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Nevin Maxwell looked just the way you’d expect an ex-government intelligence agent to look, which is exactly why no one ever took him for one. Sinfully handsome, suspicious by nature as well as experience, he never took the same route from his house on Long Island to his office in Manhattan twice in the same month.
He’d learned long ago that the best way to hide was in plain sight. His fourth-floor suite was listed as Maxwell and Associates, Private Consultations, on the building directory in the lobby. In the outer room sat a reception desk no one ever used. The telephones never rang. The computer in his private office was rarely turned on. Lining the walls of the inner sanctum were four antique oak cabinets—cabinets that were elegantly crafted, scrupulously polished, and as empty as the ex-agent’s heart.
The files were there for appearance—another lesson Maxwell had learned early on in the game. Though usually deceptive, appearance was important. Sometimes vital.
His memory was photographic. Once he’d opened the mail and reviewed any new cases, it was easy to pick up the phone and dial whomever he needed to do the job. He collected the mail every morning from the lockbox in the basement. He never read it in the elevator, didn’t so much as flip through it until he was seated at his desk.
It was Maxwell’s only steadfast rule. And on the Monday morning when the envelope arrived from Middleburg, Virginia, with a return address he hadn’t seen in six years and had prayed to God he’d never see again, he was damn glad to be sitting down. There was no stamp and no postmark. Somehow—and Maxwell knew precisely how—it had found its way into a locked mailbox to which only he and the carrier on this route had keys.
He tore open the flap, withdrew a single, trifolded ivory sheet and read three words scrawled across the middle in black ink: “Urgent. Call me.” Then he picked up the phone and dialed a number he sometimes still murmured in his sleep.
When the phone rang at a little past ten on that same Monday morning, Ellison Quade knew it was Maxwell. He wasn’t psychic, but he was a cynic, and since the luggage and Reba were waiting for him in the car—her itsy-bitsy teensy-weensy bikini folded inside her wallet, and their flight to Aruba due to leave Dulles in seventy-two minutes—it figured that the caller had to be Maxwell.
Swearing under his breath, Quade walked back to the telephone, picked up the receiver and asked, “Call to wish me bon voyage?”
“Sure thing,” replied Maxwell. “Unfortunately, your destination has changed.”
“Dammit, Max. Reba’s gonna kill me.”
“You can sweet-talk her, but don’t take all day doing it. You’re expected in Middleburg at twelve forty-five. I just talked to the old man. He’s holding lunch for you.”
Quade knew only one old man in Middleburg, Virginia. Knew him and had good reason to hate him. “Is this a joke?”
“No joke. He asked for you. His granddaughter has run away.”
“Smart kid.” Quade made a rueful noise, shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit it. “Why me?”
“He wants the best.”
“The best’ll cost him.”
“I told him I thought it might.”
“Bump lunch to one-thirty. It’ll take me at least half an hour to talk Reba into letting me live.”
“I’ll tell him,” Maxwell said and hung up.
It took Quade forty-five minutes and he had to do a lot more than talk. He made up the time on the freeway, and at one twenty-three stopped his vintage Mustang ragtop outside a pair of tall, black iron gates. Sleet skittered across the silver hood and stuck in his dark eyelashes as Quade rolled down the window and waited for the electric eye on top of the brick wall to trigger the intercom on the gatepost. It took about ten seconds.
“Step out of the car, please.”
He knew the drill and did as instructed, unfolding his wallet to show his ID to the camera. The lens clicked, whirred, then zoomed in on the interior of the Mustang. Quade pocketed his wallet and stepped out of the way.
While the camera did its job, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his gray suede sports jacket and squinted through the icy mist. The house—a Georgian sprawl of wet red brick—was barely visible. He was, Quade thought, one of the few people who understood what could make a person run away from a place like this. The camera stopped taking pictures and the gates swung inward.
“Please drive through, Mr. Quade,” said the voice on the other end of the intercom. “The Admiral is waiting for you in the library.”
Impatiently, as it turned out, pacing in front of the fireplace. A small forest fire blazed behind the iron-mesh screen, enveloping Hiram Whitcomb, U.S.N., retired, in a hellish glow. Fitting, Quade thought. As he unwound his red muffler, the man he’d last seen at his court-martial six years earlier turned sharply to face him.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“And miss an opportunity to watch you squirm and beg for my help? Not a chance.”
Quade draped his scarf over the back of the green leather armchair in front of the Admiral’s desk. He couldn’t quite remember that fresh-faced kid from Annapolis he’d once been, that newly commissioned lieutenant who’d used to drop so eagerly into this chair. So eagerly and so stupidly.
He’d half expected the old man to be in uniform. Instead, the Admiral wore a tweed jacket and trousers, with a white shirt and a gold suede vest. Old Iron Butt, they’d called him. Did he still clank when he sat down?
“You haven’t changed,” the Admiral said quietly. Quade couldn’t decide whether the old man was relieved or disappointed.
“Oh, I’ve changed,” Quade replied evenly. “I’m older, tougher, and a hell of a lot smarter.”
“You were always smart.” The Admiral briskly crossed the room and sat down at his desk, a Federalist masterpiece crafted of solid cherry. He didn’t clank, but sat straight as a mainmast, his palms flat on the polished surface. “Except, perhaps, when it came to women.”
“Look who’s talking.” Quade sat down in the green leather chair and took out his cigarettes. “You mind if I smoke, I hope.”
The Admiral pushed a lead-crystal ashtray toward him. “Those things’ll kill you.”
“So will hard time in Leavenworth.” Quade pulled a cigarette out of his pack, snapped open his lighter and bent his head to the flame.
“Only eighteen months. Just enough to season you.”
Quade snapped his lighter shut and blew smoke in Hiram Whitcomb’s face. “Up yours. Admiral.”
“Maxwell said this would cost me. How much?”
“A full pardon and an honorable discharge.”
Quade shrugged. “Difficult, maybe.”
“If I couldn’t clear you while I was chief of Naval Intelligence, what makes you think I can now?”
“Because now you have a reason to, Admiral.” Quade took another drag of his cigarette and smiled. “I’m looking forward to meeting your granddaughter.”
“Your father’s of the old school,” the Admiral reminded him. “A pardon won’t mean a tinker’s damn.”
“He’s a hard ass, you mean. Just like you.”
“Your father and I were at Annapolis together. I did everything I could for you.”
“Everything but spend eighteen months in Leavenworth. Everything but tell Washington you left the embassy satchel in Mat Lu’s room.”
That made the Admiral squirm. “No one held a gun to your head. As I recall, you volunteered.”
“As I recall, you talked me into it. Didn’t take much, since I already thought you walked on water. Washington will understand, you said. Healthy young fella after six months at sea. They might give me a wink and slap my hand, you said, maybe confine me to quarters. Next thing I knew, I was being court-martialed.”
The Admiral raised his hands and pressed them together, leaving damp palmprints on the desktop. “My granddaughter is very important to me.”
He did not, Quade noted, say he loved her. “Are you sure she ran? She wasn’t snatched?”
“I’m sure.” The Admiral opened his middle desk drawer, took out a postcard and handed it to Quade.
There was a picture of the Griffith Park Observatory on one side, on the other a ten-day-old postmark and a half-dozen terse lines: “I have a job and my own place. If you send anyone else to bring me back, I’ll run so far you’ll never find me. Just leave me alone and let me live like a normal person. That’s all I want.”
“What a close and loving relationship.” Quade tossed the postcard on the desk. “How old is she?”
“How you gonna keep her down on the farm, Admiral, if she doesn’t want to stay?”
His eyes slipped away from Quade’s gaze. “I’m working on that.”
“Uh-huh. And why is she so important to you?”
“She’s all I have left.” The Admiral looked squarely at Quade. “And she’s in danger.”
“Aren’t we all. It’s a scary world.”
“I hired two private detectives to find her and keep tabs on her. I was inclined to let her have her fling and get it out of her system. The first detective disappeared his third day in Los Angeles. The second one turned up yesterday in Cedars-Sinai with a fractured skull.”
The Admiral delved into his desk drawer again and handed Quade a color Polaroid of a laughing, brown-eyed blonde. She had a small nose, not much of a chin, an overlarge mouth and her grandfather’s Mount Rush-more jaw. “Looks like you, poor kid. What’s her name?”
“Hallie Stockton. She’s been gone three weeks.”
“Since she’s your granddaughter, I trust she knows how to and is capable of fracturing a man’s skull.”
“But you don’t think she did.”
Quade put his cigarette out and the picture back on the desk. “Then why don’t you go after her yourself? Give whoever it is who’s using her to lure you out of your little fortress here a clear shot at you.”
“If I did,” the Admiral replied with a stony smile, “you wouldn’t get your pardon.”
“And my honorable discharge. Don’t forget that.” Quade put his cigarettes back in his pocket and stood. “If she doesn’t come willingly I’ll have to grab her. That’s kidnapping and a federal rap. Higher risk for me, higher price tag for you if I get caught.”
The Admiral’s color deepened. “What else do you want? Eighteen months of your life back?”
“If I get nailed, I want you to go to my father and tell him the truth.”
“It won’t make any difference.”
“Not with him, but he might let me see my mother.”
“Very well.” The Admiral nodded, but again his glance shifted.
“Just in case,” Quade added, picking up his muffler and looping it around his neck, “I’ll ask Max to remind you.”
The Admiral’s gaze swung back and locked with Quade’s. “That won’t be necessary.”
“You’d better hope so. You’d also better hope that if you’re setting me up like you did in the Philippines, Max never finds out.”
“Why in hell would I do that?”
“‘Cause you’re a scared old man, Hiram. I’ve been living in your backyard for three years now. That’s bound to make you nervous. Maybe somebody’s after you and maybe not. If they are, maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll kill me. Or maybe you sent those two P.I.’s out there to make sure you get lucky.”
“If I wanted you dead,” the Admiral replied tersely, “I wouldn’t have to send you to California to see it done.”
“I take it this means you won’t be staying for lunch.”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“When will you leave for Los Angeles?”
“As soon as an envelope from the Department of the Navy shows up in my mailbox.”
“I’ll expect daily reports.”
“You’ll get them.”
“Why did you come back to Washington?”
“Just to tick off my father. I see him from time to time, you know. He walks past me like I’m not even there.”
He didn’t tell the Admiral the truth. That he’d come back to see his mother, that he’d used to haunt Bethesda when he wasn’t on a job for Max in hopes of catching her alone, that he’d managed it once outside her hairdresser’s. She’d blinked in surprise, turned her head away and said, “I can’t see you. Not like this.” Then she’d climbed into her car and driven away without a backward glance.
Since then, he’d had a recurring nightmare. He dreamed he saw her again on the street and chased her for blocks, screaming her name while she walked faster and faster and he ran slower and slower. He didn’t tell the Admiral that he always woke up from that nightmare with tears on his face.
Instead, he said, “If I don’t find your granddaughter in L.A. or a detective in Cedars-Sinai with a fractured skull, I’m gonna come back here and make you one sorry, scared old man.”
He walked out of the house into an ice storm. That evening he repacked his suitcase. His sports gear came out, his working gear went in—gear that was mostly plastic, tucked into places where the X-ray machines at Dulles would never detect them.
On Wednesday the Department of the Navy envelope arrived. Inside were honorable-discharge papers duly sealed and assigned to Lieutenant Ellison Quade III with a note from the Admiral: “The pardon will arrive when my granddaughter is safely home.”
Late that night, Quade boarded the red-eye for Los Angeles.