In the world of espionage and free-lance justice, there are things you can't afford to forget.
Never start a job without a cash down payment, and know where your weapons are before the action starts.
Sam asked me to look into a missing persons case for a friend, a.k.a. the sister of a realtor he met at a cocktail party thrown by Veronica before their gig went south. The woman's name was Lily Feliciani, and she cried for the duration of Sam's two mojitos, claiming her husband hadn't come back from a business trip to Havana last week.
I had the feeling that her money was the key to Sam's interest in her, and not her self-proclaimed devastation over her missing husband.
"He's probably a drug smuggler, you realize that," I said on the ride back.
"So what? We'll find him, and if he's alive she'll be grateful, and if not then she'll be one step closer to cashing in on his estate."
"You're a real humanitarian, Sam, you know that?"
"Just doing my part."
I went down to Feliciani's Imports the next day, posing as a Russian who dealt in traditional village handicrafts:
"Is all very popular now. Matryoshki—all kinds, Khokhloma wood-painting, folk-art pictures from Ukraine, you name it, I get it for you, no problem—excellent price. Please to speak to manager now, yes?"
Fiona came in halfway through my schtick and pretended to look at jewelry and Japanese kimonos while casing the layout of the store.
"Look, buddy, we already have a contact for that region." Feliciani's fill-in at the office was half manager and half bodyguard, with all the patience of a loan shark collecting a debt.
"Is good to have backup—things change. I leave you business card, you need, you call." I laid the card down and backed out, cheesy grin intact.
"Excuse me, is there a restroom?" I heard Fi ask with her usual persuasion, as I slipped around the corner.
Sam was already at the loft when I got back, beer in one hand and Coast Guard data in the other. "Disappearance looks real," he said. "The guy passed through the final patrol area six days ago, no return since then."
I hung up the jacket I'd worn as Vladimir Goretj. "What about by air?"
"Nothing, at least not under his own name. Though the police could have found this out easily enough, so why hire us? Not that I'm knocking the money."
"Drug money. Did you even ask her why she didn't go to the police?"
"Something about needing him found sooner than later, before something really bad happened to him."
"Or making sure it did. Jesus, Sam—are we sure Feliciani even has a wife?"
After Internet research and a call to one of Sam's F.B.I. contacts, the answer was No.
"Well, this is awkward…" Sam said.
"Not as awkward as flushing out a guy so someone can kill him."
"I meant the part about being caught between a murder plot and a guy who probably deserves it."
Fi's news offered logistics on the building, but no clues as to what we'd gotten involved in. "We could always break into the place and turn something up," she suggested.
Sam shook his head. "I say we go back to the would-be widow and find out more about her."
The phone rang, and I motioned for silence. "Hello."
"Your Aunt Betty came all the way from Cleveland, and where have you been? Two days and we haven't seen you, Michael!"
"So you'll be here for dinner tonight? At six?"
I could practically hear her cigarette jabbing the air. "Fine. Six o'clock it is," I said.
"Bring dessert. Something nice, from a bakery."
The place between my eyes started to throb. "Okay, Mom. Gotta go. Goodbye." I hung up.
"Let me guess, I wasn't invited," Sam said.
I shrugged. "Neither was I. It's a command performance." I had about three hours left before the drive out to Mom's. "If you handle Lily's background, I'll see what I can dig up on our missing merchant."
Fi headed off to meet an arms dealer, and Sam and I went our separate ways. He called two hours later.
"I followed the fake missus to a nail salon and a dress boutique, but now she's at The Palm Portal having drinks with Julio Diamante and trying to hide in the tourist crowd."
It sounded like we'd found the real source of the sudden interest in Feliciani. It didn't surprise me. "Feliciani started importing from Central America five years ago, and upgraded from a condo to a mansion a year after that. Looks like business suddenly got good," I said.
"And Diamante's the second-largest kingpin in the drug trade around Miami…"
"So why not knock off some of the competition?" I finished.
"I'm sorry I got you involved in this, Mikey," Sam said. "I thought it was legit. So what next?"
"Call Lily and tell her we haven't come up with anything, and she's better off going to the police."
"Is that it? Don't we have to return her money?"
Thank god we hadn't asked for a down payment. "She hasn't paid us anything yet, so we're good."
Sam hung up, and I stopped by La Patisserie du Soleil to find dessert before heading over to Mom's. We were two-thirds of the way through one of the most excruciating meals I've ever had when my cell phone rang.
I checked the Caller ID. "Excuse me," I said, moving into the kitchen to take the call. "Everything okay, Sam?"
"Depends on how you feel about a group of angry customers who want you to finish the job."
"Yeah, well, I like basketball myself," Sam offered casually.
Five people. "And what do they want? Am I supposed to make an appearance?"
"Sure, come join the party. We'll have a blast."
It sounded like he wanted me to bring our resident demolitions expert too. "Give me an address, we'll be there."
Mom was furious that I was leaving, but what else was new? I called Fi from the car, and she offered to bring enough ammunition to save me a trip back home. I knew she was good for it. We arranged a rendezvous point.
"Twenty minutes, outside the IHOP on Biscayne Boulevard," she said. It would take her almost that long just to make the drive. I've often suspected Fi keeps pre-packed weapons kits around for exactly this kind of occasion.
Fi was already waiting when I arrived. We parked in the back and worked up a strategy for rescuing Sam, then took Fi's car to the address Sam had given me. Fi pulled into the alley behind the house and loaded up. I went around to the front, while she crept into the bushes and waited for the chance to launch a surprise attack through the back.
They probably saw me coming, but I rang the bell just in case. By the time the door opened, I'd already pulled the pins on a couple of flash grenades.
"Special delivery." I tossed the grenades in and turned away as they went off.
"Sonofabitch!" the doorman complained, as I drew my gun and slipped past him, looking for Sam.
I heard a crash—probably Fi breaking in—but kept going. We only had a few seconds before the effects of the flash cleared away. After that, all hell would break loose.
Someone called out, "Hey, where's that beer I ordered? The service here is lousy."
Now that helped. Sam was off to the left, less than twenty feet—
"No tip for you."
— ten feet ahead of me. I homed in on the orange Hawaiian shirt, and knelt down to cut through the duct tape fastening his ankles to the chair and binding his wrists behind him.
"Ready to go?"
"You lead, I'll follow."
I headed for the back. The front was easier, but the getaway car mattered more and we had to synch up with Fi anyway.
She joined us in the kitchen, next to an open door. "Leaving so soon?" she pouted. "I was hoping to try out the new Sig."
"Next time," I promised, hustling Sam out to the car while she covered our exit. He and I piled in quickly, and Fi slid into the driver's seat with her gun still trained on the house.
She started the ignition just as Diamante came stumbling out of the house with a shotgun. "Bastards!" he shouted, cocking the gun and aiming it.
"Hit the gas!" I yelled, grabbing the wheel as Fi fired off a shot. I saw Diamante fall as the car lurched forward, and Fi kept shooting as we sped off down the alley.
We turned onto the street without braking, and rounded the corner just as quickly. Fi traded her gun for the steering wheel, smoothly shifting into traffic and zig-zagging down various streets until we were all but untraceable.
Sam shook out his neck and cleared his throat. "I suppose the grenades were Fi's idea."
"You're welcome, Sam," she purred. "Or were you enjoying being a hostage? Oh, and I think we've solved the question of whether you can walk away from the job, now that Diamante's gone, don't you think?"
"Yeah, yeah," Sam muttered. "You guys did good."
"Damn right, we did," I said. No injuries on our side, no damage to Fi's car, and no-one put a gun to my head or forced me out of a helicopter. "I think someone owes us dinner."
"Well, dinner for Fi and dessert for me. And a big alcohol tab."
"Fine," Sam said. "We'd better go by my place then, so I can pick up some money. Damn punks stole my wallet..."
We stopped off at Sam's. I went inside with him, checking the entrance and clearing the interior, while Fi stayed outside and discreetly moved weapons back into the trunk. Sam upgraded to a light blue shirt that was practically subtle, and slapped Neosporin on the
parts of his arms that the duct tape had left raw.
"This one hurts, I've gotta tell you," he said. "Could've used the cash."
"You and me both. Next time, run the background check."
Sam winced. "Yeah. Don't know what I was thinking..."
An hour later, we were enjoying the food and drink at La Provence.
"A friend of mine knows someone who might need our services," Fi announced.
Sam and I looked at each other. "Information up front, and don't agree to anything until we've checked them out," I said.
The chocolate bombe I'd ordered was incredible, but even better between sips of Grand Marnier.
My phone rang, and I checked the Caller ID before stuffing it back in my pocket.
"Aren't you going to get that?" Sam asked.
"Not right now." I stole a bite of Fi's steak, and held onto the sense of contentment as long as it would let me.
Mom could wait.
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