Devin Chandler watched in silence as the young man slid a slim jim down the window of the banana-yellow Ferrari, popped the lock, ignored the wail of the auto's $3,OOO alarm system, and disappeared inside. It happened so quickly that Devin couldn't move from his chair. What happened next also happened fast. The car warped, stretched, then disintegrated. Devin silently recorded each transformation in the millisecond before the sound of the explosion overpowered his senses and turned the quiet restaurant into chaos.
He sat stunned as the smoke and fire engulfed the spot where his prized car had once sat like a jewel in the afternoon sun. All around him he could hear cries of anguish as lethal pieces of iron and steel from the car's body and engine ripped through the restaurant's plate glass window and slashed through the lunch time diners. The Ferrari had acted like a giant hand grenade, spewing deadly projectiles in every direction. The two couples sitting closest to the door were killed instantly by a shotgun blast of metal and glass. A woman strolling along the sidewalk across the street was blown through the display window of a clothing store and died among the well-dressed mannequins. Even his own lunch date, a university student from his wife's journalism class, was slumped at the table, bleeding from the head. She was knocked unconscious by what had once been the car's water pump.
As the explosion gave way to an eerie silence, all he could do was stare at a small, glowing object that was spinning madly on the table in front of him. He stared at it for what seemed like eternity while the rest of his senses slowly recovered from the shock. He could make out what appeared to be a fiery horse rearing up on its hind legs. The resulting image was so hypnotic it sent his thoughts spiraling from the tragedy around him.
He had paid the valet extra for the privilege of parking the car in view of his table. It was worth every penny of the ten spot he squeezed into the young man's hand just to keep his paranoia at a controllable level. Newly rich, the successful author still had a poor boy's mentality about money and possessions. To him, it wasn't a sleek, low-slung automobile he had left outside. It was $158,000.
Despite his unexpected literary success, he was having a hard time coping with his new-found wealth. He had waited until his second, true-life best seller before quitting his job with the newspaper. He waited until his third before buying a house, getting married and starting a family. It wasn't until his fourth, which was now number one on the New York Time's best seller list, that he felt comfortable enough to reward himself with a few luxuries.
The mesmerizing image of the horse faded as the spinning object spent its frantic energy and crashed to the table, rocking Devin from his trance. He reached for it and immediately jerked back his hand in pain. The horse appeared to have bitten him. Curious, he grabbed a butter knife and directed the offending object toward him. It was the hood emblem from the car, still molten hot from the blast.
Devin turned his attention to his companion. He knew enough from a stint on the newspaper's health and fitness beat to leave her alone. Moving the coed to clumsily assess her injuries could be fatal. Let the professionals, the paramedics, do their jobs. He recalled writing that precise instruction in a newspaper article he had once written about coping with medical emergencies. The words came back to him as if he had just completed the interview that afternoon.
"Most of all, stay calm," Tampa's chief paramedic had instructed. "The first minute after an accident is often the most critical. Don't make things worse by allowing the fear and panic to overcome your good sense. If you know that help is on the way, the best thing to do is nothing at all."
He reached across the table and held the young woman's hand. He could feel her fingers tighten around his. She was alive. Devin put his other hand on top of hers, whispered soothingly that it would be okay, and then looked out at the street. The smoke was beginning to lift from the point of the explosion. The charred frame of what remained of his car appeared in quick glimpses through the haze. It reminded him of the bones of a dinosaur he once saw at a museum during a school outing.
A gust of wind revealed that the four tires had started burning in a rectangular pattern like smudge pots in a Florida orange grove. Thick black smoke once again obscured the auto's frame. When the wind shifted, a belch of the toxic gas came pouring into the restaurant, adding to the misery.
It wasn't until he saw the flashing lights of the first police car that the fear began to set in. The deadly explosion was no accident. This time, there could be no excuses. The shots from the speeding car in Los Angeles had been passed off as a random, drive-by shooting. He had been wearing a red tank top, and red is the color of one of Los Angeles' warring gangs. When it happened again in Phoenix, he wrote it off as a bizarre coincidence. He had been wearing blue, the color of the other gang, and the menacing street violence had long spread from L.A. to neighboring cities and states.
Only now, it all began to tie together. The bullets ricocheting off the sidewalk and storefront walls combined with the exploding Ferrari to paint a disturbing picture. One of his four best sellers had come with a price. Someone was trying to kill him.
The police would want to know who was responsible, or at least, who had a motive. Which one of his former subjects wanted him silenced?
That was going to be a tough one.
They all did.
* * *
Phoenix homicide detective Gary Jackson was a giant of a man with a barrel chest and walrus mustache. A veteran of twenty years on the force, the six-foot, six inch, 280 pound cop had witnessed the dark, brutal side of humanity so often that he had long lost any sense of shock or outrage. He had come to view even the most bizarre circumstances as routine.
"Your girlfriend's gonna be all right," Jackson said as they rode to the police station. "Just a ding on the head."
"That's good," Devin said, still half dazed. "She's not my girlfriend. She's one of my wife's students at ASU."
"Whatever you say," Jackson sneered.
"No, really," he protested. "My wife wanted me to meet with her. Tell her about being a journalist. My wife was supposed to join us, but she got tied up in a meeting at the school. That was a break."
"I read ya. Your wife sets you up with a beautiful young woman, then misses the date? My wife wouldn't go for that. Not for a second."
"Is she Latin?"
Detective Jackson smiled.
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"Used to date a few myself."
"She tried to shoot me one night. Nailed me right in the thigh with my own gun. She was going for my balls."
"Let me guess. You're still married to her?"
"Of course," he said with a smile. "Got the charges dropped. So you know what she's been doing? Going to the range. Practicing her aim. Next time, she says she ain't gonna miss. So don't worry, I know the score."
"That's why when I settled down, I chose a nice Italian girl like my mother told me."
"My first wife was Italian," Detective Jackson said. "Found her in bed with her legs wrapped around a fireman one night when I had a call near home."
"That'll screw up a relationship."
"I'll take a jealous Mexican over a cheating Italian any day."
"Even one that tries to shoot you in the balls?"
"Anything's better than seeing your wife fuckin' a fireman."
Devin paused to let that pearl of domestic wisdom sink in. The conversation had taken an odd turn, but it was a welcomed diversion. He'd rather talk about jealous lovers than face the fact that someone was going to great lengths to try and kill him.
"So," Detective Jackson said, shifting back to business. "You almost got your student friend killed."
"Maybe they were after her. Maybe she almost got me killed."
The detective smirked. Devin knew what he was thinking. His current book was about a Mafia prince from Chicago who was trying to go straight. The book exposed the inner workings of the modern Mafia like nothing published before it. It was natural for the police to to assume that a blown-up car would be Mob related. That's the Mob's M.O. -- fire, noise and massive violence. Sends a message. Even though Devin had his doubts, he would do nothing to discourage the police from traveling down the Mafia vengeance path. Tony Roselli, the Mafia prince in question, had good reason to want his co-author dead.
But the Mafia prince, already a murderer five times over, had no better reason than any of the other three. And therein lay Devin's dilemma. He had pushed his four subjects hard, explored all reaches of their souls in order to extract the details necessary to make their life stories more revealing and less self-serving. He insisted that they tell him everything and let him sort it out. Each balked at first, but eventually, as trust developed, they complied. Only their confessions had penetrated into an unexpected darkness that went beyond anything he had suspected. He was forced by his promise of author/subject confidentially -- along with the bottom line decisions of his business minded publisher -- to eliminate the disturbing revelations from their books. Although it tweaked his journalistic sensibilities, he understood the reasoning. The information was not only too damning, it didn't fit the books' autobiographical structure. It was his subjects' life stories told in their own words. It was crazy to think they'd be willing to incriminate themselves.
"What's said between us goes to the grave with us," he assured them all. "It was my promise when we started, and remains my promise."
Obviously, for one of them, neither the literary restraint, nor his promise was enough. They couldn't live with the knowledge that he knew their secret. So now, he was being hunted, and his ethical obligations to his profession prevented him from giving the police the information needed to save his life. And even if his own instinct for survival weakened his professional resolve, what could he do? He couldn't sell out all four just to catch the one who was trying to silence him. Betray a sacred trust and destroy three innocent lives? Lure four people into a subject/author confidence and then rat'em out in a desperate act of self-preservation?
Instead, he'd have to dance with the cops, then embark upon a journey back into his subject's lives. He'd have to get the killer to reveal his or her hand. It wasn't going to be easy. Or fun. He hated retracing his books. He didn't even like associating with the subjects after the book was completed. They always wanted to cling to their new-found friend, confidante, substitute lover, therapist, or whatever else they had tried to transform him into. When the last chapter was written, he'd have to wean them like babies. This held true for them all, from the lonely superstar actress who sought the company of an attentive young lover, to the nervous gangster who wanted a right-hand man he could trust. Actually, Devin had no choice but to let go. Invariably, the next subject, and the writing itself, demanded his full attention. He discovered early on that trying to maintain any link led to jealousy among the subjects and hindered the creation of the new project.
"So why would the Mafia want you dead?" Detective Jackson opened after they were seated in his bare bones Phoenix office. "What did you write that would tick somebody off this much?"
"Could be anything," he answered. "The book's a prosecutor's wet dream. Tony exposed a hundred made men and detailed some serious crimes. Kidnapping, extortion, muscle, murder, kickbacks, you name it. There's even a gallery of so-called honest citizens with their hands in the Mob pie. Politicians, lawyers, union leaders, insurance agents, we dirtied some heavy folks."
"Well, I guess we're gonna hafta read the damn book," cracked Detective Mark Simpson, Jackson's balding and more talkative partner. "You don't have any clue what it could be, something to help direct us?"
"The guy did Oprah last week," Devin said with a shrug. "No mask, hood, shadows, no disguise or anything. Walked right out and told his story. Answered the audience's questions. Historic stuff. Weird. Did that piss anybody off? Hell yeah, the whole Mafia. From here to Italy. So it could be anybody."
Devin's "all-the-world's-a-suspect" answers weren't helping his survival, but he knew that going in. He was, however, surprised how easily the detectives were buying it. His story was more Hollywood than reality. No matter what the book revealed, the Mafia wouldn't be coming after him. They never come after writers. They'd place the blame squarely upon the trim shoulders of Tony Roselli, the fallen angel who had broken the "omerta," the Mob's inviolate code of silence. Tony R supplied all the sensational information about life inside a modern Mob family. He was under a very real death threat. Devin was just a footnote. The only way he'd be in danger is if he happened to be lunching with his pal Tony when the hit came down.
But he couldn't fault the detectives for their ignorance of mob ways. Phoenix was an open town. There was no local Mafia, and none of the New York, Chicago or Los Angeles families had interests in the blistering hot desert city. For all their years on the force, Detectives Jackson and Simpson had no firsthand experience in dealing with the violent Italian criminals.
"There's no way of knowing with the mob," he continued, feeding the detective's misperception. "Look at the index in the back of the book. That's your suspect list."
"That's a lot of suspects," Detective Jackson sighed, thumbing through the list.
"And that's just this one book," Devin said. "You'd have to go to a library and pull a dozen mob books to list all the possibilities. No sense knocking yourselves out. You know how it is with these guys. Even if you knew who was after me, you couldn't prove it. The `mechanic' who wired the car was probably a mercenary from out of town. He wouldn't know me from Adam. You could spend the rest of your careers trying to make this case and come up empty."
What the detectives couldn't grasp was that instead of the tedious task of sorting through the fine print lists at the end of a stack full of books, their job was really easy. They could throw out the indexes and go right to the front of his literary contribution to Mob lore, to the name etched in blood-red letters under the title. The only mobster who had reason to kill Devin Chandler was his buddy and literary business partner, Anthony "The Glassman" Roselli.
"You need a ride home?" Detective Simpson offered.
"That'd help," he said, getting up to leave. "My car's in the shop."
"Yeah, a half dozen shops," Detective Jackson cracked. "What'd that baby cost?"
"Insane, isn't it?"
"Was it worth it?"
"Only if you're trying to get laid."
"I hear ya," Detective Jackson laughed.
"You know, this thing is kind of ironic," Detective Simpson said as they walked through the police station. "Your life was saved by a car thief."
"Did you know anything about him?" Devin asked.
"We ID'd him from witnesses, but we're still trying to find an identifiable piece of the poor bastard to confirm it. If it's who we think, he's just a typical dirt bag. Long criminal record. Did some time for rape. Beat a child molestation rap. Your car would have been the score of his worthless lifetime. He probably would have used it as a lure to rape a dozen teenage girls. Maybe even start killing them, give Ted Bundy a run for it. Some things have a way of working out."
"I still feel responsible."
"For what? If he didn't try to heist your ride, we wouldn't be peelin' him off the restaurant wall. Screw 'im. The guy was scum. One less bad guy for us to worry about."
"I guess his contributions to society won't be missed."
"No chance of that," Detective Jackson assured.
"What about the others?" Devin wondered. "The people in the restaurant? The young couple? The lady across the street?"
"Just be thankful it wasn't that pretty little coed you were with. Both of you would have been incinerated in the car."
"She came in her own car. I just met her there. But I don't think she'll have lunch with me again."
"Probably not," Detective Simpson said as they arrived at his county-issued Buick in the police station parking lot. "It ain't a Ferrari, but it'll get you home."
"It's better than most of the cars I've had," Devin said. "I had the banana only a few months. My first and last. Tell me something, something that's been bothering me. Why didn't it blow the first time I opened the door? I must have made three or four stops before going to the restaurant."
"These things have gotten very sophisticated. It could have been set for the second, third, fourth, or fifth opening of the door. They'd do that to get you out of your garage so they don't blow up your house and kill the family. They also could have been using a remote control device. They'd tail you until the situation was right, then press the button. Adios author."
"If that's true, why'd they blast the thief?"
"Could have mistaken him for you. Authors and street punks often share the same tailor and barber," Simpson said through a wry smile. "Or they could have realized what was happening and just been pissed. We won't have any answers until we bag the perp."
"Perpetrator. I thought you wrote a cop book?"
"A lady cop," Devin explained. "I guess she didn't subscribe to all the macho slang."
"They usually use it the most. Try to fit in with the boys."
Kate was waiting at the door when he arrived home. He could see from her swollen eyes and ashen complexion that she had worried herself sick since hearing about the explosion. It was the last thing she needed. The past few years had been extremely trying for her. She had discovered, like many career women who waited until their late thirties to start a family, that she was unable to become pregnant. In Kate's case, she wanted to earn her Ph.D. in educational psychology and secure a tenure track position at a major university before using her sabbatical to have a child. It was a well-designed, superwoman plan on paper. The trouble was, her body hadn't played along. At thirty-six, her biological clock had prematurely run out.
Modern medicine and a fertility specialist came to the rescue, enabling Kate, after numerous attempts, to have a test-tube son.
After all of that, Kate now had to face the realization that her husband -- the father of her six-month old "miracle child," -- was being hunted on the streets like a wild animal.
"Are you okay?" she asked, ushering him inside with one hand while holding baby Cody in her free arm. He assured her he was and attempted to downplay the incident .
"What about Lisa?"
"She got hit with some debris but the police said she'll be okay," Devin said, collapsing on the couch.
"Do you realize I almost brought Cody there to join you?"
"I know. The miracle child saved by another miracle. He's certainly a charmed little guy."
"He's a gift from God," Kate said. "So are you. And we both need you around. What's going on?"
"I don't know. Mistaken identity."
"Come on. Three times? In two different cities? Somebody is trying to kill you! Who?"
"I don't know. Maybe one of the four."
"One of your subjects?"
"Has to be," he said. "When you get close to people like that, when you crawl inside their heads for a year, sometimes you find out a lot of stuff they don't want revealed. When it's over and you're gone, they worry. Maybe even panic. They view you as a ticking time bomb out there. It could eat at them."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to have to find out which one. Assure them that I won't talk."
"You already did that when you started on their books. It didn't work. What makes you think it will work this time?"
"I don't know."
"So that's your plan?"
"So far. You got a better suggestion? You're the mystery buff. You watch Jessica Fletcher and all those old private eye movies. What do you think?"
"I'd start with the two women. The actress and the undercover agent. One of them."
"Why would you think it's the women?"
"Were you intimate with them?"
Her eyes blazed. He didn't know why he baited her like that, probably because he found it amusing.
"Either. Both. Which one?"
"Neither. Come on, I'm just teasing. You know I only slept with the men."
"Don't give me that," she said fighting to keep from laughing. The thought of Devin getting it on with macho gangster Tony Roselli, or hard ass U.S. senator turned presidential front runner John Curry, was almost enough to break her anger.
"Which one? Both, right?"
"We've gone through this before. Play back tape number 103."
"Give it to me again."
"I don't become intimate with subjects. That screws everything up. As you know doc, writing and researching a book is a long ordeal. The process outlasts most relationships. If the intimacy went sour halfway through, it becomes disastrous for the project. Plus, if there's some sexual tension between the subject and author, it's good to string it along as much as possible. It gives the telling an added charge."
"That's your head talking. What does your crotch say?"
"When it comes to my work, my `crotch' doesn't have a say."
"It sure talks to me."
"I think it has something to tell you right now," Devin said. "But it's a secret. You've got to get closer and let it whisper in your ear."
"In my ear? How 'bout if I just hum and drown it out?"