Authors: Jeff Abbott
‘I wanted to talk to you … you know a lot about money, right?’
‘Well, Paul said you knew how to hide cash. So you don’t have to pay taxes on it.’
‘Paul’s mistaken.’ Eve jerked her head toward the door. ‘And he’s waiting for you.’
‘Sure, Eve. No offense meant.’ Tasha went inside, shutting the door behind her.
Eve stood alone in the thin light of the hall. Paul deciding deals involving millions –
– and shutting her out. Now an uppity big-titted dancer wanting tips on taxes because Paul mouthed off about cleaning money,
a topic his father never would have discussed with a girlfriend.
A little pulse of nausea seeped into her guts. She hadn’t wanted to come to Houston, God no, swearing never to set foot in
Texas again, but Tommy had insisted she and Frank come to Houston with him when the other mob bosses forced him out of Detroit.
Connecting a minor celebrity like Frank to the Topaz had been sheer genius for generating interest and crowds and giving it
respectable sheen. Then the stroke took out Tommy and now Paul was risking everything they’d built.
Eve walked down the flight of red-carpeted stairs. Club Topaz was in full swing, a cramped city of men. In the dim light a
trio of women danced on three different runways, all three of them stunningly beautiful. Throngs of men, and even a few women,
were in the crowd. It was big business for a Wednesday night. In one corner a group of young Astros whooped and hollered.
In another corner a Houston Rocket and a couple of visiting Dallas Mavericks enjoyed synchronized lap dances by a pair of
Swedish twins. Near the main stage, ogling a pole-dancing double-D brunette, was a local actor who’d hit it big in a movie
last year and scored an Oscar nomination. And of course, around them, a locust swarm of everyday guys, drawn by knowing that
athletes and actors and the famous would be on display as much as the supple thighs and perfected breasts.
Did you all not get enough tit as kids? Eve wondered as she moved through the crowd, looking for Frank. Apparently the tour
had slowed to enjoy the attractions. She found Frank, Kiko, and José at a front table, a chesty Latina dancing for Kiko, with
a plumage of folded twenties on her thonged ass.
Eve leaned down and said into Frank’s ear, ‘Paul says give them to Bucks. And I’m ready to go home. Excuse yourself from the
table in ten minutes and I’ll be in your office.’ Frank nodded.
She worked her way back through the crowd and went upstairs, to Frank’s spacious office. It was more for meeting and greeting
than for reviewing liquor inventory or interviewing staff or talent. Plush chairs, a mahogany table, the inevitable photos
of Frank Polo glad-handing every notable who passed through the club doors.
She sat behind his desk, put her face in her hands,
and wished that Tommy Bellini wasn’t laid up in a bed for the rest of his life. It had been him thirty years ago that she’d
met to return the money that James Powell had stolen. For a chance at even greater money, and Tommy had not disappointed.
Tommy had liked her, brought her into the organization, given her responsibility, power, and protection. And a life free of
But Paul was why monarchy fell out of favor. You could have a king with an idiot son and piss away the empire in no time flat
and leave the loyal subjects with no jobs. And one did not walk away from the Bellini family with all the information Eve
had. You didn’t list on your résumé the millions of dollars you laundered or how many hits you knew the Bellinis had ordered.
Frank was already relegated to being the club’s frontman; God knew what job Paul would give her, probably stuck in a back
office counting bar receipts.
If he doesn’t kill you
She had been afraid of Tommy, of course. The fear kept you alive, the caution of every step you took. He could be kind, generous
even, but if you crossed him, you lost money, you lost a finger, you lost your life. He held himself to high standards of
performance. Paul wanted respect he couldn’t yet command and seemed to have little regard for her or her abilities. Piss him
off and she would sink like a stone in the waters of the Ship Channel, sporting concrete sandals and three bullets in her
head, one for each decade of service.
The door opened and Bucks stepped inside. He shut the door behind him, gave her a bright, snappy smile.
‘Don’t you know to knock?’ she said.
‘This isn’t your office.’
‘No, it’s my boyfriend’s office. What do you want?’
‘Peace and quiet,’ he said. ‘This place is too loud. Not
conducive to clear contemplation.’ Bucks sat down on the leather sofa like he was used to lounging in the office.
‘Shouldn’t you be guarding Paul?’
‘From what? Attack of the killer tits?’ Bucks said.
‘That tall redhead up there, Robin? I thought you were sweet on her.’
‘She’s sweet on me. There’s a difference. Plus how involved am I really gonna get with a stripper? I can’t take her home to
‘I was unaware you had such lofty morals.’
‘All this lust, it shows a lack of discipline and self-control.’ Bucks leaned back against the leather. ‘You handle Paul’s
money. Makes you important right now. Seems to me I ought to be protecting you more than him.’
‘I’m feeling safe, thanks.’
‘Chad Channing says you can never feel safe because complacency blocks you from your goals.’
She didn’t know who Chad Channing was and didn’t care.
‘So you giving our friends any money?’ he asked.
She let a beat pass. ‘No. You are. Paul wants you to handle the exchange, honey.’
This guy had Paul’s ear, so she decided to try. ‘This deal, Bucks, I have serious reservations about it. These guys are looking
for a back door into Houston. They’ll crush Paul soon as they get their foot in the door.’
‘Paul and I can handle them,’ Bucks said. ‘Look at Kiko and José. They don’t have four neurons between them. Bet neither one
of them even got beyond high school.’
‘Baby, getting a degree means you spent less time learning the actual business we’re in,’ Eve said.
‘This seems like every other business I studied at Wharton.’
‘You won’t find an MBA case study on the Bellinis.’
‘So what do you recommend?’
‘Find out a little more. Why they’ve approached us. Why aren’t they dealing this coke in Florida?’
‘Or take a shortcut,’ Bucks said. ‘Kill them and steal their coke. That’d be one way to sweeten the deal.’ He gave her a crooked,
Eve stared at him.
‘You ever seen a frijole popped? They lose all command of their English. Blabbering all this Spanish bullshit, begging for
their lives. Doesn’t occur to them I don’t speak Spanish, so it’s not helping their cause any.’ Bucks leaned forward, put
his elbows on his legs.
‘Killing people on a whim is what got the Bellinis in trouble before.’
‘I might fire your ass on a whim.’ Like the power was his.
‘Honey,’ she said. ‘I’d watch how you talk to me. I’m higher up than you in this family, and I’m telling Paul what you said
about killing them.’ She picked up the phone, dialed the extension for the private suite. Bucks yanked the phone away from
her, shoved her back onto the floor. Then he was on top of her, his fingers working into her neck. Not closing around her
throat but digging into the flesh.
‘I was joking about popping them. I’m not joking now,’ Bucks said. Pain exploded from her neck, coursed along her arms, her
chest. ‘See what I got here? This is all the flesh around the carotid. Now. I start to squeeze, the lights go dim. I shut
it off and that’s all you wrote. Or I nick it … just so … and we have a mess on Frank’s nice rug.’ He brought his lips close
to her ear, the weight of him crushing the breath out of her. ‘You. Don’t. Fuck. With. Me. You understand?’
‘I … understand,’ she said, large black circles dotting her vision.
He got up, helped her to her feet, eased her into a chair. She watched as he went to the bar and poured a glass of water,
brought it to her. ‘You’ll have a distinctive bruise tomorrow.’ Like he was proud. ‘Wear a nice scarf. You got one?’
She nodded, stunned. She took the water.
Bucks knelt down before her, put both his hands on her knees. The intimacy of it was worse than hitting her.
‘Now let’s be friends,’ he said.
She nodded, but seething, suddenly more mad than afraid. ‘I understand you and Paul,’ she said. ‘I understand the juice you
got in your blood right now. This is exciting. Way more exciting than energy trading, right?’
Bucks gave a slow nod.
‘But these guys, they will kill you and Paul without missing a heartbeat. They won’t grab your neck and play around. They’ll
shoot you dead and not think about it again for the rest of their lives.’
‘That’s why I should kill those guys and get their goods. Now.’
‘That would start a war we couldn’t win.’
‘You’ve got to start thinking big, Eve.’
She couldn’t help it. ‘You’ve got to start thinking, period.’
Bucks frowned at her. His hand moved to his back where she knew he wore his pistol under his jacket. ‘You’re not being a team
player, Eve, and I can’t support this negativity. It ends now.’
The office door opened, Frank stumbling inside, the Miami wiseguys in tow.
‘Hey,’ Frank said. ‘They want to see that photo of me singing with Donna Summer.’
Bucks stood and smiled, easing his hand away from his holster, folding his arms across his chest. ‘Great. Then you boys ready
for a ride back to your condo? Me and
Eve are done talking for the night.’ He grinned at her. ‘This is gonna be our best deal ever, isn’t it, Eve?’
She nodded slowly, putting her hand on her throat and hating him.
A hundred and seventy miles south of Houston, Whit Mosley couldn’t sleep, and he walked from the guest house he lived in at
the back of his father’s property, past the blue quiet of the pool, up to the main house. His father, Babe, sat at the kitchen
table, finishing a chocolate milkshake, eating the sweet slurry with a spoon.
‘Hey,’ Babe said. ‘You want one?’
‘No,’ Whit said. ‘You won’t sleep if you eat that.’
‘Sleep is a thief of time.’
Whit sat down across from his father. ‘Irina asleep?’
‘Zonked.’ Irina was his father’s much younger wife, a year or two younger than Whit, wife number five, a Russian girl Babe
had met through a marriage-oriented service and brought to Port Leo from Moscow. ‘She’s tired all the time. Tired of me being
sick.’ He shrugged. ‘She won’t have that much longer to worry about it.’
‘Whit, it’s okay.’ No self-pity colored Babe’s voice. ‘She’s too young for death, to be a widow.’ He licked chocolate from
his spoon, ran a hand over the blondish gray stubble on his head. ‘She’ll go on. And she’ll always love me. But she ain’t
gonna go back to Russia, and she don’t have her citizenship yet, so if she remarries kind of quick, don’t hold it against
her.’ He clinked his spoon back into the glass.
‘Can we talk about my mother for a minute?’
‘Not with food in my mouth. What brought her up?’
‘I want to know if there’s anything you never told us about her,’ Whit said. ‘For example, did she cheat on you?’
‘What possible difference would any of this make now?’
‘Don’t shield me. There’s no point in it.’
‘I believe she did. She got bored with me, frustrated with having so many kids so quick. I never had proof.’
‘You ever hear the name James Powell?’
Babe shook his head. ‘What you up to, Whitman?’
‘Nothing.’ Whit picked up his father’s ice cream glass, rinsed it out in the sink.
‘Who the hell is James Powell?’
‘Nobody. You ever think about my mother? Wonder if she’s alive?’
‘Rarely.’ Regret in his voice, as though this admission meant weakness.
Whit didn’t look at Babe as he loaded the dishwasher. ‘You ever want to see her again?’
A long silence took hold, the kind that carries a weight with it.
Finally Babe said: ‘This will sound nuts, but Ellen probably thinks about us more than I think about her, shug.’
‘But she left us. She didn’t care about us.’
‘Whit, you won’t remember this, but most of the time she was a real good mother. She held onto you boys tight. Like a life
preserver. You all were her chance for normalcy. A life like people are supposed to have. But she liked … excitement. Once,
right after we were married, I had to go up to the bank in Rockport. We pull up and she said, out of the blue, Babe, what
if we robbed it? She had this glittery look in her eye. Like she was hoping to be Bonnie and I was gonna be Clyde. She gave
me this sideways glance I’ll never forget. We went to Vegas on our honeymoon and she’s pregnant, I come back from the bathroom
and she’s betting a grand – all our gambling money – on a single blackjack hand. She won and I got
her the hell away from the table. It scared me. And the years after that I’m filling her up with babies and I guess that
wasn’t excitement enough.’ He shrugged. ‘Finally she left. But you can’t leave a large family and pretend they never happened.
I figure she died a long while back, otherwise she would have called you and your brothers.’
‘You said I don’t remember her,’ Whit said. ‘But I remember her scent. I never knew it was gardenia until I was older. I didn’t
imagine it, did I?’
Babe nodded, smiled. ‘Yeah. She used a soap that smelled like gardenia.’
‘Why did you marry her?’ Whit realized he had never asked before.
‘Because we got pregnant with Teddy. But the reason I loved her was …’ Babe stopped. ‘She’d walk into a room crowded with
people and read it in an instant, like a map. Know who was mad at who, who was wanting who, hardly without two words being
spoken. It was funny to me that she could do that. A little hypnotic, too. And she was smart. Pretty but not bitchy about
her looks. After she was pregnant, and we’d only known each other about six months, marrying seemed like a fine idea. I loved
her and she would have been a great partner in business. I figured I wasn’t gonna do no better.’
‘You didn’t feel trapped?’
‘No.’ Babe shook his head. ‘Sure, I had money, and she didn’t, but Ellen trapped herself. Wanted to be tied down. Forced herself
into a structured life. Her mom and her weren’t much more than vagabonds, working jobs up and down the coast. She never knew
her dad and her mama died right after Teddy was born, you know. I really didn’t have anyone else to ask about her. After she
left, we all sort of felt we’d been fooled into knowing her.’
‘She got tired of normal.’
‘She never appreciated normal.’ Babe stood. ‘Shug, I’m
gonna go and sleep next to my beautiful, sweet wife and not talk about Ellen any more.’
‘Would you want to see her, Daddy?’ Whit asked.
‘You mean see her face-to-face?’
‘Yes,’ he said after a moment. ‘I would. I don’t wish her ill. But I would like to know what was so goddamned more important
than you boys. If she wanted to leave me … fine. But you boys only got one mama. She stole the most precious thing in the
world from you and your brothers, Whit, and you deserve an explanation. An apology.’
‘I don’t need her apologies,’ Whit said. ‘Perhaps you do.’
‘It’s water on the moon to me.’ Babe stretched his thin arms above his head. Whit’s throat thickened. His father looked the
worst he had since his drowning-in-drink days. The healthy glow of long-term sobriety had been replaced by the dimming paleness
of the enemy within, chewing through his father’s liver.
‘You’re like your mother,’ Babe said. ‘I don’t mean it bad. But she had to kick over the anthill to see what would happen.
You’re the same.’
‘We could look for her. So you could know what happened to her.’
‘Asking if I want to see her and actually trying to track her down are two different things, Whit. I wouldn’t waste my limited
time on Ellen. I’m invoking the I’m-dying-so-I-get-to-be-an-asshole clause. I forbid you to look for her. In case you’re considering
‘I never read that clause.’
‘Respect my wishes. Please.’
‘All right,’ Whit said. He could change his father’s mind later, if Harry Chyme found his mother. He knew he could. He hadn’t
heard from Harry in a week. ‘It’s all hypothetical, anyway.’
‘I’ll see you in the morning. Love you, shug.’ Said more often now, in the sunset of life.
‘I love you, too.’ Whit watched his father leave the kitchen, in his slow, tired shuffle.
I don’t have much time left to find her, Whit thought. Not much at all.