Here in the Mid Atlantic, the heart of a good winter fire is oak. It should constitute at least sixty percent of the fuel and be well seasoned wood, stacked at least two years in a woodpile, neither too tightly or too loose, having air passages “big enough for a mouse to run through, but a cat can’t follow.” Ideally, the remaining forty percent ought to consist of equally well dry seasoned cuts of hickory, maple, poplar, walnut, cherry, birch, beech, sycamore and elm. In order to properly appreciate having such transcendental object in one’s fireplace, of course, it helps considerably if Nature delivers some suitably abominable conditions outside in order to provide an appropriate context. No problem there on Saturday, when a steady, ice cold, pelting rainstorm made the prospect of venturing anywhere to do anything other than fetch more firewood from under the sheltered eaves of the rear portico seem a truly pointless venture.
Yes, it was accogliente, gemütlich, acogedor – very cozy indeed, there on the couch with Cerise, reading the Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, sipping a Grand Marnier kopi luwak cappuccino, Mozart’s concerto for flute and harp on the stereo, my cat Twinkle purring contentedly on my lap, while the storm wailed away against the double-glazed living room windows as the fire snapped and crackled back at it. Then the front doorbell rang.
I swear, as much of a sucker as I am for a telephone call, if it had been one then at that moment, I would have ignored it and left them to leave a message in my voice mail box, no matter who it might have been. But you can’t do that to somebody at your front door – it simply isn’t civilized; moreover, given the conditions outside, to do so would have been inexcusably barbaric. So I went so see who it was, naturally.
It was Jenkins, one of three people the FBI sends over to my office for a consultation four or five times a year. As such, I hadn’t seen him in fourteen months – he looked much older than he had the last time he visited me, that’s for certain. He also looked like a drowned rat, one just fished out of a bucket of ice water. On the way up the front walk from the street, the wind had blown his umbrella inside out, leaving him to bear the brunt of a brief but obviously horrendous drenching in the worst gale of a pounding, frigid storm.
“For God’s sake, Jenkins,” I exclaimed, “come in! Cerise! Get some hot coffee with a shot of Rémy Martin XO in it, quick!” I ran into the first floor bathroom and retrieved a large towel while Jenkins took off his Burberry trench coat. “Here,” I chided, “dry off before you catch pneumonia!”
As Jenkins complied, Cerise arrived with the brandy, stirred into a cup of the dark roasted French press coffee she had made just after finishing her cappuccino – at least Jenkins had decent timing with respect to that, anyway. “Let me have your jacket, too,” she demanded, gesturing, as she put the coffee cup down on the vestibule table next to the coat closet. “That rain soaked all the way through your coat in the thirty seconds it took you to walk to the front door from your car!”
“Okay, okay, sure,” Jenkins nodded as he gave his jacket to Cerise and finished drying off, handing me back the towel. “Tom, I’m terribly sorry to inconvenience you on a Saturday like this, but I’m totally at wit’s end!”
“No problem, no problem,” I murmured back, giving him this coffee and brandy as I placed an assuring hand on his shoulder while Cerise placed his coat and jacket on hangers and scurried off to the kitchen where they could dry without making everything else in the front hall closet damp.
As Jenkins and I entered the living room, Twinkle took one look, walked over, confronted him, sat down defiantly on her haunches, inches from his wet, dripping shoes, and turned up her nose in a highly feline fit of irritated pique. “Bozo!” she declared, then stalked off into the den, her tail in the air.
Jenkins face became a map of total bewilderment as his gaze slowly turned from Twinkle’s receding form to me. “Uh – nice cat,” he finally managed.
“She was half asleep in my lap,” I explained, gesturing for Jenkins to take a seat on the chair next to the fireplace. “The doorbell woke her up. Sit here and take your shoes and socks off – put them on the bricks so the fire can dry them out while we talk. And drink some of that coffee and brandy before a chill hits you.”
“Sure, sure,” Jenkins muttered as he took a seat, took a sip of his drink, placed it on a nearby credenza and began removing his shoes. “Tom, I really appreciate this, I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. I called your office, because I know you work a lot of Saturdays, but the outgoing message said you were closed today.”
“Understood,” I replied as I placed two fresh logs on the fire. “But how did you know I was at home here in Great Falls?”
“Oh, that,” he shrugged as he placed his shoes and socks on the fireplace bricks and reached for another sip of coffee and brandy, “You know the FBI – if we need to find someone we will, and pretty quick if they’re not trying to hide.”
“Well,” I conceded, “I’m certainly not the type of consultant who would try to hide from one of my most esteemed clients.”
“Yeah,” Jenkins replied after another sip. “And considering who some of your other clients are, you can’t blame us for keeping an eye on you.”
“Oh, no,” I conceded, as Cerise entered the living room, “perfectly understandable.”
“Um, hi,” Jenkins greeted her. “Thanks for the coffee. I know I’ve interrupted what was obviously a very… private moment of enjoyment,” he continued as the wind howled, the freezing rain pounded away at the roof and the fire, refreshed by the new wood, began a roaring riposte. “But I don’t believe that your…”
“That’s right,” Cerise interrupted. “I don’t have a clearance and furthermore, I don’t want one. Tom, where did the cat go?”
“The den,” I replied.
“I’ll keep her company then,” Cerise announced, turning on her heel with an attitude of condescending annoyance that, if anything, exceeded Twinkle’s, “while you boys play secret squirrel.”
“Aw, gee, Tom,” Jenkins mealy-mouthed, “now I’ve gone and put you in the dog house.”
“Not me, fortunately,” I told him. “But it’s dollars to donuts I’m the one who will have to fix you your next cup of coffee and brandy.”
“This one will be fine,” he assured me. “We’re not big drinkers at the Bureau, you know.”
“It was for medicinal purposes,” I reminded him. “Now, what’s the issue that brought you out here in a freezing meteorological maelstrom, and to which FBI contract line item should I charge this consultation?”
Jenkins paused and stared down into his coffee cup for a long moment. “Um… I can’t… uh… that is… Tom, I’m not sure how to say it, but this isn’t exactly… you know… an official visit.”
“You mean,” I sought to clarify, “that it’s… of a personal nature?”
Jenkins blushed bright crimson with embarrassment as he confessed. “Yes, I… I couldn’t… I mean, you’re the smartest person I know, Tom, in fact, they say you’re the smartest person inside the Beltway.”
“Which is a lot,” I assured him, “like being the tallest building in Baltimore.”
“Baltimore?” Jenkins mused, casting his eyes toward the ceiling. “You know, at this point, I wouldn’t mind being transferred there, even if all I ever did for the rest of my career was chase kidnappers, bust bank robbers and round up perverts who sell kiddie porn on the Internet.”
“That bad, huh?” I asked,
“Awful, Tom,” he confided as his voice cracked slightly. “Just awful.”
“Okay,” I consoled him, “not to worry. I won’t expect to be paid for this particular consultation, then. It will be for you, personally, and it’s on the house. Now what in God’s name could be so bad you’d rather be posted to the FBI field office in Baltimore, for Christ’s sake?”
“Mueller’s Russia investigation,” he sobbed as he gulped down the last of his spiked coffee.
“What,” I inquired, somewhat puzzled, “you mean, they won’t let you on it and it’s breaking your heart or something?”
“No! No!” he yelled. “Not at all!”
“You… don’t want to be on the Mueller Russia investigation?” I pressed. “But… wouldn’t it be quite a feather in your cap? Wouldn’t it be a great thing to have on your resume? Wouldn’t it be a real career maker?”
“Career breaker’s more like it!” Jenkins moaned. “Look at what’s happened!”
“Well hell,” I averred, “lots of good things have been happening. Mueller’s indicted nineteen individuals so far, and he’s gotten guilty pleas and deals to turn federal evidence from three of them too, with plenty more ready to flip, it looks like. He’s conclusively proved that the intelligence community’s allegation that the Russians sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election is absolutely true, not a hoax or a witch hunt as the Trump administration has been claiming for over a year. And just this afternoon, less than an hour ago, the House Democrats in the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a memorandum that totally debunks the spurious allegations of impropriety and deep-state conspiracy made against the FBI and the DOJ in the memo previously released by the majority Republicans! Mueller’s looking like a million bucks and the Trump administration’s looking like a panhandler’s pocket full of chump change! Trump’s cornered! The dominoes are falling all around him! So can you tell me why, if somebody worked for the FBI and got an invitation to join the Mueller Russia investigation right now, they wouldn’t be looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?”
“Nice Devil’s Advocate pep talk,” Jenkins responded, gazing contemplatively at the fire. “But I’m aware that you know just as well as I do everybody on the Mueller Russia investigation team is headed for career suicide. You’re just putting that spin on the situation and asking me that question to figure out whether or not I’m rational.”
“Always a good thing to do when somebody drops by unexpectedly during rough weather,” I admitted. “And okay – you passed with flying colors. You’re worried because President Trump fired Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates for investigating him; because Director Comey got fired for not pledging personal fealty to Donald J. Trump and not following Trump’s illegal orders to interfere with the investigation of Michael Flynn; because Trump ordered Comey’s replacement, Christopher Wray, to get rid of Deputy Director George McCabe and FBI General Counsel James Baker; because Agent Peter Strzok got demoted for instant messages expressing negative opinions of Trump that he sent his girlfriend; because US Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand had to resign after only nine months at DOJ; because Trump has managed to get six resolutions introduced by Republicans in Congress calling Mueller corrupt for various actions, including his investigation of the Uranium One deal, and demanding that he be fired; and, of course, because President Donald J. Trump himself actually tried to fire Robert Mueller less than three weeks after Mueller was appointed to lead the Russia investigation and the only reason Mueller still has a job at the FBI is that White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign if Trump got his way.”
“Right,” he nodded. “What’s the opposite of the Midas Touch?”
“Hmm,” I pondered, “my best guess would be the Joe Btfsplk Touch. Everything with which he comes in contact suffers egregious misfortune.”
“Okay,” Jenkins agreed, “then, as far as a person’s career in federal law enforcement goes, Robert Mueller has the Joe Btfsplk Touch, and the federal career prospects of anyone associated with his Russia investigation all turned to steaming piles of draft horse road apples immediately upon contact.”
“Well,” I cautioned, “be that as it may, there’s no reason to get carried away. I mean, really, how likely is it, in any case, that you will be assigned to the Mueller Russia investigation?”
Jenkins knit his brow anxiously. “The scuttlebutt is that the next person on the second tier of the staff who is fired off the investigation gets replaced either by me, or by one of three other guys I’ve been working with for about ten years.”
“So it’s only a twenty-five percent chance,” I philosophized. “Now, I know you wouldn’t get on an airplane that only had a three-in-four chance of arriving at its destination, but…”
“The scuttlebutt also says,” he interjected, “the second person fired off that tier of the Russia investigation org chart gets replaced by either me or one of the two remaining guys. So when President Trump starts the heads rolling, it’s going to be more like a ninety-percent chance I end up on the FBI Russia investigation. And when I get there, I’m going to have a choice of either trashing my FBI career or contributing to a conspiracy to obstruct justice orchestrated by the President of the United States. Either way, I’m toast!”
“Given that you’ve had a heads-up on this,” I queried, “Have you thought about going to work for another federal agency, like the BATF&E, DEA, DHS or Treasury? Or maybe some major metropolitan police force, like NYPD or LAPD?”
A slight smile appeared on Jenkins’ face as he stared into the fire. “Testing me again, huh?”
“Just to see how analytical your approach is,” I allowed.
“Go to work somewhere else?” Jenkins chuckled. “Tell my why I can’t do that, Tom.”
“Because,” I answered, “the FBI is the top of the heap. Sure, you could go to work for any of those other law enforcement organizations after you retire. But if you go to work for them before you retire, everyone there is going to wonder why you quit the FBI. There will be whispers, rumors and innuendos flying all over the place behind your back. That, combined with massive professional jealousy, means you’ll never get anywhere at any of those places. You might as well just apply to Wackenhut for a job as a security guard.”
“Right,” he affirmed. “Nobody just leaves the FBI before they retire and goes to work somewhere else without a lot of questions being asked. It’s just not an option.”
“And quitting the FBI to work as an independent consultant?” I prodded. “Why couldn’t you do that?”
“Because,” he sighed, “as you can probably tell, I’m nowhere near intelligent enough to make serious bucks at it – not that I’m ashamed, because I know neither are the vast majority of my fellow FBI agents. And no, before you even ask, I’ve never worked on any cases that were violent enough, gory enough, sexy enough or involved enough money, gold, diamonds, thermonuclear bombs, cyber hacks, celebrities or espionage to write even one book than anyone would want to read. And I know it, too, so at least give me credit for realizing that.”
“And you’re not a lawyer?” I sought to confirm.
“Double major in organized criminology and forensic accounting,” he ruefully said. “Perfect for cracking the Mob or… working on the Mueller Russia investigation, unfortunately. No way I could take off the time to attend law school, either, not with a kid in Georgetown Prep and another one at Cornell, and both of them just like their old man, which is to say, nowhere near smart enough for a free ride on scholarships. Damn it all, Tom, I need this job at the FBI! Tell me – what the hell can I do?”
“Sit tight,” I advised. “The whole affair could very well pass you by. But if worse comes to worst and you are ordered to report to work on the Mueller Russia investigation, you should immediately recuse yourself.”
Jenkins’ eyebrows shot up. “Recuse myself?”
“Absolutely,” I confirmed. “President Trump has already demanded that Mueller recuse himself from heading the Russia investigation for several reasons. First, Trump claims that Mueller can’t be objective because Mueller owes him money for fees at the Trump National Golf Club. Secondly, Trump has demanded that Mueller recuse himself because Mueller once worked for a law firm that once represented Jared Kushner, and since Kushner is now Trump’s son-in-law, Mueller can’t be impartial. Third, Trump wants a Mueller recusal because Trump interviewed him for the post of FBI Director prior to Mueller being appointed Special Counsel for the Russia investigation. Fourth, Trump says that Mueller must recuse himself because Mueller’s wife ran for office as a Democrat. Now tell me, what parties do you and your wife belong to?”
“We’re both Republicans,” he groaned as he face-palmed, “but to tell the truth, lately we’ve been wondering why.”
“Stay Republicans!” I exhorted. “That’s excellent! Stay Republicans until and unless you are ordered to begin work on the Mueller Russia investigation. If that happens, your wife should change her registration to Democrat and file to run for the first available political office in your jurisdiction.”
“File to run as a Democrat?” Jenkins was flabbergasted. “Run for what?”
“Anything!” I yelled. “Anything at all – registrar of wills, tax assessor, city councilwoman, mayor, state representative, school board, sheriff, coroner, dog catcher – it doesn’t matter! Just as long as she’s running for office as a Democrat somewhere it’s legal for her to do so! That’s all you need!”
“And then…” Jenkins paused, his face lit up, and a huge broad smile burst across it. “Then I go to the honchos and tell them, ‘Golly gee willikers, sirs, I sure would like to work on the Mueller Russia investigation, but I have to recuse myself because my wife is running for office as a Democrat, and the last thing we want is to provide the opposition with another piece of ammunition to use in an attempt to discredit all this fine, well-intentioned and very expensive work that’s already been done!’”
“And they will give you the hairy eyeball…” I began.
“Yes,” he chuckled, “I’m sure they will. But that I can take! And I’ll be off the hook! Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, free at last!”
“Sounds like your work is done here, Tom,” Cerise’s voice rang out as she stood at the entrance to the den. “And while we’re waiting for the storm to abate and his clothes to dry, do you think your… friend… would like a nice hot bowl of that bouillabaisse you made from scratch this morning?”
“I’m sure he would,” I vouched.
“Okay,” she smirked. “How about I put a shot of cognac in that, too?”
“Yes, definitely, shots all around,” I replied as I picked up two fresh logs. “Let’s all have a bowl relaxing out here around the fire. If we’re lucky, the cat will deign to join us.”