Burl Rodenbaugh finished scanning the paper before him, then carefully placed it on the stack of pages and laid them precisely in the center of his polished mahogany desk. He paused for a moment, tented his fingers, and leaned back against the leather of his office chair.
Too bad that young novelist had chosen to travel down this particular story line. Rodenbaugh had enjoyed Out of the Darkness, Into the Light. Russell could have had a long, successful career.
With a sigh of regret, Rodenbaugh swiveled his chair to study the white glow of Washington’s marble skyline, then turned away from the window and picked up the phone. A moment later a receptionist came on the line, recognized Rodenbaugh’s name, and put the call through.
“Yes?” The voice in his ear was gruff.
“I have just finished reading it, Dennison, and I agree. Mr. Russell must be stopped.”
“Are you certain?”
“If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t bother, but Russell is the current leader of the pack. We’re talking a million readers easily, even if the man decides to write comic books. We can’t take the risk.”
“I thought New York had agreed to handle it.”
“They hired someone in Florida to shake him up, but I don’t think they were very . . . effective. According to this morning’s paper, Russell’s in town to speak to a convention of writers tonight, and I’m a little nervous about his topic. Freedom of speech, freedom from censorship—those are hot buttons and very popular among the literati. I don’t think Mr. Russell got the message. And we can’t have him mounting a crusade, now can we?”
“We’ll handle it.”
“Good. We’ll make it up to you.”
The phone clicked in Rodenbaugh’s hand.
Dennison Reyes replaced the receiver, and then waved his hand to dismiss his beautiful secretary. “That will be all for now, Daphne,” he said, giving her a nod. “But would you mind staying a bit late tonight? I may have some business to discuss over dinner.”
“Of course,” Daphne answered, untwining her long legs. She stood and walked away slowly, as if she knew he enjoyed watching her go. When the door had closed behind her, Reyes sighed and picked up the phone again.
The receptionist for BioTech Industries answered the phone, and after a moment, Scotty Salago came on the line. “What’s up, boss?” he asked, his New York accent slicing through the hiss of the phone line. Reyes frowned. Scotty had been in Washington for five years, but the practiced polish of most Washington urbanites had managed to elude him.
“We’ve got a job for you, Scotty. The NCC’s run into a potential problem. A Mr. Theo M. Russell.”
“Got it. What’s this problem look like?”
Reyes pulled a manila envelope from a desk drawer and slid out a grainy black-and-white photograph. “All I have is a bad photo from a surveillance camera, but it’ll do, I think. I’ll fax it to you.”
“OK. Where’s the problem now?”
Reyes smiled. “The Hilton Tower.”
“I’ll get to it.”
“Today, Scotty. This morning’s paper said Russell is supposed to speak tonight at the hotel. We don’t want him to talking to anyone, but we don’t want him dead. Yet.”
“No problem, boss.”
Irritated, Dennison rubbed the ridge his glasses had trenched into the bridge of his nose. “Don’t call me boss.”
Scotty Salago stood up and straightened the lapels on his suit coat. The nameplate on his office door said “Head of Security,” but Scotty knew his real job was simply to do whatever had to be done. He never failed. He had learned long ago, from his New York caporegime, that failure was bad for one’s health.
Scotty had taken his lieutenant’s lesson to heart and gained a respectable reputation. When the Moreno family had sent him to Washington five years earlier, Scotty had been pleased. The perks were great: a plush apartment overlooking the Potomac, a great salary plus bonuses, and free access to the busy, self-important atmosphere of Washington’s business district.
He smiled, remembering his first forays into the city’s social circles. The locals—those elegant, refined women who shopped in Georgetown—had taken pains to snub his brilliant opening lines in the bars and clubs. But they couldn’t help being impressed by the thick wad of bills he carried. They pretended hard to ignore him, but he’d seen the way even the most blue-blooded of them threw him a curious sidelong glance when he began flashing money around.
He was a New Yorker through and through, but he liked the flavor of the District. When the family brought him back to New York every Christmas to thank him for representing their interests in the nation’s capitol, he liked to sigh and pretend he was roughing it among the politicos, but it wasn’t really bad. He didn’t even mind working for that stuffy lawyer Dennison Reyes or that grim doctor Griffith Dunlap. He’d work for Santa Claus if the family wanted him to.
Scotty left his office and walked to the small lounge where Brennan Connor and Antonio Verde were playing poker. Brennan’s lean, attractive face gave away nothing as he studied his cards, while Antonio rearranged his hand, seemingly unhindered by a missing index finger on his left hand.
“Connor, Verde,” Scotty said, jerking his head toward his office. “Come in here. We got a job.”
Antonio grunted and Brennan stubbed out his cigarette, then tossed his cards onto the table. The fax machine on Scotty’s desk was humming as they entered the room, and through a blur of green light a fuzzy gray photograph rolled out onto the table.
Scotty ripped the curled paper from the machine as the green light clicked off. He studied the image for a moment. It was a lousy photo, made worse through fax transmission, but Scotty could see that the target was a tall, skeleton of a man with dark, bushy hair. The man’s face wasn’t clear, but it wouldn’t be hard to find a human toothpick like that.
Scotty thrust the paper at Brennan. “His name’s Theo M. Russell. He’s got to be handled today. You’ll find him at the Hilton Tower Hotel.”
Antonio peered over Brennan’s broad shoulder at the photo, his eyes intent. “What do you need?”
“Take him to the little house over in Fairmount Heights,” Scotty said. “Get him before six o’clock, then treat him to a good jolt.” Scotty sank into his chair and propped his feet on the desk. “Just keep him there until you hear from me.”
“Done,” Brennan said, folding the photo. With his usual economy of movement, he slid it into his coat pocket and turned to leave.
“And guys,” Scotty called, rapping the desk with his knuckles. Brennan and Antonio glanced back over their shoulders. “Keep it quiet, you hear?”
Brennan led Antonio through the kitchen of the Hilton Tower Hotel. The Irishman knew endless ways to find a person in a hotel, but this time extreme measures wouldn’t be needed. They usually weren’t unless the quarry had been forewarned or was especially clever. That wasn’t the case here, so Brennan was investigating the most direct approaches first. He knew the front desk wouldn’t give out names and room numbers, but kitchens had computers, too.
He strode confidently toward the small desk where a pretty Asian girl handled room service orders. Her eyes widened in surprise when the pair reached her, but Brennan flashed his most charming smile and put a one-hundred-dollar bill face up on her desk.
“We’d like to surprise a friend of ours,” he said, bending close enough to smell the girl’s perfume. “And we’d truly appreciate any help you could give us in locating his room number, lass. I know your helpful computer can tell us. The gentleman’s name is Theo M. Russell.”
“I-I’m not allowed to do that.” The girl’s voice was slightly unsteady. “I could lose my job.”
“Don’t worry,” Brennan said, keeping his voice low. His smile was cool as he touched a finger to the girl’s upper arm and stroked it casually. “I won’t tell. And I really need to know.”
Beside him, Antonio shifted his weight and crossed his arms. The girl glanced at him, only to be met with a steady, narrowed gaze. Though neither man did anything openly threatening, the girl swallowed nervously. Her eyes glanced up again to Brennan’s face, then downward like a frightened bird’s. He smiled humorlessly, trusting the power of his intimidation.
The girl’s hands trembled as she typed R-U-S-S-E-L-L on the keyboard. Like a bright beacon, “RUSSELL, THEO—2121” flashed on the screen.
“Twenty-one twenty-one.” Brennan glanced back at Antonio, then gave the girl an impenitent grin. “My thanks, lass. And those of our friend. He’ll be that glad to see us.” He scooped up the hundred-dollar bill and pressed it against her palm.
“I don’t want your money,” she said, her face paling under the fluorescent light. She held the bill between her thumb and index finger as though it repulsed her.
“Of course you do,” Brennan answered over his shoulder, moving confidently toward the service elevator.
Another hundred-dollar bill in Brennan’s hard fist convinced a waiter to lend his jacket and surrender a room service tray. As the waiter scurried back to the kitchen, Antonio held the tray as Brennan slipped into the tailored white uniform.
“It’s a good thing you’re thin,” Antonio said as Brennan caught his friend’s admiring glance. “I could never fit into that coat.”
“Shut up, Tony, and get in.”
“How many times I gotta tell you, the name’s Antonio.” he muttered as he followed Brennan into the service elevator.
The Irishman chuckled. He could always count on getting a rise out of Antonio when he used the Americanized version of the Italian’s name. Calling him “Tony” was bad enough, but the man once had an apoplectic attack when Brennan told him that Antonio Verde was just a stuck-up version of Tony Green.
Still fuming, Antonio pressed the button for the twenty-first floor and held his tongue as they ascended. When the elevator came to rest, Brennan nodded at his companion. “I’ll bring Russell back here and we’ll take off. This guy’s obviously no brain surgeon. He’s ignored some very clear warnings and hasn’t even bothered to make himself hard to find.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know he’s become a . . . high priority.”
Brennan rolled his eyes. “He knows. Anyone who’s in trouble with the Moreno family knows it. And they know that kind of trouble can be fatal. Just hold the elevator.”
All was quiet on the twenty-first floor as the elevator doors opened. Brennan adjusted the tray on his hand and walked casually to room 2121. He cocked his ear toward the door, listening. He heard nothing—no television, no voices, no ringing phone.
Maybe Russell wasn’t in the room. Brennan snarled in frustration. They should’ve had more time to plan this one. He hated rush jobs. Next time, Scotty had better give them the time they needed to do the job right.
He knocked, then drew his lips into a tight smile when he heard movement from behind the door. Someone was peering through the peephole. “Room service,” he called, trying hard to keep the adrenaline edge out of his voice.
A woman’s voice, faintly muffled, came through the door. “I didn’t order room service.”
Great. Just great. The guy had a woman in there. Now Brennan would have to leave the food, scope out the situation, and figure out if the woman was likely to be hanging around. They might have to take her out to bring in the bird.
“Complimentary room service,” Brennan called again, shifting the tray in his hands. “For Theo Russell.”
“Who’s it from?” the woman asked.
“They don’t give out that information, ma’am, but I assure you I’m legitimate,” he replied, his voice coolly confident. “You can call the hotel manager to confirm if you like.” Brennan heard the metallic clunk of the doorstop, then the click of the dead bolt, and he smiled. That line always worked. No one ever called to check him out. The door opened a few inches. A good-looking woman with wide green eyes and short brown hair stood in the opening and stared in confusion at the tray. Russell might be mangy-looking, but he had good taste in women.
“As I said, this tray is for Theo Russell. I’m afraid he’ll need to sign for it.” Brennan tried to peer past the woman into the room.
“I’m Theodora Russell. I might be able to clear up this confusion if you tell me who sent the tray.”
Brennan couldn’t stop his surprise from showing on his face, and the woman gave him an apologetic smile. What was going on? Somebody had made a mistake, and he’d be the one to pay for it. He’d broken his number one rule: Never underestimate the opposition. He had assumed Theo Russell was stupid enough to check in under his own name, but the guy wasn’t so careless, after all. If Brennan had been by himself, he would have turned the air blue. As it was, it took all of his finesse to draw a calming breath and look at the woman.
There was no reason to involve her in his problem. Not yet, anyway.
“My mistake,” he said, bowing slightly. “You, lassie, clearly are not a Theodore. Even so, I suppose this tray is for you.”
Before she could protest, he pushed the door open and pressed his way into her room. He heard her sputtering helplessly, but he ignored her and placed the tray on the table near the window. The place smelled of perfume, and for one fleeting moment he wished he could linger. But papers littered the bed, a briefcase lay on the floor, the television sat dark and silent. This pretty woman had business on the brain. He preferred women with much different . . . tastes. Besides, he had a job to finish.
“Could you tell me if I should thank Janet Fischer for this?” she asked, fumbling in her purse. She pulled out a dollar bill, and Brennan stared in confusion until he realized she was offering him a tip. A tip? If she’d been his target, she’d be unconscious and in the elevator by now. But there she stood, a green-eyed angel, innocently offering him a dollar.
He waved his hand graciously and moved toward the door. “It’s on the house,” he said, stepping into the hall. “Enjoy whatever it is.” He turned to look at her one more time, an engaging smile on his face. “Smells like a hamburger and fries.”
“OK. I will enjoy it.” The woman smiled back and closed the door. Brennan heard the dead bolt click again. He shook his head and went back to the elevator, wondering how he’d explain this to Antonio.
It felt good to be out of that uncomfortable monkey suit the waiters had to wear, but a growing sense of frustration sent nervous flutterings through Brennan’s chest as he and Antonio sat on a sofa in the hotel lobby pretending to read newspapers. Time was bearing down on them; they had no guarantee they’d snag their prey before Scotty’s deadline. What if Russell didn’t come out of his room? What if their information was wrong and Russell wasn’t even staying at the Hilton?
One thing was certain: It didn’t pay to disappoint Scotty Salago. And it was a waste of time to offer reasons or excuses. He accepted neither. Brennan knew they’d better grab Theodore M. Russell by six o’clock or . . . He grimaced. He didn’t even want to think of the consequences.
Antonio stirred restlessly and stood to stretch. Brennan looked up from his paper and scanned the spacious lobby. A kaleidoscope of people surrounded them, constantly changing, shifting positions. The revolving doors propelled people through the lobby, the elevators returned the volley. But neither avenue yielded the thin man in Scotty’s photograph.
Among the people flooding through the lobby was the pretty woman from room 2121. She walked to the gift shop, browsed a few minutes, then returned to the elevator with a newspaper under her arm and a yellow bag of peanut candies in her hand. She walked quickly, rarely looking up, and Brennan thought she seemed nervous. Once, she glanced his way as if she’d felt his eyes appraising her, but Brennan raised his newspaper. When he peered out again, she had disappeared.
“Did you see that woman?” Brennan asked Antonio, jerking his head toward the closing elevator doors.
“The brown-haired one in jeans. Nice-looking.”
“All the women here are nice-looking.”
Brennan ignored that comment. “She was the woman in the room.”
“The other Theo Russell?”
“Shut up.” Brennan hissed, glancing around to see if anyone nearby had heard. He lowered his voice. “Yeah. That was her.”
Antonio grinned and scratched the nub on his freckled hand. “Maybe we surprise Scotty and bring him a companion, huh?”
“We’ve got to bring him something,” Brennan muttered, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees. He glanced again around the lobby. “Soon.”
His watch beeped, and Brennan felt his stomach tighten again. Five o’clock. One hour left. They’d been sitting in the lobby since three, and Brennan had mentally compared everyone who walked by to the grainy black-and-white faxed photo in his coat pocket. Nobody yet had resembled the bushy-headed toothpick man in the picture. Still, Russell was supposed to speak in the ballroom on the ground floor. Unless he was Houdini, he’d have to walk right by them.
At five forty-three all of Brennan’s inner warning systems went off at once. A tall man with dark, wet hair stepped off the elevator and hurried toward the gift shop. The Irishman tossed his cigarette into the potted plant next to the couch and snapped his fingers in Antonio’s direction. Together they stood and followed.
A row of pay phones hung on the wall outside the gift shop, and Antonio grinned and lifted a receiver to his ear as Brennan followed the dark-haired man inside the shop. There could be no doubt. The man’s hair was slicked back—he was probably fresh from the shower—but he was a clear match.
Theodore Russell was all but wrapped up and delivered.
As Brennan pretended to be interested in postcards, the man placed a disposable razor on the counter, then fished a handful of quarters from his pocket and placed them in the palm of an adolescent salesclerk. The clerk joked that toothbrushes and razors were his best-selling items. People always left home and forgot them.
“Right,” the tall man said, pocketing his razor. He turned to leave, and Brennan followed him into the hallway.
“Mr. Russell,” Brennan called, taking pains to keep his voice level. The tall man stopped in midstep but did not turn around.
Out in the silent hallway, the man’s fear was palpable. Brennan injected a smile into his voice. “I understand you’re a writer. Being Irish, and havin’ a way with words, I fancy myself a writer, too. Do you think you’ll have time to look at a wee manuscript of mine?”
At the pay phones, Antonio hung up the receiver and blocked the man’s way through the hallway. Brennan glanced back at the salesclerk inside the gift shop. The young man had perched on a stool behind the counter and was engrossed in a magazine. Good.
“I don’t do manuscript evaluations,” Russell said, his voice high pitched and reedy.
“Oh, I think you’ll do this one,” Brennan said, his tone hard and cold. He stepped up to the thin man’s elbow and clasped it firmly as Antonio narrowed the gap, a shadowy sneer hovering about his heavy mouth.
Brennan lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You’re to come with us, Mr. Russell,” he said, his words pitched to reach the author’s ear and not a breath beyond. “I’d strongly discourage any resistance on your part. However, we are prepared to compel you should the need arise. And if you do anything to attract attention, I really can’t guarantee your safety.” He painted on a warm smile. “So, please, no unpleasantness. Just come along for a little talk, and when we’re done, you’ll walk away as free as a bird.”
In front of Russell, Antonio smiled and put his hands in his pockets, the careful action pulling his jacket open a bit and exposing the hilt of his .357 Magnum. A small sound gurgled in the writer’s throat.
“I don’t think you’ll want to resist and cause a scene,” Brennan said, moving to the author’s side. “Antonio’s not a very good shot, and he might miss your leg and hit some vital organ. Besides, we’re just going to take you on a short ride, Mr. Russell. Remember, in a few hours we’ll let you go anywhere you want.”
The man still didn’t move. Brennan noted how the man’s eyes darted quickly to the left and right, as though mentally evaluating the odds of surviving a mad dash for the lobby. Brennan made a tsking sound and nodded to his partner, and Antonio narrowed his dark eyes and pulled the gun from its holster. The unmistakable click of a hammer being cocked broke the stillness.
The writer turned to Brennan, a film of sweat on his pasty face. “I’ll be missed. I’m supposed to give a speech tonight.”
“Well, we’ll have to take care of that,” Brennan answered, calmly leading the author toward the escalator that led down to the parking garage. “We can’t have your friends worrying about you, can we now? And don’t worry, they’ll adjust. No one is indispensable, Mr. Russell. Haven’t you learned that yet? You’ll call the hotel desk and tell them you’re not feeling well. Someone else will give your speech, and you’ll be perfectly free to spend a little time with us.”
Brennan hadn’t thought it would be possible, but the author grew a shade paler as the escalator deposited them on the lower floor. He smiled, satisfied. The man was finally getting the message.
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