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By Sandra Brown
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Barrie Travis is not famous; she’s just a damn good reporter stuck at a low-budget television station. Then, her old friend — now America’s First Lady — asks her to investigate the death of her baby. Stunned by grief after the loss of her infant son, the President’s wife hints that her child didn’t really die of SIDS; in reality, he may have been murdered.
Blind to everything but finding the truth, Barrie delves into the private lives of the president and his wife and uncovers dark and terrible secrets that will test her ethics, her patriotism, and her courage. With the help of Gray Bondurant, a mysterious former presidential aide, this story could topple the presidency and change the course of history.
In this fast-moving tale from a master of suspense, Barrie must fight powerful forces that want nothing more than to see the scandalous past — and a certain young reporter — dead and buried.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Deadline
Also by Sandra Brown
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"You're looking well, Mrs. Merritt."
"I look like hell."
Vanessa Merritt did indeed look like hell, but Barrie was embarrassed for having been caught paying an insincere compliment. She tried to recover gracefully. "After what you've been through, you're entitled to look a little frazzled. Any other woman, myself included, myself particularly, would settle for looking like you even at your worst."
"Thank you." She gave her cappuccino a desultory stir. If nerves conveyed sound, Vanessa Merritt's would have clattered like her spoon when she shakily returned it to the saucer. "God. For just one cigarette, I'd let you pull out all my fingernails with pliers."
She'd certainly never been seen smoking in public, so Barrie was surprised to learn that she was a smoker. Although a nicotine addiction might explain why she was so fidgety.
Her hands were never still. She twirled her strand of pearls, played with the discreet diamond studs in her earlobes, and repeatedly adjusted the Ray Bans that almost concealed the dark, puffy circles around her eyes.
Those spectacular eyes were largely responsible for her beauty. Until today. Today, those remarkable baby blues reflected pain and disillusionment. Today they looked like the eyes of an angel who'd just had her first, horrifying glimpse of hell.
"I'm fresh out of pliers," Barrie said. "But I have these." From her large leather satchel, she withdrew an unopened pack of cigarettes and slid it across the table.
It was obvious that Mrs. Merritt was tempted. Her haunted eyes nervously scanned the outdoor terrace of the restaurant. Only one other table was occupied, by several men, and one obsequious waiter hovered nearby. Even so, she declined the cigarette. "I'd better not. But feel free."
"I don't smoke. I only carry them in case I need to relax someone I'm interviewing."
"Before you come in for the kill."
Barrie laughed. "I only wish I were that dangerous."
"Actually you're better at human interest stories."
It came as a pleasant surprise that Mrs. Merritt was even aware of her work. "Thank you."
"Some of your reports have been quite exceptional. Like the one on the AIDS patient. And the one you did on the homeless single mother of four."
"That was nominated for an industry award." Barrie saw no reason to volunteer that she had entered the piece herself.
"It made me cry," Mrs. Merritt said.
"In fact, you're so good, I've often wondered why you're not affiliated with a network."
"I've had some tough breaks."
Vanessa Merritt's smooth brow wrinkled. "Wasn't there an issue over Justice Green that—"
"Yes, there was that," Barrie interrupted. This wasn't a conversation in which she wanted her failures itemized. "Why did you contact me, Mrs. Merritt? I'm delighted, but curious."
Vanessa Merritt's smile gradually faded. In a low, serious tone, she said, "I made myself clear, didn't I? This is not an interview."
She didn't. Barrie Travis didn't have a clue as to why Mrs. Merritt had phoned her out of the blue and invited her to have coffee. They'd been nodding acquaintances for the last few years, certainly not friends.
Even the choice of today's meeting place was curious. The restaurant was one of several along the shore of the channel that connected the Potomac with the Tidal Basin. After dark, the clubs and eateries along Water Street were filled with people, mostly tourists. Some did a respectable lunch trade, but in the middle of the afternoon, on a workday, the restaurants were virtually deserted.
Maybe this place had been chosen precisely for its seclusion.
Barrie dropped a sugar cube into her cappuccino, then idly stirred it as she stared out over the iron railing of the terrace.
It was a gloomy, overcast day. The channel was choppy. Houseboats and sailboats moored in the marina bobbed in the gray water. The canvas umbrella above their table snapped and popped in the gusty wind that carried the scent of rain and fish. Why were they sitting outside on such a blustery day?
Mrs. Merritt stirred the foamy milk in her cappuccino and finally took a sip. "It's cold now."
"Would you like another?" Barrie asked. "I'll signal the waiter."
"No, thanks. I didn't really want that one. Having coffee was just, you know…" She shrugged a shoulder that had once been stylishly slender but was now downright bony.
"It was just an excuse?" Barrie prodded.
Vanessa Merritt raised her head. Through the sunglasses, Barrie saw bleak honesty in the woman's eyes. "I needed to talk to someone."
"And you thought of me?"
"Because a couple of my stories made you cry?"
"That, and because of the sympathy note you sent. It touched me. Deeply."
"I'm glad it gave you some comfort."
"I… I don't have many close friends. You and I are about the same age. I thought you'd be a good sounding board." She lowered her head. A mane of chestnut hair tumbled forward, partially concealing her classic cheekbones and aristocratic chin.
In a quiet voice, Barrie said, "My note couldn't convey how very sorry I am for what happened."
"Actually it did. Thank you." Vanessa Merritt removed a tissue from her handbag and slipped it beneath the sunglasses to blot her eyes. "I don't know where they come from," she said of the tears being soaked up by the tissue. "I should be dehydrated by now."
"Is that what you want to talk about?" Barrie asked gently. "The baby?"
"Robert Rushton Merritt," she blurted forcefully. "Why does everyone avoid saying his name? He had a name, for heaven's sake. For three months, he was a person and he had a name."
She didn't give Barrie time to respond. "Rushton was my mother's maiden name," Mrs. Merritt explained. "She would have liked having her first grandchild named after her family."
Staring out over the turbulent waters of the channel, she continued talking in a faraway voice. "And I've always fancied the name Robert. It's a straightforward, no-bullshit name."
The vulgarity surprised Barrie. It was such a departure from Vanessa Merritt's southern-lady persona. In her whole life, Barrie had never felt so bereft of something to say. Under the circumstances, what would be appropriate? What could she say to a woman who had recently buried her baby? Nice funeral?
Suddenly Mrs. Merritt asked, "What do you know about it?"
Barrie was caught off guard. Was she being challenged? What do you know about losing a child? What do you really know about anything?
"Are you referring to…? Do you mean the baby's… I mean, Robert's death?"
"Yes. What do you know about it?"
"Nobody really knows about SIDS, do they?" Barrie asked, groping for the meaning behind the question.
Obviously changing her mind about the cigarette, Mrs. Merritt tore open the pack. Her motions were like those of a marionette, jerky and disjointed. The fingers that held the cigarette to her lips were trembling. Barrie quickly fished a lighter from her satchel. Vanessa Merritt didn't continue speaking until she'd deeply inhaled several times. The tobacco didn't calm her. Instead, she became increasingly agitated.
"Robert was sleeping, on his side, with one of those little pillows propping him up, the way I'd been shown to position him. It happened so fast! How could…" Her voice cracked.
"Are you blaming yourself? Listen." Barrie reached across the table, took the cigarette from Mrs. Merritt, and ground it out in the ashtray. Then she pressed the woman's cold hands between hers. The impulsive gesture was noticed by the men at the other table.
"Robert died of crib death. Losing a baby to SIDS happens to thousands of mothers and fathers every year, and there's not a single one of them who doesn't second-guess their parenting skills. It's human nature to assign blame to a tragedy, so people lay a guilt trip on themselves. Don't fall into that trap. If you start thinking you were responsible for your baby's death, you might never recover."
Mrs. Merritt was vigorously shaking her head. "You don't understand. It was my fault." Behind her sunglasses, her eyes darted about. She withdrew her hands from Barrie's, moved them from cheek to tabletop, to lap, to spoon, to neck, in a restless search for peace. "The last few months of my pregnancy were intolerable."
For several moments she covered her mouth with her hand, as though the last trimester had been unspeakably painful. "Then Robert was born. But instead of getting better, as I'd hoped, it only got worse. I couldn't…"
"Couldn't what? Cope? All new mothers experience postpartum and feel overwhelmed," Barrie assured her.
She kneaded her forehead with her fingertips. "You don't understand," she repeated in a strained whisper. "Nobody does. There's no one I can tell. Not even my father. Oh, God, I don't know what to do!"
Her emotional unraveling was so obvious that the men at the next table had turned to stare. The waiter approached, looking anxious.
Barrie spoke quickly beneath her breath. "Vanessa, please, get a grip. Everybody's watching."
Whether it was because Barrie had addressed her by her first name or for some other reason, the emotional collapse immediately reversed itself. Her nervously active hands fell still. Her tears dried instantly. She downed the cold cappuccino she had claimed moments earlier not to want, then finished by daintily blotting her colorless lips with her napkin. Barrie watched the transformation with amazement.
Wholly restored, in a cool, composed voice, she said, "This conversation was strictly off the record, right?"
"Absolutely," Barrie replied. "You made that understood when you called me."
"Considering your position, and mine, I see now that it was a mistake to arrange this meeting. I haven't been myself since Robert died. I thought I needed to talk about it, but I was wrong. Talking about it only makes me more distraught."
"You've lost your baby. You're entitled to unravel." Barrie laid her hand on the other woman's arm. "Be kinder to yourself. SIDS just happens."
She removed her sunglasses and looked directly into Barrie's eyes. "Does it?"
Then Vanessa Armbruster Merritt, First Lady of the United States, replaced the Ray Bans, slipped the strap of her handbag onto her shoulder, and stood up. The Secret Service agents at the next table came hastily to their feet. They were joined by three others, who'd been standing post along the iron railing, out of sight.
As a group they closed ranks around the First Lady and escorted her from the terrace of the restaurant to a waiting limousine.
Barrie dug into her satchel in search of coins for the cold drink machine. "Anybody got a couple of quarters I can borrow?"
"Not for you, sweetcheeks," replied a videotape editor who was walking past. "You've already stiffed me seventy-five cents."
"I'll pay you back tomorrow. Swear."
"Forget it, sugarbuns."
"You ever heard of sexual harassment in the workplace?" she called after him.
"Sure. I voted for it," he retorted over his shoulder.
Barrie gave up on retrieving any coins from the bottom of her bag, deciding that a diet drink was hardly worth the effort of the search.
She wove her way through the television station's newsroom, working the maze of cubicles until she reached her own. One look at the surface of her desk would have made an obsessive-compulsive take a razor to his wrists. Barrie slung her satchel onto the desk, knocking three magazines to the floor in the process.
"Do you ever read any of those?"
The familiar voice caused Barrie to groan. Howie Fripp was the news department's assignments editor, her immediate supervisor, and an all-around pain in the butt.
"Of course I read them," she lied. "Cover to cover."
She subscribed to a number of periodicals. The magazines arrived regularly, creating skyscrapers on her desk until she was forced to throw them away, more often than not unread. She faithfully read her monthly horoscope in Cosmopolitan. That was about the extent of the time she spent with the magazines, but on principle alone she wouldn't let her subscriptions lapse. All good broadcast journalists were news junkies, reading everything they could get their hands on.
And she was a good broadcast journalist.
"Doesn't it bother your conscience to know that thousands of trees give up their lives just to keep you in reading matter that you don't read?"
"Howie, you're what bothers me. Besides, you're one to preach environmental awareness when the smoke from your four packs a day pollutes the atmosphere."
"Not to mention my farts."
She despised that evil little grin of his almost as much as she despised the small minds that managed WVUE, a low-budget, substandard, independent television station struggling to survive among the monolithic news operations in Washington, D.C. She'd had to beg for the budget to produce the feature stories that had won the First Lady's praise. She had ideas for many others. But the station's management, including Howie, weren't of a similar mind. Her ideas were blocked by men who lacked vision, talent, and energy. She didn't belong here.
Isn't that the belief clung to by prison inmates?
"Thank you, Howie, for not mentioning your farts."
She plopped down in her desk chair and dug tunnels through her hair with her fingers, holding it off her face. Her coiffure hadn't been much to brag about, but the damp wind on the restaurant terrace had played havoc with it.
Strange choice of meeting places.
Even stranger was the meeting itself.
What purpose did it serve?
On the drive back to the station, Barrie had reviewed each word that was said during her visit with the First Lady. She'd analyzed every inflection in Vanessa Merritt's voice, gauged each hand gesture, assessed her body language, reviewed that disturbing final question that had served as her goodbye, but she still couldn't pinpoint exactly what had happened. Or exactly what hadn't.
"Checked your e-mail?" Howie asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"That tiger that escaped from the traveling carnival? They found him. He hadn't escaped after all. Ergo, no story."
"Oh nooo!" she said dramatically. "And I was so looking forward to covering that."
"Hey, it could've been big news. The cat could've eaten a kid or something." He looked genuinely forlorn over the missed opportunity.
"It was a crap assignment, Howie. You always stick me with the crap assignments. Is it because you don't like me, or because I'm a woman?"
"Jeez, not that feminist routine again. You PMS, or what?"
She sighed. "Howie, you're hopeless."
Hopeless. That was it. Vanessa Merritt had seemed hopeless.
Impatient to explore that avenue of thought, Barrie said, "Look, Howie, unless there's something specific that's brought you by, I've got a lot to do here, as you can see."
Howie backed up to the partition separating her stall—as she thought of the cramped cubicle—from the neighboring one. Regardless of the season, he wore short-sleeved white shirts. Always. Always with black trousers that were always shiny. His neckties were clip-on. Today's selection was particularly ugly and had a stain on its fraying tip, which reached only the center of his barrel chest, which was far out of proportion to his nonexistent butt and spindly, bowed legs.
Crossing his arms and ankles simultaneously, he said, "A story would be nice, Barrie. You know, a story. What you're paid to produce, more or less on a daily basis. How about one for this evening's news?"
"I was working on one that didn't pan out," she muttered as she booted up her computer.
"What was it?"
"Since it didn't pan out, what's the point of discussing it?"
Vanessa Merritt had said that the months leading up to her baby's birth had been intolerable. Even without the strong, descriptive word, her demeanor alone had made it clear that she'd had a very rough time. Following the child's birth, "intolerable" had gotten worse. But what had been so intolerable? And why tell me?
Howie rambled on, unaware that she was only half-listening. "I'm not asking for live coverage of somebody getting his head blown off, or man's first steps on Mars, or some extremist from the Nation of Islam holding the pope hostage in the Vatican. A nice, simple little story would do. Something. Anything. Sixty seconds of fill between the second and third commercial breaks. That's all I'm asking for."
"How short-sighted of you, Howie," Barrie remarked. "If that's the best motivational speech you can give, no wonder you get such unsatisfactory results from your underlings."
He uncrossed his limbs and drew himself up to his full height of five feet six inches, and that was with elevators in his scuffed wingtips. "You know what your problem is? You've got stars in your eyes. You want to be Diane Sawyer. Well, here's a news flash for you—you aren't. And you aren't ever going to be. You aren't ever going to be married to a famous movie director or have your own news magazine show. You aren't ever going to have respect and credibility in this business. Because you're a screw-up and everybody in the industry knows it. So stop waiting for the big story and settle for something that you and your limited talent can handle. Something I can put on the air. Okay?"
Barrie had tuned him out just after the "stars in your eyes" statement. The first time she'd heard this speech was the day he hired her, out of the goodness of his heart, he'd said. Besides, he'd added, management had been after him to hire another "skirt," and Barrie was "okay-looking." She'd heard the same speech almost every workday since. Three years of them.
There were a few messages on her e-mail, but nothing that couldn't be handled later. She turned off her computer and came to her feet. "It's too late to do anything for tonight, Howie. But I'll have a story for you tomorrow. Promise." Grabbing her satchel, she slung it back onto her shoulder.
"Hey! Where're you going?" he shouted after her as she brushed past him.
"To the library."
As she passed the cold drink machine, she banged it with her fist. A Diet Coke rolled out of the chute.
She took that as a good omen.
* * *
Juggling her satchel, an armload of library books, and her keys, Barrie unlocked the back door of her townhouse and stumbled inside. The moment she crossed the threshold, she was subjected to an ardent, wet kiss on the lips.
"Thanks, Cronkite." She wiped the slobber from her face. "I love you, too."
Cronkite and the rest of his litter had been destined for euthanasia at the pound on the day that Barrie decided she needed a four-legged companion after a two-legged one announced he needed space and walked out of her life forever.
She'd had a difficult time choosing which pup to spare, but she'd never regretted her choice. Cronkite was large and long-haired, with definite ripples of golden retriever in his gene pool. Big brown eyes adored her worshipfully now, while his tail beat a happy tattoo against her calf.
"Go do your thing," she told him, nodding toward her patch of backyard. "Use your doggie door." He whined. Barrie sighed. "Okay, I'll wait. But hurry. These books are heavy."
He watered several shrubs happily, then dashed inside ahead of Barrie.
"Let's see if there's anything interesting in the mail," she said as she made her way to the entry where her mail lay in a heap beneath the slot in the front door. "Bill, bill, overdue bill. Invitation to dinner at the White House." She looked at the dog, who tilted his head inquisitively. "Just checking to see if you were paying attention."
Cronkite followed her upstairs to her bedroom, where she exchanged her dress and heels for a Redskins jersey that came almost to her knees and a pair of gym socks. After running a brush through her hair, she pulled it into a ponytail. Regarding her reflection in the mirror, she mumbled, "Stunning," then put her appearance out of her mind and focused on work.
Over the years, she had cultivated numerous sources—clerks, secretaries, illicit lovers, chambermaids, cops, a handful of people in key positions—who occasionally provided her with valuable information and reliable leads. One was a young woman named Anna Chen, who worked in the administration office of D.C. General Hospital. The juicy scuttlebutt Anna Chen picked up through the hospital grapevine frequently led to good stories. She was one of Barrie's most reliable sources.
Hoping it wasn't too late to catch her at the office, Barrie looked up her number in her home Rolodex and dialed. The hospital operator put her right through.
"Hi, Anna. This is Barrie Travis. Glad I caught you."
"I was on my way out. What's up?"
"What would be my chances of getting a copy of the Merritt baby's autopsy report?"
"Is this a joke?"
"Nigh to impossible, Barrie. Sorry."
"I thought so, but it never hurts to ask."
"Why do you want it?"
She did some verbal acrobatics as to her reason, which seemed to pacify her source. "Thanks anyway, Anna."
Disappointed, Barrie hung up. An autopsy report would have been a good starting point, although she was still unclear as to exactly what she was starting.
"What do you want for dinner, Cronkite?" she asked as she loped downstairs to the kitchen. She opened the pantry and recited the menu selections. "Tonight's specialties include Kibbles and Bits, Alpo chicken and liver, or Gravy Train." He whined with disappointment. Taking pity, she said, "Luigi's?" Out came his long, pink tongue, and he began panting like a pervert at a peep show.
Her conscience told her to have a Lean Cuisine for dinner, but what the hell? When you spent your evenings at home in a football jersey and gym socks, conversing with a mongrel and having nothing to look forward to except hours of research, what difference did a few hundred fat grams make?
While she was on the telephone ordering two pizzas, Cronkite began whining to go outside. She covered the telephone mouthpiece. "If it's that urgent, use your doggie door." Cronkite glanced disdainfully at the opening cut in the back door. It was large enough to accommodate Cronkite, but not so large that she worried about intruders. As she was reiterating her pizza order, she jabbed her index finger toward the doggie door. Looking humiliated, Cronkite crawled through it. She was off the phone by the time he was ready to come back inside, so she opened the back door for him. "The pizzas are guaranteed in twenty-five minutes or we get them free."
While waiting for the delivery, she poured a glass of merlot and carried it up to the third floor, which she had converted into a home office. She had cashed in a trust fund to purchase the townhouse, located in the fashionable Dupont Circle district. The building was quaint and had character and was also convenient to everything in the city.
Initially she had leased out the top floor, which was a self-contained apartment. But when her renter moved to Europe with six months left on her lease, Barrie used the extra money to convert the three cramped rooms into one large studio/office.
One entire wall of the room was now devoted to videotape storage. She had shelves upon shelves of them. She saved all her own reports, newscasts of historical significance, and every news magazine show. The tapes were alphabetized according to subject. She went straight to the tape she wanted, loaded it into the VCR, and watched it while slowly sipping her wine.
The death and funeral of Robert Rushton Merritt had been thoroughly documented. The tragedy seemed doubly unfair since it had happened to the Merritts, whose marriage was considered the epitome of perfection.
President David Malcomb Merritt could have been a poster boy for any young American male who aspired to hold the office. He was classically handsome, athletic, attractive, and charismatic to men and women alike.
Vanessa Merritt was the perfect armpiece for her husband. She was gorgeous. Her beauty and southern-bred charm somehow made up for any shortcomings. Such as wit. And wisdom. She wasn't considered a dynamo in the brains department, but nobody seemed to care. The public had wanted a First Lady with whom to fall in love, and Vanessa Armbruster Merritt had easily fulfilled that need.
David's parents were long deceased. He had no living relatives. Vanessa's father, however, more than compensated for this lack. Cletus Armbruster had been the senior senator from Mississippi for as long as anyone could remember. He'd survived more presidents than most Americans remembered voting for.
Together they formed a photogenic triumvirate as famous as any royal family. Not since the Kennedy administration had an American president, his wife, and their personal life attracted so much public attention and adoration, nationwide and around the world. Everything they did, everywhere they went, singly or together, created a stir.
Consequently, America went positively ga-ga when it was announced that the First Lady was pregnant with the couple's first child. The baby would make perfection even more perfect.
The baby's birth was given more press than Desert Storm or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Barrie remembered watching, from a newsroom monitor, the umpteenth story on the Merritt baby's arrival at the White House. Howie had sourly remarked, "Should we be on the lookout for a bright star in the East?"
The only event to receive as much news coverage was that same baby's death three months later.
The world was plunged into shock and grief. No one wanted to believe it. No one could believe it. America mourned.
Barrie finished her wine, rewound the videotape for the third time, and watched again as the funeral scenes sadly unfolded.
Looking pale and tragically beautiful in her mourning suit, Vanessa Merritt was unable to stand without assistance. It was obvious to all that her heart was broken. It had taken years for her to conceive a child, another personal aspect of her life that had been explored and exploited in great detail by the media. To lose the child she'd struggled to bear made her a truly tragic heroine.
The President looked courageously stoic as tears streaked his lean cheeks and ran into the attractive furrows on either side of his mouth. Pundits commented on his attentiveness to his wife. On that day, David Merritt was seen primarily as a husband and father who happened also to be the chief executive.
Senator Armbruster wept unashamedly into a white handkerchief. His contribution to his grandson's small coffin was a tiny Mississippi state flag, sticking up among the white roses and baby's breath.
- PRAISE FOR SANDRA BROWN
- "A masterful storyteller, carefully crafting tales that keep readers on the edge of their seats."—USA Today
- "Author Sandra Brown proves herself top-notch."—Associated Press
- "Sandra Brown has continued to grow with every novel."—Dallas Morning News
- "A novelist who can't write them fast enough."—San Antonio Express-News
- "Brown has few to envy among living authors."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 1997
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing