“A great deal,” Mahoney confirmed.

“Just so,” said Muehlenhaus.

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“We made him governor,” Donovan added. “We would like to make him a U.S. senator.”

“Why stop there?” I asked.

“Why indeed?”

Jesus.

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“We—as I’m sure you’ll appreciate—are prepared to protect that investment.”

“When we say ‘we,’ we’re referring to the party,” said Muehlenhaus. “After decades of being in the minority, the party has made great strides in Minnesota,” said Coole. “Much of that is due to Governor Barrett. He’s comparatively young. Attractive. Charismatic. He’s well known in the state and becoming well known throughout the nation—a high school sports hero, a self-made man rising above small-town poverty to become successful in business, respected for his philanthropic activities. He has been a splendid standard-bearer. So much so, that many people are considering him for higher office, perhaps the highest office.”

“He’s also willing to spend as much as twenty million dollars of his own money on his campaign,” added Mahoney.

“There’s that, too,” said Coole.

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“You tell us,” Donovan said.

Muehlenhaus leaned forward.

“The first lady asked you to do a favor for her—please, don’t deny it. The favors you perform for your friends don’t always bear up well to public scrutiny. We would like to understand what this particular favor entails, but we will no longer press you on the matter. We wish only to impress you with this one fact: If there is a problem with the first lady, we can make it go away. We are determined to make it go away. In that regard, are we not allies?”

“Mr. McKenzie,” said Donovan. “We are not asking you to help us. We are asking that you allow us to help you.”

“We’ll reward you well for your cooperation,” added Mahoney.

A feeling of excitement grew in my stomach and a kind of hollow feeling, too, that I couldn’t give a name. I couldn’t do anything about the feeling and wasn’t sure I wanted to. Like most people, I have been on the outside looking in while men and women I didn’t know manipulated events and made decisions that affected my life, sometimes gravely. Now I was being asked to participate, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner. It made me feel the way I had when I was a freshman in high school and the “cool” kids invited me to lunch at their table. It made me feel important.

Then Donovan had to ruin it all by saying, “At the same time, we will not allow you or anyone else to devalue our investment in the governor.”

Suddenly, I was a guy who found himself lost in an elaborate maze without a ball of string or a trail of bread crumbs to lead him to safety. The voice in the back of my head that I had learned to trust long ago was now screaming at me. These men can’t be trusted. ’Course, I knew that before I even walked into the room.

“Gentlemen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I stood and rolled my chair under the table. “The first lady is my friend, that’s true. But if she has a problem, as you say, I am unaware of what it could be. ’Course, if I did know, I wouldn’t discuss it with you or anyone else. That’s a promise I make to all of my friends and I never break my promises. Just to prove it, I’ll make you a promise. You fuck with me or my friends, I’ll fuck with you. I won’t pretend that you and your resources don’t scare me. They do. But you know what? I can be pretty scary, too.” I pointed at the file in front of Muehlenhaus. “Ask around.”

Coole, Gunhus, and Mahoney looked at each other to see if they were even remotely frightened by my remarks. Apparently not. Muehlenhaus seemed delighted. He clasped his hands together and laughed. Donovan laughed with him, just not as vigorously.

I was astonished by their reaction and probably looked it.

The old man said, “You’ll do, McKenzie. You’ll do fine.”

The thought I had at the Groveland Tap pushed itself from the back of my brain right up front. You are a schnook.

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