“There’s no fool like an old fool.”
So concluded Warren Burkett, the former mayor of Los Angeles and, of more immediate significance, the Democratic Party’s nominee for a U.S. Senate seat whose occupant would be determined in three short weeks, on the first Tuesday in November.
Burkett stood at the window with his back to my law partner, Marta “Mayday” Suarez, who’d been typing on her laptop as our silver-haired visitor spun his remarkable tale. Now he pinched the blinds to scan the street below, where a trio of TV news vans hugged the curb and where paparazzi on foot and on sleek Japanese motorbikes flanked a black Lincoln Town Car on whose fender a driver leaned, arms folded, the vulturous shadow of a circling news helicopter darkening the whole chaotic scene.
“The Times said that your car was recovered in Pasadena.” I lifted the newspaper from my desk for his inspection. The banner headline read: BURKETT HELD IN THEFT PROBE.
He returned to his chair and sat. When he resumed his story, Mayday resumed her typing.
“It was parked at my house, on South San Rafael. Inside the gates. The keys were in the ignition. No fingerprints, apparently, and no clue as to how it got there. And no missing painting, of course.”
Mayday and I shared a glance. “Was there a remote controller for the gate?”
He nodded. “On the visor.”
I rescanned the Times article. “Who else knew your schedule that day? If she was waiting for you outside the restaurant, then she had to have known you’d be there, and that you’d probably be alone.”
He considered this. “That’s a hell of a good question. Harwood, of course. A few others in the campaign. Plus Kaneta, and some of his people. We were drinking sake. You ever drink sake?”
“Not on purpose.”
“It’s like warm cat piss.” He shook his head sadly. “The things you put up with in a campaign, you don’t want to know.”
There was a knock at the door, and the aforementioned Harwood, Burkett’s body man, leaned his crew cut into my office, tapping his wristwatch with a finger. Burkett nodded and waved him off.
“Where was I?”
“Back at the restaurant.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s called the Geisha House, which doesn’t help any. Sounds like a goddamn brothel.”
“Geisha House,” Mayday read from her laptop. “‘Sushi and sashimi with a contemporary spin.’”
“That’s the place.” Burkett, who’d been nervously jiggling his foot, stood again and crossed to the window, again pinching the blinds. He was silent for a moment, seemingly lost in thought.
“It’s like keeping pet rats,” he finally said. “The press, I mean. They’re kind of cute, and you can play with ’em when you want to, but God forbid you stumble and can’t get up. Because the next thing you know, they’re eating your entrails for breakfast.”
“What about the Mercedes?” I asked him. “In the parking lot?”
“I don’t know anything about that. I suppose they’re checking. Do you know these detectives?”
I nodded. “Madden is smart, and a straight shooter. Alvarez is something of a cowboy.”
“Something of an asshole,” Burkett corrected. He moved again toward the desk, but then he stopped and pivoted, pacing now like a caged animal. “That article say anything about the house on Green Oak?”
I laid the paper flat. There were four Times reporters covering the story. Not to mention stringers from every daily newspaper, broadcast station, cable channel, radio outlet, Internet site, and political bathrobe blog in America.
“The house belongs to a cardiac surgeon and his wife. The Bloomfields. Seems they’re on vacation in Europe.”
Burkett grunted. “Here’s what I don’t get. Was this a honey trap or was it a robbery?”
“Sex,” Mayday said. “The robbery makes no sense, and if you’ll pardon my saying so, you do have something of a reputation.”
He stiffened slightly, looking from me to Mayday and back again. Then he resumed his pacing. “All right. So the painting was what? An impulse? Her fee?”
I refolded the paper. “What was the name she gave you? Rose something?”
“Mean anything to you?”
Burkett shook his head. Mayday, still fingering her keyboard, sat up straight.
“‘Bridget Rose Dugdale,’ she read. “She was an Irish debutante turned IRA soldier. She has her own Wikipedia page. Millionaire’s daughter. Oxford educated. In 1974 she and an accomplice hijacked a helicopter and used it to bomb a police station in Northern Ireland. Uh-oh.”
Mayday looked up from her screen. “It says here that she also took part in a major art heist. Home-invasion style. The thieves made off with nineteen Old Masters paintings, including a Gainsborough, a Goya, and a Vermeer. Also in 1974.”
“How old is this person?”
“She’d be around seventy-five now. Not our green-eyed lady.”
Another knock. This time Harwood came all the way in, with my secretary, Bernadette, trailing behind him.
“We have NBC at noon,” the big man said. “I’m sorry, but you made me promise.”
Burkett nodded, checking his watch. “Okay, Bill. Thirty seconds more.”
After the door had closed again, Burkett got down to cases. He wanted to hire the law firm of MacTaggart and Suarez to defend him in the criminal case. He’d pay our standard hourly rates, which he’d double if we could get the charges kicked by Election Day. He’d pay a bonus if we could find the woman and have her indicted. A double bonus if we accomplished that before Election Day. And if we proved that Larry Archer was behind it all, he’d make me the next attorney general.
I think he was kidding about the attorney general.
I stood as he offered his hand. “I don’t have to tell you what’s at stake, MacTaggart. Nothing less than the integrity of our political process. If that hoodlum uses a stunt like this to win the election…” He shook his head ominously, leaving the thought unfinished.
“One last question,” I said to his back as he reached for the door handle. He stopped and turned to face us.
“Why me? You must know dozens of downtown lawyers, all with bigger reputations than mine.”
For the first time that morning, Warren Burkett smiled.
“Hell, I know more lawyers than O. J Simpson. But Russ Dinsmoor told me once that if he were ever in trouble, you’re the guy he’d hire, and that’s all I needed to know.”
* * *
The first election that I could personally recall was the presidential contest of 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s vice president faced off against Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts. I was twelve years old at the time, and I can still remember sitting in a topless bar in Boyle Heights with my uncle Louis, watching the debate on television. This was instead of sitting in Dodger Stadium watching Orel Hershiser face down the Giants, since Uncle Louis, my mother’s cheerfully dissolute older brother, had been to babysitting what Bernie Madoff was to retirement planning. This was September, still two months from Election Day, and I’d asked Uncle Louis which candidate he thought would win.
He’d lit another cigarette and considered the proposition.
“Kid,” he’d finally told me, “the only way Bush loses this election is if they catch him in bed with a dead girl. Or a live boy.”
The same could have been said of Warren Burkett the day before yesterday. Larry Archer, his Republican opponent, had been trailing anywhere from eight to ten points in all the major polls, which meant that, on the list of people with a motive to implicate Burkett in a lurid sex scandal, the billionaire developer’s name stood out like a black swan in winter.
“It’s just too obvious. Even for a blunt instrument like Archer.”
Mayday looked up from her Cobb salad, hold the bacon, hold the turkey, and olive oil and balsamic on the side. We were sitting in our usual booth at the Only Place in Town, a homey neighborhood eatery in the sleepy suburban village of Sierra Madre, California.
The Only Place was not, as its name suggested, Sierra Madre’s only restaurant. There was Lucky Baldwin’s Pub for draft beer and finger food, and Corfu for Mediterranean fine dining, and the Buccaneer Bar for tequila shots and a knife fight. It was, however, the only spot from which we could keep an eye on the front door to the office while Bernie performed her midday shopping ritual.
Our booth looked onto the street, which, thronged with press and gawkers just an hour earlier, had returned to its somnolent normalcy. Only a few reporters had lingered in the wake of Burkett’s departure—to snap photos of us and elicit our “no comments” as we’d emerged from the office for lunch—and now they, too, were gone.
The restaurant’s player piano segued to “A Bicycle Built for Two,” and I realized that, amid the burble of voices and the clinking of silverware and the ring of the cash register, I was feeling the old adrenaline again.
It was only three months before that I’d salvaged both Mayday and our secretary, the inimitable Bernadette Catalano, from the smoldering wreckage of my old law firm, Pasadena’s storied Henley and Hargrove, which had imploded following an ethics scandal and the deaths of its two senior partners, one of whom, the aforementioned Russell H. Dinsmoor, had been my closest friend and mentor.
I’d spent the months that followed adrift on a metaphorical life raft, recovering from Russ’s death—an event I could have prevented—and from an awkwardly ended romance with what I’d thought was the girl of my dreams. I’d kept myself busy by providing grand jury testimony, and settling Russ’s estate, and saving my own skin with the State Bar of California. I’d moved into the home I inherited from Russ, and plunged into an epic bender, and resurfaced somehow inspired to begin working again. I’d tracked down Mayday just as she was about to sign on with a downtown L.A. megafirm. And when Bernie answered our classified ad for a secretary, the circle was aptly complete.
“Plus, there’s the art connection,” Mayday said, jarring me from my reverie.
“What art connection?”
She wiped her hands and opened her omnipresent laptop. She tickled the keyboard then turned the screen around to face me. On display was a page from the Web site of MOCA, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
“So, look at the board of trustees. The chair, to be specific.”
There were smiling headshots running in a vertical column on the left side of the screen, and there were two reasons why Angela G. Archer’s photo stood out from the others. First, she appeared to be a dozen years younger than any of her board colleagues. Second, she was the only museum trustee who, by dint of her hair and makeup, could have passed for one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
“That’s Larry Archer’s wife?”
She adjusted the screen. “It does seem a little clumsy. Either Archer is none too bright, or someone is out to make him look like the worst sort of political opportunist.”
Mayday’s fork paused, her eyes drifting into the street outside. “There’s something nefarious about a scandal with the potential to ruin two political careers at once. It’s almost Machiavellian.”
I gathered my Big Cheese sandwich in both hands. It was a Machiavellian combination of bacon, tomato, and melted cheddar on fried cheese toast, slathered in mayonnaise and garnished with a generous stack of onion rings. Mayday winced as I took a bite.
“The painting,” I said with my mouth full. “What do we know about the artist?”
“Berthe Morisot,” she replied, working the keyboard with one hand. “The most famous of the female French impressionists. She was a student of Edouard Manet, and she married Manet’s brother, Eugène, in 1874. Some say she continued to love both men.”
“So Morisot married Manet’s brother in 1874, and Bridget Rose Dugdale heisted art in 1974. Coincidence?”
Mayday frowned. “That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Maybe, but don’t forget, somebody chose that specific alias, and that specific house, wherein hung that specific painting. What do you suppose it’s worth?”
“That would depend—on the size, and on the provenance. Millions, certainly.”
“But very hard to fence.”
“Almost impossible, given the publicity.”
“Which makes the crime all the more interesting.”
* * *
The newspapers I’d requested from Bernie were waiting on my desk. They included The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. According to The Times, Larry Archer was a fascist cretin and an existential threat to American democracy. According to The Journal, Warren Burkett was a closet Socialist who kept a harem of female interns on speed dial. According to USA Today, Jessica Simpson lost twenty pounds on an all-grapefruit diet.
There was one thing, however, on which all the papers agreed: With the Senate divided more or less evenly between Democrats and Republicans, this election was crucial in determining the course of our nation’s future.
Having heretofore followed the campaign with only limited interest, I had some catching up to do. Archer, I knew, was a Las Vegas transplant who’d made his outsized fortune as the founder and CEO of Archer Properties, a residential construction behemoth whose projects stretched from sea to shining sea. It built massive, ant farm subdivisions with amenities that ranged, depending on location, from golf courses to ski resorts to hotel casinos. Archer was early onto the Tea Party bandwagon, and his politics ran strongly to the antitax, antiunion, antiregulation orthodoxy that has come to define the party of Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
There had been a small kerfuffle early in the campaign over Archer’s stock holdings in several corporations that were donors to his cause. This was assuaged, to Archer’s satisfaction at least, by placing his assets into a blind trust managed by his wife’s brother, one Anthony “Tony Gags” Gagliano, whose position at Archer Properties seemed to be vice president of Union Affairs and Cement.
According to Warren Burkett, one of L.A.’s most popular mayors, his return to elective politics had been a matter of selfless duty, both to party and country, coming as it did after the unexpected illness of the Senate’s Democratic incumbent, for whom no heir apparent had been groomed. Burkett was drafted by acclamation when his only credible challenger, a firebrand Bay Area congresswoman, had aborted her primary campaign following a particularly unfortunate incident at the Dinah Shore golf tournament in Palm Springs involving a hot tub, a WNBA point guard, and a tabloid photographer.
None of the news articles mentioned Angela G. Archer or her art world connections. Those that mentioned Bobbi Burkett, my client’s wife of forty-plus years, described her in terms that ranged from “long-suffering” (The Journal) to “stalwart” (The Times) to “generously proportioned” (USA Today).
* * *
It was almost five by the time Mayday called in. I had asked her to find out what she could about Toshiko Kaneta, the sake-swilling campaign donor whom Burkett had been prospecting on the night he’d met his green-eyed muse.
“Dead end” were the first words she spoke into her cell phone. “I think he’s clean.”
“Half intuition, half evidence. Or lack of evidence.”
“First of all, he’s a model citizen. Not even a parking ticket in the United States, and he’s lived here for ten years. He manages U.S. operations for a Japanese electronics manufacturer called IchiDyne, one word, capital I, capital D. They make specialty products for hospitals and research laboratories, including Lawrence Livermore, which means he’d have a high federal security clearance.”
“So what was he doing with Burkett?”
“IchiDyne spreads a lot of money among the political class. They’ve donated over a hundred grand in this election cycle alone, split more or less equally between Republicans and Democrats. Nothing unusual about Kaneta meeting with a candidate this close to Election Day.”
There was a knock on my door as Mayday spoke, and Bernie entered with a package that she carried as though holding a saucer of nitroglycerin, setting it gingerly on my desk. The box was brown cardboard, and the printed label bore my name only, with no address or postage or tracking label. Below my name were the printed words FRAGILE/DO NOT SHAKE. I pantomimed a question, and Bernie mouthed the word “messenger.”
I extracted the letter opener from my drawer.
“Okay, I’m still listening,” I said to Mayday.
“Second, I tracked down the manager who was working at Geisha House on Monday night. He recognized Burkett, so he paid close attention to their party. He said that after Burkett left, Kaneta and his people stayed for another hour. They ordered two more rounds of sake, had a jolly old time, and then paid with a company credit card.”
“So, this is the intuition part. As in, how would you expect a person to behave if he’d just set in motion a million-dollar art heist? Would he be nervous or relaxed? Would he be furtive or obvious? Would he linger or bolt? Would he cover his tracks or leave a clear paper trail?”
The box was thin and square and fairly lightweight. The brown paper tape cut easily, revealing a bed of cotton wadding inside.
“Okay, Marta, good work. Call it a day, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
I don’t know what I was expecting when I parted the cotton, but what I saw was something both oddly familiar and completely surprising. I lifted it from the box and set it carefully on my blotter.
It was an old-fashioned Etch-A-Sketch, the classic children’s toy with its red plastic frame and its round white dials. There was a message on the screen, carefully scribed in thin black lines onto the graphite-gray background. The message read:
Copyright © 2013 by Charles J. Greaves