Authors: Jane Haddam
Act of Darkness
Open Road Integrated Media
TEPHEN WHISTLER FOX COULD
not remember when he had first realized he was going to run for president. By the end of May, with the last of the good weather already slipping away and the wet heat of the summer beginning to rise out of the swamp that was the core of the District of Columbia, he felt as if he’d known it forever. It was the start of what was going to be a long and uncomfortable summer, and a political dead time at that. The Senate was nominally in session, but half the senators were tucked away in summerhouses in Wyoming and Maine, and the other half always seemed to be asleep. Stuck in Washington against his will, Stephen felt like a pregnant woman too close to the moment of her conception to show. Dan Chester had warned him. Under no circumstances was he to say anything about his decision to run. It would be a year before he could decently announce, and in that year they had things to do, a war chest to collect, a battle plan to solidify. It was bad enough that Stephen had told not only his wife but his wife’s mother. Janet was a good little political wife, a veritable model of liberal womanhood who ranked right up there with Tipper Gore, but Mama was a walking disaster. In fact, Victoria Harte was a walking disaster even without prior knowledge of Stephen’s political plans. She was, for one thing,
The Last of the Movie Stars, as the magazines were always putting it. She had a reputation from Beverly Hills to Timbuktu, and that reputation was not good, not if you needed votes in the Bible Belt. Stephen needed votes in the Bible Belt. Stephen needed votes everywhere. In spite of all the brave talk about a nationwide backlash against the Reagan era, Dan Chester’s polls did not look good.
“The problem,” Dan said, “is that they just don’t trust us. Not us personally, you understand. The party. It’s all this business with the PACs and the soft money and the savings and loans.”
They were sitting in Stephen’s new office, one of the priority offices overlooking the Esplanade in the Senate Office Building, Stephen’s reward for having been elected to a third term. Dan had the leather couch. Stephen had the tilting, unstable executive chair. Stephen thought they might as well have been back at the University of Connecticut, sitting on cracked plastic in the fraternity house lounge. It was eerie, but neither of them ever seemed to change. Stephen was still the tall, athletic, good-looking one, dark haired but blue eyed, the inevitable student body president and captain of the tennis team. Dan was still the short, gnarled gnome with the shrewd eyes, the one who made people wonder what his name had been
And, of course, Dan was still the one with the brains.
Dan was staring across the office with that hooded look that said Stephen was being stupid again. Stephen looked away.
“I thought PACs were
problem,” he said.
“Not according to
” Dan said. “According to
they get 80 percent of their donations from individuals, we get 80 percent of our donations from PACs. You can thank the unlamented, lately departed Tony Coelho for that.”
“Does anybody really believe what they say on
“Everybody believes it. That’s why you’re going to be interviewed on it. That’s the point.”
“About the Down syndrome thing,” Stephen said.
“And only about the Down syndrome thing,” Dan agreed.
Stephen was still looking out the window—or at the window, at any rate. It was the first of June and the sun was high and hot in the sky. It sent light into the glass that seemed to get caught there and burn. Stephen made himself turn away and look at Dan again, questioning.
interview doesn’t air till fall?”
“Not until after Labor Day, Stephen, that’s right.”
“And they won’t find out about the—seminars?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea if they’ll find out about them. They won’t make a fuss about them. That’s all that matters.”
“Lloyd Bentsen was tied to a loser,” Dan said. “You’re the Great White Hope. Never forget that. It’s not the seminars I’m worried about, Stephen. It’s Janet. And what’s-her-name, you know, with the tits.”
Stephen flushed. “I’ll take care of Janet,” he said. “I’ll take care of Patchen Rawls, too.”
“Have you told Janet about the Down syndrome thing?”
“Of course I have. How could I avoid it? It was going to be in the Washington
“She doesn’t mind.”
It was a statement, not a question, and there were words left out. What Dan was really saying was
You’d better be damn sure she doesn’t mind.
Stephen hated being with Dan when Dan was being this way.
“Janet,” he said, “has great concern for retarded children. She’s personally committed to making sure that this country does something to alleviate—”
“Let’s just hope she’s personally committed to becoming First Lady. Did you check the schedule I sent you? You’ve got a lot to do today.”
The shift in emotional climate was abrupt, but like a sudden shower after long dead weeks of oppressive heat, it was welcome. It was especially welcome because Stephen
checked the schedule for today. He was on top of things for once. He wheeled his chair to the desk and went through the papers on the blotter until he found it. It had been produced on an IBM PC-190, fed through the most sophisticated software package in existence, and emerged, complete with graphics, looking printed. There was even an American bald eagle made of red-white-and-blue stars and bars in the upper left-hand corner. It could have been a stockholder’s report.
“Boy Scouts,” Stephen said, “League of Women Voters, the oil guy from Oklahoma, briefing conference, cocktail party—”
“That’s the one,” Dan said. “Do anything else you want today, but don’t miss the cocktail party.”
“Is it a fund-raiser?”
“Everything is a fund-raiser. I sold the invitations at twenty-five hundred a pop. Don’t miss your coaching session, either. I don’t like the way you’ve been looking on television lately. Your rough edges are coming back.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“What’s-her-name with the tits is going to be at the cocktail party. She absolutely insisted and I didn’t want to create a situation.”
The emotional climate had shifted back. It had a tang to it that it hadn’t had before, a knife-blade edge of malice. Stephen felt himself freezing up.
“And?” he said.
Dan Chester smiled. “Look at it this way,” he told Stephen. “Never, never, never forget what happened to Gary Hart.”
OR CLARE MARKEY, BEING
a lobbyist was a job like any other job, almost. It had a few things going for it. It paid well enough for her to dress in Ralph Lauren and off-the-rack Christian Dior. It got her invited to a lot of parties. It gave her an excuse to have an office the size of a high-school basketball court decorated in mauves and grays. It had a few things going against it, too. One of the reasons her office was so large was that there were so many phones in it: twenty-six lines in all, and nine separate instruments. There were days when all the lines lit up at once and Clare found herself wanting to hide in a closet with a Nancy Drew book, the way she had when she was eight. Then there were the posters, gigantic black-and-white blowups of meretricious photographs, ragged starving children with flyaway hair sitting on sagging porches or next to garbage cans in urban-jungle alleys. Printed at the bottom of each of these posters were the words
THE EMPOWERMENT PROJECT:
A National Coalition of Citizens Concerned about Children.
Clare Markey was an honest woman, and an honest liberal, too. She believed there ought to be a national coalition of citizens concerned about children, especially “exceptional” children, who always seemed to get stuck with the leftovers of life. If the money to help them didn’t come from the government, where would it come from? The kids didn’t have it and never would. Their parents didn’t have it, either. On her own, with a couple of glasses of Scotch under her belt, she saw visions: a vast network of special schools, a vaster network of home-visitor workers, job training, skills training, halfway houses, adult self-sufficiency, perfection. Unfortunately, she was too clearheaded to make herself believe that the Empowerment Project was going to do anything to make these visions real. They called themselves a “coalition of citizens concerned,” but after four years of working for them, Clare knew what they really were: an undeclared union of child-care workers and staff people at state facilities for the mentally retarded. Clare also knew what they were really concerned about: their paychecks, their benefits, and their pensions. At the moment, all three were relatively small. If Stephen Fox’s Act in Aid of Exceptional Children managed to get through Congress and past the president’s desk—and if Clare did her job right—all three would be much larger. Whether any exceptional children would be helped in the process was moot.
Clare caught herself jamming a pencil into the chignon folds of her dark hair—it had been blond originally, but blond women weren’t taken seriously; she had dyed it within a month of moving to Washington after college—and made herself stop. For the last half hour, she had had her left ear glued to the handset of her red phone, and her ear was beginning to go to sleep. Her mind had gone to sleep ages ago. It always did when Harvey Gort got on his favorite soapbox. Harvey Gort was the chairman of the Empowerment Project and her employer.
“The man’s a goddamned extortionist,” Harvey was saying. “There’s no other word for it. He’s holding us up.”
“Of course he’s holding us up,” Clare said. “That’s what these people do. For God’s sake, Harvey. You ought to know how the game is played by now.”
“A hundred thousand dollars for one weekend on Long Island is too damn much money, seminar or no seminar. And I don’t believe there is any seminar. You tell Dan Chester all that for me.”
Dan Chester. Clare stared at the tip of her pencil and frowned. It was odd. Theoretically, Dan Chester spoke only on Stephen Fox’s authority. Theoretically, it was Stephen Fox who was really holding them up. Chester, after all, was just a political manager. It was Fox who was the duly elected senator from the state of Connecticut. Still, nobody ever blamed Stephen Fox for the things Dan Chester did in his name, or even gave Fox credit for thinking them up. It was as if nobody in Washington believed that Fox was really real. He was just one more of Dan Chester’s special effects, the public face of a private political act.
“Dan Chester,” Harvey Gort said, “thinks he can get away with anything.”
Clare Markey sighed. “In this case, Harvey, he can get away with anything. At least as far as we’re concerned. Did you look at the material I sent you?”
“I looked at the prices. Did you really spend twenty-five hundred dollars of our money for an invitation to a cocktail party?”
“Of course I did. The cocktail party’s tonight, by the way. What did you expect me to do?”
“You could show a little common sense,” Gort said. “Why don’t you just tell the son of a bitch he can stuff it?”
“Kevin Debrett,” Clare Markey said carefully, “is going to be at that cocktail party tonight. He bought invitations for himself and four of his staff. And Kevin Debrett is going to be on Long Island for Fourth-of-July weekend.”