The Ambition

Lee Strobel

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Ambition by Lee Strobel (Zondervan).

Chapter One

As he walked toward the metal detector in the lobby of the Cook County Criminal Courts building, Tom O’Sullivan’s heart pounded so hard and so fast and so loud that he was almost afraid a sheriff’s deputy would hear it. Or that someone would notice the sweat on his upper lip. Or that a security guard’s suspicion might be aroused by his awkward smile, a rather transparent attempt to act naturally.

Through the years, Thomas Ryan O’Sullivan III, attorney at law, had entered the squat, concrete building on Chicago’s West Side countless times to defend drug dealers and second-rate thugs charged with felonies. But this time was different; today this scion of a oncepowerful political family was coming to commit an egregious crime of his own.

A sheriff’s deputy picked up Tom’s attaché case from where he’d dropped it on a table for inspection. The deputy made brief eye contact with him; there was a glimmer of recognition, and the officer didn’t even bother to open the case. Tom had counted on the fact that attorneys warrant only casual attention from the security force, especially frequent visitors like himself.

“G’morning, counselor,” the deputy said with a nod, handing Tom the briefcase after he emerged from the metal detector. Tom didn’t linger. “Have a good one,” he said, grabbing his case with one hand and scooping his watch and car keys from the plastic container with his other. He turned and walked briskly toward the elevator. His footsteps echoed loudly in the cavernous hall, and he forced himself to slow down.

Is the deputy still watching me? Should I have shot the breeze for a few minutes? What about the security cameras — will anyone watch where I’m going?

Reaching the elevator, Tom glanced back toward the entrance. The deputy was busy patting down a defendant who had arrived for trial. Tom sighed deeply, shoved his personal effects into his pocket, and pushed the call button. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the perspiration from under the modest wave of reddish-brown hair that swept across his forehead.

How many times, he wondered, had his father dispatched thugs — the kind Tom usually represented — on clandestine missions like this? It was the first time he had ever allowed himself such a thought. He preferred to remember his dad the way he saw him while growing up — powerful, connected, warranting universal recognition and admiration.

He tried to suppress memories of the way his father’s life ended — the dishonor and ignominy, their entire family buried in humiliation. And now, here he was, wallowing in the same corruption — the last place he ever expected to find himself.

More than anything, Tom wanted to run, to hide, to escape, to call off everything. But he knew he had no choice. And in a twisted way, that provided some comfort. The decision had been made. There could be no backing out. The consequences of abandoning his assignment went beyond his imagination.

He gave his lapels a yank to straighten out the gray pinstripe suit. The only thing he could do at this point was to concentrate on not getting caught.

Garry Strider threw himself into a maroon vinyl booth at Gilke’s Tap. “The usual,” he called over to the bartender. “Just keep ’em coming, Jerry.”

The place was virtually empty. Jerry glanced at his watch — a little after three — and let out a low whistle. He hustled together a J&B Scotch with a splash of water and brought it over, slipping into the seat across from his long-time customer.

“Had lunch?” Jerry asked. “Want a burger?”

Strider didn’t hear the questions. “It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable!” he said, gulping his drink.

For seventeen years, Jerry had run a hole-in-the-wall tavern strategically located between the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Examiner. During that time he had learned more about newspapers than most ivory tower journalism professors would ever know.

For him, the clues on this particular day were obvious: it was mid-afternoon in the first week of April and the chief investigative reporter of the city’s second largest paper looked like he should be on suicide watch.

“So,” said Jerry. “The Pulitzers were announced.”

Strider downed the rest of his drink and removed his wire-rim glasses, tossing them on the table and massaging the bridge of his nose, his eyes shut.

“We worked eighteen months on that series,” he said, more to himself than to Jerry. “We proved that lousy forensic work by the Chicago police lab had tainted dozens of criminal cases. Scores of cases. Two guys were released from Death row. Seven cops resigned; a grand jury is investigating. We may nail the chief yet. We won every award in the state. What more do we have to do?”

Jerry knew more drinks were in order. He stepped behind the bar while Strider kept talking. “And who do they give it to? The Miami Journal for a series on nursing homes. C’mon — nursing homes? Who even cares, except in Florida?”

Jerry shoved another drink into Strider’s hand and plopped down a bowl of pretzels.

“You remember Shelly Wilson,” Strider continued. “The redhead? Nice legs?”

“Oh, yeah, I had to pry the two of you apart a couple of times.”

Strider shot him a sour look. “Don’t tell me she won it.”

“She was an intern when I hired her,” Strider said. “I taught her everything — undercover work, public records, Internet research, milking informants. Maybe I taught her too well — she dumped me and ran to the Journal when they offered her more money and her own team. And now she screws me again.” Jerry shook his head. He felt terrible for his friend. For as long as he had known him, all of Strider’s focus had been on winning a Pulitzer — although Strider had never come right out and admitted it.

They both knew it: a Pulitzer turbo-charges a career like nothing else. It means a shot at the New York Times or Washington Post. It becomes a proud label for the rest of a reporter’s life: “In  his commencement address at Harvard University, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Garry Strider said yesterday that blah, blah, blah . . .” It would have been in the lead of his obit someday.

Most importantly, bagging the Pulitzer would have gotten John Redmond off Strider’s back. Hard-driving and relentlessly arrogant (and, yes, recipient of a Pulitzer back in 1991), Redmond demanded big results from Strider’s three-person investigative unit. His willingness to let Strider spend month after month pursuing a single series of articles was predicated on him bringing home a prestigious Pulitzer for the paper.

Now that he had failed — again — to win the big one, it was unclear what the future would hold. Would he get one more chance? Newspapers were cutting investigative reporters around the country. When tough economic times hit, they were often the first to go.

“You told Gina yet?”

Strider slipped on his wire-rims. “Yeah, I called her. She listened; she sympathized. What else could she do? Then she said she had some news of her own.” He polished off his drink, holding out the glass for another refill. “Unbelievable.”

On the fourth floor of the Criminal Courts Building, Tom O’Sullivan walked up to the door of Chief Judge Reese McKelvie’s courtroom. He grabbed the brass handle — then paused, shutting his eyes tightly. How did he get to this point? How did everything go so terribly wrong?

He was such an unlikely candidate for something like this. For much of his life, he had lived a golden existence — never having to work hard, never having to worry about his future. In Chicago, the O’Sullivan name had been the key to opening any door that was worth going through.

The O’Sullivan legacy went back to his great-grandfather, Ryan, who emigrated from Ireland in 1875 and bullied his way into a job as an organizer for the new American Federation of Labor.

Ryan’s eldest son, Big Tom O’Sullivan, was the first to make a mark on Illinois politics. Gregarious and brash, conniving and charismatic, Big Tom scratched his way through law school and then gained notoriety by successfully defending six Irish teenagers who had been framed for a killing committed by an off-duty cop. When the alderman of his heavily Irish Ward died of cancer, Big Tom rode a wave of popularity into office.

Over time, he systematically consolidated power. The street smarts he had garnered at the knee of his father, mixed with his larger-than-life personality, made him an irresistible leader. His lock on Ward politics continued until his death in 1957.

His son — Tom’s father — blended seamlessly into the Ward’s political machine during the last several years of Big Tom’s life, but his ambitions were loftier. The year after his father’s death, Tommy Junior was elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

Though not as affable or loquacious as his father, he was equally adept at manipulating the levers of power. After three terms, he easily advanced to the state Senate, where he gained control of key committees dealing with appropriations and transportation.

Growing up an O’Sullivan in Chicago meant every door flew open for Tommy Junior’s namesake son, his only male heir. Tom had learned quickly that mediocrity was more than sufficient in a world that revolved around his well-connected dad.

He partied through college and used his father’s clout to get into law school. But then everything collapsed overnight when the Examiner disclosed that Tom’s father had been caught sponsoring a “fetcher bill” — a proposed law whose only real purpose was to negatively impact a particular industry so that it would “fetch” a payoff in return for killing the legislation.

Headlines came fast and furious as allegations multiplied. Contractors told the grand jury that Tommy Junior had steered highway construction projects to friends in return for a piece of the action. It was classic Illinois “pay to play” corruption.

Before long, the investigation, led by Debra Wyatt, a bulldog federal prosecutor intent on making a name for herself, spread like cancer. The senator never discussed the investigation with Tom or his sisters. The closest he came was one morning when he walked into the kitchen and found them reading the Examiner. “Lies,” he muttered without looking up. “Wyatt wants to be governor — that’s what this is about.”

Then came the seventeen-count indictment: mail fraud, tax evasion, extortion, racketeering. Tommy Junior’s health collapsed. And that’s when prosecutors turned up the heat. Come into the grand jury, Wyatt whispered in his ear, and implicate every friend. We’ll cut you a deal.

Not a soul expected him to turn state’s evidence — until a story by Garry Strider, based on a leak from prosecutors, landed on the front page of the Examiner, alleging that the senator had agreed to tell everything.

The leak was a lie, designed to chase away Tommy Junior’s friends so he’d feel isolated and more likely to testify against his colleagues. He could’ve shouted from the top of the John Hancock Center that he wasn’t cooperating with the authorities and nobody would have believed him. His fate as the biggest pariah in state politics was sealed. But within seventy-two hours of the story hitting the streets, Thomas Ryan O’Sullivan Jr. was stricken by a massive heart attack. Tom still blamed Debra Wyatt and the Examiner for hounding his father into an early grave.

Tom barely made it through law school and still wasn’t sure how he’d done it. The O’Sullivan name became political poison. He passed the bar on his first attempt, but then nobody would hire him. He ended up opening his own office and taking run-of-the-mill criminal cases — anything to pay the bills.

Only one thing still reminded him that he was alive — gambling. The thrill of placing the bet, the rush of eternal optimism that this one was it — this horse, this hand, this roll of the dice. Only he was losing more and more, the price steeper as his financial hole deepened. Now, as he swung open the Chief Judge’s heavy oak door, he was taking the biggest gamble of his life. And the odds, he feared, were stacked against him.

Jerry’s coffee did a pretty good job of clearing the buzz in Garry Strider’s head. The walk through the cool air to the front of his DePaul area townhouse helped too. But opening the door and seeing the living room couch made into a bed — well, that’s what finally jolted him back to full mental acuity.

“Uh, Gina?” he called, closing the door behind him.

She emerged from their bedroom, carrying a pillow and a newly laundered pillowcase. Her fresh-faced beauty still startled him at times — how did he get so lucky? Strider braced himself, figuring she was going to lambaste him for his drinking binge. Instead, she smiled and greeted him with a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Hi, Strider,” she said — everyone called him that. “I’m really sorry about the Pulitzer thing. Honestly, they’re idiots. You okay?”

“Total disaster,” he said. “Someone spending the night?”

Gina clad the pillow and tossed it onto the couch. “Honey, no. Listen, we should talk. You eaten? There’s lasagna I can heat up.”

“What’s with the couch, then?”

“You want a sandwich?”

“I want to know about the couch. What’s going on?”

Gina sighed and eased her slender form onto the sofa’s edge.

“Look, sit,” she said. Strider lowered himself into a recliner. She thought for a moment, then gestured toward the makeshift bed.

“This is for me.”

Before Strider could interrupt, she added: “Now, don’t get all excited. This isn’t the end of the world. I just think, well, that we should cool it a bit — at least physically. Not forever — just until . . . well, if we get married.”

For Strider, this did not compute. “What is this — the 1950’s?

We’ve lived together for nearly a year! Suddenly, you don’t want to sleep together? If this is pressure to get married — ”

“No, it’s not that. I mean, yeah, you know I’d like to get married. But I’m realizing that we shouldn’t continue to be, um, intimate until it’s, like, y’know — official. It’s just . . . what I feel.”

When he didn’t respond, Gina continued. “Strider, I love you. I’m sorry this comes on such a bad day for you. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be together; I’m just saying we shouldn’t be sharing the same bed anymore. Not for a while.”

“So you’re going to live out here?”

She sighed. “No, I’m moving in with Kelli and Jen.”

“You’re leaving?” Strider rose to his feet, his eyes riveted to her. “No, I’m not leaving you.” She stood to face him. “I want us to be together — just not living together. Not until we get married — and I’m ready to do that whenever you are. This isn’t about breaking up; it’s about doing what’s right.”

“What’s right?” That heightened Strider’s suspicions. “Where is this coming from? Is this about the church that Kelli’s been dragging you to? Is that what this is about?”

Tears pooled in Gina’s eyes. She hated it when Strider raised his voice to her; it reminded her of her father’s drunken tirades when she was growing up. The last thing she wanted to do was cry. Softened by seeing her tears, Strider pulled her toward himself.

“Babe, what’s this about?” he asked in a gentler tone. She hugged him back, and now the tears flowed.

“I know . . . everybody lives together,” she said between sobs. She kept her head on his shoulder; it seemed easier to talk without looking him in the face. “But I’ve just been thinking a lot about relationships and love and sex — the pastor at Kelli’s church has been teaching on it, and I think he’s right about some things. I don’t want to lose you, Garry. Let’s just try it this way for a while. Please?” Strider was seething, but he knew enough not to argue with Gina when she was emotional like this. And he didn’t blame her, really — she was still young, impressionable. No, what he wanted to know was who this sanctimonious preacher was to butt into their lives? What kind of fundamentalist garbage was he peddling?

“Please,” she whispered.

Strider didn’t know what to say. “Gina . . .” He pulled away slightly, holding her by her shoulders and looking her in the eyes.

“Gina, it’s not the right time for this.”

“There’s never a right time. But let’s work this out. It’s not the end — just a new phase.”

Strider drank in the sight of her. Man, she was beautiful! Those deep brown eyes. He loved the way her short-cropped dark hair, tinged with auburn, fell so naturally into a perfect tousled look. He knew right then that he didn’t want to lose her, but didn’t know if it was within his power to keep them together.

In many ways, they were an unlikely pair. They had met two years earlier when Gina, an elementary teacher who had penned a few short stories in college, dropped by a workshop at Loyola University that she thought was going to be about creative writing. But the seminar, sponsored by the Examiner, actually was focused on writing articles for newspapers and magazines.

Strider, the main speaker, regaled the audience with insider stories about his colorful exploits at the paper, never failing to emerge as the hero of his own tales. She would later admit that she thought he was arrogant; spotting her in the small crowd, he thought she was pretty and insightful, asking the most provocative questions of the morning.

Afterward, he sought her out for coffee. He felt more comfortable with her away from the spotlight, chatting at length about her interest in teaching and writing. They talked about their favorite books (his: All the President’s Men, the catalyst that fueled his interest in investigative reporting when he was in college; hers: To Kill a Mockingbird, which she’d discovered in high school and restored her hope in human dignity and justice).

They laughed easily, the pauses in their conversation pregnant rather than awkward. The difference in their ages — she was twentynine; he was forty-one — seemed to evaporate.

Gina had been attracted to his slightly disheveled appearance — his corduroy sports coat was a little rumpled, his burgundy tie a bit outdated, his blue jeans shapeless, his wire rims unfashionable. But his stories about his adventures as a reporter — well, she had to admit they were pretty exciting. So when he asked her to dinner for that evening, she didn’t hesitate — and from there, the relationship grew. After the succession of cynical colleagues Strider had dated — users like that conniving Shelly Wilson — he found Gina to be surprisingly different: honest and sincere and genuinely caring. She brought such vibrancy and optimism into his life — and, as it turned out, she was the only woman who could put a governor on his impulsiveness and outbursts of anger. If she were a little naïve because of the age difference, then so be it.

When Gina moved into his townhouse about a year after they met, she became an anchor for his life. Over time she transformed his chaotic bachelor lair into a cozy, welcoming refuge from the oppressive stress of the Examiner newsroom. For Strider, Gina was much more than just a warm and generous and attentive lover; she really was the best friend he’d ever had.

No, he thought to himself as they stood facing each other in his living room, he didn’t want to lose her. He knew that with as much certainty as he knew anything.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said finally. “I’ll sleep on the couch.” Gina smiled, pulling his face toward hers and giving him an enthusiastic kiss. “Honey, this is the right thing. You’ll see.” Strider smiled back — weakly — and turned to walk toward the kitchen. “I’ll take that lasagna,” he said. “We can discuss this more in the morning.”

The whole situation left Strider confused. Gina had grown up in a large Italian family. Catholicism was part of the package. She always seemed so casual, comfortable even, whenever anything about God or religion came up — no big deal. He, on the other hand, remained indifferent to the whole notion of personal faith, deterred by the hypocrisy he read about in the paper whenever the latest scandal broke around some wayward church leader. But their religious beliefs had never gotten in the way of their relationship.

Why this all of a sudden? What educated, thinking person would adhere to these archaic beliefs in the 21st century? What else was she being force-fed at that sprawling, ultra-modern cathedral in suburban Diamond Point?

Strider had seen Pastor Eric Snow, founder of Diamond Point Fellowship, interviewed on national media several times — he was one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, glib and self-assured, his hair combed just a little too perfectly.

And he continued to get more and more ink lately as he ventured out of the pulpit and increasingly into the public square. President George W. Bush had sought his counsel on a regular basis. He had successfully campaigned for a few select ballot initiatives pushed by the governor, and he gained statewide acclaim as something of an economic whiz when he co-chaired a task force on urban transportation issues.

His congregation had a reputation for being upscale, which made sense based on how much the guy had made in the dot-com world before shifting focus to ministry. His church was known for running with the clock-like efficiency of a high-tech Japanese factory — more like a NASDAQ corporation than a ministry.

Strider suddenly smiled to himself. There was one other thing that he knew as well: some twenty years earlier, the Charlotte Observer won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the misuse of funds at evangelist Jim Bakker’s television ministry.

A church cannot be as big and influential as Diamond Point, used Strider, and not harbor some ugly secrets. Immorality? Manipulation? Fraud? Abuse of its tax-exempt status? Hypocritical pastors cashing in on the gullible flock?

He was looking for a new investigative project anyway, something Pulitzer-worthy. As painful as this thing with Gina was, it couldn’t be coming at a better time.


The Ambition
Copyright © 2011 by Lee Strobel
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