hired the Davies Group. They wanted us to close the loophole and level the playing field. That meant getting some bureaucrat in the bowels of Washington to sign a piece of paper that said the Kaiser was offering goods, not services.
One little word. And for that, the Davies Group was getting at least fifteen million dollars, which, rumor had it among the junior associates, was the minimum required to attract the firm’s attention.
Marcus laid the case out for me, with a few more details but not many: my first ask. He didn’t even tell me what he wanted me to give back to him—the product, as it was known around the office. My ass was now officially on the line and I had zero clue what I was doing.
I’d been out of my depth for the last ten years, though, and it had worked out surprisingly well, so I figured I’d just keep doing what I always did: hustle. A hundred and fifty hours of work and ten days later, after talking with every expert who would answer a plea for help and reading every legal code and journal article that even vaguely touched on the issue, I distilled the case against the Kaiser into ten pages, then five, then one. I boiled the sea. Eight bullet points. Each one alone was potent enough to annihilate the Kaiser. It was the memo equivalent of uncut heroin, and I was proud and sleep-deprived enough to pass it along to Marcus thinking it would blow him away.
He skimmed it for thirty seconds, grumbled a little, and said, “This is all fucked up. You can’t know the why until you know the who. These things always turn on one man. Don’t waste my time until you find the fulcrum.”
I wanted marching orders. I got Confucius. So I dug back in. Among my junior-associate peers hustling for a spot at Davies Group were the secretary of defense’s son, a guy who at thirty years old had already been deputy campaign manager on a successful presidential bid, and two Rhodes scholars, one of them a former CIA director’s grandson. The job came down to knowing Washington, and the issues, sure, but more important, knowing the deep anthropology of the place, the personalities, the loves and hates, the hidden nodes where power massed, who had pull on who, who owed who chits. It was stuff that takes a lifetime of connections, of being immersed in the DC elite, to learn. The other guys had it. I didn’t. But that wasn’t going to stop me. Because I had learned a few things along the way too. What I did have was will, in spades.
So I got out of the office, away from LexisNexis and the endless Googling, to actually talk to some human beings (to many of my youngish peers, this was an art as mysterious as levitation or snake charming). I was working on the premise that official Washington, however peculiar, could ultimately be understood as a neighborhood like any other.
About six different government offices had a say in the decision on whether the Kaiser could hang on to the loophole. But the final stop turned out to be a typical example of Washington bureaucracy: a sub-body of something called the Interim Interagency Working Group on Manufacturing at the Commerce Department.
It took about a week to crack the working group. Everything was a little harder because Marcus had told me that for now there shouldn’t be any obvious signs we were working the case. I had to talk to about four or five junior staffers until I found a chatterbox, big ego, who knew nothing that mattered to me. He did, however, turn me on to a paralegal who moonlighted for fun as a bartender at Stetson’s—a U Street bar that the Clinton White House staffers used to frequent, though by now it had gone to seed. She was a redhead with a nice tomboyish thing going, as amiable as you could want, though she snored like a chain saw and had a habit of “forgetting” things at my apartment.
She laid it all out. There were two figureheads who would sign off on it, but in the end, the real decision came down to three people on the working group. Two were typical agency staffers, human paperweights; they didn’t matter. The third—a guy named Ray Gould—was the actual decision-maker, the one who was keeping the Kaiser’s loophole open. Gould was a deputy assistant secretary (that is, under the assistant secretary under the undersecretary who was under the deputy under the actual secretary of commerce. Having fun?). I found myself saying these org-chart tongue twisters in all seriousness. If I needed something to keep me from thinking the whole thing was a ridiculous bit of policy trivia, I would just remember that nailing it meant fifteen million minimum to my boss and, more important, would save me from spending the rest of my life wiping down a bar and hiding from Crenshaw.
Besides, I was starting to really enjoy myself. The characters were less interesting and the money was better, but otherwise this wasn’t all that dissimilar from the hustles I knew growing up. That had me equal parts excited and worried.
I had my fulcrum. Marcus didn’t seem pleased with me, exactly, when I brought him Gould’s name, but at least he seemed a little less angry. He told me to start from scratch on making the case to close the tariff loophole. I had to tailor it all to a single goal: change Gould’s mind. I read Gould’s theses from college and graduate school. I found out what newspapers and journals he subscribed to, the charities he donated to, every decision he’d ever made that there was a record or memory of. I started zeroing in, fine-tuning every argument against the Kaiser’s loophole so it would appeal to Gould’s particular habits and beliefs. I boiled down the arguments over and over until I’d trimmed them to a single page. The previous memo had been uncut heroin. This was a designer drug. Gould would have to give us the decision we wanted.
“You’d better hope so,” Marcus said.
Even with all the reading and interviews, I couldn’t get a sense of the guy, of what made him tick, until I saw him in person. In profiling Gould, I may have gone a little overboard. I knew where his kids went to school, what car he drove, where he went on his anniversary dinner, his usual lunch spots. They were mostly high-end: Central Michel Richard, the Prime Rib, the Palm, but every other Thursday he would go to Five Guys, a burger place.
The week after I turned in my new report on Gould, Marcus called me upstairs, then led me into Davies’s suite. Davies gestured for Marcus to wait outside. This was the master-of-the-universe office I had imagined back at Harvard, except of course Davies had better taste than my imagination did. Books ran from floor to ceiling on three walls. They’d been read too; they weren’t just leather-bound props. Everything was kitted out in mahogany. And the ego wall—mandatory for Washington: snapshots of grip-and-grins with anyone influential you’ve ever met—was like nothing I’d ever seen. He had shots with world leaders going back decades, and they weren’t the usual two-guys-in-suits-at-a-fund-raiser variety. There he was, younger than I was, bowling with Nixon; there fishing in a little skiff with Jimmy Carter; and there skiing with…
“Is that the pope?” I blurted it out before I could stop myself.
Davies stood behind his desk. He didn’t look happy. “Gould hasn’t budged,” he said.
They’d given my memo—the arguments tailored specifically to Gould—to the trade group fighting the Kaiser, and the group had made the case to Gould’s working group. Davies had people inside Commerce who would know if Gould was starting to come around. He hadn’t given an inch.
“I’ll do more,” I said.
He lifted up the memo I had put together. “This is perfect,” he said, then let me hang for a minute. His tone didn’t make it sound like a compliment.
“I already have a hundred and twenty guys downstairs who can give me perfect. I don’t need another. Do you know what this contract is worth?”
“We’ve worked out arrangements with every single industry and trade group affected. Forty-seven million.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. He looked me over for a few seconds.
“We can’t bill by the hour here, Mike. If we win, we get the forty-seven. If we lose, we get nothing. We won’t lose.”
He walked a little closer and stared me down. “I took a risk with you, Mike. I hired you for the same reason others wouldn’t, because you’re not the usual candidate. I fear I may have made a mistake bringing you here. Prove I didn’t. Show me what you have to offer that the others don’t. Give me more than perfect. Surprise me.”
It’s easier to have nothing all along than to get your hands on something and lose it. And all the time at Davies Group, I’d thought of the money and privileges as a mistake soon to be rectified. I didn’t dare think I could really have it; I didn’t dare think of it as my life. But eventually you find something you really want. Something you need. Then you’re fucked. You can never let that life go.
What I wanted wasn’t anything fancy. For me, the moment I found it came around August of that first year at Davies, three months after I’d moved to the District. I was strolling through Mount Pleasant, a ten-minute walk from the office. The neighborhood had one main drag, with an eighty-year-old bakery and a hardware store that’d been there for decades. It was where the Italians, then the Greeks, and then the Latinos found their first foothold in DC, and it felt like a little village. Off the main street of shops, the area was wooded, and to me it seemed like the suburbs. The houses were small, and I saw one for rent, a two-bedroom with a porch and a backyard where you could look down into the woods of Rock Creek Park, a band of streams and forest that cuts DC in half north to south. While walking past the house one night, I saw a whole family of deer, just standing there, calm, unafraid, looking back at me.
That’s all it took. I hadn’t had a backyard since I was a kid. My dad had had some steady money coming in—I didn’t know where from back then. We had finally moved out of the apartment complex in Arlington where I’d grown up—it sort of looked like a motel, and I remember it always smelled like cooking gas—out to a place in Manassas, just a small ranch house. And I know this is a little corny, but I remember we had a swing set there, all rusty aluminum tubes that would open your palm right up if you grabbed the wrong spot. We didn’t live there for long, but I remember summer nights when my parents and a couple of their friends would be sitting around a fire pit, laughing and drinking beer. I would stay on that swing all evening, pumping my legs like a locomotive, and I’d go so high up, up with the bar, looking out over the trees, that I’d be weightless, and the chains would go slack, and I would’ve sworn I could just take off flying into the night.
Then they sent my dad up, for burglary, and it was back to where we belonged: the gas-smell motel.
After I finished work at Davies, ten or eleven o’clock at night, sometimes even later, I would walk through that neighborhood and picture myself in that backyard with a little fire going, a couple of lawn chairs, a nice girl. It felt like starting over, like making things right again.
The thought of losing it all lit a fire beneath me. After my meeting with Davies in his suite, it was a week before I went back to Marcus’s office. I laid down two more files. One profiled Gould’s mentor at the Department of the Interior, where he’d worked for nine years before joining Commerce. The second focused on the best man at Gould’s wedding, a roommate from law school who was now in private practice. He was still Gould’s go-to for advice; they had dinner every other week or so, one of Gould’s few social outlets.
“And?” Marcus said.
“These guys are easier”—I caught myself before I said marks—“influentials. If you look at their decision-making, you can see they’re likely to be sympathetic to our arguments. I’ve tailored the arguments against the loophole to appeal to each man. The first already has a relationship with Davies Group. If we can’t influence Gould, we can influence those around him. If we change their minds, we can change Gould’s without his ever knowing it was our words in his ear.”
Marcus was silent. I knew what was coming. I had given him more than he wanted on Gould. I had done everything but case the poor bastard’s house, and I was thinking about doing that the next night. Marcus shifted in his chair. I hunkered down for a reaming-out.
Instead, Marcus smiled. “Who taught you that?”
That would be my dad’s old friend Cartwright. In his younger days, he’d used a similar technique to charm lonely women hitting their late thirties out of their savings.
“Just sort of came to me,” I said.
“It’s a variation of a technique we call grass-topping,” Marcus said. “You slowly, subtly lobby everyone close to the decision-maker—wife, chief fund-raisers, grown kids even—until he comes around.”
“That’s where we make it look like we have broad bottom-up support—from the grass roots—but we’re faking it. You don’t need to waste time with the roots when the legislator can see only the tops.”
“Do you want me to take a stab at the next step? Actually influencing the people around Gould?”
“No,” Marcus said. “I’ll put a few people on it.”
I caught something in his voice, something I didn’t like.
“We’re running out of time, aren’t we?” I asked.
Marcus paused. He never said much, and always thought carefully before he spoke. But I could see he didn’t want to bullshit me, saw maybe even a glimmer of respect.
The next week one of the Rhodes scholars washed out. He was a nice enough guy, with the swept-back blond waves and entitled air of a true prep. Someone told me, and I could believe it, that the guy didn’t even own a pair of jeans. I could have resented him, I guess—every privilege had just been handed to him—but he had a sense of humor about himself and I had to like him.
He was a gunner like me, the first in our group to have an ask. But the decision-maker didn’t come around. And that was it. Rhodes tried to play it off like he’d decided to move on to greener pastures, but he had this hitch in his voice as he was making his good-byes, like he’d been crying. It was hard to watch. I guess the kid had never failed at anything. He’d done everything he could. The case just hadn’t gone his way.
I hadn’t quite believed that these multimillion-dollar contracts were riding on a bunch of junior-associate twits with no idea what they were doing. But by all appearances, they were. I guess you could say it wasn’t fair. Maybe they give you an unwinnable case; there’s only so much you can do and then it’s out of your hands. But it’s hard for me to get worked up about things being unfair. That’s life, the only way I’ve ever known it. You could cover up your head and moan about it, but my approach was just to make sure I won, no matter what. I’d been going for a long time on fumes, on some abstract dream of the good life. Now I was close. I could smell and taste it. The more real the dream became, the more intolerable I found the idea of losing it.
Case in point: Annie Clark, senior associate at Davies Group. I’d never had much trouble talking to women, never really even given it much thought. But around this particular woman, the usual one-thing-leads-to-another ease abandoned me. From the first moment I saw her, on the second floor, all manner of corny nonsense crowded my brain.
Every time she and I talked (and we worked together fairly often), I found myself thinking that she had everything that I’d ever been drawn to in a woman—black curls, innocent face, and sly blue eyes—and some things I hadn’t even known to look for. After observing her all day as she ran circles around all the smug boys in meetings and fielded phone calls in three or four different languages, I’d be walking out of the building with her and all I’d want was to blurt out what I was thinking: that she was what I’d been looking for, that she embodied the life I wanted but had never had. It was crazy.
I began to wonder if she was maybe too perfect, haughty and spoiled and impossible to reach.
The first time we pulled an all-nighter at work—she and I and two other junior associates—she ran the show. We all sat at a conference table, and, deep in thought, she pushed her rolling chair back, about to set us straight on another fine point of the influence game.
Instead, she tipped over, slowly but surely, disappeared behind the edge of the table, and fell backward onto the carpet. I half expected her to wail or come back up in a rage. Instead I heard her laugh for the first time. And hearing her lie there and crack up—free, easy, unself-conscious and unconcerned about anyone or anything—instantly cut through my bullshit sour-grapes attitude. Every time I heard her laugh, I knew this was a woman who didn’t have time for pretense, who just took life as it came and enjoyed the hell out of it.
That laugh put me on dangerous ground. Whenever I ran into her I wanted to throw the memo I’d spent the last month working on out the window, drop to one knee, and ask her to run away and spend the rest of her life with me.
That probably would have been a better approach than what I ultimately did do. I was in the break room after a meeting, trying to discuss my Annie Clark strategy with the remaining Rhodes scholar without sounding like a smitten moron (and mostly failing). Unfortunately, Annie Clark herself was there, unseen, behind a pillar eight feet away, as the Rhodes scholar, a guy named Tuck I’d grown friendly with, gave me a not-unwise piece of advice about office romance:
“Don’t shit where you eat, man.”
“Charming,” Annie said, coming out from behind the pillar; she raised her bottle and pointed to the watercooler. “Do you mind?”
So I was a few runs down with regard to Annie Clark. But as I said: will in spades. I just needed a rally. And when I started picturing her beside me on a gentle July night in the backyard at the house up in Mount Pleasant I dreamed of buying, I resolved to hang on to this decent life I’d won even if it took my last breath. I was going to nail Gould.
The next time I saw Marcus—he was sipping coffee and reading in the dining room—after a few preliminaries, I asked him straight out.
“When’s the ask?”
“Has somebody been telling tales out of school?” he responded. The whole ordeal of surviving the first year at Davies was supposed to be a black box. Inquiring about what was inside was a little bold, but I think all the partners knew that we junior associates had started to piece together some clues about our fates.
“Three days,” he said. “Davies is going to pay Gould a visit. We’ve slowly been working on his confidants.”
“And if it doesn’t work? If he doesn’t change his mind about the loophole?”
“You’ve done everything you can, Mike. And I hope, for your sake, he says yes.”
I left it there. I could read it in Marcus’s face. Business is business.
I wasn’t about to sit around and count on hope and crossed fingers. Henry had tapped me because he thought I knew something about what made people tick. He’d said every man has a price, a lever you can use to force him to do your will. I had three days to find Gould’s.
I stepped back from the politics and policy research, the reams of Commerce Department reports, all the official Washington bullshit I thought I had to know to do my job. Instead I just thought about Gould, this dumpy bureaucrat living out in Bethesda, about what he wanted and what he feared.
Watching him the last few weeks, I’d noticed a few things that had stuck out, dumb stuff that I hadn’t thought was worth mentioning to the bosses because I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what it meant. Gould’s house was modest for Bethesda, and he had a five-year-old Saab 9-5. But the guy was a clotheshorse—went shopping at J. Press or Brooks Brothers or Thomas Pink two or three times a week. He dressed like a high-society heel in a Billy Wilder movie: tweed everywhere and whales dancing on suspenders and contrasting-color bow tie. He was a foodie too and posted on an online forum called DonRockwell.com under the name LafiteForAKing, mostly bitching about waiters who didn’t know their place. Every week he dropped at least a few hundred bucks on lunch; he had a regular table at Central and favored the lobster burger.
But then, every other Thursday, like clockwork, this gourmet goes to Five Guys, which is a greasy slice-of-heaven burger joint. It started in DC, though now it’s all over the East Coast. He would always order regular fries and the little cheeseburger—just one patty—and leave with a doggie bag. I’m the last person on earth to begrudge someone a heart-stopper on a bun every now and then. But something wasn’t right. The leftovers suggested a superhuman restraint that I knew Mr. Gould did not have. And with the amount of money he was dropping on food and clothes, it didn’t add up. So I was suspicious. But mostly I was desperate, and maybe just swinging at shadows; anything to save myself.
By now I was one day away from Davies’s meeting with Gould: the ask. There was nothing for me to do but follow Gould and hope I caught a Hail Mary. I found him on the way out of his office, heading for Five Guys. Right on schedule. I’d like to think it was my uncanny, Columbo-like powers of detection—picking up on the nervous edge to his walk, the way he stared down at the table the whole time, the fact that his take-out bag was the only one I’d ever seen from Five Guys not stained half translucent with grease. Maybe it was just desperation and luck. Or maybe the honest life was starting to feel like too much pressure, and I just wanted to say fuck it and get myself caught doing something dumb. Whatever the reason, I had to find out what was in the brown bag Gould was carrying.
He went straight from lunch to his club—the Metropolitan Club, a massive brick building a block away from the White House. It was founded during the Civil War, and, with a few exceptions, every president since Lincoln has been a member. It’s the social center of the Treasury–Pentagon–Big Business set. The more liberal-arts-type folks—journalists, academics, writers—tended to cluster around the Cosmos Club in Dupont Circle. Membership in the Met was an indisputable marker that you were a somebody. Since I was a nobody, I had to improvise.
Gould walked straight through the entryway, past the reception desk, and turned left toward a sitting room. I tried to follow him. Four stewards, squat South Asians, stood at attention near reception. They stopped me like a brick wall. “May I help you, sir?” said one.
It took me a second to realize how in place I actually looked. My assistant had sent an Italian tailor to my office my second week of work. She told me not to take it personally, but I’d need a couple proper suits. I’d never actually met an Italian tailor (I thought they’d somehow all been converted to Korean dry cleaners sometime in the 1970s), but there he was, measuring my ass. At the final fitting, he actually said, “This is-ah nice-ah suit.” So I looked the Met Club part. That gave me a half second to improvise with the Gurkhas.
I scanned the plaques and photos on the wall beside the desk as discreetly as I could, looking for an appropriate titan of industry and government. Breckinridge Cassidy seemed old enough (the plaque said 1931–) that the odds were he wouldn’t be around the club. I just hoped he was still around at all; maybe the club just hadn’t had time to note his expiration date on the plaque.
I checked my watch and did my best to look entitled.
“Breckinridge Cassidy,” I said. “Is he already here?”
“Admiral Cassidy hasn’t arrived yet, sir.”
“Very well. We’re on for drinks. I’ll wait in the library.”
I strode inside…and nothing, no frog-march out, no heave-ho by the collar and waistband. I was in. Fortunately, Cassidy was alive. Unfortunately, he was a fucking admiral and it sounded like he might actually show up any second. I took a spot in the library and noticed one of the stewards glancing at me every minute or so. The club had an open atrium with a beautiful double staircase. Everything about the place—the bas-relief wall decorations, the forty-foot Corinthian columns, the quiet servants at every door—made one thing perfectly clear: this was power’s home.
I thought I saw Gould on one of the mezzanines, then I glanced back at the reception desk. The steward wasn’t looking at me but was pointing my way and conversing with a very confused and formidable-looking Admiral Cassidy.
Time to go.
On the second floor, I caught sight of the back of Gould’s head and followed him down a set of stairs. From the faint chlorine smell and shriek of sneakers on hardwood, I knew I was heading to some sort of gym. Then I saw the sign. Squash, of course. The official pastime of DC heavies. I trailed him into the locker room.
You can only loiter fully dressed around a bunch of half-naked world leaders for so long before you raise a few eyebrows. So I stripped down, grabbed a towel, and found a nice spot in the sauna between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a guy I didn’t recognize but who turned out to be the CFO of ExxonMobil, very chatty.
I didn’t see Gould pass by through the sauna windows, so I took my leave and headed for the changing rooms. The lockers were all mahogany with little brass plaques indicating their owners. I found Ray Gould’s. It was directly opposite Henry Davies’s. Using a lock at a place like the Met Club seemed a little silly—what, was someone going to swap out your Cartier for his Rolex?—and yet Gould had a Sargent and Greenleaf padlock. It’s the hardware the DOD uses to lock up its secrets, and Gould apparently needed to secure his uneaten French fries.
It never seems obvious when you cross the line. Was it when I began trailing Gould? When I lied to the steward? When I slipped into one of the guest lockers in the back corner of the locker room? Or when I stayed there for hours, until I heard the last guest clear his throat, saw the lights die through my little ventilation slits, and heard the door slam shut and lock, echoing through the tiled halls?
Wherever the line was, I was certain it was now way behind me. And this was no high-school smash-and-grab. I imagined that the trilateral-commission types who frequented the place wouldn’t take kindly to my trespass. But for some reason I didn’t have the same visceral need to get the fuck out of there, to keep on the honest path, that I’d had back when I opened up the safe in the office at Barley. There was something about being behind Henry’s shield of respectability, about having legitimate ends for my sketchy means. I’d forced my way into this club, but if I played my cards right I could turn that trespass into a real admission to this world.
Or maybe, trapped in a mahogany box with five or six hours to think, I’d managed to talk myself into believing anything.
By 11:30 p.m., I figured I was safe. I stepped out. There was no chance of breaking the Sargent and Greenleaf, not without liquid nitrogen. Trapped in the basement, I’d had plenty of time to consider other approaches. Gould’s locker shared a back panel with the locker behind it, which was empty. Whoever built the place had been more concerned about varnish and fluting than security. It was simply a matter of backing out about thirty-six wood screws, which was easier said than done because, after a careful search, I concluded that I’d have to do the whole thing with the tip of a key.
Five hours. My fingertips red and swollen from the work. My nerves shot from bolting back to the safety of the guest locker every time I heard that old building creak or saw a glimmer of light near the locker-room entrance. I knew these old run-the-world types liked to wake up early. At Davies Group, they were always suggesting six a.m. breakfasts (you know, after squash). When the gray-blue of predawn started showing through a basement window, I started to sweat. When I heard the rattle and clank of the stewards’ arrival, my heart rate revved up like a hummingbird’s. Blood welled around my cuticles from working the screws. I could hear voices upstairs when I yanked the last fastener out and pulled back the panel.
There was a jock and an old squash duffel in Gould’s locker. In the duffel there were twelve brown bags: $120,000 total, in neat stacks of cash. No wonder I couldn’t sway him.
Never return to the scene of a crime. It’s good advice. But unfortunately, by the time I extricated myself from the Met Club and arrived at work, I really had no other choice.
I asked Marcus where the Gould-Davies meeting was taking place.
“The Metropolitan Club,” he said. I felt nauseated.
“Breakfast,” he said, and glanced at the time on the phone on his desk. “About now, probably.”
So, still reeking of nervous sweat after my long night of B and E, I found myself strolling up to Seventeenth and H Street Northwest, with the Secret Service glaring down from the tops of the high-rises around the White House. Closed-circuit cameras kept watch on every corner. And there was the police officer examining the broken window latch in the rear of the Metropolitan Club, where I had made my escape two hours before. There were a half a dozen cops in the lobby and, of course, the same steward from yesterday.
He gave me a not-so-friendly look. I told him I was there to see Henry Davies and took a seat in the library. He kept his eyes fixed on me as he went back to talk to the cops. I could see into the dining room from where I sat. It was the size of a football field, so it took me a while to catch sight of Davies, who was sitting at a table across from Gould, spreading jam on a croissant.
What could I do? Walk into the middle of the Met Club, publicly accuse Gould of taking bribes, then politely explain to the gathered dignitaries, Davies, and various thick-necked representatives of the Metro Police that I’d come across my circumstantial evidence by stalking the guy and breaking into and out of these hallowed halls? Davies had me the most worried. He’d offered me decency and I’d repaid him with crime. Just another con man. It was in my blood. Any shot I had at an honest life was a gross mistake, soon to be corrected.
I tried to follow his and Gould’s conversation from their gestures and watched it segue from chitchat to substance, as Davies moved a little closer, over the table. I was watching for the ask. The yes-or-no that would decide my fate. I saw Davies lean in farther, then sit back. Then nothing. Gould looked pensive. Neither spoke. Was that it?
I was watching so intently that it took me a while to notice that two of the cops were now staring at me. When I looked back at the table I saw Gould make a pained expression and raise his hands. It was clear enough. He was saying no. Just like that, the decent life slipped away.
So what the hell did I have to lose?
Three cops were now having an earnest discussion, their eyes fixed on me. I fished out my cell phone and called the Metropolitan Club. A moment later the phone started ringing at the reception desk. I told them I was the assistant to Gould’s boss, and that the call was urgent. Then I watched the steward make his way across the checker tiles to interrupt Davies and Gould’s meeting.
As Gould walked out of the dining room, I walked in, fast, past the cops. One broke away and stayed between me and the exit. As I approached his table, Davies seemed oddly unsurprised to see me there.
I leaned over and whispered, “Gould is on the take,” then showed him a picture I had shot with my phone: the money stacked in the duffel. Davies didn’t ask any questions. His demeanor didn’t change.
“Go,” he whispered. A police officer saw to that. He gripped my arm in a very persuasive come-along hold and steered me back toward the library, where the other police and the steward were waiting.
“Were you on the premises here yesterday, son?” a plainclothes detective, presumably running the show, asked me.
“Why don’t you wait right here with us.”
The cops asked the steward for Admiral Cassidy’s number. More patrol cars pulled up outside, lights flashing. Two officers flanked me. I was fucked. My mind flashed forward through every step—handcuffs, squad car, the holding cell with the center-stage toilet and the crowd of DC’s funkiest lowlifes, the interviews, the shitty coffee, the worthless public defender, the arraignment: that judge looking down at me like the one ten years before had. But this time there were no second chances. They’d finally recognize me for what I was, a hustler in a suit I didn’t pay for. I couldn’t even see around the wall of blue polyester cop uniform to find out what happened between Davies and Gould.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” It was Davies, standing behind me. The steward withered under his stare. The cops backed off a few inches.
“You know this man?” one asked.
Excerpted from The 500 by Matthew Quirk Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Quirk. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Matthew Quirk studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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