CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

He entered her apartment not as guest, but as intruder. It was an odd feeling and one he wasn’t comfortable with. The woman, after all, was in love with him.

With the help of one of his crutches, Eric eased the door shut behind him and listened. He was standing in the foyer of Diana’s apartment and he could hear a television playing in the distance. It sounded as if it was coming from the kitchen. Or from one of the rooms upstairs.

Was she home? She said she would be out most of the day. If you’re going to stay here, I’m going to have to buy food? What do you want?

He made a list and she left. It was then that he phoned Louis Ryan and left for their appointment.

He moved out of the foyer and into the living room, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror she had taped a list of his faults to. He looked tense beneath the purplish bruises on his face, and if she was here, he knew she would notice and ask him what was wrong.

Calm down.

The living room was empty. To his right was the winding staircase that led to the second-floor bedrooms and Diana’s office. Eric looked up and called her name once, twice, but there was no reply.

The kitchen was at the end of a long hallway. Awkwardly, he moved toward it, the rubber tips of his crutches catching on the carpet, the sound of the television growing louder. There was no one in the dining room as he passed it. He opened a door and saw that the bathroom was empty.

When he reached the kitchen’s closed swinging doors, he listened and heard not only the television, but also running water. He closed his eyes. She was home. She was fucking home. Now what was he going to do? Ryan wanted that information immediately.

He turned and looked back down the hallway, toward the living room. For a moment, he considered sneaking into Diana’s office, locking the door behind him and getting the files Ryan needed. But that would be stupid. If Diana ever went to her office and learned what he was doing, his ass would be behind bars for the next twenty years. He would have to wait and get the information later.

Parting the kitchen doors with his shoulder, he stepped through.

Tried to step through.

In front of the doors was an overturned bag of groceries, their contents spilled. Eric looked around the room, saw a small wooden table on its side and another bag of groceries on the floor. Alarmed, he went to the island that was in the center of the kitchen and turned off the running water-the television seemed to grow louder. He looked at the screen, saw that she had it on CNN and clicked it off. It wasn’t until he turned to look once more around the room that he saw the note stuck to the refrigerator.

He plucked it off. In a hurried scrawl, she’d written these words: “George called an emergency board meeting. I don’t know when I’ll be home. Call me immediately at the office.”

Eric read the note twice, wondering what had happened and why George would call an emergency board meeting on a Saturday afternoon. He was tempted to call and ask her what was going on, but there was no time. He dropped the note into a wastebasket and left the kitchen.

As fast as he could, he moved down the hallway toward the living room. Leg throbbing, head aching, one single thought revolved in his mind: The sooner Ryan has that information, the sooner that check is mine.

In the living room, he was faced with his first obstacle-the tall, winding staircase.

Eric looked up at it with dread and wondered how he would get to the top of it without falling and breaking his neck. He took one stair at a time, moving carefully, his crutches slipping twice on the varnished wood.

By the time he reached the upper level, four minutes had passed and he was out of breath. His forehead shimmered with perspiration and he wiped it off with the back of his hand. Her office was through the door to his right. Eric glanced at his watch and wondered how much longer she would be. Hours? Minutes?

He stepped into the sun-filled room. File cabinets were along the wall to his left. At his right were bookcases filled with law books. On gleaming glass tables were computers, printers, telephones, fax machines and photocopiers. The office was large, but it wasn’t overdone. Like Diana, it was practical and efficient. Essentially, it was a smaller version of her corner office at Redman International and Eric knew that everything she kept there, she had files of here. For convenience.

He went to the computer that was in the center of the room.

As he sat in the leather chair and lowered his crutches to the floor, it occurred to him once more how ridiculous this was. There was not one thing Eric didn’t know about the takeover of WestTex Incorporated. He and Diana discussed it every day. If Ryan had only listened to him, he now would have the information he needed confirmed. But the man trusted no one. He insisted on having hard copies of every file Eric could get his hands on-and Eric was in no position to argue.

He turned on the computer. The screen flashed a message: ENTER PASSWORD.

Eric opened the top drawer of Diana’s desk. Inside, between two piles of neatly stacked papers, was an envelope slightly larger than the size of a credit card. Eric removed the envelope and closed the drawer. Inside, on a slip of paper, was Diana’s password, just where it had been a month ago, when his own computer died and he phoned to ask if he could come down to her apartment and finish the report on her computer.

Like his own, the machine was linked to Redman International’s main cluster of computers. It was then that she’d shown him where she kept her password, a combination of twenty letters and numbers no one could remember. Not even me, Diana said. And you know how good my memory is.

He entered the code, the screen winked and control of the computer became his.

His fingers danced over the keyboard. He went to the menu, brought up the directory and hundreds of files began filling the screen. The files he needed were halfway down the screen and listed in code. If you knew it, the code was simple to understand. Any file that began with an asterisk and ended with the letter “T” was a file that contained information on the takeover of WestTex Incorporated.

Although there were only twelve files, each one contained hundreds of pages of information-clearly too much to print out on Diana’s printer in the short amount of time he felt he had left. And so Eric opened a side drawer and removed one of her flash drives. He inserted it into the machine’s USB port and the computer buzzed, whirred and hummed. He reached for the mouse that was on the pad to his right and moved the cursor to one of the files. He clicked on the icon, dragged it to the drive icon-and a new message appeared:

TO COPY FILE*FA#IB!$S@*T

ENTER SECURITY CODE BETA

Eric stared at the screen in disbelief. As an added security feature, Redman International changed their security codes every three months, which must have happened recently. When he last had access to the system, it was code ALPHA. Not BETA. BETA hadn’t fucking existed. Without a code to enter into the computer, he wouldn’t be able to transfer the files onto the disk.

There had to be a way around this. The system was tight, but not airtight.

A thought occurred to him. Whenever Redman International changed their security codes, an email was sent to employees giving them the option of coming up with their own security code, one they would have less trouble remembering. The idea was that if they had gotten this far, they were indeed an employee of Redman International and so security became somewhat more lax.

The code could be anything they wished. Eric wondered if Diana was anything like him and Celina, and just used her old code out of laziness. He knew the code she gave him before was her middle name-Marie. He entered it into the computer.

And the screen winked.

The emergency board meeting ended almost as quickly as it began.

Diana Crane snapped her black crocodile briefcase shut, rose from her seat and went with the other directors to where George stood at the head of the mahogany table. “I just received a call from Ted Frostman,” he said only moments ago. “And we have a commitment from Chase to go forward. Now, more than ever, the deals with WestTex and Iran must go through. For Celina.”

As Diana watched Harold Baines and the other directors pay their regrets to George, she was struck once more by the reality that Celina Redman had been murdered only that morning.

George extended a hand when she approached. His face seemed cast in stone, his eyes empty and void of feeling. Awkwardly, Diana moved his hand aside and gave him a tentative hug. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll miss her.”

George didn’t hug her back.

Diana pulled away from him and saw that his eyes had narrowed slightly. He seemed to be looking straight through her.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“From what I hear, your hands are pretty full these days, Diana. Just take Celina’s place and fly to Iran with Jack and Harold. Get the papers signed. Make the trip a success. That’s all I ask.”

And then you can go home to Eric.

Although George didn’t say those words, Diana knew he was thinking them. She had shown no loyalty to Redman International by dating Eric Parker so soon after he was fired. She had shown no loyalty to the Redman family by dating Eric so soon after Celina ended her relationship with him. She deserved his cool reception now and she accepted it.

As she left the boardroom and walked down the hallway to her office, she felt oddly removed from the unusual quiet, from the senior secretaries sitting at their desks, from the tears being shed. She had dealt with death when her own father died and she would deal with this now. Since work always had been her escape, Diana would throw herself into this deal. She would make certain the contracts were unbreakable, that each deal went smoothly.

Her secretary was waiting for her in her office. The woman was standing in the center of the room, her face slightly flushed. She too had been crying. Diana squeezed her arm as she passed. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “Pour each of us half a cup of coffee. I’ve got a bottle of brandy in that desk for the other half. We can use it.”

The woman managed a smile and left the room.

As Diana watched her leave, she wondered if something was wrong with herself. Why couldn’t she feel the pain and loss these other people felt? Before Eric, she had been friends with Celina for years-close friends. Was she really so cold that she couldn’t show-let alone feel-any other emotion besides relief? Was Eric Parker so important to her that she felt no loss for a woman she once held in such high esteem?

Best not to deal with this now. Dealing meant coming to terms with who she was as a person and Diana wasn’t ready for that. She expected she wouldn’t like the outcome.

She went to her desk. If she was going to take Celina’s place on this trip, there were files she had to familiarize herself with before leaving.

She turned on her computer, pulled a slip of paper from the back of a drawer and entered her password. She hit return and the computer did something it never had done. A message appeared in the center of the screen: **ACCESS DENIED** TERMINAL B IN OPERATION

Diana stared at the screen, confused. Terminal B was her computer at home-and this computer was saying that it was in use. But that’s impossible, she thought. I shut it down this morning.

She entered her password again, thinking she’d made a mistake the first time. She knew that only one of her computers could be used at a time. It was an added security feature that let the user know if somebody else was on their system.

The screen flashed and again she was denied access.

For a moment, she remained puzzled. And then realization struck.

She once gave Eric her password. His computer wasn’t working and he needed to use her computer to finish a report.

A chill went through her.

Right now, a former Redman International executive was using her computer.

Eric stared at the computer. “Come on,” he said aloud. “Come on…”

A message appeared on the screen: ACCESS DENIED.

He looked at the message with resentment, knowing he would never get the information Louis Ryan needed and that the check wouldn’t be his.

Enraged, he slammed a fist hard against the side of the computer-and sat back in surprise as the screen flashed and sparks erupted from the back. As the screen turned in on itself, fading rapidly to black, he realized he’d just broken her computer.

Now she would know he had been using it.

Frantic, he unplugged the machine in case of fire and looked around the room, knowing she could be home at any moment. He was about to say to hell with this, to hell with Ryan and leave the office when he glimpsed the long line of file cabinets across the room. He wondered if the information he needed was there, already stored for him in neat files…

Grimacing, he reached for his crutches and went to the nearest cabinet. He tugged on one of the four drawers and found it locked. That was no surprise, but with any luck, perhaps somewhere in this room were the keys to unlock them.

He went back to her desk.

He opened the top drawer, carefully moved aside stacks of papers and found no set of keys. He opened the drawers to his right, found nothing but thick, deep green folders, and then he opened the drawer to his left. Gleaming inside was a slick black crocodile briefcase, one of several Diana owned. Eric was about to move it aside and look underneath it when he stopped. And wondered.

He removed the briefcase and put it on the desk. The briefcase was unlocked and he opened it. Crammed inside were files on the takeover of WestTex Incorporated.

His heart lifted.

He quickly scanned the hundreds of pages of information and saw that everything Ryan needed was there, in this briefcase. Not believing his luck, he reached for one of the phones beside the computer and punched Ryan’s number. The man answered on the second ring.

“What took you so long, Eric?”

Eric ignored the sarcasm. Things were different now. Now it was he who had the upper hand-not Ryan. “I have everything you’ve requested,” he said. “But time is running out. She’ll be back shortly. How soon before you can have somebody here to pick it up?”

“Ten minutes.”

“I said shortly,” Eric said. “Make it five. And here’s something else, Ryan. I want that check tripled or there’s no deal.”

There was a silence.

“Answer me,” Eric said. “It’s all here. But it’s triple or nothing.”

“You’re out of your mind,” Louis said. “I’m not paying you-”

“The information’s worth ten times that amount and you know it,” Eric interrupted. “Now, what’s it going to be? You’re down to four minutes.”

“All right,” Louis said. “I’ll triple it.”

Eric smiled grimly, his stomach tense. Now for the bluff. “And, Louis, in case you decide not to come through with that check, and in case anything happens to me, I want you to know that before I called you, I called a friend about this. If he reads my obituary, the world soon will be reading yours. Remember that. Don’t fuck this up. Don’t fuck with me. I’ve already set things into motion should anything happen.”

He severed the connection and dialed the front desk.

“This is Eric Parker,” he said to one of the doormen on duty. “I’m expecting friends. No need to call me when they arrive. Just send them up to Diana Crane’s apartment.”

He put down the phone, removed the files from Diana’s briefcase and substituted them for the files he had seen in the drawers to his right. The folders were an identical deep green. He snapped the briefcase shut and put it back as he had found it. By the time Diana realized the switch, Eric hoped to be somewhere in Europe, perhaps Switzerland, with the money Louis Ryan owed him.

He tucked the folders beneath his arm and reached for his crutches. No sooner had he left the room and tackled the winding staircase that he heard someone ringing the doorbell.

He hesitated, wondering if Ryan had believed his bluff. He knew there was a chance that he might open that door and take a series of bullets in the chest.

It was a risk he’d have to take.

He went to the door and looked through the peephole. Standing in the hallway was a tall, rugged-looking man in his early thirties with tousled dark hair. He was wearing an unseasonably warm black leather jacket. His hands were cupped behind his back.

Eric wished the man’s hands weren’t concealed, but he opened the door anyway.

They stared at each other.

The man in the hallway looked at the folders beneath Eric’s arm, then at the cast on his leg, the bruises on his face. The edge of his mouth lifted into a smile.

Eric held out a hand for the check.

The man’s smile faded. He reached into his jacket pocket, removed the check and handed it to Eric. “Give me the files,” he said.

Eric unfolded the check and saw that the amount had indeed been tripled. Relief overcame him.

He gave the man the files and closed the door in his face, locking it quickly.

It was over.

He pressed his back against the door as elation swept through him.

He was now worth ninety million dollars.

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