Authors: Stuart Woods
Tom Blake left the J. Edgar Hoover building and drove to his house in Georgetown. As he opened the garage door with the remote and pulled inside, he was grateful—as he was every time he came home—to his late father-in-law.
There was some discomfort about living in such a fine old house in such a beautiful neighborhood: he had had to explain to a committee of agency accountants how he could afford to live in a better house than the director. None of them, apparently, had received such a wedding gift. And they had gone over the deeds and closing documents carefully.
Tom also had had to get used to having a wife who earned three times more than he did—and that was before her father died and she took over his large insurance agency and got a big raise.
He switched off the car and sat in it for a couple of minutes, working up a head of steam. If this were a play, the stage direction for this scene would read:
He found her in the kitchen, as usual. One of her great marital attributes was that she cooked beautifully and loved doing it. He had a constant battle with his waistline. He nearly lost his worked-up annoyance when he saw that she was wearing a frilly apron and nothing else. This was one of her little invitations to have sex, and she didn’t care if it was on the kitchen island. That was fine with him, too, even if he had to watch out for the hanging copper pots.
“Good evening,” he said, more formally than usual. She froze for a moment, then turned slowly around, her bare breasts struggling for freedom from the apron. “And what, exactly, do you mean by that?” she asked.
“I have a big problem,” he said, “and you’re the cause of it.”
She frowned. Her interest in immediate sex went out of her eyes. “Go on, tell me.”
“A big part of my problem is that I can’t tell you,” he replied. “It’s a matter of national security.”
“Well, that’s a new one,” she said.
“There’s something I have to do, and you can’t know about it.”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t say I won’t tell you. I said you can’t know about it. Think about that for a minute.”
She thought about it, and her face relaxed. “Oh, I think I see. You’re going to tell me, and then I have to forget about it.”
“You won’t have anything to forget,” he said.
“All right, you’re going to tell me, but I can’t know.”
“You’re starting to grasp the situation.”
“But if that’s the case, why tell me about it at all?”
“Because I can’t lie to you.”
“Tommy,” she said. “Have you been fucking somebody else?”
“I have not, and I have no intention of doing so.”
She stared at him. “You’re waiting for me to insist that you tell me,” she said.
“Something like that.”
“All right, Tommy, tell me, and I’ll forget I ever heard it.”
“You can’t say that lightly,” he replied. “This is the equivalent of swearing under oath that you don’t know this.”
She looked around her suspiciously. “Have you had the house wired? Are we being recorded?”
“Good God, no! If I can’t tell you about this, why would I want a bunch of tech guys at the Bureau to know about it?”
“All right, I’m ready to forget I ever heard it. Go.”
“The worst part first.”
“I have to have lunch, maybe even dinner, with Peg Parsons.”
“You tricked me!” she shouted.
“You tricked me into giving you permissions to fuck Peg Parsons! Again!”
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” he said, shaking his head. “And, for the record, I haven’t fucked Peg Parsons for more than twenty years.”
“Some things are timeless,” she replied.
“Do you want to hear why I have to see her?”
“I’m dying to hear it.”
“I have to ask her to write a column using information I’m going to give her that could be construed as against the national interest.”
“Do I want to know what that information is?”
“No, certainly not.”
“Tell me!” She stamped her foot. This was something akin to a Spanish bull pawing the dirt in the ring.
“Many years ago Holly Barker was a police officer in a Florida town, and she was, briefly, considered a suspect in the murder of her chief, who had, some time before, drugged and raped her.”
Amanda’s jaw was working, but nothing was coming out. Holly Barker was her idol.
“Make me understand,” she said, finally.
“Someone who is bitterly opposed to her politically intends to give this information to that creep of the airwaves, Jake Wimmer, who will fashion it into a conspiracy theory that could haunt her for years.”
“Surely this was investigated at the time,” Amanda said.
“It was investigated at the time by the internal affairs department of her police force, by the Florida state police—and later by the FBI and the CIA. Ms. Barker is as clean as a hound’s tooth.”
“But that won’t matter, will it?”
Tom shook his head sadly. “No. Not to these people.”
“And how does the awful Peg Parsons come into this?”
“We want her to publish the story, after having investigated it thoroughly herself. We want her to review the four earlier investigations during that process, then write a column about it. Then Wimmer’s conspiracy theory will be blunted, maybe even spiked.”
“Tommy,” Amanda said, “I think that’s just wonderful!”
“Then I can see Peg, and you’ll forget about it?”
She shrugged, and one loop of her apron fell off a shoulder. “Eventually.”
“All right, now.”
“And you have no memory of being told?”
“None. Who do I have to fuck to prove it to you?”
“That would be me,” Tom said, working on his buttons.
Amanda slithered out of the apron and met him on the kitchen island. He made the gong sound only once.
Bess Potts turned down the long dirt road that led to Colonel Sykes’s compound. It was a winding and very pretty drive, climbing a couple of hundred feet from the highway. She pressed the down button on her window and let the sweet air in. She also let in an unexpected sound: the muffled crack of what sounded like a silenced rifle.
She pulled into the parking area outside Sykes’s house, which was set in a notch of the hillside. She switched off the engine and sat in the car for a moment, waiting to hear the sound again, so she could track its location.
Her arm was resting on the car door, and something struck her elbow. She looked at the door and found that her driver’s-side mirror had disappeared. Apparently, that was what had struck her elbow.
“CEASE FIRE!” came a tinny voice from the distance, then all was quiet. “STAND DOWN!” the voice shouted.
Wade Sykes stepped from behind the house and walked over to her car. “Are you all right, Bess?” he asked.
“Weren’t you expecting me?”
“Not for another quarter hour,” he replied. “Do you need anything?”
“Yes, I need a new side mirror, and it’s one of those smart ones, so it will be expensive.”
“I’ll replace it, of course. Were you hit?”
Bess unbuttoned her sleeve and rolled it up, exposing her elbow, which sported a huge lump. “Maybe an ambulance?”
Sykes opened her car door and helped her out. “I don’t think we’ll need an ambulance, but let’s get you into the kitchen and get some ice on that.”
She followed him inside, holding her elbow in her other hand. The lump had begun to throb.
“Elroy!” Sykes shouted. “Get out here!”
Slowly, Elroy Hubbard opened the swinging door to the kitchen. “You wanted something, Colonel?”
“Get some ice on Miss Potts’s elbow. She’s had an accident, and it’s swelling.”
“Accident?” Bess asked. “Someone was shooting at me.”
“My dear,” Sykes said, “if Eugene had been shooting at you, we’d be calling a hearse right now.”
Elroy came out of the kitchen holding a dish towel, twisting it to keep the ice in. She sat down at the dining table, gently propping her arm on it, and he applied the ice pack.
“Just hold it right there with your other hand,” he said gently, “and turn it every now and then to keep the cold on it.”
Bess followed his instructions. “Wade, what the hell is going on out there?”
“Target practice,” Sykes said. “We do a lot of that around here.”
“How many visitors have you lost?” she asked, a touch of acid in her voice.
“None so far,” he said. “Fortunately.”
“And why is Eugene employing a silencer?”
“Why do you think that?” Sykes asked.
“Because I couldn’t hear the shots, just a
sound. Ergo, a silencer. That’s illegal, isn’t it?”
“It’s a beer can, filled with sawdust from my woodworking shop, that’s affixed to the rifle barrel with duct tape.”
“I believe that’s the very definition of a silencer,” she said.
“How is your elbow feeling?”
“Better, sort of numb.”
“The swelling will go down after a while. Would you like a drink to help it along?”
“Scotch,” she said. “Rocks, too.”
“I’ll join you.” He handed her a glass and she took a gulp of it.
“Is Eugene going to shoot it out of my hand?”
“Of course not. What happened was completely an accident.”
“Or maybe Eugene doesn’t like me a little.”
“I expect he’s sitting on his bunk, crying his eyes out as we speak,” Sykes said.
She managed a chuckle. “I’m glad the mirror got in the way, or I wouldn’t have an elbow.”
“We use silencers for outdoor shooting to keep from disturbing the neighbors.”
“What neighbors? I’ve never seen a living soul around here during my visits.”
“Oh, we have a couple of old ladies—sisters—who live nearby. Once, they called the police when they heard gunfire.”
“A perfectly normal reaction,” Bess said.
“Perhaps,” he replied. “But I’m building something in my shop that will be much more effective.”
“Oh, good,” Bess replied. “Then Eugene can pick the old ladies off their front porch and never make a sound.”
Skyes managed a smile. “What a good idea. Good practice for Eugene.”
“And who or what is Eugene practicing to shoot?”
“Did I say he was going to shoot somebody? That was your suggestion. Elroy, bring us a new ice pack!”
Elroy silently entered the room and exchanged a new dishcloth for the old one, then left the way he had come.
“That guy gets under my skin sometimes,” Sykes grumbled.
Bess looked at him and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you worry. I always treat him with kid gloves. I wouldn’t want to lose the best biscuit maker in Virginia.”
“Come on, Wade. What’s the silencer for?”
“You haven’t been with us long enough to ask questions like that,” Sykes said.
“You’re right,” she said sheepishly. “I apologize.”
“I suppose you’re not going to need my help with that one,” she said.
“Probably not. I’ll let you know if that changes.”
“Anything I can do,” she replied.
Elroy stuck his head in past the door. “Supper’s in five minutes, Colonel,” he said.
“Ring the dinner bell, then,” Sykes replied.
Elroy disappeared into the kitchen, and after a moment, an old-fashioned school bell began ringing.
Sykes removed the ice pack from Bess’s elbow and scrutinized it. “Much improved,” he said. “I think we can do away with the ice.”
“Thank Eugene for not doing away with me,” Bess said, tucking her napkin under her chin as the others entered and took their seats.
Tom Blake had only just arrived at his desk the following morning when his secretary walked in. “Yes?”
“That woman who won’t give her name is on line three,” she said.
“Thank you.” He put his hand on the phone and looked at his secretary, waiting for her to leave. She finally got the message. He picked up the phone. “Yes?”
“I’ve news from the south,” she said.
“The chief has got a man there who’s a pretty good shot, and he’s working on improving his performance.”
“With what weapon?”
“A high-powered rifle, and the fearless leader is working on a special silencer for it.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“I thought so, too. Do you have her schedule?”
“She’s coming back to D.C. for a few days,” he said.
“Well, there you are.”
“Do you really think he has the balls for that?”
“People like him don’t need balls. They have fanaticism to drive them.”
“A good point. We’ll take steps.”
“What will you do?”
“I’ll call the Secret Service, of course. Protecting her is their job.”
“What’s your job?”
“Gathering intelligence and keeping them informed.”
“I thought that was my job.”
job. Who is the sniper?”
“His name is Eugene; I don’t have a last name.”
“We’ll have it somewhere,” Tom said. “We might even have a word with him, if the Secret Service approves.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” she said.
He thought about it for a minute. “You’re right. It might compromise you, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
“Did you have the fight with your wife?”
“I did. Your advice was good, though, so I won. I’m having lunch with the lady in question today.”
“Be careful you don’t tell her too much,” she said.
“Just what she needs to know.”
“Good luck,” she said, then hung up.
Tom got there first. It was a corner table near the fireplace, and it had been swept less than an hour ago, followed by
the placing of an electronic bug in the little lamp on the table. He wanted every word of their conversation; he might have to play it back for Amanda, if she became obstreperous.
Peg Parsons appeared in the doorway and spotted him immediately. She strode over to the table and stopped. “I want another table,” she said.
“Why? If I’m wearing a bug, it will move with me.”
“Are you wearing a bug?”
“No,” he lied. “Do you see any empty tables?”
She looked around. “Now that you mention it, no.”
“Then have a seat,” he said. “Or would you prefer mine?”
“This one will do,” she said, then sat down opposite him. “So, Tom, how are you and what do you want?”
“Would you like a drink?”
“Love one. A prosecco, please.”
Tom lifted a finger, and a waiter appeared. “One prosecco and one San Pellegrino,” he said. The waiter left.
“Why aren’t you having a drink?” she asked.
“FBI agents don’t drink in public at lunchtime,” he replied. “They might make fools of themselves.”
“So your plan is to get me drunk, while you remain cool and sober.”
“It’s not my plan, but if it’s what you feel like doing, go right ahead.”
“From the door I immediately saw two senators and four congressmen,” she said.
Her drink and his water arrived.
“I’m going to assume this conversation is being recorded,” she said.
“Go right ahead and assume,” he replied. “Are you recording it?”
“Up to you, but I have to tell you first that the life of a very important person is involved.”
She reached into her bag, found her iPhone, and disabled its recording function. “There, now it’s just you and me.”
“That’s best, I think.”
“So, tell me how I would get this person killed if I blabbed?”
“Au contraire,” he said, as he might have when they were in the same French class. “Blabbing is what I want from you.”
“So, you want me to send a message to somebody?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“An infamous spinner of conspiracy theories, who is one of your readers.”
“Who, and how do you know he reads my stuff?”
“Jake Wimmer, because he complains about you nearly every day.”
“Point taken. And what particular flea do you want me to put in his ear?”
Tom took a sheet of paper from his inside pocket and handed it to her. “This flea.”
She read it. “And why didn’t I know about this?”
“Because it didn’t come up at her Senate hearing when she was appointed secretary of state.”
“Did the president arrange for it not to come up?”
Tom gave her a big shrug. “How would I know a thing like that?”
“I did not. It was thoroughly investigated by two police agencies at the time, and by the CIA and the FBI later.”
“Was there even the slightest evidence that she might have shot the man and made it look like a suicide?”
“No, not a whit, and there’s a reason for that.”
“She didn’t do it, so there was no evidence that she did. She also passed two polygraph exams, at the Agency and the Bureau.”
“So I’m on solid ground, if I print that.”
“And you want me to head him off at the pass?”
“Exactly. Your piece will be on the AP, UPI, and Reuters wires before it hits the newsstands, so Wimmer is not going to waste his time inventing a conspiracy theory that’s already been repeatedly debunked.”
“Okay, I’m in. I’ll have the duck. And after that, you want to go someplace and do something that rhymes with the dish?”
“Peg, I have a wife I love dearly, who demands all my strength at home. Also, she would cut my throat with a dull knife if she thought for a moment that I was doing that.”
As he was speaking, he was giving her a thumbs-up while switching off the bug in his pocket.