Authors: Stuart Woods
Sykes felt a little sick to his stomach. He had been fantasizing about being in bed with her, but he wanted no part of a woman who wasn’t attracted to him as a man. She could still be useful, though; she was bright, brave, and willing to take risks. Maybe she would even turn up some information from those Justice files.
Elizabeth went back to her office. “Do you have an Alka-Seltzer?” she asked her secretary as she passed her desk.
“Sure,” the woman said, digging in a desk drawer and coming up with a packet.
Elizabeth dropped the two disks into half a glass of water, then watched them fizz. She drank down the bubbly stuff,
burped, and rinsed the glass. Nearly instant relief from the stew, as promised.
She opened her safe and found the key to the secure file room, where old papers were kept. She went to the B drawer and looked for Barker, Holly, then took it back to her desk and started at the beginning. It made interesting reading.
Holly had been raised on Army bases in the States and in Germany. Her mother died during a flu epidemic in Germany, when the child was eight. When she was in high school her father had written to a Florida congressman, requesting an appointment to West Point for his daughter, enclosing a transcript of her high school studies. He received a negative form-letter reply, so young Holly joined the Army, excelled in basic and advanced training, and enrolled at the University of Maryland, which offered a degree program for serving soldiers. She got her bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, then applied for Officer Candidate School and was rejected. Her father wrote a letter to a man he had served under, who had known Holly as a teenager on the Army base in Mannheim, and who, by then, was a brigadier general. Holly was duly accepted into the next class at OCS.
Upon graduation, at the head of her class, she had applied for Intelligence but was passed over and offered the military police. In the MPs she consistently received outstanding fitness reports and was promoted as quickly as the rules allowed, rising to command an MP company, then, as a major, to executive officer of a regiment. There her progress ended.
She was drugged and raped by the colonel who was her commanding officer. She filed a criminal complaint, along with another young woman, a sergeant, who had suffered the same experience with the man. The colonel was found not guilty by a panel of his fellow officers, and Holly received an unwanted transfer to a transportation company. It was then that she had read, in a law enforcement magazine, an ad for an assistant chief of police in a small Florida town, Orchid Beach. She applied and was hired. She excelled, as she had in everything she had ever done. A year later, her chief died, and she applied for his job. She got the job on a trial basis.
As chief she became aware of possible criminal activity at a real-estate development where all of the homeowners had questionable backgrounds. She contacted the FBI, who took over her investigation. But she had continued to work on it almost to the exclusion of everything else. An agent of the CIA turned up and helped her: first, to break the case without the help of the FBI, and then to join the Agency as a raw recruit sent for training to Fort Peary, known as the Farm.
She progressed through the CIA, becoming an assistant to the then deputy director, Lance Cabot, and later to Katharine Rule, who later had become Katharine Lee and the president of the United States.
Now, after two terms as Kate Lee’s secretary of state, Holly Barker was the president-elect of the United States.
But something small in her record caught Elizabeth’s eye. The colonel who was charged with her rape had retired from the Army and was hired as the chief of police in Orchid
Beach, while Holly was still serving in that role on a trial basis. She must have been furious, Elizabeth thought. But then, not long after his arrival in the small town, the colonel committed suicide.
Elizabeth got on her computer and began researching the colonel’s case. All the evidence in the case supported suicide as the cause of death, except the absence of a motive. Holly was soon given the chief’s job. A suspicious person, as Elizabeth was, might think that Holly Barker had a perfectly evident motive for murder, and the skills to leave no evidence at the scene. She did, however, have an alibi; she had been having a drink at a local bar with another police officer. Easily arranged, Elizabeth thought, if the other officer shared her opinion of the dead colonel.
Elizabeth began checking on the history of the officer who had provided the alibi: killed in the line of duty two years later, while investigating a case of domestic violence, well after Holly had left for her CIA training. Dead end.
Elizabeth closed and locked away the file, feeling relieved that she had found nothing to sully the name of a woman she admired. Still, it might stir up Sykes.
Sykes had all four of his men and one woman, Bess Potts, to dinner on a Saturday night. They dined on porterhouse steaks, perfectly grilled and sliced by Elroy Hubbard, who had been cooking for him for the past four months.
“Where did you find Elroy?” Bess asked Sykes.
Sykes poured her more of the grand California cabernet. “He was a ship’s cook in the Navy for more than twenty years. When a lot of the older ships were cut up for scrap, and he found himself ashore, his former CO on a battleship got him transferred to Naval Air Station Pensacola, as chef in the officers club. When he finally retired, a naval acquaintance of mine recommended him.”
“He’s just perfect, isn’t he?” she asked.
“Just about,” Sykes replied.
“But he seems not to have your full confidence,” Bess said. “Last time I was here, you had a tendency to change the subject when he was nearby. Is it a racial thing?”
“I guess I’m as much a racist as the next man,” Sykes said. “He’s always had a bit of an attitude that troubled me.”
“I see,” she said. “After dinner I’d like to talk to you about something I found in the files at Justice.”
When the others returned to their quarters, Bess hung back, then produced a copy of Holly Barker’s file. “I think you’ll find this interesting,” she said.
“Do you mind if I read it now?” Sykes asked.
“Go right ahead.”
Sykes read the file rapidly, then looked up from his brandy. “This thing about her chief’s suicide is interesting, isn’t it?”
“I think so, too. She had the skills and training to shoot him with his own gun, clean up after herself, and leave the body to be found the following morning by his maid.”
“She had an alibi, too,” Sykes said.
“Yes, and it stood up. The man who said he was with her in a bar died in the line of duty at a later time.”
“You think she killed the colonel?”
“She certainly had an excellent motive, didn’t she? Drugged and raped, then he’s found not guilty by a jury that included a buddy of his.”
“Was there a tox screen on the body of her former CO?”
“There was an autopsy, but the local ME didn’t think a
tox screen was indicated. And the body was cremated. I tried to search the records of the drugstore where he had his prescriptions filled, but they were dumped a long time ago.”
“So here’s a headline for you:
PRESIDENT-ELECT A SUSPECT IN A COP MURDER AND FAKED SUICIDE. COP’S MEDICAL RECORDS VANISHED
“Pretty good,” she said, “but not all his medical records, just his prescriptions.”
“Picky, picky, picky,” Sykes said. “I know a fellow with a radio talk show who’s really good at turning a news story into a walking, talking myth, and he has an audience who’ll eat it up.”
“That sounds like Jake Wimmer,” she said.
“You’re absolutely right,” Sykes said.
“It’s a little late, isn’t it? She’s already been elected.”
“It’s not too late to make her life hell for a while,” Sykes said, “and it could come back to bite her in the ass when she’s running for reelection.”
“You don’t want it traced back to you,” Bess said. She hadn’t counted on this.
“Jake knows when to talk and when not to talk,” Sykes said. “And if he should talk, he knows how to blame the right people.”
“You’d better be very, very careful,” Bess said. “You might get more than your fingers burned.” She tossed back her brandy and got up. “Time for me to go,” she said. “I don’t need a hangover tomorrow morning.” She thanked him for dinner, found her coat, and drove away from the house.
All the way home she thought about what she had done, and the possibility of unintended consequences. She was going to have to find a way to turn this back onto Sykes.
At home, she sat down and made a list of people to contact, especially people in the printed press and the television political shows.
Then she sat down at her typewriter and wrote a description of what she had seen in Holly Barker’s file and what Sykes’s reaction was when he read it, then she faxed it to a contact.
That was all she could do for now.
When Elizabeth arrived at her desk on Monday morning, there was an encrypted e-mail waiting for her. She ran the app, then read the message.
Alfresco lunch today? 12:30?
She bought a deli sandwich at noon, then drove to Rock Creek Park and left her car in a legal space. She walked down a trail and found a picnic table; he was already there.
He rose to greet her, a cool handshake. “Have a seat,” he said.
They both opened their bags and began eating their sandwiches.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked.
“I’m concerned by your lack of progress,” he said.
She frowned. “What more do you expect me to do?”
“I want you to tie Sykes and his cohorts to the shootings of the Secret Service agents in Maine.”
“Well, I know that, but I can’t find a provable connection.”
“Have you found a connection that you can’t prove?”
“No, no connection at all; only the visit to the Georgetown house.”
“That’s breaking and entering with a deadly weapon at best,” he said.
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“I know you know it.”
“There’s something else you should know about, though.” She handed him the passage from the Barker file, and he read it.
“So what?” He handed it back to her.
“I may have made an error in judgment,” she said.
“My hope was that reading it might jolt Sykes into talking about her, telling me more. Instead, it may have set off something that could be difficult to control.”
“Tell me everything.”
She did, and when she was finished neither of them said anything for a while.
“You’re right,” he said. “This could open a can of worms we don’t want to go near. That guy, Wimmer, is a rumor machine. This will end up on Fox News as a conspiracy theory that could be difficult to handle, and for years to come.”
“I had hoped that you might be able to think of a way to
turn this around on Sykes and Wimmer before they can propagate it,” she said.
“Have you thought of anything?”
“Yes, but I don’t have the contacts to pull it off.”
“Pull what off?”
“I had thought we might get this story out in some more conventional medium, maybe a newspaper interview.”
“You mean if Barker brings it up in an interview, and it’s published, it might negate Wimmer’s efforts?”
“Yes, then she could say, ‘That’s hardly a surprise. I already spoke with a journalist about it in an interview. It doesn’t surprise me that Wimmer would try to twist it, though.’”
He thought about that for a moment. “Disarm their weapon, so to speak?”
“Exactly. Do you know someone, a journalist, who could help?”
“I know someone who could accomplish that, as long as she didn’t know we were using her as a counter to Wimmer.”
“Do you know Peg Parsons?”
“I read her column, but I’ve never met her. I take it you have.”
“Yes, we had a thing for a few months in college, but it was a long time ago, and it didn’t last.”
“Would she be glad to hear from you?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t know.”
“It couldn’t hurt to try, could it?”
“I don’t know that, either. If it went wrong, it might make things worse.”
“Well, I don’t have any other ideas nearly as good as this. It’s worth trying.”
“If I can handle it.”
“Look, why don’t you just swear her to secrecy and tell her the whole story?”
“That might screw it up.”
“Wouldn’t it be worse to lie to her, then have her catch on?”
“She’d be furious, in that case.”
“I say it’s worth a try.”
“That would amount to recruiting her.”
“I think she’d think it amounts to a scoop,” Elizabeth said.
“Let me think about it. There’s my wife to consider, too.”
“How does your wife come into it?”
“If she that heard Peg and I saw each other, she’d go right through the roof. I made the mistake of telling her that we had been fucking at Georgetown, and she sort of grinds her teeth when she hears Peg’s name.”
“Then you’re going to have to be up front with your wife, too,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s easier said than done,” he replied.
“Tom, are you afraid of your wife?”
“You’re damned right I am. You don’t know her; she has a bad temper when she’s riled, and a violent streak, too. She broke one of my teeth with a wine bottle once.”
“Well, if you’re contemplating divorce, here’s your chance,” Elizabeth said.
“Maybe,” he said, “if I can convince her up front that it’s a matter of national security . . .”
“Tom, how did you ever get to be an assistant director of the FBI? You’re afraid of your own wife!”
“I can’t deny that,” he said.
“Look, here’s how to handle her.” Elizabeth outlined a plan.
“And part of it is,
have to be mad at
“You’ll be mad at her, because her attitude is forcing you to tell her about a top secret op, just to placate her in advance.”
“I’m not sure I’m that good an actor,” he replied.
“Well, there’s no time to send you to the Actors Studio for training.”
“They didn’t cover this at Quantico,” he said.
“They covered undercover, didn’t they?”
“Look at this as if you’re going undercover as yourself.”
He burst out laughing.
“Is it such a crazy idea?”
“It is a crazy idea, but it might work.”
“Don’t overthink it. You have to be real.”
“She’s real enough for both of us,” he said.
“Just get it done.” She wadded up her paper bag and took aim at a waste bin.
Tom took it out of her hand. “I’ll dispose of this,” he said.
“We’re leaving no trace, huh?”