Chapter 1

Monday, July 14          Queens, New York

     Gaston awoke suddenly, feeling nervous, and he automatically reached for the pistol under his pillow. Without knowing how he knew, he still knew: There was someone in the house, someone who didn’t belong there. He checked the clock on the nightstand at the side of the bed. 3:06 A.M., an hour when criminals were up and about. He listened intently, trying to detect any sound. Then he heard it, a faint tapping downstairs that lasted only seconds.
     Gaston placed his hand gently on his wife’s back. Lela was sleeping soundly in her usual position, rolled up into a ball with her back to him and her hands clasped between her knees, breathing rhythmically. She purred at his touch, and he felt the muscles in her strong back tighten beneath the silk nightgown, then relax again.
     Gaston considered waking her, but decided against it. It was man’s work that had to be done. Someone foolish was trying to prey on a predator, and that wasn’t allowed. He sat up, swung his feet off the edge of the bed, and stood up in one fluid motion, with his pistol extended in front of him and aimed at the bedroom door. He was wearing cotton pajamas that didn’t hide his physical attributes; he was a compact, muscular man who moved slowly and gracefully. The house was dark, but he could see well enough as he silently headed for the door in his bare feet. He had grown up in the jungles of Colombia, and was used to hunting at night.
     Gaston’s first thought was his children, so he checked their bedrooms first. His six-year-old son, Gaston Jr., was asleep in his bed with his covers thrown off. The central air conditioning was turned on high, and Gaston thought the room too chilly. He covered his son, then checked his daughter’s bedroom.
     Three-year-old Alicia was also sleeping, sucking her thumb as usual. Her young nanny, Linda, was asleep in her bed across the room from Alicia’s, and Gaston took a moment to admire her form under her sheet. Linda meant pretty in Spanish, and she was just that, seventeen, pretty, and always smiling, especially when he was around. A distraction, Gaston thought, especially since Lela had noticed and commented on it. Just once, but that was enough. Gaston was a man of few virtues, but marital fidelity was one of them. He considered Linda a test of that virtue, a test he wasn’t sure he would always pass if she remained, so he decided just then that he would pay her a year’s wages, and send her back to Colombia.
     Gaston returned his attention to Alicia, and eased her thumb from her mouth. She stirred, but didn’t wake up, and he smiled when she put her thumb back in. He left the bedroom, intending to take the back stairway, but something on the landing five steps down stopped him. His German shepherd, Peligra, was lying there, apparently asleep. He whistled soft and low, just once, but the dog didn’t stir.
     Drugged or dead, Gaston thought, and he cautiously descended to the landing. The dog didn’t move as he stood over her, but her eyes were open and she was panting. He moved her head with his foot, and found what he expected. The dog had vomited, he felt the slime on his bare feet. Peligra wasn’t let out at night, so her presence there told Gaston that he was right: There was an intruder.
     Gaston considered going back upstairs and calling the police, but quickly rejected that idea. He didn’t want inquisitive cops running around his house again, and he preferred to deal with the intruder in his own way. Once he did, the cops would have a puzzle to worry them, a tortured body found far from his house with sensitive parts missing.
     There was a window at the landing, and Gaston opened it without making a sound. He felt the warm, moist night air rush in, then stuck his head out the window and looked around. The house was set on half an acre in the fashionable Malba neighborhood, and completely surrounded by a brick wall. The property was tastefully illuminated by dim lights designed to show off the house and the grounds, but security had been foremost on Gaston’s mind when he had them installed. He could see both the four-foot wall in front of the house and the eight-foot wall in the rear. The electric driveway gate was closed, and nothing he could see appeared suspicious. Both the front and rear yards were crisscrossed by hidden infra-red motion detectors that should have alerted his bodyguard Carlos to the presence of any intruder. He saw no sign of Carlos outside, so he focused on the garage. It was twenty feet from his window, and the side door was slightly ajar. He couldn’t be sure, but Gaston thought he saw a dim source of illumination coming from inside the garage.
     Gaston opened the landing window wider, and slid out feet first. It was a fifteen-foot drop, and the ground stung his feet when he landed, but he ignored the pain as he rolled once, then sprang to his feet in a crouch with his pistol aimed at the garage door as he advanced toward it. He pressed himself flat against the garage wall, and took a quick look to his left and right. He had a better view of the front and rear yards from his new position, but still saw no sign of the intruder. Then he detected a faint odor, and knew at once what it was. Burning flesh, inside the garage. He lowered himself flat on the ground, and peered around the door jam.
     Carlos was the source of the odor. He was lying on his back on the hood of Gaston’s BMW, and his shirt was the fuel for a smoldering fire that went out as Gaston watched. He strained his eyes as he searched the dark recesses of the garage. He saw no one but Carlos, but thought someone else inside might be lying in wait for him behind either the BMW or the Mercedes.
     Gaston would have preferred a more cautious approach, but he didn’t have the time. He stood up and entered, hugging the wall with his pistol held ready. It took him another minute to determine there was no longer a threat, and then he examined Carlos’s body with anger welling up inside him. People would pay dearly for this, he promised himself.
     Carlos had been more than just a trusted, faithful bodyguard, he was the closest thing to a friend Gaston had ever had. They were from the same village, and had come to the United States together to pursue Gaston’s business interests.
     Carlos had been killed by a single shot to his right eye, but death had not caught him by surprise. Gaston figured Carlos had begged for the bullet to end his suffering. He had also been shot in both kneecaps, his hands were handcuffed behind him, his mouth was stuffed with a roll of gauze, and he had been tortured with a blowtorch.
     It was an interrogation technique Gaston knew well, because he had seen Carlos himself perform it. His face was burned, and there was nothing left of his eyebrows and mustache. That was where the flame had been applied first, Gaston figured, because that was the way Carlos used to do it. First the face, to get the victim’s total attention and show him that the interrogation was to be a serious affair, and next the armpits. Carlos’s shirt was burned away at both armpits, and that was probably when he had been offered a chance to talk. Carlos hadn’t, and the procedure had continued, starting at his navel and working down to his groin. His shirt and pants were burned away in a straight line from his fourth button to the bottom of his fly, his flesh was charred black, and all his pubic hair had been burned away. That was when Carlos had talked, Gaston knew, because the next step in the procedure hadn’t been applied to him. Carlos’s shoes hadn’t been burned.
     Carlos was a big man, strong and tough, so even though he had been shot in both kneecaps, Gaston figured it still took two men to hold him down during that painful session. That meant two or more opponents, with at least one of them in the house. Tough odds, Gaston realized, but he would have the element of surprise on his side.
     Or would he? In a near panic, Gaston rolled Carlos’s body off the car, and saw at once that the situation was even worse. Carlos always wore an electronic wristband while guarding the house, and the device was keyed to the motion detectors. An LED display told him when a beam had been crossed, and which beam had picked up the motion. The wristband was gone, and Gaston realized that he had crossed a beam when he went from the house to the garage. If his opponents knew how the device operated, then they knew they had trouble brewing near or in the garage.
     Carlos had told them everything they wanted to know, Gaston decided, so they knew he was there. Worse, Carlos’s pistol and cell phone were also missing. The hunter had become the hunted, and he needed a little time to think in a more secure place. His opponents would know every move he made, so the alarm system meant to protect him had to be disabled before he could go back on the offensive—and he had a way to do that. A remote control device in each car activated or deactivated the alarm system, and Gaston used the one in the glove compartment of the BMW to shut the system down. He then put the remote control in the pocket of his pajamas.
     Leaving the garage in a running crouch, Gaston zigzagged across his rear yard to the safety offered by a stand of pine trees planted along his west wall. He surveyed his house from the rear, and saw nothing out of place. There wasn’t a light on in the house, the back door seemed to be intact, and every window he could see was closed. Then Gaston realized there would be no need to break a door or window to get in. The house locks were accessed by means of a code, and Carlos had surely given them the correct numbers to punch in.
     But for what other reason did they torture Carlos? What information did Carlos have that they so desperately wanted to know? Carlos ordinarily wasn’t included in the planning stages of any of Gaston’s deals. Of course, Carlos had possessed enough incriminating information to send Gaston to prison for life, but Gaston was sure that whoever had tortured Carlos had nothing to do with the law. Even in Colombia the cops would never use such advanced and painful interrogation techniques.
     Then who was he up against? He hadn’t heard the shots that had wounded and killed Carlos, and he was sure that the sound of a shot would have awakened him instantly. They’re using silenced pistols, Gaston reasoned, but how had they gotten the jump on Carlos? Carlos was like a watchdog, suspicious of everything, and alert to every sound and movement.
     Then Gaston saw a flashlight shine for an instant in his dining room, and he knew what Carlos had told them. The safe was in the dining room, so carefully hidden beneath the floorboards that the police had failed to find it on the search warrant they had executed on Gaston’s house—but Carlos had known where it was. The safe didn’t contain much at the time, maybe four or five hundred thousand, but Gaston was sure that was what his opponents were after—and knowing their target placed them square in the bull’s eye of his target.
     Gaston crawled along the wall until he reached a point near the corner of the house. He was just about to dash for the house when he saw it, a pinprick of red light on the hand that held his pistol. He knew what it meant, and dropped to the ground—but not fast enough. He heard the dining room window break, and felt the sting in his hand at the same time. It took him a second to realize that he had been shot, and that he no longer held his gun. He searched the lawn in front of him, looking for it, but he couldn’t see it.
     His opponents showed him where it was with another pinprick of red light focused on the butt of his pistol, ten feet to Gaston’s left in the pachysandras bordering the lawn. Gaston crawled for the pistol, and was just about to grab it by the barrel when another pinprick of red light focused on the offending hand. Gaston froze, staring in fascination at the two pinpricks of red light, inches apart. Then he looked up at the window, but in the darkened dining room he couldn’t see anyone inside. Two of them, at least, he realized. Two men in my dining room at the window, and they’re armed with laser-sighted, silenced pistols. Options?
     Surrender was the only one that came to mind, and he slowly withdrew his hand. The red dot stayed on it, and Gaston was surprised to see himself get shot again. The bullet passed through his hand, and buried itself in the ground underneath. Although he was aware of the pain in both his hands, Gaston was still able to think clearly. “Don’t shoot me again,” he said. “I give up, and I’ll give you anything you want.”
     There was no reply, so Gaston decided that if he was going to die, it wouldn’t be while he was on his hands and knees. A painful effort pushed him up onto his elbows, then stood and waited.
     Gaston finally got his reply, but it wasn’t what he expected. One red dot remained on the butt of the pistol, but the other moved up Gaston’s left arm until he could no longer see it—but he knew where it was because he could finally see the source of the laser beam. One of his opponents had sighted on the point directly between Gaston’s eyes, and Gaston could see the laser sight mounted on top of the pistol. He raised his hands, and felt the blood running down his wrists. “Don’t shoot, and I’ll give you the combination for the safe,” Gaston tried.
     “Quiet, you idiot! If you wake up your wife and kids, I’ll have to kill them, too,” was the low reply from inside.
     That simple statement gave Gaston a few pieces of information. One was that the man inside intended to kill him, no matter what. And, since he said I’ll have to kill them, not we’ll have to kill them, he was probably acting alone. But what makes me an idiot? The answer hit him at once. After I turned the alarm system off, Gaston realized, he turned it back on with the wrist control. He always knew where I was.
     The news was all bad, but Gaston still felt a sense of relief. He would die, but his wife and kids would live. That relief ended a second later when Gaston was able to see the second laser sight on the pistol his opponent held in his other hand. Both pistols were sighted on the bridge of his nose.
     Gaston involuntarily closed his eyes and waited for death to claim him. When that didn’t happen, he opened his eyes again and found he could no longer see the source of the laser beam. Then he looked down: There was a red dot on each of his knees, and then his kneecaps exploded. Gaston’s legs buckled, and he hit the ground hard. The pain was intense, but he didn’t move and he didn’t scream. He wasn’t thinking clearly, but he was still trying to assess his situation when he lost consciousness.
     When Gaston came to, he kept his eyes closed. He knew he was lying on his back, he knew he was handcuffed from the rear with his hands under him, and he felt the air-conditioning, so he knew he was in the house. He suddenly became aware of the pain in his hands and knees, and the pain intensified until it became almost unbearable. Gaston steeled his mind and bore the pain without moving. He then opened one eye a fraction for a second, and was momentarily blinded by the light. He realized that he was on his dining room table, and the chandelier overhead was on. A big hand slapped him across the face, hard, and he opened his eyes to face his attacker.
     It was a black man who stared back at Gaston impassively. He wore rubber gloves and two shoulder holsters, with a large laser-sighted pistol in each holster. The man had almost no neck, just a head perched on top of broad shoulders. His face didn’t show age, and although he was balding at the sides, Gaston couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. There was something about the man that seemed familiar, but Gaston couldn’t remember ever meeting him. “Do I know you?” he asked.
     “If you were smart, you would. But you’re not, so you don’t,” the man replied, and Gaston was struck by how deep his voice was.
     Why should I know you?” he asked.
     “Because you’ve made yourself into my enemy, and smart men always take the time to know their enemies.”
     “What have I ever done to you?”
     “Figure it out.”
     Gaston tried, but it didn’t come to him. “Can you help me out with a name, at least?”
     “Sure. You can call me Don.”
     “Don? Is that your real name?”
     “Donald, actually, but Don will do.”
     The name meant nothing to Gaston, but Don didn’t give him time to think about it. He grabbed the edge of the dining room table and lifted it, rolling Gaston off the table and onto the floor. Gaston landed hard, and broke his nose when his face hit the floor. He found himself lying next to the floorboards Don had removed to expose the safe. In order to remove the floorboards, the pegs holding the finished wood strips to the supporting cross beams underneath had been tapped down.
     Don had gained that information from Carlos, and Gaston recognized his tools. Lying next to the opening in the floor was the rubber mallet and the dowel Gaston always used to gain access to the safe, along with a large duffel bag that appeared to be empty.
     Don then used his foot to push Gaston’s head to the opening, and Gaston could see some additional work he had done. Gaston’s circular safe was embedded in the house’s foundation, and Don had packed the space around the door with plastic explosives. A blasting cap with a radio detonator attached was imbedded in the explosives.
     “Are you going to give me the combination, or am I going to have to blow it?” Don asked calmly, with no menace in his voice.
     “You’re going to have to blow it,” Gaston replied.
     “Fine, but do you know what’s directly overhead?”
     It took Gaston a confused moment to run the layout of the house through his mind, and then it came to him. “My daughter’s bedroom.”
     “More precisely, your daughter’s bed. What do you think is going to happen to the heavy door of that safe when I blow it off?”
     “I don’t know.”
     “I do. The way I have the charge rigged, that door will be propelled upward at an approximate speed of a thousand feet a second. It will go right through the ceiling above us, right through the floor upstairs, probably right through your daughter’s mattress, and maybe right through her.”
     Gaston didn’t know if that was true, but he wasn’t going to take a chance. “Spin the dial right past zero twice and stop at nine. Then spin left to twenty, right to thirty-seven.”
     “Good decision.” Don grabbed Gaston’s legs, and pulled him away from the opening with ease. Then he got down on his hands and knees, bent over the safe, worked the combination, and opened the door. He reached into the deep safe and pulled out forty-three stacks of wrapped hundred dollar bills and three computer disks.
     It seemed to Gaston that the money didn’t interest Don much, but he appeared elated to find the disks under the cash in the safe. “Those disks won’t help you much. Everything on them is in code,” Gaston commented.
     “That’s all right. I have the code.”
     “Impossible,” Gaston countered. “I devised it myself, and I’m the only one who knows it.”
     “Liar. Jorge Rodriguez knew it,” Don replied with a smile that told Gaston that he and Carlos weren’t the first victims that night. Jorge was Gaston’s wholesale distribution manager, and they shared the code to keep a record of transactions that included accounts of product imported and product delivered. “What are you going to do with that information?”
     “Everybody that works for you or deals your stuff is going out of business the hard way.”
     “You’re going to turn it over to the police?”
     “No, that would be the easy way. I said it would be the hard way.”
     “You think you can kill them all?”
     “Don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
     “It hasn’t come to you yet?”
     “No.” .
     “Too bad, but if you love your daughter, you have a few more minutes to figure it out.”
     “What do you mean by that?”
     “Watch.” Don removed the plastic explosive, blasting cap, and detonator from around the edges of the safe, and placed it all inside. Then he opened the duffel bag, and Gaston saw that it hadn’t been empty after all. It contained pounds and pounds of six-penny nails, and Don poured them into the safe on top of the explosives. He left the safe door open, then packed the money and the disks into the duffel bag.
     Gaston got the plan at once. For some reason, Don was going to kill his daughter after all; the safe would serve as a cannon, and he was going to set off the charge and send the nails through his daughter’s body upstairs.
     Don pulled a roll of gauze from his pocket. He bent over, stuffed the gauze into Gaston’s mouth, and stepped back to admire his handiwork. “I think you need a little more work,” he announced. He took a switchblade from his pocket, opened it up with the push of a button, and he bent over Gaston again.
     Gaston couldn’t see what Don did to him, but he felt the cuts--four of them, two on each bicep. Finally satisfied, Don took the radio detonator from his pocket and showed it to Gaston. It was a small device that resembled an electronic garage door opener. “Once I’m away, I’m going to push this button and set off my bomb,” he said. “You know what you have to do to give your daughter any chance for survival.”
     Don picked up the duffel bag and left. Gaston heard the front door open and close. In order for his daughter to survive when the bomb went off and blew all the nails toward the ceiling, a large part of the force of the explosion would have to be absorbed by a buffer. Gaston put it in place without a second thought. It was a short, painful crawl, but he ignored the pain as he used his shattered legs to push himself forward on the floor until his body completely covered the opening that contained the safe. Then he closed his eyes, and prayed for the first time in thirty years as he waited for his loud and messy death.
     Maybe it was the prayer, or maybe it was just his subconscious working overtime, but Don’s face suddenly popped into Gaston’s mind, and he remembered where he had seen it before. On a TV news show, he was sure, but he couldn’t remember if Don was a reporter or part of a story.
     It didn’t make much difference to Gaston, but Don’s face was the last conscious image on his mind.

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