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Excerpt
CHAPTER ONE

July Nineteenth.  Elevenish.

“Not here.”  Liz Monahan winced as her butt hit the emergency button.  The alarm buzzed and she pushed against Doug’s chest to make him back off.

“You’re no fun.” He toyed with a lock of her hair before tucking it behind her ear.

Now, Doug was running his tongue along the rim of her ear and she shuddered as he nibbled her earlobe.  He had an unerring knack for hitting the spot most likely to make her forget that she’d sworn off dumb stunts like making out in public places.  She rested her head against his chest, noticing how perfectly they fit together, and thinking how nice it was to find a man that she could physically look up to.  The fact that he was movie star handsome and great in bed made it just that much harder to say no.

She bit her lip and said, “I’m plenty of fun.  But not in a hotel elevator.  We don’t have to rush.”

“Ok, not the elevator.  Your room, then.”  He was kissing along her jaw line and when he got to her lips, she struggled to remember what it was she was trying to accomplish by resisting.

She sighed into his mouth.  “Why not your room?”

“I’ve got all my paperwork spread out on the bed.  Later, after I’ve picked up, we’ll go up there.  Right now I’ve got a surprise for you.”

He ran a hand slowly down her spine and she melted into him.  Liz could feel the bulge through the perfectly creased trousers of his expensively tailored suit as he leaned into her, giving her a pretty good idea what the surprise would be. But did he seriously expect her to believe that the only reason they couldn’t use his bed was that it was full of paperwork?

His hand drifted back upward, under her shirt and crept towards the hook on her bra.  She leaned back against the wall to cut off the advance.  “Can’t you wait for five minutes?”

The alarm on his watch beeped.  Doug’s hand moved south again as he checked the time.  He glanced at the display above the door and hit the button for his floor.  “Damn.  I’ll have to wait longer than that.  Conference call in five minutes.  I’ll be up as soon as it’s over.  About an hour.”

He kissed her again and she almost forgot what a bad idea meeting him in an hour might be.  The elevator glided to a stop and he stepped through the opening doors.

She regrouped.  “I’ll come down.  You’ll have time to pick up.  What was the room number again?”

“Your room, cookie.  It might go long.  No telling when I’ll be done.”  He leaned back into the car and kissed her again and she felt her mind going blank.  “Stay hot.”

She fanned herself.  “No problem there.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can.”  He stepped back out of the elevator and as the doors

 

shut, she saw him reach into his pocket for a comb.

She closed her eyes and bounced her head against the back wall, keeping time as the elevator dinged through the three stops to get to her floor.  Damn, he was a great kisser.  Everything would be perfect.  He would be perfect.  If he wasn’t married.

Of course, she didn’t have proof positive.  Not yet, anyway.  But when a guy would rather do it in the elevator than his hotel room?  That was a bad sign.

And what kind of a man had to comb his hair before a telephone conference?

He probably had her stashed upstairs while the wife and kiddies stayed with him.  His family would be off to the pool, or shopping, or half way up the Empire State Building by the time she finally got to see his room.

She smacked her forehead with her fist.  She’d been so careful this time.  No Happy Meal toys under the seat of his car.  No telltale ring marks on his left hand.  No pictures in his wallet.

He’d been pissed about the wallet when he’d caught her snooping.  But she’d gotten burned before by deceptively single guys with wallets full of baby pictures and cute little reminders in feminine handwriting to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.

A girl had to watch out for herself.

She bit her lip and ignored the sinking feeling in her stomach. Maybe she was just too suspicious.  There might be a perfectly logical explanation.

But if he was innocent, there was no reason he couldn’t at least give her his room number.

The doors opened and she turned left, then right and three doors down as she searched her pockets for the keycard.  She slid it in and out of the lock and pushed the door open, bumping the housekeeping cart that was parked near the doorway to the bathroom.

Her feet carried her forward, and her mouth was forming an apology for the maid about getting her purse and getting out of the way, even as her brain was screaming, What’s wrong with this picture?

Then, the pieces clicked into place.  What was the cart doing in the room?  The cart should be in the hall.  If the maid is in the room, the door should be open.

She continued past the cart on momentum and curiosity, as more synapses fired too late to do any good. Get out now.  Call security.

Oh, Shit.

Her brain processed the picture one image at a time.  The shower curtain was on the floor.  Probably to keep the dead guy from leaking into the carpet.  Very sensible.

Dead guy? It was definitely a corpse.  His eyes were open but he was way past caring about anything.  His arms and legs sprawled in a way that said, ‘nobody’s driving the bus.’  His nose was smashed in and there was a smear of blood on his mouth.  The rest of him was in pretty good shape, if dead and floppy was better than dead and bleeding profusely.

The other man in the room was still very much alive.  There was a thump as he dropped the roll of duct tape he’d been holding and vaulted over dead guy, clearing the shower curtain and most of the hotel room with the first stride.  At the same time, he’d drawn a gun from behind him, and she watched it swing up to cover her.

“On the bed.  Face down. Now.”  His tone was clipped, but the volume never rose above a conversational level.

She could feel the scream rising in her throat and turned to run, but he was already beside her.  He grabbed a handful of hair at the back of her neck, twisted, and propelled her back into the room.  Her knees hit the edge of the mattress and she sprawled, face down on the bed.  His hand stayed at the back of her head pushing down, and the noise she’d been about to make was stifled by a pillow.

Air. She’d let all the air out of her lungs.  There was nothing left to use.  She struggled to get up, struggled to take the next breath, but he was still pushing against the back of her neck and had a knee in her back, forcing her down into the mattress.

“The less you move, the less I push.  Understand?”  It was as if he’d read her mind.  Not that hard to do, she supposed.  People he’d smothered probably all thought the same thing.

Liz managed a nod and the pressure on her back eased.  She felt her lungs inflate.  She started to turn her head to the side, trying to get out an apology.  An explanation.  Something.  Anything that would make him let her up and let her go.  I won’t tell anyone.

That you’re a white male wearing dark pants and a white dress shirt, no tie, approximately five ten, with medium brown hair, cut short, receding hairline, between thirty and forty, with cold blue eyes, and a gun.

Oh, shit.

And you’re not going to believe any of this, so why am I even thinking it.  You probably do this all the time.  And you don’t leave witnesses in hotel rooms just because they’d swear on the Gideon they never saw you.  You’re not stupid.

I am so screwed.

Behind her, a cell phone chirped, and the man swore.  She heard the rustle of clothing and a click as he snapped the phone open.  He must have put down his gun, because the hand on her neck never moved.

“What?” Impatience.

“No, I’m not ready to go.”  Obvious sarcasm.  “We have a problem.”

“I was working on that.  Now we have two problems.”  He was not happy with the guy on the other end.  Not at all.

“A tourist.  Female.  Redhead, green eyes, six foot, T-shirt and jeans.  Just walked in and met…” there was a significant pause, “…our friend.”

He was being careful on the cell. No names. No mention of the gun or the dead guy.  Professional.

“Of course the door was locked.  What do you think this is, amateur night?”

Definitely professional.

“Take care of it?”

“You want me to take care of it?  Listen, you son of a bitch.  I’m going to come down there in a few minutes and take care of you.  Either get up here and help clean up  this mess, or get off my back and let me do my job.  We’ll discuss this later.”

Great.  Her hit man was having a bad day.

There was another sharp click as he snapped the phone shut.  She could feel him staring down at her.  His fingers drummed on the back of her neck.  He was trying to figure out what to do with her.  It was a busy hotel.  Shooting would be noisy.  He hadn’t shot the other guy.  In a minute, he would start pushing down, and she would struggle for a while.  And then it would be over and he’d have to find another shower curtain.

His knee slid a little lower on her back.  Breathing was easier, but now her stomach rebelled.  Bile was rising in her throat and she forced it back down.  She was not going to die face down in a puddle of puke.  Or crying, dammit.  She could feel the pillow against her face, wet with spit and tears. This was not happening. Could not be happening.  She had to get focused and pay attention.  He might make a mistake.   And if he did, she needed to use it and make a break for the door.  He could shoot her in the back.  Then someone would hear and at least he’d be caught.  But she was not just going to lie here, waiting for the end.

She felt the pressure on her neck decrease as he braced himself and changed positions.  She eased a leg outward and found the edge of the bed with her foot.  He didn’t seem to notice.  If the knee came out of her back, even a little bit, she could push with her arms and try to overbalance him.  And if  she could get her feet on the floor, it was only ten feet to the door.

She could do this.

She felt his weight shift again.  He was off balance and she had her chance.  Liz pushed upwards with her arms and felt him tip onto the floor.

She turned and ran, bumping the housekeeping cart as she passed.  She paused for just a second, once she was safely behind the cart, and looked back.  He was on his feet, staring at her with an unreadable expression, and the gun was still at his side.  He wasn’t following.

Just to make sure he stayed that way, she gave the cart a mighty, two-handed shove in his direction, then turned and yanked the door open.  She was already out in the hall and gaining speed when she heard the “Ooof,” followed by swearing.  Direct hit.

She bypassed the elevators, no telling how long they might take, and headed straight for the fire stairs at the end of the hall.  Down was easier than up and she took them at a dead run.

Her heart was hammering in her ears, trying to keep pace with the sound of her feet on the metal steps.  She strained to hear over her own pounding blood.  Was he following?  It was impossible to tell.  The echoes of her own footsteps rebounded and redoubled until the stairwell was crowded with phantom runners.  How many floors left?  The number on the nearest door said eighteen.

Somewhere above her, a door opened.

She jumped for the next landing and hit the ground running, tearing like a mad woman down flight after flight, half sliding, half falling the rest of the way. Her feet hit the bottom, landing simultaneously as she skidded down the last flight of stairs.  Both hands hit the lobby door and shoved.  She panicked for a moment when it didn’t give under her touch, before she remembered that doors had handles.  She grabbed it and pushed down, leaning against the door with more weight than was necessary, and staggered out into the lobby as it opened.

Several guests and a bellman looked up.

“Please.  Help me.”  Her voice was breathless and desperate, and she could guess how she must look.  The knees of her jeans were torn from the stumble on the stairs but the scrape under them was still numb.  Her face felt red and sweaty and she took a swipe at her cheeks to clear away the tearstains.

The bellman was at her side in an instant, taking her elbow as her legs started to give way. “Miss?”

“A man.  In my room.  With a gun.  And there was a body on the floor…”  The words were spilling out of her and the bellman was looking desperately for someone else that was better suited to handle the situation.  The concierge had left her desk and was at Liz’s other elbow, struggling to hold her up as the last of the adrenaline wore off and shock took over. She was staggering like a drunk now, and being propelled will all speed toward the manager’s office by the two worried hotel employees who were making soothing noises about a chair and a glass of water.

Anything, she guessed, that would keep her quiet.  She was making a scene.  Guests were noticing her.  Seeing something that shouldn’t be happening in a nice hotel where people paid good money not to be bothered.

She tried to shake off the helping hands and walk on her own, but her legs shook under her and she almost dropped to her knees before the two grabbed her again, doing their best to frog march her into the office before the situation became any more embarrassing.

“What seems to be the trouble, Miss?”  The manager was unruffled and could probably stay that way through problems a lot worse than the raving woman in his office.

She started again.  “Elizabeth Monahan.  Room…” Her mind blanked a moment.  “Room 2777.  I went up there just now, and there was a man.  With a gun and a dead body on the floor.  He grabbed me, but I got away.”

The manager’s eyes widened in alarm.  He reached for the phone and dialed security, relaying information in a hushed voice.  He set down the phone and assured her that someone would be checking it out, offering her… Coffee?  Water?  Anything that would make her comfortable while they waited?  No?  He assured her that they would re-key the room.  Or better yet, a totally different room.  A suite, perhaps?  No charge, of course.  The bellman would move her things and she need never return to the scene of the ‘incident.’

The words washed over her, leaving her numb, and she nodded along with them.  He was probably afraid she was going to sue.  Not that she had the energy to yell for a lawyer, after what she’d been through.  But she couldn’t very well tell him she’d be content to spend the rest of her stay sitting in this chair, as long as she didn’t have to go back and see any more of what she’d already seen.

There was a quiet knock at the door.  The manager excused himself, and went to answer it.  He stood just outside the office with two large men in navy blue jackets, having a quiet but animated discussion.  She couldn’t catch what was being said, but the two seemed to be explaining something and the manager was interrupting with questions.

And then, someone laughed.

Her shock turned to unease.  None of what had happened upstairs was a laughing matter.  And that hadn’t been a nervous laugh, she’d just heard.  It had been a mean chuckle.

The manager came back into the office and returned to his desk chair.  The two security guards followed and stayed on either side of the closed office door.

Then the manager smiled.  It was a reassuring, but condescending smile.  “Just what made you think that the man on the floor was deceased, Ms. Monahan?”

Ok.  There was the skepticism that she was afraid might be coming.  “His eyes were open and unfocused and the other man was treating him like a sack of potatoes.  If he wasn’t dead. He was really, really relaxed.

“And the man with the gun?”

“White male, about five-ten.  Brown hair, worn short, and starting to thin out on top.  About thirty-five or forty, I’d guess.  Blue eyes, kind of beady looking.  Straight nose, thin lips.  He was wearing a white shirt and dark pants.  Shouldn’t you be calling the police?  The man had a gun.  It’s not safe to go up there.”

“This sort of thing happens occasionally.  And I promise you, security is well trained to assess the situation and call for help as needed.”  The manager steepled his fingers on the desk and nodded, as if this explained everything.

“You occasionally have murders here?”

The manager was still smiling, as if she’d made a little joke.  “And you didn’t give this man a key to your hotel room?”

“Give him a key?”  She took a breath to keep from screaming at him.  “I don’t normally give out my room key to murderers.  I’d never seen him before in my life.  I don’t know what kind of a hotel you’re running here, but someone got into my room and committed a crime.  This isn’t a job for hotel security.  This is a police matter.  There could be evidence.  Other witnesses to be interviewed.  You’ve got to do something.”

She spotted the knowing glance that passed between the other people in the room.  They thought she was drunk.  Or crazy.  Or trying to scam a free room.

The manager looked her square in the eye, probably waiting to see her flinch.  “Miss Monahan, there’s obviously been a mistake.  Security has been to your room and there’s no sign of any disturbance.”

“Disturbance.  Is that what you call it?”

“Perhaps you saw something in an adjoining room?  Or misinterpreted, in some way, a perfectly innocent situation.  But you can rest assured that there’s nothing in your room that need concern you.”

“There was a man.  And a dead body.”

“We’ll recode the lock for you, to set your mind at rest.”

“That’s not the point.  I saw a dead man…”

“I think that should be sufficient to keep this man away, as long as you hang onto your key.”

“But what about…”

“What you saw?  I’m sorry Miss Monahan.  Since you were the only witness to the incident…”

“Crime.”

“More likely, a not particularly funny prank,” he said with finality.  He stopped short of accusing her of involvement.  But just barely.

“That’s ridiculous.  They didn’t just disappear.  They have to be somewhere in the hotel, or nearby.  You can check the security tapes.”

The faces around her were blank.  They could check the tapes, certainly.  If they believed her story.  Which they didn’t.

The manager got up from his desk and escorted her, politely but firmly out of the office and up in the elevator to her room.  He took his keycard and swiped the door, then pushed it open, gesturing her inside.

She hesitated, and he preceded her into the room, and stepped to the side.

Her purse was sitting in the center of the neatly made bed.  She stuck her head in the bathroom, where the shower curtain hung undisturbed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

July 19th, 10:50 AM EST.

 

It was at times like this that Harper really missed his desk. It was so much nicer to be in a cool, clean office, bored stiff and staring at a computer monitor, than out in the field where anything could happen.

“Where’s the money, Eddie?”  Max’s voice was still calm, but he was losing his temper.

Eddie didn’t answer.  He just grinned, showing a lot of yellowing teeth.

Max slapped him hard across the face, and the smile disappeared.  “Maybe you didn’t hear me, Eddie.  I said, ‘Where’s the money?’  You had a suitcase.  Red Samsonite.  We saw you come in here with it.  We have pictures.”

Eddie said nothing, and Max slapped him again.

It was such a nice desk, Harper thought.  Not much space in his cubicle.  But it seemed larger than the hotel bathroom the three of them were crammed into.  Of course, his cube didn’t have poor Eddie, stuck on the can, smelling like sweat and cigarettes.  He took up a lot of the space.

Max repeated his question again.  And the slap.

Eddie continued his smug silence.

Harper leaned back against the sink and willed himself to stay calm.  Somebody in the room had to stay calm.  Max was beginning to sweat.  Beating the man on the toilet was spoiling the lines of his expensive suit.  Max couldn’t stand looking less than perfect.  It made him crazy.

Harper thought of the picture on the desk.  Amy, on the beach at Cancun.  Very blue water in Cancun.  Amy was probably back home in Alexandria, right now, making coffee.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” Max was saying.

No we can’t, Max, he thought.  Too late for the easy way.   The easy way would have been to snatch Eddie while he still had the suitcase, hustle him down in the service elevator to the parking garage and take him to an undisclosed location for interrogation.  Or flash some ID, when things started going south, and call in the cops.  Keep everything above board for a change.

But Max had insisted that they do this his way, just as he had over every trivial detail of the operation.  The brass had hinted that Harper was a little rusty, and since Max had the more recent field experience and the best track record he was to take the lead.  Harper had been assured that, while Max was a bit of a loose cannon, he always got the job done.

“Tell, me where you stashed the suitcase, Eddie, or I’m going to turn you over to my friend.  He’s a lot less patient than I am.”

Bad cop, worse cop?  Yeah, right.  Like I want to play that game with you. It had taken about five minutes in the field to realize that they called Max a bit of a loose

 

cannon because “fucking sociopath” looked bad in the files.  And to notice that no one ever worked with him twice.  Now it was becoming painfully obvious that they’d screwed the pooch on this whole operation.  They didn’t have the money.  They didn’t have the sample.  All they had was Eddie, in a hotel room bathroom.  And he wasn’t talking.

And no one was watching, which meant things could get ugly real fast.  If there was still a way to salvage the situation, he’d better think of it fast, because Max’s method wasn’t working and he was getting desperate.

“Eddie?”  Harper kept his voice as calm and silky smooth as he could make it, like the blue waters of Cancun.  “We know you handed the money off to someone.  And we know you stashed the sample.  We want it all, Eddie.  It’s only a matter of time.”

And suddenly, things were happening faster than Harper could follow.

Eddie gave an ugly laugh, leaned forward and spat, hitting Max in the face.  Then he twisted out of Max’s grip and reached into his pocket.

Max’s hand came back fast and then forward in a palm strike that caught Eddie under the nose.  There was a horrible crunch as Eddie’s nose broke and pushed back into his brain.  He let out one gurgling sigh and slumped back against the toilet, in no condition to tell anything to anyone ever again.

“Shit.”  But Max wasn’t commenting on the situation.  He was shaking the sting out of his hand.

“Hurt a little, did it?”  You idiot.  You damn fool.  What have you done?

Max flexed his fingers and then went to the sink and began washing his hands.

Harper looked on in horrified amazement.  He’d seen cold-blooded, before.  Hell, he’d been cold-blooded.  It was part of the job.  Max was in a league of his own.   Harper could feel a trickle of sweat running into the small of his back.  “What the hell did you just do?”

“I thought he was reaching for a weapon.”

“We patted him down before we got in here.  Where the hell did you think he was going to get a weapon?”  Harper jammed his hand into the dead man’s pocket and came up with a handful of change and a couple of crumpled dollar bills. He threw the money at Max, who stared at the pennies in distain as they hit the floor, before picking up the dollars and dropping them in his own pocket.

Then Max shrugged and turned back to the mirror.  “He made a move and I reacted.”

“He spat on you.  That stuff washes off, you know.  You didn’t have to kill him.”

You snapped.  You saw your perfect case record flying out the window, and the little piss ant was laughing at you and you snapped.  I wasn’t paying attention like I should have been.  I didn’t stop the situation before it got out of hand.  And now I’m stuck in a bathroom with a corpse and a crazy man. He chose his next words carefully.  No point in pissing off the psycho.  The heavily armed, can kill with his bare hands psycho.  Self-preservation first.  Ethics later.

“So what do we do now?”  Remember, we?  It’s we, Max.  We’re in trouble.  I’m on your side.  For now, at least.  Once we get back to the office, I’m going to roll on you so fast you’ll never know what hit you.  But for now, it’s just you and me, buddy.

Max looked back at the corpse on the toilet and shrugged again.  It was pretty clear that exit strategies weren’t his strong suit.  “Get the body out of here.  Dump it somewhere.  I’ll go downstairs and find a van.  You take care of this end.”

Harper could feel his shirt sticking as his body went clammy.  Max was bailing on him.  It was an improvement on Max capping his partner and catching the first flight out of the country, but just barely.  Harper tried not to imagine all the ways he could get caught while disposing of Eddie.

And he tried to imagine the look on his fiancée’s face if he turned the whole thing over to local law enforcement and the story somehow broke that he was involved in a prisoner abuse scandal in midtown Manhattan and not doing a tax audit on a pencil company in Peoria like he’d told her.  This was not a good time to have to explain what he did for a living.

Not to mention the fact that company policy stated, “If you do onto others, don’t leave a mess behind.”  Eddie was a total waste of skin, and the people who would be glad to see him dead outnumbered, by one hundred percent, the people who wanted him alive.  But Eddie could not be found in a hotel bathroom.

“All right.”  He sighed.  “You get the transport.  I’ll haul Eddie down to the loading dock.”

Max shook his head.  “If I have problems, you don’t want to get stuck down there.  Wait for my call.”

Harper didn’t want to be stuck up stairs with Eddie, either.  And he was definitely tired of talking orders from Max.  But he gritted his teeth and forced a nod.

Max barely noticed.  He was too busy looking in the mirror.  He combed his hair and straightened his tie before leaving the bathroom, as if he was on his way to a dinner date and not going to the basement to steal a car.  James fucking Bond, with a license to kill, did not care about the chaos in his wake.

Harper waited until he heard the front door of the room slam shut.  Then he  unhooked the vinyl liner of the shower curtain and shook it once to leave the water in the tub. He laid it flat on the floor in front of the toilet.  He gave a shove to Eddie’s back and the body sprawled forward in a heap on the floor.

Harper stepped through the doorway, lined up the inert Eddie as best he could and dragged the curtain out in to the room, where there was more space to work.

He listened at the door for a moment.  Opened it.  Checked both ways.  Then headed out into the hall and toward the housekeeping room in front of the service elevator.

Perfect.  One housekeeping cart with a nice, Eddie-size bin for dirty towels.  He glanced at a rack along the back wall.  One uniform jacket, complete with nametag.  Not his size, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.  He tossed the uniform jacket into the bin.  Listened.  Looked out into the hall.  Checked both ways and rolled back to his room.  It was a struggle to get the cart stowed safely inside, but he managed it with the speed born of desperation and let the door slam shut behind him.

He rifled through his duffle bag by the bed, looking for anything that might be useful, and came up with a roll of duct tape.  He wrapped the edges of the vinyl curtain over the inert mass on the floor.  Less visibility, should someone see them.  Eddie wasn’t going to look like anything other than a dead body in a shower curtain, but at least the arms and legs wouldn’t be flopping around as he tried to get the body into the laundry bin.  Harper pulled off a strip of duct tape and secured the shower curtain around Eddie’s legs.

In retrospect, it might have been better to start at the face.

He heard the lock click and the door open and wondered just what would be bringing Max back to the room.

Nothing, of course.  But by the time that had registered, the woman was already past the cart and into the room, staring down at what must have been one hell of an interesting sight.  There was nothing in her face to indicate prior knowledge, or preparation.  Whatever she’d come looking for, however she’d gotten in the room, she wasn’t seeing what she expected.

She didn’t act like a professional.  If she’d had a weapon, it would have been out by now.  Not that there was anywhere to hide it that wouldn’t have been obvious to the world.  No purse.  No bag of any kind.  And the ‘I Heart NY’ t-shirt and hip-huggers  were tight enough to tell anyone who cared to look  that there was nothing but her underneath.

Harper could see the scream starting in her eyes before the sound could get to her lips and he knew that whatever happened, he mustn’t let her scream.  Screaming would bring other people, who would see Eddie.  And worse yet, him.

He lunged at her, gun drawn, grabbed her by the hair and yanked her the rest of the way into the room. “On the bed.  Face down. Now.”  He pushed forward and she fell, too shocked to resist.  By the time she thought to struggle he had a knee in her back.

“The less you move, the less I push.  Understand?”

Her arms stopped flailing and she gave as big a nod as she could manage with his hand still tangled in her hair.  He heard a slight whimper in her next breath and he could feel her body trembling under him.

Look.  I’m not going to hurt you.  Just don’t do anything stupid for a minute and I’ll try to figure a way out of this for both of us.

Like she’d believe that if he said that out loud.  She’d seen Eddie and she’d seen the gun.  His credibility as all around nice guy was shot in this situation.

His cell phone rang and he swore and flipped it open.  It had to be Max.  No one else knew the number.

“What?”

“Are you almost done up there?”  Max sounded bored, and a little impatient.

“No, I’m not ready to go.  We have a problem.”

“Of course we do.  I thought you could handle it.”  Wonderful. Now, Max was disappointed in him.

“I was working on that.  Now we have two problems.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

He glanced down at her and remembered the T-shirt.  “A tourist.  Female.  Redhead, green eyes, six foot, T-shirt and jeans.  Just walked in and met…” the mess you left me, you cretin. “…our friend.”

“How did she get in?  Did you forget to lock the door?”

Harper gritted his teeth.  “Of course the door was locked.  What do you think this is, amateur night?”

“So she just strolled into the room?  And she saw Eddie?  Take care of the situation and get down here.  You know what you have to do.”

“Take care of it?” The words rang cold in his head.  If he was not mistaken, the senior partner in this operation had just suggested that he murder a noncombatant.  A civilian.  An American citizen, assuming that was what she was.  In cold blood, to cover up the hundred and fifty-pound error in judgment still cooling on the shower curtain.

“You want me to take care of it?”  And take the fall for your mistake. “Listen, you son of a bitch.  I’m going to come down there in a few minutes and take care of you.  Either get up here and help clean up the mess, or get off my back.  We’ll discuss this later.”

He clicked off and tucked the phone in his pocket, looking back down at the girl.  She was definitely crying, now.  He could feel her shoulders shake as she struggled to hide the fact from him.

Max was right.  The quickest way to deal with the situation would be to press her face into the pillow and take her out of the picture for good.  It was the only way they were going to keep this mess quiet.

Which would make him no better than Max.  That was a repellant thought.  Amy would have no trouble, judging by the arguments they’d had lately, believing that he was in a hotel room with a redhead under him.  He tried to imagine the look on her face if she ever found out that he’d squeezed the life out of this one to save his own sorry ass and felt the acid churning in his gut.

It was a bit late to whip out his ID and explain to her that there was a perfectly logical explanation for this, after he’d thrown her down, kneed her in the back and put a gun to her head.  The truth was a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Or a newspaper headline, neither of which would go over big with the folks back at the office.

Ok, Red.  This is your lucky day.  I’m not going to kill you.  And I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about national security.  I’m just going to make one more little mistake and let you get away.  The operation’s totally fucked.  What’s one more little mistake, right?

He thought for a moment.  What were the probable outcomes?  He let her go and she went next door for help?  Worst case scenario.  Then he’d run like hell and let Eddie fend for himself.

Or maybe he’d scared her enough so she’d be all the way to the lobby before she slowed down.  Twenty-seven floors down and back would buy him a lot of time.  Probably more than he needed.  He’d be gone with Eddie and everything would be back on schedule.

Here’s what I’m going to do, Red.  I’m going to ease off on the pressure, and you’re going to get loose and make a break for the door.  Got that?  If there’s a God, in a few minutes, we’ll both be running really fast in opposite directions and you’ll have something exciting to tell the folks back home.

He shifted some of the weight off her back and loosened his grip on her neck.  Slowly, so as not to draw attention, she inched a leg out and found the edge of the bed.  He could feel the muscles of her arms tensing to push.

Good girl.  You’re getting the idea.  The next move should do it.  Here’s your chance.

He shifted weight to the other side and she pushed up, dumping him easily onto the floor.

He took his own sweet time standing up, giving her as much of a head start as he dared, and saw her pause at the door for a moment and turn to look at him.

What did he have to do?  Shoot in the air and yell, ‘Stampede!’  What the hell was taking her so long?

Then he saw a malevolent glint in her eye, just before she grabbed the handle of the housekeeping cart, gave a mighty shove and mowed him down.  A jolt of pain shot up his leg as the metal edge of the cart struck his ankle and removed a good-sized chunk of skin before knocking him back to the floor.

The bitch.  The goddamned, redheaded bitch.  He’d let her get away.  He’d saved her life and how did she repay him?  She’d probably broken his foot.  That was the thanks he got for trying to be a nice guy.  Typical.

Whatever he had to do now, he’d have to do it fast and with a limp.  Max was going to pay for this one.

He hobbled back to Eddie, wrapping the edges of the shower curtain over the rest of him and slapping on the duct tape.  Then he braced himself and dead lifted the corpse upright, dragging him forward to lever up and tip awkwardly into the laundry bag on the cart.  He threw in the duffle bag as well, and arranged a few towels over the body in case someone stopped to look in.  Then, he put on the bellman’s jacket he’d borrowed from the locker room.  He checked himself once in the mirror.  The nametag on his chest said, ‘Jesus.’

Jesus, indeed.  It might as well have been St. Jude.  He’d never pass for a Jesus if anyone stopped cared to look.  Better get this over with.

He pushed the cart out into the hall and checked both ways.  No sign of the redhead.  She must have decided to put as much distance between them as she could before she stopped running.  Smart girl.  By the time she found someone to believe her story and got them back upstairs, he’d be long gone.  He used the cart to steady himself and proceeded down the hall toward the service elevator and freedom.

A room service waiter got on with him about half way to the basement, and Harper whistled tunelessly and stared at the door, sweating through his shirt as he waited for the guy to get off at the kitchen.  Then the doors slid shut again and carried him the rest of the way down.  He checked the emergency floor plan posted by the elevator and took a left down a long hall to the loading dock.  As he passed, he slashed upward with the handle of a feather duster, casually knocking the security camera out of line so that it took pictures of the ceiling while he continued down the hall.

If all was going as planned, in a moment he’d be out that door and into Max’s waiting van.  Then they’d be on the road for DC with Eddie in the back, and he could begin the process of pinning everything about this mess, from the missed connections, to the dead terrorists in Jersey, to the body in the back of the van, firmly onto the well  tailored back of his homicidal partner.  The whole job had been a comedy of errors.  Max was in charge, and so he deserved all the credit.  It took an artist to fuck up so completely.

An artist, or something else.  And his blood chilled as reality seeped in.  He knew what he was going to find before he even got the door open.

A sleepy security guard was eyeing him with little interest and there was no sign of a van, engine cold or running.  Most notably, there was no sign of Max.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

July Nineteenth. A little later.

 

“Well, I’m sorry, but I’m having a little trouble getting my head around the situation.” Doug sat on the end of her hotel bed, smiling the same patronizing smile he’d had on his face the last time they’d been over her story, but smiling it twice as hard.

In round one, he’d been concerned and sympathetic and ready to get to the bottom of things.  He hugged her, offered his handkerchief to wipe away the tears, and refused to leave her until he was sure she was locked safely inside her empty room.

But then he’d talked to the hotel staff.

Round two, he’d looked a little less confident.  But he’d put a brave face on it as he’d tried to jolly her out of her story. She’d gotten the distinct impression that he thought he was talking to a child, and was hoping that a kiss on the head and an ice cream was all it would take to make her forget the whole thing and be back to the dumb, happy, woman he’d brought to New York.

But she wasn’t cooperating.  Not anymore.  And he was beginning to tire of her insistence.

“What’s so hard to understand?  I saw a murder.  A murderer, actually.  Complete with body.  In this hotel.”

And no one believes me.

Doug gestured expansively at the rest of the room. “Well he’s not here now, is he?”

“No.”  There was the smallest quaver in her voice as she said it.  She cleared her throat before speaking again.  “But that doesn’t take away from what I saw.”

“But it makes it damn hard to prove anything.  There’s no evidence, Liz.  None at all.  Look in the bathroom.  You said the shower curtain was on the floor.  It’s still there.”

“Maybe he put it back when he was done.”

“But it would have been bloody or something, wouldn’t it?  It’s clean, Liz.”

“He might have washed it.” Even she realized the stupidity of her words.

“Clean and dry.  So’s the tub.  And so’s the floor where you said the curtain was.  No water trail.  No blood.  Not even a footprint in the carpet.  No mess at all.”

“The maids…”

“Were up here hours before we got back from breakfast.  And they saw nothing.  The manager’s already checked.  So you seriously expect me to believe that a phantom maniac snuck into your room, killed somebody, and got away without a trace, after cleaning the room?”

“If…”  She cut the sentence off in her mind.  If you loved me, you’d believe me. How stupid did that sound?  And how needy?  They’d only been together a couple of weeks.  The L word hadn’t been brought into the relationship yet, and wasn’t likely to make an appearance, now that she was a public embarrassment.  “So if there’s no evidence, then you don’t believe me.”

 

“Well it does sound kind of crazy.”  And he laughed.  It was an annoying little chuckle to signal that here were no hard feelings, where there?

“So I’m crazy now, am I?” she snapped.  “I don’t see why you even want to spend any time with a crazy woman.”

He looked uncomfortable.

She knew damn well what the answer to that question was.  She could hear her mother’s voice in her head.  As pretty as you are, dear, you can’t expect men to love you for your mind.

He held up a conciliatory hand.  “Try to see my side of it for a minute, Liz.  There just isn’t anything to verify your story.  I don’t know what you expect me to do.”

Believe me.

“I know what I saw, Doug.”

“Maybe you came up to the room and had a little nap, and you dreamed it.”

“It wasn’t a dream. Or a hallucination.  Or a joke.  It wasn’t something I ate.  I know what I saw, Doug.”

“But there’s nothing we can do about it.  So, maybe we should just try to put this behind us.  I know something that will take your mind off your troubles.” And he reached for her and tried to pull her down on the bed beside him.  She felt his arms slide down her shoulders and up under her arms, grazing the sides of her breasts.

She slapped them off and pulled away from him.  “No.  Not now.  You can’t just laugh this off.  There’s got to be something that we can do.”

“You already went to the police, didn’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And what did they say?”  His voice had that horrible patient quality again.

“They let me file a report.  They said they’d follow up.”

“There,” he said.  “It’s taken care of, then.  Isn’t it?”

“But they didn’t even send anyone over here.”

“No.  They didn’t.”

“But there must be something more we can do.”

She looked into his eyes.  And it was suddenly clear to her that there was no ‘we.’  There never had been.

“You’ve got to understand something, Liz.  I have a job to consider.  I really can’t be getting involved in anything like this.  I don’t think the boss would approve of the fact that I brought you along to New York.  But if it turns out that I was running around looking for imaginary murderers?  Playing detective instead of working?”  He tried to look like he cared, even as he was distancing himself from the situation.

“Of course I wouldn’t expect you to get involved, Doug.”   Her voice was saccharine.  “Playing footsie with me is one thing, isn’t it?  But getting involved?  No, we can’t have that, can we?  You know what, Doug?  I think we’re just about done here.  Out.”  She pointed toward the door.

“I’m paying for the room, Liz.  You can’t just throw me out of it.”

“Bill me. For the room.  For the plane ticket.  Lunch too, for all I care.  If the police have no objections, I’m on the first plane back to Chicago.  Get out of this room and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  And don’t bother to call.  I’ll make it home just fine on my own.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

July 21st,  10:17 AM EST.

 

“Let’s go over your version of events again.” The man across the table from him didn’t look up from his notes.

Harper was wearing his I-understand-the-seriousness-of-the-situation suit, sitting across the table from two supervisors and a station chief.  The blank, mirrored wall could conceal a host of other observers.  Or no one.  That was part of the charm of interrogation.  Keep the person off balance as long as possible.  He was supposed to be worrying about who was listening in.

He resisted the urge to run a finger under his collar to loosen the tie.  It would have made him look nervous.  Now was not a good time for that.  “My version stays the same.  Max killed Eddie and took off.  I smuggled Eddie down to the loading dock, distracted the security guard, tossed Eddie in the trunk of the nearest car and came straight back here.  Everybody I could think to question on the east coast is dead. The stuff is gone.  So’s the money.”

“Everyone?”

“Except Max.”

“And there is no verification of this story, other than your word?”

“That’s right.”  He thought of the escaping redhead and dismissed her.  Her version of events, with him all alone and standing over a dead body, wasn’t going to help his case.

“And you know nothing of this.”  The first supervisor dropped a glossy color photo on the table in front of him.

It looked like what was left of a man about Max’s height and weight.  And wearing Max’s suit.  The face and the jaw were burned beyond recognition, as were the hands.  That would take care of dental records and fingerprints.  Even rushing the DNA match would give Max a couple of day’s head start.

He set his facial expression to neutral.  “Not a clue.  No one I was dealing with.”

“Very well.  Please return to your desk, until further notice.”

He got up and walked from the room and back to his cubicle, feeling the eyes on the back of his neck. This was not going well.  They were giving him some time to sit in his cubicle and sweat before they went at him again.  How could he tell Amy that, after two whole days at home, he was going to be working late because the boss was warming up the hot pokers and looking for thumbscrews in his size?

He stared in regret at the coffee on his desk, then took a sip.  It had been scalding when he’d been called into the meeting.  Stone cold, now.  His cell rang and he flipped it open.

“Honey?  Sorry to call you at work.”

“Amy.”  Whatever the story, he’d better come up with it fast.  “That’s all right.  I’m not busy.”

 

“I just balanced the checkbook and there’s a little problem.”

“Shouldn’t be me.  I used the company card on all the stuff for the last trip.”

“No it’s not an overdraft.  It’s the balance.”  She laughed.  We have an extra quarter of a million.”

He choked on his coffee.

She was still laughing.  “I thought that’d get you.  But it’s ok.  It was a computer error.  There were already a couple of men from the bank that came to the house to see about it.”

Yeah, right.  Bankers in serious black suits and military haircuts, come to do the preliminary check on his house.  Just making sure he hadn’t replaced the same old, same old, Amy and Honda with a cheerleader and a Porsche.

And lucky Amy continued to see exactly what she wanted to see.  That they were having a banking glitch and not so deep in Shit Creek that he should be wearing waders with his suit.

“Well, that’s certainly something, isn’t it?”  he said, trying to sound normal.

“More excitement than I usually get around here.”

“I’ll say.”  He carelessly dumped the last of his coffee into his lap, and said, “Dammit,” just loud enough for the guy in the next cube to hear.

“What?”

“Nothing.  I spilled my coffee.  Listen.  I better clean this up.  Everything under control there?”

“You bet.”

“That’s my girl.  Love ya.”

“You, too.”

He clicked off and made a great show of wiping the spilled coffee off his desk.

At least now he knew where the money had gone to, although he was one step behind the higher-ups in the debriefing room.  They’d be springing it on him in the next session, hoping for a reaction.

“I don’t suppose you can explain…”

About an extra quarter mil in my bank and a dead body that looks like my partner?  No, I can’t.  My only explanation is that Max set me up and will have sold the sample to the highest bidder and skipped the country by the time you’re done raking me over the coals.

He headed for the bathroom, mopping at the stain on his trousers.

Once inside, he checked to make sure the other stalls were empty, and then went to the window.  Two stories off the ground, but there was a narrow ledge.  He looked out over the carefully landscaped lawn at the series of berms that were disguised as flowerbeds, but were actually meant to prevent an easy ride for a truck bomb.  And the security cameras with the hole in coverage on the north east corner of the building that had been thoroughly discussed in company e-mails.  He twisted open the woefully inadequate lock on the bathroom window.

Management made it very hard for the uninitiated to break into the building.  And put almost no time into making sure that an insider couldn’t get out.

He flexed his fingers, opened the window and hoisted himself up on the frame.  An unpleasant walk along the ledge but it was out of sight of the security guard and would get him to the roof of the parking garage.  He’d be gone before they missed him and secured the perimeter.

He cursed his dress shoes as he worked his way along the side of the building, missing the grip of a decent pair of sneakers as the leather soles slipped in the dampness.

He was on the road in five minutes, after making an emergency stop on the bridge to throw his company phone, complete with GPS, out the window and into the Potomac.

In a mall in Maryland, he stopped the car, popped the trunk and dug around under the spare for his emergency stash.  A bulky envelope held fresh ID, credit cards, and five thousand in hundreds.

He sighed.  They could have used that cash when Amy redid the downstairs bathroom.  But it was always a good idea to keep something hidden for a rainy day.   The climate at work this morning might have started as a drizzle, but there were storm clouds on the horizon.

He dropped a couple of hundred on a cheap suitcase and enough clothes to fill it.  Then he hit the bathrooms, leaving a piece of his old identity in each one.  With any luck, his credit cards would take off in all directions, leaving a maze of transactions for the boys back at work to follow and dismiss.

Then he stole a fresh car and headed for the airport.

By noon, he was walking down a concourse at Reagan, looking for a likely pocket to pick.  One had to be careful in these things, or one was likely to come away with a collection of wallets.

He settled on a woman with a stroller, sitting at a table near the men’s room and spooning baby food into an infant.  Perfect.  She was already preoccupied and the diaper bag sat open on the floor, nearly spilling its contents and giving him a glimpse inside.

He brushed past her, dropping his newspaper.  He apologized, stooped to get it, and scooped her cell phone into the folds of the paper without breaking stride, still heading for the men’s room.

He dialed.  Assuming they hadn’t put a tap in yet, this should work.  Just a number on caller ID, easily traceable to the harried young mother, and much less suspicious than an airport payphone.  He listened for any incriminating airport sounds.  Nothing but the dull echo of a bathroom.  To someone taping the call, he could be anywhere.

The ringing continued.  Three.  Four.  The message kicked in. Screening calls, he hoped.  He told her to do that, for safety’s sake.  You could never be too careful.

“Amy, it’s me.  If you’re there, pick up.”

“Where are you calling from, now?  I don’t recognize this number.”

“Sales meeting.”  That could mean anything.

“And you’re calling to tell me you’re on your way home, right?”

He winced.  “Well, actually…”

“Because we were going to look at invitations tonight and you promised to be home early.”

He swallowed hard and let the lie roll off his tongue.  “Yeah.  But you see, something’s come up and a bunch of the guys and I are going to have to fly out tonight.”

“What?”

There’s been a sort of a blow up in the books on the last job.  If we don’t get this straightened out, pronto, heads will roll.”

“Don’t give me that crap,” she snapped.  “This isn’t brain surgery.  There’s no such thing as an accounting emergency.”

“Tell that to the guys at AIG.”

“Honey, I don’t give a rat’s patooty for AIG.  When are you going to come home?”

“Two more weeks.  Tops.”

“That was what you said the last time.  And it was three weeks.  Then, you said you were going to be home for a while.  And that we could set a date.”

He winced.  “I know.  And I was wrong.  But we can still set a date.  You can, anyway.  I’ll do whatever you say.  I just can’t do it tonight.  Any day next year should be fine.”

“Next year?”  Her voice got shrill.  “You can’t guarantee your schedule from one minute to the next.  If I book a church and a hall, how do I know you’ll even show up?”

“I want to marry you.  Really I do.”  Of course, he also wanted to tell her the truth about work, and he hadn’t figured out a good time to do that either.

“It doesn’t seem like it to me.”

He really didn’t need this discussion, right now.  “We’ve been together for seven years.  We bought a house. Your name is on my insurance.”  And my will.

“That’s really romantic.”

“The only thing left is that one last piece of paper.”

“It’s more than paper.”

He sighed.  “I know.  It’s important.  If I didn’t think it was important to do this right, we’d have gotten married years ago.  I just don’t want you… to have any regrets afterward.  You know?”

The long silence said she didn’t know at all.  He blew out a mouthful of air and checked his watch.  If he waited around the airport any longer, he’d be getting married in leg shackles and an orange jumpsuit.  “As soon as I get back, we’ll work something out.  You set the date.  Any date you want.  And I’ll be there.  Because I love you.”

There was a long angry silence.

“Two weeks.  Three, tops.”

The silence got angrier.

“Two,” he corrected.  Facing facts, if he couldn’t sort things out in two weeks, the trail would be cold and he’d never be coming home.  “And I’ll call every day.”  That I can steal a phone.  Because once the company realizes I’m gone, they’re going to be on you like white on rice and I’m not going to get you involved in this, no matter what.

“That’s what you said the last time.”

“I know.  And I don’t like being away any more than you want me gone.  I’ll put in for a transfer, the minute I get back.  I’ll get a desk job, or I’ll quit.  One last trip, and then I’m done.”

The silence sounded skeptical, but not quite as angry.

He sighed.  “I’m not going to risk losing you for a stupid job.”

She sighed back.  It was the same resigned sigh she always gave, every time he told her he was going to do better, next time.  “Can you at least stop home before you go?”

“Nope. They booked us on the first flight they could find.  Ed’s already called us a cab so the company car won’t have to sit at the airport.”

“Do you have enough clean shirts?”  He relaxed as the anger faded from her tone and the efficiency kicked in.

“The go  bag in my office will hold me for a while.   And I’ll find a cheap dry cleaner.  The company is willing to pick up the expense, as long as I keep the receipts.”

“And vitamins?”

“I have a bottle in my briefcase.  I’ll take ‘em every day.”

“Because you look like crap when you come home from these long trips.  You can’t survive on fast food and doughnuts.”

“They’re going to try to move me to some short term housing.  I’ll get a kitchenette.”

“Buy something green for God’s sake.”

He smiled. “Love you, Honey.”

She was making the little frustrated noise again, but said, “Love you, too.  And this had better be the last time.”

“I swear to God.”  And it amazed him to realize he meant it.

“Good bye, then.  Again.”  She was pouting.

“Bye.”  He kissed the phone and clicked it shut.

He stripped off his dark suit, wadded it up and stuffed it into the suitcase, swapping it for a pair of khakis and a polo shirt.  Then he unlatched the stall door, going to the mirror to splash some cold water on his face.  Amy was right, he did look like crap.  But he looked a hell of a lot better than he would after ten years in Leavenworth, if the company got him before he found Max.  Less thinking.  More moving.

He glanced down at the ID.  The hair in the picture was a little shorter.  Not that he had time to get a haircut.  He pulled a pair of steel-rimmed aviators out of his pocket and put them on.  He smiled into the mirror.  “Bob.  Robert.  Bob.  Hi, I’m Bob.  Glad to meet you.

Anderson.  Bob Anderson.  From…” he checked his new driver’s license.  “Indiana.  Go Hoosiers.”

Which was a stroke of luck, considering that his next stop was O’Hare, back tracking in Chicago to pick up Max’s trail.  If he was lucky, there was still a contact at Immunotech that Max had forgotten to kill on his way out of town.

He stuffed his wallet back in his pocket, palmed the cell phone and strode purposefully past the young mother, who was busy mopping strained carrots off herself and everything else in a two foot radius.

His life could be worse.  He could have a kid, too. Another voice, crying on the phone when he said he wasn’t coming back.

But the woman with the baby looked happy enough, even with carrots on her shirt.  Happier than he was.  To be honest, between the things he did when he was at work, and the lying about them when he got home, he felt like shit.

One more job and he’d hang it up.  Marriage, complete with kids, diapers and strained carrots, if that’s what Amy wanted.  The more he thought about it, the better it sounded.

He dropped the cell phone back into the woman’s open bag and kept walking.  He had a plane to catch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

August Third.  Cocktail hour.

 

Liz nursed her third beer of the night and listened to Marge over the hum of party conversation.

“He’s really nice.  Funny, and with a great personality.”

Which usually meant short and without much hair.  God, she hated fix-ups.  But she liked parties and she liked Marge.  And Marge had passed out enough invites to this barbeque to make her believe that, just once, she wasn’t going to be trapped at a table for four, sitting in awkward silence next to someone’s cousin from out of town.

“And he likes animals.  He has a picture of his dog on his desk.”

A dog picture.  That was a new one.  Last time Marge had found the perfect new guy at work, he’d had a picture of another guy on his desk.  It had turned out to be his life partner, not his brother after all, and she’d had the most embarrassing evening of her life.  This couldn’t be any worse.  Unless this guy was romantically involved with the dog.  She took a long pull on the beer.

“And I suppose you told him all about me?”  Please let the answer be no.

“I might have mentioned you’d be here.  In passing.”

Damn.

“It’s not like you have to meet him.”

I do if I want to be invited back here again.  And I do love free beer and those cheese things that you make. Liz looked longingly at the buffet.

“There are a lot of people here.  If nothing clicks, just get a burger and talk to someone else.  I mean, it’s not like anything has to come of this.”

But she could hear the hope in Marge’s voice that just once she’d manage to make a match that stuck.

“Marge, I’m really not looking right now, you know?”

“But it’s a shame that you’re alone.”

“Not alone, Marge.  I have lots of friends, don’t I?  She waved at the crowd around the pool who, if not exactly close friends, at least knew her name.  I have you and Mike.” she gestured with her bottle towards the grill, where Marge’s husband was immolating the meat.

“But after Doug stopped seeing you…”

“After I stopped seeing him, you mean.”  She tried to keep the edge out of her voice.  Public opinion had already cast her as one of those women who couldn’t seem to hang onto a guy.  Coming back early from New York, with a wild story and no  Doug had confirmed it.

Marge was eager to help.

It was grating on her nerves.

Marge took a verbal step back avoiding the issue.  “I’ll just check to see if Bob’s gotten here yet, shall I?”  She gave Liz a little squeeze on the arm.  “We’re all rooting for

 

you.”

Liz tried not to wince.  So everyone here knew she was pathetic.  Maybe her friends were right.  The family that she was convinced that Doug had been hiding had never materialized.  But the relationship had self-destructed anyway.  She’d finally found a guy that was good looking, single and crazy about her.  And she’d convinced him that she was insane.  The kind of person that imagined corpses under every bed.  In their final argument, when he’d called to get his stuff out of her apartment he’d used the term, ‘psychotic drama queen.’ That belonged somewhere on the top ten list of life’s moments she’d like to forget.  Might as well write off the whole year and start fresh in January.

Her purse vibrated as her cell started to ring.  She fished around for a moment, until she could snag the phone, and checked the number.

“Hello, Mother.  I told you, not the cell.  Unless it’s an emergency.”

“This is an emergency,” her mother whispered.

Liz knew her mother well enough to answer, “Oh, no it’s not.  And why are we whispering?”

“I’m at a party.  And I’m hiding in the bathroom.  I need your help.”

“I’m at a party, too.”  Liz chugged the rest of her beer.   “And I’m in no condition to be your designated driver.  Why don’t you call a cab?”

“I beg your pardon.  I do not need a driver.  I just need you to answer a question, quick.  What is Columbo’s first name?”

“That’s an emergency?”  She glared at the phone.  “You’re playing Trivial Pursuit.  And you’re cheating.”

“I’m running out of clothes.”

“You’re playing…”

“Strip Trivial Pursuit.  And I’m not ready to lose, yet.”

Liz closed her mind against the images forming and opened another beer.  “Please tell me this is a two person game.”

“Marion Elizabeth Monahan, that is no way to talk to your mother.”

“A normal mother wouldn’t expect her daughter to be ready reference for an orgy.  All bets are off.”

“All right.  There are only two of us, but I’m down to my skivvies.  If you care so much for your mother’s honor, tell me about Columbo.”

Liz sighed and took a drink. “It’s a trick question.  The card says Philip, but it’s wrong.  He has no first name.  That was a false answer, planted by the author of a trivia encyclopedia to catch plagiarists.  He sued the Trivial Pursuit guys and lost.  So answer however you want.”

Her mother thought for a moment, and then said, “I’m going with Philip.  If it’s on the card.”

“But it’s still the wrong answer.”

“You know, dear, you would have a lot more fun in life if you didn’t always have to be right.”

From behind her on the patio, Liz could hear Marge approaching.  “…right over here.  You’ll love her, trust me.”

“Right, Mom.  Having fun.  Gotta do that right now.  But no matter how you answer, Columbo’s real first name is Lieutenant.    Love ya.  Bye.”  She clicked off before her Mother could argue.

There was such excitement in Marge’s voice as she prepared for the introduction, that Liz straightened her spine and tried to be worthy of the build- up.  She took a quick glance down to make sure there was no barbeque sauce on her shirt, ran a tongue over her lips and tried to put on a pleasant, interested expression before turning around to face, Bob-the-new-guy-in accounting.

She could feel the smile sliding off her face as her jaw went slack.  “You.”

“Hi, I’m Baaa…”

His hand was out and he was half way through his introduction before he got a good look at her.  She swore she could see the exact moment when it registered.  His expression went from the kind of eager, dopey, friendliness you’d expect from Bob-with-the-dog-picture to the dead blankness she’d seen as he’d stood over the body in New York.  And then the blankness was gone and dopey Bob was right back in place.

‘…aaab.  Marge has been telling me all about you.”  She’d have attributed the sheep-like quality of the word ‘Bob’ to normal nerves if she hadn’t known better.

She took an involuntary step back and the beer bottle slipped from her fingers and hit the flagstones of the pool deck, sending shards of brown glass in all directions.

“Here.  Let me help with that.”  He was crouching beside her, picking up glass and piling it onto an empty plastic cup.  There was a whiny, eager to please quality to the voice that hadn’t been there in New York, but it was the same voice.  She was certain.

His hand reached out for the last piece of glass and brushed against the edge of her sneaker.

She kicked at him.  “Don’t touch me.”

Fake-Bob-from-accounting had the nerve to look hurt.  The blue eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses, another new addition since New York, were watery as he gazed up at Marge.  His shoulders slumped.  It looked like he was used to rejection.  Had been expecting it.  Just not so soon.  Bob-from–accounting with his JC Penney golf shirt, his Dockers, and his can-do attitude, probably struck out a lot.

“Liz.”  Marge’s voice was clipped.  “May I see you in the kitchen.”

“Righty-o.”  She grabbed Marge and dragged her toward the house.  “Kitchen.  You’ve got a phone in the kitchen, right Marge?”

“What the hell did you just do to that poor man?” Marge whispered.

“Poor man, my ass.”  Liz grabbed another beer from the fridge, popped the top against the counter edge and chugged the first half.

“It looked like you threw your beer at him.  You got it on his shoes.  And then you kicked him.”

“I didn’t throw anything at him.  Not yet, anyway.  Marge, that’s him.”

“Him, who?”

“The one.  The guy.  From New York.”

“The dead guy?”

“Don’t be an idiot.  Not the dead guy.  The guy with the dead guy.  The one with the gun.”

Marge’s look said a lot.  “Liz, it’s been weeks.  You can’t honestly expect me to believe–”

“Hell, yes, I honestly expect you to believe.  That’s the guy.

“Bob Anderson from accounting?”

“I don’t know what his name is, but I bet it’s not Bob.  He didn’t introduce himself in New York.  Just tried to kill me without telling me his name or anything.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I’m sure, Marge.  The voice, the face, the eyes.  It’s him.”

“He doesn’t look anything like the guy you described to me when you got back from that trip.  You said he was a cold-blooded killer.  This guy has dog pictures on his desk for cripe’s sake.”

“Marge.  That is not his real dog.”

“What’s not my real dog?”  Bob was standing behind her.

She dropped the fresh beer and this one hit the floor and rolled, sending a spray down the front of Bob’s neatly pressed khakis.

Marge grabbed a dishtowel and handed it to Bob.  “I’m sooo sorry…” The sentence was meant to end with, ‘for my crazy friend,’ but Marge was too polite to say it.

“Well I’m not.”  Liz spun to face him and he cringed like he was expecting her to throw another beer.

“I…I…I…” Bob couldn’t seem to start a sentence, much less finish one.  So he gave up.

Marge set off gamely, “Liz– this is Liz Monahan, by the way, the one I told you about?  –well, Liz seems to think that you’ve met before.”

Bob’s face remained beautifully, believably blank.  “I’m sure I’d have remembered.  All that red hair…”

“Cut the crap, Bob.  New York.  Two weeks ago.  And don’t even pretend that you don’t recognize me.  I saw it in your eyes just now, when we met.”

Marge looked into his eyes, and glared at Liz.  Bob’s current expression was one of barely suppressed panic from being trapped in a small kitchen with a crazy woman.

Marge looked embarrassed.  “Liz thinks that you’re a man she saw in New York.  A murderer. In her hotel room.”

Bob laughed.  It was the exactly the sort of weak, annoying chuckle you’d expect from a dateless loser.  It trailed off as the fake Bob pretended to realize that she wasn’t kidding but seriously thought he was dangerous.

“Me?”  His eyes widened convincingly, and he pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.  “T-there must be a mistake.  I’ve never been to New York.  And never killed anyone,” he added, as if just realizing he’d mistaken the order of importance in the accusations.  “And I’ve never seen you before in my life.”  He looked straight at Liz, eyes pleading with her to believe him.

Liz opened her mouth, but Marge stepped on her foot.

“Liz has been a little confused since the New York, trip.   She’s had kind of a hard time.  I think you owe Bob an apology, Liz.”  The pressure on her foot increased.

“No.  Really.  It’s all right.  These things happen all the time.”  Bob was being a gentleman about it.  But the look in his eyes said, these things might happen, but they never happened to him.  He was backing slowly away from her.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it was just a silly mistake.”  Marge was the consummate hostess.  “Why don’t you go back to the party and get yourself a burger.  Make yourself at home.  I’ll be back out in a minute.”

Bob saw his chance and took it, skedaddling for the patio.

Marge turned to Liz, in disgust. “What has gotten into you, other than way too much beer?”

“I am not drunk, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“No, of course not.  You’ve just spilled your last two beers on one of the other guests, and then gotten hysterical and accused him of murder.”

“I am not hysterical…”

“And look at him.”  Marge waved in the direction of the patio.  Take a good look, Liz.  Is there a more harmless person here?”

“I know what I saw, Marge.  It’s him.”

And a worried voice in the back of her head said, But what if she’s right?  You have had a couple of beers.  Look at him.  That can’t be the same guy.  Can it?

“I’m sure.”  But she didn’t sound as positive as she had, not even to herself.

“If you were so sure, Liz, then why didn’t you follow up on the police report?”

“I thought about it.  But Doug…”

“Doug didn’t believe you saw anything, and neither did the hotel.  The police didn’t take you seriously either.”  Marge’s voice dropped so as not to be overheard by the rest of the party.  “Liz, I don’t know what you saw in New York, but I don’t think it was what you think you saw.  I know you.  You probably checked the New York papers after this, didn’t you?”

“Well, I…”

“Didn’t you?”  Her voice was firm, brooking no nonsense.

Liz took a deep breath.  “Yes.  I checked the papers afterward.  And I didn’t see anything that fit.  But that doesn’t mean that there was nothing to see.  New York is a very big city.”

“And they just lost this dead guy?  Or maybe you think it was covered up?  You’re not going to say that are you?  Honestly, Liz, you sound like a Hitchcock movie.  No one else saw anything unusual, did they?” Now, Marge was using her patient voice, the one she saved for the kids.  “Don’t you think that you might have been the victim of a practical joke?”

“I saw what I saw.”

“Ooookay.  But Liz, when you start seeing things that no one else sees, that’s not a good thing.  It’s either too much beer, or maybe you ought to consider seeing someone about this.  Just to get an objective opinion.  But today?  Well, I think it’s about time that you went home.  Why don’t you get some rest and tell me tomorrow morning if you’re still so sure that that guy is a cold-blooded killer.  While you come to your senses, I’ll go apologize to him for you.”

Marge walked out of the kitchen towards the grill and Liz could see her from the window, talking to Bob.  Her arms were waving and she made the occasional gesture back towards Liz in the house.

Bob was backing away and shaking his head.  Clearly denying that he’d done or said anything to set her off.  He took a step towards the street.

Marge patted him on the back, and gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the party.

He made as if to go again, and Marge renewed the argument.

He let himself be persuaded and she could see Marge smiling at her success as she pointed out other potentially eligible females.

Ones who weren’t drunk.

Liz set down the rest of her beer on the counter and looked at the mess she’d made. It couldn’t be.  It made no sense when she thought about it.  How would the guy have found her?  New York was half a country away.  And it wasn’t like she had her home address written on the back of her neck.  There had to be a lot of guys who looked sort of like Bob.  He was average.  That was the point of average, wasn’t it?  You looked like a lot of people.

Whereas she looked like some kind of freak.  Too many beers before five and making a scene in public.  Again.  Dammit.  But it wasn’t like she needed to make a good impression on this Bob character.  He wasn’t even her type.

Like guys who were her type ever turned out to be such a great idea.  She picked the beer back up off the counter and took a long drink.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to go out, just once, with someone that didn’t turn out to be a complete creep who was only interested in sex.  Maybe Marge was right.  She was finally losing it.  She’d met a potentially nice guy, and had decided after a couple of drinks and one look that he was an axe murderer.

Well, not an axe murderer.  There hadn’t been an axe.  The crime scene had been too neat for that…

Dammit.  She drank again.  That was the problem.  She was embellishing.  If she didn’t stop now, the story was going to get bigger every time she told it, and pretty soon every guy she met was going to look kind of like the guy she thought she saw.    With deliberation, she set the bottle down on the counter.

Of course it was already empty.  But that wasn’t the point.  Time to cut down.  Sober up and get her head together.  Stop dating losers.  Stop being a drama queen.  Find a normal guy.

She looked out the window at Bob.

Maybe not quite that normal.

And, as if he knew she was staring, Bob looked away from the conversation he was having and towards the house, straight at the kitchen window.  And, instead of peering through them, he took off his glasses, to get a better look.

From the book: Need to Know
By: Christine Merrill
Copyright © 2009
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Need to Know