September 6, 1996: Everything since the convention has been a frenzy, a delicious panic, the high command now fevered and hyperventilating during the staff meetings as the final campaign is mapped and each post at the picket is allotted. The convention, like most everything else the Republicans do, had been staged, a dumb show for the television cameras. But tonight is actually something real. President James Breed's Republican insiders, who will be in the van, sweeping all before them and inexorably home to reelection in November, have come to party.
"Just us," she says to herself while brushing her hair that evening, "just us." Yet Louisa Shidler is no longer one of them, not really. Once, perhaps, when her mentor, Royall Stillwell, began his progression from the Senate to the top post at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, to president-in-waiting as Jim Breed's reelection running mate. But no longer. Life intervened: Isabel's adolescence, the drift of Louisa's marriage, and, to be honest, a certain discomfort with the retail side of politics.
Now she has become almost an afterthought of the Breed-Stillwell campaign. Her status is uncertain. She is rather like an old girlfriend invited to a wedding: everyone knows that she is no longer relevant, and yet a wary curiosity surrounds her, as the wedding guests wonder what ancient knowledge she brings with her to the reception.
Brushing her hair, she has all of those thoughts, but smiles anyway. For tonight, status be damned. Tonight is the campaign staff party. Tonight they will drink too many tequilas and vodka Collinses and dance to "Louie Louie" on the tabletops. Holding their ears, they will shout to each other over the noise of the band, and even Louisa will feel like one of the gang. She will relive earlier evenings like this one--for there have been many such evenings in Royall's career. By midnight the fillies will begin to stumble off toward hotel rooms with the happy drunken boys. And she will watch them with a smile, but not follow, for it is then that she will remember Isabel, and the carriage that awaits, and Toby. Toby--maybe.
But first, Dulaney Stillwell, or, as she is known to everyone, Doolie. (Like that of many southern women, her name derives from some distant male antecedent, but she is known by a feminized diminutive.) Louisa has been seconded to the candidate's wife to escort her to the party at the Willard Hotel. This assignment carries with it an unspoken duty.
Royall Stillwell's grand, white-brick home in McLean, Virginia, stands secluded at the end of a winding, private lane. If you arrive by day, you see, first, where a massive pin oak dominates a grassy island in the circular drive, and beyond it, the tall chimneys, and then you begin to make out the blue-gray shutters against the white brick. At night, you see little at all, headlights bouncing off the woods that crowd the lane. Louisa drives up about eight. A Secret Service agent trains his flashlight on her driver's license. They don't even know her anymore.
"Honey," Doolie is saying from somewhere up the carpeted staircase and around the curve of the banister rail, "I don't know what to wear to this party, I'm so old and fat and wrinkled. Whatevuh 'm I gonna do 'round so many pretty boys and girls?"
There is no fat, not a cubic centimeter of it, on Doolie. Louisa smiles.
But, like everything Doolie says in dizzy good humor, the remark contains an element of worry. A drop of the glue that holds Doolie's smile in place is that fear, that knowledge that she has used certain basic gifts to get herself where she wanted to be, and that holding her position calls for nearly as much artifice as achieving it did.
Doolie's position is well fortified. In part, it is the house itself: a three-story, six-bedroom, two-chimney whitewashed-brick redoubt in McLean. In part, it is the elaborate social network she has built and sustained with the dinners and the cocktail parties and the barbecues and the "at homes." Partners for tennis and golf are carefully selected. Doolie has laid out an architecture of social contacts that is deeper and broader and more intricate than anything Royall has achieved in public life.
Tonight is a special night, even for Doolie: a party to rally the select, the anointed, to the last big push for the Breed-Stillwell ticket. In a few months, her husband will likely be the vice president of the United States. A great thing, even on its own, and a great milestone, even for Doolie, but, nevertheless, only a milestone.
"Elizabeth, sugar," Doolie is saying, "get Louisa a drink. Get her a nice vodka Collins to have with her Aunt Doolie." Louisa protests, but without effect. Her assignment--unspoken, but clear enough--was to prevent this from happening. She supposes Doolie has guessed that. Elizabeth brings a wide cocktail glass on a silver tray, her dark face courteous but humorless, and Louisa avoids her eyes as she takes the drink. She doesn't even like vodka.
She stands on the checkerboard tiles in the foyer, the glass in hand, and listens to the disembodied Doolie talking to her through the floors and doors and walls above, honeying her and sugaring her. "That dreadful Cynthia Barnett, she'll be there, don't you think?"
"I think so," Louisa answers.
"Mustn't do anything without Cynthia Barnett's permission," Doolie says. "Cynthia, darling, would it be all right with you if we passed this law?" The voice fades as she clop--clops briskly into her dressing room but remains audible. "Cynthia, I'm supposed to give a speech. Would you look into your computer, honey, and see what it would be all right for me to say? . . ."
The voice trails off completely, and then returns. ". . . that charming boy of yours, sugar? I don't mind telling you how mashed on him I am. Frightful, a relic like me." She doesn't know that Toby has moved out. Happily, before Louisa can answer, Doolie moves to new territory.
"Can you believe that man Proctor and what he said about Jim?"
Sam Proctor is the Democratic party nominee. The campaign has gotten a little rough. Doolie doesn't wait for an answer. "Honey, a man like that has got no class. And I'll tell you what, a short little pecker, I'll bet." For Doolie is wickedly profane, too--it is plain that she doesn't easily yield the floor in the ladies' locker room. Somehow they've come this far and she's never yet gotten Royall in trouble. Louisa wonders how long that will last as the intensity of the public spotlight grows.
Doolie pokes her head over the banister rail and wrinkles her nose. "A little bitty thing, don't you think, sugar? Are we communicatin'?"
Louisa smiles and Doolie winks at her. I'm not sure we are, Louisa thinks, as she hears the ice cubes clinking in the glass upstairs.
"Now, Louisa honey, tell me, be honest with Aunt Doolie, what do you think of this wretched hair of mine?"
Fifteen more minutes go by before Doolie descends the stairs. Although Louisa sees that she is done, really done, and that she has come without the glass, still, there is to be a little drama before departing. Always, always with Doolie there must be drama, and she puts her hand on Louisa's forearm and looks at her as earnestly as though she were about to ask if Louisa could introduce her to God, and she says, "Do I need a wrap, Louisa honey?"
So they debate the wrap for a few minutes, until Doolie trips back up the staircase and recommences her monologue. She hasn't got a thing, not a thing that will go, except just two or three of the rattiest old sweaters and that Chinese jacket Royall gave her the time we all went to Peking--"I know, I know, honey, it's Beijing now, and whah the Chinese cain't keep the same name on their capital, I do not understand."
She is still upstairs when she says, "Go on into Royall's study, honey, and get the invitations for Marilyn and Bill. Frank was here earlier to drop off Royall's things, I think. They should be in there. I meant to send them over, but then I forgot." Marilyn and Bill, friends of some kind, will need the invitations to get into the party.
So Louisa traverses the living room, past tables groaning under the holy of holies--the silver--framed photographs of gorgeous children (there are three: two gorgeous boys, Chip and David, both Duke undergraduates, and one gorgeous daughter, Kimberly, a student at Madeira)--and comes to the study. The heavy door yields noiselessly, and then she is in Royall Stillwell's sanctum. It is quiet. A clock ticks, but that is all. For the first time, she cannot hear Doolie.
Here, books prevail, floor to ceiling in the cases, and in stacks on the leather chairs. In piles before the French door that leads to the back garden are the briefing books, the three-ring binders with the answers to everything. Courtesy of Cynthia Barnett.
He has the desk facing the entranceway, with the chair back toward the French doors and windows, and it looks rather like the photographs of how the President's desk sits in the Oval Office. It is odd to be here, for she was this man's lieutenant for so many years, and yet has been in this place only twice, and never alone.
She fumbles hurriedly through the mess on his desk. A stack of mail has been dumped unopened there, and as her fingers are rummaging through the mail, it slides out.
It is a coffee-colored envelope.
Louisa stares at it stupidly, a feeling of dislocation coming over her. She holds it in her hands and makes mental notes. Postmarked June 15, 1996, Geneva. It was sent to a post office box in Washington. There is a return address: 4 Place du Bourg-de-Four, Geneve 41-720, Suisse.
The brown paper of the envelope has a waxy feel to it. She can make out nothing when she holds it to the light.
In the distance are the brisk footsteps. Doolie is approaching. Louisa hunts swiftly for the tickets, and they are in her hand when the door bursts open.
"The country's in a state when it's about to elect a man who can't organize his own desk, but we'll just keep that between us, won't we, honey?"
Louisa looks again for her to wobble, but Doolie stands with perfect steadiness.
In the backseat of the car bound for the Willard, Doolie chatters on, and the stories are funny. As they approach the district, Louisa is thinking about the party. She has paid her nanny, Bridget, to stay late. She has resolved to put out of her head, for this evening anyway, everything but this party.
The Secret Service agent exits from the bridge and guides the car around the Lincoln Memorial. As Doolie chatters on, Louisa's mind drifts, for a moment, to the lonely marble man seated in the darkness. There is such melancholy in those sunken eyes. We never see melancholy in politics anymore, she thinks. Television has prohibited it.
Perhaps unconsciously, Louisa runs her hand across her lap. For the rest of the trip, she is thinking of the purse that rests there. Inside it is the coffee-colored envelope. After all, it was addressed to her.
Everyone is there, streaming in and out of the Potomac Room. The noise from the band is deafening. Everyone is kissing everyone else. The boys--so many of the men seem to be boys to Louisa--embrace her and dodge her cheek to plant big kisses on her lips. Their hands explore her back quickly and inappropriately and then the boys move on to kiss another. The women squeal and embrace and present their cheeks.
The boys and girls are whirling and gyrating on the dance floor. Royall and Doolie and Jim and Lacy are everywhere, with their blue-suited and earpieced attendants, and Doolie, of course, is the most dashing of all. The poor First Lady looks rather dowdy next to her, as Doolie embraces and laughs and touches and is everywhere surrounded by admirers.
The bright-eyed young boys are supermen. There is something nebbishy about most of these boys in the harsh light of noonday, but now in the darkness, fortified by intoxication, and communing with the thrill that is running through everyone here, their chests expand with confidence. By midnight they will be heartthrobs enough.
Not for Louisa, however. Tonight, as on most nights, she will be an observer. Childbirth and child-rearing make you a perpetual observer, a sleepless student of hormonal cycles, a journalist assigned to the gastrointestinal beat. You observe, note, file, and calculate; every hour, every day, every week. So Louisa spends the evening keeping clear of the loudspeakers and calculating what will become of the Breed-Stillwell ticket (a win, she thinks); what will become of Doolie (she handicaps her staying power as outlasting her drinking problem and Royall's flirtations); which of the merry boys and girls will catapult forward in this administration.
Everyone is there. There are the Three Amigos, as the press calls them: old political pals Bill Jaeger, the secretary of defense, Secretary of Commerce Peter Coburn, and, of course, Royall. Their friendship is said to trace to the days when the loser of their monthly poker game thereby paid the winner's rent. A lot of the big-money D.A.R. types from the early days have come--the "stringy tennis ladies," Louisa's friend Dominique calls them.
Over by the bar, Louisa sees Frank Ianella locked in conversation with Cynthia Barnett. Ianella has the head deputy secretary's job at Commerce now, and working his way across the room, he stops by with sheepish, uncomfortable small talk. Ianella, she has always known, is addicted to politics: ten hours a day for Commerce, another nine for the Breed-Stillwell campaign. But, honestly, sometimes Louisa thinks she could slap him. He's so painfully conscious of how far "ahead" of her he has moved in the Stillwell army that he thinks it must keep her lying awake nights. Frank, she thinks, relax: it's me, Louisa, from the old days in the airshaft office in the Executive Office Building.
"We should get together," Frank shouts.
Ianella pulls out a business card, then scribbles something. She holds it under a table lamp and looks at it. He has crossed out "Liaison Officer" and written over it "Deputy Sec'y." Great, Frank got another feather for his growing cap. She smiles, tucks the card into her purse, and shrugs.
"Afraid I haven't been promoted!"
Frank moves on, and his cloud with him. The night is from that point on a delight, until, late in the evening, Louisa looks up to see that Cynthia Barnett has her in range.
"Trick or treat, Louisa!"
Cynthia Barnett is a physical anomaly: petite, with birdlike features and puffed-up blond hair that makes her seem, at first, like a cartoonist's creation: an enormous head upon a tiny body. She looks almost fragile, as though she might be knocked over by a strong wind. And yet she has a voice that can cut through fog, a face and a gaze as determined as a terrier's, and a manner that pushes, pushes, pushes, until you back away. Cynthia is a political consultant--the political consultant, according to the people (whoever they are) who determine these things. Some long-forgotten aide gave her the nickname Smaug, which seems unfair, since her dimensions are more those of a wren than a dragon. But she does have a way of breathing fire, and she is vastly powerful and enormously clever. In the eyes of her clients' political opponents, at least, she is Tolkien's dragon come to life and patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue.
Her eyes fix Louisa like a specimen on the dissecting tray. She balances a drink and a cigarette. Louisa, feeling rather like Bilbo, shrugs back, further serving, she knows, to confirm the consultant's view that Louisa is a person of little consequence: a lieutenant, a stewardess with a law degree. "Excuse me?" she answers.
"Give me a treat, Louisa. Tell me something I want to know. How is the dear Dulaney?"
"She seems to be having a marvelous evening."
"Yes. We need to monitor that, I'm afraid. Have you talked to her tonight?"
"I accompanied her."
"Good. Best she have a lot of company, I think, don't you?"
Louisa doesn't answer.
"Be a dear and keep her away from the press, at least until after the election. She does get a little bit loud, sometimes, when she's left alone after lunch with a gin bottle. It could be a problem." Smaug brightens. "And how is Toby?"
"Fine." Louisa smiles brightly too, but only in order to say, ever so politely, "Next subject, please." Which Smaug understands perfectly, and ignores.
"He couldn't make it?"
Louisa shakes her head. We are not going to talk about this.
"Too bad. Give him my love." Louisa shudders. Smaug's love--it is a strange notion. The consultant peers at Louisa, unblinking, like a bird, and takes a pull on her cigarette.
"Louisa, your loyalty to Doolie is touching, but she could be . . . a complication. I'm starting to hear little whispers on the press bus. They don't know quite what to do with her. Yet."
Smaug looks across the crowded room at Doolie. "I give her six months of worship. Then they'll be baying for blood. She worries me, honey. Proctor has already gone negative, and they're looking for new material. Have you tried those cheese canapes?"
"A little disappointing, coming from Republicans. Almost what I might have expected from Dem--well, from those whom we shall not name in this place." She expels a stream of smoke to Louisa's side, but not quite far enough to the side.
There is mirth in Cynthia Barnett's eyes, a dark light there: she knows Louisa recoils at her manner, she knows it annoys her, and so she flaunts it. Louisa is praying for her to leave. She glances around, hoping someone will come to her rescue, but even a deputy press aide knows better than to interrupt Smaug when she is dining on a victim. All of a sudden in this crowded party there seems to be acres of space around them.
"Speaking of the evil ones, have you heard about Belakis and Diana Felotti?" Smaug asks.
Louisa hasn't, so Smaug tells her the newest rumor of infidelity that she has mined on the Democratic challenger's running mate, George Belakis. Her sentences run on even more than usual, a sign that Smaug is genuinely excited. She is, after all, being paid millions by the Republicans to destroy the Proctor-Belakis ticket. Perhaps, Louisa thinks, it is meanspirited of me to begrudge her the relish she takes in the task.
"Cynthia," Louisa says, "people have been saying that kind of thing about Royall for years. Why not call them even and concentrate on the issues?"
Smaug scowls. "Louisa, please. The issues? These are the issues. They are the only issues. You catch the other fellow with his trousers around his ankles, turn a quick spotlight on the wife to watch her squirm, hand out glossies about his contempt for our Norman Rockwell values, and most of all, you keep the other team away from our little princes. And their ambitious wives."
"That's quite a testimonial for democracy, coming from one who makes her living from it."
"Democracy!" Smaug's little frame shakes, setting the diamonds or rhinestones or whatever they are spangled across her middle to quivering. "Democracy! Louisa, do you know what democracy is?"
She shakes her head.
"It's a client base! It's a client base, honey." Disgusted, the political consultant stalks off into the throng.
It is almost midnight when Louisa remembers the letter. She tries the ladies' room first, but it is abuzz with breathless confessions and giggling and confident announcements of imminent assignations, and so she settles for a lounge chair in a corner of the hotel lobby, where the noise of the party is a distant boom and thump.
Alone now, she sits with purse in lap and looks again at the smooth-textured brown paper, the typed address with her name and a Washington post office box that is not her post office box. An envelope that tumbled out of a stack of his mail, on his desk. It must have been recovered from a post office by Royall, or one of his people. So why is the envelope addressed to Louisa?
Now her fingers are tearing it open. She notes, before reading, the hue and texture of its contents. A cream-colored sheet of stationery, twice folded. Behind it, a computer printout of some kind, a printed form.
"Dear M. Shidler," says the letter, "We enclose account statement dated 30 May with compliments." Its valedictory is "Yours faithfully," and then there is simply a name, handwritten, which looks like "H. Racine, av." A lawyer.
The form behind it is a bank statement reporting on the account activity for May 1996 in account number 6614723-456. The statement identifies the bank as Duclos & Bernard, 12 Rue Hollande. Louisa does not know the name, but somewhere in the recesses of her memory of trade talks in Geneva is the Rue Hollande. It is the street where a few of the more secretive Swiss banks have their discreet offices. The account carries no name: merely the identifying number. Interest accrued since the last statement is 320,412 Swiss francs, making a total of Swfr 1,871,334 in interest accrued this year. The total current balance is Swfr 62,645,512. No other activity is shown.
Louisa was Royall's deputy in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, and has been its interim director since he left to campaign. Currencies are part of the stock in trade of her consular rank. She knows marks, lira, yen, pesos, escudos, pounds, francs, drachmae--and Swiss francs. Sitting in the gold brocade chair in a corner of the hotel lobby, she does the arithmetic. Then she does it again, in case she lost track of the zeros, but it comes out the same way, and so she does it a third time, first going to the desk and borrowing a pen and a piece of notepaper. At the end of the third calculation, she has the same figure, except this time it is written on the scrap of paper. She folds the bank statement and slides it back into the envelope and returns the envelope to her purse. She closes her eyes briefly, making a mental note to study this matter in the morning, when her mind is clear. For Louisa is a calculator, a creature of the left brain, and sometimes she even calculates when it's best to calculate.
It is not best to do so now. Now there is loud music and an electricity in the air, and there are shouts from the bright-eyed troops and the last assault of Campaign '96 is launching. She has had two drinks, and she might have another, and she positively never permits herself to do anything serious on those rare occasions when she exceeds two drinks. She may do that tonight. She may shut this party down. She needed this party, and nothing, not Toby, not this envelope, is going to stop her from being around those who are now as she once was.
Louisa Shidler gets up from the chair, the envelope restored to the purse, throws her shoulders back, and heads back toward the noise, leaving for the morning any further reflection on the curious fact that there appears to be, on deposit with Duclos & Bernard in Geneva, a numbered account--an account that is not her account but for which someone named H. Racine thinks she should receive account statements--and which contains something in excess of fifty million dollars.
Excerpted from The Betrayal by Sabin Willett. . Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.