Authors: Warren Adler
“As I get it,” the Chief continued, “the Feds do not want to be seen as upfront on this. They prefer to be informed and will offer occasional leads, but they want us to be the gofers, to keep it low key. They want this to remain a local police matter, and they don't want to be seen as pulling the strings.” He smirked as if to say, nobody pulls my strings. No way.
“People will think it anyway,” Fiona said, mostly to encourage the Chief's expected reaction.
“Fuck 'em,” he responded on cue.
“Ditto,” Fiona said, also on cue.
“And I'll bet the media will be pushing hard for a federal investigation,” Izzy interjected. The Chief nodded agreement. They both watched him cogitate, waiting for a verbal response.
“The administration will respond by making a big show of this, illustrate their concern for a critic and show their impartiality.”
Fiona remembered Vince Foster who had been in the Clinton White House and the flap over his suicide during the early days of that administration. He had shot himself near the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the park police who had jurisdiction investigated the event. It became a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre for the anti-Clinton advocates, with accusations that the Clinton crowd had deliberately instigated the man's assassination to put the lid on Whitewater, an Arkansas real estate scandal with links to the Clintons. It was a very messy business, which after various investigations resulted in a suicide verdict on Foster's death. The event, like all real and potential scandals in Washington, gradually disappeared from the media radar.
“Comes from the political wishing well,” Fiona sighed, “and too much Hollywood conditioning. Yet such oral speculation still plays well in this town.”
“People believe what they want to believe,” Hodges said, adding, “and offer their spin depending on their political affiliation and whether they're in or out of power.”
“Not our bag,” Fiona said.
“Only when we see it, smell it, taste it, hear it, touch it, only then, do we say it.”
“That's our mantra,” Fiona said, turning to Izzy. It was said for his benefit.
“Better be, Officers,” the Chief said.
“Burns' disguise is raw meat to the media. The phony moustache, the glassesâ¦ and the lack of identification,” Izzy said, obviously reacting to his visit to the
. “Expect a deluge as we speak. Without a doubt, the
will run with it big time. It's too juicy to keep hidden.”
“Sells papers, gets eyeballs,” the Chief said. “Way they run their game.”
“Are you contemplating a press conference, Chief?” Fiona asked, knowing that Hodges was a practicing limelight hog.
“I'm not sure,” he said, growing suddenly silent.
For the first time in memory, he seemed reticent to perform a public show-and-tell. Normally, he reveled in the process, mostly to try to impress his wife and her Gold Coast sycophants with his celebrity statusâa futile exercise.
Fiona knew that the Chief was pondering answers to the obvious. Was Burns' death connected to his anti-administration writings? Why the disguise? What was he looking for? Was he tailing someone connected to the administration? Why the lack of identification? This one was a minefield and above all, the Chief did not want to appear vacillating and incompetent.
“What they want most of all is an outcome that doesn't tie the administration to it. For them, that's the bottom line.”
“How can we guarantee that?” Izzy asked.
“Depends on your tolerance for conspiracy theories,” Fiona said. “Whatever we come up with will be suspect. It had better be airtight.”
“Stay with it,” the Chief said. “We need to keep one step ahead of the Feds.” He lowered his voice. “Eyes and ears of Big Brother are everywhere. I just wanted you to know that we're being monitored. I didn't have the office swept for bugs. Don't want them to know we know. Keep the talk natural but guarded, although there might come a time when I signal to disengage. Got it?”
It was, of course, a scary notion, hence their little outdoor meeting venue. But it had its logic. There was no way to prevent the implication that the Administration might be running a hit team against its critics, and there were serious believers out there who bought into such conspiracy theoriesâand not only the fringe media. Soon the blogging world would become operative, and the accusations would go viral. Fiona understood the game. The Administration had to counter in some way. Their hope was that the cops would sign off on suicide, but that was becoming more and more of a stretch.
Later, over coffee at Sherry's, Fiona and Izzy exchanged private theories. Fiona grew thoughtful and tapped a finger on her lips.
“You first,” she said.
Izzy took a deep sip of his coffee and squinted into his cup as if his thoughts swam there.
“I read a batch of the man's columns. The President was his whipping boy. He showed zero tolerance for anything the President didâran roughshod, never ending. Every column was brutal. My take? I doubt the Administration was complicit. That's reaching, but you know where I stand, Fi. I'm not a fan, and I didn't read him before his death. But I don't like having our President maligned.” He lifted his hands. “Okay, I know. I'm not letting it stand in the way of my neutrality on this matter. Neverthelessâ¦.” He paused and looked up. “It is quite possible that some very offended loyalist could have let his anger get out of hand. You can't deny that the columns could be very motivating for a wildly partisan presidential fanatic.”
“Who's denying it? I read him regularly. His stuff did have swaying power. He sure got the juices flowing and came down hard on the President. But a blatant hit by the order of the big man or one of his ardent staffers? No way. It's a leap. A supporting stranger, maybe, but that takes the onus off the Administration.”
“Look at us, Fi. We're buying into it?” Izzy asked.
“It can't be avoided,” Fiona mused. “What the Administration wants is for us to come up with a conclusion that keeps such an idea at bay. They want suicide or accident to be our official call. That takes them off the hook.”
“We better be right,” Izzy said. “Or the opposition and President haters will behead us.”
“On the other hand, speaking of heads. If we go for suicide or accident, the Eggplant becomes headâget the reference?âof the FBI.”
They finished their coffee, paid the bill and waved good-bye to Sherry.
As predicted, there was no holding back. After the initial revelation of Burns' demise, speculation began in earnest all over the place. The media bullhorns began their work. Burns could have, might have, and some said should have, been the victim of some government shenanigansâa CIA operation, a special ops buried deep underground, a hit squad of trained assassins. Even the President's loyalists were cagey in their defense against the rumormongers.
Fiona, an old hand at such speculation, had underestimated the deluge by half. The flood of letters and e-mails, many anonymous, grew exponentially. Telephone tips multiplied. Almost all were based on the assumption that Burns' death was related to his columns. Some cried administration hit job. Some protested to such a libel of the President. There was outrage, invective, mean-mindedness, and cries of conspiracy. The media fed the paranoia with its usual loud drumbeat. They loved it.
Fiona and Izzy followed up as best they could, and Hodges assigned a number of clerks in uniform to screen the material from the public, a massive undertaking that offered little in the way of concrete information. All of it was emotional, and there was absolutely no factual evidence offered to buttress the notion that Adam Burns was murdered. Most rejected suicide, and accident wasn't even on the radar.
At first, Chief Hodges, despite the growing media coverage, did not take the speculations and accusations seriously, although he pressed Fiona and Izzy to keep digging and resisted any effort to expand the investigation, worrying that it would create the impression that he was actually responding to the frenzy. But as the pressure mounted from the media, various politicians, and the general public, he had to rethink his public relations strategy.
Normally a publicity hound who loved the limelight, Hodges resisted holding any press conferences. Fiona knew why. He had nothing very interesting to report except that the investigation was continuing, but the questions would be more barbed than usual, saturated with political motives, making him a target for ridicule or worse, a lackey of the powers that be.
“Just cover the basesâfacts onlyâignore the noise,” he urged.
They did. Days went by and the noise only accelerated.
They sat in the back of The Shamrock, a nondescript old-fashioned tavern on Wisconsin Avenue. Phil Owens, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, sat on the other side of the booth in the back of the tavern. One of his tasks was to oversee the Secret Service, charged with protecting the President and Vice President, their wives and children, former presidents, and others who were deemed by statute to need protection.
Phil's wife Dolly was one of Fiona's closest friends, a pal from her Mount Vernon school days, and Phil had been Fiona's teenage heartthrob, which was not the only part of her anatomy that had been affected. He was technically her first lover, the sex had been a clumsy and painful event, an embarrassing turnoff for both of them. For Fiona there was always the guilty thought that she had deliberately used Phil to “do the deed.” It was never discussed between them ever again, but it had resulted in a permanent bond, their shared secret.
Phil's marriage to Dolly was a social event of the season, a full-scale wedding in the National Cathedral and a reception at the Chevy Chase Country Club. Fiona had been one of the bridesmaids. They mingled socially on the party circuit and called each other a few times a week. Fiona had been Dolly's confidante on her troubles with her husband, which ironically did not have to do with infidelity. Her point of contention was the old clichÃ©: balancing work and home. Phil was driven and intense, determined to climb the ladder of political power and celebrity. Clearly he was moving ever upward.
Fiona did not shrink from using her personal connections in her investigations. Implicit in these contacts, especially among old friends, was absolute trust and confidentiality. Of course, official boundaries were adhered to, but often blurred. With close friends like Phil, they could address each other in shorthand and still maintain official, although quasi-distance.
“Do you think Burns' death is connected?”
“I couldn't say.”
“Couldn't or wouldn't, Phil?”
“Both. Are you abandoning the idea of suicide or accident?”
“Not yet. We have no evidence or proof either way.”
“So you're thrashing around for more sinister possibilities?”
“Just doing my job, Phil.”
“And a weird job it is, Fi. I'll never understand why you're there, with your connections.”
He shook his head and shrugged. Fiona refused any reaction.
“In your opinion, did your shop think that Burns' columns were directly threatening to the life of the President?”
Both knew there was a subtext here. All intense public rants against the President were on a watch list. Charged with protecting the President's life, the Secret Service was always ten steps ahead of possibilities. Phil had jurisdiction, but Fiona was not sure how far that went when extreme confidentiality was warranted.
“Of course, he caught our attention, I'll grant you that. We'd be remiss if we ignored him. His rants were off the charts.”
“For research only?”
“Let's put it this way, Fi. We are forever watchful.”
“I'm talking specifics, namely Burns.”
“I told you, Fi, ever watchful.”
She knew he had to be tight-lipped, but she was hoping that he might convey something in body language or facial expression that would reveal the seriousness of how Burns' death had been taken by the Feds. Clearly, she had gotten the message that their concern was very serious.
“Why would he attempt a disguise?” Fiona asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“My guess is that there is probably a connection somewhere. If he was murdered, the motive could be something in your bailiwick.”
She inspected his face. He remained silent, but she imagined she saw consternation in his eyes. Training and insight had taught her to decipher facial expressions and body language that revealed inner pain and uncertainty. Words, of course, held important clues, and she always listened with concentration to how people exposed themselves. Sometimes a misplaced word could open up a world of discovery. In Phil, Fiona saw pain, intense pain. Her friend was obviously under extreme pressure.
“Come on, Phil. I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”
He blushed a vivid red, probably remembering their sexual catastrophe. Sucking in a deep breath, he nodded, his voice falling to a whisper.
“Of course, he was on our watch list. He was an inciter, no question about that, but he was not in our surveillance orbit. He had clearance for Presidential press conferences and was frequently in attendance. As for his so-called disguise, we're as baffled as you are, although it does raise red flags. Let's just say that various theories are being bandied about. As for his columns, we have the First Amendment to contend with. We step too far over the line, we could fall over the edge of a cliff.”
He had ordered a martini, which he imbibed in tiny sips. She was nursing a beer.
In studying his face, she could still see vestiges of the handsome young boy on whom she had once had a crush. They had engaged in what was called in those days, “everything but.” Then in a fit of adolescent passion, they jumped over that line, and the magic ended in painful clumsiness. Nevertheless, a generous affection remained between them.
“Okay then, but surely you can lay out a guess? I've got to admit that so far, we don't have much. We're looking at murder, but so far it's leading nowhere.”
Phil took a deeper sip on his martini.”
“I'd say he was meeting someone who didn't want anyone to know who he was meeting.”
“The obvious,” Fiona sighed.
“Sometimes the most obvious isâ¦ the most obvious.”
“That's an opinion, Phil. Is there anything more? Is your shop fishing around?”
Phil's mouth moved into a joyless smile, which she took as confirmation, but did not pursue the query.
“Okay then. If you come across such a possibility, will you pass it along?”
He grew thoughtful and upended his martini. It was, she knew, a gesture of finality.
“We will observe the spirit of cooperation,” Phil said, in a tone of false sarcasm.
Fiona was certain if it did not involve a massive and highly sensitive security matter, Phil would be forthcoming.
Then as if reading her mind, he muttered, “They wouldn't be that stupid.”
“Wouldn't they?” Fiona whispered.