A uniformed guard opened the gates to the mansion, then nodded smartly to the driver as the long black Mercedes rushed by, in a hurry as always. Mr. Carl Trudeau had the rear seat, alone, already lost in the morning's papers. It was 7:30 a.m., too early for golf or tennis and too early for Saturday morning traffic in Palm Beach.
Within minutes, the car was on Interstate 95, racing south.
Carl ignored the market reports. Thank God the week was finally over. Krane closed at $19.50 the day before and showed no signs of finding a permanent floor. Though he would be forever known as one of the very few men who'd lost a billion dollars in a day, he was already plotting his next legend. Give him a year and he'd have his billion back. In two years, he'd double all of it.
Forty minutes later he was in Boca Raton, crossing the waterway, headed for the clusters of high-rise condos and hotels packed along the beach. The office building was a shiny glass cylinder ten floors tall with a gate and a guard and not one word posted on a sign of any type. The Mercedes was waved through and stopped under a portico.
A stern-faced young man in a black suit opened the rear door and said, "Good morning, Mr. Trudeau."
"Good morning," Carl said, climbing out.
"This way, sir."
According to Carl's hasty research, the firm of Troy-Hogan worked very hard at not being seen. It had no Web site, brochure, advertisements, listed phone number, or anything else that might attract clients. It was not a law firm, because it was not registered with the State of Florida, or any other state for that matter. It had no registered lobbyists. It was a corporation, not a limited partnership or some other variety of association. It was unclear where the name originated because there was no record of anyone named Troy or Hogan. The firm was known to provide marketing and consulting services, but there was no clue as to the nature of this business.
It was domiciled in Bermuda and had been registered in Florida for eight years. Its domestic agent was a law firm in Miami. It was privately owned, and no one knew who owned it.
The less Carl learned about the firm, the more he admired it.
The principal was one Barry Rinehart, and here the trail grew somewhat warmer. According to friends and contacts in Washington, Rinehart had passed through D.C. twenty years earlier without leaving a fingerprint. He had worked for a congressman, the Pentagon, and a couple of midsized lobbying outfits-the typical resume of a million others.
He left town for no apparent reason in 1990 and surfaced in Minnesota, where he ran the successful campaign of a political unknown who got elected to Congress. Then he went to Oregon, where he worked his magic in a Senate race. As his reputation began to rise, he abruptly quit doing campaigns and disappeared altogether. End of trail.
Rinehart was forty-eight years old, married and divorced twice, no children, no criminal record, no professional associations, no civic clubs. He had a degree in political science from the University of Maryland and a law degree from the University of Nevada.
No one seemed to know what he was doing now, but he was certainly doing it well.
His suite on the top floor of the cylinder was beautifully decorated with minimalist contemporary art and furniture. Carl, who spared no expense with his own office, was impressed.
Barry was waiting at the door of his office. The two shook hands and exchanged the usual pleasantries as they took in the details of the other's suit, shirt, tie, shoes.
Nothing off-the-rack. No detail left undone, even though it was a Saturday morning in south Florida. Impressions were crucial, especially to Barry, who was thrilled at the prospect of snaring a new and substantial client.
Carl had half-expected a slick car salesman with a bad suit, but he was pleasantly surprised. Mr. Rinehart was dignified, soft-spoken, well-groomed, and very much at ease in the presence of such a powerful man. He was certainly not an equal, but he seemed to be comfortable with this.
A secretary asked about coffee as they stepped inside and met the ocean. From the tenth floor, beachside, the Atlantic stretched forever. Carl, who gazed at the Hudson River several times a day, was envious. "Beautiful," he said, staring from the row of ten-foot glass windows.
"Not a bad place to work," Barry said.
They settled into beige leather chairs as the coffee arrived. The secretary closed the door behind her, giving the place a nice secure feel.
"I appreciate you meeting me on a Saturday morning and with such short notice," Carl said.
"The pleasure is mine," Barry said. "It's been a rough week."
"I've had better. I take it you've spoken personally with Senator Grott."
"Oh yes. We chat occasionally."
"He was very vague about your firm and what you do."
Barry laughed and crossed his legs. "We do campaigns. Have a look." He picked up a remote and pushed the button, and a large white screen dropped from the ceiling and covered most of a wall, then the entire nation appeared. Most of the states were in green, the rest were in a soft yellow. "Thirty-one states elect their appellate and supreme court judges. They are in green. The yellow ones have the good sense to appoint their courts.
We make our living in the green ones."
"Yes. That's all we do, and we do it very quietly. When our clients need help, we target a supreme court justice who is not particularly friendly, and we take him, or her, out of the picture."
"Just like that."
"Just like that."
"Who are your clients?"
"I can't give you the names, but they're all on your side of the street. Big companies in energy, insurance, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, timber, all types of manufacturers, plus doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, banks. We raise tons of money and hire the people on the ground to run aggressive campaigns."
"Have you worked in Mississippi?"
"Not yet." Barry punched another button and America was back. The green states slowly turned black. "The darker states are the ones we've worked in. As you can see, they're coast-to-coast. We maintain a presence in all thirty-nine."
Carl took some coffee, and nodded as if he wanted Barry to keep talking.
"We employ about fifty people here, the entire building is ours, and we accumulate enormous amounts of data. Information is power, and we know everything. We review every appellate decision in the green states. We know every appellate judge, their backgrounds, families, prior careers, divorces, bankruptcies, all the dirt. We review every decision and can predict the outcome of almost every case on appeal. We track every legislature and keep up with bills that might affect civil justice. We also monitor important civil trials."
"How about the one in Hattiesburg?"
"Oh yes. We were not at all surprised at the verdict."
"Then why were my lawyers surprised?"
"Your lawyers were good but not great. Plus, the plaintiff has a better case.
I've studied a lot of toxic dumps, and Bowmore is one of the worst."
"So we'll lose again?"
"That's my prediction. The flood is coming."
Carl glanced at the ocean and drank some more coffee. "What happens on appeal?"
"Depends on who's on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Right now, there's a very good chance the verdict will be affirmed in a 5-to-4 decision. The state has been notoriously sympathetic to plaintiffs for the past two decades and, as you probably know, has a well-earned reputation as a hotbed of litigation. Asbestos, tobacco, fen-phen, all sorts of crazy class actions. Tort lawyers love the place."
"So I'll lose by one vote?"
"More or less. The court is not entirely predictable, but, yes, it's usually a 5-to-4 split."
"So all we need is a friendly judge?"
Carl placed his cup on a table and shot to his feet. He slid out of his jacket, hung it over a chair, then walked to the windows and stared at the ocean. A cargo ship inched along a mile out, and he watched it for several minutes. Barry slowly sipped his coffee.
"Do you have a judge in mind?" Carl finally asked.
Barry hit the remote. The screen went blank, then disappeared into the ceiling. He stretched as if he had a sore back, then said, "Perhaps we should talk business first."
Carl nodded and took his chair. "Let's hear it."
"Our proposal goes something like this. You hire our firm, the money gets wired into the proper accounts, then I will give you a plan for restructuring the Supreme Court of Mississippi."
"There are two fees. First, a million as a retainer. This is all properly reported.
You officially become our client, and we provide consulting services in the area of government relations, a wonderfully vague term that covers just about anything.
The second fee is seven million bucks, and we take it offshore. Some of this will be used to fund the campaign, but most will be preserved. Only the first fee goes on the books."
Carl was nodding, understanding. "For eight million, I can buy myself a supreme court justice."
"That's the plan."
"And this judge earns how much a year?"
"Hundred and ten thousand."
"A hundred and ten thousand dollars," Carl repeated.
"It's all relative. Your mayor in New York City spent seventy-five million to get elected to a job that pays a tiny fraction of that. It's politics."
"Politics," Carl said as if he wanted to spit. He sighed heavily and slumped an inch or two in his chair. "I guess it's cheaper than a verdict."
"Much cheaper, and there will be more verdicts. Eight million is a bargain."
"You make it sound so easy."
"It's not. These are bruising campaigns, but we know how to win them."
"I want to know how the money is spent. I want the basic plan."
Barry walked over and replenished his coffee from a silver thermos. Then he walked to his magnificent windows and gazed out at the Atlantic. Carl glanced at his watch.
He had a 12:30 tee time at the Palm Beach Country Club; not that it mattered that much. He was a social golfer who played because he was expected to play.
Rinehart drained his cup and returned to his chair. "The truth, Mr. Trudeau, is that you really don't want to know how the money is spent. You want to win. You want a friendly face on the supreme court so that when Baker versus Krane Chemical is decided in eighteen months, you'll be certain of the outcome. That's what you want. That's what we deliver."
"For eight million bucks I would certainly hope so."
You blew eighteen on a bad piece of sculpture three nights ago, Barry thought but wouldn't dare say. You have three jets that cost forty million each. Your "renovation" in the Hamptons will set you back at least ten million. And these are just a few of your toys. We're talking business here, not toys. Barry's file on Carl was much thicker than Carl's file on Barry. But then, in fairness, Mr. Rinehart worked hard to avoid attention, while Mr. Trudeau worked even harder to attract it.
It was time to close the deal, so Barry quietly pressed on. " Mississippi has its judicial elections a year from now, next November. We have plenty of time, but none to waste. Your timing is convenient and lucky. As we slug it out through the election next year, the case plods along through the appellate process. Our new man will take office a year from January, and about four months later will come face-to-face with Baker versus Krane Chemical."
For the first time, Carl saw a flash of the car salesman, and it didn't bother him at all. Politics was a dirty business where the winners were not always the cleanest guys in town. One had to be a bit of a thug to survive.
"My name cannot be at risk," he said sternly.
Barry knew he had just collected another handsome fee. "It's impossible," he said with a fake smile. "We have fire walls everywhere. If one of our operatives gets out of line, does something wrong, we make sure another guy takes the fall. Troy-Hogan has never been even remotely tarnished. And if they can't catch us, they damned sure can't find you."
"Only for the initial fee. We are, after all, a legitimate consulting and government relations firm. We will have an official relationship with you: consulting, marketing, communications-all those wonderfully nebulous words that hide everything else. But the offshore arrangement is completely confidential."
Carl thought for a long time, then smiled and said, "I like it. I like it a lot."