International smuggling made for strange bedfellows, and on this hot July night, in a tiny Hamburg restaurant, the promise of large sums of money changing hands had brought together a cultural melting pot of thieves, liars, and killers.
Gathered around a small table were two elegant Iraqi men with a large briefcase that never left their sight; a long-legged, big-busted, blond, blue-eyed Finn acting as a liaison for the German who should've shown up fifteen minutes ago; and himself.
Tonight, Griffith Laughton was playing the part of the arrogant American with all the money: his dark hair perfectly styled, his black suit immaculate, his little round glasses making him appear every inch the ambitious young businessman.
Griffith held back a small smile. He loved being in the thick of it again and operating on his own script. There'd be bitching about it at headquarters later, but as long as he got the job done, and got his team out in one piece, Ben Sheridan would go easy on him.
Especially if he managed to reel in von Lahr.
Seated between the tense Finn and the equally tense Iraqi smugglers, Griffith didn't miss how their gazes kept straying to the leather briefcase tucked firmly between his ankles. Nor could he miss the fact that somebody was going to explode if von Lahr didn't make his appearance soon or his lover, Annamari Hakkinen, didn't get the show rolling.
The little restaurant was dark and mostly empty, except for a couple cooing at each other behind him; the cheerful, redheaded waitress folding napkins at the next table; and the bald-headed bartender polishing his bar. The bartender's massive shoulders eliminated his neck, which, along with his curling handlebar mustache, gave him the look of a turn-of-the-century circus strongman.
Catching Griffith's gaze, the bartender nodded politely -- but didn't look away. And he was sweating.
That wasn't good.
Holding back a frown, Griffith turned to the blonde and said, in German, "Your associate is late. How much longer do you expect me to wait? I have other appointments this evening."
Although Annamari gave him a dazzling smile, it didn't reach her cool blue eyes. "I fear Rainert must have been unavoidably delayed. Perhaps we should continue without him."
With no signal as yet from his lookouts, Griffith already anticipated von Lahr would be a no-show. He hadn't assumed it would be this simple to run to ground one of the most notorious art and antiquities thieves in all of Europe, but he wouldn't have minded catching a bit of blind luck for a change.
"But that was not part of our deal," he said, pretending not to notice the growing agitation of the two Iraqi men, al-Shadri Senior and al-Shadri Junior, as he thought of them. "Our deal was that von Lahr would be here to handle the final details."
Annamari's annoyance leaked through her encore smile, but Griffith had to admit von Lahr's excellent taste in arm candy. Then again, the man was an art thief; he had an eye for the exquisite.
"I believe we shall have to alter the plans, and I will act in Rainert's place." Annamari, her expression flat, looked directly at al-Shadri Senior. "I realize it is not your habit to do business with a woman, but unless you wish to leave this place tonight without what you came for, you have no choice."
The Iraqi men hadn't bothered hiding the fact that they disliked having to conduct their business in the presence of a woman -- even worse, a European woman. Yet despite the palpable disdain, the younger Iraqi had been eyeing Annamari with an insulting sexual interest.
Al-Shadri Senior, however, hadn't taken his attention off Griffith since he'd walked into the restaurant -- which he could play to his advantage, if necessary.
"You must give me an answer now or this meeting is terminated," Annamari said after a short silence.
Her ultimatum didn't sit well with al-Shadri Junior, who turned, thin-lipped, to his companion and spoke in a low voice.
Ibrahim al-Shadri and his nephew Yousef were members of the notorious al-Shadri clan. The tribe was in the thick of looting and smuggling ancient artifacts, which the current upheaval in Iraq made frustratingly easy. Griffith knew they were extremely dangerous, even before Yousef spelled it out in a few concise, quiet words.
Unfortunately for Junior, Griffith understood and spoke a number of Middle Eastern dialects. "Shooting us and taking the money just isn't a good idea," he said pleasantly, enjoying their startled expressions. "Bad for business. Seriously."
Senior recovered quickly, smiled, and said in heavily accented German, "Forgive my nephew. He is young and rash -- and justifiably angry. We have come here tonight at a great risk and were assured there would be no problems. Yet our contact is not here, and now you, Mr. Laughton, speak of leaving as well. I am not pleased with how the transaction is progressing. And I do not feel comfortable in this open place. We should return to my hotel room, where we will have more privacy."
Annamari frowned, and Griffith decided enough was enough.
"You don't trust me?" he asked al-Shadri Senior, his tone pitched low, friendly. "You think I'm armed? Wired?"
Senior shrugged elegantly. "It is a dangerous business we are in, this is true. Who can afford to trust blindly?"
"So how about you see for yourself that I'm clean?" Griffith stood, slipping off his suit coat and tossing it casually on his chair -- and over the briefcase that held no money at all.
Annamari muttered, "Goddamn American cowboy!" then snapped, "What are you doing? Sit down! I am the one in charge here!"
"Everyone wants the money, right?" Griffith tugged his tie loose, then tossed it on his coat. "And since I'm the one with the money, that makes me the one in charge."
As al-Shadri Junior made a hiss of annoyance, Griffith started unbuttoning his shirt -- and he saw the moment Annamari understood his intentions. Her beautiful, cold eyes widened.
"You cannot do this, not here," she said from between clenched teeth as the shirt joined the suit coat and tie.
He was unfastening his belt as she added more urgently, "Mr. Laughton, please stop this at once!"
"I don't think so." He gave her the act she expected, an arrogant wink and an equally arrogant smile. "We're just getting to the fun part. C'mon, honey, have a little fun. You people are way too serious."
Al-Shadri Senior gave a low and appreciative chuckle that echoed loudly in the silence of shock that had fallen over the small restaurant.
Got you, you miserable bastard.
His impromptu act garnered Griffith a rapt audience. The red-haired server was frozen in mid-napkin fold, staring. The couple at the next table, a boyish blond and a cute brunette, stopped their annoying giggles and love talk long enough to exchange startled glances, and the girl squeaked in stilted German, "What are you doing?"
"Isn't it obvious, sweetheart?" Griffith asked, his grin widening as the brunette's mouth dropped open.
Annamari had had enough. She stood, grabbing his arm, the talons of her nails sinking into the muscle of his bare biceps with a pain that was sharp and pleasant. "Idiot! You're going to ruin everything! You -"
"Be quiet and sit down," Griffith said, keeping his tone friendly but with enough edge that her mouth opened, then shut, and she sat back down.
He hopped onto the table, and every gaze in the place was focused on him.
"See? No wires."
Turning around slowly, Griffith kept his teasing grin trained on al-Shadri Senior, who looked torn between lust and embarrassment. His dark eyes kept straying to where Griffith played his fingers along the zipper of his pants.
"Take it all off!" called the tiny brunette from the next table. "Don't be shy now -- let it all hang out."
Annamari looked ready to have a meltdown, and there was a glint of fear in her eyes. Probably fear of him as much as fear of what von Lahr would do to her if she botched the transaction.
He almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
Griffith kept al-Shadri Senior's attention on him and slipped his hand down the front of his pants. The younger Iraqi stood, swearing in a rapid string of words, and beside him Annamari gasped and said weakly in English, "Oh, my God..."
Whether that was because of the gun she felt at the back of her head, held there by the redheaded waitress, or because of what he'd hauled out from inside his pants, Griffith didn't know or care.
"You look disappointed." He smiled as he aimed his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum at Ibrahim al-Shadri's astonished face. "Expecting something else, were you? And here I thought I was being so clever. I'm hurt you don't appreciate my humor."
"Goddammit," snarled the tiny brunette, who had her gun pressed against Yousef's back. "That was not the fuckin' plan, you asshole!"
"I improvised," Griffith said, smiling at Diva's show of temper before turning to her 'boyfriend.' "Hey, you -- rookie. Tie up Senior here. And do it carefully. Both he and Junior are armed to the teeth."
"The name's Perry," the new kid grumbled, even as he efficiently disarmed al-Shadri, tied his wrists together, then pushed him onto the floor beside his bound nephew and Annamari Hakkinen.
Her eyes were still glazed with shock, but she was beginning to understand what had just happened.
"You don't look like cops," she said in English, and her full, pink mouth curled in disgust.
"Really?" Griffith reached for his belt.
"Cops have a look to them." Annamari leaned back, affecting an air of unconcern that Griffith didn't buy. "In the way they move, the way they watch people. You don't look like that."
Griffith smiled. "Nope, not a cop."
"You're Avalon, aren't you?" She was watching him carefully. "Rainert told me about you."
"Right. And speaking of von Lahr, where is he?" Griffith hopped off the table and crouched down beside her. Even in a situation like this, it did his masculine ego good to see that she was checking out his chest.
"He knows you are after him. He told me he has been playing games with you for a long time. So don't be so arrogant: you failed."
Griffith leaned close, so close that her attempt at bravado withered and her smile faltered. "I'm not the one going to prison, Annamari," he said softly. "Or taking the fall for somebody else."
"True." She was trying to tough it out, but not very convincingly. "But he made a fool out of you. If nothing else, that makes me feel a little better."
"So all along he was playing us. Again." Diva, tying back her dark hair, scowled as she stared down at the two Iraqi men sitting trussed up at her feet. "That won't go over well with HQ. I sure as hell hope what we came for is in that briefcase."
"Let's find out." Griffith had pulled on his shirt, but left it open. He retrieved the briefcase the two Iraqi smugglers had brought and carefully opened it.
A rich gleam of old, beaten gold lay within, fragile and thin, amid beads of lapis lazuli and carnelian and amber. The princess's headdress was shaped like a flower and etched with lifelike details, and her necklaces, earrings, and bracelets were there as well.
"The Ur-Nammu treasure." Griffith turned to the two men stewing in impotent rage on the floor. "These little trinkets are over four thousand years old and rightfully belong to the people of Iraq. Shame on you for fuckin' over your country. But if I couldn't on greed as surely as on the sun rising and setting, I wouldn't have a job now, would I?"
Leibowitz, the redhead, leaned over for a look and gave a low whistle. "Bingo. Good job, Grif. Even if you didn't follow the plan. And even if von Lahr got away again."
"That bastard," Annamari whispered. "He set me up from the start."
"And you're only now figuring this out?" Diva let out a derisive snort. "Let me tell you something about your boyfriend. His M.O. is to find a pretty girl with big tits and tiny brains to do his dirty work for him. Then when the law arrives, as it always does, he disappears and leaves her to take the fall. You're bimbo number nine -- that we know of, anyway."
Leaning back, she added, "And not all of them survive. Of course, no one can prove he was responsible for killing any of them. You still feeling all smug and clever?"
Annamari said nothing.
Griffith shut the briefcase. "Okay. We got what we came for. Time to move out."
"Answer me a question first." The rookie, Perry, stepped in front of him. "We have a few seconds before the police get here. Right?" He glanced at the "bartender," Kurt, who was actually one of the local cops and their inside edge with the Hamburg police.
"They are on the way," said Kurt.
"Okay, I'll make it quick. Tell me why you did...that." Perry motioned at Griffith's open shirt and unbuckled belt. "I mean, shit! You wouldn't have stripped bare-ass naked, right? And you wouldn't have...you know, gone and done anything with that little bastard over there. Right?"
God save him from naïve rookies. He'd never been that clueless, had he? "I do whatever it takes to get the job done," Griffith answered flatly.
The kid frowned. "That's not really an answer. I -"
"Sure it is."
"No, it's not. Look, I hear these stories about you, and I figure they can't be real. There -" Perry froze, his face paling and eyes widening as he looked down at the knife Griffith had against his belly. "Jesus! Where the hell did you pull that from? Your ass?"
Griffith laughed; he couldn't help it. "No, it's yours. Next time, pay more attention." He tossed Perry's knife back at him, and the kid nearly fumbled it. "Even if you're with someone you trust."
"So that's your answer?"
"It's all the answer you'll ever need," Griffith said, although he could tell the kid still didn't get it. "Think about it some more and it'll make sense. If it doesn't, you might consider another line of work."
Diva laughed, and Griffith exchanged grins with her before turning back to the red-faced Perry. "In the meantime, remember rule number one: Get the job done, no matter what. It's the only rule people like us live by."
"It is time, as you say, to ride into the mist," Kurt interrupted, in his rumbling voice. "My people are on the way. You must go now."
Griffith had already picked up the sound of distant sirens.
"Yup," said Leibowtiz cheerfully. "Time for our disappearing act, boys and girls, and we get to take --"
The sound of windows shattering cut across her voice, followed by rounds chambering, feet running, soft curses from his team, and the panicked shouts of the prisoners.
Diva had pushed the Iraqi men down, and Perry, closest to the woman, shielded her with his own body.
"Sniper fire!" yelled Kurt, ducking behind the bar.
Sonofabitch. It had to be von Lahr.
"Leibowitz, help Diva and Kurt get the Iraqis behind the bar," Griffith ordered. He grabbed the briefcase with the fragile, priceless treasures. "And stay away from the windows. I'll help Perry move the girl and -"
Perry slumped forward, silent and still, when Griffith grabbed his shoulder.
"Goddammit," Griffith whispered.
The kid was dead. A bullet had pierced his heart, killing him instantly. Beneath him, Annamari was dead as well, a neat hole through the center of her forehead.
"Oh, Jesus," Leibowitz whispered. "Is he...is Perry dead?"
Griffith nodded, and when she turned to run outside, he grabbed her arm. "Forget it. He's long gone."
"How did this happen?" Her voice shook with anger. "We should've known, we should've been prepared --"
"We were, and I had safeguards in place." Griffith caught Diva's grim expression and suddenly, deep inside him, something snapped. Cold flooded him from head to toe. "It seems...they're no longer in place."
He stood, and before he even reached the door Diva was yelling, "Griffith, don't! You can't go out there either, and...Ah, shit!"
The restaurant door shut behind him. Moving fast, unmindful of his open shirt that didn't hide the gun he'd shoved into his back waistband, Griffith dodged between cars, ignoring the irate honking, and slammed open the door of the hotel across from the restaurant.
People stared as he run past them. Not bothering with the elevator, he took the stairs two at a time until he reached the floor where his lookouts had been stationed to keep watch on the front of the restaurant.
Banging on the door, he shouted their names, even though he knew they were beyond answering. Then he kicked the door in, gun drawn and ready.
It was dark, but he could smell the blood.
Carefully, he switched on the light.
Both his lookouts were lying on the floor, dead. Ramirez was sprawled on his back, staring lifelessly up at the ceiling, but Bouchet was positioned at the window as if still on watch, his rifle propped against the wall.
In his back, hilt-deep through a sheet of blood-stained paper, was a hunting knife.
Rage ripping through him like a white-hot fire, Griffith yanked the paper loose. Written in English in bold, aggressive black ink was:
Tag! You're it.
R. von Lahr
For a split second, his mind blanked under the force of his fury, and when the haze had slowly cleared, he became aware of a burning pain in his left hand.
Looking down, he saw that he'd punched a hole through the dresser mirror. Blood and tiny shards of glass covered his knuckles.
At a sound from the doorway, he whipped him around, gun drawn.
Diva raised her hands, her face pale. "It's just me! Just me."
Griffith lowered the gun, not really seeing her as she ran in, not really hearing her gasps of shock and grief, her questions, increasingly louder and sharper.
Tag! You're it.
Five years later...
Friday, 9:10 A.M.
Griffith Laughton ducked into a downtown Seattle phone booth, glad to be out of the cold drizzle that made his back ache like a bitch. He went through the routine with the calling card, punching in a number he'd memorized a few days ago, and waited only seconds before a familiar voice answered softly, "Sheridan."
"It's Laughton. I'm heading to Sea-Tac. Any last-minute instructions or updates?"
"No new updates. The target is there, we're sure of it, and we know von Lahr was recently spotted in the States. There's a good chance he'll be close by as well. You're not going to have a lot of time on this one -- and I want that woman kept safe."
"Understood." Griffith leaned back, frowned at a prickling of pain, then shifted to take the weight off the still-tender scars.
"Whatever you do, make sure she stays in your sight at all times. If von Lahr gets to her first, he'll use her as leverage. And if that happens --"
"Got it. You don't need to spell it out."
"You have everything you need? You know what the woman looks like? Where she -"
Griffith laughed. "Ben, stop acting like my mother, for Chrisssake. I'm feeling good; no problems except an ache or two. I haven't forgotten how to do my job. I got shot in the back, remember? Nothing's wrong with my head."
His boss sighed. "Sorry. I'm still reacting to the fact we nearly lost you. It was a close call."
Hell, yeah. Tangling with the violent clans outside Al-Fajr was always dangerous, and this last chase had nearly ended in disaster. Nothing like being ambushed by a fourteen-year-old with an assault weapon to prove that the world was going to hell all around him.
Lately he'd started to think that if he died without ever having retrieved another cuneiform tablet or another cylinder seal, he'd die a happy man.
To put Ben's mind at ease, he said, "I've got this covered. Kennedy's a cute little redhead with lots of freckles. She's a genius when it comes to Marlowe, and the file you gave me lists more details about her life than she'd like any stranger to know. She sells antique books out of an old Victorian house near USC; address committed to memory."
"Take it easy on giving her information. The less she knows, the better."
The manuscript in his briefcase was a brilliant fake that had cost a gullible and very wealthy man a lot of money. Its only real value was as a lure to draw their target out into the open. Once they had him, they'd have the information they needed to put a long-standing group of forgers out of business for good. Their anonymous tipster claimed that the fake manuscript contained a coded message only Fiona Kennedy could spot, which was why Griffith was headed to L.A.
Ben was skeptical about the coded message, but if it would bring von Lahr out of hiding, he didn't care if that tip was true or not.
Still, dangling an innocent woman as bait was risky, even if the chance of harm coming to her was minimal.
"For the record," he told his boss, "I don't like this plan."
"Nor do I, but we don't have much of a choice. I'm calling a few others to the Torrance office to back you up. I can't pull Kemal out of Iraq right now, but Diva's in Milan working with the Carabinieri on the Pompeii looting incident and Rico's in Amsterdam. I can bring those two back, though it'll be a couple of days before they can get to L.A."
"Then make sure the Bayview room is ready. I'll take her there if things go bad, and arrange for a pickup at the airfield. And if our contacts in the LAPD and the Torrance office are on alert for trouble or any cleanup work, that'll be a big help."
"I'm already on that. And I've arranged to have a car waiting for you at LAX, in the usual place."
A large delivery truck whooshed by, spraying the phone booth with water from the predawn rainstorm, and Griffith peered through the bleary wet at the traffic on the streets and sidewalks. He liked Seattle, always had. If he ever settled down like a normal human being, he'd choose Seattle.
"I fuckin' hate L.A., Ben."
"It's better than Baghdad."
"Not by much," Griffith muttered. "I'm still thinking we won't catch our target like this. After all this time, why would he be so sloppy as to make a personal appearance where everybody will be looking for him?"
"We said the same thing about von Lahr, and yet those two yahoos from Wyoming nearly managed to do something we haven't despite fifteen years of trying with the best professionals on the job."
Griffith stared balefully outside the phone booth, barely registering the traffic as it sped past in blur of color and motion and streams of light: red in one direction, white in the other. "Dumb luck."
"If somebody nails the sonofabitch, it should be Avalon." Ben sounded impatient.
"It should be me. I've been hounding his ass for the past five years," Griffith replied.
"Just be careful. We don't want a repeat of what happened the last time we got this close to him."
"Not likely to forget." A brief image flashed to mind: the exploding glass, the blood, those three mocking little words: Tag! You're it.
The deaths still haunted him, constant reminders of the consequences of underestimating Rainert von Lahr.
"It's the first solid lead on him we've had in a long while. Since the Hamburg incident, there hasn't been a Western European sighting --"
"Confirmed sighting," Ben corrected, then sighed. "I still think he's operating out of South America, but he'll show up again, sooner or later, and when he does, we'll nail him. So get your ass on that plane and check in with me once you're in L.A."
"Will do." Griffith hung up.
He stepped out and pulled up the collar of his grandpa's old bomber jacket against the drizzle, then walked briskly to where he'd parked his rental car. By the time he slid into the driver's seat, his jeans were damp, his hair was dripping, and his glasses were rain-spotted. With the bottom of his navy silk tie, he wiped the droplets off his glasses, then put the car in gear.
With half his attention on the rain-grayed highway, Griffith replayed everything he'd read in the file that Ben Sheridan had given him the day before. The first thing he'd noticed was that Kennedy was pretty. Maybe she was a brainy chick, but in his experience it was the quiet ones you had to watch out for. And then there was the red hair. If the folklore was true, she'd have a temper.
Temper or no, spending a few days with her would be like a vacation compared with his usual jobs.
As long as nobody started shooting at them, anyway.
A familiar buzz of adrenaline pumped through him, despite an encroaching sense of dread that threatened to blunt its edge.
"Goddammit," he muttered. Then, as if to remind him that he wasn't as invincible as he'd once thought, his back pinched in pain again. "I'm getting too old for this."
Rainy November days were best for daydreaming, Fiona Kennedy decided, and she arranged herself in an indolent slouch at the desk of her Los Angeles bookstore. Norah Jones crooned from the CD player, and the piquant smell of brewing espresso mingled with the pungent scent of old rooms and even older books.
The accounting software seriously needed upgrading, but she couldn't seem to muster the energy to boot up the program, much less do all that point-and-click stuff. The gentle pattering on the windows, the soft whistle of wind, and the cozy dimness lulled her into a state of self-indulgence. The only way she could be more comfortable right now was if she could trade in her casual rust-colored pants and the soft, ivory silk turtleneck for jeans and a sweatshirt.
The awful tension of the past few weeks was gone, now that the lawyers had finally gotten Richard declared dead -- five years after he'd driven his car into a deep, fast-running river.
After years of searching for a body that had never turned up, and years of living in limbo, she was legally a widow, and the official stamp had lifted that last, shadowy weight off her shoulders. She could get on with her life without that thread of doubt holding her back and her friends no longer had any reason to rag on her about "hiding" herself away from the world.
As if. Just because Diana was recently married and Cassie looked to be heading in the same direction, they suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to pair her up.
The idea of getting married again didn't make her want to run screaming in the opposite direction, but she needed some time for herself before she started thinking in those terms again.
Still, men were figuring in her thoughts more frequently lately -- mostly as a physical itch of need. What she needed was a mindless fling, a few days or weeks of hot, guilt-free sex to clear the slate and get back into the groove. She was only thirty-six; there had to be lots and lots of grooves left for her to get back into.
Fiona settled farther back in her old leather desk chair, eyeing the dozens of brochures spread across her desk beside the new accounting software box she was trying to ignore.
Hmmm...work or play?
Work could wait. She shoved the software aside, leaving the colorful jumble of brochures to dominate the big oak desk.
Tahiti. Bahamas. Barbados. Caribbean. Jamaica. Oahu.
The names were like poetry: a cadence of the exotic, of blue seas and white beaches and warm winds, palm trees and lazy nights sipping fruity drinks in an outdoor bar with little white lights sparkling like stars.
Her daydreams had been of the tropical island flavor for months now, and today she'd pick a destination, book a plane ticket, and call Eddie to arrange for him to watch the store and feed her cat. Then she'd buy skimpy new clothes, maybe get her hair cut, and arrange for a facial, pedicure, and manicure before hopping on a plane and thoroughly indulging herself for two weeks straight.
"I want to go scuba diving," she murmured and was answered by a muffled meow from somewhere beneath her desk. "I wasn't asking your opinion, Faustus."
The cat emerged, a huge, pure black male that had left his tomcatting ways behind long ago and packed on some extra pounds. Snobby, contrary, lazy, and solely hers, he was alternately her daily companion and a furry pain in the ass. He stretched, face to the floor, butt and tail arched, and gave another rumbling meow.
Smiling, Fiona scratched his ears on the side, where he liked it best. "Not that you have any idea about these things, but all the girls who've vacationed on the islands tell me the scuba instructors are gorgeous...and easy. I need an affair, Faustus. A hot, totally self-indulgent affair."
Faustus twitched his tail and lumbered down the musty, narrow stacks crammed full of old British books, which she fondly called the British Aisles -- a pun too few people appreciated.
Outside, the wind picked up and the rain splattered against the windows with more force. They'd gotten more rain than usual this year, which was why the idea of sun-drenched tropical isles held such appeal. She had a feeling the lousy weather had also played a part in keeping business so slow this week.
She read through the brochures, weeding them out one by one until her choices had narrowed down to the Caribbean or the Bahamas. If the Caribbean really came with pirates like Captain Jack Sparrow, the choice would've been a no-brainer, but she kept coming back to the Bahamas brochures, which featured lots of diving tours and flashy shots of tanned, hard-bodied scuba instructors.
Fiona grinned. "The Bahamas it is then."
As she reached for the phone, it rang. She picked it up and said briskly, "Kennedy Antiquarian Books. How may I help you?"
Silence. She waited for a few seconds, certain she could hear someone breathing on the other end, then repeated, "Can I help you? Hello?"
The loud click of the line disconnecting was her answer. Fiona held the phone away from her, staring at it with exasperation for a moment before calling her travel agency. Fifteen minutes later, she had her trip booked for early January.
What better way to kick off this new phase in her life than starting the new year in an exotic locale she'd never visited before, and indulging in new experiences and adventures?
Several older women came in, browsed a short while, then left. After that, one of her regulars stopped by to pick up a first edition of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for quite a nice sum.
Fiona began dusting shelves -- a never-ending chore in this old heap of a place -- and was extravagantly flicking the feather duster along to the sweeping rhythm of Andrea Bocelli's magnificent voice when the door chimes tinkled, announcing another customer.
She turned and went still with amazement. Tall, blond, wearing an expensive leather duster, he had to be the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
Next to him she felt plain as mud, and it took her a moment to find her voice. "Hello. May I help you?"
The man put his umbrella in the stand by the door and smiled.
"Is there something in particular you're looking for?" she added.
"I'm not sure, thank you. I thought I would browse for a few minutes." His voice was masculine but not too deep -- a smooth, rich tone suited to his white-blond, blue-eyed good looks -- and held a faint accent.
"Take as much time as you'd like. If you have any questions, please ask."
"I'm on my way to a meeting and time is short, but I'm certain I will find something of interest here." His gaze caught hers, and as she tried not to stare, he smiled again. "Then I will return later. What time do you close?"
"I close at five on weeknights, but I'm open until seven on Saturdays, if you can't make it back by then."
He walked closer, and she admired the way he carried himself. Men this well-groomed and handsome were, alas, all too often gay, but this one -- this one radiated a sexuality that was most definitely for her benefit.
"Thank you. And might I say that I notice you have an accent. A lovely one. Irish, yes?"
"Yes, a transplanted Belfast girl. I can tell you're not from around here yourself. Are you in L.A. for business?"
"Ah, you notice! Then my English is not as good as I hope, despite all my practicing." He gave her a look of mock sorrow, and she couldn't help but smile back at him.
"Your English is very good, actually. I deal regularly with international customers, so I'm more attuned to it. I'm guessing Dutch. Or German."
"You have sharp ears." He made his way slowly toward the closest aisle, trailing a long, well-manicured finger along the worn and faded spines. "I'm a native Berliner, though business takes me all over the world. Even to great cities like Los Angeles."
"Are you a bookseller? Or are antique and collectible books a hobby?" Fiona asked, her gaze following him as he moved toward the case with several rare 18th century French political treatises.
"Old things are my business, as it so happens. Finding, selling...you have a nice selection here."
"Nothing shockingly valuable or rare, but yes," she said, pleased that he'd noticed. "It's a nice collection. I'm quite proud of it."
Fiona returned to her desk. Her customer made his way through a few more aisles, lingering now and then over display cases, and she remained acutely aware of his presence. Then, after ten or so minutes of browsing with no intent that she could discern, the man headed for the door.
"Nothing caught your eye?" she asked and then went warm as she realized how her words might sound to a man who looked like this. He probably had to fight off women on a daily basis.
"There is much here to catch my eye, as I thought, but not enough time to take advantage of it. I will be back before you close today. You can count on that."
An interesting turn of phrase.
He flashed another wide smile, said good-bye, and left.
Even if he was on the odd side, she hoped he would come back. If nothing else, admiring him as he wandered around would be an enjoyable way to pass the time.
Now that she thought of about it, perhaps he'd been trying to flirt with her in his own way. She'd met enough men from around the world to know that flirtation might be universal, but the cultural nuances surrounding it were not.
Fiona smiled ruefully. Yes, indeed, she had men on the brain. Still, how often did a guy who looked like that walk through her door? It'd likely never happen again.
By noon she'd made an appointment to attend an estate auction the following week because the executor had listed books, magazines, maps, and other antique paper items. Shortly after that, she'd sold a bundle of turn-of-the- century sheet music for a good sum to a visiting couple from Santa Barbara.
The customers had barely walked out the door when her phone rang. "Hello, Kennedy Antiquarian Books."
Again, she could hear someone on the other end of the line, breathing softly. Irritated, she slammed the cordless back on its stand.
Seconds later, the phone rang again.
Knowing it was best to ignore such pranks, Fiona didn't pick up this time. If it was a genuine call -- which she sincerely doubted, given the timing -- the answering machine would pick it up.
She couldn't ignore that tickle of unease as she listened to each ring until the machine switched on -- just in time to pick up the loud click of the disconnect.
As Fiona was contemplating whether to order Greek or Thai for lunch, her front door opened again on a whoosh of rain-scented wind and an airy tinkle of chimes.
Putting down the hideously dull software manual she'd been trying to read, she stood and smiled with what she hoped didn't look like desperate relief. "Hello! How may I help you today?"
"Hello," a cheerful, deep male voice responded, and then he turned from the umbrella stand.
Fiona straightened, resisting the urge to run a smoothing hand over her hair or glance at the dusty old mirror behind the desk and make sure she didn't have any lipstick smudges on her teeth.
Incredible. Two drop-dead gorgeous men, in one day. It had to be some kind of divine omen that her luck was on the upswing.
This man was tall and dark-haired. While not as untouchably perfect as her Berlin businessman, he had the sort of friendly, clean-cut, "brainy guy" good looks she'd always found irresistible. He wore round wire glasses, loose-fitting jeans, and a dress shirt with a conservative navy tie. Over that he had on what looked to be a genuine World War II-era flight jacket, which showcased a nice pair of broad shoulders.
His warm smile flashed beneath eyes made all the more blue by his dark hair. "I'm looking for Fiona Kennedy-McMahon."
"That would be me." Her smile faded, but only for a moment, and she walked around the desk toward him. "Can I help you find something? I handle a wide variety of antique books, as well as other collectibles. Are you here for something in particular?"
"I have a client who recently acquired a manuscript that's old and valuable and would like to hire you to evaluate it."
Fiona nodded. After discovering old books, maps, hand-tinted prints, or letters and records in an attic while settling a family estate, people frequently came to her to learn if any of them were worth money. Most of the time the items weren't particularly valuable, but every now and then true treasures turned up.
"Of course. I'd be happy to hear more about your client's manuscript, Mr. ...I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name?"
"Laughton." He smiled again, this time apologetically. "Griffith Laughton."
"Please have a seat, Mr. Laughton, and we'll talk. Can I get you some coffee? Soda? Bottled water?"
"That coffee smells great. I'll have a cup, thank you." He shifted his large, slightly worn briefcase and then sat in one of the two leather wingback chairs to the left of her desk. Most women, and more slightly built men, were swallowed up in the extravagant artifact of Robber Baron days, but Griffith Laughton looked right at home surrounded by all that worn oxblood leather and polished, carved mahogany.
Fiona turned to grab a clean mug. "Do you take cream or sugar?"
"Black is fine." As she was pouring, he asked, "Are you going on a vacation to the Bahamas?"
"I'm planning a trip, yes." Observant fellow. "May I ask your client's name, Mr. Laughton?"
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to divulge that information."
Startled, Fiona nearly spilled the last bit of coffee. This was rather unprecedented. She placed the cup on the edge of the desk near him, regarding him curiously. "Whoever it is must be familiar with me, since I haven't gone by the name Kennedy-McMahon since my husband's death five years ago."
He looked surprised, but quickly recovered. "I apologize for calling you by the wrong name. Is it Ms. Kennedy now?" When she nodded, he said, "My information comes from my client, who is familiar with your work regarding the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe."
"Ah. That would explain the name, then. I'm no longer in academics, Mr. Laughton. These days I'm in the business of selling books and manuscripts, not researching or writing journal papers on them."
"We're aware of that. However, my client feels you're the most qualified to evaluate this manuscript."
Anticipation, mixed with alarm, tingled through her. "Are you at liberty at least to divulge what kind of manuscript you'd like me to evaluate?"
"Under the condition that you don't speak of our conversation to anyone."
He certainly had her attention now -- and as he leaned closer, she caught the tantalizing smell of wind and rain, old leather and a darkly-scented cologne.
"Any business discussion between us will remain confidential, Mr. Laughton."
"My client has acquired what appears to be a lost manuscript by Christopher Marlowe and would like you to verify its authenticity."
Fiona dropped onto her desk chair with such force that its old springs squeaked in protest. "I don't believe I heard you correctly."
"Yes, you did. A lost Marlowe manuscript has turned up."
Before he even finished speaking, Fiona was shaking her head. "It's not possible. It must be a forgery. Or simply a mistake."
Either way she couldn't help him, and with an effort she squelched that flutter of academic curiosity and excitement -- so long buried, she'd almost forgotten what it had felt like.
"I'm flattered your client considered me for such a project, but as I said, I've been out of the academic loop for some time now, and I don't feel qualified for this sort of work. I could give you the names and numbers of several of my former colleagues, if that would be helpful to you."
Again surprise flashed across his face, and those strangely pale eyes widened behind his glasses. Obviously he hadn't expected her to decline. For that matter, she could hardly believe she had.
"My client doesn't want anyone else. I was given very specific instructions regarding this."
"I repeat, Mr. Laughton, that the chances of this manuscript turning out to be genuine are very slim." She picked up her coffee and took a quick gulp to ease the dryness in her mouth. "It would only be a waste of your client's time and mine. I'm sorry if my response will put you in an awkward position with your employer."
"Ms. Kennedy, no one expects you to be anything but skeptical, and while the circumstances under which my client acquired the manuscript are confidential, I was told to give this to you." Laughton pulled a file from his briefcase and slid it across her desk. "It's a photocopy, but it should give you an idea of what we're dealing with."
Fiona tried not to stare at the file, even as her fingers tingled with the need to pick it up.
A Marlowe...a lost Marlowe.
Poet, playwright, provocateur...Kit Marlowe had been her first crush. She'd lived and breathed the highs and lows of his short life, debated hotly with those who tried to pass off half-baked theories and fantasies as facts. When her school friends were squealing over the latest rock stars and movie idols, pinning magazine pictures on their walls, she'd been obsessed with a man dead for over four hundred years. In many ways, Marlowe had been a part of her life longer than her husband.
Now that the initial shock was fading, she couldn't help thinking it wouldn't hurt to take a quick look at this file. What if the manuscript was real? Could she ever forgive herself if she passed up the chance to see it? Or at least to be the first to see it?
"It has been such a long time." She couldn't keep the wistfulness out of her voice. "I'm afraid I'd be rather rusty at it."
"We're talking Elizabethan lit here, not rocket science." His tone was gently cajoling. "Not much about Marlowe could've changed in the few years since you left the university."
A valid point. And if she argued too much, he'd start asking questions about why she was so reluctant when she should've been leaping at the chance. The last thing she wanted was to dredge up that old scandal again. "All right. I'll look at it these papers you've gone to such trouble to bring to me, but no promises beyond that."
"There's no need to explain yourself to me. I'm just the messenger boy." He smiled again with friendly, wholesome charm. "I'll leave you alone to read this over. You'd probably prefer no distractions."
Not immune to the charm, Fiona smiled back. "Oh, that's not necessary. There's not much to do here and --"
"It's a bookstore, Ms. Kennedy, so I'll look at books."
"Yes, but --"
"And I promise not to touch the expensive ones." His good humor almost twinkled, and how could that be? People didn't really twinkle or sparkle, yet he'd seemed to brighten up the place simply by walking through the door. "Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself."
As he turned away, his hold on her snapped. Almost as if she'd been under a spell.
She shook off the odd sensation. Then, steeling herself for the disappointment she was certain would soon follow, she reached for the folder -- and noticed, to her dismay, how badly her hands were shaking.
The file contained only a few sheets of paper: Xerox copies, and not high quality ones. Or else the source material was in very poor shape, which wouldn't be unexpected either.
It took a moment to adjust to the old writing, with its spidery flourishes and quirky spelling; she'd grown used to perfect, computer-generated printouts. Yet it took only a moment before she slipped back into old habits, effortlessly reading the faded text:
Ay, pray for me, pray for me! And what noise soever ye hear, come not unto me, for nothing can rescue me and my soul is evermore lost to me.
"It's Faustus," she whispered.
And yet, it wasn't. There was an extra line: "And my soul is evermore lost to me" was in neither of the two surviving texts, the A version or the B version.
Leaning closer, frowning in concentration, she quickly skimmed to the ending, which she knew to be significantly different in the A and B versions. Again, this text was different. There were additional lines involving the devils taking Faustus away -- more aggressively than in the A version but not quite the gruesome dismemberment of the B version.
The changes, while small, were significant enough to add new shades of meaning. Nothing immediately screamed "forgery," but the teasingly few pages told her that this matter needed to be handled very carefully.
"Mr. Laughton," she called out, quite proud of how calm she sounded. Considering her pounding heart and sweating palms, she should've been squeaking as if she'd been sucking helium. "I believe I've seen enough."
"All right, then." Muffled by the stacks of heavy old books, his voice sounded distant. "We'll be there in a second."
Fiona raised a brow. "We?"
"I'm being stalked by a big, black cat."
She laughed. "That would be Faustus. Usually he ignores people."
"He's not ignoring me." Laughton emerged from behind the British Aisles and at his heels, trotting with more speed than his girth would seem to have allowed, came Faustus. "I think he's herding me."
Laughton halted, bending down to pat the cat, and Fiona couldn't help but notice how nicely the denim tightened around the hard contours of what her blunt friend Cassie would call "a fine piece of man ass."
"Faustus believes he owns this place and everyone in it," she said. "It's best to humor him."
"Do you bring your cat to the store, or does he live here?"
"I've been bringing him with me to the shop since he was a kitten. I didn't like the thought of him being alone in my apartment." A little embarrassing, admitting she'd been such a hopeless softy. "Fifteen pounds and four years later, Faustus continues to tolerate the kitty cage so he can lord it over the shop."
"And why'd you name your cat Faustus?"
"Because he's black as the depths of hell, with the devil's own curiosity, which gets him into scrapes. Besides, it's the perfect name for the cat of Marlowe fanatic."
Laughton sat again in the wingback chair by her desk, his smile fading to a more serious expression. "And so what's the verdict? Will you examine the rest of the manuscript for my client?"
There was no good reason to say no, despite the little voice warning her she was foolishly getting her hopes up.
"Yes. Marlowe was the great passion of my life -- I'd do anything for him." Knowing how that must've sound, she added, "And on a practical note, the timing couldn't be better. I wouldn't mind extra money for my trip in January."
The consultant fee would undoubtedly be quite nice, since only a very wealthy man could've acquired such a valuable manuscript.
Or a very rich woman.
It suddenly dawned on her how careful Laughton had been not to reveal the gender of his client. He made the omission seem so natural that she'd only now noticed it, but avoiding the casual "he' or "she" in a conversation wasn't natural at all. It required considerable effort.
Catching her questioning look, he asked, "Is something wrong?"
"You can drop the act, Mr. Laughton. You're too well-dressed and well-spoken to be a mere messenger."
"It's not an act. I'm --" He broke off, looking faintly annoyed. "All right, the truth is that I'm a lawyer, but I'm so low on the food chain that I get stuck with the jobs nobody else wants. So in all the ways that matter, I am just the errand boy."
That he was a lawyer would explain the artful turn of speech and the ease with which he'd obscured telling details.
Laughton plucked the folder off her desk. "I'm afraid I can't let you hold on to this. My client wants to keep the manuscript a secret until you've had your chance to determine whether or not it's genuine, so I can't have copies lying around for anyone to see."
With a sharp disappointment, Fiona watched him return the file to his briefcase. "Not that I have legions of Marlowe experts wandering through my shop, but I understand."
Laughton sighed. "I really am sorry...And I'm noticing that I keep apologizing to you. It's kind of embarrassing."
And endearing. Fiona's smile widened. "It's quite all right."
"Good to hear...and I'm glad to see you smile. You know, you have a really beautiful smile."
A warmth of pleasure washed over her, in defiance of her common sense. Hmmm; maybe she could trade in the scuba instructor for a fling with a sexy messenger boy. Griffith Laughton didn't look like the type who'd protest a friendly, discreet overture.
"You're a flirt, Mr. Laughton."
"A natural consequence of growing up with sisters." He grinned, and again the room seemed to brighten around him. "And if our relationship has progressed to that level, you'd better call me Griffith. Or Grif."
"Griffith it is, and you can call me Fiona."
"Just Griffith, huh?"
Still smiling, she added, "I don't believe we've progressed to Grif quite yet, even if you have just bought me like a cheap whore."
He laughed; a rich, chest-deep laugh that warmed her all over. She'd always let the man make the first move before, but maybe it was time to let go that habit as well.
Faustus meowed loudly and twined around Griffith's legs, which was surprising since he was very particular about the people on whom he bestowed his attention.
After Fiona shooed the cat away, Griffith asked, "What time do you close today?"
"At five. Why?"
"How about I meet you here after you close and take you out for dinner? Then you can ask me all the questions you'd like."
So much for her fledgling attempt at being more aggressive. "You seem quite devoted to your job."
He leaned forward with another of those irresistible smiles. "I wasn't thrilled about babysitting a file of papers, but the job's turning out to be much more interesting than I'd expected."
Her innate Irishness -- and plain old female intuition -- told her he was feeding her a line of blarney, yet he was so blatantly flirtatious that it was hard to be annoyed.
"I bet you say that to every antiquarian bookseller you meet."
He laughed again, and she noticed how his eyes crinkled at the corners and his cheeks grooved. "I don't meet many antiquarian booksellers. In fact, you're my first."
"Really? I feel so special."
How deliciously easy it was to flirt with him; something about him invited comfort, familiarity and warmth.
"And you should. You are very, very special." He leaned his elbow on her desk and propped his chin on his palm, those very blue eyes of his amused. "You are the prettiest woman I've seen in a long, long time. I can't get over all those freckles." His smile widened. "Do you have them everywhere?"
A sudden heat suffused her face, and Fiona was certain she was glowing red. "That's a rather personal question."
He had the sense to look sheepish. "Guess it's a guy thing. I can't help wondering if it's possible to count them all."
If anybody else had spoken so outrageously, she would've been alarmed, even angry. But, again, because he was so straightforward, her discomfort faded. Or it could have been that she was just used to this kind of teasing. Richard had often joked about her freckles; once, he'd even tried to count all the ones on her breast. Predictably, he'd gotten distracted and never finished.
"I'm still waiting for an answer about dinner, Fiona."
Hearing him say her name with such familiarity flustered her, but she managed to keep her tone professional. "I'd be happy to go out for dinner with you. It'll take me a few minutes to close the shop down for the night, so you should come back around a quarter-after-five, Mr. Laughton."
"I thought we were at Griffith."
"Until later, Griffith," she corrected herself, smiling. "And please let your client know that I am very grateful for this opportunity and that I hope the manuscript will turn out to be genuine."
He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something else. Instead, he gave her an odd little half smile. "Consider the message delivered. See you in a few hours."
Fiona watched him walk away, briefcase in hand. He'd been out the door for only seconds when she noticed he'd forgotten his umbrella. She quickly walked around the desk, intending to try to flag him down, but the phone rang.
She glanced from the phone to the door, then sighed and answered. "Hello, Kennedy Antiquarian Books."
There was no answer.
Oh, for...Not again! "This is the third time you've called me today, and my patience with you has reached its limit."
Nothing; only that same low, steady breathing.
"If you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, if you call again, I'm contacting the police."
The silence stretched on for a few seconds longer. Just as she was getting reading to slam the phone down, a muffled male voice said softly, "Don't get involved with the manuscript." Then the caller disconnected.
Fiona stared at the phone as alarm prickled across her skin, raising the fine hairs on her arms.
"Well," she murmured. "So much for them wanting to keep it a secret."
Hide In Plain Sight
Publisher: Pocket Books
Date: May 2006
Fiona Kennedy can tell a forgery from the genuine article in a snap. Drop-dead-sexy Griffith Laughton, however, is not so easy to read. He's clearly a masterpiece of the male variety -- and the attraction he sparks is definitely the real thing. But Grif is a man of secrets, and the potentially priceless manuscript he's asked her to appraise is just one of them. When it becomes clear someone is willing to kill for the manuscript, Grif reveals that he's a mercenary, hired to protect Fiona. Is he really who he seems, or is he just using her as bait? On the run from an unknown enemy, Fiona gives in to her all-consuming need for the man who may be her one chance for survival -- or her final chapter.
"A dangerous man, a clever woman, and a twisty, high-risk chase that kept me up half the night...hot, hot, hot!" – Julia Spencer-Fleming