Fiction by Michael Washburn
A couple of months into our campaign to make Julian Assange the next prime minister, something entirely unexpected happened.
“Hey Pete, what trouble are we in now?” said my colleague Devin, gazing through a window near the front of our makeshift headquarters.
“Come again, Devin?”
“Take a look outside, mate.”
I got up from my desk, walked to what I’d once called a living room, and peered outside. After so many weeks of treacherous weather, we were in the midst of a gorgeous platinum afternoon. Across the street was parked a gleaming bright red car, an Acura NSX, or something like that, and a young man wearing shades, a light gray sports jacket, matching trousers, and a white dress shirt with pink stripes, was coming across the street toward the front steps. Dumfounded, I stepped outside to greet him before his finger hit the buzzer.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He stood there in the full light of the early afternoon, a placid expression on his shaven and scented features, examining me with curiosity tinged with something a bit less benevolent.
“Mr. Peter Logue?”
“Good day. Blake Purcell’s the name. By order of the man you work for, you are officially now co-manager of the truth campaign. As of now there are two people, with equal authority and responsibility, answering directly to the candidate!”
I stared in disbelief. The air outside was too soft, the sun too mild and flattering, for the information just disclosed to me. But it shouldn’t have been such a shock. A grant we’d sought from the Monmouth Foundation had come through, and the campaign had gotten funds for the purpose of bringing a “professional manager” aboard. Yet, here was the first I heard of the new arrangement. Our candidate lived in an embassy and was perpetually in legal trouble. Communication was spotty at best.
“Would you follow me, sir?”
“Your place is my place now,” Blake Purcell said.
I went inside, with this stranger following me, and ordered my staff to take a coffee break. Warily eying Blake and myself, they picked themselves up and set off for the student hangout around the corner. We sat down at the table facing each other.
“You fancy yourself the manager of a national campaign, Peter. I could be anybody. You let me walk right in here on nothing other than the pretext I’ve given you.”
“Well, the candidate did say something about a pending change to the management of the campaign. For all his concern for transparency, his communications can be rather oblique at times.”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed. I guess you don’t consider knowing a thing about the candidate to be a prerequisite for running his campaign.”
“Well, that’s a bit of a jump. I daresay I know more about him than you do. It’s been an awful long time since you were students together.”
“Damn it, man, I was with him in his most formative years. Why are we talking about this? I want to know what entitles you to walk in here and be rude to the people who’ve been with this campaign from the start. More to the point, why does it need fixing?”
Blake cut me off.
“Oh, I’ve seen the figures, mate. Get real. Right now, there’s $13,452 in the treasury. If you look at your outlays for rent, travel, mass mailings, and your employees—a subject which we’ll get to in a minute—that’s not going to get you through the spring with enough left to buy one ad on the radio or one online ad or one TV spot. Not one.”
He brooked no interruption.
“You know nothing about raising funds. I don’t know what your vision of ‘health’ is, but it’s not a useful or relevant one, and this campaign will not compete with the establishment parties if things don’t change radically by the turn of the month.”
“Listen to me, man—”
But he charged ahead.
“Now, on a related subject, I don’t know where you found this flotsam you’ve got working for you. I might be charitable about a temporary marriage of convenience. But I don’t think you have any intention of replacing any of these people, and they’re not helping the campaign’s image at all. They’re dragging it down!”
I tried to respond in an even voice as I felt the darkest kind of rage surge within me.
“How can you say that? Devin Rhodes is an IT genius. He’s forgotten more about software than you’ve ever known in your life.”
Judging from Blake’s face, nothing I said could faze or subvert his placid attitude even a bit.
“I’m not talking about Devin, although I’m sure you could easily find someone who looks more professional. I mean those other two: the ADF-reject and the screw-up, Mark what’s-his-name. You know there are rumors out there, Peter. Do a bit of online searching if you don’t believe me. Oh yes, there are rumors about an episode where you and Mark were at Bondi Beach, both roaring drunk, and he hit on, like, thirty women, jumped up on a table, fell off, had a breakdown, and started crying hysterically.”
“No,” I said, unable to keep the rage out of my voice.
“I suppose you knew that, and you just didn’t consider it relevant to the campaign.”
“I didn’t know it, and what you’ve said is ninety percent bullshit. I was just waiting for the part about Mark dancing naked on the table. Why not toss that in if you’re going to invent stuff?”
“I don’t invent stuff. I’m the co-manager of a national campaign about truth and transparency.”
Never in my life had the present tense been as brutal, as hard to accept.
“All right, then. I’m never going to fire Mark, or Stuart, or Devin unless one of them turns out to be a North Korean agent. Things will go much more smoothly if we proceed on that understanding, Blake.”
“Well, we’ll see, Peter. The candidate likes you very much, and I can’t do a bloody thing about that. But I can re-cast this campaign and make it a winning proposition, with or without your help.”
“But if we have equal decision-making power—”
“Peter. Pay attention, man. Having an equal say on things doesn’t mean we both vote on everything. This is politics. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. In the end, when we rock the polls, you’ll come to see me as a godsend. For now, let’s just try to be friends.”
Blake Purcell got up and walked out of the kitchen and through the living room and left. I watched through a window as he descended the steps, crossed the street, and slid back behind the wheel of his car, and drove off into the wide brilliant day, leaving me pondering, once again, the myth of Sisyphus.
A couple of days after Blake’s visit, I was in the midst of my early morning review of email when I opened a message from a stranger, one Bill Decker, saying that he and fellow principals of his fund were interested in meeting me in person.
The message didn’t say much, but it inspired just a bit of hope. While Decker was vague about the meeting’s purpose, he said he and his colleagues discussed the allocation of funds for the coming fiscal year. The email signature below his name contained the words New South Wales Equity Partners, a name I found promising. Here was the kicker: Decker had reached out to me after an interview with an applicant had fallen through, and I needed to get myself over to the tower in the CBD housing New South Wales Equity Partners right away.
Though I would have liked to perform due diligence on Decker and this outfit, I couldn’t bear to see a possible donor slip away. So, I quickly agreed and fired off a message to a grandmother in Canberra with whom I’d scheduled a call for 10:00 a.m., humbly asking to postpone our chat. So much for running a grassroots campaign, I thought, as I sent a message to Devin, who wouldn’t be arriving here for another half an hour at least, asking for info on New South Wales Equity Partners.
A short while later, I ascended from the depths of Wynyard Station in the CBD, walked a few blocks east and north, and entered the lobby of a gigantic tower. One of three uniformed guards at the desk spanning the center of the lobby, a fiftyish man with thin blond hair and a hard, weathered face, asked where I was going and demanded ID. I handed him my driver’s license, and stood there tensely watching him scan it and produce an adhesive strip with my name and headshot from a tiny machine. When I mentioned Bill Decker’s name, the guard said that Decker was with ACP on twenty-two.
I’d never heard of ACP but didn’t want the guard to detect my bewilderment. Behind and to the left of the desk, I waited amid the big reflective bronze-tinted elevator doors, in the company of a grinning dark-haired man in a taffeta suit and shiny brown shoes with wire-thin laces, clutching a deep brown briefcase. Neither of us spoke. When the doors to my right swished open, he followed me into the lift and rode it up to twelve before stepping off. Just as he left the elevator, I thought I noted a change in the look on his creamy contended face, as when a person petting a cat notices a gash behind one of the creature’s ears. I rode up past nine more floors until the ping! announced my arrival at twenty-two.
When I stepped into the hall, a sign indicated that ACP was behind the third door down the hall and to my right. If I was keeping things straight, it occupied part of the southern half of the floor. I tentatively made my way down the hall, opened one of the large glass double doors, walked fifteen feet toward the rear of the building, and spoke to a woman with flowing amber hair who wore a white, faintly tinted dress with gray like clouds on a damp March afternoon.
She told me Mr. Decker would be right out and asked me to take a seat on a row of chairs with plush deep blue cushions running perpendicular to the front desk and commanding a magnificent view of the gleaming blue and gray towers of the CBD through the long window behind the desk. Instead of doing so, I asked to use the men’s room. She pointed toward the north side of the building. I walked up past empty conference rooms, turned left, and walked into a brightly lit room with pristine beige tiles and three empty stalls.
Seconds later, I had my new cell phone in my hands and was hurriedly typing a message to Devin, demanding to know what he’d found out. To my relief, I got a reply almost instantaneously. God bless that guy, I thought.
“Pete—afraid I can’t tell you jack about NSWEP—there’s just not much info out there, even on their website.”
“Practically. The ‘About Us’ section of the home page is so vague this could be a tobacco company or a tampon manufacturer or a Scientology outfit.”
“Well, how about ACP?”
“It’s, I don’t know, a unit or a subsidiary of NSWEP or something. I need all the info on them, and I need it an hour ago.”
I thrust the cell phone into a pocket and tried once again to compose myself before the mirror. Then I returned to the waiting area. The tops of the buildings beyond the long pane of glass looked so sedate in their gleaming majesty they almost helped me breathe evenly again. Two gentlemen in their forties emerged from the hall on the south side of the waiting area, opposite the hall I’d returned from.
They reeked of Paco Rabanne and Gucci Pour Homme. One of them had dirty blond hair and the face of a jovial, if aging former frat boy, and wore a gray suit. This was Bill Decker. The other, a guy with knots of ash-colored hair, in a somber blue suit, was Alan Pierce. After exchanging pleasantries, I followed the two men down the hall, and we entered a room with an oval table with a smooth oak surface matching the panels of the walls. On the desk was an old-school phone in a black plastic tray. We sat down.
“Thank you for coming in at such short notice,” Bill said.
“Oh, you’re welcome.”
“I must say, the truth campaign has been in the news quite a bit, but we’re not alone in wondering about some of the basics. First off, Alan and I would like to ask you a few questions about your managerial structure and your finances.”
I blinked. “Come again?”
“This is a routine vetting procedure. We get to know you. You get to know us. You know you can’t go on being a cipher if you expect to draw support that will make any kind of difference in your prospects in the election,” Bill replied.
“I, ah—how should I say this?—I could use just a tiny bit more background on ACP before we proceed.”
His colleague gave me a condescending look.
“As the organizer of a national campaign, I take it you do know something about the private equity space?” Alan asked.
I swallowed. “Well, of course, I could tell you about private equity generally, about macro trends, about where the deal flow in M&A and project finance is these days, but I’m sure you’d agree that private equity shops are highly secretive about what they do and this one’s no exception. Not even the most informed analyst could give you more than a general profile of any outfit worthy of the name. And it’s only fair to acknowledge that I didn’t have time to catch up with what little information may be public.”
Bill and Alan exchanged looks. Alan continued.
“Our founder lives by his credo, Mr. Logue. He passionately supports causes that have merit and swats things and people he doesn’t believe in like so many pestering little gnats. I would never get on his bad side or get in his way. Now, once again, we’re sorry to call you over here at such short notice, but there may not be another opportunity for this vetting to take place.”
At the moment, it was easy to envision scenarios where any information I volunteered might well become ammunition for the other side. But just imagine if we did get their support.
“This sounds like something we could accomplish via email,” I said in a neutral voice.
“Well, we did want to meet with you in person, and since you’re here, we might as well proceed. The window is closing fast,” said Alan.
“May I use the restroom?” I asked with a bright, innocent face.
I hurried out. I avoided making eye contact with the receptionist as I moved through the lobby. Back in the men’s room, I moved into one of the stalls and called Devin, my body hunched over as if I’d come in to puke. I thought myself lucky there wasn’t anyone else in that pristine glistening space. There was hardly time for composing texts to each other now so I called him.
“There isn’t much to find about ACP, Pete.”
“Thanks a ton.”
“But there’s something else you might find interesting.”
“I asked Stuart for an updated list of all the sources of threats we’ve gotten. I cross-checked the email from NSWEP against the list, and one of the threats, from about three weeks ago, has the same suffix in the email address. The sender gives his name as ‘Ogre.”’
“Wish I were.”
“So, it came from the company whose property I’m on right now?”
“No, it came from someone on the eighteenth floor of the building.”
“But ACP isn’t on eighteen!”
“Do you know that, Pete?”
“What exactly does it say, Devin?” I asked, terrified that my voice was shrill enough for the receptionist outside and possibly others to hear me.
“You really want to know?”
“I don’t have fucking time for back and forth. TELL ME!”
“It’s pretty horrible.”
The men’s room’s door swished open, and in my surprise and alarm, I dropped my brand new phone into the toilet. I snatched it out, frantically wiped it with the edge of my shirt, flushed the toilet using my left foot, moved out of the stall. The middle-aged homme d’affaires who’d come in had a large, bold forehead, receding black hair, and wore a coal-black suit. Fortunately, he displayed more concern with his appearance than me as I moved out of the stall with the hem of my shirt hanging out, frantically wiping a phone. I tried to smile, tucked my shirt back in, pocketed the phone, exited the restroom, and headed back down the hall. When at last I reappeared in the room, Bill and Alan looked bored and restless.
“Forgive me. I’ve had a bit of trouble with my digestion lately,” I said as I slid back into my seat.
Alan began again.
“That’s quite all right. So, now, Peter—may I address you as Peter? We need to establish a few things here. We’d like to know about the sources of funding in Australia and which of the candidate’s friends in the U.K. have been sending money here.”
“You really couldn’t have found out any of that?” I asked with polite surprise.
“Some of the information is public, and some isn’t.”
“Why do you care where we’ve been getting money? This is about financing arrangements going forward.”
“These are all components of the profile we’re putting together, as a matter of course,” Bill said, in a tone suggesting my conduct was getting unseemly.
I checked myself, drawing a deep breath. After all, this wasn’t like meeting with some unstable veteran in a park, hearing about how one fire-laps bores to ensure the widest possible spray of blood and brain tissue.
“Of course, gentlemen. I didn’t mean to be testy.”
“Who is your biggest donor to date?” Alan asked.
“The Monmouth Foundation.”
“You must be extremely grateful to them,” Bill said.
“They’ve made a huge difference in the structure of the campaign, that’s for sure,” I said, thinking myself clever.
“How many accountants do you employ?” Alan continued.
“I’ve consolidated that role with certain others. If I must go by an official headcount, it’s zero. But please don’t let that mislead you.”
“Do you have Cayman and Swiss accounts?”
Taking this question for a joke, I let it pass.
“Some people in the campaign are in a state of disbelief. I mean, the Monmouth Foundation came through with what is easily our biggest contribution to date,” I said quite truthfully.
“What sort of fundraising strategy do you pursue?” Alan asked.
“Generally speaking, we target foundations with endowments that support investigative journalism, and midmarket donors and lenders who may be a little less susceptible to corporate influences, which helps us avoid obvious conflicts of interest. And students, professors, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, writers, the intelligentsia broadly speaking. They tend not to have deep pockets, but some of them are awfully eager to pitch in.”
“Where are your offshore accounts?”
“Offshore accounts, needless to say, are all about secrecy. Concerns keep coming up about what is or isn’t in registries of funds parked offshore. Quite apart from the philosophical issues, we would have quite practical, reputational concerns about the use of them,” I said, looking Alan in the eye.
“If your financial profile continues to evolve, would you consider using them?” Bill asked.
“We’d consider it.”
“What healthcare provider are your employees signed up with?”
“There’s no single one. It’s all decentralized.”
“Do you take a helicopter to work?” Alan said.
“May I use the restroom again?”
They said nothing but gave assenting looks.
Back in the stall where I’d dropped the phone before, I frantically tried to raise Devin. Though I dreaded throwing away an opportunity, I was fairly certain those two men in suits were mocking me while extracting information they’d use for malicious ends. I was able to pull up the number of the Glebe office. I hit ‘send.’ Nothing. I’d screwed the phone up good. But the mishap hadn’t disabled texting.
“So, your sis finally squeezed one out, Pete? Great news. We’ll see at what Fahrenheit toddlers melt.”
And after that, another message.
“The world of accomplished men and women, real people, does need a respectable-sized hole to evacuate into, so thanks for opening your mouth wide.”
And yet another:
“Enjoying your childlike antics, Petey. Do keep the firing squad entertained.”
I saw what Devin had done. He’d typed in the messages that had come from that anonymous emailer on the eighteenth floor and sent them off to me. I scrolled down further and found another message.
“Have found ref. to NSWEP re. private army in Sierra Leone, arms deal in Sudan, and a political assassination in Cambodia. The last is unverified, though. Wouldn’t trust rumors.”
Well, what we did have was quite enough, I figured. Good for Devin for pulling these references from the murkiest depths of the internet with so little notice. I put the phone away again. I contemplated darting out of this office right now, jumping onto an elevator, dashing out of the building, never looking back, or giving ACP or NSWEP or equally wretched acronyms another thought. But I couldn’t quell my curiosity. Before leaving the restroom again, I texted back to Devin: “22nd floor of Chromium building downtown. Bill Decker and Alan Pierce. Pompous buffoons. About 46 and 48, respectively.”
The two gentlemen looked oddly unperturbed in the conference room as I took my seat across from them and reestablished eye contact once again. Still, I expected cross words.
“Thank you for your patience with us,” Bill Decker said to my amazement.
It was briefly quite hard to breathe. I composed myself for a few excruciating moments before I managed to open my mouth. “I beg your pardon?”
“I want to thank you for bearing with us through this process. The profile we’ve been putting together requires a fair amount of minutiae, but it’s part of the vetting process for something that’s kind of an urban legend. People whisper about it, but they don’t believe it ever actually happens,” Bill said.
“I don’t understand.”
“It can be overwhelming, I know. You’re thinking, why are these strangers asking so many invasive questions? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought that.”
“It’s virtually impossible for me to lie, so I won’t tell you that.”
“Good. Do you have any more questions at this point, Alan?”
Bill’s prim middle-aged colleague shook his head.
“Well, I think we’re about ready to go ahead, then.”
“Before we go any further, there’s something pretty major on my mind, guys. I’m talking about a series of strange messages we got from an employee of yours, Ogre, who, I believe, is working or used to work on the eighteenth floor of this building.”
“We don’t hire ogres,” Alan assured me.
“More importantly, we aren’t on the eighteenth floor,” Bill said.
“We have a threatening email message with the same suffix as the one you sent me.”
“Ah, well, that’s not surprising.”
I could only stare, dumbfounded.
“We formed a joint venture last year for acquiring this highly selective bit of real estate, Peter. The other party, for your information, was called Leichhardt Venture Partners. Our management was separate from theirs, but we were co-signers on the lease, as New South Wales Equity Partners. For a while, we were employing the same people to manage our operating systems. We had the same IT infrastructure as Leichhardt,” Bill said.
“And, of course, it was the same email domain names for ACP and LVP people.”
“A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think?” said Alan, and his burst of informal speech nearly floored me.
“Just what have you been sitting there thinking about us all this time?” Bill asked.
To this, I had a ready reply.
“I’ve had no idea what to think, and for all your blue-blooded haughtiness, I can’t say you’ve been very forthcoming or professional or considerate thus far.”
Bill and Alan exchanged looks once again.
“Please come with us, Peter,” Bill said, as the two of them rose.
We exited the conference room and pursued the hall toward the southern end of the building. In this bland setting, the sight of plain doors numbered 2204, 2205, 2206 triggered a cold, contracted feeling in my abdomen. At the last door, before yet another hall running along the tower’s south edge, we stopped. Bill carefully and ceremoniously turned the handle, and we proceeded into a big room with a sterile floor with white panels.
There stood elegantly slanting bookshelves that Walter Gropius might have designed, filled with volumes on architecture and film theory. At one end of the room hung a Duchamp painting and, at the opposite end, a Balthus. Between the framed scenes, a wizened man with thin strips of white hair, wearing a black suit and a pair of glasses with black frames, leaned forward over a pile of papers. In his right hand, he held a red pen. I inferred that he’d been circling and underling items in the text on those papers. At this moment, I was looking, with knowledge, at Warren Turlington III. Even as the three of us stood there facing him, he carried on with what he was doing for a good twenty seconds before looking up.
“Mr. Turlington, this is Peter Logue,” said Bill, ever the smooth presenter.
The wizened man picked himself up, advanced around the desk, and extended a gnarled hand, with I shook with trepidation.
“Good day, sir,” he said in a scratchy, labored voice.
“You may address me as Warren if you wish.”
“Mr. Logue here had us mixed up with Leichhardt Venture Partners,” Alan said in an acid voice.
Warren Turlington III laughed softly. When he spoke, he put me in mind of an aging judge whose speech retains every vestige of long-practiced formalities even as both body and mind are acting like they want to quit. But then that was silly. The man was barely in his seventies.
“I don’t believe we can claim credit for offing a mayor in Cambodia, Mr. Logue. Leichhardt Venture Partners is of a decidedly different cast from us. I hope you understand our dealing with them as no more than a temporary arrangement undertaken, I must admit, without much due diligence.”
“Yes, sir. I understand entirely.”
“But, you know, Leichhardt takes its name from an adventurer, from one who set out to ascend to levels of experience denied to first-generation Australians or even to generations since his time. In that respect, we are not totally different. We aim to foster works of art that are daring, innovative, works that grow out of tolerance or even love for risk on the part of the artist.”
I nodded, considering his words carefully. He continued.
“As you may be aware, the art scene in contemporary Sydney is suffocating. It chafes and squirms within the stranglehold of a benighted critic by the name of Edward Rance, who has an incomparable bullhorn with which to excoriate any art that displeases him. Well, we are determined to foster innovation. We also, as it happens, believe passionately in your campaign, Mr. Logue. But our charter forbids us to spend directly on political campaigns.”
As I stood there, still nervous and frightened, in this strange office on the twenty-second floor of a gleaming steel tower in the CBD, the universe, at last, began to make just a bit more sense to me.
He went on: “However, it does not, by any interpretation, forbid us, the principals of Australian Cultural Progress, to spend as lavishly as we please on galleries of merit. Some galleries around the city and one in particular, with which you may be familiar, have devoted themselves to selling art to benefit the truth campaign.”
Warren Turlington III referred to a Balmain gallery owned by a dear friend and supporter, Bob Farnsworth. He stepped forward and shook hands with me, formally and ostentatiously, with a surprisingly strong grip. The other principals in the room at once followed suit and said it was an incomparable honor to have me on the premises today.
Thirty minutes later, I walked out into the brisk morning, thinking, Take that, Blake Purcell, you pompous ass.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.