Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
"Yea," he said tentatively, "but there's something else…fishy about this."
"Fishy from…well, from my guy's end, frankly," Art murmured. "Like I say, he's some of the money in this deal. About 40% to be precise. Another 10 is a couple of first-timers from Spokane, Dr. and Mrs. Clay Wright. He's a newly-retired plastic surgeon, about 55, from Burbank, California, married to the daughter of a good pal of mine, Gene Kasten, whose family is old, old, timber and land money. Wright is worth about what Janie is, which is to say that they can comfortably afford their 10 percent, which amounts to about $25 mil."
"Pshew," I yelped, "$250 mil gonna be quite a layout."
"If it gets built," Art chuckled dryly. "The real hang-up in this deal is the third partner. This is a new outfit called PPV, short for Pembroke Property Ventures, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British paper manufacturers, Pembroke & Hawkes, Ltd."
"The ones who make about 20% of the currency stock for the entire world," I filled in.
"Yeah, you're good," Art laughed." I never heard of 'em in my life 'til this project fell in may lap, but that's the deal."
"Hmmm," I chuckled. "Paper company diversifies into property – read as 'Land – Acquisition' - jumps into a project in Colville, on some of the only old-growth timber in that corner of the state that's not protected national forest. Who would suspect anything there?"
"Gets worse," Art sighed. "Part of the development—a pretty big hunk, actually—cresses over into federal land. As you might suspect, the Bush Administration ain't exactly sending out the marines to protect 12 square miles of forest in some remote area of Washington State. I asked my guy about land use rights to that area and he sorta shrugged and said, 'Well, Pembroke took care of that.'"
"I did a little job for the Sierra Club a few years aback. Never joined, but they send me their newsletter every month. Not a word in there about this," I mused.
"From what I hear out of Colville, the earthmoving hardware and crews slid in there in the dead of night, like some commando operation. The camp is really out there a ways, so nobody is seeing or hearing anything. The only trouble so far was a couple of hikers who were following one of the old trails from a 1910 guidebook, and were approached by a couple of what they reported as looking like National Park service employees, but with 'wrong' uniforms. Had some stylized 'P' on the breast pocket, presumably for Pembroke. They were told, in a friendly but very firm way, that the old trails were closed and that those machinery noises were 'park improvements.'"
"No park service employee would refer to national forest as a park," I observed.
"That's what our hikers said," Art replied. "Nothing strictly illegal, since they weren't actual park service uniforms, but still…"
"Tried to give that impression," I nodded. "Fishy."
"My guy thinks so," he answered.
"Something I'm not getting, Art," I yawned. "Why does your guy get in bed with somebody he doesn't know to begin with?"
"It's the nature of the beast, my friend," Art sighed. "The development game, at least on this scale, is about partnerships, investors, financing. Hell, even in something as small as a single apartment building. Modern building costs money, honey, and you don't curl your lip at a ready source. Pembroke & Hawkes has something akin to a 'co-signed by god' credit rating, the reflected glow of which shines brightly off an O+O like PPV. My guy did his due diligence on them. They're solid. Problem is - and this is amazingly common - the reasons for old-money companies like P & H spinning off something like a P.P.V. sometimes come down to trivia: The nephew or eldest son of a partner needs a job, that eternal quest to diversify, corporate boredom, you name it. To paraphrase a famous American, 'Management is as management does.' Just because P & H is sound as Fort Knox, that don't mean P.P.V. is above shenanigans."
"Well, the fishiest thing, to me, is that nobody's heard about this," I mused. "When has a resort development ever been bottled up that tightly? Selling that kind of property is all about promotion."
"Exactly," Art agreed. "Hell, P.P.V. insisted that we and the Wrights keep a lid on it, which is what set off the alarms in the first place. My guy is a freakin' genius at marketing. Has a glowing track record. And he does it by spreadin' the word. Presumably, that's what would make him attractive to somebody like P.P.V. and they're insisting he not do it."
"Fishy," I chuckled dryly.
"Yeah," Art murmured. "Fishy."
I did a bit of online research into Pembroke & Hawkes and P.P.V. for a couple of hours on both Google and Nexus. Google was actually more helpful, burping up articles from the establishment press, builder/developer's trade magazines, and the English tabloids indiscriminately.
The window dressing was profuse, the actual facts scant. Pembroke & Hawkes was, of course, even in the tabloids, revered as the most stable and respectable of old line companies, jointly owned by the two families, even after 150 years. The most junior member of the board was Simon Hawkes, an excitable 58. Nary a whiff of any scandal, controversy, or even a minor disagreement.
P.P.V. was launched quietly, as a management company for the firm's land holdings in Scotland, Germany, and the western United States. They were also charged, according to the London papers, with acquisition of new land, negotiation of new timber rights, and a vague tag-on about "future possibilities for land development and speculation."
The more I looked at it, the less I could grasp how their involvement in the Colville thing might work into their mission statement but, more so, how it could possibly work in practical terms. The only logical reason for the choreographed secrecy was that something was in the new development that P.P.V. felt couldn't stand scrutiny or something shifty going on in the money end of things.
The president of P.P.V. was, predictably, a Pembroke: Anthony Ahrend Pembroke II, great-great grandson of the founder and eldest, at 44, of the current managing partner of Pembroke & Hawkes, Anthony I.
Junior was, by all accounts, a smart but vanilla Eton grad, former V.P. of marketing of the parent firm, and the big thinker who originally came up with the idea of aggressive land acquisition, vis-à-vis an entity that evolved into P.P.V.
He played polo, like any good, upper-crust English boy, owned a big farm in Scotland that produced world-class wool, and was married to what appeared to be a blue-ribbon trophy wife; a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, tanned bowl of ice cream, clearly chock-f of some high octane Scandinavian genes, who effectively erased her merely handsome husband from any photo that contained the two of them. Her name was Annika Pembroke and she had that glint in her eye that says, "I don't miss much and what I do miss ain't important."
I made a note to check up on her further. Whether I suspected something or just wanted to see more pictures, I couldn't say.
More interesting was the managing director of P.P.V., a glib, earnest native Northwesterner named Roderick Hooks. Hooks was a former executive vice president of Meinhardt Paper Products, a major Northwest producer of newsprint, art papers, photographic stock, and fiber media for scientific applications. Meinhardt was originally headquartered in Portland and was, at one time, the largest single owner of non-public forest land in the U.S. Their badge-shaped "M.P" logo was as instantly recognizable as Weyerhaeuser's little pine trees for nearly 75 years before a combination of E.P.A. rules, rising gas prices, sinking economy, and the Sierra Club combined to shove them to the brink of bankruptcy. To stay afloat, the Meinhardts were forced to sell off about 40% of their land holdings, close three plants, and call in markers all over the globe. Meinhardt, the previous president, had resigned from the stress, and the company was now under the direction of his oldest son, my pal Jerry Meinhardt, Jr.
Jerry, unlike his forebears (all born in San Francisco and devout practitioners of absentee ownership) was a born-raised Northwesterner and, as such, an environmentalist down to his chromosomes. Under him, the bloated bureaucracy of Meinhardt was whittled down to a lean, mean, fighting trim. Reforestation became—instead of a joke at board meetings—company job #1, and he instituted a benefits package for the hourly-wage loggers and mill-workers that his forebears had dismissed out of hand for over 140 years.
The company was rallying. Their new executive offices relocated to Seattle, represented an attempt to open new trade partnerships in Australia and Asia, places his elders had written off.
We were both on the board of Seattle Actors' Theatre and had become occasional beer 'n' pool pals after shows and board meetings.
I called his house on Mercer Island and got his machine. I left a message and then sat back, groaning and rubbing my eyes.
It was going on 2:15. The lunchtime hoards had thinned, so I strolled four blocks to my favorite little restaurant, Mae Phim Thai. It was almost literally a hole in the wall. It was carved precariously out of the slope of a steep hill along the side of the Exchange Building, an old maritime-trade center, relic of a time when Seattle's downtown docks were host to a slightly less genteel kind of sea vessels than today's ferries and cruise lines.
The owner was a small, bright-eyed Thai woman who married a Polish G.I. to wind p with the unforgettable handle of Orowan Butkiewicz.
Her son, Po, greeted me warmly. He's a handsome, whip-smart kid of eighteen who worked every hour he wasn't in high school, saving up to go to Duke, where he had already been accepted, so he could become a doctor. It was all he had ever wanted to do.
I sometimes left him outrageous tips--$50's and $100's weren't unheard of—and he always protested but I told him I'd take it out in surgeries later in life.
The funny part is that he thinks I'm kidding.
After the usual amazing lunch, I stopped at Mario's and got ice cream. I sat in the square, under the newly-restored pergola, and thought about Art's mess out in Colville.
P.P.V. was in there, at least in part, to cut down trees. Around this corner of the world, doing that will always call down a shitstorm, from a bunch like the Sierra Club or the state legislature. Why and how was this thing so invisible? I don't claim to be omniscient but I keep my ear to the ground. Nothing.
Weird and fishy as the state salmon hatchery.
A paper company and a couple million trees. Didn't take a genius to figure it out. Good thing, as I had no genius close at hand.
Computers have slicked up my methodology a bit, but the basic technique had never changed from my years in naval intelligence—bother people until someone looks guilty and then shake vigorously. I do not have the fine hand of a surgeon. I'm more like the line medics I knew in 'Nam, doing appendectomies and amputations with a pocketknife or a bayonet sterilized over a cigarette lighter.
My first impulse, then, was to fly to London, slap the piss out of Anthony Pembroke, and keep doing that until he blurts out what he's up to.
That first impulse is always the one that gets me in trouble.
The logical alternative was to do some actual investigative work; calling business people who know about P.P.V., visiting ol' Roderick's family and friends, tracing the paper trail in Colville and Olympia. Too much work. I decided to go bother somebody.
It was a fact Joe hated knowing.
32 steps from the east wall of his living room to the west. He knew because he counted. He counted because he had the opportunity. He had the opportunity because, for the first time in his life, he was in a quandary.
It surprised and annoyed him that he even knew what a "quandary" was. He never worried, never allowed himself even a tiny moment of indecision, never hesitated. He had always relied on his instincts to tell him what was right and they rarely failed him.
He always tried to act with purity, trusting the instinct, not allowing the ghosts of ramifications and consequences to make him weak.
Now, he actually groaned aloud, realizing that the word "ramifications" came to him so easily.