The cars were backed up to the gate at Winfield House, so Nick paid off the taxi and walked the length of the driveway. Behind the hundred lighted windows Regent’s Park stretched for miles, as dark as the night sky, so that the party seemed at first like a country-house ball, with Marine guards instead of livery men and Daimlers and Bentleys rolling up like coaches. Nick had come late to avoid the crush, but there was still a line on the steps, another for the coats, then a final clot at the entrance to the big room where the Bruces were receiving the guests. Nick worked his way around the edge, sure that the Bruces wouldn’t recognize him anyway, and grabbed a glass from a passing tray. The room was pretty, but so crowded that the walls and furniture receded into a flat backdrop, blocked out by all the people onstage. There was a room beyond, and presumably another beyond that, bright and noisy, and waiters moved between them, their plates of canapes emptying and reappearing with the magic of the loaves and the fishes. Nick passed one of the makeshift bars covered with flutes of champagne and kept moving. There was nothing as anonymous as a big party, so long as you pretended you were on your way to something and didn’t stand against the wall.
The crowd was hard to read, a hodgepodge of English and American voices, and Nick guessed that it was a general payback party-embassy workers, F.O. civil servants, transatlantic businessmen. They talked shop and the weather, polite and innocuous. Somebody’s new posting. A skiing holiday. No one mentioned the demonstration. In the next room he spied Davey, the journalist who’d tried to interview Redgrave, but he had moved on too; his hair was slicked back now, part of the pinstriped crowd. Nick wondered if he was working, finding an item for tomorrow’s chat columns, or just enjoying a perk. He was staring over his wineglass, his eyes fixed, and Nick followed the gaze to see what had caught his attention.
She was standing at the edge of a small group, her back to Davey, wrapped in a sleeveless red dress whose skirt, hugging her, ended somewhere on her upper thighs. When the man behind her moved, the full length of her legs sprang into view, a jolt of flesh in the crowded room, and Nick’s eyes followed them down to her high heels. He glanced back at Davey, who had tilted his head for a better view, and grinned in spite of himself. Only a crowd this polite or self-absorbed would miss the only thing worth noticing. Davey, all bad manners and frank appraisal, had her to himself. Nick watched, fascinated, to see if he would make his move. But the wonderful legs seemed wasted on him too — he took another drink, then looked away, back on the job.
Nick walked over to her. It was an outrageous dress for a reception, about six inches short of propriety, a Chelsea skirt. She was probably one of the English secretaries at the embassy, who had dressed for a real party and ended up here instead. Her hair was piled on top of her head, swept up tightly in her one concession to formality, but a few strands dangled to the side like loose promises. When she turned toward him, he stopped. He saw the freckles across the bridge of her nose, then the eyes, as surprised as his.
“Flaxman, double-oh two nine,” he said, smiling.
“What are you doing here?” she said, too surprised to stop the question.
He laughed. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I was brought,” she said, waving her hand and the small silver purse that hung from her wrist. “But really, what are you doing here?”
“I was brought too. Don’t worry, I’m not following you,” he said, stepping closer.
“You look different,” she said, nodding at his suit.
“So do you. I like your dress.”
She blushed. “I didn’t know. I’ve never been to an open house before. I thought-” She stopped. “It’s not just the suit, it’s the hair. You cut your hair.”
He shrugged. “Part of the dress code. It’ll grow back. Who brought you?”
“What? Oh, nobody. I mean-God, that sounds terrible. A friend of mine at the Observer. He thought I’d like to see the other half.”
“Well, here they are. You’re a journalist?”
“Just freelance. I had some stuff in Rolling Stone last year, though. A few other places.”
“Is that what you were doing this morning?”
“No, that was me.”
“You know, I’ve been wondering all day-what happened there? Did we just meet or what?”
She smiled. “They said at your flat that you were there. I was going anyway, so-”
“Look, it’s no big mystery. Somebody told me to look you up and I thought I’d check it out first, that’s all.”
“I’m still checking.”
He held her eyes for a moment. “Come to any decision yet?”
“About whether we’re going to go out.”
“Is that what goes on at these parties?”
“If you wear a dress like that.”
She looked away. “Look, let me ex-”
“Nick, there you are,” Larry said, coming up to them. “Having a good time?”
“Hi, Larry. Larry, Molly Chisholm,” he said, “an old friend. My father, Larry Warren.”
She looked rattled, either at the introduction or at Larry’s appreciative look, but managed to shake hands.
“I told you you’d find someone you knew,” Larry said to Nick, still looking at her. “It’s a Bruce specialty. I don’t suppose you’ve seen your mother anywhere?”
Nick shook his head.
“Then she’s probably looking for me. I’ll see you later. Nice to meet you,” he said to Molly, nodding. “You’re joining us later, I hope?”
“That’s just what we were talking about,” Nick said.
“Good, good. I look forward,” Larry said, moving off.
“You will, won’t you?” Nick said, but she was watching Larry slipping into another group, his hand already on someone’s shoulder.
“You remembered my name,” she said, turning back to him.
“Seems only fair. You already knew mine. How did you, by the way?”
“I told you, a friend-” She stopped, putting something together. “You’re that Warren? I didn’t know.”
Nick smiled. “That Warren. He’s my father. Come and have dinner anyway. You can see what it’s like in the enemy camp.”
“I had no idea,” she said, suddenly nervous. “God, this is all mixed up. I never expected-”
“They’re friends of the Bruces‘. That’s why we’re here. You all right?”
“It just threw me for a loop, that’s all. You throw me for a loop.” She glanced around her, as if looking for an escape hatch.
“Is that good?”
She looked back and then laughed. “I guess so. I’m not making any sense, am I? Oh, this place,” she said, then looked up at him with a grin. “Hey.”
“Want to do a joint?”
“Here?” he said.
“The Beatles did one at Buckingham Palace.”
“Are you serious?” he said, intrigued by the daring, as if she’d proposed having sex.
“Come on, we can go out there,” she said, gesturing toward the French windows.
He followed her out onto the shallow terrace, avoiding the look of a waiter who clearly thought they were ducking out to make love. At one end of the terrace two men smoking cigars near a giant potted plant looked up, then turned away discreetly. She fished an already rolled joint from her silver bag and handed him the box of matches. When he struck a match, her face glowed in the tiny flare.
“Light a cigarette just in case,” she said, drawing in deeply. “No one will know the difference.”
The sweet, pungent smoke, a smell of Vietnam, hung in the damp air.
“You like taking chances,” he said.
“It’s not much of a chance. I don’t think anybody in there even knows what it is.” She took another drag. “That’s nice. Clears the head.”
“Sometimes,” he said, exchanging the cigarette for the joint and drawing on it.
“Who are these people anyway? This man I was talking to-agricultural development in the Third World. What does that mean?”
“It means he’s a spook.”
“Guaranteed,” he said, smiling again. “The room’s full of them.”
“Can you always tell?”
“Agricultural development, for sure. Otherwise you have to look for signs. Journalist is usually pretty good.”
“Oh, really,” she said, playing. “You think I’m one?”
She took the joint back. “We’re not supposed to tell. What made you suspect?”
“You keep popping up in unlikely places,” he said, spreading his hand toward the house.
“You know, I really didn’t expect to see you here. I don’t believe it now. I never thought-it’s funny, isn’t it?”
“What? You being here or my being here?”
“You. Maybe you’re the spook.” She glanced up at him quickly. “No.”
“I’d recognize you, wouldn’t I? Here,” she said, handing him the joint, “finish it. I’m on duty.” She laughed to herself. “I interviewed a Hell’s Angel once. I asked him how they picked an Angel and he said, ”We don’t pick ‘em, we recognize ’em.“ So I guess I’d know.”
Nick smiled, feeling a buzz. “Where was this?”
“California. A while ago.”
“The summer of love,” Nick said idly.
“Well, it was for the guys.”
Nick flicked the roach out into the night and lit a cigarette, leaning against the building. The tall shrubs had taken on some definition in the misty air. In a few months it would be light all evening, England wide awake in the late northern light.
“What brought you over here?” he said.
“I don’t know. Last year, after the assassinations, I just thought, enough, you know? I mean, all you could do was watch the news. So I thought, well, Europe. I had a friend in Paris, and of course just as I get there they start tearing up the streets, so it was all the same anyway. Les evenements,” she said wryly, her accent deliberately broad. “So I just kept going.”
She turned so that her face came into the light from the windows. Nick watched her, unaware that he was staring until she raised her eyebrows. Then she reached over and took his cigarette. “Let me have one of these,” she said, putting it in her mouth with a casual intimacy. “What?”
“You’re a quicksilver girl,” Nick said, still watching her.
“Steve Miller Band,” she said, placing the phrase. “I actually met a guy in that band.” She handed back the cigarette, touching his fingers. “Like a chameleon, you mean.”
“No, like quicksilver. Whenever I look, you go somewhere else.”
She met his gaze and then, as if to demonstrate his point, looked away and leaned back against a potted plant. “Well, I’m here now. Where is here, anyway? I thought this would be at the embassy. Like this morning.”
“It’s the residence. Used to belong to Barbara Mutton.”
Nick smiled. Maybe Larry was right-nobody remembered anything. “Woolworth heiress. She was married to Gary Grant. This used to be her house.”
She looked up and down the terrace, then back through the windows at the party, a realtor’s gaze. “Do you think he used to come out here to smoke too?”
“I don’t think they were here together. Later. Maybe she bought it to get over him.”
“Instead of a good cry,” she said, looking at the house again. “What’s it like to be that rich?” Then she glanced back at him. “Are you rich? I mean, Warren-”
“No. It’s his money, not mine.” He nodded at the house. “Nobody’s this rich anymore.”
“Who owns it now?”
“You do. Taxpayers.”
“So that’s where it goes.” She giggled. “Makes me feel better about crashing.”
“Come to dinner. You paid for that too.”
“Yes, you can.”
She looked at him, not saying anything, reading his face.
“Who’s the friend?” Nick said.
“It’s not that. I just can’t.” She paused. “Maybe I can join you later,” she said, a polite dodge. “Where is it?”
“Hmm. As soon as the taxpayers clear out.”
She laughed. “You’re crazy. I can’t do that. What would they think?”
“The Braces? They’re used to it. All she has to do is rearrange the plates. It’s her idea of a good time.”
“Just like that.”
Nick nodded. “If I ask her. I thought you wanted to see the other half.”
“Not that close up. Look, it’s nice of you-”
“Stay,” Nick said, putting his hand on her arm. “I’d like you to.”
She looked down at the hand, then smiled. “Don’t you think it’s a little soon for a family dinner?”
“I may not keep running into you. Maybe I won’t get another chance.”
“You could call.”
“And then what?”
She grinned. “I guess you’d ask me to dinner.”
He spread his hands, palms up, resting a case.
“God, what am I going to tell Brian?”
“Tell him you have an interview with the ambassador.”
“Why am I doing this?” she said, laughing to herself. Then she looked up at him. “You’re not what I expected,” she said.
“What did you expect?”
But she let it go, making a joke of it. “I don’t know. Somebody in agricultural development, I guess. I better find Brian.” She held herself by the arms. “It’s cold. No wonder Barbara what’s-her-name sold it. You’re sure?” She said, looking up again.
Nick nodded. “Go find Brian.” She took a step toward the French window. “Hey,” he said, stopping her, because in the new light from the window her pale skin did suddenly begin to gleam, shifting like mercury. “Don’t disappear, okay?”
“Promise,” she said, and because the day had been lucky, he took her at her word.
The intimate dinner sat twenty-four and she disappeared after all, behind the floral centerpiece, so that like Davey, he had to tilt his head to see her. At this angle her hair bounced on top of the stems, another flower, and he watched her turn back and forth between her dinner partners, two gray-haired diplomats who preened for her attention like rival suitors. When she caught his look, her eyes laughed in a private joke. The dope had worn down to a familiar lull of well-being, but his senses still seemed sharp, catching the light off the crystal and the glow, refracted, in the soft red wine. With Larry near one end and his mother near the other, he was marooned in the middle, surrounded by people talking to each other, free to watch her. It was easier without words, he thought. This is what animals did-looks and body movements and smiles, tapping a sexual Morse code across the table.
“It’s not polite to stare, you know.” A woman’s voice, next to him.
“Sorry. Was I?” he said, turning to her, embarrassed.
But she was smiling. “I wish someone looked at me that way. She’s very pretty. Are you together?”
“Sort of,” he said, taking her in. She was still an attractive woman, but her face was loose and round, padded, Nick guessed, by years of too many extra glasses of wine. She seemed slightly drunk, shiny and amused, but not fuzzy.
“Sort of.” She laughed. “Well, you will be, if you keep that up. Youth,” she said, suggesting she’d enjoyed hers. “I tell you what. You just look and pretend to talk to me. I don’t mind a bit. I’m Doris Kemper, by the way. Jack Kemper’s wife.” She spoke the name, unknown to Nick, as if it guaranteed instant recognition.
“Ah. Larry’s son?”
“Well, that explains it. Your father always had an eye for the girls.”
“Really? Did you know him?”
“Not that way, if that’s what you mean. But I must say, I always wondered a little,” she said, oddly flirtatious. “He was quite the man about town. Do they use that expression anymore? Of course, this was all about a million years ago. Thank you,” she said to the waiter refilling her glass. “You can’t imagine how different Washington was then. People had fun.”
Nick watched her take another drink, trying to imagine her slim and eager for a night out. It occurred to him that if he just smiled encouragingly he wouldn’t have to talk at all.
“Well, they did,” she said, misinterpreting his look. “Of course, children don’t believe their parents were ever young. I know mine can’t. Then I heard he got married. We were overseas and I thought, well, that’s that. They’ll be hanging crepe all over town. If it lasts. But here you are, so I guess it did.”
“Where overseas?” Nick said, making conversation.
“Oh, everywhere. Athens. Rabat. Everywhere you had to boil the water.” She laughed to herself. “We were in Delhi for four years-that was the longest stretch.”
“Did you like it?”
“Well, Jack did. I had the children to raise. You know the tropics-one little scratch, and before you know it, it’s infected. You had to watch all the time. And the snakes.” She waved her hand, dismissing India, and when he followed it he found himself looking across the table again. Molly was listening to one of her suitors, fork poised in the air, her bare arms pale in the candlelight. He wondered if they would sleep together tonight. She’d stayed for dinner.
“You do have an eye,” Doris Kemper said. “I suppose he passed it on.” She picked up her glass. “Now tell me about yourself. What are you doing in London? Are you a lawyer too?”
“No, I’m finishing a degree at LSE.”
“That sounds interesting,” she said, clearly not believing it. “What in?”
“At the moment I’m doing research on the McCarthy period. You know, the witch-hunts.”
“People study that? Now I do feel old.”
“My professor’s writing a book about it.”
“But it’s such an exaggeration. Witch-hunts. I suppose to young people-but really, you know, the whole thing has been blown all out of proportion. I remember the loyalty oaths. We all had to do that. The army hearings. But to hear people talk, you’d think that’s all that was going on. Not any of the good things. Most people didn’t even notice.”
“HUAC held over two hundred hearings then,” Nick said calmly, a statistician. “Three thousand witnesses. And that was just HUAC. Not McCarthy.”
“Really?” she said, too surprised to be offended. But she was already moving away, the lesson of a hundred dinner parties. “Of course, we were overseas most of the time.”
She leaned back to let the waiter remove her plate and looked at Nick as if the new angle had suddenly brought him into focus. “Now I remember,” she said. “Larry’s wife. She had a child. That’s right. There was a boy-” She stopped. “Oh.” Nick could see in her slack face the rest of it coming back to her. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t-” She floundered, in such obvious distress that Nick, almost as a reflex, helped her.
“That’s all right,” he said quietly.
But it wasn’t. It happened so rarely now that he was unprepared for it, that moment when someone knew. He felt the sinking in his stomach, always the same, found out by the giant pointing finger. He wished he weren’t still high, unguarded, because now it would all come back. He knew the sequence, the pictures that would flash through his mind and always end with the woman lying twisted on the roof of the car. Instead he turned to the bright table, willing himself to be distracted by the opulent silver and the spray of flowers, an imperial banquet. Doris Kemper, who misinterpreted the gesture and thought he was angry, put her hand on his arm.
“I didn’t mean-” she said, and because she was silly but still kind, Nick smiled back, letting her off the hook.
“I know,” he said. How quickly it could happen, he thought, when you weren’t expecting it. But that was his problem, not hers. She never meant a thing. She’d had a life of amahs and swimming pool parties and only remembered the snakes, dreaming of Maryland. And now, of course, she’d be curious. He could already see the irresistible questions forming in her eyes.
They were both rescued by the tinkling of a knife against a glass as the ambassador rose to propose a toast. Not a speech, he said genially, just a word of welcome, because it was always good to see old friends and particularly good when those friends were about to render a service to their country. They were all aware of the importance of Larry’s mission, and they were all grateful, he was sure, that the mission had been placed in such competent hands. If there was progress to be made, he would make it, and he carried with him, at the very least, the hopes and good wishes of everyone at this table and countless other tables back home. There was a little more, and a few ‘hear, hear’s, and they raised their glasses. Nick raised his too, feeling more than ever the anomaly of his position, the son of a traitor invited to sit at the high table. But Larry, smiling modestly at the group, seemed entirely at ease, and his mother, on the ambassador’s right, looked radiant. No one, in fact, saw anything but a happy family, not even Doris Kemper, who thought he had an eye.
The table was breaking up now, heading into the sitting room for coffee, and when he looked over at Molly towering over her diplomats, who turned out to be short, his mood changed. The hell with them all, tangled up in their money and pious hopes for Paris. Their world, not his. He was going to spend an evening with a girl who’d actually met someone in the Steve Miller Band. But when she returned his look she seemed nervous, flustered by the toast, as if the evening had been a high and they were coming down, back where they started, and he wondered if they would sleep together after all.
“Good luck with your project,” Doris Kemper said, shaking hands.
“I’ll try to look for the good things,” he said pleasantly.
“You do that.” She smiled, almost winking. “It’s still the greatest country in the world.”
The informality of the coffee hour made it easier to slip out early, and after paying his respects to the Bruces, he collected Molly and headed for the door. A hug and faint protest from his mother, but no one else seemed to mind, absorbed on their side of the generation gap.
“She’s a nice girl,” Larry said when Molly went to get her coat. “I thought you said you weren’t seeing anybody.”
“I’m not seeing her yet,” Nick said. “First date.”
“Quite a restaurant,” Larry said, nodding at the room. Men smoked near the fireplace, ignoring the women, who perched on the edges of the deep couches, busy with each other. A waiter was passing brandy. It looked to be a long night.
“Quite an invitation,” Nick said. “Thanks. Good luck tomorrow.”
Larry nodded and shook his hand. “Don’t forget to call the lawyer.”
“I won’t. By the way, who’s Jack Kemper?”
Larry grinned. “What did he tell you?”
“He didn’t tell me anything.”
“Well, he wouldn’t. He’s CIA.”
In the hall, Molly was being helped into her gaucho cape, a remnant of her morning self. The servant, stiff and correct, held it as if it were mink, and as she slid into it, the two halves of her life seemed put together without matching.
“Shall I call you a taxi, sir?”
“No, thank you. We’ll find one.”
The man raised a dubious eyebrow, but nodded and opened the door. “Mind how you go,” he said, indicating the dark driveway, dense now with night mist.
But it was the obscurity Nick wanted. He took her arm on the steps and they walked out of the range of the house lights, over the canal toward Prince Albert Road.
“You okay?” he said.
“I’ve never felt so out of place in my life.”
“No, you were the hit of the party.”
“I kept thinking, what if they knew?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That I didn’t belong there, I guess.” She paused. “What was it like, growing up like that?”
“I didn’t grow up like that. It was just-normal, you know. The usual stuff. School. Sports. They went to parties, I did homework.”
“An all-American boy.”
“Mm. Eagle Scout.”
“On my honor,” he said, holding up three fingers in the oath position.
She stopped, looking at him. “You’re not what I expected.”
“You said that before. Anyway, I’m not a Scout any more.”
“There’s something I’ve wanted to do all evening.” Before she could say anything, he put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her, pressing her lips gently until she opened her mouth and he tasted the faint trace of wine. But then she pulled back and put her hand between them.
“Don’t you want to?” he said, surprised.
She nodded. “That’s the problem. Then later you’d think-”
He grinned. “I’m not old-fashioned. I’d respect you in the morning. Promise. Scout’s honor.”
She bit her lower lip. “No, you don’t understand. Look, I need to talk to you. Let’s go somewhere.”
“No, here. What’s wrong?”
She looked to the side, avoiding him, then took a breath and turned back. “Okay. I was going to explain, but I couldn’t in there. And then-” She stopped. “Let me have a cigarette, will you?”
He fished one out of his pocket, still looking at her. He was amazed to see her hand trembling slightly as she took it. “What’s this all about?” he said, lighting it for her.
She inhaled as if drawing strength from it.
“I told you someone asked me to look you up. You never asked who.”
“I was supposed to give you a message. I never meant to-”
“Who?” he said, impatient now.
She looked up at him as if she were afraid of his reaction. “Your father.”
“Larry?” he said, so that he wouldn’t have to think anything else.
“No, your father. Walter Kotlar. I met him. He asked me to-” She paused, taking another drag on the cigarette. “He wants to see you.”