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Excerpt for The First Lady's Second Man. A Linda Darby Mystery by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



DAVID BISHOP

Copyright © 2016 David M. Bishop.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Except as otherwise provided for herein, this book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

The First Lady’s Second Man.

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Cover Designed by Patti Roberts

Cover Art: Paradox Book Covers and Formatting

Stories by David Bishop


For current information on new releases visit:

www.davidbishopbooks.com

and once there, subscribe to David Bishop’s newsletter, or write him to request being added to the subscription list: david@davidbishopbooks.com


David Bishop’s mysteries currently available – By Series:


Matt Kile Mystery Series (in order of release)


Who Murdered Garson Talmadge, a Matt Kile Mystery

The Original Alibi, a Matt Kile Mystery

Money & Murder, a Matt Kile Mystery Short Story

Find My Little Sister, a Matt Kile Mystery

The Maltese Pigeon, a Matt Kile Mystery

Judge Snider’s Folly, a Matt Kile Mystery


Maddie Richards Mystery Series (in order of release)


The Beholder, a Maddie Richards Mystery

Death of a Bankster, a Maddie Richards Mystery


Linda Darby Mystery Series (in order of release)


The Woman, a Linda Darby Story

Hometown Secrets, a Linda Darby Story

The First Lady’s Second Man, a Linda Darby Story


The Ryan Testler Character Appears in: (in order of release)


The Woman, a Linda Darby Story

Death of a Bankster, a Maddie Richards Mystery

Hometown Secrets, a Linda Darby Story

The First Lady’s Second Man, a Linda Darby Story

Jack McCall Mystery Series (in order of release)


The Third Coincidence, a Jack McCall Mystery

The Blackmail Club, a Jack McCall Mystery


Short Stories


Money & Murder, a Matt Kile Mystery Short Story

Love & Other Four-letter Words: A Maybe Murder, a collection of seven short stories


Coming Next (Working Title)


The Year We Had Murder

Book 7 in the Matt Kile Mystery Series

www.davidbishopbooks.com

david@davidbishopbooks.com

Dedication


This novel is dedicated to my family and all those who have read my novels. I appreciate your interest in my writings and the faith you display by purchasing my stories. I trust you will enjoy this one. I would be pleased to hear from you after you read it. david@davidbishopbooks.com

In writing this and other stories, my aim is to create characters with whom readers can relate, like or hate as they reach deep within the story to learn if those characters get what they deserve, are captured or saved, seduced or simply survive. The connecting magic of the author-character-reader triad rests in the fact that readers, like the characters living within the pages of fiction, have themselves endured trials and tribulations in their own lives.

I would like to acknowledge all who have found their way into my life, challenging me and enriching me by their presence, goodness, and affection. And last, but certainly not least, this book, as with my others, is dedicated to those I love.

Special thanks to the wonderful people who read early drafts and made suggestions which unfailingly enhance my stories.

Thank you.

CHAPTER 1


Linda Darby sat in the sand beside a crop of sea grass. Her squirming widened the cavity in the sand made by her simple act of sitting. She felt uneasy, restless, and didn’t understand why. Her life seemed somewhat settled, but not fully. That wouldn’t happen until she resolved her long-distance relationship with Dixon Wardley.

As for Ryan Testler, he was history. She could never accept a long-term loving relationship with a man in his line of work. Although, without his talent at what he did, Linda would have been murdered two years ago.

She eased down to lie on her back, the sun-warmed grit probed her bare shoulders, and took away the cool the wind had brought to her legs. Overhead, the grayed clouds moved with a sloth-like slowness. A high reddish-orange hue smeared around the gorged clouds, waiting for that sudden moment when they would throw down their rain. The sun seemed to dissolve into the sea, and the coming twilight cloaked her like a caressing blanket. Linda was unable to see the wind-pulled sand, but it was there. She could taste it. The waves were another matter. Ambient light sparked the caps as they tore free for a short ride on the wind.

When the mist chilled her seaward cheek, she rose and walked back to her condo, climbed the eight steps, and settled into a chair outside her beach facing bedroom. From her somewhat elevated deck she could see the finer sand silently scrambling over its heavier brethren.

After another hour slid by, the rain seemed imminent, and she went in to shower away the lingerie-thin coat her body carried back from the beach.


#


The morning woke her as it always did. She kept the horizontal blinds beside her bed parted, the window open just a smidge. The morning sun crept in, teasing her and caressing her eyelids. The coolness drawn into her nostrils.

An exhilarating beach run usually began Linda’s day, but her uneasiness immediately returned. It wasn’t the uncertainty of Dix. She had been pondering that man for some time. No, she just felt odd. Off. A formless fear piggybacked on her physical sluggishness. Normally, running helped shake off any doldrums or the aftereffects of the drinks she enjoyed some nights while ogling the local hunks at Millie’s Sea Grog. Last night she stayed home, her feelings more gloom than malaise.

Commonly, after running, Linda focused her refreshed energy on her day-trading stock portfolio. She went to her computer and tried to steel herself against distractions, but couldn’t stay with it. The surface of the ocean remained unfriendly. The pockets of calmer water were dotted with the black nub noses of seals peeking out before their next dive in pursuit of food or frolic.

Last night, at eight her time, ten his time, she’d called Dix. He was out and didn’t call back. As a result, Linda tossed and turned more than slept. Decision time was at hand, but she didn’t yet know what that decision would be. When speaking with Dix, she wanted to run to him. When alone, she was flooded with reasons why the branches of their lives might not graft well.

Why does life have to be so damn complicated? I’ll be thirty-nine this year and all the stuff I thought I’d figured out at twenty is now a jumbled mess. Is everybody’s life so emotionally scattered, or just mine?

Dix taught school and coached football in their hometown of Caruthers, Kansas, a schedule that didn’t leave him much time to visit Linda in Sea Crest, Oregon. She could, maybe should, go to him more often. She hadn’t returned to Kansas in over six months, a span of time during which Dix had not traveled to see her, either.

It’s harder for him to come during the school year. Day trading provides me the freedom he doesn’t have, so what’s my excuse?

Maybe, down deep, where erratic thoughts incubate into clear thinking, their affair was diluting into a warm memory. Dix wanted them to live in Caruthers. Linda stubbornly clung to her love of her beach condo and the idyllic town of Sea Crest, Oregon. She knew enough people, was independent, and had privacy.

Long distance relationships can be such a bitch. Still, Dix was a very good man and a very good lover.

Why do I feel I must have a main man in my life? Do most women feel this way? Is it merely the meshing of social convention with the lust for a lover?


#


By mid-afternoon, the throb of unused energy pulsed through Linda like the earthy sounds of a distant saxophone. By four, unable to sit still, she walked the road, rather than the beach, into town to get a coffee and a blueberry scone. After walking the two miles, she changed her mind and shopped awhile. Then she ambled into the fresh fish house next to the harbor to see what the fishing boats brought in. Today’s catch was white sea bass, as an entree or as fish and chips, which she chose, with a side of coleslaw. By six-thirty, shopped-out, fed and watered, but still unsettled, she went to a movie. Having just eaten allowed her to avoid the lure of popcorn with the petroleum-based butter flavoring.

On the walk home, Linda kept her hands in her pockets. Starting up the front sidewalk, she brought out her house key. The cool ocean air was damp on the back of her bare hand. On the porch table, under the small light that drew visitors’ eyes to the doorbell, was a white box, long and thin, the kind used for flowers.

Dix? Announcing he’s on his way? Or, maybe to soften the message that again this month he’s not coming.

She carried the box into the kitchen and opened it next to the sink. Red roses. Two dozen. There was no card.

Who sends two dozen red roses without a card?

She began cutting the stems, working the roses into her favorite vase, along with the delicate white baby’s breath packaged with the roses. After removing several roses, she noticed an envelope under the remaining flowers. Not the small white kind that contains a greeting card, but a manila envelope commonly used for not folded documents. It curled around the bottom of the box under the green tissue paper, extending partway up the sides. Without the weight of the full complement of roses, the envelope’s stiffness caused it to bow upward into view.

She turned off the water and put the scissors on the counter. She returned the rose she was holding to its source, extending its blossom beyond the end of the box. She picked up the envelope and held it. Her eyes focused on its unaddressed front. The envelope didn’t have the feel of empty. She put it on the table, sat down and crossed her arms. Her knees drew together, pressed tightly.

Relax, it’s an envelope. It came with red roses.

The glue-line wasn’t sealed. The flap at the top was simply folded inside the envelope. She pulled the flap free and peered inside. One sheet of white paper, thicker than that used for writing, stiff, glossy, more like the kind used for photographs. Her heart rate increased. Her tongue staggered across her dry lips. Linda’s hands became fists. Her knuckles whitened.

What the hell’s my problem? Stop being such a twit.

The photo paper came out blank side up. She turned it over.

Oh my God.

A photograph of Stephanie, the love of her life, her ten-year-old daughter. Her perfectly healthy, wonderful Steffi.

Someone knows my secret.

Her heart seemed to separate away from the rest of her like a yolk parting from the white of an egg. The natural ease of breathing ceased. She released the picture and, unknowingly, curled her lips inside her mouth holding them tightly with her teeth. She drew in a deep breath, her nostrils flaring with the effort. She held it as long as she could. Her eyes went dry and felt larger. She put a palm flat on each side of the photograph. With her thumbs slightly touching the edges of the picture, she leaned over the image of her daughter. Her baby girl was on the playground at the private, boarding Hobart School just outside Portland, Oregon. Stephanie wore the plaid skirt and white blouse uniform the school required all the girls to wear. Her usually unblemished face was violated by a red rubber stamp, circular with a slash-line through it at a ten-to-four angle, like the ones used to designate no entry or no parking. The ugly ink smeared down onto her daughter’s white blouse.

Who would stamp a red blotch on Steffi’s face?

Linda had left Steffi’s father before she began to show. To this day, the man didn’t know he had a daughter. She never told her special male friend, Ryan Testler, about Steffi. She did tell Clark. He was her second husband. He had a right to know before they married. Clark had died over a year ago.

Who the hell knows? Has someone taken Steffi? What do they want?

CHAPTER 2


It was late to call the Hobart School. Late to be connected to Steffi. Linda pushed those reasoned restraints from her mind and called Hobart, confessing to feeling silly before explaining she had a premonition. The school put her on hold and, after a seemingly endless few minutes, returned to confirm Steffi was peacefully asleep in her room. “All is well at Hobart,” she was told. That was good, as far as it went, but did little to calm her fear that something horrible might soon befall Steffi.

What’s going on? Roses without a card. That damned red stamp sullying Steffi’s face.

Linda tried to calm herself, but, failing, she tossed a few things into a bag. Her unsteady hand proved incapable of grasping the slider on the bag’s zipper. She sat on the bed. Her fingers gripped her chin, squeezing it as if checking for ripeness. Without knowing when they had started, she recognized the warmth of quiet tears, and the convulsions of trying to hold them back. Her shoulders sagged. Her hands tightened. Her fingers intertwined. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing.

Those roses were delivered while I was in town. I should have called the florist. No. The sender would have hand carried the box to my porch. He wouldn’t have trusted the florist to handle the picture of Steffi.

When a semblance of calm returned, she zipped her bag closed. After calling the Red Lion Inn and reserving a room, she went out to her car.

From her research years before, Linda had concluded the public schools where she lived were like most public schools throughout America—failing their charge to educate the young. The politicians tell us America has the best schools in the world. Based on the evidence, this was far from the truth, particularly with respect to grades kindergarten through high school. Any lie to get another vote.

Maybe Dix was right. Maybe she should move back to Caruthers. Dix loved children. She imagined he would accept Steffi and invite her into their conjoined lives. Of course, he would be shocked to learn Linda had a daughter. It was one of the issues they would need to work through. That is, if Dix was in her future, which was something she had in no way decided. Maybe the three of them could live like a normal family—whatever a normal family is in today’s world. Linda had gone to school in Caruthers. She understood the school she went to over twenty years ago was not the school that existed today. Nothing much at all was the same as it was twenty years ago, and that, she felt, was both good and bad. Dix claimed the schools in Caruthers were still good. She’d think about it. Right now she needed to get to Steffi. See her daughter. Hug her. Know she was all right.

I’ll be at the Hobart in about two hours.

#


Linda glanced at her watch when she passed through the glare of a street light, the bright cone piercing the front windshield to illuminate her face, then brighten the steering wheel, and finally flash across her thighs. It would be after eleven by the time she arrived near the school. Hobart didn’t allow late night visitors, not unless it was an emergency. They would not consider her ominous feelings an emergency, even if Linda did.

Hobart was small, with about one-hundred girls. The owner was like a second mother to each one of them. She was a homely woman. Linda’s deceased husband, Clark, once claimed that should Pauline Hobart take off her clothes in front of the window, the man across the street would close his drapes. Linda always scolded Clark for it, but smiled at the memory of him saying it with his eyebrows raised like Groucho Marx.

Maybe the time had come to bring Steffi home to live with her. She’d been thinking about it. She always thought about it. Always. Steffi loved the long summer trips they took together each year, and the shorter ones over each Christmas. Steffi loved the Hobart School. Hobart was K-6. In any event, Steffi was in the sixth grade so this would be her daughter’s last year there. Maybe at the end of this year, maybe then she would bring Steffi home. She had to look closely into the quality of schools in Sea Crest and, maybe in Caruthers, Kansas. But she had no more time to juggle her thoughts pro and con with respect to Dix’s proposal that continued to age without her answer.

She’d be in Portland a little before midnight. Maybe get a little sleep, probably not. The only thing that mattered was being on the porch of Hobart in the morning when they unlocked the door.

#


Waiting to check-in at the Red Lion, Linda glanced at a stack of national newspapers on the front counter that used color more frequently than any other newspaper she had ever encountered. The headlines announced that U. S. President Ronald Walker had formally announced his decision to run for re-election. The photo with the article on the front page showed him standing next to his wife, Carolyn, a woman considerably younger than the president, looking up at him. President Walker was at least six inches taller than the first lady. Carolyn wore a blue dress that matched the president’s tie. Presidential, is the word they use for such a grand image.

“Welcome to the Red Lion.”

“Huh?” Linda’s mind pulled back from thinking why the presidential announcement, expected for months, was being treated as big news. “What?”

The middle-aged woman’s voice came from behind the hotel counter, she smiled and repeated, “Welcome to the Red Lion.” Her face had that fresh-scrubbed look, her skin taut, her eyes bulged slightly, her lips too plump to be naturally so. The name badge hanging on her yellow blouse made it sag unevenly on one side, pulling it open to a measure that fell between shy and brazen, her visible chest skin dotted with freckles. A Becky Thatcher with bigger, bolder boobs.

After Linda finished at the front desk, she walked into the bar and took an overstuffed chair in a quiet corner near the river-rock fireplace. Normally, she ordered a wine, but this was not sophisticated drinking time. She ordered a martini, a double. Minutes later, the waiter returned and, without spilling a drop, skillfully put down a small cocktail napkin, centered her drink upon it, and left.

While her mouth played with the first sip, a man weaved carefully around nearby chairs. He approached slowly, his stern manner that of a well-trained pit-bull. He was average built with broad shoulders, but had a behaved hardness about him. Given his direction she assumed he came from the bar.

“Hello Linda.”

She didn’t recognize this man, yet he knew her name. Perhaps he’s a parent from Steffi’s school? A student’s father she met at some past school function and forgotten.

He stopped at her left and used one of his unexpectedly small, well-manicured hands to lean onto the back of the chair next to her. “How have you been?”

“I don’t know you, sir.” Then, her nerves fully on alert, she challenged the approaching stranger. “Did you send me roses?”

If he didn’t, he’ll conclude I’m daft and scurry away. Good riddance.

He raised the drink in his hand toward her, showing small patches of hair on the backs of his fingers. “I hope they were all right. I told them to send their very best. Roses don’t last long. I wanted them to be as fresh as possible when you received them.”

Linda sat forward. Her stare fixed on his narrowed eyes. “What the hell is this about? How dare you threaten my daughter to get my attention.”

He ran his fingers across the hard edge of his square chin. “Call me Brad. Of course, that’s not my real name, but it’s the name you’re to use.”

“I want to know what this is about.”

“You usually stay here. It’s close to the Hobart School. I was simply stationed here to confirm your arrival. To buy you a drink and help you relax.”

“Relax?” After a pause and a calming breath, she lowered her voice. “Relax,” she repeated. She leaned toward him, with hate behind her quiet eyes. “I’d like to puncture your scrotum with a serrated steak knife.”

“Oh, that’s descriptive.” The slight slant to his hooded eyes widened. “But, please, no.” He grinned, his voice matching Linda’s for low. “Without consideration of the obvious pun, it would be pointless. I could tell you nothing. Patience, dear lady. The situation in which you find yourself, above all, calls for calm. You’ll learn everything you need to know.” He placed his open palm on his chest. “But not from me. I’m just a walk-on in this drama. I suggest you remain at ease. You’ll need a clear head. Now smile. Limit yourself to the one martini, a double is more than plenty. Then go up to your room. Get a good night’s sleep. Your daughter, Stephanie, is warm and safe in her bed at Hobart. You’ll see her in the morning.”

The man glanced at his watch and spoke in a normal voice. “Sorry, love, I’m a bit behind schedule. He touched two fingers to his lips and leaned down to touch Linda’s cheek. She jerked away, her body pressing against the opposite side of her chair. “Gotta run. Ta ta.” He dropped a twenty on the table and walked away.

Linda waited until he left the bar before she got up and followed. He walked out of the hotel and across the parking lot to the front street. A dark SUV immediately, but unhurriedly, pulled to the curb, its broadside facing Linda who remained in the hotel lobby. She couldn’t see the license plate. The window glass was tinted. Brad got in behind the driver. That indicated there were likely at least two others, possibly three, in the vehicle which promptly pulled out onto the dark street and disappeared into the night. Local lights reflected off the wet northwest pavement.

Linda went back into the bar, chose a different chair on the other side of the room and, ignoring Brad’s advice, ordered a second martini, also a double. With her drink in hand, she searched her memory for some connection between her past calamities and this present threat to Steffi. As for Brad’s identity, who he worked for, and the objective of whomever that was, she had no clue.

CHAPTER 3


Before shutting the door to her hotel room, Linda slid the plastic do-not-disturb tab into the outside slot for the cardkey lock. After closing the door, she reached over and flicked on the wall switch. The light didn’t come on.

“Leave the room dark.”

Linda gasped, dropping her small suitcase to the floor. Another man. Another voice. Not Brad. This voice was different. Deeper. Older. It couldn’t be Brad. She had watched him leave in the backseat of the dark SUV. She reached for the doorknob.

“I have a gun on you, Linda Darby. Don’t try to leave. You’re safe. So is Steffi, for the moment.”

Linda froze.

“Move toward my voice. Keep your right hand in contact with the wall. After you turn the corner, you’ll touch a chair. Sit it in.”

Linda slid her hand along what felt like a vinyl-covered wall. She reached the corner, moving around it to her right until her hand touched the rougher fabric of a chair. “Okay. I’m at the chair. What do you want?”

“Take off your clothes.”

“I asked you what you wanted.”

“Right now, this isn’t about what I want. It’s about you seeing your daughter in the morning, so I’d suggest you keep your wits about you. Take off your sweater and slacks. Oh, I’m sorry, you’re wearing a sweatshirt, not a sweater. In any event, get them off—right now.”

Linda stood still, willing herself to remain under control. She stiffened and pulled her green sweatshirt over her head. After tucking the hoodie to the front, she folded it once lengthwise, then across the middle before dropping it where she stood.

The man remained quiet.

A moment later, she unfastened the belt at the top of her slacks, unhooked the clasp, drew down the zipper, and, after bending slightly at the waist, stepped her first leg, then the other, out of her pants. She folded them lengthwise, then in half near the knee, and dropped them where she imagined they might fall on top her sweatshirt.

“Sit.”

She did.

“There’s a lamp to your right. Turn it on. Don’t touch the shade. I have it angled to shine on your face. Keep your eyes forward. And don’t move the piece of two-by-four wedged along the cushion behind you.”

Linda’s reached back. Her hand touched the wood. “What the hell’s this for?”

“Now stand up.”

“Stand, sit, stand, what are you some kinda control freak?”

“Call it practice. You need to become accustomed to doing what you’re told, when you are told to do it.”

She stood, absentmindedly sliding her fingers under the elastic waistband of her panty. She tugged them a bit higher.

She heard his low, gruff, chuckle, a mature voice, throaty, perhaps from too much smoking or alcohol. She imagined a neck swag of purposeless flesh vibrating with his moment of perverse gaiety.

“A woman and her vanity, I love it. No need to be self-conscious. You’ve got a hell of a body, honey. Must be all that beach running you do. It’s wonderful for the legs and butt.”

“I’m not shy. I’m frightened.”

“No need. As long as you play by my rules, follow orders.”

“What do you want?” She self-consciously put her hands behind her. The position made her feel even more vulnerable. Unsure what to do with her hands, she brought them back around in front and intertwined her fingers. Her joined hands settled against her pubic area.

“We’re going to have you kill someone.”

“Are you nuts?”

“Sit down. No need for you to remain standing. Killing this man is a simple thing.”

“I’m not a killer.”

“I told you to sit down.” His voice now riding a hardened edge.

She glared at the dark image of the man sitting some eight or ten feet away, directly across from her. Then she sat.

“About two years ago, you evaded Blue, a trained assassin, on the beach at night. Eventually, you killed Blue while he had his attention on you. That took real talent. When we learned of that, you became a woman worthy of our attention. We kept an eye on you like a professional football team watches a hot-shot high school quarterback. Compared to Blue, your kill for us will be a piece of cake.”

My God. Who are these people? They know about Steffi, my running on the beach, and even my killing Blue.

“Blue, as you called him, invaded my home intending to kill me. I defended myself. What you’re speaking of is murder.”

“Labels. What do they matter? The man you will kill deserves to die. If you don’t kill him, we’ll have someone else do it. You should consider that too. He’ll be dead either way. You can’t save him, but you can save your daughter. Given that choice, I expect you’ll do my bidding.”

“I don’t kill people. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”

“Make no mistake. The decision you make tonight, in this room, will kill someone. Either you’ll act to kill a man who deserves to die, or your inaction will end the life of your lovely young daughter, who doesn’t deserve to die.”

“You monster. … You son of a bitch.”

“An understandable response, but it changes nothing. The target isn’t someone you know. In fact, if you knew all that I know, you’d agree he deserves to die. He’s interfering with the future of our wonderful country. But, your consent or agreement is not important. I require only your obedience—to be sure, precise and exacting obedience. Don’t worry, I’ll provide everything you need, including a perfect alibi.”

“I won’t do it. Now, do what you came to do and get the hell out.”

“How amusing. You think I’m here merely to ravage your body. Not a bad idea. You’re a lovely woman. You look very sexy in those black boy-short panties. Let me be clear. The man you will kill is a whoremonger. Your luscious curves will get you close enough to do the job. But, me, tonight, no my dear, of that you have no concern. Tonight, is strictly business. I came only to hire you for a necessary execution. … Forgive me, I should’ve mentioned the hiring part sooner. We’ll pay you a quarter of a million dollars when it is done.”

“Never.”

“Take off your bra.”

“Go to hell.”

The odor from a silenced shot immediately stunk the room. Wood splinters struck Linda’s neck and cheek. Reflexively, she flinched, twisting away from the sound and bite of the splinters. Her right knee jerked up toward her chest. All this happening in a quiet instant that started with the muffled shot and ended with the jerk of her knee.

“Look at the piece of wood, my dear.”

She did. The angled lampshade clearly showed a wallet-sized picture of Steffi stapled to the top end of the wood, her face torn by the bullet that remained embedded in the wood.

“I could’ve as easily hit your arm or your breast as I did that piece of wood. Or Steffi during recess on the playground at Hobart School. The camera we used to target Steffi can be a gun next time.”

“You’re crazy.”

The dark blob she knew to be him moved within the chair. Maybe he shrugged his shoulders, or crossed his legs. She couldn’t be sure. Not that it mattered. It would change nothing. His threat remained.

“Throw me the two-by-four . . . easy.”

Linda lobbed it softly, with an arc. She saw his dark silhouette lean to his left. From the slap-sound, she knew he caught it.

“Now stand up and toss me your bra. . . . Do it.”

Linda reached behind her, unhooked her bra and threw it toward his outline.

“Move back a step and turn to your right, just a little. . . . That’s good. A lovely woman shouldn’t stand totally in the dark. Take off your shoes and keep ahold of them.”

Linda did so, holding one in each hand.

“Throw one toward each side of the room, hard enough for them to hit the walls. I ask this with some reluctance. A woman’s naked legs look delicious in high heels. You are to wear heels when we put you in touch with your target.”

Thud.

Linda had thrown her first shoe to her right, his left. She threw her second shoe to her left, his right. Thud. She moved her feet to shoulder’s width, put her hands on her hips, and glared at his shadowy presence. Her arms eventually slid lower to hang at her sides.

“Now what?”

“Now I leave. Don’t be sad. We’ll be watching Steffi, and we’ll be aware of you at all times. We’ll be in contact. Give up the silly notion of trying to figure a way out of this. You have no choice. If you go to the police, I’ll know. That’ll break our bond of trust. As punishment, Steffi will die. You don’t know who I am and have no idea who the target is. In the end, the man will still die. Thus, Steffi will die in vain.”

Linda’s hand went to her face. Realizing he could see her, she lowered her hand and cleared her face of the reaction.

“We know all about you, all about your friends. Your lovers. And my, my how you do get around on that score. The only one we won’t kill is that no good loser who knocked you up, then abandoned you to raise Steffi on your own. Shame on him. What’s this world coming to? Perhaps we can help you eliminate him, after you’ve completed your mission for us. Think of it as a bonus for a job well done.”

“If you’re leaving why did you have me take off—?”

“What were you wondering, my dear? What kind of man do you think I am?” He laughed as if what he said had been a good joke. “I only wanted to slow your ability to follow me. Like most men, I’m visual and you’ve got a great set of jugs. Go along with all this, my dear, and keep your world safe. Take the quarter million smackers. To raise a daughter today, private school, college, it’s expensive. More expensive that K-6 at the Hobart School. All that needs to change for you and Steffi to live happily ever after, is for a no good bastard to die. Think of him as your ex-husband. Frankly, the two men have a lot in common.”

“Go to hell.”

“Take off your panties.”

The bastard is proving he controls me. For now, I need him to think he does.

Linda eased her thumbs under the elastic top, expanded her panties, and lowered them down over her hips. After a momentary pause, she pushed them below her knees, leaving them to fall to the floor, and stepped one leg out of them, then the other. In an irrational fragment of thought, she remembered that two nights ago, while thinking of Dix, she’d trimmed her pubic hairs. Using a razor, she had reduced the patch to a two-inch wide swath. Fortunately, she’d abandoned the thought she gave to further shaping what remained into a down pointing arrowhead.

“Throw them toward the door. Try to hit it. Go ahead, now. Give ‘em a good toss. Okay. Good job. Nice jiggle. Now come back and sit down.”

Linda sat down and crossed her legs.

“Turn the lamp off.”

She did.

A small penlight illuminated her naked breasts.

“Lie on the floor. Face down with your feet toward the door.”

She lowered herself onto the carpet. Glancing back, she saw the beam from the penlight brighten her butt.

“Crawl toward the window until the top of your head is against the wall.”

She began to crawl.

“Goodbye. Oh, I almost forgot, I left twenty-five thousand dollars on the bed. Consider it a good faith gesture, a modest ten percent down payment for services to be rendered, the killing of a two-legged cockroach.”

After momentarily stopping to listen, Linda resumed her crawl to the wall.

“Tomorrow morning go to Hobart School as you’ve planned. Assure yourself that Steffi is okay, at least for now. We’ll be in touch. Be ready.

The door shut.

She got up and turned on the lamp, instinctively realigning the shade. Her bra was still on the floor, although not as near her slacks and sweatshirt as she imagined it would be. After a moment she found her shoes, the second one in the space between the bed and the wall. On the mattress lay several neat, modest sized rubber-banded bundles of cash.

The piece of wood with Steffi’s picture was gone. She shivered. Not from cold, but from unwelcome awareness.

Her panties were gone too. A clue perhaps? Maybe to be left near the body of the man they intended her to murder. They wanted her to take the fall for the murder. For now, her only defense would be a wild story about men she couldn’t identify and threats made against the daughter almost no one knew she had.

CHAPTER 4


Linda engaged the deadbolt and closed the clasp to prevent the door from being opened from the outside, even with a passkey. Next, she opened her suitcase and put on a fresh pair of panties and pulled her sweatshirt back over her head. She grabbed her purse from behind the chair where she’d dropped it when the man first ordered her to sit, and tossed it in the center of the bed. She closed the drapes over the window, turned on the lamp on the nightstand, pulled back the bedding, and sat on the bed. She tucked her bare feet under the mostly white bedspread adorned with roses. She pulled her purse to her, and dug around inside until she found the cell phone she rarely used. Before leaving Sea Crest she put that cell phone, one she normally didn’t carry, in her purse. She charged it while driving to Portland. The cell phone Ryan Testler gave her for whenever she needed him.

He calls now and again, but we haven’t talked in several months. I hope it still works. I hope he still cares enough to answer.

Otherwise functionless, the phone only worked to call Ryan. When she pressed the number one ten times, a call was placed to Ryan. She had no idea how a phone could work like that, but this one did. When he had first given this cell phone to her two years ago, she only pressed “send” and his cell would ring. Last year, he told her it now required her to press the number one ten times. She imagined it had been programed to convert the ten presses of one into his real cell number, an exaggerated speed dial that could never be dialed by accident. After the third ring, she got a recorded message.

What the hell? I’ve never gotten a recorded message on this phone. He always answers.

“The person you called is not available at the moment and will not be for several days, perhaps a week, maybe longer. His phone will not ring and it will not accept messages. You will need to place your call again.”

Oh, Shit. . . . Ryan, I need you!

She opened the mini-fridge and took out a tiny bottle of brandy. Without glancing at the brand, she twisted off the cap and downed its content without pause.

Not for a week. Is that week up tomorrow or did it start today?

Linda gulped down a small bottle of vodka as a chaser for the brandy. Then she slammed the mini-fridge shut. She dropped the empty vodka bottle in the trash, and, for a moment, considered throwing Ryan’s cell phone in as well. Instead, she dropped it back into her purse.

Okay, Ryan’s wherever. I’ve got to deal with this.

Linda turned the light off, parted the drapes and looked out the window of her room. After a few minutes, she left the room dark and moved to the chair where the man had made her sit. Where he had shot Steffi face on the piece of wood.

Ryan told her that when things seem to be coming apart, the time must be found to take inventory of the situation with emphasis on what was known. Okay, here goes: Steffi was safe, for tonight anyway. Ryan is . . . not available, for how long she had no idea. The men who have threatened her daughter were scary and efficient. They knew a lot about her and enough about Steffi. That’s what she knew. What she didn’t know was if she’d ever hear from Ryan, if he was safe, if he was alive. Brad had said she wouldn’t see him again, if he was telling the truth about only being a walk-on to deliver a message. She had no idea of the identity of the man who had just left her room. She was on her own, at least for now. Linda Darby against whomever—the world.

I’m screwed.

CHAPTER 5


LATE AT NIGHT, SOMEWHERE IN SYRIA:


Ryan Testler had been in-country nearly seventeen hours. Since his twilight arrival, he’d been on the second highest hill northwest of Aleppo, Syria. He hooked his thumbs inside his waistband like a movie cowboy hitching up his pants, leaned into a rock, and watched the night arm wrestle the day for supremacy of the sky. The day was clearly in retreat, but expected back in the morning for a rematch.

The ravine he was in, on the Aleppo side of the summit, offered a modicum of protection from the steady wind, but no shield from the millions of scattered stars gathering in the darkening sky. Three times, the lights of what appeared to be military trucks approached the hill where he was hunkered down. Once he drew his Glock handgun, but quickly returned it to his holster. It would be all but worthless against armed troops. For this mission, he would rely on guile and evasion, not brute force, well, except for the moment of the assassination. After coming another mile or so, all three times, the troop trucks turned away, apparently following a road not discernible from Ryan’s position. Before dawn, a Syrian helicopter flew over, but it didn’t land or release troops to the ground.

As the hours passed and the morning ripened, he moved into the city of Aleppo where the Israeli Mossad promised to provide the sniper rifle he would need for his mission. The largest city in Syria, Aleppo, had been wasted into a macabre shadow of its once glorious and ancient self. Years of fighting and repeated bombings by the government forces of Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, had left large parts of the once proud city in rubble. The Syrian forces of the Baath party recently reclaimed the portion of the city to which Ryan was headed, after pushing out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The situation in Aleppo was fluid, and which forces controlled which blocks in which neighborhood was constantly subject to change.

By noon, he planned to be registered in an out-of-the-way hotel in a heavily bombed neighborhood on the western fringe of central Aleppo. The hotel was owned by Ahmed El Sayed, a man who quietly claimed he was sympathetic to the plight of Israel while boldly cozying up to whichever forces were in control. The size of El Sayed’s sympathy ebbed and flowed with the size of payments he received from Israeli intelligence. Ahmed El Sayed was a whore with a different product.

Before a fast and quiet Israeli helicopter, flying low in the mixed early night sky, had dropped Ryan inside Syria, there was a lengthy meeting on board an Israeli ship in the Mediterranean. The meeting was principally with a deputy director of the Mossad. Ryan was given a full briefing on his mission, and the opportunity to read their files on selected Syrians. The Mossad asked him at length if he knew or had heard anything about a major terrorist operation, reputed to be an assassination, rumored to occur within the U.S. or inside Israel. The Mossad told him the earliest rumors suggested a timeline that expired last week. More recently, refreshed rumors pointed to a new timeline, sometime in the next two to four weeks. Ryan could contribute nothing, and agreed he would pass along whatever might come his way. The deputy director said he would see Ryan again after his mission, at the debriefing.

One of the specific files Ryan read several times was that of Syrian innkeeper, Ahmed El Sayed. The Arab apparently fancied himself a Middle Eastern Rick Blaine, the fictional character played by Humphrey Bogart in the film Casablanca. The differences between El Sayed and Bogart’s Rick Blaine were endless. As for appearance, the Syrian more resembled Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, than Bogart in Casablanca. Another difference, El Sayed had no patriotism beyond money. He preferred U.S. dollars which he considered to be the world’s primary currency.

Ryan’s contact in the Mossad had him memorize a verbal signal which would identify their agent in Aleppo, along with the confirming reply he was to say in response. Ryan was instructed to expect no contact unless something of a significant nature changed. The plan, as constructed, was for Israeli Intelligence to make no contact other than leaving the rifle he would need in his room the night before the assassination. Still, he would be under observation as often as possible. He was given no description of the Mossad agent. Instead he was told the Israeli agent would know Ryan. That he should anticipate no contact and proceed on his own guts and guile.

The Mossad file on El Sayed reported that to protect his small hotel, the innkeeper had for many years provided European women to high leaders of the warring groups—women who wore much less than the ISIL required dress code of hijab, a body and head cover, together with a niqab, a face covering. El Sayed wanted out of Syria and would sell any information or access he could glom in return for cash to add to his escape fund. Once fiercely loyal to Bashar Al-Assad, El Sayed sold himself to the Mossad after Syrian bombs killed his parents along with his wife and child. His family had been visiting with his parents when Al-Assad’s air force unexpectedly and mercilessly bombed the neighborhood where his parents lived. A direct hit flattened the family home.

El Sayed was reportedly a coward. Ryan was not told how the Mossad knew this, but he was assured it was reliable.

The next segment of Ryan’s plan called for him to alter his appearance. He would change from a scruffy unemployed man of the street to an international businessman. In the morning, El Sayed would provide Ryan appropriate clothing, luggage, and a room key to a suite in the Carlton Citadel Hotel in Aleppo. El Sayed bragged to the Mossad that he could arrange for the room in true Bogie fashion—without Ryan having to meet with anyone from the hotel. This meant El Sayed had paid someone in authority at the Carlton. El Sayed was not unique in Syria except for his level of achievement, which spoke well of his guile at working the angles with opposing forces. Many Syrians had ragged plans to escape at some point, in some way. Many left every day. As a true scrounger and fixer, El Sayed did not intend to follow the hoard of refugees crowding the roads out of Syria. These people all too often ended up with their noses desperately pressed against a Turkish border fence, or the similar barrier to another connecting country. He expected to leave Syria in style, by plane, to a quiet residence in some interim country, not in the Middle East. A country that didn’t ask many questions, and offered peace rather than the cesspool that had become Syria. He would bide his time, let things calm down and then go to his ultimate destination. His ultimate goal, America.

Ryan’s mission was Mostafa Astarabadi, an Iranian nuclear scientist, who was visiting near Aleppo to attend his nephew’s wedding. If Astarabadi didn’t show up where the Mossad said Ryan was to assassinate him, his mission would terminate. He would keep the substantial upfront deposit, but the balance of his fee would not be paid. Zero hour was the day after tomorrow, Sunday, around noon during the party following the cousin’s wedding.


#


Ryan used the back stairs to reach his unregistered room in the Carlton Citadel where he immediately showered, trimmed his beard neat, and cleaned and filed his nails. After secreting the outfit of the down-and-out man of the street under the mattress, he applied cologne, donned some of the clothing El Sayed had provided in a hand-tooled leather suitcase, and became an international businessman.

He pocketed most of the cash he brought with him, leaving one thousand dollars U.S. in the top drawer of the bureau in his room. He took careful note of the exact position of the stack of bills set tightly into the corner of the drawer. The direction of Benjamin Franklin’s face on each of the ten hundred-dollar bills was carefully arranged. The faces of Franklin on the first four bills he turned to face the center of the drawer. The next four Franklins left the paper face turned to the side of the drawer. The last two alternated between the two directions. He carefully positioned three pairs of men’s boxer shorts on top of the stack of bills and gently closed the drawer. If anyone opened the drawer and moved the boxers, they would dislodge the neat stack of bills without knowing they had been precisely set in place. Perhaps even disturbing the sequence of the denominations. Even if the intruder resisted taking the currency, an unlikely event, Ryan would still know his room had been searched.

Ryan placed the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hallway side of the door and went down to the bar. He took a seat at the bar and, as always, went about looking over the people in the room. Before his eyes got their fill, the bartender stopped across from him and rapped his knuckles on the counter. The barkeep mumbled something that Ryan took to mean what’ll you have, he ordered an Al-Chark in the bottle. After downing his first swig, he went back to looking over the patrons.

Along the wall, in a table alone, sat a Frenchman Ryan didn’t know personally, but quickly recognized. Henri Benoit, a man of high position within one of Europe’s oldest major banks. Benoit was a man known in intelligence circles for doing favors for those needing under-the-counter services from a seemingly reputable bank with a multinational footprint. Benoit’s job was to bring that business to his bank and get it done. He was the bagman for the huge cash fees such services required, while insulating the bank’s top executives and shareholders from traceable involvement in the provision of said services. With full exposure, the worst the bank would endure would be possible embarrassment and a fine, both of which it could survive.

U. S., British, and Israeli intelligence agencies knew Benoit’s portfolio of shady customers included ISIL and other terrorist organizations, as well as merchants of illegal drugs and weapons. For this, Benoit received vast sums paid directly to him in addition to the amounts he bagged and brought back to the powers at his bank. He worked only with certain underlings in his bank who knew his orders were never to be challenged. He was a master at crafting the paperwork to obfuscate the movement of monies internationally without complying with national and international banking protocols for reporting the transfers of such sums.

Benoit was a distraction from Ryan’s mission for the Mossad. Despite that, finding Benoit without his big-city layers of insulation and security was an opportunity he couldn’t pass. All field agents must be ready to adapt to unexpected events. Seeing Benoit was such an event. As for the Mossad, they too, could certainly benefit if some avenue could be found to access the kind of information that periodically flowed through this banker. This would certainly be true for the U.S. as well as other countries with which American intelligence information is sometimes shared.

When Benoit returned from the men’s room, Ryan had moved one stool to his left which put him a bit further around the curve of bar, a position that allowed him to glance toward Benoit without having to turn his head. Ryan finished his beer and ordered a second. He continued to surreptitiously watch Benoit, while bringing some shape to a preliminary plan to take advantage of this surprise encounter.

After a while a woman came in. Her back was erect. The color of her mid-length hair was uncertain in the uneven light of the room. She stood at the bar with an empty stool between her and Ryan. Her lips, without lipstick, had rich color. Her breasts lacked prominence, or perhaps, understanding she was in a Muslim country, she chose undergarments to minimize their impact. Her forearms were feminine, yet toned.

The bartender came to her and spoke without the mumble. “Welcome to the Carlton, dear lady. How are you?”

“As good as can be expected. My car died.” She lowered her head, rotating it from side to side to express the frustration of her situation. During one of the rotations, she made eye contact with Ryan. “I’d like a whiskey sour. Please make it with liquid mix, not that powder stuff.”

Ryan continued to look at the bartender while saying, “I’m sure it died with a smile on its grille in return for the joy of escorting such a beautiful woman.”

Their exchange, intended to eliminate any suspicions, was different enough to not be uttered by accident.

Contact.

His instructions were to leave the when and where of further contact up to the Mossad. Something was amiss. Otherwise, this qualifying contact would not have been made. He assumed the eyes of the Mossad had been on him since he arrived in Syria, certainly since he entered Aleppo.

The bartender put her drink on the counter, and wiped its edge with a damp bar towel. She put the back of her hand to her mouth to cover a yawn, and took the drink to the opposite end of the bar. For the moment, Ryan accepted that the Mossad agent had recognized the nattily dressed Benoit. Israeli intel was very aware of the man and his activities.

Benoit was about six-three, as in six feet tall and three feet wide. Impeccably dressed down to the black mouse hanky peeking from the jacket pocket of his black pinstriped gray suit. Gray-speckled hair provided a roof over the half-reading glasses perched low on his thin nose, made narrower by his wide face. Reading glasses were not needed in the Carlton bar, but Benoit chose to look over them rather than remove them. His cufflinks grated on the bar as he dragged his overly full martini glass closer, leaning down to take a first sip.

Ryan raised his own drink, Al-Chark, a local pale lager, while mentally sketching out a first plan for Benoit. Without moving his head, Ryan glanced toward the far end of the bar to confirm the Mossad agent hadn’t left. In the light of the candle on the end of the bar, her well-tanned Mediterranean skin looked as smooth as the sounds from Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and as lusty as John Coltrane on his tenor sax playing Body and Soul.

CHAPTER 6


At nine, Ryan changed back into his coarse street look, did not check out, and left his room at the Carlton, using the stairwell and the back exit to the alley. The cash he had left in the bureau drawer, while he went out the night before, had not been touched. The bills were still wedged smugly into the corner of the top drawer, the sequence of the facings of Benjamin Franklin were unchanged.

Apparently, I’ve not raised any curiosity among the powers in Aleppo.

He made his way back to the hotel of Ahmed El Sayed, who hadn’t asked Ryan his name, choosing instead to simply refer to him as sadiqi—my friend. The file on El Sayed said he also owned a small glassblowing business in the rear of the hotel building. The public access to the shop was around the corner from the street behind the hotel. His connection with it was not publicized. Nonetheless, the protection he bought for his hotel from the government and most of the major warring factions similarly protected his glassblowing business. His payment for the protection was passing on bits of information he was told or overheard from those who frequented his establishment. That and his giving free residence to a small, immodest, and frequently-changing, group of imported European women. Their complimentary rent in return for their entertaining the higher-ups who decided when or if El Sayed’s hotel would be bombed or ransacked.

Ryan walked into Ahmed’s office behind the hotel’s modest front desk. It had no windows and the lights were off. The man’s dark blue eyes looked black in the muted light of the candle on his desk, his sun-leathered face only slightly lighter. His body odor suggested an unbathed wrestler.

“I need access to your glassblowing shop. Where do you keep your annealing oven?”

“In the basement under the shop, sadiqi, but what does my tiny enterprise and its oven have to do with your reason for being in Syria? I use it to make pieces for the hotel and gifts for the powers who keep the hands of their men off my hotel and its guests.”

“You’re best not knowing. You’ll be well paid. Even more if there’s a private way from the hotel into the basement of the shop.”

“There is most certainly. Define well paid.”

“You should’ve been a western capitalist, Ahmed, one without principle. Have you ever worked for the banks? You’d fit right in.”

The Syrian’s mustache hairs straggled down in front of his teeth added a certain texture to his smile. He rubbed the calloused surface of his thumb against the softer pads of his fingers. When Ryan didn’t reply right away, El Sayed raised his eyebrows and repeated the hand gesture for money. The edge of his tongue eased out to wet the adventurous hairs from his mustache.

“I can’t win with you, Ahmed. You’re Syria’s greatest negotiator. “Five thousand dollars for about one hour, perhaps a little longer, of secure use of your shop, plus a little assistance with related matters.”

“American dollars? I did two years of college in the States, Chicago. One day I will return.”

“Yes, U.S. I’ll double it if you can provide within the next hour or so, three things, all of which should be easy, one of which you can give me now. The others within the hour.”

“Double sounds good, but first I must know the nature of . . . these easy things. There are risks I will not take even for you, sadiqi.”

“You’re a valued resource the western governments want safe and in place. The first two’ll be easy for a man of your talents and wisdom. The third will also be easy, but, regrettably, perhaps a little distasteful.”

Ahmed crossed his legs and slowly raked one eyebrow with the dirty fingernail of his little finger.


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