Stone Barrington blew into Elaine’s, later than usual. Dino Bacchetti, his former NYPD partner, sat having dinner.
“Where the hell have you been?” Dino asked.
“Spokane, Washington,” Stone replied. “I told you, remember?”
“I don’t remember anything anymore,” Dino said. “That’s Genevieve’s job, now.” Genevieve James was his new girlfriend, his first regular since his divorce. “What were you doing in Spokane?”
“I’m having the engine ripped off my airplane and replaced with a turbine—that’s a jet engine, turning a propeller.”
A waiter set a Knob Creek on the rocks before him, and he sipped it gratefully.
“But why are you late? Dinner was two hours ago.”
“Because my flight was late.”
“You don’t take the airlines; you have an airplane.”
“Dino, having sex again is addling your brain. I left the airplane in Spokane; the work takes three months. It’s a big job.”
Stone put several letters on the table and began opening them.
“You getting your mail here now?”
“No, I stopped to drop off my bag, and I just grabbed the mail on the way out the door.”
Elaine came over, allowed him to kiss her and sat down. “You getting your mail here? We charge extra for that.”
Stone put down the mail. “No, I brought it with me. Any charge for opening it here?”
“Don’t make a habit of it,” she replied. “People will think you’re living in my back room.”
“You don’t have a back room.”
“That won’t stop them from thinking it.”
“Your logic is unassailable,” Stone said, shoving the mail aside and sipping his drink.
A waiter appeared with a menu.
“Green bean salad, hold the peppers, spaghetti carbonara, half a bottle of the Chianti Classico,” Stone said.
“You look hungry,” Elaine said. “You’re late, too; where you been?”
“Spokane, Washington; Dino will explain it to you.”
“He’s turning his airplane into a jet,” Dino said.
“Sort of,” Stone replied. “A jet with a propeller. It’s called a turboprop.”
“Why are you doing this to your airplane?”
“Faster, quieter, more reliable, climbs faster.”
Elaine had never evinced the slightest interest in his airplane, Stone remembered. He waited for the next, inevitable question.
“Only one engine?” Elaine asked.
“One’s all you need.”
“What if it stops?”
“Extremely unlikely, but I’d find a place to land it.”
Elaine nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
“Where is Genevieve?” Stone asked Dino.
“Late shift; she’ll show soon. She might bring Eliza.”
“Good idea.” Eliza Larkin was an ER doctor Stone had been seeing occasionally since he had been run down by a car and she had treated him.
The two women, on cue, breezed into the place, exchanged kisses with everybody and sat down.
“Bring ’em a menu,” Elaine said to a waiter.
“No, thanks, I had dinner in the cafeteria earlier,” Eliza said.
“Me too,” Genevieve said.
Elaine looked at them incredulously. “You ate food from a hospital cafeteria instead of here?”
“I would have fainted if I hadn’t,” Eliza said. “Maybe I’ll have dessert.”
“Dessert is good,” Elaine said, pointing at a tray of samples and motioning for a waiter to bring it over.
“Cheesecake,” Eliza said.
“Make it two,” Genevieve echoed.
The two women excused themselves and went to the ladies’ room.
Stone turned his attention to the mail again, and a large white envelope caught his attention. He turned it over to read the return address. The White House, Washington, D.C., it read.
Stone opened the envelope.
“You look funny,” Dino said.
“I’ve been invited to dinner at the White House,” Stone said, gulping. “Holly Barker and me.”
“On the same invitation?” Elaine asked, taking it from him.
“Why you and Holly?” Dino asked.
“Yeah, Eliza is gonna want to know the answer to that question, too,” Elaine said.
Stone took the invitation and stuffed it into his pocket. “Let’s not discuss it with her,” he said, “especially since I don’t know the answer to that question.”
His cellphone vibrated on his belt, and he flipped it open. “Hello?”
“It’s Holly.” Holly Barker was his friend and sometime lover, a retired army officer and chief of police in a Florida town, now doing something or other for the CIA.
“Speak of the devil.”
“How was Spokane?”
“Fine. How did you know I was in Spokane?”
“I have a computer program that tracks the flight of any airplane. You went yesterday; I figured you came back today. You’re doing the engine conversion?”
“How the hell did you know that?”
“I know lots of stuff. You got the invitation?”
“You getting your mail at Elaine’s these days?”
“I picked it up on the way here.”
“I have further instructions for you about the dinner.”
“It’s going to take five days, maybe a week of your time.”
“Listen to me carefully, and don’t argue. Dinner, you will have noticed, is tomorrow night; it’s black tie.”
“I got that from the invitation.”
“Pack a bag with warm-weather clothing and bring your passport.”
“Shut up. I told you not to ask questions.”
“I’ll have to see what’s on my calendar for the next week.”
“Nothing; I checked with Joan this afternoon.”
Joan Robertson was his secretary. “A conspiracy,” he said.
“You don’t know the half of it, kiddo,” she replied, then hung up.
“What?” Elaine asked.
“I don’t know what,” Stone replied. “Weird, is what.”
The following day, Stone, as per directions included with his White House invitation, took the Acela to Washington and a cab to the Willard, the restored grande dame hotel of the mid-nineteenth century. He was led by a bellman to an elegant suite and was a little surprised to find the luggage and clothes of a woman there. He tipped the bellman, then explored.
The clothes in the closet were few, but from fashionable designers, and slinky. He reflected that Holly was tall, but not particularly slender, and a little on the butch side, with short, light brown hair. She was certainly very attractive, but these clothes could not be hers. He called the front desk to inquire as to whether he was in the right suite and was assured that he was. He looked at his watch: four hours until he was to present himself at the White House.
He phoned the concierge and arranged for a massage, and while he waited for the masseuse to appear, he sent his dinner jacket and other clothes out to be pressed.
After an hour and a half of prodding and pummeling, he soaked in a hot tub and took a nap. He was in front of the hotel at the appointed time and was met by a black Lincoln and a driver, who knew the way to the White House.
The mansion and its grounds looked very beautiful with the moonlight on its six-inch blanket of new snow. At the gate he identified himself with his invitation and his passport and was driven to a portico, lit by a huge, hanging lamp, with Marine guards on either side of the door. Inside, he was greeted by name (they must have a photograph, he thought), his coat was taken, and he was asked to follow an usher. They walked down a portrait-hung hallway, took a couple of turns and stopped before a pair of double doors. The usher rapped lightly, and the door was opened by a man in a tuxedo. “Mr. Barrington,” the usher said, and stepped back to allow Stone to enter.
Stone walked into the room and was astonished to find himself in the Oval Office. The president of the United States, William Henry Lee IV, sat at the desk, on the phone, in his shirtsleeves, his dinner jacket resting on a valet stand beside his chair.
The president waved and pointed at a couch.
Stone sat down, and it was a good thing, too, because he felt a little weak in the knees. He had never been in this room, nor in this house, nor had he ever seen its occupant face-to-face.
A uniformed butler materialized and asked his pleasure in drink.
“A Knob Creek on the rocks,” Stone said automatically. “But if you don’t have that…”
“We have it, sir,” the man said, and he was back in a trice, with not one, but two drinks on a tray. He served Stone, then set the other glass on the president’s desk and dematerialized.
“I’ll expect to hear from you before noon tomorrow,” the president said, then hung up. “Mr. Barrington,” he said, rising and slipping into his dinner jacket. “I’ve heard a great deal about you.” He walked toward Stone, his hand out.
Stone rose and shook his hand. “Have you, Mr. President?” He couldn’t imagine how.
“Bill Eggers is an old friend, and Woodman & Weld have been very helpful to the Democratic Party and to me over the years.” His accent was softly Southern. “Bill has told me some of the things you’ve done for them since becoming of counsel to the firm.”
What Stone did for Woodman & Weld was the things the firm did not want to be seen to be doing themselves, and he was a little embarrassed that the president knew about that. “I see,” he said.
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed, Stone,” Lee said. “Every law firm needs that sort of work”—he paused—“as does every administration.” He waved Stone back to his seat.
Stone sat down, uncertain as to what might come next.
“I asked you here a few minutes before the arrival of the others to thank you in advance for your help. I’m aware of your campaign contributions over the years, and I’m grateful for those, too.”
Stone had made a few thousand-dollar donations, but he couldn’t imagine why the president would be aware of that.
“I’m also aware of your honorable and very capable service to the NYPD for the fourteen years before you became an attorney, and as a citizen, I thank you for that, too.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.” Stone gulped. He took a long sip from his bourbon.
“Good stuff, Knob Creek,” the president said. “Knob Creek was where Abraham Lincoln spent his early years, in Kentucky, you know.”
The president raised his glass. “It’s the patriotic thing to do,” he said, taking a sip. “Though I mustn’t be patriotic too often these days, given the nature of the work.”
“I suppose not, sir.”
The president sat down on the sofa beside him. “Let me come directly to the point; the others will be here soon.”
Stone waited and listened.
“I believe that, some years ago, you were involved in a widely publicized criminal trial, on the island of St. Marks, way south of here.”
“Yes, sir, I was.”
“I believe I even caught a glimpse of you on 60 Minutes.”
“Yes, sir, it was important to the outcome of the trial that we obtain as much media coverage as possible.”
“I forget; what was the outcome of the trial?” The president asked, raising his eyebrows.
Stone had the distinct feeling that he had forgotten nothing. “My client was hanged,” he replied.
President Lee burst out laughing. “I’m aware that you believed her to be hanged, until some years later, and I’m aware of your most recent encounter with her. Where is she now?”
“In a Florida prison, Mr. President.”
“Ah, yes, and she’s been asking me for a pardon every year since; for her husband, too. Tell me, Stone, if you were in my position, would you pardon them?”
“Since I don’t represent her anymore, I can say candidly, absolutely not. Both she and her husband deserve worse than being where they presently are, and the country is better off for having them there.”
The president chuckled. “We are of one mind,” he said. “Stone, someone is going to ask you to go back to St. Marks for…a visit.”
“That would not be unpleasant duty, Mr. President. It’s a beautiful island.”
“I hope you can take the time to go.”
“I was requested to pack my bags, Mr. President, and I have done so. May I ask why you want me to go back?”
“Oh, I haven’t asked you to go back,” the president said. “Someone else will, but I will not. And I must ask you to recall this meeting, this room, this bourbon and this conversation as wholly imaginary.”
“As you wish, Mr. President.”
“Stone, I’m sure you know that I am up for reelection in the autumn, and I wanted to tell you personally that your visit to St. Marks may, in one way or another, have a profound effect on my chances. Since, in light of your campaign contributions in the past, I have some reason to believe you think it might be important for me to finish my administration’s work, I wanted to tell you personally that you may soon be in a position to contribute to my campaign in a larger way than you imagine, and I want you to know, in advance, that you have my deep gratitude for your help.”
Stone was too baffled to speak, and he was relieved of that obligation when a door behind him opened and a woman’s voice said, “Will, honey, it’s time for us to go in.”
Stone sprang to his feet and turned to see the first lady, who was also the Director of Central Intelligence, standing in the open door.
“Kate, darling, this is Mr….” the president started to say.
“I know who he is, Will,” she replied, walking over and shaking his hand. “And I’m glad to have the opportunity to thank you for your efforts in solving the death of your cousin, Dick Stone, last summer. Dick was about to assume an important post at the Agency, and I had hopes that he might one day succeed me, when I’ve played out my string. Lance Cabot has told me how helpful you were to him during the investigation.”
Funny, Stone thought, and I was laboring under the apparent illusion that Lance was helping me. “You’re very welcome, ma’am.”
“Good luck on St. Marks, Mr. Barrington.” She turned and walked out the way she had come in.
“I must go,” Will Lee said, shaking Stone’s hand. “And by the way, the woman you just met was entirely imaginary, too. Have a seat; someone will come for you.”
The president followed his wife out the door, closing it behind him.
Stone stood in the center of the Oval Office, alone with its ghosts. He recognized the President’s desk as the one John Kennedy had used, and he remembered a photograph of John-John playing under it. He took in the portraits and the model of a yacht on one side of the room, and the rug under his feet with the Great Seal of the United States woven into it.
Then the door through which he had entered opened and Lance Cabot walked in.
“Oh, shit,” Stone muttered to himself.
Lance smiled and extended a hand. “So nice to see you, Stone.”
Stone had not seen Lance for several months, and that had been all right with him. Every time he saw Lance he found himself in the middle of some sort of problem, and it seemed to be happening again. He shook the hand. “Hello, Lance,” he said. “What the fuck am I doing in the Oval Office, about to go to St. Marks?”
Lance arranged himself in a chair and motioned for Stone to sit. “Relax, Stone, all is about to be revealed.”
Stone couldn’t wait. “Please start revealing.”
“Have you ever heard of a man named Teddy Fay?”
“Of course; everybody’s heard of him. He killed several right-wing political figures a couple of years ago, and when they were about to catch him, he killed himself by exploding the small airplane he was flying.”
“You’re half right,” Lance replied.
“The first half. Teddy didn’t die in the aircraft explosion. He got out, made his way to New York and spent some time last year killing Middle Easterners whom he believed to be enemies of the United States.”
“That was Teddy Fay?”
“Indubitably, it was.”
“Was he the guy who died in the collapse of the building he bombed, then?”
“Not quite. At the time there was every indication that the body found in the ruins of the building was that of Teddy, but a woman who had reported her homeless father missing gave the NYPD a DNA sample last week, and it matched that of the body we found.”
“So Fay is still alive?”
“I’m afraid we don’t know, but we have no conclusive evidence that he’s dead.”
“And what does this have to do with my going to St. Marks?”
“Let me begin at the beginning, Stone, since there’s a lot you may not know about Teddy from press reports.”
“Theodore Fay was a career employee of the CIA, joining in his twenties and retiring at age sixty-five. He worked in Technical Services, which is the rather bland name of the department that supplies all sorts of things to agents going into the field: clothing, disguises, false passports, driver’s licenses, insurance cards, credit cards and other documents an agent requires to establish a legend—that is, a false identity—in the field. The department also supplies weapons—some of them quite exotic—communications equipment and, well, you get the picture.”
“I do. What did Teddy do there?”