Authors: Jeff Abbott
Paul Bellini liked to watch the girls dancing in the smoky, thin light. The tall redhead, Robin, was the best technical dancer
of all the performers. Bucks liked her but wasn’t serious about her, and Paul’d called her up to the private suite to be sure
she knew he was top dog. The other was the regal black girl, who danced wearing that custom-fitted computer gear on her body
under the name ‘Geek-girl.’ The audience loved her. She kept her eyes locked on his eyes as she danced, perhaps as excited
by the sight of him as he was by her. He took another long swig of Scotch as Red Robin doffed her leather bikini top and dropped
it on the floor.
He unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, hardening in his hand.
‘Wait a damn second,’ Geekgirl said. She stopped dancing.
‘Keep dancing, baby,’ Paul said. ‘In a minute you can get down on your knees and do your best.’
‘Oh, can I?’ she said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Don’t be snooty,’ Red Robin said with a good-natured laugh and shimmy. ‘Paul’s fun.’
‘Not me,’ Geekgirl said. She crossed her arms over her bikini top. ‘I’m not your whore. So fire me. I’m not worried about
keeping my job in a place that’s getting robbed blind.’
Paul didn’t get mad. He grinned, put himself back into his khakis, set his Scotch down on the table. ‘Hey, Robin, go outside
for a minute. Let me talk to your friend.’
Robin picked up the leather top, tucked her ample breasts back into it, turned and walked out of the room
without another word. The black girl stood there, moved her hands onto her wide hips, frowning.
‘You know who I am?’ Paul said.
‘Yeah. You’re Paul Bellini.’
He laughed but without humor. ‘I own the club. And if I want you to dance for me, then suck me off, sweetheart, that’s what
She sat down, crossed her legs. ‘Actually, no, I don’t. And if you don’t pull your head out of your ass, sweetpea, you won’t
have a club to play around in. Quit worrying about your dick. I told you you’re getting robbed blind and you’re worrying about
whether or not you get a blow job tonight.’
Paul shook his head and grinned. He’d have her arms broken in about five minutes. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Your real name.’
‘You got a smart mouth, Tasha.’
‘I only use it for talking,’ she said.
‘So who’s robbing me?’ Amusement in his voice.
‘Ah. For how much?’
‘Up to ten thousand a week.’
Paul tongued his lip. ‘And how do you know this, Miss CPA?’
‘Most of the girls dancing in here, they’re sweet but not really planning their careers or futures. Like Robin. They’re now
people. I’m a tomorrow kind of person. I keep my eyes open. I notice details. Like when I’m doing private dances in the suites
for a bunch of drunk lawyers, Frank’s charging five grand on the credit card. But he’s reporting four grand on the books.
That other thousand, it’s getting funneled into his pocket. That kind of money adds up real quick.’
‘You’re serious.’ Paul’s face grew hot.
‘I looked on his computer,’ she said. ‘Compared it to the credit slips I saw after my dances over the past month. I kept a
little record in my head.’
‘Those files are supposed to be passworded,’ he said.
‘They are. It didn’t stop me.’ She shrugged. ‘His password is
. That was a real toughie to figure out.’ She pointed to the CDs on her breasts. ‘I do the Geekgirl gig ’cause I used to work
‘And now you’re a stripper?’
‘Job market’s better. And you got to follow your dreams.’ He couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. ‘Can I have a sip of
your Scotch?’ she asked.
Paul handed her the glass, watched her take a dainty sip, cradle the crystal in her hands. God, she was stunning. ‘You had
a stray impulse to look at the books?’ he asked.
‘Paul – can I call you Paul?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ He had decided to wait on breaking her arms.
‘I figured I could.’ Tasha smiled. ‘With your daddy in such bad shape, your mind’s occupied. You don’t realize people around
here are jockeying for positions. Seeing where they can take advantage of you. Seeing where they think you’re weak.’
‘I’m not weak.’
‘I didn’t say you were. I said where they think you’re weak.’ She rose, set the Scotch down next to him, eased herself down
into his lap. ‘And the club is a weak point.’ She started to rub his temples slightly. His erection returned, full force,
despite the talk of lost money, with this weird-irritating-beautiful woman sitting on his lap.
‘The club makes a fortune,’ he said.
She squirmed ever so slightly against him. ‘Oh, it does. So it’s going to attract attention. You got every male
celebrity comes through Houston stopping off here. You got thousands being spent every night. You got the best-looking women
in Texas dancing on your stage and doing private entertainments in the rooms.’ She kissed him once, feathery light, and when
she pulled away he leaned a little toward her, wanting more. ‘But you got too much money being spent, too much being skimmed,
too much sex being sold. It’s gonna … explode.’ She leaned down, kissed him again, let her tongue tease against his.
‘I shut the club down, you’ll be out of a job.’
‘Give me a new job,’ Tasha Strong said. ‘I’m gonna finish dancing for you. Then I’m gonna screw you good tonight. But because
I want to. You try to give me money, I slap you into tomorrow. I like you. I like your smile.’ She ran a finger along his
lips. He stopped her with his hand.
‘You’ve talked a lot,’ he said, and he put an edge in his voice, the way his father used to. He liked, no,
the way she was talking to him but he couldn’t let her see that. ‘Where’s the proof against Frank?’
‘In your computers. I
copied the files. In case Frank or Eve get wise …’
‘Eve’s in on this?’
‘She’s got twice the brains Frank does. No way she doesn’t know he’s skimming.’ Tasha Strong unhooked one of the CDs off her
top. ‘I’m wearing the proof, baby.’ Her other hand strayed down to his crotch. ‘You want to go home with me and start it up?’
Bucks suddenly realized he was outnumbered.
Chauffeuring the Miami dumbasses wasn’t a big deal but he realized, as he pulled out into the thick traffic of Westheimer,
he should have brought a buddy to watch his back. It was two against one. But Kiko and José were laughing, a little drunk,
rating the dancers as if jiggling
were an Olympic event. He decided to take the long way home, wanting to hear what they might say about the deal. He pulled
onto Loop 610, taking it toward I-10 East, which would lead toward the glittering towers of downtown Houston. He loved the
city, loved its happy chaos, loved the way people drove like maniacs, loved the way the humid air held endless opportunity,
even in the bad suck-ass years. Houston made you tough, tough to grab the chances that came your way, tough enough to persevere
when the world soured.
Kiko leaned over the dashboard, fiddled with the tape player, and suddenly Chad Channing’s confident voice filled the air.
‘Make your goals your friends, not your enemies. They are not to be challenged or overcome. They are to be embraced. Love
your goals as you love yourself.’
‘What’s this peace, love, and understanding?’ José called from the back seat.
‘It’s Chad Channing,’ Kiko said. ‘Don’t you ever watch infomercials, man? He sells thousands of these tapes to’ – he paused
as though searching for the word that would not insult – ‘people who need a little boost.’
‘Discover the goals within yourself as you discover your love for yourself,’ Chad purred on the tape. ‘They’re right under
the skin, in fact. We’re all motivated by goals we haven’t even discovered or articulated yet.’
‘It’s better than coffee for getting me going,’ Bucks said, but suddenly he felt a little uncool. He felt Kiko’s gaze on him,
amused, and he swallowed a thick lump in his throat. He clicked off the tape.
‘Oh, man, I wanted to hear more,’ José said. ‘I haven’t had a good arti-cu-lation in a long while.’
‘Hey, José, this tape is Bucks’ secret weapon,’ Kiko said. ‘How he stays so cool, so tough, all the time.’ Like it was funny.
‘That’s right.’ Bucks kept his voice steady. Greasy little bastards. He hated them both with a blackness that filled his chest.
Thought they were clever when they were not worth the grit under his shoe.
As he merged onto 1-10 Bucks felt a tickle at the back of his neck. He glanced into the rearview mirror and saw José smiling
at him. Kiko, sitting in the passenger’s seat, said, ‘Because you’re so tough and cool, Mr Tight-Ass Executive, I know you
aren’t going to freak.’
The barrel of a pistol. That was the tickle along his nape. José held the Sig up so Bucks could see it, then put it back at
Bucks’ throat. ‘We ain’t gonna hurt you, okay?’
‘Man, we’re all friends.’ Bucks was more surprised than scared. Shooting him while he was doing seventy on a Houston highway
wasn’t real bright.
‘You’re right. We’re friends. But I wouldn’t hit a bump in the road right how,’ Kiko said. He carefully eased the Beretta
out of Bucks’ back holster, Bucks even leaning forward a little to make it easier, deciding to cooperate.
‘Houston is pothole city, man, you can’t avoid bumps. Jesus, put the gun up,’ Bucks said. Suddenly he was watching the highway
for ruts that could jar the car, blast his brains across the windshield. ‘You don’t want to sour your deal with Paul.’
‘No, we don’t,’ Kiko said. ‘But we want to have a private chat with you. Because we like you.’
‘I like your name,’ José said. His voice was low, hard, like it was won in a fight. In the mirror Bucks saw José’s peasant
face break into a grin. ‘Bucks. You’re what makes the world go round.’
‘Take the next exit,’ Kiko ordered.
‘This is a bad idea, guys …’ Bucks started.
‘ “Delays have dangerous ends,” ’ José said. ‘Willie Shakespeare was right, man. Do what you’re told.’
Take the next exit,’ Kiko repeated. Bucks took the Shepherd exit. He had a little .25 caliber gun strapped above his ankle;
not a cannon but put it up to Kiko’s eye, it’d get the job done. Of course José would blow his head open. While pretending
to quote Shakespeare to act like he was smart.
Bucks turned onto Shepherd as Kiko directed. ‘Go to that Waffle House,’ Kiko said. ‘I like ’em better than IHOP, they don’t
have that fresh ’n’ fruity crap.’
‘My grandma likes that plate,’ José said. ‘It’s also rooty-tooty.’
‘She’s their target market,’ Kiko agreed.
Bucks turned the Jag into the Waffle House lot. They wouldn’t kill him at a busy restaurant, he decided. José moved the pistol
away from the back of his head but Kiko pressed Bucks’ gun against the flat of Bucks’ belly, where it would deliver a nice,
crippling gut shot.
He parked at the back of the lot, still calm, weighing how he could get to his ankle gun. Wondering what they wanted. If he
would be alive in five minutes.
‘Paul’s going to be calling for me soon.’ Bucks clicked off the engine.
‘Not with his eyes full of big boobs,’ José said.
‘You’re new to this line of work, aren’t you?’ Kiko asked.
‘Yes, but I went to business school with Paul,’ Bucks said.
‘I heard he flunked out,’ Kiko said.
‘Yeah.’ Bucks tried not to look at the gun pressed against his abs. ‘But we stayed in touch. I called him when he moved down
to Houston with his family.’
‘Because a friend whose family is mob might be handy?’ José said.
‘I like Paul, he’s cool,’ Bucks said.
Kiko cocked his head. ‘You were at Energis.’
Bucks’ tongue turned to sandpaper. ‘Yeah, I worked there. For a while.’
‘As an energy trading exec, right?’ Kiko said.
‘Man, and people say we’re crooks,’ José said. ‘That company robbed the whole country.’
‘You left Energis,’ Kiko said. ‘Right before the financial meltdown.’
‘You sound like a lawyer,’ Bucks said. ‘Asking questions you already know the answers to.’
‘Why’d you leave the company?’ Kiko said.
Now Bucks said nothing.
‘See, being a businessman,’ Kiko said, ‘I follow the news. Three Energis energy traders went missing after a night out drinking.
Murdered. Bodies and car dumped into Galveston Bay. Looked like a robbery went wrong.’
‘That’s what it was,’ Bucks said. ‘I knew those guys.’
‘Sure you did. They all worked in your group. Then, six weeks later, your division’s at the heart of the Energis multibillion-dollar
‘Tragedy surrounded me,’ Bucks said, ‘at that time in my life.’
‘Outrageous fortune,’ José said. ‘Life sucks.’
‘There were allegations about you, Mr Buckman. And your friends’ deaths. Like they knew about those only-on-paper deals that
had boosted Energis stock. And your own wealth,’ Kiko said.
‘Allegations don’t mean much,’ Bucks said. ‘Proof matters.’
‘And now with your business career gone …’ José said.
‘My career’s fine.’
‘A disgraced energy trader. Mailing out résumés must’ve been an exercise in humiliation.’ Kiko laughed. ‘Did you get a single
‘I’ve never had a stranger so interested in me,’ Bucks said. ‘You’re on the verge of stalkerhood here.’
‘Understand,’ Kiko said, ‘that we own your ass, from this day forward.’
‘You want me to come work for you? Forget it. I’m not betraying Paul.’
‘Because you got such loyalty to your friends and coworkers, right?’ José asked. Coolness in his voice. He looked thick-headed
but he sure wasn’t, Bucks thought.
‘You killed those three guys,’ Kiko said, his voice low. ‘Because they were gonna talk, were gonna ruin your sweet little
setup. You were already getting into Paul’s pocket. So he loaned you a private spot for the kill. We were already watching
Houston close, man. Watching the Bellinis’ every move. See where we could take advantage of them.’ Kiko leaned in close. ‘Alan
Gillespie. Hunter Gibbs. Ricardo Montoya. You brought them to that house the Bellinis own down in Galveston.’