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CHAPTER 1

We were near twenty miles out of Marina Del Rey when I spotted an unnatural bulge breaking the crest of a calm Pacific swell. The way I grabbed the binoculars caught Dentyís attention.

"What is it?" he demanded, tightening his grip on the wheel.

"Somethingís floating up ahead," I replied, focusing the glasses.

"Letís have a look," he said sharply, reaching one hand back over his shoulder.

I handed him the glasses, watching the small freighter that had crossed our course, heading north. Rust and corrosion were winning out against flaking paint.

"Weíll check it out," Denty said crisply, handing the glasses back.

When I saw it again, it had settled further into the sea. I glanced again at the freighter, about a mile north of us now, and was suddenly, inexplicably uneasy. I stepped up onto the bench for a better view.

"I canít see it," Denty said.

"Give it a couple of degrees left."

"Port, you mean."

"Yeah."

As we closed, I could make out the sea-green tarp. It covered a cargo carried by a barge or raft. It had been towed here by the freighter; that seemed certain. Then it had been cut loose or had broken loose on its own. My money was on cutting. Either way, it didnít figure. Why would a freighter be towing anything?

"Denty?"

"What?"

"We best let this go."

He snorted.

"Leave it to the Coast Guard."

"Hell, Scott. Whereís your sense of adventure? Besides, itís a rule. The dammed thing is at least a hazard."

Maybe it was only the slight change in course that brought Edi, Dentyís wife, up from the lounge. She must have sensed tension, for she looked anxiously at Denty, then at me. "Can I see?" she asked.

I handed her the glasses as she climbed up beside me on the bench. The kids, Patsy and little Joey, came next, followed soon by Bill and Sally Larson. Everyone had a look and each had an opinion as to what theyíd seen. None agreed with mine. The sense of excitement grew as we closed.

Tony Haggen was propped casually against the forward deck rail, eyes watchful. Coarse blond hair, swept back at the sides, accented the clean lines of Nordic features. Gail, his girlfriend, seemed undecided about remaining beside him or appeasing her curiosity by joining the others in the cockpit.

I made my way to the prow and stripped down to my boxer shorts. A hundred feet from the green tarp, Denty slowed and began a turn to bring us alongside. Twenty feet from the raft, I dove.

It took only moments to find the tow line, but it had settled deeply. Without tanks, I didnít have the staying power to lift it. By the time I surfaced, Denty had stopped the boat and dropped the ladder. Grabbing at chunks of air, I climbed aboard.

"Need some rope," I said.

"This is a ship," Denty commented, eyeing the tarp. "We only have line."

"If youíre going Navy, itís a boat. But Iíll settle for some line."

Denty rummaged about in the storage compartment. "What do you think it is?" he asked.

"A raft, maybe twelve feet square," I replied, "loaded with trouble."

I wrapped the rope around my waist, climbed to the top of the cockpit for more height, and then dove. I found the tow line again and secured the rope. As I struggled upward, unwinding the rope was tricky. I broke the surface and continued twisting free, gulping for air. With the end, I swam for the transom. I handed it up to Denty and said, "Go easy and you can raise the tow line."

Still sucking up air, I climbed back aboard. Iíd already guessed what the cargo was, but I wanted to be sure. I fished the Buck knife out of my pants, opened it, and dove again. I didnít want to cut the tarp; trapped air could be keeping it afloat.

I pulled my way toward the bottom of the raft. By feel, I found an uncovered plastic bag and slashed with the knife. I grabbed a handful of rapidly dissolving powder and brought my tongue down to it. Even the salty water couldnít hide the taste.

When I broke the surface, Tony was leaning over the rail, the face empty of lightness and smiles, the blue eyes black holes against the high sky. "Coke?" he asked softly.

"Yeah," I said, grabbing at air.

"Thereís a fair sized boat headed this way."

"We best talk to Denty."

Tony nodded and started aft. I closed the knife and swam for the ladder. Denty and Bill finished securing the tow line as I climbed aboard.

I grabbed Dentyís arm and turned him toward Tony. By the look on his face, I must have grabbed harder than Iíd intended. "Itís coke. A ton at least. And thereís a boat headed this way."

Denty scooped up the glasses and turned toward the oncoming boat.

"Cut it loose," I said. "Then get clear. Fast."

"Christ. Whatís with you?" he demanded, lowering the glasses. "Weíre taking this in. Weíll be heroes."

"Pass, Denty," Tony said grimly. "Some lowlife paid ten mil for this. Heíll be pissed at losing it."

"Have you guys lost it? What the hell can go wrong? This is Marina Del Rey, not some hot LZ."

"Thereís not another boat in sight, except the one coming at us," I said.

Tony pulled the .25 automatic from the ankle holster. "This is the arsenal, if they want that raft." He tucked the little pistol behind his waistband.

"To hell with you guys."

When I turned away, disgusted, Tony said, "At least call the Coast Guard. Then get me a phone link. Thereís a cop Iíve got to talk to."

"Well, thatís reasonable." Denty turned to the radio and began twisting dials.

As he reported what weíd found, I watched the approaching boat, worried more than a fellow should be. When the voice on the radio announced a chopper was airborne, the boat veered west, out to sea. Maybe that had been their plan all along. But I would have bet against it.

I made my way forward and slipped into my clothes. The soggy shorts clung uncomfortably and the shirt stuck to my back. I headed for the galley, reassured by the pounding, throbbing roar of the chopper passing overhead.

I grabbed a beer from the fridge, then settled into a seat, more than a little angry at Earlin Tiberon Denton. Few have heard this name. "Call me Denty," heíd say. With those three words and a smile brightening intense brown eyes, strangers called him friend.

Today had been set aside for the formal launching of Dentyís Dream, a Gulfstar 54. A motor sailor with twin masts, glistening with new whiteness, sharply trimmed in bright coral. Denty had claimed it would be a dismal affair without me.

I hadnít agreed. But Iíve always had trouble saying no to Denty. So Iíd paid the twenty bucks to park the car without a whimper, then tried to pretend the half-hour walk to the boat didnít matter either.

Iíd gotten the whole tour, before we shoved off. And Iíd found myself enjoying what Iíd thought would be only the fulfillment of a social obligation.

Itís tough to find four men who survived the happenings in Nam who still hang together. Maybe that was it. The quiet renewing of strong ties, forged in the crucible of war.

But good feelings had vanished. I wished to hell I was someplace else. Or that Denty had never bought the damned boat. Or that it would sink. Now.

The others drifted in, talking excitedly. The conversation quickly evolved into an intense earnest debate that included all the tiresome, dreary arguments used about anything folks want thatís illegal. It bored me nearly to the point of pain. I slipped outside, hoping not to be missed. But Gail followed me up to the cockpit.

The chopper now trailing us, showed no weapons. But they might be stowed out of sight so as not to disturb happy boaters. It didnít matter; its mere presence was comforting. And another boat was following.

"Wonder what theyíre up to?" Denty asked, nodding back toward the boat behind him.

I reached for the glasses. "Itís a Coast Guard cutter."

"Everybody wants in on the act."

"Seems that way."

Seamen scanned the ocean. The gun covers were off. I laid the glasses down and made my way forward.

Gail followed. She leaned over the rail beside me, watching the cutter close. "You donít approve of the talk down below, do you?" she asked.

Her long, sandy-toned hair had to be naturally wavy, for the damp salty air hadnít seemed to affect it. Bright brown eyes were locked onto mine.

"You must think Iím a terrible snoop," she said finally.

"Are you?"

"Curious, mostly. Youíre a man easy to like, but you donít give much. Whatís going on under that black, wavy mop of hair, behind those slate-gray eyes that let nothing show you donít want seen? How did you get all those lovely muscles you use so well? How do you keep so trim?"

I realized I was blushing and hoped it was hidden by the sun behind my head. "Werenít we talking about coke?"

"We were. Whatís your body fat?"

"Iíve no idea. Whatís yours?"

"This is crazy, isnít it?"

"Expect youíre just curious, like you said."

"But youíre not going to help much with that, are you?"

"Itís not likely."

"At least tell me what you think about coke. Donít you see a problem?"

"Yeah. Tony said someone paid ten mil for whatís on that raft. It could be worth ten times that on the street. With that many bucks at stake, people will get hurt. Some will die."

"Thereís a look in your eyes, as if you know about such things. Itís scary."

I glanced back at the raft. "It is that," I said.

At the entrance to the channel, the cutter pulled up alongside and herded us down the north edge, fending off the other boats. Denty held the mike in one hand while clutching the wheel with the other.

Near the end of the channel, I could see the Coast Guard office. The cutter that had been docked there on our way out, had settled across the marina entrance, blocking outbound traffic. Everyone in the channel was being warned off with the blaring bullhorn on the cutter next to us.

Heading for the Coast Guard dock, Denty opened the throttles wide. As if rehearsed, he swung the boat north at the last instant and Bill cut the tow line. The raft floated toward shore. Denty slowed the boat to a stop, then began backing in after it.

There were too many officials on shore to suit me. And too many others had "press" stamped on their features. I slipped through our people gathered on the fantail, and made my way down to the galley. I grabbed another beer and sat down in the far corner behind the table, watching the two cutters anchor across our prow.

The whole of it was chaos, so confused and disorganized it would have been laughable, if it werenít so pathetic. Representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration struggled with those from the Coast Guard and the County Sheriffís department to gain the upper hand, and thus credit for the confiscated cargo.

Tony sat beside me, along with Gail. We answered virtually the same set of questions for several reps from each department. Only Denty and Bill, up on the dock, enjoyed it. They were in the limelight, on a kind of personal high Iíve never been able to understand. Neither had ever passed on a chance to grab center stage.

About the nineteenth time someone asked me how I happened to spot the raft, I wanted to hit him. "Canít say," I said. "I just looked up and there it was." I knew it was only a matter of time. Theyíd tire of asking questions and scribbling in little notebooks. But when?

"Thatís the guy I called," Tony said, nodding. "Hap Skyler, the best narcotics has got."

Vainly I searched for a clue to support Tonyís obvious respect. Hap was for Happy, Tony had said earlier, harsh contradiction to the grim, uncaring look of him. The too-large black, leather jacket was worn and scuffed. With the scraggly moustache and greasy hair brushed back, he was a caricature of the fifties street type. Still, he was the only one not carrying a tape recorder or a note pad. And he was listening, not talking.

When he approached us, the eyelids drooped over expressionless eyes. "Thanks for the call, Tony," he mumbled, the words oddly unconnected.

"You doiní any good?"

Hap shrugged. "Thereís one dude here from the Sheriffís office. I might get somethiní."

"Luck," Tony said. "Looks like youíll need it."

"For sure," Hap said, plainly discouraged. He drifted off into the crowd.

"Why did you call him in?" I asked.

"When these headline hunters quit, itíll be guys like Hap who do the real work. He needs all the info he can get, especially the stuff that doesnít get written into files."

I tried to picture Hap doing much of anything, but soon gave it up. Whatever Tony saw in the man was lost to me. "Iíve been wondering," I said, "why they dumped that raft in such a public place."

"Could be they thought nobody would suspect it. The boaters make good cover. And we were far enough out to be well away from the rest."

I nodded, thinking again of the reporters outside. "Is there a way to slip out of here? I donít need my picture in the papers."

Tony nodded, rising. "Letís see if my badge is worth anythiní."

Gail let Tony out, then sat back down. "Okay," she said, "Iím snoopy. Why donít you want your picture in the papers?"

Denty, up on shore, was posing for another photographer. "Iím not looking for fame or glory."

"Thereís got to be more to it than that."

"Yeah. You are snoopy."

"Sort of nice, though, donít you think?"

"Thatís so." I paused and scratched at my chin. "Sometimes a friend needs a little help. When I can, I lend a hand."

"And sometimes things get rough?"

"Sometimes."

"Thereís that look in your eyes again. I think Iíve run out of questions."

"Good."

"I havenít, really. Itís only that one of your answers brings up a dozen more questions. I canít seem to deal with them all."

"Thatís even better."

She jammed her elbow into my ribs, but settled into silence. When Tony returned, he said, "Got us a ride."

Most of the crowd was on shore now. We followed Tony down the ladder to the pier. As we climbed the rocky bank, I kept my back to anything that looked like a camera. At the top, Tony opened the back door of a squad car and we slipped inside. Hap Skyler slid behind the wheel and began to work the car free of the crowd and parked vehicles.

In the thirty minutes it took to circle the marina, not a word was spoken. It suited me fine. Hap stopped in front of the entrance to the parking lot. As I opened the door, I asked, "What next?"

Hap shrugged.

"Trouble," Tony said grimly.

"What are you talking about?" Gail demanded.

Tony answered. "That lowlife who just lost ten million? Thereís no telliní how heíll react." He turned to me. "Whereís your Colt?"

"In the trunk of the car."

"Iíd keep it closer."

"Sleep with it," Hap mumbled.

I nodded, then said to Tony, "Will you take care of this lovely, snoopy lady?" Gailís smile was warm, but the eyes still brimmed with curiosity.

"For sure, buddy. For sure."

I closed the door and hunted up my car. I opened the trunk, unwrapped the Colt Python .357 from the oily towel, checked the load, then tucked it inside my waistband. I dropped the speed-loaders into my pant pockets.

The carís a í66 Dodge, worn and bruised by time, but the 426 Hemi mellowed down to a comforting rumble within seconds of firing the ignition. I didnít waste much time clearing the parking lot, but I spent a whole bunch, making sure I wasnít followed.

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CHAPTER 2

It was one of those glorious spring days that defy description. Gentle breezes embraced all with crisp desert air. The mulberries surrounding the house were capped with brilliant, green leaves, dangling, dancing mirrors dumping sunlight in random patterns.

I hardly noticed. I found myself remembering man is the only mammal that routinely kills its own kind. Where had that come from? I didnít know of anybody who had died.

Pondering the source of grim thoughts, I removed accumulated tools and debris from the Chevy Blazer. When Iíd finished, I swept out the floor. After tucking the broom away, I paused to look up at the mountains. The dog returned from foraging to stand beside me, panting happily. A few nights up there might put an end to the willies.

I scratched the black Doberman and asked out loud, "Duchess? Howís a walk sound?" She looked up, eyes bright. Sheíd disappear up the draw if I made a move toward my pack. The feel of the Colt against my gut abruptly ended that train of thought. When I started up the knoll, Duchess followed reluctantly.

The house is essentially one large room, forty feet on a side. Glass spans the walls, drawing the hills and trees inside. Bookcases and cabinets are tucked under the windows. Furniture is scattered without pattern; all shows lots of wood. Iíd built the place. I liked it. Iíve always been comfortable inside. Right up until now.

In the shower, I took only time to get wet, then dry. And to scrape off black whiskers that grow faster than seems right. As I popped open the beer, a car rattled over the cattle-guard, down by the road. I moved to the windows. Uneasiness was suddenly upgraded to a feeling akin to fear.

It was Tony Haggenís cherry red Porsche. He habitually drives as if on the last lap at Le Mans. Now the car hardly disturbed the dust in the drive. I grabbed a beer for Tony and stepped outside.

The colts in the pasture eyed his progress warily, poised to flee. As he drove over the second cattle-guard and started up the steeper part of the hill, I stepped off the porch and took a sip of beer. It tasted bitter.

Tony slowed to a stop, then killed the engine, his mouth a grim slash across taut features. Clear of the car, his shoulders slumped. Only the coarse blond hair was unmarred by his rage and the strain of subduing it. The black-blue eyes overflowed with that hollow, vacant look. Someone was in trouble, whether they knew it or not. He looked past me, not at me, and asked, "Any beer?"

I tossed him the can. As he picked it out of the air, the breeze brushed his coat aside, revealing the 9mm Beretta. He looked as if he wanted to use it. He ignored his favorite, the captainís chair, and sat on the edge of the porch. I sat down beside him and took another sip. It still tasted bitter.

Duchess lay down between us, her head on her paws, watching Tony. Heís always good for a scratch or two. She was puzzled at being ignored. I looked up at the mountains I knew so well, the best trails to the finest groves of pines and oaks, and to the springs. Itís always pleasant speculation. It wasnít now.

When Tony finished the beer, he crumpled the can. He flattened it as neatly as Iíve ever seen it done. The intensity he brought to the task was nearly tangible. He set it on the porch between us and said, "The Dentons?"

My heart thudded against my ribs.

"Murdered early this morniní." The voice was dull, scratchy, its rich warmth buried. "Massacred says it better. They used MAC-10s. Dumped some ten rounds into each body. The kids, too." He pointed to the mashed beer can. "They all looked sort of like that."

The cold knot in my gut spread icy tentacles throughout the body. Iíd guessed thereíd be trouble, but not this. Nothing like this.

Tony looked up from the crumpled can. "That freighter?"

I nodded, the head strangely heavy.

"Itís got a real fancy name for such a junker. La Conquistadoras. It belongs to Harry Boggs. But we canít prove that barnacled bucket towed that raft. So weíll never tie anything to that god damned sonofabitch!"

Rage had enveloped me too swiftly, too completely. What was desperately needed was cautious accurate thought, not emotional response. I concentrated on breathing deeply. I rubbed harshly at the broad scar in my palm to remind myself of what uncontrolled anger can lead to.

When the mountains at last lost the reddish glow, when I could again hear birds arguing in the mulberries and smell the blooming sage, I asked, "Are the Larsons covered?"

"Sure. Two top guys with .38s and shotguns. Against machine guns. What a fuckiní joke. Cops, you see, got rules and such. The assholes cominí at us must laugh a lot."

"And Gail?"

"I moved her out of town with a witness procedure."

"Did our names make the news?" I asked.

"No. But Boggs can find us."

"Weíve got to stop him."

"Iíll get right on it."

"Weíve got to."

"Shit."

When I stood, I was surprised to find the task so difficult. I returned with two more beers and sat back down, sighing deeply. "I wish to God Iíd stopped Denty," I said, with an intensity that startled me.

"Nobody ever kept him from doiní whatever."

Idly I scratched the dogís back. The way Patsy and little Joey had rushed to hug me replayed itself on the good memory track. And the way Edi had tweaked Dentyís nose before showing me the master stateroom. That was there. Gone now, as though it had never been.

The image of the Springfield M1A in the gun rack over the door, burst upon the mental screen. I glanced toward the road. The distance hadnít changed. It was still near six hundred yards. So why the look? At this range, with the nail-driving ART IV scope, a head shotís a cinch.

"Youíre thinkiní about that rifle."

Tonyís good at that, getting in close alongside my mind.

"You canít do it," he said bluntly.

"Do what?"

"Waste that fuckiní roach."

"Why not?"

"You wouldnít be you any more."

"Who would I be?"

"A killer."

"Weíve killed before."

"Itís not that simple, damnit."

"It used to be, with the night and jungle for cover. And that rifle wasnít near what this one is."

"That was another time, another place. Donít mix the two."

"How in hell do you keep them apart?"

"Youíre askiní the wrong guy." He propped his chin on his palms and stared at the ground. "Besides, his place is a fort, crawliní with soldiers. Itíd be suicide. And thereís cops and feds watchiní. More are ready to move in with choppers. Youíre good, buddy, the best Iíve seen, but youíd get burned."

My gaze drifted about the hundred acres of sand, rock, brush and lizards I could call home so long as I paid the annual tribute most call taxes. Or until Harry Boggs decided I wasnít to live anywhere. "I was only thinking about someone coming at me," I said finally.

"Bullshit. You want to waste him, same as me."

"Yeah," I said softly. "But I want a bunch more."

"Ninety-nine years in a cell?"

"That might do," I replied, not really sold on the notion. My head overflowed with overlapping memories of the Dentons and questions without answers. When I stopped scratching, Duchess draped a paw over my thigh, asking for more. I obliged. "You must have some ideas," I said.

"Sure. Thatís why Iím sittiní here." He shook his head, slowly, deliberately. Few would see what lay behind it. Frustration is there; the badge can be burdensome. Deeper yet, thereís staggering futility and gut wrenching rage, the consequence of following rules that lead to empty, impotent gestures, instead of solutions.

"Tell me about Boggs," I said.

"He started pushiní as a kid and moved up. When the boss turned his back, Boggs slashed his throat, cleaned out the safe, and made two tries with stolen Beech Barons. The white hats got the planes and goods, but not Boggs. The last trip busted him."

"Whereíd he get the bread for another try?"

"Whatís it matter? The point is, he did. Now heís got a lock on the Valley. Has had since he showed. Nobodyís ever bothered him. Lately the Colombians have been tryiní to move in, like with everybody."

"He just wandered in and staked out a claim? Nobody objected?"

"Funny thing, that. Somebody handed narcotics all they needed to bust the roach that was runniní the show. From nowhere, Boggs is there, like without losiní a customer."

"Maybe it was Boggs, making himself some room."

"No way. That case was laid out without a glitch. The judge laid down good time. There wasnít even an appeal. Boggs isnít smart enough to put together a package like that."

"Then who did?"

"We never found out."

"How big is Boggsí action now?"

"He brings in three or four tons a year. Heís moviní money into El Viento, a Panamanian company, hard to track, the way things are down there. Itís freighters and a commuter airline."

"Who runs his coke business?"

"A lowlife named Ed Jacobson deals. Karl Ulster is Boggsí key man. If thereís bad trouble, Boggsíll burn Ulster and be clear."

"Whatís he worth?"

"The wizards downtown, usiní Ouija boards and such, say maybe two hundred million."

"And he risks it all by blowing away the Dentons? Thatís pure stupidity."

"Heís not bright, just weasel clever."

"Whatís ten mil to Boggs," I said, shaking my head, "compared to the heat this will bring down? Hell. Even other dealers may decide heís got to go."

"No chance. The guyís crazy enough to take them all on. And heís got the soldiers to do it."

"It just doesnít figure," I insisted.

"Maybe not, but this wasnít a first. A few weeks back, an unlucky citizen broad-sided the van carryiní Boggsí last shipment. It all went up in smoke. They found the citizen in bed the next morniní, with a twenty-two slug in the temple."

"Why in hell didnít you tell Denty?"

Tony looked up, the eyes filled with misery. "Hap only made the connection this morniní."

I pounded my fist into my thigh. One lousy day late. Damn. Carefully I reviewed what Tony had said, trying to pull it together into a meaningful pattern. If one existed, it eluded me.

"Tony," I said, "follow me a minute. Drug types pound on each other. They waste those who cross them. But Denty was no threat."

"Neither was the citizen who clobbered Boggsí van. Wholesalers donít gun down bystanders. But Hap says this roach is flat paranoid. Heís certain somebodyís feediní info to the Colombians, that theyíre settiní up to move against him. So when he lost the raft, he decided heíd send a more dramatic message. He let the Song Birds deliver it."

"Who in hell are they?"

"Jamaicans. Posses, they call themselves. Theyíre real big in Miami and busy digginí into most good sized cities. Crack is their game. You can buy a rock for five bucks and thereíre plenty of buyers in ghettos and school yards.

"But thereís nothing they wonít do for a buck. They run in packs. And they love to use those MAC-10s. When they do somebody, they donít much care who else goes down. No witness has made it to a courtroom."

"Iíve heard of bloody shootouts in Miami, and in a couple other places. But never in Los Angeles."

"Weíve got the Song Birds now."

"Has anyone ever used them like this before?"

"Not here. But they could get real popular. They work cheap and get it done."

"If Boggs thought Denty was connected to the Colombians, I could maybe understand his being killed. But the whole family? In such an ugly, bloody way? He took out the fellow who hit the van without attracting much attention.

"But this? Hell. Itíll be on the six oíclock news, coast to coast. From every angle, it was a dumb play."

"Boggs must think different, that this was the best way to warn off any opposition. Thatís how Hap sees it. And heís right more often than wrong."

Slowly I rose and went inside. I dumped instant coffee into the mug and poured hot water from the coffee pot. Tony grabbed another beer and sat down at the kitchen table.

For uncounted minutes I stared out the window. "Tony," I said, "what weíve done and seen? It puts a distance between us and others somehow. Most wouldnít understand. Denty did. And I loved those kids like they were mine. Weíve got to find a way to stop this bastard."

"How do you beat two hundred million bucks?"

"Nobodyís invulnerable. Give me a weak spot."

"He can buy his way past anything we could find."

"Weíve got to do something. Now."

"Like what?"

"Anything."

"Boggs is at a community meetiní at Selter Park in Santa Monica. We could see a killer close up."

"Itís better than sitting here."

"Shit."

I gave Duchess a goodbye scratch, then followed Tony to the car. He was feeling better. He was hitting forty down the dirt drive before I could find the seatbelt.

#

In light freeway traffic, the speedometer needle nudged eighty. I tried not to notice. "Whatís this meeting for?" I asked, cringing as Tony darted right to pass the slower car in front of us.

"Boggs bought Varnac Hulls two years back. They make shells for several boat companies. Now heís pulled off a zoniní change on the land next to the plant. Hap says it cost him a chunk under the table, but it could bring him a legit thirty million. He plans to expand the plant, put in a shoppiní center, some condos and apartments.

"Heís buyiní the houses next to the plant. About a third of the owners have agreed to sell. The rest want to stop him. This meetiní is their first try. Hap doesnít think they can."

"You said Boggs isnít too bright. Howíd he figure this?"

"He hired the talent."

"Then whatís he doing at the meeting?"

Tony shrugged. "Itís a point. He canít even say how his team is doiní. But he loves the social scene. Itís probably only an excuse to show his fancy feathers."

"Does he do this kind of thing often?"

"Every chance. Why society types want a killer on the guest list, beats me. But Boggs gets some classy invitations."

Minutes after whipping off the freeway, Tony slid the Porsche to a halt in a red zone in front of a fire hydrant. Once out of the car, I could see quite a crowd had gathered. The homeowners must have invited friends.

Then again, it was May and close to the primaries. The politicians up front could be the main draw. The formalities had not yet begun. A lot of smiling and handshaking was taking place near the temporary stage.

Inside the park, Tony said, "Wait here. Iíll find Boggs."

Looking at the crowd, I decided the older folks, already seated, were the threatened homeowners. Most had a grim worried set to their features.

I studied the houses next to the park. They were older, smaller homes, with redwood siding. Most had been neatly kept. Only a few needed paint. In its day, this had been an elegant neighborhood. It still looked good. If Boggs had his way, all would be bulldozed.

Idly I watched the silver-gray stretch limo slow and stop at the edge of the park. No one was visible behind the smoked-glass windows. A well dressed man backed out of the rear door, still talking to someone inside. He turned to glance at the stage revealing rugged, dependable features and hair with an incorrigible wave.

I caught a glimpse of the woman as she leaned forward, gripped, then slowly stroked the manís arm. The latent sexuality of the simple gesture grabbed at me. The woman pulled the door closed and the limo eased away from the curb.

The man strode determinedly toward the stage. Iíd have bet he was a politician. He had the look, the warm gracious smile locked in as if painted on the face. I knew I was right when the crowd at the stage surrounded him and people began settling into seats on stage.

Tony yanked my sleeve and I followed him down to the third row of seats. "The dude fanniní himself with the wine-colored hat," he said grimly. "Thatís Boggs, prince of fuckiní roaches. Step on him, if you get the chance."

He was in his early forties. Because he was sitting, estimates of height and weight were crude. Six feet? One-seventy? The lustrous, brown hair was tinged with red. The rough cut was too neat, too casual, as if heíd walked from the barberís chair to the park. The moustache under the broad nose was full, molded down past the corners of the wide mouth. All of the face joined in the smile, accenting creases in ruddy features.

Vague, wispy signals suddenly united, bringing focus. To hell with proof. Here he sits.

He presented the stereotype image of a country-western singer. The beige silk shirt had initials embroidered on the tips of the collars and more boldly on the cuffs. The light wine suit was thinly striped with black. But all was fabrication.

Light-hearted? Fun-loving? No way. Yet for reasons I couldnít define, my conviction was being crowded aside by uncertainty. Had I grabbed at him merely because he was handy?

Sounds from the stage and crowd faded as I focused totally. Iíd lost whatever Iíd sensed. I was left with no feeling of the man. Nothing. Iím good at this. Itís crucial to winning at poker. But I couldnít pick up anything. Was he a role-playing sociopath? Was there nothing real about him? Was anger messing with my mind? Distorting judgment?

Whatever, Tonyís seldom wrong. And the destruction of the Dentons was real. Tony believed the force that had turned four beautiful people into bloody bits and pieces had been unleashed by words from this smiling mouth.

My hand brushed the Colt at my waist. I pushed my way through the crowd. I wanted to know who and what this man was, all that made him tick. And I wanted to know right damned now.

"Are you going to kill him?"

The words had come from behind me, intended for my ears only. They startled me, stunning the senses. I turned. Itís not often a fellow six-two finds himself facing a woman whoís eyes are near level with his. She was close. I could only glimpse the high-heeled shoes and long legs above them. She smelled of soap, with no hint of added scent. Age showed only in faint lines that come from smiles. She wasnít smiling now.

"Me?" I asked, wondering how best to deal with the brittle challenge in the light-brown eyes.

"You have a gun. You appear to be capable."

"Canít. Iíve got my limit for the season."

"You have a frail sense of humor."

It was no real blow; she was right. "Why not do it yourself?"

She clenched the purse with strong hands and long fingers. "I may do precisely that."

Suddenly the senses were working fine. The bulge in the purse was a pistol. She was serious. Deadly serious. I tried to get a better picture of her. She was so near, I could catch little except her size.

The shoulders were squared, accented by the long, tan jacket. Dangling, brass bracelets contrasted with the male styling of the wrist watch. The new breed. The female executive on the way up. The aura of self-confidence was nearly hidden under waves of surging hatred. She surely could, and possibly would, shoot Boggs deader than hell.

I couldnít guess what Tony had noticed that led him to step up and discretely show his badge. "Sgt. Haggen. Could I have a word?" he asked politely with that quiet demand cops seem to have been born with.

"What have I done?" The demand was equal, but politeness was absent.

"Just routine."

Her fine, unruly hair, near shoulder-length, covered her ears and hid much of her forehead. The lines of her frown werenít hidden, nor was the flashing anger in her eyes.

"Itíll only take a sec."

She wheeled and moved swiftly through the crowd. When she turned, Tony was there. "What is the difficulty, Sergeant?"

"Itís the pistol. The one in your purse."

"I have a permit."

"Can I see it?"

She produced a laminated card. He glanced at it and asked, "Have you any other identification?"

She handed him her drivers license.

"From the permit, I see youíre a pilot."

"I own Katlan Air."

"This permitís only good when flyiní. Why are you carryiní it now?"

Tony might have noticed the bulge in her purse. Had he seen the way sheíd looked at Boggs? She ought to be away from here. But she might not like the options, if Tony reached the same conclusion.

I stepped closer and read her name from the drivers license. "Gwendolyn, letís get out of here. Maybe grab a drink."

"Itís Ms. Katlan," she snapped.

"You didnít answer my question," Tony reminded her.

She glared at him. "Somehow you donít make it as a law officer. Either of you."

"Iím not," I said quickly. "But he is. He takes it seriously."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Iím only trying to help. Youíre pushing the wrong fellow."

"Heís right, Ms. Katlan," Tony said. "Take his offer. Now."

"What are you two up to?"

All traces of emotion vanished from Tonyís face. "If you try for Boggs, you might miss. A citizen could get hurt. And Boggs never travels without his little army, so youíd probably end up dead. Even if you survived, you wouldnít like jail."

It was the windy Nordic chill wrapped about each word that jolted her, not what he had said. She breathed deeply, struggling for control. When Tony handed back the permit and license, she turned to glare at me. "And your name is?"

"Scott Macklen. Why?"

"I have questions, Mr. Macklen." She whirled and strode off angrily. I followed, puzzled at doing so. She didnít seem much interested in a drink.

She moved well. The hips were narrow for her height. I liked them. And the long legs. I wondered if I could span her trim waist with my hands. I thought about it. Seriously. It beat wondering what Iíd gotten myself into.

#

"Why are you and the Sergeant interested in Harry Boggs?" she demanded, before Iíd settled into the seat. Long, slender fingers firmly gripped the glass of iced tea.

I sipped my beer, then turned away from the demanding set to her features, the fierce anger in her eyes. I watched the cars whisk by. Sheíd picked a small sidewalk cafe, featuring fast service, good food, and comfortable seating outside, covered with a multi-colored awning. It was a nice place. I liked it.

"Well?" she snapped.

"Have you a name without Ms. tied to it?"

"Use Wendy, if you must. Why are you interested?"

"What could it matter to you?" I asked, uncomfortable with her speculative examination. Her driving energy pushed at me. I wanted to move the chair further back from the table.

"I have my reasons," she replied.

"You do seem to hate him pretty good."

"You donít?"

"I just want to stop him."

"From doing what?"

"Killing me."

"Be serious."

"Did you hear about a load of coke found near Marina Del Rey?"

"There was something on television," she said, frowning. "The boat that brought it in was called Dentyís Dream, wasnít it?"

"Yeah. All Denty wanted was the freedom to go where he pleased. What heíll get is a four casket ceremony day after tomorrow at Green Hills Cemetery. He and his family were murdered this morning. Four wonderful people shredded into bloody fragments on the say of Mr. Boggs."

"I gather he was a good friend."

"A bit more. In Nam, we broke out of a prison camp together. He carried me most of the last five klicks."

"Whatís that got to do with you and Sgt. Haggen?"

I took a deep swallow. One hard boiled woman. I couldnít get past that. She didnít seem to give a damn about anything or anyone except Boggs. "Tony and I were on board. I was the one who spotted the raft."

"You believe Boggs will kill you for that?"

"All Denty did was tow it in."

"How will you stop him?"

"Canít say."

"Why not kill him?" Her eyes were bright, filled with the thought of it.

"Itís not that simple."

"Youíre the type who could manage it."

"What typeís that?"

She shrugged, dropping her glance. "Iím not certain," she said. "As a soldier you must have learned to kill. I suppose thatís all I meant."

"Killingís easy. Living with it is tougher."

"Yes. It would be."

"Why do you want him dead?"

"My grandmother lives in one of the homes that animal wants to take. It would destroy her to move." Anger brought a rippling shudder across the shoulders. Her eyes remained fixed on the glass, gripped with both hands.

"Even if youíre some whacked out weirdo, thatís not much reason."

"Harry Boggs isnít human. Heís evil, incarnated." She looked up, her face pale and strained, the eyes filled with bitter hatred. "He killed my father."

"How?"

"Father built Katlan Air. After he met Harry Boggs, it all went wrong. As his habit grew, the business came apart. It killed my mother, a little at a time. The day I received my MBA, he died of an overdose.

"My brother and I took over what was left. We could use the small fortune he wasted on coke. And what he lost in drug-clouded fantasy. But what we miss most is his experience and support.

"I want Boggs dead, preferable with a silver stake driven through whatever blackness serves as his heart."

I took another sip, my back itchy from the icy hate enshrouding each word. The speculative look in her eyes still bothered me. "Boggs didnít kill your mom," I said, watching her intently. "Or your dad. And booze would have done as well as coke."

"Coke is far more dangerous than booze."

"Some would agree."

"You donít?"

"Not really."

"Perhaps you donít fully understand. Boggs brings in a ton at a time. If he died, lives would be saved."

"Hit Boggs and his people will take over within hours. Or others will." The defensive shields had weakened. A better sense of her tugged at me.

"I canít put my feelings aside. I donít think I want to."

"You best give it a try."

"Why?"

"Maybe Tony said it. You wouldnít like jail."

"No. I wouldnít." As if suddenly remembering where she was, she glanced at her watch. Her shoulders squared as her chin lifted. "Iím running late. If youíll excuse me, I must pick up a client in Dallas at six."

"Good luck," I commented, guessing it was close to three.

She stood, permitting herself half a smile at ignorance. "I am a pilot, you may recall. Iíll be taking a Lear."

"Have a good trip," I managed.

She turned and was out of sight within a few long determined strides. All the signs had shouted of ruthless executive, upward bound, with more than a pinch of pure bitch binding the whole. Yet I was intrigued.

What was it? This hardy specimen wasnít beautiful in any classic sense. Still, the whole of her had grabbed at me. I felt inexplicably alone, despite those crowding the tables about me.

I finished the beer and hurried back to the park, earnestly hoping Tony was still there. Iíve never seen a cab in Los Angeles when I needed one.

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CHAPTER 3

It had been another long day, when I pulled behind the house and parked. The sun had dropped below the hills, leaving all in the shadows of evening. I climbed out of the car and squatted on my heel to give Duchess the scratch of welcome she expected. I was beat. A day of digging up info at the UCLA library can be as exhausting, in its own way, as one spent with a shovel.

No one had followed me. Thereíd been no sign of anyone down by the road or on the open hillsides. I broke off scratching the dog and went inside. At the windows, I examined all I could see. If Boggs came for me, how in hell could I stop him?

The question had driven me from bed this morning, and to UCLA. El Viento is Boggsí legitimate front. El Viento. The Wind. A lethal wind in this case, whipping up stormy clouds of white powder.

Was there a way at the man through his assets? I know little about ships or planes, and nothing at all about dollars counted in millions. The day of study hadnít helped much. With topics of such scope, Iíd accomplished little more than learn where answers might be found, if I could come up with the right questions.

I had data. I knew a Dutch Coaster was a small freighter carrying from three to fifteen hundred tons at eight to ten knots, that a number of ancient DC-3s were still flying. Hundreds of facts had been crammed into the memory banks. Leading where?

The size of a ship is incomprehensible. I remembered pieces of the description of the passenger liner, La France. Eight three-story boilers. Turbines rated at 175,000 horsepower. Four prop shafts near two feet across, each weighing fifty-eight tons, rotating a fifty-six thousand pound prop close to three revs a second.

Mind bending facts. A Dutch Coaster is a tugboat, compared to a passenger liner. But to a fellow like me, who thinks the 426 Hemi in my ancient Dodge is power, even the small Dutch Coasters are monstrous.

Size alone protects Boggsí assets. Then there are the natural barriers. The acreage of an airport shrinks a man. That of a harbor, infinitely more. I sighed, turning back toward the kitchen. I needed time to pull it all together. I doubted Boggs was planning to let me have it.

The futile search for a way to duck Dentyís funeral tomorrow, turned the meal of leftovers into tasteless paste. I was tucking away clean dishes when the phone rang. I picked up and said, "Macklen here."

"This is Wendy Katlan. Iíd like to offer you a drink." The enunciation was precise, the voice pitched low. She sounded as if she were ordering a typewriter for the office and expecting immediate delivery.

"Why?" I asked.

"Iíd like to know more of your plans for dealing with Harry Boggs."

"I havenít a clue."

"Then perhaps I can help."

I didnít see how. Hatred makes for poor strategy. On the other hand, I had none at all. "When?"

"Would this evening be convenient?"

"Sure."

"About nine? The bar at The Barn?"

"On Roscoe?"

"Yes." She hung up. The abruptness startled me. I had half a mind to call back and tell her to go jump. But I had nothing better to do.

#

The Barn features bright red, cotton table clothes over picnic tables, surrounded by wooden benches. The specialty is spare ribs and the long salad bar heaped with all manner of goodies at prices that bring in families. The noisy din was fading at this hour. Earlier guests had already left with youngsters needing to be tucked into bed.

The bar carries the same motif. Wendy was seated near the center of the room. Her neutral expression clashed with the bursts of boisterous laughter that frequently erupted throughout the room. There was no hint of anger; that was a plus. The charcoal gray blazer softened the squared set to her shoulders. She greeted me with a polite smile, saying, "Iím glad you could make it."

"Me too," I replied as I sat down opposite her. I wasnít sure either of us had meant what weíd said. The waitress set a vodka gimlet in front of her. "What would you like, sir?" she asked.

"Jack Daniels on the rocks."

When the waitress nodded and turned away, I asked, "How was your flight to Dallas?"

"Routine, but profitable." She sipped her drink, studying me with a subdued version of the speculation Iíd seen before. When the waitress served my drink, I took a healthy swallow. I wanted Wendy to quit looking at me that way.

Seeing her comfortably ensconced behind the facade of the executive, it didnít seem possible she would have used her gun at the park. But it had yesterday. Maybe nothing had changed except the image she was projecting.

I tried to picture the narrow waist, hidden below the table. She was effectively suppressing all hints of sexuality. I was fascinated. If she sensed my thoughts, she avoided acknowledging even that.

When she decided sheíd had enough of my examination, she said, "Youíre something of a puzzle."

"Howís that?"

"I ran a credit check. You donít exist financially."

"I like it that way."

She mulled it over, then said, "It surprised me. In the air charter business, we need fast accurate profiles of new clients. The firm we use has never failed us."

How much should I tell? Iíve worked hard to build the barriers. "What I have is in Nelder, Inc., a Nevada corporation," I said. "My name doesnít come up much."

Briefly she inspected my worn plaid shirt and denims. "Youíre doing well, then?"

"Depends on your definition. I buy houses that need fixing, then sell or rent them. And I win more than I lose at poker."

"Poker? Thatís difficult to believe."

"Thereís a sure way to find out."

"No thanks. Katlan Air is on the pass line every single day. Poker would be an unnecessary risk."

"Too bad. Youíd be good."

"What made you say that?"

I shrugged. "Youíre obviously bright. Iíve a hunch you read people well. And, like now, youíre able to hide your thoughts."

"That didnít sound like a compliment."

"It wasnít." I finished my drink and motioned for another. "What else do you want to know about me?"

"Whatever youíre willing to share."

"Why?"

"Iím not sure. I suppose Iím only interested in how youíll stop Boggs."

"What makes you think I can?"

"I am a fair judge of people, as you suggested. I pointed out yesterday you seem capable."

"There must be more."

"My brother, Floyd, flew in Nam. He has contacts. Your war record is unusual."

"Records donít tell it all."

"Thatís true. Floyd says yours are incomplete."

"In what way?"

"You were the leader of an elite team, yet the group designation is not given. Apparently you were frequently sent into places we werenít supposed to be. Those ventures arenít mentioned either."

"Howíd Floyd pick up all that?"

"Through Tim Jackson. I understand he was with you for a time."

"One of the very best, until a mine blew his legs off."

"Floyd didnít mention that."

"Folks generally donít. Mention that part of war, I mean." The words came out with unintended harshness. I took a goodly swallow and waited for the bite. I told my tongue to lighten up and said, "Youíve gone to some trouble. What was the point?"

"If Boggs attacks, youíll fight back. I wanted to be able to judge your chances."

"How do you see them?"

"Slim to none. But there is a way."

"Expect I know what youíre thinking."

"Iím sure you do. Kill him before he kills you. Itís the only reasonable solution." The words were spoken softly, but harshness made them sound particularly ugly.

"I donít think you ought to, Wendy. And Iím not planning to."

Bitterness flared in the bright brown eyes. "Would money help?" she asked bluntly.

Iíd been right about what lay behind her speculations. With my hands under the table, I clinched my fists. Sometimes it helps me soften the words. "Donít take that further, Wendy."

I lowered my voice. "Iím no damned mercenary. Frankly your obsession makes me wonder if youíre entirely sane. Whatever, look somewhere else for your hired killer."

Her anger surged. I watched intently as she fought for control. I knew how she hated the man, that it went far beyond reasonable bounds. So I was surprised at how quickly she was able to restore the calm business-like exterior.

"You misunderstood. I only want to help." The timber of her voice had dulled. The crisp enunciation was lacking.

"Leave it there. I misunderstood." Looking for a way to close down the subject, I said, "I had an idea about Varnac Hulls."

"And that is?" she asked, clearly uninterested.

"A class action suit against the company. Make a case the plant is unsafe. They use resin in boat hulls. It burns easy, hot and fast."

"Itís a thought. But even if we succeeded, it would only inconvenience Boggs."

"Tony says thereís a legit thirty mil profit in the deal. Snag that chance away and heíd be stung real good. Then thereís your grandmother."

"Yes. It would mean a great deal to her." Hesitantly she considered the idea. The speculative glances that had bothered me were softer, more subdued now. I seemed to be less an object, more flesh and blood.

She took charge, steering the discussion into innocuous, untroubled waters. It took time, but she finally agreed Shelly Mann had a way with drums and that it was proper to call jazz, music. Behind it all, I was sure her mind was racing, that she hadnít shifted focus from Boggs.

I worked at keeping the casual dialog alive. I was able to demonstrate Iíd read a book. I also displayed a distinct unawareness of current events. I donít read newspapers nor watch TV. That brought a lovely smile and the claim that such failure was traitorous to the American way.

When I suggested I might need a plane and pilot, she looked at me sharply, then began asking questions. Yes. I was thinking of a jet, one with intercontinental range. For two to three weeks. When my jaw dropped at the quoted figures, she launched into a crisp clear explanation of how a charter business operates.

She straightened in her seat when she began talking of her hopes for Katlan Air. She and Floyd had reached a plateau that provided adequate income. Now it was time to launch a pattern of growth. Each word and graceful gesture offered clues to what lay behind the business facade. Those elusive impressions I could catch, pleased me.

She glanced at her watch. As if some internal rheostat were being adjusted downward, vitality faded. Staring down at the table, she said, "Youíre right, you know."

"Howís that?"

"There is no rational justification for my hatred of that man." She glanced again at her watch, then said, "I should be going."

"Think Iíll finish my drink," I said, watching her closely.

When she looked up at me, her eyes reflected inner confusion. "I am sorry," she said softly. "I had no right to ask such a thing of you."

"Thatís so."

She held my glance while she stood. When she turned and walked away, her stride was much shorter than I remembered.

#

It was near midnight when I got home. I was glad to see Duchess, but the house seemed empty. I should have invited Wendy up. She certainly would fill any emptiness. But I wasnít even sure I liked her. Fascinated, yes. Who wouldnít be?

I poured coffee and settled into the rocker on the porch, scratching Duchessí head. When I quit, she lay down. As the moon inched up over the mountains, it was Wendy I thought of, not Boggs. When the moon lifted clear of the peaks, I went back inside and rinsed the cup. The phone rang. It was Tony.

"Watch your ass," he said hoarsely. "Two cops and the Larsons were wasted an hour back. Those damned Song Birds again."

An intense tremble rippled down my back. My mind dashed down a dozen trails, simultaneously. When I came out of it, I was looking up at the M1A. Fear was back, bowing the mental shoulders. I glanced down at Duchess. Her face held that worried-doggie look. "Damn," was all I could manage to say into the extended silence.

"Yeah," Tony agreed.

"Any chance of making a case?"

"Hap and I are at it. With two cops down, weíll have help. We could get lucky."

"If thatís a plan, how would you rate it?"

"Itís not worth shit." He slammed the receiver down.

I hung up slowly. The palms were damp with sweat and the small of my back was oddly chilled. I realized my eyes had been searching the trees near the road and examining breaks in the hillside that could be cover for a gun. It was unlikely Boggs knew where I was, but there was no point to gambling. Iíd be safer in the hills.

I reached up toward the gun rack, then paused, leaving the arm to its own devices. Could I do it? Without shredding the patiently, rebuilt, patchwork quilt that was my soul? Was there another option?

Angrily I snatched the rifle, checked the action, rammed home a clip, and armed the piece. Bitter memories abounded as I slung the belt of clips over my shoulder, then the rifle. The night held an unnatural reddish glow, invisible to others.

With the Starlight scope and blankets, I started down the draw without sound, in a manner that should have been long forgotten. Even the dog seemed to join in the search for quiet.

They wouldnít come up the open hillside. Theyíd use the cover of Nedís place and take him out as they came. Wonderful news to bring your neighbor. At the edge of the porch, I called out, "Ned?"

When the door opened, he started out. Not much more than the brim of the worn Stetson was showing when he stopped at sight of the rifle. He disappeared. When he stepped onto the porch, the Winchester carbine was cradled in the crook of his arm. "Mite a trouble, son?" he asked, in his soft slow way.

"Maybe more than we can handle."

"Thet so?" His ancient eyes scanned the trees down to the road.

I told him about the Dentons and Larsons and what might come, ending with, "We best sleep out."

He nodded slowly, light through the open door reflecting off silvery white hair under the hat brim. The worn Levi shirt and pants clung to the slim wiry frame as if tailored.

"Iíll be about a hundred feet above my place," I said. "About the same distance this side of the old oak."

He nodded. "Thet draw." He pointed with the Winchester. "Thereís a little bitty cave, mebbe eighty feet up."

"Got it."

He turned back inside for what heíd need. Then, with that crab-like, horsemanís gait, he started up the hillside, agility contradicting his age. I watched the drive to the road until he was out of sight, then turned back toward my place.

On the hillside, I mounted the Starlight. I had an unobstructed view of the house and the hillside below, clear to the road. With the M1A, I could hit anything I could see. If I cared to. Did I?

What I wanted was to become lost in a pair of light-brown eyes, perched above squared shoulders, last seen draped with a charcoal-gray blazer. I began a scan with the scope. Duchess, lying beside me, fearfully awaited the crashing thunder of exploding rounds. She couldnít know this was anything more than target practice. It was just as well.

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