The Dog and its Day
Sunday, July 31, 2016, 2:15 a.m., Barker residence, Manhattan, New York City
The Barkers had just let the last of their guests out, except for Paul Skovack, Chris Mathers and Congressman Charles O’Connor, who were still in the den. Bunny Barker sighed. “I’m going to bed. Are you going to be long?”
She already knew the answer. After forty-four years of marriage, she knew late night discussions with Paul Skovack and Chris Mathers never ended quickly. She just wanted to let him know she still preferred falling to sleep together.
“No, no, just one last drink,” Alan Barker said musingly.
She smiled and briefly touched her husband’s arm. “Well, good night.”
“Good night dear.” As Bunny walked up the stairs, the butler entered the hall. “Will you be needing us anymore this evening sir?”
“No Jackson, thank you. Tell the staff the cleanup can wait until tomorrow.”
“Very good sir. Good night sir.”
“Good night Jackson.” Barker strode back to the den, his cap toe Oxfords click-clacking on the hall’s black and white checkered marble floor, then swooshing softly on the thick Persian rugs in the still brightly lit ball room, past the empty glasses left on the mantelpiece and Louis Seize coffee tables.
He had never cared for the kitschy decorating style his wife was so fond of— the cream-colored wallpaper with golden fleur-de-lis pattern, the impractical Roman style one-armed sofas, the white Steinway concert piano—but he did care deeply for his wife. One of the few things he cared for.
The only room safe from Bunny’s relentless redecorating efforts was the den. There, one wall was taken up entirely by a titanic bookcase, housing books from floor to ceiling and equipped with a rolling library ladder for easy access to the upper shelves. The fireplace, embedded in the opposing wall, was encased by a Victorian-era mantelpiece; a lion’s head, shot by Barker himself, hanging above it. To its left stood a glass display case that held the revolver used by Confederate General James Longstreet during the Civil War. To its right, a liquor cabinet that had once belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt, fully stocked with the finest hard liquor. Finally, on the far end, an antique mahogany desk, massive and unyielding, quietly guarded the masculine integrity of this one room that still belonged to the man in the house.
The den was where Alan Barker came home, where he pondered and planned, rested and regrouped. It was where he had his best ideas and was able to see clearest, undisturbed by the many ad hoc demands heaped on him on a daily basis.
He took a right, finding Jackson clearing some cocktail glasses that had been left on the pedestal table used by Alexander Hamilton’s bust. His favorite one.
“What did I say Jackson,” Barker said with a smile as he passed the old servant, “leave it until tomorrow.”
“I know sir. But I know how much you like Mr. Hamilton’s bust and I couldn’t just let these filthy glasses stand there.”
“Alright, suit yourself,” Barker said, walking on without looking back.
He entered the den and walked to the bar. “Alright, anyone up for a refill?”
“I’m good Alan, thanks,” Skovack said.
“I could do with another glass of that excellent Macallan Lalique,” O’Connor said, holding up his glass.
“Count me in as well,” Mathers held up his glass.
After pouring the drinks and handing O’Connor and Mathers their glasses, Barker sunk into one of the comfortable chairs with a sigh of fatigue, weight and old age. “Well, if ever a fundraiser was useless as hell, it was this one. Drump will never win, sure as sermons on Sundays.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” O’Connor said, stroking the edge of his glass. “It’s early days. He might still pull it off.”
Barker chuckled derisively. “Oh come on Charles, the fundraiser is over, no need to sugarcoat the horse manure anymore. He’s a buffoon and we all know it.”
“Well, at least he’s our buffoon,” O’Connor said, taking a sip from the $30,000 a bottle Macallan he could never afford himself.
“You think?” Barker snickered. “Because he flip-flops more often than a sixteen-year-old gymnast. One day he’s pro-choice, the next he’s pro-life. First he’s in favor of a whole bunch of limitations on gun rights, now he is against any limitations. We can’t trust a guy like that to do the right thing.”
The right thing. For those who knew Alan Barker there was no doubt as to what that meant. But, as his life-long friend and business partner Paul Skovack also knew, Barker was not the kind of man to complain about things he had no control over. He wondered where he was going with this. “I agree,” Skovack said, “but at the same time it seems like a fait accompli, Alan. Ronald Drump is the Republican presidential nominee and that’s that. Meaning the next President of the United States is either going to be him or Valery Clayton.”
“No. Never her,” Congressman O’Connor said with the conviction of a man who perhaps had had one Macallan Lalique too much already. “Anybody but her. This country can’t survive another eight years of failed liberal policies.”
“It sure as hell can’t,” Barker agreed, though, contrary to Congressman O’Connor, who had been a tea party favorite for years, his own thinking was far more practical than it was ideological. He was concerned about the 22 active coal mines Barker & Skovack Industries owned and operated in the U.S., mines Senator Clayton had vowed to close if she would be elected the 45th President of the United States. He was concerned about the increased fiscal scrutiny of multinational corporations Senator Clayton had promised, which would make it much harder to continue evading taxes on foreign business activities, nowadays accounting for more than half of B & S Industries’ revenue. And he was thinking of the two, possibly three Supreme Court Justices the next president would likely get to nominate and which could swing the court in a decidedly liberal, anti-business direction for the next thirty years.
“But if you don’t think Drump will win,” O’Connor said, turning his glass in his hands, “and on top of everything else you don’t trust him, then why did you organize tonight’s fundraiser? And how much did B & S Industries itself pledge tonight?”
“Ten million,” Barker said quietly, looking down at the melting ice cubes in his Baccarat tumbler. “But what choice do we really have?” Another remark that breathed the kind of resignation and defeatism Skovack found very uncharacteristic for his friend. On the contrary, his signature remark for the past three decades, as they had aggressively expanded their mining empire, had been a combative “we’ll see about that”, and many African and South American dictator had heard it at his peril.
“This is the hand we’ve been dealt,” Barker continued, “a couple of deuces pretending to be aces, running against the queen of the night and some jack.”
“Of course two deuces are actually slightly favored against a queen and a jack in a heads-up Texas Hold’em game,” Chris Mathers remarked, a smug smile lounging in the corner of his mouth. He was the long-time Chief Security Officer at B & S Industries and was often abroad to ‘deal’ with certain problems at the company’s mines, most of them in Africa and South America. But whenever he was back at the head office, he and Barker would play heads-up Texas no limit Hold’em at least twice a week. They had been doing it for years. Mathers was the only one who wouldn’t let Barker win (aside from Skovack, but he was a terrible player) and one of the few people Barker simply couldn’t read—perhaps because there was nothing to read. He had this cold, dead stare Barker used to joke he had probably learned at some CIA introductory ‘psychology for spooks’ course.
Barker grinned. “Well, no analogy is perfect Chris.”
“I wouldn’t call Mike Vance a deuce though,” O’Connor said, referring to the VP on the Republican ticket.
“You’re right,” Barker conceded, “in fact, he’d have a much better chance to defeat Clayton.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking the other day.”
“Yeah, very sensible man that,” Barker mused, giving Skovack the kind of look he had been giving him ever since their days at Colombia University, when they were still chasing girls at frat parties and college bars, and later on, in tense negotiations with the United Mine Workers and greedy, corrupt politicians. ‘Pay attention and follow my lead’, it meant.
“I always thought so,” Skovack said.
“You, eh, know him quite well, don’t you?” Barker casually asked O’Connor.
O’Connor nodded. “We’ve been best friends since college. I even introduced him to his wife.”
“You think he’d be a good president?” Barker asked.
“Honestly, I think he could be a second Ronald Reagan,” O’Connor said without hesitation. “He is a true conservative and has served as Congressman for more than a decade without being corrupted by the Washington political establishment.”
“And as governor of Indiana, he was also one of the strongest supporters of the coal industry, right?” Barker added.
“Oh yeah, he loves the coal industry, loves it!” O’Connor said, emphasizing the word ‘loves’ the way only drunk people can. “Absolutely hates the EPA.” He took another swig, before continuing: “I wouldn’t be so sure about Ronald Drump, though. Mike told me last week that Drump had said the Chinese and the Europeans are getting too far ahead in alternative energy, and that the only way to catch up would be to heavily subsidize alternative energy here in the States as well, and to retrain coal miners as solar panel producers.”
O’Connor scoffed. “I mean, can you believe that? Back in May he gave this whole speech about wanting to bring the coal industry back to America again. Talking about how he was going to bring back coal mining jobs to Ohio and North Dakota, remember that?” He took another swig. “Subsidizing alternative energy instead of letting the market do its work,” he mumbled in his glass. “Now that is one thing Mike Vance would never do.”
Barker shot another look at Skovack. “So, do you think Vance wants to be president himself somewhere down the line?”
By now, Congressman O’Connor was far too imbibed to read anything substantial in the question. “Of course he does. Even before his first House race he was talking about running for president one day.”
“Is that right?”
“He lost that race, by the way, and the one after that. But he just kept coming back until he won. Hell of a guy.”
“Well,” Barker said, after a moment of silence, shooting Skovack a quick glance before overtly looking at his wrist watch, “It’s getting late.”
“Yeah,” Skovack said, standing up, “I think I’ll call it a night as well. Tomorrow is another day.”
Barker and Mathers got up too.
O’Connor, who had been sinking deeper and deeper into his chair for the past 30 minutes or so, had just enough sense of propriety left to understand the party was over. “Yes…yes, I think I will be leaving as well,” he said, struggling to get up without having to put down his drink.
“Here Charles, let me help you,” Barker said, gently taking his glass while gesturing Skovack and Mathers to stay behind. “I’ll show you out.”
“That is mighty kind of you sir,” O’Connor said, in an awkward attempt to sound both British and South-Carolinian, while standing next to his chair as if he was riding the subway.
Barker took the Congressman by the elbow and guided him across the ballroom and into the hall, where he placed a short call to the reception desk to hail a cab. As they waited for the elevator, O’Connor loudly proclaimed what a wonderful fundraiser it had been, how Barker should certainly not forget to thank his wife for a most pleasant evening, that the whiskey had been “fan—taaast—tic” and more of the kind of talk from a man who should find a bed or a couch before the floor finds him.
A few minutes later Barker returned.
“What was that all about?” Skovack asked right away. “Those questions about Vance and if he wanted to be president? What were you playing at?”
Barker closed the door, but said nothing.
“You want to pull the $10 million donation? Just because of what that drunken idiot said? I mean, come on. We don’t know Drump will be bad for the coal industry. You said it yourself, he flip-flops all the time. So even if he tells Vance he wants to get rid of the mines, nobody knows what he’ll think a year from now. Besides, he’s a business man, he knows better than to bite the hand that feeds him.”
“It’s not just the mines,” Barker said, walking to the bar. “I mean, yes, that’s a big piece of it, but a Drump presidency could also be disastrous for our overseas interests, the geopolitical stability and the long-term course of the nation.” He reached into the ice bucket, grabbed a couple of cubes and dropped them in his glass.
“So what are you saying? That because Drump is unreliable and potentially even dangerous, you want to consider backing ‘Venomous Valery’ instead?” Skovack asked, using Drump’s favorite epithet for his opponent.
Barker scoffed. “Of course not. She has already said she wants to close all remaining coal mines in the U.S. and she will never back down from that. And any Supreme Court justices she’ll nominate will be anti-business, pro-environment, anti-gun and pro-abortion.”
A deep, v-shaped wrinkle formed between Skovack’s eyes. “I’m confused. Are you saying you want to sit this one out? Because I have to tell you, when it comes down to it, I still prefer Drump over Clayton.”
Barker crossed his arms. “I want Vance.”
Skovack looked at Mathers, but the one-time CIA operative didn’t move a muscle, either because he was uninterested or because he already knew where this was going. “Yeah, well, me too Alan, but unfortunately he is not on the top of the ticket,” Skovack said, a smile of disbelief around his mouth.
Barker gave the rolling library ladder a push, he always liked walking around and doing things with his hands when having discussions like this. “You know, Valery Clayton must be the most unpopular Democratic presidential nominee in modern political history,” he scoffed, pacing the room. “I mean, moderates don’t trust her, the liberals positively hate her…against almost any other opponent she wouldn’t have stood a chance, because the liberals would have stayed at home and moderates would have either done the same or voted for the Republican candidate. The only way for her to win would be if the other candidate was so ridiculously unqualified, so erratic, so dangerous, that everybody with half a brain would have no choice but to vote for the candidate who promises not to start a 21st century version of Nazi Germany.”
“So, what, you want to politely ask Ronald Drump to move over, offer him money to step down—what?” Skovack still didn’t get it and by now was getting slightly annoyed with this kind of wishful thinking.
“I think we should get rid of him,” Barker said bluntly.
Skovack opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, realizing he was neither as surprised nor as dismissive of the idea as he would like to give himself credit for. The thought hadn’t crossed his mind before, but now that Barker had put it out there, he could hardly deny its logic. Still, murdering a presidential candidate…it certainly went further than anything else they had ever done. The most high-profile politician they had eliminated was that Nigerian Minister of Justice opposed to the privatization of the Nigerian Coal Corporation, which was going to give B & S Industries an important foothold in the Nigerian coal industry. What was his name again? Those African names…he remembered the incident well, it was just a few months after 9/11. Jesus, was it fifteen years already?
The last time they had decided someone had to go was that South African agitator who had been stirring things up among the miners at the Witbank colliery, Bwala Galala or something. What was that, about three years ago? Still, that too was a far stretch from killing a U.S. presidential candidate. A very far stretch. And would Vance even become the presidential candidate if Drump was gone?
“Would Vance automatically go to the top of the ticket?” he asked.
Barker smiled. “No, not automatically. If, for whatever reason, Drump would no longer be an option, the Republican National Committee would vote on a new candidate. But the existing VP candidate would have a strong shot at moving to the top of the ticket—especially if Drump were to be eliminated close to the end of the campaign and the VP candidate was a popular conservative bulwark like Mike Vance.”
“You really have thought this through, haven’t you,” Skovack said, sounding impressed if not yet convinced.
“You know me, I don’t like going off half-cocked,” Barker replied.
Skovack sighed. “I could use another drink.”
“Of course. Same?” Barker asked, pointing at his own glass.
“How about you Chris?”
“I’ll take a cold beer if you have one.”
“I sure do,” Barker said, pulling a beer from the mini fridge next to the liquor cabinet. “Heineken, right?” Barker grinned.
“You know it,” Mathers said, taking the beer.
“What do you think of all this?” Skovack asked Mathers. The head of security shrugged. It wasn’t the first time he had been present at conversations like this and it probably wouldn’t be the last. He had never concerned himself with the politics of it all. He served the man, the organization, nothing else.
Realizing this, Skovack rephrased, “I mean, is it doable?”
Mathers put his beer on the dark oak coffee table. “Sure. You can get to anyone, it’s just a matter of resources. The difficulty is getting away with it. But if we hire an outsider, exposure to B & S would be minimal. Would be expensive, though.”
Skovack waved the last words away. “Money is not the problem, and if we withdraw it in cash from a couple of friendly offshore accounts before depositing it into a numbered account in the Emirates, the money will be untraceable.”
“And tonight’s fundraiser, together with our $10 million donation to the Drump campaign, will create a perfect cover story in the highly unlikely event we should ever need one,” Barker added. “We have been Republicans all our lives and B & S Industries has given money to the Republican cause for the last 30 years. No one will ever suspect we were even remotely involved in this. It will look like an attack from the extreme left.” Then, to Mathers: “Do you want to hire the same guy who did the job of that marxist community organizer from South Africa a couple of years ago?”
“He is the best,” Mathers said evenly.
“You should ask him to make it look like an attack from the extreme left, like anti-fascists or Greenpeace or something, or maybe a deranged lone nutcase. I’m sure it’s easy enough to leave a faded green army jacket with one of those nuclear disarmament signs sewn on at the crime scene.”
“You don’t think that’d be a little too obvious?” Skovack mocked.
“You know what I mean. Something to corroborate the already obvious, that the bullet came from the left.”
Barker looked Skovack straight in the eye. “Then, we agree?”
Skovack hesitated, but it wasn’t a real hesitation. The die had been cast a long time ago. He slowly nodded.
Taking it as his cue, Mathers said, “Good, I’ll make the necessary arrangements and get back to you soon.” He emptied his beer, put it on the table and got up. “I’ll let myself out,” he said, gesturing a short goodbye to the other two as he walked to the door. And with that it was done.