Tripwire


Chapter 2

  "'IT'S MY FAULT," Reacher said.

  Crystal shook her head.

  "You didn't kill the guy," she said.

  Then she looked up at him, sharply. "Did you?"

  "I got him killed," Reacher said. "Is there a difference?"

  The bar had closed at one o'clock and they were side by side on two chairs next to the empty stage. The lights were off and there was no music. No sound at all, except the hum of the air-conditioning running at quarter speed, sucking the stale smoke and sweat out into the still, night air of the Keys.

  "I should have told him," Reacher said. "I should have just told him sure, I'm Jack Reacher. Then he'd have told me whatever he had to tell me, and he'd be back home by now, and I could have just ignored it all anyway. I'd be no worse off, and he'd still be alive. "

  Crystal was dressed in a white T-shirt. Nothing else. It was a long T-shirt, but not quite long enough. Reacher was not looking at her.

  "Why do you care?" she asked.

  It was a Keys question. Not callous, just mystified at his concern about a stranger down from another country. He looked at her.

  "I feel responsible," he said.

  "No, you feel guilty," she said.

  He nodded.

  "Well, you shouldn't," she said. "You didn't kill him. "

  "Is there a difference?" he asked again.

  "Of course there is," she said. "Who was he?"

  "A private detective," he said. "Looking for me. "

  "Why?"

  He shook his head.

  "No idea," he said.

  "Were those other guys with him?"

  He shook his head again.

  "No," he said. "Those other guys killed him. "

  She looked at him, startled. "They did?"

  "That's my guess," he said. "They weren't with him, that's for sure. They were younger and richer than he was. Dressed like that? Those suits? Didn't look like his subordinates. Anyway, he struck me as a loner. So the two of them were working for somebody else. Probably told to follow him down here, find out what the hell he was doing. He must have stepped on some toes up north, given somebody a problem. So he was tailed down here. They caught up with him, beat out of him who he was looking for. So then they came looking, too. "

  "They killed him to get your name?"

  "Looks that way," he said.

  "Are you going to tell the cops?"

  Another Keys question. Involving the cops with anything was a matter for long and serious debate. He shook his head for the third time.

  "No," he said.

  "They'll trace him, then they'll be looking for you, too. "

  "Not right away," he said. "There's no ID on the body. And no fingerprints, either. Could be weeks before they even find out who he was. "

  "So what are you going to do?"

  "I'm going to find Mrs. Jacob," he said. "The client. She's looking for me. "

  "You know her?"

  "No, but I want to find her. "

  "Why?"

  He shrugged.

  "I need to know what's going on," he said.

  "Why?" she asked again.

  He stood up and looked at her in a mirror on the wall. He was suddenly very restless. Suddenly more than ready to get right back to reality.

  "You know why," he said to her. "The guy was killed because of something to do with me, so that makes me involved, OK?"

  She stretched a long, bare leg onto the chair he had just vacated. Pondered his feeling of involvement like it was some kind of an obscure hobby. Legitimate, but strange, like folk dancing.

  "OK, so how?" she asked.

  "I'll go to his office," he said. "Maybe he had a secretary. At least there'll be records there. Phone numbers, addresses, client agreements. This Mrs. Jacob was probably his latest case. She'll probably be top of the pile. "

  "So where's his office?"

  "I don't know," he said. " New York somewhere, according to the way he sounded. I know his name, I know he was an ex-cop. An ex-cop called Costello, about sixty years old. Can't be too hard to find. "

  "He was an ex-cop?" she asked. "Why?"

  "Most private dicks are, right?" he said. "They retire early and poor, they hang out a shingle, they set up as one-man bands, divorce and missing persons. And that thing about my bank? He knew all the details. No way to do that, except through a favor from an old buddy still on the job. "

  She smiled, slightly interested. Stepped over and joined him near the bar. Stood next to him, close, her hip against his thigh.

  "How do you know all this complicated stuff?"

  He listened to the rush of the air through the extractors.

  "I was an investigator myself," he said. "Military police. Thirteen years. I was pretty good at it. I'm not just a pretty face. "

  "You're not even a pretty face," she said back. "Don't flatter yourself. When do you start?"

  He looked around in the darkness.

  "Right now, I guess. Certain to be an early flight out of Miami. "

  She smiled again. This time, warily.

  "And how are you going to get to Miami?" she asked. "This time of night?"

  He smiled back at her. Confidently.

  "You're going to drive me," he said.

  "Do I have time to get dressed?"

  "Just shoes," he said.

  He walked her around to the garage where her old Porsche was hidden. He rolled the door open and she slid into the car and fired it up. She drove him the half mile north to his motel, taking it slowly, waiting until the oil warmed through. The big tires banged on broken pavement and thumped into potholes. She eased to a stop opposite his neon lobby and waited, the motor running fast against the choke. He opened his door, and then he closed it again, gently.

  "Let's just go," he said. "Nothing in there I want to take with me. "

  She nodded in the glow from the dash.

  "OK, buckle up," she said.

  She snicked it into first and took off through the town. Cruised up North Roosevelt Drive. Checked the gauges and hung a left onto the causeway. Switched on the radar detectors. Mashed the pedal into the carpet and the rear end dug in hard. Reacher was pressed backward into the leather like he was leaving Key West on board a fighter plane.

  SHE KEPT THE Porsche above three figures all the way north to Key Largo. Reacher was enjoying the ride. She was a great driver. Smooth, economical in her movements, flicking up and down the box, keeping the motor wailing, keeping the tiny car in the center of her lane, using the cornering forces to catapult herself out into the straightaways. She was smiling, her flawless face illuminated by the red dials. Not an easy car to drive fast. The heavy motor is slung out way behind the rear axle, ready to swing like a vicious pendulum, ready to trap the driver who gets it wrong for longer than a split second. But she was getting it right. Mile for mile, she was covering the ground as fast as a light plane.

  Then the radar detectors started screaming and the lights of Key Largo appeared a mile ahead. She braked hard and rumbled through the town and floored it again and blasted north toward the dark horizon. A tight curving left, over the bridge, onto the mainland of America, and north toward the town called Homestead on a flat, straight road cut through the swamp. Then a tight right onto the highway, high speed all the way, radar detectors on maximum, and they were at Miami Departures just before five o'clock in the morning. She eased to a stop in the drop-off lane and waited, motor running.

  "Well, thanks for the ride," Reacher said to her.

  She smiled.

  "Pleasure," she said. "Believe me. "

  He opened the door and stared forward.

  "OK," he said. "See you later, I guess. "

  She shook her head.

  "No you won't," she said. "Guys like you never come back. You leave, and you don't come back. "

  He sat in the warmth of her car. The motor popped and burbled. T
he mufflers ticked as they cooled. She leaned toward him. Dipped the clutch and shoved the gearshift into first so that she had room to get close. Threaded an arm behind his head and kissed him hard on the lips.

  "Good-bye, Reacher," she said. "I'm glad I got to know your name, at least. "

  He kissed her back, hard and long.

  "So what's your name?" he asked.

  " Crystal," she said, and laughed.

  He laughed with her and lifted himself up and out of the car. She leaned across and pulled the door behind him. Gunned the motor and drove away. He stood by himself on the curb and watched her go. She turned in front of a hotel bus and was lost to sight. Three months of his life disappeared with her like the haze of her exhaust.

  FIVE O'CLOCK IN the morning, fifty miles north of New York City, the CEO was lying in bed, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. It had just been painted. The whole house had just been painted. He had paid the decorators more than most of his employees earned in a year. Actually, he hadn't paid them. He had fudged their invoice through his office and his company had paid them. The expense was hidden somewhere in the secret spreadsheet, part of a seven-figure total for buildings maintenance. A seven-figure total on the debit side of the accounts, pulling his business down like heavy cargo sinks a listing ship. Like a straw breaks a camel's back.

  His name was Chester Stone. His father's name had been Chester Stone, and his grandfather's. His grandfather had established the business, back when a spreadsheet was called a ledger and written by hand with a pen. His grandfather's ledger had been heavy on the credit side. He had been a clock maker who spotted the coming appeal of the cinema very early. He had used his expertise with gearwheels and intricate little mechanisms to build a projector. He had taken on board a partner who could get big lenses ground in Germany. Together they had dominated the market and made a fortune. The partner had died young with no heirs. Cinema had boomed from coast to coast. Hundreds of movie theaters. Hundreds of projectors. Then thousands. Then tens of thousands. Then sound. Then CinemaScope. Big, big entries on the credit side of the ledger.

  Then television. Movie houses closing down, and the ones that stayed open hanging on to their old equipment until it fell apart. His father, Chester Stone II, taking control. Diversifying. Looking at the appeal of home movies. Eight-millimeter projectors. Clockwork cameras. The vivid era of Kodachrome. Zapruder. The new manufacturing plant. Big profits ticking up on the slow, wide tape of an early IBM mainframe.

  Then the movies coming back. His father dying, the young Chester Stone III at the helm, multiplexes everywhere. Four projectors, six, twelve, sixteen where there had been just one before. Then stereo. Five-channel, Dolby, Dolby Digital. Wealth and success. Marriage. The move to the mansion. The cars.

  Then video. Eight-millimeter home movies deader than the deadest thing that ever died. Then competition. Cutthroat bidding from new outfits in Germany and Japan and Korea and Taiwan, taking the multiplex business out from underneath him. The desperate search for anything to make out of small pieces of sheet metal and precision-cut gears. Anything at all. The ghastly realization that mechanical things were yesterday's things. The explosion of solid-state microchips, RAM, games consoles. Huge profits being made from things he had no idea how to manufacture. Big deficits piling up inside the silent software on his desktop machine.

  His wife stirred at his side. She blinked open her eyes and turned her head left and right, first to check the clock and then to look at her husband. She saw his stare, fixed on the ceiling.

  "Not sleeping?" she asked quietly.

  He made no reply. She looked away. Her name was Marilyn. Marilyn Stone. She had been married to Chester for a long time. Long enough to know. She knew it all. She had no real details, no real proof, no inclusion, but she knew it all anyway. How could she not know? She had eyes and a brain. It was a long time since she had seen her husband's products proudly displayed in any store. It was a long time since any multiplex owner had dined them in celebration of a big new order. And it was a long time since Chester had slept a whole night through. So she knew.

  But she didn't care. For richer, for poorer was what she had said, and it was what she had meant. Rich had been good, but poor could be good, too. Not that they would ever be poor, like some people are poor. Sell the damn house, liquidate the whole sorry mess, and they would still be way more comfortable than she had ever expected to be. They were still young. Well, not young, but not old, either. Healthy. They had interests. They had each other. Chester was worth having. Gray, but still trim and firm and vigorous. She loved him. He loved her. And she was still worth having, she knew that. Forty-something, but twenty-nine in her head. Still slim, still blond, still exciting. Adventurous. Still worth having, in any old sense of the phrase. It was all going to be OK. Marilyn Stone breathed deeply and rolled over. Pressed herself into the mattress. Fell back to sleep, five-thirty in the morning, while her husband lay quietly beside her and stared at the ceiling.

  REACHER STOOD INSIDE the departures terminal, breathing the canned air, his tan turning yellow in the fluorescence, listening to a dozen conversations in Spanish, checking a television monitor. New York was at the top of the list, as he had thought it would be. First flight of the day was Delta to LaGuardia, via Atlanta, in half an hour. Second was Mexicana heading south, third was United, also to LaGuardia, but direct, leaving in an hour. He headed to the United ticket desk. Asked about the price of a one-way coach. Nodded and walked away.

  He walked to the bathroom, and stood in front of the mirror. Pulled his cash roll from his pocket and assembled the price he had just been quoted from the smallest bills he had. Then he buttoned his shirt all the way up and smoothed his hair down with his palm. Walked back out and over to the Delta counter.

  The ticket price was the same as United's. He knew it would be. It always is, somehow. He counted the money out, ones and tens and fives, and the counter girl took it all and straightened the bills and shuffled them into denominations.

  "Your name, sir?" she asked.

  "Truman," Reacher said. "Like the president. "

  The girl looked blank. She was probably born overseas during Nixon's final days. Maybe during Carter's first year. Reacher didn't care. He had been born overseas at the start of Kennedy's term. He wasn't about to say anything. Truman was ancient history to him, too. The girl typed the name into her console and the ticket printed out. She put it in a folder with a red-and-blue world on it, then she tore it straight back out.

  "I can check you in right now," she said.

  Reacher nodded. The problem with paying cash for an airline ticket, especially at Miami International, is the war on drugs. If he had swaggered up to the desk and pulled his roll of hundreds, the girl would have been obliged to tread on a small secret button on the floor under her counter. Then she would have fiddled with her keyboard until the police came in, left and right. The police would have seen a big rough guy with a tan and a big wad of cash and figured him for a courier, straight off the bat. Their strategy is to chase the drugs, for sure, but to chase the money, too. They won't let you put it in the bank, they won't let you spend it without getting all concerned about it. They assume normal citizens use plastic cards for big purchases. Especially for travel. Especially at the airport desk twenty minutes before takeoff. And that assumption would lead to delay and hassle and paperwork, which were three things Reacher was always keen to avoid. So he had evolved a careful act. He made himself look like a guy who couldn't even get a credit card if he wanted one, like a down-on-his-luck insolvent roughneck. Buttoning the shirt and carefully fingering the small bills were what did it. It gave him a shy, embarrassed look. It put the counter clerks on his side. They were all underpaid and struggling with their own maxed-out plastic. So they looked up and saw a guy just a little farther down the road than they were, and sympathy was their instinctive reaction, not suspicion.

  "Gate B6, sir," the girl said. "I've given you
a window. "

  "Thanks," Reacher said.

  He walked to the gate and fifteen minutes later was accelerating down the runway with pretty much the same feeling as being back in Crystal 's Porsche, except he had a lot less legroom and the seat next to him was empty.

  CHESTER STONE GAVE it up at six o'clock. He shut off the alarm a half hour before it was due to sound and slid out of bed, quietly, so as not to wake Marilyn. He took his robe from the hook and padded out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen. His stomach was too acid to contemplate breakfast, so he made do with coffee and headed for the shower in the guest suite where it didn't matter if he made noise. He wanted to let Marilyn sleep, and he didn't want her to know that he couldn't. Every night she woke and made some comment about him lying there, but she never followed up on it, so he figured she didn't remember it by the morning, or else she put it down to some kind of a dream. He was pretty sure she didn't know anything. And he was happy to keep it that way, because it was bad enough dealing with the problems, without worrying about her worrying about them as well.

  He shaved and spent his shower time thinking about what to wear and how to act. Truth was he would be approaching this guy practically on his knees. A lender of last resort. His last hope, his last chance. Somebody who held the whole of his future in the palm of his hand. So how to approach such a guy? Not on his knees. That was not how the game of business is played. If you look like you really need a loan, you don't get it. You only get it if you look like you don't really need it. Like it's a matter of very little consequence to you. Like it's a fifty-fifty decision whether you even allow the guy to climb on board with you and share a little wedge of the big exciting profits just around the next comer. Like your biggest problem is deciding exactly whose loan offer you're even going to consider.

  A white shirt, for sure, and a quiet tie. But which suit? The Italians were maybe too flashy. Not the Armani. He had to look like a serious man. Rich enough to buy a dozen Armanis, for sure, but somehow too serious to consider doing that. Too serious and too preoccupied with weighty affairs to spend time shopping on Madison Avenue. He decided heritage was the feature to promote. An unbroken three-generation heritage of business success, maybe reflected in a dynastic approach to dressing. Like his grandfather had taken his father to his tailor and introduced him, then his father had taken him in turn. Then he thought about his Brooks Brothers suit. Old, but nice, a quiet check, vented, slightly warm for June. Would Brooks Brothers be a clever double bluff? Like saying, I'm so rich and successful it really doesn't matter to me what I wear? Or would he look like a loser?

  He pulled it off the rack and held it against his body. Classic, but dowdy. He looked like a loser. He put it back. Tried the gray Savile Row from London. Perfect. It made him look like a gentleman of substance. Wise, tasteful, infinitely trustworthy. He selected a tie with just a hint of pattern and a pair of solid black shoes. Put it all on and twisted left and right in front of the mirror. Couldn't be better. Looking like that, he might almost trust himself. He finished his coffee, dabbed his lips, and slipped through to the garage. Fired up the Benz and was on an uncongested Merritt Parkway by six forty-five.

  REACHER SPENT FIFTY minutes on the ground in Atlanta, then took off again and swung east and north toward New York. The sun was up out over the Atlantic and was coming in through the right-hand windows with the freezing brightness of high-altitude dawn. He was drinking coffee. The stewardess had offered him water, but he'd taken the coffee instead. It was thick and strong, and he was drinking it black. He was using it to fuel his brain. Trying to figure who the hell Mrs. Jacob could be. And why she had paid Costello to scour the country for him.

  They stacked up over LaGuardia. Reacher loved that. Low lazy circles over Manhattan in the bright morning sun. Like a million movies, without the soundtrack. The plane rocking and tilting. The tall buildings sliding by under them, tinted gold by the sun. The Twin Towers. The Empire State Building. The Chrysler, his favorite. Citicorp. Then they were looping around and diving for the north shore of Queens, and landing. The buildings of Midtown across the river raked past the tiny windows as they turned to taxi in to the terminal.

  HIS APPOINTMENT WAS for nine o'clock. He hated that. Not because of the time. Nine o'clock was halfway through the morning for most of the Manhattan business community. The hour was not upsetting him. It was the fact that he had an appointment at all. It was a very long time indeed since Chester Stone had made an appointment to see anybody. In fact he couldn't accurately recall ever making an appointment to see anybody. Maybe his grandfather had, in the very early days. Since then it had always worked the other way around. All three Chester Stones, be it first, second, or third, had secretaries who graciously tried to fit supplicants into a busy schedule. Many times people had waited days for a provisional window, and then hours in an anteroom. But now it was different. And it was burning him up.

  He was early, because he was anxious. He had spent forty minutes in his office reviewing his options. He had none. Whichever way he cut it, he was one-point-one million dollars and six weeks short of success. And that was choking him, too. Because it wasn't a spectacular crash and burn. Not a total disaster. It was a measured and realistic response to the market that was almost all the way there, but not quite. Like a heroic drive off the tee that lands an inch short of the green. Very, very close, but not close enough.

  Nine o'clock in the morning, the World Trade Center on its own is the sixth largest city in New York State. Bigger than Albany. Only sixteen acres of land, but a daytime population of 130,000 people. Chester Stone felt like most of them were swirling around him as he stood in the plaza. His grandfather would have been standing in the Hudson River. Chester himself had watched from his own office window as the landfill inched out into the water and the giant towers had risen from the dry riverbed. He checked his watch and went inside. Took an elevator to the eighty-eighth floor and stepped out into a quiet deserted corridor. The ceiling was low and the space was narrow. There were locked doors leading into offices. They had small rectangular wired-glass portholes set off center. He found the right door and glanced through the glass and pressed the buzzer. The lock clicked back and he went inside to a reception area. It looked like a normal office suite. Surprisingly ordinary. There was a brass-and-oak counter, an attempt at opulence, and a male receptionist sitting behind it. Chester paused and straightened his back and stepped over toward him.

  "Chester Stone," he said firmly. "I've got a nine o'clock with Mr. Hobie. "

  The male receptionist was the first surprise. He had expected a woman. The second surprise was that he was shown straight in. He was not kept waiting. He had expected to sit for a spell, out there in reception in an uncomfortable chair. That's how he would have done it. If some desperate person was coming to him for a last-ditch loan, he'd have let him sweat for twenty minutes. Surely that was an elementary psychological move?

  The inner office was very large. Walls had been removed. It was dark. One wall was all windows, but they were covered with vertical blinds, open no more than narrow slits. There was a big desk. Facing it were three sofas completing a square. There were lamp tables at each end of each sofa. A huge square coffee table in the middle, brass and glass, standing on a rug. The whole thing looked like a living room display in a store window.

  There was a man behind the desk. Stone started the long walk in toward him. He dodged between the sofas and crabbed around the coffee table. Approached the desk. Stuck out his right hand.

  "Mr. Hobie?" he said. "I'm Chester Stone. "

  The man behind the desk was burned. He had scar tissue all the way down one side of his face. It was scaly, like a reptile's skin. Stone stared away from it in horror, but he was still seeing it in the comer of his eye. It was textured like an overcooked chicken's foot, but it was unnaturally pink. There was no hair growing where it ran up over the scalp. Then there were crude tufts, shading into proper hair on the other side. Th
e hair was gray. The scars were hard and lumpy, but the skin on the unburned side was soft and lined. The guy was maybe fifty or fifty-five. He was sitting there, his chair pushed in close to the desk, his hands down in his lap. Stone was standing there, forcing himself not to look away, his right hand stuck out over the desk.

  It was a very awkward moment. There is nothing more awkward than standing there ready to shake hands while the gesture is ignored. Foolish to keep standing there like that, but somehow worse to pull your hand back. So he kept it extended, waiting. Then the man moved. He used his left hand to push back from the desk. Brought his right hand up to meet Stone's. But it wasn't a hand. It was a glittering metal hook. It started way up under his cuff. Not an artificial hand, not a clever prosthetic device, just a simple hook, the shape of a capital letter J, forged from shiny stainless steel and polished like a sculpture. Stone nearly went to grasp it anyway, but then he pulled back and froze. The man smiled a brief generous smile with the mobile half of his face. Like it meant nothing to him at all.

  "They call me Hook Hobie," he said.

  He sat there with his face rigid and the hook held up like an object for examination. Stone swallowed and tried to recover his composure. Wondered if he should offer his left hand instead. He knew some people did that. His great-uncle had had a stroke. The last ten years of his life, he always shook left-handed.

  "Take a seat," Hook Hobie said.

  Stone nodded gratefully and backed away. Sat on the end of the sofa. It put him sideways on, but he was happy just to be doing something. Hobie looked at him and laid his arm on the desktop. The hook hit the wood with a quiet metallic sound.

  "You want to borrow money," he said.

  The burned side of his face did not move at all. It was thick and hard like a crocodile's back. Stone felt his stomach going acid and he looked straight down at the coffee table. Then he nodded and ran his palms over the knees of his trousers. Nodded again, and tried to remember his script.

  "I need to bridge a gap," he said. "Six weeks, one-point-one million. "

  "Bank?" Hobie asked.

  Stone stared at the floor. The tabletop was glass, and there was a patterned rug under it. He shrugged wisely, as if he were including a hundred fine points of arcane business strategy in a single gesture, communicating with a man he wouldn't dream of insulting by suggesting he was in any way ignorant of any of them.

  "I prefer not to," he said. "We have an existing loan package, of course, but I beat them down to a hell of a favorable rate based on the premise that it was all fixed-amount, fixed-term stuff, with no rolling component. You'll appreciate that I don't want to upset those arrangements for such a trivial amount. "

  Hobie moved his right arm. The hook dragged over the wood.

  "Bullshit, Mr. Stone," he said quietly.

  Stone made no reply. He was listening to the hook.

  "Were you in the service?" Hobie asked him.

  "Excuse me?"

  "Were you drafted? Vietnam?"

  Stone swallowed. The burns, and the hook.

  "I missed out," he said. "Deferred, for college. I was very keen to go, of course, but the war was over by the time I graduated. "

  Hobie nodded, slowly.

  "I went," he said. "And one of the things I learned over there was the value of intelligence gathering. It's a lesson I apply in my business. "

  There was silence in the dark office. Stone nodded. Moved his head and stared at the edge of the desk. Changed the script.

  "OK," he said. "Can't blame me for trying to put a brave face on it, right?"

  "You're in relatively deep shit," Hobie said. "You're actually paying your bank top points, and they'll say no to any further funds. But you're doing a reasonably good job of digging yourself out from under. You're nearly out of the woods. "

  "Nearly," Stone agreed. "Six weeks and one-point-one million away, is all. "

  "I specialize," Hobie said. "Everybody specializes. My arena is cases exactly like yours. Fundamentally sound enterprises, with temporary and limited exposure problems. Problems that can't be solved by the banks, because they specialize, too, in other arenas, such as being dumb and unimaginative as shit. "

  He moved the hook again, scraping it across the oak.

  "My charges are reasonable," he said. "I'm not a loan shark. We're not talking about hundreds-of-percent interest here. I could see my way to advancing you one-point-one, say six percent to cover the six weeks. "

  Stone ran his palms over his thighs again. Six percent for six weeks? Equivalent to an annual rate of what? Nearly 52 percent. Borrow one-point-one million now, pay it all back plus sixty-six thousand dollars in interest six weeks from now. Eleven thousand dollars a week. Not quite a loan shark's terms. Not too far away, either. But at least the guy was saying yes.

  "What about security?" Stone asked.

  "I'll take an equity position," Hobie said.

  Stone forced himself to raise his head and look at him. He figured this was some kind of a test. He swallowed hard. Figured he was so close, honesty was the best policy.

  "The stock's worth nothing," he said quietly.

  Hobie nodded his terrible head, like he was pleased with the reply.

  "Right now it isn't," he said. "But it will be worth something soon, right?"

  "Only after your exposure is terminated," Stone said. "Catch-22, right? The stock only goes back up after I repay you. When I'm out of the woods. "

  "So I'll benefit then," Hobie said. "I'm not talking about a temporary transfer. I' m going to take an equity position, and I'm going to keep it. "

  "Keep it?" Stone said. He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. Fifty-two percent interest and a gift of stock?

  "I always do," Hobie said. "It's a sentimental thing. I like to have a little part of all the businesses I help. Most people are glad to make the arrangement. "

  Stone swallowed. Looked away. Examined his options. Shrugged.

  "Sure," he said. "I guess that's OK. "

  Hobie reached to his left and rolled open a drawer. Pulled out a printed form. Slid it across to the front of the desk.

  "I prepared this," he said.

  Stone crouched forward off the sofa and picked it up. It was a loan agreement, one-point-one million, six weeks, 6 percent, and a standard stock-transfer protocol. For a chunk that was worth a million dollars not long ago, and might be again, very soon. He blinked.

  "Can't do it any other way," Hobie said. "Like I told you, I specialize. I know this comer of the market. You won't get better anyplace else. Fact is, you won't get a damn thing anyplace else. "

  Hobie was six feet away behind the desk, but Stone felt he was right next to him on the sofa with his awful face jammed in his and the glittering hook ripping through his guts. He nodded, just a faint silent movement of his head, and went into his coat for his fat Mont Blanc fountain pen. Stretched forward and signed in both places against the cold hard glass of the coffee table. Hobie watched him, and nodded in turn.

  "I assume you want the money in your operating account?" he asked. "Where the other banks won't see it?"

  Stone nodded again, in a daze.

  "That would be good," he said.

  Hobie made a note. "It'll be there in an hour. "

  "Thank you," Stone said. It seemed appropriate.

  "So now I'm the one who's exposed," Hobie said. "Six weeks, no real security. Not a nice feeling at all. "

  "There won't be a problem," Stone said, looking down.

  Hobie nodded.

  "I'm sure there won't," he said. He leaned forward and pressed the intercom in front of him. Stone heard a buzzer sounding faintly outside in the anteroom.

  "The Stone dossier, please," Hobie said into the microphone.

  There was silence for a moment, and then the door opened. The male receptionist walked over to the desk. He was carrying a thin green file. He bent and placed it in front
of Hobie. Walked back out and closed the door quietly. Hobie used his hook to push the file over to the front edge of the desk.

  "Take a look," he said.

  Stone crouched forward and took the file. Opened it up. There were photographs in it. Several big eight-by-tens, in glossy black and white. The first photograph was of his house. Clearly taken from inside a car stopped at the end of his driveway. The second was of his wife. Marilyn. Shot with a long lens as she walked in the flower garden. The third was of Marilyn coming out of her beauty parlor in town. A grainy, long-lens image. Covert, like a surveillance photograph. The fourth picture was a close-up of the license plate of her BMW.

  The fifth photograph was also of Marilyn. Taken at night through their bedroom window. She was dressed in a bathrobe. Her hair was down, and it looked damp. Stone stared at it. To get that picture, the photographer had been standing on their back lawn. His vision blurred and his ears hummed with silence. Then he shuffled the pictures together and closed the file. Put it back on the desk, slowly. Hobie leaned forward and pressed the tip of his hook into the thick paper. He used it to pull the file back toward him. The hook rasped across the wood, loudly in the silence.

  "That's my security, Mr. Stone," he said. "But like you just told me, I'm sure there won't be a problem. "

  Chester Stone said nothing. Just stood up and threaded his way by all the furniture and over to the door. Through the reception area and into the corridor and into the elevator. Down eighty-eight floors and back outside, where the bright morning sun hit him in the face like a blow.