Chapter 14

CAROLE . . .

By Sunday evening they were ready to make their move.

Fifty-three minutes before sundown, as soon as Joe was up and fed - Lacey's turn tonight - he got behind the wheel of the Navigator and drove down Bro adway. Lacey sat up front next to her uncle; Carole had the rear to herse lf.

"Are we ready for this?" he said as they approached Thirty-fourth Street.

Carole wasn't sure. She hoped so.

They'd learned through three days and three nights of steady surveillance t hat the Vichy - the more time she spent with Joseph and Lacey, the more Carol e found herself using that designation - stuck to a fairly rigid schedule of two shifts: a large contingent of perhaps twenty-five or thirty worked the days, while only a half dozen or so manned the entrance at night.

They'd taken over Houlihan's and turned the bar-restaurant into a cafeteri a of sorts. It served two meals a day - breakfast and dinner - at change of sh ift. Using binoculars, Carole and Lacey had watched from their perch acros s the street as the Vichy attacked heaps of scrambled eggs every morning - t he cook had to be using the powdered kind - and pots of some sort of stew ev ery evening.

All three agreed that the meal break at shift change was the time to strike.

All the Vichy were concentrated in Houlihan's then. They'd settled on dawn, Monday, for their assault.

But assault how?

Joseph and Lacey had wanted to find a way to use the napalm, rig it someho w to explode and turn the restaurant into an inferno while the Vichy were eating their breakfast. But the "somehow" eluded them. And even if they di d manage to come up with a way to explode it, the napalm presented too man y chances for something to go wrong. If they were only partially successfu l - if they killed some but not all of the Vichy - they'd have to abandon all hope of success. They couldn't win a fire fight with them, and from then o n the Vichy would be warned and on full alert.

Carole had had a better idea. This was why she'd brought along the canister of sodium fluorosilicate. She'd had a feeling they might need a more silent form of death than bullets and napalm. She'd found canisters of the chemical at one of the local municipal utility authorities where it was used to puri fy the water supply. At a few parts per million, sodium fluorosilicate was h armless. But ingestion of half a gram of the odorless and tasteless powder i nterfered with cellular metabolism, making you deathly ill. A gram caused co nvulsions and death. Not a pretty way to go, but probably better than being burned alive by napalm.

Carole wished there were another way, one that could be delivered by someone else and not multiply the number of lives she'd already taken. But there wa s nothing and no one. It was her idea, her responsibility. She couldn't shir k it off on someone else.

The question was, how to get it into the Vichy? Obviously via their food.

This evening's sortie would accomplish that - they hoped.

Joseph turned the big SUV onto Thirty-fourth and said, "Let's pray that th ose technicians I've been watching don't eat with the rest of them tomorro w. We need them. And besides, they appear to be innocent. The three of the m seem older than the typical Vichy, they're unarmed, and dress like middl e managers. They arrive in a group every morning, flanked by two Vichy.

They're not tied or manacled, but I get the impression they're prisoners of so me sort."

"But they could wind up sick or dead," Lacey said. "Then what do we do?"

"Please, God, don't let them," Carole said. She had blood on her hands, she was crimson to her elbows, but so far none of it was innocent.

"But what if they do?" Lacey persisted.

Joseph shook his head. "I've been watching three dawns in a row and not once have they eaten with the others. In fact, by the time they're brought in, bre akfast is just about done, and they're taken directly inside. Let's hope tomo rrow is no exception."

Halfway between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, Joseph slowed the car to a crawl. Carole leaned forward, peering ahead between Joseph and Lacey toward th e lighted windows of Houlihan's, glowing like a beacon in the fading ligh t. She searched for signs of stray Vichy who'd wandered away from the Fif th Avenue entrance around the corner where they usually hung out. But not hing was moving on the street except their car.

"Damn!" Joseph said. "The earring. Would somebody do the honor?"

Lacey fished the Vichy earring off the dashboard and punched it through his earlobe.

"Didn't feel a thing," he said. "Are you ladies ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Lacey said. "How about you, Carole?"

Carole could only nod. Her mouth was too dry for speech. They were entering the belly of the beast.

Joseph swung the car into the curb and stopped. Houlihan's lit-up interior was empty. Dinner wasn't ready yet. The cook was back in the kitchen.

"I'll turn the car around and wait here. Hurry. And be careful."

Carole watched Lacey shove a pair of steel bars she called "nunchucks" up th e left sleeve of her sweatshirt. She turned to Carole and took a deep, quave ring breath.

"Let's roll."

Carole alighted with her backpack in her hand. She'd removed the stakes an d crosses and hammer and replaced them with a football-size sack of sodium fluorosilicate. A pound of the stuff. Enough to kill the Empire State Bui lding's Vichy contingent a dozen times over.

They hurried across the sidewalk, pushed through the revolving glass doors, and headed straight for the rear of the restaurant area. The air smelled sou r. The bar, tables, and floor were littered with paper plates, food scraps, and empty beer cans. Waves of glistening brown beetles scurried out of their way as they approached.

"Cockroaches," Carole whispered. "I've never seen so many."

"Maybe they feel some kinship with the clientele," Lacey replied.

They paused outside the swinging doors to the kitchen. Light filtered thro ugh the two round, grease-smeared windows.

"Okay," Lacey said. "I go first."

She pushed through the doors; Carole followed. A fat, balding, cigar-chewing man in a bulging tank top stood before a stove, stirring a big pot. He look ed up as they entered.

"Who the fuck are you?" he said.

"A couple of hungry ladies," Lacey said. "Got any dinner you can spare?"

"Yo." He grinned and grabbed his crotch. "I got dinner right here."

"That's not exactly what we had in mind."

"You eat some of this, you get to eat some of what's cookin in the pot. Capi sce?"

While Lacey talked, Carole looked around the filthy mess of a kitchen. She didn't see a gun. The cook probably couldn't imagine he'd need one. Immedia tely to her right she spotted the other thing she was looking for: half a d ozen ten-pound canisters of powdered eggs. One was open, its lid slightly a skew.

"I'm kind of cranky right now," Lacey was saying. "I'm hungry, I've got low blood sugar, and I'm feeling premenstrual. You'll like me better when I'm not hypoglycemic."

"Ay, this ain't no Let's Make A Deal." He jabbed a finger at Lacey. "You d o me before you eat" - then at Carole - "and she does me after. Otherwise you can get the fuck outta here."

Lacey sighed and took a step toward him. "Oh, all right."

He grinned and started loosening his belt. "That's more like it!"

Lacey's hand darted to her sleeve and came up with her nunchucks. She whipp ed her hand around in a small circle, snapping her wrist and slamming one o f the steel bars against the side of the cook's head. He grunted and stagge red back, clutching his head. Lacey followed, swinging her nunchucks left, right, left, right, then vertically, connecting each time with either the m an's head or his raised elbows. With blood spurting from his face and scalp, the cook turned away, dropped to his knees, then fell forward, covering h is head with his hands and groaning.

"Stop, stop! Take what you want!"

"Warned you I was cranky. Now get flat on your belly and stay there." He co mplied, leaving the patterned soles of his sneakers facing Carole. Lacey tu rned and gave her a nod.

Carole knelt beside the open canister of powdered eggs and removed the lid.

It was three-quarters full. A heavy metal scoop lay inside. She pulled the bag of sodium fluorosilicate out of her backpack and began scooping the eg g powder into its place.

"You could have been nice, you know," she heard Lacey saying. "All we wan ted was something to eat. Didn't your mother ever teach you to share?"

"I'm sorry," the cook moaned. "I'm sorry!"

"Now we'll have to take it."

When Carole figured she'd scooped out about two pounds of egg, she zipped up the backpack, then emptied the pound of sodium fluorosilicate into the canister. The chemical was white and the powdered egg was a pale yellow. She used the scoop to mix them into a consistent color, then replaced the l id.

God forgive her. She'd just sealed the fates and numbered the hours of doze ns of men. Vicious, evil men, but men nonetheless.

"All right," she told Lacey. "I've got the eggs."

Lacey had the big chrome refrigerator door open and was peering inside.

"What have we here?" she said. She reached in and removed what looked like a pepperoni and half a wheel of white cheese. "Looks like cookie's got his own private stash!" She turned to the cook and squatted beside him. "All ri ght. We're leaving. Don't even think about moving or making a sound until w e're gone or I'll bust your head wide open and fry your brains on the grill. Capisce? "

The cook moaned and nodded.

Lacey looked at Carole and waggled her eyebrows. "Let go."

JOE . . .

Joe could see the kitchen doors through Houlihan's plate glass windows. He'd watched Carole and Lacey push through them only a few minutes ago, bu t it seemed like an hour.

"Come on, ladies," he whispered. "Come on."

The idea was to make this look like a food raid - desperate people risking t heir lives to take food out, not leave something behind. That was why he'd asked Lacey not to show a gun unless she had to. All it would take was on e shot to bring the Vichy running. Let them think the thieves who'd hit th em were amateurs armed only with nunchucks and knives.

Am I doing the right thing? he wondered for the thousandth time since they'd arrived in New York. He had a feeling he wasn't.

They were following his lead, trusting him with their lives. Was he, as the phrase went, exercising due diligence? He didn't know. All he knew was that once the idea of targeting Franco in his aerie had taken hold, he couldn't u proot it. He'd considered other options, but none of them held a candle to t his. Because this was unquestionably the best tactic or because he'd become fixated on Franco? Part of him argued that he should have sent either Carole or Lacey west, to try to cross into unoccupied territory with the secret. But a stronger part had countered that he needed both of them along to take Franco down, and that argument had prevailed.

And he knew why. He had a secondary goal in mind, one he dared not tell Ca role and Lacey. They'd never let him go through with it.

But he had another concern. Joe was noticing wild mood swings. In life he'd been prone to periodic lows that usually responded to a couple of stiff Scotches. Now he found himself experiencing surges of rage at the slightes t provocation. He'd managed to control them so far. Like early this mornin g when Lacey had questioned him about some minor point in tonight's plan, he'd had this sudden urge to grab her by the throat and scream at her to s top asking so many goddamned questions.

He'd managed to fight it off, but that urge still frightened him. Was it the stress, the responsibility of what they'd planned, or was he edging closer to the darkness in his daymares? What if - ?

Movement in the SUV's side mirror caught his attention. A Vichy, bearded and denimed like so many of them, had rounded the corner and was approach ing the Navigator with a raised pistol. Then Joe recognized him: the one who'd been with the head Vichy in the Armani suit when Joe was dropped ou tside the front entrance.

He'll recognize me! This will ruin -

Wait. He won't recognize me.

Joe had forgotten momentarily how his face had been disfigured by the sun.

Easy to forget when you'd never seen it, when mirrors gave back only a sm eary blur.

"What the fuck is this?" the Vichy said, stepping up to the open driver wi ndow and leveling his semiautomatic at Joe. "Who are you and what the fuck you think you're - shit! What happened to your face?"

That voice ... Joe remembered it taunting him in the long elevator ride to t he Observation Deck.

I'm glad I ain't you. Holy shit, am I glad I ain't you.

"Good morning," Joe said. "Just waiting to pick up a friend. And the face? A n industrial accident."

"Who gives a shit. What're you doin here, man? You think this is some kinda taxi stand?"

Joe turned his head and showed his right earlobe. He flicked the dangly earri ng. "Hey, I'm in the club."

"That don't mean shit. Who you waitin for?"

Joe cudgeled his brain for the name of this guy's buddy, the one in the suit who'd called him "god-boy."

"Barrett," he said as it came back to him. "He told me to meet him here at sundown."

The Vichy's eyes narrowed. "Barrett's on night duty with me. Should be here any minute." He pulled open Joe's door. "Let's go see about this."

As Joe stepped out of the car, he saw movement in Houlihan's over the Vich y's shoulder: Carole and Lacey leaving the kitchen.

Joe reached for the man's pistol and was surprised by how fast his hand mov ed. It darted out in a blur of motion; he grabbed the weapon and twisted it from his grasp. The Vichy jumped back with a shocked look and stared at hi s empty palm. Then he opened his mouth to shout but Joe's other hand reache d his throat first, fingers gripping the nape of his neck while the thumb j ammed against the windpipe. The man made a strangled sound. Joe pressed har der, hearing the cartilage crunch as it began to give way.

Stop, he told himself.

They'd decided no killing tonight, it might rile the Vichy too much, send th em out hunting instead of staying close to Houlihan's and tomorrow's breakfa st.

But this felt too, too good. And oh this man deserved dying for how he'd ta unted him. Worse yet, he'd seen too much.

A crushed throat might raise too many alarms, though.

With a heave Joe lifted him off his feet and hurled him head first toward the sidewalk. The back of his skull hit the concrete with a meaty crunch; his arms stiffened straight out to either side, then fell limp beside him.

"Joseph?" It was Carole, stepping through the revolving door. She stared a t the body with the blood pooling around its head. "What - ?"

"Hey, Unk," Lacey said. "I thought we said - "

"In the car, both of you!" he snapped. "We've wasted too much time already!"

Their fault. If they hadn't dawdled so damn long inside, this wouldn't have happened.

The two women piled into the back seat as Joe slipped behind the wheel. He wanted to slam his foot against the accelerator and burn rubber out of here, but a quiet departure was best. When he reached Sixth he turned uptown on e block, then raced east on Thirty-fifth. Mostly pubs and parking garages a long this block. He pulled into a multi-level garage and parked far in the rear. If the Vichy went hunting for the thieves who stole their food and ki lled their man, they'd never expect them to hide just one block away.

As he shut off the engine he noticed a foul odor emanating from the back sea t.

"What is that?" he said.

"Just some snack foods we picked up," Lacey said. "A pepperoni and what l ooks like provolone."

"The pepperoni - does it have garlic in it?"

"Probably, I - oops. Sorry about that."

"Throw it out."

"No way, Unk. We might never see another pepperoni again. But we'll eat it outside the car."

Joe was halfway turned around, ready to grab the damn pepperoni and shove it down her throat when he stopped himself.

He turned back and leaned his head against the steering wheel.

What's happening to me?

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