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Chapter OneIn a few seconds the president of the United States would begin to snore. I had been watching his eyelids droop for the last quarter hour; too many glasses of Riesling at a state dinner, compounded by the strain of trying to see through my gown, had finally knocked him out. Couldn't take his inattention personally since the man didn't know Brahms from Buxtehude. To him, violins without bluegrass were like Novembers without elections. And the poor sod had been up since six trying to run the country. He had probably blown the morning at the hospital with Jordan Bailey, second in command. He could have visited a mistress on the way back to the White House, then spent the afternoon hallucinating with his spin doctors. After that, another screaming match with wife Paula as he zipped her into that atrocious orange dress. Let him snore, I thought. It was impossible to get mad at Bobby Marvel. He just wasn't a serious president.
Perhaps my East Room recital was meant to help the First Lady score a few points with the German foreign minister, here to apologize again for World War II in exchange for a few billion in trade concessions. The invitation had come to my manager two days ago. "You've got a date at the White House Tuesday night," Curtis had told me.
"Is that so? I thought I had a rehearsal in Munich."
Ah: my boss Maxine the Queen was sending me to Washington. She hadn't called in months. I would have been more flattered had she not kicked things off by making me ber-dessert at a State Department orgy. "Are you coming along, Curtis?"
"I think it's time you headed out alone."
A great vote of confidence. Admittedly, on my last case Agent Smith had won the battle, lost the war; but the battle had been Maxine's, the war mine. Other people had died, I had lived: she and I would forever interpret that outcome differently. Perhaps the Queen was giving me another chance to even the score in that murky game called espionage.
"What's the deal?" I sighed.
"As far as I know, you eat, play, and leave."
I had eaten, now I was playing in a cheerful, fairy-tale room with glittering chandeliers and walls the color of lemon mousse. No critics here; perhaps cheered by that fact, my accompanist Duncan Zadinsky opened the Brahms sonata faster than usual. Had the honor of the occasion unnerved him? Duncan was the skittery type and I probably hadn't given him enough time to barf backstage before the concert. I glanced casually toward the piano bench. He didn't look up but he slowed down: I have that effect on certain men. Nestling into my Stradivarius, I began to play, closing my eyes as the old wood vibrated against my shoulder and high, exquisitely pure melody rippled over the room. I had been making sounds like that for twenty-five years and the first fluttery note was always like a kiss from the gods, tempting me to live forever. As music flew from violin to the far wall, my brain ran myriad acoustical calculations and sent correcting data to my fingertips. I half opened my eyes again: other work here.
Paula Marvel wore a dress with a little more bouffant than her hips could gracefully handle. Her rhinestone tiara topped a pageboy that absorbed but did not reflect light; once again, her hairdresser had gone one shade overboard washing away the gray. Deceptively tiny mouth, apple cheeks, everlasting smile ... eyes blue and lethal as prussic acid. As I played, she memorized the scrollwork in the ceiling. Next to her, the president slept. Gold and bow ties dominated the rest of the front row, Bobby and Paula having surrounded themselves with the sycophants, moneybags, and movie stars who had gotten them elected. Not one of these half-assed Machiavellis was listening to Brahms. Neither was the German foreign minister, for that matter: in half an hour he'd be back at the bargaining table, trying to screw everyone he had just been toasting at dinner. Meanwhile, of course, his intended victims sat figuring how to screw him even worse. The violent beta waves charging from three hundred skulls were beginning to undermine my concentration, not to mention patience. Damn Maxine! This little put-down was her way of reminding me that I was agent first, musician second. Human a far third.
Fine. I played my part. Fortunately, President Marvel was about to provide a little side show. I loved loud snoring at black-tie affairs. At best, it came from the husband of the female heavy, a tight-faced woman in the front row whose jewelry should have been fake. Her reaction to that first snort never ceased to amuse me. Aghast, she would raise an eyebrow. If the offender's own stertor didn't wake him after a few seconds, her shoe would creep sideways and slowly ccrrrush his until he resuscitated. This was all done while benignly, sadistically, beaming at the sole witness-me. I caressed Brahms, fighting back a smile: Bobby Marvel's left shoe had five seconds to live.
Perhaps the president's electromagnetic field changed. I saw the First Lady's eyes disengage from the ceiling and glide to her husband's too still profile. Reacting with the reptilian calm that still terrified Washington after three-plus years, Paula snuggled into her seat as one gloved hand crept into Bobby's lap. I put Brahms on automatic and watched, entranced, as two of her fingers constricted around the president's testicles. His only response was a slack jaw, prelude to a snore. So Paula squeezed harder, her biceps rising hideously from her upper arm. President Marvel opened an eye and eventually recognized his surroundings. As Paula's hand slithered back to her lap, he took a deep breath and recrossed his legs. The two of them smiled lovingly at each other, as if this concert made them very, very happy. An overblown performance, even by silent film standards: everyone on the planet knew their marriage was radioactive waste.
Brahms ended. I ran Duncan through Ravel then a bunch of Gershwin arrangements, earning us a flurry of applause. Afterward, President Marvel gave me a gummy kiss and Paula, paradigm of hospitality, invited her guests to stay and dance. She spoke in a deliberately somber voice so that everyone would know she was extremely concerned about the vice president's condition but hell, this evening had been planned months before Bailey had gotten himself terminally ill.
I took my accompanist's arm as a few hundred cabalists rose from their seats, smarmy smiles ready for action. "Duncan, let's go."
"Now?! Paula's about to ask me to dance!"
Next he'd want me taking pictures for his mother in Cleveland. I left him near the butler with the most champagne glasses and waded toward the exit. My manager Curtis would howl in frustration: once again I was neglecting the postconcert schmooze, an artistic duty nowadays as indispensable as tuning my violin. But coed grazing appalled me. Always had. I was the one-on-one type, with men who preferred lamps low and conversation soft. Too many capped teeth here and the place was verminous with media. They had a field day with my private life last spring, after my Grand Guignol in Leipzig. Someday I'd return the kindness. Meanwhile I'd continue playing the role of Leslie Frost, the fiddler who rode Harleys and broke men's hearts ... if they were lucky.
Maxine had recruited me-and six others like me-almost ten years ago. We called her the Queen not only for her imperial bearing, but for her ability to psychologically decapitate her subjects. First she tried to break us in a boot camp that would have made a marine mush, then she christened us the Seven Sisters. Sanitation Crew would have been more accurate: dancer, archaeologist, or in my case, violinist, we girls roamed the planet eliminating nasty situations for an agency that did not officially exist. Unfortunately, five of us had been eliminated in return. Maxine ran her last survivors Barnard and me-Smith-from Berlin. I suspect the Queen's desire to live close to me derived less from heroine worship than from a lingering apprehension that I would someday blow her whole operation. Performing artists were fundamentally unstable and I had always been the delinquent of the lot. Maybe my death wish was the adjunct of a desire to play the Tchaikovsky concerto perfectly in front of two thousand people. Like the other girls in Maxine's litter, I lived to taunt the gods. So far they hadn't struck me with lightning, but the bolts were dropping ever closer: five people dead last time out, two of them my lovers. All I got in exchange for that carnage was the puny consolation that I had not yet killed anyone on purpose. I had killed by omission, by accident, in self-defense, yes; on purpose, no. Once you crossed that line, you were good as dead. Would this be the assignment that finished me? It had begun innocently enough. But I knew Maxine better than that. And she knew me.
I waded through a wash of executive branch handshakes and shallow smiles, waiting, observing, until a fiftyish woman with shrewd eyes and a shrewd yellow suit blocked my way. Great knees. Primed for cameras, she wore heavy powder and enough hairspray to deflect an F-111. On the tube, she'd look part mom, part CEO; in the flesh, one trembled before a Hun in tweed. At her right stood a lusterless assistant, about my age, in neutral suit and prim linen blouse. At her left stood a smug, possessive man who looked like the only person alive who could handle her.
Assuming I recognized her, the woman bypassed introductions. Daughter had been taking violin lessons. The girl was a genius. I would be thrilled to hear her play, maybe tomorrow. Where was I staying?
Fortunately the foreign minister interrupted. "Help has arrived," he whispered in German, kissing my hand. "You can make it up to me later."
I turned to the woman. "Perhaps you could send your daughter to Berlin. I'm leaving Washington tonight."
Her glare could have melted glass. "Ah."
Folding his arm over mine, the minister led me past a few photographers. We'd be all over Der damn Spiegel this week. "Who was that?" I whispered.
"You don't know? Don't you read the newspapers, darling?"
"Just the comics. The characters are more believable."
"I see," he lied, smiling at an actor whose career had peaked a decade before his first face lift. Hollywood intoxicated the Marvels. "The woman in question is your next vice president. Aurilla Perle."
Jordan Bailey, the current officeholder, had been stung by the wrong mosquito on his last trip to a rain forest. No cure existed for dengue hemorrhagic fever. Last I heard, red spots covered his lungs and blood was beginning to swamp his brain. He lay ravaged and comatose at Walter Reed, waiting for his heart to collapse. Even so, I would have preferred him to that neutron bomb in the yellow suit. "I thought Bailey was improving."
"Jojo's history. The poor man should have stuck to whales."
"What makes you say Aurilla's going to replace him?"
"It's common knowledge."
Another woman in a suit blocked our path. At least this one I recognized: Vicky Chickering, the First Lady's right arm. They had known each other since eighth grade, which meant they were the same age. Paula looked years younger, but she had gotten a lot of exercise waving to crowds while Vicky was stuffed in the back of the campaign bus with the pizzas and telephones. No problem: a lesbian who viewed the female body as an impediment and torment, Vicky had achieved liberation by becoming a 250-pound hulk with sensible shoes. She had spent the last week testifying to a Senate panel about discrimination against fat persons.
"I enjoyed the performance, Leslie," she said, crushing my hand.
"Thank you." Vicky hadn't heard one note. Each time I had looked at her, she had been scribbling on a little pad that hung from her neck. It was as much a trademark as her Betty Boop hairdo.
Enough of me. Vicky homed in on more pressing business matters. "Minister Klint, the First Lady would like to speak with you."
The minister's perfect smile suggested that the feeling was not mutual. "Aren't we meeting at ten tomorrow?"
"Before the meeting."
My escort reverted to German. "Back to the bloody war. A drink later?" His lips lingered over my hand. Ace diplomat: hard to say whether he was wooing me or insulting Vicky.
"Some other night." I had almost escaped the East Room when Aurilla Perle's escort caught up. Expensive suit, brazen green eyes flecked with gold. Heavy black curls framed his face. He was probably ten years older, fifty times deadlier, than he appeared. I should have recognized him. "The recital was marvelous," he said, clasping my hand. "My name is Bendix Kaar."
I didn't care if he was Henry VIII. "Hello."
"You're not staying?" Voice cool as granite: I would not want to be this man's enemy.
"I don't dance." Across the room I could see Mr. Godo, president of my record company, shaking hands with Bobby Marvel. Any second now Godo's photographer would be dragging me back inside for a dozen historic shots. "Good night."
I nearly ran to the door, where a marine escorted me to the limo waiting behind the White House. We didn't speak; I was imagining him naked and I suppose he was watching for thugs in the shrubbery. The night was dense and paludal, throbbing with crickets. Ahead of us the Washington Monument rose like a gigantic tack from the cushiony Mall, daring history to sit.
I entered the limousine. The marine handed over my violin. "Good night, ma'am."
Ah, men in uniform: would that he could take a ride, let me peel off those perfect white gloves. It had been a while. "Good night."
The chauffeur's eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. "Scenic route, Miss Frost?"
Any route, as long as it wasn't back to my vacant bed. "I'll tell you when to stop."
We rolled past magnificent buildings, many of which people called home, judging by the slumberous bodies on their front steps. As the limo neared the Capitol, I wondered why Maxine had sent me to Washington. She knew I disliked working in America: too big, too diffuse, unpredictable for all the wrong reasons. I didn't know the movies or the slang and I never wore sneakers. Having lived so many years abroad, isolated from the stunning degeneration of the language, I now spoke a mildly archaic English. Natives knew immediately, from my clothing and voice, that I wasn't one of them. Maxine would be out of her mind to send me here for undercover work. Wasn't America Barnard's territory? She was the agent who could pass for anything from El Paso barmaid to Boston pediatrician.
Lightning needled the hilltops as we crossed the Arlington Bridge. Cornering like a blimp, the limo skirted the Pentagon. I poured myself a Scotch and sank into the seat, listening to the drone of rubber on pavement. I missed my Harley. It was a good companion after concerts, more intoxicating than alcohol, less demanding than a man.
Excerpted from Hot Ticket by Janice Weber Copyright © 1998 by Janice Weber. Excerpted by permission.
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