Chapter 6

In the nine months that followed the Warsaw trip, Jesse heard little about the case once the furor of the press moved on. The much-anticipated renewed public backlash against the investigative journalism program never arrived. The CUNY administration was visibly relieved, but they all had to wonder when the other shoe might fall. Were Marcel and his brother working behind the scenes to put together a counter-spying team? Was anyone from CUNY already being followed? It seemed prudent to be watchful and to keep an eye on the brothers' campaign in Poland, but no one wanted to discuss the matter, much less do anything about it.

One Thursday morning, a uniformed university police officer knocked on the door of Jesse's office.

"Mr. Jesse Winter?" the officer asked, glancing at a sheet of paper in his hand and looking back at Jesse.

"Yes?" Jesse replied.

"I'm detective Morse from the CUNY police department, I'd like to ask you a few questions, if that's all right."

"Certainly. Please come in." This should be good, Jesse thought, feeling his pulse quicken.

The officer stood near the door, refusing Jesse's offer of a chair. "Mr. Winter," he said, "one of the members of the board of directors has launched an investigation into your involvement in the Warsaw incident from June. Are you familiar with that case?"

"Yes, I traveled to Poland in June to negotiate on behalf of the university. What's this about?"

"Would you mind coming down to the station to talk about it? We can be sure of our privacy there."

"Am I under arrest, detective?"

"No, sir. We just want you to discuss a few things with us."

"This office is private. Why not stay here?" Jesse felt his old privacy hackles starting to rise. My office is certainly more private than an interrogation room.

"With all due respect, Jesse, given your involvement in this case you should know better than to assume something like that."

Jesse's visit to the CUNY police department was short and terrifying. He learned that one of the board members, Stewart Rheingold, was investigating him for professional misconduct related to the Warsaw negotiations. It was improper and against the law, the claim went, that Jesse made implicit legal threats against foreign nationals in order to secure the release of students who had broken Polish law. Rheingold had been a vocal opponent of the investigative journalism program from the outset, and his position on the board of directors made him privy to the internal operations of the program, including Jesse's job description and the details of his work.

Still, Rheingold was not in the loop regarding what happened in Warsaw. Only Jesse's immediate superior, the Dean, had known what transpired. The Dean was a trusted associate who knew the high stakes for that trip. There had been other instances when reporters had been circling like sharks, looking for a juicy story of undercover deals that they could turn into an exclusive. The Dean had been gracious but firm, refusing to share details or to implicate Jesse. The information had leaked another way, but it would be days before Jesse understood how.

The detective was as helpful as he could have been without breaching protocol. He knew that Rheingold had a personal axe to grind. When Jesse asked what the next few weeks would bring as the case proceeded, he was told that the department wouldn't continue with the investigation unless Rheingold could produce more evidence than a hunch. Detective Morse couldn't share the details of the charges that had been filed, but he made it clear that this would be an uphill battle for the plaintiff.

When the trial dates were finally set, the details of the case against Jesse were foggier than ever. Due to the confidential nature of the case, the evidence submitted by the university's prosecutor was sealed in an envelope for the judge to view privately with both attorneys. Jesse had hired an attorney from a local firm that specialized in privacy and first amendment litigation. At 50, the guy had been around the block more than once, and he seemed the type to be cool under pressure.

The case against Jesse was surprisingly weak, but the university prosecutor had constructed an elaborate argument that had a chance of succeeding. If he could convince the judge that Jesse had issued a threat, even an implied one, then Jesse could be found guilty of obstruction of justice. His attorney seemed confident that the judge would reject the argument, but its plausibility made Jesse nervous. If the key question was whether Jesse issued a threat, then he was in a difficult position. He had issued a threat, although it was not spoken. Anyone who had been privy to the conversation in Warsaw would have understood that what Jesse said was a threat. But the thing gnawing at Jesse's mind was how that information had made its way to the ear of one of the board members. One of two things was true. Either Rheingold had secured a copy of the documents on the tablet computer that Jesse had carried to Warsaw, or Marcel and his brother had made a contact in the United States. The latter worried Jesse on a much deeper level than the former.

On the final day of the trial, Jesse sat alone while his attorney consulted with the judge and the prosecutor. He found himself thinking of his parents, wondering what they were doing at that instant. He had told them about the legal issues but reassured them that it was nothing serious. The case had not gone to the papers. They were probably enjoying a nice breakfast at home. His mother would be heading outside to weed the garden, and his father would be walking his collie or preparing a lecture for his classes. They wouldn't be pleased about the predicament that Jesse was in, but they would understand and support his decisions. He knew that much.

When the judge came out to issue the verdict, Jesse's attorney gave him a reassuring smile.

"Will the defendant please rise?" the judge drawled.

Jesse stood up from his wooden chair, straightening his jacket.

"In the case of Rheingold versus Winter, we find the defendant not guilty on the charges of obstruction of justice. Mr. Winter, you are free to leave." After a brief pause, the judge cleared his throat and added: "Off the record, I think that this case was a poor use of the court's time. Good day, gentlemen."

Amid some scattered applause and hushed chatter from those around him, Jesse slowly processed the verdict. He was cleared of wrongdoing. But the gnawing feeling that something was left unresolved did not budge. The nature of the trial evidence was sketchy, and the judge seemed reluctant to broach the topic during a public hearing. This had been Jesse's first experience of a trial, but he judged from the body language of the attorneys and the judge himself that the more experienced men found the proceedings unusual.

After a final debriefing with his attorney, Jesse left the courthouse and walked toward his car. As he fumbled in his pocket for his keys, his head spinning and reliving moments from the trial, he felt someone sock him on the shoulder. Instinctively stepping away from the man who had appeared beside him, Jesse slowly recognized a familiar face.

"Good show, Jesse," Sascha Greene said with a wink.

"Hey, Sascha," Jesse said. He smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. "Were you in there? I didn't see you."

"Yeah, I wanted to see what the university had up its sleeve. I guess we saw that logical gymnastics is their main game. How do you feel about it?"

Jesse shook his head. "I don't know. Obviously, I'm happy that they didn't end my career. I'm happy that the judge had a sense of humor. I learned a lot about the politics of our board of directors."


"Well, something doesn't add up. Rheingold shouldn't have known anything about what happened in Warsaw. All the press knows is that the university negotiated a deal and kept the students out of hot water. And that was the official story from the university. How did he know?"

Sascha nodded, looking over his shoulder for a moment. "Let's get some lunch. My treat."

Jesse shrugged. "All right. I'm starving."

"You look like you haven't slept since Warsaw," Sascha said, dipping a shrimp in his cup of ranch salad dressing.

"You'd be surprised how close you are to the truth."

"Have you ever met Stewart Rheingold?"

"I've seen him at a few board meetings. He likes to talk."

"Unfortunately for you, he likes to act too. The guy is a modern day Joe McCarthy. His big issue is national autonomy. If anyone mentions the global economy, he starts frothing at the mouth. I saw him take a senior professor to task because of the tie he was wearing. Something about the supply chain that was involved and the China's currency tactics. Anyway, it's probably nothing personal. He saw an opportunity to teach us all a lesson and make an example of the school that's supposed to be under his supervision, and he pounced.

"The part that really has you wondering, though, is how he sweet talked his way into a copy of the materials that you and your boss thought were private."

Jesse looked up from his plate, studying Sascha's face. "That's right. Although that's only one possibility. The guys in Warsaw can't be happy about how things went down. They might have tipped off Rheingold about what was said."

"It's possible," Sascha said, "but let me tell you something. Yesterday when I was leaving work, I overheard an interesting conversation in the elevator. One of the administrative assistants for the Department of Financial Aid was telling a her co-worker about a document that she had retyped and converted into digitally signed and encrypted format. Not too many documents get that treatment, so it piqued my interest. She mentioned that the topic was a trip to eastern Europe. She also knew -- and this is the key -- that the university was planning to exercise an unorthodox strategy to secure the cooperation of the Polish guys. Something about the students' parents. She didn't give details, but it sounded complicated and legally questionable.

"That much by itself isn't interesting. The administrative assistants know a hell of a lot about what happens on campus, but everyone knows that. Here's the rub, Jesse. The woman in the elevator is good friends with Rheingold's wife. They vacation together each year. When the paperwork for your trip got processed and the students were released, it would have been easy for the administrative assistants to put the pieces together. The trip could have come up in casual conversation, and Rheingold would have been very keen to hear the details."

Jesse nodded, letting the new information percolate. "We'd better hope that there are no more lawsuits like mine. Eventually someone will find a team of lawyers that can bring down the whole program. They made a reasonable case against me, and I feel like the judge let me go on a technicality."

"Hardly," Sascha said though a bite of his sandwich. "The judge made a reasoned decision. Any evidence that you made a threat would be hearsay or circumstantial. He couldn't convict you on that. Remember, Jesse, you did the right thing. Those guys picked their strategy twenty years ago, and you know how it turned out. They've been in damage control mode ever since."

"Thanks, Sascha, but the fact that they're in damage control isn't comforting. What if they still see us as a threat? Taking me down could be revenge, or it could be a simple matter of neutralizing a threat."

"If they wanted to neutralize the threat, they would have gone after your bosses. You're a talented guy, Jesse, and the university will miss you when you move on. But in a more global sense, and to these guys in Poland, you're just another guy, and CUNY could replace you in an instant. It's the program, and the fact that we admitted a bunch of students whose families have a policital axe to grind, that are the real threat. I hear you, man, but I think your worry is misplaced."

"It's good to hear that from someone I trust. I've been trying to convince myself that I was just being paranoid. The trial has completely consumed me lately, and I think it's made me a little unbalanced. Getting back to work will do me a world of good."

"Get to it, then," Sascha said, finishing his last bite of pickle and dropping a few bills on the table. Let me know if you need anything. And I mean anything." He gave Jesse a significant look.

Jesse nodded. "If I hear footsteps, you know I'll be in touch."