The Witch of Watergate
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THE PUNGENT AROMA of the awakening spring earth and the manure of the hundred-odd horse entries of the Middleburg Hunt Races wafted over the soft greening field. Spaces allocated to patrons of the races were filled with elaborately decorated tables, some with candelabra, crystal and silver tureens, colorful flower arrangements, linen tablecloths and exotic food concoctions.
Some were tented and served by waiters in black tie and the air was often punctuated by the sounds of champagne bottles popping. Others were merely sumptuous tailgate parties complete with full bar and more rustic food placed elegantly on checkered tablecloths.
As always, Fiona FitzGerald noted, there was less interest in the races and more in the imbibing and socializing. Chappy Chapin’s bash was a case in point. There he was, ex-Ambassador to Switzerland, now a bachelor man-about-town, holding forth alongside his yellow and black antique Rolls complete with a horn that trilled “Pop Goes the Weasel” on command. As a long-standing patron of the races he had a choice up-front location.
Chappy, although he did not ride, looked the part of the gentleman horseman. His tall frame was ramrod straight and his clipped moustache on a pink complexion gave him an outdoorsy look that belied his sedentary life. His relaxed hosting of this little group of ten bespoke a practiced social elegance. He wore a plaid deerstalker cap and matching cape, which, on him, looked perfectly normal.
Chappy always had a good group to the hunt races, and he was usually a patron of most of them in the Washington area. His menu was invariable, made with his own hands in his lovely house in Georgetown: spicy fried chicken, delicious syrupy baked beans and bacon, his own secret formula, and lush chocolate brownies. And, of course, pitchers of Bloody Marys, champagne and whatever else alcoholic his guests might desire.
“What race is this?” Harvey Halloran asked, turning casually toward the field, where a number of horses were steeplechasing around the track. Few of Chappy’s guests paid any attention to the races, except to place an occassional bet with the various gentlemen bookies that collected slips near the official tent. Halloran was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. The other guests included a Congressman and his wife, a State Department Assistant Secretary and his girlfriend, the Peruvian Ambassador and his wife and a stockbroker and his male live-in lover. To Fiona, they were familiar Washington types, par for the course.
An invitation to one of Chappy’s tailgating racing parties was a hot ticket and Fiona was often invited as Chappy’s date when he didn’t have a steady on his arm and she wasn’t toiling in the Eggplant’s homicide vineyard.
Today she was here out of her own sheer therapeutic necessity. Things downtown were depressing. Drug gang wars and the accelerating introduction of automatic weapons had considerably raised the homicide body count, putting unbearable pressure on the entire department. A hurricane of death was sweeping through Washington and homicide was in its vortex.
The Mayor and his appointed Police Commissioner were being harassed by the media, especially the Washington Post, which had dubbed Washington the “murder capital of the U.S.A.,” and the Chief of Homicide, Captain Luther Greene, called the “Eggplant” by his underlings, was taking flak from all sides. Eggplant was, of course, a term of affectionate derision, its origins murky, but its tradition tenacious.
Because of the pressure, Capt. Greene had become even more irritable and subject to tantrums as he pushed the squad to find the perpetrators. He also worried incessantly about the dangers that this new and bloodier environment posed to the squad.
So far no one on the squad had been hurt, although cops in other departments had been killed. Ironically, the Eggplant had become an object of pity and, although it would seem less than macho to mention it, Fiona knew that his troops were deeply worried about him.
The fact was that everyone in Homicide was edgy and nervous and naturally disgruntled by the longer hours and often futile searches for trigger-happy, ruthless drug gang members, many of whom were juveniles. It simply meant that everyone had more on their plates than they could possibly handle.
Thus, Chappy’s invitation on one of her rare days off came as a godsend and she was enjoying it immensely. Theirs was a kind of old-shoe, nonsexual, but very intimate relationship. He was a widower, a friend of her late father the Senator, and had a reputation as a womanizer.
Fiona, as Chappy’s date, played the hostess role at this outing, helping him load up and clean up, as well as making sure the guests were properly fed and watered. Most of the other race patrons and their guests were also less interested in the races than in socializing and groups of people strolled by in a roundelay of cheery hellos and double-cheeker kisses.
There was a cachet, of course, in getting Washington’s version of a celebrity to be a patron’s guest and, scanning the crowd, Fiona saw any number of Senators, Cabinet Members, high-profile journalists, Congressmen, Ambassadors and important Administration types. It was, as everyone who attended knew, a place to show off, aside from horsemanship, the colors of power and prestige.
“The weather is glorious,” the wife of the Congressman said.
“Nothing like a delicious Washington spring,” Fiona commented. It was true. The air was pristine and refreshing, the odor rich with awakening fecundity, the sky a seamless royal blue.
A roar went up from the crowd as the horses passed close to the rail and headed over the flat to the finish line.
“Who won?” the Peruvian Ambassador asked.
“Who cares?” Chappy said, laughing as he poured champagne into proffered flute glasses.
“Don’t you love all this decadence?” Halloran, the lobbyist, said.
“Makes you want to throw off your clothes and ride naked over the field in glorious abandonment,” the stockbroker’s lover said.
“Interesting image.” Chappy said with a laugh, raising his eyebrows.
There was an air of good feeling here, helped along by both the alcohol and the weather. It was, therefore, surprising to Fiona to see Chappy’s face suddenly become gloomy. He was staring toward one of the more elaborate spaces about thirty feet away, guests crowding around a long table groaning with food and covered with a lace tablecloth on which, at either end, stood two silver candelabra.
“I can never look at that cunt without my stomach doing flip-flops,” Chappy said.
She recognized the object of his anger. Polly Dearborn, who did those long bitchy pieces in the Post that laid bare enough deep and dark secrets to impale whoever it was she chose to assassinate. In a city where image often surpassed substance, Polly Dearborn could eviscerate the vulnerable or, at the least, make the invulnerable appear impotent.
Everyone knew that the Post editors and management treated her with kid gloves and it was rumored that she had enough on the editor and owner to neutralize any efforts, short of libel, to stop her stiletto stories. But the fact was that her work was enormously popular, a real circulation booster. Washington newspaper readers loved to see blood as long as it wasn’t their own.
“It was a long time ago, Chappy,” Fiona said.
“Not to me.”
Chappy had allowed Polly Dearborn to interview him and she had effectively ruined his diplomatic career, suggesting that he made profitable investments in Switzerland while he was Ambassador, based on information that was accessible to him only because of his position. The accusation was oblique and subtle enough to escape a libel action. But it was coupled with the revelations of his so-called womanizing, told in such a humorous way, with just enough sarcasm to subject him to ridicule, that he was never able to recover the image that he had carefully projected as a man of integrity and sterling character. He was never again offered a diplomatic post. Or, for that matter, any other government job.
Polly Dearborn was tall, mid-fortyish, with a slender neck that was far too long and gave her face a horsey look. Her hair was cut short, bobbed close to the head. She was dressed in a tweed suit with a single discreet strand of pearls around her neck. Her shoes were low-heeled and sensible. All in all she was properly attired for the occasion, exuding a kind of arrogant, country aristocratic look, quite appropriate to her role as a fawned-over, but ever-feared darling of the Washington elite.
She was surrounded by “powerful” figures, some of whom were recognizable to Fiona. Chester Downey, the Secretary of Defense for one, and the Senate whip, Allen Farr. She had her arm under Downey’s and they were laughing uproariously over something said between them.
“Watch them all play kissy assy,” Chappy said. “As if that would make a difference if she ever chose to drag any of them over the coals. Listen carefully and you can hear the ice cubes in her blood rattle.”
“She does pile up the body count,” Fiona sighed. “Amazing she has the guts to appear in public.”
“And without bodyguards.”
Of course, Fiona read every word of Polly Dearborn’s bitchy stories. She, too, was not above vicarious thrills, although she was deeply sympathetic to Chappy, whose attempt to have the record corrected had met with little success.
Actually, there was a core of truth in the accusation. Chappy had made some clever investments in Switzerland, but, he assured everyone, they were not made on any basis other than his instincts and good business sense. She believed Chappy. Besides, he was already rich when he took the Ambassador’s job.
“I’d like to personally add one more to the massacre,” Chappy muttered. “Her.”
“That would create a business relationship between us,” Fiona joked.
“In my mind it’s a serial crime with a single victim. You’d be surprised how creative my imagination has been in stringing out the pain, killing her over and over again. And in my heart there is never remorse.”
“Shop talk again. And I’ve come here to get away from it all,” Fiona bantered. “Frankly, I’d like to keep our relationship on the pleasure side.”
“So would I,” Chappy said, the gloom beginning to fade. He turned away from contemplating Polly Dearborn and moved toward Fiona, kissing her lightly on the lips.
“How long must I be kept at bay?” he whispered.
“I’ll say this for your tenacity, Chappy. It’s world-class.” It was the way in which she fended him off, little jokes and sarcasms.
Over the years, it had become a game between them, a verbal joust. He never crossed the bounds of propriety. Nor did she ever let down her guard. Not that such a possibility was distasteful. He was not unattractive and he was certainly well preserved and, by all accounts, quite virile.
What she feared most was a change in their relationship. After a period of sexual intimacy, he always severed relationships irrevocably with his girlfriends, as if he feared commitment more than anything. They had discussed this together often, analyzing it quite seriously, even touching on the idea that he was either still committed to his dead wife or guilt-ridden about his continuing to live on after she was gone. These discussions, however, did not stop him from his verbal pursuit.
But their little exchange did not completely shift his attention from Polly Dearborn. Before coming back to his guests, he glanced at her once again. He seemed to mumble a curse word under his breath.
“Sticks and stones,” Fiona said, grabbing him forcefully under the arm, pulling him toward the group huddled around the back of the Rolls.
“That would be a delight,” Chappy muttered, managing a smile and letting her lead him to his guests.
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