Severance Pay (Chapters 67 through 72 of 78)

Patricia is now a totally free agent. She pursues her own agenda with ruthless efficiency. Elements and Themes listed apply to entire story, Rating to this submission. Thanks to Marina Kelly and Robyn Hoode for editorial assistance. My heartfelt thanks to those who have stuck with this rather lengthy story. The final chapters will be posted either very late Friday night or Saturday morning.

CHAPTER SIXTY SEVEN

I wake up to the ringing of my phone. Picking it up off the bedside table, I notice that it says it 9:38 a.m. I’ve been sleeping in too much lately.

“Yes, Walter?”

“Daniel?”

“Who else would it be, Walter?”

“Just wanted to make certain it was you. We’ve received some reports that there was some kind of fight or something at Hobbes’ compound last week.”

“When?”

“Three days ago, the night of that big storm, with all the power outages.”

“I remember. Why are you just getting this information now?”

“Because it was investigated, if you can call it that, by the local police. Hobbes wanted everything hushed up and you know what that means.”

“It was hushed up.”

“Exactly. A couple of the beat cops talked to one of the FBI liaison reps, who passed it on to us.”

“So what happened?”

“It’s not clear. Apparently someone broke in by jumping the wall with a motorcycle, if you can believe that.”

Unfortunately, I can. “Was she killed?”

“Was who killed?”

“The woman who jumped the wall with the motorcycle.”

“Who said it was a woman?”

Fuck. “Didn’t you say it was a woman?”

“No. We don’t know one way or another.”

“I’m sorry, you’re call woke me up, I thought you said it was a woman. Go on, what happened next?”

There’s a pause before Walter returns to the story. “As I said, we don’t know much. There was a lot of gunfire, though there was also a lot of thunder and lightning so many of the neighbors didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. At least that’s what they told the cops. Anyway, two people were killed, one outside the house and one inside. Neither one was Hobbes, he survived, darn the luck.”

“Yes. What a shame. Do we know who actually died?”

“Yeah, let me check my notes … Tony Escaban and Enrique Cardoza. Neither one rings a bell with the Drug Taskforce, though Escaban has some old gang convictions. I called to give you a heads up and see if you recognized any of the names.”

“Sorry, not off the top of my head, though I will check my records and get back to you if I discover anything. Did the killer get away?”

“Unclear. Hobbes may have taken care of it himself and not want us to know. I’ve seen pictures of his place. Hard to think someone could break in let alone get out alive. It’s an urban fortress. If someone did, they’d have to be very, very good … man or woman.”

She is. “Thanks for the warning, Walter. Is there anything else?”

“Yes, though not sure if it’s related. A day or so after the firefight, there was a lot of chatter about a summit meeting of some kind between the big three cartels. It floated back and forth for about twelve hours and then nothing since, not a peep. Must have fallen apart or it was just a rumor that burned out.”

Or it’s happening and someone working for Hobbes took charge of security, making it disappear from the radar.

“You’re likely correct Walter, not important and not related. Any further news on the arson investigation?”

“No. They’ve gone through everything with a fine tooth comb and found no evidence of a third person, though the experts say it’s not definitive. Not finding something doesn’t mean she wasn’t there.”

Since I put a bullet in her head, I know she was. I should have been less efficient with the fire, left some kind of remains for them to find.

“Alright, thanks again Walter. With this incident at Hobbes’ compound, I may need to speed up my plans for temporarily leaving the area, maybe leaving the country.”

“Hobbes has connections everywhere. I can better protect you in the US than in France or Germany or Tahiti. Keep that in mind. I’ll be in touch. You can go back to sleep.”

Very funny. When I get established, I should use Hobbes’ connections to get him fired. That would be fun to see. For now, I need to start making plans.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

It’s one hell of a view from the window of the conference room. The bay, the beaches, the swaying trees, the rising hillsides that eventually become mountains. A picture post card come to life. Of course, you can’t see the slums from here but that’s part of the price people pay to stay at a place like this. You pay the big money to see some things and not be bothered with other things … or people.

Conner put this together faster than I thought was possible. Waiving Hobbes’ name and money around helped a lot but getting the space was the easy part. Getting the Potosis and the TJs to show up, that was a miracle. Don’t know what she told them or threatened them with, but it worked.

Hobbes has got the top floor of the hotel. The Potosi Cartel has the next one down and the Tijuana Cartel has the next one down. The helipad is neutral territory so everyone can come and go. All three of us have security there but Hobbes is first among equals so we’ve actually taken charge. The other guys are just sitting around and watching. And swaggering. And bitching.

Conner has been everywhere, though she doesn’t look a thing like the little girl I know.

Or knew.

Officially, she’s Hobbes’ new assistant. She dyed her hair this reddish brown, auburn color and is wearing brown contacts. She’s got all these professional suits with tight skirts that are below her knees but have slits that reach about half way up her thigh. The suit coats are all one or two button, the blouses white or cream color and show just enough of her breasts to make a man stare and wish for just a little bit more … or a lot more.

Her hair and makeup are styled to make her look more like she’s in her twenties instead of seventeen. Or maybe it’s just her attitude. Or that she speaks Spanish fluently. And Portuguese. And French.

Or maybe it’s those high heels she wears and the way her ass gyrates and boobs bounce when she walks. You can hardly hold a conversation with another guy when she hurries by. Everything gets put on hold until she’s cleared the room, though the subtle smell of her perfume still lingers but just for a few seconds because every guy in the room is snorting it like coke.

Hobbes has pretty much stayed on his floor but Conner has been his representative, dealing with the other Cartels, the hotel, the staff, whoever. You got a problem, Conner is Johnny on the spot, soothing and charming until the problem is solved or doesn’t seem like it’s that big a deal. And not only the men but the women too. Some of the other Cartels brought wives or girlfriends or both and she arranged all these activities to keep them busy and out of my hair.

And the kids also. That’s what’s more amazing than anything else. Watching her with a bunch of little kids. She’s a natural. She wriggles into the room a complete stranger and a half hour later, two or three will be crying because she has to leave. Must be those boobs. I’d cry too if that potential meal walked away.

She never screams, never snaps, is always pleasant and makes you feel ashamed for causing her a problem. And then she smiles. Or giggles. Or double teams you with both. I’ve seen her completely disarm total bastard killers with a few words then that smile and giggle combo.

Thank God I’m immune.

I’m pretty sure everyone outside our group assumes Hobbes is fucking her. I would if I was them. He’d be crazy not to … if things actually were as they seemed. This probably gives her protection from the guys who might try to make a move on her. Or the psychos who might try to rape her. They may be crazy but not crazy enough to take a shot at Hobbes’ bitch. Of course, if they did, they’d discover fast enough that Conner don’t need anyone’s protection. From anything.

It’s taken almost two weeks but the big meeting is finally about ready to start. Every group has scanned the room for bugs individually and now all together to make sure no one planted something while scanning for someone else’s bugs. The tech guys have just left, leaving me in the conference room with one security man from each of the other two Cartels.

That’s the rules. Each Cartel has one security man and two representatives. That’s it. Nine people total.

The first one in is Arturo Carrillo, head of the Tijuana Cartel, the TJs. Everyone man here is mean as a snake but Carrillo is a snake that eats snakes, a bastards’ bastard if ever there was one. Fifty years old, plus or minus, with a pot gut and graying hair. They say he’s not the smartest guy on the block but he’s smart enough to still be alive after leading the TJs for over fourteen years. Luis Moreno is right behind him. Moreno is the next guy in the TJs, maybe a little smarter than Carrillo but still a damn tough nut. He’s younger than Carrillo, thinks he’s a ladies man. He actually took a shot at Conner but she blew him off, politely but blew him off. With his money, he’s probably not used to that. Moreno goes back to the bar and gets a couple of drinks while Carrillo sits down at their side of the triangular conference table.

Conner’s idea.

The Beltran brothers are next, Vincente and Hector. They’re not twins, Vincente is older, but they damn well act like twins. Both dark haired with full moustaches and beards. Hector’s a little taller but other than that, you could mistake them for twins. They’ve been running the Potosi Cartel for the last five years, since their old man died in a car explosion. Most people in the know say the brothers did it themselves, though, publicly, they blame the Zetas. Either one is a good theory. They go straight to their side of the table, with the security guys sliding in behind their respective employers. Both of them are young and buff, probably work out and shit. No weapons are permitted in the room but no one would submit to a search so they’re both likely packing.

I know I am. Conner doesn’t need to.

Hobbes doesn’t wait long to make his entrance. He hurries in, smiling, immediately followed by Conner, who’s using a different name -- Brooklyn Grey, Brooke for short. She’s wearing her usual all business suit and blouse but this time she’s got a small diamond pendant on a fine gold chain with matching earrings, the pendant sitting smack in the middle of her cleavage. If you had a hot secretary fetish, your dick would be an iron rod right now.

Neither Hobbes nor Conner … I mean Brooke … sit, but he gets right to business.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice, though I doubt anyone objects to being in Acapulco this time of the year.”

“Get on with it, Hobbes,” grouses Carrillo.

“As you wish, Arturo. Does anyone need a drink before we start? Ms. Grey makes an outstanding Manhattan.”

No takers. “Very well. For those who have not met her, this is my personal assistant, Miss Brooklyn Grey. She will be taking notes, if no one objects.” Notes are a lot safer than electronics. There was no lack of smiles and smirking in the room when Hobbes said “PERSONAL assistant”.

“I don’t care what you have her do, Hobbes,” says Vincente. “What I want to know is, where is Cardoza?”

Hobbes smiles tightly. “Enrique decided to take an early retirement. It will be difficult to replace him. If you will all turn your attention to the screen on your left, I will begin. Ms. Grey, if you please.”

“Yes, Mr. Hobbes.” She presses a couple of buttons sitting on the table next to her. The curtains slide shut and the lights dim while a large screen drops from the ceiling, as does a projector. She flips up the screen of a laptop computer and a test pattern is immediately displayed on the screen. “Ready, Sir.”

“Thank you, Brooke. First slide, please.”

A big graphic appears on the screen, a kind of bar chart.

“Gentlemen. This would be our losses in the last several weeks due to seizures by the US government. Tijuana; four Billion, Potosi; five Billion. Myself, I lost two billion and change.”

“Where did you get these numbers?” demands Carrillo.

“Mostly the newspapers and cable news plus my contacts with the US Department of Justice. Are they wrong, Arturo?”

“Not exactly,” he grumbles. “Though I do notice that we have been hurt much more that you.”

“Luck of the draw, I assure you. Besides, I was hit first and the most seized in one single day is my record. I have hardly remained undamaged. The end result of all this is skyrocketing prices due to the same demand and lower supplies. Am I correct?”

There’s a general nodding of heads in the room.

“What we have is worth more but we don’t have enough,” says Hector.

“None of us do,” adds Moreno.

“I do,” says Hobbes. “Brooke.”

Another image appears on the screen.

“Gentlemen. This is my current inventory inside the US border, ready for distribution.”

They all stare at the screen for a few seconds before reacting.

“How ..”

“Impossible!”

“Lies!”

“All true, I assure you. Six billion at today’s prices, though when I release it, today’s prices will be a thing of the past. What was our estimate concerning prices, Brooke?”

“A minimum of a seventy five percent reduction, Mr. Hobbes. A maximum of ninety percent.”

“Very good, Brooke. And this is just what I have ready to distribute. There is more waiting to move across the border and my transportation network is fully functioning.”

“As is ours!” shouts Carrillo.

Hobbes chuckles. “Arturo, you lost two tunnels last week alone. This has been going on for almost two months. First Tijuana then Potosi, the Zetas and the Pacific Cartel, a new seizure in the news every other day. It’s become so common that the papers hardly bother to cover it anymore. And why is it happening? Each of you are turning the others in to hurt the competition. You are cutting your own throats to cut someone else’s throat deeper. It is madness!”

“And how have you avoided this ‘madness’, Hobbes?” demands Arturo.

“I was the first one injured. The others saw what happened to the prices and decided to do the same to their competitors with the idea of being the only one left standing. You all concentrated on each other, assuming I was fatally wounded. I wasn’t but didn’t feel the need to brag to the world. I kept my head down and rebuilt my supplies. I’ve had more time to recover than the rest of you and the higher prices have kept my profits intact.” Hobbes looks around the room. “I have more than enough inventory to supply my dealers … and yours.”

They all realize what that would mean.

“You know that would mean war!” cries Hector, jumping to his feet. “We will wipe you out!”

Moreno joins in. “As will we!”

“Now, now Luis, I don’t think our good friend Raymond really plans on doing that,” soothes Carrillo. “There would be no reason for this meeting if that was his plan. He would simply do it, wouldn’t you, Raymond?”

“Yes, I would. You are correct Arturo, I have something else in mind. I’ve come to believe that there is too much competition in our business. Too many people trying to take slices from the pie. Worse than that, they treat the drug trade as a way to glory or fame by the gratuitous use of violence for the sake of violence. Narco music, narco books, narco telenovelas, what’s next, narco Disneyland?”

“You do not understand the Mexican culture, Hobbes. You are Argentinean,” says Vincente.

“And I thank God I am,” answers Hobbes. “Multiculturalism is all well and good as long as it doesn’t hurt profits. We cannot afford to indulge in this macho foolishness any longer. Someone must take charge!”

It’s clear that they don’t like that ‘macho foolishness’ crack.

They look back and forth at each other before Carrillo speaks. “What are you proposing, Hobbes?”

“Our three organizations control almost sixty percent of the world’s drug trade. Sixty percent. The remaining forty percent is divided among, what, eight, ten cartels?”

“The Zetas are almost twenty percent themselves. Why aren’t they here?” asks Hector.

“Because they are the worst of the worst,” replies Hobbes. “Utter mad men! No sane human being could work with them! You, on the other hand, are reasonable men. You can read the handwriting on the wall.”

“And what does this handwriting say?” asks Carrillo.

Hobbes sits down next to Conner. “Brooke.” A picture of a coca farm is projected, then a marijuana farm, then a marijuana processing plant. Hobbes starts to talk while more pictures come and go. “My organization is vertically integrated. I control every step of the process from the plants to the street. Production, processing, transportation, storage and distribution.”

Now the pictures are of his planes, ships, and subs. Then the tunnels and warehouses. I’d never thought about how big the total operation was. When you put it all on one long slideshow, it’s pretty damn impressive. Hobbes lets a few more pictures go by then starts again.

“I have no middle men so the profits are all mine. My business is the most efficient drug cartel in history.”

The last picture is of stacks of cash in a bank vault. As it fades away, the lights come up, the screen and projector return to their spots in the ceiling and the curtains open, restoring the stunning, distracting view.

Vincente slowly, sarcastically applauds. “Wonderful, very impressive. Next meeting, I’ll bring my vacation photos. My children are extremely cute.” Hector enjoys the humor, slapping his brother on the back.

Carrillo is more serious. “I believe our good friend Raymond is making the case that his cartel is superior to ours, Vincente. Yes, very impressive, but we also make a great deal of money. We have taken a different approach but we are also successful. Who is to say which is the best way? But, I assume that we do not have to all follow the same business model to join together. That is what this is all about, is it not? You wish to create some kind of super cartel alliance with you in charge.”

“Of course he does,” snorts Vincente. “It was obvious from the start.”

Hobbes smiles broadly, looking at Carrillo then the Beltran brothers, savoring the moment.

“No, my friends, not at all. My business is for sale, lock, stock and barrels of meth. The first one who pays me twelve billion dollars gets everything. Except my home.”

Conner touches her left ear with her left index finger then taps Hobbes lightly on the forearm. He leans down and she whispers something in his ear. He quickly nods then sits up.

“I am also offering my people a generous severance package, should they not wish to work for whoever purchases my business.”

“We’re buying your equipment but there’s no one to run it? How does that make any sense?”

“Arturo, if you were to buy me out, would you want people in your organization who weren’t loyal to you? Of course not! This way, we quickly find out which of my people would become security risks for you and remove them from the business. Frankly, I expect most of them to remain in their jobs but it is best we take care of the potential problem now. The cost will be my expense.”

Carrillo nods his head in agreement. “I see … reasonable … but twelve billion dollars! We don’t have that kind of money! No one does.”

“You ask too much, Hobbes,” says Vincente. “Carrillo is right, no one can afford that price.”

“I know that each of you have almost one third of that in cash stored in the US that you’re trying to get back across the border. I’ll take it and credit it at face value, not a discounted laundered price. As for the rest … you have banks across Mexico that you control. A loan against the future profits is hardly unreasonable. Careful management of the inventory could practically pay the entire purchase price itself, the other assts would be nearly free!”

The other cartels are in shock. Whatever they thought was going to happen here today, a garage sale wasn’t one of ‘em.

“What happens if neither of us buys you out?” asks Hector.

“I will have no choice but to release my inventory on to the market and keep doing so until the price is driven into the toilet and I control the American drug market. Yes, there will be an expensive, destructive war, but in the end, economics wins and there will be peace and prosperity. My peace, my prosperity. Or it can be your peace and your prosperity. All for only twelve billion dollars.”

“Only!” Hector snorts.

“Raymond,” says Carrillo, “You know that none of us here can make such a decision on our own. You may have sole control of your organization but neither of us does. We have others we must consult.”

Conner again touches her left ear then touches Hobbes’ arm. After a brief, quiet consult, Hobbes looks up, smiling.

“I understand. I had forgotten how difficult it is to be a member of a group. Would an hour break be adequate?”

“Yes, certainly for me,” answers Carrillo.

“An hour is fine,” adds Vincente.

“Then it is agreed, gentlemen. We will reconvene in an hour. Remember to tell your associates, this is a rare opportunity to acquire enormous market share without spilling one drop of blood. Such an opportunity is a once in a lifetime event.”

The others file out followed by their guards. Hobbes turns to Conner.

“How do you think things are going … Ms. Grey?”

She picks up her note pad. “Let’s talk upstairs.”

I follow them to the elevator and we ride together up to the top floor. Riley and Jackson meet us as the door opens, both armed with AR-15s. Conner marches off with Hobbes following closely behind. I can tell the guys have questions but I can’t say anything. I just shrug and have a seat.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Patricia thought it was best if I came with her to Acapulco, particularly since I was supposed to be dead. We had imposed on Randi’s goodwill long enough. Hobbes had put us up at a swanky hotel while he and Patricia planned this conference. I tried to stay away from Hobbes as much as possible but some contact was inevitable. Needless to say, it was uncomfortable, at best. He knew who I really was and why I did what I did. My head is still bandaged where Lipscomb shot me, though my burns are healing.

Patricia goes out of her way to keep me informed as to what’s going on and she spends her free time with me. It’s unfortunate that Gretchen can’t be told the truth. She still believes we’re missing. Naturally, she’s still very worried about what happened to us but Patricia is convinced that she needs to be kept in the dark, at least for now. She says that there are too many loose ends that need to be tied up before she’s ready to go back to being Patricia Conner, though she won’t say what kind of life she’s talking about.

What’s going to happen to us? Lipscomb’s still out there and who knows what he’s told the police about us, other than I’m dead. I don’t know what Patricia and I are going to do after this thing with Hobbes is finished. She’s clearly changed and can’t go back to the way things were. Thomas is dead and he was the only one who knew how to take care of Patricia’s body. Ignoring the changes in her brain, how much longer can she physically continue? But I can’t ignore what’s happened to her brain.

She still seems to act the way she did before the nanites rewired everything but it’s just that … an act. Sometimes, when she doesn’t know I’m around, she relaxes. The difference is subtle but it’s there. I think she does it so I won’t worry. Like we don’t have too many things to worry about already.

I’m in the atrium, enjoying the sun, when Patricia comes in, followed closely by Hobbes.

“How’d it go, honey?”

“As best as could be expected. Mr. Hobbes did a good job of selling it.”

He bows in appreciation. “Your slide show helped a lot, Jessica. I was impressed and I’d seen it twice before.”

They’d asked for my help in crafting their presentation, wanted my professional opinion as to what images and sequence created the greatest impression of power and success. It wasn’t that difficult and kept me busy. Patricia likely could have done it herself. I’m afraid that there’s little she couldn’t do now … for good or ill.

“What’s the next step, Patricia?”

“They’re consulting with their other members. Neither group can afford for the other to buy out Mr. Hobbes; the buyer becomes the dominant cartel in the world. Likewise, neither can afford twelve billion dollars, not cash on the barrel head. They haven’t got it and it wouldn’t be easy to raise. When we reconvene, they’ll try to talk the price down.”

“But we won’t budge, will we … Ms. Grey.”

“Just a little, Mr. Hobbes. To prove we aren’t unreasonable, but the price will still be too high for one cartel. If they haven’t figured it out for themselves by then, we’ll suggest that they join forces. Carrillo is a cagey one; he may beat us to the punch. If they do decide to join forces, that’s when it gets tricky. Now, there’s no bidding war. All we have is the threat to destroy the market and drive them both out of business.”

“That seems to be a powerful argument on your side, honey.”

“It is. We’ll just have to squeeze as much money out of them as possible. If you don’t have anything else you need from me Mr. Hobbes, I’d like to get some rest.”

“No! Not at all! By all means.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in my room if anyone needs me.”

Patricia strides out of the atrium, vigorous and purposeful, not appearing tired at all but I know how hard she’s worked these past few weeks. Both Hobbes and I watch as she goes.

“Remarkable” Hobbes mutters.

“How so?” I know why I think it; I want to know why he does.

“All the work that she has done, all the planning. Never once has she asked me to pay her. If this works, I become a multi-billionaire, one of the richest men on the planet. And yet, she has asked for nothing.”

“Don’t remind me. Have you offered her anything?”

He looks away. “No. I haven’t.”

“Maybe she thinks you’ll be fair with her.”

“She has not discussed it with you?”

“Not once. I’m more interested in putting you all out of business, one way or another. What she’s interested in is hard to say.”

CHAPTER SIXTY EIGHT

“Hobbes, you must be reasonable! Eleven billion dollars is just impossible. You could not raise that kind of money and you are supposed to be bigger and more successful than either of us!”

“I have already reduced my asking price, Carrillo, though it is worth every cent of twelve billion. My inventory alone …”

“So YOU say!” cries Hector. “Why should we trust you?”

Hobbes sighes. “We have already covered this Beltran. The winning bidder will have a chance to inspect whatever he wishes, do whatever inventory check he wants before I am paid. The money will be in escrow in the Bahamas. Your satisfaction guaranteed.”

“Well, we are not satisfied. Four and a half billion is our final offer,” says Vincente. “It does not matter what it is worth, we can raise no more money.”

“Nor can we, Raymond,” said Carrillo, regretfully.

Hobbes smiles. “If I did not know better, I would suspect collusion. Are you willing to risk your futures on a coin flip, gentlemen? Assuming I would even accept such pitiful offers, if neither of you can do any better, then it would be random chance as to who wins the day. Are you ready to accept that fate? If I were you, I would …”

Conner touches her ear again and taps Hobbes arm. They’ve done this dance at least four times since the start of the second meeting twenty minutes ago. The other two guards are looking bored. They huddle and whisper back and forth for over a minute before Hobbes straightens up.

“It has been suggested … by Ms. Grey, of course,” Hobbes gestures towards Conner with an open palm, “That there is perhaps a compromise position that may solve all our problems. The winning bidder will control the major share of the world drug trade but not all of it. The losing bidder remains a formidable opponent, not to mention the lunatic Zetas and all the small fry. What if the winning bidder could control nearly seventy percent of the world market? Such a near monopoly could soon become a complete monopoly with a little work and clear planning. Eleven billion for a monopoly is a fair price.”

“What are you saying?” askes Carrillo.

“The Potosi and Tijuana cartels should join forces. Combine your money and resources, pay me my eleven billion dollars, use the inventory to destroy the competition and rule the world,” answered Hobbes.

Carrillo lookes towards the Beltran brothers, thoughtfully scratching his chin. “That is something I had not considered.”

“Neither had we,” addes Vincente, a little too quickly and eagerly. “It never crossed our minds, did it Hector?”

“Never! I swear!” Hector chimes.

Yeah. Of course.

“Then we should all thank Ms. Grey for thinking of it, shouldn’t we?” says Hobbes.

“Yes, certainly,” says Carrillo. “A brilliant suggestion from such a lovely young woman.”

“Agreed!” enthuses Vincente.

“Wonderful! Would you both consider it?”

They others look at each other for a few seconds before Carrillo speaks.

“I, for one, would be willing to discuss it, if you are willing, Vincente.”

“There is no harm in talking, Aurturo.”

Hobbes claps his hands together. “Excellent! We will leave the room, to give you an opportunity to talk, a neutral ground, so to speak. There are secure phones next to the bar if you need to talk with your compatriots.” He reaches into his pants pocket, fishes around for a couple of seconds, then pulls out a small device that looks something like a garage door opener. “This is a pager. Push the large button and I will return. I’ll be on my floor until you call.”

Hobbes sits the pager in the middle of the conference table and then we leave. Just as the door closes behind us, Conner stops, pulls a small rectangular box from her suit coat pocket that matched the one Hobbes left on the table. She pressed a button. It squawks for a moment, then I could clearly hear voices.

“Did you see what the girl does? Every time, she touches her ear, like there’s an ear piece, then she touches Hobbes and they talk.”

“What are you suggesting, Hector?”

“I don’t think Cardoza has taken any kind of retirement. He’s using the girl to talk with Hobbes. They think that if we believe he’s no longer around, we’ll all relax. You know he has been the power behind the throne for years.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Hector. How does that change anything?”

“Cardoza would not think twice about putting our prices into the toilet.”

That’s one way to bug a room.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

The Potosi and Tijuana Cartels had already decided to work together, splitting Hobbes’ business between them, hence the agreed upon price of four and a half billion dollars. It doesn’t appear to be a complete merger but close enough for my purposes. The real question is how hard can I push them on price? In theory, they each had about four billion to start so doubling that gets me eight billion. Can I realistically get more for Hobbes? Maybe not directly. And not without some help.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

They buzzed Hobbes five minutes ago and everyone is back in the conference room.

“Raymond,” says Carrillo. “We have taken Brooke’s suggestion to heart and agreed to an alliance between the cartels. Unfortunately, together, we can only offer seven billion dollars. Take it or leave it.”

Hobbes looks left and right, then at Conner, who nods her head once.

“My friends, this is my final offer. It is not a negotiating ploy or a game of some kind. This is my bottom line. Ten billion dollars in two installments. Eight billion now and Two billion in a year. Plus interest at four percent. If that is not agreed to, then we will let the market declare the winners. Do you wish to discuss it among yourselves?”

Carrillo stares at Hobbes with narrowed eyes, then glances at the Beltrans, who nod their heads in unison.

“We will discuss it.”

Hobbes returns his “pager” to the center of the table and we troop out again.

Conner has the receiver out as soon as we turn the corner.

“We can’t afford ten billion.”

“We won’t have to. We pay the eight now and nothing in a year.”

“What do you mean, Arturo?”

“What can he do about it? We will control his troops, his empire. He has nothing to force us to pay. What will he do, sue us?”

We can hear the laughter without the receiver. Conner turns it off.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

“Then it is agreed,” says Hobbes. “Eight billion paid into an escrow account in a mutually agreed bank, to be released after an inspection of my assets to make certain they are as advertised. After one year, an additional two billion plus four percent interest is to be paid direct to an account of my choosing.”

“Yes, Raymond. That is our agreement,” answers Carrillo.

Conner touchs her ear and taps Hobbes’ arm. Everyone else in the room froze. After consulting, Hobbes sits up.

“Thank you, Brooke. A very good point. Gentlemen, Ms. Grey has raised a minor but I believe important issue. If you were paying one payment and we were done, it wouldn’t matter, but since I am relying on the future success of your business for the payment of the balance of the ten billion dollars, it is only fair that I also inspect your assets, to assess your credit worthiness, as it were.”

“Are you saying you don’t trust us?!” Moreno yells.

“If I did not trust you, Luis, we would not have reached this agreement but you demand an inspection of what you are buying before you pay for it and that is a reasonable demand. Likewise, I am, in essence, a silent partner with all of you until the balance is paid in a year. It is hardly unreasonable that I know who I am getting in bed with. It is you who need that year to raise the money. I am entitled to an inspection and an opportunity to determine if I believe you will actually be able to pay me.”

“Let him see what he wants,” says Hector. “It means nothing!”

“I agree,” says Vincente.

Hobbes turns towards Carrillo.

“Arturo?”

Carrillo looks at Hobbes but he’s watching Conner, who’s just sitting there with a completely bland, if not slightly bored, expression on her face. Something is worrying him but he can’t put his finger on it. Finally, he shakes it off and answers.

“You are right, Raymond, it is a minor thing.”

“NO! Arturo! How can you allow …”

“Quiet Luis! It is only fair. We are all laying our cards on the table. There shall be no secrets, eh Raymond?”

“Yes, Arturo, no secrets.”

There was some final haggling over how long each side had to do the inspections. They finally settle on ten days and exchanged contact numbers. Hobbes produces some champagne from behind the bar and there’s a lot of toasting and handshakes before Conner breaks it up, reminding everyone that the wives’ daytrip is about to end and they will all be back to the Hotel in a few minutes. Spas and shopping. The men need to find out the damages.

Hobbes is the last to leave and he’s all smiles and back slaps. He even grabs my hand and wallops me on the back in the elevator, thanking me for all I have done and that my loyalty will not be forgotten. When the door opens on our floor, he positively dances out the door.

I had to know.

“Conner, can I talk with you. Just a sec.”

“Sure. Mr. Hobbes, I’ll be with you in a few.”

“No rush, Patricia. I am retired. Plenty of time on my hands.”

I lead Conner to a secluded room on a back hallway and close the door.

“I don’t get it.”

“Get what, Henry?”

“Hobbes knows he’s not getting that second payment. He’s getting screwed out of two billion dollars and doesn’t seem to care!”

“They didn’t have ten billion. They barely had eight. This way, we get to see everything they both have, their factories, their farms, their planes, ships, subs and tunnels. Their warehouses and distribution networks. We already know what Hobbes is selling them and where that is. Once we’re all done, I will know practically every major drug production and delivery asset in the world.”

“And what’ll you do with that information?”

“Hand it over to the Feds and Hobbes collects ten percent for helping destroy the drug trade across the world. Hobbes’ cut will probably be a couple billion after all … if they’re smart.”

She’s got all the angles figured out. They won’t know what hit ‘em. Amazing.

“What’s this severance pay thing?”

“This is everybody’s second chance. You want out? You get three years salary, up front. You have to leave the drug trade to qualify but this gives you enough money to escape, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Does that apply to …”

“Guards? Yeah, it does. Though, with Hobbes out of the business, technically, so are the guards, if they decide to stay on. Here’s your chance, Henry, to start a new life, if that’s what you want.”

“What do you get out of all this?”

“Redemption.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

We didn’t stay in Acapulco for very long after the meeting. Flying home on Hobbes’ private jet, we’re in Miami the next day, using the new IDs provided by Hobbes. I’m now Jessica Grey and Patricia is Brooklyn Grey. We’re still mother and daughter, though Patricia is twenty two instead of seventeen. She’s been dressing and acting older. I assume she still remembers most everything from her life as Peter Harris so that shouldn’t be very difficult for her.

Hobbes has put us up in a small, secluded office building he owns and Patricia starts work on finalizing the sale. She spends her days contacting Hobbes’ people all around the world and scheduling the required inspections. Hobbes wants to handle the money transfer himself. Patricia doesn’t object, she wants the information from the inspections.

I don’t have anything to do so I spend my time making the space a little more home like. Patricia doesn’t think we should come in from the cold until after we’ve dealt with Lipscomb. She hasn’t said exactly what she plans to do but I made her promise that I would be there when she does.

Six days after we got back, Patricia walks into the office I set up as a living room. I was watching a movie online. She drops into a chair and tosses a DVD case onto my lap.

“That’s it.”

I pick it up and open it. There’s an unlabeled DVD+R disc in the case.

“That’s everything?”

“Absolutely everything, even their list of bribed officials and cops.”

“How did you get that?”

“They got Hobbes’ list. We agreed to an equal swap. I’ll deliver this to Hobbes later today and he can collect his money.”

“Eight. Billion. Dollars. It doesn’t seem fair that he walks away with that kind of money, scot-free.”

“You’re right, it isn’t, but we both know that life isn’t fair. It takes him out of the game though, along with Gretchen, Henry, Lou and the rest of the guys. What he does with his second chance is up to him.”

“He doesn’t deserve a second chance.”

“Maybe not, but it’s for the greater good. That disc in your hand could lead to the total disruption of the world-wide drug trade in a year. And we wouldn’t have it without the deal Hobbes got. If we’re lucky, Potosi and Tijuana will wipe out the smaller cartels before their deal falls apart and they start fighting among themselves.”

“Do you really think that will happen?”

“Potosi and Tijuana fighting each other? There’s no doubt about it. Carrillo might be able to take control of Potosi but I doubt it. The two of them should decimate the competition before they try to kill each other though. If the timing’s right, the Feds should be able to take both of them out of business before things get too bad. The real question is, how long can they prevent the next super cartel from developing?”

“You don’t sound optimistic, Patricia.”

“I’m not. As long as there’s a demand, there will always be a supplier. The only question is at what price. If the world’s governments are motivated, coordinated, united and smart, they may be able to delay the inevitable ten or fifteen years. If they aren’t …”

“Which is the reality as of today.”

“Then it’ll be less than five years. Five bloody years.”

“So … what have we accomplished here?”

“The same as for everyone, a second chance to get it right. With the current get tough policies, no one will even consider demand reduction until there’s supply reduction. We’ll give them their supply reduction. The next move is theirs.”

Patricia pulls her legs up and pulls off the heels she’s been wearing, rubbing her feet with both hands, eyes closed. After several minutes, she brings her knees up to her chest, hugging them, slowly rocking forward and back in her chair.

“Sweetie … is there something wrong?”

“No mom … I’m fine … I’m …” She pauses for almost half a minute. “Mom?”

“Yes, honey?”

“What am I?”

I’ve been waiting for this. Still don’t know what to do about it. “Why do you ask?”

“Why do I ask? I put that DVD together. I can tell you exactly what is on there … word for word. Is that normal?”

“Some people have abnormally good memories …”

“Do some people have the memories of two different people in their heads, plus about a pound of silicon? Oh, don’t forget the little robots circulating through my body. They were originally just in my brain but a few escaped after one of my concussions and they’ve replicated. Now they’re everywhere.”

“My GOD! Patricia, are you alright?!”

“Probably. I still have a certain amount of control over them. They mostly just do routine maintenance. How many people can say that?”

“None that I know.”

“Which means that I’m not people.”

“What?”

“People. A person … human.”

“Honey, you can’t think that.”

“Why not? There’s no one like me out there, nothing like me. I’m totally unique. How could I possibly be human?”

She rubs tears from her eyes with the back of her hand but they don’t stop. I jump up and hurry to her side, sitting on the arm of the chair while I reach out and hug her.

“Patricia … of course you’re human. You’re as human as I am. People for centuries have used technology to improve or save their lives. Eyeglasses, contacts, hearing aids, all just simple tools.”

“My brain isn’t just a tool. I can’t take it off and sit it on the nightstand next to the bed.”

“Alright, alright … what about pacemakers or insulin pumps? They don’t come out at night. You remove them and the person dies. Are they not human? What about artificial hearts?”

“There aren’t any permanent artificial hearts yet.”

“But there will be … someday. Does the first recipient of a permanent heart replacement cease to be human when they switch the heart on?”

The tears slow.

“No … I guess not.”

“Of course they’re still human. And so are you. You’re just the first person to get the technology. Who knows, ten years from now, nanites and brain implants could be as common as nose jobs and breast implants.”

She laughs softly then gets serious again. “What about Peter Harris, Jenny Jo Hamilton and Patricia the computer program? All three of us put in a blender and frapped.”

I caress her cheek with the back of my right hand.

“What happened to you, sweetie, was a terrible accident. No one wanted it to happen. You have an extraordinary will to survive. It all might have killed you, but it didn’t … you wouldn’t let it. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re here. As you’re so fond of pointing out, life is choices. You made your choice. The end result was a beautiful, talented, intelligent, young woman. A human woman … who’s sometimes a big pain in the ass. You can’t be anymore human than that, Patricia.”

She sighs, looks up at me and smiles.

“Thanks, Mom … I needed that.”

“Anytime.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Something is up.

No one will talk to me about it but I know when something big is happening around here. Father is scarce, the guards are on the alert, you can feel the tension in everyone. Normally I wouldn’t care but anything that takes attention away from looking for Patty is not acceptable.

Father knows something but he’s not telling. Lately, whenever I ask about what he’s doing to find her, he says everything that he can but that I shouldn’t worry, that she’s a smart girl and can take care of herself.

Of course she’s a smart girl! Everyone knows that! But bad things can happen to any girl, smart or dumb.

Nobody else has had any luck either. Nothing in the daily police reports, no tips from the website that Cassie and Debbie put together, zip from the Facebook page, other than a lot of sympathy messages … and a few really crappy anonymous ones. If I could prove who sent those, I’d track them down and have a talk with whoever the hell did it. Sick bastards.

Through it all, Gary’s been my rock. He’s probably tired of me talking about Patty all the time but he’s soooo understanding. He and some of his teammates have even gone around to different stores and other places putting up flyers, “Have you seen this girl” type things. He couldn’t be more supportive. Terri keeps telling me that he’s a good catch. I can’t think about things like that, not until I find out what happened to Patty -- good or bad.

CHAPTER SIXTY NINE

Hobbes was paid yesterday. I was at the house when the confirmation came in from the bank. Gretchen was at school. I’ve hated keeping her in the dark but too many people know I’m missing and I can’t afford for the world to know I’m back just yet. There are a couple of loose ends that need to be tied up before I can officially return. Until then, Gretchen can’t know anything.

Hobbes was absolutely giddy, making all sorts of plans. First thing he said he’s going to do is visit the old ranch owned by his great uncle. He wanted Gretchen to see it and meet that side of the family. He planned to invest in the ranch, restore it to its former glory. He’ll settle down in a few weeks. Freedom can be intoxicating.

I’m far from free yet.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

I promised Mom that she could be there when I confronted Lipscomb. I didn’t promise that she’d actually be in the room when I did it.

I know she’s got just as much a beef with him as I do, maybe more, but she’s got no experience with this kinda thing. She might freeze at a crucial moment or balk at doing what needed to be done. Mom’s just a regular person. There’s no reason that she should have to get her hands dirty cleaning up this mess.

It’s amazing what I can “remember” about Lipscomb’s plans now. If I had this recall from the start, we’d be talking about a totally different situation. Matthews would still be alive for one thing. So would Peter Harris.

And Hobbes would still be a drug dealer. Just because I was able to make lemonade out of lemons doesn’t mean Danny Boy gets away with it.

I’d been casing his condo for the last two days, making sure he was there and that he was alone. He didn’t go out much so I’m just going to have to force my way in and take him at gun point. I’m really going to miss this little .22. It is very sweet, but I can’t afford to keep a gun with two recent killings attached to it. They might not find his body in the Everglades but I can’t count on it.

Mom drove the van. It’s a rental in her “Jessica Grey” identity. We won’t need the aliases in a couple weeks, if we’re lucky. We’ve been sitting outside Lipscomb’s place for the last half-hour. Mom yawns and I check my watch. 1:18 in the morning. Time to move. I grab my black shoulder bag and pop the door open.

“You stay right here, Mom. We talked about this. You stay in the van until I bring Lipscomb out, swing around to the front of the building, we get in and you drive away. Simple and straight forward.”

“What if you have trouble?”

“Then you head for home. Let me deal with it.”

She reaches into the brown paper bag beside her and pulled out the double barrel .410 I had given her earlier.

“I can’t leave you if there’s trouble, not now.”

I reach out and push the gun down and out of sight.

“MOTHER! Put that away! Someone may see it! There won’t be any trouble. Lipscomb’s probably asleep and I’ve checked out the locks on some of the empty condos. I can pick them, eazy peazy. The bolt cutters will take care of any chains on the door. Once I’m in, it’ll only take a few minutes for me to roust Lipscomb, hustle him downstairs and out the door.”

“What if he won’t cooperate?”

“You know Danny Boy. He’ll do anything to keep talking, figures he can talk his way out of any situation if he gets enough time. Cooperating buys him that time. He’ll play along until it’s too late. Stay here and keep that howitzer out of sight.”

I jump out, closing the van door quietly behind me. Running around the front of the van, I pause to let some traffic pass. Mom drops her window as I wait.

“Be careful, Patricia,” she hisses. I wave and nod before sprinting across the road to the building’s entrance.

There should be an electric security lock that prevents just anyone off the street from walking in but it’s broken. I broke it yesterday. I scoot in and pause to check out the lobby.

No one around. Lipscomb’s on the fifth floor. I hurry over to the stairwell and push open the door, pausing first to check for the sounds of anybody else and then to check to make sure I’ve got all my equipment ... the lock picks, the folding bolt cutters and the silenced .22 mag. Everything being in its place, I quietly climb the stairs, hesitating at each floor, checking for activity.

There is none. I enter the fifth floor, again checking for any kind of activity. Dead silent. It only takes a moment to reach his door and unlock it. Slowly turning the doorknob, it clicks open and I swing the door into the room until pulled to a stop by a chain. The bolt cutter makes quick work of that and I close the door quietly behind me and pull my gun.

The only light in the room was from the fish tank. So, he stayed with the fish tank. It’s very impressive. I tap the glass side of the enormous tank twice with the barrel of my gun and then collapse to the floor, all control of my body gone.

I keep breathing and can see but can’t move, can’t speak. I dropped the gun as I fell and my hand is only inches away but I can’t make it move even a fraction of an inch. I hear footsteps approaching.

“Aaaahhh, there you are. Hoped it was you. I’d thank Thomas if I could. This really worked well.”

I can hear Lipscomb but can’t move my head to look at him. What is he talking about, what worked well? This isn’t part of the Balancer, it’s gone. I hear him move closer to me, then his shoes move into my line of vision. His hand reaches down and picks up the gun.

“Nice. Very nice. Good workmanship. No serial numbers. Bet you had this hidden good and deep. Shame you won’t be using it on me.” He grabs my shoulders, pulls me upright and leans me against a couch, my butt on the ground, my shoulders resting against the seat cushion. A pillow is placed next to my head, propping it up. Lipscomb has a seat opposite me, my gun in his right hand, a small blue box with a black push button and a red flashing LED in his left and a big grin on his stupid face. “I knew that this would come in handy.” He fingers the box, rocking it in the palm of his hand. “You probably want to know what it is.”

Of course I do, you ass! And you can’t resist telling me.

“Thomas called it the Neutralizer. I just told him what I wanted but he couldn’t resist naming it. After my time in the Construct, I saw the potential problems if we lost control. Matthews assured me the Balancer was enough but I insisted on a failsafe. I realized that a man with your experience could exploit the situation. I couldn’t risk having you in there without some kind of off switch so Thomas, reluctantly, installed an electric disrupter at the base of your skull. It has an electric pulse of some kind which disrupts the signals getting to your spinal cord. Frankly, I don’t know all the details but Thomas assured me it would do the job. It appears he was right.”

Lipscomb chuckles quietly, sounding relieved. “I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been pushing this button at every creak and groan I’ve heard in the last few days, all false alarms until tonight.”

He stands up, slips my gun into his pants waist at his back and walks to the door. “Now, I’ve got to do something with you. There’s a part of me that would like to have a little fun first … I’ve been cooped up in here for some time, but Cardoza made that mistake and he’s dead now. That kind of thing really kills the mood. So, you just stay right there. I’ll bring my car around to the elevator in the basement parking garage, bring up a body bag I’ve got stashed in it, stuff you in and we’ll be off.” He examines the cut chain for a second then opens the door.

“Hello, Daniel.”

Lipscomb freezes, his hands away from his body at his waist. He slowly backs into the room and away from the door, mom pushing him with her sawed off shotgun against his chest.

“Jessica! How … how did you? Uhhhhh … thank … Thank God! You survived! It was all Hobbes’ idea! He made me …”

“SHUT UP, LIPSCOMB!” she hisses, kicking the door shut behind her, then she looks down at me then back up at Lipscomb, who has his hands raised next to his shoulders.

“I can explain this, Jessica,” he says, smoothly. “Peter was trying to …”

“Open your mouth.”

“What?”

“Open your God damn lying mouth, Lipscomb!”

Lipscomb paused a second but she poked him in the chest with the twin barrels. He opened his mouth.

She poked him in the chest again. “Wider.” This time, he opened his mouth as widely as possible. She stuffed the barrels of her gun in it and he involuntarily clamped down on them. “Now, Dan, I’m going to ask you some simple questions, I want a nod yes or no as an answer. You don’t answer, I pull the triggers. You got that?”

He nodded yes.

“Good. Did you do this to Patricia?”

He nodded no.

“Do you know what happened to her?”

Again, no.

“Can you fix her?”

A third no. She raises the barrels, forcing Lipscomb up on his toes.

“If that’s all true, I don’t have any use for you, Lipscomb. See you in Hell.”

He starts to nod no wildly.

“Do you wish to amend your answers to the last questions?”

He vigorously nods yes. Mom smiles.

“I thought you might. Can you fix her?”

He glances down at me but doesn’t answer. Mom pulls a hammer back with her thumb. He nods yes. She eases the hammer back down.

“Do it. And I don’t have to remind you what happens if you try anything funny.”

Lipscomb slowly bends at the knees, straining to reach for the blue box, which is sitting on a coffee table where he had left it. Mom follows him down, the shotgun never budging from his mouth. He finally reaches it with the tips of his fingers on his left hand. He quickly scoops it up and pushes the button with his thumb. The red light stops flashing. Immediately, my control is restored. I lift my hands and flex my fingers, then my arms at the shoulder, then elbow.

Mom glances my way. “Are you alright, honey?”

I slowly stand up, testing muscles as I move. “Yeah. I think I am. Thanks, mom.”

“You’re welcome. As for you, Daniel, do you remember the last thing you said to me before pulling the trigger was ‘sorry, Jessica’?”

His eyes grow wary as he barely nods yes.

“Good. I’m not.”

She pulls both triggers and there’s a muffled boom as the back of Lipscombs’ head blows out, spraying blood and brains against the wall behind him just before he drops to the floor in a heap.

“MOTHER!! Why did you DO that?! I told you that I‘d take care of him!

She wipes the bloody barrels on Daniel’s shirt. “I couldn’t let him get away with it. Killing Matthews, killing Peter, shooting me. You weren’t there, I was. I couldn’t stop him then. I had to now.”

“I wasn’t going to let him get away with anything … Aww CRIPE! We can’t discuss this now, someone may have heard that shot and called the cops. We might not have much time. I’ll find the hard drives, you collect the diamonds.”

“Why do we need the hard drives? We already have the information.”

“Yes, but we don’t want the police to get them, they’re our get out of jail free cards.”

“Aren’t there supposed to be copies in the hands of someone else in case he dies?”

“You just thought about that NOW?! He was bluffing. Lipscomb never planned on losing control of those drives, he never trusted anyone other than himself.”

“How do you know that?”

“It was his plan from Day One, the details of which are still in my mind. You get the diamonds.”

“Where are they?”

I point to the fish tank. “In there.”

She turns and looks at the tank. “What kind of fish are those?”

“Piranha … and he keeps them hungry.”

“How am I supposed to do this?”

“We could just shoot out the glass but that might attract even more attention so we’ll do it his way.”

I hurry over to the smaller tank with goldfish, scoop up two with the short net hanging there and grab a large rectangular piece of Plexiglas that was under the base holding the large tank. I drop the goldfish in the far left hand side of the tank, immediately drawing the attention of the four dozen or so piranha, which swarm the helpless goldfish. As soon as they are all concentrated at the left end of the tank, I slide the Plexiglas into two channels on either of the long sides of the tank and push it down into the water, dividing the tank into two sections, one much smaller but now holding all the piranha.

Mom nods her head. “Not bad. You knew how to do that because …”

“All part of the plan. Get something from the kitchen and unload the diamonds.”

“I don’t see anything big enough in that tank to hold fifty million dollars worth of diamonds.”

“It’s the gravel in the bottom of the tank. Hurry! I need to find that box of hard drives and then we’ll have to deal with the body, if we have time.”

“What are you going to do with the body?”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

I got the call around 2:37 in the afternoon. Apparently there was some delay in informing my office that Lipscomb’s body had been discovered. I arrived at the scene just as the Coroner’s wagon was pulling away. I thought about stopping it to confirm the identity of the body but decided it wasn’t necessary, at least for now.

There were still a lot of local cops around, keeping the curious at bay. FBI was there too, not surprising since Daniel was a Federal Prosecutor. I had to flash my ID several times before finally reaching the apartment.

There were two techs with nets, trying to catch and bag fish in a red tinted fish tank that had to be at least one hundred gallons, maybe more. There was water all over the floor. Other techs were dusting for prints and doing other crime scene stuff. I haven’t been to an actual crime scene in years. I step up to the nearest plain clothes cop.

“I’m Walter Tyson, head of the Federal Prosecutor’s office. Who’s in charge here?”

He points to an average size black woman who is examining the tank.

“Thanks.”

I walk over to her but she introduces herself before I get a chance to say anything.

“Detective Robin Armstrong. Daniel Lipscomb was one of yours?”

“Yes. What happened here?”

“Was he working on any particularly important cases?”

“Not at the moment, Detective. What happened here, if you please?”

She flipped through her notebook. “Dispatch got a 911 call, anonymous naturally, about a disturbance. The officers who investigated found water outside in the hallway coming from this condo. No one responded so they entered and found Mr. Lipscomb’s body half stuffed in the fish tank along with forty seven very full piranha. His body was … wait a sec. Hillary? Bring your camera. See for yourself, Mr. Tyson.”

A young woman in a jumpsuit handed me her camera and pushed a few buttons until a picture was displayed on the screen in the back. Then another photo. And another. And another. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up in front of the two women.

Daniel’s naked body, at least I assume it was his body, was pushed halfway into the tank, bent at the waist over the short end on the right. From the waist down, he had been tied to a chair with electrical cords to raise him up enough to get the rest of him in the tank. The rest of him … was a skeleton. Bright, white and clean, except for the bloody water it was immersed in.

“Was he alive when …”

“We don’t think so” answered the tech. “See the wall over there?” I look where she’s pointing. “There’s a lot of blood and flesh there, mostly brain. And see … excuse me.” She takes the camera from me and scrolls through some more gruesome pictures, stopping and handing it back to me. “See the missing parts at the back of the skull? First impression is that it was blown off, likely a shotgun of some kind since there’s no single bullet hole, at least we haven’t found it yet. Those little fish did a nice job of cleaning the bones.”

“Thanks, Hillary.”

“Sure thing, Detective. Any time.” She returns to documenting the scene.

“Sorry about that, Mr. Tyson. The techs are a little narrow in their perspective, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand. I’ve seen worse.” But not by much. “Anybody hear or see anything?”

“Not much from the neighbors. There was some kind of noise early this morning after 1:00 a.m. but no one bothered to report anything. It’s that kind of neighborhood.”

“I get it, so the anonymous 911 was likely by the killers.”

“Good chance of that. What I don’t understand was stuffing a dead guy in the piranha tank. It wasn’t to hide his ID, his pants were right there, wallet in the back pocket, driver’s license, federal ID card, the whole nine yards.”

“Anything taken?”

“Not that we can tell. Place wasn’t tossed. There was some stuff laying around. No worse than your average bachelor condo, better than most. Lipscomb wasn’t gay, was he?”

“Far from it.”

“Maybe he was just naturally neat. You have any idea why he was killed?”

“Yes. A very good one.”

“Care to share?”

“Not at this time.”

“One of THOSE cases.”

“Something like that. The FBI will be wanting everything you have. We’ll be assuming jurisdiction as soon as possible. Killing a Federal Prosecutor in the line of duty is a federal offense.”

“You’re welcome to it. Got plenty on my plate. You asked if something was missing … I don’t know … it’s odd.”

“What’s odd, Detective?”

“You have fish as a kid?”

“No, bulldog. Your point?”

“I had fish, Neon Tetras. Where’s the gravel in that tank?”

“Gravel?”

“Every fish tank I can ever recall seeing had little colored pebbles in the bottom. Sometimes multicolored, sometimes one color, sometimes natural tones, but always something. Where’s the gravel from that tank?”

“Is it required?”

“Don’t know, but it’s always there.”

“Are you suggesting my man was killed over fish tank gravel?”

“All’s I’m saying is that it’s odd. Your FBI experts can decide if it’s important.”

“We’ll take it under advisement, Detective.”

CHAPTER SEVENTY

I hadn’t slept well the last two nights. Daniel Lipscomb’s death kept replaying in my dreams. I didn’t have second thoughts. The man deserved to die; several times over. He’d killed twice, attempted a third and would have killed Patricia if I hadn’t given in to my desire for vengeance and been there when he opened the door to his condo.

But even a righteous shooting can cause sleepless nights, at least that’s what Patricia says. She wanders in to our kitchenette after I’d been there for about ten minutes, sipping store bought instant hot chocolate after waking in the dead of night. Stretching and yawning, she ambles over to the counter, grabs a packet of cocoa, tears it open, dumps it in a foam cup, adds hot water from the coffee pot and stirs it while shuffling over to the table, dropping into the seat. She takes a sip then grimaces.

“Welcome to my world, mom. You should have let me do it.”

“I saved your life.”

“You did, and I’ve thanked you. Several times. Thanks again. But, after saving my life, you should have let me handle it. You’d be asleep right now if you had.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Eventually, but it’ll take awhile. You ever want to talk about it, let me know. I’ve seen a lot of shrinks.”

“I’ll think about your generous offer. Why didn’t you remember the Neutralizer?”

“Because it wasn’t requested by Lipscomb until after he had spent his time in Patricia’s head. I can’t remember what wasn’t there. It did remind me that I’m not untouchable.”

“Or infallible. What are you going to do about it?”

She sips and grimaces again. “Already taken care of. I sent the nanites. It’s gone. But not forgotten. Please, from now on, let me do the dirty work.”

“Honey, we’re in this together. I can’t let you get hurt anymore. I’m your mother. It’s my job.”

“Not yet, it’s not. We’ve got one more loose end to tie up and then we’ll pull a Lazarus. You can be mom and I can be your loving daughter. And that loose end is all mine.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

I don’t recognize him at all.

Father’s been acting completely different since he came back from his trip. No reading reports during breakfast, no lengthy meetings during the weekends, no secret phone conversations, no long talks with Enrique … no Enrique at all. I haven’t seen him in days. That’s not unusual, he goes on trips by himself a lot but everyone talks about him while he’s gone. This time … not a peep, not from the guards, not from Father, no one. And still nothing about Patty!

If I’ve learned anything from Patty, it’s nothing happens unless you take action. Time for action.

When I reach Father’s office, he’s leaning back in his chair, feet up on his desk, reading travel brochures. His door was wide open. It was never open before. There’s got to be a pod around here somewhere.

“Father, I need to talk with you.”

He puts the brochure down and drop his feet to the floor. “About what, Gretchen?”

“About a lot of stuff. Where’s Enrique?”

“He’s gone.”

“Where?”

“Gretchen, you know that I don’t discuss business issues with you.”

“What business? I haven’t seen you do any work in days.”

“Aren’t I entitled to a vacation now and then?”

“Sure, but you’ve never taken one before.”

“Then it’s about time I did, don’t you think?”

Gotta find that pod. “It’s not like you. Nobody’s acting normal. The guards are relaxed, at least the ones who are here. I haven’t seen Gomez or Jackson since you came back from your trip.”

“They retired.”

“Retired? They weren’t even thirty years old! Father, I’m not stupid. Something’s going on. If Patty were here, she’d figure it out and tell me but she’s not here, so I have to ask you. Please Father, just tell me. I’m not a child. Please.”

Father looks at me, tapping his fingers on the top of his desk, considering something. Finally, he stands up.

“No. You are not a child.” He walks around his desk, closes the door then returns to his seat. “You deserve the truth, at least as much as I can tell you. I sold my business.”

“WHAT?!!”

“I sold my business. I no longer … sell what I used to sell.”

“Why?”

“There were certain developments that made future profits less likely and an opportunity presented itself. I had grown tired of the limitations I had to live under. It was so much fun to attend your basketball games. I wanted to do more things like that.”

“Is Enrique running it now? Did he buy it?”

“No.” He returns to tapping his fingers on the desktop again. “Enrique and I … I discovered certain things about Enrique, his past, things he had done. Gretchen … he killed your mother.”

“MY Mother was killed? I thought it was an accident.”

“It wasn’t. He admitted he killed her and tried to kill me. Patricia was able to distract him and I shot him.”

I have to sit down, this is too much.

“Enrique is dead?”

“Yes.”

“You killed him?”

“Yes.”

“And Patty was here when it happened?”

“She was.”

“Was she hurt? Is she alive?”

“Yes. Very much so. In fact, she is the one who made the sale of my business both necessary and profitable.”

“SO WHERE IS SHE?!”

“I don’t actually know right now but she should be back soon.”

“Where has she been all this time?”

“With me a part of it, here in Miami for some of it.”

“I don’t understand. What has she been doing all that time?”

“For the first two weeks, she helped me sell my assets to my competitors. After that … I am not certain. I believe that someone else had tried to kill her and her mother. She was dealing with it.”

What has Patty been doing? Who would want to kill her or her mother? This makes no sense.

“How could you take advantage of Patty?”

“I did nothing of the kind! She came to ME! You know how she is. When she decides to do something, nothing stops her.”

This is all too much to take in at one time. “Why didn’t you tell me about all this before now?”

“We needed to keep the sale a secret. As for the rest of it, Patricia insisted you not be told about anything until she had … I believe she called it tying up loose ends.”

“Why couldn’t she trust me?”

“I don’t know, Gretchen. Perhaps she thought there was some potential danger for you. She was worried about the effect on you of keeping everything secret but decided the best choice was to complete everything before telling you. I agreed to follow her wishes.”

“So why are you telling me all this now?”

“I think you are mature enough to keep her secret. Also, she underestimated how much her absence would affect you.”

“Okay. Thank you. If you sold your business, will we need to move? Can we afford all this now?”

He laughs as loudly as I think I have ever heard him. “That is not a problem. I did very well. Very, very well. Your future is secure.”

“What did you pay Patty for her work?”

“Uuuhhhh …”

“Father?”

“We never discussed … she never asked …”

“Faaaatheerrr.”

“Nothing.”

“FATHER!!”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

No wonder Patricia hates snow and cold! We’ve been in Wisconsin for three days and I can honestly say I haven’t gotten warm yet. I don’t know how the natives survive it.

Patricia insisted we buy our clothes when we got up here, used and with local flavor. We’d stand out less. I’m afraid my chattering teeth will give me away. We aren’t staying at Rice Lake, Jenny Jo Hamilton’s hometown. Patricia picked a highway exchange about seventy five miles away with a couple of motels and a strip mall. We’re still using our “Grey” fake ID’s.

Rice Lake is a small town just off of a big lake, also named Rice Lake. It’s mostly a tourist town that shuts down for the winter, though Patricia says that there’s a lot of ice fishing and snowmobile trails, so the town’s still somewhat alive in February. Alive enough to have three bars open at almost midnight.

We found him at the Trophy Rack Bar and Grill, his favorite. He’s parked at the bar with a couple of friends. At least they seem friendly. I’m sitting at a booth four spaces away, facing him. Not near enough to hear what he’s saying but close enough to keep tabs on him. I’m wearing slacks, blouse, hiking boots, a nylon parka, barely unzipped due to impending frost bite, and a blue tooth ear piece for my phone concealed by my loose hair.

“Patricia … how are you doing?” I whisper.

“Fine. No one’s spotted me. Thank God for the clearance on Daddy’s truck. It’s easy to work under here. Any sign of him leaving yet?” she asks through my earpiece.

“No. He seems to be swapping stories with a couple of locals. Did you recognize them?”

“Sorry, not in my recovered memories. How many people in there now?”

I look around the room, the décor dominated by an enormous stuffed elk’s head, complete with over six feet of antlers. There’s several other mounts, all White Tail Deer. None as big as the Elk but impressive in their own way. There’s about ten people scattered around the room, some drinking hard and fast, others just relaxing. Those relaxing seem better dressed and hanging together. The Tourists. The hard drinkers appear to be locals. They spread out around the bar as if they own it, very comfortable, very loud.

“Ten, give or take. How much longer will you be?”

“I don’t know, mom. You getting cold feet?”

“Ha ha.”

She could be right. He doesn’t look evil. Just an ordinary looking guy, a little shorter than average, kinda stocky, no better or worse than all the other men we’ve seen around Rice Lake. Or Miami. Why must he die tonight? I know what Patricia said he did to Jenny Jo and I have no reason to believe that she’s not telling the truth but there’s no death penalty for just rape … as much as women might wish there to be.

“Patricia … are you certain you want to go through with this?”

“Don’t wimp out on me now, mother. You got Lipscomb. I told you I’d take care of it but that wasn’t good enough for you. Had to be your way. Well this is my target, my way! Besides … I promised Jenny Jo.”

“Do we have the right to do this?”

“Did you?”

“He was a murderer! He killed you and tried to kill me. And was planning on killing you again.”

“Stan Hamilton is a serial rapist who will rape again. What’s the difference?”

What is the difference? Is it just because I was the victim? Peter Harris also died that day but he also lives on. Jenny Jo was raped, driven from her family into the waiting arms of abusive pimps, to an intolerable existence and an untimely end. She also died but lives on. What price should her father pay for that? Patricia doesn’t want to talk about it, simply saying that it’s her responsibility to put an end to it and that she promised to take care of it.

I can’t exactly preach from the moral high ground here.

“There has to be another way, honey.”

“What … ughh! … do you suggest? We can’t go to the police.”

“Maybe we could scare him off. Confront him, say we know what you did and if you try anything funny …”

“Then I’ll kill you? He doesn’t scare off. Strictly a ‘my way or the highway’ kinda guy. We warn him, he takes Penny and runs. He had his chance. I begged him. No dice. Got it! Finally. That should do it. He still there?”

“Yes, but I’m very uncomfortable about this.”

“I understand. Lipscomb was in the heat of the moment, that’s always easier. If there’s one thing we don’t have now, it’s heat. You want to bail, that’s okay. I’ll do this myself.”

“No, no. I can’t let you do that. You’re my daughter, I’m responsible for you.”

“And I’m responsible for Penny. Promises were made.”

“Not by you.”

“Some were made by me, some I accepted, all part of the deal. If I have to make a choice between my innocent little sister and my scum bucket rapist father, guess who wins.”

It’s clear I’m not talking her out of it so my choices are simple: stop it, support it, or ignore it. I can’t stop her, it wouldn’t be fair, not after all she’s done for me. I can’t ignore it and leave her alone. That leaves me one, very uncomfortable, option. Hamilton stands up and starts to pay his tab.

“He’s on the move, Patricia.”

“Slow him up! I haven’t gotten the back door open yet.”

“How?”

“I don’t know! I just need a few seconds.”

“I’ll try. Hurry.”

I stand up and walk quickly towards the three men. As I get closer, I can hear their conversation.

“Why so early, Stan?”

“Going on the lake for some ice fishing in the morning. Gonna spend the night in the camper, get an early start.”

“Won’t it be awfully cold in that rust bucket of yours?”

“Naw, I got a gas heater. Gonna do the same next week but I’ll take my daughter with me. Time she learned how to make a man happy.”

“Never too soon to teach a girl how to clean and cook fish … and such.”

“And such. See you guys later.”

Hamilton starts to head towards the door so I walk right into him, grab him and spin away, still holding onto him but I end up between him and the door.

“Excuse me! I’m sooo sorry! My fault entirely!” I say.

He looks me up and down, a scowl on his face. “Yeah, it was. What the hell is wrong with you, lady?”

“Nothing, nothing at all. I just tried to stop and slipped on some melted snow back there.”

He pulls his arm from my grasp. “There’s a lot of that around this time of the year. Be more careful.”

He starts to walk around me to my left but I slide with him, keeping between him and the door. “Would you happen to know the safest way back to the Interstate? With all that new snow out there and the way it’s coming down … I’m not used to that kind of winter driving.”

He gives me a disdainful sneer. “Do I look like triple A? What the hell you doing up here if you can’t handle a little snow and ice?” He glances at his companions. “That’s all we need … a bunch of women drivers who can’t handle even a couple of inches.”

They all laugh at the double entendre. Hamilton again moves to get around me. I’m just about to grab his arm and confront him about his unhelpful attitude when Patricia calls out.

“I’m in. Let him go. Follow us as far as Walleye Drive. Stop at the turn off and wait for me.”

I let him pass, hurry back to pay my bill, then nonchalantly walk out and around the corner, searching for his beat up Ford truck with a camper in the bed. I finally see him through the swirling snow just as he opens the door to the cab of the truck, climbs up and closes the door. I slip and slide over to our rented SUV, jump in, attach the seat belt and start it, pulling out of the snow-covered parking lot with a minimum of fish tailing back and forth in the city street before I slow down enough to regain control.

Not a good way to be inconspicuous.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

The smell makes me sick to my stomach. It’s surprising how smells seem to trigger the most vivid memories.

Or horrors.

I’m back in my daddy’s camper, literally and figuratively. All the terrible memories and feelings come flooding back as we bounce down the road, the paralyzing fear. I was prepared for some negative reaction but nothing this bad. It takes me several minutes to bring my trembling under control.

Yes, I’m back at the scene of the crimes but the roles are reversed. I’m the predator, not the prey.

It took me longer than I thought it would but I finally managed to run the rubber hose from the camper, under the frame and back into the cab of the truck behind the dashboard. My end is attached to a scuba tank full of Carbon Monoxide. The other end is near his feet. Since it’s lighter than air, the gas will rise, filing the cab of the truck from the top down. I don’t know how long it’ll take to knock him out so I need to be careful, don’t want him killing both of us in a car accident. Nothing gets turned on until we get out of town.

The part of me that was Jenny Jo has calmed down, focusing on revenge instead of fear. I can see the passing scenery through the louvers of the side window while keeping my head down below the sliding window connecting the cab of the truck and the camper. We just passed the McDonalds on the edge of town, time to begin. I reach down to the tank sitting next to me and open the valve a quarter turn. The hiss of the escaping gas is inaudible, hidden by the squeaks and groans of the old truck and the drone of country music coming from the staticky AM radio.

Daddy loves his music.

We’re twenty miles from the fishing cabin but the roads get worse the closer we get. I can’t afford to look to see if mom is following us and I don’t want to try and call her on the phone. Doesn’t really matter. No matter what … Daddy dies tonight.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

There’s practically no traffic on the road, which makes it easy to keep track of the truck ahead of me but it also leaves me no place to hide. I’m not used to driving in the snow but he is. Sometimes, I just have to grit my teeth and hold on while I slide through a turn in the road. I’ve got to stay behind Hamilton, Patricia is counting on me. I can’t let her down. No matter what.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

We pulled off the main road about a mile back. Daddy was doing pretty well up until then. Now, he’s swerved several times in the last few minutes. He’s a better driver than that. The gas is likely getting to him.

We’re not going to make the cabin.

I need him at least out of it enough to not put up much of a fight when I confront him. Problem is, he’d put up a fight if he’d lost both arms and one leg.

Switching the gas off, I disconnect the hose and connect the scuba mask. As soon as I settle back down below the connecting window, the truck starts to slide sideways.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod! They’re going to crash! The whole truck is sideways, sliding down the road! I can’t really see the truck that well through the twisting, coiling streams of snow but I can see where their headlights are pointed, illuminating the trees lining the road as the truck swings back and forth, finally settling back pointed in the right direction.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Good save Daddy! I was waiting for the thump. Can’t take anymore chances though. Grabbing my equipment bag, I pull out my trusty .22 mag, slide the connecting window aside and stick the muzzle against the back of his head.

“Stop the truck, Daddy.”

He doesn’t react immediately, but his head slowly turns towards me and away from the road. His eyes are red and glassy.

“Jenny Jo?”

“Yes, Jenny Jo. Now stop this truck, right now.”

“Jenny Jo?”

“Yes, yes, I’m Jenny Jo, your long lost daughter. Stop the truck now or I’ll blow your brains out.”

His head wobbles side to side slightly as his eyes shift but he finally turns back to the road and the truck comes to a slithering halt.

“Good. Well done. Now, slide over to the passenger side.”

His head drops down momentarily, then he jerks it back up and looks my way. He seems drunk. The alcohol and Carbon Monoxide aren’t a good mix, probably why he reacted more quickly than I had planned. He squints at me through his left eye.

“Why?”

“Because I’m coming in through this window.”

“Is this a dream?”

“No, it’s not.”

“I think it is. It’s a dream.”

“Alright, yes. It’s a dream. Slide over.”

“Oookay.”

As he slowly moves over to the other side of the bench seat, I turn the gas back on, hang the scuba mask on the window frame, then climb through the window, head first, making sure to keep the gun in my left hand and as far away from Daddy as possible. It’s a tight fit, made tighter by my winter coat, but once my hips are in the cab, it’s easy to pull my legs through and spin to face him.

“Daddy, in this dream, instead of catching the fish with a pole, you’re going into the water after them.”

“Won’t it be cold?”

“No, not at all. I’ve got this special mask here that’ll make it easy to breathe and keep you warm. Here, put this on.”

“Why?”

“Because then, you won’t have to wait for the fish to come to you, you can go get them yourself. Chase down those damn fish, show ‘em who’s boss! Right?”

“Right!”

He struggles to get the mask on over his head. He gets close but I have to make the final adjustments. Once the mask is securely strapped to his face, I roll my window down, letting the gas in the truck cab escape, along with the heat. I adjust the seat, start the truck and drive off, keeping the gun in my lap. Pointed directly at him.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

The truck is moving again, Patricia at the wheel. I can get closer now but not too close. I’m afraid I’d run into her. We go along until she turns off the two-lane road we’d been on for several miles onto a single lane path into the woods. This is where I’m supposed to stop and wait for her.

I’m pretty sure that won’t happen.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

He doesn’t say anything at first, just sits there, eyes closed, the sound of his breath venting from the mask being the only indication that he’s still alive. A series of tremors shake his body and his eyes slowly open.

“Girl … what happened to you?” he croaks.

“You mean after you raped me for months? After I was forced to run away? After I had to trade sex for rides all the way to Miami? After I was grabbed off the street by an abusive pimp? After they pumped me full of drugs and traded me around with the other pimps? After I was forced to earn my keep by having cheap degrading sex with any piece of shit man with a few spare bucks and a couple of free minutes? After all that … what happened to me? Is that what you’re asking, Daddy?”

He doesn’t answer, just nods his head numbly.

“What happened, Daddy, was that I died … but I’m feeling much better now. You just sit back and think about all the Muskie and Northern Pike you’re going to catch when you go swimming in the lake. They won’t be able to hide from you now.”

He slumps back against the passenger door, breathing heavily.

“You … were a … fucking crappy … daughter.”

“I still am, Daddy. Just relax, we’ll soon be there.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

I keep the engine idling so that the heater works. I’ve got both the temperature and the fan on high. The SUV is barely off the road, I’m not confident of my ability to get back on it. There’s been no traffic since Patricia drove down the path towards the lake, which is good. I’d have a hard time explaining what I’m doing here.

Surely she could use my help. If I hadn’t followed her into Lipscomb’s building, it would have been a disaster. He’d have escaped and likely have killed her in the process. I saved her life. She knows that and thanked me but still tries to keep me away from the uglier parts of our activities. I should be the one protecting her … or at least helping her.

I zip my parka all the way up to my chin, pull the hood over my head, tying it tightly into place, then push open the door against the swirling winds. I climb out and let them blow the door shut. I trudge into the woods, stepping into the tracks left by the truck.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Pulling into the fishing camp, I look for a decent sized snow bank. There’s several to choose from so I back into one about two feet high, burying the tail pipe of the truck. I set the parking brake but leave the engine running.

“Stay right here, Daddy. I’m not going far.”

Climbing back through the window into the camper, I pack all my stuff into a duffle bag, push it into the cab, then carefully follow it with the scuba tank, making sure not to dislodge the mask from Daddy’s face. I wipe down the window frame and any other surfaces I might have touched.

After climbing back into the cab of the truck, I slide the window shut, latch it and wipe it down too, along with the steering wheel and the other controls. I look over at Daddy. He seems to be unconscious but still breathing.

“You stay put, I’ll be right back.”

I push the door open and step out into the deepening snow, staying close to the truck. I reach back into the cab and grab the duffel bag, sling it over my shoulder, close the door and slide around to the front of the truck. I throw the bag onto the damp hood of the truck and carefully retrace my steps back to the door, open it and climb back in.

“See, that didn’t take long.”

His breathing is slow and ragged, taking several seconds between breaths. It shouldn’t be long now.

“I don’t know if you can hear me, Daddy, but if you can, I’d like to tell you that … part of me still loves you. Despite all you did to me, you’re still my father. It wasn’t always terrible living with you, there were a few good times, but it was mostly bad. I don’t know whose fault it was, maybe it was how you were raised, can’t say for sure. If things had been different, who knows? But I couldn’t let you do to Penny what you did to me. We both know you were going to do it, just a matter of time. At least one person in this family should be spared a trip to hell. I’ll see you when I get there.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Patricia was waiting for me when I reached the truck. She tossed me the duffel bag.

“Figured you wouldn’t wait.”

“What if something went wrong?”

“Then you’d have to save me again.”

“Is he …”

“Yeah, about five minutes ago. He went peacefully, which is more than he deserved but should keep anybody from investigating too hard.” She slings the scuba tank over her shoulder, the mask swinging in the rising winds. “We better get on the road, conditions are getting worse. Did you walk in the tire tracks?”

“Yes.”

“Good, we go out the same way. The first person to pull in here looking for Daddy will wipeout any tracks we leave, assuming the snow and wind don’t do it for us.”

“Honey … are you okay?”

“Are you?”

“Not really.”

“Same here. I’ll lead.”

I followed her closely as we slogged back to the road, one foot in front of the other, in the partially snow filled tire tracks left be the truck. It may have been a trick of the wind as it wound itself through the trees but, occasionally, when it fell away, I thought I heard Patricia crying.

CHAPTER SEVENTY ONE

There were a number of cars parked around the small, ramshackle house. Apparently, the local custom is to visit the house of the deceased after the funeral service and to bring enough food to feed an army brigade. When Patricia and I walked in, there wasn’t a flat surface anywhere that didn’t hold a dish, bowl or plate of something rich and fattening.

People up north must put on extra fat for the winter like bears.

There were mismatched metal and wooden folding chairs lining every wall in the living and dining rooms. I’m guessing different neighbors brought them in to help. Mostly older people were sitting, holding plates of food in their laps. All together, I saw about two dozen people sitting or milling about, talking in subdued tones.

No one said anything right away when we entered the room but the whispers started very quickly, spreading around the room like people doing the wave at a football game. A young girl in a simple dark blue dress and an older woman dressed in black sitting in padded chairs near the fireplace looked up as the crowd moved slightly away from us. The young girl’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open as she sprang from her chair, running towards Patricia. They met in the middle of the room, each hugging the other so hard that God himself would be forced to consider his ability to separate them.

“Jay Jay,” sobbed the young girl.

“Hey, Peanut,” answered Patricia. “It’s alright.”

They held each other past the point when the crowd got uncomfortable watching and returned to their quiet small talk. I came up behind Patricia and touched her shoulder. She didn’t react right away but after a few moments raised her head from the girl’s shoulder and looked back at me.

“I know. Peanut, I need to see Momma.”

The girls unclenched but held each other’s hand in a death grip. Penny led Patricia to the woman sitting next to the fireplace. She was small, with sandy blonde hair, worn features and eyes as hard and cold as cinder blocks. I followed behind the two girls. Everyone else kept talking but it was as if they were on a tape loop, all real attention was on the four of us. Patricia spoke first.

“Momma, this is Jessica Conner, she’s a friend of mine. She flew up from Miami with me.”

“Miami! Flew!”

Clearly, she wanted to say more but couldn’t, not in front of her neighbors. I held out my hand.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Ms. Hamilton. Pa … Jenny Jo has told me so much about you.” A number of the older ladies coughed several times. “I am very sorry about your husband’s death. I understand he was a fine man.” More coughing, Momma gave them a hard look. She didn’t take my hand but did thank me. Penny sat down in the chair nearest Momma and pulled Patricia down into the seat next to her, still attached to her hand. Patricia looked up at me. I arched my eyebrows, silently asking if this is what she wanted to do. She nodded her head imperceptibly and twirled her left index finger, telling me she was okay and I was to circulate.

As I moved away towards the dining room, a number of people watched me. They all knew each other and I was the stranger. The table was packed with assorted stews, sliced meats and casseroles. I didn’t recognize some of the meat initially but then I realized that it was probably venison. There’s a lot of deer hunting in rural Wisconsin. I put several small servings on my plate and then tried to find a place to sit. Two older ladies, clearly contemporaries of Momma Hamilton, quickly separated, leaving me an open chair between them.

“Is this seat taken?”

“No, no not at all. Sit, take a load off.” As soon as I was down, they introduced themselves. “I’m Sissy Torvald and this is Olga Gunderson.”

“Hello Sissy … Olga. Pleased to meet you. I’m Jessica Conner.”

“Is that Jenny Jo Hamilton?” asked Olga.

“Yes it is. We came together from Miami.”

“Florida? Must be nice down there this time of year. How do you know Jenny Jo?”

They were going to pump me for all the information they could so I might as well return the favor.

“She works part time in my office. Our boss didn’t want her to fly home all by herself so she had me come with her, just to be safe. A young girl, traveling on her own, anything could happen.”

“Goodness! What a generous boss! I wish mine would send me the other way,” said Olga.

“It’s just for a few days, we have to get back as quickly as possible.”

“What do you do?”

“A Public Relations firm. Promotions, advertising, that sort of thing. Jenny works in the office. She’s very good, comes in every day right after school.”

“She’s in school?”

“You sound surprised, Olga.”

“Well, the way she left town, we all thought…” whispered Sissy, her voice trailing away.

“Thought what?” I whispered back.

“You know. A runaway girl, on her own in a strange town. You read about that kinda thing in the newspapers.”

“Oh not Jenny. She’s a model student, straight A’s. Wonderful girl. Why do you think she ran away, Sissy?”

Sissy looked around to see if anyone was listening that closely to us. Of course, everyone nearby was trying so Sissy leaned in closer.

“Her father is … sorry, was a bit of a rough character. A nice man, may he rest in peace, but he had a bit of a temper.”

“Do tell? A temper?”

“A bad one,” added Olga. “Kids these days need discipline, otherwise who knows what they’ll get into, but her dad sometimes went a bit too far, if you know what I mean.”

Sissy nodded along while Olga spoke.

“So, you’re saying that he beat her.”

“We never saw anything, you understand,” said Sissy, “but you could tell things weren’t quite right.”

“Did he do more than beat Jenny?”

A guilty glance passed between the two women.

“Did he, ladies? He’s dead now.”

“We can’t really say,” said Olga. “There were rumors, nothing more. Who can you believe?”

“I see.”

They knew, or at least suspected, but did nothing! Likely almost everyone in this house knew or suspected!

“How did he die? The obituaries never offer much information.”

They were happy to get off the last subject. “The Sheriff doesn’t know for sure. He’d had a lot to drink …”

“Though not too much for him,” added Olga. Both ladies smiled at speaking ill of the dead.

“Anyway, they think it was Carbon Monoxide poisoning.”

“Why’s that, Sissy?”

“Well, the ignition switch was on but the gas tank was empty, so he’d run it dry. The tailpipe was in a snow bank, up against a tree. Plus, they found a crack in the exhaust just below the cab, which was full of rusted holes.”

“Is rust a problem around here?”

“Oh yeah, we call it car cancer. It’s all the salt on the roads in the winter, eats a car right up. Can’t find a decent used car in five states up here in the North. You probably get a lot of salt in Miami, what with the ocean and all.”

“It does cause problems with the paint. So, how do all the things you said add up to Carbon Monoxide poisoning?”

“If the tailpipe is partially blocked, the exhaust backs up and leaked out the crack beneath the cab and floated right up through them rust holes. Probably broke the exhaust hitting a big rock or something driving through those woods. Men and their trucks!”

“You got that right” Olga chimed. “Out in all kinds of weather, to go fishing or hunting or some such. A little I can understand, puts food on the table, but they go out all the time when they’re not working, hang the chores!”

Sissy took back the lead. “Doctor couldn’t find anything else so he probably stayed in the truck cause it was warm, the gas knocked him out, the engine kept running till it ran out of gas but he was long dead by then.”

“Such a shame! You two ladies seem to know a lot of details.”

“It’s a small town, dearie. Not much else to do round here in the winter than pry into other peoples’ business,” said Olga.

They both laughed quietly.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Penny had my hand locked in hers. Not that I minded, I kept a pretty good grip on hers too. People kept coming up to Momma, offering condolences, saying what a wonderful man Daddy was, how he had gone too soon, that he’d be missed and that he had gone to a better place.

Not too soon for my taste and any place was better than here. I kept an appropriately sad expression on my face and thanked anyone who spoke to me for their kindness. Some faces were familiar, neighbors, parents of ex-classmates, Daddy’s buddies. Some looked at me like I was a ticking time bomb, not sure what I would say or do, but I played it cool, faking recognition when necessary.

Whenever there was a break, Penny was full of questions. I told here what I could, enough to temporarily satisfy her curiosity. I also got the feeling from the way she reacted to the way everyone was saying nice things about Daddy that I didn’t get back here any too soon.

The crowd began to dwindle quickly after a few of the older ladies left. It was safe to go now and not be the subject of gossip. Several offered to stay and help clean up but I assured them I’d take care of it. It didn’t take too long for the house to empty out, leaving just family and Jessica. Just after the last person left, Momma turned on me.

“Who the hell is she?” she asked, jerking her head towards Jessica.

“A friend.”

“Ooohh, a friend! What kind of friend?”

“Just a friend. She came with me so that I wouldn’t be alone.”

“You think you need someone here to face me, do you?”

“No Momma, I don’t. Jessica, would you take Penny back to her bedroom so that Momma and I can be alone for a bit.”

I tried to release Penny’s hand but she wouldn’t let go. I put my free hand on top of our clasped hands.

“It’ll be fine, Peanut. She’s a very good friend. I need to talk with Momma alone. It’ll be fine.”

She slowly released my hand. Jessica came over, putting her hand on her shoulder.

“Let’s give them a few minutes alone. I’ve got some things I need to tell you about your big sister.”

As they slowly walked away, Penny looked back at me, worried. I smiled at her, giving her a little finger wave. As soon as they clear the room, I turned to face Momma. She’s standing there, arms crossed.

“What do you want, girl?”

“I want to make sure that you’ll take better care of Penny than you did me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You never stopped Daddy from … raping me.”

“Rape! That was just your duty as his daughter!”

“It wasn’t my duty, it was rape. He shouldn’t have done it and you should have stopped him. He didn’t hurt Penny, did he?”

“Not that way, but she was just getting old enough.”

THANK GOD!

“Why’s it any of your business, girl? You left, you didn’t care what happened to us, what your father would do without you to … satisfy him. What he expected me to do.”

“You thought that I should take your place in bed?”

“It’s what your father wanted and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“Unbelievable. You let my life become a living hell because you had problems with sex.”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

She swung her arm back, prepared to slap my face. I let her strike, catching her wrist just inches from my cheek.

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

It’s a sparse room, mostly old furniture, thin curtains and several old blankets. I can feel the cold draft coming from the windows, the curtains actually stirring from the moving air. There are no pictures on the wall but there is a well-worn little teddy bear on the bed resting next to her pillow. Penny sat on the bed. I pulled the wooden chair from her desk and sat down next to her.

“I’m very happy to meet you, Penny. Jenny Jo has told me a lot about you.”

She had her head down but looked up at me. She was tense about something.

“Are you guys lesbians?”

“You mean Jenny Jo and I? Together? In a relationship?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Oh my goodness no! Absolutely not!” She relaxed but still didn’t look squarely at me. “Your sister wanted me to tell you some things about what happened to her. To both of us.”

“Why won’t she tell me herself?”

“She will, what she can. She’ll answer any question you’ll ask, if she’s allowed.”

“Why wouldn’t she be able to talk with me?”

“That’s a long story Penny but I can give you the short version. My name isn’t really Jessica Conner, it’s a false identity given to me by the United States Government while I’m undercover. Your sister also has a false identity. Her name is Patricia Conner, my daughter. Here’s her driver’s license.”

I took Patricia’s license and handed it to Penny. She stared at it for several seconds then looked up at me, confused.

“I can tell you have a lot of questions, Penny. Some I can answer, some I can’t, I’m not allowed to talk about some things, neither is Patr … sorry, Jenny Jo. I keep forgetting. We’ve both been undercover for some time and still are. She took a risk coming here but she had to do it.”

“Is that why she hasn’t called or written me?”

“Yes, that’s part of it. Another reason is that she was hurt while we were working, badly hurt.”

Penny gasped. “Is she okay?”

“Pretty much, but it was a head injury, her brain was damaged.”

“OH NO!”

“Don’t worry, she got better but there was some memory loss.”

“She doesn’t remember me?!”

“No, of course she does, how could she forget the most important person in her world? She remembered the promise she made, to fix the problem, to take care of you, to protect you. She came back to do that. But there are other details of her past that she doesn’t remember and maybe never will.”

“That may not be a bad thing, depending on what it is.”

“From what I know, you’re likely right. I just wanted to prepare you for that.”

“I can help her remember the good things.”

“I’m sure you can. Speaking of good things, Jenny Jo has set up a trust so that all your financial needs are taken care of.”

“What’s a trust?”

“That’s where you put a lot of money in a bank and the bank manages it, earns even more money and then they send some of it to another person for them to spend on whatever they need.”

“A bank is going to send me money?”

“Not you, not right away. For now, it goes to your mother but she’s supposed to use it to take good care of you and we’ll be watching to make sure it happens. When you get older, then the money will come to you.”

“How much older? I’m thirteen now.”

“I think it’s at least eighteen but that’s a worry for the future. For now, you can have some nice clothes and good food and a warm room to sleep in and, maybe, if things work out right, you can come to Miami to visit your sister.”

“Reeeeally?!”

“Yes, really but there are some details that need to be worked out first. She and I have a job to finish.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

Momma starts to struggle, trying to pull her arm from my grip but I tighten my fingers and start to work my thumb into the nerve bundle on the underside of her wrist. It takes a few seconds but when I hit pay dirt she stops twisting and gasps in pain.

“Stop it! Let me go! Oh … OH … God.”

I dig in further with my thumb.

“Stop what, Momma?”

“Let me go! Let go of my … arrgh … OH GOD!”

“I didn’t hear the ‘P’ word, Momma.”

She glares at me, fire in her eyes. I press the nerve bundle again and the fire is extinguished.

“AAAUUGH! Please let me go! Pleassse!”

I stop digging at her nerves but yank her closer.

“When Daddy died, he was quiet, almost peaceful. I wanted there to be pain, lots of pain but that kind of death would have raised questions. I needed something simple and clean and, most of all, not suspicious.”

“You … you … killed your father?!”

“I killed the man who raped me. There are only three people in the entire world who know this. If you behave, it’ll stay that way. You don’t behave, it’ll be down to two people. Understand?”

The anger was long gone from her eyes, replaced by rising fear.

“What do you want?”

I release her wrist. She immediately grabs it and steps back away from me.

“Like I said, for you to behave, Momma. Right now, you don’t have much of an income. I can take care of that. I’ve set up a trust fund in Miami for you, managed by a bank there. They come highly recommended.”

“Where did you get the money to set up a trust fund?”

“Momma, I can either answer that question or I can give you the money. It’s your choice. Money or information. What’s it going to be?”

“How much money?”

That’s the Momma I know.

“Fifty thousand a year. You pay the taxes.”

“I need sixty thousand.”

“This isn’t a negotiation, Momma. It’s what I’m giving you. You want more, go earn it. There is a contingency.”

“A what?”

“A requirement. You have to take good care of Penny or the money’s gone. You take good care of her and the money continues, even after she leaves.”

“Who decides if I’m doing a good job?”

“I do.”

“How will you know? Moving back to Rice Lake are you?”

“Hardly. I’ll keep in touch. I don’t mean that you indulge her, I mean be an honest to God good mother. Watch over her, take care of her, make sure she goes to school and gets good grades. Do what’s right.”

“What if I tell the Sheriff about you?”

“Good luck with that. I’ve got a pretty good alibi, a local, well respected businessman in Miami. Plus, that type of thing would fall under the heading of not behaving and you know what that means.”

The fear’s back. “What happened to you, Jenny Jo? You’ve changed.”

The things I could tell you, Momma.

“You’re right, I’ve changed. You and Daddy had a big hand in that. We reap what we sow. There’s Jessica and Penny.”

“What can I tell her?”

“Nothing. She already knows all she needs for now.”

Jessica and Penny walk back into the living room and Penny hugs me again.

“Jay Jay … can we go for a walk? I gotta talk with you.”

“Sure thing, Peanut. Let me get my coat.”

CHAPTER SEVENTY TWO

Patricia has been very quiet since we flew out of Chicago headed for home. I gave her the window seat and she’s spent most of the flight just staring at the passing clouds. I brought my iPod and have been listening to music since take off. I’m just about to nod off when I feel Patricia flop back in her seat. Opening my eyes, I look over and see her with her hand over her eyes. I pull the earphones from my ears, “Honey, is there something wrong?”

“I just sat there and watched him. Peter Harris would never have done that. Jenny Jo wouldn’t have had the patience. Where did that come from?”

“Wasn’t that part of the plan?”

“Yes but neither of them would have ever made a plan to do something like that.”

“We both know that Peter Harris has done that kind of thing in the past.”

“Not planned it. It was always self defense and spur of the moment. Maybe he was ready to do what was necessary but not that cold blooded.”

“The original Patricia could easily have done it. Jenny Jo provides the why, Peter provides the how and Patricia provided the execution.”

“In more ways than one. Is that what I am now, an unfeeling unemotional, hyper-rational … person?”

“What did you feel when you and Penny hugged?”

“Like a missing piece had been returned to my life.”

“Where you happy?”

“Ecstatic.”

“Honey, you don’t need to worry about anything, you’re perfectly fine, better than fine. We all have different aspects to our personalities, our emotions. You seem to have strong control over what aspect is displayed at any one time. It’s all in there, you just choose which one is in charge at a particular time. That may change over time, we can’t be certain about anything, but for now you have an extraordinary ability, something that I’m a little envious of to tell the truth.”

“So I’m emotional when I need to be and rational when I need to be?”

“That’s what I’ve seen. You treated Penny with nothing but sisterly kindness. She was pretty happy with that cell phone and unlimited call plan.”

“How else was I going to keep track of how she’s being treated? How’d I treat Momma?”

“Better than she deserved.”

“You were pretty nice to Penny too.”

“It was easy. She looks so much like you, same smile.”

“I know. I appreciate you letting me use some of the diamonds to fund the trust account.”

“We’re not keeping any of them.”

“We could certainly use ‘em.”

“They’re blood money and I won’t have anything to do with them. We’ll get by. I can get another job. We’ve still got the rest of your thirty five thousand.”

“You’ve got a problem with fifty million swindled by Lipscomb but no problem using my emergency money skimmed from drug busts. Kinda of a fine line.”

“He killed Thomas, he killed Peter, he tried to kill me. I won’t benefit from that money and neither will you.”

“Fine. Then we give it away.”

* * * *** * * * *** * * *

“Ms. Larson?”

“Yes, Mr. Tyson.”

“Have we received any recent reports from the FBI about Lipscomb?”

“No, Sir. Not since last week.”

“Still nothing then.”

“It would seem that way, Mr. Tyson.”

It’s been almost a month since Lipscomb was murdered and the FBI knows as much today as they did twenty four hours after they found his body.

No suspects. Beyond the obvious one, of course, but there’s no evidence against Hobbes. Not the slightest scrap. His people just don’t talk! The Mafia wishes their people were as disciplined!

When I get back from lunch, I’ve got to call the Director and stoke the fire under the local agents. We can’t let him get away with killing one of our own. I turn my computer off, grab my coat and lock my door behind me.

“I should be back regular time, Ms. Larson.”

“Have a nice lunch, Sir.”

“You too, Ms. Larson.”

The elevator is crowded but reaches the ground floor quickly. Everyone hurries out when the doors open as the crowd sweeps out of the building. I step to the side once outside to get away from the other workers and slowly walk towards the plaza, looking for George’s Wiener Wagon. He’s been my Johnsonville brat supplier since Lipscomb introduced us. He’s saved my life or, at the very least, my marriage, what with the wife trying to have us go vegetarian. I can put up with a lot as long as I know the brats are still there. I spot him near the fountain and pick up my pace.

“Afternoon George.”

“Hey, Mr. Tyson. The usual?”

“Absolutely. Have I told you that you’re a lifesaver, George?”

“Every week, Mr. Tyson.”

He hands me my three brats and a beer. I pay, giving him a decent tip and go looking for an open bench. They’re easier to find this time of year. It’s not really cold, just in the sixties, but it’s all about what you’re used to and folks in Miami think this is cold. I was born and raised in Indiana, so this is balmy as far as I’m concerned.

I grab the nearest bench, unwrap the first brat and take a big bite, savoring the taste and the crunch. Oh man, are these good! Taking a swig of beer, I can’t keep my mind from turning to that first meeting with Lipscomb.

“Excuse me, can I share this bench with you?”

I look towards where the voice came from. It’s a young girl. She’s wearing a school uniform, nice but modest. There are other open benches.

“Sure but there are a bunch of open ones.”

“I know, but if I’m sitting with someone, guys leave me alone.”

Makes sense. “Sure, have a seat, Miss.”

She swings her bag off her shoulder, sits primly on the bench as far from me as she can, puts her bag on her lap, unzips it and takes out a brown paper sack. She notices I’m watching her. She smiles, opening the sack. “It’s my lunch.”

I heft the tray with my brats. “Mine too.”

“Yours smell good.”

“Well, bratwursts are like hotdogs, you don’t want to know how they make ‘em.”

She giggles then takes a dainty bite of her sandwich, chewing slowly as she looks around the plaza. Cute kid. Really cute kid.

What’s a girl like that doing downtown at lunch? There’s not a school around here for blocks, though there is a medical complex around the corner. She could be visiting someone but they have a cafeteria. Well, since it’s lunch, she’s probably not playing hooky.

Whatever. Really cute kid.

We both continue to eat in silence. I’ve almost finished my last brat. Checking my watch, I’ve got twenty five minutes before I need to get back to the office. Plenty of time.

“Excuse me, Mister.”

She’s tucking the empty, folded sack into her bag. It looks well worn. She likely reuses them. Cute and thrifty.

“Yes, Miss?”

“I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.”

“I will if I can.”

“Thank you. Do you have any new information on the Daniel Lipscomb case?”

WHAT?! No one should know anything about that! She’s just sitting there, a pleasant smile, like she just asked about the next bus.

“Sorry, Miss. Afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But you do, Mr. Tyson. You’re the man who authorized Daniel Lipscomb to use a completely secret undercover operation to go after Raymond Hobbes. Now there are three people dead and one missing, presumed dead.”

CRAP! What the hell is going on here? She can’t be the media. What newspaper or television station would send a little girl looking for a scoop? Could she actually be a student reporter of some kind who stumbled into something over her head? No. That’s impossible.

“Look, Miss. I don’t know who you are or what you think you know but I can assure you that the United States government would never …”

“I don’t mean to be impolite, Mr. Tyson, but to save time, let me introduce myself. I’m the fifth member of Daniel Lipscomb’s four person team. That lady sitting at the next bench with the gun pointed at you is Jessica Warren, the presumed dead member of the team. Trust me, she’s a crack shot.”

What the FUCK have I stepped into?! I slowly turn my head to look at the next bench and recognize the woman sitting there, a newspaper in her lap. She looks just like her picture in the file on my desk. She lifts the paper in her lap slightly, letting me see the gun she’s holding in her right hand. It has an unusually large barrel. She drops the newspaper back down, covering the gun.

“I see. What do you want, Miss …” I pause, hoping she’ll fill in the blank.

“Conner. Patricia Conner. That’s the ID Lipscomb got for me from Witness Protection. Same for my mother, Jessica. Not our real names, obviously. As for what we want, we’re here to do some business.”

“So this is a kidnapping or am I a hostage?”

“Neither, Mr. Tyson. The gun is just to make sure we have your full attention. After you’ve heard what I have to say, I’m sure you won’t want to leave.”

“Okay, since I don’t have a choice, I’ll play along.”

She chuckles lightly. “You have a choice, Mr. Tyson. You simply made the right one. Where to start? Lipscomb said that he never told you any details of his plan. Was that true?”

“Yes, that was our deal.”

“That’s a shame, it makes this harder. Oh well, can’t be helped. I’m going to tell you some things that are, frankly, unbelievable. I thought the same thing when I first heard them but they were all true. Before we’re done, I’ll give you something that should help convince you I’m not lying but, for the sake of argument and to save time, let’s agree not to argue those points, okay?”

“No, not okay. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Fair enough. Here it is. Daniel Lipscomb had a mad genius scientist who stole the body of a young girl on the verge of death, performed a long list of illegal and unapproved operations on her and, ultimately, transferred the mind, if you will, of a retired male undercover cop into that augmented young female body. The cop was to pose as a high school student, befriend the daughter of Raymond Hobbes, penetrate his household and acquire information about his criminal empire.”

“That’s impossible. And insane.”

“No, it happened and was brilliant. And successful. The girl is a runaway from Rice Lake, Wisconsin named Jenny Jo Hamilton. She suffered near brain death from a drug overdose. The doctor was Thomas Matthews, deceased. The cop is, or was, depending on your point of view, Peter Harris, retired from the Miami police department. The woman who became the mother of the school girl is Jessica Warren, nearly deceased. She’s also the woman with the gun.”

“And you expect me to believe all that?”

“You know most of those names already, so that’s true. As for the rest, I expect you to keep an open mind. Proof comes later. As I said, we were ultimately successful. The first bit of information was that spreadsheet you used to raid a large percentage of Hobbes’ drug warehouses.”

How the hell? She unzips a pocket of her bag, pulls out a thick packet of paper and hands it to me. After I’ve unfolded it, I can see that it’s the same spreadsheet Lipscomb gave me … but it’s the original, not a copy. How did she get the original? Could she be telling the truth? Wait a minute.

“What do you mean a large percentage?”

“You got about eighty five percent. Which was a good thing, it gave me something to work with but that’s for later. I also was able to access his computer system decrypt and copy all his files. The information was given to Lipscomb … and that’s where things went a little haywire.”

“Lipscomb told me you weren’t able to get to deliver the information, that Hobbes found out about you before you could hand it over.”

“He lied, which ultimately was one of his lesser sins. After we gave him the hard drive with Hobbes’ data, he killed Matthews, shot Jessica and burned Peter’s barely conscious body by setting fire to the lab. Mom was too strong to go that easily and escaped.”

“Why would Lipscomb do all this?”

“Because his plan all along was to get enough information to blackmail Hobbes, not to prosecute him. He wanted more power than being a successful prosecutor or even a successful politician would get him. He wanted money and influence. He could get both from Hobbes. Besides, he knew there was no way you’d ever be able to use the data in court. And you knew that too.”

Uh-oh. “Look, I had no idea what Lipscomb was really planning. What he told me he intended to do, it made sense. The secrecy, all of it, I figured it was worth a shot. Nothing else was working.”

“I agree, that’s why I signed on but you put the wrong guy in charge. He was a psychotic crook. Your psychotic crook.”

“Okay, but he’s dead now.”

“I know. I killed him. Two .410 shotgun shells to the mouth.”

“YOU?!”

“Yes, me. I killed Lipscomb and a few others. Lipscomb thought he had killed everyone else and he gave me to Hobbes as a sexual slave. Lucky for me, he wasn’t interested. Unlucky for me, I was passed on to someone who was. Unlucky for him, I escaped and then came back. Enrique Cardoza and Tony Escaban are two more that I killed, though they were more like self-defense. I was trespassing at the time but the homeowner ended up not objecting.”

“Anymore people you’ve killed recently?”

“One, but I’ll get to that. Lipscomb wanted fifty million in uncut diamonds, which Hobbes paid. The threat was to give the information to the other cartels. They’d have used it to attack his assets and destroy his organization. For an assortment pack of reasons, I decided that Lipscomb wasn’t going to get away with it, so I talked Hobbes into selling his organization to the Tijuana and Potosi cartels, removing Lipscomb as a threat.”

“So why kill him?”

“Thomas Matthews and Peter Harris. You couldn’t do anything about it so I did.”

“We in the Justice Department frown on vigilantism. Why shouldn’t I charge you?”

“Prove it.”

“What?”

“Prove I did any of this. You have no evidence of any kind. The only thing you have is this conversation. Even if you had enough evidence to prosecute, all that your boy Lipscomb did would come to light. As you said, he’s dead but you’re still here. Could you be convicted as an accessory to his crimes? Probably not, though an aggressive prosecutor might try. Wouldn’t really matter though, your career would be over, both as a prosecutor and the law in general. Nobody would hire you, you’d be totally toxic.”

My God! Even from the grave, Lipscomb’s a pain in my ass.

“So, you’re saying you can’t be convicted of anything and my future goes down the toilet if I even try.”

“That’s about it. You’re quick.”

“Thanks, apparently not quick enough. There’s still no proof that your story’s true.”

“I’ve got three proofs for you. The first is that drawing I gave you. You know that information was completely legitimate and I had the original. Here’s my second proof.”

Again, she returns to her bag. This time she removes a tablet computer and turns it on. “An iPad Three. Very sweet. You familiar with Skype, Mr. Tyson?”

“We use something like it in the office for remote conferences.”

“Good.” She touches and swipes her screen for several seconds. “Mr. Tyson, meet Raymond Hobbes.” She turns the computer so that the screen is facing me.

It’s him. There’s no doubt it’s him. I’ve seen pictures and videos over the years. I’m actually talking with Raymond Hobbes!

“Hello, Mr. Tyson.”

“Mr. Hobbes.”

“I assume you’ve heard Patricia’s story.”

“I have.”

“Do you believe it?”

“I have … doubts.”

“Then I vouch for her. What she told you is exactly what happened. She did steal my data, Lipscomb attempted to blackmail me with it, he admitted to me that he had killed Thomas Matthews and he thought he had killed Jessica Conner. Thank God he was wrong about that.”

“Why thank God?”

“Have you met Jessica Conner?”

“Not formally. She’s currently holding a gun on me.”

He smiles. “Truly a remarkable woman of many talents. Not unlike her daughter.”

“Why should I take your word as gospel, Mr. Hobbes? Your reputation precedes you.”

“As it should. I have sold my business, as I’m certain Patricia has told you. I am going straight.”

“When pigs fly, Mr. Hobbes.”

“Time will tell, Mr. Tyson. My point is, believe me or not about turning over a new leaf, I have no reason to lie about what she has told you.”

“I’ll take your statement under consideration, Mr. Hobbes.”

“That’s all I can ask. Patricia?”

She turns the screen back her way. “Yes, Mr. Hobbes?”

“I need to see you. At your convenience, of course.”

“I’ll call tomorrow, okay?”

“Excellent.”

The screen goes blank.

“Raymond Hobbes is hardly the most reliable source, Miss.”

“I understand that but he’s the best source for proof number two. Number one was the drawing that showed I was the source of reliable information. Hobbes told you where I got it from and how. This is proof number three.”

Again she returns to her bag, this time removing a hypodermic syringe. She pulls off the plastic cap, flexes her left hand several times, extends her left arm and sticks herself in an engorged vein.

“WAIT! What are you doing?!” I shout.

She slowly pulls the plunger back, filling the syringe with blood. “This is to prove the technology.” She removes the syringe from her arm, recaps it, wraps it in a napkin and hands it to me. “You get that analyzed, put a rush on it. Your techs will find things that have never been seen in any human’s blood. They’re looking for nanites, microscopic machines. By the time you get that to them, they won’t be active any longer but they’ll find bits and pieces.”

She put a second napkin on the spot where the needle entered her arm but there was hardly any blood there. Something stopped the bleeding very quickly.

“Those are my three proofs, Mr. Tyson. They’re not iron clad but pretty strong. If we reach a deal and you need more, I’ll let you x-ray my head. That’ll put any doubt to rest. Now, let’s talk business. Do we need the gun?”

She’s not made any explicit threats and there is security around, not enough to keep them from killing me but enough to make it hard to escape. My gut tells me that she knows that.

“No … no, let’s talk. What do you have for me?”

The older lady slips the gun into her purse, then sets the purse on the ground between her feet. She can still reach it, but not quickly.”

“Satisfied?” asks the girl.

“For now. Let’s get down to brass tacks.”

“Sure. I’ve got the original data that I stole from Hobbes, his entire organization, all his assets, his drug smuggling tunnels, warehouses, planes, boats, manufacturing plants, subs, farms, everything.”

“Which he sold, according to him.”

“Oh, he has. I also have the same information for both the Tijuana and Potosi cartels, representing about seventy percent of the world’s drug trafficking.”

MY GOD! What I could do with that! It boggles the mind! But is it legitimate? “Assuming I can verify that, what do you want?”

“But wait! There’s more!” She gestures towards the other woman, who removes what appears to be a CD or DVD from her coat pocket. “My mother is holding a DVD that has the name of every dirty cop, judge, prosecutor, FBI, DEA, ATF, immigration agent, court clerk, senator, congressman or other public official who took a bribe from Hobbes or the other two cartels anywhere in the world, including what they were paid and when. A compilation of corruption. That’s what sold you on Lipscomb’s plan in the first place, wasn’t it?”

She’s right about that. The prospect of cleaning up the system was more appealing than anything else Lipscomb promised to deliver. Crooks are crooks; you know where you stand with them. It’s the supposed good guys who change sides that make me sick … like, apparently, Daniel Lipscomb.

“Fine. What do you want?”

“You’ve got a real good poker face there, Mr. Tyson. You get the list of traitors now and the inventory of assets in one year. For that, Mom and I get Presidential pardons. Totally clean slates.”

“Does Hobbes get a pardon too?”

“No. There’d be too much hell to pay once it came to light. You promise to do nothing to him for the next year. He’s on probation, if you will. After the year is up, assuming he behaves, and we give you the rest of the information, he gets immunity and the whistle blower’s fee on the assets you recover.”

“Wait, that could be …”

“Billions, I know, but you’ll get a lot of that back in taxes.”

“What if I want everything now?”

“You can’t do anything with the asset list until you clean up your own house. The people on the take will destroy any plans you make to use the information. But now, you know who to avoid. You can transfer people, fire them, threaten them, heck even turn them. Give the cartels a taste of their own medicine by creating a few hundred double agents. You cut the number of available sources of information but keep enough flowing to keep them from looking for more. You control what they know and when. They’ll bite because it’ll save them money, you just need to be smart about it. All that’ll take time. When you’re ready, then you get the rest of the information. Besides, if you wait, Tijuana and Potosi should start taking out the little guys for you. By the time they’re done, they’ll be the only two cartels of any significance left standing and then, they’ll betray each other. That’s when you strike. I calculate a year should be about right, maybe fifteen months, less if you provide a little help here and there but that’s your choice. If you succeed, you may earn enough brownie points with the country to do something serious about drugs, like finally work on the demand side, accomplish something that’ll actually do some good in the long term. Cause, if you don’t, we’ll be knee deep in this stuff again in five years.”

WHO is this kid?! That’s the most ruthless elevator pitch I’ve ever heard. And why does it sound so reasonable? Better think twice, Lipscomb fooled me once before.

“I need to think about this. Presidential pardons don’t grow on trees, they take time.”

“I assumed you’d want some time, you told Lipscomb the same thing at first.”

“Once bitten, twice shy.”

She smiles brightly, almost made you forget what kind of things she’d just been talking about.

“So, you believe me then?”

“Let’s say I’m less skeptical.”

She reaches into that bottomless bag of hers and removes a thumb drive, tossing it to me.

“This is a taste of what’s waiting for you, should you agree to our terms. It’s an assortment pack of names, places and things you can check out without raising much suspicion. You got five days to say yes and have our pardons ready. If not, the information disappears.”

“Five days?! That’s crazy! Those things get vetted out the wazoo!”

“I killed four people. Cardoza and Escaban, two life long bad guys, in self-defense. Lipscomb because of his two murders and one attempted murder and a man named Stanley Hamilton in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.”

“What’d this Hamilton do?”

“He raped me. I begged him, I warned him. He didn’t listen. His loss. The authorities aren’t even investigating his death, they assume it was an accident. The fact that I’m telling you about his death is a sign of good faith. I couldn’t be convicted of any of this, just don’t want to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.”

“What did your mother do?”

“Helped me. She’s an accessory. Couldn’t convict her of anything either. We’re a package deal.”

I turn the thumb drive over in my hand. It’s a ridiculously small price to pay for so much, when you think about it. If she’s right, three unsolvable murders disappear from the books and we get enough information to restore integrity to the justice system and possibly destroy the world’s drug industry … or at least put a serious dent in it for years to come, which may open up the possibility of prevention programs.

It’s awfully appealing. “I need to talk to some people.”

“Do it quickly, we want to go back to our lives as soon as possible. Five days.” They both stand up. “My phone number is on the drive. Call me any time of day. I hope we can do business, Mr. Tyson.” She walks away but stops and turns back. “I almost forgot. I need one more thing.”

“What’s that?

“Nothing big … just a letter.”

“What kind of letter?”



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