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GREGOR DEMARKIAN HAD ALWAYS thought of himself as a rational and self-controlled man. It was an image of himself he had held for so long, and with such conviction, that he tended to get a little scatty at any hint of the possibility that he might have been kidding himself. "A little scatty" was definitely what he felt on this hot early morning of the first of July, riding across the whatever-bridge-it-was that went from Manhattan to Long Island in the company of Bennis Day Hannaford, encased like a prize butterfly behind the smoked glass of a baby blue Rolls-Royce limousine. It was not, however, the limousine that was bothering him. Gregor had ridden in limousines before, although Bennis's idea of one—which she persisted in calling a "car"—was a little like Jackie Onassis's idea of a house. Bennis had grown up rich and then gotten even richer by her own efforts. She habitually translated "renting a little pied-a-terre in New York for the weekend" as "renting the entire top floor of the Trump Tower, with maid service." Back on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia—where Bennis didn't live, but did spend most of her time; and where Gregor did live—she had just presented Gregor's upstairs neighbor Donna Moradanyan (six weeks late) with "a pair of blue earrings" as a reward for "having done such a magnificent job going through labor." The blue earrings had turned out to be classic cut sapphires surrounded by tiny diamonds, so blatantly expensive the sight of them had made even the parish priest, Father Tibor Kasparian, pale. Old George Telemakian's grandson Martin, reputed to be the most successful stock trader in the history of Philadelphia, had taken one look at the things and decided he needed a drink.
Philadelphia. That, Gregor knew, was the problem. Cavanaugh Street was in Philadelphia, and Bryn Mawr, where Bennis's mother had her house, was not very far away. By every discoverable principle of self-preservation and common sense, Bennis ought to be back there, writing another knights-and-unicorns fantasy novel and helping Gregor's childhood friend, Lida Arkmanian, turn Donnas baby boy into a paradigm of spoiled imperiousness. That she would much rather be here beside him was not the point. Bennis, as Gregor had told Tibor, had no caution. Gregor had asked for her help once, with the case during which he had met her, and she had promptly exceeded his instructions, put herself in the worst possible position, and nearly gotten herself killed. To bring her into a house of evil—and that, after numerous talks with the uncomfortable Mr. Dan Chester, was what Gregor was sure Great Expectations was—was sheer lunacy.
It made no difference how many times he told himself, in how many different ways, that bringing her along made sense. The argument was spurious. Yes, it was true that she was young and beautiful and rich, exactly the kind of woman Stephen Whistler Fox liked to have around and liked even better as a campaign contributor. Yes, it was true that she made him look foolish, the way older men (Gregor was fifty-five) always look foolish when they seem to be besotted by much younger women. It was even true that she was great cover, since she was not as stupid as her beauty made people think (why was it beautiful women were always assumed to be dumb?) and he was not besotted with her. All the rationalizations broke to shards on the unyielding rocks of plain reality, and the plain reality was this: under no other circumstances, in no other situation involving no other kind of people, would Gregor Demarkian even have considered taking Bennis Hannaford along. Gregor and Bennis were riding together to Victoria Harte's estate on the shores of Long Island Sound for one reason and one reason only: because Gregor had an aversion to politics and politicians that amounted to a phobia.
Gregor pressed his face against the smoky glass of the window beside him and looked out on the scattershot shabbiness of Queens. It was odd, he thought, that it was politics and politicians that had ended up getting to him. He had spent twenty years in the FBI, more than half of that time dealing exclusively with serial murderers. He had met men who murdered, maimed, mutilated, and then went out for a good dinner. He had spent countless hours with people who honestly saw nothing wrong with a little blood sport and who considered him stuffy, conventional, and maybe a little stupid for taking the opposing view. He had met psychopaths both criminal and untouchable, from Ted Bundy to good old J. Edgar Hoover himself. None of these people had done to his gut, his nerves, and his primal superstitiousness what any ordinary United States senator could do to all three by simply walking into a room. If he had been Tibor, he could have understood it. Tibor had barely escaped with his life from Soviet Armenia after a lifetime of summary arrests, gratuitous tortures, and quasi-official death threats. The priest was politically libertarian to the point of anarchy for good reason.
Gregor, on the other hand, had never come to any personal harm by the actions of any particular politician. He had never even been treated badly by one. He had known four presidents—Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan—and they had all been genial, gracious and solicitous men, at least while he was watching them. And that, in the end, had been the problem. At least while he was watching them. Sometimes Gregor thought he hadn't escaped at all from the peasant voodoo mentality of the immigrant household in which he'd grown up. He'd simply shifted the focus of his dread from random and inexplicable disasters to the persons of the men who made the calculated deliberations on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill.
He turned his head away from the window—he wasn't paying attention to the scenery anyway; it was all hot and sweaty and tired and cramped—and looked at Bennis, sitting with her legs stretched out across the center aisle and her stocking feet propped onto the rumble seat. It was, Gregor realized, the first time he had ever seen her "dressed." He didn't think it suited her. She had abandoned her ubiquitous jeans for a Chanel suit and her usual stuck-up-any-which-way top-of-the-head knot for a professionally constructed chignon, but she still sat and moved like someone who didn't have to worry that her posture might expose her underwear. He thought she would probably correct that when they got to Great Expectations, because Bennis was always so good at adapting herself to her environment. He didn't think he was going to like the change when it came.
He tapped the stack of papers on her lap and said, "How's it going? You don't seem to have gotten very far."
The papers were the copyedited manuscript of the novel Bennis had delivered to her publisher barely two weeks before the mess had started out in Bryn Mawr, the case that had brought her and Gregor Demarkian together. To say she hadn't gotten very far with it was gross understatement. They had been traveling for two days, and she was barely a third of the way through.
Now she frowned dubiously at the papers, shook her head, and put them away from her, beside her on the seat. Then she looked at Gregor and sighed.
"I got a fanatic," she said. "Every time I used the generic 'he,' she changed it to 'he or she.' Every time the knight in shining armor saved the damsel in distress, she wrote, 'Change this please. Sexist.' I mean, for God's sake. The idiot thing is set in 1153."
"Do you have a lot of that kind of trouble with your books?"
"I didn't used to. I had a wonderful copyeditor for years, but she took a job as an editor at Random House. The new ones all think of themselves as the thought police." Bennis bent over, got her handbag off the floor—more Chanel, Gregor noticed, wondering why he hadn't noticed before—and got out her cigarettes. Smoking was one thing even Donna Moradanyan and Father Tibor hadn't been able to talk Bennis out of.
"What about you?" she asked him. "You've been looking sicker by the mile."
"I've been feeling sicker by the mile," Gregor said. "I told you all about it back in Philadelphia."
"I just think it's ridiculous, that's all. You must have spent the last ten years of your career dealing with politicians."
"I also spent the last ten years of my career dealing with three simultaneous ulcers in three different parts of my body. And don't say that was because Elizabeth was dying, because it wasn't. Elizabeth's dying gave me different physical symptoms altogether."
Bennis looked up at the ribbon of smoke curling out of her cigarette and the column of ash growing at the end of it and tapped out in the ashtray at her side. Mostly, they didn't talk about Elizabeth, Gregor's wife of thirty years, dead of cancer before they had ever met. They both acknowledged, tacitly, that they never would have met if Elizabeth hadn't died, because if she hadn't Gregor would never have resigned early from the FBI and come back to live on Cavanaugh Street, and if those things hadn't happened—it was too complicated to go into. Like Bennis's problems with her mother, dying slowly out in Bryn Mawr of multiple sclerosis, the subject of Elizabeth was too painful to turn into conversation.
"The thing is," Bennis said, "I've been going over and over this cover story you thought up, and I don't think it's going to work."
"Stephen Fox isn't the kind of candidate I'm likely to give money to. I mean, I do give money to candidates—"
"You gave money to the Save the Minks Party in 1985 and the Snoopy for President Party in 1988."
"Well," Bennis said, "that's exactly what I mean. Stephen Fox is for real. He may even be for real for real. I mean, he may even get elected."
"He has been elected. He's the senior senator from the state of Connecticut."
"I mean elected president. Good God, Gregor. I can't even vote for presidents. I tried it once, in 1980. I voted for Carter over Reagan. Then I walked around feeling absolutely suicidal until I found out Reagan won."
"You wanted Reagan and you voted for Carter?"
"I didn't want either of them. I just figured that I voted for Carter and Reagan won, so no matter what Reagan did, at least it wasn't my fault."
Stephen Fox isn't going to be elected president if he keeps keeling over at cocktail parties. Which, as far as I can figure out from what Mr. Chester told me, seems to be becoming a habit."
"Maybe all that's becoming a habit is getting drunk," Bennis said. "I've heard all those politicians drink like fish. If I were a politician, I'd drink like one."
Actually, Gregor thought, he would bet that most politicians these days drank very little, if at all. There were too many specters to contend with, trailing along the banks of the Potomac in the alcoholic mummy-wrap of their ruined careers. Besides, what Dan Chester had told him about Stephen Fox didn't sound like alcohol.
"What I want from you," he told Bennis, "is a fair job of acting. Just convince everybody that you think Stephen Fox will make Camelot rise again, and that should do."
"I don't know how I'd feel about Camelot rising again. Considering what we know now."
"As far as you're concerned, we don't know anything now. Flash your money around. Flash your background around. Outdress the senator's mother-in-law. And please, dear sweet Lord please, stay out of the rest of it."
"How?" Bennis demanded.
"By using your common sense instead of your imagination, for once. I don't like the way this sounds, Bennis. I think this could be dangerous."
Bennis shrugged. "You always say that. You went up to Colchester without me and you said that. So what? Out here, nobody's even been murdered yet."
"If I find you within half a mile of Stephen Fox's problem, somebody will be murdered and it will be you."
"Gregor! You sound just like a mystery book—"
"Never mind what I sound like. Stay out of trouble. And if you have to call Tibor and Lida and George and Donna and all the rest of them, use your head and call on an outside phone. No matter what you have to do to get to one. And no matter what point in the middle of the night you're supposed to call."
Bennis bit her lip, and looked away. "I think I'll go back to work again," she said. "I'm not getting anything done."
It was true that she wasn't getting anything done, but it was also true that she didn't want him to get a look at her face. Gregor went back to looking out the window, so that Bennis would have a chance to relax. Soon, he thought, their relationship was going to have to change. It didn't have to be a big change—no matter what Lida Arkmanian thought, he didn't want to take the child to bed; he didn't want to take any woman to bed, and if he someday changed his mind the object of his affections was going to be someone like Lida herself, a woman of his own generation. It was just that he and Bennis had, through no fault of their own, gotten locked into roles that didn't fit them well. He didn't like playing the stolid, pragmatic, disapproving father figure. She, he was sure, didn't like playing the madcap heiress sidekick. It was just that, with everything they knew about each other and everything they had been through together, they were finding it impossible to be themselves in each other's company.
Outside his window, Queens had dissolved into a small town made up entirely of tiny ranch houses on quarter-acre plots, dozens and dozens of them arranged in rows like broken waves frozen in their march to a seashore. The sun, even at eight o'clock in the morning, was high and hot and bright. The highway ramp swung above a little cluster of commercial buildings and Gregor read the digital sign outside a bank: 78°.
Someday, he knew, he was going to have to come to terms with it all: Bennis, and Elizabeth, and politicians, and his ambivalence about Carl Bettinger, his old "friend" from the FBI who had pulled him into Stephen Fox's problem. Gregor was the kind of man who tried not to analyze his life, and because of that he was also the kind of man who woke up on inconvenient mornings to find he had a lot to analyze. He wondered what Bennis would think, if he told her that. Father Tibor would simply say, "Of course."
He looked back at Bennis and found she had abandoned her manuscript once again. This time, she was putting everything she had into the examination of a catalog of children's clothes.
The catalog had been issued by Laura Ashley, and Gregor was willing to bet there wasn't a bib in it for less than $100.
Ten minutes later, just as a raft of clouds drifted across the sun and turned the landscape dark, Gregor Demarkian fell asleep. He had his head thrown back against the seat, his legs crossed neatly ankle-to-knee, and his hands folded in his lap. Looking at him, Bennis wondered for the thousandth time how men could wear wool even in the summer.
Bennis shifted her manuscript again from her lap to the seat, then put her head back and closed her eyes. It was all well and good to pretend she was having a hard time working because the copyeditor was an idiot. The copyeditor was an idiot, but she could have been the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins and it wouldn't have made any difference. Bennis was distracted, that was the problem, and she didn't think even finding a dead body in her bedroom closet would do much to drag her attention away from all the things she had left back in Philadelphia.
What she had left was formidable: one of her brothers was about to go on trial for insider trading and securities fraud, one of her sisters was about to go on trial for murder, and her mother was dying. She hadn't told Gregor that—hadn't told anyone, in fact, just how bad Cordelia Day Hannaford had become—but it was true. There was another month, maybe six weeks, to go. Then Cordelia would be dead and the house would belong to Yale University and the life she had known would disappear. It was odd, considering how terrible that life had been, that she was so afraid to see it go.
Bennis jerked her head forward, opened her eyes, and grabbed for her purse. Usually, she tucked her cigarettes away in an inside zippered compartment, to make them harder to get at and (theoretically) slow down the rate of her smoking. The last time she'd had one, though, she'd simply dumped the pack and her lighter down on top of everything else, which included her wallet, her makeup, and her totally untouched three-year-old Filofax.
Excerpted from Act of Darkness by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1991 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 10, 2013