It felt like a noble gesture at the time, and I was in the mood for an adventure. The summer my wife was pregnant with our first child and President Clinton was slipping toward impeachment, I volunteered to drive a crippled dog from my home in Montana, where it was being cared for by patrons of our local Humane Society, to the New York City apartment of a rich young man, a Rockefeller, who had adopted it on the Internet.
His first name was Clark. We met over the phone. I called him as a favor to my wife, Maggie, the Humane Society's president, who was trying to help out Harry and Mary Piper,
the people who had rescued the poor creature after she was run over by a car. They'd paid for the surgery that saved her life, arranged for her to be treated with Reiki massage, and taught her to use a canine wheelchair whose tires did the work of her paralyzed hind legs. The heirs to a Minnesota banking fortune and devout Episcopalians (Mary was in training to become a priest), the Pipers had recently taken Maggie and me to dinner and complained about the difficulty of transporting the dog to the East Coast. They feared entrusting her to a commercial airline because of her perilous condition, and though Clark had told them that he owned a plane, he said it was tied up in China with his wife, Sandra, an international management consultant. When I heard about this, I offered to play the middleman, in part as a way of assuaging my guilty conscience over the death of one of Maggie's shelter dogs I'd hit with my pickup truck a few months earlier. But I had another reason altogether for wanting to speak with Clark: I was a writer, even more importantly, a writer between books, and I had a hunch I was going to meet a character.
Clark opened our initial call with the story of the adoption. He told me he'd learned of the dog, whose name was Shelby, through a Web site devoted to finding owners for homeless Gordon setters, a breed that he prized for its links to British royalty and for its bounding, avid temperament. He knew instantly that he wanted her, he said, and had been trading e-mails with the Pipers in his quest to convince them that he should have her. His building was only a block from Central Park, meaning that Shelby would have ample room to exercise and "engage in morning squirrel hunts." What's more, Clark volunteered, in the apartment under his lived Manhattan's "top veterinary acupuncturist." He said he'd already spoken with this healer and felt confident that, with his help, Shelby would someday make a full recovery.
"I'm afraid that's unlikely," I said. "Her spine was crushed. I'm not sure you know this, but there's a possibility that somebody shot her before she was run over."
"Have you ever been treated with acupuncture?"
"Well, no," I stammered.
"Then you remain unacquainted with its magic."
The call lasted over an hour, derailing my day. I was on deadline that morning for Time magazine, working in my small office above a western-clothing store to convert a stack of raw reporting produced by various stringers around the country into an intelligible story about some matter of popular sociology — TV violence, children of divorce — that couldn't be dealt with in a hundred pages but that I had to summarize in four. I didn't particularly like the job but I was in dire need of money just then, having recently borrowed half a million dollars to buy a five-hundred-acre ranch ten miles north of the town of Livingston in what a poetic realtor had described as "the shadows of the Crazy Mountains." The place was a picturesque ruin of sagging fences, overgrazed pastures, and broken-down corrals whose hayfields were irrigated by shallow ditches riddled with rattlesnake dens and badger holes. The house had a kitchen with a toilet in it, out in the open, not far from the sink, and its top floor was abandoned and boarded shut. I'd bought the place to fulfill a dream of self-sufficient country living, but I was discovering that paying for it would mean working harder than I ever had at assignments much drearier than I could bear. The scariest part was that my loan — a private contract with the ranch's old owner, a podiatrist from Billings — stipulated that I could lose the place if I missed even a single monthly payment.
Clark did most of the talking during the call. He told me a lot about himself, and much of what he told me was hard to process without the ability to see his face and know if he was joking or exaggerating. He told me he'd never gone to high school. He told me he collected modern art but that he found it ugly: "Pure puke on canvas." He told me he only ate bread he baked himself. He told me he owned another Gordon setter named Yates on whom he lavished three-course meals prepared from fresh ingredients by his private chef. He asked for the number of my fax machine so he could send me copies of the recipes.
"You actually write these recipes out?" I asked him.
"My people do," he said.
While I waited for the document, drinking cold coffee at my cluttered desk and ignoring the beeping of my phone line (my editors at Time were trying to reach me), I asked Clark what he did for work. My hunch was that he did nothing at all.
"At present," he said, "I'm a freelance central banker."
I asked him to explain.
"Think of a country's money supply," he said, "as a lake or a river behind a dam. Think of me as the keeper of that dam. I decide how much water flows over its turbines at what velocity, and for what duration. The trick is to let through sufficient water to nourish and sustain a country's crops but not so much that it floods the fields and drowns them."
"Which countries," I asked Clark, "do you do this for?"
"At the moment? Thailand."
"That's a lot of responsibility."
"Which countries before Thailand?"
"This can't be a common profession."
"We invented it. My company did, I mean. Asterisk LLC."
He spoke with an accent, clipped and international, and occasionally tossed in a word, like "erstwhile" or "improprietous," that seemed to tie a bow on the sentence that included it. I judged his peculiar manner to be the product of a profoundly insulated upbringing. I recalled meeting a few people like him in college at Princeton — pedigreed, boastful, overschooled eccentrics who spoke like cousins of Katharine Hepburn — but I'd been raised in rural Minnesota, deep in manure-scented dairy country, and I'd never succeeded in getting close to them. Their clubs wouldn't have me, I didn't play their sports, and I found them a bit repulsive physically, what with their prematurely thinning hair and delicate, intestinal-pink skin. After college, while studying at Oxford on a fellowship, I'd managed to mix with some of their British counterparts, even Princess Diana's younger brother, but I was just a novelty to them, a vulgar New World entertainment. When my time at Oxford ended, I hung on in London for several months doing clerical work at a small law firm and tearing around with a crew of titled party boys. In truth, I couldn't keep up with them. The cabs. The bar tabs. Eventually I flew back to America and landed a job at Vanity Fair writing punning headlines for fluffy stories about Nancy Reagan's Italian gown designer and Sting's wife's charity activities, but my boss didn't like that I stayed in at night instead of throwing myself into the social scene and I was fired within a year.
But Clark seemed to like me, and to want me to like him. When the dog menu started creeping from the fax machine, it persuaded me of his eagerness.
2 cups freshly cooked brown rice
1 green vegetable (usually green squash) finely ground in food processor
1 yellow vegetable (usually carrots) finely ground in food processor
1 clove garlic finely ground in food processor
1–2 lbs. raw fatty beef, ground fresh in food processor just before feeding
or 1–2 lbs. cooked ground turkey/chicken
or 1 can salmon
some kelp powder, 1 TBS brewer's yeast, some bonemeal, 2 TBS wheat germ, some bee pollen
Reading over this mad, painstaking document, I resolved to meet Clark in the flesh, should I ever get the chance. As a novelist, I'd be guilty of professional malpractice if I didn't try.
He still wasn't finished trying to impress me. As though he thought it would burnish his credentials for the role of the setter's adoptive parent, he told me that he lived next door to Tony Bennett, whom he said he could hear rehearsing through the walls at night. He told me that he had degrees from Harvard and Yale, where he'd studied economics and mathematics. He told me that he could sing the words to any song that I might name to the tune of the theme from Gilligan's Island, and he demonstrated with a Cole Porter lyric. He told me that he'd learned from "sources" that Prince Charles and the Queen had murdered Diana with the help of a team of crack commandos, and he said that he knew from speaking with a close friend (the Admiral of the Navy's Seventh Fleet) that the People's Republic of China and the United States had recently signed a secret treaty allowing the Communists to invade Taiwan, without opposition, at their convenience.
"That's the story of the coming century: Chinese Lebensraum," he said. "We're back in the 1930s before the war, and it's not going to end well. Prepare yourself, Walter. I warn you."
"How?" I said.
"I'm serious. How?" I asked. "Because, frankly, I'm with you on some of this."
"On the general drift toward global conflict."
"Here," Clark said, "is how it soon shall be. Japan will be the front porch of their new empire, whose might will push out to Australia and New Zealand. We will retreat to Hawaii, a shrunken power, and a new hemispheric order will take hold. In time, we'll be forced to renounce our Western alliances as we submit to the interests of the East. Indeed, this is what's happening already; it simply has yet to be publicly announced."
When I mentioned to Clark that I reviewed books for New York magazine, he told me that just a couple of days earlier he'd written a book review himself — his first ever, for Amazon.com. He directed me to it while we were on the phone and insisted that I read it then and there on my computer. The book in question was Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue and the review was titled "Move Over, L. Ron Hubbard, Here Comes Neale Donald Walsch." Its lofty, scolding, condescending tone was poorly matched to its sophomoric prose:
Neale Donald Walsch, a writer with a clear God-complex, presumes to speak for God in an imaginary conversation of mostly upper-case "Me" sentences . . . Written in Question and Answer format and almost all short words and sentences that even Hemingway could not have made any shorter, the book should have appeal to the marginally literate. Its Do-Whatever-Feels-Right philosophy should give anyone enough justification to live a 1960s Free Love lifestyle. In my favorite line, p. 61, God said through Mr. Walsch that "Hitler Went to Heaven."
"Book sounds bad," I said when I was done.
"But what do you think of the review?"
There are certain subjects that I can't lie about, so I tried to be diplomatic. "Well, it's spirited."
Finally, we got down to business about the dog. Clark lamented the fact that his plane was indisposed, and he let it be known that he didn't drive. He asked me if Shelby might be sent by train. I told him the train would take days and wasn't dependable — if Amtrak even carried animals. Then I brought up the idea of hiring a courier. I offered to find one, negotiate a price, and handle all the necessary arrangements.
"I'm afraid that won't do," Clark said.
I asked why not.
He answered with a long litany of his bad experiences with "service people," from greedy plumbers to dishonest maids. They faked injuries. They filed lawsuits. They pilfered family heirlooms. It was such a shame. Society had changed. People had lost all sense of personal honor — people at every level, low and high. Indeed, it was the people at the top, in government but particularly in business, whose lack of integrity most discouraged him.
"I'd rather not use a stranger for this job. I'd rather entrust it to a friend," Clark said. "To be candid, I have security concerns."
Out my window, half a mile away, a coal train was grinding and clanking its way through town, and my mind suddenly wandered. I led a strange existence in Montana, the result of many strange decisions. Eight years earlier, in the spring of 1990, I'd come here from New York to report on a religious cult that was preparing for Armageddon. The leader of the cult, a middle-aged woman who claimed to channel the spirits of such fabled figures as the Buddha, Sir Francis Bacon, and Merlin, was urging her followers to leave their homes and move to a bomb shelter dug into a mountainside. I bought one of these houses for a low price (the End of the World creates motivated sellers), thinking I'd use it as a writing retreat. I ended up staying. Five years later, impulse struck again. After a ten-month courtship, I married Maggie, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the novelist Thomas McGuane and the actress Margot Kidder. I was thirty-four. I did things my way. Now, three years later, we had a baby coming and lived on a ranch that I'd purchased on a whim and had no notion of how to run.
"Are we out of ideas?" Clark said.
He knew we weren't. As I'd told the Pipers at dinner the previous night, I'd done the drive to New York City before. Three years earlier, a few months after our wedding, I'd signed a short lease on a small loft located in Manhattan's Flower District, feeling cramped in a town of seven thousand scandalized by my marriage to a teenager. I'd also needed a break from my new mother-in-law, who had moved back to Livingston to be near Maggie after having lived here in the 1970s during the town's chaotic bohemian heyday. Margot's brief marriage to Maggie's father had been an outlandish cultural period piece, torrid with stimulants and infidelity, and her return to the scene unbalanced her. A few months after my wedding, she broke down on a visit to Los Angeles, ran through the airport fleeing imagined killers, flung away her dentures and her purse, and turned up days later in suburban Glendale living under a hedge in someone's yard with almost all her hair chopped off. She returned to Montana to rest and gather her wits. The next thing I knew she was sitting in our living room being interviewed by Barbara Walters, whose crew and equipment forced me from the house and onto our front steps, where the neighbors had gathered, seeking Barbara's autograph.
I couldn't skip town soon enough. I packed up my car, put Maggie on a plane, and hurled myself into a wet gray prairie blizzard that didn't let up until I reached Saint Paul, where I decided to proceed through Canada rather than via Chicago and the southern route. I finally calmed down as I approached New York. Why hadn't I just stayed in Manhattan, I wondered now. Because I couldn't afford to, I remembered. The city had cleaned itself up during my absence and real estate prices had arrowed off the graph. The crack epidemic that was raging when I left had been replaced by a luxury condo epidemic. Worse, my old Princeton friends were getting rich, in some cases thanks to having bought such condos just as I was skedaddling to Montana. Their clothes came from shops that I felt unworthy to enter and their wedding receptions featured bands that made real records, records that reached the charts.
Before Clark and I were off the phone, I'd made up my mind to drive the dog myself. It took another call to make arrangements, but by the time he proposed a "handsome stipend" as a token of his "boundless gratitude," we both understood the terms of our new friendship. He would delight me with comic songs and dog menus and access to a circle I'd thought closed to me, and I would repay him with the indulgent loyalty that writers reserve for their favorite characters, the ones, it's said, we can't make up.
Excerpted from Blood Will Out: The True Story of A Murder, A Mystery, and A Masquerade by Walter Kirn. Copyright 2014 by Walter Kirn. Excerpted by permission of Liveright.