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Lethal Experiment

John Locke


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LETHAL EXPERIMENT

(a Donovan Creed Crime Novel)

by

John Locke

BOOKS BY JOHN LOCKE

Donovan Creed Series:

 

Saving Rachel

Lethal People

Lethal Experiment

Now & Then

Wish List

A Girl Like You

Vegas Moon (May 2011)

 

Other:

Follow the Stone (An Irreverent Western Adventure)

Every novel John Locke has written has made the Amazon/Kindle Best Seller’s List. Every ten seconds, twenty-four hours a day, a John Locke novel is downloaded somewhere in the world.

For previews of upcoming books by John Locke and more information about the author, visit http://www.SavingRachel.com

This book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

LETHAL EXPERIMENT

Special Kindle Edition

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Copyright © 2009 John Locke.  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.  No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Visit the author website:  http://www.lethalbooks.com

eBook Published by:  http://www.telemachuspress.com

ISBN: 978-1-935-67003-2

 

Prologue

The small house was old and cramped by furniture that seemed even older. A transaction was taking place at the kitchen table, where the three of them sat. A slightly foul odor seeped in from the living room. Trish didn’t know it yet, but the next few minutes would change her life. She cleared her throat.

“We were hoping to get eighteen thousand dollars,” she said to the loan officer.

The young blond loan officer wore her hair combed back with a part midway above her left eye. “No offence,” she said, “but it took more than eighteen thousand dollars of stress to put those dark circles under your eyes. Not to mention the car in your driveway, the condition of your home, the fact you’ve been turned down by every lender in town…”

Trish swallowed, seemed about to cry.

The loan officer’s face was visually stunning, with flawless skin, impossibly high cheekbones, and sandy blond eyebrows that arched naturally over electric, pale-gray eyes. Her name was Callie Carpenter, and she was wearing driving gloves.

Trish’s husband Rob wasn’t looking at the gloves. His eyes had found a home in Callie Carpenter’s perfectly-proportioned cleavage.

“You know the vibe I’m getting?” said Callie. “Pain. Frustration. Desperation. There’s love in this home, I can feel it. But it’s being tested. I look at you guys and I see the vultures circling your marriage.”

Trish and Rob exchanged a look that seemed to confirm her words.

Trish said, “This sounds all New Age to me. I’m not sure what this has to do with our loan application.”

Callie looked at the chipped coffee cup in front of her from which she’d declined to drink. She sighed. “Let me put it another way: how much money would it take to remove the stress from your lives, allow you to sleep at night and help you remember that the important thing is not other people and what you owe them, but rather the two of you, and what you mean to each other?”

Trish had been quietly wringing her hands in her lap, and now she looked down at them as though they belonged to a stranger. “I’m afraid we have no collateral.”

Rob said, “The banks got us on one of those adjustable rate mortgages that turned south on us. Then I lost my job. Next thing you know—”

Callie held up a hand. “Stop,” she said. “Would a hundred thousand dollars get you through the bad times?”

“Oh, hell yeah!” said Rob.

Trish eyed Callie suspiciously. “We could never qualify for that type of unsecured credit.”

“This wouldn’t be a conventional loan,” said Callie, getting to her favorite part of the story. “It’s what I call a Rumplestilskin Loan.”

Trish’s voice grew sharp. “You’re mocking us. Look, Ms…”

“Carpenter.”

“…I don’t particularly care for your sense of humor. Or your personal assessment of our marriage.”

“You think I’m playing with you?” Callie opened her briefcase, spun it around to face them.

Rob’s eyes grew wide as saucers. “Holy shit!” he said. “Is that a hundred grand?”

“It is.”

“This is ridiculous,” Trish said. “How could we possibly pay that back?”

“It’s not so much a loan as it is a social experiment,” Callie said. “The millionaire I represent will donate up to one hundred thousand dollars to any person I deem worthy, with one stipulation.”

“What’s that?” Rob said.

Trish’s lips curled into a sneer. She spoke the word with contempt. “Rumplestilskin.”

Callie nodded.

Rob said, “Rumple—whatever you’re saying, what’s it mean?”

Trish said, “The fairy tale. She wants our first born unless we can guess the name of her boss.”

“What?” Rob said. “That’s crazy. We’re not even pregnant.”

Callie laughed. “Trish, you’re right about there being a catch. But it has nothing to do with naming a gnome or giving up future children.”

“Then what, you want us to rob a bank for you? Kill someone?”

Callie shook her head.

“So what’s the catch?” Trish said.

“If you accept the contents of this suitcase,” Callie said, “someone will die.”

Trish said, “All right, that’s enough. This is obviously some type of TV show, but it’s the cruelest way to punk someone I’ve ever seen. Here’s an idea for the next one: get a normal-looking woman instead of a beautiful model. And don’t use all the flowery New Age language. Who’s going to buy that bullshit? Okay, so where’s the camera—in the suitcase?”

The suitcase.

From the moment Callie lifted the lid, Rob had been transfixed. He’d finally found something more compelling to stare at than Callie’s chest. Even now he couldn’t take his eyes off the cash. “Do we get some sort of fee if you put this on TV?”

Callie shook her head. “Sorry, no TV, no hidden cameras.”

“Then it doesn’t make sense.”

“Like I said, it’s a social experiment. My boss is fed up with the criminal justice system in this country. He’s tired of seeing murderers set free due to sloppy police work, slick attorneys, and stupid jurors. So, like a vigilante, he goes after murderers who remain unpunished. He feels he’s doing society a favor. But society loses when any person dies, no matter how evil, so my boss wants to pay something forward for the life he takes.”

“That’s a crock of shit,” Trish said. “If he really believed that, he’d pay the victims’ families instead of total strangers.”

“Too risky. The police could establish a pattern. So my boss does the next best thing, he helps anonymous members of society. Each time my boss kills a murderer he pays society up to one hundred thousand dollars. And today you get to be society.”

Trish was about to comment, but Rob got there first. He was definitely getting more intrigued. “Why us?”

“A loan officer forwarded your application to my boss and said you were decent people, about to lose everything.”

Trish said, “You represented yourself as a loan officer.”

“I did.”

“And you’re not.”

“I’m a different type of loan officer.”

“And what type is that?”

“The type that brings cash to the table,” Callie said.

“In a suitcase,” Trish said.

Trish looked at the cash as if seeing the possibilities for the first time. She said, “If what you’re saying is true, and your boss is paying all this money to benefit society, why tell us about the killing at all? Why not just pay us?”

“He thinks it’s only fair that you know where the money comes from and why it’s being paid.”

Rob and Trish digested this information without speaking, but their expressions spoke volumes. Rob, thinking this could be his big chance in life, Trish, dissecting the details, trying to allow herself to believe. This was a family in crisis, Callie knew, and she had just thrown them the mother of all lifelines.

Finally Trish said, “These murderers you speak of. Is your boss going to kill them anyway?”

“Yes. But not until the money is paid.”

“And if we refuse to accept it?”

“No problem. I’ll ask the next family on my list.”

Rob said, “The person your boss is going to kill—is there any possibility it’s someone we know?”

“You know any murderers?”

Callie could practically hear the wheels turning as Rob and Trish stared at the open suitcase. Callie loved this part, the way they always struggled with it at first. But she knew where this would go. They’d turn it every way they could, but in the end, they’d take the money.

“This sounds like one of those specials, like ‘What Would You Do?’” Trish said, unable to let go of her feeling this was all an elaborate hoax.

Callie glanced at her watch. “Look, I don’t have all day. You’ve heard the deal, I’ve answered your questions, it’s time to give me your answer.”

Her deadline brought all their emotions to a head.

Trish’s face blanched. She lowered her head and pressed her hands to either side of her temples as though experiencing a migraine. When she looked up her eyes had tears in them. It was clear she was waging a war with her conscience.

Rob was jittery, in a panic. No question what he wanted to do—his eyes were pleading with Trish.

Callie knew she had them.

“I’ll give you ten minutes,” she said briskly.” I’ll put my headphones on so you can talk privately, but you’ll have to remain in my sight at all times.”

“How do you know we won’t contact the police after you leave?” Trish said, wearily.

Callie laughed. “I’d love to hear that conversation.”

“What do you mean?”

“You think the police would believe you? Or let you keep a suitcase full of cash under these circumstances?”

Rob said, “Are we the first, or have you done this before?”

“This is my eighth suitcase.”

Again they looked at each other. Then Rob reached over, as though he wanted to stroke the bills.

Callie smiled and closed the top. “Nuh uh.”

“How many people actually took the money?” he asked. There was a sheen of sweat on his upper lip.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?” Trish asked.

“It could influence your decision and impact the social experiment. Look. Here’s what you need to know: when someone takes the money, my boss feels he’s gotten the blessing of a member of society to end the life of a murderer.”

“This is crazy. This is just crazy,” Trish whispered, as if daring herself to believe.

“People die every day,” Rob said. “And they’re going to die whether we get the money or someone else does.”

Trish looked at him absently, her mind a million miles away.

“They’re giving this money to someone,” Rob explained, “so why not us?”

“It’s too crazy,” Trish repeated. “Isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” Callie said, putting on the headphones. “But the money—and the offer—are for real.”

 

Chapter 1

And you, Mr. Creed,” she said.

I looked up from my mixing bowl. “Ma’am?”

“What do you do for a living?”

“Apart from making brownies? I’m with Homeland Security.”

Her name was Patty Feldson and she was conducting a home study as part of the adoption process. My significant other, Kathleen Gray, was hoping to adopt a six-year-old burn victim named Addie Dawes. Addie was the sole survivor of a home fire that claimed the lives of her parents and twin sister. Ms. Feldson had been watching Addie and Kathleen play dolls on the living room floor. Satisfied with the quality of their interaction, she turned her attention to me.

“Do you have a business card?” Patty said.

“I do.” I took my wallet from my hip pocket and removed a card that had been freshly printed for this very occasion. I handed it over.

Patty read aloud: “Donovan Creed, Special Agent, Homeland Security.” She smiled. “Well that doesn’t reveal much. But it certainly sounds mysterious and exciting. Do you travel much, Agent Creed?”

I wondered how well we’d get along if I told her I was a government assassin who occasionally performs free-lance hits for the mob and for an angry, homicidal midget named Victor.

“I do travel. But I’m afraid my job falls short of being mysterious or exciting. Mostly, I interview people.”

“Suspected terrorists?”

I layered the batter into Kathleen’s brownie pan with a silicone spatula and swirled Addie’s name on top before placing the pan in the oven.

“Apartment owners, business managers, that sort of thing.” I closed the oven door and set the timer for forty minutes.

“What’s in the brownies?” she said.

I felt like saying marijuana, but Kathleen had warned me not to joke with these people. She was in the home stretch of the adoption process and I intended to do all I could to help her.

“You remember the actress, Katharine Hepburn?” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“This is her recipe. I found it in an old issue of the Saturday Evening Post.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’d love to have it!”

“Then you shall.”

A home study is a series of meetings you have to go through as part of the approval process for adopting a child. Kathleen had provided all her personal documents, passed the criminal background check, made it through all the appointments and provided personal references. But at least one meeting is required to be in your home, and all who live there (Kathleen) or spend nights there (me) had to be in attendance.

Patty Feldson wasn’t here to do a “white glove” interview. She’d already made a positive determination about Kathleen’s ability to parent. All that remained was to see what sort of person the boyfriend was. She knew, for example, that I had a daughter of my own, who lived with my ex in Darnell, West Virginia. If she’d done any digging she also knew that while I’ve always been emotionally and financially supportive, I hadn’t spent as much father-daughter time with Kimberly as I should have.

Patty moved closer and locked her eyes on mine. Lowering her voice, she said, “There’s a big difference between being a father and a dad.”

Right, I thought. She’s done her research.

“I had to learn that lesson the hard way in my own life,” I said. “And this might sound funny, but Addie’s the one who inspired me to build bridges with Kimberly. We’re closer now than ever before.”

Patty nodded. We were both silent a moment, waiting to see who would speak first. In case you’re keeping score, she did.

“Addie has become a special needs child,” Patty said. “She’s been traumatized physically and mentally and she’s going to need a lot of nurturing.”

“I understand.”

“I hope so, Mr. Creed, because it’s going to put a lot of stress on your relationship with Kathleen. Have you thought about your role in all this—I mean, really thought about it?”

Addie was an amazing kid. Funny, affectionate, brave....Over the past few months she’d become special to both of us. Special wasn’t the right word, she was more than that. Addie had become essential to our lives.

“I love Addie,” I said.

She nodded and paused a few seconds. “I felt you must, Mr. Creed. What you’ve done for her and Kathleen speaks volumes.”

Patty knew I’d recently given Kathleen a million dollars and put another ten million into a trust for Addie. What she didn’t know is that I’d stolen all that money and more, from a West Coast crime boss named Joe DeMeo.

After witnessing another hour of unparalleled domestic harmony, Patty Feldson gathered Addie, the recipe, and half a pan of brownies.

“You’re a shoo-in!” she gushed to Kathleen.

“I’ll see you again tomorrow, darling,” Kathleen said to Addie. Addie swallowed before speaking, to lubricate her throat. We had grown accustomed to the procedure, the result of her vocal chords being permanently damaged by the fi re that nearly took her life.

“At the hospital?” Addie finally said in her raspy, whisper of a voice.

“Uh huh.”

Another round of hugs was in order and then they were gone. I looked at the lovely creature that had defied all the odds and fallen for me.

“This might be the last time she’ll have to leave you,” I said.

Kathleen dabbed at the tears on her cheeks. “Thank you, Donovan.” She put her hand in mine and kissed me gently on the mouth. “For everything,” she added.

Life was good.

An hour later Victor called me on my cell phone. A quadriplegic little person on a ventilator, Victor’s metallic voice was singularly creepy.

“Mis…ter Creed…they took…the…money,” he said.

“The couple from Nashville?”

“Yes, Rob and…Trish.”

“Big surprise, right?”

“When you get…a chance I…would like you to... kill the… Peterson…sis…ters.”

I paused a minute, trying to place them. “They’re in Pennsylvania, right?”

“Yes, in…Camp…town.”

I assumed my best minstrel voice and said, “You mean De Camptown Ladies?”

Victor sighed. “Really…Mis…ter Creed.”

“Hey, show some appreciation! In France I’m considered a comedic genius.”

“You and…Jerry Lewis….So, will you…go to…Camptown and…kill the… Petersons?”

“Doo Dah!” I said.

 

Chapter 2

There are no racetracks in Camptown, Pennsylvania, population four hundred seventeen. Nor are there any bars. You want a drink, you head fourteen miles west to Towanda. Closest nightlife is Scranton, fifty miles away.

The little town became famous throughout the world in 1850 after Stephen Foster published his famous song, “De Camptown Races.” The horse race Foster immortalized started in Camptown, ended in Wyalusing, and yes, it was about “five miles long.”

By the time I got my rental car and hit the road I was so hungry I took a chance on a beef burrito at the Horse Head Grill in Factoryville. I should have known better. You want a burrito, go to El Paso, not Factoryville. My lunch tasted like something you’d ladle out of an outhouse pit and serve to the finalists on Survivor.

But I digress.

Camptown is located in Bradford County, where the most recent crime stats showed 248 burglaries, 39 assaults, 24 rapes and two murders. If all went well, the Peterson sisters would double the murder tally in time to make the six o’clock news.

 Which I intended to watch.

On a TV.

In a bar.

In Scranton.

“Your destination is one hundred feet on the right,” said the sexy lady’s voice on my navigation system. She led me to a long, white-gravel driveway that I purposely overshot. After driving a couple hundred yards, I turned and approached from the opposite direction, checking for witnesses. Once comfortable with the general layout, I pulled my rental car into the driveway and followed it to the concrete pad where a green 1995 Toyota Corolla was parked.

The Petersons were living in a white double-wide trailer with a brown metal roof. To that they’d added a screened porch that overlooked about two acres of front yard that was few trees and mostly dirt. I parked, cut the power and sat, waiting for dogs. None showed, but I used the time to wonder what the hell I was doing. Years ago I’d been a government assassin for the CIA, and the people I killed had been a threat to national security. When I retired, I took a short break and then began killing terrorists for Homeland Security. But those jobs were infrequent, so I began killing people for mob boss Sal Bonadello on the side. Sal’s victims were always criminals and often murderers, so justifying their deaths hadn’t been a problem.

But at some point I drifted into doing free lance work for Victor, and the types of jobs he was giving me were becoming more and more questionable. This latest series of killings were the result of a proposal Victor had made to my boss at Homeland, to see how far everyday Americans could be trusted. For example, would a couple like Rob and Trish be willing to house a terrorist in return for a specific amount of cash?

The initial results said no.

But would they be willing to allow innocent people to die?

Still no? Hmm. Interesting.

How about anonymous, unpunished murderers?

I put a roll of sealing tape in one of my jacket pockets, and two syringes in the other. The Peterson sisters, like Rob and Trish and half-a-dozen others, had accepted “Rumplestilskin Loans” after being told that by taking the money, an unpunished murderer would die. In Victor’s mind, that made the recipients guilty of conspiracy to murder. Hence, accepting the cash, Rob and Trish were sentencing the Peterson sisters to death by execution. When Callie placed the next suitcase, Rob and Trish would have to die. It was, in all respects, a lethal experiment, and it would continue to be one until the day an applicant refused the money.

I exited the car and climbed the three pre-formed concrete steps in front of the Peterson trailer, thinking, I’ve come a long way from the guy who used to kill to preserve our nation’s freedom.

The Peterson sisters had a tempered glass front door that offered a partial view of the living room. When I knocked on it, the entire front of the trailer shook. Soon a young lady came to the door and peered at me through the glass.

“Elaine?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Donovan Creed, with Homeland Security. May I come in?” I showed her my badge. She had no reason to know that Homeland agents don’t carry badges.

A look of concern crossed her face as she slowly opened the door.

“What is this about, Mr. Creed?”

What, indeed? I wondered. Is this what I’ve been reduced to, a guy who kills civilian men and women who didn’t realize they’d become accessories to murder simply by accepting a sum of money they desperately needed? Was it really a fair experiment?

Elaine Peterson was an attractive, thirty-two year old brunette in the first stage of weight gain. She wore black sweat pants and an oversized Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt that probably belonged to her estranged husband, Grady.

“It would save time if I could talk to both of you,” I said. “Is Amber here?”

Not that Amber and Elaine were the most innocent people in town. They had used the bulk of their loan proceeds to buy drugs to resell to local high school kids.

Elaine started to turn her head toward the hallway but caught herself. “What’s this about?” she repeated firmly.

“Please,” I said. “Have a seat.” As she started to sit I bolted past her and raced down the hall. She managed to get off a loud scream, but by then I’d opened the master bedroom door and caught the very large Amber cocking a pistol. I lunged at her and managed to knock her off balance. As she struggled to keep from falling, I snatched the gun from her hand and spun around just in time to avoid Elaine’s flying fists. Elaine was too small to hurt me, but I smacked her in the nose anyway, in order to concentrate on Amber. I heard Elaine fall to the floor and figured that was a good place for her to stay while I dealt with her sister.

“What the fuck do you want?” Amber shouted, trying to make her voice bigger than it was.

She was handy, an accomplished bar brawler. At five-ten, two hundred forty pounds, she had some power. But her money punch was thrown in haste, before she’d got her feet under her. I jumped out of the way, set my feet and launched a hard back fist that caught her squarely on the temple. Amber shuddered a moment, then crashed to the floor. Moments later I had both girls face down on the master bedroom floor with their hands taped behind their backs. I rolled them over with my foot and taped their mouths shut.

Then I had a heart attack.

Chapter 3

There are two types of chest pain to worry about,” Dr. Webber said.

“Hang on a second, Doc,” I said. “I’m putting you on speaker.”

I pressed the button on my cell phone and forced myself to a standing position.

“Okay, go ahead,” I said.

“You sound terrible.”

I felt terrible. Moments earlier I’d crashed to the floor clutching my chest. Amber took that opportunity to flip and flop her enormous body, attempting to cross the floor and crush me like a beached whale flattens a sand castle. Luckily, the crushing pain had already begun to subside, but I was still weak and hurting, and it was a question of multi-task or face lethal consequences. I rolled out of her path while removing the syringe from my pocket. I flicked off the protective plastic and hurled myself toward the fat girl. I had to stretch to reach her, but I made the effort and managed to jab her neck. I don’t know if I had the strength to push in the plunger at that moment, but I didn’t have the angle. Either way, it’s a moot point, because Amber shook her head violently, and the hypodermic dislodged and skittered across the floor.

She tried to make the adjustment to flip-flop back to me, but I climbed on her back and rode her like the wild hog she was. Elaine flailed away, attempting to help her sister, but only succeeded in kicking the syringe back to me. I picked it up and pushed it into Amber’s neck and drove the liquid home.

Then I speed-dialed Darwin, my government facilitator, and asked him to get me a Homeland Security doctor. When Dr. Webber answered, I placed him on speaker phone.

Which brings us back into the moment.

“What are you doing right now?” Dr. Webber said, as Elaine shrieked in the background.

“Just tying up a few loose ends,” I said.

I took the second syringe from my pocket and slammed it into Amber’s sister. She stopped in mid-scream.

I immediately felt a stab of my own, in the center of my chest. Through clenched teeth, I said, “Now, what was that about the two kinds of pain?”

“Okay, well there’s the squeezing kind that feels like you’re squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Except that your heart is the toothpaste.”

I staggered, but remained on my feet. I propped myself against the nearest wall to keep from falling. I still had to wipe down the scene before trying for my car.

The doc continued. “The second kind is like an elephant standing on your chest.”

“Bingo.”

“Okay,” he said, “Don’t panic. It’s important that you lie still. Is anyone with you?”

I looked at the two bodies on the floor. “Only in spirit,” I said.

“Okay, that’s not so good. Do you have any aspirin? If you do, take one. But first, give me your location and I’ll send an ambulance.”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

I ended the call and put my hand in my pocket to feel my lucky silver dollar, the one my grandfather gave me when I was a kid.

“Don’t fail me now,” I said to the coin.

I called Darwin back and told him to send a chopper two miles northeast of Camptown, on 706. “And send someone to take my rental car back to Scranton.”

“This isn’t Sensory business. You’ll have to reimburse the expenses.”

“Of course.”

Sensory Resources is the division of Homeland Security for which I work.

I paused.

“What else?” he said.

“Better send a couple of extra guys. I need them to clean a crime scene for me.” I gave him the details.

“It’s going to be very expensive. Shall I call you back with the total before you commit?”

I sighed, which caused a new round of pain to surge through my body. On the bright side, the pain seemed to be heading away from the center of my chest.

“I’ll cover the costs,” I said, “but let’s get this thing in motion.”

“You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

His question caught me by surprise. The thought of dying never crossed my mind. Through all the years of being shot at and bombed and targeted by foreign death squads, and all the years I’d been testing weapons for the Army—it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never considered the possibility of dying.

And still didn’t.

I forced a laugh. “I’m immortal, Darwin.”

He paused, processing the comment. Paused long enough for me to wonder if he might be thinking this could be the perfect time to ambush me. I’m Darwin’s top guy, I control Callie and Quinn and Lou Kelly and a half-dozen other trained killers.

On the other hand, I know a lot about the government that wouldn’t look good on 60 Minutes or Dateline.

“Anyone else know about your current situation?” Darwin said.

My best insurance against Darwin was my associates.

“Just Callie and Quinn.” Figured I might as well let him think about those two hunting him down if anything happened to me.

“Camptown?” he said. “Like the song? What state?”

“Pennsylvania,” I said. “Look it up.”

“Doo Dah!” he said.

Victor was right. It wasn’t funny.

Chapter 4

Trinity Hospital, Newark, New Jersey.

The treatment rooms in the Heart and Vascular Unit were small, but mine had a window that overlooked the freeway. I was lying semi-reclined in a hospital bed, wearing one of those open-assed hospital gowns, watching the traffic, thinking how amazing it was that so many people had places to go. Did all these people have families and friends and jobs and people who depended on them? These thousands of people intersecting my life by passing my window at the very moment I watched them.

I focused on a single car, a cherry red Ford Mustang with a tan rag top, circa 1997. It was in my viewing range for maybe twenty seconds. I wondered if the driver was a man or woman, and if our paths had ever crossed. Maybe our paths were destined to cross in the future, and the driver of the Mustang would someday change my life. Maybe the driver has a child who will grow up to be the man or woman who eventually kills me. Or perhaps, moments from now, while attempting to exit the freeway, the driver will be sideswiped and fatally injured. Perhaps emergency rescue personnel will check his or her wallet and find a donor card, and the driver of the cherry red Mustang’s heart would be harvested just in time to save my life tonight.

There was a swooshing sound in the doorway as a young blonde with a perky smile slid the privacy curtain aside and entered the room.

“How are we doing today?” she said, in a practiced tone.

“We’re hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit,” I said.

She stopped a second, and then smiled.

“You’re funny,” she said.

She’d brought a small tray of medical items that included hypodermic needles, cotton, rubbing alcohol, and some type of rubber tubing. She placed the tray on the counter by the sink and I heard the snap of sterilized gloves being put on. Then she started swabbing the center of my forearm with alcohol.

“You’ll feel a little stick when I numb the area, and then I’ll set the IV,” she chirped.

It had been almost three hours since Camptown, and the pain in my chest had long since subsided. I considered getting out of bed and foregoing the emergency heart cath they’d been discussing, but decided I’d rather know if my ticker was going to be an issue. I couldn’t see any veins in the area the nurse had deadened, but I figured she knew what she was doing.

“Oops,” she said. “I missed. That happens sometimes.” She pressed a piece of gauze against the wound to stop the flow.

I nodded to show her I was a sympathetic guy.

“I’ll move up your arm a bit and try this nice vein just below your muscle.”

She was exceedingly young. Young enough that I felt dirty just reading her name tag, though it was nicely elevated.

Dana.

I forced my eyes to stop lingering in the area of her name tag and watched her face as she stuck me to numb the vein she thought was nice looking.

Dana’s mouth twitched slightly as she gracelessly plunged the IV needle into the crook of my arm. She had a pleasant face and flawless skin, but something caused her to frown.

“Oh dear,” she said.

“What now?”

“This one seems to have collapsed.”

I glanced at my arm and saw that my vein had done nothing of the sort. She had in fact missed it by a full centimeter.

“You’re a tough one,” Dana cooed. “You didn’t even flinch.” She gave me a wink that, due to her age, seemed practically obscene. She pushed the IV needle into a third spot and missed.

“Don’t be offended,” I said. “But you’re done here.”

She looked at me to see if I was serious.

I was.

Her eyes welled up with tears and she packed up her needles and bloody gauze pads and ran from the room.

Before Dana had time to tell her tale to the other candystripers, a disheveled young man in a wrinkled lab coat came in. He appeared to be exhausted. Dana was practically a child, but this guy could have been her kid brother.

“Mr. Creed, I’m Dr. Hedgepeth.”

“Your parents know you stole that lab coat?”

He sighed. “Don’t start with me. I’m a fully-qualified, first-year resident in Internal Medicine.”

“Of course you are,” I said, thinking, I wouldn’t trust this kid to set up my Xbox.

Dr. Hedgepeth looked at my arm. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Dana’s new on the job.”

“What happened to the old nurse?”

“Mary? She was great. Best needle nurse I ever had. It broke my heart to let her go.”

I shook my head at the absurdity of his comment. This so-called doctor couldn’t possibly be in charge of hiring and firing staff . He couldn’t possibly be out of junior high school, for that matter. But I was committed to the conversation, so I forged ahead.

“If Mary was your best needle nurse, why’d you fire her?” I said.

“The patients kept complaining she was too young.”

“Of course they did.” I locked my eyes on his face. This had to be a joke. I can usually break a man’s resolve just by staring at him. This kid was about to crack. I could feel it.

“So what made you choose Dana?” I said.

“Dana’s the oldest nurse on the ward.”

“Is she,” I said, thinking, any nurse younger than Dana would have to be wearing a training bra.

“Dana will be just fine,” Dr. Hedgepeth said, “but there’s a learning curve, you see.”

I decided to move things along.

“Are you doing the heart cath or shall I look forward to meeting your grandson, the Chief of Surgery?”

“No need to be contentious,” he said.

“Contentious,” I said, wondering if that had been one of his spelling bee words.

“Performing a heart catheterization would be premature at this point,” he said. “You’re relatively young, you’re in great physical shape, your blood pressure’s excellent, your EKG is perfect, and the tests we’ve done showed none of the classic heart attack symptoms.”

“So what happens now?”

“We do a Cardiolite stress test. If that comes back normal, I’d advise you to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.”

“Why’s that?”

“You can get sick faster in a hospital than almost anyplace on earth.”

I was beginning to like Dr. Hedgepeth. “So I don’t need a heart cath?”

“I don’t think so. What you probably need is a couple of hours and a bathroom.”

“A bathroom.”

“Your problem could be acute heartburn, a precursor of food poisoning. Did you eat something of questionable origin recently?”

I thought about the beef burrito I’d choked down at the Horse Head Inn a few hours ago. And realized “beef ” didn’t necessarily mean cow.

“Could you have eaten something truly vile and shortly thereafter engaged in some form of physical activity?”

I thought about the Peterson sisters.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve had heartburn before. But this pain was severe, and emanated from the center of my chest.”

“Hey, we can always do the heart cath if you want. I mean, the hospital would love to pick up another thirty grand today. Ten times that, if we manage to poke a hole in your artery while performing the procedure."

I frowned. "Is that type of complication likely?"

"How to put this delicately," Dr. Hedgepeth said. "Our cath guy seems to be a cardiologist, but according to law he doesn't have to be a surgeon. He's from India and appears very bright, but he's quite young and his experience with heart caths is limited."

"How limited?"

"You'd be his cherry."

“Uh huh. Heartburn, you say?"

"Acute heartburn, yes. That, coupled with physical stress, could certainly produce the types of symptoms you’ve experienced.”

I understood why he’d said it, but I’ve always had a cast-iron stomach. In years of testing weapons for the Army, I’ve had to swallow pills that made Horse Head burritos seem like Saltines.

“If the stress test comes back clean, what should I do?" I said.

"Go home and spend some quality time bonding with your toilet.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

Dr. Hedgepeth hesitated. “Do you currently see a psychiatrist?”

I frowned. “You think I’m imagining this pain?”

“I believe the pain is very real. But you appear to be the sort of man who can handle a great deal of pain.”

If you only knew, I thought, wondering if I should tell Hedgepeth that I’d been testing torture weapons for the Army for years. In the end I decided to just say, “I’ve certainly never had a problem handling heartburn in the past.”

“Well, the pain’s coming from someplace,” he said, “and I’m almost certain it’s not the heart. But the heart is what I do, so we’ll test that first. Then the toilet, then the brain.”

“Okay, I’m sold,” I said. “What’s the first step to this Cardiolite thing?”

Dr. Hedgepeth, without the slightest trace of a smirk, said: “We need to get an IV started.”

Then he walked to the doorway and yelled for Dana.

Chapter 5

I was still in the hospital, back in my street clothes, awaiting the results of the stress test. With time on my hands, I decided to break hospital rules and make a call on my cell phone. Kimberly answered on the first ring.

Daddy!” she squealed.

“You sound almost too happy,” I said.

“Does it show?”

Oh oh, I thought. She’s in love. “Does what show?”

“I’m in love!”

“You’re too young,” I said, instinctively.

“Oh, Father,” she said. “I’m a junior in High School.”

“That’s young. Anyway, you’re not a junior until next semester.”

“A technicality,” she said, “seeing as how school starts in ten days.”

I sighed.

“His name’s Charlie,” she said.

“Please tell me it’s not Charlie Manson.”

On the other end of the phone, in Darnell, West Virginia, my daughter giggled.

We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about books we’d read, music we liked, and summer vacations we hoped to take someday. I asked her how serious her relationship with Charlie was, and she changed the subject.

“Has Mom called you?” she said.

“Not recently.”

“She will.”

I groaned. “What now?”

“She found out about Kathleen. Her friend, Amy, told her.”

I knew it had to happen. Several months ago, my ex-wife, Janet, had been engaged to the former wife beater, Ken Chapman. In the course of discouraging Janet from marrying the jerk, I met and fell in love with Ken’s former wife, Kathleen.

“Dad?”

“Still here, kitten.”

I wondered how much Janet knew about Kathleen. Did she know only that I was dating the ex-wife of her former fiancé? Or had she somehow learned that the woman who came to Janet’s home and identified herself as Ken’s ex was actually a hooker I’d hired to pose as Kathleen; a hooker who lied about being beaten up by Ken Chapman.

Whatever Janet knew, however angry she might be, it had been worth it. I’d prevented the marriage. I knew first-hand about Janet’s ability to push a man’s buttons. With his history of violence, Ken Chapman probably would have killed her.

Kimberly sensed I was distracted. “Did you hear what I said?”

“You said Mom knows about Kathleen and she’s going to call me.”

“That was earlier. Just now I asked if you and Kathleen were living together.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Dad, why is it that when you talk about Charlie it’s all cut and dried, but when I talk about Kathleen it’s ‘complicated?’”

I paused a moment before saying, “I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is, that’s a good point.”

“Damn right, it is! I’m your kid after all.”

“You are that,” I said. “Okay, here’s the scoop.”

Over the next few minutes I told her about my feelings for Kathleen, and how I stay with her whenever I’m in New York. I told her about Addie Dawes, and about Kathleen’s adoption efforts. When I finished there was a brief silence on the line.

“You okay?” I said.

“Are you aware this is the first time in my life you’ve treated me like a grownup?”

“How could I not? You’re a junior in high school.”

“Try to remember that, next time you start worrying about me and Charlie.”

“Ugh,” I said. “Speaking of Charlie, how much do you know about this kid?”

Kimberly said something about him being twenty-one, but I was distracted by the curtain being pulled aside as Dr. Hedgepeth entered my cubicle. I motioned for him to give me a second. He frowned at my use of a cell phone in the emergency room, but waited respectfully.

“I’m sorry, Kitten. What did you just say?”

“I said, ‘Don’t even go there, Dad.’ Don’t go all crazy and run a credit check or background report on Charlie. He’s a good kid. His father’s a big-time attorney.”

“Attorney? I’d rather have you date Charlie Manson than an attorney.”

She sighed. “He’s not an attorney, his father is. Look, just promise you won’t run his records.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” she said. “Now go spend some quality time with Addie. She sounds adorable. And, Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I’m happy for you. And I love you.”

“I love you too, Kitten.”

I clicked the phone off and Dr. Hedgepeth said, “As I suspected, you’ve got the heart of a lion.”

I nodded.

“Any pain since the test?”

“None.”

“Any stomach discomfort?”

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

“Food poisoning can take up to forty-eight hours to hit,” he said.

“What’s the average?”

“Six to eight.”

“So it could still be that,” I said.

“Yes, but we pushed you pretty hard on the treadmill. And you aced it. Even in the early stages of food poisoning I would have expected some abdominal cramping. Makes me think it’s not food poisoning.”

He handed me a piece of paper with a name and phone number.

“A shrink?” I said.

“In case you want to see someone here, instead of your home town.”

I pocketed the slip of paper and shook his hand. “You’re young, but you’re good.”

He winked. “That’s what they all say!”

Chapter 6

You know anything about this kid Charlie Beck? His father’s a big-time attorney in Darnell.”

I was on the phone with Sal Bonadello, Midwestern crime boss and my sometime employer.

“I know people who probably know him,” Sal said.

Okay, so I promised Kimberly I wouldn’t run a credit or background check on her new boyfriend. But I never promised not to ask around.

“Kimberly’s usually a great judge of character,” I said. “But something bothers me about this kid. For one thing, he’s old enough to drink legally.”

“That’s a small town, Darnell,” Sal said. “People talk. I’ll make some—whatcha call—inquiries.”

I thought about the way Sal might ask around. “I don’t want to make a big deal about it,” I said, “and I especially don’t want Kimberly to find out that I’m the guy trying to get the information.”

“Hey, I got a girl of my own. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks, Sal.”

“You still comin’ to my party?” he said.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“You bringing that new girl? The one lives in New York?”

“We’re going dress shopping later today,” I said.

“Dress her up hot,” Sal said.

“She’d look hot in a flour sack.”

“Flour sack’s fine. Make sure it’s a small one.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“What about the blond that works with you?”

“What about her?”

“She comin’?”

“To the party? No way.”

“Did you invite her?”

“I did.”

“Maybe I should—whatcha call—extend a personal invite.”

I thought about Callie dressing up, attending a social event. Gorgeous she is. But, “She’s not a people person,” I said.

“Unless it comes to killing them.”

“Unless that,” I said.

“If a kid’s gonna get in trouble in Darnell, West Virginia, it’s gonna be at the Grantline Bar & Grill.”

“So?”

“So I know the bartender, Teddy Boy. He owes me, big time.”

“I’m not ready to have Charlie’s legs broken. Not yet, anyway.”

“All I’m sayin’, Teddy Boy knows what’s what. If your kid’s been in the bar, he’ll tell me. If she goes in, he’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Kimberly’s only sixteen,” I said. “You’re not going to find her in a bar.”

“Darnell’s Darnell,” Sal said.

“Meaning?”

“You been there?”

“No.”

“Nothing to do in Darnell but drink, drug and fuck.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hey, no offense,” Sal said.

I thought about what he’d said, and how parents never think their kids would take the wrong path.

“Maybe you better call Teddy Boy today,” I said.

“I’m on it,” he said. “Hey, you know those midgets?”

Sal could change subjects faster than a Congressman.

“Victor and Hugo?” I said.

“The same.”

“What about them?”

“They’re coming to my party.”

“I’d heard that,” I said.

“In the flesh.”

“I’ll try to shake off that image,” I said. “You better tell your boys not to make fun of them. They’re pretty formidable.”

“Hey, they been warned. Those midgets brought down Joe DeMeo.”

“They prefer the term little people,” I said.

“I prefer big envelopes.”

Sal was referring to the contribution envelopes his underbosses and special guests were expected to bring to his party.

“I been good for you,” he said. “And this here, with your daughter, that’s another example. Charity—whatcha call—begins at home.”

“In this case, your home.”

“That’s what I’m sayin’. So surprise me,” he said. “In a good way.”

Sal’s world is a rough one, where loyalty is measured in cash or body count. I make it a habit to kick back more than my share of both.

“Surprise you?” I said. “Sal, I’m going to amaze you!”

“All I’m askin’,” he said.

Chapter 7

The office of Ms. N. Crouch, MD, was located in Newark, New Jersey, corner of Summer and Seventh, off Interstate 280. Ms. Crouch shared an office condo with a pediatric psychologist named Agnes Battle. Agnes was working the reception desk when I walked in. She pointed me to Ms. Crouch’s office, and I went in.

Ms. N. Crouch stood and extended her hand to greet me. We identified ourselves and she gestured in the general direction of her seating area and said, “Please make yourself comfortable.”

I did a quick survey of the office. Deep plum was the dominant color, except for the far wall, which was faux-finished in light brown with delicate black threading, to resemble cork. On this wall hung several professional certificates, including a diploma from the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine. Everything felt crisp and modern, save for the antique wooden coat rack in the entryway corner.

I chose a plush, high-backed leather throne chair and settled in.

Ms. N. Crouch said, “Dr. Hedgepeth mentioned a possible psychosomatic pain?”

If Darwin, my government facilitator, knew I was seeing a psychiatrist, he’d put an assassin on me. With that in mind, I was reticent about jumping right into things. I sat quietly and stared at her.

She had on a layered skirt, navy, with a matching jacket she wore opened. Her blouse was cream-colored silk, with a round neckline. A cable-wrapped, white gold necklace dangled in two strands and rested modestly at the center of her chest.

“Mr. Creed, you can remain silent if you wish. But just so you know, I get paid either way.”

With that, she went quiet and stared back at me. It has been my experience with women that they don’t like to remain quiet for long periods of time. Which is why I was surprised that she allowed us to sit there in total silence, staring at each other, for the next twenty minutes.

Finally, I said, “I believe I like you, Ms. Crouch.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Creed.”

“Call me Donovan.”

She nodded, and we remained silent until she realized it was her turn to speak.

“Donovan, in one way my profession is similar to that of a dentist.”

“How’s that?”

“Like your dentist, I can’t begin helping you until you open your mouth.”

I nodded.

She continued, “There are several chairs here, from which a patient can choose. I purposely stay out of the selection process because the chair choice tells me something about the patient.”

“Uh huh.”

“For example, the chair you selected tells me you’re accustomed to being in control, which often indicates trust issues. You’re obviously finding it diffi cult to let your guard down enough to discuss your personal life with a complete stranger.”

“Good point,” I said. “So tell me a little about yourself, and then we won’t be strangers.”

She smiled. “With all due respect, Donovan, this session is about you. It would be highly unprofessional of me to discuss my personal life with you. More importantly, the less you know about me, the easier it will be for you to share your feelings.”

“Fine,” I said. “Don’t tell me. I can find out anything I need to know about you by looking around the room.”

“Really, you’re that perceptive?” she said.

I noted that Ms. N. Crouch was on the edge of mocking me, despite her best effort to keep all emotion out of her voice.

I stood up. “Shall I demonstrate?”

“If you feel it necessary.”

“Your face tells me you’ve been beautiful your whole life, but you’re older now, in your late fifties, and your clothes and hair style reflect your acceptance of that fact. You’ve aged gracefully, and you believe you’re smarter than your friends, even those who have surpassed you professionally. You keep but one picture on your desk, two young boys who appear to be Japanese-American. They’re your sons, but neither you nor their father is in the picture. If your husband had taken it, you’d be in the photo with your sons. If you’d taken it, he’d be in it. If your husband were dead, you’d have his picture on your desk to honor him. But there is no picture of the husband, which tells me you’re divorced. Based on your current age, and the age you had to be to give birth, these pictures are at least ten years old. You haven’t updated them because they remind you of a happier time.”

I looked at her to see if she was impressed. If she was, she was hiding it well. But no matter, I’d only just begun.

“You struggle to remain proper at all times,” I continued, pointing to her diploma. “You hide behind the name N. Crouch because you think Nadine pegs you as a hick from the sticks. You suffer from feelings of inadequacy because your contemporaries graduated from prestigious colleges while you were stuck at the University of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine. You feel you haven’t lived up to your potential.”

“Why’s that?”

“There are no books or articles on display, which means you’re unpublished. What kind of big money psychiatrist is unpublished at your age?”

N. Crouch pursed her lips. “I see,” she said. “Anything else?”

“Your sons are off in college or working and they don’t call as often as you’d like. To compensate, you keep two dogs as pets.”

“What,” she said. “Not the breed?”

I smiled. “Akitas,” I said. “Japanese dogs brought to our shores by returning American servicemen, after WW2. Twin dogs from the same litter.”

I bowed and sat back down on the leather throne chair. I may have smirked.

“That’s amazing, Mr. Creed,” she said. “Truly remarkable.”

“Why thank you, Ms. Crouch.”

She said, “You took all the evidence on display and managed to get every single fact wrong. Every fact but one.”

I smiled and said, “Bullshit.”

N. Crouch stood. “I’m in my early sixties, not fifties. I don’t think I’m smarter than my friends, though none have surpassed me professionally. The pictures on the desk are my sister’s adopted children. I’m not divorced because I’ve never been married. I’m not from the Midwest, I’m from Miami. My contemporaries didn’t graduate from prestigious colleges because psychiatrists graduate from medical schools, not colleges. Speaking of which, Pittsburgh Medical happens to be the number one medical school in the country. In 2005 alone they received one hundred and eighty NIHA’s—that’s National Institute of Health Awards—totaling more than seventy-six million dollars.

“And by the way,” she added, reaching into her lower desk drawer, “I don’t hide my first name and I am published.” She held up a book titled Cognitive Remediation in Neuropsychological Functioning and pointed to the author’s name: Nadine Crouch, PhD.

She stopped for a minute and said, “What are you grinning at? You look like the village idiot.”

Then it hit her.

“Shit,” she said. “You just got me to tell you all about myself.”

“Don’t take it too hard,” I said.

“You probably already knew about the book.”

“I Googled you before setting the appointment.”

“I’m going to have to keep an eye on you, Mr. Creed,” she said. “You’re quite the manipulator.”

“Thank you.”

“You take that as a compliment?”

“What’s the one thing?” I said.

She looked puzzled.

“You said I was wrong about everything but one.”

She smiled.

“Wait,” I said, sharing the smile. “I know what it is. I was right that you’ve been beautiful your whole life.”

She grinned, and I cocked my head at her.

“Ms. N. Crouch,” I said. “Did you just wink at me?”

And thus began my professional relationship with Nadine.

 

Chapter 8

The word on Teddy Boy Turner was that the gambling bug bit him long before he scored the bartending gig at the Grantline Bar & Grill in Darnell, West Virginia. As a teenager, he mowed lawns and washed cars until he amassed enough money to start betting the sports book.

In gambling, winning early in life usually leads to financial ruin down the road, and Teddy Boy’s experience was no different. His current losing streak had put his life in serious jeopardy. He was deeper in debt than his Grantline salary could ever pull him out—to Salvatore Bonadello, no less, one of the biggest and most notorious crime bosses in the country.

Teddy Boy lived in the constant fear that one day soon the goons would walk in around closing time and demand payment. He was prepared to get a broken arm or leg, maybe some cracked ribs. What he wasn’t prepared for was a personal phone call from Sal Bonadello himself.

According to Sal, the call went this way:

“I been looking over your account,” Sal said.

“I’m doing my best, Mr. Bonadello. I just need a little more time.”

“How would you like your—whatcha call—slate cleared?”

Teddy Boy thought about that. “I can smack someone around with a baseball bat for you, but I’m not a professional,” he said. “I never took a life or nothin’.”

“Naw, not like that,” Sal said. “I need some information and a favor. You do a good job, maybe I wipe your slate clean. How would that be?”

“It’d be like getting a new lease on life, Mr. Bonadello. Not to complain, but I’m working day and night just to pay the vig. I haven’t been able to make a dent in the loan.”

“You know this kid, Charlie Beck?”

“Everyone knows Charlie.”

“He a friend of yours?”

Teddy Boy paused. “Not unless you say so, Mr. Bonadello.”

“Good answer. You seen him in your place with any girls?”

“Yeah, sure. He gets a lot of action. Looks sort of like Tom Brady.”

“Ever seen him with a high school girl? Short blond hair, name of Kimberly Creed?”

“Not that I know of,” Teddy Boy said.

Sal said, “Ted, you disappoint me. I was hoping to help you out with your—whatcha call—lethal problem.”

There was a long pause and then Teddy Boy cleared his voice and said, “Well, there is a rumor going around.”

“Ted?”

“Yes sir?”

“Gimme something I can use.”

Chapter 9

Ned Denhollen awoke confused and disoriented. He looked at one arm, then the other, trying to get his bearings. Ned probably remembered setting the alarm, closing up the drugstore and walking across the parking lot toward his car. Now here he was, lying on his back on the floor of a room he couldn’t possibly recognize, and—could this be possible?

His wrists were in cuffs, chained to eyebolts in the floor.

He lifted his head and saw me sitting on a chair positioned above his legs.

Ned lashed out, tried to kick the chair over. And realized his feet were also chained to the floor.

He shook his head angrily, pitched his torso upward a few times in an effort to show he was a fighter, a man not easily intimidated. But in fact Ned was not a fighter and he was easily intimidated, which is why he soon gave up posturing and began to blubber and cry.

“Who are you?” Ned wailed. “What do you want? Why have you done this to me?”

I sighed. “Ned, the reason we’re here, I’m worried about my daughter.”

Ned abruptly stopped whimpering. No doubt he thought me a lunatic. “Excuse me?”

“I’m Donovan Creed, Kimberly’s father. I’d shake your hand but...”

Yeah, of course you would, Ned must have thought, but it’s chained to the floor!

Ned studied me, as if trying to place me by inventorying my facial features. For Ned, it was a given I was unstable. But was I capable of murder? He wouldn’t want to find out. “Mr. Creed, I don’t know your daughter and that’s the God’s honest truth. I’m happily married. I think you must have me mixed up with someone else.

“You’re the pharmacist?”

“Yes sir, I work at Anderson’s Drug Store here in Darnell.”

“What makes you think we’re still in Darnell?”

“Oh, sweet Jesus!”

“Ned, let me tell you what’s happening here. You and I are going to put an end to what’s been going on in Darnell. Before it affects my daughter, or her friends.”

“Mr. Creed, I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

I sighed again. “If you think I’m enjoying this…” I paused.

Ned began shivering.

“Are you comfortable, Ned?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I can get you a pillow and blanket if you like.”

Ned shouted, “If you wanted to make me comfortable, you shouldn’t have chained my arms and legs to the floor, you son of a bitch!”

“I can’t fault you for being upset,” I said, “but I need to move things along. I have it on good authority that you’re selling drugs.”

Ned said, “I know your daughter, Kimberly. I’ve filled prescriptions for her. But I would never sell her any illicit drugs. You can ask her, if you don’t believe me.”

“I’m not talking about Kimberly,” I said. Then I thought of something completely off the subject.

“Is Kimberly on the pill?”

Ned thought for a minute. “Not that I’m aware,” he said.

I looked at him a long moment before saying, “It’s really none of my business, but that’s good to know.”

“Sir,” Ned said, “I do sell drugs, I’m a pharmacist. But I only sell prescription drugs.”

I kept my voice steady. “My daughter’s been dating a kid named Charlie Beck. Charlie’s twenty-one, his dad’s a local attorney, Jerry Beck. You know this kid Charlie?”

“No sir, I honestly don’t.” Ned said through gritted teeth as he tried to control his anger.

“Charlie’s a good-looking kid, really popular with the ladies. What I’m saying, Ned: he’s a player.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir, I truly am. But I’ve got a wife. She must be worried sick about me. Please let me go! I swear I never did anything to hurt your daughter. Please! I don’t know what you’re talking about with the drug thing, I swear to God.”

“You see, Ned, this is why I had to chain you up. It’s why I might have to kill you.”

“Wh-what?”

Even after all this you’re still not being honest with me.”

“How can you say that?” he wailed.

“Tell me about your cousin.”

“My cousin?”

“Bickham Wright.”

Ned’s face fell. “Oh, shit,” he said.

“Oh, shit indeed,” I said. “Look, I’m going to save you some trouble. I already know the facts. I’m just looking for details.”

I took a syringe from my pocket, removed the cap, and tapped the plunger to remove any trapped air.

Ned’s eyes went wide. “What’s in that?”

“It’s a lethal dose.”

“Okay, stop. I’ll tell you everything.”

“Thought you might.”

“I don’t personally know any of the women they drugged,” Ned said. “But I know some of the names. I’m positive they didn’t drug Kimberly.”

“Why’s that?”

“She’s underage.”

There was something in his eyes.

“What aren’t you telling me, Ned?”

He closed his eyes and winced. When he spoke his bottom lip quivered. “I know they killed one of the women. Erica Chastain.”

“Who killed her?”

“Bickham and Charlie.”

“What did they do with the body?”

“Buried it somewhere in the hills, where they like to hunt.”

They told you all this?

“When Erica went missing, there was an investigation. A lot of people remembered seeing her at the Grantline. I told Bickham it was over.”

“You cut him off ?”

“Yes sir.”

“But he threatened you.”

“Bickham said if they got caught they’d all rat me out. I was in it deep enough to do serious time. I’d lose everything.”

“They drugged a lot of girls, didn’t they?”

Ned nodded.

“And all those girls have something in common. You know what it is?”

“I’m not sure what you—”

“They’ve all got fathers, Ned.”

Ned paused before speaking. When he did, his voice was heavy with regret. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I could…” His voice trailed off . He started to cry, then swallowed the back the tears. “I’m…I’m truly sorry.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

Then, trying to keep the fear out of his voice, Ned said, “So…what happens now?”

“Now you tell me exactly how it works. Leave nothing out. You can start with the names.”

“Names?”

“The names of the members.”

“The members of—”

“That’s right, Ned. The members of Fuck Club.”

Ned winced. “I never meant for this to happen,” he said. “They—”

“But it did happen, Ned. And you let it happen.”

“Okay,” Ned said. His voice was weary. He’d given up the fight. “I’ll tell you everything I know. And then?”

“And then I’ll end your suffering.” I paused a minute, then thought of something. “You have an insurance policy?”

Ned smiled ruefully. “Cashed it in. See, this whole thing was always about needing more money.”

“How much insurance?”

“The death benefi t would have been a hundred thousand.”

I nodded. “Tell me what I want to know, I’ll make sure your wife gets the hundred grand.”

“You mean—”

“Yeah. I’ll cover it.”

“Anita.”

“Excuse me?”

“My wife. Her name’s Anita.”

Chapter 10

When I look at her I am reminded of all that matters.

It was early afternoon and I was back in North Bergen, where Kathleen rents half a duplex that was so small, I could hear her shower running when I came in the front door. I crossed the living room to the single bedroom and noticed the pile of clothes on the bed that Kathleen had laid out for the trip. The bedroom was twice the size of a standard prison cell, which made it large enough to hold a queen bed, an end table, and a medium dresser. On the far wall was a door that led to the bathroom. I pushed it open a few inches and peeked inside. The shower door was made of ribbed glass. The steam from her shower had fogged it up pretty well, but I could make out enough of her form to get my heart pumping. I silently backed up and closed the door so I wouldn’t startle her.

When she shut off the shower I called her name. A moment later she opened the door, wrapped in a towel. She glided through the bedroom, into the hall, and adjusted the thermostat to a cooler setting. Then she jumped into the bed where I’d been waiting.

 Afterward, she slipped out of bed and I propped my head on one arm as I always did, to enjoy the view of her backside. Kathleen lifted her arms high above her head and stretched, arching her back, totally unaware of her sensuality. It was so Kathleen, the way she could turn a simple activity into a defining moment. Still with her back to me, she stepped into her panties and wriggled her lower body just enough to get them over her hips.

She went back to the bathroom and started drying her hair and I tried to decide what the best thing about her was. And gave up. In a word, she was spectacular, and I was confident that everyone who met her at Sal’s party that night would instantly fall in love with her.

As I watched her working her hair, I thought about how completely comfortable I felt in her presence. And that’s when it hit me: in the full hour I’d been home, we hadn’t felt the need to exchange a single word.

By four o’clock we were wheels up in the Lear 45 I’d leased from Sensory Resources, the government agency headed by my facilitator, Darwin. I can usually wrangle free use of the agency jets, even when it’s not agency business, but this flight was taking us to the birthday party of a known criminal, and Darwin wasn’t taking any chances being linked to that.

At around six p.m. we checked into my favorite hotel in Cincinnati, the Cincinnatian. While I hit the mini bar, Kathleen began stripping.

“Again?” I said.

“Relax, Tiger. I’m just taking my real shower.”

“What’s wrong with the shower you took a few hours ago?”

“That was for you. This one’s for the party.”

Chapter 11

Where are all the G-men?” Kathleen said as our stretch limo passed through the gates and headed up the long entrance to Sal’s mansion.

In the old days, the FBI and local police would have been stationed at the bottom of the hill, writing down license plate numbers and snapping pictures of all the guests.

“These are happier times for organized crime,” I said. “These days the feds are more interested in terrorists. As for local law enforcement, the mayor and police chief are apt to stop by for a celebratory drink.”

Kathleen frowned. “No submachine guns?” she said.

I’d made the mistake of mentioning Sal’s party to Kathleen a week earlier, and she insisted on coming. I had been determined to keep this part of my life a secret from her, but two days of her world-class pouting weakened my resolve. Plus, there was a part of me that wanted to see how she’d react to meeting Sal. Would she be able to handle a gangland social event?

“You might see the occasional weapon brandished,” I said.

Kathleen seemed fascinated by the prospect of meeting an underworld crime boss. Over the past few days she asked a hundred questions about my relationship with Sal. I lied by omission, commission, and every other way a person can lie. In the end I led her to believe that Homeland Security had an unofficial alliance with the mob, and that they helped us identify and locate suspected terrorists. I told her that going to Sal’s birthday party was good business for the government, and asked if she’d be willing to perform with a magician at Sal’s party. After telling her what she’d have to do, Kathleen was delighted to be included. As evidenced by her B-movie mob speak.

“Will there be a lot of guys named Lefty?” she said.

“Don’t know.”

“How come criminals never call anyone Righty?”

“Don’t know.”

We pulled up to the front entrance and came to a stop. The driver climbed out, circled the car, and held the door open for us. Kathleen was wearing a cocktail dress, so I got out first and served as a modesty shield.

As she climbed out behind me she whispered, “Am I allowed to call anyone a dirty rat?”

I tried not to smile, but failed.

“Say it,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I’m funny too.”

“You are not funny.”

“Am too!”

We climbed the steps and entered the house. I remembered every nook and cranny of the place from two years earlier, when I’d broken into this very same home and set up residency in Sal’s attic for a week.

The party was in full swing. Some of the guests were half plastered, as evidenced by the young, up-and-comer from Dayton, who shouted, “Hey, Creed! Yeah, I’m talking to you. You think you’re hot shit? You ain’t nothin’!”

Beside me, I could feel Kathleen’s body tensing.

I gave him the hard stare and his eyes went wild. He started moving toward me. Lucky for him, his father grabbed him by the collar and passed him off to his bodyguards.

“My son has no manners,” said Sammy “The Blond” Santoro. “Please forgive him, Mr. Creed. It’s the liquor talking. I shouldn’t have brought him.”

I looked at him without speaking. We’d made it maybe ten feet inside Sal’s home and I was already on the verge of being exposed.

Sammy, a well-known killer in his own right, a city boss in Sal’s organization—was visibly nervous, practically cowering. Bringing Kathleen to this party had been a mistake. I could only imagine what she must be thinking. She had to be wondering why these hardened men were terrified of me.

“Mr. Creed, I’m prepared to make this right,” he said.

I moved close to him and whispered something in his ear. He bowed, thanked me profusely, and backed away.

“What on earth did you say to that man?” Kathleen said.

“I told him he and his son gave a great performance.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s all part of the show,” I said. “Sal hires people to maintain the theme. It’s all staged, like when you go to a Wild West town and a gunfight breaks out in the saloon.”

The foyer led to the huge great room, decorated in white. We crossed the foyer and got stuck in guest traffic for a minute.

“You think a phony gunfight might break out tonight?” Kathleen said.

“If it does, just play along,” I said.

Looking over her shoulder I watched Sammy “The Blond” and his goons drag Sammy’s son out the front door. One goon had his meaty hand smothering the kid’s mouth so I wouldn’t hear the insults he was attempting to hurl at me.

I recognized Jimmy “The Pearl” Remini standing next to us.

“Hi Jimmy,” I said.

He turned to see who was speaking. When he recognized me his face blanched.

“Jimmy?”

“The Pearl” had gone mute.

“Jimmy, it’s okay,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m just a guest here, saying hello.”

Jimmy breathed a visible sigh of relief. “Jesus, you startled me,” he said. “I haven’t seen you since—” he stopped to consider his words.

“Since that thing,” I said, helpfully.

“Yeah, right,” he said “the thing.”

We introduced our significant others, and Kathleen said, “What thing?”

“Take care, Jimmy,” I said. “You too, Mrs. Remini.”

They backed away quickly and gratefully.

“You gave a great performance, Jimmy!” Kathleen shouted.

Jimmy “The Pearl” and his wife smiled and nodded and kept backing away.

“They seemed nice,” Kathleen said.

The great room was cavernous, with twenty-four foot ceilings. Up above, there was only room for a crawl space, something I knew first hand. The week I “visited,” I hung out in the areas above the bedrooms. There was standing room there, and I’d managed to fashion a relatively comfortable lifestyle. I had to remain quiet and cramped at night, of course, but when the family was out I could move around and make some noise. My first job had been to divert a portion of the heat and air to the attic. Next I hooked up a phone jack, so I could record all the land line calls that came in and went out of the house.

Kathleen looked at the ornate painting over the fireplace.

“Is that Sal’s wife, Marie?” she said.

“It is.”

“She seems so young. How long ago did she pose for it?”

“Maybe fifteen years ago.”

A young lady was making a bee-line to us through the crowd. Kathleen squealed, “Why Donovan, she’s beautiful!”

“Damn right, she is! Kathleen, this is Liz Bonadello, Sal’s daughter.”

Liz was a tall, classic Italian beauty, close to Kathleen’s age, meaning mid-thirties. Watching them interact socially was a thing of beauty. Over the next two minutes they had started and discarded half a dozen topics of conversation and were now deep into an animated discussion that generated no small amount of laughter, as if they’d known each other for years.

Liz had her own place, but Sal and Marie kept her old bedroom ready for the occasional weekend visit. Liz spent the night here only once during the week I hid in the attic. After the first day, after I’d completed my noisy work, I was able to relax and enjoy their home. On those occasions, while Sal and Marie were out, I’d push down the attic stairs, climb down and raid the cupboard or fridge, take a shower, and use Liz’s old computer.

Liz and Kathleen concluded their discussion and promised each other they’d stay in touch.

As Liz walked away I said, “What do you think of her?”

Kathleen said, “Classy, olive complexion, nice boobs, knows her fashion.”

“Do women always size each other up that way?”

“Always. What planet are you from?”

“What do you suppose she’s thinking about you right now?”

“Classy, porcelain complexion, small tits, sexy boyfriend.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said. “Especially the last part.”

“Me too,” she said. “So where’s the bar?”

“There,” I said, pointing to the door that led to the terrace.

Once outside I could see that Sal had really outdone himself. The terrace had been professionally decorated with lavish columns, topiaries, and hundreds of tiny white lights that made it seem like a fairyland. The tables were draped in textured, white linen, with centerpieces of fresh-cut orchids. The chairs were covered in white fabric with organza sashes in cobalt blue. The bar was at least twenty feet long, with three bartenders going at it double-time.

Despite the ample and capable staff , it took ten minutes to get our drinks. While I waited, I looked back up at the house. The curtains along the back of the house were open. All the lights were on, and I could see inside Sal and Marie’s bedroom.

I’d been hiding in Sal’s attic for a reason. He had been given some misinformation about me and decided to have me whacked. I figured the safest place to hide out was in his attic. I tapped his phones and bored some tiny holes in the various ceilings and fitted them with pinhole cameras. I was trying to learn which of Sal’s lieutenants had lied about me. I figured I’d find him and torture a confession out of him. Barring that, I’d kill Sal. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. Six nights into my stay, while Sal and Marie slept in their bed, I heard two guys break into the house. Through pinhole cameras I watched them creep toward the master bedroom with their guns drawn. I positioned myself over Sal’s bedroom. When they flipped on the lights, I put a gun in each hand and jumped through the space between the floorboards, came crashing through Sal’s ceiling with guns blazing. I killed both the would-be assassins, and later learned they’d been sent by Artie Boots, the guy that tried to set me up.

You’d think Sal would have been grateful, but it took all this time for him to forgive me. One reason he finally began trusting me is because, with Victor and Hugo’s help, I took down Joe DeMeo. I seized several of Joe’s off shore accounts, worth millions of dollars, and gave Sal half of everything I stole.

Money may not buy happiness but enough of it buys loyalty.

As we stepped away from the bar, I spotted Sal and Marie holding court on the far end of the terrace. One by one, criminals approached him, kissed his cheeks, and handed him envelopes. Sal shook their hands, appeared to make some small talk, and spent a lot of time smiling. As the mugs left, Sal looked in the envelopes and said something to either T-Bone or Big Bad, his bodyguards. T-Bone seemed to be writing something in a small ledger book, probably recording the size of each man’s contribution. Then Sal deposited each envelope into a large wooden box on a bar table that Big Bad was guarding.

Kathleen and I were particularly impressed with the backyard.

At the center of the terrace, eight wide steps down led to the sun deck and swimming pool, which had been covered for the occasion with an enormous dance platform. An eight-piece swing band had set up in the gazebo, next to the pool house, but hadn’t started playing yet. For now, the music was provided by an unlikely pair of very old men. One, the violin player, had a shock of white hair and wore the thickest black glasses I’d ever seen. He moved through the crowd while playing, pausing occasionally to whisper something in the ear of each pretty lady he encountered. The other guy, the guitar player, squinted and scowled at the guests like a jealous lover, and did his best to keep up with the violinist, both musically and spatially.

“I love the musicians,” Kathleen said. “They’re so cute!”

“Cute,” I said.

“Well, just look at them. They must be eighty years old.”

I did look at them, in fact, I knew them. And “cute” didn’t seem an appropriate description. Johnny D and Silvio Braca were a pair of octogenarians who could play a romantic ballad one minute and break your knee caps the next.

“I wonder what he’s whispering to all those women,” I said.

Kathleen flashed a grin at me. “Maybe I’ll just walk over there and find out,” she said.

Chapter 12

Sal caught my eye and motioned us over. We worked our way over to him.

“This is my wife, Marie,” he said to Kathleen.

“And this is Kathleen,” I said.

I nodded at Big Bad and T-Bone and they each gave me a short, tight nod in return.

Sal made a great show of bowing and kissing her hand. Then he took a step back and appraised her body like a meat inspector deciding between choice and prime. Prime won.

“Ah,” he said, licking his lips. “You done good with this one here, Creed.”

Marie said, “Stop it Sal. You’re making the poor girl uncomfortable.” To Kathleen she said, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He thinks he’s a stallion.”

Kathleen smiled.

Marie’s eyes turned fierce. “I mean it,” she said. “Don’t pay any attention to him!”

Kathleen flashed me a look of confusion.

Sal said, “Marie, this is Creed’s girlfriend.” He emphasized the word by arching his eyebrows.

Marie showed skepticism.

“They’re adopting a kid, for Crissake,” he said.

Marie’s demeanor changed instantly. “Really, Donovan?”

“It’s true,” I said.

Marie beamed at Kathleen. “You’ll have to let me help you plan the wedding!”

Sal laughed. “Hell, they ain’t gonna exchange—whatcha call—nuptials. They’re going to keep living in sin like we used to do.” He gave her a wink.

“We did nothing of the kind,” Marie huffed. She turned to Kathleen. “That true? No marriage?”

Before Kathleen could think of a response, Marie shook her head and left us to chat with some guests.

Sal said, “You bring an envelope?”

“Better than that,” I said, “but we have to go inside to get it.”

“No shit?” Sal said. “Then let’s go!”

He told T-Bone to guard the stash and motioned to Big Bad to follow us. We started making the journey through the crowd of well-wishers and glad handlers. As we walked I said, “How’d you know about the adoption?”

Sal smiled. “I got my—whatcha call—sources.”

To Kathleen, Sal said, “You ever see this one fight?”

“I heard him once.”

Sal said, “Heard him? What’s that mean?”

She gave me a look. I said, “Nellie’s Diner. Joe DeMeo’s goons.”

Sal said, “You was there?”

Kathleen nodded. “Sort of,” she said. “I was in the restaurant, hiding under a table.”

We entered the great room. Santo Mangano waved from the foyer and yelled, “Hey, Sallie!” Sal returned the wave.

“Thing of beauty,” Sal said, “the way Creed—whatcha call—inflicts physical damage. We was in a place one time, some martial arts guy was drunk and comes at me for no frickin’ reason. Before Big and T have a chance to react, Creed goes after this guy and I swear to Christ, it looked like a cyclone fightin’ a water bug!”

Kathleen squeezed my arm. “You think that’s something, you should see him in the sack.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Except in the sack, I’m the water bug.”

Sal started to laugh but a thunderous voice suddenly took over all the speakers in the house. He flinched slightly, but stood his ground. All around us, gangsters hit the floor, pulling their wives down with them. Women screamed as their husbands scrambled for cover. Guns were produced from ankle and shoulder holsters. Servers brandished knives, proving me right about the brandishing.

The voice was masculine, and powerful, like the wrath of God.

The voice boomed: “The mightiest warriors are not the most physically impressive!”

The lights went out and circles of blue lasers started flashing at the far end of the foyer. The giant voice spoke again.

“Behold the mightiest warriors of all time!”

A giant cloud of smoke appeared and the lights came back on. A wheelchair stood where the smoke had been. Not an ordinary wheelchair, but one fashioned from space age materials. It was equipped with a series of roll bars, lights, and all manner of electronic equipment. Navigating the chair was a little person with enormous dreadlocks, wearing an electrified shirt.

Victor.

At Victor’s side, the ever-present, always angry Hugo, “The Little General,” stood guard. Hugo was Victor’s aide, confidante, and advisor in all things military. Victor and Hugo were little people who dreamed of conquering the world with their midget army. If they ever succeeded it truly would be a small world, after all.

All eyes turned to Sal.

“Relax,” he said. “The little guys wanted to make a—whatcha call—entrance. I told ‘em, knock yourselves out.”

Dozens of gangsters sheepishly holstered their weapons and dealt with their angry spouses with severe, whispered threats.

Victor made an adjustment on the arm of his chair and the loudspeaker voice softened. “Could I have the honor of Salvatore Bonadello’s presence for one moment?”

Sal said, “Let’s—whatcha call—indulge the little guy.” We started walking toward Victor and Hugo.

“I need to check my makeup,” Kathleen said, just the way we’d rehearsed. “Can you point me to your powder room?”

“Powder room?” Sal said. “Now that’s class!” He pointed the way and Kathleen headed there.

“At first I thought she meant gunpowder,” Sal said, studying her ass as long as he could before she disappeared from view. “That there’s a winner. I envy you, wakin’ up to that every morning.”

Victor’s speaker voice said, “Will you all please give a warm welcome to my manservant, Merlin.”

No one moved to make a sound. Once again, all eyes were on Sal. He looked around the room and shouted, “He means clap your hands. Show some class here!”

Sal began clapping his hands. Others, clearly befuddled, reluctantly joined in.

From behind the assembled guests a woman screamed. Everyone spun around. Then the scream circled the room through the speakers and the guests saw that Victor had created a diversion so the magician could appear.

Merlin began approaching Sal. Big Bad produced a .357 magnum and held it at Merlin’s face.

Merlin regarded the gun with more than a little trepidation. “I was told there’d be no guns?”

Sal said, “I’m gonna let the gun stay where it is. Just in case.”

Merlin assembled his courage and said, “Very well, but please be careful. Can you give me a dollar please?”

“The fuck?” Sal said.

Sal looked at Victor. “It’s my friggin’ party,” he said. “It don’t set well givin’ money to this guy here.”

“Just one dollar,” Merlin said. “I can assure you, you won’t be sorry.”

“I better not be.”

Sal dug into his pants pocket, produced a wad of cash big enough to choke a wide-mouth frog. He flipped through the bills until he found a dollar, which he peeled off and handed to Merlin. Merlin’s right hand was empty—I was watching it—then suddenly it held a felt-tip pen.

I’ve seen good before. Merlin was great.

“Please sign the dollar, so we’ll know it’s yours.”

“I already know it’s mine, shithead!” Sal said. But he signed it anyway.

Merlin took the bill and held it high over his head as he backed up a few steps. Sal told Big Bad, “Keep an eye on this friggin’ guy.”

Big Bad nodded and kept his gun sighted on the magician.

Merlin produced an envelope, again seemingly out of mid-air, placed the dollar in the envelope and tore it. When he did that, Big Bad cocked the trigger.

A very nervous Merlin probably never had to work under this type of pressure, but he managed to complete the trick. He folded the envelope several times while tearing sections of it. Then he unfolded the perfectly intact envelope and held it high above his head, waiting for applause.

There was none.

Sal said, “Where’s my money? These guys’ll tell you, you don’t want to owe me money.”

Sporadic nervous chuckles broke out from various areas of the room.

Merlin handed the envelope to Sal. In it was a certified check for one hundred thousand dollars.

The guests erupted in cheerful applause, hooting and whistling. To a man, they understood what a certified check meant.

Sal wasn’t grinning, but he was close. He looked like a kid who’d just inherited FAO Schwartz. He slapped Merlin on the back, shouted “Bravo!” at Victor.

Victor’s speaker voice said, “Read the signature on the check.”

Sal tried to read the signature, frowned, and took a pair of reading glasses from his jacket pocket. “Donovan Creed,” he said. I bowed and said, “I told you I’d amaze you.”

Sal gave me a body hug. “Now that’s appreciation,” he said, looking around the room. Then he stopped as if suddenly remembering something.

“Where’s my dollar?” he said.

From the other end of the room, Kathleen said, “I’ve got your money right here, Mr. Bonadello.”

She held two items high over her head while crossing through the crowd. She presented them to Sal. One was his signed dollar bill. The other was another cashier’s check for a hundred thousand dollars.

Sal was way ahead of her. He went straight for his glasses and got to the bottom line quickly. He announced to the crowd, “Victor just gave me another hundred grand!”

Once again the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. I gave Victor a thumbs-up, and he returned the gesture.

Sal’s eyes were on Kathleen. He kissed her cheek.

“You better reel this one in,” Sal said, “before she gets away. You ain’t getting’ any younger, you know.”

Sal hugged me again and left us to mingle.

I smiled at Kathleen. “You did a good job with the magic trick,” I said.

“It was fun.”

We gorged ourselves on the classic Neapolitan food, which consisted of hearty, straight-forward dishes, like ziti al forno, chicken cacciatore, panzerotti, steak pizzaiol, rigatoni with broccoli, lasagna, and several standing rib roasts.

We followed that with an hour of dancing, under the lights. As the night wore on, the gangsters and goons seemed more accepting of my presence at the party. The reason for that was simple. Sal had spread the lie that I was retired, and that my donation had been my buy-out from the life.

As Kathleen and I stood in the foyer, waiting for our car, I said, “Anybody hit on you tonight?”

She reached in her purse and pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to me.

“Whose number is this?”

“Some guy named Ice Pick,” she said, “though I doubt that’s his Christian name.”

She looked around the room filled with fierce wise guys, badlyhealed broken noses, missing fingers, and an endless assortment of scars.

“Then again,” she said.

Chapter 13

It took awhile to piece all this together, but between Ned’s confession, my and Teddy Boy’s observations, the video camera I’d installed in The Grantline, the wireless mike I’d hidden in Callie’s purse—and Callie’s first-hand experience—it went down this way, give or take:

Bickham Wright always came to the bar with high hopes, looking for gorgeous, but The Grantline was a redneck dump in West Podunk, a good 40 miles from the big city action. So Bickham always hoped for gorgeous, but he was willing to settle for cute. After a couple hours and several drinks, he and his friends would forget all about cute and start fighting over what’s available.

And for that, they didn’t need the date rape drug.

Lately, even “available” hadn’t been an option, and Bickham’s friends were beginning to grumble, especially Charlie, the goodlooking one. He didn’t need this shit, he could get chicks on his own. Had one, in fact, a cute little cheerleader named Kimberly Creed. But Kimberly was proving to be a difficult lay, thank God, and Charlie was getting tired of playing first base.

That is not to say that Charlie had lost his respect for “The Plan.” Even for Charlie there was probably something exciting and primal about doing it this way, something that linked his brain to that of his ancient forebears and satisfied the need to hunt, capture and conquer. And of course, “The Plan” provided instant gratification: he didn’t have to go through all the dating bullshit just to get laid.

Still, if there were no chicks, the best plan in the world was useless. Where were the little bitches? That was the real question. Maybe word was getting around. Hell, even the best fishing holes eventually got fished out.

Three weekends in a row had yielded squat, and Bickham was the last holdout of the group. He didn’t want to drive the extra forty miles across the county line to troll unfamiliar bars where he didn’t know the layout. There were too many variables. One mistake and they’d be in jail with no back up. “Yeah,” said Robbie, “but at least there’d be some action!”

Bickham got the boys together and sat them down. “Look,” he said. “Maybe we don’t always score, but you gotta admit, it’s a great plan. Bickham gave it all he had, told them to put their faith in the plan. In the end he persuaded them to meet at the local dive, and once again they showed up, hoping for gorgeous.

After an hour of drinking, the main room was crowded, the band was rocking, the dance floor working, and the boys were getting so rowdy they almost missed Beauty (Callie) and the Beast, the tough-looking older guy (me, in disguise) working their way through the crowd to occupy the last vacant seats at the bar.

Bickham worked his way through the maze of good ol’ boys sucking in their beer guts and jockeying their seats to get a better look at Callie. When he found a spot where he could check her out, he couldn’t believe his eyes. There at the bar, their bar, sat the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

Bickham couldn’t stop blinking as he checked out the whole package, top to bottom, slowly. Then back up. Thinking hot! Blond! Flawless! And sporting what had to be the most amazing tattoo he’d ever seen on a woman—it covered most of her right arm and, from a distance, looked almost like a sleeve.

Bickham looked over his shoulder, saw Charlie checking her out, salivating. Robbie and George were back at the table highfiving and punching each other’s arms. Bickham must have felt vindicated. They always came hoping for gorgeous, so why could they not, just once in their lives, hit the jackpot?

And speaking of jackpots, Callie had just slapped my face. When I pretended to protest, the bartender, Teddy Boy, pulled out a baseball bat and pretended to send me packing. I made my way to the rental car and watched the action on my video monitor.

Bickham made eye contact with Charlie, who signaled the others. Game on!

The boys had every reason to believe it was a good plan. The way it works, Bickham checks out the girl, finds out what she’s drinking, and orders himself one. He drinks most of it, then pours the drug into the remainder. Bickham walks up to the girl, tries to pick her up. Of course, even ugly girls don’t like Bickham, so she’s thrilled when the handsome Charlie shows up from the opposite direction to protect her from the local loser.

While Charlie engages her in smooth conversation, Bickham pours the rest of his drink into hers. If anyone notices, it just looks like he’s sharing his drink before ordering another. Though no one ever notices, Bickham knows it’s these small details that make a plan come together.

When the girl becomes groggy, Bickham circulates loudly through the bar, diverting attention from her while Charlie escorts her out the door.

Later, no one will remember seeing Charlie and the girl leave.

The other two, George and Robbie, run interference on Teddy Boy, the bartender, and stand ready to take over in case the girl doesn’t want to leave with Charlie. In that situation, George will stand up to Charlie, t

Once they get her in the van, George and Robbie stand guard. Bickham does her first because it’s his plan and he supplies the drug. Charlie goes second, because he’s the one who does the hard work. George and Robbie work out who gets third and fourth spot. After that, the boys rotate turns doing her until their stamina runs out. If the bar starts closing down before they’re done, they drive her out to the woods and hit it all night.

So the plan was foolproof and the boys are local, so there are plenty of witnesses to cover for them if a complaint surfaces later on. Plus, Charlie’s dad is the top lawyer in the county, in the pocket of every judge, and no father dared face him in court, fearing for his daughter’s reputation.

Bickham patted his pocket, making sure the drug was there.

GHB, gamma hydroxybutyric acid, is one of three so-called date rape drugs. Legal with a prescription, GHB is used to treat narcolepsy. Although widely available as a powder or pill, those forms can leave residue and give off a salty taste. The liquid form is Bickham’s delivery system of choice. It’s odorless, colorless and mixes in alcohol, which intensifies the effect dramatically.

Bickham’s cousin Ned, a local pharmacist, makes the drug in his store after hours. Ned has a high-maintenance trophy wife—a fine looking young thing named Anita, whose expensive tastes would normally be hard to support on a small town druggist’s income. But cousin Bickham has lots of money, so theirs is a partnership made in heaven.

Bickham has a large stash of GHB in his closet, a good thing since Ned went missing a couple of days ago. Bickham probably wondered if Ned was in some sort of trouble with drug dealers or the law, and this thought surely prompted daydreams about making it with his cousin’s wife. According to Ned, Bickham still loved conjuring the visual of Ned testing the GHB on Anita before selling it to Bickham the first time.

On their “dates,” when Bickham and Charlie feel the party needs to be moved to the woods due to drunks in the parking lot or because the bar is closing down, George and Robbie take a second car, since they’re younger and can’t stay out past two a.m.

The younger pair are unaware Bickham and Charlie had to kill and bury one of their “dates” a few months ago. The killers aren’t worried about Erica’s body turning up. They’ve hunted these woods their whole lives and know the high ground that will never be explored.

Usually, the girls were fat or worse. Tonight, if they could pull it off , they’d hit the Pussy Power Ball!

Okay, so the game was on.

Teddy Boy had just poured Callie a second drink. George and Robbie sprang into action and called Teddy Boy over to the other end of the bar to talk about liquor and sports.

Bickham took that opportunity to slide into the empty seat I had vacated. “Hey there, pretty lady,” he said.

Callie rolled her eyes.

“This can be a pretty rough place,” he continued. “I’d be glad to watch your back if you want, keep the flies away while you enjoy a drink or two.”

“Oh goody!” she said, “my knight in shining armor.”

Typical bitch response, he probably thought. According to Ned, Bickham seemed to elicit this attitude from all women, even what he called the OFU’s (old, fat and ugly ones).

He tried again: “Drinking alone, I see…”

“Usually I drink to make men more interesting. In your case…” Callie waved her hand in a dismissive manner, as if she were casually swatting air currents at a fly. She looked at the array of whisky bottles on the bar shelf and continued, “I don’t think there’s enough alcohol.”

She drained half her glass and set it back on the bar.

Bickham moved his hand close to her drink as Charlie approached her from the other side.

“Hey Bickham,” he said, “and hello, gorgeous! I’m Charlie, what’s your name?” As she turned to face him, Bickham poured the liquid into her drink, no doubt thinking, See what I mean? Foolproof! Callie and Charlie spoke a minute, which gave me time to check the detonator. Then he held his drink up as if to make a toast.

Callie smiled, reached for her drink, clinked his glass and paused a moment, watching Charlie drink. She waited there, glass poised in mid-air, as if trying to decide if she really needs this last one. She shrugged. Why not? As she moved the drink toward her perfect mouth, a small explosion rocked the back of the building.

“Shit!” Charlie screamed. “The hell was that?”

He and Bickham hit the floor. As most of the patrons ran toward the back to check out the explosion, Charlie stood up, embarrassed to see that Callie had not left her stool. She shrugged again, chugged her drink, and set it on the counter.

Over the next few minutes, confusion reigned as half the local boys ran to their trucks to retrieve squirrel guns, baseball bats and crowbars. The police were called and Teddy Boy did what he could to restore order.

Charlie regrouped, raised his eyebrows at Bickham, who knew an opportunity when he saw one.

“Sugar, we better get you out of here, get you somewhere safe,” Bickham said.

Callie said, “I don’t think so.”

Charlie said, “It’ll be okay. You can trust me.”

Their eyes met. His were sincere, hers had a faraway look.

“C’mon!” Charlie said.

He and Bickham began herding the brown-eyed, tattooed blond through the crowd, out the front door. She said, “Wait a minute, I’m feeling kind of dizzy.”

And Bickham suppressed a smile.

Chapter 14

Now, out in the parking lot, wanting to leave before the cops arrived, Charlie said: “Climb on in, we’ll drive a bit, get some air.”

I started my car and turned up my radio to pick up the wireless mike in the handle of Callie’s purse. I could have driven ahead, since I knew where they were going, b

Bickham drove and Charlie rode shotgun, trapping Callie between them on the bench seat. Above her head, the boys probably exchanged a grin, thinking, city girls! This is too damn easy! Callie tried to ask where they were going but slurred her words to make them think her speech was already severely impaired.

Bickham put his hand on her thigh, patted it. “I know you’re sleepy. We’ll stop in a couple minutes,” he said in his most sincere voice. This part was important, keeping her calm till the drug took effect.

She made a half-hearted effort to swat his hand away, but seemed to lack the coordination. Charlie cupped her breast with his hand and murmured, “God, you’re beautiful!”

Callie’s eyes were half shut, her breathing labored. “Get your hands off me!” she was trying to say, but her voice came out as slow and lazy as ketchup from a bottle. As far as they knew, she was barely conscious.

Bickham moved his hand to her crotch, tried to feel her through her jeans. Charlie, out of control, ripped her blouse open, lifted her bra, exposing her breasts. He stuffed one in his mouth while rubbing the nipple of the other with his thumb.

“Quit that shit!” yelled Bickham. “You know the rules! Goddamn it Charlie, relax!”

Bickham wasn’t kidding about the rules. They were as important as the plan itself. Charlie had been a huge help in formulating them, thanks to years of experience watching his father prepare for criminal defense trials.

In all, there were seven rules in Fuck Club, as Charlie called their group, and the four friends had agreed to follow all seven faithfully, on pain of death.

The first rule is you never talk about the plan, even to each other, because you never know who might overhear you. When your friends ask how was your weekend you always tell them the same thing: you struck out again. What do you care if your friends think you can’t get laid?

The second rule is you wait until she’s unconscious before removing her clothes. The last thing you want is to have to explain why she’s screaming if the sex is consensual.

The third rule is, undress her completely but carefully, paying attention to which buttons were buttoned and what was tucked in, and how. If she’s a little heavy and doesn’t button the top button of her jeans, she’ll know if someone else did. She might not remember if she had too much to drink and got in your van, but she will remember she had some tissue stuffing her bra that isn’t there when she gets undressed at home afterward.

Then you fold her clothes or lay them out to avoid wrinkles or stains. “Always remember,” Charlie had said, “without the dress stain, Monica was a liar, a slut, and a stalker. With it, she nearly brought down the President!” Afterward, you dress her carefully, replacing every item as it had been before you unwrapped the package.

The fourth rule is, use a condom. You don’t want any fluids turning up later. DNA evidence is hard to overcome if you’re on record denying you had sex with her. Of course, later on you can always just say you were trying to protect her reputation, or yours, and that the sex was consensual. But in that case you’re arguing after the fact, trying to play make-up. You’ve lost a measure of credibility and created doubt. It’s better not to be in this position in the first place.

The fifth rule is you remain calm at all times. Do her gently to avoid marks or abrasions typically associated with sexual assault. You never attempt oral or anal. Oral could choke her to death because the drug constricts her breathing, and anal is something she would figure out later on.

The sixth rule is you take no pictures, videos, souvenirs or evidence of any kind. Speaking of evidence, you leave none. This means, curb the saliva. No hickies, love bites or marks of any kind. No sense giving the cops or prosecuting attorney a gift-wrapped conviction.

The final rule is you never admit to anything. If the police bring all four of you into the station and isolate you in separate interrogation rooms, you never admit anything. If the cops threaten you or tell Charlie that Bickham is cutting a deal, Charlie knows it’s a lie because of rule number seven. Under no circumstances do you break rule number seven. As Charlie says, “Put your trust in the American system of justice and you’ll be fine, because the rules of evidence are flawed when it comes to date rape. If no one breaks any of the seven rules, none of us will ever be convicted.”

Also, as long as Charlie’s involved, you inherit his highpowered father as your legal safety net.

Of course, if anyone was likely to violate the rules it would be Charlie himself—and he’d already proved it tonight by ripping Callie’s blouse and getting his saliva all over her breast.

Bickham turned the van down the dirt road toward the wooded area owned by his grandfather, drove a few hundred yards before stopping, and extinguished the headlights. I passed their turnoff and went a mile further before turning into the dirt road I knew would eventually bring me a quarter mile from Bickham’s preferred banging area.

Bickham put his van in park and cut the engine. He pushed Charlie off of Callie. “Goddamn it, Charlie. Wait your fuckin’ turn!”

“Jesus Christ, Bickham, check out these tits!” he gushed. “She’s a fuckin’ ten, man!”

“No shit,” said Bickham. “Now help me get her in the back before I explode!”

The back of the van had a couple of layers of sleeping bags spread out, so the girls wouldn’t have marks on their backs afterward.

Charlie opened the passenger door, climbed out, and lowered the passenger seat to create easy access to the back of the van. He figured he’d reach under Callie’s arms and drag her back there. But as he leaned toward her, his face exploded.

In that small, enclosed area, the gun shot noise was deafening.

“Jesus!” screamed Bickham. He tried to scramble out the driver’s side, but lacked the clarity of focus.

“I’m so glad your friend liked my tits,” Callie said. “But I saved something really special for you!” She pointed the gun at his face.

Bickham threw his hands in the air, surrendering. “No, ma’am, please! Shit! I didn’t mean nuthin’, I swear! I swear to God I won’t bother you! Please, Jesus, just let me go. You can have the van. Just, oh Jesus, please don’t kill me! Please!”

She looked at his crotch. “Did you just wet yourself?” Christ, Bickham, you’re the guy who was supposed to protect me!

He put his hands in front of his face, turned his head away from her, whimpering. His voice reduced to a squeak, he pleaded again. “Please, ma’am. Please don’t kill me.”

“You know,” Callie said, “it never ceases to amaze me how much damage these pre-fragmented bullets can do at close range.”

She pointed the gun at his crotch, pulled the trigger. He screamed in pain, started convulsing. Callie slid out the open passenger door while Bickham flayed his arms about, sobbing hysterically. The impact of the shot had knocked Charlie’s body back about six feet. She dragged it around to the front of the van and kicked until it was concealed beneath the fender.

The gorgeous blond with the wild tattoo and the dark brown eyes climbed back in the van and watched Bickham’s medical condition deteriorate until she saw headlights approaching from the dirt road behind the van.

“Sorry, lover boy. I’d love to stay and party with you some more, ‘cos really, you’re everything I look for in a man. Especially now that you’ve shit your pants! I can’t speak for the other girls, but that’s a real turn-on for me. Unfortunately, I’ve got to mingle, greet my other guests. You know how it is when you’re the one throwing the surprise party.”

She put a quick one in his left eye and stuffed him as far as she could into the floorboard. She climbed into the back of the van and opened the door about an inch.

The first rule of being a good hostess is knowing how to dress for the occasion. Callie had to decide how much skin to show the boys. George and Robbie were expecting to see her naked, so she had to show something. On the other hand, she was in no mood to show them everything. Her blouse was already torn open, so that was good. She made a mental note to collect the buttons later.

To honor Charlie, she lifted her bra, exposed her breasts in the manner he seemed to favor, and slipped off her jeans. She considered sliding them down to her ankles, but decided that might hinder her ability to move quickly in the event she miscalculated the situation. Anyway, showing boobs and panties ought to be enough for these pups. She lay on her back, knees bent, and spread her legs toward the back door of the van. Her left arm lay lifeless, her eyes half-closed. By her side, her jacket covered the gun in her right hand.

Moments later Robbie brought his car to a stop behind the van. The two boys stubbed out their weed.

George laughed. “Let’s mess with ‘em. Turn your lights back on.” Robbie did, and the boys noticed the back door of the van was ajar. They got out of the car and tentatively approached, trying not to giggle too loudly. Robbie tapped on the door.

“Yoo Hoo!” he said, “anybody home?”

George peeked first. “Oh my God,” he squealed. “Check this out!”

He flung the door wide open so Robbie could see. George was starting to say, “What’s that smell?” when the blond bolted up and fired twice.

George was dead before he hit the ground. Robbie was alive, but his chest wound was going to be a problem.

Callie put her outfit together, collected her belongings, and wiped the interior of the van clean. Then she walked over and sat next to Robbie.

“Wh-what are you d-doing?” he managed to say.

“Sitting here, watching you bleed out,” she said.

“W-why?”

“For the fun of it.”

She turned at the sound behind her.

“Hey Donovan, nice explosion,” she said.

I surveyed the carnage. “Jesus, Callie.”

“I know, I know,” she said. She shrugged. “What can I say? Sometimes it’s personal.”

I walked over to the kid they called Robbie, saw him gasping, eyes bugged out, silently mouthing words no one would ever hear. I placed a round into the boy’s head to end his suffering, and gave Callie a look.

“I owe you,” I said.

“If you really feel that way,” she said, “there’s something I want you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Come to Vegas with me.”

Chapter 15

Excuse me? I thought. Did Callie just ask me to come with her to Vegas?

Even sitting there on the ground with her blouse torn and her torso covered in blood spray, Callie was hotter than a habanero. To any other man her invitation would have sounded like a dream come true. But I knew her well enough to know that whatever this was about, it wasn’t about us hooking up. In earlier times I’d taken my best shots to bed her and struck out every time.

Still, a little clarification wouldn’t hurt.

“I’m with Kathleen now,” I said. “I thought you knew.”

Callie laughed and said, “Jesus, Donovan, get a grip!”

“Okay,” I said. “I was just making sure.”

“You have any idea how old you are?”

“I got it, Callie, it’s a platonic trip. I get the picture.”

“Old enough to be my father, you sick degenerate.”

“I’m fourteen years older than you. Period.

“In dog years, maybe.”

I sighed. “When do you want to go?”

“How’s Wednesday sound?”

“I’ve got a meeting in Newark Wednesday morning, eight-thirty. I can meet you at the airport there around ten.”

“Same Fixed Base Operator as last time?”

“Same FBO, different jet.”

“I’ll be waiting in the lobby,” she said, “with bells on.”

“Try getting bells through civilian security these days,” I said.

“I appreciate it, Donovan.”

I nodded.

She stood and said, “Bickham’s in the driver’s seat, Charlie’s under the front wheel, right side, these two you’ve seen. We done here?”

I handed Callie a small flashlight.

“Can you hold this on the dash for me?” I said.

Through the driver’s window, she focused enough light for me to work. I took a small plastic baggie out of my pocket and leaned into the van through the passenger seat door. I took some fingerprint tape out of the baggie and transferred several partials onto the dashboard and a perfect palm print for the side of the seat that Charlie had lowered. Then I took three strands of blond hair from the bag and put one on the seat, one on the floor, and one on the sleeve of Bickham’s shirt, near the cuff .

“You left the shells where they landed, right?” I said, going through my mental checklist.

Callie didn’t bother to answer. She was the consummate pro.

I looked around a bit longer, making sure I didn’t miss anything. I put the plastic baggie back in my pocket and took two gallon-sized plastic bags out of my duffel bag.

“Ready for the guns,” I said.

I wiped mine down and placed it carefully into one of the plastic bags and put it in the duffel. Callie handed me hers and I cleaned and packed it with the other one.

“Crime scene’s okay,” I said.

“What about the video camera?”

“Sal didn’t trust Teddy to remove it, so he put a guy in the bar. He won’t leave without it.”

“You think Sal will try to use it against us someday?”

“Nah. Our people can discredit any type of evidence.”

I took a windbreaker out of the duffel and handed it to her.

“Put this on to cover your arm,” I said. “We’ll drive awhile before removing that tattoo.”

“I’ll do it after you drop me off. I’ve got some polish remover that works pretty well, but a job like this will take some time.”

“You still wearing the brown contacts?” I said.

She turned the flashlight onto her face.

“You like? You saw them earlier.”

“Huge difference,” I said. Callie’s natural pale-gray eyes were hypnotic. These were normal.

“I guess we’re ready,” I said. “Still, I’d feel better if we were doing the body double instead of Sal.”

Callie shrugged. “This is Goober Town, Donovan, not Miami CSI.”

Part of the plan was to have Teddy Boy take a picture of Callie at the restaurant with his cell phone camera, from a distance, but making sure he got at least a hazy shot of the outrageous tattoo on her right arm. When the local detectives come to the bar to interview people, Teddy Boy would remember taking the picture.

Sal already had a victim lined up that matched the tattoo, a dancer named Shawna. It was Shawna’s hair that I’d placed in the van. Shawna only vaguely resembled Callie, but Sal didn’t intend for much to be identifiable beyond the hair and tattoo. She was a dancer in one of Sal’s clubs in Cleveland, and had recently committed the unpardonable sin of threatening one of Sal’s lieutenants with exposure. Sal’s guy was preparing to kill her when Sal forced him to hide her instead, and keep her alive until he gave the word. I hoped the angry lieutenant would refrain from killing her until I could get Callie’s gun to Sal, so he could get the dancer’s prints on it. I hadn’t intended to use my gun tonight, but I did, so now I’d have to take it apart and scatter it, piece by piece, over a wide area.

“How long will we be in Vegas?” I asked.

Callie smirked at me. “Gotta check in with the ‘ol ball and chain?”

I shrugged. “When you’re in a committed relationship, there are certain rules of protocol.”

“So you’ll tell her we’re going to Vegas, just you and me?”

“Full disclosure is not one of the rules.”

“One night.”

“Excuse me?”

“We’ll be in Vegas one night.”

I assumed she had a tricky freelance killing to do that required a second person. If so, I’d need to know a few details before we left.

“What type of equipment should I bring?” I asked.

“A nice suit.”

“That’s it?”

“We’re just going to a show. At the Bellagio.”

“Oh.”

“That’s right.”

“What’s right?”

“ ‘O’.”

“Oh, what?” I said.

“The show is called ‘O.’”

“In that case,” I said, “who’s on first?”

“Does that work for Kathleen?”

“What, humor?”

She looked at me and rolled her eyes.

“Not really,” I said.

We sat there a moment, Callie staring straight ahead, thinking of one thing but talking about another.

“She probably thinks you’re funny,” Callie said. “It’s early in the relationship.”

“That’ll change soon, though, huh Dr. Phil?”

“You’re probably wondering why I want you to see this particular show this particular week,” she said.

“Hey, I’m honored. The reason doesn’t matter.”

“It might, later on.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because after the show you’re going to have to make a life and death decision.”

“My life and death?”

“No,” she said. “Mine.”

Chapter 16

Sunday morning. I was heading to Kathleen’s house when my cell phone rang. I checked the display, saw my daughter was calling, and had my driver raise the privacy partition. Before I clicked on, I reminded myself to start off cheerfully.

“Hi Kitten, what’s up?”

Oh my God, Daddy, someone’s killed Charlie!”

“What? Who’s been killed?” I said.

“Charlie! My boyfriend! Oh, my God! Someone’s killed Charlie!” Kimberly started sobbing. “Oh, my God!” she screamed.

With each sob I felt a stab of guilt. But also relief. Th at son-of-a-bitch might be hurting her in death, but he would have hurt her far worse by living.

“Kimberly, try to calm down. Tell me what happened.”

“They found a van this morning, in a field. Four boys were shot. One of them is Charley. Oh, God, Daddy!” She started sobbing again. “How can this have happened? Who could possibly want to hurt Charley? He was the greatest guy ever.”

“Are you absolutely sure it was Charlie? Has anyone identified the body?”

She was having trouble catching her breath.

“It’s him, Dad. All four boys were killed.”

“I’m so sorry, Kitten,” I said. “I’m so very sorry.”

We went on like that awhile. Somewhere in there she said, “I wish you could have met him. You would have liked him.”

“I know I would have,” I lied.

She cried some more and I remained on the phone until she was all cried out. I asked if there was anything I could do.

She said, “Is there any way you’d consider coming to the funeral?”

“Of course I will,” I said. “Just tell me when and where.”

I wasn’t worried about being recognized as Callie’s date from the Grantline Bar & Grill the night before. For one thing, all eyes were on Callie. For another, I’d worn elevator shoes that added three inches to my height, a brown wig, glasses and a full beard. The beard covered the scar on my face, and the clothes I wore are long gone. The guns were cleaned and currently in Sal’s possession. There was nothing to tie me to the scene.

Kathleen and I spent the day quietly, commiserating about Kimberly. I had to bite my lip a dozen times as Kathleen kept asking the same questions Kimberly had posed about poor, sweet, wonderful Charlie. It pissed me off that Kathleen assumed the kid she’d never met had been a choir boy. I mean, when four boys are murdered gangland style, wouldn’t you naturally assume there might be something amiss? I kept reminding myself that Kathleen was a civilian. She had no instincts or training that would lead her to suspect that Charlie had murdered one woman and raped a dozen others. I remained neutral on the subject of Charlie, knowing that in the days to come most of the sordid details would be revealed in the news. But I knew I could never tell Kathleen about my involvement in his death, despite the fact that by killing Charlie, Callie and I had saved Kimberly and countless other women. No matter how deep Kathleen and my relationship grew, this would be yet another terrible secret I’d have to keep from her.

“Donovan, is there anything you can do?” she said.

“You mean like trying to find out who did it?”

“Or at least get some updated information for Kimberly. I’m sure it would make her feel better.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said. “I’ll put Lou Kelly on it.”

Lou is my right-hand man, the guy that heads up my support team for Sensory Resources. Lou’s geek squad would be able to provide me with up-to-the-minute information from the sheriff's department.

All afternoon the calls went back and forth between Lou and me. By eight p.m. the investigation had made enough progress to give Kimberly a credible report.

“I know you’re hurting honey, but I called in some favors and did some checking. You can’t tell anyone about this, because it’s privileged, but I’ve got some information about the shooting.”

“Thank you, Daddy.” She sounded painfully subdued.

“I’ve got to warn you, you’re probably not going to like what I have to say.”

“Then it’s probably a pack of lies.”

Well, at least there was still a spark there. “It might be, honey, but the evidence they’ve gathered is pretty strong against the boys.”

She was quiet, bristling a little.

“It’s up to you, Kimberly.”

“I want to hear it,” she said. “I’ll find out eventually, so I may as well know now.”

“All right, then. I’ll start talking, and if it gets to be too much, just tell me and I’ll stop. Here goes: all four of the boys were from Darnell. Two of them were shot execution style with a single shot between the eyes. Charlie was one of them, the other was a boy named George Rawlins.”

I paused to let her finish crying.

“Go ahead, Dad. I’m sorry.”

“I know, baby. It’s hard. Maybe this isn’t the best time.”

“No Dad, really. I want to hear.”

“Okay. I’m reading from a memorandum now: ‘The other two, Bickham Wright and Robbie Milford, were wounded first; then finished off with head shots. The driver of the van, Bickham Wright, was shot in the groin. Robbie Milford was shot in the lower chest. Police on the scene speculated the shootings may have been gang related, and likely involved drugs; a conclusion they reached in an effort to tie the crime to the recent disappearance of Bickham Wright’s cousin, Ned Denhollen, also from Darnell.’”

Kimberly said, “Mr. Denhollen was our pharmacist. There’s been a rumor he left his wife. Has he been found?”

“There’s nothing in the report about it,” I said. “Here, I’ll read you what I have: ‘Denhollen is or was a Darnell pharmacist. Friends and neighbors interviewed considered Ned and his wife Anita to be living beyond their means, suggesting possible after-hours drug sales. The kill shots appeared to be professional in nature, suggesting a gangland-style murder or underworld execution.’”

“So far, none of this makes any sense,” Kimberly said. “If Mr. Denhollen was selling drugs, they would have shot him, not Charlie and the others.”

“Let me keep reading,” I said. “It starts to come together: ‘Madison Park police discovered the four bodies Sunday morning. Because the area where the bodies were found encompasses both jurisdictions, police officers from Madison Park and Darnell have joined forces to create a task force to investigate the shootings. All four victims were known to police at the scene and therefore identified simultaneously. At 1:25 p.m. today the task force began a thorough search of the victims’ homes, personal belongings, and computers. They discovered several clear, odorless vials of liquid in a box on the top shelf of Bickham Wright’s bedroom closet, which they turned over to a local medical lab for testing. Riley Cobb, a local computer expert, was able to access Robby Milford’s computer. He was able to uncover hundreds of pornographic downloads, as well as a folder named ‘Fuck Club.’”

I waited to see if she had a comment about that. She didn’t.

“Sorry about the language,” I said.

“Its okay, Daddy,” she said. “I’ve heard the word a million times.”

“There’s a lot of stuff about this,” I said. “Rather than read it, I’ll summarize. The task force found several files in the Fuck Club folder on Robbie’s computer, including seven rules for participating in the club, and photographs of three local girls, all nude, all apparently unconscious.

“Who were they, Dad?”

“I don’t have their names yet, but the task force has identified them as local girls, meaning either Darnell or Madison Park, or both.”

“Why were they unconscious? Were they drunk? I don’t understand.”

“This is the part you’re not going to like. The task force is almost certain that the test results on the vials found in Bickham’s closet will reveal GHB, the date rape drug. Based on the files and photographs they uncovered from Robbie’s computer, and the vials found in Bickham’s closet, it looks like the boys had a club where they were drugging girls and having sex with them.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Kimberly shouted. “I don’t know the others. I mean, I know of them, but I don’t know them. But I do know Charlie. He was gorgeous, Dad. He could’ve had any girl. He didn’t need to drug anyone. If there actually was such a club, Charlie couldn’t possibly have been a part of it.”

I had to bite my tongue not to speak. Because not only was Charlie part of it, he was the worst part of it.

“I’m sure you’re right, Kitten. By the time they finish the investigation maybe they’ll conclude it was the other three, not Charlie.”

“I can guarantee it,” she said.

“Well, you certainly knew him better than me,” I said, “so I’m sure you’re right.”

“Did they find any evidence when they searched the van?”

That’s my daughter, I thought.

“In fact, they have. In addition to blood evidence, they’ve found five shell casings that are almost certainly related to the shooting, hundreds of fingerprints, and they’ve collected dozens of hair and fiber samples. They’ve also found numerous semen stains and other bodily fluid stains on sleeping bags found in the back of the van.”

“They’ll test the semen against the boys, won’t they?” she said.

“They will.”

“And if they find a match to Charlie, they’ll think he was in on it.”

“Not necessarily.”

“What do you mean?”

“From what I understand, Charlie’s father is an outstanding criminal lawyer. I’m sure if Charlie is innocent, his father will be able to make a compelling argument to prove it.”

“You believe me, don’t you Dad? About Charlie?”

“I do, honey.”

“Good. I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.”

“I understand there’s going to be a vigil tonight,” I said. “At the high school.”

“It starts at nine. We’re all going.”

“Well, you be safe, okay?”

“I will. And thanks for trusting me with all this. I won’t tell anyone.”

“No problem. I love you, Kimberly.”

“I love you too, Dad. And…”

“Yes?”

“I loved Charlie.”

I winced. “I know you did, honey.”

Chapter 17

Donovan, let’s cut to the chase,” said Dr. Nadine Crouch. “This is our third visit, and so far you’ve refused to talk about your parents or your childhood, you’ve refused to talk about your job, or even what you were doing in the moments before the chest pain occurred. So I have to assume you were doing something illegal or immoral.”

She paused to see if her words stirred a reaction in me.

“Do you deny it?” she said.

“Would it bother you?”

She said, “Suppose you found a bird with a broken wing that needs your help. Is it really important how its wing got broken?”

I paused a moment, trying to follow her train of thought. Giving up, I said, “Maybe you should just tell me what you’re trying to say.”

“It’s not my job to judge you.”

“In that case, I don’t deny it.”

“Very well,” she said. “So you were doing something immoral or illegal when the pain began. Is this an activity you’ve engaged in previously?”

“Hypothetically?”

“Of course.”

“Yes.”

“Would I be right in assuming you haven’t suffered chest pains while performing this activity in the past?”

“You would.”

She pursed her lips. “Normally I wouldn’t make a rush to judgment, but you’re not a typical patient. By helping you, I might be protecting others.”

“I appreciate that,” I said. “So what’s the verdict?”

“We haven’t spent enough time together for me to pronounce this with a high degree of certainty. But at first blush, this seems to be a classic example.”

“Of?”

“Psychologically Induced Pain Syndrome. PIPS, for short.”

“PIPS? I’ve got PIPS? Boy, won’t Gladys Knight be jealous!”

“Psychological pain syndromes are defense mechanisms created by your subconscious mind to cover up unresolved emotional issues. In short, whatever your body was doing the day of the chest pains, your mind wanted no part of it. Your mind fought back the only way it could: by creating pain.”

“Are you being serious?” I said.

“Completely. Your mind creates an intense pain to try to force you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. It forces you to focus on the pain. If you don’t, the pain gets worse. Your mind is determined to make you stop doing whatever it is that is so distasteful. If you don’t come to grips with it, it can shut you down altogether.”

I thought about that for a minute. “Is this a common thing?”

“It is, but it typically manifests in back pain.”

“Then why the heart this time?”

“Look at you,” she said. “You’re strong as an ox. I’m guessing you’ve never had the slightest back pain, am I right?”

“You are.”

“So your mind knows you wouldn’t believe a back pain. The subconscious mind is very clever. It won’t create a pain that can be ignored or put off . It takes advantage of you by creating something so convincing, you have to focus on it. In your case I’m going to go out on a limb and guess your father, or someone close to you, died of a heart attack.”

I could feel her looking at me, hoping for a reaction.

“So you’re saying the pain is only a smokescreen, something my subconscious mind created to distract me from what I was doing at the time.”

“That’s correct. Be glad it wasn’t colitis.”

“Colitis?”

“That’s the worst of the psychosomatic pains.”

“Worse than the heart?”

“Far worse.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But as we discussed, what I was doing at the time is something I’ve done many times before.”

“Think it through, Donovan. I’ll bet there was something different about that particular time.”

So she was saying that my mind didn’t want me to kill the Peterson sisters. No, it was more than that. My mind tried to prevent me from killing them. But why? I’d killed dozens—okay, more than a hundred—people before. What made the Petersons different? It couldn’t be that they were women. I’ve killed women before, with no pains or afterthoughts. It couldn’t be that I’m going soft, because I’d recently killed Ned Denhollen without the first sign of chest pains.

So what made the Peterson sisters different from all the rest?

The answer was somewhere in the back of my mind, hiding in a place I couldn’t quite access. I was probably trying too hard to make sense of something my mind was trying to repress. Best thing to do was put it on hold and come back to it later. I stood.

She stood.

We shook hands.

“Will you come back?” she said.

“You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“You need this,” she said.

“I’ll let you know.”

For a moment it seemed as though she wanted to say something else. The thought seemed to flit about her face like a scrap of paper caught on a wind current. In the end, she chose not to say it, whatever it was, and I was left to wonder what it could have been.

And realized that’s probably how she gets her patients to return.

Chapter 18

Sensory Resources had a Gulfstream in a hangar in Trenton that needed to get back to LA, so Callie and I caught it as far west as Vegas. With a ride like that, you grab while you can. In a perfect world it would have been a round-tripper, but hey, I couldn’t complain. I’d just have to charter something on my own dime to get us back home Thursday. I’d keep it Thursday night and use it to fly Kathleen and me to Charlie’s funeral on Friday.

In a G4, Trenton to Vegas runs about four hours. A lot of time to chat, but we were quiet most of the trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Dr. Crouch had said about the psychological pain. Until I got a handle on its cause, I’d be susceptible to severe chest pains at the worst possible times. That type of physical disability could prove deadly in my line of work.

“Cirque du Soleil,” I said.

Callie looked up at me. “What about it?”

“I didn’t know you were such a big fan of performance art.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” she said.

True, I thought. And a lot I did know.

This is how you get to be Callie: you’re eight years old, you watch TV, you play in the yard, you go to school, and you’ve got the brightest smile and bubbliest laugh in town. Except that one day you’re playing outside at your friend’s house and the sky has gotten dark and you decide if you run you can beat the rain, because it’s only a couple of blocks.

So you start running and you get about half-way home before the rain comes hard and you do something that changes your life.

You hesitate.

You stop running and wonder what to do. Should you keep heading home, or go back to your friend’s house and call your mom to pick you up.

At that precise moment of indecision, you’re tackled, punched, and dragged into the bushes.

The man is large and powerfully built. He smells of garlic and moldy cheese. He’s got you face down in the mud and he doesn’t have to hit you in the back of the head, but he does, and he hits you again and again. And each time he hits you, you start to black out, and you wish you could scream, but when you try, nothing comes out but a hiss.

The smelly man pulls your panties down to your ankles and hits you again. He starts touching you in a certain way—you know the word: inappropriately. At first you don’t worry so much because what you wanted more than anything was for him to stop punching the back of your head. But then, when he starts talking to you with a love voice, and calls you his sexy little girl you want to vomit. When his words turn really dirty and he starts calling you names, you start wishing he’d stop saying those things and go back to hitting you.

Then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets much worse. The pain is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, or ever imagined. It numbs you and your mind can’t tolerate it, so it just shuts down.

The man leaves you lying there to die, face down in a muddy field. You nearly drown in the muck but someone finds you and brings you home and for the next six months you’re in and out of hospitals and you can’t speak, can’t feel, can’t think. You sit in a chair facing a window and everyone thinks you’re looking out the window, but you’re actually staring at the window, and your mind is trying to work out the way the wooden pieces intersect, the slats that hold the window panes. Something about how they intersect. If you can figure that out, well, it’s not much, but it’s something to hold on to; a place from which to reclaim your sanity.

And then one day it’s fall and the wind is blowing the leaves off the trees and one errant leaf snags on the window pane next to the wooden slats and when it does, you focus on the leaf. For the first time in months, you see there’s something on the other side of the window, and if there’s something beyond that window, then maybe it’s something big enough to live for.

You begin the process of building your life from scratch. But you’re not building the life you were meant to live, you’re building something else altogether.

You realize you’re alive and not dead or dreaming. But you also realize that while you’re alive on the outside, on the inside you’re dead. A few months pass and they send you back to school, but something’s different. All the kids know what happened to you. They taunt you, hit you, but when they do, you feel no pain. That’s because none of them can hit you like the man hit you. And yet, you want to be hit, so you taunt them back. They hit you and you laugh. They hit you some more and you laugh harder. You love the feel of your own blood in your mouth. The taste and texture makes you feel almost alive.

You’re fifteen now, and you keep growing more and more beautiful, but you could care less. You start taking drugs, you flirt with the fathers of your former friends, and you get some of them to sleep with you in return for money you use to buy more drugs.

You eventually get busted for prostitution and you’re sent to a state hospital for evaluation. You’re coming off your drugs cold turkey and you freak out and they give you an injection and put you in restraints. The first time you wake up you find your arms, waist and ankles strapped to a bed. The next time you wake up, two orderlies are molesting you. You scream and wail and they run away and you think you know how to beat them, but all you’ve done was teach them to give you a stronger dose next time.

You spend a few weeks in the ward and by the time you’re clean you learn you have an IQ of 182, which is a hundred points more than you need for the life you’re willing to accept.

So you’re back home and back to other things, as well, like buying drugs and selling your body. And by the time you’re eighteen, you’re doing some new things, too, like stealing cars. You love the cars, love boosting them, love driving them fast, with the windows down and the radio up and the bass line thumping strong and steady.

Like a beating heart.

One night you’re driving a tweaked out Super Bee and you’re blitzed enough to wonder what it feels like to slam into the car that’s parked near the bushes where it all changed for you. You hit it hard, but you survive, and then it’s back to the ward, back to the knockout drugs that make the late night rape sessions possible for the otherwise un-dateable orderlies.

And you go on like that for a number of weeks or months until something happens: for the second time in your life, a man shows up and changes your life. Except that this man understands you and knows what you need. His name is Donovan Creed and yeah, he knows exactly what you need.

You need a reason.

You don’t get to be like eighteen-year-old Callie without experiencing soul-crushing trauma. And you don’t become the empty, broken, killing machine Callie of today unless you have a reason.

So yeah, I gave Callie a reason. I took her under my wing and trained her. She was an easy study because she was indefatigable, and because she flat didn’t give a shit.

Callie’s reason is revenge.

That’s why it’s easy for her to put a bullet into a total stranger, or kill date raping young men in cold blood. That’s why sometimes, for Callie, it’s personal.

I looked at her in the Gulfstream, sitting across the aisle, facing me, reclining, eyes closed. And God help her, she was and is the most exquisitely beautiful woman to ever walk the earth.

And the most deadly.

I couldn’t fathom this request of hers to see a Vegas show, but if Callie’s heart had opened to the point that she could appreciate theater, then I wanted to be there to experience it with her.

Still, I wondered what she meant by the life and death part.

Chapter 19

The Cirque du Soleil stage production of “O” was considered so important to the success of the Bellagio Hotel, they actually built the stage first, and then built the hotel and casino around it. And what a stage it is! It houses a pool containing one-point-five million gallons of water! There is a platform in the pool filled with thousands of tiny holes that allows it to rise and fall in seconds, without creating a wake. This enables cast members to perform high dives into the pool one minute, and skip across the surface the next.

Tickets are sold out months in advance. I didn’t ask Callie how she obtained our front-row balcony seats, and didn’t need to. Callie gets what Callie wants.

The show itself is hard to explain, but in general, it’s a celebration of water. There is no real plot, per se, nor is one necessary. “O” is a stunning display of athletes, acrobats, synchronized swimmers, divers and mythical characters, all of whom perform on a constantly changing liquid stage.

The program described the music as “haunting and lyrical, upbeat and melancholy”—and they weren’t lying, it was superb. For me, the blend of music and choreography enhanced the beauty and spectacle of the experience. Sure, I’d seen other circus acts that impressed me. But I’d never made an emotional connection with the performers before. But here, sitting beside Callie, watching “O,” I found myself caught up in the performers’ world of grace, strength and art. And loving every minute of it.

There are seventeen acts in the show, no intermissions. I glanced out of the corner of my eye at Callie several times, but each time her face showed less expression than Joan Rivers after a Botox treatment.

Until the seventeenth act: “Solo Trapeze.”

That’s when I saw Callie’s right hand tense, ever so slightly. I turned to look at her and saw her—not crying, but tearing up. Then, amazingly, a single tear spilled over the edge of her eyelashes and traced halfway down her cheek. She didn’t notice me staring, didn’t make a move to wipe it dry. More than nine million people have seen “O” in this theater, but none were moved more than Callie. I know, because I’ve seen her in dozens of situations that would have made the toughest guys cry. Add all those events to this and you get a total of one tear.

I opened my program and noticed the girl on the trapeze was the alternate. There was something familiar about the name.

And then it hit me.

It was Eva LeSage.

I’d never met Eva, but Callie used to guard her back in Atlanta for Sensory Resources. You get attached to the people you guard, and you like to see them succeed in life. Callie was proving to be far more sentimental than I’d ever known her to be. On the other hand, she hadn’t so much as frowned while killing Charlie and his friends a few nights ago, so it was unlikely she’d be mistaken for Mother Teresa anytime soon.

After the show I said, “There are six Cirque du Soleil shows playing Vegas.”

“So?”

“So that means tonight, five hundred performers will be walking the Strip—all of them limber enough to have sex without a partner.”

She gave me a curious look. “Anyone can have sex without a partner.”

“Not that kind of sex,” I said.

“Thanks for the visual.”

We climbed into our waiting limo and headed to the Encore Hotel. We had dinner reservations at Switch.

“Did you get anything else out of the show?” Callie said, “aside from the sexual dexterity of the performers?”

“It’s probably the best show I’ve ever seen: synchronized swimmers, acrobats, Red coated soldiers with powdered wigs riding on flying carousel horses, world-class high divers, contortionists, a man so deeply involved with his newspaper he continues reading it after bursting into flames…”

“Anything else?”

I smiled. “I was particularly impressed by the solo trapeze artist who made her debut tonight. The understudy from Atlanta. Eva LeSage.”

Callie studied me a moment before saying, “When did you figure it out?”

“Not till the very end.”

“You think she’s good enough to get the lead?”

I shrugged. “I’m not qualified to say.”

I looked at Callie and sensed she needed to hear some type of personal validation from me. Something honest, from the heart. I dug deep.

“For me, Eva had a delicate, ballet quality that went beyond special. She wowed me tonight. It was like watching poetry in motion.”

“Poetry in motion,” Callie repeated. Her voice had a wistful quality about it.

After a moment she said, “Did you make that up?”

“It’s an old sixties song.”

She grinned. “Eighteen sixties?”

“Nineteen, smartass. Johnny Tillotson.”

“Donovan, seriously. How do you know that—you weren’t even alive in the sixties.”

“Some things are worth learning about.”

“Sixties music being one of them?”

“Music was better back then.”

“Song titles, maybe.”

We sat awhile in silence, feeling the tires adjust to the uneven pavement.

The driver turned his head in our general direction and said, “Sorry about the construction.”

“No problem,” I said. Of course there’s construction. It’s Vegas. There’s always construction going on.

“You hungry?” I said.

I’d wanted to try Switch because I heard they had a lobster salad appetizer and great steaks. What makes the restaurant unique, every twenty minutes the lights dim, eerie music plays, and the walls and ceilings change their theme. I heard that sometimes the waiters quick-change into totally different outfits. Touristy, I know, but it would give me something to tell Kathleen and Addie about when I got back.

“I’m not a foodie,” she said, “but I’ll find something to nibble on while we talk about this…situation.”

“There’s a situation?” I said. “With Eva?”

“There’s about to be,” she said.

Chapter 20

Switch did not disappoint. This high-energy restaurant was all about vibrant colors, Venetian glass murals, and wild, stylish fabrics. More to the point: they had a bourbon bar that featured, among other timeless classics, my favorite spirit: Pappy Van Winkle’s twenty-year Family Reserve. I ordered us each a shot of the Pappy, straight up.

“I’ll have a chardonnay,” Callie said.

The waiter hesitated. “Bring her a shot of Pappy,” I said, “and a glass of your house chardonnay, just in case.”

After he left to fetch the drinks, I said, “You remember Burt Lancaster?”

“The actor?” Callie said. She looked around. “He’s here?”

“Only in spirit,” I said.

“Oh.” She thought a moment, and said, “I liked him in that Kevin Costner movie, the one about the baseball field.”

“Field of Dreams,” I said, “his last performance.”

“What about him?”

“When he was sixteen, Burt Lancaster ran away from home and joined the circus, wanted to be a trapeze artist.”

Callie looked interested. “And did he become one?”

“He did.”

The waiter brought our drinks.

“Take a sip of the bourbon,” I said. “You won’t be disappointed.”

Callie sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Cheers.”

We clinked glasses, and I said, “Let it sit on your tongue a few seconds, until you taste the caramel.”

Callie did as she was instructed, but quickly made a face and spit a mouthful of bourbon into her water glass.

“How can you stand that?” she said. “Tastes like gasoline!”

I looked at the hazy, amber liquid in her water glass, and frowned.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” I said. “It’s like spitting in church.”

I picked up her tumbler and placed it next to mine.

Callie grabbed my water glass and drank furiously. When she regained her composure, she took a sip of chardonnay.

I lifted my tumbler and took another pull.

“‘We make fine whiskey,’” I recited. “‘At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine whiskey.’”

“What’s that from?” Callie said.

“Pappy Van Winkle’s motto.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever get the taste out of my mouth,” she said.

“We were talking about Burt Lancaster,” I said.

“Right. Why would he quit trapeze to become an actor?”

“World War II broke out, he enlisted, became an elite soldier, Army Special Services. From there, he sort of backed into the motion picture industry, using his trapeze training to become one of the greatest stuntmen in Hollywood.”

Callie picked up her napkin, placed it in her lap and seemed to study it.

“I used to watch Eva practice every night,” she said.

“Back in Atlanta when you were guarding her?”

Callie nodded. “At first she had trouble being upside down. It made her dizzy and gave her headaches. I figured she’d give up, but she kept at it, forcing herself to face her fear.”

“Takes a lot of guts,” I said, waiting to see where this was heading.

The waiter asked if we’d like an appetizer. I ordered the lobster salad. Callie deferred.

“Each trapeze artist has a unique style,” she said. “Some are highly structured, almost mechanical. Emotionless. Like Chris Evert playing tennis. Others, like Eva, seem to dance on air.”

She’d said that last part as if talking to herself. I had one last factoid rolling around in my head and figured to use it.

“He said he never lost his love for the trapeze,” I said.

She looked at me absently, so I continued: “Burt Lancaster. He worked out on trapeze swings until he was almost seventy.”

I looked at Callie and noticed her eyes had brimmed with tears. In the years I’d known and worked with her, I’d never seen this side of her.

“You okay?” I said.

“I can’t let her die, Donovan.”

“It’s been arranged. She’s Tara Siegel’s body double. You have to step aside.”

“I can’t. I won’t.”

I frowned. “We need to talk about this.”

“Fine,” she said. “Talk.”

Body doubles are disposable people we use to cover our tracks or fake our deaths if our covers get blown. By strategically killing a look-alike—as Sal was about to do to cover Callie’s tracks back in Darnell—we can buy time to eliminate paper trails or change our appearance and get back to the business of killing terrorists for the government. Of course, the body doubles have no idea their lives are owned by Sensory Resources. The way it works, one of us notices a civilian who strongly resembles one of our top operatives. If my facilitator, Darwin, accepts that person as a match, he assigns a trainee to monitor and protect the civilian until he or she is needed. When I first left the CIA I protected a body double for almost a year. Callie guarded someone a year and a half before being promoted to my team of assassins.

The civilian Callie guarded was Eva LeSage.

“Who’s guarding Eva now?” I asked.

“Chavez.”

“He moved to Vegas to guard her?”

Callie nodded. “He’s the one gave me the tickets,” she said.

Eva was just twenty-two when someone spotted her at a gymnastics meet and did a double-take. That’s how it happens. We’re out in the world, we see someone who looks like one of our agents. Eva happened to look like Tara Siegel, who works out of Boston.

You don’t have to be a perfect match to be selected as a body double. You do need to be the approximate age, same height, weight, and body style, with the same cheekbones, facial features and skin tone. When we need you, we fix you up well enough to pass for our agent, then we make the switch. Of course, it’s a fatal switch.

When Callie moved up to assassin, Eva was passed off to Antonio Chavez.

“All these years Antonio never got promoted?”

“He’d rather guard,” she said. “Plus, I think he’s too stable to kill people.”

When Eva moved to Vegas to pursue her career, Chavez could have passed her on to someone else, but according to Callie, he hadn’t. He’d chosen to follow her there instead. I wondered if Chavez had an ulterior motive. It’s pretty common to get attached to the people you guard.

“You think he’s fallen for her?”

“Not a chance,” Callie said.

“You seem pretty certain.”

“Chavez is company, all the way.”

“You have any reason to think Eva is about to be pressed into service?”

Callie glared at me. “You don’t have to sugar coat it, Donovan,” she said. “We don’t press people into service. We murder them.”

“The question stands,” I said.

She curled her lip in disgust. “Tara Siegel’s a loose cannon,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time before she fucks the pooch. Eva LeSage is not some every day, run-of-the-mill suburban housewife soccer mom, Donovan. She’s magic. I don’t care how down I am, whenever I see her, I come away happy. A person like that, who inspires so much and entertains so many doesn’t deserve to die.”

“None of them deserve to die, Callie. It’s about the greater good. We sacrifice one to save many. Look, you already know this.”

Now I understood why Callie had said that after seeing the show it would be a matter of her life and death. She didn’t want this body double to die, which put me in a tough spot. If I sided with Darwin, I’d have to kill Callie. And if I sided with Callie, both our lives would be on the line.

“First of all, she looks nothing like Tara. She’s half her size!” Callie said.

“Darwin must’ve seen something in her.”

“He’s a moron. They need to find someone else. I’ll find someone else.”

“Callie, there’s no way. They’ve invested years…”

“I’m serious, Donovan.”

This was so unlike Callie that I was having trouble wrapping my head around the conversation. I understood what she was trying to say, but she knew how the system worked. Sure, Eva’s an artist, a gifted entertainer. But that doesn’t make her life any more valuable than the literature professor I guarded, or the dozen other civilians who are going through life, completely oblivious that we’re monitoring their every move. I could see no reason why Callie should care one way or other about Eva.

 Unless…

“Are you sleeping with her?” I said.

Callie took a deep breath, held it a moment, and slowly exhaled. She looked away.

“Holy shit!” I said.

Chapter 21

Callie suddenly had the slightest smile going. I guessed it probably felt good to share the secret.

“I can’t let her die,” she said.

“Give me a sec,” I said. “I’m trying to visualize the two of you doing it.”

“What? Oh, grow up, Creed!”

“Every man’s fantasy, Cal. Bear with me.”

“Are you…oh, my God, you’re checking me out! Jesus, Donovan!”

“Relax,” I said. “I’m always checking you out. You just never noticed before.”

“Oh yeah, well, men are pigs.”

“True.”

“And you’re the king pig.”

“Oink.”

She took another deep breath.

“I hate myself for saying this,” she said, “but I need your help.”

“Yes you do.”

Just then I noticed an elderly lady standing by the seafood tower. I took out my phone, handed it to Callie and nodded in the direction of the lady.

“For Kathleen,” I said.

“You’re kidding.”

“C’mon, you know the drill.”

“Are you wearing panties, Creed? It starts with the panties, you know.”

“Relax. I just don’t want Kathleen to stress, okay? She’s got trust issues.”

“I think you need a spine implant.”

“I’ll keep it in mind. Now come with me and do your part, okay?”

We walked across the floor to the lady.

“Pardon me,” I said, “but would you do me the honor of taking a picture with me?”

“Why on earth would you want my picture?” she said. “Your lady friend is gorgeous. I should take a picture of the two of you.”

Jumping right in as if it had been rehearsed, Callie said, “You look like his mother.”

“What?”

“Where are you from?” Callie said. “Really, you could be her sister.”

“I’m from Seattle,” she said. “And you?”

“Atlanta,” Callie said. “By the way, I’m Julie. This is Joe.”

“Nice to meet you, Julie and Joe, I’m Mildred.” She pointed to an older man who was watching us from a distance. “That’s my husband. He’s also a Joe.”

“A good man, I’m sure,” I said, “judging strictly by the name.”

Mildred laughed.

“Now you two scrunch in together and smile,” Callie said.

She pointed my cell phone at us and snapped a picture. Afterward, we walked Mildred back to her husband. We all shook hands.

“We just saw “O” at the Bellagio,” Callie said. “Have you guys ever seen it?”

“We have,” Joe said.

“About two years ago,” Mildred added.

“Did you love it?” Callie said.

They agreed it was remarkable. Then we told Joe how Mildred looked just like my mother. He asked if we knew anyone in Seattle and I told him I knew a fire chief from Montclair, New Jersey, named Blaunert who had plans to retire on Portage Bay.

“That’s a beautiful spot,” Joe said.

We wrapped up our conversation. On the way back to our table I flagged down our waiter and asked him to deliver a bottle of champagne to Joe and Mildred. Then we took our seats and looked at each other.

“Well, that was fun,” Callie said, dryly.

“You were great back there, by the way.”

“Whatever. It’s not my first rodeo. So,” she said, “will you talk to Darwin for me?”

“I think not,” I said. “He’ll want to know why I’m asking, and believe me, he’ll find out. When he does, he’ll end your affair with a bullet. So if you want to keep this going—and you obviously do—you can’t let Darwin know you’re involved with her. By the way,” I added, “how were you able to keep the affair going without Chavez finding out?”

“Easier than you might think. Remember, he’s following Eva. Since I know where she’s going before he does, I’m already there.”

“So if Eva’s going to a party at someone’s house you’re already there?”

“A better example is when she goes out of town to visit her parents, and stays at a hotel room that happens to adjoin mine.”

I thought about the logistics of Callie falling for her, approaching her, wooing her, the time involved to build this type of relationship.

“You couldn’t have set this up after you passed her off to Chavez,” I said.

Callie said nothing.

“This had to have started years ago, when you were guarding her.”

Callie remained silent.

“And it’s continued all this time,” I said. “So why now?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve always known her life was in danger. Why the sudden urgency?”

“I think Tara’s in the middle of an operation that could turn sour.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Chavez got a call. Darwin told him to be ready, just in case.”

“And you know this because?”

“Chavez and I talk sometimes.”

“You’ve been keeping him on a string to see what he knows?”

“Something like that.”

I had a sudden thought.

“You’re not sleeping with Chavez, too, are you?”

“Fuck you!”

“All right, simmer down,” I said. “I’m just trying to figure out how complicated this is.”

“As far as Chavez is concerned, he and I are colleagues, nothing more. When he worked Atlanta, we met twice a year for drinks. I was careful when asking about Eva.”

“I believe you. Otherwise, she’d be dead.”

Callie eyed me carefully, as if trying to read something in my face. Finally, she said, “If you can’t talk to Darwin, what’s left?”

“I can try to talk Tara into quitting.”

“What?”

“Like you said, she’s a mess. Maybe she’s had enough.”

“If she has, she’d already be retired.”

“Sometimes people need a nudge.”

“Would you even know how to find her without Darwin’s help?”

“I think so,” I said. “We’ve got some history.”

“I heard that ended badly,” Callie said, lifting her index finger to the side of her cheek to mimic the angry scar that runs from the top of my cheek to the middle of my neck.

I shrugged. “Some people wear tattoos.”

Callie laughed. “Boston’s a pretty big city,” she said.

“It is.”

“But you know something about Tara, something you learned when you were sleeping with her?”

I nodded.

Callie mulled that over. “What if she says no?”

“Then we go to plan B,” I said.

“Which is?”

“Kill her.”

Callie leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. The one with the scar.

“Thanks, Donovan,” she said. “Once again, you’ve saved my life.”

Such as it is, I thought.

Chapter 22

The walls moved?” Kathleen said. “How?”

“It was like a Hollywood movie set,” I said. “There are five different scenes, with three sets of walls and two ceilings. One of the ceilings has crystal chandeliers.”

“But how does everything switch?” she said.

“They just quietly slide into place.”

“And dinner was good?” she said.

“You’d love it!” I said. “I’ll take you there sometime.”

“Tell me about it now, though.”

“Okay. There was a seafood tower with a sculpture of a seahorse. There were three levels of oysters on the half shell, and some of the display shells had real pearls in them!”

“And the lady you had dinner with?”

Oh oh, I thought. “What about her?”

“How old is she?”

I scrunched up my face. “Hard to tell.”

This was one of those times you had to weigh the benefits of honesty versus happiness. There wasn’t much incentive to tell the truth, since first of all, I wasn’t having an affair, and secondly, Callie and Kathleen would probably never meet. And even if they did meet, Callie would never rat me out. Our secrets were safe. We had each others’ backs.

I looked Kathleen right in the eye, the way President Clinton taught me, and I said, “Honey, Mrs. Calloway has to be at least sixty.”

“Sixty,” she said.

“At least. Maybe sixty-five.”

“And why did she need you to fly all the way to Vegas to take her to dinner and a show?”

“I told you that already. Her husband got sick. They had tickets for the show and dinner reservations. He’s one of my bosses. I felt obligated.”

“Hmm,” she said. “But it does sound as though you had a good time.”

“I put on a brave face,” I said.

Kathleen had trust issues, courtesy of her first husband, Ken Chapman. I could tell she was struggling with my explanation. I figured it was time to put her out of her misery.

I slapped my forehead with my hand.

“What,” she said, “you could have had a V-8?”

“I just remembered. I have a picture of me and Mildred.”

“Mildred?”

“Mildred Calloway. Our waiter took a picture of us on my cell phone.”

“At Switch?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why?”

“This is sort of embarrassing,” I said, working it shamelessly, “but Mildred thinks I’m cute. She wanted to forward a picture of us to her girlfriend in Seattle, so she could pretend she had a hot date with a younger man.”

“Gimme the phone,” Kathleen said. “I want to see the picture of you and the babe.”

I clicked through some images on my phone and passed it to her.

“Here you go,” I said.

When Kathleen saw the photo her face lit up.

“Aww,” she said. “Mildred’s adorable!”

“You’re cuter,” I said, just to prove there was no depth to which I wouldn’t sink.

“Look at that smile,” she said. “You can tell she’s having a ball. Aww, you’re a good sport, honey.”

“Thank you.”

“Is that the seafood tower in the background?”

“It is. I should have gotten a close up for you.”

Before giving me the camera back she clicked the advance button to see if there were any additional pictures. There weren’t.

Then she clicked back one, to check the previous picture, which happened to be a shot of her and Addie playing during the in-home visit with the adoption lady, Patty Feldson.

“I didn’t know you took this picture,” Kathleen said.

“I couldn’t help myself,” I said. “It was a great moment for us.”

She smiled the most wonderful smile and said, “I love the way you said that: Us.”

Kathleen looked sad for a moment.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I thought maybe you’d been cheating on me.”

“With Mildred?”

“No, honey. With some hot babe from Vegas. And all the time you were just being a nice guy. Can you believe I wouldn’t trust you? How crazy is that?” she said.

Compared to all the shit I’ve done? I thought. Not so crazy.

“So,” I said, looking at the door that led to her bedroom. “You think maybe we could…”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’m worried you might be thinking of Mildred while making love to me.”

“What?”

She burst into laughter and dragged me to bed.

At the most appropriate point thereafter, I murmured “Mildred, oh, Mildred!”

Kathleen laughed and said, “Maybe you should do it with Mildred. If you do, make sure she’s on top.”

“Why’s that?”

“So you can see what it feels like to have old age creeping up on you.”

Chapter 23

The Huntington, West Virginia sky was dark and menacing, like an angry panther pacing its cage. Mourners kept a wary eye on the rumbling thunderheads, with good reason: lightning had already killed one golfer the day before, less than a mile from this very spot. Which meant some of these people would have a second chance to wear their black suits this week.

Jerry Beck, father of Charlie and devoted alumnus of Marshall University, had years ago purchased several prime burial plots under a giant, black-barked chestnut oak tree in Spring Hill Cemetery near the Marshall Memorial.

Jerry had been proud to score such elegant eternal accommodations at the time, only he didn’t figure to need them so soon.

The Marshall Memorial honors the football team, coaches and supporters who perished in the famous plane crash of 1970. Like the Memorial and the oak tree, Charlie’s grave site was located on the highest point of the cemetery, overlooking the City of Huntington and the Marshall University campus. Kimberly, Kathleen and I followed the mourners up the hill. As we passed the Memorial I noticed six unmarked graves commemorating the plane crash victims whose remains were never identified.

I wondered how many of Charlie’s victims had never come forward to be identified. I wondered if Kimberly might have been the next. I gave her hand a squeeze.

More than two hundred people showed up for the burial, making it the largest turnout I’d ever seen. Had the weather been better, twice as many might have shown. Kimberly attributed the large numbers to Charlie’s popularity, but I suspected it was something else. I mean, you don’t have to be a local to figure out which way the shit rolled in this part of the country. In West-by-God-Virginia, it rolled downhill, starting with the governor and Jerry Beck.

I was appropriately somber for the occasion, but it didn’t keep me from noticing things. Like how many people had shown up, how many kept glancing at the sky and how many men were holding purses.

I wore a dark suit and black aviator sunglasses, and held my arm around Kimberly and did my best to comfort her. Kimberly was having a rough time. She kept sobbing and burying her face into my side. The wind whipped the women’s dresses mercilessly, and those who wore hats needed both hands to keep hat and dress in place—which explained why so many husbands held their wives’ purses.

My ex-wife, Janet, stood brooding a few yards away. On the few occasions we happened to catch each others’ eyes I saw storms in her face that could have scared the shit out of Katrina.

If my being at the funeral upset Janet—and it did—Kathleen’s presence infuriated her. Janet didn’t have to stare long at my girlfriend to realize this was not the woman who met her months ago, claiming to have been brutally beaten by Ken Chapman, Janet’s fiancé at the time. It was that meeting that ended Janet’s relationship with Chapman. Janet always suspected I played a small part in her breakup, but only now realized I’d orchestrated the whole thing.

I looked at her small, patent leather purse and wondered what secrets might lie within. Specifically I wondered if she was still carrying the Taurus 85 Ultra Lite .38 special I’d bought her years ago. If so, I might need my own burial plot by the end of today’s service.

The group closed in around the grave site and the local pastor made some remarks about life and death and doorways, and healing and belief and loved ones and the hereafter. Family members placed roses on the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Once in place, the preacher took a small shovel and scattered some dirt onto it. A few words were exchanged between the parents and the cemetery director. The director pointed at the sky and then at the two men standing in the distance holding shovels. Jerry Beck spoke quietly to the preacher and the decision was made to begin filling in the hole before the storm broke. I thought they did this sort of thing with a backhoe, and figured they would, as soon as the funeral party left.

Jerry and Jennifer Beck stood beside the grave and prayed a few minutes before walking over to the Marshall Memorial, where they planned to accept condolences from friends and family. The air had a stillness, as if all hell was about to break loose above us.

Kimberly had never met Charlie’s parents, so she wanted to introduce herself. She needed a hug, as she put it, and needed to be hugged. In her mind, but for Charlie’s death, she would have someday been Jerry and Jennifer’s daughter-in-law. Kimberly, Kathleen and I watched the mourners form a long line that began moving quickly. Janet did not budge from her dark place, content to cast baleful looks at me and Kathleen. I kept an eye on her hand and purse. Twenty yards behind us the grave diggers were moving dirt faster than I would have thought possible. I watched them work a few minutes, until the Bobcat backhoe appeared, looked at the Becks and wondered how they felt about the grave being filled in at this point. They probably realized it was the prudent thing to do.

As the line of well-wishers dwindled, Kimberly said, “Come with me, Daddy. I need to say something to them.”

I glanced at Janet and said, “What about your mother?”

“She’ll be fine.”

I was concerned that if I moved away, Janet might confront Kathleen and make a scene. Then again, my reason for being there was Kimberly, and if she wanted me at her side when meeting the Becks, that’s where I needed to be. I whispered to Kathleen to wait for us down the hill. Kimberly gave her a quick hug and glanced at her mother. Kathleen followed her glance, felt the tension, and excused herself. Kimberly and I watched her navigate the terrain down to the driveway. Then we made our way over to the parents.

“Mr. and Mrs. Beck?” Kimberly said. Her voice sounded small in the swirling wind.

“Yes?” said Jennifer Beck.

“I’m Kimberly.”

“Hello, Kimberly,” Jerry Beck said, extending his hand. “Were you a former classmate of Charlie’s?”

“Oh Jerry, she’s too young for that!” Jennifer Beck scolded. Then she said, “Nice to meet you, Kimberly. How did your know our son?”

“I’m Kimberly Creed,” said Kimberly. “I should have said.”

The Becks looked at each other, clearly confused.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Kimberly,” Jerry finally said. “I’m sure Charlie would be very gratified to know you that you came to pay your respects.”

Jerry Beck turned to look at me. “And you are?”

“Donovan Creed,” I said. “Kimberly’s father. Kimberly and Charlie were dating.”

They looked at Kimberly, and my daughter nodded.

“I loved your son,” Kimberly said. “Very much.”

Jennifer’s eyes softened a bit. “How old are you dear?”

“Sixteen.”

No one spoke for a few seconds.

“This is very awkward,” Jennifer said. “Charlie was very popular with…well, I’m sure he intended to introduce you to us someday. I’m just sorry it never happened before this.”

“He—he never mentioned my name?”

“I’m sorry,” Jerry Beck said. “It wouldn’t be fair to pretend he did.”

Kimberly’s face fell as she realized that the love of her life hadn’t considered their relationship significant enough to mention to his parents.

“Sorry for your loss,” Kimberly said.

She took my arm. As we walked down the hill and stepped onto the circular driveway below, Kimberly cussed a blue streak, expressing herself less like a teenage girl who’d lost her first love, and more like a woman scorned.

The shift in Kimberly’s attitude warmed my heart. Once again, everything was turning out for the best. Charlie and the other rapists had paid for their crimes with their lives. Kimberly learned she was nothing more than Charlie’s current flavor of the month. And Kimberly learned a valuable lesson about men.

My work in Darnell was done. Now if only I could sneak Kathleen out of there without having to deal with Janet…

“Donovan?”

It was Janet.

Chapter 24

How many Kathleen Chapmans are there in the world, do you suppose?” Janet said.

“Hypothetically?” I said.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kathleen heading toward us. She’d be here in seconds.

Mom!” Kimberly said with a severe whisper, “this is not the time or place.”

Janet glared at me, her face twisted with fury. “We will talk about this again. Count on it!”

Kathleen arrived and put her hand out. “You must be Janet,” she said.

“Oh, fuck you!” Janet said, and stormed off .

“What a delightful creature,” Kathleen said. “How could you possibly have let her get away?”

Kimberly mouthed the word “Sorry!” to Kathleen, then “Thank you!” to me. She turned and sprinted after Janet. I didn’t envy her ride home.

A flash of lightning electrified the blackened sky, followed immediately by a loud bang of thunder. The remaining mourners moved quickly toward their cars, leaving Kathleen and me standing alone on the circular driveway. We watched Janet wagging her finger in Kimberly’s face as they headed to their car. You could tell Janet was shouting, but it was quiet shouting, like an angry woman ripping on her husband in a crowded restaurant. Behind us the backhoe and grave diggers had finished up. Kathleen and I remained where we stood.

“We simply must have Janet over for dinner sometime,” I said. “Give you girls a chance to chat.”

“That would be lovely,” Kathleen said. “I’ll bring my Urban Dictionary so I’ll be sure to understand the references.”

The sky seemed to age six hours in the blink of an eye. We watched the cars lined up, lights on, fighting to get out of the cemetery. All around us, lightning flashed like giant strobe lights. The thunder clapped and rumbled loudly. A few fat raindrops hit us, and a sudden gust of wind caused Kathleen to shiver.

“Here it comes!” I said.

She took my hand just as the driving rain began pelting us.

“Kiss me!” she yelled.

“What? Here? You think it’s appropriate?”

We could barely hear each other over the din. The rain had become torrential.

“Who’s going to know?” she shouted.

I looked at her rain-plastered hair and drenched dress.

“You’re fun,” I yelled. I kissed her.

“I told you I was!” she shouted, and kissed me back.

We hugged each other in the pouring rain, two soaked, broken people clinging to their soul mates. We ended the hug and I held her at arm’s length and looked her over.

“Well, check it out!” I said.

“What?”

“You look like you just won a wet T-shirt contest!”

She followed my gaze downward. “Wow! I should stand in the rain more often!”

Some people love a beautiful sunset. Others prefer an ocean view. I guess everyone gets a thrill from viewing something they consider spectacular. I know I do.

She lifted my chin with her index finger until my eyes were back on hers.

“Spoilsport,” I said.

We kissed again.

“I love you,” she said.

She suddenly pushed back out of the kiss, her eyes wide. “Oh, Donovan, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean that!”

“You didn’t?”

“I did, I mean I do—but…I didn’t mean to say it!”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to scare you off .”

“But you do love me, yes?”

She tucked a thick rope of wet hair behind her ear.

“I do.”

I placed the palm of my hand against the side of her face. She looked into my eyes expectantly. A roar of thunder made her jump.

“Holy shit, Donovan! Hurry up and tell me you love me! Before we get killed!”

I laughed. “I love you!”

She threw her arms around me and hugged me as though her life depended on it.

She leaned her mouth into my ear and when she spoke, her voice was husky: “I’ve never been this happy in my whole life.”

I felt the same way, but I wasn’t ready to start wearing a dress over it. I said, “This isn’t pre-marital talk, is it?”

“Don’t spoil the mood, shithead!”

“I’m just saying…”

“Hush!”

She kissed me full on the mouth while I wondered if “hush!” meant yes or no regarding her marital expectations. Thankfully, Kathleen cleared things up.

“Relax,” she said. “I love you far too much to marry you.”

I let that comment rattle around in my brain a few seconds and decided I liked the sound of it.

“Then, yes. I’m happier than I have any right to be. Happier than I ever thought I could be. Happy as…”

“No need for a speech,” Kathleen said. “I get it.”

I brushed some of the rain from her forehead, then held her again. As we embraced, I looked over her shoulder, up the hill, at the Memorial and the chestnut oak and the newly-packed mound where, once again, Charlie’s parents stood praying.

Jerry and Jennifer Beck’s son had been a rotten, no good, son-of-a bitch who drugged and gang-raped women. He probably helped kill one of them, if the rumor was to be trusted. On the other hand, Charlie had been blessed with good looks and an abundance of charm and the ability to make my precious daughter fall in love with him. At the funeral numerous stories had been told of the generous and loving things he’d done for others, so he must have had some good qualities to go with the bad.

Standing there in the rain, watching the Becks, holding the woman I’d fallen in love with, I realized I’d never met a perfect person, and only a few that were one hundred percent evil. All of us fall to one side or the other of the line dividing the two extremes, and who could argue but that I fall farther on the wrong side than Charlie? After all, I don’t expect an abundance of warmhearted stories told at my funeral, and if you tried to match my crimes against Charlie’s, he’d come out looking like an altar boy. And yet here we both were, in Springhill Cemetery, on opposite sides of the dirt. Charlie’s mistake had been getting too close to my daughter. If that hadn’t happened, he’d be alive today.

I’d just professed my love to Kathleen. Somehow she’d been placed in my life at the perfect time to give me a chance to become a better man. I wondered if Kimberly had been placed in Charlie’s life by the same hand for the same reason. If so, had I interfered with some type of cosmic plan?

There on the hill, Jerry and Jennifer Beck stood ramrod straight, their bodies riddled with rain. Hand-in-hand, with heads bowed, they stared at the mound of dirt that marked the grave of the boy they’d raised and loved and lost.

Chapter 25

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” Kathleen said.

“Excuse me?”

It was night, New York City, dry clothes, The Spotted Pig gastro-pub, 11th Street. The menu features casual pub fare with an Italian accent. We’d been enjoying the slow-roasted king salmon.

“The scariest thing you’ve ever done,” she repeated.

A newsreel of horror began playing in my head.

“I don’t know what brought this up,” I said, “but the short answer is, trust me, you don’t want to know.”

“Oh, stop being such a tough guy. How bad could it be? I mean, I know you get information from gangsters and you work for Homeland Security. But you’re basically an interviewer, right?”

For obvious reasons, I’d given Kathleen a highly sanitized explanation of my role with Homeland—more of a Clark Kent version of my job description. While I do conduct interviews for the government and other shady people, they’re either long, drawn out affairs involving pain and torture, or short, one-question events that end with bullets or lethal injections.

What’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, I thought to myself. I wondered if Kathleen had forgotten about the time I killed three men during one of our lunch dates a few months ago.

“You go first,” I said.

“Okay.” Kathleen works for an ad agency. By her smile I knew this was going to be good.

“On Monday I’m getting full custody of Addie.”

“What? That’s terrific!”

We touched glasses together to mark the occasion.

“That’s not so scary, though,” I said. “You’re going to be a great mom.”

“That’s not the scary part,” she said.

I waited.

“I gave my notice yesterday.”

“Excuse me? You’re quitting your job?”

She nodded.

“But why?”

“I’m going to buy a proper house for Addie. Nothing fancy,” she added. “I mean, I’m not going to squander all the money you so generously gave me. But I want Addie to have her own bedroom and bath.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said. “But why do you have to quit your job?”

“The house I want isn’t in New York.”

“It’s not?”

“It’s in Virginia.”

“Virginia.”

“We’re going to move to Virginia.”

“Virginia,” I said. “Why?”

“To be near you, silly!”

She was beaming.

“Well, say something,” she said. “Are you surprised?”

To say the least.

At that precise moment, my cell phone rang. Darwin.

Darwin said, “How’s it shakin’, Cosmo?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your traveling name. Cosmo Burlap.” He laughed. “You like it?”

I covered the mouthpiece and whispered “business call, be right back” to Kathleen. I hurried away from the table and found a semi-quiet corner outside the bar.

“You’re catching a commercial flight from Denver to Dallas.”

“What? When?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s no good for me. I’ve got some things going.”

“Don’t even start with me, Creed. You haven’t had a fucking assignment since I can’t remember when. But you need a staff of geeks for one of your ridiculous research projects, or a chopper in West Bumfuck to take you to a hospital? Who’s the guy you call?”

I sighed. “You.”

“Who always comes through for you? Say it!”

“You do.”

“Damn right I do. You need a drone to drive your car? You need your non-Homeland crime scene sterilized by midnight? You need a fucking Hummer-mounted, pulsed energy weapon flown to California on two hours’ notice?”

“You made your point,” I said.

“Goddamn right I did. You want to keep your cushy lifestyle?”

“I think ‘cushy’ might be a stretch.”

“Get your ass to Denver tonight!”

“Can I use the Gulfstream?”

“Lear 60.”

“Nice equipment,” I said. “What’s with the Cosmo?”

“Cosmo Burlap. The name you’re flying under in first class.”

“That your idea of a joke?” I said.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Pretty sad, you ask me.”

“Hey, you want to switch jobs? Any fucking day, my friend. How about this: I fuck the accountant and you deal with Donovan Creed, the nut job. The day we switch jobs you get to make up the funny names.”

“Uh huh.”

“This a bad time for you? Interferes with your love life? Prevents you from making an extra million bucks? Gee, that’s too bad. Fuck you!”

It was a bad time. Callie was counting on me to track down Tara Siegel in Boston, something I’d planned to do tomorrow after getting a good night’s sleep. I’d had a long day, what with the funeral, Kimberly, the rainstorm, the flights, the late dinner with Kathleen. Last thing I felt like doing tonight was pulling a four-hour flight to Denver with a turn-around to Dallas.

I said, “What do you mean, ‘fuck the accountant’?”

Chapter 26

The girl sitting next to me kept glancing at my jewelry. We’d just gotten settled into our seats when—there, she did it again.

“Business or pleasure?” I said.

The corners of her mouth turned slightly upward. Not a smile, exactly, but not a frown either.

“Business, I’m afraid. You?”

“The same. By the way, I’m Cosmo.”

She gave up a quick laugh that made her eyelids crinkle at the corners. Then looked up and saw me not laughing. “Oh,” she said. “You’re serious.”

I showed her a wan smile. “I curse my parents daily. How about you?”

She giggled. “I don’t even know your parents,” she said.

I shared the smile. “Good one.”

“Thanks. I’m Alison. Alison Cilice.”

“Cilice with an “S?”

“With a C,” she said, and spelled it for me.

It never ceases to amaze me how much personal information total strangers reveal about themselves in casual conversations on an airplane. In less than three minutes I can get almost anyone to tell me where, when and how to kill them.

“Nice to meet you, Alison. What sort of work do you do?”

“Oh, Gawd. It’s so boring!”

I laughed. “Try me!”

“Okay. You know the Park ‘N Fly’s?”

“The parking lots by the airports? That’s you?”

She laughed. “How old do I look? No, I don’t own them. I’m their internal auditor.”

Alison was about thirty, had an easy manner with men. Darwin probably had all the sexual details in a file on his desk.

“You must travel a lot,” I said.

“Every other week.”

“How many locations?”

“We’ve got nineteen lots across the country,” she said, “so I stay pretty busy.”

“I bet a lot of managers hate to see you coming.”

“Serves them right if they do,” she said.

“Do you always find irregularities?”

“Always.”

“That means you’re good at what you do.”

She smiled.

I looked away a moment and stretched my hands in front of me so she could get a closer look at my sparkles.

“Nice jewelry,” she said.

I looked back and watched her eyes take it all in: the Presidential Rolex on my left wrist, the four-carat diamond ring on my right hand, the lack of jewelry on my left ring finger.

I said, “Let me guess: the company parks you at one of the airport hotels, and expects you to stay put the whole week.”

She looked surprised. “How’d you guess?”

“We’re living the same life. This is my first trip to Dallas, so naturally they’ve stuck me at the Airport Marriott.”

“For real? Me too!” she said.

“Not such a huge coincidence. The pilots and flight attendants will probably be there too, along with half the salesmen on the plane.”

She thought a minute. “Now that you mention it, I have seen a lot of the same people where I stay.”

Alison had great hair, a pretty face, and a flirtatious personality. She dressed well enough to hide most of the extra thirty pounds she carried, though her use of jewelry was a bit over-the-top. She wore rings on her fingers, numerous bracelets on each wrist, diamond studs in her ears—and probably elsewhere. I wondered how long it took to get all that shit off before going through the metal detector.

Neither of us spoke until we were wheels-up and had to answer the flight attendant about our drink orders. I asked for a cabernet, Alison wanted a Diet Coke.

“You ever get to see much of the cities you visit?” I said.

“I’m usually too tired for night life,” she said. “But I might hit the hotel bar for a quick drink once in awhile.”

“Let me guess: mojito?”

She laughed. “Yuk, no. I’m a cosmo girl all the way.”

I gave her a look. “Are you making fun of me?”

She put it together. “Oh, Gawd no!” she said, giggling. “But your name and my favorite drink: now there’s a coincidence!”

This had been no coincidence. Darwin hadn’t just saddled me with a ridiculous name out of spite or boredom. He’d been showing off , trying to impress me with the depth of his preparation. I wondered about the surname he’d given me: Burlap. I slipped my credit card into the slot and waited for an internet connection. It took me a couple tries to make it work, but when it did I plugged in my phone and typed “burlap” into the search engine. I learned that burlap is a breathable fabric made from jute and vegetable fibers. I learned that its resistance to condensation protects its contents from spoilage. I read a little further and discovered that burlap is sometimes used in a religious ceremony called “mortification of the flesh,” during which believers wear an abrasive shirt called a cilice.

As in Alison Cilice.

For the hundredth time I made a mental note never to fuck with Darwin.

Alison said, “You doing some research?”

“Part of the job,” I said.

“Which is?”

“I’m a jewelry salesman.”

“For Rolex?” she said, drawing out the word.

“Among other top brands,” I said.

I slid my watch off my wrist and handed it to her and wondered if she could tell it was the real thing. Judging by her eyes, my guess was she could.

“It’s really heavy,” she said.

“Much bulkier than the Piaget in my case,” I said. Her smile grew wider than I would have thought possible. Her eyes took on a dreamy glaze and she held the tip of her tongue against the bottom of her upper lip and tapped it in a way that seemed sexually suggestive.

“I wonder if we’ll run into each other in the bar one night this week,” she said.

Completely in love with Kathleen, I had no intention of bedding this plus-sized jewelry whore. Still, I had a part to play on behalf of national security.

“I’m positive we’ll not only meet, but share a drink as well,” I said.

“You’re that sure of yourself?” she said, holding that same wide-mouth smile.

“I am. Or my name isn’t Cosmo Burlap.”

She burst out laughing. “Oh Gawd!” she said. “You poor man! Tell me you’re lying.”

 

Chapter 27

Here’s the story on Alison Cilice:

Several days before I shared a flight with her to Dallas, Alison Cilice’s image was captured by a Denver Airport parking lot surveillance camera in the company of a suspected terrorist named Adnan Afaya. This, according to Darwin.

“And guess who Afaya has been linked to?” Darwin said.

At the time I was in a hurry to get back to my dinner with Kathleen at The Spotted Pig. I said, “Just tell me, okay?”

“Fathi.”

That got my attention. “Father or son?” I said. The father, being the UAE diplomat, was virtually untouchable. The son, on the other hand…”

“Abdulazi,” he said. “The son.”

“I’m on it.”

“Thought you might be.”

Last Valentine’s Day, Callie and I thought we’d killed a woman named Monica Childers by giving her a lethal dose of botulinam toxin. This was a contract hit ordered by Victor. As it turned out, Victor had two reasons for killing Monica: first, he wanted to test his army’s ability to divert a spy satellite, which he used to view the hit, and second, he wanted to see if his antidote for botulinam toxin would work. His people found Monica’s body and managed to resuscitate her. Then, having no further use for Monica, Victor sold her to the Fathis, to be, as he put it—their sex slave. I asked Victor if Monica was still in country and he basically said that the Fathis had fucked her to death.

And that has stuck in my craw ever since.

I can just imagine my psychiatrist, Ms. Nadine Crouch, asking, “Since you tried to kill her, why do you care how she died?”

It would be a good question, and I’m not sure I’d be able to supply a credible answer. But for whatever reason, it pisses me off . Maybe it’s because I’m a counter-terrorist and I don’t like the idea of terrorists raping American women to death. Maybe it’s because I felt used by Victor, or because Monica turned out to be a decent person who didn’t deserve to die that way. In the final analysis my subconscious reasons aren’t important. What’s important is that I made a decision to punish the Fathis, father and son, for what they did to Monica. And maybe this link to Alison Cilice could put me in a position to do just that.

Of course, Darwin wasn’t interested in punishing the Fathis. He’s all about destroying terror cells before they have a chance to mount attacks on domestic soil. Not that he’d shed a tear if I managed to kill either or both of the Fathis. At any rate, Darwin believed Alison and Afaya were having an affair, and that Afaya was planning to use Alison to infiltrate some of the Park ‘N Flys.

“In three months it’ll be Thanksgiving,” Darwin said, “One of the busiest times of the year.”

“So?”

“If the terrorists get a driver into the Park ‘N Fly trucks, they can load them up with explosives and crash them right into baggage claim.”

“What can I do?”

“Get close to her, find out what she knows.”

“You want me to sleep with her,” I said, trying to sound indignant.

“Sleep with her, torture her, what do I care?”

“What if she doesn’t know anything about it?”

“That’s my guess, by the way,” Darwin said. “And if that’s the case, you can hang out with her and keep your eyes open, because sooner or later, someone’s going to make a move.”

“I’m not going to be able to shadow her. Not after she’s met me.”

“Creed, you’re missing the point. I believe she’s already being shadowed. If they see her getting close to you, they’re going to come after you.”

“So I’m the bait.”

“If Alison doesn’t know anything, then yes, you’re the bait.”

“So who’s going to come to my rescue when the bad guys strike?”

“That’s up to you. Maybe you can call your midget army, hide them under your bed.”

“Little people,” I said.