One Door Away from Heaven


Page 7






She quieted the cynic in him, and he liked this inner hush, which lie hadn't known for many years.


When she arrived at the open door of the presidential suite where Noah stood, she offered her hand; if younger and more foolish, he might have kissed it. Instead, they shook. Her grip was firm.


Her voice wasn't full of money, no disdain or evidence of tutor-shaped enunciation, but rich with quiet self-possession and faraway music. "How are you this evening, Mr. Farrel?"


"Just wondering how I ever took pleasure in this line of work."


"The cloak-and-dagger aspect ought to be fun, and the sleuthing. I've always loved the Rex Stout mysteries."


"Yeah, but it never quite makes up for always being the bearer of had news." He stepped back from the door to let her enter.


The presidential suite was hers, not because she had booked the use of it, but because she owned the hotel. She was directly engaged in all her business enterprises; if her husband were having her followed, this early-evening visit wouldn't raise his suspicions.


"Is bad news what you always bring?" she asked as Noah closed the door and followed her into the suite.


"Often enough that it seems like always."


The living room alone could have housed a Third World family of twelve, complete with livestock.


"Then why not do something else?" she asked.


"They'll never let me be a cop again, but my mind doesn't have a reset button. If I can't be a cop, I'll be a make-believe cop, like what I am now, and if someday I can't do this . . . Well, then , . ."


When he trailed off, she finished for him: "Then screw it."


Noah smiled. This was one reason he liked her. Class and style without pretension. "Exactly."


The suite featured contemporary decor. The honey-toned, bird's-eye maple entertainment center, with ebony accents, was a modified obelisk, not gracefully tapered like a standard obelisk, but of chunky proportions. The open doors revealed a large TV screen.


Instead of seeking chairs, they remained standing for the show.


A single lamp glowed. Like a jury of ghosts, ranks of shadows gathered in the room.


Earlier Noah had loaded the tape in the VCR. Now he pushed PLAY on the remote control.


On screen: the residential street in Anaheim. The camera tilted down from a height, focusing on the house of the congressman's lover.


"That's a severe angle," Mrs. Sharmer said. "Where were you?"


"I'm not shooting this. My associate is at an attic window of the place across the street. We made financial arrangements with the owner. It's item number seven on your final bill."


The camera pulled back and angled down even more severely to reveal Noah's Chevrolet parked at the curb: battered but beloved steed, still ready to race when this had been shot, subsequently rendered into spare parts by a machine knacker.


"That's my car," he explained. "I'm behind the wheel."


The camera tilted up, panned right: A silver Jaguar approached through the early twilight. The car stopped at the paramour's house, a tall man got out of the passenger's door, and the Jaguar drove away.


Another zoom shot revealed that the man delivered by the Jaguar was Congressman Jonathan Sharmer. His handsome profile was ideal for stone monuments in a heroic age, though by his actions he had proved that he possessed neither the heart nor the soul to match his face.


Arrogance issued from him as holy light might radiate from the apparition of a saint, and he stood facing the street, head raised as though he were admiring the palette of the twilight sky.


"Because he keeps tabs on you, he's been on to me from the start, but he doesn't know that I know that he knows. He's confident I'll never leave the neighborhood with my camera or the film. Playing with me. He isn't aware of my associate in the attic."


Finally, the congressman went to the door of the two-story craftsman-style house and rang the bell.


A maximum-zoom shot captured the young brunette who answered the bell. In skintight shorts and a tube top stretched so extravagantly that it might kill bystanders if it snapped, she was temptation packaged for easy access.


"Her name's Karla Rhymes," Noah reported. "When she worked as a dancer, she called herself Tiffany Tush."


"Not a ballerina, I assume."


"She performed at a club called Planet Pussycat."


On the threshold, Karla and the politician embraced. Even in the fading light of dusk, and further obscured by the shade of the porch roof, their long kiss could not be mistaken for platonic affection.


"She's on the payroll of your husband's charitable foundation."


"The Circle of Friends."


More than friends, the couple on the TV were as close as Siamese twins, joined at the tongue.


"She gets eighty-six thousand a year," Noah said.


The video had been silent. When the kiss ended, sound was added: Jonathan Sharmer and his charity-funded squeeze engaged in something less than sparkling romantic conversation.


"Did this Farrel as**ole really show up, Jonny?"


"Don't look directly. The old Chevy across the street."


"The scabby little pervert can't even afford a real car."


"My guys will junk it. He better have a bus pass for backup."


"I bet he's giving himself a hand job right now, watching us."


"I love your nasty mouth."


Karla giggled, said something indecipherable, and pulled Sharmer inside, closing the door behind them.


Constance Tavenall-no doubt soon to cleanse herself of the name Sharmer-stared at the TV. She had married the congressman five years ago, before the first of his three successful political campaigns. By creating the Circle of Friends, he wove an image as a compassionate thinker with innovative approaches to social problems, while marriage to this woman lent him class, respectability. For a husband utterly lacking in character, such a spouse was the moral equivalent of arm candy, meant to dazzle the cognoscenti, not with her beauty, but with her sterling reputation, making it less likely that Sharmer would be the object of suspicion or the subject of close scrutiny.


Considering that this had just now become incontestably clear to Constance, her composure was remarkable. The crudeness of what she heard lulled to fire a blush in her. If she harbored anger, she hid it well. Instead, a barely perceptible yet awful sadness manifested as a faint glister in her eyes.


"A highly efficient directional microphone was synchronized with the camera," Noah explained. "We've added a soundtrack only where we've got conversation that'll ruin him."


"A stripper. Such a cliche." Even in the thread of quiet sorrow that this tape spun around her, she found a thin filament of humor, the irony that is the mother-of-all in human relationships. "Jonathan cultivates an image of hip sophistication. The press see themselves in him. They'd forgive him anything, even murder, but they'll turn savage now because the cliche of this will embarrass them."


The tape went silent again as a perfectly executed time dissolve brought the viewer from twilight to full night on the same street.


"We're using a camera and special film with exceptional ability to record clear images in a minimum of light."


Noah half expected to hear ominous music building toward the assault on the Chevy . Once in a while, Bobby Zoon couldn't resist indulging in the techniques that he was learning in film school.


The first time that he'd worked for Noah, the kid had delivered a handsomely shot and effectively edited ten-minute piece showing a software designer trading diskettes containing his employer's most precious product secrets in return for a suitcase full of cash. The tape began with a title card that announced A Film by Robert Zoon, and Bobby was crushed when Noah insisted that he remove his credit.


In the Sharmer case, Bobby didn't catch the jolly approach of the Beagle Boys with their sledgehammer and tire iron. He focused on Karla's house, on the lighted window of an upstairs bedroom, where the gap between the half-closed drapes tantalized with the prospect of an image suitable for the front page of the sleaziest tabloid.


Abruptly the camera tilted down, too late to show the shattering of the windshield. Documented, however, were the bashing of the side window, Noah's eruption from the Chevy, and the gleeful capering of the two brightly costumed behemoths who obviously had learned all the wrong lessons from the morning cartoon programs that had been the Sole source of moral education during their formative years.


"No doubt," Noah said, "they were once troubled youths rescued from a life of mischief, and rehabilitated by the Circle of Friends. I expected to be spotted and warned off, but I thought the approach, however it came, would be a lot more discreet than this."


"Jonathan likes walking the edge. Risk excites him."


As proof of what Constance Tavenall had just said, the videotape cut from the Chevy to the soft light at the bedroom window across the street. The drapes had been pulled aside. Karla Rhymes stood at the pane, as though showcased: visible above the waist, nude. Jonathan Sharmer, also nude, loomed behind her, hands on her bare shoulders.


Sound returned to the tape. Over a background crash-and-clatter of Chevy-bashing, the directional microphone captured the laughter and most of the running commentary between Karla and the congressman as they enjoyed the spectacle in the street below.


The violence aroused them. Jonathan's hands slid from Karla's shoulders to her breasts. Soon he was joined with her, from behind.


Earlier, the congressman had admired Karla's "nasty mouth." Now he proved that he himself could not have had a dirtier mouth if he'd spent the past few years licking the streets of Washington, D.C. He called the woman obscene names, heaped verbal abuse on her, and she seemed to thrill to every vicious and demeaning thing he said.


Noah pressed STOP on the remote control. "There's only more of the same." He took the videotape from the VCR and put it in a Neiman Marcus shopping bag that he'd brought. "I've given you two more copies, plus cassettes of all the raw footage before we edited it."


"What a perfectly appropriate word-raw."


"I've kept copies in case anything happens to yours."


"I'm not afraid of him."


"I never imagined you were. More news-Karla's house was bought with Circle of Friends money. Half a million disguised as a research grant. Her own nonprofit corporation holds title to the property."


"They're all such selfless do-gooders." Constance Tavenall's voice was crisp with sarcasm but remarkably free of bitterness.


"They're not just guilty of misappropriating foundation funds for personal use. Circle of Friends receives millions in government grants, so they're in violation of numerous other federal statutes."


"You have the corroborating evidence?"


He nodded. "It's all in the Neiman Marcus bag." He hesitated, but then decided that this woman's exceptional strength matched the congressman's weakness. She didn't have to be coddled. "Karla Rhymes isn't his only mistress. There's one in New York, one in Washington. Circle of Friends indirectly purchased their residences, too."


"That's in the bag? Then you've completely destroyed him, Mr. Farrel."


"My pleasure."


"He underestimated you. And I regret to admit, when I came to you, my expectations weren't terribly high, either."


In their initial meeting, she acknowledged that she would have preferred a large detective agency or a private security firm with nationwide reach. She suspected, however, that all those operations did business, from time to time, with individual politicians and with the major political parties. She was concerned that the one she chose would have an existing relationship with her husband or with a friend of his in Congress, and that they might see more long-term profit in betraying her than in serving her honestly and well.


"No offense taken," Noah said. "No sane person ought to have confidence in a guy whose business address is also his apartment- and the whole shebang in three rooms above a palm-reader's office."


She had settled in a chair at a nearby writing desk. Opening her small purse, extracting a checkbook, she asked, "So why're you there? And why isn't your operation bigger?"


"Have you ever seen a really good dog act, Ms. Tavenall?"


Tweaked by puzzlement, her classic features had a pixie charm. "Excuse me?"


"When I was a little kid, I saw a fantastic performing-dog act. This golden retriever did all these astonishingly clever tricks. When I saw what potential dogs possess, how smart they can be, I wondered why they're mostly happy to hang out doing dumb dog stuff. It's the silly kind of thing a little kid can get to wondering about. Twenty years later, I saw another dog act, and I realized that in the meantime life had taught me the answer to the mystery. Dogs have talent . . . but no ambition."


Her puzzlement passed to pained compassion, and Noah knew that she had read the text and subtext of his remark: not more than was true about him, but more than he intended to reveal. "You're no dog, Mr. Farrel."


"Maybe I'm not," he said, although the word maybe issued from him without conscious intention, "but my level of ambition is about I hat of an old basset hound on a hot summer afternoon."


"Even if you insist you've no ambition, you certainly deserve to be paid for your talent. May I see that final bill you mentioned?"


He retrieved the invoice from the Neiman Marcus tote, and with it the airsickness bag still packed full of hundred-dollar bills.


"What's this?" she asked.


"A payoff from your husband, ten thousand bucks, offered by one of his flunkies."


"Payoff for what?"


"Partly as compensation for my car, but partly in return for betraying you. Along with the videotapes, I've included a notarized affidavit describing the man who gave me the money and recounting our conversation in detail."


"I've got more than enough to destroy Jonathan without this. Keep his bribe as a bonus. There's a nice irony in that."


"I wouldn't feel clean with his money in my pocket. I'll be satisfied with payment of that invoice."


Her pen paused on the downswing of the l in Farrel, and when she raised her head to look at Noah, her smile was as subtly expressive as an underlining flourish by a master of restrained calligraphy. "Mr. Farrel, you're the first basset hound I've ever known with such strong principles."





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