Deal with the Dead: A John Deal Mystery #8

Deal with the Dead: A John Deal Mystery #8

The "unassailable new kingpin of the South Florida crime novel" (James Ellroy) returns with a breathtaking novel of family secrets and murder. With his first five John Deal novels, Standiford ...

About The Author

Les Standiford

Les Standiford is the bestselling author of twenty books and novels, including the John Deal mystery series, and the works ...

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Palm Beach, Florida February 1962

Dracken leaned on his forearms, staring out over the rail of the Polynesia as a dark sedan approached on the dock below, its yellow headlights winding crazily through the maze of stacked cargo, crated machine parts, boats in dry dock, mounded lobster traps—all the who-knows-what of an aging, deserted boatyard jammed along the waterside beneath him. He liked this view, the sense of security it gave him—being the only Indian in the fort, as it were—watching Mr. High-and-Mighty Rhodes having to work his way through the mess to find Butch Dracken.

He smiled at the thought and reached to toss away the cigarette he’d been smoking. The butt twirled lazily down the wedge of cool night air separating Grant Rhodes’ refitted gambling ship from the dockside where she’d been impounded by Dracken’s boss—who happened, these days, to be the sheriff of Palm Beach County.

Dracken, of course, had lived other lives, as had the ship he now stood upon. He’d been a merchant sailor for a time, and while he had never served in that capacity on this vessel, the Polynesia herself had once had a German name and a tramp steamer’s existence: loading coal in Norfolk, to be traded for Norwegian ore in Bergen, that given over for fish oil in Kobe, across to the States again, grain on the West Coast, through the

Canal and back up for the coal on the East Coast, around and around we go, until the ship had gotten too small to be profitable. Dracken knew about nautical matters, sure enough, and his familiarity led naturally to such assignments as this: “Go sit on that frigging boat, Dracken.”

Though the truth was that Dracken had come to detest boats and everything about them. What had once seemed exotic and enticing in his youth now struck him as troublesome and doomed to disappoint. What he had set his sights on these days had a lot to do with staying in one place.

Just like Grant Rhodes had picked the Polynesia out of the scrap yard and given her a second life, that’s what Dracken had in mind. A little horse farm up around Ocala, maybe, a place in the center of Florida that was as far from the water and the snowbirds as it was possible to get and still stay warm most of the year.  He  would like that, he nodded. All he needed was a stake, and his association with Grant Rhodes was about to provide him with that.

What was left of the cigarette struck the side of the canvas- sided companionway and burst in a shower of sparks above the oily water. Fireworks, Dracken thought, as the sedan pulled up to the dockside below. Fireworks was one bit of liveliness he could still abide.

# # #

“Mr. Dracken.” Rhodes’ voice rose through the cool air and up the gangplank toward him.

“I’d pipe you aboard, Lucky,” Dracken called down, “but my pipin’ whistle’s broke.”

Rhodes gave him a tolerant smile as he stepped onto the deck. Dracken knew Rhodes didn’t especially favor the nickname, but circumstances being what they were, what did it matter?

“All the others are gone, then, are they?” Rhodes asked. Dracken nodded. There’d been three of them assigned to the Polynesia: himself and two deputies who Dracken had known would be easy to get rid of. Whyn’t you boys take the rest of the evening off? You can return the favor another night. Their heels had cleared dockside before he’d even finished his sentence.

“Just us chickens,” Dracken said, waving toward the empty decks.

Rhodes gave a sign to the driver who’d accompanied him onto the ship, and the big man walked to the stern of the Polynesia. The big man—some kind of Samoan, he looked like—produced a six-cell flashlight from under his coat and snapped it on. Dracken saw the powerful beam shoot out into the dark harbor. The light blinked a few times and then went out. Soon after, he heard the distant rumble of diesel engines start up.

The big Samoan moved away from the taffrail and came back toward them with his light tucked under his arm. “Go on, now, Julian,” Rhodes said. The big man gave his boss a questioning glance, but Rhodes motioned him on toward the gangway. “I’ll leave in the small boat along with the others,” he said. The big man shrugged and went back down the steps.

Dracken walked to the opposite rail, where one of the Polynesia’s searchlights was mounted, and snapped it on. He ran the bright spot over the surrounding waters until he found the approaching vessel, a medium-sized cabin cruiser that had already cut its engines and was swinging about parallel to his own. Miss Miami Priss was the name painted in gold and black across the stern. Dracken turned to Rhodes.

“Must be a comedown for you, riding a stinkpot like that,” he said.

Rhodes regarded him neutrally. “It’s Barton Deal’s boat, in fact.” “Your builder friend?” Dracken glanced down at the idling cabin cruiser. “This ain’t amateur night, for chrissakes—” “Relax, Dracken,” Rhodes said. “I borrowed the boat. It’s just my men down there.”

Dracken nodded, somewhat reassured. Finally, he snapped off the searchlight beam.

“How much time do we have?” Rhodes asked. The engines of the Priss had died away beneath them, leaving the slop of waves against the Polynesia’s hull.

“Long as you need,” Dracken said, glancing at his watch. “The Feds are supposed to take over tomorrow about nine, sheriff says.”

“We’ll be finished long before that,” Rhodes assured him.

You bet your life you will, Dracken nearly said, but managed to hold his tongue.

# # #

It all took until just after midnight, as it turned out. First, there was the tying off of the Miss Miami Priss and the boarding of the two men of Rhodes’ who piloted her, along with their heavy equipment, a process made all the more difficult by the fact that it had been a while since the Polynesia’s cargo boom and winch had been pressed into service.

Then, after Dracken had discovered that they’d be working below-decks in the forepeak, there had been a bit of a problem starting the generator that fed power to that seldom-used section of the ship. Finally, they were in readiness. though, the four of them moving down a stuffy passageway, Rhodes leading the way, followed by Dracken and the two uncommunicative assistants, dragging their welder’s torches and tanks on dollies.

“In here,” Rhodes said finally, stopping to gesture at a bulkhead door.

Dracken stopped and glanced at the watertight door, then at the water-streaked ceiling above. They were under the Polynesia’s forward decks, he calculated, right about where the forecastle hatch would be. All of his assumptions had proven right so far. He leaned into the heavy wheel handle until it gave, then cranked it open, loosing an ancient smell of fish parts mixed with crushed coal and ocean damp into the narrow passage. He found the lights and switched them on, then stood aside as Rhodes joined him in a spacious, empty compartment.

Dracken glanced up at the hatchway set in the high ceiling above them, then around at the blank walls as the two helpers dragged their torches inside. “Who would ever know?” he said to Rhodes, by way of compliment. Not himself, that much was certain. He’d already combed the ship from stem to stern. No other way to find what he was after than this, not in the little bit of time there was left.

Rhodes gave him a nod of acknowledgment. He walked   to the blank wall opposite and reached to a riveted strip that seemed to join two steel sections of bulkhead. The strip flipped up at Rhodes’ touch, becoming a handle that he used to slide the hidden panel back.

There it was, Dracken saw, set solidly into the real wall of the bulk-head, the ship’s safe, the thing he’d been searching for from the very moment that Rhodes had called about the job. Rhodes’ treasure trove. The mother lode. Dracken’s stake.

“Who would’ve thought?” Dracken repeated.

“Isn’t that the point?” Rhodes said, and something in his tone dug at Dracken, though he could afford to disregard it now.

The two of them stepped aside as the cylinders were set  up, the torches were arranged and popped into life. The assistants—one a cadaverous rail-thin man, the other a stocky sort who looked fresh off the farm—donned their heavy masks and set to work cutting the safe out of the wall.

“Couldn’t you just open the damn thing right here?” Dracken said to Rhodes at one point.

“It doesn’t suit my plans,” Rhodes told him. That same you-don’t-understand-shit tone in his voice. But Dracken simply nodded.

“You’re the boss,” he said.

Rhodes nodded and moved forward to say something to the tall man, who’d paused to flip up his mask and wipe sweat from his streaming face.

Now, thought Dracken, who backed swiftly out the bulkhead door and slammed it closed behind him. He set the outer lock in place, then hurried off down the hallway and made his way through the twisting passageways to the midships cabin where he’d stashed what he needed.

He selected the department-issue Remington pump and his own Browning automatic, a weapon he favored for use  in hunting deer. His friends liked to shoot deer and eat them. Dracken preferred to vaporize them. He’d even taken the BAR along on a fishing trip to the Keys once, had used it to bag—if that was the right word—a tarpon rolling a few feet off the end of a dock where they’d put up. Cornered deer and rolling tarpon, three men-fish in a bulkhead barrel, it was all the same to him. Dracken draped a loaded belt of shells for the Remington over his shoulder—double-oh buckshot—then picked up two extra magazines for the Browning. He was moving quickly, but not carelessly. The three men he’d left behind might manage to cut their way through the bulkhead, given a few hours, but no way they’d be able to manage in the little time they had. He thought about taking along the .45 he usually carried in his duty belt, but decided against it. If he couldn’t finish three trapped men with the two weapons he was carrying, then he ought to turn in his spurs. He made his way up the crew ladder to the foredeck, his weapons cradled in one arm, stopping below the bridge to make sure all was quiet up top. Sure enough, the car that Rhodes had come in was gone, the boatyard back to its graveyard quiet, the surrounding backwaters empty. To the north, the distant lights of West Palm Beach sent a soft boreal glow into the sky, and to the east, a mile or so across the broad intracoastal channel, he saw a few winking lights from the place where the millionaires gathered. Most of them were greedy, cutthroat robber barons, Dracken thought, and the realization gave him fresh resolve. He was not greedy—he aspired to no mansion nor to any exalted status in this life—and he was not so much a robber as a man who was about to relieve a true robber—gambling man Rhodes—of his burden. Dracken smiled and moved quickly over the foredeck to the hatch cover he’d been looking up at just a few minutes before. No need to go to the trouble of moving the whole cumbersome thing. There were a couple of ventilation ports the size of bath- room windows he could open and use, and that would provide better cover anyway…just in case someone had been carrying a pistol he hadn’t spotted.

He bent down and removed the pin from one of the covers and flipped it back, careful to stay out of the line of fire. But there was nothing but silence from down below, that and one thin beam of light arrowed up into the night above the tethered ship. He got on his knees and shouldered the BAR. He edged carefully toward the opening—just far enough to get a quick peek, now—then stopped.

Why would they be dumb enough to leave the lights on? he asked himself. He edged a little closer toward the open hatch and thrust his head up and back, quick as a mongoose strike, just enough time to see, just enough for a glance that chilled him. Two tanks, two idle torches, one closed door, and no men anywhere…

How could that be…, he was thinking, and was about to move forward for another quick glance, just to be sure…

When the heavy flashlight barrel hooked under his chin at the same instant that something—a knee as heavy as a cypress trunk—struck him in the small of his back. Dracken arched up in reflex, a movement that only made the job in progress that much easier. He caught sight of the Samoan’s face, heard the sharp snap echo off the bulwarks on either side of him. He realized, at the same instant that everything went numb: It was the sound of his own spine breaking that he’d heard.

He willed himself to squeeze the trigger of the Browning, even though he had no idea where his aim might lie. The important thing was to go down fighting, he told himself. Die, but take the bastards with you.

He squeezed and squeezed again, or thought he had…but there was only silence in response. And soon there was the darkness, too.

Chapter One

Near Kuşadisi, Turkey

Late August, the Present Day


The amplified voice, accentless, ahuman, rolled from the many banks of speakers stationed around the darkened open-air arena, washing over the crowd like a pronouncement of the gods. The darkness, as well as the answering murmur from the crowd—noise enough to precede a rock star’s entrance onto stage—made convenient cover for Halliday and his men. In such a melee as this, the three had approached the makeshift viewing stand without incident, had dealt efficiently with the guards at the bottom of the tucked-away steps, had made their way up before either of the men on the platform had noticed. By now, Halliday and his companions sported all the proper passes, each in its little plastic pouch, each dangling from its own springy lanyard. The mustachioed Turk stationed near the top of the steps examined their credentials by the wavering glow of outdoor torches ringing the platform, then gave a respectful nod to what he had certified was a media entourage, stepping back to allow the three of them on board.

Ferol Babescu, a fabled international broker who had dealt in every illicit item to cross the black market since Mussolini came seeking arms, was sitting forward on the platform, ensconced by himself in a wicker sultan’s chair that seemed to shudder under the man’s great weight. Or perhaps it was just the growing roar of the crowd that vibrated the stand.

Halliday ignored the sounds behind him, the soft scuffing of the Turkish guard’s sneakers as he left the platform. He stared out in the direction of Babescu’s transfixed gaze—the fat man still unaware—and shook his head at the sight. Something significant seemed to have happened to the world during the time he’d been away, and Halliday was not sure if he understood quite all of it. He had come here for one simple reason, but there had been certain delays, hadn’t there, and now Babescu’s lunatic “festival”—some kind of Woodstock for the new millennium, if Halliday understood properly—was already under way.

Certain things would have to wait. And he could wait, Halliday thought as he surveyed the restless throng below. Waiting was one thing he had managed to learn in his time on the run.

“Quite the turnout, Babescu,” Halliday said at last.

The big man started, his expression reflecting annoyance as he turned to see who had crashed the party. “We need quiet here—” he began, as his gaze traveled to Halliday’s press credentials.

“Not much of a greeting for an old ward,” Halliday said.

Babescu hesitated, then peered more intently through the flickering torchlight. There came a slight parting of his lips as the truth sank in. By the time he had maneuvered his bulk up and out of the chair, his astonishment had overtaken all.

“Halliday…,” Babescu said.

Halliday held a finger to his lips. “Halliday’s no more.”

“It is you, isn’t it,” the big man said, shaking his head in wonder. He paused, and a great smile spread across his features. “I knew it all along, of course. I knew you hadn’t died…  ”

Halliday gave him something of a smile in return. He’d read many of the headlines himself. “Indicted Bond Trader Drowns in Mediterranean.” “Thief Overboard.” “Halliday Dies on Holiday.” So clever, the international press.

Babescu was staring at him, his native conman’s admiration slowly replacing his surprise. After a moment, he cut a glance toward the back of the stage. Wondering what had happened to his bodyguard, Halliday supposed. Wondering who Frank and Basil Wheatley were, moreover. Bulky, great-bellied Basil, and his chiseled bodybuilder brother; an unlikely pair of journalists if there ever were.

“Your man’s gone off,” Halliday explained.

Babescu peered down the steps, still clearly dazed. He shrugged. “Turks,” he said absently, as if that explained everything. He turned back to re-examine Halliday’s altered features. “You look hardly anything the same,” Babescu said, his voice still awed. “You look very good indeed.”

Halliday nodded. “I’m making a fresh start, Babescu.” Babescu was eyeing him now. The crowd was stamping impatiently behind them, anxious for something to begin. Something flamethrower-like, thought Halliday.

“What’s brought you here, then, Michael…?” Babescu broke off. “Or is Michael gone as well?”

“Michael will do for now, Babescu,” Halliday said. He glanced toward the field beneath them, where a great clanking of machinery had been set up.

“Flamethrower!” the announcer’s voice intoned again, echoing all around them.

“Let’s take up business later, shall we?” Halliday told the fat man. “For now, we’ll enjoy the show.”

# # #

There were many, many thousands out there beneath the dark Mediterranean sky, many of them young, many of them Americans. The first to arrive at the International Spectacle of Violent Self-Destruction had taken the choicest seats and were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the broad steps that had once led to one of the more noted temples of Artemis. Behind them, splintered Grecian columns rose up against the inky sky, and before them, on the gently sloping hillside, was spread the bulk of the crowd. Tickets bore a face value of $100 American, though none had been sold at that price for weeks. Scalpers in nearby Kuşadisi were said to have been receiving several times as much in recent days.

There came an earth-gargling rumble then, accompanied by a sudden blast of light, and the noise of the crowd rose. On the flat plain below, where Alexander’s men had once camped and Hadrian’s troops were said to have run mounted races, an odd machine had sprung to life, a tangle of gleaming silver pipes mounted on clanking half-track treads, belching fire from a stainless-steel nozzle the size of a tank cannon as it advanced slowly across the field.

A spotlight mounted on scaffolding erected on the temple site snapped on then, illuminating a wooden peasant’s cottage standing in the path of the lumbering machine a few yards further along. What looked like a man stood in front of the cottage, a rifle upraised. The roar of the machine redoubled, and its fiery plume shot out like a frog’s tongue. The unfurling flame smashed into the figure with the upraised weapon, obliterating it. In the next instant, the cottage itself was engulfed. The thatched roof exploded in a shower of sparks, and the walls seemed to waver in sheets of liquid flame. The crowd bellowed its approval.

“That is some righteous shit,” Basil Wheatley said. “Dead-on righteous,” his brother, Frank, called back.

Halliday glanced at his men. He would not have characterized the two as spiritual in nature. But the expression on their faces, reflecting the flames that still leapt from the walls of the mocked-up cottage and from the smoldering straw stuffed image of a man down below, was unmistakably rapture’s embodiment. Even those two caught up in this madness, Halliday thought. What did that suggest about himself?

“Flamethrower,” repeated the toneless voice of the announcer, booming over the roar of the crowd. “By Andreas Volcansic.”

A second spotlight sprang to life. A man in a black duster and drooping felt hat to match loped onto the field to stand before the now idling machine he had crafted, making a virtuoso’s bow to the cheering crowd. When pasty-faced Volcansic  rose, his hands held high above his head, the crowd’s appreciation reached near ecstasy.

“What do you think?” Babescu asked.

Halliday shook his head. “I’m not sure what to think.” Babescu, who seemed to have recovered his composure, gave

Halliday his Sydney Greenstreet, fat-man-in-the-know smile. “Just see what’s coming next,” he said.

Halliday had read about it in the international papers, of course. It was how he’d learned where Babescu was. The entire enterprise had been dreamed up by his former partner, this unlikely prophet with his finger on the drooping pulse of contemporary youth—or so he claimed—after having happened across some meager version of these proceedings during a visit to San Francisco a year or so before.

“The dark side of the technological universe,” according to the fat man, who had watched two robots constructed of earth- moving machinery tear each other to pieces on an industrial site near the Mission District.

“Most of the bright ones go to work in Silicon Valley and make millions. But there are some—an entire sector of the technologically gifted, I tell you—who will have none of that,” Babescu had been quoted. “Nothing virtual in their reality. I bring the best of them here at the beginning of the millennium and give them all they need to make their art.”

And made a few quid in the process, Halliday supposed, gazing out over the assembled multitudes. Though Babescu was happy to profess an appreciation for things cultural, Halliday suspected that this was as about as close as such urges would get to actual manifestation. Even allowing for some slippage, it was a $5 million gate, and that just the beginning, according to their host. There was cable to think of, worldwide distribution, not to mention next year’s event—anticipation of which would be frenzy-whipped by this year’s audience—that might take place again at Ephesus, on the playing field of the gods…or perhaps in Albania, where Babescu had hinted that the officials were not so fastidious about what might be destroyed.

At the moment, on the field below, a man had stepped into a cylindrical steel cage, which itself was suspended from the boom of a smallish loading crane. The winch of the apparatus engaged with a whine and slowly drew the caged man a dozen feet or so off the ground. “Fire Shower of the Apocalypse,” intoned the announcer, as tongues of flame began to dance around the perimeter of the cage.

The crowd had quieted down during the preliminaries, but the sight of flames seemed to arouse them. A dozen yards from where Halliday stood, a young bare-chested man with half his head shaved bare, half covered with dangling blond locks, stood and began to shout, “Cris-py—cris-py—cris-py!” In moments, the whole crowd had taken up the chant.

The tongues of flame grew and then began to spin, becoming a solid revolving mass as the figure inside the cage was reduced to a motionless shadow.

“Cris-py—cris-py,” the crowd chanted. “Awesome,” Basil Wheatley said.

“Burning-bush awesome,” said his brother.

Halliday glanced at Frank. He’d known there was something familiar about the younger, somewhat better-looking half of the Wheatley team, but now with the unexpected Biblical reference, with the flames and the anticipation of gruesome death animating the man’s face, he could finally see it. Steve Reeves. Of course. All those Italian muscleman films. Hercules. Goliath. Son of Spartacus.

How had it eluded him all these weeks stalking Babescu? Halliday wondered. Whereas older brother Basil, who could easily lift a car end off the ground, was as round as his brother was sculpted and angular, and looked as if he might be more at home scratching his backside in some hillbilly situation comedy. So much for appearances, Halliday thought. Not only had he heard what these two were capable of, he had witnessed it; and for his money, the Wheatleys were the flesh-and-blood equal of the giant cannon they’d watched earlier on their way to Babescu’s reviewing stand, a device that lobbed fifty-five-gallon drums of wet concrete the length of a football field onto the tops of junked-out Turkish delivery vans.

The steel cage, meantime, was flaming like a comet. Eerie shadows danced up the ruined columns, and the chanting of the crowd had transformed into an undifferentiated blood-drinker’s roar. Perhaps slaves had fought with lions on the plain below, Halliday thought. Perhaps these young men and women had picked up ancient vibrations from the weary stones they sat upon. Babescu, his face gone scarlet in the reflected flames, seemed a reasonable representation of a bloated Roman emperor, after all. There was a popping sound then, and the flames extinguished abruptly. Spotlights snapped on, illuminating the dangling, smoldering cage. The door swung open, and something toppled out. Instead of a charred figure tumbling to the ground, however, here was a person making an impossible, gliding descent, tracked by the beams of the spotlights, arms outstretched, a colorful cape billowing in its wake.

A man unscathed by flames, Halliday realized, tethered now to a cable that stretched over the top of the gaping crowd. The man whizzed past the makeshift reviewing stand with a grin, and moments later came to rest atop the temple steps, where he bowed to the roaring crowd.

“Fire Shower of the Apocalypse,” repeated the dispassionate voice of the announcer. “Kaia Jesperson.”

Not a man at all, Halliday realized as the caped figure snatched off the cap that had shielded her long dark hair from the flames. High cheekbones, eyes dark and flashing as that great mane of hair. Halliday heard the cheering strengthen from the throng that covered the steps, and felt what the mob was feeling. They’ll have her on the spot, he understood. Ravage her to pieces and howl above the scraps for more.

In the next moment, as if whoever was in charge of choreography knew exactly what thoughts might be afloat among the masses, the powerful spotlights were extinguished. When they came on again, Kaia Jesperson had vanished. Halliday glanced at Babescu: his fat imp’s grin, his hands splayed atop his great, quivering gut in a parody of satisfaction.

“The stuff of life itself,” Babescu said. “Amen,” said Frank Wheatley.

And the crowd roared on.

# # #

An hour or so later, the last of the crowd dispersed, the bizarre machinery hushed, Babescu sat in his wicker sultan’s chair, staring over his brandy glass at Halliday, who leaned casually with his back to the railing of the stand. “You might have let me know, Michael…”

Halliday shrugged. “Discretion and all that.” “I’d have never let it slip—”

“Not intentionally, perhaps.”

Babescu’s expression was hurt. “I’ve known you since you were born. I’ve taken care of you like a father. No one could have gotten it out of me.”

Halliday nodded, as if the line of discussion bored him. He glanced down at the darkened field below. Except for Frank and Basil Wheatley, who had gone off to inspect the now quiet mechanism of the Fire Shower of the Apocalypse, the grounds appeared deserted. Frank was poking about the controls of the converted front-end loader, while Basil had climbed into the cage itself. He stood with his hands grasping the bars in parody of the desperate inmate. The two were familiar with heavy equipment, being the sons of a New Jersey scrap-metal dealer, a man who’d made a comfortable living buying and selling surplus materials of dubious origin. Halliday turned his gaze back to Babescu, who might have seen some inquiry in his eyes.

“We have made history here tonight,” Babescu said. “I have afforded these inventors opportunities they would never have found elsewhere.”

“Babescu, the cultured thief,” Halliday said. “You’ve watched The Maltese Falcon too many times, I think.”

Babescu gave Halliday a glance, uncertain of his tone. An engine kicked to life in the distance and Halliday saw that Frank Wheatley had started the engine of the machine that maneuvered the Fire Shower of the Apocalypse.

“Those two had best be careful,” Babescu observed. “It’s a delicate apparatus. The owner is fastidious.”

Halliday watched as the machine swiveled toward the plat- form, Basil grinning out at them from behind the bars of the swaying cage. “You couldn’t have picked a more appropriate audience,” Halliday said. “These men appreciate what heavy equipment can do.”

Babescu glanced doubtfully at the growling machine, then turned back to Halliday. “You didn’t come here just for the spectacle, Michael.”

“True,” Halliday said, watching the machine inch its way toward them.

“And this physical transformation,” Babescu added. “Just what scheme have you cooked up now?”

“No more schemes, Babescu,” Halliday said. “I’m coming back to life, that’s all.”

Babescu seemed to read something into his tone. He stared levelly back, ignoring the advancing machine. “You understand that I control everything in this part of Turkey, don’t you?”

Halliday nodded. “Of course. Money talks, Babescu.”

Babescu seemed mollified. He settled back in his chair. “Then why not get to the point,” he said.

There was a grinding noise from the machine, and Babescu glanced away. “If they damage that device, they’ll be required to pay.”

Halliday stood and walked to the end of the platform, watching as Frank nudged at the controls of the machine, sending the cage into a wobbling arc. “Asswipe!” called Basil to his brother.

“Asswipe in a gilded cage,” Frank called back. Their insults echoed off the nearby hillside.

“There are men who find themselves drawn to return to prison,” Babescu said after a moment. “They find themselves uncomfortable, walking around free.”

“I’m not one of them,” Halliday said.

“And what is it you want from me?” Babescu put his brandy glass down on a nearby copper table and laced his fingers over his gut.

“Just what’s due me, Babescu.” Halliday gave him a meaningful look. “I want my money, now.”

Babescu drew a breath that sounded something like a sigh. “There is no money, Michael. I sent word to you—”

Halliday dismissed the words with a wave of his hand. “Of course you did. Had the tables been turned, I might have done the same.”

Babescu shook his head. “I assure you—”

“We’ll forget about the trading accounts that you had access to—”

“What wasn’t seized by the U.S. government was worthless,” Babescu protested.

“I’ll settle for the proceeds of my father’s trust. If you passed along a quarter million a year to me, it probably paid twice as much. We’ll figure the equity at ten million even, and let the interest go.”

“The trust was seized as well.” Babescu’s eyes were glittering, perhaps from anger, perhaps from fear.

Halliday nodded as if he expected all this. He leaned forward, his hands braced on his knees. “Ten million dollars, Babescu.  I want it now.”

Babescu shook his head. “You’re being unreasonable.” The fat man glanced down the stairway behind him, perhaps looking for one of the mustachioed Turks Halliday had dealt with earlier: half a dozen dark-skinned men, all of them with stares that could shatter glass.

“You’ve spent every cent, the truth be told. Money I entrusted to you. Money my father entrusted to you…”

Babescu’s eyes widened. “We’re partners, Michael. As were your father and I before you. I’ve made investments on your behalf, that’s all—”

Halliday shook his head. The fact that his father had trusted Babescu all those years had allowed Halliday to do the same. Honor among thieves, he thought, shaking his head bitterly. Stupidity seemed the true currency.

“I want my money, Babescu.”

“And you’ll have it back, ten times over…in time.”

Halliday stared at him for a moment, forcing himself to calm. He sat back in his chair, noting that Frank had raised the dangling cage to its fullest height, was dropping it back down in a series of jerking movements while Basil shouted threats from between the bars.

Halliday glanced over at him. “I’m taking over,” Halliday said evenly. “Everything you’re invested in. I’m taking back what’s mine.”

Babescu glanced up sharply, and in that unguarded moment, Halliday saw the cruelty that lay behind the carefully crafted façade. In an instant, though, the saturnine smile was back, and Babescu was rising to his feet as if he simply needed to stretch his legs. An unusually graceful move for a man so bloated, Halliday was thinking.

Babescu’s hand was going inside his coat. His other made a gesture toward the shadows, where earlier Halliday had seen the men stationed.

At the same moment, Frank Wheatley gave a yank on the controls of the Fire Shower of the Apocalypse, sending the steel cage hurtling toward the platform. The dangling cage, with Basil still inside, smashed through the flimsy railing like a wrecking ball, then drove itself into Babescu with a thud that vibrated the decking beneath Halliday’s feet.

The fat man went down with a groan, the pistol he’d intended to draw skittering across the deck to Halliday’s feet. Halliday glanced at the weapon, then kicked it over the side.

The fat man was struggling onto his hands and knees, his eyes glassy. Basil Wheatley had already jumped down from the dangling cage, steadying it with one meaty hand, while Frank played out cable until its floor rested solidly on the deck.

In an instant, Basil was across the reviewing stand to drive a fist into the fat man’s broad back, just above the kidney. He drew back quickly and sent another to the base of Babescu’s skull. There was a dull popping sound, and Babescu collapsed to the deck as if he’d been shot.

Basil snatched the fat man by the collar of his white coat and dragged him toward the cage. He jerked open the door of the cage with one hand, lifting Babescu inside as if he were stuffed with feathers.

Basil slammed the door to the cage, then gave his brother the thumbs-up. In moments the cage was dangling half a dozen feet in the air, Babescu’s corpulent face pressed into furrows by the steel bars.

“You stole from me,” Halliday said.

Babescu blinked down at him, then out into the darkness where he’d stationed his bodyguards. Bodyguards so recently retired. Indeed, Halliday thought, money did talk.

“For God’s sake, Michael,” Babescu managed.

“You took advantage when I was in a position of weakness,” Halliday replied.

“I’ll make calls,” Babescu said. He struggled to pull himself upright, but his legs seemed unwilling to obey. “I’ll see that you get everything that’s yours, and interest besides.”

“This isn’t a banking transaction,” Halliday said. He turned to Basil. “Give him the documents.”

Basil motioned to Frank, who cranked the cage down a foot or two. Basil stepped forward, thrust a sheet of paper and a pen between the bars.

“What is this?” Babescu asked blearily.

“The item requires your signature,” Halliday said.

“We could have reasoned out these matters, Michael,” Babescu said, a plaintive note in his voice.

“Sign,” said Basil Wheatley, rocking the cage with his hand. Babescu scribbled his signature and handed the document out to Basil, who passed it along to Halliday. Halliday scanned the document, then folded it into his pocket.

“You want us to clean this mess up now?” Basil Wheatley said to Halliday, wrinkling his nose at a foul odor that had drifted over the stage.

Halliday nodded curtly, then started for the steps. “Wait,” Babescu called. “If it’s money you want—” Halliday kept moving.

“Your father’s trust, Michael… for God’s sake…”

Halliday paused, his hand on the railing that led down from the stage. The fat man reached out to grasp one of the blackened bars of the cage and was pulling himself forward. “It’s gone, Babescu. You told me so yourself.”

Babescu shook his head hastily. “More money than you’ve dreamed of,” the man said. “I know where it is.”

Frank and Basil exchanged glances, clearly impatient to get on with their business. Halliday froze the pair with a glance, then turned back to Babescu. “If there was cash to be had, you’d have spent it. I think we’ve learned that much.”

Halliday signaled to Frank, who threw a lever on the control panel before him. The machine groaned with Babescu’s weight, but the cable still began to coil, lifting the cage higher, inch by relentless inch.

“I couldn’t get at it!” Babescu cried. “Damn it, man, listen to me!”

Halliday raised his hand and the rising cage creaked to a stop. The fat man was slumped back against the bars like a hippo without a spine, his jowls gray and sagging, as if his flesh had begun to melt. “I can’t move my legs,” he said, as if he’d forgotten what he’d just been saying.

“The trust, Babescu,” Halliday said, mimicking the fat man. “Or perhaps you’re lying,” he continued as Frank Wheatley gunned the engine of the heavy machine.

“I’m not,” Babescu said quickly. “It’s all there. I’m certain of it.”

“You can produce all this?”

Babescu stared down at him. The whites of his eyes were yellowed now, and spidered with lacy red. “The trust resides in Miami,” the fat man said. He thrust his hand into his jacket pocket and came out with a wallet. He fumbled with the wallet for a moment, then produced a key. “In a vault,” he said, tossing the key toward Halliday.

Halliday snatched the key out of the air. He glanced at Basil Wheatley then back at Babescu, regarding him thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t be there if you could have gotten at it. Tell me the story, Babescu. Quickly!”

The fat man’s mouth opened and closed twice before the words began to issue. “Your father and I…” he managed, “we had something of a falling out just before he died.” Babescu waved his hand as if it hardly mattered. “He revoked my right of trusteeship.”

Halliday’s nostrils flared. “Just a detail you’d neglected to pass along.”

“The last time you and I met, we hardly had time for a heart to heart,” Babescu said, his breathing ever more labored.

True enough, Halliday thought. He’d been tipped by informants within the Justice Department as to what was coming, but even so, he’d had less than a week to convert what assets he could and still make it out of the country. Eight years he’d been on the run, and no glittery residences for him, either. The glorious watering holes, those were the first places they came looking for you when they wanted their money back. Then the agonizing months of surgery, in and out of one clandestine clinic and another…And then the money had run out. And he’d had enough. He’d paid for what he’d done and more. He was going to live again, and nothing was going to keep him from it.

“Who has access to this vault?” Halliday said.

Babescu shook his head, staring down at the front of his trousers where a dark stain had spread. “I need medical attention, Michael. Immediate medical attention.”

“You’ll get it,” Halliday said. “Who has access? A Miami law firm? One of your dubious CPAs?”

Babescu shook his head. “Your father wasn’t one to trust organizations, Michael.”

“Tell me, Babescu. Tell me, and I’ll see that you’re attended to.” Babescu stared back at him, the expression on the fat thief’s face perhaps the most candid Halliday had ever seen. “I’d have never stolen from your father,” he said, his voice a ruin.

“But you are willing to steal from me?” Halliday said. “Give me the name, Babescu. Let’s get this over with.”

Babescu hesitated, then turned away as he spoke. “Barton Deal,” the fat man said, defeat evident in his tone. “DealCo Construction. Your father’s old friend.”

Halliday paused. “Barton Deal is dead, Babescu. He shot himself years ago.”

Babescu turned back, defiant suddenly. “Barton Deal’s the man Grant Rhodes gave his money to. And I haven’t received a penny since he died. If you’re interested, go to Miami and look for it. Now get me out of here.”

Halliday stared at the fat man thoughtfully, then finally nodded. “That I will,” he said. He put the key in his pocket, then turned to Frank Wheatley and gestured. Frank grinned and pressed a button on the console before him. There came a faint popping noise, and tiny blue tongues of flame began to dance about the perimeter of the cage, a lacework of flame that quickly grew to red and gold, and finally to a white hot storm.

# # #

“You want us to put it out?” Basil Wheatley asked.

Halliday, Rhodes, stared up at the swaying fireball and past it, noting that the tips of the ruined temple once again glowed red in the reflection of the Fire Shower’s flames. There had been no spinning cylinder of fire this time. Just the flames and the screaming and the eventual near-silence, as now.

“Let it take care of itself,” he said.

Basil nodded and motioned his brother down from the control panel of the machine. “He says to let it go.”

Frank nodded and clambered down from the seat of the machine. He glanced up at the glowing cage as he joined Halliday and his brother on the platform. “I’d have shot the fat fuck out of that cannon,” he said. “See what happens to one of those trucks when a tub of guts like that hits it.”

“Doubt we could have got him squeezed down the barrel,” Basil observed.

Frank nodded, glancing up at the cage. “What’s fat and burned to a crisp?” he asked of no one.

“You ought to learn better jokes,” Basil said to his brother. “What was that?” Halliday asked, pointing out over the platform steps, where he was sure he’d heard movement in the shadows.

In the next moment, Basil had knocked him off the side of the steps. He felt his breath go out of him as he hit the ground, realized that Basil was on top of him, shielding him with his thick body. Frank had already leaped down from the platform and was off into the darkness, his footsteps thudding rapidly away. Halliday heard a cry, then a groan, the sound of bodies falling several yards distant. He struggled up, but Basil held him back. “Sit tight,” Basil said. Halliday saw the glint of a pistol in his bodyguard’s hand.

In moments, Frank was back, a struggling form in a black cape tucked under his arm. “Look here, would you?” he said, jerking the cape back.

Halliday had pulled himself up by the railing of the steps. He blinked in the darkness, his eyes focusing on the captive Frank Wheatley held. The flashing eyes, the great mane of hair to match. As haughtily beautiful as he’d surmised. Perhaps more so, observed this close.

“You can let her go,” he said to Frank.

Frank hesitated. Halliday glanced at Basil, who nodded at his brother.

The woman stood, shrugging her cape back into place around her shoulders. She looked at Halliday, then up at the cage. The flames, though still formidable, had begun to languish.

“That’s my machine?” she said, her chin thrust forward. “Who do you think you are?”

“How long have you been here?” Halliday asked.

She stared back, gauging him. “Long enough,” she said at last. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Someone else Babescu screwed.” She glanced up at the cage. Something in that gaze, Halliday saw. “Too bad for him,” she added.

Halliday hesitated. He glanced at Basil, who regarded the woman as he might a rock or a tree, or a bale of aluminum scrap. Halliday was a man well used to making rapid calculations.

There were risks worth taking and those that were not. He had another look at Kaia Jesperson, then turned to his bodyguards. “Babescu left us a bit of brandy, didn’t he?” he said to Basil.

It took Basil a moment to understand that Halliday was serious. “The bottle’s on the platform,” he answered finally.

Halliday nodded and turned to the woman at Frank Wheatley’s side. It seemed the perfect time to reclaim the identity that had once been his. Just as it was time to reclaim the money that was his as well. Bond trader Michael Halliday was dead. Let him stay dead. He was Grant Rhodes’ son. And he would get what was owed him.

“My name is Richard Rhodes, Miss Jesperson.” His tone was firm but untroubled, as though they might have been standing in the lobby of the Ritz. “Perhaps you’d be willing to join me for a drink.”

She stared back at him as if she’d expected the invitation all along. She flicked her gaze to Basil and to Frank, then to Rhodes, her expression neutral. “What do I have to lose?” she said. The way she lifted her chin made the words seem almost like a dare.

“Nothing,” Rhodes said. “Nothing at all.” She shook her dark hair then and came on.

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