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Smoker Excerpt

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Smoker Cover

I’d been waiting for forty minutes in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. Outside, coachmen smoked cigarettes and made jokes about the weather while their horses shifted in the heat, anticipating the order to drag another tourist couple around Central Park. I was wearing blue jeans, white sneakers, a white oxford shirt, a gray and blue tie, and a dust-colored linen jacket. My glasses were clean, and the two small surgical steel hoops in my left earlobe sparkled. It was the fourth day of July, and instead of fighting my jetlag or enjoying a holiday barbecue, I was nursing a club soda and wondering why Elliot Trent was late.

For the most part, I like the Oak Room. It stirs cultural memories of the alcoholic idle rich, the Roaring Twenties, and makes me think of literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s moveable feast.

But after a while I start to think about the rest of it—the complacency, the arrogance. . . basically, everything that Fitzgerald talks about in The Great Gatsby.

My watch agreed that I’d been waiting forty-two minutes. I figured to make it a round forty-five before calling it quits. Trent hadn’t said why I should meet him, only that it was “extremely urgent.” That, in and of itself, was barely enough to draw me out. But there was a chance he wanted to talk about Natalie, and although I didn’t think Elliot Trent knew the extent of my relationship with his daughter, I’d been wrong before.

I was reaching for the check when Trent arrived. He looked unhurried and cool, his summer-style business suit marking him overdressed, even in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. It may have been the Fourth of July, but according to Trent’s clothes, this was a business day like any other. He made me in my booth and took his time heading over, even stopping to order drinks from the waiter by the bar. If Trent thought he was late, you couldn’t tell by looking at him.

He had company, too, a man in his mid-twenties who followed a few steps behind. The man was very pretty, strong featured, with dark eyes and black hair cropped and styled in the same fashion almost every man had worn in prime time this last television season. The combination of looks and dress made him seem familiar, the way, after a while, every magazine model seems familiar, and I decided I didn’t like him on principle. I also decided I was in a bad mood.

“I ordered you another of the same.” Trent reached my table and waited for the other man to take a chair before seating himself. “I hope that’s all right.”

“It might go to my head,” I said. “I’ve been drinking for a while.”

Trent frowned. He has a good frown, with creases in the right places and the silver hair above it to make it all look distinguished. The other man smiled. The smile, too, was out of a magazine.

“Carter Dean,” Trent said, “Atticus Kodiak. Atticus, this is Carter Dean.”

“Of the Greenwich Deans?” I asked.

Carter Dean looked vaguely alarmed. “No,” he said.

“Good. Can’t stand the Greenwich Deans.” To Trent I said, “I’ve been here for forty-five minutes.”

“I was held up at the office,” Trent said, and that was all he was going to give me by way of an apology. In one sense, it was an adequate explanation: Elliot Trent runs Sentinel Guards, one of the biggest security firms in Manhattan. Over sixty men and women on the regular payroll, with an additional stable of part-timers for when the going gets really rough, covering everything from personal protection to corporate security. Trent himself is ex-Secret Service, and had worked the presidential detail for Carter and, briefly, for Reagan.

The waiter brought our drinks. When he had gone, Trent said, “I’ve been trying to reach you all week. Erika said you were out of town.”

“I got back today,” I said.

“Working?”

“Yes.”

“Not local,” Trent declared.

“Los Angeles. I know a couple people out there.”

“I didn’t think it was local.” Trent reached for his drink. “What were you doing?”

“Auditing. A Saudi princess is starting at UCLA in the fall. You know the story.”

“So you weren’t actually guarding.”

“Nope.”

“I’d imagine business has been rough. Not a lot of work.”

“There’s been enough.”

“Really?” His creases went a little deeper in concern. “Even considering everything that’s happened?”

I just looked at him, wondering what he was playing at. Pulling this shit in front of a client—if that’s what Carter Dean was—made no sense.

“That whole SAS business, I mean.” Trent shook his silver head. “And before that, the doctor, you remember. The one whose daughter was murdered.”

“I remember.”

“You were guarding them both, weren’t you? The doctor and her daughter.” He kept his gaze on me as he spoke, kept his voice wrapped in fatherly tones. His eyes are hazel.

I looked at Carter Dean. Carter Dean looked out the window. Out the window, one of the coachmen was tucking an octogenarian couple into his carriage for a ride around the park. The couple were holding hands.

“You know damn well I was,” I told Trent. He also knew the rest, that one of the guards in the detail had died, and that the guard in question had been his daughter Natalie’s lover and my best friend.

Elliot Trent took a sip of his drink, then wiped his fingers on the cocktail napkin. He glanced at Dean. Dean took that as his cue.

“I’m looking for some protection,” Carter Dean said. He said “protection” like he was Al Pacino and Trent was Marlon Brando. I didn’t want to know who that made me.

“Why?”

Trent answered for him. “Mr. Dean has just ended a relationship with a woman several years his junior. Of legal age, but young nonetheless. The lady in question has brothers. Irate brothers, who are unhappy with the disposition of the affair.”

Dean made a face, probably at Trent’s choice of words. “They feel I should have married her,” he told me. “That just wasn’t going to happen, and Liz understood that. They didn’t. They don’t. They’re pretty angry right now.”

“Wonder why,” I said.

“I’ve told Mr. Dean there’s probably nothing to worry about,” Trent said, commiserating with me. “But he is insistent. Apparently, both of the Thayer brothers own guns.”

“You’re offering this to me?” I asked Trent.

“We’re short-staffed at Sentinel right now. I can supply guards for Mr. Dean, but I have nobody free who can run the detail. So, yes, I’m offering it to you.”

“It’s not a detail,” I said. “It’s babysitting.”

Trent stood up, and I thought the interview was over, but instead he just moved out of the way to let Dean pass. “Will you give us a few minutes alone?” Trent asked him.

Dean nodded, and I watched him head to the bar.

“I know it’s babysitting.” Trent sat down again. “You know it’s babysitting. The threat is minimal, at worst. Neither of the brothers—Joseph and James—has a record. I’ve already tried to dissuade Dean, but he’s after the peace of mind, and he’s willing to pay for it.”

“You can’t really be so busy at Sentinel you don’t have anyone to spare,” I said.

“We’re running a major operation upstate, and it’s taking all of my resources.” Trent leaned back in the booth to appraise me. I don’t imagine he liked what he saw, but I couldn’t argue with that; lately, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror either. It wasn’t just the need for a haircut, or the scar that ran along my right cheek from temple to jaw. It was the suspicion that the whole Atticus Kodiak looking back at me wasn’t much of a package.

“It’s an easy job, Atticus. We plant Dean at the Orsini Hotel, button him up there for two weeks, tops. Two thousand dollars for the work, and you don’t even have to sit on him twenty-four/seven. I’ll supply three or four other guards to make him feel safe, you’ll all keep him company, and everyone will be happy.”

“I’m wondering if I should be insulted,” I said.

“The word is out.” Trent said it gently. “Some people in our business—in this city, at least—don’t want anything to do with you. After the death of that little girl, after the death of Rubin Febres, after the whole mess this last winter with the SAS, they figure you’re dangerous. It’s not hard to see why. You’ve had gun battles in downtown, for God’s sake.”

“Just the one,” I said.

“There have been similar situations, but all right. Just the one.” He smiled again, and I decided this smile was more condescending than paternal. “But the fact remains that another mishap will get you blackballed in our business. Right now, you’re poison. If you do this job for me and you do it right, I’ll see what I can do about restoring your reputation. I’ll send more work your way, help you get back into the fold.”

I stood up, found my wallet, and dropped a couple of bills. “I’ll pass,” I said.

“Atticus, don’t be stubborn.”

“I’m not interested.”

“You owe me. I could call in my marker.”

“If you want to waste it on this, go right ahead. But remember, I’m poisonous and I’m dangerous, and you probably don’t want a man like that around the lovely Carter Dean.”

“That’s your answer?”

“My answer is no,” I said, and headed for the lobby. At the bar Dean shot me a smile and I shot back with a glare and pushed my way through the revolving door and onto the street, wondering if Trent would have called that last exchange a “battle.”

And in the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel. Nick Carroway would’ve plotzed.