CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

When Abu Qasim heard the moan of the police siren over the wind, he put the car in gear and got it rolling along the road, heading away from Winchester’s estate. The siren told him that Khadr was in trouble; even now he might be running for the highway, trying to make the pickup point. Or he might be trapped, wounded or dead.

In any event, what Khadr wasn’t doing was calling Qasim, and that was telling.

So Abu Qasim left Khadr to his fate, whatever it might be. He felt no remorse, no loyalty or sorrow, nor, he knew, would Khadr feel any if he were here and Qasim were there. Khadr fought for money and Qasim fought for Allah, whose will would be done in the case of both men, regardless.

Qasim had the windshield defrosters and wipers going, and between them, they were staying ahead of the snow. He drove westward carefully, taking every precaution. He didn’t plan on stopping for the night, just driving out of the storm. If it got too bad to drive, he would find a place to sit it out.

As he drove he went over the preparations for the week ahead. In the past month he had won some battles and lost some. He didn’t waste energy savoring the triumphs or rehashing the losses. He had one last great battle before him, and he intended to do everything in his power to win it. Still, the only thing that really mattered was winning the war. That was the only victory that would please Allah.

“You saved my life,” Callie Grafton said in the wee hours of the morning after the ambulance crews had carried out the bodies and the police had departed.

“We were just lucky he didn’t squeeze that trigger when the bullet hit him,” I said. “Pure luck.”

“You saved my life,” she said again. Then she hugged her husband, and together they went up the stairs, holding tightly to each other.

The truth, as I was keenly aware, was that if Khadr had killed her, I would have had to live with it. Not that I had a lot of choice, but still… No one can say that I don’t have my share of shithouse luck.

I got into Winchester’s liquor pretty hard. Four cops stayed behind, sitting in patrol cars in the parking area, just in case. I looked out a window at the cars being covered with snow and thought savagely that Khadr could have killed them all in fifteen seconds.

Blood, murder, butchery. For the greater glory of Allah.

After three drinks I lay down on the couch and went to sleep. When I awoke the power was back on, the sun was somewhere above the overcast, the wind had died, six inches of snow covered the ground and I had a raging headache. I felt as if I had been scalped. The police cars were still in the parking area.

I had a Bloody Mary for breakfast.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to get a real life.

Sooner or later.

Three uneventful days later we flew to New York on a government executive jet. Police escorted us to the airport for the short flight. Since the attack on Winchester’s estate, I had avoided Marisa and she had avoided me, but somehow we ended up side by side on the jet. At one point she murmured, “I’m sorry, Tommy.”

I pretended I didn’t hear.

From outward appearances, Callie had recovered from her ordeal. I knew that getting that close to the abyss at the hands of an assassin or maniac leaves wounds that only time can heal, but I didn’t speak to her about it. I figured she had Jake Grafton, and who better? What could I possibly say other than a few meaningless, trite phrases?

Callie sat with her daughter, Amy, on the plane, and they held hands. Maybe Amy understood.

The Walden Hotel on Fifth Avenue was really hopping when we arrived. Secret Service agents were as thick as fleas on a camel. Everywhere you looked you saw guys and gals with strange bulges in their clothing talking into their lapels.

They took us to rooms on the fifteenth floor. I gave the bellboy a five-spot for putting my bag in the room, then adjusted the Colt on my hip and headed downstairs to check things out. Grafton had already beaten me to the lobby. He gave me a pass on a chain, which I was supposed to dangle around my neck. He already had his on.

“All the cool people are wearing these this year,” he said, which startled me. Grafton doesn’t often try a funny, and when he does it is so unexpected that it jolts you. I managed a smile.

Standing there in the cavernous lobby of the Walden, surrounded by people bustling about, he looked me in the eyes. “You did the right thing in Connecticut,” he said. “Just wanted you to know that I know that.”

“Could have come out differently.”

“It could have come out a dozen different ways, all of them bad and all because Khadr was there to do murder. You used your best judgment, you acted when others might have hesitated, so Khadr’s dead and Callie’s alive. Thanks.” He reached for my hand and pumped it while he gave me one of those Grafton grins.

I was embarrassed — he could see that — so we left it there.

From his hip pocket he produced a program. “This is how this thing is supposed to go. There will be precisely one thousand thirty-nine people in attendance tonight, including you and me. The staff has been vetted; the place will be brimming with law. Everyone will be seated and the doors will be closed when the president and other politicos make their entrance. They’ll go directly to the dais, and Senator Isner will make the welcoming remarks, which will last no more than two minutes.

Then the staff will begin serving the meals. The president is scheduled to speak after dinner.”

“So none of the diners will get a chance to get close to the man?”

“Oh, no. They all will. Sal Molina tells me that the president will mix and mingle during dinner, pressing the flesh. He will visit every table and shake every hand. These people paid ten grand a chair for the right to say hi to the president and be photographed doing it, so he’s going to give them their money’s worth.”

My eyebrows started dancing.

“I know, I know. Everyone on the attendance list is a big political donor, a spouse or kid or friend of a donor. The list was finalized weeks ago, and the FBI and Secret Service have worked their heinies off vetting these people. To get in, everyone has to go through a metal detector and produce a photo ID. Absolutely no one will be admitted who isn’t on the list or whose ID doesn’t match his face.”

“Okay.”

“The feds have gone over this hotel with a fine-tooth comb. They’ve vetted the kitchen staff, there will be agents in the kitchen watching the food prep and the kitchen staff has to sample every dish before it comes out into the dining room. There will be at least twenty agents in the dining hall.”

“What’s on the menu?”

“Chicken Cordon Bleu.”

“That’s chicken with cheese in it, right?”

“I think so.”

“I hate that stuff.”

“When the president finishes speaking, he’ll leave first, escorted out by a squad of agents, go by motorcade to the airport and leave for Washington on Air Force One. The motorcade into and out of the city is in the hands of the NYPD and Secret Service. They tell me it will be tight as a tick. They’ve even had men in the storm drains on the streets the motorcade will use, checking for bombs. The motorcade is out of our hands.”

“If Abu Qasim is going to do it, it’ll be here,” I said. “With Marisa watching.”

“I think so, too,” Grafton murmured. He took a deep breath and continued. “The organizers are filming everything for use in campaign ads. So, yeah, it’ll be here, so afterward the networks will broadcast it and the faithful all over the planet can see the power of al-Qaeda and Allah.”

“Got any ideas how he’ll do it?”

“I was hoping you might have.”

I shrugged. “Gas, bomb or bullet. Or polonium.”

“Geiger counters in the kitchen and at the entrances to the room. Anyone radioactive will get a bum’s rush to an isolation room.”

“Maybe nothing will happen,” I said hopefully.

“Maybe,” Grafton said, but I could see he didn’t believe it. I didn’t, either.

“I want you to escort Marisa. Stick to her like glue.”

“Okay.”

“Use your best judgment.”

I thought about that for a moment before I said, “Okay, boss.”

About that time a Secret Service type walked up, a chiseled hard-body who could have made a nice living on Madison Avenue posing for ads, and spoke to Grafton. “Your call from Russia is waiting in the command center.”

Grafton slapped me on the arm and went off with the agent. I wondered what that was all about. A million possibilities leapt to mind, too many to process.

I went into the dining room — my pass worked like a charm — looked at all the tables and the raised podium where the guests of honor were going to sit, even peeped under the table where the president was going to sit while three Secret Service agents watched. Didn’t see anything, felt like an idiot, so I wandered out and let the pros have it.

Since it was getting on toward lunch, I put my pass in my pocket, left the hotel and went walking. Ended up heading for a pool room I knew on Seventh Avenue, where I had two hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, washed it down with beer and played some pool with a guy who tried to hustle me. My heart wasn’t in it. I could feel the minutes ticking away, couldn’t get my mind off Qasim and Marisa. I lost twenty-two dollars, told the guy he was too good for me and left.

I strolled the streets, thoughts tumbling over themselves in no particular order. I still hadn’t figured out Qasim and Marisa’s relationship, and I knew that I was flat running out of time.

Maybe I should go back to the hotel and have a real heart-to-heart with Marisa. But what could I say to break through her defenses and get to that place she really lived?

The possibility that she was the one who was supposed to kill the president kept cropping up. Suppose she was the assassin and all this craziness and murder had been just an elaborate setup?

What if Abu Qasim managed to kill the president? That would be the ultimate terror strike, a blow at America that would have profound, unpredictable, seismic implications. The stakes were enormous, beyond calculation. Qasim knew that… and so did Grafton, and the president, and Sal Molina and Wilkins and Goldman and all the rest.

I hoped Grafton had this figured out, because I certainly didn’t.

I walked and walked, waiting, watching the hands of my watch sweep ever so slowly and relentlessly around the dial, ticking off the minutes toward Armageddon.

Abu Qasim worked carefully on his makeup before the mirror, taking his time, inspecting himself frequently. The goatee was glued firmly in place. He put wads of cotton between his teeth and cheeks to fill them out, altering the appearance of his face.

When he finished, he inspected his handiwork and compared that to the photo on his New York driver’s license. Yes, he was once again Samuel Israel Rothstein.

He put on his tux, dressed carefully, inspected every button and zipper. When he was finished, he scrutinized himself in his full-length mirror. Satisfactory.

He checked his watch. He had plenty of time. The hired car would pick him up in an hour. He had used this car service before, so they knew his address and knew him. He didn’t want to be early, but he also didn’t want to be late. Entering the hotel ballroom with the main stream of people was the best way to minimize the scrutiny he would receive at the security checkpoints.

The enormity of the undertaking before him left him with a clarity of mind he found startling. All the extraneous thoughts, cares and concerns were as if they had never been. He wasn’t hungry, wasn’t thirsty, wasn’t nervous. He was ready.

About five o’clock I got back to the hotel. Grafton hadn’t called on my cell phone, and when I got to the room, I found he had left no message. So I was just supposed to go. With Marisa as my date.

I showered and shaved, then dressed in my rented tux that the agency had flown up from Washington. There was a rental place near my apartment where I always rented a monkey suit when I needed one, so the guy had all my sizes. He even got the right size of patent leather shoes, although they weren’t very comfortable.

I checked the Colt — loaded, cocked and locked — and put it in my waistband in the small of my back. The strap of the cumberbund helped hold it in place.

At six o’clock sharp I knocked on the door to the Petrou suite. Isolde opened it. She was dressed to the nines, but Marisa was still in her slip dabbing makeup. Her slip plunged almost to her navel, leaving very little to the imagination. Of course she wasn’t wearing a bra. She barely acknowledged my presence.

I could tell by looking at each woman that neither had a concealed weapon under her clothes. Just to be sure, I helped myself to their purses and stirred through them as Isolde watched with narrowed eyes.

“You are very forward, young man.”

“I’m aging quickly,” I replied. “At this rate I’ll probably be old enough for Social Security next year.” I handed her back her purse. I could see that Isolde didn’t like my attitude. “They behave better in France, don’t they?” I said.

I could see Marisa glancing at me in the mirror as she put on lipstick. I met her gaze. There was something going on there, but damned if I knew what.

Isolde went into the other bedroom, leaving us alone.

Marisa went into the walk-in closet to dress. She came out in a full-skirted gown that above her waist barely covered the slip, and a set of three-inch high heels. Just looking at her made my heart go pitty pat.

She needed help putting on her necklace. I stood behind her and did the clasp. “Tommy …” Marisa began, watching me in the mirror. I didn’t say anything.

“I meant what I said the other night, about wishing it were different.” “I wish it were, too.” We left it there.

Jake Grafton was dressed and waiting on his wife when the telephone rang. It was Sal Molina. “He wants to see you.” Sal gave him the room number.

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” Jake told Callie and kissed her.

She seized him by both arms and looked into his eyes. “You’ve done the best you could, you know.”

“I do know.”

“However this works out is how it works out.”

“I know that, but still… I don’t want the president dead. Not on my watch.”

“Jake!”

“Hey. Being your husband has been an adventure, lady. I just want you to know that.” He kissed her gently on the forehead.

She bit her lip and watched him leave the room, pull the door closed behind him.

She knew that Jake Grafton was perfectly capable of stepping in front of the president to stop a bullet meant for him. And he had just said good-bye.

Wilkins was in the presidential bedroom with the Secret Service’s Goldman, the secretary of Homeland Security, the director of the FBI and Sal Molina. They were standing around with their hands in their pockets, looking glum, when Grafton was ushered in by a Secret Service agent. The president was sitting in an easy chair. The first lady was in the bathroom, still dressing.

Grafton took a letter from his coat pocket and passed it to Wilkins. “Just in case,” he said.

Wilkins knew what it was — Grafton’s letter of resignation — and pocketed it with a nod.

Goldman was arguing that the president shouldn’t appear this evening. He glanced at Grafton, then summed up. “This whole thing is an unnecessary risk. We’ll announce that you are indisposed, and Molina here can make his first public appearance since his high school graduation. He can shake hands, tell lies, pretend he is somebody, and we’ll catch this son of a bitch Qasim.”

“If he shows up,” the director of the FBI added. “I’m betting that he won’t. This whole thing is a half-baked, half-assed, cockamamie load of bullshit, if you ask me.”

The president looked from face to face. This argument had obviously been going on for a while before Grafton arrived, and these were the final love pats.

“Admiral?” the president said.

“If we knew what he looked like, we could go down there and drag him out, but we don’t know.”

“That Petrou woman knows,” Wilkins said sourly.

“She should be able to recognize him, regardless of how he is disguised,” Goldman said. “Grafton says she thinks she can, and I certainly hope so. If he’s in that room, we’ve got him. That’s the logical, safe way to do this.”

They all fell silent. Everyone had had his say. The president got out of his chair so that he could look everyone in the eyes. “I don’t want another 9/11. I don’t want any more spectacular terrorist attacks on American soil, and our allies don’t want any on their soil. Abu Qasim is the most capable terrorist alive — I believe he could pull off something like that.”

“If the bastard kills the president of the United States,” Goldman shot back, “that would be the biggest coup of all.”

“Enough,” the president said. “We’ve got soldiers who go in harm’s way every single day, and I’m the guy who sent them there. I’ll be damned if I’m going to run and hide. We are going to do this just the way it’s planned.”

He reached for Grafton’s hand, shook it, then shook the hand of everyone in the room and shooed them out.

Isolde Petrou, Marisa and I took the elevator to the lobby and walked past a phalanx of police to the ballroom entrance. As Grafton said, the women had to pass through a metal detector. My pass got me a detour around it. I wondered if Abu Qasim had a nifty pass like mine. I didn’t see the Geiger counters, but I had no doubt they were there.

Inside, the maftre d’ checked the master list, then a uniformed helper wearing a different-colored pass escorted us to our table, which was on one side of the room about five rows back. Jack Yocke was already sitting there, and he had a date.

“Hey, Yocke. I didn’t know you gave money to politicians.”

In answer, he lifted his pass, which was also on a chain around his neck, so that I got a good look. It was a different color than mine. “Working press,” he said, then introduced his lady to the Petrous and me — a different woman than the lady he brought to dinner at the Graftons’. She, too, had a press pass dangling from her neck.

I looked at the name tags on the table and maneuvered the women so we were all in the right seats. Isolde was on my left, sort of facing the head table, and Marisa was on my right. Marisa and I had our backs to the wall and were facing the bulk of the room.

It took a while for the room to fill, what with the security at the door and the seating protocol. A half-dozen Secret Service agents were stationed behind the speaker’s table, and two knots of three in front. Another dozen or so were scattered throughout the room, standing and moving around in small areas. New York cops in uniform were at every entrance and fire exit.

I listened to Isolde and Marisa make small talk with the two reporters and another couple that arrived toward the end, a car dealer and his wife from Indiana. The car dealer was full of enthusiasm for meeting the president. “One of my heroes,” he said frankly.

I decided the guy was an idiot and dismissed him. Jake Grafton was my hero, not some politician. Not any politician.

I kept the eyes moving. Saw Winchester and Simon Cairnes come in with Jerry Hay Smith, who looked to be wearing a typical guest pass. Guess his press credentials were getting rusty. I recognized some prominent industrialists, some actors, more politicians and a couple of high-powered lawyers. Most of the people were, of course, strangers to me.

The seater led Winchester and his pals to a table where the two Grafton women were seated. The table was at least fifty feet from ours.

There was an empty seat at that table, and I supposed it was for the admiral, who was nowhere in sight.

I glanced at Marisa to see if she was watching all this. She wasn’t. She was listening intently to Isolde, almost as if… as if she were her daughter.

That thought jolted me. Where had it come from? More important, where had it been?

My eyes kept searching for Grafton. I wondered if he had had that thought. Probably, I decided. He was always miles ahead of me, which is why he was the boss.

I glanced at the car dealer and saw that he was looking me over. “Got any openings for salesmen at your dealership?” I asked.

“Dealerships. We have four.”

“Always nice to meet a successful capitalist.”

“We can always use another good man. In car sales, the sky is the limit.” He tossed that off without thought, then he engaged the brain. “What does the color of your pass mean?”

“I’m a licensed killer.”

That comment jolted him. “You mean like Double-O Seven?”

“Oh, yeah. Me and James Bond. Same deal.”

Yocke chuckled and told the guy, “Tommy’s with the government. Housing, I think.”

“Bureaucrat,” I said. “I’m bored to tears. Been thinking about a job change.”

Abu Qasim couldn’t believe how many people were there, and how many security men and women, in and out of uniform. They weren’t running low profile, either. They stood beside the doors, manned the metal detector, and scrutinized driver’s licenses and invitations.

This was the hurdle that Qasim had worried about and planned for four years to get over. He had his hand in his pocket on his driver’s license, which was genuine. He concentrated on controlling his breathing. If he didn’t hyperventilate, he wouldn’t overperspire or look flushed, both of which would be signals for the security people. ‘

The man in front of Qasim couldn’t find his invitation. While he searched his pockets and his wife looked embarrassed, the officer beside him motioned to Qasim.

He stepped around and passed him the invitation and his driver’s license.

“Mr. Rothstein?”

“Yes.”

“What is your birthday, Mr. Rothstein?”

“July 8, 1958.”

After matching Qasim’s face to the photo on the license, the officer handed him back the invitation and license and motioned toward the metal detector.

Beside him, the man without the invitation was trying to talk his way in. “You people must have a list, and I know I’m on it. Why don’t you look?”

Qasim handed his cell phone, watch, keys and digital camera to the officer with a basket beside the detector and walked on through. Nothing beeped. The officer put his things under a fluoroscope, examined them, then handed them back to him.

He was in.

“Right this way, sir,” one of the ushers said and checked his invitation against a list. “Follow me, please.”

Everyone was seated and the ballroom doors were closed, only twenty minutes behind schedule, when the president and other party heavies came marching in to the strains of “Hail to the Chief” over the PA system, cutting off the banter. Spotlights came on, illuminating the president and official party. There were two television cameras mounted on platforms in the rear of the room, and the big spotlights hung from the ceiling. The rest of the room was well lit, however; the Secret Service had insisted upon it.

Jake Grafton was two people back from the Big Kahuna, all decked out in a tux, but he sort of hung back, a bit out of the way. We all got to our feet and applauded. The Petrous and the reporters and I applauded politely, but the car dealer and his wife really slammed hands. The dealer started to climb on his chair, then thought better of it. Someday this guy was going to be the deputy assistant secretary of something or other.

When everyone was finally seated and the popping flashbulbs slowed to something reasonable, the master of ceremonies welcomed us, then someone — I don’t know who — led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I glanced around to see if anyone nearby was faking it. Apparently not. A prominent local preacher then offered up a prayer, pretty much a generic prayer, acceptable to all religions, inoffensive and tepid. When that was over, the designated senator started in on a fire-eating speech. This party and this president were good for the country, and deserved the support of every true American, and so on. You or I could have written it. Overwrought and theatrical, it was artificially passionate and uninspiring. Apparently no one cared.

“You taking notes?” I asked Yocke, who wasn’t. He ignored me.

Marisa had finally taken an interest in who else was in attendance. She was looking around, not ostentatiously, but looking. I found myself watching her.

When the senator finished, the master of ceremonies made a few more remarks and said, “Enjoy your dinner.”

That was the signal for an army of waiters to come marching out of the kitchen area bearing salads and wine bottles. They left a bottle of white and a bottle of red at each table. At our table the car dealer took it upon himself to do the pouring. Since I thought it possible I might need a wit or two at some point, I stuck with water. Marisa and Isolde took a glass of white. Isolde sipped and made a face. California wine, apparently.

I was watching the head table. I figured if I kept my eyes on the president, I would see whatever was coming. If anything. He was on his feet now, shaking hands up and down the head table. Two Secret Service types who looked as if they could place in a Mr. America contest stood immediately behind him. Grafton was beside them, his hands at his sides, scrutinizing faces in the crowd.

I wondered what the admiral was thinking. If the president got popped here tonight… Just the thought gave me goose bumps. I had read books and watched television shows about the Kennedy assassination from the time I was old enough to toddle; if the president went down tonight, Jake Grafton and I were going to be cussed, discussed and dissected by the press and conspiracy theorists until the coming of the next ice age. It was not a pleasant prospect.

When the president finished pumping hands at the head table, he went around the near end of the table into the crowd and began shaking hands and greeting people at each table. The spotlights stayed on him. The two Secret Service types and Jake Grafton accompanied him, just a little behind. Meanwhile the waiters were completing the salad and wine service and accumulating plates on side tables, preparing to serve them to the seated multitude.

I eyed those tables. Of course, no one knew who was getting which plate. Then I saw that the head table was being served directly out of the kitchen by guys and gals who looked suspiciously like Secret Service. They were leaving nothing to chance.

The president’s progress was slow. It seemed that he knew a lot of these folks, or pretended he did. He took his time at each table, and someone was always standing up to take a picture or two. Grip, smile sincerely, pose, say a few polite words, then do it all over again. Obviously this was going to take a while.

He was finished with the first row and starting on the second when the waiters began serving the main course. He was going to shake hands all through dinner. I guess he didn’t like Chicken Cordon Bleu any more than I did.

I slurped water and watched the crowd and the president, trying to take it all in.

Soon, Qasim thought, and tried to concentrate on what the lady on his left was saying. Something about her daughter who was attending Smith College. “These young ladies at Smith … they talk about a ‘third sex,’ and wear tails sticking out of their clothes, date each other and just do what all. Of course, my daughter would never do such nonsense.”

Qasim didn’t know what to say. He glanced at the president, who was shaking hands twenty-five feet away.

He was rescued by the woman on his right, who leaned around and spoke to the Smith mother. “They didn’t behave like that when I attended Smith,” she declared. “So much bad behavior, nowadays. These young women — what can they be thinking?”

“An excellent question,” Qasim murmured, but the ladies paid no attention.

A half hour or so into this production, I was aware that Marisa, seated on my right, had stiffened. She was staring.

I glanced at her face, which was a mask of concentration. Her attention was focused on a table in the middle of the room.

I looked that way. There were a dozen tables that she might be looking at.

“Marisa,” I whispered, to get her attention. “What do you see?”

She didn’t take her eyes off whatever she was looking at, nor did she answer me. My stomach tried to turn over. My instincts said this is it, yet I saw nothing out of the ordinary. People, just a sea of people …

She pushed back her chair and stood, walked behind my chair and started for the middle of the room. “Excuse me,” she said mechanically to the folks around us and started off.

I got a glimpse of a pistol butt in her right hand, partially concealed in the folds of her dress. Holy damn! Where had that come from? Adrenaline whacked me in the heart. I uncoiled from my chair and started after her.

The Secret Service agents standing here and there gave us a glance. One or two shifted nervously, but then they saw the red tag dangling from my neck and relaxed. They were really focused on the president and the people around him; they were still fifty feet away to our right.

Marisa crossed into the center of the room, threading her way between tables.

Me — I was so damn worried I almost peed my pants. If she pointed that shooter at the president, I was going to break her neck before she pulled the trigger.

I was surveying the tables ahead as she walked. Of course, just when I was near panic, she turned ninety degrees to the right and headed for a table beside the one the president was standing at.

“When I shake hands with the president,” Qasim asked the Smith mother, “would you take my picture?”

“Of course,” she said, looking at the camera. “Is it on?” “Oh, yes. Just aim and push that button right there.” “My daughter has a camera like this. I can manage.” Satisfied, Qasim took another look at the president at the next table, then glanced around, one last time. To his horror, he saw Marisa walking toward him. Tommy Carmellini was right behind her.

Jake Grafton caught my eye. I mouthed the words “She’s got a gun,” and he nodded, once. His expression didn’t change. My gaze left him, and I tried to scrutinize faces at the tables we were approaching.

Then I saw that someone was watching us, one of the men seated at the next table the president would visit. When he saw Marisa coming toward him, he couldn’t look away. He looked maybe fifty or fifty-five, with salt-and-pepper hair and a Vandyke goatee. Wearing a tux and red cumberbund. Trim, middle-sized, with a roundish face, and sitting down.

Now the president shook the last hand and turned toward the seated man’s table. Marisa ignored him. Her focus was on the man with the Vandyke, and she was walking quickly, right into the glare of the spotlights.

She walked up to the table so she was on his right, maybe three feet from him. He was turned, looking right at her, when she raised the pistol and shot him in the chest.

The report was like a cannon shot. Women screamed and men dove for cover. Abu Qasim lunged for her and grabbed at the pistol. He got her left arm instead, but she ignored his grasp and, with the gun against his chest, shot him three more times as fast as she could pull the trigger. The slugs literally hammered him out of the chair onto the floor.

Marisa would have shot him a couple more times, I think, but I reached around her, pushed her sideways and grabbed the gun out of her hand. Had to, or the Secret Service agent ten feet in front of me who was in the process of drawing his pistol would have shot her dead.

So she went to the floor beside Qasim while half the people in the place screamed or shouted and everyone scrambled for cover. It was the damnedest scene I have ever witnessed.

I put the pistol in my trouser pocket and bent down. Qasim was dead as a mackerel, glassy eyes staring at nothing. Not even much blood around the bullet holes. He had died within a few heartbeats after the first bullet hit him, right in the pump, it looked like. How he managed to grab her, I don’t know.

Marisa was ashen, holding her arm, which was bleeding from a long scratch.

What on earth?

I seized her arm, looked at the wound, then opened Qasim’s right hand. He was wearing a ring with a sharp point on it.

Grafton materialized at my elbow. He, too, saw the ring with the sticker.

Marisa was gasping. “My arm …” she managed. “It’s on fire.”

“The bastard poisoned her,” I said. “Like he was going to do to the president.”

Grafton stood and shouted. “Get back, give us room. We need a medical team and stretcher, right now!” When Grafton shouts, you can hear it in the next county, even over all that noise.

Two teams of paramedics came running. Secret Service agents with drawn pistols had surrounded the president, who was trying to force his way through them toward Marisa, Grafton and me. The agents weren’t letting him pass.

The place was pandemonium, with screams, a million shouted conversations, Secret Service agents with guns shouting orders and the master of ceremonies at the podium bellowing into the loudspeaker microphone.

Over all this hubbub I heard someone ask Grafton, “Who’d she shoot?”

And I heard his answer. “Abu Qasim.”

I glanced up and saw that Jack Yocke had forced his way through the knot of people. He had asked the question. He had a camera in his hand. Before anyone could do or say anything, he snapped a couple of photos of Qasim and Marisa while the docs were injecting Marisa with something in a hypodermic needle.

Secret Service agents began pushing people away from us. Some of them had submachine guns in their hands, I saw, and they were herding people out of the room.

In five minutes, while the medics worked on Marisa, they cleared the room of everyone except law and the president, who was standing nearby having it out with his bodyguards.

Marisa ignored the paramedics. She was looking only at Jake Grafton, talking to him. “I had to help him,” she said. “He threatened to kill Isolde if I didn’t.”

“I thought it was something like that,” he said.

“She’s the only … the only …” She went into convulsions, her muscles contracting spasmodically. Her back arched off the floor.

When she was able, she managed, “It’s better like this. I’m tired of living.”

She was having great difficulty breathing and couldn’t control the contractions of her facial muscles. Whatever the poison was, it was really horrible stuff.

“Who killed Jean Petrou?” Grafton asked.

“I did.”

“Why?”

“Jean met with Qasim. I saw him. He sold us out. Made a deal with the Devil himself … for money. He was that kind of man. Immature, self-indulgent, without scruples. Yes, I killed him, and I’m glad I did.”

“We’ve got to get her to the hospital, right now,” one of the medics said. Without further ado they lifted Marisa onto a stretcher.

I elbowed the doctor out of the way, bent down and grabbed a hand. She latched on to me as if I were a life ring. “Oh, Tommy, I—“

She gagged … her tongue protruded, then she tried to breathe and couldn’t. The medics hustled her out. I was going to go with her, but Grafton stopped me with a hand on my arm. “There’s nothing you can do, Tommy.”

The president came over and stood looking down at the body of Abu Qasim, the open mouth and the lifeless, staring eyes.

He put a hand on Grafton’s shoulder, almost as if to steady himself, then passed a sleeve across his brow and turned away.

Huntington Winchester was standing there, being restrained by an agent. The president reached for him and draped his arm around his shoulder, and the two of them walked away, leaning on each other.

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