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Blue Champagne

Part B

Part 4


Senator Wexler was too intent on getting Mrs. Webb alone to realize that his efforts were being thwarted not only by her son, but by his aide as well.  

Peter Lapin had been brought in from the Senator's home state to replace his previous aide, who'd had an unfortunate reaction to his asthma medication and dropped dead on a Washington street. So sad.  

Lapin didn't look to be old enough to be the Senator's trusted aide.  

He was old enough.  

He kept turning up at odd times during the ball, mostly alone, appearing at the Senator's shoulder, his eyes darting around, whispering in the Senator's ear, but occasionally with Mrs. Wexler, who gave every impression of being attracted to him. His attitude toward her was odd. It was almost as if he had to remind himself that he was supposed to be in love with her, or enough in love with her that he was willing to risk having an affair with her in spite of the fact that his boss was her husband.  

Well, at least *Lapin* knew what she drank.  

"Excuse me, sir." It was Howard. This time the tray he was carrying held champagne flutes. "Would you care for some champagne?"  

I took one and waited. I knew he wouldn't have approached me so blatantly unless he'd learned something.  

"His name is Preston Marks, and he's personal private assistant to Director Watts."  

"Interesting." Directors didn't have personal private assistants.  

"Something even more interesting... "  


"He used to work for Senator Wexler back in his home state."  

"Good work, Howard. How'd you learn this so quickly?"  

His mouth quirked in a grin. "Granger."  

"He's here?" I'd never had the opportunity to watch him in action.  

"Marks tried to chat him… *her* up." Howard cut his eyes toward a statuesque woman who was chatting with the Bahsrani ambassador. She had a cap of blue-black curls, slim hips, and breasts that would make a pleasant handful if a man had large hands. Around her throat was a gold velvet choker with a cameo in the center, concealing her adam's apple. "No one does ennui quite like Granger. When Marks realized he wasn't getting anywhere, he tried to impress Granger by spilling his guts."  

One up to Granger.  

"Email me everything you've found, and Cc a copy of it to The Boss."  

"Yes, sir." He cleared his throat. A man dressed in a tux but with a turban on his head was glowering at him. "I was sure you'd enjoy this champagne, sir."  

"You're right. It's a very good vintage. Thank you for suggesting I try it."  

Howard ducked his head and moved on, and I crossed to the man in the turban, the ambassador's major domo. "Your help are very capable. They deserve a bonus."  

His smile became effusive, and he bowed deeply. "As you say."  

"The food is very good too." I spotted Senator Wexler approaching Mrs. Webb again. Clay was beside her, but why should he get to have all the fun? "Excuse me."  

I reached her while the Senator was still a few feet away. I grinned at him, and he came to a halt.  

"The music is about to start again. May I have this dance, Mrs. Webb?"  

"Thank you, Clark." She was too much a lady to let her irritation with the Senator's antics show.  

I handed Clay my champagne flute, and he frowned at it and then at me.  

"I only had a sip. Why don't you let the good Senator know your mother has a dance partner?"  

I lead Porter Webb onto the dance floor, and we moved across it to the strains of 'It Had to Be You.' She was feather-light in my arms and seemed to anticipate my every move. Dancing with her was a nice experience.  

I gazed around at the couples dancing in and out of our vicinity and those standing at the periphery of the dance floor.  

I was blindsided by the image of Clay in my arms. I didn't dance with men, but I wondered what it would be like, us dancing to something soft and bluesy, my cheek against his hair…  

"This was our song, you know," Mrs. Webb said, jolting me out of that fantasy. "Neville's and mine. It was being played that first night we met."  

People really had songs they considered theirs? I cleared my throat. "It's a pretty song."  

"Yes, it is." The smile on her lips was soft and remembering.  

"You never looked for anyone after your husband was killed in that explosion."  

"No." There was no hesitation.  

"Even though he was dead, you remained faithful to him. Why?" Man wasn't by nature monogamous. Hadn't she been curious about other men?  

"Sebrings love once, Clark. Hopefully it's the right person, and we have a lifetime together."  

I tried to remember what it had been like when it was my father, my mother, and me, but he'd left when I was very young, and my memories of that time with him were vague. Had they ever cared for each other like that?  

"And if it isn't?"  

"We go on. We survive."  

"My old lady couldn't remain faithful for more than a day, if that long."  

"Are you saying you believe the ability to be faithful is in the genes?"  

"I don't know." Why had I brought up this subject?  

"Clayton is as much a Sebring as he is a Webb. If you hurt him he'll grieve." She regarded me steadily. "I, on the other hand, will go after you and shoot you down like a dog."  

"Yes, ma'am." I could accept that, although I thought she wasn't giving her son enough credit. I couldn't see Clay taking shit like that from anyone, even me. Hadn't he come after me, when I'd decided it was time for us to break up?  

"Didn't I ask you not to call me that?"  

"Yes, mm… Mrs. Webb." Did she realize how much I enjoyed teasing her like that? The expression in her blue eyes had me thinking she did.  

There was a tap on my shoulder. It was Clay.  

"Cutting in. And I want to dance with my mother, Clark, not with you!"  

"I'm devastated." I enjoyed teasing him too. "Mrs. Webb, it was my pleasure."  

"I enjoyed it myself, Clark." She smiled at me, and I had the oddest impulse to kiss her hand.  

I didn't, of course. I stepped away, and Clay took his mother in his arms. They danced off, their movements so synchronized they could have been Fred and Ginger. It was pure pleasure to watch them.  


"I'm out of here," I told Clay as we had one last drink.  

He smiled at me. "If I stay any longer, I'll turn into a pumpkin."  

"Yes, I'm ready to call it a night too." Mrs. Webb joined us, smothering a dainty yawn with the hand on which she still wore Neville Webb's rings.  

I spotted Senator Wexler making his way to the men's room. "I'll be right back."  

"Clark… "  

"I just have to… " I wouldn't say 'take a leak' in front of a classy lady like Porter Webb. "… see a man about a horse. I won't be long." I gave Clay an innocent smile. I didn't really have to use the facilities, but it would be one more way to let the Senator know I was still around and watching him.  

Wexler was standing at a urinal, his dick in his hand. He looked over his shoulder when he heard the door open, and – distracted when he saw it was me – pissed all over his shoes.  

"*Son of a bitch*… "  

"Goodnight, Senator." I left the men's room, Wexler sputtering and the attendant trying to mop off his shoes.  

In the embassy's foyer, Clay and his mother stood chatting, and I watched for a second. They made such an elegant pair.  

Markov stormed in, and pissed was not the word for what he was. "Freaking towel-heads! All that oil money, and you'd think their parking lots would be in better shape."  

"Markov, how politically incorrect of you!" I couldn't resist the dig.  

He was affronted. "Yes, well, we've got two flats."  

I grinned, enjoying his demonstration of ire. His brows beetled, and he pointedly ignored me.  

"I've already called AAA, but they're tied up for hours. And it's starting to rain." He shook the umbrella in his hand.  

"Here, Markov." Clay gave him his car keys and the chit for the valet attendant. "Take the Lexus." He glanced at me. "I'll find my own way home."  

"I've got my car, Clay, and I'm going your way. I can give you a lift."  

"I was hoping you'd offer." His voice was soft.  

"I thought you might." I licked my lips, thinking of what else I could offer him. I completely forgot his mother was standing next to us until she spoke.  

"Have a nice evening, sweetheart, Clark. Markov?"  

Markov glared at me as if to let me know no matter what Clay or his mother thought of me, he still didn't trust me. I winked at him.  

He growled something in Russian and blushed when Mrs. Webb chuckled. That was only one of the many languages she understood and spoke. He curled his lip at me, offered her his arm, and they left.  

"Come on," I said to Clay, and he fell into step beside me. "We have to walk a bit to my car, and we'd better hurry or we're going to get soaked."  

"So. Alexandria is on your way?"  

"Sure. We have to stop at my place first so I can change out of this Iron Maiden… " I undid the bowtie, which had been digging into my chin all evening. It never came out as well as when Clay tied it for me.  

"And I'll be waiting out in the car?"  


Clay laughed.  

"Cute." I bumped his shoulder with mine. "Just for that, you *can* wait out in the car." I waited a beat. "Of course, if you'd rather come up… "  

"And see you?" He quoted the Mae West line, a happy grin on his face. "I think you might be able to talk me into that." He squeezed my arm, then let it go. "Where's your car, by the way? In Maryland?"  

"Ha ha." I wasn't parked that far away. "Here it is." I took out my keys and thumbed the remote. There was a chirrup, and the lights flashed and the locks disengaged.  



"I'm looking forward to this week."  


We got in and buckled up, and I started the engine and turned on the windshield wipers.  

This was going to be a great week.  


"All right. Spill the beans."  

"Wexler and Watts are working together against me… " and if I hadn't known Clay, hadn't known the kind of man he was, that would have sounded like paranoia in the extreme. "… Wexler because I'm what stands between him and Mother… "  

"Bastard. And Watts?"  

"He's never stopped blaming me for that debacle with Prinzip."  

"*Goddammit*!" Not that it wasn't anything I hadn't learned days earlier than Markov had, and in more detail. Matheson was shaping up to be a thorough senior agent.  

"Yes. I knew Watts was involved; I just didn't realize to what degree." He went on to tell me of his meeting with his uncles.  

"So neither of them were able to come up with a plan to deal with Watts." I growled under my breath. Clay needed someone with DSD expertise – *me,* dammit – to take care of this mess.  

He reached over and squeezed my thigh. "I'm a big boy. I can handle Watts." He changed the subject. "Tell me about the suite you reserved for us as Taylor House."  

The rhythmic swish of the windshield wipers was a soft counterpoint to our conversation.  

We were about five blocks from my place, sitting at a traffic light, when Clay's cell phone rang. He studied the screen in the light of the dashboard and smiled.  

"Hello, Mother. What's up? Oh?" He put his hand over the receiver. "Uncle Jeff wants the family at the Manor next Sunday. Mother has no idea why."  

"And you do?"  

"Of course. I am an officer of the CIA, I'll have you know." He grinned and resumed his conversation with his mother, relaxed and teasing.  

What would it be like to have such a fantastic woman for a mother, to have such unconditional love? How different could my life have been if my old lady had cared at least as much for me as she did for Johnny Walker Black?  

There was no sense in wondering about that. Things were what they were.  

The light changed, and I drove on.  

Abruptly, Clay swore.  


His eyes met mine. There was shock in them. He held the phone toward me, and I could hear what he was hearing.  

Markov, swearing first in English, and then in Russian.  

The sound of angry horns and protesting brakes.  

And then the sound of the Lexus – Clay's Lexus – being hit again and again, metal crashing, smashing into metal, glass shattering…  

And a single, painful cry.  


I jammed on the brakes and spun the wheel, sending my car spinning on the slick street. I had it under control even as it fishtailed, and I headed toward the road that would take us to the 395.  

"Mother, answer me!"  

There was no response.  

"Jesus. Clark… " His voice was tight and hovering on the edge of control.  

"I'm on it, Clay. I'll get us there. Now listen to me. There's a red light in the glove compartment. Get it out and slap it on the roof."  

Not even asking what I was doing with that in my glove compartment, he obeyed me.  

"What… what should I… "  

"Call 9-1-1, baby." Others at the scene had probably done that already, but it would give him something to do.  

"Yes." His hands were shaking as he made the call. "I'm… I'm sorry… "  

"Don't worry about it." I leaned on the horn and wove through the streets, and swore under my breath whenever anyone got in my way.  


Goddamn Washington traffic. In spite of the red light on the roof and my lead foot on the gas pedal, it was all over by the time we got there.  

The Lexus was lying upside down, the roof crumpled by the weight of the body of the car. It was giving a fair impression of an accordion. The driver's side passenger door was gone, replaced by a gaping hole. Other cars were scattered on the median, dented and dinged, but none so badly.  

"I'm sorry, sir. You can't… " One of the cops tried to keep us back.  

"I'm Clayton Webb. That's my car, officer. My mother was riding in it."  

"Oh! Um…"  

"How is she?"  

"You just missed the ambulance. She's being taken to George Washington Hospital."  

"*How is she*?"  

"She was trapped in the back seat, and they needed the 'jaws of life' to get her out."  

"And Markov?" Not that I cared, but Clay would want to know. Eventually.  

"Who? Oh, the driver? He was hurt, but not as badly as Mrs. Webb."  

"Thank you, Officer… " It was raining harder, and Clay turned to me, his expression pale and sick in the flashing lights of the cop cars. "Clark. If she doesn't make it… " He brushed the rain out of his eyes. I wanted to put my arms around him and hold him, but there were too many interested onlookers.  

"She'll be okay, Webb. She's one tough cookie, and she's gonna be pissed when she learns you were giving up on her."  

"You're right." He looked around as if he wasn't sure what to do next.  

"Get in the car, Clay. I'll drive you to the hospital."  

Again he obeyed without question. He was starting to shiver, and I turned the heater on full blast.  

"It's been just the two of us for so long." His voice started to break. "Clark… Jesus… "  

"We'll be there in a couple of minutes. Are you listening to me, Webb?" I waited until he nodded. "I'll let you off at the ER so you can go right in. I'll be with you as soon as I park the car."  

"Thank you." His voice was under control once more.  

"If you thank me one more time, I'm gonna kick you in the ass. Don't get soft on me, Webb." The brakes screeched as I pulled to a stop in front of the ER. "Now, get going!"  

"Okay, Palmer." A brief squeeze to my arm, and he was out of the car and heading into the ER on the run.  

There was a tap on my window. A police office was standing there, and I lowered it.  

"I'm sorry, sir. You can't… Oh, Mr. Palmer. I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you."  

"Not a problem, Samuels." Samuels was one of my sources on the DCPD. "What are you doing here?"  

"My partner and I are investigating that crash on the 395."  

"Yeah? What can you tell me about it?"  

"Not much right now, sir, beyond the fact that it looks like a hit and run. We do have a partial plate."  

"What is it?"  

He told me, and I made a mental note.  

"We were hoping to talk to the victims, but the lady is out of it right now. Her driver was being bandaged up, and as soon as we get the okay, we'll see what he has to say. Maybe he can tell us something."  

"Hey, Sammy!" It was Samuels' partner.  

"I have to go."  

"Okay. Get in touch with me as soon as you find out anything else."  

"Yes, sir." He jogged over to his partner, and they disappeared through the brightly lit doors of the ER.  

I found a parking spot, put the car in neutral, and pressed and twisted a knob on the dash. What looked like a PDA slid out. It had been created by Romero in R&D, and he called it a Seek and Find.  

This particular S&F was programmed to work only for me. I fitted my thumb in the shallow depression on the right. It identified not only my thumb print, but through epithelial cells my DNA, and it lit up.  

"Good evening, Mr. Palmer," it said in a mellow tenor.  

"Yeah, yeah." I keyed the department I needed the information from and punched in the numbers and single letter of the plate Samuels had given me. "Just tell me who that baby belongs to."  

"Working on it, Mr. Palmer."  

"You do that," I muttered. Having this gadget address me by name was too 2001: A Space Odyssey for me, even if Romero did swear by it. I kept expecting it to tell me it wouldn't open the pod bay doors.  

I turned off the engine, knowing the S&F had its own power source and would keep sifting through the Motor Vehicle Bureau's records until it found something. At that point my car remote would emit a discreet beep, informing me the search had been completed.  

I got out, keyed the remote to lock the car and slid it into the pocket of my tux, and headed for the emergency room.  

Clay and his mother were nowhere in sight, but before I could grab any of the men and women hurrying past and ask where they were, I heard him.  

"Don't you dare die on me, Mother! Do you hear me?"  

I went toward the curtained area and pulled aside the heavy beige material. A male nurse taking vitals frowned at me. I frowned right back and dismissed him.  

Porter Webb was lying on a stretcher, as pale as the sheet that covered her except for the bruise that bloomed on her shoulder and upper torso, probably caused by her seatbelt. There was a swelling on her left temple. A tube ran from beneath the sheet at her side to a bottle that was partially filled with bloody drainage.  

"Will she be all right, Doctor?" Clay was holding onto his mother's hand.  

"She's been fading in and out of consciousness… "  

"She'll be fine, Clay." I gave the doctor a look that dared him to contradict me.  

He glanced at me, then turned back to his clipboard. "Does she have any allergies, Mr. Webb?"  

"No. Generally she's… "  

My remote began to beep softly.  

"What is that?" The doctor was irritated. "You can't have a cell phone in here."  

I ignored him. "Listen, Clay. I've got some stuff to do. You'll be here, right?"  

"I'll be here. Clark." His mouth was a grim line. "I'm not going to ask what you're going to do."  

"Good. You know I wouldn't tell you anyway."  

He let go of his mother's hand long enough to clutch at my lapel.  

"Trust me," I mouthed, and he nodded and let me go.  

"Mrs. Webb?" I leaned down to whisper in her ear. "You heard Clay. You'd better damn well be alive when I get back!"  

I thought I saw a smile crease the space between her eyes, but the beep was becoming insistent. I thumbed it off and left the ER.


Part 5


It was Sunday night. Clay and I should have been in Key West, naked, sweaty, and supremely satisfied on the bed in our suite in Taylor House. Instead, he was sitting in a hospital room beside his mother's bed, his uncles from both coasts there with him, and I was here, outside the small house Peter Lapin sublet in Georgetown.  

I'd come up with a plan, got the supplies I would need, and then waited for dark, which would conceal my actions. A little patience would see that everything worked as smooth as butter.  

It was an overcast night, and the moon was obscured. The street light was conveniently out.  

Not that it would have made much difference if it had been a clear night and the light had been working.  

Lapin's BMW – kind of a rich car for a senator's aide – was parked in a narrow alleyway between the houses. A glance around told me I was unobserved, and I eased under the car and set to work on it, a small flashlight held between my teeth. When I was finished, it would seem like mechanical failure led to the accident that resulted in his death.  

It took me about ten minutes. I added something to cause a little distraction, then rolled out from under the car and dusted off my hands.  

I stripped off the overalls I'd worn to protect my suit and stuffed them into a plastic trash bag in one of the garbage cans that were kept at the rear of the alley. Once that was done, I smoothed my hair, straightened my jacket and made sure my tie tack was in place, and strolled up the walk to the shallow steps that led to his front door. Another casual glance revealed no one in the vicinity or peeking through their curtains.  

Peter Lapin answered my knock.  


"You recognize me."  

"God knows you were driving the Senator crazy enough last night. To what do I owe this… pleasure?"  

"I thought it might be a good idea for us to have a little chat."  

"Yes?" He smirked. "Why would I want to do that?"  

"You were behind Porter Webb's accident last night."  

He seemed taken aback for a second, but then his features smoothed out. "Nonsense."  

I didn't reply.  

His lips twisted, and he shrugged and said, "Do come in. It's too chilly to have this conversation on my doorstep."  

He may have graduated first in his class with enough honors to choke a horse, but inviting me to freely enter his house… It was like inviting Nosferatu to come on in and chow down on his neck.  

I entered and waited while he closed the door. He led the way into a small, dark room furnished with overstuffed armchairs and tables that made the room seem even smaller and darker.  

"Have a seat. Can I offer you something?" He went to the liquor cabinet. "Whiskey? Scotch? Gin?"  

"No." I sat down and crossed my legs. 

He poured himself a glass and sat down in the chair across from me. He was raising his glass to his lips when his car alarm went off, right on schedule. His expression became irritated, and he said, "Excuse me." He set down his glass, rose, and went to shut it off.  

I used his absence to snap open a capsule and drop its contents into his drink, and was back in my armchair when he returned, grumbling under his breath.  

"Everything all right?" I asked, the epitome of innocence.  

"Fucking Beamer. You'd think a car as expensive as that would have the fucking bugs worked out." He picked up his glass and took a deep swallow, then sat down.   

"Maybe it had something to do with the fact that you deliberately ran it into Clayton Webb's Lexus last night."  

"There isn't a scratch on my car!"  

"Not now, at any rate." I stared at him, bored, and waited to see how he would respond.  

"You can't touch me," he stated flatly. "I'm Senator's Wexler's aide. Senator Wexler is…"

"I know what he is."  

"No, you don't." His smile was condescending. "He's going to be president!"  

"You think so?"  

"Well, not in '04 perhaps, but definitely in '08! *I'll* see to that! And once he's in office there will be some changes made."  

"Like the disbanding of the DSD?"  

"You're aware of that? Yes." He shrugged, not even smart enough to realize it wasn't a good thing to admit that to the man who had been promoted to senior special agent earlier and stayed alive to keep the position longer than anyone else on record in the DSD. "There's no need in this day and age for such an antiquated organization!"  

"I see."  

"I thought you would. You know, Palmer," his tone was considering, "you're a smart man. There could be a place for you in the new order."  

"Could there? I hadn't thought… "  

"Oh, yes. We'll need people who have no problem taking out the opposition."  

"I'm… "  

"Flattered? You should be."  

Like hell I was.  

"What I don't understand… " I pretended to find my fingernails fascinating, but I was watching him. "… is why the Senator wanted to get rid of Porter Webb. I was under the impression that he … liked … her."  

Lapin frowned. "That wasn't supposed to happen. That was Webb's car. His mother had no business being in it. If Elizabeth hadn't chosen that moment to get jealous and slash the tires of Porter Webb's car… Dumb broad."  

"As you say." I felt the skin over my cheekbones tighten. It was a good thing I'd learned before I'd joined the DSD how to control my expressions. I knew I looked nothing more than mildly interested. "In that case, I still don't understand. Why would the Senator want to get rid of her son?"  

"I thought you'd be brighter, Palmer. With Webb out of the way, even temporarily, Porter Webb would turn to Richard for the strong masculine presence she needs in her life – that all women need in their lives – and he'd have complete access to her and her social and financial connections. She's going to make a perfect first lady, don't you think?"  

"But he's married," I pointed out.  

"Not for long. I've been keeping Elizabeth busy. Of course, you wouldn't know that. When the time is right, I'll go to him and confess that she seduced me." He rolled his eyes piously to the ceiling, a smirk twisting his lips. "I just couldn't live with the guilt and shame any more."  

"And he'll keep you on after learning you've been screwing his wife?"  

"Whose idea do you think it originally was? I'd never have gone to bed with the old bitch if Richard hadn't promised me the position as his White House Chief of Staff!"  

"I see. What about his constituents? Didn't they originally vote for him because he was married to their old senator's daughter?"  

"Yes. That's true." Lapin scowled at me, not pleased that I was aware of that. That was the problem with people who didn't know how the DSD was run. They thought we just went around killing indiscriminately and did nothing else. "But… "  

"There's also the fact that his supporters are so big on family values. You don't think they might be swayed more if he forgave her?"  

"Oh, no! Not when they learn about all the abortions she had!" His grin returned, and I half expected him to rub his hands together in glee. "Even Richard is unaware of that."  

"How did you find out?" There was such a thing as doctor-patient confidentiality. It hadn't stopped me from getting at her records, but Lapin wasn't DSD, and I was curious.  

"Elizabeth likes to talk, especially after a little something has been added to her Manhattans."  

Like the something I had added to his drink. "She could deny it."  

He shook his head. "I have it on tape. As well as her talking about other affairs she's had … interracial affairs. The people who vote for Richard don't have much tolerance for that."  

"But she never… Ah. I understand. The tapes were doctored."  

"I thought about including a lesbian affair as well, but that would have been too much, even for the idiots who vote for Richard." His lips stretched in a cool smile. "He will have no problem shedding a wife who brings nothing but humiliation and grief to his family." And to his party as well, no doubt. "And when he announces, after a suitable period, that he's going to marry Porter Webb, a woman who remained faithful to her husband even after he died … "  

"So the idea was to get her son out of the way so Wexler could get to her."  

"Didn't I say that? She's the woman who'll bring him the White House!"   

Talk about fucked up. Someone should have taught Senator Wexler that just because he wanted something didn't mean he could have it.  

"I see." I was repeating myself, but Lapin didn't seem to notice.  

"She and Webb are too close." He frowned. "Each time Richard approached her, there was Webb, getting between them. Of course, that will all change." He finished his drink.  

"How? If you don't mind my asking? It seems to me your plan has gone slightly… awry? Mrs. Webb is the one in the hospital, not Webb."  

"That has thrown a spanner in the works. Damn Webb. However, the Senator has that in hand. He's very close to someone in the CIA. Clayton Webb is going to be transferred to Paramaribo. That's in Suriname, you know, about 56 miles from Devil's Island. By the time he returns, Porter Webb will be Porter Wexler. She won't even need to change her monogram."  

"Very clever."  

"Yes. I knew you'd come around."  


"I've been giving a great deal of thought as to what it would be like having a man like you under me." He looked at the empty glass owlishly. "Sure you don't want that drink now?"  


"I believe I'll have another."  

"I'll get it for you." I rose, my stance casual and relaxed, brushed my fingers over my tie and the tie tack that kept it in place, and incidentally deactivating the recording device, and crossed to where he sat.  

He held his glass out to me. I grinned down at him but didn't take it. Maybe that was when he realized letting me into his house really hadn't been a good idea.  

It only took a moment to break his neck.  

I stared into his dead eyes. "You're lucky, you miserable son of a bitch. I could have made it take longer." I could have made him beg and gibber at the end, suffer as Clay was suffering. As Mrs. Webb was suffering.  

However, I couldn't afford to leave marks on his body that couldn't be attributed to a motor vehicle accident. I checked my watch. It would be dawn in a matter of hours, and the accident scene needed to be set up. Once that was done, I would turn my attention to Mrs. Wexler.  

She may have been as much a victim of her husband's machinations as of Peter Lapin's, but I didn't much care.  

She would be attending some function or other up on Capital Hill tomorrow night. On her way home from it, she was going to be… delayed.  


No one noticed when I pulled up in the shadows and got out my sedan, probably because of the screams.  

There had been an accident.  

Lights in the houses nearby were on, and curtains were drawn back so the view wasn't obstructed. Others, willing to brave the October chill, stood on their sidewalks in their bathrobes, whispering and staring avidly.  

The Mercedes Benz seemed to have come out the loser in a game of chicken with an old oak – the front end was crumpled, the engine was so much scrap metal shoved back through the dash, and the windshield was a mass of shattered glass.  

I swore under my breath. A glance at the license plate told me all I needed to know. The Mercedes Benz belonged to the Wexlers.  

A couple of cop cars blocked access to the street, and two of the cops diverted what traffic there was. A third talked to the driver of the flatbed tow truck that would transport the wreck to the junkyard, and a fourth, standing out of the way of, was making notes.  

The chauffeur was nowhere to be seen, but maybe, like Markov, he'd already been transported to the hospital.  

An ambulance was parked a few yards away from the vehicle, and two men worked on the female victim, who was screaming nonstop and trying to clutch at her face.  

"Ma'am, please. Ma'am, you can't… Dave?"  

"Ma'am, if you keep trying to touch your face, we'll have to restrain your hands. You have to stop…Goddammit! Joe, hold her hands. I'm gonna get… " He went into the ambulance.  

I couldn't tell how badly the woman on the stretcher had been injured, although I could see that one eye appeared to be sunken in her skull, as if the bones around it had been shattered. Her face was covered in blood.  

The paramedic returned with straps and fastened her wrists to the sides of the stretcher. Her screams finally stopped, but I didn't think she was smart enough to realize that screaming wouldn't make the pain go away; she was probably on the verge of passing out.  

She moaned as the paramedics prepared to ease the stretcher into the back of their rig. One of them climbed in with her, and the other closed the door.  

"We're a little short on eyewitnesses here," the cop taking notes groused.  

The paramedic shrugged. "Not unusual for this time of night."  

"Did she say anything to you?"  

"Just that she didn't mean it."  

"Didn't mean what?"  

"Hell if I know. Maybe drinking and driving? The smell of alcohol alone was enough to give me a buzz. She must have been going pretty damn fast, too. And she wasn't wearing her seatbelt, either. These rich people. They think the laws don't apply to them."  

"What are you talking about?"  

"She was driving, but we found her in the back seat."  

"What makes you think she was driving?"  

"How else could her face get all banged up like that?"  

I wanted to know the answer to that myself.  

The paramedic got into the ambulance, switched on the siren, and sped off.  

The cop shook his head, shut his notebook, and walked back to the squad cars. The tow truck had already left, and in a matter of minutes, the scene was deserted, even the morbidly curious having gone back into their homes.  

Abruptly I realized I wasn't alone in the shadows, and I slid a hand into my pocket for the deadly little weapon Romero had given me a few days before.  

"That will not be necessary, Mr. Palmer," a warm contralto murmured behind me.  

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?"  

She chuckled. "I do not think that would be wise on my part." Something pressed into my back. Fuck. How had she managed to get so close to me? "I can break your spine, severing your spinal cord. You would be left a paraplegic."  

I relaxed and raised my hands so she could see them. "Are you going to?" The thing at my back didn't feel sharp, like a knife, and it didn't feel cylindrical, like the barrel of a gun.  

"I do not think so. The son of my dear friend would be saddened, and that in turn would make Porter sad."  

"Porter?" I played dumb. "Porter who?"  

"Porter Webb, as you very well know." There was amusement in her voice, something I found intriguing. Women didn't generally display amusement around me.  

"Who are you?"  

She must have leaned forward. Her breath was warm in my earn, and she whispered her name.  

"Damn. I thought you'd been killed!"  

"As you can see, reports of my demise have been exaggerated."  

"Well, obviously. Would you mind if I turned around?"  

"Slowly, if you please. I have been curious to meet you, Mr. Palmer."  

"And I you." I turned and faced the woman who had got the drop on me. She was dressed in a severe black pantsuit. There was enough moonlight for me to see her clearly; she was beautiful. Although her black hair was threaded with silver, she carried her years well. "If I hadn't been given false information, I'd have made more of an effort."  

"Are you flirting with me, Mr. Palmer?"  

"I don't flirt."  

"Of course not."  

I cleared my throat. "So you did that to Mrs. Wexler's face?"  


"With that?" I nodded toward the weapon she'd been pressing against my back. It was one I had never seen, a smooth, hard piece of wood shaped like an elongated dumb-bell.  

"The kongo? Yes. From what I could learn of her on such short notice, she is a woman who values her looks above everything."  

"And what about her chauffeur?"  

Her teeth flashed white, and she placed a billed cap on her head. "She was so complacent. She never looked at me, never even realized that it was not her chauffeur behind the wheel."  

She was a smart woman, and she'd done a damn fine job. Not that I was going to tell her that.  

"Dealing with Mrs. Wexler was my job."  

"No. Her actions put my dear friend in grave danger. It was my prerogative."  

There was no point in challenging her – what was done was done. "Now what?"  

"Now I must leave. I trust you will not seek to detain me?"  

"No, ma'am. Although I could." She laughed, and I raised an eyebrow. "You think I couldn't detain you?"  

"It is not that, Mr. Palmer. Porter has told me of your tendency to call her 'ma'am.' I know enough of you to realize that is a mark of respect." The kongo disappeared from her hand, replaced by a bunch of purple flowers. Their soft fragrance rose in the still night air. "Will you see that my dear friend gets these, please?"  

"Of course." I accepted the violets.  

"Thank you." She hesitated for a moment, as if she would say something else, then simply said, "Istenhozzád, Clark Palmer."  

"Farewell, Modesty Blaise."  

Clouds drifted across the moon, and when they had passed, she was gone.


End Part B

To Part C