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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Stakes

A Mystery

Ben Sanders

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ONE

KINGS POINT, NY

Miles Keller


He didn’t like working close to home. There was a chance of being recognized. Even in a town of eight million people, overlaps happen in ways you never guess. That’d liven things up: roll in on a job, and someone knows your voice, remembers exactly where they met you. He made exceptions, though, when payoffs warranted, and tonight would be worth it: visit a lawyer, and pick up two hundred grand for the effort.

But big money often meant big risk, so with the take being six figures, he’d felt backup was justified. His man tonight was Walter Stokes, thirty-six years old, already on his first strike after doing time upstate for robbery. Miles thought that was ballsy, signing on for a felony given his record, but then again, this being an aggravated offense, a clean slate wouldn’t be much help if he got caught. Balls notwithstanding, Stokes hadn’t been his first choice: the backup referrals came through Wynn Stanton—Miles’s talent agent, as he called himself—and Wynn had recommended a Special Forces guy who’d done good work on two prior jobs. So that had been that, until the Special Forces man got redeployed on some government-sanctioned abduction job, and Miles had to go with Stokes as a consolation prize. He took it as a sign: if it was okay to rendition terror suspects, it was okay to rob bent lawyers.

Which was how he and Stokes came to be parked on a street up in Kings Point, New York, at ten P.M. on a Saturday in October. It was an affluent-looking street, tidy New England clapboard fronted by thick lawn, trees lining the verge. The lawyer’s place was two hundred yards away, on the other side of a T-intersection. His name was Lane Covey. He was the go-between on an assassination designed to look like B-and-E gone wrong. The hit fee was a very sweet two hundred cold, and it was coming tonight. Miles’s plan: wait for the delivery, and then go in and take the cash.

All Stokes had to do was carry a gun, but the man seemed determined to prove he was someone to worry about. He’d been fidgety when Miles picked him up in the stolen Subaru, eyes wide like he’d just heard good news, and you had to wonder how many lines he’d sniffed to blow the rust out. Now here he was, thirty minutes from go time, and he wanted to smoke some grass, too.

Miles let him roll the joint and stick it in his mouth before he said, “Not on my job, you’re not.”

Stokes glanced across at him. He was one of those pitch-black black guys, a streetlight up ahead putting a rind of glow on the edge of his shaved skull. He said, “Helps me come down easier.” He traced a shallow slope with his hand, like graphing the tail end of his high.

Miles hooked his gloved thumbs in the bottom of the steering wheel. He said, “You don’t go up, you don’t need to come down, so if you’d stayed clean, you’d be fine.”

Stokes held the joint in two fingers, the tip tracing little circles, like he was coming up with something nuanced. He said, “Yeah. But this is like one of those what-do-you-call-it. Sunk costs.” He leaned in a fraction, like it would help the argument: “Like, I can’t unsniff the coke, so I gotta intervene.”

Miles thought about that, watching the lawyer’s place. It was two-story, rectangular in plan, a garage on the left and a portico midway down. He’d used the county’s architectural drawings to memorize the internal layout. Right now, there was a black Range Rover Sport parked out front, which he knew was the property of a Mr. Edward Rhys, an associate at a security firm called Hayman Coates. As far as Miles could tell, there were only three of them in the house: Covey, Rhys, and Covey’s wife, Marilyn. Marilyn had actually proved herself quite useful. The Division of Corporations listed her as a director at an accounting firm based in Queens. Miles had visited last week, broken into her car, and used an RF detector to tell him the frequency of her garage-door opener. One of Wynn’s guys had programmed another unit to the required signal, and now, in theory, Miles had keyless entry to the house.

He said, “Walter?”

“Mm-hm?”

“My experience, the answer to the problem is never ‘more drugs.’”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “Great way to get noticed, too, lighting a match in a dark car.”

Stokes said, “They gonna see my teeth anyway,” and grinned to prove it, a faint gleam in the dark. But he put the joint away in his little joint pouch, whatever it was, and said, “Funny, you’re not really what I pictured.”

Miles didn’t answer, waited to hear what he was supposed to look like.

Stokes said, “Wynn told me you’re Mr. Meticulous, so I thought you’d be like, three back and sides and a clenched jaw.”

Miles said, “I got a clenched jaw, you just can’t see it with the beard.”

Stokes liked that. He laughed and said, “Yeah. You’re all right, man.”

Miles said, “That’s good.”

They’d been quiet the first twenty minutes, but now Stokes was warming up. He said, “You do this much?”

Miles said, “Every now and then.”

Stokes said, “I figured you must be like a pro or something, Wynn kind of said all the intel came through you, which was different. I mean, he normally coordinates, so sorta made me wonder what your background is…”

Miles said, “I’m a pro, but I’m not a regular, put it that way.”

Stokes turned his lip out and nodded. “That’s cool.” He smiled again. “Maybe the next guy wants to inhale a bit of the Mary Jane, you could let him know it’s off limits before he rolls the whole thing, know’m saying?”

Miles said, “Yeah. But my way was more memorable, right? Next time you want to light up on a job, you might have second thoughts.”

Stokes laughed again. “You lucky I’m not having second thoughts now.” He went quiet a moment and then said, “You know what I did before this?”

Miles did, but he shook his head anyway.

Stokes said, “I was with the cops, up in New Paltz? We used to go along to B-and-Es, not that often we actually solved one, you know? Hardly ever. So after a while, I just thought, Fuck it, I’m on the wrong side of the line.”

“You’re on the right side of it tonight.”

“Yeah? How’s that?”

Miles didn’t answer.

Stokes said, “I had this long-term goal when I was PD, I was gonna be Secret Service one day, guard the White House? Went down to D.C. this one time, see them in action, and get this: they make them go round on bicycles. Like, ballistics gear and assault rifles and shit, and they’re on a bike with pedals.”

“So you canned that idea.”

“Yeah, well, like. It’d piss you off, join the Secret Service thinking you’re gonna be the king of cool, and then they make you ride a fucking bicycle.”

Miles didn’t answer. He could see headlights on the cross street, coming up to Covey’s place.

Stokes said, “Mm, Audi. I had a spare hundred grand, I’d have me a bit of that. This isn’t actually the real rich area, you know? Gotta head about ten minutes that way”—he hiked a thumb—“gets real nice. Like, offshore trusts, butlers called Jenkins and shit.”

The car was a sedan, maybe an A8 model, Miles thought. It turned in to the lawyer’s driveway and idled for a moment, headlights bright as a UFO landing. Then the door rose and the car eased inside, into the vacant space beside Covey’s black Lexus.

Stokes said, “Where’s Mrs. Lawyer’s car?”

“Must’ve moved it.”

Stokes said, “What you listening to?”

Miles had a speaker bud in one ear, wired through his collar to the iPod in his pocket. He said, “Audiobook. The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton.”

“You keep it playing while you’re on the job?”

Miles said, “Depends on the job.”

“Dude I know, he’s a PI? Does that on stakeouts, listens to audiobooks on YouTube. Reckons he’s got through all of David Foster Wallace, just sitting in his car, waiting for shit to happen.”

The house’s ground-floor lights were on, but the blinds were down. Miles checked his pockets. He had the iPod, his hacked garage-door opener, and a slim fold of cash clipped to his hotel keycard. The Sig was on his belt, and he had a backup clip and lockpicks in his coat. He reached behind him to the backseat and felt around for his ski mask and tugged it on.

Stokes said, “That’s not bad, what is that?”

“Merino wool.”

“Yeah, I like it. Looks real light.”

Miles tugged the speaker from his ear and let it dangle at his collar, reached in his pocket to pause the iPod. The garage door was coming up now, a red tinge inside from the Audi’s brake lights. The drop was done, and now they were getting out of there.

Stokes said, “They don’t mess around, do they?”

Miles said, “You got a gun?”

Stokes patted his right hip. “Colt .45. America’s finest.”

“You know how to drive a car?”

Stokes scoffed. “Yeah, that’s the one thing I just never got around to learning.”

Miles looked at him, waiting.

Stokes said, “Yeah, Christ, I know how to drive a car.”

“Good. When you see me come out of the house, come on over and pick me up.”

“What, you going in solo?”

“I am now.”

“Yeah? Why’s that? ’Cause you found out I’m black?”

Miles said, “No, ’cause I found out you’re high. You’re lucky I trust you enough to take the wheel.”

“Yeah, whatever, I don’t give a shit.” He nodded at the house “What about the Range Rover guy?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“You give it thirty minutes, he might be gone.”

“Yeah, or I give it thirty minutes, and someone else’ll show up for their cut.”

The cabin light was off, so there was no giveaway glow as he opened his door. It was a cold evening, and it smelled like squared-away suburbia: cut grass, and a hint of fresh paint from somewhere. The only traffic noise was from the disappearing Audi, a smooth V-8 howl fading off into the night. He drew the Sig from its holster and walked up the street in the middle of the lane with the pistol in one hand and his garage-door opener in the other.

There was a light on upstairs at Covey’s now, and Miles figured that was where the money was headed—probably to a safe in the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. He reached the curb and pressed the button on his pirated remote, and the motor kicked in with its dull hum. He walked down past the garage and made a right, headed along the rear of the house. There was a swimming pool lit arctic blue by underwater lights, and a patio area with an outdoor grill.

A pair of French doors accessed the kitchen. Miles liked the décor: blond timber floors, and polished concrete countertops. By the sink were two used plates and some cutlery, and a baking dish crusted with what might’ve been lasagna. He held the pistol under his arm and took the torsion wrench and the half-diamond pick from their loops in his inner coat pocket.

The French doors had a Schlage deadbolt, too high-end to be rake-picked. He had to set each pin in turn. He worked back to front, the plastic earbuds at his collar swinging and tapping with each small motion.

Time obeys a different scale for break-ins, so slow it’s like each second is drawn out through the barrel of the lock. He had that impression every time. You have to open the door to regain normal speed.

It took him ninety seconds.

The last pin finally sat up on the shear line, and the barrel made its solid click and turn. He nudged the door back quietly and saw the night reflections pan across the glass. He put away his tools and held the gun in both hands. He could smell the lasagna now, and hear a television off to his left, in the main living room.

He closed the door behind him and turned right through the kitchen, headed along the corridor toward the garage. No photographs on the walls, but there was artwork that seemed to have a Catskill theme: moody oil paintings of pine-covered hills, a tableau of two kids kneeling by a forest stream. He could hear the garage-door motor again, a quiet, meditative hum, and then a faint boom preceding the quiet.

He made a left just before the garage, and went into the guest living room. It was a comfortable-looking space: A full-height bookcase in dark timber against one wall, with an alcove for the television—currently set to CNN. A sofa opposite the TV, with a coffee table between them, and a straight-back chair by the door. Two leather recliners on either side of the window that faced the front yard.

Miles took the chair by the door, sat with an ankle across his knee, and the pistol raised in one hand. He knew it would give the right impression. No one wants a cool intruder. If you make yourself at home, it always unsettles them. They’ve lost their sense of possession and control.

He could hear footsteps in the garage, cautious and measured, Eddie Rhys no doubt giving the place a once-over. Miles kept the gun raised, the sights chest-high on the oblique slice of doorway. Footsteps again, a brisk rhythm as the guy crossed the garage.

Miles let his breath out, watched the muzzle move slightly with his heartbeat. A tiny waver on a slow rhythm. He heard the snap of the light switch, and then softer footsteps on the carpeted hallway. He tracked the guy with the gun as he entered the room, and it wasn’t until Rhys was seated on the sofa that he noticed Miles in the corner: the quiet visitor with his black suit and black mask and black gun.

To the man’s credit, he hid his shock well: just a quick jolt like he’d touched something hot, and then he closed his eyes and let his breath out his nose.

Miles said, “You security?”

The guy didn’t answer. He had the short-back-and-sides look that Stokes was obviously fond of.

Miles took silence to mean yes. He said, “Nice job.”

“What do you want?”

Miles heard faint laughter at the other end of the house, and then glasses clinking. He said, “Just the money.”

“There isn’t any.”

“So what are you doing here? Just a sleepover?”

Rhys didn’t answer.

Miles said, “They give you some lasagna?”

Rhys didn’t answer. He was a thickset man in his forties, probably ex-military or police, probably thinking retirement was meant to be easier than this.

Miles said, “Nice you get your own living room. Spread your arms along the back of the chair for me, tuck your hands down the cushions.”

Rhys complied. He had a big wingspan. Miles saw a pistol in a holster on his right hip. He said, “Covey’s just the middleman. So when’s the pickup?”

He saw the guy glance away and then back, some kind of calculation going on. Rhys said, “Any minute.”

Miles doubted that. The drop was only ten minutes ago, and Covey wouldn’t want an overlap. But he said, “All right. We better make it fast. Tell the criminal attorney his TV’s on the fritz.”

Rhys looked at him and drew a breath and called, “Hey, Lane? The picture in here’s gone all splotchy.”

Miles nodded. “Nice. I like that.” He tilted his head to listen and said, “Try again. It’s a big house.”

Rhys drew another breath and shouted, “Hey, Lane? Can you take a look at this?”

Silence for a few seconds, but then he heard feet in the hallway, and then Lane Covey was in the room. Seeing a masked visitor gave him a shock—the same little jump Rhys had done—but he recovered fast. He looked down at Miles with disdain and said, “The fuck is this?”

Not impressed, and not intimidated, either. He was a tall man in his midsixties, longish gray hair and features that were starting to age, eyes going dark and hollow under his brow. He had some spine though, and he smiled lopsidedly, trying to seem bored as he said, “This is the wrong fucking jackpot to be ripping off, pal.”

Putting some Boston into an accent that had been plainer a moment ago, wanting to sound like he meant it: wrong fucken jackpawt.

Miles said, “Well, at least we know there’s a jackpot.”

No one answered.

Miles said, “Let’s get Mrs. Covey in here too, shall we? Don’t startle her.”

Lane Covey smiled, like this was a game he’d go along with for now. Then he closed his eyes and turned his head to the door and called, “Sweetheart. Can you give me a hand with this, please?”

Miles said, “That’s a good way to put it.”

They all listened to her footsteps in the hall, and then Marilyn Covey was in the doorway. She was a similar age to her husband, but kind of prim and regal, Miles thought, the way she stood with her heels together and her wineglass in both hands, looking at him down her nose.

She said, “Oh.”

Miles said, “Don’t worry. I’ve just come for your loot.”

Marilyn Covey took a sip of wine and said, “You’ve come to the wrong house.”

“Your husband just told me there’s a jackpot.”

Marilyn looked over at Lane and then back to Miles. Their composure was interesting. He’d anticipated more tension. Maybe they were used to people showing up with guns. He put his elbow on the armrest and tilted his head to keep his eye line on the pistol sights. He said, “I’d thought you’d be more grateful. I could’ve come in here and shot all three of you.”

Marilyn Covey lifted an eyebrow and said, “But then how would you find the money?”

Miles said, “It’s in the safe in your walk-in closet upstairs.”

Marilyn held his gaze, but her husband ran a hand through his hair.

Miles said, “Look. Let’s get past the bit where you pretend there’s nothing for me to take. I know the drop just now was payment for the murder of a man named Carl Tobin. I know the Russian mafia was contracted for the hit, and I know the attorney here was the middleman. So you can bring me the money now, or tomorrow NYPD will come asking for it. I think my way’s easier. Police at your door, kind of unseemly in this zip code.”

No one moved.

Miles looked at Marilyn and said, “I was interested to see your reaction. Wasn’t sure if you were in on everything, or if it’d come as a bit of a shock. So it’s nice to know that you’re part of it. If I have to shoot you.”

She watched him over her glass as she had another sip of wine, and Miles looked back at Lane Covey to see him smiling now.

The lawyer said, “So now what? We all going upstairs to get the cash?”

He seemed trapped with this notion that things would end in his favor. Miles decided this wasn’t their first experience of pistol diplomacy. He said, “Lane, if I pull the trigger, your neighbors are going to call the police. You probably know more about it than me, but from what I understand, gunshot noise counts as probable cause, which means the cops can come in without a warrant. And I don’t think you want cops in your house, do you?”

No one answered. Marilyn Covey looked at the television—Wolf Blitzer, and a BREAKING NEWS banner—and he saw a muscle tighten in her jaw.

Miles said, “I can walk away and never think about any of this again. But I don’t think you’re in the same position. So you should bear that in mind. You’ve got more to lose than I do. You keep saying that under your breath, everyone’ll be fine.”

He had their attention now, and the disdain seemed to be fading. They seemed to realize he was taking this seriously, that he wasn’t just some guy in an outfit.

Miles said, “Mr. Rhys, use your left hand, take your phone out of your pocket for me.”

“It’s in my right pocket.”

Miles said, “I’m sure you’ll cope. Make sure you don’t touch that gun, though.”

The three of them watched while Rhys reached across himself awkwardly and removed an iPhone from his trouser pocket.

Miles said, “Throw it here.”

Rhys lobbed it underhand, and Miles caught it without shifting his gaze from the gunsights. He waited for Rhys to slip his hand down behind the cushion again.

Miles said, “What’s your code?”

“There isn’t one. You just swipe.”

Miles did as directed, and then navigated to the address book. He found Marilyn Covey under “C,” and pushed the icon for a video call. Silence—she didn’t have it on her. He scrolled down farther and found Oswald Lane Covey, and tried that number. Covey’s trouser pocket started singing. He glanced down as if baffled by the sound.

Miles said, “It’s for you, Lane.”

Covey took the phone from his pocket, flipped it on one axis and then another to get it upright, and then the screen in Miles’s hand showed a low-angle shot up Covey’s arm to a disapproving face.

Miles said, “Power of technology. This is going to be easy.”

No one answered, but he saw the digital Covey glance right, over to the window, and Miles looked up in time to see long blades of headlight glow panning through the blinds, and then he heard the sound of a car pull up outside. Rhys hadn’t lied after all: this must be the pickup.

Covey smiled down at him. “How’s your multitasking?”

Meaning four- or five-on-one might be a handful.

Miles said, “We’ll find out. If it gets too much, I’ll just have to shoot someone.” He said to Edward Rhys, “Use your left hand again and take the holster off your belt. And I mean the whole thing.” He heard a car door slam. “You touch the gun, I’m going to put a bullet in you.”

Rhys complied, right hand raised palm-out like it might fend off lead. He lifted the holster off his belt and leaned forward and placed it in front of him on the coffee table.

Miles said, “Well done.” He kept his aim on Rhys and looked over at Lane Covey. “Give Marilyn the phone.”

The doorbell rang.

The three of them looked toward the noise, and then Lane looked over at his wife—a silent question—like trying to decide if there was an exit coming up.

Miles said, “Just look at me. I’m the one who decides who gets shot.” He nodded at Lane and said, “Give Marilyn the phone.”

The picture on his handheld screen blurred and then gained clarity as the lawyer passed the phone to his wife.

Miles said, “Hold it out in front of you.”

Marilyn complied, the phone at arm’s length like some kind of Geiger counter. On the screen in his hand, Miles saw an image of himself, sitting there masked in his armchair with the gun, and his elbow propped on the rest.

He kept his tone conversational: “All right. Mr. Rhys, in a moment you’re going to answer the door and bring our guest in here. Marilyn, you’re going to collect my two hundred grand. If either of you can’t manage, then I’m going to have to take it out on Mr. Covey.”

Marilyn Covey said, “Fuck you, you little shit.”

It wasn’t a royal turn of phrase, but she gave it a noble edge somehow, lifting her chin as she spoke, like he was violating hallowed privilege.

Miles said, “You can go now, Marilyn. Keep the phone out in front of you.”

She just watched him.

Miles said to her, “I’ve weighed this all up very carefully, and if I have to shoot the crooked wife of a crooked lawyer and walk away without my payoff, so be it. But there’re two sides to all this, and yours is the fatal one.”

She turned away then, but she was smiling to save face, letting him know this was far from the end of the matter. He watched on the little screen as she walked along the corridor, and then made a left and started up the stairs.

The doorbell rang again, and someone knocked this time, too. Miles pointed the gun at Covey and held the phone up close to the pistol. He said, “Mr. Rhys, you can go to the front door, but don’t open it until I tell you to.”

Rhys got up and crossed the room, and Covey ran his hands through his hair. He didn’t seem so bored and unimpressed now.

Miles waited until Rhys was along the hallway, and said, “What’s your liquidity right now?”

“My liquidity?”

Miles watched Marilyn’s progress in the upstairs hallway, and said, “Yeah. How much have you got in the bank?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

The doorbell rang again, a double push to convey impatience.

Miles said, “Well, if the money goes missing in your custody, common sense implies you’re liable. So it’s a question of whether or not you can pay.”

Covey said, “Jesus Christ, fuck you. I’m going to be out a hundred and eighty grand.”

Miles raised his voice slightly and said, “Mr. Rhys, you can open the door.” Then to Covey: “Twenty K’s not a bad fee. So what’s your liquidity like?”

“Fuck you, I got debts.”

“Which is why you bought into this circus, right?”

Covey didn’t answer.

Miles’s screen showed a large document safe, door open, a leather duffel inside, standing upright. Stacked cash on a shelf above, and Marilyn’s hand raking up a bundle, the close-range lens giving her a giant’s fist. In the entry hall he heard Edward Rhys saying, “Follow me.”

Miles kept the phone up by the gun and shifted the sights to the narrow slice of door, and a second later Edward Rhys stepped in, followed by a bald man in his early forties. The guy was wearing a bright-red Adidas tracksuit, the top unzipped over a white T-shirt.

He saw Miles, but didn’t break step as he entered. He gestured at him as if tossing out the dregs in a glass and said, “What’s this?”

Miles said, “Everyone’s been very composed so far.”

The tracksuit man walked over to the window and claimed an armchair, sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His mouth curled up on one side as he said, “You trying to set a record or something? Dumbest goddamned hijacking anyone ever heard of.”

He sounded Russian. Miles said, “Are you Russian?”

The guy smiled. “Are you a moron? Do you know who you’re ripping off?”

Miles didn’t answer, watched on his phone as Marilyn Covey descended the stairs, and a few seconds later she was back in the room with the leather duffel from the safe. She dropped it on the floor at Miles’s feet. The label said Gucci.

Miles put the phone down and said, “They could’ve just used a Costco bag, saved another few thousand.”

The tracksuit man said, “We’ll see if you’re still Mr. Funny Guy when we find you.”

Miles said, “I don’t think you’ll find me.”

The tracksuit man seemed to be enjoying himself, not too bothered by the fact he’d be leaving with less money than he should be. Or maybe it wasn’t his money. He said, “There’s only a few people who could put this together. So we’ll catch up eventually.”

Miles leaned forward and tugged the duffel’s zipper open, saw bundled hundreds in ten-thousand-dollar bands. He thumbed a random stack in case it was bulked with ones or paper, but it looked legitimate. He took out four bands—forty grand—and lobbed them gently underhand onto the coffee table. The stack slid apart on impact and ended in a vague grouping.

The tracksuit man said, “What’s this?”

Miles said, “Insurance.”

“Yeah? For what?”

Miles said, “Mr. Covey owes you a hundred and eighty K, so we’ll call that a down payment. I don’t want him murdered before he can get the rest of it together.”

Tracksuit man’s smile grew, showing teeth. He said, “What are you, the gentleman thief?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

The man leaned back, put a white Adidas sneaker up on the opposite chair, rocked the knee from side to side as he looked at Miles, thinking something over. He said, “Well, I can be a gentleman, too. You want to leave the bag on the floor, we don’t have to take this any further. You walk away, we can forget the whole thing. Otherwise.” He made a gun with his fingers, pursed his lips, and kissed the sound of a shot.

Miles said, “Everybody does that.” He stood up. “I need your car keys.”

* * *

He told Stokes to take backstreets for the getaway: Great Neck Gardens to Kensington and then down through Thomaston. Stokes kept it slow, thirty miles an hour through the quiet suburbs while Miles checked the cash, thumbing each band for cutouts or a GPS unit. But the money was clean: a hundred and sixty grand in nonsequential used bills, and no antitheft measures. He transferred it all to a briefcase he’d brought with him, and then dropped the duffel out his window as they went past a golf club. He figured it wouldn’t be too incongruous. Golfers would’ve seen Gucci before.

A minute later they joined the Long Island Expressway, and he finally felt himself relax, the stream of westbound traffic turning them anonymous. Stokes stayed quiet another mile, watching his mirrors as he drove, and then said, “Who was the dude in the tracksuit? He had some flair.”

His voice sounded tight, like he hadn’t quite worked off all the nerves.

Miles glanced across at him, Stokes driving with one hand and the other in his lap, the .45 nestled cross-draw in his belt.

Miles said, “I don’t know. He was colorful though, wasn’t he?”

Stokes was silent another minute, finger tapping the wheel like he was counting the yards. Eventually he said, “Maybe like, in the mother country, it’s a strict dress code, and then they come here and it’s way more chilled. Let them wear Adidas.”

“Yeah. And drive convertibles.” He jiggled his confiscated keys. It was a nice collection: Covey’s Lexus, Rhys’s Range Rover, the tracksuit man’s Bentley coupe. He said, “If we had a buyer set up, could’ve taken a car too, made a bit extra.” He clucked his tongue. “Bentley and the Lexus together, might’ve been another three hundred K.”

Stokes smiled, ran a hand around his jaw as he watched the road, but he didn’t answer.

Miles put a speaker bud in one ear, but didn’t hit play on the iPod. He said, “I don’t think it’s worth turning back, though.”

He placed the briefcase on the floor and rested it against the door, turned slightly in his seat so he had a shoulder to the window. Stokes watched the road, still massaging his jaw as he drove, like trying to warm it up for small talk.

Miles said, “If you take the next exit, you can let me off in Fresh Meadows. I’ll get a cab.” He dropped the Range Rover and Bentley keys in the footwell.

Stokes glanced at him. “We can go all the way to Manhattan, if that’s easier?”

“No, this is fine. Next exit.”

Stokes changed lanes and got off at Utopia Parkway, hung a right at the bottom of the ramp. It was almost midnight, not much traffic on the through-road.

Miles said, “Anywhere’s fine.”

“I’ll go around the block.”

He went right again, onto a quiet suburban street, tidy brick town houses on both sides, minivans in the driveways. Miles made a show of glancing around, no pedestrians out at this hour, and said, “I guess if you want to roll me, now would be the time.”

He knew he’d called it right: Stokes’s first reaction was to dab the brake, like he’d been caught off-guard and his driver’s instinct kicked in, telling him to slow down. After that, the panic seemed to hit, and he clawed for the gun.

Miles let him do it: watched him draw the Colt right-handed and then start to line it up, the frame held sideways and the barrel rising, coming for his head. Miles waited until the pistol was up at eye level, Stokes’s thumb on the hammer, and then he ripped the handbrake. The car stopped like it had hit a wall. The pair of them jerked against their seat belts, and Stokes’s arm and the gun at the end of it received the same forward jolt, swinging out like a horizontal pendulum, and so for a long clumsy moment the gun’s aim was not on Miles’s head but on the window beside him. Miles caught the pistol with his right hand and rammed the Audi’s ignition key into the underside of Stokes’s wrist. Stokes swore and lost his grip as he yanked his arm back, and Miles stripped the gun from his loose fingers and then leaned against his door. He held the Colt two-handed at his hip, aiming at Stokes as the man sat cradling his injured arm and sucking air through his teeth.

Miles watched him for a few seconds, didn’t speak until he felt his pulse level out. He said, “If you hadn’t done that you could’ve walked away with ten grand, be the highest-paid chauffeur in America.”

“Could’ve walked away with more, though. Even better.”

Miles checked both ways along the street and then dropped the handbrake. The car crawled forward. Miles said, “Pull over. Can’t sit here all night.”

Stokes took them to the curb, steering with his good hand, the injured arm lying palm-up in his lap.

Miles said, “You’ll have a bruise, but you’ll survive.” He put his back to the window and a foot on the transmission and said, “Most guys if they’re talkers, they’re quiet on the buildup, and then you can’t shut them up afterwards. But you were the other way around. Made me think your job hadn’t actually started yet. So that was a good guess, wasn’t it?”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “Next time you pull this kind of thing, make sure you’re nice and chatty. And you swapped your gun over, too. Had it on your hip before.”

Stokes looked at him and said, “Any chance I’m getting it back?” He didn’t seem too concerned about his botched double cross. Maybe he thought it was just business—win some and lose some.

Miles said, “Turn the lights off, or we’re going to look mighty obvious, aren’t we?”

Stokes killed the power. The lights died, and the pair of them turned to silhouettes.

Miles waited for the keys to stop tinkling, and said, “Stanton told you I know what I’m doing, but you had a go anyway. So what’s made you so desperate you’d take the chance?”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “This is what they call shitting in your own nest. You won’t be getting any more work out of Stanton. In fact, I’d change your number. And your locks.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“Sure. So how much debt have you got that you’d take this kind of risk? Or are you just a spur-of-the-moment dumbass?”

Stokes started to say something and then changed tack. He said, “Look.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and looked out his window, tidy dark suburbia with nothing stirring. He said, “I got a wife, man.”

“You don’t need to tug my heartstrings. I’m not going to shoot you.”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “You know, I’m pretty comfortable with the ethics of everything tonight. Don’t know about you, I won’t lose much sleep, taking murder profit off a bent lawyer. But I didn’t think I’d have to deal with you, trying to serve up moral dilemmas.”

Stokes tipped his head back on the rest and smiled. “Don’t know about moral dilemmas. I just wanted your money.”

“Well, whatever. Just be thankful the loudest voice in my head is saying don’t shoot.”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “What’s your wife think you’re doing, when you head out on these little adventures?”

Stokes laughed through his nose, palmed his shaved skull. “Thinks I’m having an affair.”

“Perfect.”

“Yeah, well. She asks am I seeing someone, I tell her no with a clear conscience.”

Miles said, “You’re a genius. What’s your debt?”

Stokes let his breath out through his teeth, took a moment to answer. He said, “Eighteen K.”

Miles said, “Gambling or drugs?”

The silhouette of Stokes’s head rocked back and forth. He said, “Bit of this, bit of that. You know how it is.”

“No, not really.”

Stokes didn’t answer.

Miles said, “Big risk for a small debt.”

Stokes shrugged. “Big risk, big payoff. You got a hundred sixty grand there.”

Miles didn’t answer. He knew he should walk away from it right now, but that was just setting himself up for a long spell of feeling like shit: lying awake thinking he should’ve put Stokes in the black, or wondering how the wife was doing, or whether there were kids in the picture yet. People he’d never meet, but he’d still chew on whether he was culpable for any debt-related strife they might face. Problem was, right now, he could pay Stokes nothing and feel fine about it for the next thirty minutes, but once hindsight was up and running, there’d be no reprieve. He’d second-guess himself into insomnia.

He said, “Jesus Christ,” and popped the lid on the briefcase. He took out two bands—twenty thousand dollars—and tossed them in Stokes’s lap. He snapped the briefcase closed and said, “How’s that for irony: pull a gun on me, and double your take.”

Stokes didn’t answer. Miles wondered how he saw it: twenty thousand up from zero, or a hundred and forty down from one-sixty. He didn’t have time to delve into his philosophy though, whether he was a glass-half-full or half-empty sort of guy.

He said, “Don’t be too cut up about it: you could be dead.”

He racked the slide on the gun and tipped the chambered round in his lap, dropped the magazine and thumbed out the bullets one at a time.

He said, “You can have the gun back, but I need to keep the car.”

He clicked the pistol back together and tossed it in Stokes’s lap.

“You can get out now.”

* * *

It was only a ten-minute drive down Midland Parkway to Jamaica. Prosperity faded as he went south: brick to clapboard, lawn to dirt, hedge to chain link. He parked on 179th Place, only a hundred yards past the subway station, left the car with its door open and the key lying on the seat. It was a 2008 Subaru Legacy: black paint, cream leather interior, smoked rear windows. He hoped a car thief would see its merits.

He walked back to the station and dropped the confiscated keys and Stokes’s bullets in a trashcan, and then caught an F train all the way west to Manhattan—Lexington and Sixty-third. He transferred to a downtown 6 train and got off at Fourteenth, caught a cab up to Herald Square, dropped his mask in a trash can, and then rode a Q train all the way back down to Canal. If anyone had tracked him through all that, they deserved to find him.

His hotel was the Tribeca Gardens, an upmarket high-rise place that seemed a strange addition in this area, the south side of Canal mostly cheap gift shops and stores done up in neon, groups of guys lining the sidewalk, pushing homemade CDs on anyone with an empty hand. It was like Times Square, with a smaller headcount and more grime. He went into the hotel and nodded to the deskman on the way past, used one of the lobby phones to call Wynn Stanton.

“Hey, it’s me.”

Stanton said, “Detective. How you doing?”


Copyright © 2018 by Ben Sanders