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Authors: Victor Gischler

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For my son Emery

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Props as always to my agent, David Hale Smith. Special thanks to my patient family. Much gratitude to the team at Thomas Dunne. Extra-special turbo gratitude to Brendan Deneen for his patience, support, and creativity.

 

PROLOGUE

Brooklyn, Six years ago …

He was currently going by the name Dante Payne. The two men with him also used aliases. They were dangerous men who'd been relocated to America. Like those who came to this country before them, they looked to start over and make their fortune.

And they were perfectly willing to take a few shortcuts. Certainly willing to break a few laws.

Laws had been invented to keep the rabble in line. To keep lesser men out of the way while people like Dante took advantage. Everywhere he looked in America, he saw weakness. If he were smart and patient, he would get what he wanted with relative ease. There would be occasional resistance, but it would be swept aside. Dante had experience with such things, knew almost immediately by the look in an opponent's eyes if he would fight or fold.

He browsed the back of the convenience store, hovering near a rack of potato chips and beef jerky. His compatriots stood next to a cooler of beer, dour and silent. The Korean behind the counter cracked open a roll of pennies to replenish the register.

Dante had done his homework, knew the routine, so they didn't have long to wait. The goombahs waddled in at almost the exact time every week.
Courteous of them to make it so easy
.

Mick Nastasi wore a deep purple jumpsuit the color of an old bruise. A thick gold chain around his neck. Rings. A fat man, the result of a soft life. Gray hair thinning. The big man with him was muscle, a sports jacket over a polo shirt. He had a half-eaten chocolate doughnut in his fist.

Nastasi went to the counter, smiled at the Korean, said whatever he usually said. This was routine business, not reason to suspect today would be different or special. The Korean smiled and nodded and handed the envelope with the protection payoff to Nastasi.

Dante's eyes slid to his men, and he nodded. They returned the nod then moved toward the counter and the two goombahs.

They struck calmly but without hesitation.

The first looped the garrote around the muscle man's head and jerked it tight, the thin wire biting deeply into flesh, blood squirting. He was dead before he hit the floor.

Nastasi turned, opened his mouth to scream, but the clear plastic bag came down over his head abruptly, muffling him. He was forced to his knees, hands pawing uselessly at the hands holding the bag over his head.

Dante stepped up to the counter, fixed the trembling Korean with an ice-cold gaze. “You don't pay these men anymore. You understand?”

The Korean nodded.

Nastasi began to kick and writhe in earnest, sucking for air against the plastic bag. One of Dante's men held the Italian's arms while the other one kept the bag over his head. Nastasi's desperate breaths fogged against the plastic.

Dante waited a moment before going on. He wanted the Korean to see Nastasi struggle for a few more moments. It would leave a deeper impression than anything Dante might say.

“You won't see me again,” Dante told him. “You don't even see me now. One of my men will be along to pick up the envelope each week. It will be the same amount as always. Nothing will change. You understand this?”

The Korean nodded again, eyes flicking briefly from Dante to the suffocating man and back.

Nastasi had ceased struggling, hung limp in the grip of Dante's men. He nodded to them and they took the bodies through the back where a van waited in the alley.

Dante nodded at the Korean one last time then exited through the store's front door.

On the sidewalk out front, Dante paused and lit a cigarette. He squinted at the sky, exhaling a gray stream of smoke. It was a beautiful spring day, not too warm. A perfect time for new beginnings.

And his empire would begin here on this square block in a low-rent Brooklyn neighborhood. He'd decided to start with the Italians because they'd be the easiest. They'd become a cartoon parody of their former selves. A couple of families still ran rackets here and there, but they would be almost no trouble at all.

He would tackle the Tong next and then the Russians, who would be harder. There would be pushback, of course, but equilibrium would eventually establish itself. By then, Dante would have already set up several legitimate businesses through which to launder the money. In time, the legitimate businesses would stand on their own and he could separate himself from anything unseemly. Soon he would be on top again. He'd done it before.

And he'd do it again.

 

NOW

 

CHAPTER ONE

“Brent has Barbie's head.”

David Sparrow had come immediately awake upon hearing Anna, his four-year-old daughter pad into the room, but he'd kept his eyes closed, remaining perfectly still. The ploy failed, and he felt the little girl climb onto the bed.

“Daddy.”

He knew without checking the bedside nightstand that it was somewhere between six and six-fifteen in the morning.

“Daddy.”

David doggedly stuck to his plan, lay like a stone, even feigned a convincing snore. Academy Award time.

“Daddy, Brent says he is going to flush Barbie's head down the toilet.”

He felt Anna's soft hand on his face, a little thumb prying up one of his eyelids. “Daddy!”

Anna's honey-colored hair was disheveled from sleep. She wore a
Little Mermaid
nightgown and clutched a headless doll in one of her tiny fists. Lips curled into a snarl so cute it lost all possibility of menace. “Brent is being a monster again and says he will flush Barbie's head down the toilet unless I give him my Pop-Tart.”

Brent. Eight years old. His new thing was seeing what could fit down the toilet. The extortion was a new angle.

David reached back, slapped his wife lightly on the hip. “You want in on this?”

Amy grunted from somewhere in the depths of the sheets and blankets.

“Right.” David swung his legs over the side of the bed, sending Anna scurrying to the kitchen ahead of him. He stretched, heard something pop in his shoulder and reminded himself he needed to begin a regular gym routine again. A long yawn.

“I'll start the coffee,” he told Amy.

Another grunt.

He shrugged into an olive drab T-shirt and followed Anna into the kitchen where she pointed the headless doll at Brent and made ray gun sounds. Brent held up a blueberry Pop-Tart as a shield.

“I'm blocking you,” Brent said.

“Give me that head, Brent, or I'll melt your Pop-Tart.”

“Give her the head, Brent.” David took the coffee from the cabinet. Hazelnut this morning, he decided.

Brent groaned but handed over the head. Anna stuck her tongue out at him. They munched Pop-Tarts and drank milk. Friday was Pop-Tart day. They tried to go a little healthier the rest of the week.

As the coffee brewed, David boiled water for oatmeal. He was absurdly proud of his ability to time the morning ritual. The kids left the kitchen table to get dressed just as Amy entered and sat down. David set the oatmeal in front of her, slivered almonds and strawberries on top, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee on the side. She spooned oatmeal into her mouth as she opened her laptop and brought up her e-mail.

“Are you going to make your train?” David sipped black coffee from a Yale Law mug.

Amy shuffled papers into a briefcase that was so overstuffed it threatened not to buckle closed. “Don't worry about me. Just make sure the kids are dressed.”

I always do
. David went down the hall, glanced into each child's room. Both were at different stages of getting dressed but basically on schedule. “Make sure you have
everything
in your book bag before you zip it up.”

Anna: “Okay, Daddy.”

Brent: “I
know
.”

David returned to the bedroom. Jeans, wool socks, hiking boots, a light flannel shirt over the T-shirt. Early April and it was warm enough to forget the jacket but not
too
warm. Usually his favorite time of year.

He met Amy at the door. “Keys, purse, laptop?”

“Got it all.”

They kissed, lips brushing so fast, David wasn't sure he felt it, and Amy left.

“You monkeys dressed or what?” David shouted back through the house.

A little stampede down the hall, backpacks slung over shoulders. Brent's hair was almost combed. Good enough.

He hustled them through the side door and into the garage. He buckled them into the back of the Escalade, then buckled himself in. He turned on the local
A.M.
station, which reported traffic wasn't any better or worse than usual. Weather not a factor.

Ten seconds later he was on the road. Brent's school was first. David eased into the drop-off lane, pulled up in front.

“It's Friday, buddy,” David said. “Let's have a good day, so we can have a good weekend.”

“I know.” Brent climbed out, slammed the door behind him.

David watched him a moment before pulling away.

Next stop, preschool for Anna.

David parked and walked her in, kissing her on top of the head before releasing her into the swirl of children swarming into the building.

On the way out, he spotted the usual klatch of moms on the sidewalk next to the parking lot. Generally three to five of them, age range twenty-nine to forty-one. He paused and nodded to the four gathered in front of him.

“Friday again,” David said.

The leader smiled, an athletic thirty-five-year-old in a tight yoga outfit. “How's Amy?”

David smiled. “She's good. Busy.”

“Tell her she must come out with us for coffee some morning,” said another one, frumpier, mom jeans.

“I'll tell her,” David said.

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