Otis dropped Conner off at Playerz.

"You're not coming in?" Conner asked.

"Shit," Otis said. "My ride smells like swamp water. I'm heading to the car wash." He drove away.

They knew Conner at Playerz by now and waved him through. Conner passed Pete on the forklift. He was reading a Mad magazine, the wicked little submachine gun still in his lap. Pete barely glanced at Conner, nodded him on back to Rocky's office. The word seemed to have gone out: Conner Samson was okay.

Conner knocked once, went inside. "Rocky, I got a proposition for you."

"You're all wet," Rocky said.

"Yeah. Long story."

Rocky picked up his phone, pushed a button. "Julie, can we get a couple of towels in here? Thanks, dear."

Conner opened the garbage bag, took out the DiMaggio card and the letter from Marilyn Monroe, set them on Rocky's desk like he was presenting him with the Holy Grail and an Academy Award.

Rocky donned a pair of half glasses, squinted at the letter, then the card. The glasses added twenty years to his face. "Now, this is interesting?" Rocky turned the card over in his hands. "What is it?"

"A baseball card and a letter from Marilyn Monroe."

"Is that something good?"

Conner explained. He told Rocky about the autographs, the insured value, the possibility of a collector out there willing to pay big money. It felt like a sales pitch, and that was okay to Conner. Conner Samson possessed this thing that so many other people were looking for. It felt good to be lead dog for a change.

Rocky picked up the phone, asked the person on the other end to get him his "associate in Chicago."

Rocky put his hand over the phone, handed Conner a folded piece of paper. "We just ripped off a shipment from the Gap. Go find some dry clothes." Rocky turned his attention back to the phone. "Sal? Yes, good to speak with you too. Listen, I have a specialty item, some baseball memorabilia and a Hollywood thing. Is that one phone call or two?"

Conner left the office, closed the door behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief, didn't realize until now how tense he'd been. Rocky would know what to do, whom to call. Conner felt strangely comfortable leaving it all in the hands of the odd crime boss.

He ran into Julie on the way down the hall. She was thin and pale, pencils stuck in her wad of dishwater hair. She handed Conner two clean towels. He thanked her, and she went back to work.

The map led Conner through the warehouse maze, like a Super Wal-Mart, a mall, and a flea market all rolled into one. Except everything was hot. Otis had told him people had the wrong idea about criminal supergeniuses. People thought they were like James Bond villains, lasers from outer space and nuclear bomb extortion. Nope. The real criminal masterminds were born administrators, superbureaucrats. Rocky Big had to handle state and local officials, cook the books, duck the tax man, hide cash flow, organize travel schedules, trucks coming and going at all hours of the day and night. It was a logistical, pencil-pushing nightmare and Rocky Big was the best. The ebb and flow of stolen goods in and out of Rocky's warehouse was a magnificent, criminal ballet.

Conner lingered longingly over a collection of plasma flat-screen televisions. Hook one of those babies up to a surround-sound system. Maybe if things worked out... Conner shook himself loose from the fantasy, found the boxes of Gap clothing. He dug around until he found his size, a pair of khaki pants and a forest-green V-neck T-shirt. Conner was wet, smelled brackish. He didn't want to put the clean clothes on his dirty body. He walked back to Rocky's office.

Pete had evolved to a copy of Sports Illustrated.

"Rocky still on the phone?" Conner asked.


"Anyplace a guy can clean up around here?"

Pete told him there was an employee locker room on the second floor. Conner found a spiral staircase, climbed it, passed a Coke machine, and found the men's locker room. Half the urinals had been ripped off the wall. The tile was an industrial green. He tried three shower stalls, found one that dribbled water that was almost warm. He rinsed off. No soap.

Even in summer there was just something about dripping naked on bare tile that made Conner shiver. He flashed on his baseball days in the locker room. Morons snapping towels. Idiots. He sort of missed it.

Rocky walked in. "I didn't even realize the plumbing still worked up here."

Conner quickly wrapped a towel around himself. "I needed to clean up." For some reason, Conner wasn't crazy about Rocky being too close to his naked body.

"You've done quite well!" Rocky said.

Conner raised an eyebrow, started edging toward his new Gap outfit draped over a stall door.

"There's a million-dollar offer for the DiMaggio card," Rocky said.

Conner's mouth fell open. "What? But that's-it's only worth-" Any collectible is really only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it.

"Some tycoon has a collection. Looks like you're gonna be in the chips, as they say."

Conner forgot all about being naked. He was stunned.

"It's a lot of money." Rocky looked serious. "Try not to piss it away."


Itchi sat in the tow truck outside of Playerz, watched for twenty minutes to make sure Samson wasn't going anywhere, then called Toshi to report. Toshi ordered him back to their new headquarters, a suite at the Intercontinental just six blocks away.

Itchi drove there in three minutes. He abandoned the tow truck on the street, left the keys in the ignition. The doorman frowned at Itchi's disheveled appearance but wisely said nothing. The elevator took Itchi to the top floor.

When he walked into the suite, he opened his mouth to tell Toshi everything was under control. What he saw made his eyes pop. He shut his mouth again, swallowed hard.

Ahira Kurisaka sat in an overstuffed chair like it was a throne, a dozen hard-faced men around him. Kurisaka looked distinctly cross. Kurisaka's presence could only mean the big man was displeased or impatient or both. That he'd come half a world to see why he did not yet have his baseball card did not bode well for Itchi. Itchi sent a brief prayer skyward, prepared himself to be squashed.

Toshi cleared his throat. If he was as nervous as Itchi, it didn't show on his face. Another awkward second of silence slipped past before Itchi realized they expected him to say something.

"Conner Samson is at a local strip club called Playerz. He's still there as far as I know." They knew this already, Itchi thought, but he couldn't just stand there and not say anything.

Ahira Kurisaka said, "And the DiMaggio card. Did he have it with him?"

Itchi had no idea, but I don't know weren't words you said to Ahira Kurisaka. Itchi remembered the plastic bag Samson had carried. It was possible the card was in the bag. Itchi could almost convince himself the card had to be in the bag. Sure. Why else would Samson clutch it so tightly? In any event, it would please Kurisaka to tell him so.

"I believe so," Itchi said.

"Then why did you not take it from him?" Kurisaka asked.

That was one hell of a good question, thought Itchi. He decided to take a kernel of truth and dress it up with a few strategic lies. The big black man with Samson had appeared formidable. He was big enough to be two men. Or even several men.

"Samson had his gang with him," Itchi said. "I thought it best to follow and report back."

"You did well," Kurisaka said.


Toshi snapped his cell phone shut. "I just spoke to our people. They ran down the information on the strip club. It's a front for the local syndicate." Toshi laid it out, Rocky Big, the warehouse, everything.

Kurisaka nodded, stared ahead at an invisible point in the distance, deep in thought.

Toshi leaned forward, spoke quietly into Kurisaka's ear, but it was just loud enough for Itchi to hear. "In our blood we are Yakuza, are we not, Cousin? And Yakuza take what they want."

Itchi watched Kurisaka's face harden. The giant billionaire steepled his fat hands under his nose, narrowed his dark eyes. He stood slowly, like a massive planet dislodged from its orbit. Kurisaka lifted his hand, stretched it out, some lunatic god pronouncing judgment.

Itchi tensed, braced himself for the edict.

"Gentlemen," Kurisaka said, "we go to war."


Conner had dried and changed into his Gap clothes. He felt clean and human again.

Rocky drove them back to the office in the golf cart and explained how fencing the DiMaggio card would go. Rocky was half-apologetic. The deal had to go through a few layers of handlers and finders. Everyone wanted his or her cut, including Rocky himself. When all was said and done, Conner might clear $350,000. Give or take a few thousand.

"At least it's all tax-free," Rocky said.

"Yeah." Conner felt light-headed. It was more money than he'd expected to see his whole life.

And then Conner's elation shifted to dread. At first, he couldn't understand the sudden anxious knot in his stomach. Why shouldn't he be glad? But he wasn't glad; he was afraid. And it was a familiar fear, something that had gnawed him more than once, and in a moment of jarring clarity, he understood. He'd always used his bad luck as an excuse. If he lost a bet, it was just bad luck that the team's star player was on the injury list. If Conner botched a repo job, it was just plain old bad luck the car had run out of gas. If Conner lost his baseball scholarship, it was just more bad luck that he hadn't kept his grades up, didn't happen to study the right chapter an hour before his final exams, happened to get into a class where the professor took an irrational dislike to him. And if the Bay Bears didn't want him, or he was always broke, or Tyranny didn't love him, it was all because of bad luck, bad breaks, the dice just never came up in his favor.

But luck had nothing to do with it. He knew that now, had really always known it deep down. Conner had made his own messes, and it had been easier to pretend it was bad luck than to take responsibility for himself. Things had been so easy for so long. High school had been no problem. He'd lucked into a college scholarship. He was a popular athlete and women wanted him, and he'd been invited to parties and life seemed a thing that had been invented for Conner Samson's amusement. At some point, things had stopped being handed to him. Life became hard. And instead of facing up to the challenge, Conner had pouted like a spoiled kid and invented the myth of bad luck.

Conner had convinced himself that Tyranny could not leave Professor Dan and his money. Could Conner blame her? She'd become accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. What if Conner had money? What if he could keep her as secure and as comfortable and as happy as Professor Dan could? Conner had clung to that excuse, the belief that only Dan's money made Tyranny choose him over Conner. Now that Conner had money, what if she still preferred Professor Dan? If Tyranny rejected Conner now, it was because Conner wasn't good enough. And that was the fear. The possibility that if he peeled away all the excuses, Conner Samson simply wasn't good enough, not worthy of love, no good to anyone for anything. Useless.

At the Dybek reception, Conner had drunkenly resolved to make himself new. Not to be a bottom-feeder anymore. But he had no idea how to be anything other than what he was.

"You look like somebody crapped in your breakfast cereal," Rocky said.

"It's been a long day."

"This'll cheer you up." Rocky pulled a cedar box out of a bottom desk drawer, slid it across to Conner, and opened the lid. Cigars. "Otis asked me to save a box for you."

Conner lifted an eyebrow, grabbed one, sniffed it. "Nice. What kind?"

"Hell if I know," Rocky said. "You've seen the place. We have all kinds of stuff around here. I thought maybe you'd know since you enjoyed-" Rocky jerked his head up, cocked an ear toward the door. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Conner lit the cigar with a lighter shaped like a cowboy boot. He puffed, inhaled deeply, and held it a second before tilting his head back and blowing smoke at the ceiling. It surprised him that something as simple as a good smoke could brighten his mood, albeit only slightly. "Not bad. Maybe they're Cuban or-"

"Be quiet, please." Rocky jerked open another desk drawer. His hand dipped in and came out again with a nickel-plated.45 automatic. His hands shook. "God, I hate this thing." He fumbled in the magazine, cocked the pistol. Rocky didn't look at Conner. He stared at the door, still listening. "Are you sure you didn't hear-"

Conner sat up. Worried now. "What is it?"

"I just thought... Maybe I'm imagining things."

And then Conner heard it too. The distant pop pop pop faint and muffled. A short pause. Conner almost spoke again, but Rocky waved him quiet. Immediately another rapid-fire series of pops. Rocky reached for the phone, but it rang first.

He answered. "What's going on? What? Damn! Yes, do it. Do it now!" Rocky slammed the phone down. "Jesus!" He opened his desk drawer again, came out with another, smaller automatic, slid it across the desk to Conner. "Take this, Conner."

Conner looked at the gun without picking it up. "What?"

Pops again. Gunfire.

"Somebody's here. I don't understand. Nothing like this has ever- Christ, they're getting closer," Rocky said. "Pick up that pistol. Check the clip."

"Who's getting closer?"

"I said check your fucking weapon," Rocky yelled. "I don't know who they are. They just busted in and started shooting up the place. We got five dead men out there and-"

The phone rang. Rocky grabbed it. "Talk."

Conner saw Rocky go pale.

"Well, stop them. What do I pay you for?" Rocky slammed the phone down again. "They're through the strip club."

Conner detected a tremor in Rocky's voice, and that scared Conner more than anything else. He grabbed the pistol. Checked the load. His palms were sweaty on the grips. "What is this?" He meant the gun.

"A.380. Point and squeeze."

Gunshots exploded alarmingly close. Conner's mouth went dry.

The phone rang again.

Rocky grabbed it. "What the hell's going on out there? Jesus, it sounds like they're right on top of us." Another flurry of shots. "In the warehouse? Get them out of there. Get everyone." His voice rose as he spoke, squeaky and panicked. "Don't let them get back here. You understand what- Hello? Hello?"

He threw the phone down. "Goddammit!"

Conner stood, headed for the office door. "I think it's time to go, Rocky."

"Don't go out there!"

"I'm getting out of here."

"I'm telling you my men will handle it." Rocky didn't sound like he believed it. "Stay put. Don't go to pieces."

Screams on the other side of the door. Back-and-forth shouting. More gunshots. Conner jumped back from the door. If he'd ever had a chance to run for it, it was too late now. If the racket was any indication, all hell was breaking loose just outside of Rocky's office. The jagged rattle of a submachine gun.

Conner felt the urge to pee.

Rocky stuck his pistol in his waistband, grabbed the edge of his desk. "Grab the other end. Help me move it against the door."

Conner grabbed the other side of the desk and froze. The world on the other side of Rocky's office door had suddenly gone quiet. They looked at the door, at each other, back at the door again.

Rocky picked up the phone, listened, put it down again. "Dead."

Footsteps. Coming toward the office.

Rocky pulled the automatic from his waistband, swallowed hard. "I wish Otis were here," he whispered.

Conner thumbed off the safety, lifted his pistol toward the door. His knees were water, his spine cold jelly. The doorknob rattled and Conner felt his sphincter twitch. "Shoot through the door!"

"Can't." Rocky crouched behind his desk. "I had it made special. Bulletproof."

The door swung open, and Conner nearly started jerking the trigger, but Rocky told him to hold fire. Pete stumbled into the room, slammed the door shut again behind him. He held the submachine gun, the barrel hot and smoking.

Pete tilted on his feet. He didn't look good. "I think... I think maybe..." He teetered sideways, hit the wall and slid into a sitting position. He dropped the machine gun, both hands going to his gut, the bloodstain widening, making his shirt stick to his belly. "Oh... no."

Rocky ran to him. "Hang on, Pete. Oh, Christ. Conner, lock the door."

Conner bolted for the lock, hand outstretched. Whoever was on the other side of the door, Conner wanted them to stay there. A little bit of his brain realized he was locking himself in as well as the attackers out. Trapped. He'd have to worry about that later.

His fingers had just touched the knob when the door flew open. The heavy door smashed Conner's head. Bells went off in his ears. He reeled, fell back, legs rubbery. Next thing he knew, he was on the floor.


He opened his eyes, blinked away the colored lights. He glimpsed Rocky for a split second, firing his automatic. Bodies fell. Then bullets tore into Rocky. His body twitched, red blossoms across his chest. He hunched over, fell to the floor. His face turned to Conner, eyes rolled back, blood on his lips.

Conner tried to make his arms and legs work. The buzzing in his ears. He fought to keep his eyes open. The men swarmed the room, stepped over Conner and Pete and Rocky.

Japanese men.

One took the DiMaggio card from Rocky's desk. He showed the others. They smiled, nodded, talked gibberish. Conner tried to reach for the pistol Rocky had given him, tried to lift his head. He felt so heavy.

One of the Japanese saw him struggling. He was lean, wicked, mouth curling in contempt. Sideburns. He said something to his pals, and they all laughed.

He pointed his pistol at Conner's head. Conner tensed.


The Japanese guy shrugged at his gun, ejected the empty clip, shook his head as he looked down at Conner with waning interest. The heel of his shoe came down hard on Conner's temple.


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