Excerpt from The First Counsel by Brad Meltzer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The First Counsel

By Brad Meltzer

The First Counsel
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2001,
    496 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2001,
    496 pages.

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Chapter 1

I'm afraid of heights, snakes, normalcy, mediocrity, Hollywood, the initial silence of an empty house, the enduring darkness of a poorly lit street, evil clowns, professional failure, the intellectual impact of Barbie dolls, letting my father down, being paralyzed, hospitals, doctors, the cancer that killed my mother, dying unexpectedly, dying for a stupid reason, dying painfully, and, worst of all, dying alone. But I'm not afraid of power—which is why I work in the White House.

As I sit in the passenger seat of my beat-up, rusty blue Jeep, I can't help but stare at my date, the beautiful young woman who's driving my car. Her long, thin fingers hold the steering wheel in a commanding grip that lets both of us know who's in charge. I could care less, though—as the car flies up Connecticut Avenue, I'm far more content studying the way her short black hair licks the back of her neck. For security reasons, we keep the windows closed, but that doesn't stop her from opening the sunroof. Letting the warm, early—September air sweep through her hair, she leans back and enjoys the freedom. She then adds her final personal touch to the car: She turns on the radio, flips through my preset stations, and shakes her head.

"This is what you like?" Nora asks. "Talk radio?"

"It's for work." Pointing to the dashboard and hoping to be cool, I add, "The last one has music."

She calls my bluff and hits the last button. More talk radio. "You always this predictable?" she asks.

"Only when I—" Before I can finish, the shriek of an electric guitar pierces my eardrum. She's found her station.

Tapping her thumbs against the steering wheel and bobbing her head to the beat, Nora looks completely alive.

"This is what you like?" I shout back over the noise. "Thrash radio?"

"Only way to stay young," she says with a grin. She's kicking my shins and she loves it. At twenty-two years of age, Nora Hartson is smart. And way too confident. She knows I'm self-conscious about the difference in our ages—she knew it the first moment I told her I was twenty-nine. She didn't care, though.

"Think that's going to scare me off?" she had asked.

"If it does, that's your mistake."

That's when I had her. She needed the challenge. Especially a sexual one. For too long, things had been easy for her. And as Nora is so keenly aware, there's no fun in always getting what you want. The thing is, that's likely to be her lot in life. For better or worse, that's her power. Nora is attractive, engaging, and extremely captivating. She's also the daughter of the President of the United States.

As I said, I'm not afraid of power.

The car heads toward Dupont Circle, and I glance at my watch, wondering when our first date is going to end. It's quarter past eleven, but Nora seems to just be getting started. As we pull up to a place called Tequila Mockingbird, I roll my eyes. "Another bar?" "You gotta have at least a little foreplay," she teases. I look over like I hear it all the time. It doesn't fool her for a second. God, I love America. "Besides," she adds, "this is a good one—no one knows this place."

"So we'll actually have some privacy?" Instinctively, I check the rearview mirror. The black Chevy Suburban that followed us out of the White House gate and to every subsequent stop we made is still right behind us. The Secret Service never lets go.

"Don't worry about them," she says. "They don't know what's coming."

Before I can ask her to explain, I see a man in khakis standing at the side entrance of Tequila Mockingbird. He points to a reserved parking spot and waves us toward him. Even before he pushes the button in his hand and whispers into the collar of his struggling-to-be-casual polo shirt, I know who he is. Secret Service. Which means we don't have to wait in the long line out front—he'll take us in the side. Not a bad way to barhop, if you ask me. Of course, Nora sees it differently.

"Ready to rain on his parade?" she asks.

I nod, unsure of what she's up to, but barely able to contain my smile. The First Daughter, and I mean the First Daughter, is sitting next to me, in my crappy car, asking me to follow her under the limbo stick. I can already taste the salsa.

Just as we make eye contact with the agent outside the Mockingbird, Nora rolls past the bar, and instead heads to a dance club halfway up the block. I turn around and check out the agent's expression. He's not amused. I can read his lips from here. "Shadow moving," he growls into his collar.

"Wait a minute—didn't you tell them we were going to the Mockingbird?"

"Let me ask you a question: When you go out, do you think it's fun to have the Secret Service check out the place before you get there?"

I pause to think about it. "Actually, it seems pretty cool to me."

She laughs. "Well, I hate it. The moment they walk in, the really interesting people hit the exits." Pointing to the Suburban that's still behind us, she adds, "The ones who follow me, I can deal with. It's the advance guys that wreck the party. Besides, this keeps everyone on their toes."

As we pull up to the valet, I try to think of something witty to say. That's when I see him. Standing at the front entrance of our newest destination is another man whispering into the collar of his shirt. Like the agent who was standing outside the Mockingbird, he's dressed in Secret Service casual standards: khakis and a short-sleeve polo. To call as little attention to Nora as possible, the agents try their best to be invisible—their attire is keyed to their protectee's. Of course, they think they blend in, but last I checked, most people in khakis don't carry guns and talk into the collars of their shirts. Either way, though, I'm impressed. They know her better than I thought.

"So, we going in or what?" I ask, motioning toward the valet, who's waiting for Nora to open her door.

Nora doesn't answer. Her piercing green eyes, which were persuasive enough to convince me to let her drive, are now staring vacantly out the window.

I tap her playfully on the shoulder. "So they knew you were coming. Big deal—that's their job."

"That's not it."

"Nora, we're all creatures of habit. Just because they know your routine—"

"That's the problem!" she shouts. "I was being spontaneous!"

Behind the outburst, there's a pain in her voice that catches me off guard. Despite the years of watching her on TV, it's the first time I've seen her open her soft side, and even though it's with a yell, I jump right in. My playful shoulder-tap turns into a soothing caress. "Forget this place—we'll find somewhere new."

She glares angrily at the agent near the front door. He grins back. They've played this game before. "We're out of here," she growls. With a quick pump of the gas, our tires screech and we're on to our next stop. As we take off, I again check the rearview mirror. The Suburban, as always, is right behind us.

"They ever let up?" I ask.

"Goes with the territory," she says, sounding like she's been kicked in the gut.

Hoping to cheer her up, I say, "Forget those monkeys. Who cares if they know where you—"

"Spend two weeks doing it. That'll change your tune."

"Not me. My tune stays the same: Love the guys with guns. Love the guys with guns. Love the guys with guns. We're talkin' mantra here."

The joke is easy, but it works. She fights back the tiniest smile. "Gotta love those guns." Taking a deep breath, she runs her hand across the back of her neck and through the tips of her black hair. I think she's finally starting to relax. "Thanks again for letting me drive—I was starting to miss it."

"If it makes you feel better, you're an excellent driver."

"And you're an excellent liar."

"Don't take my word for it—look at the lemmings behind us; they've been smiling since you peeled out from the club."

Nora checks the rearview mirror for herself and waves at two more of the khaki-and-polo patrol. Neither smiles, but the one in the passenger seat actually waves back. "Those're my boys—been with me for three years," she explains. "Besides, Harry and Darren aren't that bad. They're just miserable because they're the only two who are actually responsible for me."

"Sounds like a dream job."

"More like a nightmare—every time I leave the House, they're stuck watching my behind."

"Like I said: dream job."

She turns, pretending she doesn't enjoy the compliment. "You love to flirt, don't you?"

"Safest form of intense social interaction."

"Safe, huh? Is that what it's all about for you?"

"Says the young lady with the armed bodyguards."

"What can I say?" she says with a laugh. "Sometimes you've got to be careful."

"And sometimes you've got to burn the village to save it." She likes that one—anything that brings back some challenge. For her, everything else is planned. "So now you're Genghis Khan?" she asks.

"I've been known to ravage a few helpless townships."

"Oh, please, lawboy, you're starting to embarrass yourself. Now where do you want to go?"

The forcefulness turns me on. I try to act unfazed. "Doesn't matter to me. But do the monkeys have to follow?"

"That depends," she says with a grin. "You think you can handle them?"

"Oh, yeah. Lawyers are well known for their ability to beat up large willing-to-take-a-bullet military types. There's a whole 'Fisticuffs' section on the bar exam...right after the 'Rain of Pain' essay."

"Okay, so if it's not going to be fight, we're going to have to go with flight." She hits the gas and my head snaps back into the headrest. We're now once again flying up Connecticut Avenue.

"What're you doing?"

She shoots me a look that I can feel in my pants. "You wanted privacy."

"Actually, I wanted foreplay."

"Well if this works, you're gonna get both."

Now the adrenaline's pumping. "You really think you can lose them?"

"Only tried once before."

"What happened?"

She shoots me another one of those looks. "You don't want to know."

The speedometer quickly shoots up to sixty, and the poorly paved D.C. roads are making us feel every pothole. I grab the handle on the door and prop myself up straight. It's at this moment that I see Nora as the twenty-two-year-old she really is—fearless, smug, and still impressed by the rev of an engine. Although I'm only a few years older, it's been a long time since my heart's raced this fast. After three years at Michigan Law, two years of clerkships, two years at a law firm, and the past two years in the White House Counsel's Office, my passions have been purely professional. Then Nora Hartson slaps me awake and starts a flash fire in my gut. How the hell was I supposed to know what I was missing?

Still, I look back at the Suburban and let out a nervous laugh. "If this gets me in trouble..."

"Is that what you're worried about?"

I bite my lip. That was a big step backwards. "No...it's just that...you know what I mean."

She ignores my stumbling and gives it more speed.

Stuck in the silence of our conversation, all I can hear is how loud the engine is revving. Up ahead is the entrance to the underpass that runs below Dupont Circle. The small tunnel has an initial steep drop, so you can't see how many cars are actually ahead of you. Nora doesn't seem to care. Without slowing down, we leap into the tunnel and my stomach drops. Luckily, there's no one in front of us.

As we leave the tunnel, all I can focus on is the green light at the end of the block. Then it turns yellow. We're not nearly close enough to make it. Again, Nora doesn't seem to care. "The light...!"

It turns red and Nora jerks the wheel into an illegal left turn. The tires shriek and my shoulder is pressed against the door. For the first time, I actually think we're in danger. I glance in the rearview mirror. The Suburban is still behind us. Never letting go. We race down a narrow, short street. I can see a stop sign ahead. Despite the late hour, there's still a steady stream of cars enjoying the right of way. I expect Nora to slow down. Instead, she speeds up. "Don't do it!" I warn her.

She takes notice of the volume of my voice, but doesn't reply. I'm craning my neck, trying to see how many cars there are. I see a few, but have no idea if they see us. We blow through the stop sign, and I shut my eyes. I hear cars screech to a halt and the simultaneous blaring of horns. Nothing hits us. I turn around and watch the Secret Service follow in our wake....

"What're you, a psychopath?"

"Only if I kill us. If we live, I'm a daredevil."

She refuses to let up, twisting and turning through the brownstone-lined streets of Dupont Circle. Every stop sign we run leaves another chorus of screaming horns and pissed-off drivers. Eventually, we're tearing up a one—way street that crosses back over the main thoroughfare, Connecticut Avenue. The only thing between us and the six lanes of traffic is another stop sign. With a hundred feet to go, she slams on the brakes. Thank God. Sanity's returned.

"Why don't we just call it a night?" I offer.

"Not a chance." She's scowling in the mirror, staring down her favorite agents. They look tempted to get out of the Suburban, but they have to know she'll take off the moment they do.

The agent in the passenger seat rolls down his window. He's young, maybe even younger than me. "C'mon, Shadow," he yells, rubbing it in by using her Secret Service code name. "You know what he said last time. Don't make us call this one in."

She doesn't take well to the threat. Under her breath, she mutters, "Cocky jock asshole." With that, she punches the gas. The wheels spin until they find traction.

I can't let her do this. "Nora, don't..."

"Shut up."

"Don't tell me to—"

"I said, shut up." Her response is a measured, low snarl. She doesn't sound like herself. We're barreling toward the stop sign and I count seven cars crossing in front of us. Eight. Nine. Ten. This isn't like the side streets. These cars are flying. I notice a tiny bead of sweat rolling down the side of Nora's forehead. She's holding the wheel as tight as she can. We're not going to make this one.

As we hit the threshold, I do the only thing I can think of. I lean over, punch the horn, and hold it down. We shoot out of the side street like a fifty-mile-an-hour banshee. Two cars swerve. Another hits his brakes. A fourth driver, in a black Acura, tries to slow down, but there's not enough time. His tires screech against the pavement, but he's still moving. Although Nora does her best to swerve out of his way, he nicks us right on the back tip of our bumper. It's just enough to make us veer out of control. And to put the Acura directly in front of the Secret Service Suburban. The Suburban pulls a sharp right and comes to a dead halt. We keep moving.

"It's okay!" Nora screams as she fights the steering wheel. "It's okay!" And in a two-second interval, I realize it's true. Everyone's safe and we're free to go. Nora lights up the car with a smile. As we motor up the block, I'm still remembering how to breathe.

Her chest is heaving as she catches her own breath. "Not bad, huh?" she finally asks.

"Not bad?" I ask, wiping my forehead. "You could've killed us—not to mention the other drivers and the—"

"But did you have fun?"

"It's not a question of fun. It was one of the stupidest stunts I've ever—"

"But did you have fun?" As she repeats the question, her voice grows warm. In the moonlight, her wild eyes shine. After seeing so many two-dimensional photos of her at public events in the papers, it's odd to see her just sitting there. I thought I knew how she smiled and how she moved. I wasn't even close. In person, her whole face changes—the way her cheeks pitch and slightly redden at the excitement—there's no way to describe it. It's not that I'm starstruck, it's just.... I don't know how else to say it... she's looking at me. Just me. She slaps my leg. "No one was hurt, the Acura barely tapped us. At the very worst, we both scraped our bumpers. I mean, how many nights do you get to outrun the Secret Service and live to tell about it?"

"I do it every other Thursday. It's not that big a deal."

"Laugh all you want, but you have to admit it was a thrill." I look over my shoulder. We're completely alone. And I have to admit, she's right.

It takes about ten minutes before I realize we're lost. In the span of a few blocks, the immaculate brownstones of Dupont Circle have faded into the run-down tenements on the outskirts of Adams Morgan.

"We should've turned on 16th," I say.

"You have no idea what you're talking about."

"You're absolutely right; I'm two hundred percent clueless. And you want to know how I know that?" I pause for effect. "Because I trusted you to drive! I mean, what the hell was I thinking? You barely live here; you're never in a car; and when you are, it's usually in the backseat."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Just as she asks the question, I realize what I've said. Three years ago, right after her father got elected, during Nora's sophomore year at Princeton, Rolling Stone ran a scathing profile of what they called her college "Drug and Love Life." According to the article, two different guys claimed that Nora went down on them in the backseats of their cars while she was on Special K. Another source said she was doing coke; a third said it was heroin. Either way, based on the article, some horny little Internet-freak used Nora's full name—Eleanor—and wrote a haiku poem entitled "Knee—Sore Eleanor." A few million forwarded e-mails later, Nora gained her most notorious sobriquet—and her father saw his favorability numbers fall. When the story ran, President Hartson called up the editor of Rolling Stone and asked him to leave his daughter alone. From then on, they did. Hartson's numbers went back up. All was well. But the joke was already out there. And obviously, from the look on Nora's face, the damage had already been done.

"I didn't mean anything," I insist, backing away from my unintended insult. "I just meant that your family gets the limo treatment. Motorcades. You know, other people drive you."

Suddenly, Nora laughs. She has a sexy, hearty voice, but her laugh is all little girl.

"What'd I say?"

"You're embarrassed," she answers, amused. "Your whole face is red."

I turn away. "I'm sorry..."

"No, it's okay. That's really sweet of you. And it's even sweeter that you blushed. For once, I know it's real. Thank you, Michael."

She said my name. For the first time tonight, she said my name. I turn back to her. "You're welcome. Now let's get out of here."

Turning around on 14th Street and still searching for the small strip of land known as Adams Morgan, home to Washington's most overrated bars and best ethnic restaurants, we find ourselves weaving our way back from the direction we came. Surrounded by nothing but deserted buildings and dark streets, I start worrying. No matter how tough she is, the First Daughter of the United States shouldn't be in a neighborhood like this.

When we reach the end of the block, though, we see our first indication of civilized life: Around the corner is a small crowd of people coming out of the only storefront in sight. It's a large brick building that looks like it's been converted into a two-story bar. In thick black letters, the word "Pendulum" is painted on a filthy white sign. A hip, midnight blue light surrounds the edges of the sign. Not at all my kind of place.

Nora pulls into a nearby parking spot and turns off the ignition.

"Here?" I ask. "The place is a rathole."

"No, it's not. People are well dressed." She points to a man wearing camel-colored slacks and a tight black T-shirt. Before I can protest, she adds, "Let's go—for once, we're anonymous." She pulls a black baseball hat from the shoulder strap of her purse and lowers the brim over her eyes. It's a terrible disguise, but she says it works. Never been stopped yet.

We pay ten bucks at the door, step inside, and take a quick look around. The place is packed with the typical D.C. Thursday night crowd—most still in their suits, ties undone; some already in their Calvin Klein V-necks. In the corner, two men are playing pool. By the bar, two men are ordering drinks. Next to them, two men are holding hands. That's when I realize where we are: Besides Nora, there's not a woman in this place. We're standing in the middle of a gay bar.

Behind me, I feel someone grab my ass. I don't even bother to turn around. "Oh, Nora, how I wish you were a man."

"I'm impressed," she says, stepping forward. "You don't even look uncomfortable."

"Why should I be uncomfortable?"

From the gleam in her eye, I can tell she's setting up another test. She needs to know if I can hang with the cool kids. "So it's okay if we stay?"

"Absolutely," I say with a grin. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

She stares me down with that sexy look. For the moment, I pass.

We squeeze up to the bar and order drinks. I get a beer; she gets a Jack and Ginger. Following her lead, we head to the far end of the L-shaped bar, where it runs perpendicular to the wall. In a move that's been honed by years of being hounded and gawked at, Nora motions me into the last seat and puts her back to the crowd. For her, it's pure instinct. With her baseball cap covering her hair, there isn't a chance she's going to be recognized. The way she's set us up, the only one who can even see her is me. She takes one last overview of the room, then, satisfied, goes for her drink. "So have you always hugged your serious side?"

"What do you mean? I'm not—"

"Don't apologize for it," she interrupts. "It's who you are. I just want to know where it comes from. Family issues? Bitter divorce? Dad abandoned you and your m—?"

"Nobody did anything," I say. "What you see is me." By the tone of my answer, she thinks it's an issue. She's right. And it's not something she's getting on a first date. Searching for a smooth segue, I try to steer us back to safer subjects. "So tell me what you thought of Princeton. Enjoyable or Muffyville snob factory?"

"I didn't know you wanted to do an interview."

"Don't give me that. College tells you a lot about a person."

"College tells you jack squat—it's a rationalized decision based on nothing more than a vacuous campus visit and a prefigured range of SAT scores. Besides, you're almost thirty," she says with a lick-it-up grin, "that's ancient history for you. What've you done in between?"

"After law school? A quick clerkship, then off to a local law firm. To be honest, though, it was just a way to fill time between campaigns. Barth in the Senate, a few local council guys—then three months as the Hartson Campaign's Get-Out-the-Vote Chairman, Great State of Michigan." She doesn't respond and I get the sense she's judging me. Quickly, I add, "You know what a zoo it is to do it nationally—if I wanted any real responsibility, it was better for me to stay in-state."

"Better for you or better for your ego?"

"All of us. The headquarters was only twenty minutes from my house." She sees something in my answer. "So you wanted to be in Michigan?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"I don't know...smart guy like you...working in the Counsel's Office. Usually you guys run away from the hometowns."

"As a volunteer, it was a financial decision. Nothing more."

"And what about college and law school? Michigan for both, right?"

It's really incredible—when it comes to weaknesses, she knows exactly where to look. "School was a different story."

"Something with your parents?"

Once again, we've reached my limit. "Something personal. But it wasn't their fault."

"You always so forgiving?"

"You always so pushy?"

She rests an elbow on the bar, leans in close, and forces me back against the wall. "What you see is me," she says with a dark smile.

"Exactly," I tease back. "That's exactly my point." I hop off my stool and head toward her. In the Counsel's Office, it's the first rule they teach you: Never let them pin you down.

"Where you going?" she asks, blocking my way.

"Just to the restroom." I squeeze past her and everything between my chest and my thighs brushes against her. She grins. And doesn't give up an inch.

"Don't be too long," she purrs.

"Do I look that stupid?"

I return from the restroom just in time to see Nora taking a sip of my beer. I put a hand on the back of her shoulder. "You can order your own—they have plenty for everyone."

"I just needed it to take some aspirin," she explains, placing a small brown prescription vial back into her purse.

"Everything okay?"

"Just a headache." Pointing to the vial, she adds, "Want some?"

I shake my head.

"Suit yourself," she says with a grin. "But when you see this one, I think you're going to need it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

As I take my seat against the wall, Nora leans in close. "When you were on your way to the restroom, did you happen to see any familiar faces walk in?"

I look over her shoulder and scan the bar. "I don't think so. Why?"

Her grin goes wide. Whatever's going on, she's enjoying herself. "Far left corner of the room. By the video screen. White button-down. Saggy khakis."

My eyes follow her instructions. There's the video screen. There's the.... I don't believe it. Across the room, running his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, is Edgar Simon. White House Counsel. Lawyer to the President himself. My boss.

"Guess who just got the best office gossip?" Nora sings.

"This isn't funny."

"What's the big deal? So he's gay."

"That's not the point, Nora. He's married. To a woman. At his level, if this gets out, the press'll..."

Nora's smile falls away. "He's married? Are you sure?"

"For something like thirty years," I say nervously. "He's getting ready to send his first kid off to college." I lower my head to make sure he doesn't see me. "I just met his wife at that reception for AmeriCorps. Her name's Ellen. Or Elena. Something with an E."

"Dumb-ass, that's where you met me."

"Before you got there. Right when it started. Simon introduced me to her. They seemed really happy."

"And now he's here hoping for some extra tricks on the side. Man, when it comes to adulterers, my dad can pick 'em."

In the two weeks since we met, it's the fourth time Nora's made a reference to her father. And not just her father. The father. The father of the American people. The President of the United States. I have to admit, no matter how many times she says it, I don't think I'll ever get used to it.

Bent forward, with a sweaty hand grasping the edge of the bar, I'm frozen in position. Facing me, Nora has her back to Simon. "What's he doing now?" she asks.

Using her head to run interference, I refuse to look. If I can't see Simon, he can't see me.

"Tell me what he's doing," she insists.

"No way. He sees me, I'm meat. I won't get another assignment until I'm ninety."

"The way you're acting, that's not too far off." Before I can react, Nora grabs me by the collar and ducks her head down. As she holds me up, I get a good look at Simon.

"He's talking to someone," I blurt.

"Anyone we know?"

The stranger has curly black hair and is wearing a denim shirt. I shake my head. Never seen him before.

Nora can't help herself. She takes a quick peek and turns back around, just as the stranger hands Simon a small sheet of paper. "What was that?" Nora asks. "Are they exchanging numbers?"

"I can't tell. They're—" Just then, Simon looks my way. Right at me. Oh, shit. I drop my head before we make eye contact. Was I fast enough? With our foreheads touching, Nora and I look like we're searching for lost change under the bar.

Suddenly, a male voice says, "Can I help you?"

My heart sinks. I look up. It's just the bartender. "No, no," I stutter. "She just lost an earring."

When the bartender leaves, I turn back to Nora. She has an almost giddy look on her face. "Quick on your feet, macho man."

"What're you—"

Before I can finish, she says, "Where's he now?"

I raise my head and glance in his direction. The problem is, there's no one there. "I think he's gone."

"Gone?" Nora picks her head up. We're both scanning the bar. "There," she says. "By the door."

I turn to the door just in time to see Simon leave. I take another look around the bar. Pool table. Video screen. Along the wall by the restrooms. The guy in the denim shirt is gone too.

Nora responds like a lightning bolt. She grabs my hand and starts pulling. "Let's go."

"Where?"

"We should follow him."

"What? Are you nuts?"

She's still pulling. "C'mon, it'll be fun."

"Fun? Stalking your boss is fun? Getting caught is fun? Getting fired's f—"

"It'll be fun and you know it. Aren't you dying to know where he's going? And what was on the paper?" "My guess is he got the address for a nearby motel, where Simon and his denim-man can play Buy Me a Blowjob to their heart's content."

Nora laughs. "Buy Me a Blowjob?"

"I'm making a few assumptions—you know what I mean."

"Of course I know what you mean."

"Good. Then you also know there's nothing gained from a little gossip."

"Is that what you think? That I'm in it for the gossip? Michael, think about it for a second. Edgar Simon is the White House Counsel. Lawyer to my father. Now if he gets caught with his lasso out, who do you think's going to be publicly embarrassed? Besides Simon, who else do you think is going to take the black eye?"

Reference number five hits me where it hurts. Reelection's only two months away and Hartson's having a hard enough time as it is. Another black eye'll start the jockeying.

"What if Simon's not in it for the sex?" I ask. "What if he was meeting here for something else?"

Nora stares me down. Her let-me-drive eyes are working overtime.

"That's the best reason of all to go."

I shake my head. She's not talking me into this.

"C'mon, Michael, what're you gonna do—sit around here and spend the rest of your life playing what-if?"

"Y'know what—after everything else that happened tonight, sitting here is more than enough."

"And that's all you want? That's your big goal in life? To have enough?"

She lets the logic sink in before she goes for the kill. "If you don't want to follow, I understand. But I have to go. So give me your keys and I'll be out of your way."

No question about it. She'll be gone. And I'll be here.

I pull the keys from my pocket. She opens her hand.

I once again shake my head and tell myself I won't regret it. "You really think I'm going to let you go alone?"

She shoots me a smile and darts for the door. Without pause, I follow. The moment we get outside, I see Simon's black Volvo pull out from a spot up the street. "There he goes," I say.

We run down the block in a mad dash for my Jeep. "Throw me the keys," she says.

"Not a chance," I reply. "This time, I drive."

Copyright © 2001 by Forty-four Steps, Inc.  Excerpt used with permission from Time Warner Bookmark

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