In the dream, Conner moved like molasses.

He hovered near third base waiting for the pitch. At which time he'd take off running for home in the hopes the batter laid down a good bunt. Conner had to start running before he knew if the bunt was down. That was the tough part. It required guts. Faith.

The pitch. And Conner ran. His feet caught in the mud. He strained to put one foot in front of the other. Tyranny was at home plate waving him in. When Conner looked again, she was waving him off. He tried to run, barely able to move, not able to tell if he was welcomed at home or not.

He fell, facefirst in the mud. He tried to see, to blink the mud out of his eyes. Where was the ball? Had the bunt been laid down? He tried to get up, couldn't make his body obey.

The weight of eternity held him facedown in the mud, and from a long way away, a voice called, Conner's name echoing down a dark tunnel.

"Conner!" Big hands shaking him awake. "Conner-man, get your ass up. Come on! We've got to get out of here."

Conner's eyes popped open, tried to focus. He saw Otis shove aside Rocky's desk like it was made of foam rubber. Otis knelt at a cabinet behind the desk, opened the bottom drawer, and withdrew a big leather doctor's bag.

Conner faded briefly, eyes crossing. He felt his body being lifted, arms and legs dangling. His head cleared. How many times had he been knocked cold in the last few days? He looked around. He was being carried. Fat Otis toted him under a huge arm. Bleeding bodies lay around the office. Rocky looked so small.

A wave of dread and grief washed over Conner. He forced it down into his gut, cut himself off from it. "Put me down."

"We don't have time for you to pull yourself together," Otis said.

"I can walk."

Otis put him down. Conner wobbled on his feet a moment, steadied himself. He remembered the Japanese guy holding the DiMaggio card and darted for Rocky's desk.

Otis yelled, "Dammit, come on!"

"One second." Conner rifled the papers on Rocky's desk until he found what he was looking for. The Japanese had taken the card but left the Monroe letter in the plastic bag. Conner snatched it just as Otis grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the office. Conner stuffed the letter in his pocket.

The warehouse was a mess. More bodies. A few Japanese but mostly Rocky's guys. The strip club was worse. The bar was on fire. They coughed their way through and out the open door into the street. They passed a group of determined firemen going the other way. The street flickered in the red lights of the emergency vehicles. More sirens in the distance.

Now Conner understood Otis's hurry. The place crawled with cops (there were already one squad car and a brace of uniforms directing traffic away from the fire), and neither Conner nor Otis was inclined to stick around and answer awkward questions. There was still plenty of confusion, but soon they'd get organized.

Otis had parked his Lincoln just beyond the fire trucks. They drove in a random direction. Conner slumped in the passenger seat, every one of his nerves frazzled. Pensacola suddenly looked like a town he'd never seen before, full of strangers and enemies. Nothing was understandable, Playerz and Rocky swept away in a blazing storm. On a whim. For a baseball card. Conner's life had revealed itself as a surreal, cosmic joke. Somewhere, the gods held their sides laughing. Look at the silly mortals.

Conner figured he must have only been out of it a few minutes. It had seemed like days. "What happened?"

"Shit," Otis spit. "I was hoping you could tell me." Otis relayed his side of it. After the car wash, Otis had run some errands, taken care of Rocky's business. When he returned, he'd found Playerz a smoldering, bloody wreck. He'd run back to find Rocky, only to find his boss shot full of lead. Conner had survived by dumb luck.

Conner felt anger radiating off Otis. He'd been loyal to Rocky. Every muscle in the big man's body was a coiled spring. Jaw set. The vein in his neck throbbing time like a bass drum.

"Tell me what you know about this," Otis said. "So I know who to kill."

Conner spilled the story. It didn't occur to him for a second to hold anything back. The Electric Jenny, the Japanese, the DiMaggio card. The whole shooting match. Otis asked the obvious questions. Conner answered. Otis said he didn't think Rocky had pissed off any Japanese dudes, not that he knew of.

"I don't think it's a vendetta," Conner said. "It's the baseball card. They killed another guy for it too." He told Otis about Folger and the bungalow.

"This is fucking bullshit." Otis slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel. "Nobody kills a bunch of people and burns down a fucking strip club for no fucking baseball card."

Any collectible is only worth what somebody is willing to pay, thought Conner. But the price wasn't just money now. It included blood. "Those Asian guys must know there's a reward for it."

Otis's eyes flamed wild with rage. "We got to find these motherfuckers and do something."

Conner didn't say anything.

"No, no, no, no." Otis shook his head. "Don't you shut down on me. I'm not in the mood for your Conner Samson sit-on-the-sidelines bullshit. You're in this right up to your ass."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your damn attitude. Like you ain't involved. You know what your problem is?"

"Jesus." America 's new pastime. Tell Conner Samson his problem.

"You ain't a team player."

"Fuck you."

"It's true. That's why you got kicked off the college baseball team."

"I didn't get kicked off the team," Conner said. "I flunked out."

Otis went on like he didn't hear. "Rocky was my team. And somebody just fucked with my team big-time. And if you think I'm going to sit around with my thumb up my ass, then you're screwed in the head. Now you better tell me on whom I can vent my mighty wrath. Otherwise, the only motherfucker around here to vent on is you."

"I have one idea," Conner said. "Somebody who might know something."

"Then call them," Otis said. "What you waiting on? Dial the fucking phone."


She couldn't escape the hangover.

She tried lying on the couch, then sitting up, lying in bed. She sprawled on the floor, tried standing in the shower under cold water. She dried off, returned to the couch. Nothing helped. Joellen Becker's head thundered, her stomach queasy. There was no way she could arrange herself that would abate the misery.

Her life hovering in front of her like a rapidly deflating balloon didn't help matters. She refused to return to her dismal desk at the insurance agency. The thought of it made her stomach heave. She'd need to track down some of the old contacts, start looking for a gig. If she stayed in the States, there wouldn't be much, corporate stuff or insurance work again. Better prospects out of the country. She'd had an offer from an old NSA chum in El Salvador, but it could be tough for women down there. Worse in the Middle East.

What would her daddy general think if he could see Joellen Becker now?

The phone rang, like sonic beams shot through her ears to melt her brain. She didn't want to answer. Why bother? But she squirmed off the couch, held her head, picked up the phone before the machine clicked on. "Yeah?"

"This is Conner Samson."

She thought about that a second. "So what?"

"I'm at the Waffle House across from the mall," Samson said. "Why don't you come down here and explain why a gang of killer Japs are so crazy to get their hands on this Joe DiMaggio card."

"Do you have the card with you?"

Samson said, "Be here in half an hour." He hung up.

Did Samson know? If so, how much? For some reason he still needed her. So he didn't have the whole story. He had the pieces of the puzzle but couldn't make them fit together. Conner Samson still needed Joellen Becker.

She made it to the Waffle House in twenty-two minutes.

Becker sat next to Samson in the plastic booth. The black bald behemoth took up almost the entire seat on the other side. When she'd arrived, she'd been shocked to see how bruised and battered Samson looked. He'd been through the wringer.

She sat back, let him tell his story. She knew a few Zen techniques that were supposed to help suppress her headache, but they never worked. She tried them anyway. Then she lit a cigarette.

Conner told her about the Japanese goon squad, how they busted in, shot up the local syndicate, and made off with DiMaggio.

Becker blew a long stream of smoke. "Wait a minute."

Samson froze in midsentence.

Becker asked, "Do you mean to tell me you don't have the card?"

"That's right," Samson said.

"The Japs have it."


She shook her head. "Thanks for wasting my fucking time, guys. At least the coffee was fresh." She started to slide out of the booth.

"Whoa, hold on. Hear me out." Samson grabbed her forearm.

She looked down at her arm. "You want to lose that hand, sport?"

He let go, held up his hands, palms out. Placating. "No offense. Just give me five minutes."

"You've got until I get to the bottom of this coffee cup," she said. "Talk."

"Okay, well, I'm not exactly sure, okay? But you've got a buyer on the line for a million bucks, right?"

She didn't say anything.

"I know all about it, okay? Well, not all about it. I don't know who the buyer is but he's willing to pay a cool million. I figure these Japanese got wind of the reward and now they're trying to collect."

Conner didn't know. The Japanese were the buyers. She let that sink in, mulled it, and said, "So what are you going to do, sport? Storm the castle? Take the card back from the Japs? Doesn't look like you did too well against them last time."

Even with the hangover, Joellen marveled at her ability to think through several things simultaneously. The old training never went away. On the surface, she took in Conner's story, sifted what he knew, what he didn't know, and what he thought he knew. Another part of her brain gauged how to use this information to her advantage.

"Look, you've been a step ahead of me the whole time," Samson said. "Every time I turn around, you're there. I figure I bring you the information, you know what to do with it. We were talking about a finder's fee before, and I thought maybe-"

She shook her head. "All deals are off."

"Oh, come on, you can't-"

She turned to the big black guy. "What's with Chatty Cathy here?"

"Oh, yeah," Samson said. "This is Otis. I was getting to him. He sort of has a side interest in all this."

Otis leaned forward. "I implied I'd stomp his little ass if he didn't help me find out who fucked up Playerz. I've sort of got a revenge thing going."

"Uh-huh." Becker mashed out her cigarette, lit another. Her wheels were turning.

"If you know the identity of these Asian dudes, I'd appreciate your help," Otis said. "Just point me in the right direction and stand back."

"And why should I help you?" Becker asked. "And please keep in mind I don't stomp as easy as Samson. Take my word for it."

Otis plopped the leather doctor's bag on the table, opened it, and fished out two wads of cash, hundred-dollar bills. "That's ten big. Like I said, show me where to unleash, then step away from ground zero."

Perfect. With these two suckers on board, her plan might just work. Yes, she was starting to like the odds. There were still details to work out, but...

In the meantime, she couldn't seem too eager. Becker pushed the money back at Otis. "Look, I don't think-"

Otis went back into the bag, threw two more wads of money on the pile.

She cast about the restaurant. People were looking. "Put it away, you idiot."

Samson cleared his throat. He wanted back in the conversation. "I'm just saying, you can probably track these guys down. A big Japanese mob can't be that easy to hide in a town this size. You can find them and get the card back."

"How do I do that, Samson? Call in an air strike?"

"I don't care about no fucking card." Otis raised his voice. "Just find out where they're at, then tell me. You can at least do that."

The waitress stopped by their table. "A little loud here." She topped off their coffees and left.

Becker lowered her voice. "Okay, I might have a few ideas. But not here. Let's discuss it back at my place." She looked at Otis. "Bring your bag of money."

Back at her apartment.

She showed them in, told them to have a seat, went into the kitchen.

She swallowed two Advil and made herself drink three full glasses of water. Put on a pot of coffee. It had been a long time since she'd had so much to drink. The headache was bad, and she suspected she'd feel worse before she felt better. There were some drugs she could take to ease the effects, but there'd be a price to pay later. She'd known some of her fellow agents to become dependent on such drugs, and it could get ugly.

She grabbed a clean dishrag, soaked it in cold water under the faucet, and dabbed her eyes, behind her ears. The headache grew worse by the minute, but she put on her game face, took the.25 caliber Beretta out of the kitchen junk drawer. It was so small and light, she could jam it into her waistband near her navel, produce it quickly.

Only a precaution. Samson was harmless, but there was an angry fire in the big man's eyes. Better safe than sorry.

Her head: thump thump thump.

Becker remembered the first time she'd met Samson, the state he'd been in, hungover to his yellow eyeballs, his apartment reeking of sick. She remembered thinking that might be a typical morning for Samson. How did people do it, live like this, boozing as a lifestyle? Never again.

Never mind. A lapse. Becker was more in control of her life. Or she was trying to be.

Even as she did all this-the Advil, the water, the.25 caliber pistol, contemplating Samson's self-destructive lifestyle-the part of her brain that was always working sorted the final details of her scheme. She had a good shot at the bounty on Kurisaka's head, and the two chumps sitting in her living room would provide the perfect diversion.

It didn't mean anything to Becker if Conner Samson and his giant pal got themselves shot full of holes.

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