Read an Excerpt
Andrew Rook focused on a seed that had broken loose from a thin slice of lemon in his ice water, because if he didn't distract himself, he was going to jump across the polished, black lacquered table and throttle J. Harris Mayer, the would–be informant who had set up this meeting.
If they switched drinks, Rook thought, maybe Harris would choke on the lemon seed.
They were sitting along the back wall of a quiet bar in an upscale hotel four blocks from the White House. In his day, Harris had served two presidents. But it wasn't his day anymore. He was an outcast, caught five years ago in a gambling scandal that had cost him his job and his reputation, if not his trust fund or his freedom. Many people–including Rook—believed criminal charges should have been filed against him, but Harris, once a federal judge, had managed to skate.
"We've been here a half hour," Rook said. "Get to the point."
Harris ran a pinkish fingertip along the rim of his beer glass. He was sixty–nine but looked older. His hands were trembling and heavily veined, a wet cough sporadically rattling his thin frame. Brown spots and moles dotted his fair, finely wrinkled skin and showed through his thin white hair. He wore a starched shirt and a sport coat with one of his ubiquitous bow ties, and his wingtip shoes were polished but had just enough sign of wear to suggest he was a man, nonetheless, who still got around Washington—who still mattered.
Lifting his beer, Harris gave a paternalistic tut–tut. "You have a short fuse, Special Agent Rook."
"You might want to keep that in mind."
"I chose you because you're a rising star with the Bureau. You're familiar with fraud and corruption investigations." Harris spoke with a nasal, affected patrician voice.
"You need to learn patience."
Rook grabbed his glass and took a long drink. He didn't care if he swallowed the damn lemon seed. Patience. he'd been patient. For three weeks, he'd played Harris's game, treating seriously his vague tale of Washington intrigue, blackmail and extortion. Financial shenanigans. Sordid secrets. Fraud. Possible conspiracy. Harris Mayer knew all the buttons to push to get and keep Rook's attention.
Now it was time for results. So far, Harris had produced nothing of substance, and Rook couldn't waste any more time indulging an old man's fantasies of regaining lost prestige, being a player again.
He set down his glass, hard. Harris didn't seem to notice. Rook wore a dark gray suit, not a cheap one, but not as expensive as most of the suits the other men in the bar had on, including his wannabe informant. Rook hadn't worn a bow tie since first grade.
"Are we waiting for someone to show up?" he asked.
"Ah. There we are. The federal agent at work, applying his deductive reasoning to the situation at hand." Harris licked his thin lips. "Of course we're waiting for someone to show up."
Rook considering shoving the lemon seed up Harris's nose. "When?"
Harris shook his head. "Observe the guests walking up the hall to the ballroom. Beautifully dressed, aren't they? I still have my tuxedo. I haven't worn it in a long time."
Rook ignored the small play for sympathy. The table Harris had chosen provided a strategic view of everyone in the bar, as well as everyone who passed by in the gleaming, glittering hall. About two hundred guests were gathering in the ballroom for a cocktail reception to benefit a local literacy organization. Rook had recognized a number of high–powered guests, but no one involved—at least as far as he knew—in criminal activity.
Harris could call the shots tonight. He was the informant. It was his show.
"There's Judge Peacham." The old judge almost chortled as he gestured toward the hall, smiling as if he were in possession of a secret that confirmed his natural superiority. "I knew she'd be here." "Why do I care if Judge Peacham is at a charity function?"
"Judge," he corrected with a sniff. "It's still appropriate to refer to me as Judge Mayer."
"Seeing Judge Peacham again doesn't help me."
"Shh. Patience. We might have to go into the hall. I hope not—I'd prefer Bernadette not see me."
Bernadette Peacham paused in the hall just outside the bar, her attention focused on something—or someone—behind her. For the past ten years, she'd served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Before that, she'd been a federal prosecutor and a partner in a prestigious Washington law firm. But her roots were in New Hampshire, where she owned a lake house that had been in her family for more than a hundred years. She often told people she planned to die there, as her parents and her grandfather had.
Rook had done research on Judge Peacham, and he'd testified in her courtroom a half–dozen times in the three years since he'd worked out of the Washington Field Office. He didn't know if she'd recognize him if she walked into the bar, but she'd sure as hell recognize J. Harris Mayer, the old friend who had lured her to Washington thirty years ago.
She'd never win any awards for best–dressed judge, Rook thought with amusement. Tonight's outfit looked as if she'd pulled it out of a paper bag stuffed under her desk in her chambers. Apart from the obvious wrinkles, the black floor–length dress and brightly colored sequined shawl somehow didn't go together. Not that Rook had an eye for clothes, but Bernadette Peacham was a train wreck when it came to style. No Botox and face–lifts for her. No hair dye, for that matter. Damn little makeup, either. People tended to notice her because of her presence and her obvious intelligence and grace. At fifty–seven, she was regarded as a firm, fair, articulate trial judge and, despite her generous nature, no one's fool.
She was perhaps Harris Mayer's last friend in the world, not that he would let friendship or anything else stop him from feeding her to the wolves.
Or, if it came to it, the FBI.
Harris would calculate the benefit to himself and act accordingly.
Rook drank more of his water, although he was only a notch less impatient than he'd been five minutes ago. "It looks like she might be expecting someone to join her. A date?"
"Oh, no." Harris shook his head as if Rook couldn't have come up with a dumber idea. "She hasn't started dating again since her divorce was finalized earlier this month. Cal still lives with her, you know. Don't you think that's odd?"
"Maybe it was an amicable divorce."
"No such thing."
Her marriage to Cal Benton, a prominent Washington attorney, had surprised people far more than their divorce two years later. It was her second marriage; her first, to another lawyer, had lasted three years. No children. "Supposedly he's not getting a dime from her," Harris continued, his voice more shrill now, as if he was growing impatient himself. "That can't make him happy, but it doesn't matter—Cal will never be satisfied. He'll always want more of everything. Money, recognition, women. Whatever. For some people, there's never enough. Cal is one of them. I'm one of them."
"I can't launch an investigation because you think Bernadette Peacham deserved better than Cal Benton—"
"I'm well aware of what you require to proceed." Harris regarded the woman in the hall with a sudden, almost palpable sadness. She'd been a protégée, and she'd left him in the dust in terms of her career, her reputation, her ever–widening circle of friends. His expression softened and he said quietly, "We're not here because of Bernadette's love life or lack thereof."
Rook didn't respond. Harris had lived in social and professional exile for a long time, but, as prickly as he was, he was observant, experienced and very smart. He had a long career behind him, and even now, people owed him favors and came to him, quietly, for advice.
He gave Rook a supercilious smile. "Thinking you'd be smart not to underestimate me, aren't you?"
"I'm thinking you need to get to the point."
Harris leaned over the small table and said in a dramatic whisper, "Don't forget. I know where a lot of the bodies in this town are buried." He sat back abruptly and grinned, his teeth yellowed from age, cigarettes, drink and neglect.
"Figuratively speaking, of course."
Rook sucked in his impatience. "If you're looking for action at my expense, Judge, you're looking in the wrong place."
"Understood." Harris nodded wistfully at the middle–aged woman in the hall. "Bernadette used to stop by my office just to say hello, grab a cup of coffee. We don't see each other that often nowadays."
"It's to her credit she didn't drop you altogether."
"I suppose it is. Ah. Here we are." Harris seemed relieved. "Finally."
Another woman came into their line of sight.
Rook took in her dark red hair, her big smile as she greeted Bernadette Peacham.
Harris's eyes lit up. "Mackenzie Stewart," he said with relish.
She was barely thirty and slim, wearing a slip of a deep blue and carrying an evening purse just big enough for a
.38 caliber pistol. Rook didn't know women's purses. But he knew guns.
"She's a deputy U.S. marshal," Harris added. "A fugitive hunter, a protector of the federal judiciary. A fellow federal agent. Doesn't look like Wyatt Earp, does she?"
Rook kept his reaction under tight wraps. He wasn't there to entertain Harris. "All right. You've had your fun. What's going on?"
The old man's eyes lost some of their spark. "Deputy Stewart isn't here in a professional capacity. She's not protecting Bernadette. In fact, she's known Bernadette all her life."
Well, hell, Rook thought. A half–dozen dates, and more or less all he'd learned about Mackenzie was that she was new in Washington, new to the Marshals Service and a native New Englander blessed with great legs, a kissable mouth and an unstoppable sense of humor.
They hadn't gotten around to discussing which state she was from and what friends she might have in Washington.
The two women continued on down the hall toward the ballroom.
"Bernadette saved her," Harris said.
"Saved her how?"
"When she was eleven, her father was maimed in a terrible accident while building a shed for Bernadette at her lake house. He was laid up for months, and Mackenzie was left on her own for much of the time. She got into trouble. Stole things. She blamed herself for what happened."