Disclaimer: The characters of ‘The Equalizer do NOT belong to me, never have, never will, although I wish. L No copyright infringement intended.
The man slumped over onto his desk. A small puddle of blood stained the papers littering the desk. His killer leaned over his handiwork and placed a raven feather next to the body's head. The dead man wouldn't be discovered before the beginning of the next business day. The killer didn't worry about either betrayal or detection as he silently left the elaborately decorated office. The blood made an ever-widening pool on the desk. The victim's name was Walter de Vries.
When Robert McCall had first read about the bizarre murder on Wall Street, he hadn't thought too much about it. It seemed like another hit, albeit with a strange twist, but each hit man had his own trademark. This guy was more weird than most. When De Vries's widow had contacted him because she felt that the police were giving her the runaround, he’d had to think more about it. The surreal aspect was equaled only by the lack of evidence. His one conclusion: whoever had done the job was a real pro. There was no obvious or even devious motive.
McCall had pulled Mickey Kostmayer in on this one. The Company had nothing on de Vries, except a couple of shady deals with South Americans. They hadn't been illegal, just unscrupulous. This case was driving him nuts.
"Robert, are you still going over that case?" Anna Harris, soon to be Mrs. Robert McCall, looked at him with annoyance mixed with concern.
He smiled. "Yes. I suppose you're right."
"You know I'm right. Can you at least drop it for tonight? My brother is coming for dinner in about an hour, and I don't really think you’ll make a great impression on him if you were gloomily pondering this idiotic case."
The exasperation in her alto
voice chastised him. With seemingly husbandly submission, he answered, "Yes,
Anna's green eyes narrowed, and her cupid's bow mouth flattened. "Robert McCall, I wonder if I shouldn't call this wedding off."
She was only mock-threatening. He'd scored, and he knew it.
He was quietly surveying her as she walked into the kitchen of her apartment when the doorbell rang. Damn, he thought, Anna looks devastating in that dress. The sea-green silk clung to her voluptuous figure in all the right places; nipped in at the waist, it emphasized bosom and hip. He was enjoying the view, and somebody had to be at the door. He got up to answer. Hopefully, it would be brother Francis.
It was Mickey Kostmayer. "I've got bad news, McCall."
"Evening to you, Mickey."
Mickey walked past him into the living room. In his omnipresent fatigue jacket, well-worn jeans, and biker boots, Mickey clashed, loudly, with the calm and harmony induced by the Japanese-inspired decor.
"Well, colleague, what is it?"
"You know I couldn't tell you much about de Vries?"
"Right. Please get to the point."
“I decided to go for the hitter.” Mickey sat down on the low sofa and pulled a raven feather from the right-hand pocket of his field jacket. "This little calling card is the trademark of a former agent gone into business for himself. When he worked for the Company, he was codenamed Raven. Jenny pulled it out of the computer, and I thought she was going to lose it on the spot. Most of the info was classified top secret, so you might consider taking this to Control. If he'll tell you anything that's true, that is."
Robert understood Mickey's reticence about using Control as a source of information. The man, unfortunately, had a tendency to lie. He had done it consistently over the years, especially when he had any reason to cover the Company's tracks.
"This Raven apparently is an unpopular subject. When I give him the feather, Control’s reaction will tell me more than what he does or doesn’t say."
"Hello, Mickey. I thought I heard your voice." Anna stood just inside the living room. Mickey rose and handed Robert the raven's feather. She said, shuddering, "Oh, God, do you have to have that macabre thing in the apartment?"
"Sorry, Anna. It's our only clue to a professional hit man with a sick taste for Poe."
"He's crazy-weird.” She returned to the kitchen.
Mickey got up. "McCall, catch you later. Anna obviously doesn't want me hanging around. Enjoy your dinner." He saw himself out.
Katharine Weber was working late in her office. She was the high-powered in-house counsel for a major international corporation. A slim, attractive woman in her early forties, she was a barracuda in the boardroom. But Walter de Vries's death had shaken her up. He'd been part of the corporation, and she'd worked closely with him before he'd decided to set up his own practice in international law. They'd almost been friends.
She slammed her file cabinet shut and tried to forget about Walter. Weber turned slightly, thinking that she heard something. The file cabinet rattled as she fell against it and then slid to the office floor. Her killer left a raven feather beside her body.
The doorbell rang. Fast losing patience, Robert hoped that it was Anna's brother. The man was already twenty minutes late. Not that he enjoyed the ritual of meeting the family. Somewhere in the back of his mind was the thought that he was really too old for this. Scott would undoubtedly laugh at him.
Robert opened the door, only to be greeted by the ice blue eyes of Control. "What the hell are you doing here?" he asked, his voice a snarl.
"I can demand the same of you. This is my sister’s apartment," Control snapped in return, more from confusion than anger. He had two wine bottles with him.
Anna's slightly annoyed voice issued from the kitchen. "Francis, you're late. If the chicken is tough, it's your fault."
Closing his eyes, Robert waved Control in. Clearly, Anna had decided to announce her marriage and to introduce him simultaneously. Was it too late to call off the wedding? Control as a friend was one thing, but as a brother-in-law?
Oh, God, how did I get so lucky? More to the point, how did I not know? His mind shot back: Control is Control. If he doesn’t want you to know, you don’t know. A walking, talking paradox, a ruddy Daoist master.
Control was pouring the wine when Robert walked into the dining room. Anna had already placed the meal on the table and looked meaningfully at her brother. He replied, "I'm sorry, Anna, I got tied up at the office." He whispered to Robert, “It’s not as if I can tell the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to call back later.”
Robert merely wagged a hand, fingers splayed.
Anna desperately tried to make small talk, but she failed. Robert knew almost immediately that his fiancée hadn't a clue about what her brother did for a living, nor did she need to know. He could also see the war of calculation in Control’s eyes. I don’t work for you anymore, Old Friend. You can’t ship me off to Pakistan for an eternal case of prickly heat--as much as you would bloody like so to do.
Finally, Anna couldn't take it any longer. "What the hell is the matter with you two?" She glared at them.
There was a pounding on the front door. Robert got up to answer. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, this isn’t Penn Station.” He'd leave Control to deal with his sister. It was all his fault anyway. When he reached for the door, he could hear Control trying to pacify her. Mistake. That only makes her madder. At the sight of Mickey Kostmayer, he groaned, "Oh, Lord."
"There's been another Raven murder, McCall."
Mickey’s voice carried across the distance between the dining room and the living room. Both men heard the chink of crystal on china. They moved swiftly to the dining table and saw Control's ashen face.
Anna hovered and asked anxiously, "Francis, are you all right?"
Control didn't say a word. He got up from the table and gave the two men a piercing glance. "Be in my office at ten tomorrow morning." He left, slamming the front door behind him.
Mickey looked at Robert. "Francis, huh?"
The telephone rang loudly in
Anna's ear. Groggily, she reached for the receiver and looked at the clock. It
was nine fifteen. Robert had left almost thirty minutes ago. Whoever you are, go
away, she thought, as she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hello, Anna." The voice was deep and masculine.
Anna sat bolt upright in bed, sheet and blanket falling haphazardly around her. She recognized that voice. It wasn't one that she'd heard in a long while. "Edgar?"
Her middle brother was not a nice person, and she had always been slightly afraid of him.
"Yes, love. A little bird told me you're getting married to Robert McCall. Fine man. I used to work for the same Company as he. I would like to see you before the wedding."
"Of course, Edgar." Heart pounding, Anna couldn’t help but convey her apprehension. "Why don't you come for dinner tomorrow night. I'll invite Francis as well.”
"If you must." There was silence for a few moments before Edgar said, "Shall we say 8 o'clock?"
"That would be fine, Edgar. Is there anything that you would particular like for dinner?"
Anna groaned inwardly. Same old weird Edgar. "You've got it. See then tomorrow at 8 pm."
"And make sure your dim-witted son is not there."
"Sam is not a dim-wit." Her tone turned distinctly chilly. "And furthermore, he is off in summer school."
"I'm so happy for him. It beats reform school."
"You should know, Edgar.”
Control sat behind his desk and nursed his third mug of black coffee for the morning. It tasted like battery acid. The clear azure sky and bright spring sunshine did nothing to elevate his mood. In fact, his secretary had just declared that he was the biggest manic-depressive the Company had ever put in charge of a station. Had he considered Prozac? Even better, a twelve-ounce Jack ‘n ‘Zac? One every eight hours? She'd ranted and raved some more, but Control hadn't paid much attention to what she'd actually said. He was too worried about Raven.
Mickey, with McCall behind him, entered the office full of good humor. They had charged passed the poor secretary who had attempted to head them off, or at least, warn them. She had been unsuccessful. Mickey joked, "Good morning, Francis. Isn't it a wonderful day?"
Control slowly turned around in his chair. The large mug gently came to rest on the desk. The smiley face on the mug had a bullet hole in its forehead; blood dribbled into its eye. Robert rolled his eyes heavenward. Control stretched languidly, as if he hadn't a care in the world.
"My dear Michael," he began. Involuntarily, McCall took a step backward. "You do know that we are establishing a listening post on Madagascar?" His voice was silky smooth. "You do know where that is, don't you?"
Mickey whispered, "I think I said the wrong thing."
Robert said, "Your perception of the obvious is exceeded only by your mastery of understatement."
Control continued. "Since I have made my point, you will never call me Francis, except around Anna. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
"Good. Now, we can get down to business. How’d you two get mixed up with Raven?”
"I was rather hoping you could fill in the blanks, Key." Robert winked at Mickey.
Control gave Robert one of his best heavy-lidded lizard looks. He then threw his glasses on his file-littered desk then began to pace around his office. He stopped in front of his aquarium and stared for a few moments at the placidly swimming fish. Finally, picking at his thumbnail, he spoke.
"Raven is the most dangerous man I know, Robert--even more than you. He left the Company, on very bad terms, and he killed the assassins we placed on him. We have never attempted to go after him again. He is now a free-lancer who works for the highest bidder. Ideology, scruples, morality mean nothing to him. The only thing that matters is money, and he only works for cash. Lots of it." He paused then added softly, “He’s also my brother.”
Robert dropped heavily onto the sofa. The ancient springs squealed in protest. Mickey flopped into the first chair in front of Control's desk. "I wonder what damn fool name he's got?"
"Edgar Allen Coopersmith, hence his codename Raven." Control's voice would have cut steel.
"Great, a mean, green mother from outer space.”
Control suddenly gave Mickey a wicked grin. “No, the Bronx.”
“Figures. The Evil Empire strikes again.” Mickey slouched lower in the chair.
The elevator was stopping at every floor. Nikos Pappadakis started tapping his Gucci-shod foot. God, this is taking forever. Some smart-assed kid must have punched all the buttons. He fingered his well-tailored, Pierre Cardin silk suit jacket. He was on his way to consult with the CEO of Fruittecque, an international computer company. Pappadakis was an outside consultant, and he wasn't looking forward to this meeting. The CEO had lost his in-house counsel the night before, and he was not in a particularly business-like mood.
The elevator stopped on the 14th floor. The door opened. Oh, good, company. A slight pop, and Pappadakis hit the back of the elevator. The doors closed again. A raven feather lay just inside.
Robert walked into fiancée’s apartment only to find the galley-style kitchen littered with groceries and open cookbooks. He wondered what had possessed Anna. Just as he was about to call for her, she bounced into the kitchen. She pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator and handed it to Robert. "Here's a beer, go watch the boob-tube or read or something. Just get out of the kitchen."
He started at the bottle. "Um, Anna, this is not a beer. This is Tabasco sauce. What is going on?"
"What's the matter? Don't you like Tabasco?"
She whipped the bottle out of his hand and threw it back into the refrigerator. Robert winced as the bottle cracked. It probably looked for all the world as if another murder had been committed in there. He decided to get out of her way. It was safer.
Anna called over her shoulder, "Oh, by the way, we are having another family dinner tomorrow. My brother Edgar is coming. Since you know Francis, I'll leave it to you to call him."
Robert gripped the wall for support. He was going to have to have dinner with the world's most expensive and weirdest hit man. Oh, charming. Control is going to love this.
"What are you planning to have for dinner, Anna?" He hoped he sounded calm.
"Steak tartare, Edgar's favorite."
He turned to go to the telephone. Under his breath, he swore. "Bloody flippin' marvelous. Not only is he an assassin, he's a bloody cannibal as well."
JFK was extraordinarily busy. The loudspeakers announced the arrival of the British Airways flight from Heathrow. “About time.” Control thrust his hands into his pockets and headed toward the gate.
The last to escape the aircraft was a tall, well-build, sandy-haired man of late youth or early middle age, depending on viewpoint. He had a triangular-shaped face and ice blue eyes. He wore a black suit, a black shirt and the dogcollar of a priest. Control waved to him. The priest headed over, set his carry-on down then hugged the older man.
"Hello, Alastair." With his ribs now aching, Control picked up his son's bag. "Come on, we've got to hurry. Things have gone to hell in a hand basket."
"What's happened now?"
"Your Uncle Edgar is in town."
"I take it this is not a family reunion?"
"Only if we’re the Addams family."
"Oh, good. I think I'll book the next flight out of here."
"Too bloody right.” He struggled to keep up with the pace his father set. After dodging a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls shepherded by two harassed teachers, he caught up and asked, "Why don't you come with me?"
They had exited the terminal, entered the warm afternoon sunshine when Control responded. "Only the thought of running into your mother prevents me from taking up your generous offer."
"Mum isn’t the Wicked Witch of the East.”
Control flashed his son a nasty look. “No, the house fell on that witch.”
Anna fussed with the fully-laid out dining table. She reached to adjust the position of a wine glass when Robert reached an arm around her and nuzzled her neck. She put the wine glass down and then swatted gently at him. "Stop that, Robert. Do you want me to drop the crystal?"
"I don't give a fig about the crystal."
"You'd much rather play with my neck."
To prove the veracity of her words, he placed little kisses along one side. She tilted her head to the left. He continued. Finally, she stamped her foot and said, a little more emphatically this time, "Will you stop that?"
The doorbell rang, saving Anna's neck from more delicious torture. With regret, Robert released her and went to answer the door. It was Mickey Kostmayer, and he was dressed neatly and with some panache in grey flannels and black turtleneck under a black wool sportcoat.
"Evening, McCall. Did you hear the news tonight?"
McCall shut the door behind him. "Yes, I did. Nikos Pappadakis was murdered in the Fruittecque building this afternoon. .45 calibre slug to the heart and a raven feather in elevator. It was definitely work of Raven."
"So, what's for dinner? Us or the food?"
Anna came out to the living room and nearly dropped her jaw. She had never seen Kostmayer look like a human being before. "I'm impressed, Mickey. You can look decent when you try."
"Thanks." To her fiancé, Mickey said, "Remind you of someone? Like, oh, you know, Key?”
"You're welcome." She straightened a few things on the coffee table even they were already perfectly tidy. She gave Robert a sidelong glance and asked, “You actually call him that?” A buzzer went off in the kitchen.
Mickey raised an eyebrow to a skeptical scowl. “All right, give.”
“Francis Scott Key.”
“Isn’t that the jerk who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”? To an English drinking song that nobody can sing, drunk or sober?
“Indeed, the very one.” Robert kept his expression deadpan. “Also, the full name of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“Why hasn’t Scott killed you, McCall?”
“He’s only partially named for his godfather,” Robert said sweetly.
The return of the doorbell forestalled any further attempts at wit. Control, followed by a tall priest, sailed in. Robert directed his gaze to the priest, and the resemblance floored him. The younger man was the spitting image of Control when he was forty.
Alastair went over to Anna, kissed her cheek, and gave her an enormous hug. "Aunt Anna, you're looking marvelous."
"Aunt Anna?" Mickey whispered.
Sotto voce, Control replied, "My son, Mickey."
"Your son. Who's a priest. What went wrong?"
Antagonizing Control now was not be a good idea; the brilliance of his eyes suggested he'd already had had a couple of drinks. Mickey, however,was starting out on the right foot. All the way to Madagascar and beyond. At the rate he was going, he might be in Vladivostok before the night was out.
"Michael, you have managed in the course of two days to truly peeve me--"
Robert interrupted. "Would anyone care for a cocktail?"
Control accepted with alacrity.
Fanny Enright smoothed down her dress carefully and checked her coiffure again in the mirror. She was leaving business and the God-awful news behind her tonight. Her long-time gentleman friend was taking her to an exquisitely expensive restaurant and then they were going dancing. She needed a night out after the seemingly senseless murders of three people whom she had known. The raven feathers gave the whole scene a touch of the warped. The murderer was a real wacko.
She answered her apartment door. Miss Enright hit the floor with a decided thud. A bright pool of blood seeped from under the body to stain the beige carpet. A raven feather floated down to land gently on her bosom.
"You do what?" Anna half-rose from her chair; her expression shifted between bewilderment and outrage.
Control downed his Scotch in one gulp. He then templed his fingers in front of his lips. "I work for the the Company, Anna."
"You're a spy." Anna's eyes were blazing; her voice, accusatory.
"Yes, and I have been for over thirty years." He gave his son a dirty, you-will-get-yours look. "Robert and I used to work together, and Mickey still does work for the Company."
Alastair attempted to intervene. "Aunt Anna, obviously he's good at what he does, or he wouldn't still be alive."
"Alastair Malcolm Coopersmith, I will thank you to keep your damned mouth shut! You've already caused me more grief tonight than I've had to suffer in several weeks."
"You mean to tell me that you've been shot at?"
After he’d jabbed a silently chuckling Mickey in the ribs, Robert said, "Not just shot at, Anna, but actually shot. We all have. It's a dangerous business, and there is always some unfinished piece lying around just waiting for you.”
Control gave him an imploring look. He changed tacks.
"You were safer when you didn't know. And I'll tell you something, Anna," Robert cut her off, "that I didn't know you were his sister until two nights ago. I didn't know he had a son until tonight. So you both are well-protected by him." He looked directly at Alastair. "I would have left it that way."
Anna fumed a few moments before asking, "What about Edgar?"
"Yes, indeed, what about me?"
The silky smooth voice gave everybody a near heart attack. Robert, with an outward and visible calm that covered inward and spiritual distress, asked, "How did you get in here?"
"Oh, just through the back."
Edgar was dressed totally in black--leather bomber, turtleneck, trousers, even his shades. He was both a little taller and a little thinner than his brother. The face shape was the same. Physically, he and Control were brothers, but that's where it stopped. Not even when backed into a corner did Control ever exude such an aura of restrained violence. Robert wouldn't have wanted to meet this man in a dark alley. Even across a dinner table wasn't an appetizing thought.
Mickey surreptitiously gave Raven the once over. The former operative moved silently on crepe-soled shoes. He was carrying a piece, and a big one, too. Edgar removed his shades slowly and deliberately, and Mickey noticed that the only thing that Control and Raven truly had in common was ice blue eyes, and even there, there resemblance was superficial. Control's eyes could communicate all sorts of feelings, even softening up on occasion, but Raven’s were cold and flat, like a shark’s. He gave Mickey the creeps, and from the undercurrent at the table, the same could be said for everybody else, as well.
"Hello, Annabelle." The object of Edgar's scrutiny blanched. Raven's voice was soft, smooth, and oh, so, deadly.
"Congratulations." He pulled a small package out of his jacket and handed it to her. She tentatively took it.
"What is it?" She looked at it as if it would bite her.
Mickey looked at Robert, knew they were thinking the same thing. Should they throw it into the sink?
"How nice to see you, Uncle Edgar."
"Too bad the same can't be said for you, Stupid." Alastair huffed. "You're only marginally better than your cousin Sam."
Anna stiffened. "You, at least, aren't dangerous stupid like he is." Control set down his refilled Scotch. "What's the matter, Francis? Aren't you going to defend your own child?"
"He's old enough to take care of himself," came the terse reply.
Alastair grumbled, "Thanks, Dad."
"It's your own fault. You should know better than to antagonize wild animals."
"Better to be wild than both domesticated and neutered."
“Ouch,” mouthed Mickey to Robert, who merely cocked an eyebrow. C’mon, McCall. Would you have the nerve to call Control a ball-less wonder to his face? I may be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. Control’s complete stillness worried Mickey.
Anna cut through the sibling rivalry. "Too bad you missed the salad, Edgar. You'll just have to go straight to the main course."
"I always do," came the calm reply.
Five people shivered.
She set the steak tartare in the middle of the table with the sautéed asparagus off to the side, Alastair bowed his head to indicate that he was about to say grace. Edgar shook his head and mumbled, "I have always wondered about people who talked to thin air."
Alastair made his rebuttal during grace. "`O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’" Alastair paused a moment as Edgar hissed. He continued, "Bless, O Lord, thy gifts to our use and us to thy service; for Christ's sake. Amen."
No sooner had Alastair finished than Edgar mockingly said, "Let's attack."
In under two hours, tension
had murdered conversation, if not appetite. That appeared merely wounded.
Edgar and Mickey actively ate while the others just picked at their food. Mickey even grinned at Robert, who simply wondered how he could do it. Edgar was understandable; he had a stomach of iron and absolutely no conscience. Anna, he noticed, was as white as the linen table cloth. She'd have a monster headache by the time everybody left. Control was just about drunk and angry beyond words. God only knew what he was thinking. Robert figured that it was probably an elaborate fantasy involving eviscerating Edgar. More’s the pity.
Edgar finally broke the silence. "Excellent meal, Anna. You've excelled in the domestic art of cooking."
Anna exploded. "Edgar, get out! I am tired of putting up with your complimentary insults. If you cannot conduct yourself as a civilized human being, then leave." Her voice was painfully high-pitched, and she was near tears.
He stood up. "As you wish, my dear sister. But I shall be at the wedding."
Robert moved from his chair to Anna's side. He looked up from her to Edgar. His features were set in a hard, menacing fashion. "Over my dead body."
Control forestalled Edgar. "Poor choice of words, Robert." He got up, as did Alastair. "I think that my son and I will take this opportunity to also leave." He looked pointedly at Edgar. "You are coming, aren't you?" He motioned for Edgar to go before him. He turned back to Robert and Anna. "I am sorry about this evening."
Anna sniffed. "Thank you, Fran."
Control had no sooner shut the door to his brownstone than he lit into his son. "How in hell could you do that?"
Alastair was unrepentant. "Do what?"
"Oh, you’re hopeless. How could you let Anna know? And to bait Edgar? In prayer?” Control threw up his hands, palms out, as if in surrender. “Even Christ thinks that was stupid.”
“My aunt is singularly naive,” said Alastair through pursed lips.
“That’s a joke, coming from you.”
Control stomped through the foyer and went straight into his study and to his drinks cabinet to pour himself yet another Scotch. He collapsed in the corner of his leather wingback chair and leaned his head against the wing. He watched his son move aimlessly about the dark-paneled, book-filled room. It had an old-fashioned, almost academic feel to it, and Control had been pleased indeed with his sister’s understanding of his needs. He’d had given Anna free rein to redecorate after his third wife’s death.
"Where are the girls? Where’s Marisól?"
“Manon is in France on her honeymoon, Birdie is stuck in Washington, and Emilie is swanning around Italy studying art.”
Control took a hefty swallow. “As for Marisól, she was transferred to Miami six months ago.”
“You two haven’t split up, have you?” Worry filled Alastair’s voice.
“No. The FBI sent her down there without consulting us. The Bureau doesn’t much care for its counterintelligence agents sleeping with the Company.” He downed the Scotch then rose unsteadily to pat his son’s shoulder. “The official hostility doesn’t stop us. Either she comes up to New York or I disappear and go to Miami.” He headed toward the kitchen. “Do you want some coffee?”
Alastair made a face. “No, thanks. Your coffee does a British quick march out of the pot with the explicit intention of tearing out the lining of a stomach. It’ll keep me awake all night, too.”
“It’ll be decaffeinated.”
“Right, and I’m the Queen.” After a moment, he called out, “We missed you at the christening.”
"What christening? You do tens of them a year. Which one in particular did you have in mind?"
"You didn't get my message."
"What message? Would you quit talking in circles?"
"Your granddaughter Christabel's christening."
The sound of running water cut off abruptly. Control emerged from the kitchen. A genuine smile split his face. “Mary got her girl.”
Alastair returned it. “Yes, and she will be four months old tomorrow."
“What do the boys think?”
“They’re quite chuffed.” Alastair reached for his walled. "I have pictures." The picture section fell out in a long stream of plastic and Kodak film.
Control saw all the pictures of baby Christabel and the family. "Four grandkids. Jesus, I feel old." No response. "Well," he went on, "I guess I’ll have to run the gauntlet and take a vacation to England soon."
Alastair yawned. "I’ll make sure Mum’s somewhere on the Continent when you come.” He swallowed another yawn.”Oh, before I forget, Mary and I are expecting again in December."
“Good God, son, give your wife a break. You’re not Adam and Eve; you don’t have populate the Earth.”
“Oh, terribly droll, Dad.” Alastair didn’t bother to stifle another yawn before he headed upstairs to bed.
Robert lay awake and tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He had excellent powers of deduction, but this time the answer eluded him. Walter de Vries had been an international lawyer; Katharine Weber, a corporate lawyer. Nikos Pappadakis, aside from being homosexual, had been a computer design consultant. Fanny Enright had been an accountant. The only thing that held them all together was Fruittecque, an international computer corporation, specializing in expensive computer networks, for such things as universities, medical centers, and such like.
From Mickey's research, he knew they had a middling reputation, and the company had been known to make some ruthless, aggressive, even reckless moves to up their market share. So far, they’d all paid off, but the list of enemies had grown exponentially.
Were the murders an inside job or an attack from without? And why hire Raven? Besides Fruittecque, what held the victims together? No, that company had to be at the bottom of this pool of blood.
Speculation was getting him nowhere. And the day after tomorrow he was getting married. To Raven's sister.
He turned his head when Anna stirred, again, in her sleep. Robert smiled gently as she nestled closer to him. He reached over, and, with a butterfly's touch, he moved a couple strands of reddish-brown hair not yet touched with gray. She was four years younger than he and not a gray hair. It wasn't fair, he thought, pausing to reflect on his own silvered head. Her skin had only a few wrinkles, mostly laugh lines around her eyes and few crow's feet. She didn't look her fifty-three years at all, but if Raven stuck around any longer, she might begin to do so. Robert turned onto his side and pulled Anna to him. He took her hand and tried to drop off to sleep.
The clock by the bed read 12:45am. Dammit, he hadn’t been asleep long. Control reached under his pillow for his pistol, a Walther P5, and thumbed off the safety. He had to be careful; Alastair was in the house and could be making the noises he heard. He pushed back his covers. Before his feet touched the hardwood floor, the bedroom lights flared. He flinched and closed his eyes momentarily.
“Did you forget something?” asked a sultry, angry voice. It added, “All those little fluffy pink sheep just make the nightshirt.”
Control lowered the pistol, put the safety back on. “Christ, Marisól, you know better than to do that.”
“You were supposed to pick me up at La Guardia two hours ago.”
Marisól Destrade, a tall Afro-Cuban lady in a rumpled black suit and scarlet silk blouse, stood inside the door to the bedroom. Although most of her glossy black hair was pulled into a severe chignon at the nape of her neck, some tresses had escaped. The disarray accentuated the both the displeasure on her face and the wings of silver flying back over her ears. The drop pearl earrings twitched. She set her case down and crossed her arms over her firm bosom, his favorite lover’s pillow.
He ran his hand through his hair. He’d completely forgotten about her return from Miami. Oh, for once, why couldn’t she have been held over?
“It’s been one lousy night.”
“So what’s the disaster?”
He was in the doghouse. “Okay, the truth.”
“That’ll be a novelty.”
That Cuban temper had to have its pound of his flesh. “A rogue agent turned freelance assassin has surfaced in New York. He’s plugging people at a rate of about two per day.”
“What’s this matter to you, Francisco? Properly, this business belongs to the NYPD and the FBI.”
“As if I’d call your colleagues for this. It would take them six months to get back to me--and that’s only if they could find my phone number.” He snorted. “This guy, in addition to being an former Company operative is also my brother, Edgar. He showed up to pay his respects to Anna, who’s marrying Robert McCall. A bomb she dropped on me less than a week ago.”
“Madre de Dios.” She rubbed her left eyebrow. “I’m sure Don Roberto is pleased.”
“You could say that.”
Marisól smiled, and Control realized how much he’d missed over the past month. He took her in his arms. She stroked his cheek.
“It’s late. Why don’t we go to bed?”
“My thoughts exactly.” He kissed her deeply.
Madeleine Witherspoon lay on silk sheets with her arms around her lover of the night. She sighed with fake passion and regretted her decision to give this guy her body. On the other hand, being bored with this idiot was far better than thinking about all her dead colleagues. She didn’t understand why they’d been killed, she didn’t want to know why, and she hoped to hell she wasn’t next.
Raúl wriggled his naked butt then thrust forward energetically. Madeleine winced then said acidly, “That’s my thigh you’re drilling a hole into.” She grabbed his erection and directed him to his proper target. He was less filling, but half the calories didn’t apply.
Raúl’s whole body went limp. His head fell between her breasts. Her eyes widened then stayed open. Blood spread and mixed between the bodies. It created an ever-widening stain on the silk. Two raven feathers settled, one on each head.
A few white clouds floated
in the sky, and the sounds of bIrds filled the church yard. Raven shut the iron
gate and cautiously looked around. With a nod of his head, he slowly walked to
the bench by the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. It was surrounded by jonquils
and yellow dwarf iris. The birds chirped and fought for a perch on the saint's
cowl. Raven sat down.
"I've set up an account at Chem Bank for you. Raven Enterprises." The old man slipped a card into Raven's hand. "There'll be a bonus if you knock off my wife."
Raven didn't blink. "$100,000 for her." Wives were cheap.
Raven rose. "Always a pleasure doing business with you, Anderson." He never even looked the old man in the face.
Robert paced around while Mickey ran a finger under his collar. "How does Control wear these damn things?"
“I don’t know why he does. None of his ties ever survives for long.”
“See, even Control doesn’t like his neck in a noose.”
Robert stopped and added, with some asperity, "You only have to endure it for a little while."
"I'd rather be getting shot at." Mickey watched McCall start pacing again. "You know, you almost look as if you'd like to bolt." He smiled wickedly. "The van's parked out back."
"Mickey...." The English voice was weary.
"Hey, just a thought."
Mrs. Harold Anderson, known to her friends as Bitsy, stood in the graveyard, staring at the freshly dug grave of Walter de Vries, her long-time lover. She was dressed in solid black, including a long black veil. If anyone saw her, he/she would assume that she was the man's widow. She had placed dahlias on his grave; they had always been his favorites.
She said, softly and with tears in her voice, "Walter, you bastard, how could you go and leave me like this. I loved you so...." A soft pop, and her body fell cruciform on Walter de Vries' grave. A raven feather drifted onto her hand.
Control reached for his bow tie, a hideous pink and cream confection, a Father’s Day gift, and only just restrained himself from pulling it apart. Anna primped and fussed over her dress. He leaned against the wall, carefully arms folded over his chest, and decided that his sister's behavior was a good reason for not going down the matrimonial aisle again. It was too much akin to going down on the Titanic.
"Well, how do I look?" Her voice was thin.
"You look fine." He figured he'd said that about fourteen times already and would probably say it another fourteen. She started to play with her hair; it was pulled into a soft Gibson Girl. He swatted at her. "Stop fussing. You'll only do yourself a mischief." Anna had been worse at her first wedding, and Paul Harris hadn't even been worth it. To take her mind off her nervousness, he asked,"Where's my nephew?"
"Well, it's better than reform school."
"Francis Scott--” He held up a hand. “You and Edgar both hate Sam, and I don't know why." Her fists balled on her hips; her eyes glinted dangerously.
Control wished he'd kept his
mouth shut. He pushed himself off the wall and said, "Anna, I don't hate Sam. I
can't and won't answer for Edgar, but Sam doesn't seem to be blessed with an
inordinate amount of either brains or common sense."
"Alastair is a prize example of both?"
"I never said Alastair was a shining example of either, but he always did have enough sense to stay out of trouble--which is definitely more than we can say for Sam. Trouble follows him around like a black cloud." Like his father before him.
"You mean like his father."
"I didn't say that."
"But you thought it."
"What I think is my business, Anna, and none of yours. I believe I told you what I thought about Paul when you married him." Control's voice was flat; his lips, thin. "It is indeed unfortunate that you didn't meet Robert McCall sooner in your life. A stable, masculine influence in Sam's life might have curtailed some of the kid’s more dangerous proclivities." He wasn't going to tell Anna that Sam was up to his ass in international gun/drug smuggling. He tried another tack. "Anna, for God's sake, today is your wedding day. Try to look happy."
She smiled. "You're right, of course."
"Big brother always is." He hugged her--and he didn't muss her dress.
Sam Harris was hardly in summer school. He was in the second story of the church, scouting out a good location for the hit. He fingered his Uzi pistol with pleasure as he waited for the wedding to begin. He wasn't even sorry that he'd be spoiling his mother's wedding. He didn't have much respect for her anyway. Now, both his uncles tended to make him nervous, especially Edgar. Once that bastard was gone, life would be much easier. And much richer, by about half a million dollars. Clad in a tuxedo, the black accentuating his thin body, Sam aroused no suspicion.
Marisól Destrade walked up the aisle to take her place in the pew. A voice, soft and low, said, “Oh, it’s the Keystone Kops. Oops, sorry, the FBI. Who invited you?”
“I’m with the bride’s party. Her brother’s lover.” She smiled provocatively.
He held his hands up straight, palms out. “Whoa, Jezebel, you might want to remember we’re in church.” Edgar licked his lips. The lime and orange-splotched dress accentuated her dark,tropical beauty. The colors made her skin glow. “Damnation, woman, what do you see in Francis? A man who dresses like a goddamned law librarian, but who has more coils than Kaa.”
“This coming from a jumped up, overrated murderer?” She laughed then air-kissed him with pouty, red lips. “I like bow ties. Only a real man can wear them.” She smiled and batted her eyelashes.
Edgar suddenly yelped. She’d ground her high heel into his instep. “Screw you, bitch.”
“No. Gracias.” The sweet smile widened. The teeth appeared extraordinarily large, white, and sharp.
The organist began the prelude. He sat down and took the opportunity to massage his abused foot.
Mickey and Robert took their places at the altar with Alastair. When he noticed his soon-to-be nephew-by-marriage, Robert asked, "Is any woman worth this?"
Alastair leaned down and whispered, "My Aunt Anna."
"Lovely," muttered Mickey. "You're about to get the weirdest set of in-laws, McCall."
The groom waved him to be silent. The wedding march began, and Anna started down the aisle on her brother's arm.
After the opening prayers and the declaration of who was giving the bride away, Sam leaned over the railing with his Uzi to the fore. He sighted his Uncle Edgar and squeezed the trigger. Sam giggled at the resulting chaos. People dove for cover, the bride and groom taking refuge under the altar. Sam kept firing because he hadn't yet hit Edgar. Besides, it was fun.
Edgar, between the pew and the kneeler, pulled out his .45. Anderson was a dead man when he got out of here, if he got out of here. He attempted to get a fix on the sniper and was grazed by a bullet.
Marisól dove for cover, but a ricocheting bullet clipped the top of her left shoulder. From the filthy Cuban Spanish flowing out of her mouth, it’d probably broken her collarbone. It didn’t stop her from pulling out her .38 Special and attempting to locate--and stop, Edgar assumed--the shooter. Yeah, right, like the FBI can hit the broadside of a barn.
Up at the altar things weren't much better. They were all crowded together. Mickey suddenly rolled off the altar step, screaming, "SON OF A BITCH!" and clutching his ass. Edgar started laughing. It was too funny, even though he almost felt sorry for Mickey.
He saw Robert glance over his shoulder at his best man. Robert wore a black look, and Edgar decided that this was not a good time to mess with him.
Closer, there was a gurgling sound. It was Francis, who had taken a direct hit to the guts. "Too bad. Maybe next time." The pain in his arm was cutting short his pleasure.
The hail of bullets stopped suddenly. Edgar spotted his would-be assassin. He wasted no time shooting back. His first shot missed.
Two more shots--Marisól’s--rang out. One missed completely; the other winged the little creep who danced aside, into Edgar’s sights.
His second shot knocked the assassin back from the railing. The body hit the back wall and ricochetted off, leaving a large, bloody stain on the stone. It fell over the railing to land, with a dead thud, on the same two little old ladies who had been gaping earlier. Edgar noticed that they were still gaping. He figured that they were dead from heart failure. Hey, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Edgar ran over to the body. Surprised, he called out in a loud voice, "Hey, Anna, Sam made it to the wedding after all, but you don't have to worry about reform school, 'cause he's dead."
Robert, who had been quickly married to Anna by Alastair during the shooting, hated Edgar as much as he’d hated Randol Payne. He had an overwhelming urge to shoot the bastard right there. Raven wouldn't have known what hit him, but unfortunately, he didn't have a gun with him.
Alastair got up and ran, in full vestments, towards the sacristy, and, hopefully, to the phone. Robert got up to survey the damage. Anna lay in an incoherent state at the base of the altar. That was a good place for her.
He glanced at Mickey. He was in no immediate danger of dying, but he was in great pain. Mickey expressed his discomfort vocally, in both Polish and English. Robert gave a little smile. If he could make that much noise, he wasn't that hurt.
The cry drew Robert into the pews where he heard gurgling noises. His smile disappeared. A large red stain spread over Control’s once pristine shirt. "Dammit.” This would happen on my wedding day. He knelt beside Control who was just barely conscious. "Hang on . . . Key, help is on the way." How strange to call you that after all these years.
The wounded man grimaced. His skin was gray and clammy to touch. He panted, struggling for breath, "Marisól?"
Robert looked up, into the frightened eyes of the FBI agent. Since he’d learned of the liaison, he’d wondered about the nature of Control’s relationship with this woman, but he saw the love was genuine. How is it you always manage to astound me, Old Friend? Do I even know you?
She swallowed, said, “Wounded, but in no danger.”
Her confident words fell on deaf ears. Control was unconscious.
Someone touched his shoulder. He turned, ready for battle. It was Alastair. A nasty-looking flesh wound at his temple had bled profusely and stained his vestments. His face was white with fear or rage or pain. Robert couldn’t tell.
Quietly, he said, "Ambulances are on their way. Edgar went running out of here, and there was an explosion in the parking lot." Robert hadn't even heard it. "It got two more innocent by-standers, Dad's Beemer, and your Jag."
"Is that all you have to say?" Alastair was coming unglued. He shouted, "After all this bloody carnage in a house of God, no less, all you have to say is `bloody hell'?"
"What do you want me to say?" Robert stood up. “Your father lies gravely wounded. His lady and Mickey have been shot. Four innocent by-standers are dead. Your cousin lies dead over there." There was a pregnant pause. Then, without warning, he exploded, "God damn it! Alastair, what do you want me to do?"
"Create a miracle."
Robert raised an eyebrow. "That's your boss's job, not mine--Father."
Raven was incensed. Not only had two people tried to assassinate him, but Anderson had not established the account at Chem Bank. He was trying to get away without paying him. Raven stood outside the Fruittecque building. He looked at his watch. It read 6:00 pm. Anderson should be alone. He entered the building.
He exited the elevator near Anderson's suite of offices. With the stealth of a cat, Raven entered the offices. The receptionist's desk was empty, but there was a light under Anderson's door. He opened the door to Anderson's obvious surprise. The old man asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Good evening, sir. Didn't you expect me to be dead?" Raven didn’t smile, rather used his blue eyes to their full, shark-like effect.
"You sent the two incompetents after me, and I killed them. Let me inform you, sir, that there are only two people who would even have the remotest chance of killing me. One is my brother; the other, my brother-in-law."
Despite whatever he said about Francis, he was not one to be trifled with or underestimated. And he was the one person who, knowing him so well, just might succeed--especially if he had Robert’s help. Terrible enemies, indeed. And now, thanks to this cheap, double-dealing jerk, he could expect to be looking over his shoulder for them for the rest of his life.
"You also failed to establish that account you spoke off. I expect to be paid for my work. I do nothing for free." He wanted to scare the old man witless.
Anderson reached for his checkbook. "Name any figure."
Raven cocked his head and began counting on his fingers. "Well, let's see--de Vries, Weber, Pappas, Enright, Witherspoon and her toy-boy, Raúl, your wife, and the two assassins. That's nine. It'll be ten million. That includes a million for my trouble." He stopped smiling.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Would you rather that I turned you over to my brother--when he gets out of the hospital you put him in, that is? He’ll be fascinated with what you can tell him. Especially about the Russians. Or would you rather push up daisies in Siberia because the Russians would be furious, to say the very least, about your crafty little double-cross with Chinese?" His voice was surprisingly soft and caressing.
Anderson gulped. "All right." He scribbled out a check for ten million and handed it to Raven. "Now, beat it. I never want to see your face again."
Raven took it and made to leave. "Oh, you won't."
He whirled around and shot an unsuspecting Anderson in the head. Another raven feather drifted slowly to the desk, to rest beside the shattered CEO of Fruittecque.