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You are going to die.
The words of warning clogged Rachel Gregory's throat as she sat across from the well-dressed woman who had come to her for a tarot card reading. Evelyn Morgan appeared to be in her late sixties, with dyed brown hair and carefully applied makeup, obviously a woman of a certain age who wasn't going to let time compromise the image she wanted to project.
And her mind was still sharp, because she instantly picked up on something in Rachel's expression. Leaning forward, she asked, "What is it? What do you see?"
To give herself a moment before answering, Rachel fiddled with a tendril of dark hair that had come loose from the French braid at the back of her head.
"I think you may have a rough patch ahead," she hedged as she looked down at the tarot cards again, hoping that her first impression was wrong.
Evelyn Morgan had selected them from the many different decks on Rachel's shelves, shuffled them, then made random selections before laying them out. She hadn't pulled the card most people associated with death, a black armored skeleton riding a white armored horse. But the Fool was there, upside down, which indicated the desire to strike out on a new adventure, although the journey could be disastrous.
The Nine of Wands was also reversed, showing that the man in the picture could barely take care of himself. And then there was the Hanged Man, contemplating making a sacrifice for the greater good. The Eight of Cups was also on the table, the card's image signifying dissatisfaction with the woman's present way of life. All in all, not a good outlook.
But the cards were never the only indicators for Rachel. She'd been doing this for fifteen years, since her early teens, and she always picked up more from the subject than the pictures spread out on the table.
Trying to pull her thoughts away from the woman's uncertain future, she said, "You're a visitor to the city. I think you used to have a different name. Not Evelyn Morgan. You changed it after you left your previous job."
The woman's eyes widened. "You got all that from the cards?"
Rachel kept her voice even. "Well, the cards help me to focus. To understand a person better."
"I'd call that more than understanding. You're coming up with facts that I haven't told you."
"Are they right?"
Ms. Morgan shrugged, and Rachel didn't challenge her. She hadn't expected confirmation. That was another thing about the customer sitting across the table in the comfortable wingback chair. She had secrets that she might or might not be willing to reveal to a stranger. Even when she'd come for a tarot card reading.
In this case, perhaps that was best. Because, if pressed, Rachel couldn't explain how she dipped into people's minds. Nothing deep. Only a superficial connection that gave her a glimpse into another person's biography.
Too bad she didn't have the same kind of insights into her own life. Or that she couldn't use the special knowledge to make solid connections with people. Sometimes she thought that she was doomed to drift through the days and years, snatching information here and there but never going deeper.
She'd picked up a bit more from Evelyn Morgan. She had apparently held an important position in a D.C. think tank before abruptly leaving her job and going underground. She'd lived very quietly, because she was running away from something or someone. But what?
Rachel wanted to ask about it, but she kept the question locked behind her lips. She wasn't doing this to satisfy her own curiosity.
At the end of the session Evelyn paid Rachel's fee and gave her a generous tip.
"I'd like to meet with you again," she said. "Of course."
"I mean, I was hoping you could come to my hotel room tomorrow nightto discuss something with me in private."
Rachel looked around the cozy room where she did her readings. Before Katrina, she'd rented space in a coffee shop at the edge of the French Quarter, where the owner had let her read tarot cards for a percentage of her earnings.
After the devastation of the hurricane, when many people had left town, she'd been able to purchase and renovate her own place on Toulouse Street, partly with money an aunt had left her and partly with her own savings.
In addition to the readings that she did in the back room, she had a retail area out front where she sold various tarot card decks, magic wands, tea sets and other whimsical items that would appeal to New Orleans visitors.
"I prefer to work here," Rachel answered.
"I'm hoping we can have a more private meeting."
"Everything that takes place here is just between you and me. Nothing you tell me will go any further," she said reassuringly. Unless, of course, this woman wanted to tell her about a crime.
Ms. Morgan leaned forward and looked toward the door between the reading room and the shop.
"But anyone could wander in off the street and overhear us. Please make an exception for me tomorrow night." She paused, apparently considering her next words carefully. "It could be significant for you."
"A business contact?"
"I'm not going to talk about it here. Just give me the benefit of the doubt."
Rachel nodded. This woman obviously had something important to say. She didn't want to say it in public, but she was holding her breath, waiting for Rachel's answer.
"All right," she agreed, wondering what she was getting into. Because she had the sudden conviction that Ms. Morgan was telling the truth about the information being important to Rachel. Or at least that was part of the truth. The rest of it she was struggling to keep to herself.
They made an appointment for eight at the Bourbon Street Arms.
Ms. Morgan stood and took a few steps, and Rachel noticed what she'd seen when the woman had first enteredthat she walked with a slight limp.
A sudden image flashed into Rachel's mind of a much younger Evelyn Morgan leaping off a bridge just before it exploded. And shattering her leg as she landed.
Dressed in a black polo shirt and faded jeans, Jake Harper was sipping a mug of strong, chicory-laced New Orleans coffee as he looked over the receipts from Le Beau, a restaurant he owned in the French Quarter. It wasn't his biggest business interest in the city, not by a long shot, but he liked working in the office at the back of the restaurant because the chef served him his favorites, like crawfish etouffee and oysters bienville for lunch.
Acquired tastes for a kid who'd run away from a dysfunctional foster home at the age of fifteen. In the seventeen years since, he'd carved out a niche for himself in the city's business community. Starting at the bottom, scrounging junk from back alleys and selling it to antique shops and dealers with tables outside the French Market. With his initial earnings, he'd graduated to garage-sale purchases and then estate sales. He'd bought his first antique/junk shop five years laterthe same year he'd gotten his GED.
He might lead a comfortable life now, but the early experiences on the streets had made him tough and cautious. And always prepared for violence. In his experience, a situation could spin out of control with very little provocation.
He looked up as Salvio, the headwaiter, knocked on the door.
"A lady wants to speak to you."
"Says it's personal."
"Young or old?"
The guy grinned. "Past her prime but keeping up appearances."
Well, it probably wasn't some chick trying to claim he was the father of her child. Not that he was ever careless about sex. He knew it could get someone into trouble faster than anything else.
Jake leaned back in his seat, wondering what the woman wanted. Maybe a donation for one of the charities he gave to on a regular basis? He'd slept in some of the city's shelters after he'd left his foster family, and he knew what it was like to live from hand to mouth, which was why he regularly gave back to the community.
The woman who walked in had a slight limp. She appeared to be in her mid- to late-sixties with dyed brown hair and a fully made-up face. She was nicely dressed in a summer-weight black suit and low heels.
She gave him a long look, as though she had been studying him and was interested to find out what he was like in person.
"Thank you for seeing me. I'm Evelyn Morgan." Her accent told him she was from somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region. Obviously not from a local charity, unless she'd just moved to the city and thrown herself into community activities.
He stood and shook hands. "What can I do for you?" She half turned and glanced over her shoulder. "I'd rather not talk about it here."
"Uh-huh." He waited for more information. "There's someone I want you to meet."
"It has to do with your past, but I don't want to say any more."
He tipped his head to the side, studying her. "That sounds mysterious."
"I don't mean to be. Could you come to my hotel room tomorrow night at eight?"
He might have declined, but something about the way she lowered her voice made him hesitate. That and the sense of urgency she gave off. He was good at picking up vibrations from peoplefavorable and unfavorable. That was one of the reasons he'd been so good at climbing the success ladder. He usually knew when to trust someone and when to run as fast as he could in the other direction.
This time, he wasn't quite sure.
"You're not going to give me a clue?" he asked, calling on the charm that was part of his persona. When in doubt, sweeten them up with a little honey.
"I'm sorry. I can't talk about it here. But it's something you'll want to know." She said the last part with conviction, then gave him the name of her hotel and her room number, before exiting as quickly as she had come, making him wonder what was really going on.
He waited a beat, then walked through the restaurant to the front door, staying in the shadows under the wrought-iron balcony above. She was about ten yards away, walking at a leisurely pace, stopping to look in the window of an art gallery. She turned her head one way and then the other, as though she was examining the paintings in the window, but he had the feeling she was really looking in the window's reflection, making sure she wasn't being followed.
He wasn't certain how he surmised that, but he was pretty sure it was true.
What was she up to? Some kind of scam? After watching her continue down the street and turn the corner, he went back to his office and sat down at the computer. When he put in the name Evelyn Morgan, there were several hits, but none of them seemed to match up with the woman who had come to him with her mysterious request.
Probably she'd taken the name recently.
He paused, wondering why he'd come to that conclusion on very little evidence. But he thought it was true.
He could skip the meeting, but the whole situation intrigued him, and somehow he knew he was going to keep the appointment.
In Portland, Oregon, a tall, white-haired man who now called himself Bill Wellington clicked on an email that had just arrived in his in-box.
Once, his office had been within sight of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. He'd headed up a clandestine agency called the Howell Institute that had taken on some interesting jobs for the federal government and other entities that wanted discreet, reliable services performed.
Now he was nominally retired, living across the country, enjoying long lunches at the club and golf lessonsactivities he hadn't had time for when he'd been playing the power game. He'd worked hard for thirty years, and he was taking advantage of the perks he'd earned. Like the name he was currently using. He'd been Bill Wellington for only a few years. When he'd been at the Howell Institute, he'd been someone else, a persona that he preferred to keep buried.
His occupation had put him in danger. In fact, he still had a few loose ends to tie up. And the email he'd just received had to do with one of them.
The woman you 're looking for is going under the name Evelyn Morgan. She is currently in New Orleans, registered at the Bourbon Street Arms.
Because he'd learned not to get excited until he had all the facts, he went on to read the rest of the text, taking in details of her movements since she'd arrived in the Crescent City and studying the attached video clip that had been taken from across the street as she stepped into a restaurant called Le Beau.
The picture certainly looked like his former executive assistant, with a few years on her, although she'd dyed her hair brown and had some facial surgery to change her nose and her lips. But even with physical therapy, she hadn't been able to completely eliminate her limp. She'd been a daredevil in her time, and she'd shattered her right leg leaping off a bridge just before it had gone down in an explosion.
She'd been careful to stay out of circulation for the past five years, but Wellington had his sources, and he'd been confident that he'd eventually catch up with her. One of the men he kept on retainer had finally located her. She'd had a top-secret security clearance, and he'd trusted her with all sorts of confidential informationunfortunately.
She'd left with files that a more cautious man would have destroyed years ago. But Wellington was too much of a pack rat, and he wasn't willing to just forget about projects that might come back to haunt him in the present D.C. atmosphere where politicians set up a circular firing squad at the drop of a scandalous whisper.
He sat back in his chair, trying to put himself in Morgan's place. She was up to something, but did it involve putting the screws to her own boss?
He had no intention of paying. And no intention of leaving her roaming around on the loose where she could make trouble for him or drag the good name of the Howell Institute through the mud. He could have used the operative who'd sent the report on Morgan for the next part of the assignment, but he'd always found it better to compartmentalize. He went back to his computer and opened another filethis one a list of men he'd used for supersensitive assignments in the past. All of them were efficient and reliable.
Carter Frederick was in the New Orleans area, which meant he could get on the job quickly.
Wellington had never met the man in person. In fact, he dealt with him only through an aliasthe Badger. Frederick didn't know who he really was and never would.
After dialing the number beside the name, he waited until an answering machine picked up.
"If you know your party's extension, you may dial the number at any time."
He punched in 991 and waited for a set of clicks.
Frederick came on the line. "How may I help you?"
"This is the Badger calling. I have a problem in New Orleans. A rush job."
"That will cost you."
He didn't like the guy's assumption that he was in charge of the conversation, but he was willing to overlook that, if he got results. "Not important. I'm having issues with a former employee. I want you to find out what she's doing there and what she knows."
"It's your job to get that from her."
"Better tell me a little bit more, so I'll know if she's spinning some kind of wild story."
"If I knew why she was in town, I wouldn't need you to question her."
"Okay. You got her location?"
He gave the hotel's name and address.