A Scandal Habit
Nick Heller and the head of a corporate-espionage agency clash over an international case that may involve the disappearance of Heller’s brother, in an excerpt from Joseph Finder’s new thriller.
The offices of Stoddard Associates looked like the most posh, high-end law firm you’d ever seen: dark mahogany paneling everywhere, antique Persian rugs, burnished fruitwood conference tables. Hushed elegance. Old money. Even a prim middle-age British receptionist.
The firm’s founder and chairman, Abner J. Stoddard IV—Jay, as everyone called him—sometimes joked that the decor he’d selected, down to the last detail, was nothing more than what he and his CIA buddies used to call “window dressing.” That’s tradecraft jargon. Every good front needs a plausible cover, he’d say.
If you took a really close look at some of the biggest, most notorious scandals of the last 30 or so years, you’d find Jay Stoddard lurking somewhere in the shadows.
He was only partly joking. After all, Stoddard Associates was a high-powered private intelligence firm. A corporate espionage agency, though Jay Stoddard would never use those words. An august and influential, if shadowy, enterprise. Not some cheesy gumshoe operation with frosted-glass windows and the lingering stench of stale cigar smoke. We occupied 12,000 square feet of the ninth floor of a sleek office tower at 1900 K Street in Washington, with a curved facade of glass and stainless steel and slate spandrels. K Street, as everyone knew, was the Champs-Élysées of Washington lobbyists.
As we entered his office, he said, “So you got in to the office early today?”
“Looking into Traverse Development, huh?” he said. His blue eyes seemed to have gone gray.
I nodded. He was referring to a case I’d just done, at a private airport outside of L.A. He’d sent me there to investigate an enormous shipment that had mysteriously disappeared from an air-cargo flight from Brussels a couple of days ago.
I’d located the missing cargo, and I’d done something I wasn’t supposed to do. I’d opened one of the boxes.
Though I hadn’t told him so.
Jay Stoddard often came off as casual and shambling and loose-jointed, but his desk told you everything you needed to know: It was always perfectly clean.
“I like to know as much as possible about my clients,” I said. I’d run Traverse Development through our standard corporate-registration databases and found nothing. I’d also run a search on the cellphone number that Woody gave me back in L.A., the emergency contact number for whomever had hired him. But no luck. It came back as “private.”
Did someone tell Stoddard I’d been searching? Or did my computer search trigger some kind of notification?
“Maybe not the best use of your time.”
“Don’t worry, I did it on my own time.”
He paused. “And?”
“It doesn’t exist,” I said.
“Strange,” Stoddard said. He was toying with me. “The check cleared.”
“No business registration in the city of Arlington. Or Arlington County. Nothing in SearchSystems. The address on that shipment turns out to be bogus—a rented mail drop. A place called EasyOffice, which is one of those business suites you can rent by the hour or by the week. The rent was paid in cash. So obviously it’s a front.”
“Oh, please. Don’t be so suspicious. Companies use fronts for all kinds of legitimate reasons. Like avoiding taxes.”
“You know what was in that container, don’t you?” I said. “What was being shipped out of Bahrain?”
“I didn’t ask.” Jay was too skilled to look evasive.
“But you know anyway,” I said.
He laughed. Sometimes talking with him was like fencing. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said.
“I think you know damned well what was in those boxes.” I said it in a good-humored way, not wanting to come off as confrontational.
He chewed the inside of his cheek, which was always the giveaway that he was trying to decide whether to tell a lie. The “tell,” as they say in poker. Stoddard was practiced in the art of deception, but my skill at reading people is better. I give full credit for this to my father, who was a liar the way some people are alcoholics. He lived and breathed dishonesty. It was a useful education for a kid.
“If you opened a sealed shipment, Nick, you don’t want to brag about it. You could get the whole firm in trouble. If you’re going to break the law, you do it for the client. Not to work against the client.”
“It was a messy recovery, Jay. A couple of boxes broke open.”
“Why do I doubt that? Point is, whatever you found, that’s outside of the scope of our work. They hired us to do a very specific job. Nothing beyond that. In addition to which, as you well know, anything we come across in the course of an investigation that might be detrimental to a client we always keep confidential. Otherwise, we’d go out of business in a week. I don’t need to tell you this.”
If you took a really close look at some of the biggest, most notorious scandals of the last 30 or so years, you’d find Jay Stoddard lurking somewhere in the shadows. As an investigator or a fixer or an adviser, I mean. Whether it was the Iran-Contra hearings in the Reagan days or a Canadian media mogul on trial for fraud. Or one of a dozen Congressional sex scandals. And a whole lot more situations that might have exploded into ugly public imbroglios if it hadn’t been for Stoddard’s work.
But you’d have to know where to look, because Jay didn’t like to leave traces. And he always preferred to be on the winning side.
One of the very few times he picked the wrong side was when he agreed to work for my father. Victor Heller was arrested and charged with massive accounting and securities fraud and grand larceny, and being the smart and extremely well-connected guy that he was, he hired the finest investigative firm in the world to assist his legal defense. Unfortunately for both Jay and Dad, the facts got in the way. He was sent to prison for 30 years.
In fact, I’m convinced that it was because Jay Stoddard felt guilty about letting my father down that he hired me, the black sheep of the family who’d dropped out of college to enlist in the Special Forces. Who’d joined the Army instead of Goldman Sachs. Later, though, Jay began bragging. “Nick Heller was my best hire. Something in those Heller genes.” he’d say.
“Larceny,” I liked to reply.
He’d shake his head, a mournful look in his eyes. “Your dad’s a brilliant man. It’s just a damned shame . . .”
Now he said, “Anyway, odds are the whole thing’s perfectly innocent. Let’s just leave it there, OK?”
I doubted the whole thing was all that innocent. The boxes contained shrink-wrapped bricks of brand-new hundred-dollar bills.
Slightly over a billion dollars in cash.
“If I ran a check on some of the serial numbers on those hundred-dollar bills, I wonder if it would turn out to be part of the cash that went missing in Baghdad a few years ago.”
A long pause. “Maybe. But why would you?”
I was starting to piss him off. His tone got increasingly exasperated. “Nick, we’ve all got a lot of work to do around here. Let’s just move on, OK?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t interested in getting into a fight with him. Certainly not a fight I couldn’t win. And maybe he was right. “Forget it, Jake,” I said. “‘It’s Chinatown.’”
Quoting one of the best lines from one of Jay’s favorite movies seemed to mollify him. He laughed heartily. “All right,” he said, “as far as I’m concerned, this never happened.”
I was being forgiven. As if I’d accidentally insulted his wife. Very few people were as affable as Jay when he wanted to be.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
I wish I’d left it there.