The Tenth Justice: Chapter 4

Ben darted up the stairs, then sprinted full speed back to his office. He ran toward the farthest file cabinet and pulled it away from the wall. Rick Fagen’s signature wasn’t there. “Damn!” he yelled, punching a huge dent into the cabinet. “How could I be so stupid?” Turning around, Ben noticed the giant bouquet of red, yellow, and purple flowers on his desk. He pulled the card from the oversized wicker basket and opened the miniature envelope. “Thanks for all your help,” he read. “Sincerely, Rick.” Ben’s stomach dropped. He felt like he was going to vomit. When the room started to spin, he put his head down on his desk. I’m in serious trouble, he thought. What the hell am I going to do?

Eventually catching his breath, Ben pushed aside the basket of flowers, picked up his phone, and called Nathan. “It’s me,” he said.

“Are you okay?” Nathan asked. “You sound like you’re out of breath.”

“Can you meet me at home?”

“It’s not even ten o’clock.”

“Nathan, please, can you meet me at home? It’s important.”

“Of course.” Nathan sounded confused. “I’ll leave right now, but what’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you when I see you,” Ben said, and hung up.

Ben wrote a quick note for Lisa, grabbed his briefcase, and headed for the door. As he left the building, he saw Lisa walking up the steps of the Court. “Where’re you going?” she asked.

“I’m having bad stomach cramps,” Ben said. His face was ashen. “Can you tell Hollis I had to go home sick?”

“Of course. Are you okay?”

“I just need to go home.”

When Ben entered the house, he walked straight up to his room, sat on the bed, and tried his best to relax. He slowed his breathing. He imagined a walk in a quiet forest. He thought about the silence of scuba diving. Keep calm, he told himself. It’s okay. Worse things can happen. Cancer. The plague. Death. Unable to sit still, he paced inside the little room. Over and over he repeated the sequence of events. “Damn!” he finally said aloud. “How could I have been so stupid?” Moving back to the bed, he again tried to relax. It was no use. He wondered what he should do. Should he go to Hollis? If he did, he’d be fired on the spot. No, there had to be a better way out. As his mind played through the different alternatives, he kept coming back to the same conclusion: The first step was finding the person who caused this disaster. Ben knew he had to find Rick. His thoughts were interrupted when a car pulled into the driveway.

“Ben!” Nathan yelled from downstairs.

“I’m up here,” Ben called.

Nathan dashed up the stairs two at a time and charged into Ben’s room. “What happened?”

Ben sat on the bed, his head in his hands. “I totally blew it,” he said.

“What? Tell me.”

Ben raced through the story. “And I think this guy Rick might’ve leaked the info to Maxwell.”

Nathan stared out the window. “You don’t know that,” he said. Speaking calmly and slowly, he explained, “There’s no reason to believe the worst.”

Looking up at his friend, Ben recognized Nathan’s consoling-but-lying voice. “Nathan, I know Rick did it. No one risks millions on a guess like that. He even sent me flowers to say thank you. He set me up and I fell for it completely. It was easy for him. All he had to do was some quick research and make a call to the Court once the new clerks started. The justices aren’t there; we’re wet behind the ears. It’s simple.”

“I don’t understand.” Nathan leaned on the windowsill. “You never asked Hollis about Rick?”

“No way,” Ben said. “I didn’t want Hollis knowing I was getting advice from the outside. Lisa and I have to look as smooth as possible.” Ben’s gaze dropped to the floor. “FUCK!” he yelled, pounding the bed. “That was so damn stupid of me!”

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Nathan said, trying his best to comfort his friend. “Maybe we can try to find Rick. Do you have his phone number?”

“I already checked it. Disconnected. But I do have his address.”

“You really don’t have to come,” Ben said as he opened the door to Nathan’s old maroon Volvo.

“You make me take off work, and then you want to dump me while you go check out this guy’s house?” Nathan asked. “Forget about it.”

“It’s not that I’m trying to leave you out of anything—”

“I know,” Nathan said. “And I’m not here because I’m afraid of being left out. I’m here because I want to help you.”

“I appreciate it,” Ben said as Nathan pulled out of the driveway. “I just didn’t want to get you involved with my problems.”

Nathan drove up Seventeenth Street, and pulled into a parking spot a few blocks from the address. “Let’s walk up.”

Ben looked up at the dark clouds. “Do you have an umbrella? It’s about to pour.”

“There should be one under your seat,” Nathan said.

Located near the city’s business district, 1780 Rhode Island was a building displaced in time. Designed in the late 1970s, it was bilious green, eight stories tall, and had tinted, full-story glass windows. A sore thumb on any architectural hand. After pushing open the heavy glass doors, Ben and Nathan walked into the lobby and approached the doorman, who was sitting at a slightly rusted metal desk in the otherwise renovated surroundings.

“Can I help you?” the doorman asked.

“I’m here to see my brother, Rick Fagen,” Ben said. “He’s in apartment three seventeen.”

The doorman stared at the two friends for a few seconds. Eventually he said, “Follow me.” Ben and Nathan glanced at each other, hesitating for a moment. But when Nathan nodded approval to Ben, they fell into step behind the doorman. Leading them up a small set of steps and past the building’s only elevator, the doorman turned down a long hallway that ran along the right side of the building. He stopped at a room marked PRIVATE and opened the door, leading them inside. “Take a seat,” the doorman said, pointing to two worn leather sofas in the waiting area. Nathan and Ben obliged, and the doorman walked through another door, which looked like it led to an office.

“You think this’ll work?” Nathan asked.

“Can’t hurt to try,” said Ben.

Nathan looked around the empty waiting area, paneled in fake knotty pine. “This place has Mafia written all over it,” Nathan whispered.

“What are you talking about?”

“It does,” Nathan said. “It smells musty like my cousin Lou’s house. We should get out of here.”

“You can go,” Ben whispered. “I’m staying.”

“This was a bad idea,” Nathan said. “For all we know, Rick could be in that room.”

Before Ben could respond, the doorman and a small man with a mustache stepped out of the office. “I’m the manager. Can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Rick Fagen’s brother,” Ben said, extending a hand to the manager. “He told us to meet him here.”

The manager ignored Ben’s extended hand, and examined Ben and Nathan. Putting his hands in the pockets of his slacks, he smirked. “If you’re his brother, how come you didn’t know he moved out of here two weeks ago? Listen, people like their privacy here. If you think you’re going to fool us, you’ll have to make up a better line of bullshit than saying you’re his brother. Now, unless you’re cops, get the fuck out of here.”

The doorman opened the door, and roughly escorted Ben and Nathan outside. “I think that was pretty successful,” Nathan said as the glass door closed behind them. Standing under the building’s awning, Ben stared out into a furious downpour. Opening his umbrella, Nathan said, “Well, at least we won’t get—”

“I’m a dead man,” Ben said as he rushed into the rain, toward the car.

Throughout the drive back, Ben was silent. “C’mon, snap out of it,” Nathan said when they returned home.

“I just need to think,” Ben said, heading straight for the kitchen.

“You’ve been thinking for the past fifteen minutes. Say something.”

“What do you want me to say?” Ben raised his voice. “I just got screwed, and I jeopardized my entire career. Boy, what a wonderful day!”

“Listen, don’t take this out on me,” Nathan said. From the refrigerator, he poured himself a glass of iced tea. “I’m here for you, and I’ll do my best to help you, but don’t make me your whipping boy.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said as he sat at the small kitchen table. “It’s just—I just—this’s a disaster.”

Nathan handed the iced tea to Ben. “That’s okay. But let’s at least do something. Focus your energy. How about we plan Rick’s death?”

“I’ve been doing that for the past three hours,” Ben said, clutching the glass. “So far, the best I can come up with is slicing off his eyelids and sitting him in front of a mirror. He’ll go insane watching himself since he won’t be able to shut his eyes.”

“That’s one way to deal with him.”

“I’m not screwing around,” Ben said. He took a gulp of tea. “I have to find this guy. If word gets out that I leaked a decision, my life is over. And without Rick, I can’t prove my innocence. At least with him, I can try to prove his link with Maxwell. Otherwise, I don’t know what else to do. Can’t we put a search on him through the State Department?”

“Not without saying why we’re looking for him. And if you do, you can say good-bye to your job.”

“And my entire career.”

“But we can do a confidential search,” Nathan blurted, his voice racing with newfound confidence. “All we need is a member of Congress to—” Hopping off the counter and grabbing the phone, Nathan dialed Ober’s number. “Hello, Ober? It’s me. We need some serious help. Are you still answering constituents’ letters?”

“Absolutely,” Ober said. “I’m the master of junk mail.”

“Then you still have access to the pen-signing machine that fakes the senator’s signature?”

“Of course,” Ober said. “Did you really think Senator Stevens signed your birthday card?”

“I need a favor,” Nathan said. “I need you to write an official request on Senate letterhead. Address it to my attention at the State Department and ask that a confidential background check be done on—what’s his name, Ben?”

“Richard or Rick Fagen,” Ben said with a wry smile. “Here’s his old phone number and address.”

After relaying the information, Nathan told Ober, “Make sure that the letter says that all correspondence should go to me.”

“What’s this for?” Ober asked suspiciously.

“I’ll tell you later,” Nathan said. “Now’s not the time.”

“But isn’t this illegal?” Ober asked.

“Kind of, but it’s an emergency,” Nathan said. “We need this information.”

“Actually, I have a way around the illegal part,” Ben said, grabbing the phone from Nathan. “Ober, it’s me,” he said. “Let me ask you a question: What do you do when a wacko writes a letter to the senator?”

“It depends,” Ober said. “Serious death threats go straight to the Secret Service. But if it seems like the writer is just a regular wacko, we’re supposed to use our discretion.”

“Perfect,” Ben said. “Then here’s what you do: Write a fake death threat to the senator and sign it Rick Fagen. But make the letter a little weird. That way, if anyone ever asks why you opened the investigation, you’ll give them the letter and say you were just trying to protect the senator’s life.”

“Nicely played,” Nathan said, taking back the phone. “Ober, one last thing. Make sure we get a good signature on the autograph machine. You can spot those fake ones a mile away.” Nathan said good-bye and hung up the phone. “Feeling a little better?”

“A little.” Ben wiped his still-wet hair from his forehead. “By the way, thanks for coming home.”

“You give the order, I follow it,” Nathan said, saluting his friend.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang in Ben’s room. “Hello?” he answered, stretching from his bed to pick up the receiver.

“Ben, it’s Lisa. I just called to see how you were feeling.”

“I’m doing okay,” Ben said, uncomfortable about lying. “It was just some stomach cramps.”

“Are you bullshitting me?” Lisa asked. “Because I’ll come straight over there after work.”

“I swear, I’m okay,” Ben said, lying back on his bed and staring at the ceiling. “I have an upset stomach and I wasn’t feeling well. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Fine,” Lisa said. “So, how much have you missed me?”

“Tons. Now what happened today? Anything exciting?”

“Nothing really. Everyone’s been talking about the Charles Maxwell case. Hollis is worried that once the decision is announced, everyone is going to scream that he had an inside source.”

“It’s definitely possible,” Ben said as he fidgeted with the vertical blinds that covered his window.

“I guess,” Lisa said. “I just think the media sucks Carter’s left peanut. They cry conspiracy at the drop of a hat.”

“Carter’s left peanut?” Ben laughed. “What decade are you living in?”

“You never heard that? That’s a famous saying.”

“I’m sure it was,” Ben said sarcastically, “back when there was an oil crisis.”

“Listen, I don’t need to be made fun of. I have better things to do. Meanwhile, who sent you the flowers?”

Quickly realizing he’d forgotten to throw away Rick’s bouquet, Ben tried to stall. “What flowers?” he stammered.

“There’s a giant basket sitting on your desk.”

“They’re probably from my mother. I told her I wasn’t feeling well last night.”

“Do you want me to open the card?” Lisa asked. “Because I can see the envelope right next to—”

“No!” Ben yelled. “Leave it alone.”

“Sorry,” Lisa said. “I didn’t—”

“It’s not your fault. I just don’t like people opening my mail.”

“Maybe I should take the week off from work,” Ben said as he and Nathan made dinner.

“No way,” Nathan said, dicing a large onion. “You don’t want to call attention to yourself. The best thing you can do is just go about your business.”

“I won’t be able to concentrate, though. I have to find Rick. I have to—”

“Forget it,” Nathan interrupted. “What are you going to do? Wander aimlessly around the city until you bump into him? If Ober opened the investigation correctly, we’ll have some information by the end of the week.” He pulled the lid off the rice cooker and a fragrant cloud of steam wafted into the room. “Have you decided whether you’re going to tell Ober what happened?”

“I have to,” Ben said as he set out two plates on the table. “He’s my friend.”

“He’s also a moron,” Nathan added.

“Yeah, but he’s still my friend. And he has a right to know what that letter’s about.”

“How about Eric?” Nathan asked as he dumped the diced onion into a saucepan.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to drag everyone into this. It’s bad enough you two are involved.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I think you should tell Eric. Maybe some of his contacts at the paper can find out something about Rick’s building.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Ben agreed.

“Have you thought about telling Hollis?”

“I can’t,” Ben said, shaking his head. “He’d lose all respect for me. Not to mention having to fire me for violating the Code of Ethics.” As he put out forks and napkins on the table, he added, “I think I may tell Lisa, though.”

“Bad idea,” Nathan said. “Definitely a bad idea. You hardly even know her. What makes you think she won’t turn you in?”

“She wouldn’t,” Ben said. “Lisa’s a great friend. Besides, she has a right to know. She’s spoken to Rick. For her safety alone, I have to tell her.”

“She’s in no danger. You don’t have to say a thing.”

“I do,” Ben said. “It’s the right thing to do. If the situation were reversed, I’d want her to tell me. Besides, with all those flowers Rick sent to the Court, it’s clear that he isn’t just going away. I think he’s trying to tell me that he knows how to reach me—and if that’s the case, I have to warn Lisa.”

“Just be careful,” Nathan said. “I would hate to see it backfire on . . . Damn!” Nathan missed a clove of the garlic he was chopping and sliced into his finger. “Son of a bitch!” he yelled.

“Are you okay?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Nathan said. He ran his bleeding finger under the faucet. “It’s just a tiny cut.”

“Those’re the ones that hurt the most.”

Just then, Ober and Eric returned. “Home, crap home,” Ober announced as he walked through the door. Heading straight for the kitchen, he looked at Nathan. “Now what was all that secrecy about today? What the hell happened?”

Holding his finger and looking at Ben, Nathan was silent.

“I got into a bit of trouble,” Ben said, trying to be as casual as possible.

“It better be bad,” Ober said. “Writing fake death threats to a senator could get me thrown in jail.”

“You wrote a death threat to a senator?” Eric asked, stealing a slice of red pepper from the cutting board.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Ben said, “but you have to swear you won’t say a word.” He quickly explained everything that had happened, including his and Nathan’s encounter at Rick’s old building.

“You’re a dead man,” Ober said. “They’re probably plotting your death right now.”

“I told you not to tell him,” Nathan said to Ben.

“Eric, do you think you can find out anything about this building from people at work?” Ben asked.

“I’ll try,” Eric said, not meeting Ben’s eyes.

“What?” Ben asked, noticing Eric’s uneasiness.

“This is no joke,” Eric said, sitting at the kitchen table. “This guy Rick, whoever he is, isn’t some petty scam artist. You can’t just walk up to Charles Maxwell and say, ‘I’ve got a secret.’ Rick’s got to be connected.”

“I’m sure he is,” Ben said. “When we went to his building today, the manager wouldn’t say a single word about him.”

Eric paused for a minute, then said, “I know you may think this a crazy option, but if you want, you can go to the press with this.”

“No way,” Ben said. “If the Court learns I violated the ethics code, they have to fire me, and my career is ruined. And on top of that, I’d look like a fool in front of millions of people.”

“You did get suckered pretty badly,” Ober said as he reached for his own piece of red pepper.

“Thanks,” Ben said. “Thanks for your support.” He looked at Eric. “At this point, I still want to see what we can find out ourselves. My career is in enough jeopardy, and the last thing I want to do is publicize that fact.”

“Whatever you want,” Eric said. “It’s your life.”

When Ben returned to work the next day, he immediately searched for the card from the floral bouquet. Ripping up the tiny note, Ben thought about what to do with the basket. He didn’t want to keep it around, but was afraid that if he threw it away, Lisa would be even more curious. He eventually put the bouquet on top of one of the file cabinets. That way, he could decorate the office and say the flowers were from his mother.

Even without the flowers, Ben’s desk was still covered with paper. Amid the piles of cert petitions were drafts of forthcoming decisions. Each set of documents was enclosed in a brown folder marked “Confidential—Justice Hollis’s Chambers Only.” Although there was nothing to prevent anyone from opening a folder, Hollis was convinced that the moral consequences would deter potential peekers. Each folder was also labeled with a yellow Post-it, which Ben and Lisa used to identify the status of a document. Not a single opinion went to Hollis until both were satisfied with its content. Quickly scanning the Post-its, Ben was surprised to see one marked “First Draft—Kramer decision.”

Lisa entered the office. “Morning, sick boy. How’re you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” Holding the Kramer folder in his hand, he said, “You didn’t have to do this. I was assigned the first draft.”

“I know, but you were sick, and I had some free time on my hands, so I figured—”

“You didn’t have to write a full extra opinion, though. You have enough to do.”

“Forget about it,” Lisa said. “I wanted to help you. I did it. It’s done. Be grateful.”

Waiting until Lisa sat at her desk, Ben smiled. “Thank you.”

At noon, Lisa and Ben walked down to Union Station for lunch. After years of languishing in ruin, the station was once again a tourist haven. Under the linked barrel-vaulted ceilings, between the statues and columns and sculptures and archways, more than a hundred upscale shops had popped up, along with a multiplex movie theater and, of course, a food court. Every time he walked through, it made Ben sick.

Lisa and Ben skirted the massive groups of tourists and grabbed a table in the corner of the food court. “Are you okay?” Lisa asked, watching Ben pick at his french fries.

“I’m fine. There’s just something I have to tell you.”

“Wait a minute. If you’re about to tell me you’re in love with me, I may vomit.”

“It’s not that,” Ben said. “You wish it was that.” Wiping his hands with a napkin, he asked, “Remember Rick? Hollis’s old clerk?” Lisa nodded. “About three weeks ago I casually told Rick the outcome of the CMI case. A few days later, you know what happened—Maxwell risked all his money on a legal victory. When I tried to find Rick, he’d disappeared.” Lisa’s mouth dropped open. “Rick Fagen was never a clerk for the Supreme Court. The number he gave me is disconnected; he’s moved out of his apartment building; he’s gone.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Lisa said, her sandwich still in her hand. “Why the hell did you tell him the decision?”

“We were just bullshitting about it one day,” Ben said defensively. “He said he was curious about it and I told him. Every time we needed advice he helped us. I couldn’t say no.”

“But you’re never supposed to let out a decision,” Lisa said, raising her voice.

“Listen, I screwed up. I know it,” Ben said. “But he totally suckered me in. Believe me, you would’ve done the same thing. It was a perfect setup.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Lisa, calm down. I told you this because I trust you. You won’t say anything, will you?”

Lisa put down her sandwich and looked at her co-clerk. “This is serious stuff, Ben. We can’t just sit on this.”

“I know. But until I can prove it was Rick, I want to keep this low profile. Nathan is having the State Department run a search on him, and Eric is asking his newspaper contacts for info about the apartment building where Rick lived.”

“We should tell Hollis.”

“I’m not telling Hollis,” Ben insisted. He leaned toward Lisa. “Believe me, I was up all night about this. If I go to Hollis, I’m fired. Even if I meant no harm, I violated the ethics code. If I’m fired, my whole life is over.”

After a long pause, Lisa asked, “Why did you tell me this?”

“Because I didn’t want to see you get hurt, too. I don’t know if Rick’s targeting every clerk or if I’m his one and only Sucker of the Year. I don’t expect you to lie for me, and I never want to get you into trouble. I wanted you to know because you’re my friend.”

Lisa was silent for a minute. “So those flowers you got yesterday—they weren’t from your mom, were they?”

“They were from Rick. I wanted to tell you yesterday, but I just . . .”

“Did you check the basket for bugs?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know—bugs, listening devices.”

“You don’t think—”

“Let’s get out of here,” Lisa said, pushing her chair away from the table and grabbing her bag.

The two clerks ran up the escalator and dashed out of Union Station. Watching them from the opposite corner of the food court, Rick leaned back in his chair. “Where are they going?” he asked.

“I couldn’t hear,” Rick’s associate said as he approached the table. “But did you see the panic on their faces? They don’t know where to run.”

Rick smiled. “The funny thing is, it’s only going to get worse.”

Racing down First Street, Ben and Lisa didn’t say a word until they returned to the Court. “Hey, guys,” Nancy said as they marched past her desk. “How was lunch?”

“Good,” Ben said.

“Fine,” Lisa said.

They darted into their office and slammed the door behind them. They headed straight for the file cabinet, where Ben grabbed the large wicker basket. When he put it on the sofa, they rolled up their sleeves and methodically ripped the enormous bouquet apart. Flower by flower, they crushed every corolla and scrutinized every stem. Twenty-two roses, fourteen irises, eleven lilies, and four stems of freesias later, the sofa, as well as half of the office floor, was covered with the picked-apart remains of a previously well-organized floral arrangement. They found nothing. “It has to be in here,” Lisa said. “There’s no other reason to send flowers.”

“Maybe he just wanted me to worry,” Ben suggested. “Or maybe he’s playing with my mind.”

As Lisa wiped off the sofa, Ben reexamined the pile of flowers. For fifteen minutes, they repeated their inspection of each individual bloom. Then they ripped apart the basket itself. Again, nothing.

“Damn,” Ben said, pushing the pulpy mess from the sofa. “It’s impossible.”

“I don’t think we missed anything.”

Ben leaned back on the sofa. “Of course we didn’t miss anything. We just wasted our time.”

“It’s okay. You know we had to do this. I mean, what if we really did find something?”

“But we didn’t,” Ben said, nervously picking at the sofa’s worn fabric. “We can’t find anything.”

Lisa lightly put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay to be scared about this.”

“It’s just that my life—”

“I know what’s at stake,” Lisa said. “And this is more than you should have to deal with. But we’ll get you through it.”

“I don’t want you to get involved. I only told you to warn you.”

“Too late, baby,” Lisa chided, her hand still on Ben’s shoulder. “Now, are we going to sit here all day or are we going to try to find this guy?”

Looking at his co-clerk, Ben forced a smile. “You’re a good friend, Lisa Marie. If I go to jail, I’m taking you with me.”

Later in the week, Ben, Lisa, and Ober waited for Nathan to return from work. In the living room of Ben’s house, Ben and Ober sat on the large blue couch, while Lisa sat alone on the love seat, her feet up on the cushions. “I don’t understand it,” Lisa said. “It’s almost nine o’clock. Where the hell is he?”

“He said the search request would be finished by around seven or eight,” Ben said, looking at his watch. “Maybe it’s just running a little late.”

“Maybe he was captured by Rick and his band of rogue clerks,” Ober suggested as he clipped his toenails. “Now we’ll have to go rescue them using makeshift weapons made from common kitchen appliances.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Ben asked, looking at his roommate.

“It’s just a thought,” Ober said.

Lisa tried to change the subject. “I still don’t understand how you all managed to wind up in Washington. All of my friends are scattered around the country.”

“It’s actually pretty simple,” Ben explained. “Nathan, Eric, and I are all interested in politics, so Washington seemed like the right choice. Ober came because he didn’t want to be left out.”

“That’s not true,” Ober said, looking up from his feet. “I came here because I believe in Senator Stevens.”

“That can’t possibly be true,” Lisa said. “You don’t know squat about Stevens.”

“I know plenty about Stevens.”

“Name one thing you know about him,” Lisa challenged. “Pick any platform and explain it.”

After a long pause, Ober laughed. “He’s against crime and he’s pro-children.”

“That’s a revolutionary thought,” Lisa said. “And here I thought Stevens ran on the always popular pro-crime, anti-children platform.”

“Leave him alone,” Ben added. “Ober is a man of unusual knowledge. He knows more than he lets on.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Lisa said.

“Believe it,” Ober said. “For example, I know how to tell if a set of dice is balanced correctly.”

“Dice?”

“Yeah, dice. Like the dice you use in a board game.”

“Over the past few years, Ober has been the most—shall we say—entrepreneurial of the four of us,” Ben explained. “Right after college, he and his father invented a board game that they thought would sweep the nation. Hence, the dice knowledge.”

“You invented a board game?” Lisa asked.

“Actually, my dad came up with the idea. It was called—”

“Speculation—The Game of Cunning and Guile,” Ben and Ober said simultaneously.

“That was it,” Ober said. “It was this super-intense strategy game. It had everything: pawns, bluffing, power moves, everything a good game should have.”

“And what happened?”

“Everyone hated it,” Ober said. “They said it was too boring. After a year and a half, we were out of business, and I went through an illustrious sampling of the lower-tier job market. In three years, I was everything from a house painter to a marketing aide to a public relations assistant.”

“If you’re such a failure, how’d you get the job in the Senate?”

“That was all Ben,” Ober said. “When he heard there was an opening in Senator Stevens’s office, he wrote me a cover letter, put together my résumé so it sounded super-political, and prepped me for the interview. A week later, I got the job. And the rest is congressional history.”

“So how do you tell if dice are fixed?” Lisa asked.

“I’m not telling you,” Ober said. “Start your own game company.”

Rolling her eyes, Lisa turned back to Ben. “So you went to law school, Eric went to grad school, and bizarro here played with his dice. What’d Nathan do before he joined the public sector?”

“He was a Fulbright scholar, so after college, he spent two years at Tokyo University studying international trade. After that, he worked for a Japanese high-tech company in their foreign markets department. Then he came back to the States and started working his way up the State Department ladder. My guess is he’ll—” Ben broke off as Nathan came in.

“Speak of the devil,” Lisa said. “It’s Nathan-san himself.”

“Well?” Ben asked anxiously as soon as Nathan walked in the door.

“Nothing,” Nathan said, throwing a thick file folder to Ben. “They found four hundred fifty-seven Richard Fagens. Only twelve matched the age and physical description, and only two had criminal records. Neither of them had any type of legal background, and both were still incarcerated. I called the research center, and they said that Rick was probably using an alias. Until we find his real name, we’ll never find him.”

“Shit,” Ben said, flipping through the useless documents.

“By the way,” Nathan said to Ober, “they ran a check on Senator Stevens’s signature, and it cleared as genuine. I thought you used the signature machine.”

“I did,” Ober said proudly. “I just bumped my butt against it while it was signing. It’s the best way to make the signature look real.”

“Good show,” Nathan said, impressed.

“I have my moments,” Ober said, looking back at his feet.

Watching Ben nervously look through the documents, Lisa turned to him. “Don’t get yourself crazy. That doesn’t mean we’re done.”

“We still haven’t heard from Eric,” Nathan added. “Hopefully, he’ll have some information on the building.”

At a quarter after ten, Eric returned home. Ben, Lisa, Nathan, and Ober were all watching television, trying to pass the time. “What took you so long?” Ben asked, pointing the remote and shutting off the TV.

“I’m only fifteen minutes late. I had to finish editing a story,” Eric explained. “Do we have anything to eat?”

“Did you find anything on the building?” Nathan asked as Eric headed toward the kitchen.

“Oh, yeah,” Eric said, turning back toward the living room. “I almost forgot. Seventeen eighty Rhode Island is not a good place. I asked some of the beat guys what the story was, and they said it’s pretty sleazy.”

“It smelled pretty sleazy,” Nathan said.

“It’s owned by a guy named Mickey Strauss,” Eric explained. “Mickey is slime. Two years ago, they found two guys shot dead in there. Last year, there was this huge drug ring operating out of the place, but Mickey said he never knew anything about it. The guys at the office said that if a Mack truck came barreling through his office and straight across his desk, Mickey would swear he never saw it. Rick’s smart as shit for picking that place—he obviously knows Mickey won’t rat on him.”

“We have to get in there,” Ben said, standing up. “Maybe the leases have Rick’s real name on them.”

“Why would they?” Lisa asked. “If this place is so high security, why would there even be leases?”

All four roommates stared at Lisa. “She’s got a point,” Nathan finally said.

“That doesn’t mean the leases don’t exist,” Ben said, walking to the door. “And that’s all we have to go on at this point.”

“Where are you going?” Eric asked as he turned toward the kitchen. “They’re not going to let you waltz right in.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard,” Ben said, his hand on the doorknob. “All they have is some stupid doorman guarding the place.”

“And one security camera,” Nathan added.

Ben turned back toward the living room. “There was a camera?”

“It was one of those old ones,” Nathan explained. “Right above the office door. But that’s hardly an impossible obstacle.”

“What if we deliver a pizza to the building?” Ober asked. “That’ll get us in.”

“No, it won’t,” Ben said. “The office is probably empty, so there’s no one to receive the pizza.”

“But at least that’ll get us past the doorman and into the building,” Ober said. “Then all we have to do is pick the lock to the office.”

“It’ll never work,” Ben said. “Unless you’re an expert locksmith, we don’t have a chance of picking the lock on our own. We have to somehow get the doorman to let us into the office.”

“Excuse me,” Lisa interrupted. “I hate to burst your bubble, but have you guys realized that what you’re planning is illegal?”

“I told you you shouldn’t have invited her,” Ober said. “She’s ruining everything.”

Ignoring Ober, Lisa shot Ben a cold stare. “This isn’t make-believe. You break into that building, and you’re breaking the law. You of all people should realize that.”

“I don’t feel like I have a choice,” Ben said nervously.

“Then you’d better think about the consequences,” Lisa said. “If you get caught, you’re out of a job. You’ll be disbarred. Your career’ll be ruined. All over a stupid breaking and entering offense.”

“It won’t be breaking and entering,” Ben said defensively. “If we get the doorman to let us in, we have his permission.”

“But you’re lying to get in,” Lisa said.

“So then the most we’ll get is unlawful entry.”

“Well, that’s real bright,” Lisa said. “Why don’t you just—”

“What do you want me to do?” Ben asked, his voice wavering. “I have to get in there. If it gets out that I leaked information to an outsider, my career is ruined anyway. At least this way I have a chance of preventing that. If you don’t like it, I understand, but please don’t lecture me on it. This is hard enough as it is.” Turning to his roommates, he said, “Any other ideas?”

“What if we dress up as exterminators and say we have to spray the office for roaches?” Ober said.

“And where do we get all this exterminator equipment?” Nathan asked. “Or do we just show up dressed in jeans and carrying flashlights and hope they don’t notice?”

“What if we dress up like painters?” Ober asked. “It’ll be just like The Sting. The doorman’ll let us in, and instead of painting, we’ll raid the files.”

“If you really want to do this, I have an idea,” Lisa interrupted. “Instead of taking the low road first, why don’t we try to get in semi-legally? We can walk right up to the doorman and offer him a bribe. Then we’ll give him Rick’s apartment number and ask him to go check the leases for us. That way we’re not the ones breaking and entering.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Nathan admitted.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Ben asked, shrugging his shoulders. “The guard says no?”

“How about they recognize you and they kill you?” Eric said, returning from the kitchen with a roast-beef sandwich in hand.

“They’ll never recognize us,” Nathan said. “There’s no way the doorman that was there during the day is still there at night.”

“And what if he is?” Eric asked.

“We’ll pretend we have the wrong building,” Nathan said. Noticing Ben’s prolonged silence, he asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Ben said unconvincingly. Turning to Lisa, he added, “I can understand if you don’t want to come.”

“Don’t pull that macho shit on me,” Lisa said. “I’m coming.”

“What happened to all your worries about getting arrested?” Ben asked.

“We both know conspiracy law,” Lisa said. “Just by being here, I’m involved.”

“I can’t go,” Eric said, swallowing a bite of roast beef. “I have to go back to the paper to finish my story.”

“What do you mean, you’re not going?” Nathan asked. “Ben needs—”

“What am I supposed to do?” Eric asked. “I have a story.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben said. “But if you don’t hear from us by two in the morning, call the police.”

At midnight, the friends looked for a parking spot around the corner from the building. “This city is the worst,” Nathan said. “Thousands of people. Thousands of cars. Twelve parking spots.”

Ben studied the drizzle that tapped the windshield. “This is going to be a disaster.”

“Now you’re having second thoughts?” Lisa asked from the backseat. “What happened? Your brain suddenly started working again?”

“I’m not having second thoughts,” Ben said, turning around in his seat. “I’m just nervous. Is that okay?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ober said. “You’ll be fine.”

Convinced he would never find a spot, Nathan pulled into a small alley next to the building. “Do you have the money?” he asked, shutting the engine off.

“I have it,” Ben said, feeling his right jacket pocket for the first hundred and his left jacket pocket for an additional two hundred.

“I still think I should go,” Nathan said.

“Stop taking it personally,” Ben said. “I told you before: Lisa and I are going. They’re more likely to believe a man and a woman.”

“Says who?” Ober asked.

“Says me,” Ben said. “Now stop whining about it. It’s no big deal.” He grabbed an umbrella from below the front seat, opened the door, and got out of the car. Lisa followed.

Walking toward the building, Ben held the umbrella over Lisa. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Lisa asked.

“Not really,” Ben said.

“Then why don’t we turn around and—”

“You know I can’t,” Ben pleaded. “I have to find Rick. Right now, this is the best way to do that. If you want to leave . . .”

“I’m here,” Lisa reassured him. “As long as we keep it legal, I’ll be here.”

When they reached the building, Ben was surprised to find the front door locked. Lisa pressed her face against the glass to get a better view of the interior. “Buzz,” she instructed. “He’s in there.”

Moments later, a buzzer sounded, allowing Ben to pull open the door. Confidently and calmly, Ben and Lisa approached the night guard, who was sitting at his metal desk. “What’s wrong?” the guard asked. “Don’t you have a key?”

“We don’t actually live here,” Ben explained.

“Then who do you want to see?” the guard asked, picking up his phone.

“We don’t want to see anyone,” Ben said. “We have a favor to ask.”

The guard hung up the phone. “I’m listening.”

“My wife and I are looking for her brother, who used to live here. He has some money of ours, and as you can imagine, we’re trying to get it back.” Ben pulled out the five twenty-dollar bills from his right pocket and put them on the guard’s desk. “We were wondering if you could help us find his lease or his forwarding address. Either piece of information would be extremely helpful.”

Staring intensely at Ben and Lisa, the guard said, “There aren’t any leases.”

“How about a forwarding address?” Ben asked. “Can you check the Rolodex for us?”

“There are no files on anyone,” the guard said. “No Rolodex. Nothing.”

“Can you double-check to be safe?” Ben asked. “Maybe there’s something in the office.” He threw another hundred dollars on the desk. “His apartment was number three seventeen. All I need is his name or address. No one will ever know.”

“If he’s your brother, why do you need his name?” the guard asked suspiciously.

“Listen, do you really need to know the answer to that?” Lisa jumped in. “This is easy money. Do you want it or not?”

The guard continued to stare at the two clerks. Finally, he picked up the money. “Make it three hundred and I’ll do it.” Ben threw another hundred on the desk. Pocketing the money, the guard stood from his chair and opened the top drawer of his desk. He then pulled out a gun and pointed it at Ben and Lisa. “I’ll count to three.”

“What’d we do?” Ben asked, raising his hands in the air.

“I know who you are,” the guard said. “Now get the hell out of here.”

“Just relax,” Lisa said.

The guard pulled back the hammer on his gun. “Get out! Now!”

Turning around, the two clerks quickly walked to the door. When they got outside, they ran.

“Get us out of here,” Ben said when he and Lisa got back into the car.

“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked as he started the engine. “Did you get the lease?”

“Drive. Just drive,” Ben said nervously. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

At twelve-thirty, the roommates returned home. “What happened?” Eric asked from the sofa, remote control in hand.

“We didn’t get a thing,” Nathan said, collapsing on the big couch. “Ben’s a wanted man in that building.”

“And we lost three hundred dollars,” Ober added, taking off his sweatshirt and throwing it on the couch.

“Where’s Lisa?” Eric asked.

“We dropped her off at home,” Ben said. “There was nothing else to talk about.”

“From what the guard said, there were no leases and no records of the building’s tenants,” Nathan explained. “The way I see it, Rick is even more sophisticated than we thought.”

“So that’s it?” Eric asked. “You’re done with your search?”

“Not at all,” Ben said, walking up the stairs. “We’re just getting started.”

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