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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Blonde

A Thriller

Duane Swierczynski

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One

9:13 p.m.
Liberties Bar,
Philadelphia International Airport

I poisoned your drink."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me."

"Um, I don't think I did."

The blonde lifted her cosmopolitan. "Cheers."

But Jack didn't return the gesture. He kept a hand on his pint glass, which held the last two inches of the boilermaker he'd been nursing for the past fifteen minutes.

"Did you say you poisoned me?"

"Are you from Philadelphia?"

"What did you poison me with?"

"Can't you be gracious and answer a girl's question?"

Jack looked around the airport bar, which was done up like a Colonial-era public house, only with neon Coors Light signs. Instead of two more airline gates in the terminal, they'd put in a square bar, surrounded by small tables jammed up against one another. Sit at the bar and you were treated to the view of the backs of the neon signs—all black metal and tubing and dust—a dented metal ice bin, red plastic speed pourers stuck in the tops of Herradura, Absolut Citron, Dewar's, and a plastic cocktail napkin dispenser with the logo jack & coke: america's cocktail.

For commuters with a long layover, this was the only place to be. What, were you going to shop for plastic Liberty Bells and Rocky T-shirts all evening? The bar was packed.

But amazingly, no one else seemed to have heard her. Not the guy in the shark-colored suit standing next to the girl. Not the bartender, with a black vest and white sleeves rolled up to the elbow.

"You're kidding."

"About you being from Philadelphia?"

"About you poisoning me."

"That again? For the record, yes, I poisoned you. I squeezed a tasteless, odorless liquid into your beer while you were busy staring at a brunette with a shapely ass and low-hanging breasts. The one on her cell, running her fingers through her hair."

Jack considered this. "Okay. So where's the dropper?"

"Dropper?"

"The one you used to squeeze poison into my drink. You had to use something."

"Oh, I'll show you the dropper. But first you have to answer my question. Are you from Philadelphia?"

"What does it matter? You've just poisoned me, and I'm about to die in Philadelphia, so I guess, from this point on, I'll always be in Philadelphia."

"Not unless they ship your body home."

"I meant my ghost. My ghost will always be in Philadelphia."

"You believe in ghosts?"

Jack smiled despite himself. This was delightfully weird. He'd been delaying the inevitable—a cab ride through a strange city to a bland corporate hotel room to catch what little sleep he could before his dreaded morning appointment.

"Let's see the dropper."

The pretty blonde smiled in return. "Not until you answer my question."

What was the harm? Granted, this was perhaps the strangest pickup line he'd ever heard—if that's what this was. For all he knew, it was the opening bit of an elaborate con game that targeted weary business travelers in airport bars. But that was fine. Jack knew if this conversation led to him taking out his wallet or revealing his Social Security number, he'd stop it right there. No harm, no foul.

"No, I'm not from Philadelphia."

"Goody. I hate Philadelphia."

"You're from here, I take it?"

"I'm not from here, and yes, you can take it."

"That's harsh."

"What's there to like?"

"The Liberty Bell?"

"Funny you should mention that. I was reading about it in the airline magazine. They have this back page where they tell the story of some famous national monument every month. Or however often the magazine is published. Anyway, the Liberty Bell cracked the very first time it was rung."

"Back in 1776."

"Wrong. You should have read this story, my friend. Philly's been trading on a lie for, like, years. It wasn't rung in 1776. And worse yet, the bell? It was forged in England. You know, uh, the country we revolted against? Like, hello!"

"You've just ruined Philadelphia for me."

"Sweetheart, I haven't even started."

Jack smiled and finished the rest of the beer in his pint glass. There was no rush. He might as well order another—minus the whiskey. He'd already had two boilermakers, and it hadn't helped any. The drama of the past few months hung heavy in his mind. Might as well take it slow for a while, check out the people in the airport. The ones with a purpose in life. With a clear idea of where they were going, what they were doing.

The only thing waiting for Jack Eisley was a night in a bland hotel room and an appointment at eight o'clock in the morning. He was in no hurry to get to either.

The blonde was looking at his hand. At first, Jack thought she was looking at his wedding ring. Which he was still wearing, for some dumb reason. But then he saw that she was focused on the glass in his hand.

"You finished your drink," she said.

"You're very observant. Still working on yours?"

The girl smiled coyly. "Why? You offering to buy me a drink? Even after I poisoned yours?"

"It's the least I can do. What are you having? A martini?"

"Never you mind that. Though I think I should tell you what to expect. Symptomwise."

"From the undetectable liquid poison."

"Right."

"Go ahead."

"It works in stages. At first . . ." She glanced at a silver watch on her wrist. "Well, about an hour from now, you'll start to feel a knot in your stomach. Not too long after, I hope you'll be near a bathroom, because that's when the power vomiting starts."

"Sounds lovely."

"Think about your worst hangover ever. You know, where you're sitting on the cold tile of your bathroom floor, begging God to show mercy on your poor alcoholic soul? Telling him how you've seen the error of your ways, and you promise never, ever to touch the demon rum again? Well, that's a tenth of what you'll feel when this poison hits you. And in ten hours, you'll be dead."

Jack knew his mind was screwing with him—of course he knew—but damn if his stomach didn't tie itself into a little knot right at that moment. Ah, the power of suggestion. The power of suggestion of death.

Okay, this girl was fucking psycho. Last thing he needed was another one of those.

"Um, can I ask why you did this to me?"

"Sure, you can ask."

"But you won't tell."

"Maybe later."

"If I'm even alive."

"Good point."

If this was a con game, she had strange ideas about running it. The bit about the poison would be enough to scare away most people. Which is not the reaction con artists want from their marks. They kind of have to be around for a scam to work.

So what was her game? Or was this a pickup?

"Okay, you've poisoned me."

"You catch on quick."

"Do you have an antidote?"

"Sweet Jesus on the cross, I thought you'd never ask. Yes, I do have an antidote."

"Would you give me the antidote, if I asked nice?"

"Sure," she said. "But I can only give it to you somewhere quiet."

"Not here?"

"No."

"Where, then?"

"Your hotel room."

Yep, that sealed it. This was a con game—probably a bizarre variation of the old sweetheart scam. Take the woman to a hotel room, expect sex, get knocked on the head, wake up with your wallet gone, your kidney missing, your naked body in a tubful of stinky ice, whatever. Whichever way, you were fucked, all because you thought you were going to get a sloppy blow job in an airport hotel.

"That's a kind offer," he said, "but I think I'll take my chances with death."

Jack scooped up the loose bills on the bar—a ten, two singles. He reached down and grabbed his overnight bag, which had been resting between his feet.

"Good luck with that poison thing."

"Thanks, Jack."

After a second, it hit him.

"Wait. How did you know my name?"

The woman turned her back to him and started looking through her purse. She removed a plastic eyedropper and placed it on top of the bar. She then lifted her head and swiveled around to look at him.

"Weren't you leaving?"

"I said, how did you know my name?"

Her fingers played with the eyedropper, spinning it on the surface of the bar. He leaned in closer.

"You tell me or I'll bring airport security back here."

"I'll be gone by then. And even if they did catch me, it's my word against yours about the poison. I won't know what on earth they're talking about." She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows. "Poison? An antidote?"

"We'll see." He turned to walk away.

"Oh, Jack?"

He stopped, turned around.

"Your name's on a tag attached to your bag."

He looked down at the carry-on in his hand.

"Paranoid much?"

He could feel it already—the knot forming in his stomach. It wasn't sickness. It was anger.

After leaving the airport bar, Jack followed the signs to baggage claim. He didn't have luggage to pick up—he made it a point to live out of one bag, no matter how many days he traveled. Lost luggage was too much a pain in the ass. But according to the airport's Web site, the taxi stands were to the left of baggage claim, and sure enough, they were. Cabs to Center City Philadelphia were a flat rate—$26.25, so said the Web site. He climbed into the back of the first available taxi and tried not to think too much about the strange girl in the bar.

Strike that.

The strange, pretty girl in the bar.

It was just as well he'd left her behind. Considering his morning appointment with his wife's divorce lawyer.

Poison me?

Sweetheart, I wish you had.

Copyright © 2006 by Duane Swierczynski. All rights reserved.