Porter Smalls looked across the front seat at the driver. The summer foliage was dark around the Cadillac Escalade as they rolled up the dirt lane. The south branch of the Potomac River snaked along below them; the windows were down and the muddy/fishy odor of the river filled the car.
“A bit – in a good way,” Cecily Whitehead said.
Whitehead had taken a cold shower in the cabin’s well-water shortly before they left, and dabbed on a touch of Chanel No. 5 as she dressed. The combined odor of the two scents was more than pleasant, it was positively erotic.
“I’ll drive if you want,” Smalls offered. He was a small man, like his name, thin and fit, looked like he might have spent time on a mountain bike. He had white hair that curled down over the collar of his golf shirt, too-white veneered teeth, and rimless made-for-television glasses over pale blue eyes.
“No, I’m fine,” Whitehead said. She buckled her seatbelt over her shimmery slip-dress, that in earlier days might have gotten her arrested if she’d worn it out of her bedroom. “You finished the wine – if we got stopped for some reason...”
“Right,” Smalls said.
He kicked the seat back another couple of inches, crossed his hands across his stomach and closed his eyes.
Above them, in the trees, a man had been watching with binoculars. When the silver SUV rolled down the driveway, past the mailbox, and made the left turn onto the dirt lane, he lifted a walkie-talkie to his face and said, “I’ll be home for dinner.”
A walkie-talkie, because if nobody within three miles was on exactly the same channel at exactly the right time, there’d be no trace of the call; nothing for even the NSA to latch onto. Nor would there be any trace of the five rapid clicks he got back, acknowledging the message.
He was on foot, with his pick-up spot a half-mile away. He’d walked in on a game trail and he walked out the same way, moving slowly, stopping every hundred feet to watch and listen. He’d never sat down while on watch, but had remained standing next to the gnarly gray bark of an aging ash: there’d be no observation post for anyone to find, no discarded cigarette butts or candy wrappers with DNA on them. He’d worn smooth-soled boots: no treads marks in the soft earth.
He was a professional.
U.S. Senator Porter Smalls owned a cabin in the hills of West Virginia, two and a half hours from Washington, D.C. – close enough to be an easy drive, far enough to obscure activities that might need to be obscured.
He and Whitehead, one of his wife’s best friends – his wife was back in Minnesota – had locked up the place and headed back to DC as the sun wedged itself below the horizon on a hot Sunday afternoon. The timing was deliberate: they would enjoy the cover of darkness when she dropped him off at his Watergate condo.
Smalls and Whitehead had spent an invigorating two days talking about political philosophy, history, horses, money, life and mutual friends, while they worked their way through Smalls’ battered ‘80s paperback copy of
The Joy of Sex.
Smalls was married, Whitehead not, but she drove the car because of a kind of Washington logic concerning sex and alcohol. A little light adultery, while not considered a necessarily positive thing in Washington, was certainly not to be compared as a criminal offense with a DWI. Banging an adult male or live woman might –
maybe – get you a paragraph on a
Washington Post blog. God help you if Mothers Against Drunk Driving jumped your elective ass.
So Whitehead drove.
A fifty-year-old political junkie and Republican Party money-woman, Whitehead was thin and tanned and freckled, with short dark hair so expertly colored you couldn’t tell that it had been – the occasional strands of gray gave it a sly verisimilitude. She had a square chin and looked a bit like Amelia Earhart. Like Earhart, she flew her own plane, in Whitehead’s case, a twin engine Beechcraft King Air. She owned a mansion on one of Minneapolis’ lakes, and a two-thousand acre farm south of the Twin Cities, on which she raised Tennessee Walkers.
Smalls’ wife didn’t know for sure that Whitehead was sleeping with her husband, and the topic had never come up. For the past four years, Smalls’ wife had been living with her Lithuanian lover in a loft in downtown Minneapolis, a topic that had come up between them any number of times.
Lithuanians were known as the sexual athletes of Northern Europe. Smalls was aware of that fact, but no longer cared what his wife did, as long as she didn’t do it in the streets. Actually, he hoped she was happy, because he was still fond of the mother of his children. He made a mental note to take her to dinner the next time he was in the Twin Cities.
“Be there by ten,” Whitehead said.
“I’ve got that dimwit Clancy at noon,” Smalls said, not opening his eyes.
“Dim, but persistent,” Whitehead said. “He told Perez that if Medtronic gets the VA deal, that Abbott will have to cut jobs in his district. Perez believes him. It might even be true.”
“Tough shit,” Smalls said. “If Abbott gets it, Medtronic might have to cut people. That ain’t gonna happen. Not when Porter Smalls knows that our beloved majority leader has that backdoor job at Rio Javelena.”
“If you ever mention that to him, he’ll find some way to stick something sharp and nasty up your rectum.”
Smalls smiled: “Why, Ceecee... you don’t think I’d ever actually
mention it to him, do you?”
Whitehead squeezed his knee. “I hope to hell not. No, I don’t think you’d do that. How are you gonna let him know that you know?”
“Kitten will think of something,” Smalls said.
Whitehead smiled into the growing darkness, their headlights ricocheting through the roadside trees. Kitten Carter, Smalls’ chief of staff,
would think of something. She and Whitehead talked a couple of times a week, plotting together the greater glory of the U.S.A. in general and Porter Smalls in particular.
Whitehead was a lifelong yoga enthusiast and show horse competitor. She had a strong body, strong legs and arms, and for a woman, large strong hands. She wheeled the Escalade up the track faster than most people might have, staining the evening air with dust and gravel. She’d spent much of her life on farms, shoveling horse shit with the best of them, driving trucks and tractors, and knew what she was doing, keeping the twenty-two inch wheels solidly in the twin tracks.
A half-mile down the river, the track crossed a state-maintained gravel road, and with a bare glance to her left, she hooked the truck to the right and leaned on the gas pedal.
A few minutes later, they topped a hill, and in the distance, Whitehead could see a string of lights on a highway that would take them to the Interstate that would take them into Washington. The river still unwound below them, below a long slope, the last fifty feet sharpening into a bluff.
A minute later, Whitehead said, “What an asshole. This jerk is all over me.”
“What?” Smalls had almost dozed off. Now he pushed himself up, aware that the truck’s cabin was flooded with light. He turned in his seat. A pickup – he thought it was a pickup, given the height of the headlights – wasn’t more than fifteen or twenty feet behind them, as they rolled along the gravel at fifty miles an hour.
He said, “I don’t like this.”
At the crest of the hill, the truck swung out into the left lane and accelerated and Smalls said, “Hey, hey!”
Whitehead floored the gas pedal, but too late.
Too late. The truck swung into them, smashed the side of the Escalade, which went off the road, through roadside brush and trees, across a ditch and down the precipitous hillside. Instead of trying to pull the truck back up the hillside, which would have caused it to roll sideways, Whitehead turned downhill, for a second, then said, her voice sharp, “Hold on, Porter, I’m gonna try to hit a tree. Keep your arms up in case the airbag blows...”
Smalls lifted his arms and the car bounced and bucked across the hill, heading sharply down toward the bluff below as Whitehead pumped the brakes. He didn’t actually think it, but Smalls knew in his gut that they only had a few seconds to live.
They hit a line of saplings, plowed through them, hit a tree that must have been six inches in diameter, breaking it cleanly off. The impact caused the truck to skew sideways while plowing forward and now Smalls felt Whitehead hit the accelerator and the engine screamed as the oversized tires tried to dig into the hillside and he realized that she was
barking with each impact: “
Ay, ay, ay, ay...”
They were still angling downhill, but less steeply now. They hit another small tree, and the vehicle snapped around and hit a bigger tree. The airbag exploded and hit Smalls in the face and he was aware that the truck was beginning to tilt downhill, toward the bluff, and the driver’s side window suddenly blew in. They’d almost stopped, not thirty feet from the edge of the bluff, but were not quite settled, and the car blundered another few lengths backward and smashed into a final tree, which pushed up the passenger side of the truck. The Escalade slowly, majestically, rolled over on its roof and came to a stop.
Smalls, hanging upside down in his safety belt, was half-blinded with blood rolling down into his eyes, felt no pain, not yet, and cried, “I smell gas. We gotta get out of here. Get out! Get out!”
He looked sideways at Whitehead, who was hanging upside down from her safety belt. The overhead light had come on when the door came loose. Her eyes were open, but blank, and blood was running from one ear into her hair.
He called “Ceecee, Ceecee,” but got no response. Blood was still pouring down his face and into his eyes as he freed his safety belt and dropped onto the inside of the roof. He unlocked the door and pushed it open a few inches, where it stuck on a sapling. He kicked the door a half dozen times until it opened far enough that he could squeeze out.
As soon as he was free, he wiped the blood from his eyes, realized that it had been coming from his nose, since he was hanging upside down. As he cleared his eyes, he stumbled around to the back of the truck, popped the lid, found his canvas overnight bag and took out the chrome .357 magnum he kept there. He tucked the gun in his belt and looked uphill: no sign of anyone. No headlights, no brake lights, nothing but the gathering dusk, the knee-high weeds and the broken trees, the natural silence pierced by the numerous warning and alarm beeps and buzzes from the Cadillac.
He hurried to the driver’s side of the truck, wedged the door open as far as he could, unhooked Whitehead’s safety belt and let her drop into his arms. He had to struggle to get her out of the truck, but the odor of gas gave him the strength of desperation. When she was out, he picked her up and carried her fifty feet across the hillside, then lowered her into the weeds, knelt beside her and listened for a moment. The scent of her, the Chanel No. 5 and well water, now mixed with the coppery/meaty odor of fresh blood.
He heard and saw nothing: nobody on the hillside. The truck that hit them had vanished.
He whispered, “Ceecee. Ceecee, can you hear me?”
One headlight was still glowing from the SUV and he dug out his cellphone and called the local sheriff’s department – he had them on his contact list. He identified himself, told the dispatcher what had happened and that the incident might well have been a deliberate attack.
The dispatcher said deputies would be there in five minutes. “Be sure the emergency flashers are on,” Smalls told the dispatcher. “I’m not coming out of the weeds until I’m sure I’m talking to the right guys. We’ll need an ambulance; my friend’s hurt bad.”
When he got off the phone, he cradled Whitehead on his lap. The ambulance, he thought, wouldn’t be in time: it was, in fact, already too late for Cecily Whitehead.
The cops came and an ambulance, and when Smalls was sure of who he was dealing with, he called to them from the hiding place in the weeds. They told him what he already knew: Whitehead was dead, had sustained a killing blow to the left side of her head, probably when a tree branch came through the driver’s side window.
Smalls retrieved his government paper from the Cadillac as the cops and the EMTs took Whitehead up the hill in a black plastic body bag. Whitehead was put in the ambulance, but Smalls said he didn’t need one: “A bloody nose, nothing worse. Give me something to wash my face.”
The lead deputy asked who’d been driving and Smalls said, “Ceecee was.”
“We need to give you a quick Breathalyzer anyway,” the deputy said.
“Yes, fine,” Smalls said. “I had a glass of wine before we left my cabin, Ceecee didn’t have anything at all.”
The test took two minutes. Smalls blew a 0.02, well below the drunk-driving limit of 0.08, although Smalls was an older man and older men were hit harder by alcohol than younger men.
“Be sure that’s all recorded,” Smalls told the cop. “I want this nailed down.”
“Don’t need to worry,” the deputy said. “We’ll get it right for you, senator. Now... did you see the truck?”
Smalls shook his head: “He had his high beams on and they were burning right through the back window of my Caddy. It was like getting caught in a searchlight. I couldn’t see anything... and then he hit us.”
The deputy looked down the hill: “She did a heck of a piece of driving. Another twenty, thirty feet and you’d have gone over the edge and hit that gravel bar like you’d jumped out of a five-story building. Makes me kind of nervous even standing here.”
The ambulance left for the Winchester Medical Center, Smalls following in a state police car. Whitehead’s death was confirmed and Smalls was treated for the impact on his nose. It had continued to bleed, but a doc used what he called a “chemical cautery” on it, which stopped the bleeding immediately, and gave him some pain pills. Smalls said, “I don’t need the pills.”
“Not yet,” the doc said. “You will.”
When he was released, the deputies took him aside for an extended statement, and told him that the Cadillac would be left where it had landed until a state accident investigator could get to the scene.
When he was done with the interview, Smalls called Kitten Carter, his chief of staff, and arranged to have her drive to the hospital and pick him up. She said she would notify Whitehead’s mother and father of her death.
And when there was nothing left to do, Smalls asked to be taken to the hospital’s chapel. The police left him there, and Smalls, a lifelong Episcopalian, knelt and prayed for Cecily Whitehead’s soul. Less charitably, he had a word with the Lord about finding the people who’d murdered her. Then he cried for a while, and finally pulled himself together and began thinking seriously about the accident.
That had been no accident.
It had been an assassination attempt and he thought he knew who was behind it. Justice, if not a court judgment, would come.
He said it aloud, to Whitehead: “I swear Ceecee, I will get them. I’ll get every one of the motherfuckers.”
Whitehead hadn’t been particularly delicate, nor particularly forgiving: if she were already experiencing the afterlife, he had no doubt that she would be looking forward to any revenge, and the colder, the better.
Kitten Carter arrived at the hospital. She’d been on her cell phone for three hours by the time she got there. The first news of the accident would be leaked to reporters who owed her favors and who would put the most sympathetic interpretation to the night’s events.
“... good friends and political allies who’d gone to the cabin to plot strategy for the summer clashes over the health-care proposals...”
The local deputies turned the crash investigation over to the West Virginia State Police. The second day after the accident, an investigator interviewed Smalls, in his senate office, with Carter sitting in. Smalls, with two black eyes and a broad white bandage over his nose, and dressed in a blue-striped seersucker suit with a navy blue knit tie, immediately understood that something was wrong.
The investigator’s name was Carl Armstrong and when he’d finished with his questions, Smalls said, “Don’t bullshit me, Carl. Something’s not right. You think I’m lying about something. What is it?”
The investigator had been taking notes on a white legal pad inside a leather portfolio. He sighed, closed the portfolio and said, “Our lab has been over your vehicle inch-by-inch, sir. There’s no sign that it was ever hit by another truck.”
Carter was sitting in a wingback chair, illegally smoking a small brown cigarillo. She looked at Smalls, then frowned at Armstrong and said, “That’s wrong. The other guys took them right off the road – smashed them off. What do you mean there’s no sign?”
Smalls jumped in: “That’s exactly right. The impact caved the door in... there’s gotta be some sign of that. I mean, I was in a fairly bad accident once, years ago, and both vehicles had extensive damage. This one was worse. The hit was worse. What do you mean, no sign?”
“No metal scrapes, no paint, no glancing blow. The only thing we’ve found are signs that you hit several trees on both sides of the truck and the front grill and hood,” Armstrong said.
“Then you’re not looking hard enough,” Smalls snapped. “That guy crashed right into us and killed Ceecee and damn near killed me.”
Armstrong looked away and shrugged. “Uh, well, I wonder if he actually hit you, or maybe just caused Miz Whitehead to lose control?”
“She hadn’t been drinking...”
Armstrong held up a hand: “We know that. She had zero alcohol in her blood and we know she was driving because the blood on the driver’s side of the cab and on the airbag matches hers. We don’t doubt anything you’ve told us, except the impact itself.”
Carter: “Senator Smalls has provided a written statement in which he relates the force of the impact.”
“There’s a low gravel berm where they went over the side, we’re wondering if Miz Whitehead might have hit that hard and the senator might be mistaking that for the impact of the truck.”
Smalls was already shaking his head: “No. I heard the truck hit. I saw it hit – I was looking out the driver’s side window when it hit.”
“There’s no paint from another car, no metal, no glass on the road... no nothing,” Armstrong repeated.
Carter said to Smalls, “Senator, maybe we need to get some FBI crime-scene people up there...”
Smalls put a finger on his lips, to shut her up. He stood and said, “Carl, I’m going to ask another guy to talk to you about the evidence, if you don’t mind. Kitten and I don’t know about such things, but I think it’d be a good idea if we put a second pair of eyes on this whole deal.”
Armstrong had dealt with politicians a number of times and Smalls seemed to him to be one of the more reasonable members of the species. No shouting, no accusations. He flushed with relief, and said, “Senator... anything we can do, we’ll be happy to do. We’d like to understand exactly what happened here. Send your guy around anytime. We’ll probably give him more cooperation than he’ll even want.”
“That’s great,” Smalls said, extending a hand. “I’ll drop a note to your Superintendent, thanking him for your work.”
“Appeciate that,” Armstrong said, as they shook. “I really do, sir.”
When Armstrong had gone, Carter asked, “Why were you pouring butter on him? He didn’t believe you. I mean, Jesus. Somebody killed Ceecee and almost killed you. If you let this stand, the whole thing is gonna get buried...”
“No, no, no...” Smalls was on his feet. He touched his nose, picked up the tube of pain pills, shook it like a maraca, put it back down; not many left, and he’d already taken one that morning. His nose was still burning like fire from the chemical cautery. The doc had been right about the pain pills, not for the mechanical damage, but for the cauterized tissue. He wandered over to his trophy wall, filled with plaques and keys to Minnesota cities and photos of himself with presidents, governors, other senators, assorted rich people, including Whitehead, and politically conservative movie stars.
Thinking about it.
Carter kept her mouth shut and after a moment, Smalls, playing with an earlobe and gazing at his pictures, said, “I’m surprised by... what Armstrong said. No evidence. But I’m not exactly astonished. Remember when I told you the first thing I did was get my gun, because I thought the guys who hit us might be paid killers? Assassins? Professionals?”
“Yeah, but I don’t...”
“I was right. They were,” Smalls said. “I don’t know how exactly they did this, but I’m sure that if the right investigator looked under the right rock, he could find someone who could explain it. We need to get that done, because...”
“They could be coming back for another shot at you,” Carter finished.
“Yeah. Probably not right away, but sooner or later.” Smalls left the trophy wall, walked to his oversized desk, pushed a button on an intercom. “Sally... get Lucas Davenport on the line. His number’s on your contact list.”
“That’s the guy...” Carter began.
“Yeah,” Smalls said. “That’s the guy.”