Authors: Warren Adler
“Did you notice anyone else in the vicinity?” asked Fiona.
The old lady thought for a moment then shook her head.
Metro Center was a hub station, a transfer point, and although it was not a peak time, people came and went, mostly self-absorbed. With the exception of the old lady, whose observations were suspect and unhelpful, the only logical conclusion was that the man had jumped deliberately or fallen by accident.
It could not be discounted that he might have been pushed, but there were no bona fide witnesses. At that hour, the few people who had been on the platform, had been occupied by their own thoughts and observations. No one credible could be found who had witnessed the man's fall. It wasn't long before the media began to invade the site.
“Suicide, Fiona?” She heard the voice of Harrison Bolger, a police reporter from the
. He had called down from the platform as the body was being bagged. He was scruffy, overweight, with features swimming in a puddle of flesh like a bulldog.
“Maybe,” Fiona answered, glancing at Izzy with raised eyebrows. “Watch out,” she whispered. “He's a leech.” Izzy nodded.
She knew many people on the staff of the
through her relationship with Larry Porter, the man she was currently involved with, and others whom she had known since her childhood. Larry was Metro editor, one of the hotshots whom Ben Bradlee hired fresh out of Harvard, which was also Bradlee's alma mater. Metro editor was one of those jumping-off points to higher authority. Clearly, Larry was a man on the rise, and part of what he often gloated was the “inner circle.”
“Is it male, female, black, white?”
“White male,” Fiona snapped, watching Flanagan's crime site clean-up helpers lift the body onto the platform and onto a stretcher. Photographers followed them, taking shots. “He's off to the medical examiner.”
he?” Bolger persisted.
“Can't say,” Fiona shrugged. She was sorry to have said it that way, arousing suspicion. She had meant that she didn't know, but revealing the lack of identification might have been even more tantalizing.
“You'll be the first to know,” Fiona said. Like the aquatic worm, he sucked out information like blood and was not easy to detach.
They climbed a portable ladder to the platform and left the forensic team to their grim work.
“Come on, Fi. Is there more here than the obvious?” Bolger pressed. He followed her and Izzy to the escalator and stood next to her as they ascended.
“Not every day someone is killed by a subway train. There's a story here. Larry will want to know.”
There was something snide in the remark, invoking Larry. She bristled at Bolger's attempt to connect them in a business way.
“Everything in good time,” she said, forcing herself to be reasonably pleasant. Then in a burst of temper, “Get out of my face, Bolger.”
“I'm just doing my job, Fi. At least, tell me who it is. Is it somebody important?”
“Every life is important,” Izzy said, turning from one step ahead of them on the escalator. He met Fiona's glance and nodded.
“Good retort,” Fiona said as they reached the street level and got into the car. She offered a one-finger good-bye to Bolger, not the middle one, although she was sorely tempted. Don't fuck with the press was one of Chief Hodges' caveats. He was a publicity hound, perhaps hoping that notoriety would impress his wife and her community of snobs.
“No matter what, he'll get it by osmosis. Thinks he's onto something, he never lets go.”
Izzy at the wheel weaved the car through traffic while she pondered the informationâno identifying papers, a false moustache, glasses. She had marked everything as evidence and placed them in a plastic envelope but left the moustache untouched. By mutual consent, they held back on off-the-cuff theories, although Fiona was certain they both knew this was raw meat to a homicide detective, a mystery with lots of “whys?” In today's world, Fiona speculated, who walks around without evidence of identity, even phony ones?
“We've got a live one, Izzy,” Fiona said. She did not wait for his reply and raised her hand before he could get a word out. “Don't start. Not now.”
About an hour later, the prints came back with a positive identity. She knew why he had been familiar. She had been introduced to him at one of the
's events, although had never engaged him in conversation.
“Good God! Not Adam Burns,” Fiona said, stunned by the revelation.
“High profile,” Chief Hodges said, as Fiona and Izzy sat in front of his desk. He was already chewing heavily on an unlit Panatela. “The Feds will descend.”
“Adam Burns was an over-the-top anti-administration columnist, syndicated everywhere by the
,” Fiona said. “Three times a week, he hammered away. Made Krauthammer look like a toady.”
“Never read him,” Izzy Silverman said, tipping his political leanings.
Chief Hodges sighed and smashed the Panatela into the ashtray.
“We are about to be sucked into the eye of the storm.”
“Is that good or bad?” Izzy asked.
“Both,” Hodges grunted.
“Everyone will jump to conclusions,” Fiona said. “Can't you just hear the media chorus? Assassination! Surrogate killers! CIA! Like the Russians and the Arabs! Kill the messenger! Maybeâ¦ Mossad involvement! The floodgates will open. Conspiracy theories will abound. A rabid administration hater gets wasted. Worse, the man is in disguise with no documented identity on his person. What was his mission? Why? Mass hysteria will reign.”
“And the clincherâwho benefits?” Izzy asked, offering the crucial question of motivation that dominates every homicide puzzle. “These days the opposition blames everything on the President, including natural disasters.”
“With Burns out of the way, the President benefits,” Hodges muttered, “ergo, many will summon up the obvious, depending of course, on their political persuasion.”
“Has legs,” Fiona said. “One heavy hitter against the dead man, maybe more to come. A time-honored solution to dispose of critics; historical precedents abound.”
“Not in America,” Izzy said. “Not the President. Come on.”
“Are you living on some other planet, Izzy?” Fiona asked. “Our politicos are playing blood-sport games, these days. No,” she said. “Not like in my old dad's day.”
“I thought this was suicide or accident. No witnesses. What's all this homicide bullshit?” Chief Hodges admonished, irritated by the way the conversation had gone.
“Just fleshing out possibilities, Chief,” Fiona said.
“Your imagination's getting hyperactive again, woman,” Hodges said, his rebuke accelerating. She hoped he wouldn't get into one of his rages.
“Might have been dead before he went over,” Fiona speculated.
“Doubtful. Why kill him twice?” Izzy asked.
“Cover-up,” Fiona suggested.
Chief Hodges smiled his sarcastic smile.
“We're baking bread with horseshit, people,” he snickered. “People will rush to speculate and probably believe all of the above. Not our brief, people. So far all we got is squat but suicide or accident.”
“Not all, Chief. Fake moustache. Phony glasses,” Fiona pressed. Hodges showed his increasing irritation. “Prez hater in disguise is killed by moving train. No identification. Intriguing, right?”
“Doesn't alter the factsâno witnesses, no crime.”
“The Talmud says two eyewitnesses are required to validate.”
“Now that's really helpful, Silverman,” Hodges harrumphed, blowing air between his teeth and unwrapping another Panatela, soon to join the dead tobacco leaves in his no-ash ashtray.
Fiona knew his mind was racing now, contemplating possibilities. She deliberately intervened.
“We've got to control the action, Chief,” Fiona said, her imagination charging with ideas. She was weaned on politics and knew the turf well, although it was morphing into a more violent hate zone than she had ever observed.
When her father was alive, national politics was equally a battle royal between factions and parties, but there was little gut-wrenching hatred and brute animosity between partisan opponents. After business hours, mortal political enemies were able to socialize and maintain friendly, often life-bonding relationships. Not anymore. She had inherited her Democratic political leanings from her father, but she was determined to remain neutral in her job and keep an open mind on all issues. She was an investigator, and anything partisan was anathema to objectivity in her police work.
“It's too obvious a motivation for murder,” Fiona said. “Not that there won't be lots of theories and hate-filled assumptions. Nobody in his right mind would risk literally killing off the opposition, certainly not by presidential fiat. Besides, Burns was only one voice in a growing chorus. The White House is ground zero for bitching and moaning, everybody's a target.”
“This guy Burns was armed to the teeth with animosity, and he dished it out three times a week,” Izzy interjected.
“Jumping to conclusions,” Hodges sighed, eyeing Izzy with his trademark look of ridicule. “Only an idiot would countenance such an obvious hit. Even the most naÃ¯ve president would know that. This is not Russia or some dumb-assed third-world country. We don't shoot our critics here.” He laughed. “Then again, maybe we should.”
“That won't stop the media from asserting the possibility,” Izzy said.
“Once they get over their glee,” Hodges muttered.
Although they had, so far, rarely discussed politics, it seemed obvious that Izzy was a rabid supporter of the President. Speculating that her idea was based mostly on the grounds of his racial kinship, Fiona detested herself for the judgment.
From her long experience in Washington, she knew what the President was up against, and she understood that most of the political class was made up of ambitious people with different agendas and constituencies. If she was sometimes cynical about their motives, it did not mean that she disliked them as a group. They were insufferable, hypocritical, deceptive, vain, egotistical, charming, often counterintuitive, but they ran the show or acted as if they knew exactly what they were doing. Because of her father, she had a warm spot for the breed.
“No matter what,” Chief Hodges sighed, “we don't deliver, they'll come down on us as sycophants and stooges for the administration. We're on the lowest rung of the feeding chain. Expect everyone from the Secret Service and all the initials to pounce for their own reasons, meaning the CIA, FBI, NSA, et cetera, et cetera.”
“It's our jurisdiction, Chief,” Fiona said. “Not that such a trifling matter will hold down the Fed horde. We'll just have to stay a step ahead.”
“If too many Feds show up, the media will charge confusion and cover-up,” Hodges said. “And somehow, expect the slime to flow over us. Nature of the beast.”
“Something like the lady doth protest too much,” Izzy said.
Fiona saw the point. People might think the Feds were overdoing it deliberately, covering up leads, obscuring tracks.
“Got a point, Silverman,” Hodges conceded. “But don't fool yourself. We don't have a strong immune system. Beware the Feds. They'll be launching their slings and arrows. Brace yourselves. We don't come up with an airtight answer, the media will say we're in on the cover-up.”
“Fuck the media,” Fiona snapped.
She thought suddenly of Larry and smiled. That was exactly what she had been doing for the past few months.
As predicted, the story spread like a fast-moving forest fire. Internet stories were lurid and speculation rampant.
“Presidential Enemy Found Dead. Suicide or Murder?”
By the next day, Fiona felt certain, the story would gather more traction and dominate every medium. No print journalist or television personality could resist the temptation to speculate that an administration-inspired conspiracy might have been perpetrated. The suggestions were blatant. Administration defenders ridiculed the idea. The President remained silent. As had been expected, a “higher authority” was monitoring the Eggplant. And as always when such situations arose, his anger escalated, he became more secretive and less forthright with his superiors, doling out information in his own time.
Following procedure, Fiona had broken the news to Burns' wife while Izzy covered the news media. Next-of-kin notification always took precedence in incidents like these. It was early evening by then.
Sally Burns was an attractive woman, early forties, with one teenage daughter living at home and the other a sophomore at Harvard. Although obviously stunned and in disbelief, she remained controlled throughout the process, as if she were used to restraint. This was a woman who was good at managing her faÃ§ade. She did not break down when she identified her husband's body, although the color had drained from her face and her lips trembled. A passive-aggressive type, Fiona decided. One of those cold, nose in-the-air, blonde goddesses that Fiona despised from her school days, Mrs. Burns was dressed in the uniform of her ilk: cashmere cardigan open over color-coordinated sweater with a string of pearls around her neck. Fiona had never met her before. She was a real estate broker with a prominent firm that dealt in upscale housing.
Fiona drove her back to the family home near Chevy Chase Circle, an early vintage brick colonial style house; low key, tastefully decorated, and upscale. Mrs. Burns' teenage daughter Lisa, a tall, beautiful girl, her complexion ashen, eyes red and swollen, her blonde hair in disarray, fell into her mother's arms as they entered.
“I'm sorry, baby. It's so awful,” Mrs. Burns said soothingly, looking up at Fiona, almost apologetically, her hollow look emphasizing her helplessness.
“Daddy,” the daughter blurted, overwhelmed by her grief.
“I know, sweetheart. I know.”
“I want daddy.”
Leaning on her mother, crying uncontrollably, she was slowly guided upstairs.
Fiona roamed the living room and paneled den with ceiling-to-floor bookcases, noting that everything seemed in its place, expensive, comfortable, carefully chosen and coordinated, hardly an example of a rabble-rouser. There were plaques, awards, and generational family pictures of happy, athletic, successful people. This was not, Fiona decided, the home of a suicidal man. There were a number of awards also given to Mrs. Burns for her real estate sales efforts. She was apparently quite accomplished.
Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Burns came down, her pale face scrubbed and her hair neatly brushed. She had changed her clothes and was wearing an olive turtleneck and beige slacks. Fiona noted that the combination brought out the green tint of her hazel eyes.
“Lisa doted on her dad,” Mrs. Burns said, sucking in a deep breath. “She's devastated. It's all so terrible.” A tiny sob escaped her.
“It's always harder on the children,” Fiona said, leaving out what from her own experience she had learned would be a temporary phase. Children on the whole recovered from the loss faster than a spouse.
Mrs. Burns slumped into a leather wing chair. When the telephone rang, she showed her annoyance, got up, disconnected it, and returned to her chair. The brief stab of anger seemed to steady her.
“I don't want to hear it,” she said with disgust. “All those sympathetic voices. Hypocrites! Most hated his politics. The whole thing is so awful.” She sighed and turned away. “I suppose it was to be expected.”
“What was expected?”
Sally Burns turned full face toward Fiona. Even in grief, she was a goddess. “Do you have any doubts, Detective?”
“We don't deal in speculation,” Fiona said, impatient to begin the serious interrogation.
“Nor do I,” Sally Burns said, unable to control a quivering lip.
“Do I understand you rule out suicide?”
“No way,” Mrs. Burns said, expelling a deep sigh, obviously fighting to maintain control, as she played with her wedding ring with long, well-manicured fingers. For a long time she was silent, then as if satisfied that she had gained full control over herself, she nodded and spoke in a firm voice. “He would notâ¦.” Her nostrils flared as if she was fighting against anger now. She moved her head vigorously from side to side. “No, he would not take his own life.”
“You can never be sure, Mrs. Burns. Are there suicides in his family history?”
“Certainly not.” She hesitated for a moment as if she were mentally running down the family tree. “He comes from a long line of journalists and writers, all of whom lived to a ripe old age.”
“It's a legitimate hereditary marker. It has to be asked,” Fiona said.
“Well, it doesn't apply in this case.” Then she nodded as if agreeing with her inner voice. “Clearly it has all the fingerprints of this terrible administration. They are capable of anything. They wanted to silence my husband, and they've succeeded.”
“At this point, Mrs. Burns, it's a leap,” Fiona said gently. She had not yet provided Mrs. Burns with the more intricate and baffling details, like the absence of any identification and the matter of the fake moustache and eyeglasses. Forensics had confirmed that his glasses had been store-bought and with the lowest degree of magnification.
“Who else would be responsible? This most self-righteous, venal, evil administration in historyâ¦ my husband was its harshest critic. They eliminated the thorn in their side. They want to change our country, make it some socialist backwater. My husband saw it happening.” She let out a plaintive involuntary whine, and Fiona noted that she was now digging her nails into her palms. “My husband would not take his own life. No way. He was pushed in front of that train. I'd bet my own life on it.”
Fiona let her vent in her restrained manner, her voice steady and firmly emphatic. She was convinced she was stating the facts.
“You know how they do things. They can make it look like suicide. So where is his note? He adored the girls and me. He would never leave any of us in the lurch like this. Not withoutâ¦.” She swallowed, and despite her herculean effort at self-control, she teared up. She stared at Fiona. “Not without saying good-bye.”
“It happens, Mrs. Burns. Not all suicides leave a note.”
Fiona was instantly sorry she had put it that way. Then it occurred to her that he might have left a message on his wife's computer.
“Have you checked your computer, Mrs. Burns? He might have sent you a note by e-mail.”
She shook her head vigorously.
“I checked,” she said. Fiona assumed that meant she had taken the time during her absence to open her e-mail. “My daughter's as well. Nothing.”
“Are you certain? People often send suicide notes via email.”
“Will you stop using that word,” Mrs. Burns snapped between pursed lips. “It was not a suicide. Next thing you know, that will be the prevailing doctrine.”
“I apologize for the inference, Mrs. Burns. We haven't declared it as such. It could have been a simple accident. We are in the initial phase of our investigation.”
“Investigation? Really? I doubt if you will find anything that ties it to them. They are very clever. They will go through the motions, of course, but I have very low expectations about ever getting to the truth of his assassination.”
Fiona nodded, more for form's sake. It would be futile to rebut her arguments. She chose, instead, to ignore the allegation.
“Did your husband show any signs of depression? Had his conduct or attitude changed in any way in the last few months?”
Mrs. Burns offered a dismissive smirk.
“Not at all. My husband enjoyed his work and his home. He loved his family. He took out his anger in his columns. He was an idealist. He believed in honesty and transparency, hence his criticism of the President. My husband was a wonderful, talented, articulate man.” She paused and grew thoughtful. “A fulfilled man, doing good work. His column, as you must know, was widely read and distributed through the
syndicate. He turned down thousands for lectures and shunned the role of a talking head on television because he insisted on staying close to home. He would have rather spent his spare time with us.”
Fiona watched her signs of defensiveness or hesitation. She was, after all, a real estate broker, in itself a demanding, time-consuming job. “He was at the top of his game. This was notâI repeatâthis was not a suicide.” Her eyes narrowed as she shot Fiona a glance of reproof. “Definitely without a doubt, he did not take his own life.”
Fiona had heard this all before numerous times when delivering the news of a suicide to a family member. Denial was a fairly standard reaction. But in this case, Fiona mused, the woman's adamant denial matched her own speculation, although a conspiracy plot engineered by the President seemed a far more remote possibility.
“Did your husband ever discuss death threats?”
“Really, Detective,” Mrs. Burns said, with obvious indignation. “It went with the territory, along with fan mail, which he said always ran twenty-to-one in favor of his point of view. My husband got a kick out of the disgruntled ones. Oh, don't think the White House didn't send emissaries to shut him up, or at the very least, soften his stance. They didn't know my husband. He gave them no quarter. And they have had their revenge.”
“Did he have any enemies outside of that sphere? Beyond politics?”
“Maybe. Who knows? We all have enemies for whatever reason. Complain about a bad purchase or a bad meal or some shoddy workmanship that cost you good money, and you've made an enemy. But to be killed by one, that takes real animosity, real anger. And my husband's columns really infuriated them.”
“You know what I mean, Detective. Why overlook the obvious? His columns clearly offended the small-minded and the mendacious. Do I have to spell it out? Surely you read him.”
“Yes, I did.”
“End of story.”
“Not for us. For us, it's just the beginning.” She paused, observing the woman. Close relatives of victims were always providing their own theories and certainties about how a loved one expired. Fiona continued, “Did he ever doâ¦ how shall I put thisâ¦ personal investigations? Lone, undercover operations?” Fiona searched for words to elicit some hint the woman might reveal that could suggest an explanation for the disguise.
Mrs. Burns looked confused, her brows knitting.
“I don't understand.”
Fiona studied the woman's face.
“He was wearing a paste-on false moustache and store-bought, non-prescription glassesâprops.”
Mrs. Burns scrunched her eyes in disbelief.
“Come now, Officer. That is ridiculous.”
“Yes, it is,” Fiona acknowledged, “hence my question.”
“I can't believe this,” Mrs. Burns said, shaking her head as if afflicted with a sudden chill.
“Unfortunately, it is the truth and does require us to find an explanation. Obviously, he was taking some precaution not to be recognized. Where was he going?”
“It makes no sense.”
“I quite agree, Mrs. Burns. It does put an odd spin on the situation.”
The revelation had taken some starch out of the woman's controlled exterior. For a long moment, she did not respond. Fiona knew it was time to take a more oblique approach. The woman was as baffled as she and seemed lost in confused thought.
“There is some design in thisâ¦,” the woman began, then shook her head in strong denial. “He would never have done such an idiotic thing.” She paused. “Not without good reason.”
“How did he commute to the paper?” Fiona asked, following another line of reasoning. A subway station was not within reasonable walking distance of their home.
“Did he use the subway?”
“Why would he do that? When he went to his office, he drove. The subway is not convenient from here.”
“Did he go to his office every day?”
“He rarely wrote his column at home. Yes, he did go every day.”
“To your knowledge, did he ever use the subway?”
“Perhaps during the day to get around the city. I have no idea.”
“Do you use the subway?”
“Me? Not at all. I am a real estate broker. I take my clients around to see property by car. Why would I use the subway?”
Fiona again caught the whiff of snobbery. Suddenly, Mrs. Burns' eyes glazed as if she was looking inward. Fiona waited through the silence.
“A false moustache and clear glasses? Actually his eyesight was excellent. He had no need for glasses. Perhaps he was doing some undercover work for his column. He did all his own research and no longer had an assistant.”
“No longer?” Fiona asked, curious.
“He decided that he did not want an assistant. Charlotte. Charlotte Desmondâvery nice, very efficient. She was transferred to someone else at the paper. It apparently worked out very well for her. Anyway, it was his choice. He said he really would prefer working alone. Actually, he liked working alone.”
“Perhaps he did not want anyone to know what he was up to? Had he always had an assistant?”
“Ever since he was given the column. Five years, I believe. Then I guess it was about a year ago, he decided that he didn't need an assistant.”
A red flag went up in Fiona's mind. It validated a persistent and logical theory. He was involved in something that he wanted no one to know about.