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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

David J. Schow

Thomas Dunne Books


The briefcase was a stainless-steel Halliburton, attaché size, exactly the sort you see used in countless movies with drug deal scenes, only this one was matte black, and I knew for a fact it cost at least eight hundred dollars, new.
Here's what I found inside:
Two matched Sigarms semiauto pistols, model 229. A hundred rounds of boxed ammunition in .357 caliber and four clean 12-round clips. Two glasspack silencers, threaded to muzzle size. Each silencer was nearly a foot long.
One five-shot .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver with rubber grips and fifty rounds of ammunition. The barrel was a hair over two inches long. This type of gun is what I've heard called a "snubbie."
One dispenser containing ten pairs of disposable, left-or right-hand surgical gloves, unpowdered, size large.
One Telemetrix cellphone with a booster antenna.
One laminated, letter-perfect FBI ID featuring a man's face that's not mine. A stranger to me. It smelled fake.
In the sleeve pocket of the case lid were two more items: An envelope containing two 8 by 10 photos of a woman I also didn't know, but whose name was Alicia Brandenberg. I learned this from her fairly detailed itinerary. There was another envelope containing—to near-bursting—$25,000, in used, nonsequential tens and twenties.
No serial numbers on the guns, the phone, anywhere. No lot numbers on the ammo boxes. No product plate on the briefcase. The slugs were heavy-grain cartridges packing maximum muzzle velocity, intended to do a great deal of damage to what ever got in their way.
Not a single fingerprint on anything. It was as though the contents had been boxed by a machine, factory-fresh, untouched by human hands.
There were three numbers programmed into the cellphone, no names or designations attached. I didn't want to use it to call anyone; I think I was slightly afraid of it.
The briefcase wasn't mine. I came across it by accident.
Perhaps I should back up a little bit.
My name is Conrad Maddox. For the past twelve years I've worked as Vice President in charge of development for Kroeger Concepts, Ltd., an advertising firm in Los Angeles on the Valley side of the hill. My boss is the fellow who founded the firm, Burt Kroeger—a "superior" who has nonetheless managed to remain a friend, or at least an ally. I'm one floor below him and we see each other for drinks; that kind of friend. Burt headhunted me, for which I remain grateful. I've always tried to merit his absolute trust in business.
My job earns me a fair amount of frequent flyer travel miles, thanks to several hops a year to Chicago, New York, Seattle, Houston, Mexico City and, occasionally, Beijing or London. Berlin three times; Paris twice so far. I can afford a couple of weeks per year in St. John or Bimini to get away and, you know, unwind.
I'm divorced. Don't ask about the ex– Mrs. Maddox because: (1) she never took my name, and (2) we don't stay in touch. I've had maybe ninety liaisons, affairs, trysts, and "relationships" in the eddy-rings surrounding my marriage, which lasted three years and then evaporated. It was the only time in my life I've been completely faithful to one woman.
I try to resist involvements with co-workers, but as you can guess there's always an exception. It's human nature. In fact, I'm breaking my own protocol in my mind right now.
I drive a fairly decent car, a Benz CL600 with blackout tinting everywhere, except on the windshield, which would be illegal. I have a variety of what could be called friends and acquaintances (I differentiate between the two), but more often than not, I veg out after work and pop in some DVD, just like you do when you need a break. I see my girlfriends frequently enough to maintain the delusion that I have a healthy outlook.
I was coming in late from Pittsburgh on American flight #183, non-stop with dinner ser vice. The first-class dinners were better than those in coach; I had steak au poivre and three glasses of a middling Cab. You could still get the heated nuts, the hot towels and such; company credit cards never feel the turbulence. My Benz was in the shop in Manhattan Beach for a leaky coolant hose, so I had Danielle, at the office, hunt me up a decent rental.
She booked me into a midnight-blue Pontiac Sebring convertible, a car with a nice, solid suspension. I dumped my junk in the minimal trunk and when I settled down to orient, I noticed there was something in the passenger seat next to me.
A locker key.
(Since 9/11, storage lockers had vanished from LAX as too tempting, but guess what—they're still there if you know where to look and don't mind being eyeballed by security. The coin-lockers used to be beyond the scanning points and X-ray pass-through. Now they're inside the terminal near the check-in counters, far ahead of where your individual freedoms evaporate. But they're still there.)
So I sat there for a moment, inventing assorted scenarios to explain the wayward locker key, subdivided across two general categories—"accidental" versus "intentional." Assuming the first, it might have been left by: (1) the previous rental customer; (2) one of the guys working at the car agency; or (3) it might have fallen inside … somehow, which would have been a complete caprice of chance.
Assuming the second, I wondered, was the key left (4) on purpose for me, or (5) for someone else? Big joke potential, there. What a riot on old Conrad. Let's see what he does.
At the time it never occurred to me that there might be a (6).
I could have stuck the key in the glove compartment and forgotten it. Or turned it in at the Hertz lost and found. But guess what: I'm not so dead inside (yet) that I'm not curious. I like that evil thrill you reap from a privileged peek into stuff that's none of your business. You do, too. At the same time, I'm also cautious enough to know that maybe the whole temptation is a setup. Maybe the locker, if it is to be found in the airport at all, is staked out by two dozen undercover cops, waiting for some Colombian coke lord, and wouldn't that be embarrassing? I mean, in addition to making me late and all.
I picked up the key and looked it over. I even smelled it. Number 202. Ultimately, I drove away with it. But over the weekend and into the problem packet of a new Monday I looked at it a thousand times.
Generally I take a lot of work home. Sometimes I just sleep at the office. There's an executive washroom with a shower and amenities, and my corner office (right below Burt Kroeger's corner; sometimes I can hear him stomping around up there, working late, like me) has the world's best sofa for crashing. For thinking things out. Doping out small mysteries. Or positing possible scenarios such as (6) the key might have been left for me, specifically, on purpose.
I mean, what would you do?

I volunteered to collect Katy Burgess at LAX on Tuesday afternoon because: (1) Katy is undeniably attractive, (2) Katy is competent and fun, (3) I sensed a work-related entanglement that I want to toy with avoiding, and (4) as an excuse to stop thinking about the locker key.
Yes, Katy is the co-worker that interested me, despite myself.
Yes, I was baiting myself with the proximity of the airport.
Yes, I was already aware that I had whomped up a wicker basket of lies as perforated as a sieve—a desperate cover story that any intelligent scrutiny could smack to pieces—but at this stage of our budding relationship, Katy would be professionally polite enough not to question it. I told her that when I had gone to Pittsburgh, I remembered I was carrying a pocketknife, so I stowed it in a coin locker rather than risk a public panic, an evacuation, and a lockdown of the airport when the metal detector revealed me as a potential terrorist. Don't laugh; this kind of childish, overreactive shit happens all the time (and usually gets on the news).
With this backstory in position, I had an excuse for reaching inside locker #202. If I did not like what I saw—a human head in a trash bag or something like that—I could withdraw my hand, palming the knife I'd already brought along.
When I saw the flank of the Halliburton, I pulled it out, casually said, "my briefcase, too," and stashed my decoy knife in a single smooth move. Misdirection works. Katy assumed the knife in question was on top of the briefcase; she wasn't more inquisitive than that. Airport security guys watched me approach the bank of lockers. They saw a business-looking guy remove a business-looking case. Normal, almost dull. No platoon of gun-wielding DEA agents sprang forth.
Katy and I strolled out looking like the most boring couple in the world. Then I did something more difficult: I locked the case in my trunk and tried not to think about it for the next six hours or so.
Why did I even have to lie to cover this? Good question. Apart from the justification that I lie for a living, this was the only moment in this entire process that I could try to contain a possible future spill. It was a note of unexpected excitement, and I wanted to keep it to myself until I learned more. My excitements, up to this point, had all become predictable and dull. This was new, and I didn't want to share.
"Katy" is a collapse of "Katerina," and is pronounced KAH-tee, with the accent on the first syllable. Get that wrong and you don't have a chance at conversation of any sort. People sometimes try to curry intimacy by calling me Connie; I can't seem to stop them. Katy runs sales for Kroeger; we're like chessmen of equal value inside the company. She likes Bombay Sapphire martinis and never gets tipsy with coworkers (that I've ever seen). As we walked to the car, she indicated that a recreational beverage or two was just the thing she needed to unscrew her spine from the flight, ex– New York after a full workday on the far end of the country. We could plot strategy and swap mild professional gossip. Then I could drop her off at her condo in the Marina.
The lounge we went to was one of those places redolent of "yuppie flu" run epidemic: too much brass, wood, and foliage, all fake, with high stools posted at little round tables, like pedestals. When she scooted up to her seat I noticed she was wearing stockings, not panty hose, and I felt a little tug inside my rib cage. I thought, Caution. You wouldn't be so instantly randy if she were wearing a revolver strapped to her hip. In this business, wardrobe is often a weapon.
Without the Blahnik heels Katy was probably five-foot-eight, with a lot of wavy brown hair she usually wore down, reminding me of forties movie sirens in soft focus. She had slender hands with long fingers, like porcelain sculpture, and frank blue-gray eyes with a thin, natural brow arch. She didn't use a lot of makeup; she didn't have to, and knew exactly where the line was to be crossed. Subtle gloss was all she wore—lipstick would have been overdoing it. Small fine teeth and a body full of promise. You'd never know she was a hotshot in the field, and ruthless at her job, which is what I really liked about her, in addition to the obvious.
Come to think of it, she'd probably look more sexy wearing a gun; who was I kidding?
We had tacitly agreed to buy the persona each of us was selling to the other. That's the first step in any relationship, right? You buy the vision, then deal with the reality later.
Katy's big deal, today, was our impending acquisition of a PR package for a hotshot politico named G. Johnson Jenks. He had the California governorship in his sights after emerging from private industry and logging the usual community ser vice time as a councilman and ecological paladin up north, where people still get uppity about topics like old trees, or ozone. Kroeger Concepts was in the running to sell Mr. Jenks to the voting public in a salubrious fashion. Katy was the point person on the deal, and brought all this up because she wanted my assurance that I would be onboard, armed with enthusiasm and ideas, if we actually did score the gig. We'd have to pull long hours, "in close and tight," as she put it.
I dropped smoothly into work mode, admiring myself because I now had a secret and was comporting myself extra-slick. Jenks's opponent in the gubernatorial slapdown was an equal-but-opposite talking head named Theodore Ripkin, and our task as good Kroeger soldiers was to demonstrate Mr. Jenks's vote-worthiness and overall moral superiority. In other words, anticipate every single gob of mud that might be hurled against our gladiator, and emplace damage-control strategies while hunting for the one subterranean factoid that might knock Theodore Ripkin right off his high-ass horse. Put another way, employ the usual misdirection and surgical strikes. Votes matter in theory but not in practice; what matters is grabbing the gold in the big popularity contest. All's fair!
The Jenks campaign was well-heeled enough to promise all of us a lot of pull and cash flow; the sort of thing that almost always spins me to attention and a full salute. But I had not become involved enough yet to bring myself up to speed on the actual personalities involved in the campaign. That was more Katy's jurisdiction, and thus we had plenty of aboveboard excuses to huddle. Beyond that, I wanted a chance to beguile and amuse her.
She spun off anecdotally enhanced details. When you're about to plunge into an intimate client-provider relationship for money, the first phase is deep background and research, the same as basic coursework for a final exam or rehearsal for a performance. The ongoing data stream of a client's history, as it evolves, is frequently incomprehensible to outsiders who might eavesdrop in midconversation. It begins to sound like a foreign language. Katy had that brightness in her gaze that said she was about to dive, and dive deep.
My brain caught up with her in midsentence.
"The real prize seems to be Jenks's campaign manager," Katy said as she killed her second Martian. "You might have to talk to your guy about her. The ferret guy."
"The Mole Man," I interjected. He was a slightly shady broker of information I sometimes used in my pursuit of Kroeger greatness. "Why?"
"Because past a certain date I can't get any background on her. She seems to have sprung fullblown from the forehead of Zeus or something." She paused for effect. "Just like Jenks."
"Whoa, wait a minute. Candidates are supposed to have nothing to hide."
"Mm-hm. … And it is our sacred job to find out otherwise. Don't get me wrong—Jenks has a personality file that goes back three generations. But there's something fishy about it, and it didn't occur to me until I checked his campaign manager, who doesn't seem to exist on paper before 2003. Could be something like Jenks legally changing his name a few years back and then covering it up. Fair enough. Might be innocuous. Might be a minor scandal in the woodpile. Any public profile can survive a minor scandal if it's twirled correctly. But if so, what is there to hide? And now his prime mover's history hits a brick wall at almost exactly the same time. As if the storytellers fabricated a water-tight pocket history for Jenks but were less discriminating with his accomplices, do you see?"
"What's her name?" I said.
"Alicia Brandenberg … apparently."
No bells rang then; I hadn't yet opened the briefcase.
Katy was good. Right out of the gate she had unearthed a bit of suspicion. It took on the zest of a serial and made anticipation of next week's chapter more exciting. "All I'm saying is that if they're making up backstories, we have to know. If they're covering something up, we have to know, before we get in deeper with them, agreed?"
"And if Jenks isn't being straight with us, why'd he pick us to publicize his campaign?"
"That's too much to wrap my brain around right now," I said, indicating my drink, as though it was to blame, although we both knew better.
"We'll stick a pin in it for later," she said, graciously relenting, and allowing me my chance to be charming and funny. Katy even reached over to touch my hand, several times, to make a point or to mock some lame in the bar. And you know what? Past that, I don't remember a thing we talked about, because all I could think of was that briefcase, sizzling away in the trunk of my car. I acquitted myself dazzlingly, which means I hung on for an hour past the time we had originally allotted for our pit stop. The plateau of our gestating relationship beyond our mutual jobs was broadening, and she seemed willing, but cautious (which was very smart) … and it was all pointless because I knew what I really wanted to do. I guess she was a little confused when I dropped her off.
File it for later. We mutually promised to "do this again, soon."
I knew I was lying, but not because I wasn't attracted to her. A stronger attraction refused to vacate my brain.
After another paranoid moment wasted in thinking about suitcase bombs, I went ahead and opened my prize, in private.
If it had blown up in my face, I might have been better off.

The dossier inside the briefcase was a detailed look at the daily movements of the aforementioned Alicia Brandenberg, current campaign manager for G. Johnson Jenks, Kroeger political client, and possible phony-baloney. The kind of detail that suggested not merely rich resources, but enemy surveillance.

Excerpted from Initernecine by David J. Schow.
Copyright © 2010 by David J. Schow.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.