First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(17)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

At the mention of the Washington, D.C., suburb, the men in the room who weren’t yet familiar with Wolinski’s information grew even more alert.

“As far as we can determine, Della Timms doesn’t exist,” he said.

“But you don’t know for certain.”

Clement Stone, the CIA director, knew damn well they needed more time before they could be sure, and this was his way of insulating himself from any blame. Wolinski hid his irritation. “We’re still checking. The dealership has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the law, and the salesman didn’t see a driver’s license. We’ve questioned him, and he’s described Timms as a thin, elderly woman with curly gray hair and unusually smooth skin.”

He paused for a moment, giving them time to draw their own conclusions before he went on. “We know Mrs. Case used some kind of disguise to get out of the White House, and the timing’s right.”

“You think she used a disguise,” Litchfield snapped. “We still have no way of being certain my daughter wasn’t coerced.”

Wolinski had never liked James Litchfield, but now he felt a pang of sympathy for him. Everyone in Washington knew how close the former Vice President was to his daughter. “All the evidence points to the fact that she left voluntarily.”

The President gave Wolinski a hard stare. “You think she may have disguised herself as an old lady, sneaked out of the White House, somehow made it to Maryland, and bought a car. You’d better have more than that.”

“I do, sir. The Pennsylvania State Police found an envelope in the trunk of the Chevy with fifteen thousand dollars in it.” Wolinski dreaded the next part of his report. “They also found a sack of women’s clothes and some toiletries. One sack had a gray wig in it.”

“Jesus.” Litchfield shot to his feet, his expression agonized.

“There might not be any connection,” Wolinski said hastily, “but we’re going over the White House security tapes right now to get a closer look at all the older women who came through on the tours that morning. We should have the results in another hour.”

The President swore, and Litchfield lost what little color was left in his face. Wolinski knew exactly what was on their minds, and he spoke quickly. “There were no signs of violence. Jimmy Briggs said the keys were in the ignition when he took it, and that he never saw the driver. The car’s heading for the lab right now.”

“What did you tell the locals?” The President’s chief advisor, a man who was known to be paranoid about White House leaks, spoke up for the first time.

“We’ve said that we’re doing a routine investigation. That we’ve gotten some crackpot mail threatening the President and we think it might have come from the car’s former owner.”

“Did they buy it?”

“They seemed to.”

The President’s advisor shook his head. “So far there haven’t been any leaks, but we won’t be able to keep this quiet for long.”

Litchfield erupted. “We have to keep it quiet! If the press finds out that my daughter has disappeared . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t have to.

“I have agents heading for Pennsylvania right now,” Wolinski said.

“Not good enough.” The President’s gaze took in both Wolinski and Harry Leeds, the Bureau director. “I want a task force of special teams put together for this, with Bureau agents and Secret Service agents assigned as partners. Your best people.”

Wolinski didn’t know who sounded more alarmed at the idea of pairing the agents this way, himself or Harry Leeds. “But sir—”

“Sir, if I might suggest—”

“You’ll do as I say.” The President’s gaze took in the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury before he returned his attention to Wolinski and Leeds. “I know how you men work, and I won’t let anybody build a private kingdom on Mrs. Case’s disappearance. I insist on complete cooperation between agencies. Setting up the teams this way guarantees that I’ll get it. Does everybody understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The President’s eyes narrowed. “Now I suggest you all get busy because, I promise you, if Cornelia Case isn’t located quickly, some people in this room are going to be out of a job.”

6

“MA-MA-MA!”

Mat dreamed he was cleaning out a latrine. As the dream progressed, a malevolent-looking kitten appeared and sank its sharp claws into his arm. Gradually, he worked one eyelid open and then the other. He blinked. No kitten. Instead, a pair of baby blue eyes peered angelically at him over the edge of the bed.

“Ma-ma-ma-ma-Ma!” She dug her fingers into his arm. Her wispy blond hair was matted to one side of her head, and her chubby cheek bore a crease. Otherwise, she was bright-eyed, smelly, and ready to party. “Ma!”

“Wrong person, kid.” He extricated himself, rolled to his back, and stared up at the roof of the motor home. They weren’t moving, which explained the fact that the Demon was roaming. “Nell! Lucy! Butt needs her diaper changed.”

No response.

“Da—Da!”

That brought him up off the bed fast. He shuddered and ran his hand through his hair. Then he shoved one side of his T-shirt back in his jeans and made his way to the front of the Winnebago. His neck was getting a crimp from having to keep his head ducked.

Lucy was nowhere in sight, but Nell sat in the passenger seat with her feet propped up on the dashboard and an expression of pure contentment on her face. He found himself pausing, just to watch her. A shaft of late afternoon sunlight had turned her skin to porcelain, and there was something almost ethereally beautiful about her.

She turned and caught him staring at her. He glanced down at the dashboard clock and saw that he’d been asleep for quite a while. “The baby’s on the loose. ”

“I know. She needed some exercise.”

The door swung open and Lucy came back in. “That’s the last time I’m peeing in the woods.”

“Then clean the bathroom,” Nell countered.

Mat felt something clutch his leg, caught a whiff, and looked down to see the Demon hanging on to his jeans. She looked up at him, all drooly grin. Then, using his leg to balance herself, she began to bounce.