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He'd waited too long. They knew. The realization turned his blood to ice water. If they knew that he had the disk, then they also knew what he planned to do with it.
He felt the full weight of the disk in his breast pocket. In the right hands, the disk was gold. In the wrong hands, it was a death warrant.
Simon didn't look back but he knew they were behind him, following him. Two of them. He could hear them. Feel them working their way along the dark street.
All he could guess is that they weren't sure where he was headed. They would want to know who he'd planned to give the disk to. He had a pretty good idea that they knew exactly who he worked for — but just wanted proof.
He'd changed course the moment he'd heard them behind and now found himself headed for the beach. Ahead was the artsy part of St. Pete Beach, the small southern Florida town at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
Art galleries, studios, little shops. All closed this time of the night.
No place to hide.
He had to ditch the disk. It was his only chance. He was probably a dead man either way, but he might be able to talk his way out of this if the disk wasn't found on him.
Ahead Simon spotted a light burning in one of the art studios. Was it possible it was still open? Could he be that lucky?
He could hear the quickening of the men's steps behind him as he neared the shop entrance. Inside, the light silhouetted a figure at the back of the shop apparently working late. His good luck. That person's bad fortune.
It took everything in him not to run. But that would make him look guilty. That would get him killed before he could hide the disk.
Simon reached the front door of the shop and grasped the knob. He could see a woman working in the studio at the back. The men behind him were so close he thought he could feel their collective breaths on his neck. As he tried the door, he expected to feel a hand drop to his shoulder and a cold steel barrel press against his backbone.
Locked! He couldn't catch his breath. He jiggled the doorknob. His heart pounded so hard, all he could hear was the blood buzzing in his ears.
The woman who'd been working at the back looked up. Obviously she hadn't been expecting anyone.
Simon waved and called to her in a voice he didn't recognize as his own, "Sorry I'm late."
Surprise registered in her eyes, but she stopped what she was doing and walked toward the door.
He thought he heard the two men slide back into the darker shadows as the woman opened the door.
"I'm sorry I'm so late," he said, stepping in, forcing her to step aside as he pushed past and into the shop. "I was afraid you'd already gone home. I called about one of your — " he glanced to see what kind of work the woman did " — paintings," he said, and stuffed his hands into his pockets so she didn't see how badly they were shaking as he turned to look at her.
He'd thought her twenty-something but she could have been younger. It was hard to tell her age with such pale skin sprinkled with golden freckles and blond hair that she had pulled back in a single long braid that trailed down her back. She wore a sleeveless T-shirt, peach-colored, and a pair of denim cropped pants. He caught the scent of vanilla.
"I'm sorry," she said, looking confused. "Are you sure you have the right gallery?" Simon could see that she was scared. If she only knew. But she closed the door behind her, failing, he noted, to lock it, though. Would the two men come in here after him? He couldn't be sure.
But if they did, the woman was as good as dead. "Yes, this is the shop," he said, improvising as he moved to look at one of the Florida landscapes done in pastels. "My wife said she was told someone would be here late." A man with a wife would make her feel safer, he hoped, as he saw that she hadn't moved. In fact, she seemed to hover by the phone on the desk by the door.
He thought of the real wife he'd had. She'd left him because she couldn't take the line of work he was in. Low pay, ridiculous hours and always the chance that tonight might be the night he didn't come home. Tonight might be the night she got the phone call. Or worse, opened the door in the wee hours of the morning to see one of his buddies at the door bearing the bad news.
He studied one of the signed paintings, trying to focus. Thinking about Evie right now was a really bad idea. Next to it was a poster announcing an art show at a gallery down the street tomorrow night. "Are you
W. St. Clair?"
"Yes." She sounded shy, maybe a little embarrassed. Or maybe it was just nerves with him in her studio this late at night. He could see where she'd been framing some paintings at a workbench in the back.
"You say someone told your wife I would be here late?" she asked. He could hear her trying to come up with an explanation. "I can't imagine who would have told her that."
He shrugged and moved through the paintings, trying not to look out the front windows. Just act normal. The thought almost made him laugh. A normal man would be smart enough not to have gotten caught. And he was caught. Even if he ditched the disk, he wasn't sure he could save himself. Those men wouldn't be after him unless they knew he'd double-crossed them.
"I had to work late myself tonight," Simon said, making it up as he went. Nothing new there. "I was afraid I wouldn't get here in time. You see it's our anniversary. Ten years. My wife told me about a painting she saw here and I thought it would make a great anniversary present for her."
Evie had bailed after six years. Hadn't even waited for the seven-year itch.
"Your anniversary?" The artist smiled. She wanted to believe him. Simon knew he was laying it on a little thick but he needed her to feel safe. To act as if she'd known he was coming. Act as if nothing was wrong for the men who he knew were outside watching him. Watching them both.
The ploy seemed to be working. He saw her relax a little, her movements not as tense as she stepped away from the front windows.
"Do you mind if I just look around for a few minutes?" he asked. "I know I'll recognize the painting she fell in love with from the way she described it."
"If you tell me — "
"You do beautiful work. I can understand why she was so taken with your paintings," he said, cutting her off.
"Thank you," she said, sounding less suspicious although clearly still cautious. "I have a show coming up tomorrow night so I was working late framing. I'm afraid some of the paintings aren't for sale — at least until the show tomorrow night. I hope your wife didn't choose one that's tagged for the show."
"Well, if she did, I'm sure I'll find something that she'll love." Simon heard her go back to the bench. All she had to do was look up and see him from where she worked. He continued to move through the paintings, pretending to admire each as if in no hurry to find the one his wife wanted.
There was only one spot in the small shop where she wouldn't be able to see him. Nor would anyone outside have a clear view because of several large paintings that hung from a makeshift wall.
He found a painting that was marked For Show, Not For Sale and slipped the knife from his pocket. He quickly cut a small slot along the edge of the paper backing the framed painting — one of a colorful sailboat keeling over in the wind — and slid the disk inside between the paper and the artwork.
The disk fit snug enough that it made no sound when Simon picked up the painting as if inspecting it more closely. No one should notice the careful cut he'd made. Not that anyone would get the chance. He'd be back tonight for the painting just as soon as he got rid of the two men after him.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he picked up another small painting of a Florida street market, colorful and quaint and the painting was not tagged for the show.
"This is the one. What does the W. stand for?" he asked as he took it over to her.
"Willa." She smiled as she saw which painting he had selected. "An excellent choice."
Simon paid in cash and watched her carefully wrap it, priding himself on the fact that he hadn't once glanced toward the front windows. Anyone watching him from outside would think this had been his destination all along. At least he hoped so. Everything was riding on this.
"You really saved my life," he said, smiling at the young woman. "I can't tell you how relieved I was to see that you were still around tonight."
She handed him the package and smiled back. "Happy anniversary. I hope your wife enjoys the painting."
"Oh, she will." Evie would have had a fit if he'd brought home a painting by an unknown. Evie liked nice things.And Simon had failed to give her what she needed.
Swallowing down the bitterness, he idly picked up one of the flyers by the cash register announcing Willa St. Clair's gallery showing the next evening and pretended to study it before he folded the flyer and put it into the breast pocket of his jacket.
She followed him to the door. "Good luck with your show tomorrow night," he said as she started to close the door. "Maybe my wife and I will stop by."
"It's just down the street, at the Seaside Seascapes Gallery."
Simon nodded as she closed and locked it behind him, then he turned and started back the way he'd come, taking his time, the small painting tucked under his arm.
He waited for the two men to accost him as he walked down the street. Two blocks from Willa St. Clair's art studio, and he hadn't seen anyone who wanted to kill him. Maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe he'd hidden the disk and blown off his delivery meeting for nothing.
He should have been relieved. But instead, it made him angry. He'd panicked for nothing. Now he would have to go back and get the damned disk after the studio was closed. Worse, he would have to set up another delivery meeting.Any change of plans always increased the danger.
At his car, he beeped open the doors, the lights flashed and he reached for the door handle.
They came at him from out of the darkness, surprising him. Simon reached for his weapon, but he wasn't fast enough. The small painting he'd bought fell to the ground with a thud as the larger of the two grabbed him, the smaller one taking his gun and searching him.
"What the hell do you want?" he bluffed, recognizing them both. "You scared the hell out of me. You're damned lucky I didn't shoot you both."
The smaller of the two men scooped up the painting from the sidewalk and tore the canvas from its frame, tossing it aside when he didn't find what he was looking for.
Simon considered whether he could take them both and decided he'd be dead before he even had one of them down. No, he thought, he had a much better chance if he could get them to take him to their boss. He'd managed to bluff his way this far. He had to believe he could get himself out of this, as well.