Peter Macklin, contract killer--retired--has found himself the perfect woman. He's convinced young, beautiful, innocent Laurie that he is simply a salesman from Detroit, and they're passionately honeymooning in Los Angeles. . . . until the phone call. Peter tells Laurie he has to go to Sacramento to take care of business, and he'll be back in a day. After a day passes, though, a man called Abilene shows up with a note from Peter saying Abilene will take care of her until his return.Macklin's retirement seems to have been premature, and Laurie's innocence is about to end . . . At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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April 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Something Borrowed, Something Black by Loren D. Estleman
Johns Davis remembered feeling a chill the first time he entered the mission building of the Alamo, where Mexican troops in Napoleonic shakos and crossed white belts bayoneted and were bayoneted by the defenders of the Republic of Texas. At the time he'd associated the sensation with the presence of the spirits of the honored dead. Now he knew it was the air-conditioning.
He'd made many visits to the crumbling shrine since establishing himself in San Antonio, and familiarity and repetition had worn the gloss off sacred history. Still, he suspected the Daughters of the Texas Republic of cranking down the thermostat at least two degrees annually, so that the mere act of stepping in from the sun-hammered flags of the Plaza was like plunging into a mountain stream. It was sad when the pull of the arcade drove the keepers of the flame to special effects.
It was a weekday, and the tourist season with its gridlock of history buffs, education-bent parents, and ox-faced children in synthetic coonskin caps was over. A couple of dozen whispering visitors loitered in front of glass cases containing flintlock rifles and moth-eaten guidons, obeying signs asking them to avoid touching the parchment-colored walls, sealed though they were by coats of glaze. Davis strolled out the back door, across the courtyard where a docent in a wool suit stood sweating and shuffling three-by-five cards with notes on Travis, Crockett, Bowie, and the names no one bothered to remember, and entered the gift shop.
Here the crowd was bigger, inspecting Alamo keychains and Kachina dolls and the inevitable T-shirts reading, my parents went to the alamo and all i got was this lousy t-shirt. Inside the door he pretended to browse among some pennants and rolled posters as he made his way to the back, where a well-built black man with gray in his short hair and the start of a double chin stood examining a box containing a log cabin building kit. He wore a tailored lightweight tan suit and Davis noticed a slightly lighter patch of skin on the third finger of his left hand where he normally wore his Super Bowl ring. Davis found this half-assed attempt at going incognito touching.
"It says ages three and up," the man said by way of greeting. "You think a three-year-old kid could figure out how to put one of these together?"
"A retarded three-year-old kid." Davis smiled. "When I was that age I as carving my own struts from balsa to build a toy plane. They might as well sell 'em already assembled, for all the challenge they offer. You want to put him to work? Give him a coffee table."
"My old man told me he built wood planes. You ain't that old."
Davis didn't argue with him. At sixty-one he was the ideal weight for his height, worked out three times a week at a gym, and tinted his hair a light sandy brown. People who didn't know him when it was black would not guess he'd gone entirely gray. Most of his acquaintances thought he was in his middle forties. Back in his grifting days, he'd posed successfully as a retired NFL player, selling nonexistent shares in well-known computer software corporations, borrowing money on the promise of interest once he'd established his Trans-America Football League, and charging two-thousand-dollar suits and cases of single-malt Scotch to well-placed widows (and some not-quite widows) who enjoyed telling their friends they were sleeping with a professional athlete. He still had the build, and although he greatly preferred his present circumstances, it was comforting to know that if they failed him he could take up where he left off.
He looked around for wood to knock, but found none. Even the logs in the log cabin kit were plastic.
"I got a good relationship with my ex," the man said. "She could shake a lot more out of me if she knew everything I was in. If I give this to my kid and he gets glue and shit in his hair, she might get pissed off enough to take another look."
"So build it with him. Call it a bonding experience, excuse the pun."
"I can't spend that much time with the whiny little son of a bitch." The man returned the box to the shelf. "Why'd you pick this place? River Walk not public enough for you?"
"That's the idea. If you want to attract attention, set up a midnight meet in the park. What you got?"
The black man turned his back on a woman browsing nearby, drew a double-over manila envelope from an inside breast pocket, and held it out. Davis didn't take it. Most Americans automatically accept an offered object, but most Americans haven't spent years avoiding summonses and subpoenas. He asked what was in the envelope.
"Medical report on Jackson. He fractured his ulna in a pickup game day before yesterday."
"What's that? That thing in your throat?"
"That's the uvula. The ulna's a bone in your forearm."
"They scratch him?"
"They don't know about it, and he ain't telling 'em. He didn't go to the team doctor. He was on the d.a. list most of last season and he don't want to get traded. He's starting Sunday."
"The guy that got me the report. You going to question that?"
"I question everything but the pregame show. Any X rays?"
"He risked a burglary beef just getting the report. Anyway, you can fake X rays. This has the doc's signature."
"Yeah, like you can't fake that." Davis took the envelope and tapped the man's chest with the end. "If Jackson snaps a hundred-yard pass Sunday, I'm looking for you, your guy, and the doc."
"Yeah, yeah. Just remember me when he fumbles."
Davis slid the envelope inside his blazer. "Get your kid the John Wayne video. It'll keep him busy three hours. Your old lady'sll be so grateful she'll take you back."
"Man, that's the last thing I want. I just don't want her to know about the Safeway in Houston." He slid the shrink-wrapped VHS tape of The Alamo out of the revolving rack. "Think he'll understand it?"
"What's to understand? It's the Duke."
A small crowd had gathered in the courtyard to hear the lecture. Davis circled around it and cut back through the mission, where he stopped to poke a dollar bill into the donation box, then touched the forbidden wall on his way out the big oak double door.
The air outside was think and hot and smelled of the river. When he'd first arrived from Chicago, accustomed to the wind shaving off Lake Michigan and the abrupt changes of season, he'd thought he'd never get used to the heat, but he'd acclimated quickly. It had helped that returning East was not an option. He'd slept with the wrong not-quite widow, gotten careless and sold the same bogus shares to two investors who knew each other, made a couple of other miscalculations that had taken the shine off Lincoln Park and the Sears Tower. In the end it had been a good thing. He liked westerns and really was proud of Texa's history, and it was comforting not to have to change his address every few weeks. And no one begrudged a bookie his profit, or at least not seriously enough to do anything more about it than question his parentage. That was okay, because he really was a bastard and a son of a bitch. He had the birth certificate and the ironing-cord scars to prove it.
He'd parked his bottle-green Jaguar on Crockett, down the block from the Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt had sipped ginger beer in the mahogany-paneled bar and recruited Rough Riders for the war with Spain. He was eager to read the report, which if it was genuine would pay off the place in Galveston, to start. But the only spot he'd been able to find was in the sun, and the air would be too hot inside the car until the climate control got its toe in. He'd go over the material at home with one Eugenia's margaritas.
He couldn't imagine a more pleasant reading experience. In the four years he'd been running his sports book, he'd never had a tip that looked so much like early retirement. Inside information of that type was the Philosopher's Stone in his business, the Grand Slam, the Royal Flush, the six-figure rare coin that drops out of the ceiling while you're replacing the insulation. It was the stuff of urban legend. His source, second-string player that he was in his prime, flop that he'd been in business and his personal life, maintained extensive contacts throughout the world of professional football and had yet to fail him. Of course Davis had given him shit over it; it was the kind of thing that only happened to someone else.
He threw himself into the fabric-covered seat--leather was never the wise man's choice in the sun Belt--folded and transferred the paper sun-shield from the dash to the bucket on the passenger's side, and started the engine, sliding down the windows to let out the heat. He was reaching for the blower to the air conditioner when he smelled stagnant sweat.
Something whirled over his head and closed around his neck with a jerk. He was yanked back in the seat, his backside and thighs lifted from the cushion. His hands went to his throat, but the thin wire was sunk too deep in flesh. His throat shut down. Blood whooshed in his head. His tongue swelled and his eyes stuck out like fingers.
His right hand swept down, clawed air, found the shift lever on the steering column, and flung the indicator into drive. He jammed his heel down on the accelerator. The car shot ahead into a loading zone, where the right front tire struck the curb, forcing the wheels left. Davis got his fingers around the bottom of the steering wheel and spun it in the direction of least resistance. The Jaguar swept out into Crockett, crossed the center line, and sideswiped a delivery van, whose driver swerved and sent the van into a spin that ended when it slammed head-on into a low-slung Chevy Nomad filled with Mexican youths in the opposite lane. The Chevy's horn honked; a polite noise and belated.
The man behind Davis's seat (it was always a man when a garrote was involved) lost his balance when the Jaguar struck the van, regained it as the car careered into the left lane, and leaned back with an animal grunt. Davis lost contact with the seat. Only his shoulder blades pressed against the top of the headrest. His foot came away from the accelerator. He made gurgling noises and felt froth on his chin. The scenery stopped spinning across the windshield and separated into black-and-white checks. Tiny vessels burst in his eyes, making light popping sounds like bubble wrap. His palm struck the steering wheel with a thump. He cuffed it like a flywheel. The Jaguar leaned into a wailing U-turn in the middle of the broad street. The stainless-steel grille of a medium-size truck whirled past, a line of pecan trees planted along the sidewalk, clusters of pedestrians. He saw a round Hispanic face, a flushed, shining, touristy face, the faces of a woman and the baby she was holding, a white-haired old man wearing huge glasses like Harry Carey's. He could have picked them all out of a lineup.
It all stopped with a wallop. The windshield turned white and disintegrated.
Davis woke up thinking he was home in bed. The ceiling looked strange. A minute went past before he realized he was looking at the headliner of the Jaguar. He was sprawled across both front seats with his back bent over the console. His head ached and his throat felt like rusted iron.
Memory slammed back in and his hands went to his neck. The thin wire, some kind of nylon fishline, was still tight, but he got a finger under it and pulled and it came away along with a ragged patch of skin. He was aware of faces outside all the windows and the shrill of a siren getting louder.
He hauled himself sitting, bits of broken glass streaming off him. In a sudden panic he slapped his chest. He felt the stiffness of the envelope still in his inside pocket and relaxed. Through the space where the windshield used to be, he recognized the sandstone wall and part of the brass plaque that identified the Menger. The Jaguar had jumped the sidewalk and rammed the hotel to the right of the entrance.
He climbed up onto his knees, disregarding the crunching glass, and peered into the backseat. He could tell by the position of the man's head where he lay on the floor between the seats that his neck was broken. His sphincter had released, filling the car with reek. The face was twisted toward him. It was a youngish, pale sort of face, almost eyebrowless, and unknown to him. He'd expected nothing else. The always sent strangers.