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Predictable but crisply written female fantasy, frothy and fun.
The plastique was molded into a thin, even layer against the stiff inner walls of the oversized leather bag. Well-used American bills of large denominations were packed tightly into its false bottom.
Tony ignored the explosives and me. He concentrated on the money.
We were in the workroom of a leather-goods shop located on a narrow, littered street in one of Rome's seedier tourist areas. Inside, narrow aisles and shelves jammed with merchandise promised bargains to unwary shoppers. The shop had been crowded with tourists when I arrived. Tony's assistant was locking the front door behind the last of them.
A doorway, hung with a dust-laden velvet curtain, separated the clutter of the shop from the workroom's clutter. The curtain, probably once dark green, was a muddy olive color. Opposite the doorway was a battered metal desk, in an equally unattractive shade of green. Its surface overflowed with paper and open ledgers. Ceiling-to-floor wooden shelves filled with damaged luggage covered the wall to the right of the doorway. To the left, Tony bent over a long, wooden workbench. Scraps of leather littered the floor, scattered there when he had cleared the bench with a sweep of his arm.
I leaned against one of the rough shelves, idly pushed a triangular scrap ofleather around with my toe. This was my sixth delivery. Tony, I knew, would not be rushed.
One by one, he lifted the neat packets from the bag, broke the narrow brown wrappers, counted the bills onto the bench. He was a big man, slow-moving. The short walk from the cash register at the front of the shop had left him breathing heavily. Perspiration beaded on his upper lip, his shirt clung to his flabby body, he smelled of sweat and garlic.
I tried not to breathe too deeply.
The shop assistant pushed aside the curtain, let it fall into place behind him. He brought with him a whiff of familiar cologne and a draft of fresh air. On my first visit, he'd introduced himself as Roberto. Like Tony, his hair was dark and curly and his eyes were brown. But Roberto was tanned and wiry and built like an athlete. He wore a white cotton shirt open at the throat and rolled up at the sleeves.
"Signorina," he said. He nodded curtly as his eyes swept past me. This was business. The pretty Irish stewardess with dark hair and blue eyes was insignificant compared to the merchandise she delivered.
"Is the shipment complete?" he asked Tony.
"Patience. I'm not finished counting." Tony picked up another bundle, then said: "What's this?"
Secured beneath the brown wrapper was a strip of yellow paper. Two stylized Japanese characters were printed along one edge. Tony freed the paper, glanced at it, then crushed it and tossed it aside.
"A greeting from Chicago." He shrugged, returned his attention to the money. Finally he said, "Everything is correct, Roberto. Grazie, signorina."
Beside me, Roberto exhaled as if he'd been holding his breath.
I turned my head, flashed him a smile. You worry too much, I thought.
Suddenly, Tony groaned. He clasped his hand to his chest and staggered toward the back of the room. A row of dusty ledgers tumbled to the floor as he sagged across the desk.
"Signore, are you ill?" I said.
I took a step toward him.
Tony straightened, swung around. A Luger was in his hand. The barrel end of its silencer pointed unwaveringly at me.
I backed away. Roberto was behind me. He grasped my upper arms.
"Tony, this makes no sense," he said in rapid Italian.
Tony's finger tightened on the trigger.
Roberto pushed me violently aside.
The bullet, meant for me, hit him. He fell backward through the doorway, into the shop.
I dove for the floor, rolled as I wrenched my knife from the sheath on my thigh, flung it as Tony fired again. His bullet tore through my right shoulder. My knife caught him in the throat. At first, he stood motionless, looking bewildered. Then the Luger slipped from his fingers. His empty hand drifted upward toward the knife, toward the hilt that jutted from beneath his jaw. He never reached it. He pitched forward, collapsing into the center of the room.
From where I lay, I could see his face. His eyes were stretched wide, his mouth gasping and bloody. Seconds later, he was dead. Then, except for the sound of my own breathing, there was silence. Silence, and the smells of blood and cordite and leather. No sounds from the shop.
"Brian," I called out urgently, using Roberto's real name for the first time in weeks. "Brian!"
Unconscious, I told myself. He was on the other side of the curtain, bleeding and unconscious. That's why he wasn't answering me.
I struggled to my feet. If I moved slowly, I could make it to the doorway and Brian. I took a step, then another. The room wavered, shifted out of focus. The floor heaved. I grabbed the nearest shelf, wedged my elbows into its clutter, rested my forehead against a dusty black valise. I had to stay conscious, had to stay on my feet.
When I lifted my head again, the room was back in focus. I straightened, one hand still clutching the shelf, and noticed a heavy smear of blood. It was from a jagged hole above my right breast. I tipped my head to one side, watched the blood soak into the jacket's woolen fibers. Someone else's shoulder. Someone else's blood. I wondered if the cleaners would be able to remove the stain.
That jerked me back to reality. Concentrate!
Three more steps, maybe four. The room around me blurred, but I kept moving. The touch of heavy cloth brought me back to full awareness. I pushed it aside.
Brian lay sprawled at my feet. The wound in his chest was dark and terrible. His eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling. Still, I fell to my knees beside him. I searched for some sign of life. I searched. And I prayed. Oh, God! how I prayed.
In the end, I could only close his eyes.
Impossible to stand.
I crawled to the front door. It was locked.
I stretched upward, straining to reach the latch. My blood-slick fingers scrabbled uselessly beneath it. I tried again. Tried until the door was sticky with my blood. Until, exhausted, I slumped to the floor.
If I gave up, I would die.
I should want to live.
I couldn't think why.
Best to die here, with Brian.
To hell with Queen and country. To hell with the operation. To hell with the whole bloody organization.
Decision made, I shut my eyes.
Too easy to imagine Brian frowning. He believed in duty.
If I gave up, the red-haired man would go free.
I opened my eyes, reached for the latch again.
Excerpted from Aka Jane by Maureen Tan Copyright ©1999 by Maureen Tan. Excerpted by permission.
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