Authors: Jeff Abbott
Bucks didn’t move. But his blood pounded in his chest, his palms went damp and he hated that. ‘You’re full of shit.’
‘It juices you up good, doesn’t it?’ Kiko whispered. ‘Knowing you have power over another person’s life. It’s okay. You’re
among like-minded folks.’
‘Part of our surveillance of the Bellini properties included videotape,’ José said. ‘With Gillespie, Gibbs, and Montoya arriving
at the house with you. Time-stamped and everything. You were wearing a nice cashmere jacket, a little warm for the season.
Slate-colored shirt, khaki slacks. You were the sober one. It’s pretty high-quality stuff.’
‘Very nice,’ Kiko agreed. ‘I’m gonna thank the academy after the world gets to see it.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
José pulled a portable DVD player from his briefcase. Slid in a disc. Let it run, leaning forward to hold the screen in front
of Bucks’ face. The house in Galveston. The film image, clearly shot with a telescopic night lens, probably from a vantage
point down the street. A car: Bucks’ old BMW, followed by a Lexus, pulling up in front. Four men got out of the cars, ambled
into the house. Decent shots of their faces, easily identifiable. José fast-forwarded. Then Bucks, carrying out a wrapped
body, dumping it in the trunk. Then another. Then another, then driving off in the Lexus.
‘Turn it off,’ Bucks said.
‘Your voice has lost its confidence.’ José clicked the player off, then sniffed. ‘Did you just crap yourself?’
‘Here’s the deal,’ Kiko said. ‘We want the five million Paul’s paying for our coke. But we’ll keep the coke at the same time.’
‘You’ll start a war,’ Bucks said.
‘A five-minute war,’ Kiko said. ‘The Bellinis, they’re in a bad jam. Organization’s falling apart. Paul-boy needs this deal.
We need it to not work. And you’re gonna help us.’
‘Because we’ll give you a nice cut. And because Paul trusts you. And because we got your balls nailed to the wall,’ Kiko said.
‘And if I say no?’
‘No one ever sees you again,’ José said. ‘Like Willie S said, “He dies and makes no sign.” ’
‘Excuse José. He’s a bit dramatic, got it from his mama.’ Kiko’s voice was cool as a snake’s skin. ‘The authorities would
be fascinated by that movie.’
America’s Funniest Videos,’
Bucks glared at Kiko. ‘So I get the five mil and just hand it to you?’
‘Sure,’ Kiko said. ‘Just think of stealing the money as a new goal we’ve articulated for you.’
‘I’ve been digging,’ Claudia said. ‘Into the Bellini family.’
Thursday morning dawned bright and cool on the Texas coast, and Whit and Claudia ran hard along the sand of Port Leo Beach.
The beach was a crescent, with a park spooning against it, the water shallow, the bay shielded from the Gulf by the long finger
of barrier islands. This was the day of the week they ran together, Whit usually preferring to run in the evening, but now
it was a routine with them, starting at the county courthouse, working over the harbor and the beach, then back up through
parkland and neighborhoods back to the town square.
‘And you found they have a frozen drink named after them?’ Whit asked. They hit mile one and the sweet surge of adrenaline,
settling into the run, primed his muscles.
‘More than that. Harry said that Tommy Bellini was suspected of killing another family boss, right?’
‘I searched the
Detroit Free Press
on-line archives. The rival – his name was Marino – was whipped to death with a chain. His face was gone. The flesh had been
torn from his bones; his organs were in tatters. He’d been beaten long after he was dead.’
‘It doesn’t seem gangland-efficient,’ Whit said. ‘I thought they preferred guns.’
‘Don’t act like that doesn’t scare you.’ She ran a bit ahead of him, made him catch up with her. ‘I made a couple of calls
to the Detroit PD. Talked with a detective, pretended that we’d heard that the Bellinis were buying a vacation home here.’
‘You lied for me; that’s sweet,’ Whit said.
‘He told me that the police believed that it wasn’t Tommy himself. That it had been done by his son, Paul.’
They turned off the beach, heading into parkland, cleanly manicured grass that stretched from the waterfront up to the highway,
past wind-bent oaks kneeling almost to the ground.
‘Like father, like son,’ he said. ‘So?’
‘So if your mom’s alive and Tommy Bellini’s out of the picture, his son’s a psychopath.’ She reached out to touch his chest,
slowed him. He stopped running, started walking, not looking at her.
‘The detectives in Detroit I talked to said Paul Bellini’s one of those kids who’s never been told no, doesn’t believe people
feel the same pain he does. If his family’s still involved in criminal activities, he’s going to be the new head of the family.’
‘If they were criminals, why didn’t they do time?’
‘People connected to the Bellinis did. Tommy did a brief bit as a kid. But since he became a boss, no, never. Never enough
evidence. Or witnesses. Doesn’t that tell you about their thoroughness in getting rid of problems?’
‘Then they got rid of my mother, probably.’
‘You … wouldn’t try to avenge her, would you? What’s the point?’
‘Avenge a murder I couldn’t prove?’ Whit laughed. ‘You must think I’m the freaking Lone Ranger, Claud. I get nervous crossing
‘Please. You have a lot more nerve than you’ve ever gotten credit for, Whit.’
‘You and your mom are close, right?’ Whit asked.
‘Yeah. When she doesn’t nag me into downing a pound of Valium, we’re tight.’
‘I used to lie awake. Wonder if when I was thinking about my mother, if she was thinking about me. If we
thought of each other at the exact same time, we’d know the other was still out there. Isn’t that stupid?’
‘Totally dorky and stupid.’ She squeezed his shoulder.
‘I’m over that now,’ he said, a little too fast.
‘I’m sure she must have thought of you. Many, many times.’
‘Like in thank God I don’t have those kids any more.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m sure not.’
‘I won’t know,’ Whit said, ‘unless I ask her.’
‘It can’t be heroin,’ the mother said.
She sat in Whit’s courtroom, small-claims court done, the litigants and their families either leaving with stern triumph in
their faces or mouthing about the unfairness of life. Now a woman, gutted with grief, stood before his bench. The mother of
the young man whose autopsy results Whit had picked up earlier in the week.
He smoothed down his robe and sat back down. ‘Mrs Gartner. I’m sorry.’ The courtroom was adjourned but still people were filing
out, a couple stopping to watch the teary-eyed woman. ‘Why don’t we go to my office and talk?’ He wondered who had told her
– probably the police department. Or she had called the ME’s office directly. It didn’t matter.
‘You cannot put heroin as his cause of death, or contributing to his cause of death. Or on anything official. Please.’ She
did not look old enough to have a son in his early twenties. ‘That can’t be his legacy.’
‘Mrs Gartner, let’s go to my office, and I’ll get you a cup of coffee.’
She shook her head. ‘No, Judge. Out here. You hope you’re going to convince me to change my mind behind closed doors. I’m
a mother; I have rights. Lance couldn’t have been using heroin. He was not a bad boy.’
‘I’m sure he was a very fine boy, Mrs Gartner,’ Whit
said. ‘I can tell he was greatly loved. I’m so sorry for your loss, everyone here is.’
Her voice wavered. ‘Then do this for me, please.’
‘I don’t want to cause you a moment’s extra pain,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. But the drug usage has to be listed as a contributing
factor of death. I can’t go against the law.’
‘Ma’am.’ Lloyd Brundrett, the constable, stood close by. ‘Please, let’s sit down. Get you a glass of water.’
‘It’s okay, Lloyd,’ Whit said. He came from behind the bench, took Mrs Gartner’s hand, led her to the front row. Lloyd finished
clearing the courtroom, closed the doors behind them.
‘A word on a document isn’t going to change the man your son was,’ Whit said. ‘You know that.’
‘But Lance’s grandmother, she heard the rumors about the heroin, she heard my sister talking on the phone. I would like for
you to tell her it’s not true.’
‘I can’t falsify a death certificate. I am sorry.’
Mrs Gartner closed her eyes. ‘No. Tell her it’s not true. Privately. She’s outside sitting in my car. Would you talk to her
now? She’ll believe you. You’re a judge.’
‘A little white lie.’
‘She’s in her eighties. She’s a hard-shell Baptist. Lance doing drugs will kill her. She has to think he simply drowned. She’ll
never see a death certificate, I can assure you. If she hears it from you she won’t ask any more questions.’
‘I’d be happy to talk to her.’ Whit stood, smoothed out the somber black robe that covered his jeans, sandals, and pineapple-print
shirt. He followed Mrs Gartner and walked out into the bright, hard sunshine.
It had been a difficult conversation, even without the mention of heroin. The old lady was Mrs Gartner forty
years into the future, eyes blank with loss and shock. He lied and told her there were no drugs in Lance’s system, and he
could see the relief embrace her like a wave. She kissed Whit’s cheek, thanked him for his kindness. He didn’t feel kind.
He felt like he had shirked his duty, but what was the harm? An old woman’s mind put at peace in the wake of a terrible loss.
The old woman’s kiss was still warm on his cheek when his office phone rang while he was shrugging out of his judicial robe.
‘Judge Mosley’s office.’
‘Whit? Hi, this is Harry Chyme.’
‘Hey, Harry.’ Trying to sound relaxed.
‘I’ve found Eve Michaels. I followed the Bellini trail out of Detroit. She came to Houston with Tommy Bellini.’
. His guts knotted. ‘I could be there in a couple of hours.’
‘Don’t come here, Whit. First of all, I don’t have confirmation that this woman was once Ellen Mosley.’
‘How do we get a confirmation it’s my mother? Fingerprints? Pop quiz? Me bring my father there?’ He mentally vetoed that last
idea as soon as he thought of it.
‘I suppose we should do an age progression on a picture of her, see if this woman resembles her enough …’ But Harry didn’t
‘Or walk up to her and ask her if she’s Ellen Mosley. I’d do that.’
‘Well, that would be blunt,’ Harry said. ‘Interesting to see what reaction I’d get, but it tips our hand.’
‘Where in Houston is she?’
‘She’s living in a home owned by the Bellini family. She works in finance for a holding company Tommy Bellini owns. Her boyfriend
manages a strip club they own.’
‘Let’s say I come to Houston,’ Whit said slowly. ‘You could tell me where she’s hanging out. I could talk to her. Nothing
else for you to do.’
‘Except have it on my conscience if the Bellinis decide to use force to keep you from her. She might want nothing to do with
you. She might not want to explain to her children where she’s been, what she’s been doing with her life.’
‘I’m coming up there. Tell me where she’s at.’
‘Harry, I’m your client. I pay you for information. You give it to me.’
‘I officially waive my fee. You’d be in way over your head, Judge.’
‘I’ve been in tough situations before.’
‘But this is your mother. You’re not thinking clearly.’ Harry paused. ‘She could run from you, Whit. She’s done nothing to
have contact with you all these years. She hasn’t wanted to be found. I don’t mean to be brutal.’
‘I don’t care. I can come to Houston immediately, I’ll cancel court …’
Harry sighed. ‘No. I know how much this matters to you. Let me make the initial contact with her, okay?’ He paused. ‘My dad
died ten years ago. What I wouldn’t give to see him again. I can’t deny you that, if it’s her.’
‘Tell me where to meet you in Houston.’
‘I’ll call you back, Judge. When I know. Speak with you soon.’ Harry clicked off.
‘Harry, please—’ Whit was talking to air. Fine. Finish court business, then head to Houston. Take his friend Gooch if he could
go, Claudia if she was available and interested.
He picked up the phone, was three punches into her number when he slowly put the receiver down. Not Claudia. A police investigator
might not be the first friend
to introduce to dear old mom. And Claudia was opposed to this whole enterprise. But Gooch, he was fearless and nuts and inventive
in tight situations. Harry might call Claudia, to check up on him, ensure he hadn’t come to Houston. So leave sooner rather
than later, if Gooch didn’t have fishing clients today and could go. Do it before Claudia could stick her well-intentioned
nose in and talk him out of going.
Houston. So close. He felt sick and dizzy and happy and afraid, all at once.
‘Edith?’ He called to his clerk. ‘Cancel my appointments for today and tomorrow. I’ve got a family emergency up in Houston.’
‘Military operation,’ Gooch said as he finished hosing down his boat. ‘That’s the way to look at your trip.’
‘I was thinking of taking flowers and seeing if she’d talk to me,’ Whit said.
‘Forget that, Whitman,’ Gooch said. He put up the hose, went belowdecks, pulled a duffel bag from a drawer and tossed clothes
inside. Then three guns. Gooch was tall and massively muscled, ugly to the bone, the best fishing guide on the coast and the
most intensely private man Whit had ever known.
‘Slow down, Dirty Harry,’ Whit said.
‘Families like the Bellinis, they understand a gun. Nothing else. The heartfelt emotion of a family reunion will be wasted
on them. Especially if she wants nothing to do with you.’
‘She’ll want to see me,’ Whit said.
‘We’ll need a base of operations,’ Gooch said. ‘I got a client up in Houston. Charlie Fulgham. Rich defense lawyer. I’ll call
and see if he’ll put us up.’
‘We can stay at a hotel.’
‘Naw, Charlie’s cool. He’s actually given up his law
practice. He defended major scuzzballs. Wants to go into entertainment. Bet he knows about the Bellinis.’
‘Gooch, I want you to come with me because you’re my friend, not because I want to beat them senseless.’
‘Be honest with yourself,’ Gooch said. ‘You’re asking me because you know I can handle badasses like these. That’s the reason.
Quit pretending this is gonna be a cakewalk.’
‘If they’re mob, yes, I’m scared.’
‘You should be,’ Gooch said.
‘But I think I’m more scared of her. Of what she might say to me. I shouldn’t care if she spits in my face and walks away.
I shouldn’t care.’
‘But you do,’ Gooch said.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ Whit said.