THE ST. REGIS HOTEL, NEW YORK, FIVE YEARS LATER
The carpeted hallway was empty. Lymon Bridges double-checked to make sure as he stepped out of Sheela Marks' plush penthouse suite. He glanced up and down from long habit, checking for potential threats, and found none.
He turned, nodded to Dot McGuire--Sheela's publicist--and waited while she and Sheela stepped outside. Sheela Marks clutched her fake gold-plated plastic Oscar statue in her manicured hands. She was holding it upside down like a misshapen kitchen knife. Dot, in her midforties, walked behind in a tweed jacket and gray skirt.
Sheela was resplendent. Dot had dressed her in a sheer silvery sheath by Dolce and Gabbana that glistened with each step. It also accented the sensual curves of her hip and bust. She wore white michelle K stilettos that gave her another five inches--as if she needed them--and a white furry Dior boa wrapped around her shoulders. Her hair was immaculate, piled up on top with long reddish blond locks falling down her back. The entire image was to remind people of her best actress Oscar last month for Blood Rage.
A quick glance behind assured him that both Dot and Sheela were following as he led the way to the service elevator. Lymon liked the St. Regis. They were used to the needs of security and capable of lodging prominent people with their demanding requirements. Lymon lifted his left cuff, saying, "We're on the way to the elevator."
"Roger," Paul's voice assured in his earpiece. "We're go. Limo's at the Door Three curb."
Sheela asked Dot, "God, are we still on for that thing in Atlanta? I mean, we're two weeks into the promotion, the box office is down fifteen million from last week. What doesthe studio expect? That CNN can bring us back up? The buzz is on Tobey Maguire and his robot revenge flick now."
"Just do it," Dot chided. "You know the game. So does the studio, and so, too, does CNN. No sense in pissing them off with a no-show. Face time never hurts. Not for this box office, and not for the next. It's just one more day."
"And another hotel, and another airplane, and another room-service meal." Her beautiful face pained. "No, I'll be honest. Here's what I really hate: It's the same damn questions that I've been answering for the last three weeks." Her voice dropped to a journalist's slightly superior lilt. "'What's it like to work with Kevin Spacey?' 'Have you been seeing anyone since you broke up with de Giulio?' 'What is your next project?' 'What's Jagged Cat about?' 'Who stars?' Over and over and over again. Dot, can't we just send them the clips?"
Lymon's lips twitched at the note of frustration. Hey, it was the modern reality. Back in the good old days actors didn't have to globe-trot to build hype for a picture. Firms like his could consist of one to four guys and cover everything. Now people in his business had to be like a mini secret service, employing enough coverage to ensure a client's protection around the globe.
The elevator dinged, and Lymon positioned himself. As the doors opened, he blocked Sheela's body with his own until satisfied that the cage was empty. He held the door as they entered and placed himself to repulse anyone who might try to slip in at the last instant. Only then did he press the button for the first floor.
"Zemeckis is throwing a party Friday night," Sheela reminded. "It would be good exposure for us. Universal and Dream Works are going to be there."
"Rex knows that" Dot frowned. "Look, we can do both. I'll talk to the producer at CNN, see if they can tape early. That means we fly in, shuttle to CNN Plaza, shoot the piece, and have you on the plane back to LA. Weather, CNN personnel, and the FAA permitting, you're at Zemeckis' by seven. Eight at the latest." She turned to Lymon. "Can you do that? Find us a jet back to LA on such short notice?"
"No problem," Lymon answered, mentally noting that he'd be on the phone to the Am-Ex Centurion travel service while Sheela was on camera.
The elevator slowed, settled, and stopped. Lymon was ready when the door opened and stepped out in a blocking stance. The hall was clear. He gave the briefest of nods and stepped in slightly behind Sheela's left shoulder as she started toward the door. The hallway wasn't long, no more than forty feet to the fire exit. He nodded at the security camera over the door. Hotel security had been notified of their route and supposedly were watching.
Past that last metal door, he had fifteen feet to the curb, and Paul would have the limo door unlocked for him to open.
"We're in the hallway," Lymon said into the sleeve mike.
"Roger," Paul returned. "Sidewalk's clear. No visible threats."
The word had no more than formed in Lymon's head when a door opened to the right. A man stepped out.
Instinct led Lymon to take a half-step forward. In that brief moment he took the guy's measure: medium height, dark complexion, Middle Eastern or maybe Mexican, muscular and clean-shaven. The guy was dressed in the hotel's bell stand uniform. He was holding something in each hand that Lymon couldn't see. The man jerked a short but polite nod, the sort staff were supposed to give guests, and said, "Good day."
Lymon was stepping past him when their eyes met. It was something feral, excited--something that shouldn't have been in a hotel guy's eyes.
Lymon was moving to block him when the guy lunged at Sheela.
Lymon's arm caught the guy's chest, spinning him slightly off balance. He could feel the muscle, the athletic charge in the man's tensed body. One of the assailant's arms flashed up, the elbow catching Lymon on the cheek like a pile driver, batting him hard. The other shot out for Sheela.
It was the briefest glimpse: something glass or clear plastic, capped in blue with a needle tipping it. The attacker's arm had thrust out like a fencer's lancing the device at Sheela.
Lymon would remember the expression on her face, the look of shock in her eyes, as she stumbled backward, away from the assault.
Lymon caught his balance, planted a foot, and ducked under the outstretched arm. He jabbed with his own elbow, striking at the man's ribs. That quickly, the assailant twisted away and his other hand rose, a blocky black thing clutched there. He jabbed it at Lymon's side.
The jolt sent a spasm through Lymon's body; lightning flashed behind his eyes. Convulsing, he bucked backward into Sheela.
Dot was screaming at the top of her lungs. Lymon could hear Sheela's panicked gasp as she struggled under his weight.
The bellhop hesitated, a desperate expression on his face. Lymon caught his breath, willed his body to react, and bulled his way forward on rubbery muscles as Sheela pushed him from behind.
The bellhop dug at a pocket and pulled something--an aluminum can--free. Lymon saw the man's thumb as it popped a ring up. The guy dropped the can before turning to run.
Catch the son of a bitch! It took all of his self-control to hesitate. The gleaming aluminum canister was hissing as it rolled along the carpet. Dot was still screaming something unintelligible. Sheela looked like a spotlighted deer.
Lymon turned, bent, and drove his body into Sheela's, tumbling her backward and bowling Dot off her feet. The fake Oscar statue bounced across the carpet.
"Stay down!" he screamed as he threw himself on top of Sheela's squirming body. "Don't move!"
He stared into her terror-bright eyes, was aware of her open mouth, of her tongue so pink behind perfect white teeth.
Bang! Lightning strobed, blinding in intensity. Lymon's body jerked at the concussion, and something slapped painfully through his skull. He winced, cringed, and tried to press Sheela's body into his own. His ears hurt and rang--the way they did when someone shot a large-caliber handgun in a small room.
He could feel Sheela's body, looked into her famous blueeyes, and watched her panic. Later, he would remember the pulse throbbing in her neck.
It seemed an eternity before he felt the hand on his shoulder, turned his head, and looked up. Paul was leaning down, his lips moving as if shouting, but only the horrible ringing filled Lymon's ears.
Dear God! What just happened here?
FBI HEADQUARTERS, PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, WASHINGTON, DC
The clicking of the pen was slowly driving Special Agent Christal Anaya toward lethal violence. She was sitting next to Sid Harness--maybe her last friend in the world--and he kept clicking the damned ballpoint with his thumb. She was in enough trouble--her career balanced on the line. At best, she faced professional humiliation, at worst, outright dismissal. Nevertheless it took every fiber of being and will to keep from reaching out, twisting the pen out of Sid's hand, and driving it into his neck like a stiletto.
The conference room was on the seventh floor, mucky-muck territory where the suits lived. It had taken extraordinary measures to bring Christal here. Measures so extreme that she had drawn the personal attention of the assistant director himself. He sat at the far end of the polished mahogany table, armed with a yellow legal pad, a cup of coffee, and a stack of reports that outlined both the salient and sordid facts that had brought Christal to this room.
To the AD's right sat Special Agent in Charge Peter Wirthing, from the Washington Metro Field Office. To his right was Hank Abrams, agent in charge of the WMFO's RICO team, and the cause of Christal's current dilemma. Not once since she had taken a seat had the filthy cabrón even dared to look her in the eyes.
She was seeing an entirely different side of Hank Abrams now. How could a man who had been so on top of things, so in charge, have collapsed into this dripping menudo?
"Agent Anaya," Wirthing said, after meeting the AD's cool gray eyes. "We have reviewed every aspect of this current situation.Until the unfortunate incident in the surveillance van, we couldn't have asked for more. Your work had been exemplary. Everything was falling into place." He looked down at the stack of glossy photos on the table in front of him. "After having received these, however, I'm afraid that we're going to have to drop our case against Gonzales."
Bill Smart, the federal prosecutor, who sat at the AD's left, nodded, looking down the table, past Sid and into Christal's eyes. "The fact is, the case is blown. After Gonzales got his hands on those"--he indicated the photos--"we haven't got a chance in hell of getting a conviction."
"In short," Wirthing said flatly, "everything we've worked toward for a year and a half has just flown out the window." His hard brown eyes met hers. "Bye-bye."
It was the way he said it. She swallowed hard, glancing at Hank. He just sat there, head down, eyes on his hands where they were clasped before him on the table. She could see sweat beading on his forehead. He looked like a man awaiting the gallows. A penitent who had been condemned in spite of his late-found piety and prayers.
She, however, refused to play that game. She kept her head up, glaring angrily. At least on the outside. Inside she felt like someone had taken a weed eater to her guts. The sick feeling, like she was going to throw up, just got worse.
"Agent Anaya, if you would excuse us for a moment?" the assistant director said. When she didn't move, he nodded irritably toward the door.
Christal tensed, nodded, and said, "Yes. Of course." She glanced miserably at Hank, but he just sat there, a whipped puppy, staring at his sweaty hands.
Thankfully, her legs didn't betray her on that walk to the door. When she grasped the knob and opened it, she looked back. All eyes but Hank's were on her, seeing what? The woman she was in the photos? Comparing them to her now?
Face rigid, she stepped out into the empty hallway, crossed her arms, and rubbed her hands up and down the sleeves of her gray wool suit coat. Having nothing else to do, she studied the faces on the portraits hanging from the walls. Dead white men. All of them. Smiling, gray-haired, lookingold and fat, like cats who had lived out of the can for so long they had forgotten how to hunt.
How did it come to this? She tried to think past the gloom and disbelief that clouded her mind. The last couple of days had been one shock after another. It had all begun the first time she had seen the photos. How did they do it? How did they get them?
The why wasn't an issue. With them, Enrique Gonzales destroyed any chance the government had of prosecution. No grand jury on earth would indict. The slime was going to walk. Because of her and Hank, and what they'd done in the van that night. Shit!
She might have been standing there for an eternity--or was it just seconds before Sid stepped out of the room and walked over? He stopped beside her, staring at the same portrait. He was antsy, rocking from his toes to his heels.
"So?" she asked softly.
He cleared his throat. "They think it would be best if you simply offered your resignation."
"He'll be taken care of."
"What?" she cried, whirling to stare. "Taken care of in what way?"
Sid looked like he'd just eaten something covered with fuzzy gray mold. "Demotion. Transfer to North Dakota or some such thing."
"Hey! He was half of it! That's his white butt sticking up in those photos! What do they think? That I raped him? Huh? That I manipulated him?"
"Hey, Christal," Sid pleaded, "I know how it looks, but listen--"
"Listen, hell! These guys are setting themselves up for one hell of an EEO--"
"No!" Sid grabbed her hands, cupping them in his own as he glared down into her hot eyes. "You don't want to play that card. Not even if it's only a threat."
"Why not? I get to resign? Hank gets a slap on the hand? Give me one fucking good reason why I don't file a sexual discrimination suit against those bastards!"
"Because they'll hammer you! What's it been? Three years that you've been with the Bureau? You know how it works. This isn't some supervisor walking up and grabbing your ass! You and Hank literally screwed up an eighteen-month investigation. A major-league scumball is going to walk away from this without having to pay for what he did, or what he's going to keep right on doing. A lot of your fellow agents are going to be really pissed about that. Think about the kind of testimony Wirthing can compile. A lot of people are going to look at it as a way of getting back at you, Chris. Even ... even old friends."
He smiled sadly. "No. Not me. But I'll feel the heat."
She searched his eyes. "You really mean that, don't you?"
He shrugged. "You know, if I wasn't married ..."
"It didn't stop Hank!"
"Yeah, yeah, well, you've always had really shitty taste in men."
She felt her soul slip down inside her. "They'd really do that? Go out of their way to destroy me?"
"Put yourself in their shoes. You know they would." Sid licked his lips. "And if you push it all the way to a hearing, you know those photos are going to be exhibit one. Center stage. I don't think you want that. Not if the press gets ahold of it." His eyes pleaded with her. "Take the easy way out. Fall on your sword. There's life after death."
"And if I fight for my life?"
"They'll see you in hell."
Copyright © 2005 by W. Michael Gear