CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

We were still in the middle of the ballroom watching the paramedics put Qasim’s body on a stretcher when two agents brought Jerry Hay Smith in. The spotlights were off, and presumably so were the television cameras.

Grafton faced him. “The Washington Post is going to run a story in the morning about the CIA operation that resulted in the death of Abu Qasim. You’re a part of it. If you deny a single word or try to give a different version, I’ll have you prosecuted for revealing classified CIA operations. Do you understand?”

“You can’t shut me up like that!”

“Want to try me?”

“You son of a bitch!”

Grafton merely looked at Smith and spoke coldly. “Don’t fuck with me, little man. I don’t have the patience or stomach for it. You’ve been warned.”

Grafton jerked his head at the agents, and they led Smith out.

“Where’d she get that gun?” I asked Grafton. I kept my voice low.

His answer gave me my second biggest shock of the evening. “I left it for her,” he said softly, “taped to the underside of the table.”

“You what?”

“You heard me.”

I was skeptical. “The Secret Service didn’t find it?”

“I told them it was there so they would leave it undisturbed.”

I gaped.

“Had to clear it with the brass, who said hell no, but the president said to do it.” Grafton shook his head. “He isn’t the wisest man who ever sat in the Oval Office, but he’s got his share of guts.”

“But why did you do it?”

“That was her price for spotting Qasim here tonight. She wanted to kill him. Didn’t want to watch someone else do it — she wanted to kill him herself.”

“Just like she killed her husband,” I muttered, still reeling.

Grafton shot me one of those looks, as if I were slow on the uptake. “You didn’t buy that fake confession, did you? Isolde Petrou poisoned her son. Marisa told her what he’d done, proved it to her, so Isolde sprinkled digitalis on his food.”

“But—“

“You were there. When Marisa saw Isolde about to pour the stuff on Jean’s food, Marisa pretended to recognize someone in the kitchen. That was a diversion, so you wouldn’t notice what Isolde was doing.”

“Isolde,” I said, trying to process it.

“Pretty fast thinking on Marisa’s part,” Grafton said with a hint of admiration.

“But why cover up for the mother who murdered her son?”

He gave me another of those looks. I was really earning them today. “She’s dying — what did you expect her to say? She loves Isolde as a daughter loves her mother. And she knew what Jean was. She was probably thinking of killing him herself; then her mother-in-law beat her to it.”

I was in the Secret Service command center with Jake Grafton when the reports began coming in. Robin Cloyd was manning the desk. She hadn’t gone to the dinner but had been stationed here at the nerve center as Grafton’s ears.

Abu Qasim had come to the fund-raiser under the name of Samuel Israel Rothstein, from Brooklyn. He had a driver’s license in that name in his wallet, along with credit cards. In the hours that followed, investigators visited the address and showed photocopies of the license to his neighbors, all of whom identified Samuel Israel Rothstein. But as the hours passed, the investigators discovered that Mr. Rothstein only went back a couple of years. Where he had lived before he moved to the flat in Brooklyn, no one knew.

“So he was planning this for two years?” I asked Grafton.

“Probably more than that,” Grafton said thoughtfully. “Setting up a false identity, giving to political candidates … I suspect we’ll find he devoted a great deal of time and expense building an identity in preparation for the day in the distant future when he might get a chance to assassinate the president.”

“Where do you think he got the poison?”

“From Surkov, of course. Surkov had contacts in Russian intelligence and was selling passports and identity papers. He could also have supplied the poison. Since he then knew far too much, Qasim killed him. Dead tongues don’t wag.”

The reports dribbled in. I got out of the way. Grafton and the police, Secret Service and FBI honchos huddled and conferred and did their thing. Someone mentioned that the Secret Service had taken possession of the television videos, which weren’t going to be released to the media.

Grafton came over at one point, and I said, “Why not do a DNA test on Qasim and Marisa, see if they really are father and daughter?”

“Would it matter?” he asked.

Seeing the look on my face, he smiled gently and said, “Go home. You’re done. Take Callie and Amy back to Washington. I’ll be home in a few days.”

I nodded, got up, shook his hand and turned to go.

“Thanks, Tommy,” he said.

“Yeah.”

I left the hotel via a side door. Outside on the sidewalk I could look straight up between the buildings at a crisp, clear winter’s night. I stood there sucking in air and thinking about things while the media held a three-ring circus complete with lights, cameras and talking heads in front of the Walden. Abu Qasim had made the news worldwide, although not in the way he intended. Sometimes life goes like that.

The next morning Callie, Amy and I caught the train to Washington at Penn Station. I bought a copy of the morning Washington Post at a newsstand before I boarded. Sure enough, Jack Yocke had the whole front page. Photos of Qasim and Marisa on the floor covered half the page. I scanned the story. Some of it was true, most of it wasn’t, which I guess is about par for any news story. Neither Grafton’s nor my name was mentioned. After all, we hadn’t been there.

Across the aisle the women conferred, about what I don’t know. This mother-daughter thing is pretty powerful stuff. I stirred through the rest of the newspaper, then gave up on it and sat looking out the window.

Having had last night and that morning to think about it, I realized that Grafton didn’t know any more about who killed Jean Petrou than I did. What he had told me last night was just a plausible story. It could have easily been Marisa who sprinkled the digitalis.

Perhaps it didn’t really matter who killed him. For all I knew, they both did it.

Grafton probably knew that, too.

In the weeks that followed, Jerry Hay Smith wrote reams about his adventure and did a few talk shows, yet he never breathed a word different from what Jack Yocke printed. I don’t think he felt threatened by Grafton, although maybe he did, but Yocke made him out to be a hero, and I suspect Jerry Hay sorta liked that. He played it for all it was worth.

Huntington Winchester and Simon Cairnes patched up their differences, apparently. I saw an article in a magazine a few months later about how they had both endowed a scholarship for medical students in Owen Winchester’s name.

Amy Carol got engaged to her stockbroker. The wedding was set for July.

All that was yet to come. Six days after the Walden Hotel affair, Jake Grafton got back to town and called me into his office.

“Hey,” he said as I walked in. He gestured to a chair. I sat.

Then I saw what was in a glass ashtray on his desk. It was Abu Qasim’s ring, complete with pointy sticker.

He saw me looking at it and said, “Go ahead. They cleaned all the poison off.”

I picked it up. The sticker could be flipped out from the body of the ring. When it was lying on the ring, it was almost invisible.

I laid it back in the ashtray. “Marisa?” I asked.

Grafton shook his head. He started to say something, then changed his mind.

I just sat there feeling glum.

After a while he said, “One of the television networks got a cassette from Qasim on Friday morning. He apparently made it weeks or months before, then mailed it Thursday afternoon. They decided not to run it. Want to watch it?”

“No.”

Grafton shrugged. “It’s a real piece of work, full of rantings about religion and jihad and the duty of the faithful and how rotten civilization is.”

“And he was going to fix civilization and glorify God with murder?”

“That’s about the size of it. By the way, the Secret Service is going to release some of the TV footage. They have digitally suppressed your image — you aren’t in it.”

“Well, I really wasn’t there, according to the Post.”

“So tell me, why didn’t you tackle Marisa and take the pistol away from her?”

“Is this for a report or my evaluation or something?”

“Nope. Just curious.”

I sat there for a bit, trying to remember just how it was. “You told me to use my best judgment,” I said. Then disgust washed over me. “Hell, you knew I wouldn’t do that or you would have told me about the gun.”

Grafton’s eyebrows wagged. “I wanted you to play it by ear, process everything you were seeing. You are amazingly good at that.”

He was lying, of course, probably to make me feel better. So I explained: “I could see her staring at someone and, of course, I figured it was ol’ Abu. Then she popped up and marched off, and I saw the butt of the pistol in her hand. I followed right along. Figured I could break her neck if she aimed it at anyone I liked.”

He thought about that for a while, then said, “You really liked her, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

He eyed me critically. “So how you doing, Tommy?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Right! Well, I fixed you up on a blind date. Tonight at”—he named the restaurant, a popular place right on the Potomac in Georgetown. “You know it?” Sure.

“She’ll meet you there at seven.”

“Oh, man, you didn’t need to do this to me!”

“Tommy, this woman has been hot to have a date with you. I have no idea why. Callie asked me to do this for her. Smile. Eat too much. Enjoy some feminine companionship, charm her and take her home. Or what-ever.

I didn’t know what to say.

“How do I get out of this?” I finally asked.

“You don’t. Be there at seven — that’s an order. Wear a smile. Now get out of my office.”

I got to the joint five minutes late. I was trying to be right on the dot, but parking in Georgetown was a mess. I had to walk four blocks. If he hadn’t said Callie asked me to do this, I would have refused. I figured I owed Callie.

When I got there, I gave my name to the girl on the reservation desk. She checked her list, then said, “Right this way, Mr. Carmellini,” and led off. I trailed along.

The lady at the table was facing the other way. I recognized the dark brown hair, swept over one ear. I froze. Naw, it couldn’t be …

“Marisa?”

She saw me and smiled. When I bent over for a kiss I saw the bandage on her arm.

I squatted down, my eyes inches from hers. People were staring curiously, but I didn’t care. “I thought you were dead.”

“I asked Grafton not to tell you. I knew you’d come visit, and I didn’t want you to see me like that.”

“I thought that stuff was fatal, which was why Qasim was out to scratch the president with it.”

“It would have been fatal,” she admitted, “but Grafton had the antidote in his pocket. The emergency people gave me an injection within thirty seconds.”

“Grafton …”

“The admiral thought it would be poison — that was the only practical possibility — and he thought Qasim had probably gotten it from Surkov. He called a man he knew in Russian intelligence, and they had a long chat. Then he went out that afternoon and had a druggist make up the antidote.”

I kissed her cheek gently.

She smiled again. She had a hell of a nice smile.

“So what’s good here?” I asked, seating myself across the table from her and picking up my menu.

“Oh, everything, I imagine,” she replied, “if you’re alive and with someone you care about.”

“Well, by golly, we’ll find out,” I said cheerfully.

It was a great evening.

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