Margaret Truman, herself the bearer of one of the world's most famous names, knows Washington's ins and outs, including who is "in" and who is "out." In this absorbing, timely Capital Crimes mystery, she shows us around this fascinating city that is America's center of power and--some would say--corruption. Some of those who are "out" here are very dead indeed.
The glittering cast of characters includes Vice President Joe Aprile, who plans to become president, if he can avoid a tempting vice; a glamorous Washington hostess and fund-raiser, Elfie Dorrance, with a propensity for marrying rich and powerful men and then grieving prettily at the end--their end; and Chris Hedras, a special assistant to the vice president, with some very special ambitions. And, of course, Annabel Smith, gallery owner, and Mac Smith, law school professor. The story deals in part with the influence on political campaigns of "soft money" and its hard consequences, as well as this country's tortuous and often ambiguous relationship with Mexico, in particular the glorious San Miguel de Allende, home of the well-to-do, and a few ill-to-do, a place involving drugs, politics, and police and politicians looking the other way.
Once again Margaret Truman offers a delight to the reader who likes a fast-turning page, the pleasure of inside information, the allure of high life crossing paths with lowlife, and the return of the attractive crime-solving couple Mac and Annabel
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The South Building—the Watergate
“… and so Annabel and I decided it was time to make the move, although not, naturally, without months of debate.”
Mackensie Smith, tenured professor of law at George Washington University, stood on the terrace of the three-bedroom co-op apartment he and his wife, Annabel, had recently purchased at the prestigious albeit infamous Watergate complex.
The terrace afforded a magnificent view of the Potomac River, ripples of water like crinkled aluminum foil, whipped up that evening by a brisk breeze. A few boats, manned by diehards refusing to acknowledge that summer was effectively over, added their V-shaped wakes to the scene as they headed downriver, the spires of Georgetown University behind them as their Gothic scrim.
“I know what really tipped the balance,” said a guest at Mac and Annabel’s housewarming party.
“What’s that?” Mac really didn’t want to hear but played the conversational game with his colleague from the law school, whose penchant for putting a negative spin on everything was as entrenched as his love of cognac and cigars. The latter vice had kept him out on the terrace for most of the party.
“You sold your house over on Twenty-fifth Street before your employer—our employer—could gobble it up.”
The university had made a recent and, some said, aggressive move to buy up as much of surrounding Foggy Bottom as possible to accommodate its growing student population. GW was already the second largest landowner in Washington, trailing only the federal government, and its land-grabbing frenzy, as its detractors saw it, had dramatically begun to change the look and character of Foggy Bottom, home to the Kennedy Center, the State Department, the university, and the venerable Watergate complex.
“The Watergate is the last bastion of escape,” Mac’s colleague added. “Pretty soon they’ll dig a moat around it and raise the drawbridges.”
Mac grunted. He was not about to debate the issue. The fact was that he and Annabel had decided to sell their neat little row house on Twenty-fifth Street a year before GW launched its expansion project. And he hadn’t exaggerated about months of debate before making the decision.
Why had they decided to give up the house for an apartment at the Watergate? Primarily, it had to do with wanting to get out from under the demands the house made on them. There was always something to be repaired, torn down, shored up, added to, or painted, and they simply did not have the time to keep pace with it. Mac had become increasingly busy. Not only did he have his classes to teach, he’d accepted an invitation by his good friend Joseph Aprile, vice president of the United States, to join a special commission to study relations between the United States and its important southern neighbor, Mexico. When Mac signed on to the commission, the position was presented as involving minimal time and work.
But it had turned out to be more than that, like being on everyone’s mailing list once you’ve made a purchase from a catalog. In Washington, one commission invariably led to another, and so he’d ended up also as part of a group of American citizens and quasi-government officials who would be traveling to Mexico to join delegations from other countries to monitor the nation’s upcoming elections, hosted by Mexico’s Civic Alliance, and sponsored by the United Nations and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. Fortunately, Mac’s dean at the law school saw the public relations value of having one of his esteemed professors engage in such important, visible acts of public service, and assured him he needn’t worry about missing as many classes as necessary. “You make us all proud,” said the dean, ever the sycophant.
Mac’s schedule wasn’t the only crowded one. Annabel’s Georgetown gallery, which featured pre-Columbian art, had recently expanded into an adjacent empty store, and she’d been traveling more than usual, seeking new pieces for the added space.
“Isn’t the view wonderful?” Annabel said, joining them on the terrace. The setting autumn sun caught her auburn hair, spinning it into a burnished copper work of art.
“Nice view,” their guest said, “although I wouldn’t have bought an apartment in the south building. Yes, I know, you paid a premium for the view of the river. And don’t misunderstand. I appreciate a pretty sunset as much as the next guy. But you’ll never be able to use this terrace in the afternoon in the summer, not with the sun setting on this side.”
A jet on its final approach to National Airport came screaming up the river, the whine of its powerful engines rendering conversation difficult.
“That, too,” said their nihilistic friend. “I would have bought something over on the east side. They say the apartments in the east building are bigger.”
Mac and Annabel glanced at each other.
“I imagine the parking space downstairs set you back a pretty penny.”
“It came with the apartment,” Mac said.
“Lucky you. How much did it boost the price?”
None of your business, Mac thought. I’d like to boost you over the side. The parking space in the underground garage, the previous owner’s property and included in the purchase price, had increased what they’d paid for the apartment by forty-five thousand dollars.
“I think Elfie is about to leave,” Annabel said to Mac. “Come say good-bye.”
They stepped through the open French doors into the spacious, and more positively charged, living room and went to where three people were in animated conversation.
“Mac, darling, I was afraid you’d fallen off the terrace,” Elfie Dorrance said, placing long, delicate, bejeweled fingers on his arm.
“Not ready to take the leap yet,” Mac said. “But I was thinking of doing a little pushing.”
“Elfie was just telling us about the fund-raiser tonight for Joe Aprile.” Herman Winkler was a career State Department employee in the Latin American division.
“Convenient for you two,” Winkler’s wife, Helen, said to the Smiths, “being so close to Joe Aprile’s campaign headquarters.”
“And close to Bernie, our dentist,” Mac said. “Never have to worry about a midnight toothache.”
“To say nothing of the hotel.” Annabel smiled. “They’ll send us room service any time we want it.”
“Did they cater this little gathering?” Elfie asked.
“No,” Mac said. “We catered it.”
“You ought to go into the business.”
Elfie Dorrance was sixty-four years old, a tall, physically fit woman with a perpetual tan whose ranking on Washington social and power lists never strayed far from the top. Married four times, three of the four to wealthy, politically consequential men, she often seemed to dominate the District’s social scene, spearheading charity events for the opera, the symphony, the National Theater, a home for battered women, the Washington Canoe Club, and the tony St. Albans School, which was part of the National Cathedral. But perhaps most intriguing was her magnetic fund-raising for politicians with whom she chose to align herself, most recently Joseph Aprile, whose chances to garner the next Democratic presidential nomination were considered secure, or as secure as anything can be in politics.
Elfie’s lifestyle reflected her money and position. Her Georgetown home, adjacent to the lovely grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, was the scene of some of the city’s most lavish parties. Her approach to entertaining ran contrary to that of Washington’s former hostess-with-the-mostest, Pamela Harriman, now deceased. Harriman believed that every social event should be driven by a “serious agenda.” Elfie was more in tune with Sally Quinn’s advice: “If you don’t care about having fun, then have a meeting.” Extravagant parties were also routinely held at her other homes, one in London, the other in San Miguel de Allende, nestled in the mountains of old, colonial Mexico.
Elfie Dorrance was many things, including an inveterate flirt.
“If I were to fall off the Washington Monument, Elfie Dorrance would be after you in a second,” Annabel said to Mac on more than one occasion.
“She is interesting” was his usual reply.
“Beautiful and rich and cunning,” Annabel said. “But I suspect she’ll be married again before I ever take that fall, so I really don’t worry about losing you.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
What Mac didn’t say was that Dorrance’s beauty, and charm, and money, and access to places and people unavailable to mere mortals, gave her the sort of allurement with which lesser females simply couldn’t compete.
“Must run, God’s work awaits me,” Elfie said, laughing. “The catering staff at the hotel is top-notch, but you still have to oversee every detail. At least I do.”
“Which is why your affairs—events—always come off without a hitch,” Annabel said, wishing she hadn’t used the original term. Elfie’s wide smile, exposing as fine a set of teeth as one was likely to see in Washington, said she’d picked up on Annabel’s inadvertent indiscretion.
“I love the fact you’re living here,” she said. “Having a Watergate address simply suits the two of you. The apartment is lovely. Your decorator did a superb job.”
“You’re looking at the decorator,” Mac said, indicating Annabel. Their only help had been suggestions from friend and art connoisseur Bill Wooby, of the Washington Design Center.
“Wonderful to see you, Elfie,” Mac said. “Thanks for gracing our little housewarming.”
“And I’ll be seeing you in a few hours at the hotel. I thank you in advance for gracing my little drumbeater for the next president of the United States.”
Annabel walked Elfie to the elevator. When she returned, she went directly to the kitchen to answer the ringing phone.
“Annabel. It’s Carole.”
“Hi. How are you?”
“Fine. How’s the party going?”
“Good. About to break up. Elfie Dorrance just left. All set for the big evening?”
The wife of the vice president, Carole Aprile, said she could do without it. “Fund-raisers always set me on edge. Not a good thing for a politician’s wife to admit.”
Annabel laughed. She and Carole Aprile had been college roommates, and had kept in touch through the years. Becoming the second lady of the land had cut seriously into the time the two friends could spend together in Washington, but they kept in frequent touch by phone, and enjoyed what opportunities they could to see each other.
“I’m dying for you to see the apartment, Carole. We’re still adjusting to posthouse life, but it’s shaping up nicely. The one having the biggest problem is Rufus.”
Now, a giggle from Carole. “And how is your Great Blue Dane, the world’s biggest dog?”
“Still sniffng out his new surroundings. At least he hasn’t decided yet to stake out his territory with a lift of the leg. It’s actually harder on Mac. We used to just let him out into that postage-stamp backyard we had on Twenty-fifth Street. Now—”
“No, Carole, Rufus.” Both women giggled. “Mac walked him sometimes but that backyard was a godsend. Now he has to be walked all the time. But Mac puts a positive spin on it, says it gets him out a little more.”
“I won’t keep you, Annabel. Love to Mac. See you tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”