Worst Case Scenario: A Michaelson and Marjorie Mystery #2

Worst Case Scenario: A Michaelson and Marjorie Mystery #2

Foreign Service veteran Richard Michaelson knows that it is often better to talk to secretaries than big wigs in the political jungles of Washington, DC. But when one such ambitious ...

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Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen, a trial lawyer practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the author of numerous mysteries and non-fiction works. He graduated ...

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Chapter 1

Richard Michaelson, for several good reasons, thought Deborah Moodie was a saint. For pretty much the same reasons, a number of other people in Washington thought she was a royal pain.

Scott Pilkington, for example.

Which was supposedly why Pilkington was in West Virginia, talking with Michaelson and Deborah’s husband, Alex.

“Deborah’s career has stalled,” Alex Moodie said. “I need to find out why so that she can do something about it.”

“I don’t like being the bearer of bad news,” said Pilkington, who rather enjoyed being the bearer of bad news, “but your wife’s career hasn’t just stalled. It has stopped. Permanently. And there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it.”

“Deborah is a proud woman,” Moodie said. His slightly rising voice was intense but still calm. Only the swizzle stick twisted spastically around his black fingers and his unconscious lean forward across the table suggested agitation. “But she’s spent her life in government service and she knows how the game is played. If some super-grade needs more respect, she has lots of respect to offer. I just need to know.” Now, his tone added.

Pilkington turned his attention to an unenthusiastic examination of his glass of wine. As he appraised it in the muted, late-morning sunshine that filtered through a skylight twenty floors up, his expression suggested that the second-rate libation was exactly the kind of thing you had to expect at an event like the Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference and a place like the Charleston, West Virginia, Radisson.

“It’s too far gone for that,” he said then with what amounted to a verbal shrug. “The situation is irretrievable. Deborah Moodie has become the civil service equivalent of Kansas City: she’s gone about as far as she can go.”

“Why?” Moodie insisted.

“Woodstein syndrome,” Pilkington said, without taking his eyes off the wine.

“What’s that?” Moodie demanded, his voice sharpening.

“Amalgamation of Woodward and Bernstein,” Pilkington said. “Kind of an obsession. Two unknown reporters uncover the biggest scandal since Teapot Dome and bring down a president. Overnight, every journalist in America decides that he’s going to expose a head-grabbing scandal of his own. They don’t have time to cover the zoning board meetings or the service club lunches anymore because they’re all out looking for Deep Throat.”

“Deborah is the deputy director of Planning and Research Priority Assessment with the National Health Research Agency,” Alex Moodie said. “I don’t see the connection.”

“A few years ago the American Centers for Disease Control had its own Woodward and Bernstein. Her name was Elaine Thomas. She figured out that AIDS was a big deal before anybody else knew what it was, and she traced it to homosexual behavior when all the other experts were looking at street drugs and food additives. Just as all those eager young reporters wanted to be the next Woodstein, lots of people in public health want to be the next Elaine Thomas. Your wife seems to be one of them.”

“What specifically are you referring to?”

“She thought she’d sniffed out a scandal. Some general getting a relative bumped way up the priority list for a rare-match liver transplant.”

“And she was supposed to sit on that?” For the first time anger showed unmistakably in Moodie’s voice.

“No. She was supposed to make a report in triplicate on eighty percent recycled paper, turn it over to the responsible office, and go back to assessing research priorities or prioritizing research assessments or whatever the taxpayers are paying her to do. But she got hung up on this favor-to-the-general business. She got her teeth into it and wouldn’t let go. Obsessed. Hard to stay interested in mundane things like your job when you’re tracking the public health scandal of the decade. Got to be downright annoying. So. She’s plateaued out.”

“At forty-nine?” Moodie demanded.

“Whatever age she is, she’s going to retire as what she is right now.”

Implacable certainty colored the flat, harsh words. The verdict was unappealable. Moodie looked jerkily away from the other two men at the table for a moment. He emptied his glass, without seeming to taste the contents.

“Had you heard this?” Moodie asked Michaelson when he looked back.

“The gist of it. But Mr. Pilkington feared it would lose something in the translation if he just gave me the story and let me pass it on to you. He declined to provide any details unless I arranged for him to bring you the message face-to-face.”

“Why?” Moodie asked Pilkington.

“I understand you’re still highly regarded at USIA,” Pilkington said.

“I understand the same thing,” Moodie said.

“Your interest in your wife’s career is natural, and I can easily imagine your bafflement when the promotions suddenly stopped coming. I think it was quite shrewd of you to ask an old Foggy Bottom hand like Richard here to get on the telephone that the Brookings Institution so thoughtfully provides to him and start throwing metaphorical elbows into bureaucratic kidneys until he found the answer.”

“But what?” Moodie prompted.

“But now that you have the answer, you wouldn’t want anyone to think that you in your turn have become obsessed with something oblique to your own career responsibilities. The people in charge these days are long on process and short on imagination. Pursuing this might strike them as another example of Woodstein syndrome.”

Pilkington leaned back in his chair. His suit, charcoal gray with a rich weave that announced four figures even at a casual glance, hung perfectly over a chunky, mid-forties frame. As he finished his wine, you could tell from the wistful look in his gray eyes that he was regretting the delicately nuanced bouquet of a recently sampled and far superior vintage.

“Well,” he said, rising, “thank you for the drink and the opportunity to talk.” The other two men stood as well and he shook hands with each of them. “Richard, I’ve delivered as promised, and I do eagerly request fifteen minutes of your time in exchange.”

“A promise is a promise,” Michaelson said, nodding. He and Moodie sank back into their chairs as Pilkington strode away.

“This was a thankless chore,” Moodie said to Michaelson. “I know it was an imposition. I appreciate your digging the information up, even if it is bad news.”

“I’m glad I was able to do it,” Michaelson said. “No matter how bad the news is, it’s better to know than not to know.”

Left unspoken was why Michaelson had agreed to Alex Moodie’s plea that he look into the reason for Deborah Moodie’s sudden career blockage. He and Alex Moodie had been colleagues during Michaelson’s years with the foreign service, covering the same geographic area for agencies that had to work closely together. That was part of it, but without the back-channel connection it probably wouldn’t have been enough.

“Back channel,” rich with cloak-and-dagger connotations, is really just shoptalk for a way to get information from a U.S. embassy abroad to Washington without telling the ambassador on the scene (or the deputy chief of mission, or the CIA station chief—it depends). Lots of radios, teletypes, and fax machines can be back channels. When Michaelson was active in the foreign service, many of those were controlled by the USIA. The catch was that a USIA officer had to look the other way (or not), and then tell curious folks like Michaelson what happened (or, perhaps, not tell them). Alex Moodie had had to make those decisions several times in cases that interested Michaelson, and in Michaelson’s opinion he’d always gotten it right.

That was it. Nothing heroic, nothing all that special. Just doing his job, really. Just getting it right when it mattered.

Aggravation flickering through his brown eyes, Moodie glanced at Pilkington’s retreating figure.

“He’s never been at Near East/South Asia, I know that,” Moodie said. “What’s his area?”

“Pilkington has always preferred administration to hands-on diplomacy. For the last eight years he’s been assigned to the State Department’s Office of Intra-Departmental Inquiry.”

Moodie looked up sharply at Michaelson.

“In other words,” Michaelson said, catching the look, “he’s a cop. And he’s very good at what he does.”

“Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference” was a new title for the event, but everything else about it was pretty much the same as in previous years. People from Washington had come to West Virginia for this year’s CPD, looking for the usual things.

Sharon Bedford was looking for a job.

Wendy Gardner was looking for money.

Alex Moodie was looking for information.

Scott Pilkington was looking for contacts.

And Jeffrey Quentin was looking for a piece of paper.

Literally: a single page of high-quality, watermarked bond paper about nine years old. He figured it would be worth millions.

Not millions of dollars. Millions of votes.

Michaelson caught up with Pilkington again thirty-five minutes later, at the registration desk. After picking his way through a crowd of Perrier-swilling, nicotine-deprived, mixed-gender CPD attendees who had spilled out of a first-floor Get Acquainted Room, Michaelson finally managed to reach Pilkington’s elbow.

“Is my room ready yet?” Pilkington asked a harried desk clerk. “When I registered an hour ago, they told me to check back around now.”

“That’s ‘Pilkington,’ ” Michaelson said to the clerk in a trying-to-be-helpful voice. “P as in ponderous, I as in ithy-phallic, L as in—”

“Now, now,” Pilkington interrupted. “You’re the one who went after the story. Bad form for Oedipus to blame Tiresias when he finally finds out it’s been Mom in the sack all these years.”

“You might have been a bit more sympathetic. Deborah Moodie started her public health career patching marines up at Da Nang. She is utterly dedicated. I’ve never heard her refer to her ‘agency.’ She calls it her ‘service.’ She’s a gifted administrator with a genuine sense of mission, and on top of that, she’s a fundamentally decent person.”

“One key or two?” the desk clerk asked.

“Two,” Pilkington said, glancing over his shoulder at the milling crowd. “Hope springs eternal.”

The clerk put two hard plastic cards in a small folder and handed it to Pilkington.

“Now let’s see,” Pilkington said, turning around and resting his elbows on the desk. He surveyed the crowd with the practiced eye of a veteran conferee. “Jeffrey Quentin is to the right, so we shall reach the elevators by heading to the left. With no expectation of being up for ambassador anytime soon, I’d just as soon avoid him.”

“I thought he was a presidential aide on the domestic policy adviser’s staff,” Michaelson said as he obediently fell into step behind Pilkington.

“Yesterday’s news. Formal announcement on Monday. He’s a freshly minted White House liaison for foreign policy.”

“That’s encouraging, I suppose,” Michaelson said. “Now that we have a foreign policy liaison, maybe soon we’ll have a foreign policy.”

They reached the elevator and rode to the ninth floor. Michaelson had assumed that meeting him at the CPD was Pilkington’s idea of hiding in plain sight. In Washington, their meeting for a late-morning drink with Alex Moodie followed by a private chat might have been noticed by some chance observer and could have set tongues wagging. Here, in the compressed microcosm of Washington that the CPD Conference represented, their encounter was inevitably spotted by dozens of people, and no one thought a thing about it.

Now that he was on the scene, however, Michaelson found himself less confident of that comfortable assumption. Jeffrey Quentin ordinarily wouldn’t have walked across Constitution Avenue to attend a bloviation festival like this, much less flown to West Virginia. Neither would Pilkington, for that matter. A nasty little intuition nagged at the back of Michaelson’s mind like an unwelcome red light glowing on the dashboard: Something was going on here. Something more than chin-wagging self-promotion. Something that was certainly important, probably unpleasant, perhaps ugly.

“Haffez Amahdi,” Pilkington said as he entered his room, naming a onetime finance minister for a small but fabulously wealthy country near the Persian Gulf. “Early eighties. Ring a bell?”

Stopping at the edge of the entryway, Michaelson watched with detached interest as Pilkington strode across the room and threw himself into a low-backed chair near the window. Streaming sunlight emphasized the contrast between Pilkington’s thinning, white hair and his deeply tanned face. Now in the privacy of his room, he took brown horn-rimmed glasses from inside his suit coat and parked them precariously on the bridge of his nose.

“If you have access to the file,” Michaelson said, “you know more about the Amahdi episode than I could possibly remember. If you don’t have access to the file, I can’t tell you a thing—as you know perfectly well.”

“Lymphoma. Brought secretly to the United States for treatment. Kept here three weeks and then quietly returned, all without a peep in the press—which was a damn good thing, because one leak would’ve sparked embassy riots in at least four countries. With the cowboy we had in the White House at the time, just itching to send the Eighty-second Airborne somewhere or other, it might’ve gotten very interesting.”

“You’ve seen the file,” Michaelson acknowledged with a nod and a shrug. “The intelligence assessments were a bit alarmist, by the way. A lot of those predicted riots never happen.”

“Only four Americans were in on the whole story, and one of them is dead. Someone’s been popping off to the Fourth Estate about something that sounds a lot like this, and—”

“And I am arithmetically one-third of the suspects?”

Pilkington made a show of counting on his fingers and moving his lips as he did sums in his head.

“Thirty-three and one-third percent, that’s correct,” he said then.

“Not guilty.”

“What a relief. You do understand the consequences?”

“No, I don’t,” Michaelson said. “When that incident took place, the United States had lost its last war, it had just finished ransoming hostages from an Islamic country for the first time since Jefferson’s administration, and the Soviet Union was a seemingly unshakable superpower. Things today have rather turned around. That little piece of diplomatic history you alluded to is about as relevant to Washington right now as the Battle of Actium.”

“Process, Richard, process,” Pilkington said, like a despairing Latin tutor whose student couldn’t master the third declension. “The national pastime isn’t baseball or football anymore, it’s galloping paranoia. There’s a morbid public obsession with government conspiracies, emphatically including medical conspiracies. Probably twenty million people in this country actually believe the AIDS virus was concocted by the CIA. Americans have been murdered in Guatemala over rumors about snatching children for organ transplants. Former French cabinet members are facing jail for letting AIDS-contaminated blood be used for hemophiliac transfusions. And so forth and so on and et bloody cetera. We already have a foreign policy that looks like a slow-motion train wreck. Pander to the ambient hysteria with another confected scandal and we can write off the next few years along with the last few.”

“There must be a much higher premium on imagination at the fudge factory these days than there was before my retirement,” Michaelson said, shaking his head. “But you can put your fevered mind at ease. I’m not telling tales to the scribblers, and I’m not going to.”

“Well, I believe you, of course,” Pilkington said. Coming from Pilkington, this conveyed something between studied agnosticism and utter disbelief.

“Glad to hear it,” Michaelson said.

“I do wish I could come up with some plausible explanation for the journalistic sniffing about that’s suddenly gotten so hot and heavy in this area. I don’t have a very high opinion of the trade myself. I’ve always said that working for a daily newspaper must be like producing pornography without the redeeming element of sexual gratification.”

“I think I have heard you commit that simile before, now that you mention it.”

“But I assume reporters aren’t complete morons and that they have something to go on when they start down a trail.”

“Good luck,” Michaelson said. “I wish I could help you, but I can’t.”

“Please do keep our little talk in mind, then,” Pilkington said. “They can’t go on like this, you know. The White House, I mean. Regardless of how the next election comes out. Sooner or later they simply have to make some real changes, get someone who knows a hawk from a handsaw into the game. It would be a shame for you to deal yourself out just when your card’s about to turn up.”

This was Michaelson’s most vulnerable spot. In his early sixties, retired for several years from the foreign service, chaffing under a sinecure at Brookings, passed over a number of times for senior policy-making positions that he coveted, Michaelson made no attempt to conceal either his ambition or his disappointment at its frustration.

“Congratulations on not mixing your metaphors,” he said with cold gentility to Pilkington. “Have a pleasant afternoon.”

He walked out of Pilkington’s room morally certain that no reporter in America gave two rips about secret medical treatment given to a rich Arab politician more than a decade ago. Pilkington’s real worry was something else related in some conceptual way—some covert governmental action with foreign policy implications and involving medical care. How had he put it? “Something that sounds a lot like this.”

Whatever it was, he thought Michaelson knew something about it. Why did he think that? Because Michaelson had looked rather aggressively into Deborah Moodie’s problem? Maybe. Michaelson’s real reason for doing that wouldn’t make sense to Pilkington, who’d assume that Michaelson was pursuing some personal agenda. Pilkington wanted Michaelson to earn the bribe (or avoid the threat) implicit in his heavy-handed sermon by telling what he knew. He expected Michaelson to clear himself of suspicion by saying No, silly, those reporters aren’t after the Amahdi story, they’re looking into something else altogether. Now listen carefully.

That much was reasonably clear. Less apparent was why Pilkington had gone out of his way to let Michaelson know that Jeffrey Quentin was here. That Jeffrey Quentin had suddenly acquired a foreign policy title. And that Pilkington didn’t like Jeffrey Quentin. That Pilkington wanted Michaelson to reveal something was obvious. What Michaelson couldn’t figure out was why he wanted Michaelson to disclose it to Jeffrey Quentin instead of to Pilkington himself.

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