Sitting on the edge of the table, kicking her feet and looking more like a schoolgirl on recess than she would have cared to know, Sarah Rockford looked around with interest in the strange group she had found herself in.
There was Andre Fireson, whose mansion she had woken up in that morning (was it really that soon?) and whose safe room they were now gathered in. He was short for a man, but compact, powerful, and possessed of amazing energy and lightning judgment. She had noticed that when he threw her from the helicopter. He was pacing the floor in a restless fashion, like a leopard caught in too small a cage.
He’s just dying to be out there again, she thought. To be making things happen, taking the fight to the enemy.
Then there was Detective Karen Stillwater: cool, logical, and focused (not to mention drop-dead gorgeous in just the way powerful men of action like, Sarah added mentally to herself, admiring the other woman’s shiny black hair and excellent physique). She stood before a white board on which they had pieced together a plan of the conspiracy, as well as they understood it, studying the diagram as though triple checking that the information was accurate.
She’s worried, Sarah thought. Worried she might have missed something. Her coolness isn’t natural, but a skill she’s worked to develop. Kinda silly of her; I mean, we’re all in the same boat anyway.
This caused her eyes to drift over to Nick “Breezy” Windworth. He stood a little apart from the others, arms folded, leaning against the wall. He was the oldest one there, with sloping shoulders and a somewhat silly face that created the impression of a thoroughly average, somewhat stupid kind of man.
But he isn’t, Sarah thought. Judging by what Karen and Andre have said, he’s probably the cleverest one among us, and certainly the most experienced. I wonder where he got that experience?
At first, Sarah thought that Nick was looking at the whiteboard as well. Then she realized that, in fact, he was looking at Karen. Looking very hard at her too. That made Sarah feel oddly relieved, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
That made her think of herself; a twenty-year-old freelance reporter getting by on nothing but her charm and her pen who had exposed one conspiracy, gotten a swelled head, and gone for a second, with the result that she’d survived three attempts to kill her in less than twenty-four hours. She was five-foot-nothing (to be generous), blonde, and good-looking enough not to feel self-conscious in describing herself as such.
Now it turned out that all four of them, in their own way, had each been chasing down a piece of the same conspiracy, the full extent of which they still didn’t know. One by one they had crossed each other’s paths, and now they were all here, and all (if she could judge by her own case) determined to see the thing through to the end.
“Okay,” said Karen in her odd, but charming accent that was part Mexican, part British. “Let’s go over it one more time. Gallano runs the drug trade. Deaney manages supplies via Roper Shipping. Gallano employs local crooks like Mistretta as enforcers, and to preempt any local competition. According to the files we recovered from Mistretta’s office, he has enforcers like that all over the city. Each pursues his own operations, while reinforcing and supporting the others. The organization employs dirty cops, including Captain McLagen to sabotage any police investigations before they can get too close to the truth. And the whole thing is run by at least one mastermind, whom we do not yet know.”
“I still think it’s Deaney,” said Sarah.
Andre shook his head. “Deaney’s smart, but he’s not that smart; he’s taken too many blows to the head for that. In fact, if we’re right, he doesn’t even have to be as clever as I take him for; I imagine this mastermind takes much of the credit for building his company. Besides, I heard him taking orders from someone at the party: that’s how I knew they were coming for you.”
“Anyway,” Karen went on. “As far as we know, the conspiracy worked fine until fairly recently, when El Jefe’s cartel began to move in on Gallano’s trade. And now they’ve arranged for some kind of ‘event’ to take place tomorrow, which is so important that they have been willing to risk exposure to ensure that we do not know about it. They brought out trumped-up charges against Crane and I – sure to attract attention – tried to kidnap and interrogate Sarah rather than just kill her purely in order to find out if she knew anything, and then tried to murder her and Andre in a very dramatic manner, again simply on the possibility that they might know something. From all this we can deduce that whatever they’re planning, it’s big and it’s vital to their operations.”
“Could it be some kind of strike on the Mexicans?” Sarah asked.
“Considering they used a grenade launcher on them last week, I don’t think they’d be so worried about keeping any of their operations against them a secret,” Karen answered.
“You didn’t find anything in those documents? No crimes that couldn’t be accounted for or anything like that?” Andre asked.
Karen shook her head. “No, it was all pretty straightforward. I doubt Gallano or the others would trust Mistretta with that sort of information anyway; not unless they had to.”
“Where are those files anyway?” Nick asked. “I’d had to think they went to waste after all the trouble we had getting them.”
“The originals are at the precinct,” she said. “But Crane and I made copies and I hid mine back at my apartment. But don’t worry; I’ve practically memorized them.”
“We can go get them later if we have to,” said Andre. “In the meantime, the question is how can we learn what they’re planning before tomorrow?”
“I think,” said Nick. “The question whether there is a way we can learn what they’re planning before tomorrow.”
“I think that was implied in his question,” said Sarah.
“Are the semantics really helping?” said Karen.
“As I said,” Andre declared, raising his voice. “How can we discover their plan before tomorrow? And I am not gonna accept that there is no way to do so until you prove it to me.”
He had a commanding presence, in spite of his short stature, and the others felt it. At once they began considering possibilities.
“Not to sound cruel or anything,” said Sarah. “But could we do what they tried to do to us? You know, grab someone – McLagen for instance – and interrogate them?”
“Kidnapping someone isn’t as simple as it looks,” said Nick. “Especially not a high-ranking police officer who knows to be on his guard.”
“Besides,” said Karen. “As much as would like to take some electrodes to that…man, we can’t even be sure if he knows anything. As far as I can tell, Deaney and Gallano are the only ones we can say for sure know about this thing, apart from the unknown Mastermind.”
“That’s something,” said Andre at once. “Deaney and Gallano know about it. How can we use that?”
“If they know, they might have records of some kind,” said Sarah. “Plans, diagrams, expense reports, anything of the kind.”
“Almost certainly,” said Nick. “In my experience, if you’re going to plan a major operation, you are going to have documentation of some kind or other. That has to go somewhere, if they don’t burn it, which I doubt they would do the day before. They’d need to double-check, do last minute reviews, make alterations.”
“So there is evidence,” said Andre. “Physical evidence that we can find and get at.”
“It won’t be any use for convicting them,” said Karen.
“I don’t care,” said Andre. “We can worry about convicting them later; right now, I only want to stop them.”
“Well, then,” said Nick. “It seems fairly obvious; if that’s what you want, then we either search on Gallano’s yacht or in Deaney’s house. Unless, of course, anyone can think of any alternative location where either or both might keep his secrets.”
“His safe!” Sarah exclaimed.
“I mean, Deaney’s safe; the one you and I tried to get into,” she said to Andre. “You said he had a bunch of other documents in there, that he didn’t show you, right? I’ll bet that’ll include just what we’re looking for!”
“I bet you’re right,” said Andre with a fierce gleam in his eye. “If only we’d gotten into it earlier.”
“I would have if you hadn’t interrupted me,” she said, unable to resist.
“No, you wouldn’t; they had already seen you, remember? I would have gotten in if you hadn’t been sneaking around.”
“We’ll agree to disagree on that,” said Sarah with a dignified toss of her head that sent her bright yellow hair flashing. “The point is, that’s got to be where it is, right?”
A reluctant smile twitched at the corners of Andre’s mouth and he let it go.
“No,” said Karen. “That is one likely place where it might be, assuming such a thing exists.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” said Sarah. “Go in and look.”
“We’re going too fast,” said Karen. “First let’s see if we can come up with any other possibilities.”
After a good quarter-hour of further discussion, however, nothing occurred to them. The only viable alternative, which Karen suggested, was to take what evidence they had and go to the FBI.
“Only we don’t have much in the way of hard evidence,” Andre pointed out. “And besides, while we’re doing that, these guys will be carrying out whatever they’ve got planned for tomorrow, and I don’t intend to let that happen.”
“Me neither,” said Sarah.
“Of course I don’t want that either,” said Karen. “But if they knew the feds were looking into them, mightn’t that scare them off?”
“Yes, if we could get a full-blown investigation going by tomorrow,” said Nick. “And as one who has witnessed several Federal investigations up close, I can tell you that they’re usually not that quick.”
“And if we get ourselves killed chasing a dead lead, that won’t help anything either,” said Karen.
“Oh, I don’t think we will,” said Nick an odd, absent tone. “After all, we’ve each shown ourselves to be rather good at surviving, one way or another. And in any case, we’re fortunate enough to have one of the more courageous young officers I’ve happened to meet on our side.”
Karen blinked in surprise at that. She opened her mouth to reply, then seemed to have second thoughts and closed it again. Nick laughed.
“Detective Stillwater, you are young, brave, and beautiful; you really need to get better at accepting compliments.”
She blushed and looked away, but he had succeeded in teasing a smile from her face. Sarah caught Andre’s eye and they both grinned.
“What the hell,” said Karen. “I don’t suppose I’ll find a better lot to die with anyway. So what is the plan?”
Andre Fireson, millionaire, heir to princes and keeper of his family legacy, had never expected to find himself slinking through another man’s property at night, dressed as a catburglar and intent on robbing his safe. Strange the things that duty called one to.
The night was pitch dark; a blanket of cloud covered the moon and stars, casting all that lay outside the glare of streetlamps into total blackness. Outside of Walter Deaney’s residence, lamps illuminated the iron gate and flooded large sections of the garden, but most of the tree-lined grounds were as dark as the deepest forest. Andre stayed low, moving with cat-like stealth across the well-kept lawn.
There was no one in sight. Deaney evidently didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention by keeping visible guards on his property. But Andre did not, for that, assume the approach was unwatched.
He waited in the shadows, breathing with the light wind that sighed among the bushes. Four slow minutes ticked by.
Suddenly, there came a shout and sound of a struggle from the front gate: not loud, but clear in the quiet night. Flashlights blossomed inside the darkened house, and two figures – on of whom a veritable giant, whom he guessed to be Deaney’s man, Edmund Booker – came out. They swept their lights over the lawn, but the bush concealed Andre from their beams. Then the two men hurried off in the direction of the gate. Just as Nick had said they would.
“The best way to trick someone,” he’d explained. “Is to let them think they’ve caught you.”
So far, so good, Andre thought, as he rose and darted across the brightly lit patio to the house. He didn’t bother trying to go inside; the doorframe was flanked with sheetrock, providing easy handholds. He’d done his share of mountaineering – his twenty-second birthday gift to himself had been to climb the Matterhorn – and so the ascent was no difficulty.
The second floor window above the patio looked into Deaney’s office. It was going to be locked, of course, but Benton had long ago showed Andre how to use a flatheaded screwdrive to push the latch back from the outside. It was tricky to do while hanging from the side of a building, but Andre was up to the challenge.
In a few moments, the window slid back and Andre stepped softly into the office, behind the big oak desk. All was quiet inside, but he could hear the faint sounds of the guards searching the grounds. He had to be quick.
Summoning to mind the image of the room as it had appeared when he last was there, Andre slipped noiselessly across the carpet to the Renoir painting and pulled it away from the wall. Only now did he employ his small flashlight to illuminate the dials. This was it…
The lights switched on.
“I think that’s far enough,” said a familiar voice.
Very slowly, instinctively keeping his hands up, Andre turned on the spot. Walter Deaney was sitting in one of the armchairs, dressed in a silk smoking jacket and looking quite at his ease as he pointed a pistol straight at him.
“Mr. Fireson,” he said. “I’ll admit, I was wrong. I had you pegged as a smart man; someone who would know when to leave a thing alone for his own good.”
“Must be hard to admit that,” Andre answer. “That you were wrong, I mean.”
“Not as hard as you’d think,” he said, with a grin. He rose to his feet, crossed the room, and relieved Andre of his own weapon and pocketed it. Then he jerked his pistol at the door. “I’d much rather not have to shoot you in my own house, so if you wouldn’t mind…”
Andre obediently exited the room, his hands still held up above his head.
“So, where are you planning to shoot me?” he asked.
“Maybe nowhere,” said Deaney. “All depends on you.”
They descended the staircase and into the living room.
“You don’t really expect me to believe you’ll let me go?” Andre asked.
“Why not?” said Deaney. “We’re both businessmen; I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement.”
“I doubt it,” said Andre. “You see, unlike you, I’m not just a businessman. I’m also a gentleman.”
“That’s good!” he said. “I’ll have to remember that one. Alright, just sit there by the bar. Pour yourself a drink, if you like.”
Andre sat on one of the stools and lowered his hands. Deaney sat down on the arm of the sofa, watching him intently.
“We’re just gonna wait here until my boys get back,” he said. “And here they are now!”
Booker and another man of much the same build appeared, carrying something between them.
“Found him, boss,” Booker grunted. They tossed the object they had been carrying to the ground and it rose to its knees, groaning. It was Nick Windworth, and his face was badly bruised.
“Well, that could’ve gone better,” he muttered.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” said Deaney. “You’re that con-man, aren’t you?”
“Depends on which con-man you mean, Mr. Deaney,” he answered.
“You all seem in good spirits, all things considered,” he said.
“I was thinking the same thing about you,” said Nick, sitting back against the end of the bar and massaging his face. “What with all that’s been happening, and your big to do tomorrow, I’d figure you to be a bit more…anxious.”
Deaney looked down at him, sizing him up.
“Trying to fish for information, I see,” he said. “Not bad. Now let me try; what happened to the two girls?”
“You really think we’d bring them along?” said Andre.
In his turn, Deaney looked hard at Andre, then laughed.
“No, of course not,” he said. “Not the sort of thing a gentleman would do, is it? But I am going to have to insist knowing their whereabouts.”
His eyes went back to Nick.
“I don’t think you’re quite as much of a gentleman, are you?”
“Not as such,” said Nick with a shrug. “I lie and cheat all the time.”
But before he could say anything more, there was a sudden sharp crack while at the same time a small cloud of dust burst out of the wall. Deaney swore and ducked under the couch, twisting ‘round to see where the attack was coming from. Booker dived for cover as well. The other man swayed a moment, feeling at the ragged red hole in his chest, then toppled to the ground.
Andre seized his chance. While Deaney had his back to him, he launched himself onto the other man, seizing the hand that held the gun and twisting it. The pistol dropped, but almost at once Andre received a sharp elbow to the rips and Deaney twisted in his arms with the speed of a snake, striking quick, powerful blows at his face and solar plexus. Andre wasn’t helpless; he could ward the worst of it off, but Deaney was far faster and more precise than any man he’d ever fought.
Outside, in the garden, hidden under a guile suit, Karen Stillwater racked another bullet into the rifle chamber. Just as Fireson had warned her, the XR-7 thermal-imaging rifle’s accuracy was badly off; she’d been aiming for Deaney. At least she’d given them a chance to escape. Only now the four heat signatures were moving too fast and too close for her to dare risk another shot. It was hard to even see the hot pads that Andre and Nick wore about their ankles and necks so that she could identify them.
Karen drew a deep breath and pushed her fears aside. Her friends needed her to be cool and collected. And so she concentrated on watching struggling figures through the thermal scope, waiting her chance to act.
Meanwhile, Andre and Deaney bobbed and weaved about the living room, Andre more struggling to hold the other man off than seeking a chance to injure him. He was a skilled fighter, and a powerful man, but Deaney was a professional athlete on his own ground; a little out of his prime, but still far out of his league. Andre tried to dodge in close enough to punch him, but Deaney easily accounted for his movement and delivered a brutal kick that Andre only just managed to ward off, but Deaney followed it up with a second, then a back fist that caught Andre under the eye. Andre countered, landing a blow in Deaney’s hard stomach that made the other man flinch, but when he tried to capitalize on this, Andre found himself quickly reversed and hit with another blow to the head, then Deaney launched himself off his front foot and kicked Andre square in the face.
The blow sent his head ringing, and the next thing he knew, he was on the floor, only the floor seemed to be moving as well. Deaney loomed over him from all directions at once, grinning and saying something he couldn’t understand. Then something bright and glittering flew through the air and struck the side of Deaney’s head. He staggered and fell onto his hands and knees. A moment later, Nick Windworth had snatched up the fallen pistol and was pointing it at the master of the house.
“That’s enough of that,” said Nick. “Hands up, both of you.”
Deaney sullenly raised his hands, blood trickling from the side of his face from where the glass ashtray had hit him. Booker, who had been clutching a broken nose from where Nick had smashed his head into the bar, likewise raised his hands in surrender.
Andre shook his head to clear the cobwebs and sat up, forcing himself to focus through the pain and haze. He retrieved his own pistol from Deaney’s pocket and joined Nick.
“Pays to have a backup plan,” he said.
Then to his discomfort, Deaney grinned.
“It does indeed.”
Sarah Rockford had followed in Andre’s shadow as he’d crept across the yard, then darted across to the shadows under the window as soon as he’d climbed up. She’d waited there, heart hammering, while he entered the room. Then the lights had gone on and she knew he’d been caught. She’d listened through the open window as Deaney led him out of the room, and as soon as they were gone started up the side of the building.
She wasn’t nearly as experienced a climber as Andre, but she was lithe and athletic, and in any case she was very light, so she ascended with little difficulty. The room was still lit – Deaney hadn’t turned the lights off when they left – and clearly empty.
Sarah slipped in; all in black, her bright golden hair hidden under a black cap. Her small feet made no noise on the carpet as she stole across to the safe.
Out came a stethoscope. Heart hammering, she began to turn the knob, just as Nick had shown her earlier that day, when he’d given them all a crash course in safecracking.
A sharp crack from bellow, followed by shouts and the sounds of fighting, momentarily distracted her, but she had the first number. She started over, focusing past the sounds of combat and trying her best not to think of what might be happening to her friends below.
She had the second number. The sounds of fighting died down, but what that might mean, she couldn’t say, and daren’t speculate. Then the final number. She tried the handle, and with a heavy click the door swung open.
Sarah whipped around. A man was sitting in an armchair, watching her. A broad-faced, genial-looking man of about sixty, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
“I must congratulate you all; that was a very good plan,” he said. “I honestly didn’t expect it to go this far. I suppose we have Mr. Windworth to thank for that. Unsurprising, considering his background.”
“Mister…Mister Cummings?” Sarah said, dimly recognizing the man she’d met at Deaney’s party.
“I’m glad you remember me, after all you’ve been through since,” he said. “It’s Miss Mitchell, isn’t it? Or is it Miss Rockford?”
Sarah didn’t answer, but stared at him. Cummings didn’t appear to be armed, but something about him warned her that she was in mortal danger.
“Do you mean you knew, all along?” she said.
“Well, of course I knew that you were likely to make an attempt on Mr. Deaney’s safe tonight; that was the only logical move you had left, unless you intended to simply give up, and I certainly didn’t expect you to do that. So I made sure Mr. Deaney and Mr. Gallano were here to welcome you.”
“Mr. Gallano?” Sarah gasped.
Outside, on the lawn, Karen continued to watch the scene unfolding in the living room. Nick and Andre had come out on top after all; they had Booker and Deaney at gunpoint. Now she just had to make sure no one else came in, or…
Something hard, round, and cold pressed against the back of her head.
“Good evening, Detective,” came the voice of Eugenio Gallano.
All around her, a dozen of Gallano’s men rushed to the house, rifles in hand, to surround the two men.
“Nick! Andre! It’s a…” Karen screamed, but a moment later Gallano had struck her on the back of the head, and she knew no more.
Inside, the two men heard the scream, and heard it cut off suddenly. Nick whipped around in a sudden alarm at the sound, but before he could do anything or ascertain what had happened, the doors burst open and they found themselves surrounded by rifles.
Upstairs, Sarah heard all of this without realizing quite what was happening, but knowing that it meant she and her friends were caught.
“It’s you, isn’t it,” she said. “You’re the mastermind.”
“If you want to call me that,” he said. “I developed the scheme years ago. You see, the problem with any extra-legal business opportunities is that sooner or later someone traces it back to you, if you have motive and opportunity. You can put some distance between yourself by paying someone, but that still leads back to you. But what if you had a vast, mutually beneficial organization where the only common thread was a single mind directing all? They would seem to have no connection and, hence, no motivation to help one another, leaving nothing for the police to grab on to. Why should an Italian drug lord turn to a local thug, or a respected businessman transport drugs he doesn’t even sell?”
“But you benefit from it all, I imagine,” said Sarah.
“Immeasurably,” Cummings agreed. “But not so much financially as you might think; most of that goes to my people. It is the challenge I enjoy more than the money. That, and of course the contemplation of that fact that I rule about a third of Los Angeles.”
“What?” she gasped. “What do you mean?”
“Roper Shipping isn’t the only company that sends Deaney a paycheck,” he said. “It’s just the only one he pays taxes on. One way or another, thanks in part to Gallano’s influence, he runs about a dozen different companies. Oh, I don’t mean he sits on the board or anything, but if he tells, say _ automotive to go one way, they do it. They know that if they don’t, something unfortunate is liable to happen to one of their ships.”
“Which means that you run them,” said Sarah.
“More or less,” he admitted. “Quite a good scheme, don’t you think?”
Sarah licked her lips. She was wondering why Deaney was spending so much time talking instead of just shooting her. But then, she realized, it wasn’t as if he had anyone else to boast too. He’d probably been dying to tell everyone how clever he’d been for years. Perhaps she might be able to stall him until…something.
“It’s impressive,” she admitted. “Only, it seems to be kind of coming apart at the moment, doesn’t it?”
“Hardly,” he said. “It is true we’ve had more police attention than we would like with this unfortunate tussle with the Mexicans, not to mention you four running around town like rats seeking out crumbs. But after tomorrow we’ll be able to start returning to normal.”
“Why? What’s so special about tomorrow?”
“That, as you no doubt have guessed, is why we’ve had to take some extra steps with you people. It’s a rather delicate situation, you see.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“No? I’m not surprised. Well, the truth is that the Mexicans have not been the only ones trying to, I believe the phrase is ‘muscle in on’ my business. Centron Farms out of San Ignatio has been expanding into Los Angeles. Specifically, into shipping and receiving. I wouldn’t worry about it ordinarily, but quite frankly, Centron Farms has the resources to put serious pressure on my business. They’ve already begun making offers to buy Roper Shipping, the kind of offers that raise questions when you refuse them.”
“Then what do you intend to do?” asked Sarah.
“Centron Farms has a chemical supply warehouse on Welmat Street,” he said. “Tomorrow, there will be an explosion: a minor one, but enough to unleash a cloud of chlorine and hydrogen-sulfide gas into the air above northern Los Angeles.”
“But…” Sarah stared in horror. “But that will kill hundreds, thousands!”
“Yes, very tragic,” said Cummings. “Of course, the subsequent investigation will reveal that, had the building been built up to code, the tragedy would never have occurred. Centron Farms will be fortunate if they survive the ensuing investigations, and certainly will not be in any position to expand any further into my territory.”
Sarah turned to the door and saw, to her dismay, Andre, Nick, and Karen being brought in. Andre and Nick had bruised faces, and Karen walked unsteadily, leaning on Nick, a trickle of blood coming from beneath her dark locks. Sarah instinctively rushed at Andre and hugged him, and the four companions stood at bay before Cummings. Behind them, Deaney, Gallano, and their people stood covering them with guns, Deaney and Booker both bleeding from the head and looking vindictive.
“So there you all are,” said Cummings. “I was just telling this young lady what to expect tomorrow.”
“Why bother?” Andre demanded. “Why not just kill us here?”
“We try not to have murders take place in our homes,” said Cummings. “It raises questions, and as recent events have amply demonstrated, not all police are reliable. Much better that your remains be scattered amid a wasteland of other evidence, none of which will be linked to me.”
He nodded to Gallano.
“Take them away, Eugenio, and try to do it right this time.”
Gallano scowled, but obediently ordered his men to bind their hands and blindfold them. Sarah’s last view of that house was of Cummings’s smiling, triumphant face beaming on her before everything went dark.