- Publisher: Grand Central
- Release Date: 1996, 1997, 2001, 2010, 2015
- ISBN-13: 978-0446604239
- Available Languages: French (2), English (UK), Czech, Brazilian (85)
- Available Formats: Audio, e-Book, Print
Barrie Travis is not famous: she’s just a damn good reporter stuck at a low-budget television station. Then, her old friend and now First Lady calls her to investigate the supposed SIDS death of her baby. Stunned by grief after the loss of her infant son, the President’s wife hints that her child may have murdered.
Blind to everything but finding the truth, Barrie delves into the private lives of the president and his wife and uncovers dark and terrible secrets that will test her ethics, her patriotism, and her courage. With the help of Gray Bondurant, a mysterious former presidential aide, this story could topple the presidency and change the course of history.
In this fast-moving political thriller, Barrie must fight powerful forces who want nothing more than to see the scandalous past-and a certain young reporter-dead and buried.
“You’re looking well, Mrs. Merritt.”
“I look like hell.”
Vanessa Merritt did indeed look like hell, but Barrie was embarrassed for having been caught paying an insincere compliment. She tried to recover gracefully. “After what you’ve been through, you’re entitled to look a little frazzled. Any other woman, myself included, myself particularly, would settle for looking like you even at your worst.”
“Thank you.” She gave her cappuccino a desultory stir. If nerves conveyed sound, Vanessa Merritt’s would have clattered like her spoon when she shakily returned it to the saucer. “God. For just one cigarette, I’d let you pull out all my fingernails with pliers.”
She’d certainly never been seen smoking in public, so Barrie was surprised to learn that she was a smoker. Although a nicotine addiction might explain why she was so fidgety.
Her hands were never still. She twirled her strand of pearls, played with the discreet diamond studs in her earlobes, and repeatedly adjusted the Ray Bans that almost concealed the dark, puffy circles around her eyes.
Those spectacular eyes were largely responsible for her beauty. Until today. Today, those remarkable baby blues reflected pain and disillusionment. Today they looked like the eyes of an angel who’d just had her first, horrifying glimpse of hell.
“I’m fresh out of pliers,” Barrie said. “But I have these.” From her large leather satchel, she withdrew an unopened pack of cigarettes and slid it across the table.
It was obvious that Mrs. Merritt was tempted. Her haunted eyes nervously scanned the outdoor terrace of the restaurant. Only one other table was occupied, by several men, and one obsequious waiter hovered nearby. Even so, she declined the cigarette. “I’d better not. But feel free.”
“I don’t smoke. I only carry them in case I need to relax someone I’m interviewing.”
“Before you come in for the kill.”
Barrie laughed. “I only wish I were that dangerous.”
“Actually you’re better at human interest stories.”
It came as a pleasant surprise that Mrs. Merritt was even aware of her work. “Thank you.”
“Some of your reports have been quite exceptional. Like the one on the AIDS patient. And the one you did on the homeless single mother of four.”
“That was nominated for an industry award.” Barrie saw no reason to volunteer that she had entered the piece herself.
“It made me cry,” Mrs. Merritt said.
“In fact, you’re so good, I’ve often wondered why you’re not affiliated with a network.”
“I’ve had some tough breaks.”
Vanessa Merritt’s smooth brow wrinkled. “Wasn’t there an issue over Justice Green that—”
“Yes, there was that,” Barrie interrupted. This wasn’t a conversation in which she wanted her failures itemized. “Why did you contact me, Mrs. Merritt? I’m delighted, but curious.”
Vanessa Merritt’s smile gradually faded. In a low, serious tone, she said, “I made myself clear, didn’t I? This is not an interview.”
She didn’t. Barrie Travis didn’t have a clue as to why Mrs. Merritt had phoned her out of the blue and invited her to have coffee. They’d been nodding acquaintances for the last few years, certainly not friends.
Even the choice of today’s meeting place was curious. The restaurant was one of several along the shore of the channel that connected the Potomac with the Tidal Basin. After dark, the clubs and eateries along Water Street were filled with people, mostly tourists. Some did a respectable lunch trade, but in the middle of the afternoon, on a workday, the restaurants were virtually deserted.
Maybe this place had been chosen precisely for its seclusion.
Barrie dropped a sugar cube into her cappuccino, then idly stirred it as she stared out over the iron railing of the terrace.
It was a gloomy, overcast day. The channel was choppy. Houseboats and sailboats moored in the marina bobbed in the gray water. The canvas umbrella above their table snapped and popped in the gusty wind that carried the scent of rain and fish. Why were they sitting outside on such a blustery day?
Mrs. Merritt stirred the foamy milk in her cappuccino and finally took a sip. “It’s cold now.”
“Would you like another?” Barrie asked. “I’ll signal the waiter.”
“No, thanks. I didn’t really want that one. Having coffee was just, you know…” She shrugged a shoulder that had once been stylishly slender but was now downright bony.
“It was just an excuse?” Barrie prodded.
Vanessa Merritt raised her head. Through the sunglasses, Barrie saw bleak honesty in the woman’s eyes. “I needed to talk to someone.”
“And you thought of me?”
“Because a couple of my stories made you cry?”
“That, and because of the sympathy note you sent. It touched me. Deeply.”
“I’m glad it gave you some comfort.”
“I… I don’t have many close friends. You and I are about the same age. I thought you’d be a good sounding board.” She lowered her head. A mane of chestnut hair tumbled forward, partially concealing her classic cheekbones and aristocratic chin.
In a quiet voice, Barrie said, “My note couldn’t convey how very sorry I am for what happened.”
“Actually it did. Thank you.” Vanessa Merritt removed a tissue from her handbag and slipped it beneath the sunglasses to blot her eyes. “I don’t know where they come from,” she said of the tears being soaked up by the tissue. “I should be dehydrated by now.”
“Is that what you want to talk about?” Barrie asked gently. “The baby?”
“Robert Rushton Merritt,” she blurted forcefully. “Why does everyone avoid saying his name? He had a name, for heaven’s sake. For three months, he was a person and he had a name.”
She didn’t give Barrie time to respond. “Rushton was my mother’s maiden name,” Mrs. Merritt explained. “She would have liked having her first grandchild named after her family.”
Staring out over the turbulent waters of the channel, she continued talking in a faraway voice. “And I’ve always fancied the name Robert. It’s a straightforward, no-bullshit name.”
The vulgarity surprised Barrie. It was such a departure from Vanessa Merritt’s southern-lady persona. In her whole life, Barrie had never felt so bereft of something to say. Under the circumstances, what would be appropriate? What could she say to a woman who had recently buried her baby? Nice funeral?
Suddenly Mrs. Merritt asked, “What do you know about it?”
Barrie was caught off guard. Was she being challenged? What do you know about losing a child? What do you really know about anything?
“Are you referring to…? Do you mean the baby’s… I mean, Robert’s death?”
“Yes. What do you know about it?”
“Nobody really knows about SIDS, do they?” Barrie asked, groping for the meaning behind the question.
Obviously changing her mind about the cigarette, Mrs. Merritt tore open the pack. Her motions were like those of a marionette, jerky and disjointed. The fingers that held the cigarette to her lips were trembling. Barrie quickly fished a lighter from her satchel. Vanessa Merritt didn’t continue speaking until she’d deeply inhaled several times. The tobacco didn’t calm her. Instead, she became increasingly agitated.
“Robert was sleeping, on his side, with one of those little pillows propping him up, the way I’d been shown to position him. It happened so fast! How could…” Her voice cracked.
“Are you blaming yourself? Listen.” Barrie reached across the table, took the cigarette from Mrs. Merritt, and ground it out in the ashtray. Then she pressed the woman’s cold hands between hers. The impulsive gesture was noticed by the men at the other table.
“Robert died of crib death. Losing a baby to SIDS happens to thousands of mothers and fathers every year, and there’s not a single one of them who doesn’t second-guess their parenting skills. It’s human nature to assign blame to a tragedy, so people lay a guilt trip on themselves. Don’t fall into that trap. If you start thinking you were responsible for your baby’s death, you might never recover.”
Mrs. Merritt was vigorously shaking her head. “You don’t understand. It was my fault.” Behind her sunglasses, her eyes darted about. She withdrew her hands from Barrie’s, moved them from cheek to tabletop, to lap, to spoon, to neck, in a restless search for peace. “The last few months of my pregnancy were intolerable.”
For several moments she covered her mouth with her hand, as though the last trimester had been unspeakably painful. “Then Robert was born. But instead of getting better, as I’d hoped, it only got worse. I couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t what? Cope? All new mothers experience postpartum and feel overwhelmed,” Barrie assured her.
She kneaded her forehead with her fingertips. “You don’t understand,” she repeated in a strained whisper. “Nobody does. There’s no one I can tell. Not even my father. Oh, God, I don’t know what to do!”
Her emotional unraveling was so obvious that the men at the next table had turned to stare. The waiter approached, looking anxious.
Barrie spoke quickly beneath her breath. “Vanessa, please, get a grip. Everybody’s watching.”
Whether it was because Barrie had addressed her by her first name or for some other reason, the emotional collapse immediately reversed itself. Her nervously active hands fell still. Her tears dried instantly. She downed the cold cappuccino she had claimed moments earlier not to want, then finished by daintily blotting her colorless lips with her napkin. Barrie watched the transformation with amazement.
Wholly restored, in a cool, composed voice, she said, “This conversation was strictly off the record, right?”
“Absolutely,” Barrie replied. “You made that understood when you called me.”
“Considering your position, and mine, I see now that it was a mistake to arrange this meeting. I haven’t been myself since Robert died. I thought I needed to talk about it, but I was wrong. Talking about it only makes me more distraught.”
“You’ve lost your baby. You’re entitled to unravel.” Barrie laid her hand on the other woman’s arm. “Be kinder to yourself. SIDS just happens.”
She removed her sunglasses and looked directly into Barrie’s eyes. “Does it?”
Then Vanessa Armbruster Merritt, First Lady of the United States, replaced the Ray Bans, slipped the strap of her handbag onto her shoulder, and stood up. The Secret Service agents at the next table came hastily to their feet. They were joined by three others, who’d been standing post along the iron railing, out of sight.
As a group they closed ranks around the First Lady and escorted her from the terrace of the restaurant to a waiting limousine.
“A political thriller driven by a fast-moving plot spiced with surprises at exactly the right moments.” —San Jose Mercury News
“Get your page-turning finger ready for Sandra Brown’s latest .” —New Woman Magazine