By Tony Hillerman
Published by HarperCollins
May 2003; 006019443X; 240 pages
David Slate reached across the tiny table in Bistro Bis and handed an envelope to the graying man with the stiff burr haircut.
"You are now Carl Mankin," Slate said. "You are newly retired from the Central Intelligence Agency. You are currently employed as a consultant for Seamless Weld. Along with your new credit card, Carl, that envelope holds a lot of authentic-looking stuff from Seamless. Business cards, expense account forms -- that sort of material. But the credit card should cover any expenses."
"Carl Mankin," the burr-haired man said, inspecting the card. "And a Visa card. 'Carl Mankin' should be easy to remember. And by next Tuesday, I actually will be newly retired from the CIA." He was older than middle age, well past sixty, but trim, sunburned, and young looking. He sorted through the papers from the envelope and smiled at Slate. "However, I don't seem to find a contract in here," he said.
Slate laughed. "And I'll bet you didn't expect to find one, either. The senator works on the old-fashioned 'gentlemen's agreement' contract. You know, 'Your word's as good as your bond.' That sounds odd here in Washington these days, but some of the old-timers still like to pretend there is honor alive among the political thieves."
"Remind me of what that word is, then," the new Carl Mankin said. "As I remember it, you buy my time for thirty days, or until the job is done. Or failing that, I tell you it can't be done. And the pay is fifty thousand dollars, either way it works out."
"And expenses," Slate said. "But the credit card should cover that unless you're paying somebody to tell you something." He chuckled. "Somebody who doesn't accept a Visa card."
Carl Mankin put everything back into the envelope, and the envelope on the table beside his salad plate. "Who actually pays the credit card bill? I noticed my Carl Mankin address is in El Paso, Texas."
"That's the office of Seamless Weld," Slate said. "The outfit you're working for."
"The senator owns it? That doesn't sound likely."
"It isn't likely. It's one of the many subsidiaries of Searigs Corporation, and that, so I understand, is partly owned and totally controlled by A.G.H. Industries."
"Searigs? That's the outfit that built the offshore-drilling platforms for Nigeria," said Carl Mankin. "Right?"
"And in the North Sea," Slate said. "For the Norwegians. Or was it the Swedish?"
"Owned by the senator?"
"Of course not. Searigs is part of A.G.H. Industries. What are you getting at, anyway?"
"I am trying to get at who I am actually working for."
Slate sipped his orange juice, grinned at Carl Mankin, said: "You surely don't think anyone would have told me that, do you?"
"I think you could guess. You're the senator's chief administrative aide, his picker of witnesses for the committees he runs, his doer of undignified deeds, his maker of deals with the various lobbyists -- " Mankin laughed. "And need I say it, his finder of other guys like me to run the senator's errands with somebody else paying the fee. So I surely do think you could make an accurate guess. But would you tell me if you did?"
Slate smiled. "Probably not. And I am almost certain you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"In which case, I should probably make sure to get my pay in advance."
Slate nodded. "Exactly. When we finish lunch, and you pay for it with your new Visa card, we'll go down to the bank I use. We transfer forty-nine thousand five hundred dollars into Carl Mankin's account there, and I present you the deposit slip."
"And the other five hundred?"
Slate got out his wallet, extracted a deposit slip, and handed it to Carl Mankin. It showed a Carl Mankin account opened the previous day with a five-hundred-dollar deposit. Mankin put it in his shirt pocket, then took it out and laid it on the table.
"An account opened for an imaginary man without his signature. I didn't know that could be done."
Slate laughed. "It's easy if the proper vice president calls down from upstairs and says do it."
"We need to be clear about this," Mankin said. "You want me to go out to that big Four Corners oil patch in New Mexico, look it over, see if I can find out how the pipeline system out there was used -- and maybe still is being used -- to bypass paying royalty money into the Interior Department's trust fund for the Indians. Does that about summarize the job?"
"That's a big part of it. The most important information of all is the names of those switching the stuff around so the money for it goes into the right pockets. And who owns the pockets."
"And the senator understands that this is likely to produce nothing. I presume it is one of a whole bunch of ways he's looking for some way to pin the blame, or the corruption, on somebody for that four- or five-billion-dollar loss of royalty money from the Tribal Trust Funds. The one the Washington Post has been writing about for the past month. The one the Secretary of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs honchos are in trouble over."
Slate was grinning again. "Was that intended as a question? What do the press secretaries say to questions like that?" He slipped into a serious, disapproving expression. "We never comment on speculation."
"The newspapers say that this ripping off the four billion or so of Tribal royalty money has been going on for more than fifty years. And they're quoting the government bean counters. Right? I can't see much hope of me finding anything new ..."
The victim, well dressed but stripped of identification, is found at the edge of the vast Jicarilla Apache natural gas field just inside the jurisdiction of the Navajo Tribal Police, facing Sergeant Jim Chee with a complex puzzle.
Why did the Washington office of the FBI snatch custody of this case from its local agents, cover it with secrecy, and call it a hunting accident? What was the victim seeking among the maze of pipelines and pumping stations in America's largest gas field? Was he investigating the embezzlement of billions of dollars from the Indian Tribal royalty trust in the Department of the Interior?
On a level nearer to Chee's heart, did the photographs Bernie Manuelito take on an exotic game ranch near the Mexican border reveal something connected with this crime? Did Bernie, once a member of Chee's squad but now a rookie Border Patrol Officer, put herself in terrible danger?
Tony Hillerman leads his readers through another of his intricate plots to the solution of this crime, with a cast of vivid characters: a Washington political mogul and his more-or-less renegade pilot; a customs official who bends the rules; a Mexican smuggler with a conscience; and, finally, "Legendary Lieutenant" Joe Leaphorn, now retired, who connects the lines on a dusty old map to find the answers -- and the Sinister Pig -- among the great scimitar-horned oryx grazing on the historic Tuttle Ranch.(back to top)
Tony Hillerman is past president of Mystery Writers of America and has received their Edgar and Grand Master Awards. His other honors include the Center for the American Indian's Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for the best novel set in the West, the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award, the National Media Award from the American Anthropological Association, the Public Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Nero Wolfe Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book, an honorary life membership in the Western Literature Association, and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policiére. In addition to his election to Phi Beta Kappa, Tony Hillerman has been named Doctor of Humane Letters at Arizona State University and at Oregon's Portland State University. He lives with his wife, Marie, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.