She could not trust Gavin Verheek. He was employed by a law enforcement agency that at times operated by its own rules. He took orders from a man with a history of paranoia and dirty tricks. His boss reported to a President in charge of an Administration run by fools. The President had rich, sleazy friends who gave him lots of money.
But at this moment, dear, there was no one else to trust. After five days and two near misses, she was throwing in the towel.
New Orleans had lost its allure. She needed help, and if she had to trust cops, the Fibbies were as clean as any.
Eleven forty-five. She paid for the espresso, waited for a crowd of shoppers, and fell in behind them. There were a dozen people browsing in Frenchmen's Bend as she walked past the entrance where her friend should be in about ten minutes. She eased into a bookstore two doors down. There were at least three stores in the vicinity from which she could shop and hide and watch the front door of Frenchmen's Bend. She chose the bookstore because the clerks weren't pushy and killing time was expected of the customers. She looked at the magazines first, then with three minutes to go she stepped between two rows of cookbooks and watched for Gavin.
Thomas said he was never on time. An hour late was early for him, but she would give him fifteen minutes and she'd be gone.
She expected him at precisely noon, and there he was. Black sweatshirt, red baseball cap, folded newspaper. He was a bit thinner than she expected, but he could lose a few pounds. Her heart pounded away. Be cool, she said. Just be cool, dammit.
She held a cookbook to her eyes and peered over it. He had gray hair and dark skin. The eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. He fidgeted and looked irritated, the way he sounded on the phone. He passed the newspaper from hand to hand, shifted his weight from foot to foot, and glanced around nervously.
He was okay. She liked the way he looked. He had a vulnerable, nonprofessional manner about him that said he was scared too.
After five minutes, he walked through the door as he was told, and went to the right rear of the store.
KHAMEL HAD BEEN TRAINED to welcome death. He had been close to it many times, but never afraid of it. And after thirty years of expecting it, nothing, absolutely nothing, made him tense. He got somewhat excited about sex, but that was it. The fidgeting was an act. The jittery little movements were contrived. He'd survived face-offs with men almost as talented as he, and he could certainly handle this little rendezvous with a desperate child. He picked through the safari jackets and tried to appear nervous.
He had a handkerchief in his pocket, because he suddenly had caught a cold so his voice was a bit thick and scratchy. He had listened to the recording a hundred times, and he was confident he had the inflection and rhythm and slight upper Midwest accent. But Verheek was a bit more nasal; thus, the handkerchief for the cold.
It was difficult to allow anyone to approach from the rear, but he knew he must. He did not see her. She was behind him but very close when she said, "Gavin."
He jerked quickly around. She was holding a white Panama hat and speaking to it. "Darby," he said, pulling the handkerchief out for a fake sneeze. Her hair was a gold color and shorter than his. He sneezed and coughed. "Let's get out of here," he said. "I don't like this idea."
Darby didn't like it either. It was Monday and her classmates were going about their business of clawing through law school, and here she was camouflaged to the max and playing cloak and dagger with this man who could get her killed. "Just do as I say, okay. Where'd you get the cold?"
He sneezed into the handkerchief and talked as low as possible. It sounded painful. "Last night. I left the air on too low. Let's get out of here."
"Follow me." They left the store. Darby took his hand, and they walked quickly down a flight of stairs leading to the boardwalk.
"Have you seen them?" he asked.
"No. Not yet. But I'm sure they're around."
"Where the hell are we going?" The voice was scratchy.
They were on the boardwalk, almost jogging, talking without looking at each other. "Just come with me."
"You're going too fast, Darby. We look suspicious. Slow down. Look, this is crazy. Let me make a phone call, and we'll be safe and secure. I can have three agents here in ten minutes." He was sounding good. This was working. They were holding hands, running for their lives.
"Nope." She slowed. The boardwalk was crowded, and a line had formed beside the Bayou Queen, a paddle wheeler. They stopped at the end of the line.
"What the hell is this?" he asked.
"Do you bitch about everything?" she almost whispered.
"Yes. Especially stupid things, and this is very stupid. Are we getting on this boat?"
"Why?" he sneezed again, then coughed out of control. He could take her out now with one hand, but there were people everywhere. People in front, people behind. He took great pride in his cleanliness, and this would be a dirty place to do it. Get on the boat, play along for a few more minutes, see what happens. He would get her on the upper deck, kill her, dump her in the river, then start yelling. Another terrible drowning accident. That might work. If not, he'd be patient. She'd be dead in an hour. Gavin was a bitch, so keep bitching.
"Because I've got a car a mile upriver at a park where we'll stop in thirty minutes," she explained in a low voice. "We get off the boat, into the car, and we haul ass."
The line was moving now. "I don't like boats. They make me seasick. This is dangerous, Darby." He coughed and looked around like a man pursued.
"Relax, Gavin. It's gonna work."
Khamel tugged at his pants. They were thirty-six inches in the waist and covered eight layers of briefs and gym shorts. The sweatshirt was extra large, and instead of weighing one-fifty, he could pass for one-ninety. Whatever. It seemed to be working.
They were almost to the steps of the Bayou Queen. "I don't like this," he mumbled loud enough for her to hear.
"Just shut up," she said.
The man with the gun ran to the end of the line and elbowed his way through the people with their bags and cameras. The tourists were packed tightly together as if a ride on the river-boat was the greatest trip in the world. He had killed before, but never in such a public place as this. The back of her head was visible through the crowd. He shoved his way desperately through the line. A few cursed him, but he couldn't care less. The gun was in a pocket, but as he neared the girl he yanked it out and kept it by his right leg. She was almost to the steps, almost on the boat. He shoved harder and knocked people out of the way. They protested angrily until they saw the gun, then they began yelling. She was holding hands with the man, who was talking nonstop. She was about to step up onto the boat when he knocked the last person out of the way and quickly stuck the gun into the base of the skull just below the red baseball cap. He fired once, and people screamed and fell to the ground.
Gavin fell hard into the steps. Darby screamed and backed away in horror. Her ears were ringing from the shot, and voices were yelling and people were pointing. The man with the gun was running hard toward a row of shops and a crowd of people. A heavy man with a camera was yelling at him, and Darby watched for a second as he disappeared. Maybe she'd seen him before, but she couldn't think now. She was yelling and couldn't stop.
"He's got a gun!" a woman near the boat yelled, and the crowd backed away from Gavin, who was on all fours with a small pistol in his right hand. He rocked pitifully back and forth like an infant trying to crawl. Blood streamed from his chin and puddled under his face. His head hung almost to the boards. His eyes were closed. He moved forward just a few inches, his knees now in the dark red puddle.
The crowd backed farther away, horrified at the sight of this wounded man fighting death. He teetered and wobbled forward again, headed nowhere but wanting to move, to live. He started yelling; loud painful moans in a language Darby did not recognize.
The blood was pouring, gushing from the nose and chin. He was wailing in that unknown tongue. Two crew members from the boat hovered on the steps, watching but afraid to move. The pistol concerned them.
A woman was crying, then another. Darby inched farther back. "He's Egyptian," a small, dark woman said. That news meant nothing to the crowd, now mesmerized.
He rocked forward and lunged to the edge of the boardwalk. The gun dropped into the water. He collapsed on his stomach with his head hanging over and dripping into the river. Shouts came from the rear, and two policemen rushed to him.
A hundred people now inched forward to see the dead man. Darby shuffled backward, then left the scene. The cops would have questions, and since she had no answers, she preferred not to talk. She was weak and needed to sit for a while, and think. There was an oyster bar inside Riverwalk. It was crowded for lunch, and she found the rest rooms in the back. She locked the door and sat on a toilet.
SHORTLY AFTER DARK, she left Riverwalk. The Westin Hotel is two blocks away, and she hoped maybe she could make it there without being gunned down on the sidewalk. Her clothes were different and hidden under a new black trench coat. The sunglasses and hat were also new. She was tired of spending good money on disposable clothes. She was tired of a lot of things.
She made it to the Westin in one piece. There were no rooms, and she sat in the well-lit lounge for an hour drinking coffee. It was time to run, but she couldn't get careless. She had to think.
Maybe she was thinking too damned much. Maybe they now thought of her as a thinker, and planned accordingly.
She left the Westin, and walked to Poydras, where she flagged a cab. An elderly black man sat low behind the wheel.
"I need to go to Baton Rouge," she said.
"Lord, honey, that's a heckuva ride."
"How much?" she asked quickly.
He thought a second. "A hundred and fifty."
She crawled in the backseat and threw two bills over the seat.There's two hundred. Get there as fast as you can, and watch your rear. We may be followed."
He turned off the meter and stuffed the money in his shirt pocket. Darby lay down in the backseat and closed her eyes. This was not an intelligent move, but playing the percentages was getting nowhere. The old man was a fast driver, and within minutes they were on the expressway.
The ringing in her ears had stopped, but she still heard the gunshot and saw him on all fours, rocking back and forth, try ing to live just a moment longer. Thomas had once referred to him as Dutch Verheek, but said the nickname was dropped after law school when they became serious about their careers. Dutch Verheek was not an Egyptian.
She had caught just a glimpse of his killer as he was running away. There was something familiar about him. He had glanced to his right just once as he was running, and something clicked. But she was screaming and hysterical, and it was a blur.
Everything blurred. Halfway to Baton Rouge, she fell into a deep sleep.
DIRECTOR VOYLES stood behind his executive swivel chair. His jacket was off, and most of the buttons on his tired and wrinkled shirt were unfastened. It was 9 P.M., and judging from the shirt he had been at the office at least fifteen hours. And he hadn't thought of leaving.
He listened to the receiver, mumbled a few instructions, and hung it up. K. O. Lewis sat across the desk. The door was open; the lights were on; no one had left. The mood was somber with small huddles of soft whispers.
"That was Eric East," Voyles said, sitting gently into the chair.He's been there about two hours, and they just finished the autopsy. He watched it, his first. Single bullet to the right temple, but death came sooner from a single blow at C-2 and -3. The vertebrae were shattered into tiny chips and pieces. No powder burns on his hand. Another blow severely bruised his larynx, but did not cause death. He was nude. Estimate of between ten and eleven last night."
"Who found him?" Lewis asked.
"Maids checked in around eleven this morning. Will you deliver the news to his wife?"
"Yea, sure," K.O. said. "When's the body coming back?"
"East said they'll release it in a couple of hours, and it should be here by 2 A.M. Tell her we'll do whatever she wants. Tell her I'm sending a hundred agents in tomorrow to blanket the city. Tell her we'll find the killer, etc., etc."
"Probably not. East said they've had the hotel room since 3 P.M., and it appears to be a clean job. No forced entry. No signs of resistance. Nothing that would be of any help, but it's a bit early." Voyles rubbed his red eyes, and thought for a while.
"How could he go down for a simple funeral, and end up dead?" Lewis asked.
"He was snooping around on this pelican thing. One of our agents, guy named Carlton, told East that Gavin was trying to find the girl, and that the girl had called him, and that he might need some help bringing her in. Carlton talked to him a few times, and gave him the names of a few student hangouts in the city. That was all, so he says. Carlton says that he, Carlton, was a bit worried about Gavin throwing his FBI weight around. Said he thought he was sort of a klutz."
"Has anyone seen the girl?"
"She's probably dead. I've instructed New Orleans to find her, if possible."
"Her little brief is getting folks killed right and left. When do we take it seriously?"
Voyles nodded at the door, and Lewis got up and closed it. The Director was standing again, cracking his knuckles and thinking aloud. "We have to cover our asses. I think we should assign at least two hundred agents to pelican, but try like hell to keep it quiet. There's something there, K.O., something really nasty. But at the same time, I promised the President we would back off. He personally asked me to back off the pelican brief, remember, and I said we would, in part because we thought it was a joke." Voyles managed a tight smile. "Well, I taped our little conversation when he asked me to back off. I figure he and Coal tape everything within a half mile of the White House, so why can't I? I had my best body mike, and I've listened to the tape. Clear as a bell."
"I'm not following."
"Simple. We go in and investigate like mad. If this is it, we crack the case, get the indictments, and everyone's happy. But it'll be a bitch to do in a hurry. Meanwhile, idiot and Coal over there know nothing about the investigation. If the press gets wind of it, and if the pelican brief is on target, then I'll make damned sure the country knows the President asked us to back off because it's one of his pals."
Lewis was smiling. "It'll kill him."
"Yes! Coal will hemorrhage, and the President will never recover. The election is next year, K.O."
"I like it, Denton, but we have to solve this thing."
Denton walked slowly behind his chair, and slid out of his shoes. He was even shorter now. "We'll look under every stone, K.O., but it won't be easy. If it's Mattiece, then we've got a very wealthy man in a very elaborate plot to use very talented killers to take out two justices. These people don't talk, and they don't leave trails. Look at our friend Gavin. We'll spend two thousand hours digging around that hotel, and I'll bet you there won't be a shred of useful evidence. Just like Rosenberg and Jensen."
"And Callahan. And probably the girl, if we ever find her body."
"I'm somewhat responsible, Denton. Gavin came to me Thursday morning after he learned of Callahan, and I didn't listen. I knew he was going down there, but I just didn't listen."
"Look, I'm sorry he's dead. He was a fine lawyer and he was loyal to me. I value that. I trusted Gavin. But he got himself killed because he stepped out of bounds. He had no business playing cop and trying to find the girl."
"Lewis stood and stretched.I'd better go see Mrs. Verheek. How much do I tell her?"
"Let's say it looks like a burglary, cops ain't sure down there, still investigating, we'll know more tomorrow, etc. Tell her I'm devastated, and we'll do whatever she wants."
COAL'S HMO stopped abruptly at the curb so an ambulance could scream by. The limo was wandering aimlessly through the city, a ritual not unusual when Coal and Matthew Barr met to talk about really dirty business. They sat deep in the back of it, sipping drinks. Coal was indulging in a spring water. Barr had a sixteen-ounce Bud purchased from a convenience store.
They ignored the ambulance.
"I must know what Grantham knows," Coal was saying. "Today he called Zikman, Zikman's aide Trandell, Nelson DeVan, one of my many former assistants who's now with the Committee to Reelect. And these are just the ones I know of. All in one day. He's hot on this pelican brief."
"You think he's seen it?" The limo was moving again.
"No. Not at all. If he knew what was in it, he wouldn't be fishing for it. But dammit, he knows about it."
"He's good. I've watched him for years. He seems to move in the shadows and keeps in touch with an odd network of sources. He's written some crazy stuff, but it's usually accurate as hell."
"That's what worries me. He's tenacious, and he smells blood with this story."
Barr sipped from the can. "Of course, it would be asking too much if I wanted to know what was in the brief."
"Don't ask. It's so damned confidential it's frightening."
"Then how does Grantham know about it?"
"Perfect question. And that's what I want to know. How'd he find out, and how much does he know? Where are his sources?"
"We got his car phone, but we haven't been inside the apartment yet."
"We almost got caught this morning by his cleaning lady. We'll try again tomorrow."
"Don't get caught, Barr. Remember Watergate."
"They were morons, Fletcher. We, on the other hand, are quite talented."
"That's right. So tell me, can you and your quite talented associates bug Grantham's phone at the Post?"
"Barr turned and frowned at Coal.Have you lost your mind? Impossible. That place is busy at all hours. They have security guards. The works."
"It could be done."
"Then do it, Coal. If you know so damned much, you do it."
"Start thinking about ways to do it, okay. Just give it some thought."
"Okay. I've thought about it. It's impossible." Coal was amused by this thought, and his amusement irritated Barr. The limo eased into downtown.
"Tap his apartment," Coal instructed.I want a report twice a day on all his calls." The limo stopped, and Barr climbed out.
BREAKFAST at Dupont Circle. It was quite chilly, but at least the addicts and transvestites were still unconscious somewhere in their sick little worlds. A few winos lay about like driftwood. But the sun was up and he felt safe, and anyway he was still an FBI agent with a shoulder harness and a piece under his arm. Who was he to fear? He hadn't used it in fifteen years, and he seldom left the office, but he'd love to yank it out and blast away.
His name was Trope, a very special assistant to Mr. Voyles. He was so special that no one except he and Mr. Voyles knew about these secret little chats with Booker from Langley. He sat on a circular bench with his back to New Hampshire, and unpacked a store-bought breakfast of banana and muffin. He checked his watch. Booker was never late. Trope always arrived first, then Booker five minutes later, and they always talked quickly and Trope left first, then Booker. They were both office boys now, far into their twilights but very close to their bosses, who from time to time grew weary of trying to figure out what the hell the other was doing, or perhaps just needed to know something quick.
His real name was Trope, and he wondered if Booker was a real name. Probably not. Booker was from Langley, and they were so paranoid even the pencil pushers probably had fakes.
He took an inch off the banana. Hell, the secretaries over there probably had three or four names.
Booker strolled near the fountain with a tall white cup of coffee. He glanced around, then sat down next to his friend. Voyles wanted this meeting, so Trope would speak first.
"We lost a man in New Orleans," he said.
Booker cuddled the hot cup and sipped. "He got himself killed."
"Yeah, but he's still dead. Were you there?"
"Yes, but we didn't know he was there. We were close, but watching others. What was he doing?"
Trope unwrapped the cold muffin. "We don't know. Went down for the funeral, tried to find the girl, found someone else, and here we are." He took a long bite and the banana was finished. Now to the muffin.It was a clean job, wasn't it?"
Booker shrugged. What did the FBI know about killing people? "It was okay. Pretty weak effort at suicide, from what we hear." He sipped the hot coffee.
"Where's the girl?" Trope asked.
"We lost her at O'Hare. Maybe she's in Manhattan, but we're not certain. We're looking."
"And they're looking." Trope sipped cold coffee.
"I'm sure they are."
They watched a wino stagger from his bench and fall. His head hit first with a thud, but he probably felt nothing. He rolled over and his forehead was bleeding.
Booker checked his watch. These meetings were extremely brief. "What are Mr. Voyles' plans?"
"Oh, he's going in. He sent fifty troops last night, with more today. He doesn't like losing people, especially someone he knows."
"What about the White House?"
"Not going to tell them, and maybe they won't find out. What do they know?"
"They know Mattiece."
Trope managed a slight smile at this thought. "Where is Mr. Mattiece?"
"Who knows. In the past three years, he's been seen little in this country. He owns at least a half-dozen homes in as many countries, and he's got jets and boats, so who knows."
Trope finished the muffin and stuffed the wrapper in the sack. "The brief nailed him, didn't it?"
"It's beautiful. And if he'd played it cool, the brief would have been ignored. But he goes berserk, starts killing people, and the more he kills the more credibility the brief has."
Trope glanced at his watch. Too long already, but this was good stuff. "Voyles says we may need your help."
Booker nodded. "Done. But this will be a very difficult matter. First, the probable gunman is dead. Second, the probable bagman is very elusive. There was an elaborate conspiracy, but the conspirators are gone. We'll try to find Mattiece."
"And the girl?"
"Yes. We'll try."
"What's she thinking?"
"How to stay alive."
"Can't you bring her in?" Trope asked.
"No. We don't know where she is, and we can't just snatch innocent civilians off the streets. She doesn't trust anyone right now."
Trope stood with his coffee and sack. "I can't blame her." He was gone.
GRANTHAM HELD a cloudy fax photo sent to him from Phoenix. She was a junior at Arizona State, a very attractive twenty-year-old coed. She was listed as a biology major from Denver. He had called twenty Shaws in Denver before he stopped. The second fax was sent by an AP stringer in New Orleans. It was a copy of her freshman photo at Tulane. The hair was longer. Somewhere in the middle of the yearbook, the stringer had found a photo of Darby Shaw drinking a Diet Coke at a law school picnic. She wore a baggy sweater with faded jeans that fit just right, and it was obvious the photo was placed in the yearbook by a great admirer of Darby's. It looked like something out of Vogue. She was laughing at something or someone at the picnic. The teeth were perfect and the face was warm. He had tacked this one onto the small corkboard beside his news desk.