Andre Fireson was no stranger to elegant afternoon affairs like this one. Being the President of a major arms manufacturer, he’d often had to wine and dine his way to a lucrative business deal. They could even be enjoyable at times; there were worse ways to spend an afternoon than among well-educated, successful men and beautiful women in fine clothes.
This wasn’t going to be one of those times. Today he had a very particular goal in mind. He needed to know whether his potential business partner was the monster he was rumored to be.
Once again, it came back to the looming war in Africa and his contract negotiations with the government. Things were moving, and Andre had almost locked down his deal when word broke that Magpie Holding and Shipping, his usual company for moving his product, had been implicated in the breaking Hunar Contractors scandal that was rocking the LA business community. He’d dropped them at once; Firebird Arms didn’t need any bad press right now.
Trouble was, this left him with no immediate way of moving his product around. He needed to find a new shipping company fast, and Roper Transport seemed the obvious choice. It was, after all, one of the top such companies in the Western United States, and the board was pressuring him to sign with them and be done. But Andre had heard too much about Walter Deaney to want to do business with his company. At least, not without first finding out just how much of what he’d heard was true.
So, when Deaney had invited him to come to his party that weekend to discuss their possible deal, Andre had accepted. It would give him a chance to find out just what sort of man Deaney really was.
His initial impression had been unexpectedly favorable. Deaney was about seven or eight years his senior: dark, handsome, and with a strong voice and easy manners. He had, Andre knew, been a professional fighter, and for a while they talked sport. Deaney told a good story, and he seemed affable and charismatic. His house was richly, if not tastefully, furnished, and his food and drink was excellent. Yet the longer they talked, the less Andre liked him. There was something about Deaney’s affability that rang hollow: the expression in his eyes didn’t quite match that of the rest of his face, his laughter was a little too hearty, and in any case Andre had learned to distrust anyone who tried too hard to be liked. A man of real substance, he believed, didn’t cater to the opinions of others; between two decent, honorable men, liking would occur without forcing it. Deaney was too lavish with his compliments, too hearty with his laughter. He was ‘slick’ would be how Andre would put it: as slick as an ice rink.
Andre took a moment when Deaney when to greet some people to take a turn about the garden and chat with a few of his fellow guests. He found them, as he’d expected, to be much of a piece with their host: very friendly, very eager to please, and generally empty of substance.
About an hour later he and Deaney sat down at the bar and got onto the subject of business.
“You understand, of course,” said Andre. “That you would be running extremely valuable cargo for the United States Government.”
“Naturally,” said Deaney. “I’ve handled sensitive material before, don’t you worry. My people can keep secrets.”
Andre studied him thoughtfully. Should he lay his trap now? No, not quite.
“That’s good to know. Still, with such valuable cargo, shipping carries certain dangers. Have you had any trouble with hijackers?”
Deaney sipped his drink and shook his head.
“Nope, never any trouble of that sort,” he said. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference.” He grinned. “We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”
Andre nodded. I bet you do, he thought.
“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said aloud. “Now, tell me more about…”
He trailed off, for he had suddenly realized they were no longer alone at the bar. A small, very young-looking blonde girl in a white and blue patterned dress sat almost directly behind Deaney. He guessed she was about eighteen; probably the daughter of one of the guests, and most likely with no idea what she’d sat in on.
“Miss?” he said, raising his voice slightly to get her attention. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”
Deaney started a little and turned around to see whom Andre was talking to. What happened next surprised him; the girl seemed to jump and her face took on an expression as though she’d just come face-to-face with a cobra. Evidently, she knew who Deaney was.
“Sorry,” she stammered, looking from one to the other. “Excuse me.”
She took her drink and hastened away, both men watching her as she disappeared back into the crowd.
“Suppose this isn’t the best place for private conversation,” said Andre. He had an uncomfortable idea it would be best for the girl’s sake to pass the incident off as casually as possible. “Especially,” he added in a low voice. “As I want to talk to you about some potential…extra services.”
“Suppose not,” Deaney laughed. He checked his watch. “I’ll tell you what, I need to see to a few things, but when I get back, why don’t we continue this in my office upstairs?”
Andre agreed to this and Deaney went off to speak to one of the other guests. Andre sipped his glass thoughtfully. A chance to see Deaney’s private office was too good to miss. If he’d get answers anywhere, it would be there. Besides, it would be best to lay his trap where no one would overhear it.
His valet Marco Benton drifted over.
“Notice anything?” Andre asked.
“Not yet,” Marco rumbled. “Waiters are all with the catering company. Only ones working directly for Deaney are Booker and the maid.”
“That guy,” said Marco, nodding at what appeared to be a slab of well-cooked beef from the buffet that had sprung to life and put on a tuxedo. “Edmund Booker. There’s a goomba if I ever saw one. If he had anything to do with this spread, I’ll eat my cookbook. Guy’s got no class; you can see just by lookin’ at him.”
“Notice anything about the other guests?”
“Typical rich types; not real gentry like you.”
“Appreciate that,” said Andre. He thought a moment.
“You notice a girl; real short, blonde, white and blue dress?”
The big valet shook his head.
“Nope, can’t say I have.”
Andre frowned, processing what that might mean. Marco was very observant, not to mention had an eye for the ladies. If he hadn’t noticed her, that could only mean she hadn’t been here very long…
“Keep an eye out for her,” said Andre. “Might be nothing, but…you never know.”
“Sure thing, boss,” said Marco, and he retreated as Deaney returned.
“Shall we, then?” he said, gesturing at the hall with his drink.
“Please,” said Andre, picking up his own.
Deaney led the way upstairs and down the hall into a wide, well-proportioned room that would have been elegant had it been more tastefully furnished. Andre’s well-honed sensibilities recoiled at the mishmash of clashing art styles, from the deco clock on the white mantel to the Victorian desk by the window and the Edwardian sofa and chairs before the fire.
“There we go,” said Deaney as they entered. “Now we can be a bit more private.”
“Nice room,” Andre said, focusing on the structure rather than the content in order to make the words sound convincing. “Renoir?” he said, nodding at what he recognized as one of the artist’s more garish works.
“Original,” said Deaney proudly. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”
“So I see,” said Fireson, though how any man could endure having these two paintings in the same room was beyond him. He suspected that framing their price tags would have been more to the point.
“But,” he said, tearing himself from the subject with an effort. “I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”
Deaney grinned approvingly.
“That’s good,” he said, gesturing at one of the armchairs. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”
Firesone sat down on the edge of the chair, looking Deaney hard in the face, trying to read him. He’d have to tread very carefully here.
“Hypothetically speaking,” he said. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”
Deaney leaned back on the sofa, his eyes narrowed, dangling a half-full glass in one hand. For a moment, the two men studied each other, almost fencing with their eyes, seeking weakness.
“That would be illegal,” Deaney said at last.
“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”
Deaney smiled slightly, and the fencing match continued for another few seconds. Then he shook his head with a careless air.
“Not at all.”
Fireson smiled and sat back in his armchair, picking up the drink he’d set down on the side table.
Got you, he thought.
“That’s out of the way, then,” he said aloud. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”
“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”
But Andre was not done yet.
“One thing further I need to know,” he said. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”
Deaney seemed slightly taken aback and gave a laugh that was even more out of harmony with his eyes than usual.
“Amateurs?” he said. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”
“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own services.”
Deaney sipped his glass, eying Andre thoughtfully. Possibly he was trying to detect trickery, but in this case there really was none; Andre’s father had taught him that rule, and he followed it to the letter in all his dealings.
“Fair enough,” said Deaney, setting down his glass. “Let me show you something.”
He got up and went to the Renoir painting. Andre guessed what this meant, and sure enough, a moment later Deaney had swung the picture away from the wall to reveal a safe behind it. He turned the dial a few times (taking care to position himself between it and Andre), then opened the door. Inside Andre had a glance of several neatly arranged folders containing numerous documents, but Deaney ignored these and instead took out a small, black ledger. He shut the safe door and led Andre back to his desk, where he laid it flat and opened to a certain page.
“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”
Andre bent over the ledger (vaguely aware of a faint smell of oranges as he did so), and studied it. It was a record of shipments made over the past month; shipments where the contents were written in code and the locations were all to or from Mexico. Two entries were marked ‘lost’ and accompanied by the letters ‘EJ’ followed by a question mark.
It was obvious to Andre that he was looking at the record of a smuggling operation, and to judge by the numbers, a very successful one.
“Hm,” he said. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”
“Several years,” Deaney answered.
“Never been caught?”
“Never caught,” said Deaney with a satisfied expression. “The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything one me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”
“So I see,” said Andre, trying not to look at the ledger as he spoke. Deaney closed the little book and returned it to the safe. Andre followed him, the beginnings of an idea – reckless, but not unworkable – rising in his brain.
“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” he said aloud. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”
He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Andre registered the faintly triumphal look on his face, and the fact that his hand felt as thought it were made of steel wires. He made a mental note to wash his own hand very thoroughly.
“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”
Andre picked up his glass and followed Deaney out of the office and back down to the party. As he went, he worked out his plan in his mind.
When they entered the living room, Deaney excused himself and went out onto the patio to speak with his other guests. Andre waited until he was sure he was out of sight, then drained his glass and set it aside.
“If anyone asks,” he told Marco (who had dutifully appeared at his side the moment he returned). “I’m in the bathroom.”
He slipped back out of the living room and into the hall, then up the stairs as silently as he could and back to the office. He guessed he could count on maybe five or ten minutes before he was missed; hopefully that would give him time to get into that safe and get that ledger.
When he opened the door to the office, however, he found that the safe was occupied.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, louder than he had intended in his surprise.
The girl jumped back from the safe with a small shriek of alarm. He pulled the door shut behind him; whoever she was, he didn’t want anyone to hear them.
It was the same girl who had been at the bar: bright blonde hair, wide hazel eyes, and barely clearing five feet. She seemed momentarily struck dumb by his appearance and only stared at him with evident fear.
Andre looked at the safe. It was still shut. She had obviously had the same idea he had…only what was she even doing here? More importantly, how much, if any, of the recent conversation had she overheard?
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
She swallowed and seemed to gather her courage.
“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”
This was such a patently desperate maneuver that he didn’t even bother contradicting it.
“How long have you been in here?” he asked.
She squared her small shoulders and gave him a defiant look.
“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said.
So she’d heard it all. She’d been spying on them. That might be awkward for him. But more importantly, if she was spying on Walter Deaney, and if things like her gambit at the bar were her idea of subtlety…
“You’re not a cop,” he said bluntly, still working things out in his mind. “And I don’t think anyone knows your here.”
“That’s all you know,” she said, unable to keep a faint tremor out of her voice.
“You’re right: I do know that,” he said. “If you never left this house,” he went on, thinking aloud. “I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”
The girl licked her lips nervously. He’d frightened her. Well, good; better scare her off now than have her keep snooping around until an actual crook found her. Andre looked at her, then about the room. He made up his mind and started toward her.
“Stay back!” she said, retreating.
“Shut up,” he snapped. “You’re getting out of here right now.”
“I…what?” she said, apparently confused. This gave him the chance to close in and seize her by the arm; not too hard, but hard enough to ensure she wouldn’t wriggle away. As he did so he caught that same scent of oranges, recalled smelling it by the curtains, and understood where she’d been hiding.
“You are going to walk out with me,” he said in his commanding voice that very few people ever disobeyed. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”
She blinked, evidently confused that he didn’t mean to murder her on the spot.
“That’s it?” she said. “You’re just gonna let me go?”
“Let you go?” he said, tugging her after him as he started for the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”
He marched her out into the hall and down the stairs. Andre caught Marco’s eye as they entered the hall and he motioned for him to follow. At the front door they encountered a few other guests.
“Gate crasher,” Andre muttered. “She’s just leaving.”
The girl didn’t struggle and didn’t protest. She accompanied him to the gate without making any kind of a fuss, though Andre could feel the tension in her body as they went. He guessed she still didn’t quite believe he was going to let her go unharmed.
He jammed the switch to open the gate. As it creaked open, he looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard, then lowered his face to her ear.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” he said. “But you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this if you value you life.”
With that, he pushed her through the gate. A little harder than he had meant: she nearly fell on her rear. As she recovered, he jammed the switch again and the gate slid shut.
The girl turned and fixed him with a furious, hateful glare from the other side of the bars. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until that moment that Andre realized that she was beautiful. It seemed to him as though he had never seen a lovelier girl in all his life than the one who stood glaring vindictively at him through the bars.
A moment later, she turned and disappeared down the street. Andre felt strangely dissatisfied with himself as he turned back to the house. Marco had joined him surreptitiously. For such a big man, he had mastered the art of moving quietly.
“Follow her,” Andre ordered. “I want to know who she is.”
Marco nodded, opened the gate just enough to slip his bulk through, and disappeared. Andre stood for a moment, frowning in thought, then turned back to the house
He didn’t feel like going back to the party, and as he’d already gotten what he’d come for there didn’t seem much reason to stick around anyway. So instead he strolled along the path leading around to the garden, looking over the flowerbeds.
The path led him around the corner of the house, away from the direction of the patio and the main party going on in the living room. Things were quieter here; the noise of the party was reduced to a kind of dull hum. He was able to think.
There’d be no going back to the safe today, and probably no more chance for him at all. But there might be ways of getting around that; he had money, and he connections, and the man who had both very rarely found an insurmountable obstacle. In any case, he’d escaped the shame of having his family company linked with the likes of Deaney…at least, assuming the girl didn’t spread the word around, though he supposed he could deal with her one way or another. Bringing Deaney to justice might have to be another man’s task. Perhaps he’d get in touch with Detective Crane and inform him of what he’d learned.
As Andre was musing on all of this and admiring Deaney’s flowers (the man kept a good garden, he had to admit), he suddenly became aware of voices coming from the house. This wasn’t the hum of indistinct music and talk coming from the party; these voices were much closer, low, and serious. Among them he recognized Deaney’s own.
They were coming from a half-open window leading into one of the smaller ground floor rooms. Andre slipped closer to try to hear, blessing the softness of the soil about the flowers that masked the sound of his movement. He stood against the wall beside the window, listening.
“Sure, I noticed her,” Deaney was saying. “Good-looking, fun-sized blonde. Guess she was a gate crasher. What about it?”
The other man hesitated before answering.
“Did you happen to notice what she did while she was here?”
“Not especially,” said Deaney. “Got herself a drink at the bar while I was talking to his lordship, until he shooed her away.”
“Ah,” said the other man. “I see. And you didn’t notice her anywhere else?”
“No, not until he dragged her out of the house. Why?”
“Because I did,” said the other. “I had a nice view of the windows on that side of the house, and I looked up and saw that same girl hiding behind the curtains in your office.”
There was a pause.
“When was this?”
“You figure it out,” said the other dryly.
Deaney swore aloud.
“Did you get her name?”
“She said it was ‘Linda Mitchell,’” said the other. “But she was lying. She’s a good liar, but not good enough. Still, I don’t suppose she’ll be hard to track down.”
“I’ll take care of it,” said Deaney. “I’ll talk to our people in the police; have them pick her up, then we dump her in the ocean.”
“You’d better find out just how much she knows first,” said the other. “I really would rather not have any more surprises just now.
“Right, right,” said Deaney. “Instead of the ocean I’ll have them take her to Mistretta, let him play with her for a bit, see what shakes out. It’ll give him a chance to redeem himself.”
“Very good; I will leave it in your capable hands, then,” said the other. “Only next time, be sure to check behind the curtains.”
Andre stepped away from the window, carefully knocked the dirt off his shoes, then headed quickly back toward the front door. As he did, he met Benton waiting for him.
“Tell me you found something,” he said.
“Drove off,” said Benton. “Got her plate, though.”
“Good,” said Andre. “Because we need to find her. Now.”
It was later than Andre would have liked when Benton finally parked the big black sedan around the corner from the run-down apartment building.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Andre asked.
“According to my friends, this is where she lives.”
Among his many other qualities, Benton had a seemingly endless series of contacts, ranging from associates of his days cracking heads for the mob to city clerks, bankers, and tradespeople. Whatever the job, he knew someone who could make it happen. Tracking down the girl had been a simple matter of passing a few bills around the county records office, which had revealed that ‘Linda Mitchell’ was in fact a freelance reporter by the name of Sarah Rockford. In fact, that she had been the very one who broke the Hunar Contractors scandal and so created this whole mess in the first place. If nothing else, the girl certainly had courage.
Andre was a little surprised at the place. He knew she had been playing a part that afternoon, yet it still seemed strange that the beautiful, elegant young woman he’d thrown out of Deaney’s party should live in what he could only describe as a dump.
“Wait here,” he said. “Keep the engine running. Cops show up, try to stall them.”
“I don’t think I have to wait,” said Benton darkly, nodding as another dark sedan pulling up in front of the building.
Andre swore. Going in the front was no longer an option, not unless he meant to knock out two cops. Even if he knew they were dirty that wouldn’t help him much; he didn’t know how far up the scale the corruption went. In any case, if he gave the police a reason to come after him, that would also give them a shot at the girl.
Only one choice now.
“Stall them,” he said. “But don’t engage.”
He slipped out the back of the car and went around the back of the building while Benton got out and made straight for the two plainclothes detectives making for the front door.
The building was about five stories high, and according to the address they’d found, Rockford lived on the third floor. It was one of those old brick buildings that came with a metal fire escape that led down into the alley behind it. From the ground the only way to access the fire escape was a sliding ladder currently raised some ten feet off the pavement.
Andre quickly surveyed the layout, then took a running leap at the alley wall, jumped off, and just caught the lowest rung of the ladder with his outstretched hand. It clanked in what seemed a dangerously loud way.
Though he was a rather short man – only five-foot-five – Andre had worked hard to build an extremely powerful body, and he easily hoisted himself up the ladder to the first platform. He then lowered the ladder before continuing: he had a feeling they would need to get away quickly.
Trying to move as quietly as he could on the rickety metal structure, Andre ascended to the third floor, where he started looking surreptitiously through the windows, hoping against hope that the girl would be in one of them so that he didn’t have to invade more than one apartment tonight.
Andre didn’t believe in luck, which is perhaps why he seemed to have an unusual amount of it. In the fourth window on the third floor, he found her. The room was tiny and cramped, piled high with papers, books, and assorted debris. Rockford had changed out of her dress and was now wearing pale blue pajamas. She was sitting on a kind of combination couch and bed, a notebook in hand, chewing thoughtfully on a pen.
Time was rapidly running out; the police would be at her door at any minute. Yet still Andre hesitated, watching her. Partly, this was because he suddenly realized he had no idea how he was going to approach her; his original plan had simply been to knock on her door and talk to her. However, the fact that he was now obliged to enter through the window made that much less practical, as did the fact that they were on a strict time limit. At the same time, if he tried to enter now, she’d scream and probably try to run…ending up right in the arms of the corrupt cops.
Many years of brutal financial negotiations and hard study had left Andre with a keen strategic mind, and it didn’t take him long to concoct a plan: a risky one, and not likely to endear him to the girl, but one that seemed most likely to succeed. Still watching Rockford from the window (which was partly open to let in a breeze), Andre slipped a hand into his pocket and quickly began to prepare what Benton had euphemistically referred to as “Plan B.”
He had no sooner finished than there was a knock on Rockford’s door.
“Sarah Rockford? LAPD.”
Rockford looked up with a surprised expression, set her notebook aside, and rose to answer the door.
As soon as she turned her face to the door, Andre threw the window open wide (thankfully it didn’t stick) and slipped in behind her. A second later, he had seized her about the middle and clapped the chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth.
She immediately screamed into the cloth and began thrashing and fighting as savagely as a badger that’s been caught in a snare. Her foot kicked sharply up and back, and her elbow jammed into his stomach, but Andre knew how to fight and how to grapple: he kept his knees turned in to deflect the kick and Rockford wasn’t strong enough to do any damage to his muscular abdomen. He held tight to her, gripping her left wrist in his right hand so that his arm encircled her slender body, pinning her right arm to her side and using his greater bulk to hold her in place as much as possible as she kicked and squirmed helplessly.
In any case, the chloroform very quickly took its toll. After a few seconds’ furious and futile fighting, Rockford’s movements became sluggish, and finally she slumped limp and unconscious in his arms.
The police were hammering on the door now, shouting for her to let them in. Andre stuffed the rag back into his pocket and carried the unconscious girl back through the window, which he pushed shut behind them. He slung her over his shoulder – it was a good thing she was so small – and carried her as quickly as he could down the fire escape, which rattled audibly under his tread.
There was a distant crashing sound as the police broke down the door. Andre descended the ladder one-handed, then dropped the last four feet and ran for it just as a voice from overhead shouted, “Stop! Police!”
Andre was around the corner in an instant, where Benton waited in the idling car. He threw the unconscious girl into the back seat then climbed in after her, and Benton was off before he’d even closed the door.
“Close one, boss,” said Benton.
“Too close,” Andre agreed. He threw a blanket over the small, huddled form on the floor, just to make sure no one looked in and saw her. He felt strangely guilty as he did so. Though he’d done it to save her life, and he hadn’t had much choice in any case, it wasn’t pleasant to think that he’d attacked, knocked out, and kidnapped an innocent girl. That was going to be difficult to explain.
Benton chuckled from the driver’s seat.
“What’s so funny?” Andre asked in a sharp voice.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking of what she’s gonna say when she wakes up.”
Andre sighed and rubbed his temple, feeling suddenly tired.
“It’d be more helpful if you’d think of what I’m going to say,” he answered. “Because I sure as hell don’t know.”