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Ciudad del Este, Paraguay—Saturday afternoon
Sitting at an outside table in front of the Mercado cantina, possibly the slummiest bar in the southern hemisphere, Dax Killian made one more careful checkmark in his notebook, right next to the word "asshole." It was the third such mark he'd made in the last hour—sixty minutes, three assholes.
Things were heating up.
Taking a short swallow of beer, he keyed a number into a small receiver and held it to his ear, tapping back into one of the transmitters he'd planted in the Galeria Viejo down the street.
Three days in this hellhole of a city, with one day left to go, and all Dax really had to show for his efforts was the notebook, and his checkmarks, and an appointment for later tonight that he hoped to hell panned out.
He was ready. More than ready with the deadline looming ever closer—Sunday, tomorrow. Do the deed by then, or have the rest of his life to nurse his regrets. It was a helluva deal. He'd been handed an opportunity here, and he didn't want to fuck it up.
He took another swallow of beer, then popped the last piece of his empanada into his mouth.
Asshole number three was dawdling, taking his sweet time getting to the gallery. Short and dark-haired, dressed in black slacks and a brown polo shirt, he stopped at one of the market stalls bordering the street and looked at a couple of cheap-ass nylon duffel bags.
Maybe he was a guy looking for a deal on cheap-ass nylon duffel bags, but Dax was betting not. He knew a wiseguy when he saw one. A few more moments passed, with the guy moving a couple of stalls closer to the gallery, then he knelt down to tie his shoe, and Dax figured that maybe his ship was about to come in. The man was signaling somebody—somebody with three potential bodyguards now in place on the premises.
Lucky, lucky day, if this thing actually turned into a party.
The two earlier arrivals were still in the gallery's back office with the owner, a thin, harried-looking man given to crumpled linen suits and Panama hats named Remy Beranger. The men were still regaling the French expat with an account of their latest debauchery and the superior quality of the new crop of whores at the club down the street, La Colonia, The Colony.
Whatever. Dax pulled his phone out of a cargo pocket on his pants and pressed a couple of buttons. He could see The Colony from his prime spot in front of El Mercado, and the girls looked as tired and lifeless and bored as any he'd seen, maybe even worse. Regardless, nothing of relevance to the problem at hand had been said in the office since the first two guys had gone in, and Remy Beranger had hardly said a word at all, relevant or otherwise, but that was the nature of surveillance—hours and days of next to nothing, and then bingo.
Lifting the phone to eye level, Dax took a look at the screen, zoomed in, then took the polo shirt guy's photograph. Keying in another sequence sent the photo to his computer in his room at the Posada Plaza, two blocks away. He had quite a little yearbook of gophers, traders, tourists, and customers accumulating on his hard drive in the dumpy room, but no kings, no real movers and shakers, and if they didn't start showing up here pretty damn quick, then he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his appointment with Remy Beranger later tonight was going to be one big bust, just him and maybe a couple of no-name hustlers playing patty-cake in Beranger's back room.
He couldn't afford that, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, not this week. Time was running out. He'd been chasing this damn score for months.
With the photo sent, he returned his attention to his handheld receiver, just in case somebody _decided to talk about something, anything, besides nooky. He'd wired the gallery his first morning in town. Nights in Ciudad del Este tended to be extremely busy, the streets and alleyways rocking and rolling with the transport of illegal everything, but in those quiet couple of hours before sunrise, things settled down, and that's when Dax had accessed a small rooftop patio tucked into the back of the building and broken into a second-floor window to go to work inside.
He took another short swallow of beer, and when the guy stood up and looked down the street, Dax followed his gaze. A black Range Rover bristling with antennas was nosing its way through the crowds, heading for the Old Gallery.
Bingo. Game on.
Dax knew the Range Rover. It belonged to Esteban Ponce, the youngest son of a large, obscenely wealthy family based in Brazil, with Ponce money fueling businesses from one end of South America to the other. According to Dax's intel, Esteban Ponce's "moving and shaking" included a lot of low-end women and upper-end antiquities, especially anything connected with the occult, like maybe something from Egypt's Twelfth Dynasty, possibly a sphinx with rock-crystal eyes that enabled a viewer to see the past, the future, and the present at locations far removed from the statue itself.
Dax was a little on the skeptical side of the hocus-pocus equation, but he didn't have to believe. He just had to get the damn thing and deliver it to Sao Paulo, Brazil, by Sunday night, where one crooked piece-of-crap German named Erich Warner was waiting for it, and for his trouble, he'd been guaranteed two names.
That's all he needed, two goddamned names, one of a man, the other of a place, somewhere in Texas, and he'd be good to go. He could call his old Special Forces commander, Colonel Hanson, who'd been kicked up to the E-ring at the Pentagon, and rest a little easier at night, knowing the good guys could chalk up one more win in the war on terrorism.
So here he sat, waiting for his chance with Remy Beranger, hoping to gather some workable information from the afternoon, or some actionable intelligence. Cut a deal or steal the guy blind, either option worked for Dax. He just needed to know the Memphis Sphinx was in play, and where it was—at the gallery, or stashed elsewhere, or worst case, not within a thousand miles of this damn place.
He sure hoped to hell not on that last scenario. There wasn't time to put together another search, and he'd all but guaranteed Warner that the damn thing would be here, this weekend, in Ciudad del Este.
Fortunately, he worked well under pressure . . . quite well.
No, no, no. No sales, not today, and not tomorrow, Beranger had said, when Dax had shown up at the gallery, flashing his cash. Later, monsieur, in two, maybe three days.
Two or three days hadn't cut it for Dax, though, not on this deal, so he'd pushed until he'd gotten a more workable schedule on the table, knowing guys like Beranger didn't turn down cold cash in U.S. dollars, not unless something was up, like an even bigger score.
Tomorrow night, then, late, Beranger had finally agreed. I have some very nice Moche ceramics I can show you, very nice, the erotic style, just as you wish.
Eighteen-hundred-year-old erotica—Dax couldn't remember ever being in the market for anything stranger, but apparently, for those in the know, Galeria Viejo in Ciudad del Este was the place for acquiring a little ancient pornographic pottery.
He slipped his hand into the cargo pocket again and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. His lighter came next. Settling a little deeper into his chair, he lit up, and through a thin veil of smoke, watched the Range Rover muscle its way through the crowds of people and vehicles, until it reached a spot in front of the gallery.
Lowering the cigarette, he flicked off the ash and readied the phone in his other hand. One, two, three more bodyguards exited the Rover. Then the boy from Brazil stepped out—Esteban Ponce, tall and noticeably thin, dark hair hanging in a long braid down the middle of his back, expensively dressed with lots of flash, black slacks, white sports coat, red silk shirt, and sporting a long gold chain strung with a crucifix, an Egyptian ankh, and a pentacle, and yeah, Dax figured that should just about cover all the other-world crap that could ruin a guy's day.
Every over-rich, inbred family Dax had ever worked for could lay claim to one of their own as the resident fuckup, and Esteban was the Ponces'. No guts, no brains, no glory, but plenty of time and money on his hands, most of it spent trying to carve a niche for himself in a pack of world-class wolves and jackals.
Personally, Dax doubted if there was much competition for resident Honcho of the Voodoo Hoodoo in the Ponce clan. He took everybody's picture, including a couple of group shots and a zoomed-in close-up on the Range Rover's license plate. While he forwarded all the photos to his computer, the Brazilian contingent moved inside the gallery, leaving two guys to guard the door.
Clamping the cigarette between his teeth, Dax typed in a brief, coded text to Sao Paulo, then returned the phone to his pocket and went back to listening to the handset.
"Senor Ponce, my pleasure. So pleased, so very pleased . . ." Remy Beranger finally came to life, his words verifying Dax's identification of Esteban Ponce, not that he'd needed much verification. He'd started doing his South American homework as soon as he'd realized where the game was heading. "Oh, yes, senor, the others will be here very shortly. Very shortly, indeed."
Others? Dax thought.
Good. Maybe this thing was going to roll.
He took another drag off his cigarette and checked both ends of the street while he exhaled. A silver Mercedes was heading his way, looking promising. The luxury sedan passed him by and kept going almost the length of the block, before it pulled to a stop a couple of cars down from the Range Rover, in front of a bar so seedy it almost made the Mercado look like it had some class. Two men got out of the front. Only one got out of the back—Levi Asher, short, balding, narrow through the shoulders, rumpled, potbellied in a pale blue suit, and sweating like a pig in the heat.
Under any circumstances other than a stakeout, Dax would have grinned. The day was definitely looking up. Levi Asher was exactly the guy Dax had wanted to see in Ciudad del Este, the same way he'd seen him in Milan, and in London, and in that nondescript little spot on the road north of Washington, D.C., the two of them on the same damn trail.
Sonuvabitch. Third-rate Remy Beranger and his fourth-rate gallery had actually scored the Memphis Sphinx, and in the nick of time. Everybody had heard the stories, they knew the legend of what was supposed to happen Sunday night. They'd all just been waiting for the damn thing to show up somewhere, and to a man, everybody Dax had met or dealt with over the past four months of his investigation believed that what was supposed to happen Sunday night, would happen, that the Gates of Time, whatever the hell those were, would open and reveal the secrets of the ages, possibly even the secrets of immortality.
Everybody believed, that is, except Dax. But he got paid to be skeptical. Fortunately, he was very good at that, too.
Yeah, that was him, just one damned fortunate guy.
Erich Warner sure as hell believed in the Sphinx's powers. The guy was desperate to get his hands on the Maned Sphinx of Sesostris III, which in Dax's book made him more than a little unstable on top of already being a psychopathic asshole.
He dropped his cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with his boot, all the while watching a dark blue Land Cruiser ease its way down the street through the crowds.
The Cruiser came to a stop next to Levi Asher's silver Mercedes, and a minor player named Jimmy Ruiz got out from behind the wheel and crossed in front of the car. Dax recognized him as an associate of Remy Beranger's from the file he'd compiled on Galeria Viejo. When Ruiz stopped next to the passenger door and started to open it, Dax set aside his handset and pulled his phone back out of his pocket. Then he reached for his beer.
There were three things he knew for certain about the Memphis Sphinx: Erich Warner wanted it; Dax was going to get it; and there wasn't a nutcase from here to Cairo who wasn't after it. He already had Asher and Ponce. That was enough to assure him he was in the right place at the right time. Anyone else was either a pure bonus or an unnecessary complication.
He paused with the beer bottle halfway to his mouth, his gaze riveted to the navy-blue-and-white-striped, peep-toe spectator pump descending from out of the passenger side door of the Land Cruiser. The shoe was elegant, expensive, leather, and handmade, and it encased a sweetly feminine foot whose arched lines extended up a delicate ankle, a silken calf, a slender, cream-colored thigh that hit him where it hurt, all the way up to the leading edge of a tight navy blue dress that wrapped and swirled its way up the most dangerous set of curves Dax had seen since . . . since he didn't remember when.
On second thought, he did remember when.
His gaze narrowed, zeroing in on the woman and cataloguing every square centimeter of her lush female form, every brass button marching down the front of her short cropped jacket, every perfectly tailored fold and sweep of the navy blue dress so lovingly molded to her body, every inch of blindingly white piping accenting the suit, right up to the tortioiseshell sunglasses on her face, and the elegantly broad-brimmed, white Panama hat set at a rakish angle on her head. Her richly colored hair was swept up under the hat, but there were enough silken auburn strands drifting down the nape of her neck to tell him he was in way more trouble than he had bargained for—more than a boatload, more than made sense.
He carefully set his beer back on the table, untouched. There weren't many women built like the one getting out of the Land Cruiser, but he knew one. He knew one with that exact set of cyclone curves and auburn hair.
He didn't believe in the impossible, any more than he believed in the immortal powers of the Sphinx. But there she was, straight out of his dreams, the headliner of his fantasies, the girl who'd stood him up at Duffy's Bar in Denver six months ago, the one whose presence here told him more about her than he'd unearthed in all his months of investigation—and everything it told him set every nerve ending he had on full, redline alert.