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Bodily Harm: A Novel: Chapter 3


PIONEER SQUARE

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

Sloane had slept little, if at all, and he could feel the fatigue as he climbed the three concrete steps the following morning. A brass sign bolted to the bricks identified the Jackson Street Apartments building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square District to be a historic landmark. Stepping inside the lobby Sloane saw why: mahogany walls, marble floors, crystal chandeliers—no one could afford to build like this anymore.

Sloane ignored the elevator, climbing three flights of stairs to a narrow hallway dimly lit by wall sconces. The building smelled like a closet with too many mothballs. He stopped outside apartment 3A, knocking twice. No one answered. He knocked again, noting that the door rattled in the jam despite a key slot for a dead bolt. He waited, knocked a third time, and tried the knob, which turned. He hesitated, then called out as he pushed open the door.

“Mr. Horgan?”

A wedge of light spilled through the lower pane of a southern-facing window, illuminating clutter spread across a twin bed and spilling onto the wood floor. Plastic action figures had been ripped from their boxes and scattered about the room along with comic books and dozens of sketches like the ones in Horgan’s file.

Sloane walked carefully through the debris, trying not to crush anything and wondering what the person who made the mess had been looking for. A small Formica counter and a four-by-four-foot piece of orange linoleum delineated a cooking area with a microwave and a single-burner heating plate. Above the counter a cabinet had been emptied of plastic glasses and plates. The door to a small refrigerator had also been left open. But for a few condiments, it was also empty.

“Who are you?”

Sloane wheeled, his left arm rising instinctively to ward off a blow, causing the thin man standing just inside the doorway to flinch and step back.

Sloane caught his breath. “You scared me.”

“What are you doing in here?” The man wore a long brown bathrobe. His teeth were stained from too much coffee and too many cigarettes.

“I’m looking for Kyle Horgan.” Realizing his predicament, Sloane added, “The door was open. The room was like this.”

If the man was concerned with the condition of the apartment he did not let on. “What do you want to talk to Kyle about?” He sounded more skeptical than concerned.

“He came to see me the other day, but I was in a hurry.”

The man started for the hall. “I’m calling the police.”

“Wait.” Sloane pulled out a business card and handed it to him, but it only served to make the man sound even more skeptical.

“An attorney? Why would Kyle go to see an attorney?”

“He gave me this.” Sloane pulled Horgan’s file from his briefcase and held up the scribbled cover. “Like I said, the door was unlocked and the apartment was this way.”

“I know. I came by earlier for the rent. I went to call the police and came back to lock the door, since God knows how long it will be before they get around to getting here.”

“Do you own the building?” Sloane asked.

“I wish.” He smirked. “I’m the manager.”

“You sound surprised Mr. Horgan would come to see me.”

“Yeah? Well, don’t take it personally. I’d be surprised if Kyle went to see anyone. He spends most of the time in here, working on his sketches and his computer.”

Sloane looked about the apartment but did not see a computer. “Does he have a job?”

The man pointed to the clutter. “That’s his job.”

“He designed these?” Sloane asked.

“He collects and sells them. He’s designed some things though. There’s a toy store a couple blocks away he sells to.”

“When’s the last time you saw him?”

The manager shrugged. “About a week.”

“Any idea where he might be?”

Another shake of the head. “But if Kyle did come to see you, I can tell you it must have been something real important.”

“How well do you know him?”

“Well enough. I look out for him, try to anyway. Remind him to pay his rent, pick up some groceries when I go, things like that.”

“Is he handicapped?”

The man seemed to give the question due consideration. “He’s not dumb, if that’s what you’re getting at. He just doesn’t function too well around people.” He nodded to the debris scattered about the floor. “He’s going to be pretty upset about this. This looks just mean-spirited.”

Not to Sloane. To Sloane it looked like a deliberate act. Somebody had come to Horgan’s apartment to find something.

  • • •

THE DOOR TO the apartment closed, ending what portion of the conversation he could hear between the building manager and the man who had come to talk to Kyle Horgan.

He removed the earpiece and watched the entrance from the car, waiting several minutes before a well-built man, perhaps six two with broad shoulders, exited the building carrying a briefcase that undoubtedly held whatever it was Horgan had given him. An attorney. His employer would not be pleased. He contemplated following, but there was no need. The building manager hadn’t guessed the visitor’s occupation out of the blue. He’d been handed a business card.

The attorney crossed the street and continued north on First Avenue, presumably in search of the toy store to which the manager had made reference. He pushed open the door, waited for a vehicle to pass, and then crossed the street, shuffling up the steps. Inside the building he found the manager’s apartment, considered the hallway in both directions, knocked twice, and held up the folded newspaper to block the view through the peephole.

The manager pulled open the door. “Yeah?”

He lowered the paper. “I’m inquiring about the apartment you have listed for rent?”

“You have the wrong apartment building, mister. We don’t list any vacancies in the paper. Just put it up on the sign outside.”

He rattled off an address.

“That’s the building next door, and a lot nicer than this place if you can afford to live there.”

“My mistake. I’m sorry to have disturbed.” He turned as if to leave.

As the manager stepped forward to close the door the man swiveled and thrust his right palm hard against the wood. The door sprung inward, crushing the manager’s face and sending him sprawling backward into the apartment.

He checked the hall in each direction, stepped in, closed the door, and turned the dead bolt. He found the attorney’s business card in the pocket of the manager’s bathrobe.

BETHESDA, MARYLAND

ALBERT PAYNE SLAMMED his fist on the table. Plates rattled, his daughter startled and screamed, and his son knocked over the milk carton. Without another word, Payne pushed back his chair and stormed from the room.

For a moment neither child moved nor uttered a word. Their mother stood holding the frying pan with bacon grease in one hand and the tin can in the other.

“Is Dad okay?” Michael asked. “Why is he so mad all the time?”

She put the pan back on the burner. “Beth, cook the eggs. Michael, get a sponge and clean up the mess.”

Mary Payne found her husband in the den, staring up at the family portrait over the mantel.

“Albert? What’s going on?”

He raised a hand without turning around. “Don’t start with me.”

“Is it work? Is it the report you’re trying to get done for the Senate hearing?”

“All I wanted was a little peace and quiet,” he said. “I don’t want to hear about her boyfriend or argue about why he can’t go to the mall with his friends when we’re sitting at the breakfast table to eat. Is that too much for a man to ask?”

“You’re scaring the kids.”

He turned. “Maybe they need to be scared. Maybe if I blow off some steam now and then people will realize when I’m goddamn serious.”

“You don’t need to swear.”

He shook his head. “No one takes me seriously. No one respects me.”

“Is it something at work? Is it Maggie Powers?”

He walked toward the front entry. “It’s not work, okay? Work is fine. Don’t start badgering me about work.”

“I’m not badgering—I just want to help, Albert. You’ve never been like this. We’ve always been able to talk about things. Please, tell me what’s wrong. Is it the stress? What did the doctor say about your rash?”

He grabbed his jacket from the hook beside the front door and picked up his briefcase, opening the door. “It’s a rash. It’s just a rash. It’s not like I’m dying,” he said and slammed the door closed behind him.

HALF AN HOUR later, Payne slipped the small white bag with the prescription cream from his briefcase and shoved it in the upper drawer of his desk. He could now add to his list of maladies, which included elevated cholesterol and blood pressure from being overweight, a rash that itched liked hell and dried out his skin until it flaked. The doctor said it was stress related.

No shit.

Payne already knew from the lump of reddish brown hair in the bathtub drain each morning and the ever increasing streaks of gray in what was left on his head and his beard. He adjusted his glasses and considered the drab walls of his office, his first after nearly two decades in cubicles. The director of investigations had once been one of the Product Safety Agency’s highest-profile posts, overseeing all agency investigations and enforcement actions against manufacturers of defective products. But with the prior administration’s mandate of deregulation, Payne’s staff had been cut by nearly 70 percent, with those having the most seniority, and therefore the highest salaries, pruned first. Given the continuing recession, they had not been replaced, which pretty much ensured no new enforcement actions, despite the change in administrations. Actions that had been under way came to a screeching halt, or settled with the manufacturer paying a token fine and promising to do better.

The latest joke circulating the office was that the agency walked small and carried no stick. Manufacturers had little to fear.

Sitting at his desk, Payne regretted his morning outburst, one of several since his return from China. He’d pick up some flowers on his way home. Maybe take everyone out for pizza. Screw the doctor.

He shut his eyes and massaged the headache at his temples, but the memory of the bloodied mess on the hotel room pillow forced them open, and he had to take a moment to catch his breath. He picked up the dual picture frame with the photograph of his smiling wife on the right and of his son and daughter on the left. The man had been clear about further consequences should Payne not follow his instructions precisely.

Payne removed the bottle of aspirin from his desk drawer and just as he popped two in his mouth his office door opened and Maggie Powers stepped in. “How was your trip?”

Payne choked down the pills. “Sorry,” he said. “Something stuck in my throat. You’ll have my report by the end of the week.”

Payne’s trip to inspect Chinese manufacturing plants had sprung from public outrage over a series of product recalls and reports of serious deficiencies in the Chinese manufacturing facilities that more and more American businesses favored. Public outrage had led to the predictable congressional grandstanding, which led to inquiries about what the PSA would do about the problem, which was nothing, given the agency’s skeletal staff.

Powers stuck her reading glasses on top of her head, using the frame to keep her shoulder length, auburn-tinted hair out of her face. “Don’t be so official all the time, Albert. I saw you earlier and you looked like you got some sun. I was hoping it meant you allowed yourself a little play time.”

Payne forced a smile, not about to tell Powers his red glow was a rash. “They kept me pretty busy,” he said.

“I wish I could have gone.” Dressed in a cream-colored pants suit, open-toe shoes, and a strand of pearls, Powers looked very much like the wife of a successful McLean, Virginia, attorney. “But a son only gets engaged once.” She rolled her eyes. “Hopefully. From the looks of the in-laws, I wouldn’t put a lot of money down on this one going the distance.”

Payne didn’t know how to respond. He and Powers had never discussed their personal lives, and the two were not exactly close, given that Powers was the primary reason Payne had so much free time. The former president’s appointment of Powers as a director of the agency had been a further step in that administration’s persistent efforts to deregulate American business. Powers, once a lobbyist for the Toy Manufacturer’s Association, had somehow managed to survive a contentious Senate hearing, and her arrival at the agency had been like the first domino in a falling line. One of the remaining two directors, Harvey Schoenstein, promptly resigned in protest, and the other, Larry Triplett, threatened to do so until certain members of Congress convinced him to be the good soldier and remain. Agency action could not be taken without majority approval. With Schoenstein’s resignation leaving an empty chair, Triplett could at least block Powers’s actions. Of course Powers could also block the initiation of enforcement actions against manufacturers. Until the new president replaced Schoenstein they were at a stalemate, and things were not about to change overnight. Any new appointee, whenever appointed, couldn’t rush in with a regulation sledgehammer, not with American retailers continuing to suffer in a down economy and American manufacturers already shipping much of their work overseas to reduce costs.

Powers sat and crossed her legs. “So, what’s your initial assessment?”

Just when Payne thought he might get a nice quiet summer, the reports of significant injuries and fatalities from products manufactured in China began to surface throughout the nation. What was now referred to as the “summer of recalls” would culminate in a congressional inquiry to be led by California Senator Morgan Tovey, chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency. Tovey had subpoenaed Powers to report on Chinese manufacturers’ compliance with U.S. regulatory standards, as well as to educate the committee on emerging technology that could potentially be dangerous to American consumers. Indiana Senator Joe Wallace had joined Tovey to coauthor a bill that would dramatically increase fines on manufacturers who put defective products on the market, toughen reporting requirements, and provide the agency with a much-needed budget boost to hire more investigators. Wallace had then worked behind the scenes to ensure Payne was part of the delegation to China.

“There are always a few problem areas, but for the most part it appears the Chinese have really cleaned up their act,” Payne said, trying to sound convincing.

“You see?” Powers smiled. “That’s exactly what the threat of losing billions of dollars in business will do. It just proves that the best regulator is the market itself. Wallace and Tovey need to understand that we can’t effectively dictate to Chinese manufacturers any more than we can dictate to American manufacturers. No matter how many regulations we put in place we can’t effectively enforce them. They have to police themselves.”

“I’ll have my report to you a week before the Senate hearing,” Payne said.

“Thanks for the reminder.” Powers grinned. “Actually, I’m starting to look forward to it now. I just love proving other people wrong.”

PIONEER SQUARE

DEE’S HOUSE OF TOYS

THE BELL ABOVE the door jingled as Sloane stepped onto a landing and looked down a staircase upon a winter wonderland. Ornate white handrails bordered the three steps leading to a burgundy carpet and seven-foot candy canes with green street signs directing shoppers to aisles stocked with action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, trains and cars, and books. Toy soldiers stood sentry at archways, and overhead, kites and toy models hung from fishing line, as if suspended from a blue sky. A plane flew in circles, its propeller humming.

As he made his way to the counter, Sloane wondered what it would be like to see his own son’s or daughter’s eyes light up when they walked through the door. An attractive brunette rang up a sale on an old-fashioned cash register, though Sloane also noticed a laptop computer below the counter. Apparently even Santa was now online.

After the customer departed, the woman turned to Sloane. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for the owner; I’m assuming that would be Dee?”

The woman smiled. “You’d be correct.” She offered a hand. “Dee Stroud.”

The name Dee had caused Sloane to envision a matronly aunt with an apron, not the woman in blue jeans with a figure an aerobics instructor would envy.

“David Sloane,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed. “The attorney? I saw you on TV.”

Sloane cringed, but Stroud explained that she had recently seen Sloane providing legal commentary on a local news station. “What can I do for you, Mr. Sloane?”

“I’d like to talk to you about Kyle Horgan.”

Her eyes widened. “You know Kyle?” She sounded as skeptical as the building manager.

“Is there a place we could sit and talk?”

“Is Kyle okay?”

Sloane did not want to alarm her. “He came to talk to me the other day. I was just hoping to ask you a few questions about him.”

Stroud smiled. “I was just craving a mocha latte. Let me get my assistant to cover the front. Do you drink coffee?”

STROUD COVERED HER ears as an odd-looking vehicle that carried tourists and could apparently travel on land and water drove past, the driver’s amplified voice blasting from a speaker.

“I hate that thing,” she said. “It goes right past the store all summer.”

Sloane and Stroud walked among a throng of tourists dressed in T-shirts and shorts, the maple trees and three-story brick buildings shading the Pioneer Square sidewalk from the bright summer sun. “How long have you owned your store?”

“Sixteen years. I opened when my daughter was five. People thought I was nuts.”

“Why?”

“Because at the time most toy stores were closing, not opening. The chains were taking over, and they can buy in volume and sell at prices independents can’t touch. Most of my friends thought failure was inevitable.”

“But you opened a store anyway.”

Stroud flashed an impish grin. “I have a hard head.” She knocked on it twice and then fingered a gold chain around her neck as they walked. “The simple answer is I needed to make a living after my divorce, and toys are really all I’ve ever known. My father owned a toy store in Michigan, and I had always envisioned taking it over, but then I got married and my husband’s job moved us out here. Eventually Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us drove my dad and just about everyone else out of business.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve succeeded.”

She stopped, this time to knock on a tree trunk. “Don’t jinx me. I’m surviving. Like all retail at the moment, the toy industry is in a slump. Kids don’t know how to play like they used to. They all want the video games and cell phones and iPods.”

Stroud stepped into an establishment called Kahili Coffee. “My friend Kelly owns it,” she explained. “He’s got a second store in downtown Kirkland near where I live; I like to support him when I can. Coffee companies have their own struggles, especially in this city.”

Sloane treated her to a mocha latte and ordered himself a cup of black tea. They agreed to share a blueberry scone and took a table along plate glass windows. The walls and floor were painted a burnt orange and tastefully covered with prints of coffee plants and leaves.

“What is it about Kyle you wanted to talk about?”

Remembering the building manager’s surprised reaction, Sloane asked, “That strikes you as odd, doesn’t it, that Kyle would come to see me?”

“Curious is a better word. Kyle doesn’t talk to many people.”

“When he came to my building to see me the other day I was in a hurry and didn’t have much time to talk to him. He seemed very concerned about something.” Sloane decided to leave the specifics vague. “I just went to his apartment, but he wasn’t there.” Again, Sloane chose to leave out the details. “The building manager indicated Kyle sold some of his toys to you. I was hoping you could tell me more about him.”

“I really adore Kyle,” Stroud said. “He’s a sweet young man with an incredible imagination, and he can design just about anything.” She shook her head, her look becoming compassionate. “But he’s also a social misfit, probably manic. He can’t hold down a regular job. I feel sorry for him. I think he’s starting to drink. The last time he was in I smelled it on his breath.”

“Are his designs any good?” Sloane asked.

“He’s brought me several things over the years. I usually buy them because they’re different, not what you’re going to find in the big retailers. And they sell. But he also shows me designs that are just too far beyond what I’m capable of doing.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s into action figures. He’s probably a genius. But he needs to have them mass-produced to make them affordable.”

Sloane stirred a packet of sugar into his cup. “When was the last time you saw Kyle?”

She crossed her blue jeans and thought for a moment. “He came to the store to show me a design for an action figure that he said a child could build from plastic pieces, but that would also change into different shapes on its own. He tried to explain it to me, but I told him I couldn’t afford to have it manufactured. He needed a bigger toy company with more resources to finance him.”

Sloane opened the file and showed her one of Horgan’s drawings.

Stroud didn’t take long to consider it. “That’s it. He was very excited about it. I told him to get himself an agent and take it to Kendall. Maybe that wasn’t the best advice.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sebastian Kendall recently had to step down with cancer, and Kendall’s profits have nose-dived. It was just in the paper.” She sat up straighter, as if struck by an idea. “Maybe Kyle wants you to represent him.”

“Represent him?”

“As his agent.”

“There is such a thing?”

“Don’t scoff. It can be lucrative.” Stroud chuckled, revealing perfect white teeth. “You wouldn’t think so, would you? I mean we’re talking about toys here, right? Then again, people spend five billion dollars a year on their pets. Well, the toy industry does about five times that amount.”

“And these toy companies buy designs from people like Kyle?”

Stroud explained that independent toy designers like Horgan were becoming as rare as the independent toy shops. “There’s less opportunity. The big companies buy the smaller ones, and many have their own design departments. It’s cheaper to pay them a straight salary than to pay a commission and royalties. Maybe cheaper isn’t the right word. There’s less risk.”

“Risk of what?” Sloane popped a piece of scone into his mouth and sipped tea.

“Having a toy bomb. Even with market research, nothing is certain. Kids are fickle; nobody really knows what is going to sell big and what’s going to tank. It’s a crapshoot. Do you remember Beanie Babies?”

“Vaguely,” Sloane said.

Stroud advised that the inventor of Beanie Babies, H. Ty Warner, couldn’t get a toy company to even consider the stuffed animals, then kids went crazy for them, and Warner shot into the Forbes list of the World’s Richest People.

“But how often does that happen?” Sloane asked, skeptical.

“Not often. But the toy industry is like the lottery. Everyone thinks, Why not me? Why not my toy? No one thought a purple dinosaur would sell, but Barney did, big time. And you probably don’t remember Cabbage Patch Kids, but they were initially rejected as being too ugly. Then they generated more than a billion dollars in revenues for Coleco in two years.”

Sloane considered the information. “And the risk is that a company could pay a designer a lot of money and have the toy flop?”

“That, and there’s always the possibility of another manufacturer putting out a knockoff before the toy even reaches the market.”

“They just steal the idea?”

“Hey, if you’re not stealing someone’s ideas in this business, you’re not trying.”

Sloane thought of Kyle Horgan and his ransacked apartment. The building manager said he hadn’t seen him in a week.


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