Chapter 14

She made it through the morning in that grace period between having the drinks wear off and having the hangover set in. She was even singing a bit as she got Linney ready for the day, packed the bottles and the spare romper and the pump and drove in, getting her settled at day care. It was during the drive downtown to work, with “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” playing on the CD player, that she began to feel a little nauseated, but she put it down to Eno. She stopped at the vendor outside the Cap Life building for an extra-salt pretzel and a Coca-Cola—this once wouldn’t hurt—her never-fail cure. It helped her stomach, but not her head. She dropped off the bag with her gear and her pump in photo and went to see Andy, who always had Tylenol.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said, not looking up, as usual.

“Good, I need something,” she said, and actually walked in and sat down on a grungy plastic chair leftover from a long-lost conference room set. “Tylenol,” she said, sipping at her coke through the straw.

He looked up then, said “hmm,” and opened his drawer and handed her a giant bottle with a generic label. “Leave me some.”

“OK,” she said, pulling at the childproof cap. “Fuck. What’s up?” She was too tired and ill to monitor her language.

“Your guy Seth’s in trouble,” he said.

“Tell me about it. You should have seen him last night. He couldn’t play ‘Stepping Stone’ without fucking it up.”

“The Monkees actually had pretty sophisticated musicianship, if you count the session players,” Andy said. “But this is major. It’s with his pal Sinclair. The real estate’s not right.”

“What do you mean?”

“The place isn’t worth anything near what he paid for it,” Andy said, handing her something in print that she couldn’t quite focus on.

“We knew that. Everyone’s paying too much now. What’s the deal?”

“There’s too much by bubble standards, and then there’s too much by earthling standards. Those prices are from Mars.”

“I’m not—“ Malone shook her head.

“Everybody pays Sinclair more than what his places are worth. He’s had a really lucky year with his real estate investments. More lucky than any mortal, or certainly any Senator, could ever hope to be. Look—” Andy leaned over and pointed to the papers. Her Coke cup dripped a blot of condensation on one of the tables.

Andy sighed and took the papers away from her. “This is major, Malone.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s not a granite countertop.”

“I get it,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m listening.”

“Seth, two guys in digital music, three in some kind of software shell company—they all paid too much. Two homes in LA, condos in San Diego, and a ranch—hah—in the Mojave. Plus one defense tech contractor. A place at Laguna Beach. That’s the one that’s going to kill him,” Andy said, more to himself. “That’s the one. He might have made it if he’d stuck to his knitting, but no one’s going to overlook defense, even now.”

“It’s not a granite countertop,” Malone said softly. “No, it is not. They’re not buying real estate. They’re buying him.” She reached out for the papers again. She felt some excitement through the fog. Andy’s hands were even shaking a little, it looked like. A question—why would Seth do it?—bubbled up, but she wanted to check out the rest, first.

“I thought for sure it would be something about that company,” she said, to stall, to try to figure out what to do next. “Or they’d catch him on C-SPAN punching somebody on the floor. I didn’t see this one at all. I’m just thinking, so what, it’s the bubble, big deal. You really are too fucking good for this place.”

He pretended not to hear the admiration. “Everyone was watching the company. Everybody’s been waiting for that one to go down. It’s like a baby Enron. It’s bound to fold. So they were watching that, and they didn’t see this.” He jiggled his leg nervously. “I’ve been wondering if anyone has this yet.”

“You’d have heard. Right?”

He shrugged. “Depends. I checked around. I’d have heard it probably if it were press, or even a blog. But some other kind of investigation, probably not.”

She sat for a moment. “What happens now?”

Andy shook his head. “Capital Life is a monthly. It’s a gossipy little lifestyle monthly,” he said. “This isn’t a granite countertop. Nor is it best bagels, nor 50 romantic getaways.”

“James—he goes a little deeper sometimes. He’d have our backs. I mean, this is simple, it’s follow the money, it’s obvious.”

“It’s Harlan I don’t know about.”

“He hates Sinclair.”

“Yeah, but he’s a Republican all the same. I don’t know.”

They were silent for a while. She had to ask. “You didn’t give it to … anyone?”

He snorted and shook his head. “You really don’t know me, do you?”

That was cutting a little too close. “So—“ she spread her hands. “We’ve got it. What do we do with it?”

“We take it to the boys,” he said. “Harlan. Ideally, he’d find a way to get the basics out there, fast, and someone else takes it and runs with it. They’ll still have to credit Cap Life anytime anyone follows it. That’s what I’ll try to steer them toward. What will actually happen depends on how wound up Harlan happens to be at this point.”

“So let’s go,” Malone said, pulling herself out of the chair. The pounding lump in her head followed her up like the floor of a lurching elevator. She grabbed at her Coke.

“Don’t bring that. He’s picky about what comes into his office.”

“Thanks. I’ve never known the rules for the inner sanctum,” she muttered as she followed Andy down the hall.

“Friday afternoon release,” Harlan said, bouncing up on his toes, his hands in his pockets. “Why couldn’t you two come up with this on a Monday?”

“Burial ground,” said James. It was conventional wisdom that if you wanted to diminish a story, you released it for Saturday—so much so that the current administration had made a sort of art form out of the destined-for-burial release. But conventional wisdom didn’t cover the new kind of news cycle, she thought.

“Hell,” said Harlan. “Seems like a lot of trouble to go to for what’s gonna be a couple graphs of hey, look how he got lucky and then two big refused to comments.”

“There are a few other places to go for comment,” Andy said. “Just to get the general reaction.”

“You’re not throwing this out there to your watchdog groups,” Harlan said. “Bunch of hippies. We’re not trying this here. The magazine’s not a court, last time I checked. We’re giving this man the full benefit of the doubt. And everything that’s written had better damn well reflect that. For all we know, it could have been the market behind it.”

Andy was silent. He was so good at keeping it together that even Malone couldn’t detect the effort behind his silence.

“There’s the Sunday talk shows,” James said. “Every time someone mentions it, they’ll have to give us a credit.”

“Not bad,” said Harlan. He sighed and sat on the edge of his desk. “OK, James, y’all put it on the website.”

Harlan had a special “y’all” card, Malone figured. It must come when you reach a certain income level.

James actually had to speak instead of using a PostIt: “Currently, the website is not something that we could employ. We have a weblog, but it’s largely for theater reviews.”

Malone and Andy looked at each other. She suspected he had thought the blog issue would come up. James had started the blog, which was buried three levels deep in the architecture, only because several of the name writers liked to go to free plays on preview nights or write blurbs about their friends’ books or fashion or home boutiques. James considered a blog below the quality standards for the magazine. On top of that, he’d stalled on putting any other magazine content online because no one could figure out how to make money off it. Putting new—and news—content up was beyond anything they’d conceived.

“So what, just put it up there, put his name plus Cap Life staff on it,” Harlan said, pointing to Andy. “Or just Cap Life staff. I’ll take it.”

“The way the blog looks now, no one would see it,” James said, affronted.

“Hell, put it on the front page. Fix it so the blog’s on the front page. You know how to do that, don’t you?” he said, looking at Andy. “Isn’t he the one who’s been changing up your website’s front page?”

James reluctantly concurred. It was true that Andy had been refreshing the website home page every few days. Malone and the entertainment editor sometimes punted him a photo and a headline and short writeup for it. James had been required to hire someone’s daughter out of Sweet Briar as the “New Media editor,” but she didn’t know any coding, so the website tasks had fallen to Andy, who knew some basics. The “New Media editor”’s contribution was limited to cutting-and-pasting the occasional writeup, slapping it on top of the blog and praying nothing more would be required of her before she learned how to do it. Their collective ignorance had the side effect of keeping the page pretty clean-looking, actually, better than some sites Malone could name.

James and Harlan went into a discussion of some of the finer points of linking information, other blogs of Washington news, and website details, constructing a rickety scaffolding of misinformation as Andy tried tactfully to set them straight.

She attempted to subtly press on her right temple, where the pain was pounding away energetically. She wished he had her Coke. She didn’t trust herself to open her mouth, though if she could, she didn’t know what to say. It was too bad, she thought—Andy had done such great work, and here he’d just be getting extra work on top of it, and not much credit. He has this great story, she thought, and he has to give it away. Give it away, give it away, give it away now…the bass line for the Chilis song swung like a pendulum somewhere in the back of her brain, a fragment of last night coming back to her. She closed her eyes for just a moment to shut out the light. She saw, oddly and clearly, an image of Seth, as he used to be, young and handsome, his long dark hair shining, as if in one of the slides from the night before, his muscled body against that ugly chair rail. The Chilis and the chair rail and a handsome, muscled, dark-haired boy.

Holy fuck. Her eyes snapped open and her whole body lurched. Andy stared at her. He must have thought she had almost fallen asleep. She almost had.

She had to see the photo again. It was him. The boy from the posters. The boy who died. She’d have to look closer at the face. She remembered it as a three-quarters angle shot. Maybe there wasn’t enough there to be sure. But she knew. Where could she see the photo again, compare it with one of those that had come out when the body had been found? The dead computer in Rachel’s office. No, that was probably gone. She had to get home. She had the printout of the photos of the young guys wearing socks, posing like the Chilis. She had the printout at home. Cause of death was a tacky chair rail, she thought, and for a minute didn’t know whether to laugh or puke.

“Do we need a release about how we’re starting to feature our blog on the home page?” James asked, and he and Harlan debated that for a while, as Andy tried to gently steer them clear.

The boy had been at Seth’s place. Or maybe it was back when it was still Sinclair’s place. How could she know? It might not mean anything. It could have been any night. But that’s where he was found, by the river. Someone just starting out in a band—of course he wouldn’t turn down an invitation to go to Seth Tower’s and party. Of course. On a hot summer night by the river…

She couldn’t stand to make that leap. She had to know more.

“So, you two get it up there, put some headlines on it—not like that asshole over at the Patriot Pages with his New York Post stuff, just keep it normal-looking, clean, like you’ve been doing. You two work it out,” he waved in Andy and Malone’s general direction. “Make sure James and I see it before you push the button or whatever y’all do to send it out there.”

They had been dismissed.

She had to get home, but she couldn’t leave Andy in the middle of this. “Do you want me to get a Seth comment? I’ll send you a photo of the house, and I can email you anything I have about the basics of the place—” she started, after they left Harlan’s office.

She must have looked worse than she thought. She was shaking a little, it was true.

“You’ll send me a photo, and then you’ll leave,” Andy said. “You look awful. You look like a Goth zombie. Your lips are blue.” She was aware that he’d blushed and looked away.

He stared down the hall. “I’ll cover it from here.”

She knew she’d dropped in his estimation, but she had to fall back on the lame hangover excuse. “What about Seth?”

He took a breath. “He’ll be more willing to answer if he sees your number. Can you do it? Make it clear why you’re calling, the minute he picks up.”

She was a little pissed that he felt he had to say so. At the same time, she didn’t know how she was going to do it, really.

“Call me when you’ve got the no comment. I’ve got everything else I need. It’s three graphs that are gonna be vetted to death anyway.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Seth. It’s possible he didn’t know he was overpaying. It could be a mistake. Why would he try to bribe a congressman?”

“The mythical killer app,” Andy said. “His music wasn’t going anywhere, and he got used to the money. But if the regulations went the wrong way, he’d have had to start over.”

“I guess so.” She had some other ideas. She was feverish to check them out. Andy would have been the best person to help her do that, but she couldn’t tell him anything, not yet at least. It all felt unreal, but if not for the hangover and the lack of sleep, she would have been too afraid to act. Unreality was her friend right now.

“Go,” Andy said. “Bring me that Seawall bootleg next week. We’ll be even.”

“Thanks,” she said, guilt like a bad taste in her throat.

First, home. The photo. Make sure. She gave herself orders. * * *

She wanted to be wrong. She hated being right. It was the boy from the posters. Once she saw it, she couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t seen it. From there, it went as if she had been planning it all along.

She called Jessica, only partially lying, about needing a huge, huge, favor, it was work, she didn’t know what to do. Any shiver in her voice could have been put down to stress. “This guy asked me to reschedule a shoot for this afternoon, and I’m afraid if I say no, I’ll never get another chance. Could I bring Linney to you? It might be kind of late before I get back—it could be after dinnertime. I know, it’s awful, my husband’s working late.”

She was fine with it. It had taken Malone a lot to ask, but she didn’t know where else to go. She’d be toast if she didn’t make it back from Seth’s and to the daycare before 6; there was no way she could call on the sisters, and Lee was on her way back to Brashton. She was afraid to leave Linney with an almost-stranger, but even more afraid to bring her to Seth’s. And she knew she’d have to go to Seth. No phones. As soon as the house price thing broke, he’d vanish. She wouldn’t get another chance at this. She called Andy and told him Seth would be back at 3, and could the item wait until she got him. It could.

In the slog uptown to get Linney and then across town to Jessica’s, she felt a twinge that she was also putting a new friendship at risk. It was no risk compared to the rest of them, but she felt a little resentful all the same.

Jessica seemed actually happy to be helping her out, which made it worse. Malone checked Linney for a change she really didn’t need, and realized she was stalling. Same with leaving the extra bottle and staying and talking and joking about how Jessica could feed her if she needed anything more than that. She was afraid. Just go. Don’t think. Just go.

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