Chapter Five

The Potomac Country Club in McLean, Virginia, was established a hundred years earlier by some wealthy people who'd been snubbed by the other country clubs. Rich folks can tolerate almost anything, but not rejection. The outcasts pumped their considerable resources into Potomac and built the finest club in the D.C. area. They picked off a few Senators from rival clubs and enticed other trophy members, and before long Potomac had bought respectability. Once it had enough members to sustain itself, it began the obligatory practice of excluding others. Though it was still known as a new country club, it looked and felt and acted like all the rest.

It did, however, differ in one significant way. Potomac had never denied the fact that its memberships could be bought outright if a person had enough money. Forget waiting lists and screening committees and secret votes by the admissions board. If you were new to D.C., or if you suddenly struck it rich, then status and prestige could be obtained overnight if your check was large enough. As a result, Potomac had the nicest golf course, tennis facilities, pools, clubhouses, dining room, everything an ambitious country club could want.

As far as Clay could tell, Bennett Van Horn had written the big check. Regardless of which cloud of smoke he was blowing at the moment, Clay's parents did not have money and certainly would not have been accepted at Potomac. His father had sued Bennett eighteen years earlier over a bad real estate deal in Alexandria. At the time, Bennett was a big-talking Realtor with lots of debts and very few unencumbered assets. He was not a member of the Potomac Country Club then, though he now acted as if he'd been born there.

Bennett the Bulldozer struck gold in the late eighties when he invaded the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside. Deals fell into place. Partners were found. He didn't invent the slash-and-burn style of suburban development, but he certainly perfected it. On pristine hills he built malls. Near a hallowed battleground, he built a subdivision. He leveled an entire village for one of his planned developments - apartments, condos, big houses, small houses, a park in the center with a shallow muddy pond and two tennis courts, a quaint little shopping district that looked nice in the architect's office but never got built. Ironically, though irony was lost on Bennett, he named his cookie-cutter projects after the landscape he was destroying - Rolling Meadows, Whispering Oaks, Forest Hills, etcetera. He joined other sprawl artists and lobbied the state legislature in Richmond for more money for more roads so more subdivisions could be thrown up and more traffic created. In doing so, he became a figure in the political game, and his ego swelled.

In the early nineties, his BVH Group grew rapidly, with revenues increasing at a slightly faster rate than loan payments. He and his wife, Barb, bought a home in a prestigious section of McLean. They joined the Potomac Country Club and became fixtures. They worked hard at creating the illusion that they had always had money.

In 1994, according to the SEC filings that Clay had studied diligently and kept copies of, Bennett decided to take his company public and raise $200 million. He planned to use the money to retire some debt, but, more important, to "... invest in the unlimited future of Northern Virginia." In other words, more bulldozers, more slash-and-burn developments. The thought of Bennett Van Horn with that kind of cash no doubt thrilled the local Caterpillar dealers. And it should have horrified the local governments, but they were asleep.

With a blue-chip investment banker leading the way, BVHG stock roared out of the blocks at $10 a share and peaked at $16.50, not a bad run but far short of what its founder and CEO had predicted. A week before the public offering he had boasted in the Daily Profit, a local business tabloid, that "... the boys on Wall Street are sure it'll hit forty bucks a share." In the Over the Counter market, the stock floated back to earth and landed with a thud in the $6.00 range. Bennett had unwisely refused to dump some stock like all good entrepreneurs do. He held on to all of his four million shares and watched as his market value went from sixty-six million to almost nothing.

Every weekday morning, just for the sheer fun of it, Clay checked the price of one stock and one stock only. BVHG was currently trading at $0.87 per share.

"How's your stock doing?" was the great slap-in-the-face Clay'd never had the nerve to use.

"Maybe tonight," he mumbled to himself as he drove into the entrance of the Potomac Country Club. Since there was a potential marriage in the near future, Clay's shortcomings were fair game around the dinner table. But not Mr. Van Horn's. "Hey, congratulations, Bennett, the stock has moved up twelve cents in the past two months," he said out loud. "Kicking ass, aren't you, old boy! Time for another Mercedes?" All the things he wanted to say.

To avoid the tip associated with valet parking, Clay hid his Accord in a distant lot behind some tennis courts. As he hiked to the clubhouse he straightened his tie and continued his mumbling. He hated the place - hated it for all the assholes who were members, hated it because he could not join, hated it because it was the Van Horns' turf and they wanted him to feel like a trespasser. For the hundredth time that day, as every day, he asked himself why he'd fallen in love with a girl whose parents were so insufferable. If he had a plan, it was to elope with Rebecca and move to New Zealand, far from the Office of the Public Defender, and as far away as possible from her family.

The gaze from the frosty hostess told him, I know you are not a member, but I'll take you to your table anyway. "Follow me," she said with the slight makings of a fake smile. Clay said nothing. He swallowed hard, looked straight ahead, and tried to ignore the heavy knot in his stomach. How was he supposed to enjoy a meal in such surroundings? He and Rebecca had eaten there twice - once with Mr. and Mrs. Van Horn, once without. The food was expensive and quite good, but then Clay lived on processed turkey so his standards were low and he knew it.

Bennett was absent. Clay gently hugged Mrs. Van Horn, a ritual both of them disliked, then offered a rather pathetic, "Happy Birthday." He pecked Rebecca on the cheek. It was a good table, one with a sweeping view of the eighteenth green, a very prestigious spot to eat because one could watch the geezers wallow in the sand traps and miss their two-foot putts.

"Where's Mr. Van Horn?" Clay asked, hoping he was stuck out of town, or better yet, hospitalized with some grave ailment.

"He's on his way," Rebecca said.

"He spent the day in Richmond, meeting with the Governor," added Mrs. Van Horn, for good measure. They were relentless. Clay wanted to say, "You win! You win! You're more important than I am!"

"What's he working on?" he asked politely, once again astounded at his ability to sound sincere. Clay knew exactly why the Bulldozer was in Richmond. The state was broke and could not afford to build new roads in Northern Virginia, where Bennett and his ilk demanded that they be built. The votes were in Northern Virginia. The legislature was considering a local referendum on sales taxes so the cities and counties around D.C. could build their own highways. More roads, more condos, more malls, more traffic, more money for an ailing BVHG.

"Political stuff," Barb said. In truth, she probably didn't know what her husband and the Governor were discussing. Clay doubted if she knew the current price of BVHG stock. She knew the days her bridge club met and she knew how little money Clay earned, but most other details were left to Bennett.

"How was your day?" Rebecca asked, gently but quickly steering the conversation away from politics. Clay had used the word sprawl two or three times when debating issues with her parents and things had become tense.

"The usual," he said. "And you?"

"We have hearings tomorrow, so the office was hopping today."

"Rebecca tells me you have another murder case," Barb said.

"Yes, that's true," Clay said, wondering what other aspects of his job as a public defender they had been talking about. Each had a glass of white wine sitting before her. Each glass was at least half-empty. He had walked in on a discussion, probably about him. Or was he being unduly sensitive? Perhaps.

"Who's your client?" Barb asked.

"A kid from the streets."

"Who did he kill?"

"The victim was another kid from the streets."

This relieved her somewhat. Blacks killing blacks. Who cared if they all killed each other? "Did he do it?" she asked.

"As of now he is presumed to be innocent. That's the way it works."

"In other words, he did it."

"It sort of looks that way."

"How can you defend people like that? If you know they're guilty, how can you work so hard trying to get them off?"

Rebecca took a large gulp of wine and decided to sit this one out. She had been coming to his rescue less and less in recent months. A nagging thought was that, while life would be magical with her, it would be a nightmare with them. The nightmares were winning.

"Our Constitution guarantees everyone a lawyer and a fair trial," he said condescendingly, as if every fool should know this. "I'm just doing my job."

Barb rolled her new eyes and looked at the eighteenth green. Many of the ladies at Potomac had been using a plastic surgeon whose specialty, evidently, was the Asian look. After the second session the eyes strained backward at the corners, and, while wrinkle-free, were grossly artificial. Ol' Barb had been nipped and tucked and Botoxed without a long-range plan, and the transition simply was not working.

Rebecca took another long pull on the wine. The first time they had eaten there with her parents she had kicked off a shoe under the table and run her toes up and down his leg, as if to say, "Let's blow this joint and hop in the sack." But not tonight. She was icy and seemed preoccupied. Clay knew she wasn't worrying about whatever meaningless hearings she would suffer through tomorrow. There were issues here, just under the surface, and he wondered if this dinner might be a showdown, a powwow with the future on the line.

Bennett arrived in a rush, full of bogus apologies for being late. He slapped Clay on the back as if they were fraternity brothers, and kissed his girls on the cheeks.

"How's the Governor?" Barb asked, loud enough for the diners across the room to hear.

"Great. He sends his best. The President of Korea is in town next week. The Guv has invited us to a black-tie gala at the mansion." This too was offered at full volume.

"Oh really!" Barb gushed, her redone face erupting into a contortion of delight.

Should feel right at home with the Koreans, Clay thought.

"Should be a blast," Bennett said as he pulled a collection of cell phones from his pocket and lined them up on the table. A few seconds behind him came a waiter with a double Scotch, Chivas with a little ice, the usual.

Clay ordered an ice tea.

"How's my Congressman?" Bennett yelled across the table to Rebecca, then cut his eyes to the right to make sure the couple at the next table had heard him. I have my very own Congressman!

"He's fine, Daddy. He sends his regards. He's very busy."

"You look tired, honey, a tough day?"

"Not bad."

The three Van Horns took a sip. Rebecca's fatigue was a favorite topic between her parents. They felt she worked too hard. They felt she shouldn't work at all. She was pushing thirty and it was time to marry a fine young man with a well-paying job and a bright future so she could bear their grandchildren and spend the rest of her life at the Potomac Country Club.

Clay would not have been too concerned with whatever the hell they wanted, except that Rebecca had the same dreams. She had once talked of a career in public service, but after four years on the Hill she was fed up with bureaucracies. She wanted a husband and babies and a large home in the suburbs.

Menus were passed around. Bennett got a call and rudely handled it at the table. Some deal was falling through. The future of America's financial freedom hung in the balance.

"What should I wear?" Barb asked Rebecca as Clay hid behind his menu.

"Something new," Rebecca said.

"You're right," Barb readily agreed. "Let's go shopping Saturday."

"Good idea."

Bennett saved the deal, and they ordered. He graced them with the details of the phone call - a bank was not moving fast enough, he had to light a fire, blah, blah. This went on until the salads arrived.

After a few bites, Bennett said, with his mouth full, as usual, "While I was down in Richmond, I had lunch with my close friend Ian Ludkin, Speaker of the House. You'd really like this guy, Clay, a real prince of a man. A perfect Virginia gentleman."

Clay chewed and nodded as if he couldn't wait to meet all of Bennett's good friends.

"Anyway, Ian owes me some favors, most of them do down there, and so I just popped the question."

It took Clay a second to realize that the women had stopped eating. Their forks were at rest as they watched and listened with anticipation.

"What question?" Clay asked because it seemed that they were expecting him to say something.

"Well, I told him about you, Clay. Bright young lawyer, sharp as a tack, hard worker, Georgetown Law School, handsome young man with real character, and he said he was always looking for new talent. God knows it's hard to find. Said he has an opening for a staff attorney. I said I had no idea if you'd be interested, but I'd be happy to run it by you. Whatta you think?"

I think I'm being ambushed, Clay almost blurted.

Rebecca was staring at him, watching closely for the first reaction.

According to the script, Barb said, "That sounds wonderful."

Talented, bright, hardworking, well educated, even handsome. Clay was amazed at how fast his stock had risen. "That's interesting," he said, somewhat truthfully. Every aspect of it was interesting.

Bennett was ready to pounce. He, of course, held the advantage of surprise. "It's a great position. Fascinating work. You'll meet the real movers and shakers down there. Never a dull moment. Lots of long hours, though, at least when the legislature is in session, but I told Ian that you had broad shoulders. Pile on the responsibilities."

"What, exactly, would I be doing?" Clay managed to get out.

"Oh, I don't know all that lawyer stuff. But, if you're interested, Ian said he'd be happy to arrange an interview. It's a hot ticket, though. He said the resumes were flooding in. Gotta move quick."

"Richmond's not that far away," Barb said.

It's a helluva lot closer than New Zealand, Clay thought. Barb was already planning the wedding. He couldn't read Rebecca. At times she felt strangled by her parents, but rarely showed any desire to get away from them. Bennett used his money, if indeed he had any left, as a carrot to keep both daughters close to home.

"Well, uh, thanks, I guess," Clay said, collapsing under the weight of his newly bestowed broad shoulders.

"Starting salary is ninety-four thousand a year," Bennett said, an octave or two lower so the other diners couldn't hear.

Ninety-four thousand dollars was more than twice as much as Clay was currently earning, and he assumed that everyone at the table knew it. The Van Horns worshiped money and were obsessed with salaries and net worths.

"Wow," Barb said, on cue.

"That's a nice salary," Clay admitted.

"Not a bad start," Bennett said. "Ian says you'll meet the big lawyers in town. Contacts are everything. Do it a few years, and you'll be able to write your own ticket in corporate law. That's where the big money is, you know."

It was not comforting to know that Bennett Van Horn had suddenly taken an interest in planning the rest of Clay's life. The planning, of course, had nothing to do with Clay, and everything to do with Rebecca.

"How can you say no?" Barb said, prodding with two left feet.

"Don't push, Mother," Rebecca said.

"It's just such a wonderful opportunity," Barb said, as if Clay couldn't see the obvious.

"Kick it around, sleep on it," Bennett said. The gift had been delivered. Let's see if the boy is smart enough to take it.

Clay was devouring his salad with a new purpose. He nodded as if he couldn't speak. The second Scotch arrived and broke up the moment. Bennett then shared the latest gossip from Richmond about the possibility of a new professional baseball franchise for the D.C. area, one of his favorite topics. He was on the fringes of one of three investment groups jockeying for the franchise, if and when one was ever approved, and he thrived on knowing the latest developments.

According to a recent article in the Post, Bennett's group was in third place and losing ground by the month. Their finances were unclear, downright shaky, according to one unnamed source, and throughout the article the name of Bennett Van Horn was never mentioned. Clay knew he had enormous debts. Several of his developments had been stalled by environmental groups trying to preserve whatever land was left in Northern Virginia. He had lawsuits raging against former partners. His stock was practically worthless. Yet there he sat slugging down Scotch and yapping away about a new stadium for $400 million and a franchise fee of $200 million and a payroll of at least $100 million.

Their steaks arrived just when the salads were finished, thus sparing Clay another tortured moment of conversation with nothing to stuff in his mouth. Rebecca was ignoring him and he was certainly ignoring her. The fight would come very soon.

There were stories about the Guv, a close personal friend who was putting his machine in place to run for the Senate and of course he wanted Bennett in the middle of things. A couple of his hottest deals were revealed. There was talk of a new airplane, but this had been going on for some time and Bennett just couldn't find the one he wanted. The meal seemed to last for two hours, but only ninety minutes had passed when they declined dessert and started wrapping things up.

Clay thanked Bennett and Barb for the food and promised again to move quickly on the job down in Richmond. "The chance of a lifetime," Bennett said gravely. "Don't screw it up."

When Clay was certain they were gone, he asked Rebecca to step into the bar for a minute. They waited for their drinks to arrive before either spoke. When things were tense both had the tendency to wait for the other to fire first.

"I didn't know about the job in Richmond," she began.

"I find that hard to believe. Seems like the entire family was in on the deal. Your mother certainly knew about it."

"My father is just concerned about you, that's all."

Your father is an idiot, he wanted to say. "No, he's concerned about you. Can't have you marrying a guy with no future, so he'll just manage the future for us. Don't you think it's presumptuous to decide he doesn't like my job so he'll find me another one?"

"Maybe he's just trying to help. He loves the favors game."

"But why does he assume I need help?"

"Maybe you do."

"I see. Finally the truth."

"You can't work there forever, Clay. You're good at what you do and you care about your clients, but maybe it's time to move on. Five years at OPD is a long time. You've said so yourself."

"Maybe I don't want to live in Richmond. Perhaps I've never thought about leaving D.C. What if I don't want to work under one of your father's cronies? Suppose the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of local politicians does not appeal to me? I'm a lawyer, Rebecca, not a paper pusher."

"Fine. Whatever."

"Is this job an ultimatum?"

"In what way?"

"In every way. What if I say no?"

"I think you've already said no, which, by the way, is pretty typical. A snap decision."

"Snap decisions are easy when the choice is obvious. I'll find my own jobs, and I certainly didn't ask your father to call in a favor. But what happens if I say no?"

"Oh, I'm sure the sun will come up."

"And your parents?"

"I'm sure they'll be disappointed."

"And you?"

She shrugged and sipped her drink. Marriage had been discussed on several occasions but no agreement had been reached. There was no engagement, certainly no timetable. If one wanted out, there was sufficient wiggle room, though it would be a tight squeeze. But after four years of (1) dating no one else, and (2) continually reaffirming their love for each other, and (3) having sex at least five times a week, the relationship was headed toward permanent status.

However, she was not willing to admit the truth that she wanted a break from her career, and a husband and a family and then maybe no career at all. They were still competing, still playing the game of who was more important. She could not admit that she wanted a husband to support her.

"I don't care, Clay," she said. "It's just a job offer, not a Cabinet appointment. Say no if you want to."

"Thank you." And suddenly he felt like a jerk. What if Bennett had simply been trying to help? He disliked her parents so much that everything they did irked him. That was his problem, wasn't it? They had the right to be worried about their daughter's future mate, the father of their grandchildren.

And, Clay grudgingly admitted, who wouldn't be worried about him as a son-in-law?

"I'd like to go," she said.


He followed her out of the club and watched her from the rear, almost suggesting that he had time to run by her apartment for a quick session. But her mood said no, and, given the tone of the evening, she would thoroughly enjoy a flat rejection. Then he would feel like a fool who couldn't control himself, which was exactly what he was at these times. So he dug deep, clenched his jaws together, and let the moment pass.

As he helped her into her BMW, she whispered, "Why don't you stop by for a few minutes?"

Clay sprinted to his car.

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