How many times do I have to tell you? I just want to go home,” said Raji. “This is not going to work. That’s all there is to it.”
“It will work if you help us,” said Bruno.
“I already told you, no. I made a mistake. I admit that. I should never have come to Paris.”
“It’s too late for that,” said Leffort. “There’s no way back. They already know. The authorities will be looking for both of us by now.”
“I’ll take my chances,” said Raji.
“Unfortunately, that is no longer possible.” Bruno Croleva was an equal opportunity merchant of death. There was no cause he would not fuel with guns or munitions. He was totally nonpartisan in the same way politicians are who take donations from all sides on every issue. Bruno was in it for the money. Warm bodies or cold steel, it didn’t matter to Bruno. If there was a profit to be made, he would deliver it.
“You know what I think?” said Bruno.
Raji sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. “No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
“I think you are a little homesick, is all. Maybe you have someone waiting for you back there. A nice woman perhaps?” Bruno wrinkled an eyebrow at him with the delivery of this diagnosis.
Raji looked up at him and winced, as if to tell Bruno that he had an air bubble trapped somewhere between his ears. “No. You’re wrong.” Raji shook his head.
“No need to be embarrassed.” Croleva fancied himself a mind reader, a delusion fostered by the fact that most people were sufficiently terrified of him that any semicivil suggestion from Bruno was generally followed by the word yes.
Larry Leffort sat on the couch against the far wall in Raji’s Paris hotel room. He knew that playing twenty questions with Bruno could end with piano wire being used to make something other than musical notes.
“Listen to me,” said Raji. “You don’t understand.”
Bruno’s forced smile compressed the furrows above his eyebrows. The no-man’s-land between there and the shiny bald dome up top looked like a crooked plowed field. “Tell me. What is it that bothers you? Why do you want to go back?”
“I just want to go home, that’s all.”
“There is nothing there for you,” said Bruno.
“I want my life back. Can’t you get that through your head?” Raji was afflicted more by anger than fear at the moment. “I know that coming here was a mistake. We all make mistakes. I’m sorry if I caused you problems. But now I just want to go home. That’s all there is to it. Understand?” Raji looked up at Bruno, all three hundred and sixty pounds of him and gave the man an annoyed expression, like what part of no don’t you understand.
“I knew it,” said Bruno. “It is a woman. I can see it in your eyes. You miss her. You are in love. Admit it. Dat’s only natural. Young man like you. But soon you will be a rich man. You must learn to cast your net into the open sea, where there are many fish.” Having divined the problem, Bruno’s brain didn’t allow for conflicting messages even from the patient. “You want a woman, I get you one. Beautiful woman. No problem.”
“I doubt he’s ever been with a girl,” said Leffort.
“Fine. You want a boy, I get you…”
“No!!!” Raji glared up at Bruno and shouted. “You’re not listening.”
“OK, OK. You want more than one woman? I can do that.”
Raji just sat on the bed, looking up at the ceiling and shaking his head.
“How many can you get?” asked Leffort. “Women, I mean.” Leffort knew there had to be piercing and tattoo parlors in Paris. Just think what he was missing.
Bruno shot him a harsh glance that crossed the room like a bolt of lightning. The two Americans were driving him crazy. He couldn’t wait for Liquida to arrive so the Mexican could take them off his hands.
“You, outside!” Bruno gestured to Leffort. “You stay here. I’ll be back in a minute,” he told Raji.
Croleva and Leffort stepped from the room into the hallway outside. Bruno said something in Russian to the man seated in the chair at the end of the hall. They had already bolted the window in Raji’s room closed so that he couldn’t crawl out on the ledge and try to escape.
Leffort and Bruno walked a short distance down the hall, out of earshot of Bruno’s thug sitting in the chair.
“We are going to have to put something in his food to sedate him,” said Bruno.
“You think that’s necessary?” said Leffort.
“Yes. And you will have to keep an eye on him.”
“Because you are his friend. He trusts you.”
“Right,” said Leffort.
“And because, if you had done your job, you would already have the rest of the materials, in which case we wouldn’t need him any longer.” Bruno was talking about the final targeting programs. “You are certain that he has them?” Croleva watched Leffort’s face closely as he asked the question.
“Yes. Absolutely. He has them. I know it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he told me. And because he ran the programs and plugged in the targeting data for a computer simulation the day before we left. And it worked.”
Bruno studied Leffort’s eyes for any hint of deception.
“He completed the programs three weeks ago.” Leffort couldn’t afford to show even the slightest equivocation on this. If Bruno thought for a moment that Raji didn’t have the final targeting software, he would kill both of them now and make whatever excuses were necessary to his clients. Without that software the rest of the project materials were worthless, and both Leffort and Bruno knew it.
“You say he loaded them into a computer for the simulation? Then why couldn’t you get them from the computer?”
“Because he deleted the software the moment the test was done. He’s no fool,” said Leffort.
“Then where are they? We have been through his luggage. They are not there. At least not that we could see. You have checked his working papers and you say they are not there. I have had my people scan everything from his laptop. There is nothing there. So maybe he left the programs behind. That could be the reason he wants to go home. He knows he cannot deliver when the time comes.”
“No, he either has them or he has access to them at some remote location online,” said Leffort. “He would never have gotten on that plane otherwise. I’m sure of that.”
“So where are they?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” said Leffort.
“You had better,” said Bruno. “I cannot allow you to leave Paris until I am certain that you have them. Do you understand?”
Liquida had two more tasks to complete before leaving Dubai. The first was done using one of the hotel’s guest computers. He typed up an anonymous letter addressed to the U.S. Embassy in Dubai. It was one of Liquida’s “white-glove specials,” for he always wore gloves when he printed them out. Fingerprints on the paper were a no-no. It was an anonymous tip to law enforcement. He used them occasionally to take down competitors or to drop sand in the gears of a client who failed to pay. He sealed the letter in a blank envelope and delivered it to a private courier service in downtown Dubai. He paid for the delivery in cash, used a pseudonym to set up the account, and left firm instructions that the letter was to be held in their offices until he called. At that time he would give them the delivery address. Liquida didn’t want to give them the address now in case they screwed up and delivered it early, in which case it would be his ass in the flames.
The second task was more painful. Back at the hotel, Liquida downed some of the pain medications given to him by the doctor in D.C. He used the sharp point of one of the stilettos to spread the ends of each of the thirteen surgical staples. Then, gritting his teeth, he plucked them out one by one from the pursed-up wound under his right arm. Liquida found it difficult maneuvering the sharp point of the blade with his left hand. He stopped periodically to steady himself and to dab the bleeding pinholes around the wound with tissue from a dispenser on the bathroom counter.
As he moved the blade, Liquida dripped venom while bargaining under his breath with the evil imps that inhabited his heart. He haggled for the soul of the dead black bastard who did this so that Liquida might staple his spirit to the hottest rock in hell. By the time he pulled the last wicked little piece of wire from his flesh, he was a quivering mass of sweat. Liquida looked at himself in the mirror. Even to his own eyes he appeared the hideous image of Gollum.
He rested for an hour and then showered. When he was done patting the wound dry, he checked the towel to make sure that the tiny pinholes from the staples were no longer seeping blood. He dressed, putting on a pair of tan slacks and a loose-fitting Egyptian cotton white shirt with an open collar and black buttons down the front. He left the bottom of the shirt outside his pants and slipped on a pair of loafers with no socks, the casual Spanish squire on holiday.
Liquida spent the rest of the day relaxing, sitting under an umbrella by the pool and reading newspapers to catch up on the evil others had done while he was on the run, hiding and plucking sharp pieces of wire from his body.
He was two days early removing the staples, but he had no choice. Bruno’s offer wouldn’t wait. It was now or never. If Liquida didn’t reply and do so soon, the offer would be gone.
While the better half of his brain told him it was a setup, his weaker side didn’t want to believe it. Besides, he had no option. He was running out of money. He needed the cash in that box. And if Bruno had a job for him, a big one, there would likely be money for expenses. Bruno was hip deep in people who could supply top-notch passports and create new bulletproof identities, all the resources that Liquida needed for cover. It would buy time. He could use it to stay out of the clutches of the Americans.
He wanted to believe that it was all there in the box. The problem was, there was only one way to find out.