He had once agreed to kill Fidel, but couldn't do it. He was in place and two hours away from the murder, but just wouldn't pull it off. There was too much admiration. It was back in the days when he did not always kill for money. He pulled a double cross, and confessed to Fidel. They faked an ambush, and word spread that the great Khamel had been gunned down in the streets of Havana.
Never again would he travel by commercial air. The photographs in Paris were embarrassing for such a professional. He was losing his touch; getting careless in the twilight of his career. Got his picture on the front pages in America. How shameful. His client was not pleased.
The boat was a forty-foot schooner with two crew members and a young woman, all Cubans. She was below in the cabin. He had finished with her a few minutes before they saw the lights of Biloxi. He was all business now, inspecting his raft, packing his bag, saying nothing. The crew members crouched on the deck and stayed away from him.
At exactly nine, they lowered the raft onto the water. He dropped his bag into it, and was gone. They heard the trolling motor as he disappeared into the blackness of the Sound. They were to remain anchored until dawn, then haul it back to Havana. They held perfect papers declaring them to be Americans, in the event they were discovered and someone began asking questions.
He eased patiently through the still water, dodging buoy lights and the sight of an occasional small craft. He held perfect papers too, and three weapons in the bag.
It had been years since he struck twice in one month. After he was allegedly gunned down in Cuba, there had been a five-year drought. Patience was his forte. He averaged one a year.
And this little victim would go unnoticed. No one would suspect him. It was such a small job, but his client was adamant and he happened to be in the neighborhood, and the money was right, so here he was in another six-foot rubber raft cruising toward a beach, hoping like hell his pal Luke would be there dressed not as a farmer, but a fisherman this time.
This would be the last for a long time, maybe forever. He had more money than he could ever spend or give away. And he had started making small mistakes.
He saw the pier in the distance, and moved away from it. He had thirty minutes to waste. He followed the shoreline for a quarter of a mile, then headed for it. Two hundred yards out, he turned off the trolling motor, unhitched it, and dropped it into the water. He lay low in the raft, worked a plastic oar when necessary, and gently guided himself to a dark spot behind a row of cheap brick buildings thirty feet ashore. He stood in two feet of water and ripped holes in the raft with a small pock-etknife. It sank and disappeared. The beach was deserted.
Luke was alone at the end of the pier. It was exactly eleven, and he was in place with a rod and reel. He wore a white cap, and the bill moved slowly back and forth as he scanned the water in search of the raft. He checked his watch.
Suddenly a man was beside him, appearing from nowhere like an angel. "Luke?" the man said.
This was not the code. Luke was startled. He had a gun in the tackle box at his feet, but there was no way. "Sam?" he asked. Maybe he had missed something. Maybe Khamel couldn't find the pier from the raft.
"Yes, Luke, it's me. Sorry about the deviation. Trouble with the raft."
Luke's heart settled and he breathed relief.
"Where's the vehicle?" Khamel asked.
Luke glanced at him ever so quickly. Yes, it was Khamel, and he was staring at the ocean behind dark glasses.
Luke nodded at a building. "Red Pontiac next to the liquor store."
"How far to New Orleans?"
"Half an hour," Luke said as he reeled in nothing.
Khamel stepped back, and hit him twice at the base of the neck. Once with each hand. The vertebrae burst and snapped the spinal cord. Luke fell hard and moaned once. Khamel watched him die, then found the keys in a pocket. He kicked the corpse off into the water.
EDWIN SNELLER or whatever his name was did not open the door, but quietly slid the key under it. Khamel picked it up, and opened the door to the next room. He walked in, and moved quickly to the bed where he placed his bag, then to the window where the curtains were open and the river was in the distance. He pulled the curtains together, and studied the lights of the French Quarter below.
He walked to the phone and punched Sneller's number.
"Tell me about her," Khamel said softly to the floor.
"There are two photos in the briefcase."
Khamel opened it and removed the photos. "I've got them."
"They're numbered, one and two. One we got from the law school yearbook. It's about a year old, and the most current we have. It's a blowup from a tiny picture, so we lost a lot of detail. The other photo is two years old. We lifted it from a yearbook at Arizona State."
"Khamel held both pictures.A beautiful woman."
"Yes. Quite beautiful. All that lovely hair is gone, though. Thursday night she paid for a hotel room with a credit card. We barely missed her Friday morning. We found long strands of hair on the floor and a small sample of something we now know to be black hair color. Very black."
"What a shame."
"We haven't seen her since Wednesday night. She's proven to be elusive: credit card for a room Wednesday, credit card at another hotel Thursday, then nothing from last night. She withdrew five thousand in cash from her checking account Friday afternoon, so the trail has become cold."
"Maybe she's gone."
"Could be, but I don't think so. Someone was in her apartment last night. We've got the place wired, and we were late by two minutes."
"Moving sort of slow, aren't you?"
"It's a big town. We've camped out at the airport and train station. We're watching her mother's house in Idaho. No sign. I think she's still here."
"Where would she be?"
"Moving around, changing hotels, using pay phones, staying away from the usual places. The New Orleans police are looking for her. They talked to her after the bomb Wednesday, then lost her. We're looking, they're looking, she'll turn up."
"What happened with the bomb?"
"Very simple. She didn't get in the car."
"Who made the bomb?"
Sneller hesitated. "Can't say."
"Khamel smiled slightly as he took some street maps from the briefcase.Tell me about the maps."
"Oh, just a few points of interest around town. Her place, his place, the law school, the hotels she's been to, the bomb site, a few little bars she enjoys as a student."
"She's stayed in the Quarter so far."
"She's smart. There are a million places to hide."
Khamel picked up the most recent photo, and sat on the other bed. He liked this face. Even with short dark hair, it would be an intriguing face. He could kill it, but it would not be pleasant.
"It's a shame, isn't it?" he said, almost to himself.
"Yes. It's a shame."
GAVIN VERHEEK had been a tired old man when he arrived in New Orleans, and after two nights ofbarhop-ping he was drained and weakened. He had hit the first bar not long after the burial, and for seven hours had sipped beer with the young and restless while talking of torts and contracts and Wall Street firms and other things he despised. He knew he shouldn't tell strangers he was FBI. He wasn't FBI. There was no badge.
He prowled five or six bars Saturday night. Tulane lost again, and after the game the bars filled with rowdies. Things got hopeless, and he quit at midnight.
He was sleeping hard with his shoes on when the phone rang. He lunged for it. "Hello! Hello!"
"Gavin?" she asked.
"Darby! Is this you?"
"Why haven't you called before now?"
"Please, don't start asking a bunch of stupid questions. I'm at a pay phone, so no funny stuff."
"Come on, Darby. I swear you can trust me."
"Okay, I trust you. Now what?"
He looked at his watch, and began untying his shoelaces. "Well, you tell me. What's next? How long do you plan to hide in New Orleans?"
"How do you know I'm in New Orleans?"
He paused for a second.
"I'm in New Orleans," she said. "And I assume you want me to meet with you, and become close friends, then come in, as you say, and trust you guys to protect me forever."
"That's correct. You'll be dead in a matter of days if you don't."
"Get right to the point, don't you?"
"Yes. You're playing games and you don't know what you're doing."
"Who's after me, Gavin?"
"Could be a number of people."
"Who are they?"
"I don't know."
"Now you're playing games, Gavin. How can I trust you if you won't talk to me?"
"Okay. I think it's safe to say your little brief hit someone in the gut. You guessed right, the wrong people learned of the brief, and now Thomas is dead. And they'll kill you the instant they find you."
"We know who killed Rosenberg and Jensen, don't we, Gavin?"
"I think we do."
"Then why doesn't the FBI do something?"
"We may be in the midst of a cover-up."
"Bless you for saying that. Bless you."
"I could lose my job."
"Who would I tell, Gavin? Who's covering up what?"
"I'm not sure. We were very interested in the brief until the White House pressed hard, now we've dismissed it."
"I can understand that. Why do they think they can kill me and it will be kept quiet?"
"I can't answer that. Maybe they think you know more."
"Can I tell you something? Moments after the bomb, while Thomas was in the car burning and I was semiconscious, a cop named Rupert took me to his car and put me inside. Another cop with cowboy boots and jeans started asking me questions. I was sick and in shock. They disappeared, Rupert and his cow boy, and they never returned. They were not cops, Gavin. They watched the bomb, and went to plan B when I wasn't in the car. I didn't know it, but I was probably a minute or two away from a bullet in the head."
Verheek listened with his eyes closed. "What happened to them?"
"Not sure. I think they got scared when the real cops swarmed on the scene. They vanished. I was in their car, Gavin. They had me."
"You have to come in, Darby. Listen to me."
Do you remember our phone chat Thursday morning when I suddenly saw a face that looked familiar and I described it to you?"
"That face was at the memorial service yesterday, along with some friends."
"Where were you?"
"Watching. He walked in a few minutes late, stayed ten minutes, then sneaked out and met with Stump."
"Yes, he's one of the gang. Stump, Rupert, Cowboy, and the Thin Man. Great characters. I'm sure there are others, but I haven't met them yet."
"The next meeting will be the last, Darby. You have about forty-eight hours to live."
"We'll see. How long will you be in town?"
"A few days. I'd planned to stay until I found you."
"Here I am. I may call you tomorrow."
Verheek breathed deeply. "Okay, Darby. Whatever you say. Just be careful."
She hung up. He threw the phone across the room, and cursed it.
TWO BLOCKS AWAY and fifteen floors up, Khamel stared at the television and mumbled rapidly to himself. It was a movie about people in a big city. They spoke English, his third language, and he repeated every word in his best generic American tongue. He did this for hours. He had absorbed the language while hiding in Belfast, and in the past twenty years had watched thousands of American movies. His favorite was Three Days of the Condor. He watched it four times before he figured out who was killing whom and why. He could have killed Redford.
He repeated every word out loud. He had been told his English could pass for that of an American, but one slip, one tiny mistake, and she would be gone.
THE VOLVO was parked in a lot a block and a half from its owner, who paid one hundred dollars a month for the space and for what he thought was security. They eased through the gate that was supposed to be locked.
It was a 1986 GL without a security system, and within seconds the driver's door was open. One sat on the trunk and lit a cigarette. It was almost 4 A.M. Sunday.
The other one opened a small tool case he kept in his pocket, and went to work on the yuppie car phone .that Grantham had been embarrassed to buy. The dome light was enough, and he worked quickly. Easy work. With the receiver open, he installed a tiny transmitter and glued it in place. A minute later, he eased out of the car and squatted at the rear bumper. The one with the cigarette handed him a small black cube, which he stuck under the car to a grille and behind the gas tank. It was a magnetized transmitter, and it would send signals for six days before it died and needed replacing.
They were gone in less than seven minutes. Monday, as soon as he was spotted entering the Post building on Fifteenth, they would enter his apartment and fix his phones.
HER SECOND NIGHT in the bed and breakfast was better than the first. She slept until mid-morning. Maybe she was used to it now. She stared at the curtains over the tiny window and determined that there had been no nightmares, no movements in the dark with guns and knives emerging and attacking. It was a thick, heavy sleep, and she studied the curtains for a long time while the brain woke up.
She tried to be disciplined about her thinking. This was her fourth day as the Pelican, and to see number five she would have to think like a fastidious killer. It was day number four of the rest of her life. She was supposed to be dead.
But after the eyes opened, and she realized she was indeed alive and safe, and the door wasn't squeaking and the floor wasn't cracking, and there was no gunman lurking in the closet, her first thought was always of Thomas. The shock of his death was fading, and she found it easier to put aside the sound of the explosion and the roar of the fire. She knew he had been blown to pieces and killed instantly. She knew he did not suffer.
So she thought of other things, like the feel of him next to her, and his whispering and snickering when they were in bed and the sex was over and he wanted to cuddle. He was a cuddler, and he wanted to play and kiss and caress after the love-making. And giggle. He loved her madly, had fallen hard, and for the first time in his life could be silly with a woman. Many times in the middle of his lectures, she had thought of his cooing and snickering, and bit her lip to keep from smiling.
She loved him too. And it hurt so badly. She wanted to stay in bed and cry for a week. The day after her father's funeral, a psychiatrist had explained that the soul needs a brief, very intense period of grieving, then it moves to the next phase. But it must have the pain; it must suffer without restraint before it can properly move on. She took his advice, and grieved without courage for two weeks, then got tired of it and moved to the next stage. It worked.
But it wasn't working with Thomas. She couldn't scream and throw things the way she wanted. Rupert and Thin Man and the rest of the boys were denying her a healthy mourning.
After a few minutes of Thomas, she thought of them next. Where would they be today? Where could she go without being seen? After two nights in this place, should she find another room? Yes, she would do that. After dark. She would call and reserve a room at another tiny guest house. Where were they staying? Were they patrolling the streets hoping to simply bump into her? Did they know where she was at this moment? No. She would be dead. Did they know she was now a blonde?
The hair got her out of bed. She walked to the mirror over the desk, and looked at herself. It was even shorter now, and very white. Not a bad job. She had worked on it for three hours last night. If she lived another two days, she would cut some more and go back to black. If she lived another week, she might be bald.
A hunger pain hit, and for a second she thought about food. She was not eating, and this would have to change. It was almost ten. Oddly, this bed and breakfast didn't cook on Sunday mornings. She would venture out to find food and a Sunday Post, and to see if they could catch her now that she was a butch blonde.
She showered quickly, and the hair took less than a minute. No makeup. She put on a new pair of Army fatigues and a new flight jacket, and she was ready for battle. The eyes were covered with aviator shades.
Although she had made a few entrances, she had not exited a building through the front door in four days. She crept through the dark kitchen, unlocked the rear door, and stepped into the alley behind the little inn. It was cool enough to wear the flight jacket without being suspicious. Silly, she thought. In the French Quarter, she could wear the hide and head of a polar bear and not appear suspicious. She walked briskly through the alley with her hands deep in the fatigues and her eyes darting behind the shades.
He saw her when she stepped onto the sidewalk next to Burgundy Street. The hair under the cap was different, but she was still five-eight and she couldn't change that. The legs were still long and she walked a certain way, and after four days he could pick her out of a crowd regardless of the face and hair. The cowboy boots snakeskin with pointed toes hit the sidewalk and started following.
She was a smart girl, turning every corner, changing streets every block, walking quickly but not too fast. He figured she was headed for Jackson Square, where there was a crowd on Sundays and she thought she could disappear. She could stroll about with the tourists and the locals, maybe eat a bite, enjoy the sun, pick up a paper.
Darby casually lit a cigarette and puffed as she walked. She could not inhale. She tried three days ago, and got dizzy. Such a nasty habit. How ironic it would be if she lived through all this only to die from lung cancer. Please, let her die of cancer.
He was sitting at a table in a crowded sidewalk cafe at the corner of St. Peter and Chartres, and he was less than ten feet away when she saw him. A split second later, he saw her, and she probably would have made it if she hadn't hesitated for a step and swallowed hard when she saw him. He saw her, and probably would have been only suspicious, but the slight hesitation and the curious look gave her away. She kept walking, but faster now.
It was Stump. He was on his feet and weaving through the tables when she lost sight of him. At ground level, he was anything but chubby. He seemed quick and muscular. She lost him for a second on Chartres as she ducked between the arches of St. Louis Cathedral. The church was open, and she thought maybe she should get inside, as if it would be a sanctuary and he would not kill her there. Yes, he would kill her there, or on the street, or in a crowd. Anywhere he caught her. He was back there, and Darby wanted to know how fast he was coming. Was he just walking real fast and trying to play it cool? Was he sort of jogging? Or was he barreling down the sidewalk preparing to make a flying tackle as soon as he caught sight of her? She kept moving.
She hung a left on St. Ann, crossed the street, and was almost to Royal when she took a quick glance behind her. He was coming. He was on the other side of the street, but very much in pursuit.
The nervous look over the shoulder nailed her. It was a dead giveaway, and he was into a jog now.
Get to Bourbon Street, she decided. Kickoff was four hours away, and the Saints fans were out in force celebrating before the game because there would be little to celebrate afterward. She turned on Royal and ran hard for a few steps, then slowed to a fast walk. He turned on Royal and was trotting. He was poised to break and run hard at any second. Darby moved to the center of the street where a group of football rowdies were moving around, killing time. She turned left on Dumaine, and started running. Bourbon was ahead and there were people everywhere.
She could hear him now. No sense looking anymore. He was back there, running and gaining. When she turned onto Bourbon, Mr. Stump was fifty feet behind her, and the race was over. She saw her angels as they made a noisy exit from a bar. Three large, overweight young men dressed in a wild assortment of black and gold Saints garb stepped into the middle of the street just as Darby ran to them.
"Help!" she screamed wildly and pointed at Stump. "Help me! That man is after me! He's trying to rape me!"
Well, hell, now, sex in the streets of New Orleans is not at all uncommon, but they'd be damned if this girl was going to be abused.
"Please help me!" she screamed pitifully. Suddenly, the street was silent. Everyone froze, including Stump, who stopped for a step or two, then rushed forward. The three Saints stepped in front of him with folded arms and glowing eyes. It was over in seconds. Stump used both hands at once: a right to the throat of the first one, and a vicious blow to the mouth of the second. They squealed and fell hard. Number three was not about to run. His two buddies were hurt and this upset him. He would have been a piece of cake for Stump, but number one fell on Stump's right foot and this threw him off. As he yanked his foot away, Mr. Benjamin Chop of Thibodaux, Louisiana, number three, kicked him squarely in the crotch, and Stump was history. As Darby eased back into the crowd, she heard him cry in pain.
While he was falling, Mr. Chop kicked him in the ribs. Number two, with blood all over his face, charged wild-eyed into Stump, and the massacre was on. He curled around his hands, which were curled around his severely damaged testicles, and they kicked him and cursed him without mercy until someone yelled, "Cops," and this saved his life. Mr. Chop and number two helped number one to his feet, and the Saints were last seen darting into a bar. Stump made it to his feet, and crawled away like a dog hit by a Mack truck but still alive and determined to die at home.
She hid in a dark corner of a pub on Decatur, drinking coffee then a beer, coffee then a beer. Her hands shook and her stomach flipped. The po'boys smelled delicious, but she could not eat. After three beers in three hours, she ordered a plate of boiled shrimp and switched to spring water.
The alcohol had calmed her, and the shrimp settled her. She was safe in here, she thought, so why not watch the game and just sit here, maybe, until it closed.
The pub was packed at kickoff. They watched the wide screen above the bar, and got drunk. She was a Saints fan now. She hoped her three buddies were okay and enjoying the game. The crowd yelled and cursed the Redskins.
Darby stayed in her little corner until the game was long over, then slid into the darkness.
AT SOME POINT in the fourth quarter, with the Saints down by four field goals, Edwin Sneller hung up the phone and turned off the television. He stretched his legs, then returned to the phone and called Khamel next door.
"Listen to my English," the assassin said. "Tell me if you hear a trace of an accent."
"Okay. She's here," Sneller said. "One of our men saw her this morning at Jackson Square. He followed her for three blocks, then lost her."
"How did he lose her?"
"Doesn't matter, does it? She got away, but she's here. Her hair is very short and almost white."
Sneller hated to repeat himself, especially to this mongrel.
"He said it was not blond but white, and she was wearing green Army pants and a brown bomber jacket. Somehow she recognized him, and took off."
"How would she recognize him? Has she seen him before?"
These idiot questions. It was hard to believe he was considered Superman. "I can't answer that."
"How's my English?"
"Perfect. There's a small card under your door. You need to see it."
Khamel laid the phone on a pillow and walked to the door. In a second he was back on the phone. "Who is this?"