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In this sequel to The Dreamer Gambit, P.I. Jack Watson takes a case for his ex-wife to investigate her new boyfriend. Is her new man involved with a mysterious assassin?
Just after private detective Jack Watson vowed not to be choosy about taking any case to end a lull in business, who walks into his office but his ex-wife. Dr. Victoria Pressler, the famous psychologist also known as The Mind Bender, had once made Jack’s life pure hell, and now she wants him to figure out if her new lover, a handsome young tennis player, loves her or her money. Jack accepts the case, hoping to find some dirt on Clayton "Butch" Anderson to take Victoria down a peg, and also to prove to himself that Victoria no longer retains her old power over him.
Soon, however, Jack learns that Butch may be fronting for an elusive assassin known as The Changeling, a nameless enigma who traps innocents to shield him, and through Victoria’s position on an organizing committee, getting the killer access to a gala show in Chicago. Even as Jack navigates his way down some dark paths of his past, he must race against the clock to identify both the killer and his target before the show and keep its star performer, Jack’s one-time client Tabitha Solo, out of the crosshairs.
A Chance Encounter
The beautiful girls with the improbable names of Felicity and Hope waved good night, both of them drunk but not drunk enough to abandon caution. They giggled and stumbled against each other as they staggered back across the beach to their hotel.
Rusty Blake resigned himself to the fact that he would not wind up in Hope's bed or she in his. Although she had flirted seductively over drinks for a couple of hours, his chances began a downward spiral when her pal Felicity showed up with her new friend, Butch Anderson. Rusty figured Butch had similar intentions for Felicity, and all four had gone for a moonlit walk. With nothing for his efforts beyond some hand holding and a few shy kisses, he found himself alone on the sand with Butch.
"Damn," Butch remarked after the girls blended into the darkness. "Thought I had a sure thing."
"Me, too. Guess that's it, huh?"
Butch gazed out at the sea. "I think I'll walk off some more of the booze. Might make for less of a hangover in the morning."
They started walking again. Rusty eyed Butch who did not look like the kind who struck out often; more like a movie star with sandy hair and a raffish grin. Maybe the guy could give him a few pointers with the babes. "Is Butch your real name?"
"Actually, it's Clayton. My dad started calling me Butch right before kindergarten so I wouldn't get picked on." He made a fond, bemused smile directed at the lapping tide. "What's Rusty short for?"
"Russell. You're from Boston."
"Guilty," Butch admitted with a grin.
"Nah. Tennis tournament. Trying to make the pro tour."
"Yeah? Hey, that's cool, man."
"Where you from?"
"Virginia. I'm on vacation. Got a sweet pile of cash from my granny when I graduated college. She said I should take a trip before hitting the masters program, so here I am."
"What's your major?"
"Excellent. Big opportunities."
Silence fell between them as they meandered along, two strangers with not much in common. Rusty opened his mouth to call it a night when a rustling noise caught his attention. It came from the thick vegetation near the pathway that led off to some individual beach villas. He turned toward the sound with a mild sense of alarm. "What was that?"
More rustling. "Hey, guys," came a husky whisper. "Over here."
Rusty looked at Butch, they shrugged at each other, and walked over into the shadows.
In the middle of the rocky path lay the body of a very fat man at the feet of a tall, lanky one in a wrinkled linen suit. He reminded Rusty of a marionette, all bones and joints.
"What's going on?" Butch asked.
"My name's Sam." His precise diction carried a touch of British accent, his tone jovial. "This pathetic lump is my boss, Mr. Ortiz. As you can see, he's drunk himself into a stupor, and I twisted my ankle when he fell down while I was taking him back to his room. Could you possibly lend a hand?"
"Why not?" Butch answered.
"Sure," Rusty said, although he considered he might not have agreed were he sober. "Why not?"
"Excellent!" Sam said. "I'm afraid you'll have to turn him over for convenient transport."
Rusty and Butch took up positions on one side of the comatose man and grabbed handfuls of his clothes to heave him onto his back. Even in the shadows of the palm trees, Ortiz did not look good, his forehead bloodied with scrapes from the gravel pathway. Something about the situation hit Rusty wrong, and instinct warned about trouble ahead but neglected to say what kind.
Butch lifted Ortiz's feet, and Rusty took his arms. Sam led the parade up the steep path.
"Is he all right?" Rusty panted.
"I'm sure landing face down on these pebbles would have a deleterious effect on anyone," Sam replied over his shoulder. "I will tidy him up once he's tucked into bed."
Ortiz proved heavy for his size, and the trail's incline would have been challenging even without his dead weight. Butch began huffing too and conversation ceased. The path finally leveled out and widened to a dirt road that ran among the cheaper cabins. Sam stood beside the nearest one, its door open, and he held out a directing hand. Getting Ortiz inside took as much effort as toting him there.
Beside the bed, Butch made eye contact. "On the count of three. One…two…three."
With groans and grunts, they managed to land Ortiz on his back. Rusty's knees gave out, and he sank to the floor and wiped sweat from his brow. Butch leaned on the back of a straight chair, also spent by the effort.
"Well done, gents," Sam commended. He walked across the room to a desk and opened a briefcase on top of it.
Ortiz looked even worse in the dim light of the bedside lamp: pale, face gone slack, all cut up. His squinty eyes appeared to be slightly open, as if he were faking unconsciousness while listening and observing. Or else…Rusty grabbed his wrist in a search for a pulse and found none. Horrified, he let go.
Sam came over holding out a hundred dollar bill to each of them. "Hard work deserves a reward. I'd also appreciate your discretion in keeping this incident to yourselves."
Butch snatched away his hundred, but Rusty looked up at Sam's face: long, narrow, showing the first signs of aging in the creases beside his mouth and eyes. His hair could have been either white or very light blond. His smile did not touch his eyes.
"He's dead, isn't he?" Rusty asked. As soon as the words came out, he regretted them.
Sam's smile faded. He withdrew the bill and slipped the hand holding it beneath his jacket.
Rusty froze, certain the hand would reemerge with a gun to shoot him dead.
Instead, Sam jerked forward and then slumped to the floor. His pistol clattered to it with him and skidded a few feet away. Butch stood over him, lowering the chair to the floor.
"He was going to kill me," Rusty stated and realized it sounded stupid.
"Both of us, I think," Butch amended. He stared at Sam's body. "I hope I didn't hit him too hard."
Rusty scrambled to his feet, all trace of alcohol buzz gone. "I say we get the hell out of here."
Instead, Butch went to the briefcase, raised its lid, and gave a low whistle. "Check this out, man."
Against his better judgment, he joined Butch at the desk. Like something from a dream, it held piles of bundled hundred dollar bills. Butch reached for one.
"Don't touch anything," Rusty warned with memory visions of television crime scene investigators in his head.
Butch ignored him. He fanned through the end of the stack before putting it back in the case. The lid had a moveable panel meant to keep items stored under it in place, and Butch released the snapped tabs to drop it. Strapped to the top were two more guns equipped with silencers. Butch searched a cloth pocket near the bottom and withdrew a few items.
"Passports," he declared. "Three of them." He opened each one in turn. "Samuel Marcus, Tony Samuels, and Emanuel Sammark."
One of them fell to the floor, and Rusty stooped to pick it up without thinking. A flare of panic over fingerprints was extinguished by the sight of a slip of paper which fluttered to the floor. He handed the passport to Butch and bent to pick it up, too. "More names. Stanford, Sutton, Nicolella, Calderon, Bellini…"
"Mean anything to you?" Butch asked.
"I don't know." Rusty's mouth had gone desert dry. He dropped the paper on top of the money. "Let's just go."
Butch grabbed it. "The first two names are checked off." He turned to look at Ortiz's body. "I wonder…" Butch strode to the bed and flipped back Ortiz's suit jacket to search his pockets. From the inner left, he produced a slim wallet. "Miguel Ortiz. I guess--" His eyes widened. "He's with the Mexican Federal police! Special Operations."
"Holy shit!" Rusty's bladder suddenly felt too full. "We've gotta get out of here, man."
"Okay, but I'm taking a stack of bills." Butch dropped the wallet and headed for the briefcase. "I need the dough."
"Are you insane? When Sam comes to, he'll hunt us down and kill us!"
"Don't be an idiot," Butch chided, cool and calm. "We leave the door open and anybody could've taken it. He won't know."
"Who are you calling an idiot? He won't have to know. He'll come after us just because we know who he is and because we hauled a dead cop up here." He picked up the wallet with two fingers and tossed it on the bed next to the body. Then he backed away.
Butch stared at him for a moment and then looked at the money in his hand. "I'm not leaving with just a hundred bucks."
"You do what you want," Rusty said and pushed past him to get to the door. "I'm outta here." He had his hand on the frame when a sharp metallic click stopped him cold.
"Not so fast, sonny."