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Washington smells good in springtime. The air is fresh and pure. The sweet scent of cherry blossoms is carried by gentle breezes from the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, lifting spirits and promising renewal. Until . . .
Until spring fades to summer, turning the nation's capital into a domed stadium that traps the heat and humidityas well as the stench of whatever political scandal might linger from the winterand releasing foul vapors from the swamp on which the city is built, stinging the nostrils and eyes and erasing memories of springtime.
This was one of those summer nights in Washington, D.C.
The greenish, putrid outside air could be seen through the windows of the Mayflower Hotel's Colonial Room, where in air-conditioned comfort Illinois senior senator Lyle Simmons was winding up. Simmons was a speechwriter's dream: He was comfortable using the humorous asides sprinkled throughout his prepared text, delivering them as though they were impromptu. He had Johnny Carson's body language down to a T, and had mastered some of Jack Benny's timing. Add to those techniques the widest, most engaging smile in the U.S. Senate, which he displayed with ruthless precision; his imposing height (two inches over six feet); a rich baritone voice; a full head of gray hair made less so with judicious use of darkening highlights; and a bespoke wardrobe, mostly from London, that draped nicely over his lean frame; and you had a potent package. His detractors and off-the-record colleagues felt that he talked too much, giving the impression that he was more comfortable speaking than listeningon-the-record journalists had occasionally used such terms as motormouth and blowhardbut most members of the press were kind: He worked hard at cultivating media approval, and reporters knew that for the most part, they would get the straight scoop from him. For the most part.
He stepped down from the podium and was faced with dozens of outstretched hands and eager voices. "Great speech, Senator," someone said. "Keep telling it like it is."
Simmons's chief of staff, Alan McBride, flanked the senator on one side, his press secretary, Peter Markowicz, the other, as they slowly navigated through knots of the faithful toward the room's exit. One of many lobbyists in attendance stopped Simmons, grabbed his hand, slapped him on the back lightly, and said into his ear, "You know what I'm waiting for, Senator?"
"What's that, Bruce?"
"The day when I don't have to call you Senator Simmons anymore."
"What?" Simmons said, adopting an exaggerated frown.
"I'm looking forward to when I can call you President Simmons."
Simmons's grin returned. "Not too loud, Bruce. Some blogger might think I'm running."
Bruce stayed close to the senator's ear as they continued toward the door. "Truman declared his candidacy right here in this hotel," he said. "Stayed here, too, for the first few months of his presidency." Closer to the ear now, and sotto voce. "I need time with you about the prescription bill."
"Call Alan tomorrow," Simmons said, breaking away from the lobbyist to greet others, his aides in lockstep.
They reached the Grande Promenade, the expansive lobby through which a Who's Who of political heavyweights had passed since the Mayflower opened in 1925: Truman; before him, FDR, who lived there pre-inaugural and who wrote his famous "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" speech while in Suite 776; and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, who ate lunch at the hotel every day for more than twenty years, his daily menu choices never varying and considerably more bland than his personalitybuttered toast, cottage cheese, grapefruit, salad, and chicken soup.
Simmons's final stop before reaching Connecticut Avenue was to greet a Senate colleague coming from the Cafe Promenade with his wife and daughter. "How did it go?" he was asked.
"Couldn't have gone better. Enjoy dinner?"
"The seafood buffet was superb," replied his wife.
"You two take care," Simmons said. "See you tomorrow."
Standing at the hotel's doors was McTeague. He'd been Senator Simmons's driver and bodyguard since Simmons had arrived in Washington years ago as a freshman member of the House of Representatives. A car and driver spoke of the family fortune that had been behind Simmons's successful run for Congress. There would be no scrambling to find inexpensive temporary housing, as many members of the House needed to do. Simmons and his bride had immediately purchased a three-story town house on the outskirts of Georgetown, where they quickly established themselves as frequent, lavish party-givers when Congress was in session. During his fourth term, they sold the house at a handsome profit and bought a sprawling, hilltop Georgian colonial in the Foxhall section, with sweeping views of the city. After almost a million dollars in renovations and additions, it had become a proper home for the congressman who would become the senator from Illinois.
Walter McTeague was a large man with a ruddy, puffy face and a nest of small gray curls atop his head. He wore what he always wore while on dutyblack suit, black shoes, black tie, and white shirt. He saw Simmons and his aides approaching, and pulled in his stomach and stood taller. Simmons dispatched McBride and Markowicz: "We've got that seven o'clock meeting on staffing. And don't forget to tell Chris Matthews or his producer that I want a more comfortable chair the next time I'm on."
He watched them greet McTeague and disappear through the outer doors.
"Hello, Walter," Simmons told his driver. "Sorry to have kept you. It ran longer than I anticipated."
"No problem, Senator," McTeague replied in a husky voice. Simmons knew that the former D.C. cop was a heavy smoker, which was all right as long as he didn't foul the air in the four-door black Mercedes, or in the house while waiting for him.
McTeague had left the Mercedes running to keep the interior cool.
"Hot as Hades," Simmons muttered as they stepped out onto Connecticut Avenue. "Washington should have thought of that when he decided to plop the nation's capital here."
McTeague laughed as he opened one of the rear doors and the senator climbed in.
"Home?" McTeague asked after he'd settled behind the wheel.
"As fast as possible. Put on the news."
Simmons leaned back against the leather seat, closed his eyes, and took in what the WTOP radio guy said. News but no news. Nothing earth shattering, nothing directly affecting him. But he silently reminded himself that if he did seek his party's nomination for president, everything would affect him, every niggling little incident across the nation and the world. Was it worth it? He was too tired at the moment to try answering that question.
They pulled into the long, circular driveway and came to a stop by the front door. Sensors picking up their arrival had activated a battery of halogen outdoor fixtures that bathed the front of the house in harsh white light.
"What's the schedule for tomorrow?" McTeague asked, turning on an interior light and twisting to face the senator.
"I have to be at the Capitol by ten to seven."
"Mind a personal comment, sir?"
"When have I ever minded a personal comment from you, Walter? Shoot."
"You're looking tired these days, sir. So is Mrs. Simmons. I saw her today when I delivered the dry cleaning. You and the wife ought to get away for a while. Rest up."
Simmons smiled, leaned forward, and patted McTeague's arm. "I'm sure Jeannette would agree with you wholeheartedly. I'll mention it to her."
McTeague came around, opened the rear door, and escorted Simmons up a set of wide marble steps. Simmons had given up trying to dissuade him from doing that; the former cop took his job seriously, both as driver and as protector. He was armed, his Glock nestled in a holster beneath his left armpit.
"Go on home," Simmons said. "Best to your wife. Sorry for the early start these mornings."
"Not a problem, Senator. You have a good night."
Simmons watched the burly McTeague drive off. He was happy to have the man. Wealthy members of Congress, such as himself, were able to provide and pay for their own personal security and transportation. Others were on their own.
He looked up at thousands of gnats and other nocturnal insects swarming around the halogens. Constituents looking for favors, he thought. Staring directly at the lights blinded him momentarily, and he shifted his gaze to the massive set of doors leading into the house.
He drew a breath, inserted his key, and pushed open one of the doors. The marble foyer, larger than the first floor of most people's tract houses, was dark; a chandelier at the top of a winding staircase cast a modicum of yellow light. He closed the door behind him. He didn't bother looking at the alarm system's keypad, because he knew the alarm hadn't been activated. Jeannette seldom had it on when she was home, especially at night.
"What good is a security system if you don't use it?" he'd asked her repeatedly.
"Let the bogeyman in," she had said defiantly. It was the alcohol talking, he knew. Too many alcohol-fueled words lately.
He thought he heard something. "Jeannette?"
There was no reply.