Authors: Jeff Abbott
Now he looked at her. ‘I have to know, Claudia.’
‘You’re up for election in another couple of years. You want the voters knowing your mother might have been involved in a
‘Are you going to publicize it? Fast way to get a fresh face to work death investigations with you.’
She gave him a quick sideways smile. ‘I would never breathe a word. But you know politics.’
‘If someone else wants to run inquests and juvenile court and small-claims court that bad, let them splatter me with mud.
But that’s not what you’re worried about, is it?’
‘Promise me,’ she said. ‘You’ll wait to hear from Harry before you do anything.’
‘You’re afraid I’m going to run up to Houston, check out the Bellinis. See if I can find her myself if Harry backs out?’
‘I know you. Let Harry handle this. Be patient. Stay out of it, Whit, please. Promise me.’
‘My family was never much good in the promises department,’ Whit said. ‘But I won’t do anything you wouldn’t approve of, okay,
Claudia knew it was all she would get, and she silently wished that Harry found no trace of Eve Michaels.
When the strippers showed up, Eve Michaels knew the business deal was done and the Bellini family was going to get burned.
The negotiation dinner in one of Club Topaz’s private suites started winding down early, about ten, not nearly soon enough
for Eve. She was bone-tired and ready for the deal to close. She suspected Paul Bellini was ready, too; she saw as the table
was being cleared that the two strippers, fresh from performing downstairs, were waiting outside the suite. It was a subtle
difference between Tommy Bellini and his son. Tommy would have been much more discreet with his whores. Tonight, when it mattered
most that Paul be focused, he was thinking with his little soldier again. Cut a fast and possibly disadvantageous deal so
the partying could begin.
Tonight the guests were a couple of Miami drug dealers in Houston for a five-million-dollar score, and behind the smiles Eve
decided they were judging how much tattered flesh remained on the bones of the Bellini organization. The night had begun with
business when the six of them sat down at the table and Eve put on her best poker face.
‘So you’ve got five million worth of coke to sell,’ Paul said. He was making his voice a low growl. On purpose. Eve didn’t
look at him. Embarrassed.
‘Yeah. But we can supply you even more, if our deal works out.’ The head Miami guy, Kiko Grace, took a hit off his cigar,
blew a stream of Cuban smoke above the table. The cigar fit in with the rest of him: tailored dark Italian suit, black hair
trimmed in an expertly stylish cut,
shoes polished so you could see your reflection in the calfskin. He had a small, delicate mole near the corner of his mouth,
more like a woman’s beauty mark, the only softening feature on his hard face.
‘We’re bringing in sixty-plus kilos this week to see how it goes with you all. We can double it, triple it, no problem.’ Kiko’s
voice was buttery-smooth, satisfied, like the deal was done. ‘But we want to be sure you can distribute fast enough for our
volume. We can’t work with an organization who can’t sell it effectively.’
‘Our problem is you’re asking a premium price for the coke,’ Eve said quietly. ‘That hurts our margins.’ Paul glanced at her,
as though he’d forgotten she was in the room.
‘Rethink your margins, Eve. You got suppliers lining up to work with you?’ Kiko said. He touched the little mole on his cheek.
‘No one’s eager to have more deals canceled because your organization took a body blow. I know and you know I’m doing you
Eve glanced at her boyfriend, Frank, sitting next to her, but he had eyes only for the merlot in his glass.
‘Don’t misunderstand me. We’re sorry about your dad, Paul,’ Kiko said.
‘Thanks,’ Paul said.
‘He was a great man,’ Kiko said. Eve didn’t like the
. ‘But with him down, a couple of his lieutenants dead, there’s not a lot of confidence that you can keep the streets supplied.
You don’t want to be the Mom-and-Pop store when the dealers prefer mega-store, you see what I’m saying? We’re here to help.
Give you a chance to really thrive by giving you a steady supply for your dealers.’
‘All out of the goodness of your heart,’ Eve said. Kiko gave her a crooked smile.
‘I like you,’ he said. ‘You’re about as blunt as my
mama. No, not out of the goodness of my heart. Out of a desire for profits.’
Eve started to negotiate a point about margins but Paul said, ‘Houston’s our territory. Just so we’re clear.’ Accepting the
pricing structure, moving onto the next item on the agenda.
‘That’s all cool,’ Kiko said. ‘We’ve got no interest in invasions. Miami keeps us plenty busy.’
‘When would you need the money for the first shipment?’ Paul said, and Eve bit her bottom lip. Frank gave off a soft wine
belch and smiled at José, Kiko’s sideman. Eve didn’t like José; he said little and watched faces like he was studying a map.
He was short and squat, with a plain face and heavy cheeks, but his eyes were in constant motion, watching Eve, then Frank,
then the rest of the table. He flicked the nail of his stubby thumb with each of his fingers in turn, like he was ticking
off seconds from an internal clock. Playing dumb muscle but smart under the skin. He made Eve nervous.
‘Five million even. In cash. By Thursday afternoon,’ Kiko said. ‘We’ve got the shipment already here. Hidden in imported pottery
that’s listed as antique on the manifest.’ He laughed. ‘It’s junk. Break open the bases and there’s a half kilo in each one.
Stashed near the port. It’s safe as a baby.’
‘Deal,’ Paul said.
Eve took a tiny sip of red wine. Done without discussing it with her in private, and all she could do now was try to protect
them in this new alliance. She glanced over at Paul’s new right-hand man, the guy who looked like a corporate drone. He was
wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, pink Oxford shirt, navy tie. Like he was here to bring a kid to a prep school interview or
negotiate a low-level bank deal. Everyone called him Bucks, short for Buckman, his last name, but more because he was supposed
to be brilliant about new ways to make money. Eve hadn’t seen a single glow of smartness yet.
Bucks gave her a stern look back that said
keep your mouth shut
. Frank, always the host, raised his glass and said, ‘Here’s to good business,’ and they all clinked glasses together.
Kiko smiled at her as her wineglass touched his, like he could smell her disapproval and didn’t care.
The deal done, they dipped into the food: the thick steaks brought up from the club’s kitchen, salads crisscrossed with blue
cheese, two-fisted baked potatoes crowned with cheese and chives. She nibbled at a chef salad, her appetite gone.
Five million. She had five million cleaned and sitting in twenty-two different accounts in the Caymans that she could transfer
back to a bank in Houston. The only clean money they had and Paul had spent it all in a minute. The revenue streams were drying
up, the muscle not yet loyal to Paul while his dad lay dying, and now their cash reserve was in play with people they’d never
worked with before.
‘Hey, Frank,’ Kiko said. ‘Sing a little. Give us a few bars of “Baby, You’re My Groove.” ’
‘Please don’t,’ Paul said. ‘We’ve all heard it about nine million fucking times.’
‘That’s because it’s a timeless classic,’ Frank said. He was on his fifth glass of wine.
‘Yeah, it gets timeless about every ten years, when disco gets rediscovered,’ Bucks said. ‘Then it gets untimeless, real fast.
What he won’t tell us is how much money he’s made off it.’
‘I was an artist,’ Frank said. ‘Money was for agents to worry about. Not my groove.’
‘The only groove Frank has,’ Eve said, ‘is the one his rocking chair’s wearing in the floor.’
‘Yet you love me still,’ Frank said, and she smiled because it was true.
‘The folks that make Viagra need to use this for their theme song,’ Paul said. ‘Pay you a big-ass licensing fee.’
‘Silence, please, respect for the artist,’ Frank said, and he stood and sang, a capella, the well-known refrain:
I’m just saying what’s in my heart
Been there from the very start
And it sure ’nough’s not some move
’cause baby you’re my groove
Baby you’re my grooooove …
Eve smiled at Frank as he sat back down and everyone applauded, José whistling through his teeth. Bucks clapped but not like
he meant it. The voice was still there, worn, but clear as a bell; a tenor smooth as melting chocolate.
‘Voice of an angel, still,’ Eve said.
‘An old-fart angel,’ Frank said, but she could see he was pleased, a tiny stage better than none.
‘Man, you ought to do one of those disco reunion tours,’ Kiko said.
‘Nah,’ Frank said. ‘Club keeps me too busy. Plus they’d probably make me share a dressing room with the Village People, and
ain’t no way.’
‘But rejuvenating your singing career,’ Bucks said. ‘That’s a worthy goal.’
‘Yeah, why don’t you draw me up one of your action plans, son,’ Frank said. He turned to Kiko. ‘Bucks here is a human day
planner. Got more goals than a soccer tournament.’
‘Does he now,’ Kiko said.
‘Goals are vital,’ Bucks said. ‘Goals help us actualize—’
Paul interrupted like he’d heard the words one time too
many before. ‘Kiko, got a couple of fine girls who can come in and dance for you. There’s a worthy goal.’
Bucks shut his mouth, like a switch had been flipped.
Kiko smiled. ‘No thanks, man. But I’d like a quick tour of the club, if Frank here would show us around. See who’s famous
‘You sure you don’t want a little private performance?’ Paul asked, drawing out
into way more than a hint.
‘I got a wife pregnant back in Miami,’ Kiko said. ‘But appreciate the hospitality.’
‘How about you, José?’
José shook his head. ‘No, thank you.’ Declining because his boss did, Eve thought.
‘Sure. That’s fine,’ Paul said. A little disappointed such a generous offer had been refused, Eve could tell. ‘So the money,’
he said. ‘We’ll get it for you, deliver it tomorrow night.’ Today was Wednesday.
‘Tomorrow afternoon would be better,’ Kiko said. ‘Why wait?’
‘We have to move it from overseas. Tomorrow night,’ Paul said, asserting himself too little too late, and Kiko, having won
every other point that mattered, gave a slight nod. They stood. Eve rose to go but Paul said, ‘Eve, stay a moment, please,’
and she sat down, watching Frank, Kiko, and José leave. Bucks stayed at the table.
Paul said, ‘Bucks, go downstairs and count boobs, okay? Tell the strippers to wait a minute outside.’
‘You’re in trouble, queen bee,’ Bucks said as he went out the door and Eve felt the blood leave her face.
‘What’s the matter, Paul?’ she said.
‘I want to hear your opinion,’ he said, ignoring her question.
‘They’re asking too much for the coke. Our profit’s too thin. And they sure as hell want to get their foot in here.
Kiko’s ambitious. Houston’s a workable market for him. The Dominicans here, they’ve already got ties back to Florida gangs.
He could negotiate a separate peace with them. And cut us out. Easy.’
‘You thinking everyone’s trying to tear us down …’
‘They are, Paul.’ She leaned forward, covered his hand with her own. ‘They are, honey. We’re vulnerable. Any time there’s
a power shift, here come the wolves. We need to do several smaller deals, boost our revenues and our profit margins, not cut
one big deal with a guy we’ve never worked with before.’
‘You think I can’t handle this?’
‘You may not realize how weak we are right now. No one gets a second chance with deals like these.’
‘This puts us back on top. Get the five million,’ he said. ‘And Bucks will handle the exchange with Kiko.’
The air in the room felt weighted with smoke, with the world starting to take a left turn. Tommy would have had her handle
the exchange. But she said, ‘Okay.’
‘Change is coming, Eve,’ he said. ‘Nothing for you or Frank to worry about. I’m gonna take good care of you both. But we’re
gonna rethink business priorities. My dad, bless him, he wasn’t growth-minded. Bogged us down in too many small deals. You’re
worried about Miami horning in here. They should be worried about me horning in on them,’
‘Paul, baby, reality check.’
‘How about a reality check on your part, Eve? Who works for who here?’
‘I’m trying to give you perspective so you make an informed decision, honey.’
‘The decision’s made.’ Paul Bellini cleared his throat, put on a smile. ‘You think I’m such a horse’s ass, then you can help
Frank with running the club day-to-day.’
To her it wasn’t far removed from a job flipping
burgers. ‘You don’t need me and Frank for real work, we’ll go back to Detroit. I don’t care much for Texas, to be honest.’
‘Eve, of course I need you.’ He eased back in his chair a little bit. Wriggling his butt into the throne. He was twenty-four
and he didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Worse, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. ‘As long as you support our
She saw she couldn’t win. Being put out to pasture, her and Frank both. She had known Paul his entire life and he looked at
her with all the interest he’d give yesterday’s paper. ‘How does Kiko want the cash?’
‘Nothing bigger than a fifty,’ he said. ‘Who you gonna work with?’
‘Richard Doyle at Coastal United,’ she said. ‘He’s safe.’
‘Yeah, if the doggies ain’t running,’ Paul said with a laugh. ‘Go find Frank, rescue him from Miami Vice. Tell Bucks to take
’em back to their place. And send the girls in, would you? Kiko’s shy but I’m sure not.’
What a nice guy he’d turned into since his dad’s accident. She stood.
‘And Eve. I noticed your body language while I was cutting the deal. Bucks saw it, too. I want your opinion, I’ll ask for
it. Otherwise, smile and sit still like you’re happy.’
If Big Tommy was here and heard him talking to her that way, he’d backhand Paul across the room. But she said, ‘Sure, Paul,
sure,’ and kept her gaze to the floor. She closed the suite door after her.
The two dancers, the tall one they called Red Robin and a stunning black girl named Tasha, chatted in the hall, wearing their
stupid theme costumes. Frank wouldn’t let the girls simply strip, no, they had to be characters. Red Robin had a leather bikini
with cowboy fringe, a holster
with little fake pearl-handled revolvers, and a white Stetson. Tasha wore a bra covered with CDs, and a miniature flat fake
computer screen mounted in front of her crotch. A computer mouse’s cord wound around her throat like a necklace, the mouse
resting atop mountainous breasts. Eve wondered how much the gear weighed. She’d heard Paul was hot for this one.
‘Y’all can go in now,’ Eve said.
Red Robin did, already swaying her hips to the downstairs music, but Tasha stopped. ‘Hi, Eve, how are you doing?’ Tasha spoke
with the clean enunciation of an actress. No street about her.
‘Fine, honey,’ Eve said with a thin smile.