Authors: Wallace Stroby
Thank you for buying this
St. Martin's Press ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
Fear begins where desire ends.
This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.
âAl Capone, interview with journalist Claud Cockburn, Chicago, 1930
With dusk, the setting sun turned the ocean to fire. Crissa stood on the balcony and looked out across the hills, the houses there almost hidden by the trees. Through the haze, she could see all the way out to the beach and the amusement pier, the darkening water beyond. Up here, the traffic noise from Santa Monica Boulevard was just a hum.
A breeze stirred the trees below, the scent of night-blooming jasmine rising up. She looked down over the ornate marble railing. A thirty-foot drop and a flagstone patio there, surrounded by a lush garden, willow trees. A stone fountain in the middle, water tinkling gently.
“Million-dollar view,” Hicks said behind her.
She turned as he came out on the balcony. The French doors were open, the curtains moving in the breeze.
“More than that, I'd guess,” she said.
He was in his early thirties, lean and fit, dark hair cropped short, a two-days' growth of beard. He'd been waiting for her when she'd walked out of the terminal at LAX and into the afternoon heat. She hadn't been happy when she saw the car, a gleaming black four-door Jaguar. A vehicle like that would stick out, turn heads. But she'd kept her mouth shut as he put her overnight bag in the trunk, held the passenger door for her.
He'd worn a shirt and tie at the airport but now was in stone-washed jeans, a tight black T-shirt. There was a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, a green-and-red snake curled around a dagger.
“He's ready to see you now,” he said. “I mean, if you're ready.”
She looked west again. The sun was all but gone, the gardens below and the trees downslope lost in shadow. The boulevard was a long line of red taillights.
She followed him through the doors and into a big room with an oak worktable in its center, paintings on the walls, the domed ceiling lost in shadow.
She stopped in front of a lithograph of a wolf, its head back, howling into darkness.
“You know art?” he said.
She shook her head.
“But you know what you like?”
They went down a flight of stairs to a marble-floored room, a stone fireplace on one side, a grand piano on the other. Art on all the walls, sculptures on pedestals. There was another set of open French doors, the breeze coming through, bringing the smell of the garden.
The man who came in from the balcony was in his late sixties, longish white hair combed straight back, beard neatly trimmed. He wore a white suit, a pale pink silk shirt open at the neck. His cane tapped the floor as he approached. It was gnarled and thick, would be a weapon in the right hands.
“I'm sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “Some last-minute business to attend to before I was free to talk.” He gave a small smile, extended his hand. “I'm Emile Cota. Thank you for coming.”
She took his hand, saw the liver spots, felt the thin skin, the bones beneath. He waved the cane at a trio of wide, cushioned club chairs around the fireplace. “Shall we sit? Talk? Randall, can you find Katya, have her pour some drinks for us? She's back there in the pantry somewhere. Macallan for me andâ¦” He looked at her.
“Nothing, thanks,” she said.
“As you will. But please, sit.” He swept a hand toward the chairs, the stone-and-wood coffee table there. Hicks left the room.
She looked around, not liking what she saw. A house like this, with so much art, would have hidden cameras, alarms. Maybe a room somewhere with CCTV screens, someone watching.
“What's wrong?” he said.
“I'm not sure this is a good idea.”
“You haven't heard what I have to say yet.”
“I meant coming here.”
“But you have, haven't you? So, let's build from there.”
She took the chair closest to the door. He waited for her to sit, took the center one himself, facing her at an angle. He laid the cane across his lap. “I appreciate your agreeing to meet like this.”
There was nothing to say to that. And nothing she could do to speed him up. He'd tell it in his own time.
“You come highly recommended,” he said. “At least as far as our friend in Kansas City is concerned.”
That was Sladden, the contact man she sometimes used as a go-between. It was Sladden's call that had gotten her out here. The details he'd given had been minimal, but enough to whet her interest. More than a year since she'd last worked, and she was bored, restless.
“So, Ms. Wynn, is it? How do you prefer to be addressed?”
Christine Wynn was the name she was using here, the one Sladden had given him. It was on the driver's license and credit cards she carried.
“Christine's fine,” she said.
Hicks came back into the room, holding a short, square glass with brown liquid, a single ice cube inside. He swirled the drink, took the chair to Cota's left. In his wake came a blond woman in a white smock, carrying a silver tray. She was in her forties, attractive in a hard way, hair tied back. On the tray was a drink identical to the one Hicks had, a bottle of scotch with a blue label, an ice bowl with tongs, and a green bottle of Perrier.
She set the tray on the table without a word, unscrewed the Perrier cap.
“I had her bring that anyway,” Hicks said. “Thought you might want to hydrate after your trip.”
“Thanks,” Crissa said. She didn't touch it. Her hands were bare, and she wouldn't chance fingerprints.
Cota said, “Thank you, Katya. I think we'll be fine for the rest of the evening.”
She cut a glance at Crissa, then left the room. Crissa watched her go.
“Ms. Wynn was just telling me she wasn't altogether comfortable coming here,” Cota said. “I'm hoping to reassure her.”
Hicks nodded, sipped his drink.
“Feel free to talk,” Cota said to her. “Randall here is my
so to speak. He's an employee in the strictest sense. But I trust him like a son. He knows all my business.”
“Who lives here?” she said.
“Just myself. I have visitors from time to time, but no one stays very long.”
“What about Katya?”
“This monstrosity has more than its share of guest rooms. She stays here three or four days a week. I get along on my own the rest of the time.”
“Should have given her the night off,” Crissa said.
“Ah,” Cota said. “It crossed my mind. But Katya has worked for me for many years. I'm sure she's learned to forget what she sees here. Not that there's ever much to see.” He lifted his glass, tilted it at her and drank.
“All this art,” she said. “You must have a security system. I'm guessing the house is wired for sound. Video, too.”
“Alarmed, yes. Wired, no. I certainly wouldn't want a permanent record of everything that goes on in this house, would I?” He smiled.
“I know I wouldn't,” Hicks said.
“There's no need to worry on that front, believe me,” Cota said. “And we're just getting acquainted here anyway.”
He had a faint accent she couldn't place. European, but sanded down by years in the States.
“How was your flight?” Hicks said, and grinned.
“It was fine.” Returning the undercurrent of sarcasm in his question. They hadn't known where she was coming from, only when she would arrive.
“I'd offer you dinner,” Cota said. “But I gather you're the type that would rather talk business, and not fuss around with social amenities, am I right?”
“Reason I'm here.”
He set the glass down, used the tongs to drop another ice cube into it.
“This is thirty years old,” he said. “If you're someone who appreciates a fine single malt, I'd recommend you try it.”
“Thanks anyway.” She drank little, almost always wine, and never when working. For her, the work had started the moment she'd left the terminal and seen Hicks waiting there.
“I admire the care you take,” Cota said. “It speaks well of you. I'm sure you were concerned when I suggested we meet here, at my house. But I'm a public person. I'm occasionally recognized on the street, when I have the rare occasion to be out there. And we couldn't very well meet at a bar or a hotel or wherever these types of discussions are traditionally conducted. Also, I wanted to meet you face-to-face. I didn't want to send just Randall here, for example. I wanted you to see me, know exactly who you were dealing with. I owed you that much.”
“I appreciate it.”
“So it made more sense to have him meet you at the airport, bring you directly here. And anyway, I expect you did quite a bit of research about me before you boarded that plane in the first place.”
“Then you know who I am, and what I am. Some of what you've undoubtedly read is true, and a lot of itâI assure youâisn't, butâ¦” He shrugged. “What can you do?”
“I'm here,” she said. “That tells you something.”
“It does. It does. Say we take a stroll, out into the garden perhaps? Would that make you feel better? I think it would, wouldn't it?”
“Up to you.”
He sipped scotch, put the tip of his cane against the floor, and got slowly to his feet, his face showing the effort. Hicks watched him but made no move to help.
“Randall,” Cota said, “we'll be taking the air. Amuse yourself.” Still carrying the glass, he tipped the cane toward another doorway. “After you.”
They went downstairs into an even larger room, more art on the walls, through French doors and into the garden. There were key lights out there now, lining a path, and she could see small statues every few feet, the greenery cut back around them. Flute-playing Pans, satyrs, cherubs, mourning women. There were lights in the fountain, too, giving the water a soft blue glow. In its center was a statue of a muscular naked man, one arm extended, a leg raised behind him as if he were in flight.