The unit from Langley flew to Des Moines, where the agents rented two cars and a van, then drove forty minutes to Bakers, Iowa. They arrived in the quiet, snowbound little town two days before the letter. By the time Quince picked it up at the post office, they knew the names of the postmaster, the mayor, the chief of police, and the short-order cook at the pancake house next to the hardware store. But no one in Bakers knew them.
They watched Quince hurry to the bank after leaving the post office. Thirty minutes later, two agents known only as Chap and Wes found the corner of the bank where Mr. Garbe, Jr., did business, and they presented themselves to his secretary as inspectors from the Federal Reserve. They certainly looked official -dark suits, black shoes, short hair, long overcoats, clipped speech, efficient manners.
Quince was locked inside, and at first seemed unwilling to come out. They impressed upon his secretary the urgency of their visit, and after almost forty minutes the door opened slightly. Mr. Garbe looked as though he'd been crying. He was pale, shaken, unhappy with the prospect of entertaining anyone. But he showed them in anyway, too unnerved to ask for identification. He didn't even catch their names.
He sat across the massive desk, and looked at the twins facing him. "What can we do for you?" he asked, with a very faint smile.
"Is the door locked?" Chap asked.
"Why yes, it is." The twins got the impression that most of Mr. Garbe's day was spent behind locked doors.
"Can anyone hear us?"Wes asked.
"No." Quince was even more rattled now.
"We're not reserve officials, Chap said. "We lied."
Quince wasn't sure if he should be angry or relieved or even more frightened, so he just sat there for a second, mouth open, frozen, waiting to be shot.
"It's a long story;"Wes said.
"You've got five minutes."
"Actually, we have as long as we want."
"This is my office. Get out."
"Not so fast. We know some things."
"I'll call security"
"No you won't."
"We've seen the letter," Chap said. "The one you just got from the post office."
"I picked up several."
"But only one from Ricky."
Quince's shoulders sagged, his eyes closed slowly. Then they opened again and looked at the tormentors in total, absolute defeat. "Who are you?" he mumbled.
"We're not enemies."
"You're working for him, aren't you?" Him.
"Ricky, or whoever the hell he is."
"No," Wes said. "He's our enemy too. Let's just say that we have a client who's in the same boat you're in, more or less.We've been hired to protect him."
Chap pulled a thick envelope from his coat pocket and tossed it on the desk. "There's twenty-five thousand cash. Send it to Ricky"
Quince stared at the envelope, his mouth open wide. His poor brain was choked with so many thoughts he was dizzy. So he closed his eyes again, and squinted fiercely in a vain effort to organize things. Forget the question of who they were. How did they read the letter? Why were they offering him money? How much did they know?
He sure as hell couldn't trust them.
"The money's yours," Wes said. "In return, we need some information."
"Who is Ricky?" Quince asked, his eyes barely open.
",What do you know about him?" Chap asked.
"His name's not Ricky."
"He's in prison."
"True," Chap said again.
"Says he has a wife and children."
"Partially true. The wife is now an ex-wife. The children are still his."
"Says they're destitute, and that's why he's scamming people:'
"Not exactly. His wife is quite wealthy, and his children have followed the money. We're not sure why he's scamming people."
"But we'd like to stop him," Chap added. "We need your help."
Quince suddenly realized that for the first time in his life, in all of his fifty-one years, he was sitting in the presence of two living, breathing people who knew he was a homosexual. The knowledge terrified him. For a second he wanted to deny it, to concoct some story of how he carne to know Ricky, but invention failed him. He was too scared to be inspired.
Then he realized that these two, whoever they were, could ruin him. They knew his little secret, and they had the power to wreck his life.
And they were offering $25,000 cash?
Poor Quince covered his eyes with his knuckles and said, "What do you want?"
Chap and Wes thought he was about to cry. They didn't particularly care, but there was no need for it. "Here's the deal, Mr. Garbe;' said Chap. "You take the money lying there on your desk, and you tell us everything about Ricky. Show us your letters. Show us everything. If you have a file or a box or some secret place where you've hidden everything, we'd like to see it. Once we've gathered all we need, then we'll leave. We'll disappear as quickly as we've come, and you'll never know who we are or who we're protecting."
"And you'll keep the secrets?"
"There's no reason for us to tell anyone about you;" Wes added.
"Can you make him stop?" Quince asked, staring at them.
Chap and Wes paused and glanced at each other. Their responses had been perfect so far, but this question had no clear answer. "We can't promise, Mr. Garbe;" Wes said. "But we'll try our best to put this Ricky character out of business. As we said, he's upsetting our client too."
"You've got to protect me on this."
"We'll do all we can."
Suddenly Quince stood and leaned forward with his palms flat on the desk. "Then I have no choice;" he announced. He didn't touch the money, but walked a few steps to an ancient glass bookcase filled with weathered and peeling volumes. With one key he unlocked the case, and with another he opened a small, hidden safe on the second shelf fiom the floor. Carefully, he withdrew a thin, letter-sized folder, which he delicately placed next to the envelope filled with cash.
Just as he opened the file, an offensive, high-pitched voice squawked through the intercom, "Mr. Garbe, your father would like to see you immediately."
Quince bolted upright in horror, his cheeks instantly pale, his face contorted in panic. "Uh, tell him I'm in a meeting;" he said, trying to sound reassuring but coming off as a hopeless liar.
"You tell him," she said, and the intercom clicked.
"Excuse me;" he said, actually trying to smile. He picked up the receiver, punched three numbers, and turned his back on Wes and Chap so that maybe they wouldn't hear.
"Dad, it's me.What's up?" he said, head law.
A long pause as the old man filled his ear.
Then, "No, no, they're not from the Federal Reserve. They're, uh, they're lawyers from Des Moines. They represent the family of an old college buddy of mine. That's all."
A shorter pause.
"Uh, Franklin Delaney, you wouldn't remember him. He died four months ago, without a will, a big mess. No, Dad, uh, it has nothing to do with the bank."
He hung up. Not a bad piece of lying.The door was locked. That's all that mattered.
Wes and Chap stood and moved in tandem to the edge of the desk, where they leaned forward together as Quince opened the file. The first thing they noticed was the photo, paper-clipped to the inside flap. Wes gently removed it, and said, "Is this supposed to be Ricky?"
"That's him;" Quince said, ashamed but determined to get through it.
"A nice-looking young man," Chap said, as if they were staring at a Playboy centerfold. All three were immediately uncomfortable.
"You know who Ricky is, don't you?'-" Quince asked.
"Then tell me."
"No, it's not part of the deal."
"Why can't you tell me? I'm giving you everything you want."
"That's not what we agreed on:"
"I want to kill the bastard."
"Relax, Mr. Garbe. We have a deal. You get the money, we get the file, nobody gets hurt."
"Let's go back to the beginning;" Chap said, looking down at the fragile and suffering little man in the oversized chair. "How did it all start?"
Quince moved some papers around in the file and produced a thin magazine. "I bought this at a bookstore in Chicago;" he said, sliding it around so they could read it. The tide was Out and About, and it described itself as a publication for mature men with alternative lifestyles. He let them take in the cover, then flipped to the back pages. Wes and Chap didn't try to touch it, but their eyes took in as much as possible. Very few pictures, lots of small print. It wasn't pornography by any means.
On page forty-six was a small section of personals. One was circled with a red pen. It read:
SWM in 20's looking for kind and discreet gentleman in 40's or 50's to pen pal with.
Wes and Chap .leaned lower to read it, then came back up together. "So you answered this ad?" Chap said
"I did. I sent a little note, and about two weeks later I heard from Ricky"
"Do you have a copy of your note?"
"No. I didn't copy my letters. Nothing left this office. I was afraid to make copies around here."
Wes and Chap fiowned in disbelief, then great
disappointment. What kind of dumb ass were they dealing with here?
"Sorry," Quince said, tempted to grab the cash before they changed their minds.
Moving things along, he removed the first letter from Ricky and thrust it at them. "Just lay it down," Wes said, and they leaned in again, inspecting without touching. They were very slow readers, Quince noticed, and they read with incredible concentration. His mind was beginning to clear, and a glimmer of hope emerged. How sweet it was to have the money and not have to worry about another crooked loan, another pack of lies to cover his trail. And now he had allies, Wes and Chap here, and God knows who else working against Ricky. His heart slowed a little and his breathing was not as labored.
"The next letter please," Chap said.
Quince laid them out in sequence, one beside the other, three lavender in color, one a soft blue, one yellow, all written in the tedious block handwriting of a person with plenty of time. When they finished one page, Chap would carefully arrange the next one with a pair of tweezers. Their fingers touched nothing.
The odd thing about the letters, as Chap and Wes would whisper to each other much later, was that they were so thoroughly believable. Ricky was wounded and tortured and in dire need of someone to talk to. He was pitiful and sympathetic. And there was hope because the worst was over for him and he would soon be free to pursue new friendships. The writing was superb!
After a deafening silence, Quince said, "I need to make a phone call."
Wes and Chap looked at each other with uncertainty, then nodded. Quince walked with the phone to his credenza and watched Main Street below while talking to another banker.
At some point, Wes began making notes, no doubt in preparation for the cross-examination to come. Quince loitered by the bookcase, trying to read a newspaper, trying to ignore the note-taking He was calm now, thinking as clearly as possible, plotting his next move, the one after these goons left him-
"Did you send a check for a hundred thousand dollars?" Chap asked.
Wes, the grimmer-faced of the two, glared at him with contempt, as if to say, "What a fool."
They read some more, took a few notes, whispered and mumbled between themselves.
"How much money has your client sent?" Quince asked, just for the hell of it.
Wes got even grimmer and said, "We can't say"
No surprise to Quince. The boys had no sense of humor.
They sat down after an hour, and Quince took his seat in his banker's chair.
"Just a couple of questions;" Chap said, and Quince knew they'd be talking for another hour.
"How'd you book the gay cruise?"
"It's in the letter there. This thug gave me the name and number of a travel agency in New York. I called, then sent a money order. It was easy"
"Easy? Have you done it before?"
"Are we here to talk about my sex life?"
"So let's stick to the issues;" Quince said like a real ass, and he felt good again. The banker in him boiled for a moment. Then he thought of something he simply couldn't resist. With a straight face, he said, "The cruise is still paid for.You guys wanna go?"
Fortunately, they laughed. It was a quick flash of humor, then back to business. Chap said, "Did you consider using a pseudonym?"
"Yes, of course. It was stupid not to. But I'd never done this before. I thought the guy was legitimate. He's in Florida, I'm in Podunk, Iowa. It never crossed my mind the guy was a fraud."
"We'll need copies of all this;"Wes said.
"That could be a problem."
"Where would you copy it?"
"The bank doesn't have a copier?"
"It does, but you're not copying that file in this bank."
"Then we'll take it to a quick print somewhere."
"This is Bakers.We don't have a quick print:'
"Do you have an office supply store?"
"Yes, and the owner owes my bank eighty thousand dollars. He sits next to me at the Rotary C1ub.You're not copying it there. I'm not going to be seen with that file."
Chap and Wes looked at each other, then at Quince. Wes said, "Okay, look. I'll stay here with you. Chap will take the file and find a copier."
"The drugstore;'Wes said.
"You've found the drugstore?"
"Sure, we needed some tweezers."
"That copier's twenty years old."
"No, they have a new one."
"You must be careful, okay? The pharmacist is my secretary's second cousin. This is a very small town."
Chap took the file and walked to the door. It clicked loudly when he unlocked it, and when he stepped through he was immediately under scrutiny The secretary's desk was crowded with older women, all busy doing nothing until Chap emerged and they froze and gawked. Old Mr. Garbe was not far away, holding a ledger, pretending to be busy but himself consumed with curiosity. Chap nodded to them all and eased away, passing as he went virtually every employee of the bank.
The door clicked loudly again as Quince locked the damned thing before anyone could barge in. He and Wes chatted awkwardly about this and that for a few minutes, the conversation almost dying at times for lack of common ground. Forbidden sex had brought them together, and they certainly had to avoid that subject. Life in Bakers was of little interest. Quince could ask nothing about Wes' background.
Finally, he said, "What should I say in my letter to Ricky?"
Wes warmed to the idea immediately. "Well, I would wait, first of all. Wait a month. Let him sweat if you hurry back with a response, and with the money, he might think it's too easy"
"What if he gets mad?"
"He won't. He has plenty of time, and he wants the money"
"Do you see all his mail?"
"We think we have access to most of it."
Quince was overcome with curiosity. Sitting with a man who now knew his deepest secret, he felt as though he could prod. "How will you stop him?"
And Wes, for no reason he would ever understand, said simply, "We'll probably just kill him."
A radiant peace broke out around the eyes of Quince Garbe, a warm calming glow that spread through his tortured countenance. His wrinkles softened. His lips spread into a tiny smile. His inheritance would be safe after all, and when the old man was gone and the money was his he'd flee this life and live as he pleased.
"How nice," he said softly. "How very nice."
Chap took the file to a motel room where a leased color copier was waiting with other members of the unit. Three sets were made, and thirty minutes later he was back at the bank. Quince inspected his originals; everything was in order. He carefully relocked the file, then said to his guests," I think it's time for you to go."
They left without shaking hands or the usual goodbyes.What was there to say?
A private jet was waiting at the local airport, whose runway was barely long enough. Three hours after leaving Quince, Chap and Wes reported to Langley. Their mission was a resounding success.
A summary of the account in the Geneva Trust Bank was procured with a bribe of $40,000 to a Bahamian banking official, a man they'd used before. Boomer Realty had a balance of $189,000. Its lawyer had about $68,000 in his account. The summary listed all the transactions-money wired in, money taken out. Deville's people were trying desperately to track down the originators of the wires. They knew about Mr. Garbe's remitting bank in Des Moines, and they knew that another wire of $100,000 had been sent from a bank in Dallas. They could not, however, find out who'd originated that wire.
They were scrambling on many fronts when Teddy summoned Deville to the bunker.York was with him. The table was covered with copies of Garbe's file and copies of the bank summaries.
Deville had never seen his boss so dejected. York too had little to say York was bearing the brunt of the Lake screwup, though Teddy was blaming himself.
"The latest,"Teddy said softly.
Deville never sat while in the bunker. "We're still tracking the money. We've made contact with the magazine Out and About. It's published in New Haven, a very small outfit, and I'm not sure if we'll be able to penetrate. Our contact in the Bahamas is on retainer and we'll know if and when any wires are received. We have a unit ready to search Lake's offices on Capitol Hill, but that's a long shot. I'm not optimistic. We have twenty people on the ground in Jacksonville."
"How many of our people are shadowing Lake?"
"We've just gone from thirty to fifty"
"He must be watched. We cannot turn our backs. He is not the person we thought he was, and if we lose sight of him for one hour he might mail a letter, or buy another magazine:"
"We know We're doing the best we can."
"This is our highest domestic priority."
"What about planting someone inside the prison?" Teddy asked. It was a new idea, one hatched by York within the past hour.
Deville rubbed his eyes and chewed his nails for a moment, then said, "I'll go to work on it.We'll have to pull strings we've never pulled before."
"How many prisoners are in the federal system?" York asked.
"One hundred thirty-five thousand, give or take;" Deville said.
"Surely we could slip in another, couldn't we?"
"I'll give it a look."
"Do we have contacts at the Bureau of Prisons?"
"It's new territory, but we're working on it. We're using an old friend at justice. I'm optimistic."
Deville left them for a while. He'd get called back in an hour or so.York and Teddy would have another checklist of questions and thoughts and errands for him to tend to.
"I don't like the idea of searching his office on Capitol Hill;" York said. "It's too risky. And besides, it would take a week. Those guys have a million files."
"I don't like it either;'Teddy said softly.
"Let's get our guys in Documents to write a letter from Ricky to Lake. We'll wire the envelope, track it, maybe it will lead us to his file."
"That's an excellent idea. Tell Deville."
York made a note on a pad filled with many other notes, most of which had been scratched through. He scribbled to pass the time, then asked the question he'd been saving. "Will you confront him?"
"Maybe never. Let's gather the intelligence, learn all we can. He seems to be very quiet about his other life, perhaps it came about after his wife died.Who knows? Maybe he can keep it quiet"
"But he has to know that you know. Otherwise, he might take another chance. If he knows were always watching, he'll behave himself: Maybe:"
"Meanwhile the world's going to hell. Nuclear arms are bought and sold and sneaked across borders. We're tracking seven small wars with three more on the brink. A dozen new terrorist groups last month alone. Maniacs in the Middle East building armies and hoarding oil. And we sit here hour after hour plotting against three felonious judges who are at this very moment probably playing gin rummy."
"They're not stupid,"York said.
"No, but they're clumsy. Their nets have snared the wrong person."
"I guess we picked the wrong person."
"No, they did."