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Eighteen Months Ago
The dust settling from the tired old walls coated the warped, three-legged chair like a layer of gray velvet, undisturbed by the passage of time. Since it offered the only place to sit in this abandoned room, standing was the preferred option.
The room had made some banker's assistant a nice, cozy office back in the building's heyday. Now it was a decrepit eyesore, marred by peeling plaster and exposed studs in the crumbling walls, good for nothing more than meetings like this one.
Just another example of misused funds and misguided dreams. Dr. Damon Sinclair had been a sentimental fool to purchase this thirty-story high-rise and hire architects and historians to research its history so he could restore it to all its glory. He was an even bigger fool for trusting the wrong people.
But one man's disadvantage was another—"I've got them."
Ah, yes, the hired help had arrived. A few minutes late, but carrying something that could make his tardiness forgivable. Anticipation cleared the sinuses and made the eyes sharply perceptive. "Let me see them."
Electricity hadn't run on this floor of the newly renamed Sinclair Tower for years, but the heavy flashlight provided all the illumination necessary to inspect the treasure the short, stocky workman handed over. He was breathing hard from the exertion of the past hour or so, and the grime hiding beneath his fingernails was as distasteful as the room surrounding them.
But a normal aversion to filthy things was momentarily forgotten as the culmination of so much planning was about to come to fruition. Retribution was only a fortunate by-product of the millions waiting to be made. Patience had allowed the plan to go forward, but tonight it was asking too much to wait for the privacy of a cleaner place before opening the leather-bound books.
The three binders were heavy with the weight of possibilities. Thumbing through the pages of scribbled notes and computer read-outs was like following a map to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Only, the little leprechaun sent to retrieve the map had forgotten one very important item.
Inhale deeply, exhale slowly. Patience. Patience. "You've already rigged the explosion?"
The sweaty man hired for his alleged expertise nodded. "Yeah. The unstable base and volatile acid will accidentally meet in—" he paused to check his watch before raising a cocky grin "—fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. No one will be able to trace what we've done, or even that we've been there."
The incompetent fool had the audacity to laugh. "Yeah, right, I know. You were never even here in the building."
"That's not the only mistake you've made, you idiot." The binders dropped like a gauntlet between them, sending up a billowing cloud of dust.
The little leprechaun frowned, perplexed by the displeasure. "What's wrong? Shouldn't we be leaving?"
Sheer willpower stifled the urge to sneeze. "Where are the codes? The difference between these binders—and binders with the codes—is ten million dollars. These formulas will take years to decipher without them."
"I looked where you said. I looked everywhere I could think of. Your information was wrong. The codes weren't in his lab." He backed toward the door frame and glanced into the hallway, as if expecting to be discovered. Had the idiot been followed? Maybe he'd been stupid enough to use the freight elevator, the noise of which would certainly alert those do-gooders who ran the restaurant on the ground floor that there were trespassers on the upper floors of the building.
"You took the stairs, didn't you? I warned you to use the stairs."
The words fell on deaf ears. "Look, the blast won't affect us down here, but the cops'll question anybody on the premises. Those fifteen minutes will go by faster than you think. We need to get out of here."
Inhale. Exhale. "It will take months—maybe years—of research to recreate Dr. Sinclair's formulas from these notes. My investors may not be as patient as I—"
The little man dared to point a finger. "I brought you the files you specified, replaced them with the fakes so no one would know they were stolen, just like you said. And hell, yeah, I took the stairs."
"I told you we'd need the codes."
"They weren't there! I turned that place inside out. They must be hidden someplace else. I don't know where else to look, what else to do."
"Yes, your incompetence is staggering." The gun slipped from its waistband holster as easily as the decision to use it was made. Damon Sinclair was a crafty bastard, but he could be beaten. Though not if there was someone on the team who couldn't get the job done. "It's cost me more than I anticipated already."
His gaze narrowed and focused on the gun. "What are you gonna do?"
Aim between the eyes. Pull the trigger before you can run. The leprechaun's head jerked back. He hit the wall and slumped to the floor. Dead. "Get better help."
"My wife will be worried if I'm late getting home. I've been out of town on business this week."
"Take him straight to the shelter." Hiding her sad smile, Katherine Snow wrapped a ten-dollar bill around the disposable cup of coffee and passed it through the open window to the taxi driver on the late-night shift. She shivered, missing the warmth of the cup the instant it left her hands. "I owe you one, Tariq."
But the cabbie shook his head and tried to return the cash. "If this is your good coffee, it is payment enough."
Kit pulled her fingers inside the sleeves of her sweater and tucked them against her chest. "You know I always brew a fresh pot for night owls like us."
"The shelter is just a couple of blocks away." He pushed the ten-dollar bill her way again. "Save this for Matty's college fund.You should make Old Henry walk."
One, she had no clue whether or not her teenage brother would make it through his last semester of high school, much less go on to college; two, even with her limited profit margin she could spare ten dollars; and three, "Old Henry," as Tariq had dubbed him, was in no shape to walk anywhere. Especially since he thought "home" included a wife who had passed away a decade ago.
Henry would never find his way through the minefield of construction equipment that lined the streets and surrounded the Sinclair Building where her diner was located. "Two weeks ago, one of Kronemeyer's electricians touched a live wire upstairs and had a heart attack. And what about that old concrete cornice that fell off the side of the building? If Henry hadn't come inside to get out of the cold, he would have had his brains bashed in. Or the masonry worker who supposedly just walked off the job—without collecting his paycheck or telling his boss to shove it—and hasn't been seen since? Believe me, I'm happy to pay for Henry's cab," Kit insisted.
Henry Phipps had come in for a free meal of leftovers and coffee to sober him up enough to allow him admission to the area shelter. And just like the other nights when he'd shown up at closing, Kit had refused to turn him away.
Tariq shook his head and argued, "You do too much."
"I try to tell her the same thing. She doesn't listen." Kit rolled her eyes up at the pepper-haired black man who'd helped her load their last customer into the cab's backseat. "You're not saying I'm pigheaded, are you, Germane?"
"I'm saying that once you set your mind to a thing...ah, hell." He shrugged and surrendered to the inevitable.
"You're just like your daddy was."
"A great cook?"
Germane snorted. "A sucker for every sad story that came through his front door. I wish you had more of your mama's good sense. And who does most of the cookin' around here?"
Kit grinned and linked one arm through his, bowing to the master short-order cook. Germane Knight had been a family friend for far too long to take any of his grousing seriously. Though they'd served together as combat medics in Vietnam, he was as big a softie as her father had been. "Fine. You run the kitchen, I run everything else. Like customer relations. It's after midnight, below freezing and it's snowing again. Good sense says it isn't safe for anyone to be outside on his own."
"I am giving in even if you are not, G." Tariq raised his cup in a toast to Kit, then tossed the ten-dollar bill to a confused Henry in the backseat. "We will all freeze to death if we sit here and argue until she changes her mind."
"Don't I know it." Germane had a surprisingly deep belly laugh for such a tall, slender man. He dodged Kit's elbow to his ribs, reached out and thumped the roof of the cab, clearing Tariq to be on his way. "Be safe, my friend."
With a wave, Tariq checked the light traffic, then whipped away from the curb in a U-turn to avoid construction in the lane ahead. Kit and Germane jumped back as sooty slush spun from beneath the tires up onto the sidewalk. Kit was still shaking the glop off her boots when Germane pulled her back toward the brightly lit windows of the Snow Family Barbecue Grill and Diner.
"C'mon, girl. We'd best get out of the cold air ourselves and get this place shut down for the night. I'm feelin' the chill in my knees somethin' fierce."
"In a minute." Giving his arm a reassuring pat, Kit pushed Germane toward the diner's front door. "The dishes are already in the washer. Go ahead and turn off the neon signs and start cleaning the grill. I'll be there in a sec to take care of the pans and count down the money."
Kit huddled inside her cable-knit sweater and peered into the filmy shadows beyond the circles of lamplight dotting the street to the north and south. An older woman slowed her car and pulled into the parking garage next door. A pair of faceless figures buried their faces in their hoods and collars as they left the shelter of Hannity's Bar and cut across the slickening street.
Could the young man in the red-and-gold Kansas City Chiefs parka be Matt? He wasn't old enough to buy a drink, but that kid was rebelling with a vengeance against the forced parenting of his older sister. Kit had left graduate school and come home after their parents' unexpected deaths, thinking he needed her. She knew she needed him. But they were each dealing with their grief in different ways. She thought Matt wanted a home, but apparently, her one-time Stanford-bound brother just wanted his space.
But a Chiefs parka was common enough this time of year in a football-crazed city like K.C. When the two bar patrons turned north away from the diner, Kit wondered anew where Matt could be at 12:00 a.m. on a Thursday night. She was going to have to do the tough-love thing and ground his tardy ass for being out so late on a school night.
Shivering at the pending sense of loss she couldn't quite explain, Kit looked up and down the street one more time. She couldn't see much else through the steel scaffolding and plastic sheeting that framed the building's facade and curved into the side alley. Though the work on her own first-floor apartment and business had been completed three months ago, the construction team renovating the twenty-nine floors above her in the Depression-era Sinclair Building never seemed to run out of projects.
The workers were the diner's best customers for lunch. But, along with the handful of tenants on the second and third floors who'd stuck it out through first one construction company, then another, she suspected she wasn't the only one tired of her absent landlord's penchant for historic perfection. Heavy equipment had blocked the sidewalk and torn up the street for more than a year now, turning three lanes of traffic into two, and giving petty thieves, gang-bangers and the homeless plenty of places to hide at night. She suspected some unwanted squatters had even found their way into a few of the unfinished apartments above her.
Though she could admire the unseen Sinclair heir for trying to make this block of downtown Kansas City the same tourist-and-young-professional draw that Wesport or the Plaza to the south were, Kit feared that the working-class locals would be forced to move before any new influx of business could save them.
Kit's parents hadn't owned any pharmaceutical empires like the Sinclairs did. They couldn't pack up and go to a second home in the islands when the weather turned bitter and the construction got in the way. They'd toughed it out and had paid the ultimate price in the fire that had taken everything. This block of Kansas City had been their home. True, Kit had gone off to college to pursue her science degrees, and had dreamed of working in a criminology lab in New York City or Chicago. But she'd returned when she was needed. To find out why her parents had died. To rebuild their diner and maintain their dream.