The bar at the Ritz-Carlton looks out on the Public Garden and requires a tie. I’ve looked out on the Public Garden from other vantage points before, without a tie, and never felt at a loss, but maybe the Ritz knows something I don’t.
My usual taste in clothes runs to jeans and diver’s shirts, but this was a job, so it was their time, not mine. Besides, I’d been a little behind on the laundry recently, and my jeans probably would’ve hopped the subway and met me there before I got a chance to put them on. I picked a dark blue, double-breasted Armani from my closet one of several I received from a client in lieu of cash found the appropriate shoes, tie, and shirt, and before you could say, “GQ,” I was looking good enough to eat.
I appraised myself in the smoked-glass bar window as I crossed Arlington Street. There was a bounce to my step, a bright twinkle in my eyes, and nary a hair out of place. All was right with the world.
A young doorman, with cheeks so smooth he must have skipped puberty altogether, opened the heavy brass door and said, “Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton, sir.” He meant it, too his voice trembling with pride that I’d chosen his quaint little hotel. He held his arm out in front of him with a flourish, showing me the way in case I hadn’t figured it out by myself, and before I could thank him, the door had closed behind me and he was hailing the best cab in the world for some other lucky soul.
My shoes clacked with military crispness on the marble floor, and the sharp creases of my pants reflected in the brass ashtrays. I always expect to see George Reeves as Clark Kent in the lobby of the Ritz, maybe Bogey and Raymond Massey sharing a smoke. The Ritz is one of those hotels that is resilient in its staid opulence: the carpeting is deep, rich oriental; the reception and concierge desks are made of a lustrous oak; the foyer is a bustling way station of lounging power brokers toting futures in soft leather attaché cases, Brahmin duchesses in fur coats with impatient airs and daily manicure appointments, and a legion of navy blue-uniformed manservants pulling sturdy brass luggage carts across the thick carpeting with the softest whoosh accompaniment as the wheels find their purchase. No matter what is going on outside, you could stand in this lobby, look at the people, and think there was still a blitz going on in London.
I sidestepped the bellman by the bar and opened the door myself. If he was amused he didn’t show it. If he was alive, he didn’t show it. I stood on the plush carpet as the heavy door closed softly behind me, and spotted them at a rear table, facing the Garden. Three men with enough political pull to filibuster us into the twenty-first century.
The youngest, Jim Vurnan, stood and smiled when he saw me. Jim’s my local rep; that’s his job. He crossed the carpet in three long strides, his Jack Kennedy smile extended just behind his hand. I took the hand. “Hi, Jim.”
“Patrick,” he said, as if he’d been standing on a tarmac all day waiting for my return from a POW camp. “Patrick,” he repeated, “glad you could make it.” He touched my shoulder, appraised me as if he hadn’t seen me just yesterday. “You look good.”
“You asking for a date?”
Jim got a hearty laugh out of that one, a lot heartier than it deserved. He led me to the table. “Patrick Kenzie, Senator Sterling Mulkern and Senator Brian Paulson.”
Jim said “Senator” like some men say “Hugh Hefner” with uncomprehending awe.
Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis. He’d been state senate majority leader since the end of the Civil War or so, and he had no plans for retirement. He said, “Pat, lad, nice to see you again.” He also had an affected Irish brogue that he’d somehow acquired growing up in South Boston.
Brian Paulson was rake thin, with smooth hair the color of tin and a wet, fleshy handshake. He waited until Mulkern sat back down before he did, and I wondered if he’d asked permission before he sweated all over my palm too. His greeting was a nod and a blink, befitting someone who’d stepped out of the shadows only momentarily. They said he had a mind though, honed by years as Mulkern’s step-and-fetch-it.
Mulkern raised his eyebrows slightly and looked at Paulson. Paulson raised his and looked at Jim. Jim raised his at me. I waited a heartbeat and raised mine at everyone. “Am I in the club?”
Paulson looked confused. Jim smiled. Slightly. Mulkern said, “How should we start?”
I looked behind me at the bar. “With a drink?”
Mulkern let out a hearty laugh, and Jim and Paulson fell in line. Now I knew where Jim got it. At least they didn’t all slap their knees in unison.
“Of course,” Mulkern said. “Of course.”
He raised his hand, and an impossibly sweet young woman, whose gold name tag identified her as Rachel, appeared by my elbow. “Senator! What can I get you?”
“You could get this young man a drink.” It came out somewhere between a bark and a laugh.
Rachel’s smile only brightened. She swiveled slightly and looked down at me. “Of course. What would you like, sir?”
“A beer. Do you have those here?”
She laughed. The pols laughed. I pinched myself and remained serious. God, this was a happy place.
“Yes, sir,” she announced. “We have Heineken, Beck’s, Molson, Sam Adams, St. Pauli Girl, Corona, Löwenbräu, Dos Equis ”
I cut in before dusk fell. “Molson would be fine.”
“Patrick,” Jim said, folding his hands and leaning toward me. Time to get serious. “We have a slight...”
“Conundrum,” Mulkern said. “A slight conundrum on our hands. One we’d like cleared up discreetly and forgotten.”
No one spoke for a few moments. I think we were all too impressed by the realization that we knew someone who used “conundrum” in casual conversation.
I shook off my awe first. “What is this conundrum, exactly?”
Mulkern leaned back in his chair, watching me. Rachel appeared and placed a frosted glass in front of me, poured two-thirds of the Molson into it. I could see Mulkern’s black eyes holding steady with my own. Rachel said, “Enjoy,” and left.
Mulkern’s gaze never wavered. Probably took an explosion to make him blink. He said, “I knew your father well, lad. A finer man... well, I’ve never known one. A true hero.”