Authors: Jeff Abbott
‘What do you mean, you don’t have them?’ Paul screamed into his phone.
‘I mean we don’t have them. They got away.’ Bucks paused. ‘And Eve shot Jerry Smacks. Left him dead in the hotel’s back lot.’
Bucks let the lie settle in, let Paul sweat under the weight of everything crashing and burning for a change. ‘Gonna bring
big heat if the cops connect Jerry to us. Not to mention we barely got off the highway alive.’
‘How could you not have them?’ Paul demanded.
Bucks wondered for a second: why did I pick you for a friend? Then he decided he hadn’t picked Paul, Paul had picked him,
because the weak were drawn to the strong. That’s what made leaders great. Chad Channing had a whole tape about strength.
‘This isn’t acceptable, Bucks,’ Paul said.
‘Paul, I’m real open to suggestions. They’re gone. It’s over. They’ve got you over a barrel.’
. He wondered if Paul would notice. ‘Chad Channing says you got to recognize destructive behaviors and cut your losses …’
‘You know, Bucks, fuck Chad Channing,’ Paul said. ‘Fuck him and every tape he ever made. Call Kiko. I want a summit meeting.
We’re gonna strike a new deal.’
‘You don’t have a negotiating chip,’ Bucks said.
‘I have guns that can be placed at heads.’ Paul’s voice rose, at the edge of a scream. ‘Call Kiko. Get him here. He can bring
José, but that’s all. Tell them I’ve got the money now.’
‘You aren’t going to whack him?’
‘I am. I am. It’s what Dad would’ve done.’
‘This is an extremely bad idea,’ Bucks said.
‘We kill José to show we mean business, we torture Kiko, he tells us where the coke’s at. Then we kill his greaser ass.’
‘And you bring his associates down on you like a nuclear bomb,’ Bucks said.
‘They’re in Florida. That’s tomorrow’s problem.’
‘All right,’ Bucks said. ‘I’ll set up a meeting with Kiko.’
‘At the club, he won’t be suspicious coming there. We’ll bring him back to the house. And do it right, Bucks, because right
now you’re the biggest single dumbass on the planet.’ He hung up.
Gooch was laid out on the bed in front of Paul. Unconscious. He roused slightly and Paul turned up the Frank Polo tape somebody
had left in the bedroom stereo, letting ‘Baby, You’re My Groove’ thunder down the hallway as he worked Gooch over as though
he were a punching bag. Face, ribs, stomach, arms. His knuckles hurt, but that pop of flesh against flesh made him happy,
let out his tensions. Gooch seemed unconscious again. Doc Brewer came in and very gently shook his head at Paul.
‘He needs to wake up, I got to talk to him,’ Paul said.
‘He’s taken a bullet in the back of the head.’
‘There ain’t no hole, how bad hurt could he be?’
Brewer gave Gooch another injection. Checked the man’s eyes, breathing. ‘You want him to give you information. Then let him
recover enough to talk. Beating him is making things worse.’
‘What’d you give him?’
‘My own home brew of cool-you-downs. Do you need a little shot, Paul?’
‘Smack. Give him some smack or something to hype him up hard. A big dose. I want him talking. I want his fucking mouth running
away from him.’
‘Leave him alone, Paul. Please, for a minute, let him recover—’
Paul’s fists hurt but he still popped Doc Brewer a hard one. The doctor fell to the floor. ‘Stimulants. Get him conscious
and talking. Now. Or I just start mixing shit in your bag and jabbing a needle in your old ass.’
‘Paul?’ Tasha said behind him. She turned down the Frank tape that was playing, helped Doc Brewer to his feet. ‘Let the doctor
do his work. Gooch can’t tell you anything valuable right now. Come downstairs with me. Let me calm you with a little massage,
Bucks clicked off the phone. He stayed still on the couch, watching Kiko and José’s amused expressions, hating them as much
as he hated Paul. ‘He’s having a bad day,’ Bucks said. ‘He wants to kill you at a meeting.’
‘His day’s gonna get way worse,’ José said.
‘Tell him the deal’s off.’ Kiko jerked his head at José. ‘Go get that bitch talking.’ José got up without a word, headed back
to the bedroom.
Bucks didn’t like to hear screams or begging. It made him remember his friends, briefly pleading for their lives in the little
house in Galveston. Unpleasant.
‘I got to settle with MacKay,’ Bucks said. ‘Give a bonus to the Wart, too, so he’ll keep his mouth shut and won’t go work
‘Smart move you made,’ Kiko said. ‘Can this MacKay be trusted?’
‘He could have run to Paul when I told him I wanted his help to grab Eve, not kill her or turn her over to Paul. He didn’t.
I didn’t cut a deal with the Wart, but he seems cool. As long as he gets paid for his efforts.’
Kiko slid him a thin brick of cash. ‘We’ll give ’em a bonus when she spills about the money. They did good work. Another thousand
Bucks reached for the money; Kiko covered it with his hand. ‘Bucks. You picked sides. Ours. Don’t forget that.’
‘I won’t. If she talks …’
‘You want to know where the money is, don’t you?’ Kiko said.
‘That money,’ Kiko said, ‘really isn’t your concern any more. Don’t worry. You’re gonna get a nice little cut.’
‘Great, Kiko, thank you.’ Bucks cleared his throat. ‘The film of me and my – friends, um, I’ve done what you asked. Give me
the film. You promised. Please.’ He hated himself for adding on that desperate word, but he did.
‘After we have the money. That was the deal.’ Kiko gave a little smile, waved Bucks away with his fingers. ‘You don’t want
to change the deal, do you? That wouldn’t be fair.’
Bucks nodded, fighting the red rising in his cheeks. He wasn’t quite out the door when Eve let out her first scream, and he
closed it fast behind him.
‘You sure you want to hit Kiko?’ Tasha asked.
‘Yeah.’ Paul rose from the bed, paced around the room, worked his shoulders loose. ‘Yeah. Forget this peaceful-coexistence
She curled her legs under her rear. ‘Paul?’
‘I’m proud of you,’ Tasha said. ‘Now you’re big and bad. Come here.’ She shrugged out of her top, unfastened her bra. His
breath caught, his lips parted at the sight of her breasts. ‘Come be big and bad with me.’
He joined her on the bed, eased her out of the rest of her clothes. She let him take her, savored the vigorous, calculated
pistoning of him inside her. Made a memory. All else aside, he was an awesome lay and those were rare
in this crowd, and she knew it would probably be the last time between them. She came with surprising intensity, crying out
against his throat. He didn’t relent, full of testosterone and blustering confidence, this morning’s tears forgotten. She
came again a few minutes later and then he did, with an eager gasp, and lay down next to her, his head nuzzling her breasts,
his hand cupped over the firmness of her belly. Groaning the usual about how hot she was, how good she felt.
‘Paul, Paul,’ she murmured. He kissed her, with real tenderness, on her throat, her eyelids.
‘Love you,’ Paul said.
‘Oh, don’t,’ she said. Teasing him. Plus, she knew he didn’t really. He was saying what he thought she wanted to hear because
he didn’t know her. And because he was scared and frightened, more than he would admit, and he needed to feel loved. The word
was a bribe, shyly offered. She ran a finger alongside his jaw, tickle-gentle, like she really cared about him. ‘You love
too quick, babe.’
‘I know,’ he said.
She sighed, curled into his chest. ‘Loving fast can be a curse.’
They lay together, breathing each other’s breath, and then he got up and started the shower. She knew he liked them long and
hot, with a blast of skin-prickling cold at the end. She pretended to drowse and counted to twenty, then pulled on her panties
and T-shirt and snuck downstairs. Terry Verdine, one of Paul’s men, stood guard out in the yard, Max and Gary sat in the kitchen
watching cable and sipping coffee. She ducked into the room where Tommy Bellini lay in his stupor. A camouflaging hum of the
monitoring equipment thrummed and Tasha hunkered down behind the bed. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed.
‘It needs to be tonight,’ she said when the phone was
answered. She listened for a moment, laughed softly. Then stood up, clicked off the phone.
Tasha Strong patted Tommy Bellini’s wasted legs. ‘No dances for you, sugar pot. Sorry.’
She hurried back upstairs. Paul was still wasting hot water in the shower. She stretched out on the bed, waiting for him to
Paul was out of the shower and toweling when his cell phone rang. Tasha handed it to him. He didn’t say thank you.
‘Yeah?’ he said.
‘Hello, Paul. This is Whit. Eve’s friend. I want Gooch ready to travel. At ten this evening, you will drive him to Lancey’s
Grille on Buffalo. You’ll let him off in the lot and then drive away.’
‘Really.’ Paul toweled off his arms, his waist, tossed the towel on the floor, glanced at Tasha like he expected her to pick
it up. ‘Whereas my money, asshole?’
‘Kiko has it,’ Whit said. ‘He took it from us.’
‘He grabbed the money from our room at the Greystoke Hotel. Eve and I got away.’
‘No. He would have killed you.’
‘Clearly he didn’t. So he’s got the drugs and the cash, and he doesn’t need you.’
‘You’re lying. Why the hell would you warn me?’
‘Because I want my friend back. I’ll give you Eve in exchange for Gooch.’
Paul stopped dead. ‘Say what?’
‘You’re such a dumbass,’ Whit said. ‘Kiko has the drugs. He has the money. He doesn’t need you at all. But Eve, she originally
stole the money for Kiko. She was working for him. She turned on him, went on the run. I didn’t know it, she double-crossed
me. But she doesn’t know I know. So I’ll trade you her for Gooch. I want out
of this war, man, okay? I don’t want you coming after me. I give her to you, then we’re settled, you understand?’
‘I’ll settle it now. Do you want to hear your friend die?’ Paul yelled. ‘Because I’m getting my gun right now—’
‘Eve can help you get your money back – and more. She knows plenty on Kiko. She could put his ass in jail if you treat her
‘Trust a traitor? How do I know any of this is true?’
‘Decide for yourself. This is a limited-time offer.’
A beat passed. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘One more thing,’ Whit said. ‘We have your financial data on a CD I got when I ran into your girlfriend Tasha at Eve’s house.
Data that could slice and dice you, that can show just how your legit operations tidy up the money from your drug deals. Kiko
didn’t get the CD when he got the cash.’ A pause. ‘But if you don’t show up, or you’ve killed Gooch, then Kiko gets a copy.
The DA’s office gets a copy. Kiko and the DA, knowing all your secrets. Either way, you’re deeply, soundly, thoroughly laid
open for everyone to see. Do we understand each other?’
Paul stared at Tasha. ‘I understand.’
‘You come alone. You come unarmed. We make the exchange and we both leave. Any deviation from that, and the data goes to the
DA. Lancey’s Grille. You and Gooch, no one else. I’ll have hardass backup, man, so don’t screw with me.’ Whit hung up.
Paul clicked off the phone. He grabbed Tasha’s arm, hard. ‘Explain yourself. Right now.’
‘Eve’s partner, Whit. He says he got computer files from you, stuff you took off Eve’s laptop. He wants to. trade them for
Gooch, alive, or he sends the files to the police.’
She shook her head. ‘No, sweetie, he was there to bug
the place with voice recorders. We told you that, Bucks and Max found where he’d bugged the rooms. I didn’t see him take
anything off her computer. Bucks and I looked at her computer together. Wasn’t anything off or on that shouldn’t be there.
And Bucks cleaned the system. Whit’s bluffing, he’s got to be.’
‘You’re lying to me, Tasha.’ He gave a broken little laugh.
‘No, I’m not, Paul. These people are trying to hurt you. I’m on your side. He’s trying to get you riled. Force you into a
Paul pushed her toward the door. ‘Get Max and Gary. Tell them to bring Gooch. And a high-powered rifle. You’re coming, too.
We all gonna have a long chat with Eve and her buddy. I’m gonna get the chain out. Kill this guy and Gooch once I get Eve.
Then I’m gonna have a real, real long chat with Bucks.’
Tasha nodded. ‘Whatever you say, sweetpea. Whatever you say.’
The parking lot was dark. The shopping center, a fancy one that had skidded on hard times, was L-shaped. Lancey’s Grille,
closed now, was a café that served breakfast and lunch, nestled at the lonely end of the L with a long service road to its
left. Traffic from Buffalo Speedway, a busier road, didn’t have a clear view of the front of the café. The rest of the stores
were closed and quiet, the glow from the light poles giving off soft pools against the oily asphalt. At the opposite corner
stood a small stone church with a wide, dark parking lot, and across from it a new townhouse development was under construction,
earth turned open like a grave around newly poured foundations.
In the shadows of the serviceway behind the restaurant, Whit waited. Four minutes and then Paul was due, and
Whit expected he would arrive on time. He had told the lie he thought most likely to convince Paul, trying to knit together
the facts that he knew with an informed guess that Bucks must have made some explanation to Paul as to why the capture of
Eve failed. His gun, one of Charlie’s, weighed like a tire-iron in his hand. He had never shot a person before, had not particularly
enjoyed deer or quail hunting with his brothers, didn’t thrill at the pull of the trigger and the bark of the bullet.
But he was going to shoot Paul Bellini.
Whit would shoot Paul in the knees when he had to – as soon as Paul knew there was no Eve to trade. Knees were small targets.
Chests were so much bigger. The thought made him sick and he shook it off. Talking tough on the phone had felt like play-acting,
but this was real. He had to do it. For Gooch.