Facebook Twitter Email

Excerpt: Political Suicide


MAY 3, 2003

The three men, members of Mantis Company, slipped out the open hatch of the C-130 transport as it flew sixty-five thousand feet above the world. They had trained for this jump countless times. Their gear, ballistic helmets, oxygen masks, Airox O2 regulators, bailout bottles—all fastidiously maintained—assured them a successful land- ing. Altimeters marked their belly-to-earth rate of descent at 115 miles per hour. Minutes of free fall were spent in an effortless dive, with the men dropping in formation, still and straight. Automatic activation devices engaged the parachutes eight hundred feet before impact, the lowest altitude allowed for combat high altitude–low opening jumps.

They descended through the low cloud covering like missiles, emerging out of nothingness beneath a starless predawn sky. Their landings, each completed with a puma’s grace, would have made their instructors back at Quantico proud. Perfection. Mantis demanded nothing less. In silence, the three exchanged their polypropylene undergarments, vital to protect against frostbite at high altitudes, for white cotton robes and the traditional head coverings of Taliban fighters. Then they zippered shut their fifty-pound combat packs.

Wearing their dusty garments, the men anticipated they would not immediately rouse any suspicion. Each of the three had a tanning booth tan supplemented by professionally applied makeup, as well as a closely trimmed mustache and a fully grown beard. Moving stealthily, the trio blended in with their surroundings—a mountainous, rocky region in southern Afghanistan, barren as a moonscape.

“Any injuries?”

“No, Sergeant,” the two men replied in unison. “Miller, how many klicks to the target?”

Miller checked his handheld GPS. “Five kilometers south-southwest of the target, Sergeant.”

“Gibson, ditch the gear.”

Gibson knew not to look long for a suitable location in which to hide their parachutes and other equipment. By the time any Afghani stumbled upon the array of high-tech military paraphernalia hidden behind a jagged boulder, it hopefully would be too late.

They walked in single file, moving silently across the rock-strewn terrain, with Miller and his GPS taking the lead. Behind them, dawn rose in streaks of brilliant pinks, yellows, and blues—giant fingers extending skyward, beckoning the new day. If anyone had checked the men’s pulses at that moment, none would be above fifty beats per minute.

Miller found the road, a rutted stretch of dirt that would carry them to the outskirts of Khewa, a town of twenty thousand that would look the same today as it did a century and a half ago. Young women wearing chadors stopped farming the fields of wheat, rice, and vegetables lining the roadside to give the trio a cursory glance before quickly resuming their duties. The marines’ disguises were good enough so that none of the women bothered with a closer inspection. They had estimated that unless their luck was extremely bad, they could survive twelve hours or so before they were identified by soldiers or one of the villagers.

Way more than enough time.

The men of Mantis Company reached the crumbling clay brick walls of Khewa’s borders without incident. The town was defined by its absences—no cars, no electricity, no running water. Evidence of twenty years of war was seen everywhere. Craters left by bombs and land mines made what limited roads there were treacherous to pass even on foot. Bombed-out buildings and homes were in greater num- ber than habitable ones.

The smells of the market guided the men toward their destination. They wandered about casually through shabby stalls built of boards, sheets, and mud and bunched together on each side of a single-lane dirt road. The central market was already bustling despite the newness of the day. In some stalls, slabs of fly-covered meat dangled like macabre wind chimes, while bloodstained butchers called out the day’s prices in Pashto. Persian music blasted from cheap radios as the marines continued their stroll past stalls selling fruit, breads, and rudimentary household supplies.

Two hours had brought a sweltering midmorning before they caught the attention of a town elder.

“Don’t look now,” Gibson said, his voice hushed, “but it looks like we’ve been noticed.”

The Afghani, with a white beard descending to his chest, carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, approached the men the way he might a poisonous snake.

The three marines turned their backs to the man and moved well away from the women and children in the crowded market. To the extent they could control it, this operation was going to be soldiers only. When they finally stopped, the Afghani took two cautious steps toward them . . . then a third. His dark eyes narrowed. Then he began to shout and point frantically.

His shrill voice rose above the market’s din, catching the attention of more men dressed in dirty gray or white robes, each, it seemed, carrying a weapon different in make and age from the others. The commotion rapidly crescendoed, with more Afghani men—some armed, some not—racing up from all directions to surround the in- truders. They were screaming, shouting in Pashto, and pointing long, dirt-encrusted fingernails at the three men now trapped inside the rapidly expanding circle.

“How do you like the show so far, Miller?” the sergeant asked, barely moving his lips.

“Just what you told us, Sarge,” Miller said without a waver in his voice. “Provided they go and get Mr. Big.” He moistened his lips with his tongue.

The Taliban fighters were ten deep now, 150 of them at least, many with weapons leveled—PK machine guns, ancient Lee-Enfields, plus a variety of handguns. They were pushing and shoving to get a closer look at the men who had so brazenly strolled into the center of their city.

“Just keep your hands raised,” the sergeant said to both his men,

“and keep scanning the crowd for Al-Basheer. If our intelligence is correct, none of them will make a move until he gets here.”

The closest men in the milling circle were a smothering five or six feet away.

Miller spotted Al-Basheer first. His orange beard and bulbous nose were distinct giveaways.

“That’s him, Sergeant,” Miller said as the crowd parted to admit their leader, one of the most powerful and influential fighters in the region.

Al-Basheer strode through the ranks. The sergeant smiled and nodded, and immediately the three marines formed a tight triangle, facing outward with their shoulders touching. The sudden movement caused some of those surrounding them to step back.

But not Al-Basheer.

“Whatever it takes,” the sergeant said. “Whatever it takes,” Miller and Gibson echoed.

In a singular motion, the three men threw off their robes. The crowd began screaming again.

Strapped to each intruder’s chest were bricks of explosive—three on the right side and three on the left—with wires connected to a battery hinged to their waists.

“Whatever it takes,” the sergeant said again.

The push of a button, a faint click, and in an instant, every man in the warrior circle was vaporized within a white hot ball of carefully concentrated light.


Dr. Louis Francis Welcome could do a lot of things well, but doing nothing was not one of them. His desk at the Washington, D.C., Phy- sician Wellness Office, one of four cubicle work areas jammed inside 850 square feet had never been so uncluttered. On a typical mid- afternoon, the voice mail light on Lou’s Nortel telephone would be blinking red—a harbinger that one or more of his doctor clients needed advice and support in their recovery from mental illness, be- havioral problems, or drug and alcohol abuse. At the moment, that light was dark, as it had been for much of the past several days.

Lou got paid to manage cases and monitor the progress of his as- signed physicians, with the express goals of guiding them into recovery and eventually getting surrendered licenses reinstated. The holiday season inevitably brought an influx of new docs, often ordered to the PWO by the D.C. board of medicine.

But not recently.

He strongly suspected the lack of clients did not indicate a dwin- dling need for PWO services. On the contrary, as with the general population, the stress accompanying the last six weeks of the year un- masked plenty of physicians in trouble for a variety of reasons. So why in the hell, he mused, absently constructing a chain from the contents of his inlaid mother-of-pearl paper clip box, was he not getting any new cases?

There was, he knew, only one logical explanation for the paucity of referrals—Dr. Walter Filstrup, the director of the program.

Rhythmically compressing a rubber relaxation ball imprinted with pfizer pharmaceuticals, Lou sauntered over to the reception desk, where Babs Peterbee seemed to be quite busy.

“Hi, there, Dr. Welcome,” she said, her round, matronly face radi- ating a typical mix of caring and concern. “I didn’t see you come in.”

“Ninja Doctor,” Lou said, striking a pose. “Any calls?”

“A man who said he wanted to talk to you about the head of his department drinking too much. I referred him to Dr. Filstrup’s voice mail.”

“Did you get his name?”

Peterbee forced a smile. “Not my job.”

The woman’s favorite phrase. Lou said the words in unison with her. The woman definitely knew how to make it through her day un- scathed. Not my job.

“BP, is Walter in?” Lou asked. “His door’s been closed since I got here.”

“He’s having a telephone meeting right now,” Peterbee said, cocking her head to the right, toward the only door in the suite except for the one to the small conference room across from her. The door was also the only one with a name placard, this one bronze and elegantly embossed with Filstrup’s name and degree.

“Is this a real meeting, or a Filstrup meeting?”

Again, Peterbee strained to smile. “How’s your daughter?” she asked. “Emily’s doing great, thank you,” Lou said, shifting his six-foot frame from one foot to the other and switching the Pfizer ball to his left hand. “She’s closing in on fourteen-going-on-thirty, and is far more skilled than even our esteemed boss at skirting issues she doesn’t want to deal with. So I’ll ask again, is Walter really busy?”

This time Peterbee glanced down at her phone bank and shook her head, as though she was no longer betraying whatever promise she had made to Filstrup. “Looks like he’s off now.”

“When the Employee of the Year awards come up, BP, I’m nominating you. Such loyalty.”

“You mean poverty.”

“That, too. His overall mood?” “I would say, maybe Cat-Two.”

The small staff at the PWO measured the volatile director’s de- meanor on the Saffir–Simpson scale used by meteorologists to rate the power of hurricanes.

“Cat Two isn’t so bad,” Lou said, mostly to himself. “Blustery but not life threatening.”

“It won’t stay that way if you go barging in there, Dr. Welcome,” Peterbee admonished.

Lou blew her a kiss. “Never fear,” he said. “I’ve got a Kevlar life preserver on under my shirt.”

Lou knocked once on Filstrup’s door and opened it. The director’s office, filled with neatly arranged medical textbooks and bound psy- chiatric journals, was even less cluttered than Lou’s cubicle, a reflec- tion not of the man’s thin calendar, but of his overriding need for order.

Fit and trim, wearing his invariable dark blue suit, wrinkle-free white dress shirt, and solid-colored tie—this day some shade of gray— Filstrup shot to his feet, his face reddening by the nanosecond. “Leave immediately, Welcome, then knock and wait.”

“And you’ll beckon me in?”

“No, I’ll tell you I’m expecting an important call, and you should come back in an hour.”

Lou pulled back the Aeron chair opposite Filstrup and sat. On the desk to his right was an orderly pile of dictations to review, alongside a stack of client charts. No one could accuse the man of not running a sphincter-tight ship.

“I haven’t seen you for most of the week, boss, so I thought I’d stop by and find out how business was.”

“Snideness was never one of your most endearing qualities, Welcome, although I’ll have to admit that it’s not one of your worst, either.”

“Who’s monitoring all these cases?” Lou asked, gesturing toward the stacks. “Certainly not me.”

Filstrup looked down, favoring Lou with an unobstructed view of his bald spot, and theatrically signed a form that  Lou  suspected might be the equivalent in importance of a follow-up survey from the census bureau. “The board of trustees keeps renewing your contract,” Filstrup said, “but they don’t say how I’m supposed to use you.”

“How about some work?” Lou asked, his tone not quite pleading, but close. “I’m champing at the bit.”

“You have cases to monitor,” Filstrup said.

“What I have is a handful of doctors who are in terrific, solid recov- ery,” Lou said. “I’m here to be helpful. I like doing this job, and I’ve never gone this long without getting a new case to monitor. What gives, Walter?”

“What gives is we have a new hire who’s working full-time, and

I’ve got to get him up to speed on what we do around here and the way that we’re supposed do it. You know yourself that the best way to indoctrinate somebody new is to get them huffing and puffing in the field.

“Huffing and puffing,” Lou said. “I like the image. Colorful. Asthmatic even.”

“Wiseass,” Filstrup grumbled.

“So I’m being punished because I’m not full-time, even though I’ve done more than my share of huffing and puffing?”

Lou had been part-time with the PWO for five years. Five years before that, he was one of their clients, being monitored for amphetamine and alcohol dependence—the former used to cope with a killer moonlighting schedule, and the latter to come down from the speed. It was Lou’s belief that having battled his own addiction ben- efited the docs assigned to him. Filstrup, who was hired by the board well after Lou, would not concur.

“That’s not it at all,” Filstrup said. “You’re working almost full-time in the Eisenhower Memorial emergency room, and twenty hours a week here.”

“Can you spell ‘alimony’? Listen, Walter, I enjoy both my jobs and I need the income, so I put in a little extra time. Have there been com- plaints?”

“Since you got moved from the hospital annex back to the big ER, you’ve seemed stressed.”

“Only by my reduced caseload. There should be enough work for both Oliver and me.”

“I told you,” Filstrup said. “Oliver needs to get up to speed.”  “This wouldn’t have anything to do with him being a psychiatrist like yourself? Would it?”

“Of course not,” Filstrup replied, dismissing the statement with a wave.

Lou knew better. He and Filstrup had been at odds since day one, in large measure over their disagreement as to whether addiction was an illness or a moral issue.

“Does Oliver think every monitoring client should go through extensive psychotherapy?”

“It doesn’t always have to be extensive,” Filstrup said.

Don’t drink, go to meetings, and ask a higher power for help.

Lou knew that the terse, three-pronged instruction manual was all that the majority of addicts and alcoholics involved with AA ever needed. Psychotherapy had its place with some of them, but protracted, expensive treatment was often over the top.

He could sense their exchange was getting out of hand, and kept quiet by reminding himself, as he did from time to time for nearly every one of his docs, that whether the stone hit the vase, or the vase hit the stone, it was going to be bad for the vase.

Filstrup removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with a cloth from his desk drawer. Lou thought the gray tie would have done just as well.

“Just because you were once a drug addict,” Filstrup went on, “doesn’t give your opinions greater authority here.”

“I can’t believe we’re going at it like this because I came in here to ask for more work.”

The phone rang before Filstrup could retort. He flashed an annoyed look and pushed the intercom button. “I thought I told you to hold all my calls, Mrs. Peterbee,” Filstrup said.

I thought you were expecting one, Lou mused.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Filstrup,” the receptionist said. “Actually, this is for Dr. Welcome. I have the caller on hold.”

Lou gave Filstrup a bewildered look. “Who is it, Mrs. P?” Lou asked.

“Our client, Dr. Gary McHugh,” Peterbee said. “He said it’s urgent.” Filstrup reflexively straightened up. “McHugh, the society doc?”  he said. “Put him through.” Filstrup allowed the call to click over, then said in an cheery voice, “Gary, it’s Walter Filstrup. How are you doing?”

The director’s conciliatory tone churned Lou’s stomach, but it was not an unexpected reaction, given who was on the other line. Gary McHugh tended to the D.C. carriage trade and probably numbered among his patients a significant portion of all three branches of the government. He was renowned for his acumen, loyalty, and discretion, as well as for making house calls. What he was not known for, at least within the confines of the D.C. Physician Wellness Office, was for being one of Lou Welcome’s closest friends since their undergraduate days together at Georgetown.

Several years before, McHugh had lost his driver’s license for op- erating under the influence and refusing to take a field sobriety test. The board of medicine’s knee-jerk policy was to refer such physician offenders to the PWO, and in the absence of another associate direc- tor, Lou was placed in charge of his case.

Although McHugh adhered to the letter of his monitoring con- tract, he regarded the whole business as something of a joke. Lou could not help but enjoy the man’s spirit, intelligence, and panache, even though he never had much trust in the strength of McHugh’s recovery—too much ego and way too few AA meetings. Still, McHugh, a sportsman and pilot with his own pressurized Cessna, had always been irrepressible, and Lou looked forward to their re- quired monthly progress meetings, as well as to any other chance they had to get together.

“Am I on speakerphone?” McHugh barked.

“I was just finishing a meeting with Lou Welcome,” Filstrup said, as if the appointment had been on his calendar for weeks.

“Dr. Filstrup, I need to speak with him.” “I’m here,” Lou said.

“Dr. Welcome, get me off speaker, please.”

Lou stifled a grin at Filstrup’s discomfort, and with a what can you do? expression, took the receiver. “Hey, Gary,” he said, pressing the phone to his ear to seal off as much sound as possible, “what gives?”

“Welcome, thank God you’re there. I’m in trouble—really, really big trouble. I need to see you right away.”

“Talk to me.”

“I can’t. Not from where I am.” “Where, then?”

“My house. You have the address?” “Of course,” Lou said.

“When can you get there?”

Filstrup kept quiet and still. Lou forced any urgency from his voice, and pressed the receiver even tighter against his ear. He checked his Mickey Mouse watch, a Father’s Day gift from Emily. Nearly four— eight hours before he was due at the ER for the graveyard shift. McHugh lived in a tony neighborhood, midway between the Capitol and An- napolis.

“I can be there in about forty-five minutes,” Lou said.

“Get here in thirty,” McHugh urged. “Before too much longer, the police are going to show up here to arrest me.”

“For what?”

“For murder.” He hung up without saying good-bye.

Chapter 2


The word reverberated through Lou’s mind as he left the city and headed east.

Gary McHugh, suave, adventurous, almost painfully popular, believed he was about to be arrested for killing someone—not killing, but murdering.

Who? How? For the moment, the questions far outstripped their answers. One thing that did make sense was that McHugh’s first move would be to call Lou. Their history together was a colorful and at times wildly adventurous one that included parachuting with two magnums of champagne onto a remote field, where two bewildered women were waiting with their picnic baskets for their double blind dates to arrive. If Lou were in mortal trouble, there were few people he would turn to before calling McHugh.

The December afternoon was already dark, and the wipers on Lou’s ten-year-old Camry were working to keep up with a fine, windblown snow. He pulled off of Route 50 and onto a secondary road lined with McMansions, many of which were already decorated for Christmas. White bulb country, Lou had once heard someone describe upscale neighborhoods such as this one—understated holiday decor featuring small white lights on the front shrubs and electric candles in every window. Nice enough, but he was still partial to the tangled strings of blinking colored bulbs outlining Dimitri’s Pizza shop, just below his apartment in D.C.

It was one of Walter Filstrup’s few sensible rules that clients be identified only by their assigned numbers, and that no doctor’s name could be removed from the office. In a totally out-of-character concession to the man, Lou kept his client numbers next to their initials on a card in his wallet, and their contact information locked in his smartphone, which, at that moment, was resting on the worn passenger seat of the Toyota. McHugh’s cell phone number was in it, but if he had wanted Lou to call, he would have said so.


What in the hell is the man talking about?

The two of them had met once or twice a month since McHugh’s monitoring contract became active, sometimes at the PWO, sometimes at McHugh’s home or D.C. office, and less frequently at a restaurant. Filstrup insisted that Lou include a credit card validation that he paid for his own meal. Lou never reacted maturely to being told what to do, and he resented the implication that he or the other associate director could be bought—certainly not for the price of a dinner. So, even though Filstrup’s policy made some sense, Lou had taken trips in McHugh’s plane, and gone to a couple of Redskins games thanks to his friend’s season tickets.

As things evolved between them, McHugh did test Lou once by claiming he never had the time to see a doctor, and had ordered some Percocets from an Internet pharmacy in Canada to deal with a chronically balky back. His reasoning was that alcohol was the substance that had gotten him a PWO contract, not painkillers. Lou made little attempt to point out the foolishness of that belief, or the quickness with which a positive random urine test for Percocet or any such drug would get his license pulled. McHugh’s denial was as thick as a glacier, but he still knew what was at stake, so Lou extracted a promise that, when the Percocet bottles arrived in the promised plain brown wrapper, they would be opened in his presence and the pills dumped in the toilet.

After the pills had been disposed of, Lou sat beside the phone as McHugh made an appointment with his orthopedist. The final steps would be the assurance that the orthopedist had been informed of McHugh’s status with the PWO, and would provide the program a copy of any prescription he wrote.

“No thanks necessary,” Lou had said as the last of the Percocets swirled down the toilet.

“None given,” McHugh had replied testily.

Not long after that exchange, when Lou mentioned in passing that Emily was assigned to do a school report on a new piece of environmental legislation, McHugh arranged for the congressman sponsoring the actual bill to speak at Emily’s school. Case closed. Friendship preserved.

Lou cruised through the gated entrance of McHugh’s elegant Tudor-style home. The electric candles in each window looked as if they had been included in the design when the house was built, but there were no bulbs on the shrubs. Lou observed only one car parked in the circular driveway—a Lexus, which he assumed belonged to Missy, McHugh’s wife. McHugh prided himself on his high-end black Jaguar. Lou wondered if the car had somehow been involved in the man’s current plight—a fatal accident of some sort, perhaps. Then he reminded himself that McHugh had very specifically said murder.

He braked the Toyota to a stop in front of the roofed entranceway.

McHugh—graying red hair, broad-shouldered, dense five o’clock shadow—stood waiting. He wore a green collared sweater, but no jacket. His face was distorted by a huge bruise involving the area between his left cheek and hairline. His left eye was swollen shut.

“Hey, thanks for getting here so quickly,” McHugh said grimly, “I forgot it was rush hour.”

“No problem. Gary, let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here.” Limping slightly, McHugh set Lou’s peacoat on a hook in the foyer, and shook his hand. His wrestler’s grip had not been diminished by whatever had battered his face. His one open eye was bloodshot, and Lou almost immediately smelled alcohol—more, it seemed from the man’s pores than from his breath. Whatever had happened today, booze was almost certainly part of it. Lou’s recurrent warning that he did not feel McHugh could ever drink in safety had gone unheeded and was now apparently extracting a heavy toll.

“What’s going on, Gary?”

“Let’s go my study,” McHugh said. “I just lit a fire to take the chill out.”

The temperature in the cherry-paneled room had already responded to the neatly laid blaze. The space was perhaps a third the size of Lou’s entire apartment. A forty-inch plasma TV mounted above the stone fireplace was tuned to CNN. The walls were decorated with pictures and souvenirs that defined the man—his travels to exotic locales, his plane, skydiving certification, skiing with a skill and grace that showed even in a photograph, black-tie parties featuring A-list notables, testimonials and letters of thanks, at least two from recent presidents.

McHugh motioned Lou to one of two red leather armchairs, while he remained standing, glancing from time to time at the TV.

“Talk to me, Gary,” Lou said.

McHugh, now watching CNN steadily, had his back turned. De- spite the odor of alcohol, there was no evidence in his speech or manner that he was intoxicated. “Anytime now,” he said, “CNN is going to report breaking news regarding the shooting death in his garage of Congressman Elias Colston.”

Lou stiffened and dug his fingers into the thick arms of his chair. Colston, the chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, was one of the more popular congressmen in the House. Maryland District 1, Lou guessed, or maybe it was District 3.

“How do you know?” he asked.

“I was there,” McHugh said flatly, wincing as he sat down in the other chair. “I saw the body. At least two shots—one to the chest and one dead center in the forehead.”

“Are you absolutely sure? Did you check for a pulse?” “Believe me, Lou, I checked, but I know dead.”

“And the body temp?” “Warm.”

“When did this happen?” “I got there at noon.”

“And you had been drinking?”

There was an embarrassed silence, and then, “Yes. Fairly heavily.” Lou groaned. Gary McHugh seldom did anything in half mea-

sures. He could only imagine what fairly heavily meant. “Why hasn’t the story broken by now?”

McHugh shrugged. “I guess because I’m the only one who saw him—besides the person who killed him, that is.”

“And why didn’t you call the police?” Even as he was asking the question, Lou knew the answer.

“I . . . intended to find a phone booth and call them anonymously, rather than risk giving them my cell phone number. I knew if they caught up with me and I were found to be drinking, I could kiss my medical license good-bye.”

“Oh, Jesus, Gary. But before you could call anyone, you smashed up your car and did this to your face, yes?”

“You got it. I must have skidded off the road and hit a tree.” “You don’t remember?”

“The first thing I remember after seeing Elias’s body, I was being transferred from an ambulance stretcher to a bed in the ER. Apparently, someone found me unconscious in my car. Somebody said something about having to use the Jaws of Life.”

Blackout from alcohol or concussion, Lou thought. Most likely both. He probably should have been kept overnight.

“Which hospital?” he asked, checking the screen expectantly. “Anne Arundel.”

“Are you okay now? I have my medical bag in the car. Maybe I should check you over.”

“They did everything—blood work, CAT scan. I had to beat the frigging residents and med students off with a stick.”

“Did they want to keep you?”

“They wanted to, but I wouldn’t consider it. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of the place as quickly as possible. Missy came and they let me go.”

“Your alcohol level?”

“It was probably high. One of the nurses who knows me said a good lawyer could get me off any charges by saying I was head injured and couldn’t authorize having my blood drawn. That may be the reason the police decided not to charge me on the spot.”

“I’m not sure that’s true if the ER people had good reason to draw your blood in the first place. Besides, you can always be charged later. But more important, the charges you’re talking about may be significantly bigger than a DUI. Why do you think they would charge you with Colston’s murder?”

McHugh rose and began to pace in front of the fire. “Colston is a patient of mine. I’ve been to his house many times before. There are security cameras.”

“Then maybe one of them recorded the murder.”

“Maybe, but it took place way in the back of the garage, by the stairs that go up to Colston’s office. I don’t remember any cameras being there—just outside on the driveway. I’ll bet the only thing those cameras recorded is me, driving up and later driving away— maybe even with Elias’s blood on me from when I checked him over. . . . What in the hell is going on? Why hasn’t anyone found him and called the cops?”

“Gary, why would you be drinking in the morning and then go off to make a house call on one of your patients?”

“Because I wasn’t making a house call, Lou. . . . Dammit, what is going on with this station? Why haven’t they reported anything about this?”

McHugh grabbed a poker and stoked the fire as if he were spearing a wild boar.

Lou tightened his grip on the chair once more.

Again an inflated silence. “Easy does it, Gary.”

“Shit, I suppose everyone’s going to find out anyway. I didn’t go there to see Colston. I went there to see his wife, Jeannine.”

“Not to treat her.”

McHugh sighed. “No. We’ve been having an affair for more than two years.”

“Oh, Gary,” Lou groaned.

McHugh assaulted the fire again. “That’s not all,” he said.

Chapter 3

Lou stared across at McHugh and drew a nervous breath.

That’s not all. . . .

What did he mean by that?

How much more could there be?

Before McHugh could explain, the news of Congressman Elias Colston’s murder hit CNN like a wrecking ball. The report varied little from McHugh’s account. Colston’s body was discovered by his wife, Jeannine, after she returned from a meeting of a congressional spouses’ group in Washington.

Jeannine Colston was not available for comment, but a spokeswoman for her said only that their son and daughter had been notified at college and were on their way home, and that Jeannine had no other comment at that time. The feed of the crime scene around the Colstons’ tasteful country home was bedlam.

Lou waited for a commercial interruption to the first wave of reports, then turned to his host. “Okay, Gary,” he said, “short and sweet. What else is there you haven’t told me?”

McHugh threw an unnecessary log on the fire and began pacing again. “From what I can piece together, I skidded off the road and hit a tree just after I had crossed the bridge.”


“I really don’t remember a hell of a lot, Lou, but there’s a stone bridge across a river about a mile down the road from the Colstons’.” Lou saw no significance to this latest revelation. “Explain,” he said.

“Well, unless they find it at the scene, the police are going to suspect that I stopped and tossed the murder weapon off the bridge and into the river, then kept going and went off the road. There aren’t many homes between Colstons’ place and the bridge, so a logical conclusion would be that I was headed away from there.”

Lou winced. “That’s exactly what they’re going think,” he said. Then he remembered something else—something that McHugh had been required to discuss the first day his PWO monitoring con- tract began—his love affair with guns. McHugh owned several pistols and some hunting rifles. Years before, after a client’s gunshot suicide, the monitoring contract was modified to demand that all guns be removed from a doctor’s house, cataloged, and locked in a storage facility using a padlock provided by the PWO.

“The PWO has a record of the guns I turned in when I signed my contract,” McHugh said as if reading Lou’s thoughts. “They’re all legally registered, so the police will learn about them, too, even though I know you people are protected from telling them anything.”

Lou shrugged. Not a big deal, he was thinking. So why was McHugh being so dramatic about it, unless one of the guns registered to him was missing before he turned his collection over to the PWO?

No, there was something else.

“Gary, why were you drinking at that hour of the morning?” Lou asked. “What happened between you and Jeannine that led you to put your career on the line like that?”

McHugh’s refusal to accept his alcoholism, and his failure to em- brace a recovery program made him a setup for relapse. Still, he had managed to stay sober for several years. Often, in Lou’s experience, the first drink after a long period of abstinence resulted from cutting down attendance at meetings followed by some sort of catalyst. Given the spontaneity of McHugh’s early-hour intoxication, his rush to the Colstons’, and the fact that he did not even know Jeannine wasn’t home, Lou guessed that heartbreak might have been at the root of his relapse.

“She wanted to end it,” McHugh replied, still staring at the screen. “Did she say why?”

“Not really. She called me last night out of the blue and said I shouldn’t try to contact her. I tried to get her to explain to me over the phone what was going on. All she kept saying was that Elias needed her, and she would call over the next few days.”

“Elias needed her. What did she mean by that?” “I don’t know. I love her, Lou. I really do.”

McHugh gestured toward the screen, where CNN was now reporting breaking news from an unnamed source that Maryland State Police had identified a person of interest in connection with the murder of Congressman Colston. They were not naming any names, but Lou and McHugh both knew who that person of interest most likely was.

Means, motive, and opportunity—in the absence of absolute proof or an eyewitness, these were the three critical circumstantial components of a crime, usually needed to convince a jury of guilt.

Lou felt his jaws clench.

Means—an affinity for guns and a place, the river, probably par- tially frozen, where the murder weapon might have been disposed of.

Motive—an affair with the victim’s wife.

Opportunity—security camera footage placing McHugh at the scene close to the time of the killing.

But there was even more.

The suspect, himself, was probably operating in a blackout, and was incapable of providing anything useful toward his own defense.

Not good.

McHugh said he remembered checking Colston’s body for pulses and finding none. Lou wondered now, as McHugh himself had suggested, if investigators would find blood, DNA, or other incriminating evidence in his Jaguar or on his clothes.

Not good at all.

“Did you call your attorney?” Lou asked. “We have you down as being represented by Grayson Devlin. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“Actually, I called him from the hospital, but by then I knew I wasn’t going to be arrested on the spot for DUI. He was busy with some sort of big case, but he promised he’d send one of his top associates over as soon as he could.”

Before McHugh could expand on his answer, there was a soft knock on the office door, and Missy McHugh, petite and almost scarily thin, entered carrying a silver tray with a steaming teapot, sugar bowl, and spoon, and two blue china teacups.

“Here’s the tea you asked for, darling.”

Missy set the tray on their mahogany coffee table from enough of a height to rattle the dishes. She spoke the word darling as if it were a curse rather than any term of endearment. Her brown hair, streaked with silver, framed a pale, tired face that Lou knew had once been quite beautiful. He had been an usher at their wedding, but the close- ness between him and Gary never carried over to her, and before he and Renee had split, she had never been able to warm up to the woman either.

“Nice to see you, Lou,” Missy said without a glance at the television, “although I’m sorry it’s under these unfortunate circumstances.

Gary doesn’t tell me very much, but I’ve been concerned about his not going to meetings, and I confess I wasn’t all that surprised when he called me to get him away from the hospital and told me about the drinking and the accident. Now it appears he’s going to lose his medical license.”

Her baleful expression had Lou wondering how much she knew about other aspects of her husband’s life. If the police and CNN reporters were doing their jobs, the answer to that question would soon be moot.

“I’m going to do what I can to help Gary put the pieces back together,” Lou said.

“That’s very nice of you. How are you feeling, Gary?” No dear, no honey, no contact between them. The woman’s iciness put a chill in the room that even the crackling blaze could not offset.

“I’m feeling fine,” Gary said. “Thanks for the tea.”

She turned to Lou. The tension in her face seemed to have tripled. “I’m guessing you’re here to revoke his license or something like that?”

“Like I said, I’m here to help him.”

“But he is going to lose his license.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m really not allowed to discuss anything pertaining to a physician’s PWO contract, even with a spouse.”

“Oh, you don’t need to discuss anything. I know what’s coming. It’s a good thing the twins are in the last year of college, that’s all I have to say. Otherwise, Gary might have to sell his precious plane. Look, I’m going out for a while. The Whitmans’ Christmas party is tonight. Gary, I assume you won’t be coming.”

Grateful that Missy was about to break some of the excruciating tension in the room by leaving, Lou risked a peek at the screen. Still no mention of McHugh’s name in the caption line.

McHugh ignored his wife’s thrust and poured two cups of tea.

Without another word, Missy turned and, a moment later, was out the door.

“I’m sorry you had to be here for that, Lou,” McHugh said. “Nonsense. You had my back any number of times during the dark


“As I’ve told you before, it’s been years since we had much of a marriage. I guess I don’t have to explain my relationship with Jeannine.”

“I don’t require explanations. You called and asked me here. We’ve been close friends for years, so here I am.”

McHugh rubbed at his stubble. “I didn’t shoot Elias, Lou, but proving that isn’t going to be easy. I called you because I’m afraid I’m going to need your help to check around about him—see if you can learn who might have wanted to kill him. Hire a detective if you think you need one.”

“Gary, shouldn’t that be a job for your lawyer or, better still, the police?”

“His lawyer, actually,” said a woman. “But either would be correct.”

Learn more about Political Suicide and order your copy today.  Out December 11, 2012.