smile on you at some point.
Again Burton shook with anger at the position the woman had put him in. The decision her stupidity had caused him to make. It was all he could do not to run down the stairs and break her neck. But he promised himself one thing. If he lived to do nothing else, he would ensure that this woman would suffer. He would rip her from the safe confines of her power career and hurl her right into the shit of reality—and he would enjoy every minute of it.
* * *
GLORIA RUSSELL CHECKED HER HAIR AND LIPSTICK IN THE mirror. She knew she was acting like a damned love-struck teenager, but there was something so naive and yet so masculine about Tim Collin that it was actually starting to distract her attention from her work, something that had never happened before. But it was a historical fact that men in power positions usually got some action on the side. Not an ardent feminist, Russell saw nothing wrong with emulating her male counterparts. As she saw it, it was just another perk of the position.
As she slipped out of her dress and underwear and into her most transparent nightgown, she kept reminding herself of why she was seducing the younger man. She needed him for two reasons. One, he knew about her blunder with the letter opener and she needed absolute assurance that he keep quiet about that, and, second, she needed his help to get that piece of evidence back. Compelling, rational reasons and yet tonight, like all the nights before, they were the furthest things from her mind.
At that moment she felt she could fuck Tim Collin every night for the rest of her life and never tire of the feelings that flooded through her body after each encounter. Her brain could rationalize a thousand reasons why she should stop, but the remainder of her body was, for once, not listening.
The knock on the door came a little early. She finished primping her hair, quickly checked her makeup again, and then awkwardly slipped into her heels as she hurried down the hallway. She opened the front door and it felt like someone had plunged a knife between her breasts.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Burton put one foot inside the half-opened door and one massive hand against the door itself.
“We need to talk.”
Russell unconsciously checked behind him for the man she had expected to make love to her tonight.
Burton noted the glance. “Sorry, lover-boy ain’t coming, Chief.”
She tried to slam the door closed, but couldn’t budge the two-hundred-and-forty-pound Burton an inch. With maddening ease he pushed open the door and went inside, shutting the door behind him.
He stood in the entranceway looking at the Chief of Staff, who was now desperately trying to understand what he was doing there at the same time she was trying to cover up strategic parts of her anatomy. She was not succeeding with either.
“Get out, Burton! How dare you come barging in here? You’re through.”
Burton moved past her into the living room, barely brushing against her as he walked by.
“Either we talk here or we talk someplace else. It’s up to you.”
She followed him into the living room. “What the hell are you talking about? I told you to get out. You’re forgetting your place in the official hierarchy, aren’t you?”
He turned to face her. “You always answer the door dressed like that?” He could understand Collin’s interest. The nightgown did nothing to hide the Chief of Staff’s voluptuous figure. Who would’ve thought? He might have been aroused despite twenty-four years with the same woman and four children spawned from that marriage, except for the fact that he was absolutely repulsed by the half-naked woman standing across from him.
“Go to hell! Go straight to hell, Burton.”
“That’s probably where we’re all going to end up, so why don’t you go get on some clothes and then we’re going to talk and then I’ll leave. But until then I ain’t going anywhere.”
“Do you realize what you’re doing? I can crush you.”
“Right!” He pulled out the photos from his jacket pocket and tossed them down on the table. Russell tried to ignore them, but finally picked them up. She steadied her trembling legs by placing a hand on top of a table.
“You and Collin make a beautiful couple. You really do. I don’t think the media will lose sight of that fact. Might make for an interesting movie of the week. What do you think? Chief of Staff gets brains screwed out by young Secret Service agent. You could call it The Fuck Heard ’Round the World. That’s catchy, don’t you think?”
She slapped him, as hard as she had ever slapped anyone. Pain shot through her arm. It had been like hitting a piece of wood. Burton took her hand and twisted it sideways until she screamed.
“Listen lady, I know every fucking thing that’s going on here. Everything. The letter opener. Who’s got it. Most importantly, how he got it. And now this recent correspondence from our little larcenous voyeur. Now any way you cut it, we got us a big problem, and seeing that you’ve screwed everything up from the get-go, I think a change of command is in order. Now go get out of the hooker clothes, and come back in here. If you want me to save your horny little ass, you’ll do exactly what I tell you to do. Do you understand? Because if you don’t then I suggest we go have a little chat with the President. It’s up to you. Chief!” Burton spat out the last word, communicating unequivocally his absolute disgust with her.
Burton slowly let go of her arm but still towered over her like a mountain. His massive bulk seemed to block out her ability to think. Russell gingerly rubbed her arm and almost timidly looked up at him as the hopelessness of her situation started to sink in.
She went immediately to the bathroom and threw up. It seemed like she was spending an increasing amount of her time doing that. The cold water on her face finally started to work through the throes of nausea until she was able to sit up and then walk slowly to her bedroom.
Her head spinning, she changed into long pants and a thick sweater, dropping the negligee on the bed, too ashamed to even look at it as the garment floated down; her dreams for a night of pleasure shattered with terrifying abruptness. She replaced her red stilettos with a pair of brown flats.
Patting her cheeks down as she sensed the rush of blood there, she felt like she had just been caught by her father with a boy’s hands far up her dress. That event had actually occurred in her life and probably contributed to her absolute focus on her career to the detriment of everything else, so embarrassed had she been by the entire episode. Her father had called her a whore and beaten her so badly that she had missed a week of school. She had prayed her entire life that she would never feel such embarrassment again. Until tonight that prayer had been answered.
She forced herself to breathe regularly and when she went back into the living room she noted that Burton had taken his jacket off and a pot of coffee sat on the table. She eyed the thick holster with its deadly occupant.
“Cream and sugar, right?”
She managed to meet his gaze. “Yes.”
He poured out the coffee and she sat down across from him.
She looked down at her cup. “How much did Ti . . . Collin tell you?”
“About the two of you? Nothing really. He’s not the kind of guy who would. I think he’s fallen for you pretty hard. You’ve fucked with his head and his heart. Nice going.”
“You don’t understand anything, do you?” She almost exploded out of her chair.
Burton was maddeningly calm. “I understand this much. We’re about one inch from the edge of the cliff and where we’re headed I can’t even see the bottom. Frankly, I don’t give a shit who you’re sleeping with. That’s not why I’m here.”
Russell sat back down and forced herself to drink the coffee. Her stomach started to finally settle down.
Burton leaned across and held her arm as gently as he could.
“Look, Ms. Russell. I’m not going to sit here and bullshit and tell you I’m here because I think the world of you and I want to get you out of a jam, and you don’t have to pretend to love me
either. But the way I look at it, like it or not, we’re in this thing together. And the only way I see us making it through is to work as a team. That’s the deal I’m offering.” Burton sat back and watched her.
Russell put down her coffee and dabbed a napkin against her lips.
Burton immediately leaned forward. “Just to recount, the letter opener still has both the President’s and Christine Sullivan’s prints on it. And their blood. Correct?”
“Any prosecutor would be salivating for that thing. We’ve got to get it back.”
“We’ll buy it. He wants to sell it. The next communication will tell us how much.”
Burton shocked her for the second time. He tossed the envelope across.
“The guy’s savvy, but at some point he has to tell us a drop point.”
Russell took out the letter and read it. The writing was block print as before. The message was brief:
Coordinates coming soon. Recommend advance steps be taken for financial backing. For such prime property suggest mid seven figures. Would suggest consequences of default be considered thoroughly. Respond via Post personals if interested.
“He’s got quite a writing style, doesn’t he? Succinct, but he gets his point across.” Burton poured another cup of coffee. Then he tossed across another photograph of what Russell was desperately hoping to retrieve.
“He sure likes to tease, doesn’t he, Ms. Russell?”
“At least it sounds like he’s ready to deal.”
“We’re talking some big bucks. You prepared for that?”
“Let me worry about that piece, Burton. Money won’t be the problem.” Her arrogance was returning just in time.
“Probably not,” he agreed. “By the way, why the hell didn’t you let Collin wipe that thing clean?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“No, actually you don’t, Madam President.”
Russell and Burton actually smiled at each other. Maybe she had been wrong. Burton was a pain in her ass, but he was cunning and careful. She realized now that she needed those qualities more than Collin’s gallant naïveté even if it was accompanied by a fresh, hard body.
“There’s one more piece to the puzzle, Chief.”
“And that is?”
“When it comes time to kill this guy, are you gonna get squeamish on me?”
Russell choked on her coffee and Burton had to literally pound her on the back until she started breathing normally again.
“I guess that answers that.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Burton—killing him?”
“You still don’t understand what’s going on here, do you? I thought you were some brilliant professor somewhere. Ivory towers ain’t what they used to be I guess. Or maybe you need a little dose of common sense. Let me explain this real simply for you. This guy was an eyewitness to the President trying to murder Christine Sullivan, Sullivan trying to return the favor, and me and Collin doing our job and taking her out before the President gets stuck like a side of beef. An eyewitness! Remember that term. Before I found out about this little piece of evidence you left behind, I figured our asses were cooked anyway. Guy leaks the story somehow, some way and it snowballs from there. Some things we just can’t explain, right?
“But nothing happens and I figure maybe we all got lucky and this guy is too afraid to come forward. Now I find out about this blackmail shit and I ask myself what does that mean.”
Burton looked questioningly at Russell.
She answered, “It means he wants money in exchange for the letter opener. It’s his lottery. What else could it mean, Burton?”
Burton shook his head. “No, it means this guy is fucking with us. Playing mind games. It means we got an eyewitness out there who’s getting a little daring, a little adventurous. On top of that it took a real professional to crack the Sullivan nest. So this guy is not the type who’s gonna scare too easily.”
“So? If we get back the letter opener aren’t we home free?” Russell was dimly beginning to see what Burton was getting at, but it still wasn’t clear.
“If he doesn’t keep photos of it, which might end up on the front page of the Post any day now. An enlarged photo of the President’s palm print on a letter opener that came from Christine Sullivan’s bedroom on page one. Probably make for an interesting series of articles. Grounds enough for the papers to start digging around. Even the slightest hint of a connection between the President and Sullivan’s murder and it’s over. Sure, we can argue the guy’s a whacko and the picture’s a clever forgery, and maybe we’ll succeed. But one of those photos showing up at the Post doesn’t concern me half as much as our other problem.”
“Which is?” Russell sat forward now, her voice low, almost husky, as something terrible was beginning to dawn on her.
“You seem to have forgotten that this guy saw everything we did that night. Everything. What we were wearing. Everybody’s name. How we wiped the place clean, which I’m sure the police are still scratching their heads over. He can tell them how we arrived and how we left. He can tell them to check the President’s arm for traces of a knife wound. He can tell them how we dug one slug out of the wall and where we were standing when we fired. He can tell them everything they want to know. And when he does, they’ll at first think he knows all about the crime scene because he was there and was actually the trigger man. But then the cops will start to realize that this was more than a one-man show. They’ll wonder how he knows all this other stuff. Some of which he couldn’t have made up and which they can verify. They’ll begin to wonder about all those little details that just don’t make sense but that this guy can explain.”
Russell stood up and went over to the bar and poured her self a scotch. She poured one for Burton too. She thought about what Burton had said. The man had seen everything. Including her and an unconscious President having sex. Miserable, she pushed the thought from her mind.
“Why would he come forward after he’d been paid off?”
“Who says he actually has to come forward? Remember like you said that night? He could do it from a distance. Laugh all the way to the bank and take down an administration. Hell, he can write it all down and fax it to the cops. They’ll have to investigate it and who’s to say they won’t find something? If they got any physical evidence from that bedroom, hair root, saliva, seminal fluid, all they need is a body to match it against. Before there was no reason for them to look our way, but now, who the hell knows? You get a DNA match against Richmond, we’re dead. Dead.
“And so what if the guy never comes forward voluntarily? The detective on the case is no bonehead. And my gut tells me that, given time, he’s gonna find the sonofabitch. And a guy looking at life in prison or maybe the ultimate penalty will talk his head off, believe me. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”
Russell felt a sudden chill. What Burton said made absolute sense. The President had sounded so convincing. Neither of them had even considered this line.
“Besides, I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on spending the rest of my life looking over my shoulder waiting for that shoe to drop.”
“But how can we find him?”
It amused Burton that the Chief of Staff had fallen in with his plans without much argument. The value of life apparently did not mean much to this woman when her personal well-being was threatened. He hadn’t expected less.
“Before I knew about the letters, I thought we had no chance. But with blackmail, at some point you gotta have the payoff. And then he’s vulnerable.”
“But he’ll just ask for a wire transfer. If what you say is true, this guy’s too smart to be looking for a bag of money in a Dumpster. And we won’t know where the letter opener will be until long after he’s gone.”
“Maybe, maybe not. You let me worry about that. What is imperative is that you string the guy along just a bit. If he wants the deal done in two days, you make it four.
Whatever you put in the personals make it sincere. I’ll leave that up to you, Professor. But you’ve got to buy me some time.” Burton got up. She grabbed his arm.
“What are you going to do?”
“The less you know about it the better. But you do understand that if the whole thing blows up, we all go down, including the President? There’s nothing at this point I could or would do to prevent that. As far as I’m concerned you both deserve it.”
“You don’t sugarcoat things, do you?”
“Never found it useful.” He put on his coat. “By the way, you realize that Richmond beat Christine Sullivan up bad, don’t you? From the autopsy report it looks like he tried to turn her neck into a spaghetti loop.”
“So I understand. Is that important to know?”
“You don’t have any children, do you?”
Russell shook her head.
“I’ve got four. Two daughters, not much younger than Christine Sullivan. As a parent you think about things like that. Loved ones getting messed up by some asshole like that. Just wanted you to know the kind of guy our boss is. That is, if he ever gets frisky, you might want to think twice.”
He left her sitting in the living room contemplating her wrecked life.