First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(16)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Then clean it.”

Lucy’s lip curled with disdain. “As if.”

Mat looked over at Nealy. “Clean it.”

Nealy looked back at him. “As if.”

Lucy giggled and Nealy smiled at the sound.

“Sit down,” he ordered Lucy. “And buckle up. There are belts on that couch. Use ’em.”

She grabbed her Walkman and carried it to the rear of the motor home, where she flopped down on the double bed, shoved the headset back on, and banged her fists against the wall to the rhythm of the music.

“Nice kid,” Nealy said. “I’m sure she’ll do well for herself in prison.”

“If she wakes up the Demon, I’m going to kill her before she can get there.”

Nealy studied him. “I’ve never traveled with kids, but I think you’re supposed to plan frequent stops to keep them from getting bored. Scenic areas, playgrounds, zoos.”

“If you see a sign for a snake farm, tell me right away so I can drop off all three of you.”

“You’re a very cranky man.”

“And you’re awfully cheerful for a woman who only has twenty dollars in her wallet and just had her stolen car stolen.”

“It wasn’t stolen, and earthly possessions are nothing but obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual enlightenment.”

“Is that so?”

“Lucy said her mother died. When was that?”

“About six weeks ago. The woman never had any sense. She was driving drunk.”

“What about the girls’ father?”

“Fathers. Lucy’s father was a one-night stand. The Demon’s father was Sandy’s last boyfriend. He died with her.”

“That must be why Lucy’s so hostile. She’s trying to cope with her mother’s death.”

“I don’t think so. My bet is that Sandy died for Lucy a long time ago. I think she’s mainly scared, but doesn’t want anybody to see it.”

“It’s nice of you to watch out for them, especially since you don’t seem too fond of children.”

“Nothing wrong with those little girls that some good concrete blocks and a real deep lake won’t fix.”

She smiled. People always put on their best faces for her. It was nice to be around someone so cheerfully perverse. “What do you do for a living? When you’re not driving around children who don’t belong to you, that is.”

He took another sip from his root beer and set the can back down before he answered. “I work in a steel mill.”

“Where?”

“Pittsburgh.”

She settled back into the seat, thoroughly enjoying the novelty of chatting like an ordinary person. “Is it interesting? Working in the steel industry?”

“Oh, yeah. Real interesting.” He yawned.

“What do you do?”

“This and that.”

“It’s incredible the way the industry is reviving despite competition with the Japanese. It’s strange, though, to realize Indiana is our leading steel producer now instead of Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania isn’t even in second place.”

He was staring at her, and she realized she’d revealed too much. “I read about it in the National Enquirer,” she said quickly.

“The National Enquirer?”

“Maybe it was the Philadelphia Inquirer.”

“Maybe.”

A stab of resentment shot through her. She’d spent too many years watching every word she said, and she didn’t want to have to do it now. “I have a photographic memory,” she lied. “I know all kinds of trivia.”

“Too bad you couldn’t remember your car keys.” He took another swig of root beer. “So Pennsylvania’s number three?”

“Number four, actually, after Ohio and Illinois.”

“Fascinating.” He yawned again.

“Would you like me to drive so you can nap?”

“You ever drive one of these things?”

She’d driven tanks, both American- and Russian-made. “Something similar.”

“Maybe I will. I had a lousy night’s sleep.” He slowed and pulled off onto the shoulder.

“What’s going on?” Lucy called out from the back.

“I’m taking a nap. Come up here and torture Nell for a while so I can have the bed. You can teach her all the dirty words you know.”

“Quiet, both of you. You’ll wake up B—Marigold.”

Lucy came forward as Mat vacated the driver’s seat, and before long, they were back on the road. The miles slipped by, but instead of enjoying the scenery, Nealy found herself wondering exactly what was happening at the White House.

The late afternoon sunlight slanting through the tall windows of the Oval Office fell across the polished shoes of Secret Service Director Frank Wolinski. He took a seat in one of the Duncan Phyfe chairs that sat near a nineteenth century landscape. The President’s chief advisor stood near one of the inner office doors, all of which had shell-shaped niches above them, while James Litchfield had taken a chair by a pediment-topped outer door.

Wolinski’s counterparts at the FBI and CIA sat next to each other on one of the couches. Their direct superiors, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, had positioned themselves at the edge of the seating group as if they wanted to distance themselves from the proceedings.

Harry Leeds, the FBI director, and Clement Stone, Director of the CIA, already knew what was in Wolinski’s report. The three men had been in constant contact for the past twenty-eight hours, ever since Cornelia Case’s chief of staff had discovered she was missing. It was the President who had called this meeting.

As Lester Vandervort walked across the presidential seal that covered the rug in front of his desk, Wolinski shifted in his seat. The tension in the room was almost unbearable. He’d only been appointed Secret Service director six months ago, part of the sweep that had taken place at the agency following the Case assassination, but now his job was in jeopardy. He didn’t like to think about going down in history as the first agency director to have lost a First Lady.

“Let’s hear it,” the President snapped.

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone in the room knew Wolinski was sweating, and they were all waiting to see how he’d handle it. “Two hours ago we picked up a report that the Pennsylvania State Police pulled over a felon named Jimmy Briggs. There’s a warrant out for his arrest for armed robbery. At the time of the arrest, Briggs was driving a blue Chevy Corsica registered to a Della Timms. The Chevy had temporary plates from a used car dealer in Rockville.”