Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.
It was a little too warm for comfort in the limo, but at least it was dry. Jorge offered a clean handkerchief to Alice, the one I had given her was now covered with spots of blood. He gave instructions to the driver and pulled out into the teeth of the storm. We had the streets to ourselves, if you could still call them that; the cars might have benefitted from pontoons. The wind howled up the boulevards, driving the rain before like bullets, hammering against the windows loudly enough to make conversation difficult. We moved slowly, which was fine with me. I was pretty sure things were not going to get better when we reached our destination.
“Where are we going?” Alice asked over the storm.
“To visit a friend of mine,” our host answered. “A doctor. We need to get all your teeth back in before you need to bite someone again.” He chuckled inaudibly. “He is quite experienced at treating wounds like yours, and he should also be able to do something about Mr. Lowell’s damaged hand. He is also skilled at not asking questions.”
“What’s your name?” Alice was not skilled at not asking questions, and probably never would be.
“Please pardon my manners.” He offered her his hand. “My name is Santiago.”
“What’s this about a Saint? I thought that was a painting.”
“There is a painting with that name, but we are the true blood of the saint.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It is not important. For now the painting is the matter of concern. It was taken from us, and we would like it back. Your partner will be helping us.”
“I don’t recall seeing you in the client book.”
“Of course we will pay for his services.”
“Our rates have gone up recently. We just gave the staff raises.” I held my breath as a scowl stole across Santiago’s face. Alice had a lot of good qualities, but diplomacy was not one of them. There was still no guarantee that our payment would not take the form of a one-way trip to the bottom of the river.
Santiago calmed himself, leaning back in the seat facing ours, watching us with brown eyes just a little too close together, framing a nose that had been broken at least once. He had a scar on one cheek. Santiago had been around the block once or twice himself. When he smiled he revealed a gold tooth. “I like her,” he said to me. “Tell me, what have the various parties offered for the painting?”
“I’m not even sure who all the parties are.”
“Where is the painting now, Mr. Lowell?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you know someone who does.”
“I know someone who says she does.”
“Where is she now?”
“You already know I don’t know.”
“I just know you say you don’t know. I wanted to hear you say it with my own ears.”
“I don’t know. I know where I left her. I chose the place to keep her away from her own people, but it’s been too long. She won’t sit still that long.”
“But it’s possible she’s still there, or that she might go back. You are still useful to her. She might even want to be with you for… other reasons.”
I didn’t dare look at Alice, but I felt that side of my head get warm. “If she wants to, she will find a way to contact me.” If she didn’t decide to kill me instead.
“Where did you leave her?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Why not? You already agreed to give her to Paolo Fanutti.”
“Because she’ll kill Fanutti. He doesn’t stand a chance. This way any reprisals won’t come my way.”
Santiago laughed. “A creative way to solve your problem. What if I warn him?”
“You know Paolo, apparently. Do you know his sister-in-law?”
“Only by reputation.”
“That reputation is well-deserved.”
Alice was watching me, her face inscrutable behind the handkerchief. “I think we should drop her as a client. She’s nothing but trouble.”
I didn’t think Alice was being entirely objective. “If we refuse clients just because they’re trouble, we’ll go hungry,” I pointed out. Now wasn’t the time to go into that, however. “Tell you what,” I said to Santiago. “Lola Fanutti doesn’t have the painting right now. She’s the only one I know of who can get it. Just wait, let her get the painting back, then you can kill each other over it all you want. Just leave me out of it.”
“Mr. Lowell, even if I were to agree to such a thing, what makes you think the others would? Lola Fanutti still requires your services. Mr. Cello expects you to help him. There are others you have angered. None of them have the power that we do. Only we can offer you a way out of the predicament you find yourself in. Give us Lola Fanutti.”
“You think you’ll be able to get the painting out of her?”
“We can be quite persuasive.”
“In my professional judgement, you’re much better off waiting until after Sunday.” Alice elbowed me.
“That advice was free,” she said, “but any further consultation requires a retainer. Five thousand dollars.”
Santiago paused, then reached into his coat. He produced a gun and laid it in his lap, pointing directly at Alice. She froze, whatever she was going to say next trapped in her throat. It was, perhaps, the first time Alice had ever been without words. “I recommend,” Santiago said to me, “that you advise your partner to be a little more careful.”
More threats. I’d had enough of them. “I’m afraid I can’t comment,” I said, “until you are a client in good standing. My partner sets the rates. Put that gun away before the price goes up.”
Slowly Santiago put the gun away. “Ten thousand,” Alice said. Santiago shot me a look and I shrugged. Too late.
The car pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript brownstone. I watched as the occupants of the lead car got out and took up positions before we opened our doors. I got out and opened the umbrella while helping Alice up and out. I stood close to her as we crossed to the front steps.
I heard the shot even as the bullet punched me in the shoulder and spun me to the ground. Subsonic, I thought, but a good punch. Probably a .45. I lay on the ground and felt the rain on my face as my vision narrowed. People were moving around me; they seemed to be excited about something.
Lots of people use .45s.
Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River!