He was running for his life. And it wasn’t the first time. As he raced by Tiffany’s elegant window display, he hoped it wouldn’t be his last. The night was cool with April rain slick on the streets and sidewalk. There was a breeze that even in Manhattan tasted pleasantly of spring. He was sweating. They were too damn close.
Fifth Avenue was quiet, even sedate at this time of night. Streetlights intermittently broke the darkness; traffic was light. It wasn’t the place to lose yourself in a crowd. As he ran by Fifty-third, he considered ducking down into the subway below the Tishman Building, but if they saw him go in, he might not come back out.
Doug heard the squeal of tires behind him and whipped around the corner at Cartier’s. He felt the sting in his upper arm, heard the muffled pop of a silenced bullet, but never slackened his pace. Almost at once, he smelled the blood. Now they were getting nasty. And he had the feeling they could do a lot worse.
But on Fifty-second Street were people, a group here and there, some walking, some standing. Here, there was noise, raised voices, music. His labored breathing went unnoticed. Quietly he stood behind a redhead who was four or five inches taller than his own six feet, and half again as wide. She was swaying to the music that poured out of her portable stereo. It was like hiding behind a tree in a windstorm. Doug took the opportunity to catch his breath and check his wound. He was bleeding like a pig. With- out giving it a thought, he slipped the striped bandana out of the redhead’s back pocket and wrapped it around his arm. She never stopped swaying he hadvery light fingers.
It was more difficult to kill a man outright when there was a crowd, he decided. Not impossible, just harder. Doug kept his pace slow and faded in and out of the packs of people while he kept his eyes and ears open for the discreet black Lincoln.
Near Lexington he saw it pull up a half block away, and he saw the three men in trim dark suits get out. They hadn’t spotted him yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Thinking fast, he scanned the crowd he’d merged with. The black leather with the two dozen zippers might work.
“Hey.”He grabbed the arm of the boy beside him. “I’ll give you fifty bucks for your jacket.”
The boy with pale spiked hair and a paler face shrugged him off. “Fuck off. It’s leather.”
“A hundred then,”Doug muttered. The three men were getting closer all the time.
This time the boy took more interest. He turned his face so that Doug saw the tiny tattooed vulture on his cheek. “Two hundred and it’s yours.”
Doug was already reaching for his wallet. “For two hundred I want the shades too.”
The boy whipped off the wraparound mirrored sunglasses. “You got ‘em.”
“Here, let me help you off with that.” In a quick move, Doug yanked the boy’s jacket off. After stuffing bills in the boy’s hand he pulled it on, letting out a hiss of breath at the pain in his left arm. The jacket smelled, not altogether pleasantly, of its previous owner. Ignoring it, Doug tugged the zipper up. “Look, there’re three guys in undertaker suits coming this way. They’re scouting out for extras for a Billy Idol video. You and your friends here should get yourselves noticed.”
“Oh yeah?” And as the boy turned around with his best bored-teenager’s look on his face, Doug was diving through the nearest door.
Inside, wallpaper shimmered in pale colors under dimmed lights. People sat at white linen-covered tables under art-deco prints. The gleam of brass rails formed a path to more private dining rooms or to a mirrored bar. With one whiff, Doug caught the scent of French cooking sage, burgundy, thyme. Briefly he considered hustling his way past the maitre d’ to a quiet table, then decided the bar was better cover. Affecting a bored look, he stuck his hands in his pockets and swaggered over. Even as he leaned on the bar, he was calculating how and when to make his exit.
“Whiskey.” He pushed the wraparound shades more firmly onto his nose. “Seagram’s. Leave the bottle.”
He stood hunched over it, his face turned ever so slightly toward the door. His hair was dark, curling into the collar of the jacket; his face was clean-shaven and lean. His eyes, hidden behind the mirrored glasses, were trained on the door as he downed the first fiery taste of whiskey. Without pausing, he poured a second shot. His mind was working out all the alternatives.
He’d learned to think on his feet at an early age, just as he’d learned to use his feet to run if that was the best solution. He didn’t mind a fight, but he liked to have the odds in his favor. He could deal straight, or he could skim over the finer points of honesty, depending on what was the most profitable.
What he had strapped to his chest could be the answer to his taste for luxury and easy living, the taste he’d always wanted to cultivate. What was outside, combing the streets for him, could be a quick end to living at all. Weighing one against the other, Doug opted to shoot for the pot of gold.
The couple beside him were discussing the latest Mailer novel in earnest voices. Another group tossed around the idea of heading to a club for jazz and cheaper booze. The crowd at the bar was mostly single, he decided, here to drink off the tension of a business day and show themselves to other singles. There were leather skirts, three-piece suits, and high-topped sneakers. Satisfied, Doug pulled out a cigarette. He could have chosen a worse place to hide.
A blonde in a dove gray suit slid onto the stool beside him and flicked her lighter at the end of his cigarette. She smelled of Chanel and vodka. Crossing her legs, she downed the rest of her drink.
“Haven’t seen you in here before.”
Doug gave her a brief look, enough to take in the slightly blurred vision and the predatory smile. Another time, he’d have appreciated it. “No.” He poured another shot.
“My office is a couple of blocks from here.” Even after three Stolichnayas, she recognized something arrogant, something dangerous in the man beside her. Interested, she swiveled a little closer. “I’m an architect.”
The hair on the back of his neck stood up when they walked in. The three of them looked neat and successful. Shifting, he looked over the blonde’s shoulder as they separated. One of them stood idly by the door. The only way out.
Attracted rather than discouraged by his lack of response, the blonde laid a hand on Doug’s arm. “And what do you do?”
He let the whiskey lie in his mouth for just a moment before he swallowed and sent it spreading through his system. “I steal,” he told her because people rarely believe the truth.
She smiled as she took out a cigarette, then handed him her lighter and waited for Doug to flick it on for her. “Fascinating, I’m sure.” She blew out a quick, thin stream of smoke and plucked the lighter from his fingers. “Why don’t you buy me a drink and tell me all about it?”
A pity he’d never tried that line before since it seemed to work so well. A pity the timing was all wrong, because she filled out the little suit neater than a CPA filled out a 1099. “Not tonight, sugar.”
Keeping his mind on business, Doug poured more whiskey and stayed out of the light. The impromptu disguise might work. He felt the pressure of a gun barrel against his ribs. Then again, it might not.
“Outside, Lord. Mr. Dimitri’s upset that you didn’t keep your appointment.”
“Yeah?” Casually, he swirled the whiskey in his glass. “Thought I’d have a couple of drinks first, Remo, must’ve lost track of time.”
The barrel dug into his ribs again. “Mr. Dimitri likes his employees to be prompt.”
Doug downed the whiskey, watching in the mirror behind the bar as the two other men took position behind him. Already the blonde was backing off to look for an easier mark. “Am I fired?” He poured another glass and figured the odds. Three to one, they were armed, he wasn’t. But then, of the three of them, only Remo had what could pass for a brain.
“Mr. Dimitri likes to fire his employees in person.” Remo grinned and showed perfectly capped teeth under a pencil-thin moustache. “And he wants to give you real special attention.”
“Okay.” Doug placed one hand on the whiskey bottle, the other on the glass. “How about a drink first?”
“Mr. Dimitri doesn’t like drinking on the job. And you’re late, Lord. Real late.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s a shame to waste good booze.” Whirling, he tossed the whiskey into Remo’s eyes and swung the bottle into the face of the suited man at his right. With the impetus of the swing, he ran headlong into the third man so that they fell backward onto the dessert display. Chocolate soufflé and rich French cream flew in a symphony of high-caloric rain. Wrapped around each other like lovers, they rolled into the lemon torte. “Terrible waste,” Doug muttered and pushed a handful of strawberry mousse into the other man’s face. Knowing the element of surprise would wear out quickly, Doug used the most expeditious means of defense. He brought his knee up hard between his opponent’s legs. Then he ran.
“Put it on Dimitri’s tab,” he called out as he pushed his way through tables and chairs. On impulse, he grabbed a waiter, then shoved him and his loaded tray in Remo’s direction. Roast squab flew like a bullet. With one hand on the brass rail, he leapt over and scrambled for the door. He left the chaos behind him and broke into the street.
He’d bought some time, but they’d be behind him again. And this time, they’d be mean. Doug headed uptown on foot, wondering why the hell you could never find a cab when you needed one.
Traffic was light on the Long Island Expressway as Whitney headed into town. Her flight from Paris had landed at Kennedy an hour behind schedule. The back seat and trunk of her little Mercedes were crammed with luggage. The radio was turned up high so that the gritty strains of Springsteen’s latest hit could ricochet through the car and out the open window. The two-week trip to France had been a gift to herself for finally working up the courage to break off her engagement to Tad Carlyse IV.
No matter how pleased her parents had been, she just couldn’t marry a man who color-coordinated his socks and ties.
Whitney began to sing harmony with Springsteen as she tooled around a slower-moving compact. She was twenty-eight, attractive, moderately successful in her own career while having enough family money to back her up if things got really tough. She was accustomed to affluence and deference. She’d never had to demand either one, only expect them. She enjoyed being able to slip into one of New York’s posher clubs late at night and find it filled with people she knew.
She didn’t mind if the paparazzi snapped her or if the gossip columns speculated on what her latest outrage would be. She’d often explained to her frustrated father that she wasn’t outrageous by design, but by nature.
She liked fast cars, old movies, and Italian boots.
At the moment, she was wondering if she should go home or drop in at Elaine’s and see who’d been up to what in the past two weeks. She didn’t feel jet lag, but a trace of boredom. More than a trace, she admitted. She was nearly smothered with it. The question was what to do about it.
Copyright 2002 by Nora Roberts