Authors: Jeff Abbott
Thursday morning Eve woke with a start, gasping at the hard dig of Bucks’ fingers in her throat. A memory turned to dream.
She got up from the bed early, around six. Frank Polo snored next to her. She examined her throat in the mirror. Bruised,
but with sickening precision. Bucks had half strangled her, had been going for his gun when Frank and the Miami dealers walked
in, and an unforgivable line had been crossed. She could not be treated this way. There was a hierarchy, an order of respect
in the organization, and Bucks had ignored it. In Tommy’s day, it would not have been tolerated.
But Tommy’s day wasn’t ever going to dawn again.
One of the monolith-sized bouncers had told her that Paul Bellini had left the club with Tasha Strong. Walking funny and in
a big hurry, the bouncer said with a knowing laugh. While she was nearly getting killed by his pet loon, Paul was screwing
a stripper. She had half a mind to call Paul’s mother, tell her. Save for the last moment that Tasha was black, which would
kill Mary Pat Bellini on the spot.
But she didn’t; tattling would piss off Paul worse. She washed her face, and when she looked up from the sink Frank was standing
behind her. He kissed the top of her head.
‘What if Paul sides with Bucks? Did you sleep on that last night?’ he asked.
‘He’s not gonna side with Bucks after I talk to him. Anyway, he needs us now, he needs mentors.’
‘Mentors,’ he said in disbelief. ‘Paul’s not a summer intern. He’s killed people.’
‘Frank, hush, that is not so.’
Frank rolled his eyes.
‘Anyway, killing a guy is a lot easier than running a business,’ she said. ‘Paul’ll listen to us when he’s not drunk and horny.
I’ve got to talk to him before Bucks does. I’m heading down to the club.’
‘Leave it alone.’
‘What a classy boyfriend you are, really coming to my rescue here, Frank.’
‘Because I love you, that’s why you need to forget it happened. You’re not going to drive a wedge between Paul and Bucks.’
‘Hide and watch,’ she said. ‘Hide and watch.’
‘This ain’t never been a bad gig, sweetheart. Follow orders and keep your mouth shut.’ Frank staggered off to drink coffee.
She showered fast, grabbed toast, and eased her Mercedes down the driveway onto Timber. The house wasn’t technically theirs;
rather, it belonged in name to Tommy’s sister. Eve liked living in River Oaks, perhaps the most exclusive neighborhood in
Houston, even though they lived right along its edge. She took an immediate left onto Locke; stately homes lay on her left
and the thin ribbon of River Oaks Park on her right. She turned onto Claremont, then onto the major thoroughfare of Westheimer.
It was always busy but it was her favorite street in the city, snaking from near downtown out to western Houston. She drove
past palm-lined Highland Village with its high-end shops and restaurants, catering to the old oil money and the new tech money,
past the sprawling shopping utopia of the Galleria, then onto a longer, slightly less tidy stretch of road that included nightclubs,
strip shopping centers, and Club Topaz.
Leave it alone
, Frank had said. In other words, go ahead and paint a bull’s-eye on her back and hand Bucks
the gun. Frank grabbed too hard onto the present rather than the long term. Save Paul from a mistake now, earn his undying
gratitude. That was the way to solve this problem. Frank couldn’t see that. That same stifled vision was why Frank’s music
career died when disco did. He had a voice suitable for the classiest pop ballads, for music with muscle. Instead, he jumped
on a ship doomed to sink and complained no boat ever came to save his ass from the ocean of obscurity.
But Frank had a point. She took a deep breath.
Today, if Paul didn’t take her side, she’d act like she’d let it go. Pretend the encounter with Bucks didn’t happen. Get the
cash for the deal with Kiko, show she could follow orders, show her unquestioned loyalty. And then quietly get ready to disappear
Eve waited around the club Thursday morning and into the early afternoon for Paul, wondering why the lunch-time crowd wanted
to ogle strippers while chewing on overpriced sandwiches and then head back to work with an unrelieved erection. She went
back up to Frank’s office shortly after one and Paul was sitting behind Frank’s desk, feet propped up on Frank’s papers.
‘Well, hi,’ she said. ‘Been looking for you, honey.’
‘At lunch. With a liquor rep. I’ve been trying to reach you.’
‘So you and Bucks,’ Paul said, ‘had a little spat.’
‘You got my messages.’
‘Yes. I talked with him this morning.’
‘He says you misinterpreted his actions.’
‘I misinterpreted him going for his gun,’ Eve said. ‘What, he wanted to show me a monogrammed clip?’ She pulled the scarf
from her throat. ‘You see the
bruise. He tried to cut off the blood to my brain. He’s nuts.’
‘You know, I’m under a lot of pressure,’ Paul said, although he looked as relaxed as a cat fresh from a dinner bowl. ‘You
and Bucks, being the people in the world I trust the most, don’t need to be snarling at each other.’
She didn’t like the smile on his face, not at all. Too calm. Too sure of himself. And this
trust the most
crap, she didn’t believe it. ‘If I misinterpreted him, then I’m sorry, but do you think what he did was right?’
He ignored her question. ‘Have you got the cash ready for the transfer to Kiko?’
‘Yes. Richard Doyle from Coastal United Bank is meeting us at the Alvarez office, over by the port this afternoon.’
‘Fine. You can go with Bucks.’
‘Okay,’ she said.
‘It’s amazing how much disapproval you can pack into one word, Eve.’
‘Kiko Grace will gut you from stem to stern if he gets a chance and you’re dead if you forget it.’
‘He’s afraid of me.’
‘You got the transfer set up with Kiko, or is he too scared of you to meet?’ she asked.
‘Bucks and a couple of boys will take the money to wherever Kiko’s got the stash and we do the exchange. The dust is hidden
in decorative pottery. They’ll truck it out to a safe place east of town. Have a little pot-smashing party later.’
At least Paul had the sense not to go to the exchange himself, he’d learned that much from his father. ‘When?’
‘Tonight. I want to get that coke on the street.’ He laughed. ‘Lots of depression in Houston these days, everybody needs a
little pick-me-up. Even you and Frank. Hey, sit down for a minute,’ he said.
‘Frank,’ Paul said. ‘How’s he doing?’
‘He spending a lot of money lately?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Because,’ Paul said, ‘we’re missing serious funds from Club Topaz.’
She let five seconds pass. ‘Frank’s not a skimmer.’ A little panicky thrum quickened between her ribs. Surely Frank wasn’t
‘Because he doesn’t have the brains for it?’
‘Frank’s not dumb.’
‘Be honest with me, Eve.’
‘I don’t know anything about him skimming money,’ she said.
‘A little here and there’s okay. A perk of the job. At least my dad viewed it that way.’ Paul leaned back in his chair, laced
his fingers together on the flat of his silk shirt. ‘What I don’t like is the idea of Frank taking advantage of my dad being
stuck at death’s door and helping himself because it’s easier.’
‘Frank’s not a thief.’
‘I spent the evening checking the books against the receipts, and Frank’s had his hand, no, Eve, his fucking
, deep in the till.’ He’d gone from easygoing calm to screaming, his face red, spit flying from his lips.
This was why Paul didn’t give a crap what Bucks had done to her. Her heart filled her throat, her mouth.
‘You want me to talk to Frank for you?’ She prayed he’d say yes, let her handle it, get the money back, not send the muscle
pounding down on Frank. ‘You know Frank, he doesn’t know numbers, he probably entered a few figures wrong in a spreadsheet.
He’s not the brightest star in the sky.’
Paul dragged his sleeve across his lips. ‘Yeah. You talk
to Frank. Because I don’t want to smash Frank’s face in. He brings in the celebs. Without Frank’s touch we’re just another
high-end titty bar. The staying power of minor celebrity never fails to amaze.’ He smiled, a cold one like his father used.
‘If he’s having money problems, he should let me know; I’ll take care of him.’ Paul’s voice was now gentle, steady. It scared
‘Of course, Paul. There’s a reasonable explanation …’
‘I have to be able to trust him, Eve. If I can’t trust him … if I can’t trust you …’ He let the words fade into the quiet.
‘Then I have to take corrective measures, regardless of my affection for you or Frank.’
Corrective measures. Tommy’s old code words for a hit. Dizziness spun through her head at the idea of Paul ordering her and
Frank killed. She thought of Ricky Marino, his body thrashed into shreds by a chain. She didn’t know for sure that Paul had
done it. But people had whispered: Yeah he sure had, whooping and screaming and making a tantrum into a gut-wrenching kill
that ended up discrediting his father and destroying their organization in Detroit.
‘I’ll make good on anything Frank’s done,’ she said in a rush. ‘And if I pay it back and you’re still mad at him, then let
us go back to Detroit.’
‘Wow.’ Paul gave a soft laugh. ‘I haven’t even shown you proof of Frank’s skimming. You sure seem ready to believe he’d do
After a moment she said, ‘Well, you wouldn’t accuse him without good reason.’
‘Finally you show faith in me,’ he said.
‘Of course I have faith in you, honey. Always.’
‘You want to see the proof?’
He handed her a CD. ‘Destroy it when you’re done,’ he said. ‘One file shows the charges actually made on client
cards. The other shows the nightly revenues. There’s a big shortfall.’
‘I’ll check it carefully. If it’s him you’ll get your money back and an apology. And he’ll work for free, no salary, for six
months. He’ll show you respect, Paul, I promise.’
‘Frank’s stealing from me, from my dying father, and you, you want to lecture me on how Bucks behaves and what deals I enter
‘I’m not lecturing you,’ she said. ‘God forbid. So who found out Frank was skimming?’
He got up from behind Frank’s desk and she stayed still as he walked behind her chair. After a moment he put his hands, thick-fingered,
on her shoulders. ‘I know you returned money to my dad years ago A big load of cash he otherwise would have lost. So I’m giving
you fair warning. You clean Frank’s nose. You get the money back he stole. And you and Frank keep breathing. Understand?’
‘Yes,’ she said. The pressure from his hands tightened on her shoulders, her collarbone. His thumbs rubbed the sides of her
neck, tickled them slightly. Avoiding the bruise Bucks had left.
‘I forgive once, Eve. Not twice.’
‘Thank you, Paul,’ she said. ‘I’ll fix it. How much does he owe you?’
‘About ninety thousand,’ he said. The pressure on her throat increased.
She said nothing. It could be worse. She could call Detroit, talk to a couple of old friends, get a loan. Frank, the idiot,
what had possessed him? ‘I’ll fix it,’ she said again. ‘Please, let me talk to him first? I’ll straighten this out.’
Paul Bellini eased the pressure of his hands, slowly turned the chair so she faced him. Leaned down close to
her. ‘Frank steals from me or my father again, I’m gonna take him to a doctor I own in Arizona. I’ll have his tongue removed.
No anesthetic. Then his mouth surgically sewn shut. I’ll let him starve like that for weeks and then I’ll take a chain to
him and put him out of his misery.’
‘I understand,’ she said. She fought down a wave of nausea.
He leaned back. ‘Now. You and Bucks go get that money for me. I’ll see you when you get back, all right?’
Eve stood, fought to keep from trembling. ‘All right.’
‘Drive careful,’ Paul said. ‘That traffic’s a bitch.’
Eve sat at Frank’s desk, peering at the computer screen. Frank still hadn’t returned from lunch, which he considered a marathon
event, and he’d forgotten his cell phone on his desk. She was reviewing the files on the CD Paul had given her and gritting
her teeth. The discrepancies between large credit charges and the books had started small but widened in the past two weeks.
In one case, a private party of ten in a suite had incurred charges of nearly ten thousand dollars. Only five appeared on
the spreadsheet for the same charge, the other money diverted and never making it into the Bellini pockets. A little, yes.
A perk. This much was unforgivable.
The slow crooked twist of a headache sprouted in her temples and she craved a hot bath, a cold glass of wine, and silence.
Her cell phone beeped and she clicked it on, hoping it was Frank.
‘Eve? It’s Bucks. I’ll meet you at the exchange,’ Bucks said. ‘I’m running a little late on other business for Paul. Sorry.’
The barest hint of conciliation in his tone.
‘He wanted us to go there together,’ she said.
‘Sorry, can’t. I’ll meet you there.’ He took a breath. ‘Hey, Eve. About last night. I apologize. I was out of line. Too much
wine. I was kidding around with you, okay?’
‘It’s forgotten, honey,’ she said, trying to sound relaxed.
‘Eve, I do respect you. The great work you’ve done for Tommy all these years.’
She didn’t believe him, not for a moment. But she
needed him on her side now, with Paul furious, and said, ‘It’s okay. We need to work together well, for Paul’s sake. Let’s
have a drink after the errand today.’
‘Drown the hatchet,’ he said with a little laugh. ‘But not at the club. I’ll take you to a classy place with a really stellar
wine list. I’m sure you’re tired of looking at tits in strobe lights.’
‘That sounds good.’
‘I’ll see you shortly,’ Bucks said, and hung up.
Odd. She would have thought that Bucks would have ridden with her, been her shadow in getting the money. Especially if he
knew about Paul’s accusation against Frank. But fine, whatever. She closed the accounting files and headed down into the nearly
deserted club. A few men still sat at tables, watching a dancer. An air of failure hovered about them, guys alone in the afternoon
who didn’t have desks to return to, and she wondered if most of them were salesmen having off days, blowing commissions they
She walked out into the bright, hard Houston winter light, headed for her Mercedes.
Frank. That idiot. She wondered why he’d skimmed. He didn’t do drugs beyond a rare and purely social toot of coke. He had
no gambling problem. Their finances were fine, not grand, but then they didn’t need much. Tommy provided fairly. Paul seemed
far less inclined to share the wealth. Ninety thousand. It was a long slow bleed that she couldn’t afford. She was in her
late fifties now; she couldn’t launder and courier money forever.
She had already taken a few precautions over the years, in case she needed to run. Credit cards under an assumed name, cash
hidden in secret deposit boxes. She could drive right now to Houston Intercontinental, get on a plane. To Detroit. Or where
no one knew her, find the Montana of the next stage of her life, begin again.
And what then? She could not conceive of landing a normal job. What on earth would she put on a résumé? Her history of the
past thirty years might as well be a blank tablet, a life run on empty. And she couldn’t leave Frank behind.
If Paul wanted you dead, she told herself, you’d be dead already. He’s mad but he’s not killing mad.
So who told him about the skim? Not Bucks, because Bucks would have grilled her about it himself. So someone else.
She drove onto the 610 Loop that encircled Houston, gliding the Mercedes around slower cars. Midafternoon traffic moved like
a European Grand Prix, cars weaving, brakes used often and not wisely. She headed past acres of industrial buildings, the
newly refurbished Gulfgate shopping center, the dazzle of Reliant Stadium and the forlorn quiet of the Astrodome.
She headed north, over the Sidney Sherman bridge that arched over the vast Port, watching the road but taking in the view
of Houston and the Ship Channel below. The Port of Houston was huge, the major artery for shipping from the Deep South down
to Mexico, Central America and South America. Massive storage facilities lay to her left, acres full of just-unloaded Volkswagens
and Audis to her right, freighters and tankers idling at the docks. The Port made her nervous; it seemed a door where a person
could be seized, taken anywhere in the world, and never found again, all in a matter of days.
The next exit past the Port was Clinton Drive, and she took it. The rest of the traffic on the road were eighteen-wheelers.
She headed away from the highway and on her right was an array of rail lines and gates where heavy trucks rumbled out with
cargo. On her left were weedy lots, a prosperous-looking lumberyard, a tire reseller, brick bars with signs offering
ICE COLD BEER
a Chinese restaurant, a tiny walk-up taco stand.
She turned her Mercedes right onto McCarty, and a block down turned again into a little parking lot. A bar stood at the end,
Rosita’s, with a hand-painted sign above the door, a woman with a snake entwining both her arms, unlit neon signs for
in the window, and next to it a small office built of cinder block, painted white. The world headquarters, as she always
called it, of Alvarez Insurance. Interested parties who called the number on the door got a heavily accented voice on the
answering machine, basically apologizing that Mr Alvarez could not accept any additional clients. The glass door announced
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
in both English and Spanish, and what could be seen of the office looked empty, drab, uninviting to thieves since it was
rarely occupied. Tommy had used it for meetings and exchanges, and cleaned money through it as a business. Mr Alvarez was
nominally retired but sold a lot of life insurance policies overseas that were cashed in within a year of purchase, moving
money back into the country. Last year he had moved nearly four million of Bellini money, all propelled by Eve’s finding a
new loophole in insurance law.
No cars were parked nearby. Richard Doyle drove a Cadillac and he wasn’t here yet. She hoped he hadn’t succumbed to his ongoing,
deep addiction and swung by the horse track on the way over. Five million in cash could be a temptation. She’d have to count
it, brick by brick, twice, before she’d sign off.
Eve got out of the car, wrinkling her nose at the distant smell of the Port. She was fumbling for the office keys in her purse
when the man turned the brick corner of Rosita’s, not twenty feet away, and hurried toward her. ‘Excuse me, ma’am?’
Eve glanced up at him, her hand still deep in her purse.
She didn’t know the man: attractive, balding, fortyish, khaki slacks and a navy blazer.
‘Yes?’ Eve said.
And the man brought up a small camera, one small enough to hide in his hand, and snapped three pictures. He lowered the camera
as Eve ducked her head and he said, ‘I didn’t have a high-quality close-up to use. You’re Ellen Mosley, aren’t you?’
Eve froze. Then her feet moved and she hurried back to her car.
‘If you’re not Ellen Mosley, why are you running from me?’ the man asked.
Eve didn’t look at him again, fumbling for keys. Her skin felt like ice. She forgot entirely about the car’s remote entry.
‘Taking my picture like that, what kind of freak are you?’
‘One of your sons wanted me to find you.’ The man didn’t come closer. ‘Let me help you.’
‘Help me?’ Doyle and Bucks would be here any minute. Jesus, who the hell are you? she wanted to scream at the man.
‘Do you ever think about your sons, Ellen?’
‘That’s not my name and I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ She jammed the car key into the lock, turned it, yanked the
‘Would you like to see one of your sons?’
‘I don’t have children,’ Eve said. She felt like a fist had smashed through her skin, her muscle and chest bones to seize
her heart and squeeze it into gel. She sat in the car, slammed the door, thumbed the lock switch. The man hurried to her car
window, calling to her through the glass. Calling her Ellen, unbelievable.
‘If you want to see your son, I can arrange it. No one has to know. Please. Forgiveness isn’t impossible …’
Eve powered up the car, threw it into reverse, peeled
out from the lot. She watched the man standing in her rearview mirror, not giving chase. Of course not. He probably already
knew Eve’s license plate, knew where she lived. But she knew nothing about him.
She gunned the car down McCarty, back onto Clinton, toward the highway.
Harry Chyme watched the gray Mercedes tear away from the parking lot. The woman had glanced at Harry when he’d yelled through
the window that he could help her, that no one had to know if she saw her son, the unexpected words about forgiveness. He’d
nearly had her. Harry tucked the camera back into his pocket. This wasn’t going to be easy for Whit to hear. Certain dogs
should be left sleeping, even better left to die in their sleep. He had wrestled with taking this direct approach, but he
had waited until she was alone, far from Bellini colleagues, and it had gotten him the answer he needed before Whit decided
to charge up here: not interested.
Whit could stay home and Harry could go back to doing divorces.
Harry walked around to the back of the bar, where he’d parked after following her to the Port from the club. Go back to his
hotel, call Whit, tell him the woman wasn’t Ellen Mosley. Perhaps that would be best. See if …
A voice sounded behind him. ‘Hey, buddy. You bothering Eve?’
He called you Ellen Mosley
Eve got four blocks down Clinton before she pulled over in front of an abandoned warehouse and vomited into a ditch. She hadn’t
eaten much today and she spat a long ropy strand that tasted of orange juice into the chopped tops of the roughly mown grass.
She wiped a
tissue across her lips, looked back down the road as if the man in the navy blazer would be leading an avenging charge of
Mosleys, Babe in the lead, six angry sons marching behind.
But the road was empty.
She got back into her car. She drove along Clinton, past the highway, into blue-collar Galena Park, past a little motel that
catered to truckers, fast food spots, an old-style barber shop. She pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot several blocks down.
She put her lipstick back on, keeping her hand steady. What if the man was still there in a few minutes when Bucks or Doyle
showed? Would he watch them, follow them? She should have said,
Sorry, you have the wrong person, I don’t know who you’re talking about
. Bluffed her way out and gotten into the office. But she was already rattled by Paul telling her about Frank; she wasn’t using
her brain, her best weapon.
She went inside, bought herself a Coke. Drank it, further washing the hot-yuck taste from her mouth, ate a mint. Tried to
call Bucks on her cell phone. No answer. Tried to call Richard Doyle at his office. No answer. She didn’t leave a message
She called Paul and he answered. ‘I can’t get in touch with Bucks. Tell him the meeting with Doyle’s off.’
‘There’s a heating problem in the building.’ Their code for police are watching. The man wasn’t police, but Eve couldn’t give
the real reason to call off the exchange.
‘I’ll let him know.’
‘Tell him to call me. I’m down Clinton at the McDonald’s.’
Paul hung up without another word.
Eve sat down at a booth with her Coke and three booths over a mother fussed over her trio of small children, all with ketchup-smeared
lips, vrooming the little
plastic roadsters that came with their lunches and letting their hamburgers cool on the trays. The mother was cajoling them
in Spanish to eat their burgers, not fill up on their fries. The boys ate the drooping fries like birds devouring worms. Three
little boys. She watched the children.
Your boys probably ate a lot of meals at McDonald’s. God knows Babe never knew how to cook
She waited, now that the shock was subsiding, for regret to fill her heart. Sadness. Her children had not been mentioned to
her since that long-ago day in that small wreck of a motel room in Bozeman. James Powell, threatening her kids, her broken
ties to them raw and fresh, her nestling the little gun in his snoring mouth.
But instead she felt scared and confused. Her kids couldn’t be looking for her, they couldn’t. She watched the clock tick
its minutes. Fifteen passed. She drank a second Coke, tried again to call Doyle and Bucks.
Eve got back in her car, studied the wheel. She didn’t want to leave the plastic womb of the McDonald’s, didn’t want to go
back to the Alvarez office. But Doyle would be there by now, and Bucks would still show if Paul hadn’t reached him. She couldn’t
screw up this job, no, not after Frank had put them on the firing line. She started up the car, turned out into the lot, headed
back to the office.
A car she recognized as Richard Doyle’s Cadillac sat parked near the Alvarez front door. No sign of the man in the navy blazer.
She pulled up next to Doyle’s car; he wasn’t sitting behind the wheel. She got out, went up to the door, her key ready this
time. But the door was unlocked and she pushed it open.
She smelled the crisp stink of gunfire as soon as she stepped through the doorway.
Eve froze. There was no sound but the quiet hum of the air-conditioning. The office had a small reception area,
with two offices and a tiny kitchen in the back. Silk flowers that needed dusting stood on the bare receptionist’s desk.
She took her gun from her purse, held it in a firing stance. She moved forward, into the main office she used for her exchanges.
Richard Doyle lay on his back. He was a florid-faced good old boy, but the rosy, full cheeks paled in death. Two bullet holes
marred his forehead, dark and wet. Blood splattered his shirt and tie; another bullet had found his chest. The man in the
navy blazer lay next to him, two bullets in his forehead, blood on his eyeglasses, eyes wide, mouth slack. His hand was on
his chest, three of his fingers ripped by a bullet.