"Mister! Hey, mister." The voice was young, female. "Are you dead? You need some help?"

Conner opened one eye. Early morning, but the sun was already searing and rippling orange on the water.

He lifted his head, which throbbed angry above his left eye, touched the wound, sticky with blood. He lay on the deck at an odd angle. He wasn't at an odd angle. It was the deck.

He'd hit a sandbar in the middle of the river. The prow pointed up at an angle, the stern dipping nearly below the waterline. The engine was still running, blades spinning, churning in the water and propelling him nowhere fast.


He focused on the voice. A teenage girl in a blue bikini. A speedboat. Five teenagers in all, boys and girls on the river for a good time. Blue Bikini Girl kept looking at him, waiting for a sign.

Conner waved. "It's okay. Not dead."

They waved. The dude behind the wheel throttled forward and the speedboat shot down the river like a bullet.

Last night's memories congealed, lined up for inspection as Conner half slid down the deck into the cockpit. He remembered Tyranny and his car in the drink and shooting the Webley at what might have been an intruder. He hadn't been sure. Then he remembered the trashed cabin. Somebody had searched the boat. There had definitely been an intruder. Whoever had been there had probably not found the DiMaggio card, or else why had they stuck around waiting for Conner?

The Japanese? Maybe they wanted to question him the same way they'd questioned Folger. Tied to a chair.

Conner killed the engine. He checked the gas gauge. Only a few gallons of fuel left. He checked his watch and tried to estimate how long the Jenny had chugged uselessly against the sandbar, but his head throbbed, his mind cluttered with other worries.

He went below and forward to check the bilge, see if there'd been a hull breach. No leaks. No problems.

The main cabin was a mess, dishes and bottles scattered, items jarred loose on impact. Even the ugly seagull painting had been knocked off the wall. The glass in the frame had shattered. Conner would need to wear shoes until he could sweep up.

He picked up the seagull painting. The wooden frame had cracked too, and it almost came apart in his hands. He sighed, let it drop. Fucking mess is going to take forever to clean up.

Again, Conner had fallen into thinking of the Jenny as his boat. Somebody had violated his property, invaded his space. He kicked the seagull painting where it leaned against the bulkhead. The frame splintered the rest of the way, broke apart. The painting pulled away, folded over, and slid out of the broken frame.

Behind it a stunning blonde with a gleaming smile held her white dress down as the hem blew up around her. Red letters above her head: THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.

Conner frowned, focused on the film poster. It took him a minute to understand what he was looking at, the letter and the DiMaggio card encased in hard, transparent plastic.

Through the fog of his disbelief and pounding head, Conner almost thought he saw Marilyn wink at him. Took you long enough, big boy.


Itchi shivered in the morning light, welcomed the sun, which quickly baked him humid, his wet clothes heavy. Finally, the night was over. He'd been afraid to venture in the dark, the too-near sounds of furtive movement among the shrubs and cypress trees terrifying. He'd heard that Florida swamps teemed with alligators and venomous snakes and the occasional sodomizing redneck.

The thought he should call Toshi on his cell phone and ask for rescue tempted Itchi more than once. But he was much more afraid of Toshi than he was of alligators. Toshi tolerated failure poorly. Itchi had been careless, had let Samson sneak up on him. When Samson started shooting, Itchi's reflexes had taken over. He'd leapt into the water, and when he'd tried to climb back aboard, Samson had opened fire again.

Itchi had bungled, been caught by surprise, had let Samson escape and cowered in the dark swamp wallowing in fear and indecision. No, Toshi wouldn't be pleased. Toshi, it seemed, was nearly always displeased about something. Itchi was supposed to have broken into Derrick James's office and slipped out again without anyone knowing, but had been forced to kill James when the man had walked in suddenly. Toshi had called Itchi a careless oaf.

As a young man Itchi had been told he would be feared and respected as a Yakuza. At the moment, he felt only wet and hungry.

He stood, stretched his legs, and looked about. No path, no obvious way through the swamp and back to civilization. He made his way down to the river's edge, looked across. If there'd been a house or something, Itchi would swim the river and make his way back to the hotel. He scanned the far bank. Nothing.

The ancient gods, however, were occasionally merciful. That's what Itchi's grandmother had often told him and what he thought now when he saw the little inflatable dinghy hung up on a low branch and bobbing with the current.

He gleefully waded into the river up to his thighs, grabbed the side of the dinghy and heaved himself into it. He pulled the cord several times before ascertaining the little outboard was out of gas. Sometimes the ancient gods were not all they were cracked up to be. He dumped the outboard into the water, grabbed the paddle, and headed downriver.

The river seemed to stretch on forever, at least in comparison to last night's quick journey in the speedboat. He stroked, fell into a rhythm. When he rounded the bend and saw the Jenny stranded on a sandbar, his heart leapt. Perhaps all was not lost. He could still board the sailboat, find Samson. Toshi need not know the unfortunate details of Itchi's misadventure.

He paddled faster.

The water was high at the Jenny's stern. Itchi tied up and scrambled easily over the transom. He went through the boat quickly. No sign of Samson. Had he marooned the Jenny intentionally for some reason? More likely Samson had fled wildly in the dark and ended up here by accident.

Itchi jumped back in the dinghy, continued downriver. His arms grew sore. Itchi was in excellent physical condition, but paddling used a whole new set of muscles.

Ten minutes later he saw activity on the left bank. It was far ahead, and he could only make out vague shapes. Another minute and three men came into focus. A tow truck. A car with its front end in the river. One of the men seemed to be gesticulating frantically over the fate of the automobile.


Itchi recognized him from the photograph.

He redoubled his paddling, headed for the riverbank.

"Watch it!" screamed Conner. "That's a vintage automobile."

The tow truck had backed up too fast, bumped the Plymouth. The driver was a sticklike man with an overbite and springy red hair on his chin. He wore a dirty undershirt and a cap with a Rebel flag patch.

He stuck his head out the window of the tow truck. "I know what I'm doing. Take it easy." He pulled the truck up and backed in again several times before he was satisfied. He got out of the truck, carrying two fistfuls of heavy chains.

Fat Otis stood behind Conner, looked on with amusement. "I don't think the engine will start now."

"Can't they flush it out or something?"

Otis shrugged. "Do I look like a mechanic?"

"I can tow it to the garage," the driver said. "Have one of the boys take a look at it."

Conner agreed and said he'd call about it later.

"Come on," Otis said. "I'll give you a ride. What you got in the garbage bag? Dry clothes?"

"Something I want to show Rocky."

Conner hadn't wanted to fold the poster, so he'd slipped it under the bunk in the main sleeping cabin. The DiMaggio card was already in hard plastic. He'd folded the letter along the creases-careful not to add new ones-and put it in a Ziploc bag. Rocky would know whom to call to fence the thing. Conner wanted to cut Joellen Becker out of the deal if possible. She made him nervous and was one hundred percent totally unlikable.

After sealing the card and the letter into a garbage bag and calling Otis on the cell phone, Conner had discovered the inflatable dinghy was nowhere to be found. It was only after swimming halfway to shore that Conner realized he should have put some dry clothes into the bag also. At least he wasn't wearing the Kirk costume anymore.

"Uh-huh. Well, I got to put a towel down or something," Otis said. "I don't want you dripping on my seats."

They got into the yellow Lincoln, started driving.

A long silence stretched.

"Otis, can I ask you a question about Rocky?"

"You can ask."

"Why do they call him Rocky Big? I mean, he seems more like a Lionel or a Dennis."

Otis half smiled. "Well, you seen him, right? I mean, he ain't exactly anybody that anybody else would be scared of, is he? So he made up that name, helps keep the reputation alive."

"Ah." Conner nodded. But that wasn't really what he'd wanted to know. Conner had been wondering about something ever since the ugly scene with Jeff at Rocky's Forbidden City.

Finally, Conner asked, "Would you have broken my fingers if Rocky said to?"

Otis sighed, considered before answering. "Rocky and I go way back. He helped me when nobody else would, when I had no family, no friends, nothing. He gave me a chance when all my other chances was used up. What else a black man my size gonna do? Be a bouncer in some half-assed nightclub. Rocky thought I was worth more than that. He trusted me. I owe Rocky everything. I'm not sure you know what that means, to owe somebody everything, but take my word for it, it's important. It means something." Otis shrugged; the half smile had drained from his face. "So yeah, I'd have busted you up. I wouldn't have enjoyed it. But I'd do it if Rocky said."

Conner let it hang there. They didn't say anything else for the rest of the ride.

From his shrubby hiding place, Itchi watched Samson and the big black guy leave in the old automobile. He waited a moment, watched the tow truck driver attach the chains to the Plymouth. Itchi looked around, determined he and the driver were alone and isolated.

He stood and walked fast straight for him. The driver looked up at the last minute, mild surprise across his face.

"Hey, what are you doing-"

Itchi chopped open-handed across the man's throat. The driver's eyes bugged. He choked, gasped for air, clutched at his throat. Itchi grabbed the driver's head and chin, jerked sharply. The driver's neck snapped, eyes rolling back in his head.

Itchi caught the limp body, went through the pockets, and found the truck keys before letting it drop. He unchained the Plymouth and planted a solid kick on the bumper.

The axles creaked. The car rolled forward. It slowly slipped back into the river, rolled and rolled until it went under. A single air bubble floated to the top and popped.

Itchi jumped into the tow truck and cranked the engine. He found his way to the road, engine roaring as he poured on the speed. In a few minutes the yellow Lincoln was in sight.

Itchi took out his cell phone and dialed Toshi. "Boss? Yeah, it's me. I'm on Samson's tail right now. No problems at all. It's all going like clockwork."

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