By late afternoon, just about everything anyone could want to know about the elevator accident at the Lansing Tower was available. Everything, that is, except for why it had happened. Various news sources had posted brief profiles on the dead. They were:
Paula Chatsworth, twenty-two, single. Tribeca resident, originally from Vermont, worked for Webwrite, a firm that produced copy for firms working on their online presence. Paula had initially survived the elevator plunge, but later died at the hospital. Stuart Bland, thirty-eight. Lived with his mother in Bushwick. He’d held a variety of odd jobs, none for very long, including a stint at a dry-cleaning operation. That, police speculated, might have been where he acquired a FedEx ID. The courier company reported that he was not, and never had been, an employee, which got the police wondering what he was up to. Found on the floor of the elevator was a script with his name attached. Initial speculation was that Bland hoped to meet with someone in the building to discuss the project, although there was no record of him having made an appointment. Sherry D’Agostino, thirty-nine. Vice president of creative at
Cromwell Entertainment. Married to Wall Street stockbroker Elliott Milne. Mother of two children: a daughter, five, and a son, eight. She lived in Brooklyn Heights.
“An immense loss,” said Cromwell president Jason Cromwell, “both personally and professionally. Sherry had an unerring eye for talent in all fields and was not only a vital member of our team, but a close, personal friend. We are beyond devastated.”
Barton Fieldgate, sixty-four. Estate lawyer at Templeton Flynn and Fieldgate. Married forty years, father of five. Lived in an $8 million brownstone on West Ninety-Fifth. Said Michael Templeton: “That something like this could happen, in our own building, is unimaginable. Barton was a friend and colleague of the highest order. He will be missed.” There was also a report that the firm was already in the process of suing the owners of the Lansing Tower for failure to maintain the elevators properly.
The cause of the accident was under investigation by multiple agencies, including the fire department and the city body that oversaw the licensing and operation of elevators and escalators. New York, it was pointed out, had thirty-nine inspectors to check on some seventy thousand of them. Richard Headley was flopped on the office couch in Gracie Mansion, the official New York mayoral residence, jacket off, feet on the coffee table with his shoes still on, tie loosened, and remote in hand.
He was looking at the large screen bolted to the wall, flipping back and forth between the various six o’clock news reports. He’d decided to stay awhile on NY1. They had a few seconds of his arrival at the Lansing Tower, then a clip of him conferring briefly with Morris Lansing, the major New York developer—and long-time friend of the mayor’s—who owned the skyscraper.
The door opened and Valerie Langdon walked in, moving quickly so as not to obstruct the mayor’s view of the news. “Get me Morris,” Headley said, muting the TV and handing her his cell phone. “I want to see how he’s doing.” He glanced at his aide.
“You know who he is now?”
“I know he gave half a million to your campaign,” Valerie said.
“It slipped my mind before.” She added, “You have a lot of donors.”
Valerie tapped the screen and put the phone to her ear. She spoke to someone, said she had the mayor on the line for Lansing, then looked at Headley. “They’re getting him.”
While he waited, Headley continued to watch the news. They were on to another story, out of Boston. A reporter stood out front of a building Headley recognized as Faneuil Hall. When he saw the word “bomb” in the crawl he turned the volume back on. “—four injured when what police are calling an explosive device of some kind went off inside the market. Of the injured, one is reported in serious condition. Police believe the device was left in a backpack inside a trash container in one of the food court areas. The incident brought back memories of the horrific Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, in which three people were killed and hundreds injured. If this most recent event had been during the busier lunch hour period, it’s very likely more people would have been injured and possibly killed. The Marathon bombers, two brothers, were motivated by Islamist extremism, but this event may find its roots far closer to home. It’s similar to other acts linked to the domestic extremist group known as the Flyovers, although authorities have not yet confirmed that the group is involved, despite some vague claims of responsibility on Twitter that—”
“Richard,” Valerie said.
He muted the set again as she handed his phone back to him.
“Morris?” he said.
“Hello, Richard,” Lansing said.
“We didn’t have long to talk today. I wanted to check in, see how you were, see what else they’ve learned.”
“It’s horrible,” Lansing said. “Beyond horrible. Sherry was a friend. We were out to her place on Long Island three weeks ago. And Barton was a good man. The other two, I have no idea who they were. This one guy, posing as a courier, that sounds fishy to me. Someone at security is going to be fired, I can promise you.”
“If anybody can get into the building that easily, yeah, you’re going to want to look into it. But is there anything that connects that guy to the elevator malfunction?”
“Well, no, not at this time,” Morris Lansing said. “They don’t know what the fuck happened there. There’s so many safeguards built into the damn things, but once in a while, they still let you down. Jesus, no pun intended.”
“I just wanted you to know that if there’s anything you need, all you have to do is call,” Headley said. “The office of the mayor is here to help you in any way it can.”
There was a pause from Lansing’s end.
“Yeah, well, about that,” Lansing said. “There’s gonna be lawsuits comin’ outta my ass on this one. Fieldgate’s firm is already making noises. But we’ve got our own ax to grind. We’re going to be turning
our sights on the city.”
“It’s nothing personal, but damn it. I don’t intend to take the fall—shit, there I go again—the blame for this. We’re seeing a major liability issue for the city here. Whatever was wrong with that elevator the city inspectors should have caught.”
Now it was Lansing’s turn to go quiet.
“You must believe these things can’t work both ways,” Headley said through gritted teeth. “You don’t think elevator inspectors did due diligence in your building? Maybe what I should do is send every fucking inspector—food, air quality, rodent infestation—your way and do a complete inspection from roof to basement. And not just in that building, but every other one you’ve got across the city. That
seems to be what you’re asking for here.”
“Richard, for God’s—”
“That’s Mr. Mayor to you, you fuckin’ ass pimple.”
“No wonder so many people call you Dick,” Morris said.
Headley ended the call and tossed the phone onto the coffee table.
Valerie looked at him expectantly, but he did not fill her in. There was a light rap on the door and Valerie went to answer it. Chris Vallins strode in with a touch screen tablet in his left hand, his right tucked casually into his pocket. Headley looked up but said nothing.
“Mr. Mayor, something you might want to see,” Chris said, handing him the tablet. “Matheson’s latest column just dropped.”
Headley grabbed a pair of reading glasses that were sitting on the coffee table and slipped them on. The headline on the page, “Headley Takes Me for a Ride,” was enough to make him wince.
“Christ almighty,” he said. He tossed the tablet in the direction of the table, but missed. Chris didn’t wait for the mayor to pick it up. He bent over and got it himself.
“Give me the gist,” Headley said.
Chris said, “She tells about the offer. To write your bio. That she’d get mid–six figures to do it. That she’d have to take a break from Manhattan Today. Implying this was your way of getting her to stop writing critical stories of your administration. That you were buying her off. Bribing her, essentially.”
Headley said, “We deny the whole thing. It’s a total fabrication.”
Chris slowly shook his head. “She quotes everything that was said in the car so perfectly I’m betting she recorded it.”
“Shit,” Valerie said. “I remember her doing something with her phone just before she got into the car. I thought she was just turning it off.”
Headley slumped further into the couch. “Glover,” he said under his breath.
Neither Chris nor Valerie said a word.
Headley, feigning a cheerful tone, said, “Bring her into the loop, Glover says. Get her on our side. Throw enough money at her that she’ll jump at the chance.” Headley shook his head, then managed a wry smile. “I guess this means she’s not taking the job.”
“Nothing against Glover,” Valerie said, “but you know I advised against this from the beginning.”
“I know,” Headley said, grimacing.
“Matheson’s piece also raises the question of why you want to do a book. It encourages speculation that you’re giving serious consideration to running for something besides reelection for mayor, before you’re ready to tip your hand. That was the other reason why I didn’t want to pursue this matter with Matheson.”
“I shouldn’t have listened to him,” Headley said. “I should have known better.”
“At the risk of stepping over the line, sir,” Valerie said tentatively, “I’m not sure Glover has enough experience to be advising you on these sorts of matters. He understands you better than any of us, of
course, but where he’s most valuable is in the data mining end of things. Analyzing trends, surveying.” She shrugged. “There’s nobody in the whole building who can help me with a computer problem
the way he can. But when it comes to advising you on matters like—”
Headley raised a silencing hand and Valerie went quiet. Chris said, “There’s a bit at the end of the column.”
Headley gave him a pained look, expecting even more bad news. “No, it’s not about you,” he said. “Someone Matheson knew was killed in that elevator accident.”
The mayor was about to look relieved, but quickly adopted a look of moderate concern. “Sherry D’Agostino, I bet. Everybody knew Sherry.” He managed a wry grin. “I even went out with her a few
times, back in the day.” Valerie looked slightly pained, as though only Headley could boast about dating someone who’d recently died.
“No,” Chris said. “Paula somebody. She’d interned at Manhattan Today.”
“Oh,” Headley said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say. He looked at Valerie, then Chris, then back to Valerie. “Can you give us the room?” he asked her.
She looked momentarily taken aback, but said nothing as she headed for the door and closed it behind her.
“Chris,” he said, “have a seat.”
The man sat.
“Chris, in the time you’ve been with us, you’ve shown yourself to be very valuable. One part bodyguard, one part detective, one part political strategist.” He chuckled. “And whenever Glover isn’t here to fix my printer, you know just what to do.”
Chris smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re good at finding things out. Turns out not all the great hackers are teenagers living in their parents’ basements. You’ve been very helpful for someone in my position.”
“Of course,” he said.
“I might not be in this office today if it weren’t for you.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Mr. Mayor.”
“Don’t be modest. You found that woman, talked her into coming forward, telling her story to the Daily News. Wouldn’t be sitting here now if she hadn’t told the world how my opponent forced him- self on her when she was fourteen and he was forty. Even dug up the emails he wrote to his lawyer where he as much as admitted it.”
Chris only smiled.
Headley grinned. “Thank Christ you weren’t digging into my own history.”
Chris shook his head dismissively. “I guess if someone’s looking hard enough, they’ll find a few skeletons in anyone’s closet.” “Yeah, well, I might need a walk-in closet for all of mine. But I believe you understand where I’m coming from, that I want to make a difference. I’ve been an asshole for much of my life, Chris, but I hope I’m doing what I can to make up for that now.”
Chris nodded, waiting.
Headley’s face went dark. “I’m worried about a couple of things.”
“The first is . . . Glover.”
“He’s eager to please you. He means well. He wants your approval, sir.”
“Yeah, well, that may be. But his instincts . . . just let me know if you see him doing something particularly stupid, would you?”
“Of course. And the other thing?”
Chris nodded slowly.
“Let’s face it. She’s good at what she does. People feed her stuff. She has good sources. Some working right here at City Hall, people who’ve not been loyal to me. She’s a pit bull. If she bites down on your leg you’ve as good as lost it.”
“I understand your frustration,” Chris said.
“If there were some way to get her off my back, some way to neutralize her . . .”
Chris was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about here, sir.”
Headley looked at him, puzzled at first, then horrified. “Christ, you didn’t think I meant . . .”
Chris gave him a blank stare. “Of course not.”
“Jesus, no.” He shook his head. “No, I’m thinking more . . . about those skeletons in the closet. If there were a way to discredit her somehow.” The mayor put a hand to the back of his neck and tried to squeeze out the tension, like he was wringing a sponge dry.
“Let me nose around,” Chris said.
“Good, that’s good,” the mayor said. “You had me worried there for a minute.”
Chris Vallins tilted his head to one side, as if to say, Yes?
“That you might have thought, even for a second, that I was suggesting
we push the woman out a window or something.”
“Forgive me,” Chris said. “I know you’d never hurt a soul.”
From Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay. Used with the permission of the publisher, William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Linwood Barclay.