Like a magician’s sleight-of-hand illusion, the glass of vodka seemed to materialize on top of the bar when Douglas wasn’t looking. He hadn’t seen the woman sidle up on his left and slip the drink in front of him. That was unlike him. Not paying attention in his line of work was dangerous, if not deadly. But all his bad thoughts—of priests and sanctions—were far from his consciousness on this given evening. He was on vacation.
The woman tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, he reacted too quickly, his instincts kicking in, and he whirled on his bar stool, his toes on the floor ready to support a spring and a bare-handed attack.
“Hey! Easy there, big fella. I’ve been waiting two days for you to buy me a drink,” she said with a mischievous grin. “Finally I decided to buy you one.”
He’d seen her the evening before in the crowded hotel bar. Hard not to notice someone with beautiful eyes the color of the sky just before dusk turns into night—hard not to notice her noticing him, smiling in an openly flirtatious way.
He’d barely smiled back. He didn’t play those games—bar games. Not since he’d been twentysomething, just out of Youngstown State University and full of high spirits, and crazy about a woman he’d known since they’d been small children in the same Italian neighborhood, Brier Hill, from which most men walked down the path and crossed the bridge to the steel mill to make their living.
Then came Vietnam, and his whole reality changed; partying and laughing and lovemaking had morphed into death and intrigue and one of those gold oak leaves on his collar. There’d been no time to strut and posture and feel proud of the beautiful blond Diane on his arm—not in the gritty, evil city where everyone might plunge a dagger between your shoulder blades when your back was turned; not in Saigon.
Looking at this attractive creature standing beside him at the bar, he had to wonder how long it had been since he’d even touched a woman.
Not that there hadn’t been opportunities. Even on this trip—to a small, not-very-fashionable Mexican resort hotel on a far stretch of beach overlooking the Gulf—there were women who’d welcome the chance to know him better.
He saw them during the day as they bobbed in the surf like marker buoys, brightly colored bikinis like warning flags in the roiling water, barely containing their newly sun-browned melon breasts. They were all over the sand, too, and at the hotel’s pool—sleek and lithe, glistening with tanning oil and tropical sweat. They were mostly American tourists, on a second-class resort vacation on the cheap. But they were all too young, too frivolous—even for a weeklong dalliance.
Most of the males were in their twenties, too—their talk aggressively loud, with the confident arrogance of the immortal, invincible young who had no idea that one day their bellies would swell over their belt buckles, their knees and backs would ache, and the flesh beneath their chins would become doughy and loose until they hit their twilight years. So what harm was there in letting them preen and strut their immaturity while they still had something to strut about? Douglas knew where they all were headed.
He’d hardly said a word to anyone in three days except hotel employees and waiters and bartenders, mostly to practice his Spanish. He also spoke French and German and enough Vietnamese that it got him through the war—and a smattering of family Italian—but he’d found no one in Mexico with whom he wished to converse and further hone his linguistic skills. A bore was a bore in any language.
Each vacation morning, he’d rise early, don shorts and a T-shirt, and go for a two-mile run along the beach—only half as far as his usual regimen when he was in Indianapolis. He knew he had to stay in peak physical condition—but running in the sand was more punishing than on a road or a dirt track or a sidewalk, and the muscles in his calves and thighs burned from the effort.
He spent afternoons on the beach as well, stretched out on a banana lounger near an outcropping of rock that formed a breakwater, away from the hotel and the pool, away from the crowds. Shining with coconut oil and heavy-duty sunscreen, a smudge of white zinc oxide on his nose and a floppy straw hat pulled low on his forehead, he’d lie quietly, sipping Dos Equis and reading one of the formidable stack of paperback books he’d brought with him from the States.
After showering off the sand, oil, and sweat, he’d don lightweight slacks and a colorful silky tropical shirt, leave the hotel grounds, and walk the half mile into the small town to eat each evening at the same outdoor café on the square. Not totally hygienic, but not filthy either, and the indigenous seafood, tacos and tamales, and dark, pungent sauces were irresistible.
After dinner he’d meander back to the hotel to spend a few hours at the bar, sitting close to the wall so he could watch the rest of the room, drinking the night away as the bad band music and the loud crowd voices blended together to become white noise. Then he’d stroll along the dark beach to walk off the alcohol. A wind kicked up late each night, blowing the smoky bar air from his lungs. He drank little when he was at home, and never when on an assignment—but there was just something about this flyblown Mexican resort off the beaten path, even though he was always on guard, 24/7. That’s how he stayed alive.
“Stoli Vanil on the rocks, right?” The woman with the twilight eyes cocked her head in a most fetching way. “That’s what you’ve been drinking the last couple of nights. On the beach, in the sunshine, you drink Dos Equis, and at night it’s Stoli Vanil.”
He didn’t touch the drink. He was too busy looking at her. She was on the tall side, slim, small-breasted, pretty without being beautiful—except for the eyes. “You’re observant,” he said.
“Sometimes I am. I always thought only gay guys drank Stoli Vanil.”
“Maybe I’m gay.”
“I doubt that. I’m Danielle, by the way. Who are you?”
“You mean you don’t know that, too?”
“I couldn’t pry it out of the desk clerk. Not that I didn’t try—I even offered him twenty dollars.” She grinned pleasantly. “That’s the way we do it in Milwaukee, anyway.”
Milwaukee—yes, she looked like a city girl, from a city that wasn’t quite a big one and wasn’t quite a small one, either. There was a brittle, crackling quality to her enormous self-confidence, projecting a warm aura that was perhaps intimidating.
“I’m Douglas,” he said, “from Indianapolis.” He wouldn’t have chosen the name for himself, nor the city—but he’d operated under so many different identities in the past few years that he let others choose them for him.
“What brings you to Mexico?”
“I came for the beer on the beach—the Dos Equis.”
“Don’t they have Dos Equis in Indianapolis?”
“Sure—but it’s more fun drinking it in Mexico.”
She pointed. “Are you going to drink that vodka, or should I have it packed up and sent off to some poor children in a Third World country who’ll appreciate it?”
He put both hands around the glass, his fingers making marks in the chill condensation. “The poor children can get their own vodka. I hate to drink alone, though.”
He watched two spots of color rise unbidden to her cheeks, and she put a hand to her face to hide the evidence. “Let me buy you one,” he said, and signaled to the bartender.
Danielle ordered a kir—an innocuous cocktail of white wine flavored with cassis that would have little effect on her speech, judgment, or inhibitions unless she drank a lot of them.
He recalled the only other woman he’d known who drank them—a Frenchwoman he’d met at the bar of a Singapore hotel while he’d been enjoying some R & R, and with whom he’d spent the weekend before returning to Saigon to draw a linoleum knife across the throat of a Viet Cong sympathizer.
The killing had been furtive, but the orders had not been, coming directly from the Phoenix Force commander, Lieutenant General Roger Spire, who, Douglas had often been told, had his eye on him, though he doubted Spire ever saw him or was even aware of his existence as a lowly major.
Spire had covered himself in glory during the war in Vietnam, or as much glory as possible, considering America had left that country with its tail between its legs. Even though he hadn’t earned his fourth star, Spire was mentioned after the war by the most conservative wing of the Republican Party as a potential secretary of defense. Now there were rumblings he’d make a run at the White House itself. But Douglas was unaware of that.
In the Phoenix Force, in which all operatives worked alone, Douglas had done his job of assassin too well. At the war’s end he’d drifted back to civilian life with no real goal. In Chicago he’d partnered in a construction business that bored him—but there was no demand in the job market for trained killers.
Then Og had contacted him and recruited him for the Brownstone Group.
The recruitment had been over the phone; he’d never met Og in person, and he was told it would always be that way. His only in-the-flesh contact had been a young man, barely out of his twenties, who dressed and talked like a federal agent in some movie, with the tightly fitting suit, the expensive but boring tie, the helmet of close-cropped hair, and a hard mouth. Behind his dark sunglasses he had eyes that years before had forgotten how to smile. The man, who’d flashed Douglas an official, federal-looking ID but wouldn’t allow him to examine it closely, went by the name of Matthew Gaydoz—probably a made-up name, anyway. It was tacitly understood that in addition to delivering assignments and briefings, their rare face-to-face meetings would be for vetting and assessing Douglas’s sincerity, discretion, and commitment. There had been no hint of friendship or professional camaraderie.
After the first five or six sanctions, Gaydoz disappeared. Any further contact Douglas had with his employers, other than briefings and photographs delivered to him by Federal Express, was via cell phone with the disembodied Og.
From the name, he’d always assumed the Brownstone Group operated out of a brownstone residence in either New York, Chicago, or Washington, even though his checks were issued from a bank in Lincoln, Nebraska. But for all Douglas knew, the firm’s name could be a clever subterfuge, and they could be headquartered in someplace like Tucumcari, New Mexico, in an adobe hacienda—or possibly somewhere in the south, as Og’s voice bore faint traces of a Tidewater drawl.
Douglas had engaged in flights of fancy about what Og might look like. His voice was raspy and gargly, prone to barking out sentences instead of merely conversing. Douglas imagined him in his fifties. Even now, five years later, Og had not aged in his mind.
For that matter, Douglas hadn’t aged or weathered either since. There were more age wrinkles, a subtle softening of the jawline, and his eyes had grown colder and flatter. Otherwise he looked the way he had when he’d carried out his deadly sanctions in Saigon.
The killings hadn’t bothered him much. A brief throat spasm shortly afterwards kept him from swallowing or inhaling for about thirty seconds, but that was the only side effect. His conscience hadn’t suffered; six years in the military, in a culture in which killing was the only object of the game, had inured him to sentimentality and compassion.
When he’d returned to Youngstown for a brief time, taking the lives of several who’d injured his own family had been a simple payback.
Now he felt no qualms about the sanction of Father Benveniste. It was another job, another nearly faceless commission. The smooth-talking Og justified it in Douglas’s mind, relating to him in nauseatingly graphic detail the cleric’s predatory sexual abuse of prepubescent altar boys and the sons of parishioners, kept secret by a church whose most overweening principle was that of the Mafia: omerta, the code of silence.
When Douglas had finally seen the marked priest in his vestments at St. Catherine’s, his icy detachment had fallen away a bit and the misgivings had returned. Though he’d carried out the assignment with his usual efficiency, he’d experienced pangs in his stomach he recognized as guilt.
That’s why he’d craved a vacation, a temporary relocation to someplace he’d never been before, like those two weeks at a low-end resort hotel on the Gulf of Mexico where most of the other guests, sneaking across the border for a weeklong preholiday getaway, were at least ten years his junior and all seemed hell-bent on getting drunk or laid or both every night. He could keep to himself, without having to deal with anyone or make small talk. He figured himself too old for any of them to bother with.
And then here came sexy, laughing Danielle with her teasing, challenging indigo twilight eyes, hovering over his shoulder at the bar, pointedly waiting for him to drink the vodka.
What the hell, he thought, clinking his glass with hers. “Salud,” he said.