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Cover Of Night (Chapter 4)

Yuell Faulkner considered himself, first and foremost, a businessman. He was in operation to make money, and since he gained clients by word of month, he couldn't afford screwups. His reputation on the street was that he got the job done… whatever the "job" was, efficiently and without fuss.

Some jobs he refused outright, for a variety of reasons. Number one on his list was that he didn't take any job that had a high probability of bringing the Feds swarming down on him. That meant for the most part he stayed away from politics, and he tried never to do anything that would make national news. The real trick was to do a newsworthy job but pull it off so slickly that it was passed off as an accident.

With that in mind, the first thing he did when receiving a job offer was research it thoroughly. Sometimes clients weren't entirely truthful when presenting an offer – fancy that. It wasn't as if he dealt with people of pristine character. So he always double-checked the information he'd been given, and then would decide whether or not to take the job. He tried to never let his ego enter into the decision, never let the adrenaline rush of finessing a difficult situation sway him. Yeah, he could take all the hot jobs and pit his brains and organizing skill against the odds, but the reason the casinos in Vegas didn't go bust playing the odds was that the long shot usually didn't win. He wasn't in business to gratify his ego; he was in business to make money.

He also wanted to stay alive.

When he walked into Salazar Bandini's office, he knew he'd have to take this job, no matter what it was, or he wouldn't be walking out.

He knew about Salazar Bandini, or as much as anyone did. Yuell knew that wasn't the man's real name, but where he'd come from before arriving on the Chicago street scene and adopting that name was up in the air. Bandini was an Italian name; Salazar wasn't. And the man sitting behind the desk looked maybe Slavic, maybe German. Hell, maybe even Russian, with those broad cheekbones and prominent brow ridges. Bandini had pale hair, of a thinness that allowed pink scalp to show through, and brown eyes as soulless as a shark's.

Bandini leaned back in his chair and didn't invite Yuell to sit down. "You're very expensive," he remarked. "You think lightly of yourself."

There wasn't anything to be said to that, because it was true. And whatever Bandini wanted, he wanted it badly, or he wouldn't have summoned Yuell past the barricades, both human and electronic, that surrounded him. Based on that, Yuell had to assume his price wasn't too high; in fact, maybe he should increase his fees.

After a long minute in which Yuell waited for Bandini to tell him why his services were needed, and Bandini waited for Yuell to betray any hint of nerves – which wasn't going to happen – Bandini said, "Sit."

Instead, Yuell leaned over the desk, took a pen from the expensive set beside the phone, and looked for a piece of paper. The polished expanse was clear. He lifted his eyebrows at Bandini, and without expression, the other man opened a drawer and drew out a legal pad, which he pushed across to Yuell.

Yuell tore off a sheet of paper and pushed the pad back across to Bandini. On the single sheet Yuell wrote: Has the room been swept for bugs?

He hadn't yet said a word, hadn't been identified by name, but caution was a good thing. The FBI had to have at least tried to get a wire in here, as well as tap the phones. Someone might be camped in a room across the street with a supersensitive parabolic microphone aimed at the window. The lengths to which the Feds would have gone depended on how large Bandini loomed on their radar. If they'd heard even half of what was said on the street, then Bandini was the size of an aircraft carrier.

"This morning," Bandini said, looking grimly amused. "By myself."

Which meant that even though Bandini had any number of people in his employ who could have done the chore, he didn't trust any of them not to betray him.

Smart man.

Yuell returned the pen to its slot, folded the sheet of paper, and slipped it into his coat pocket, then sat down.

"You're a cautious man," Bandini observed, his gaze like chips of frozen mud. "Don't you trust me?"

That had to be a joke, Yuell thought. "I don't even trust myself. Why would I trust you?"

Bandini laughed, a humorless grating sound. "I think I like you."

That was supposed to make his day? Yuell sat quietly, waiting for Bandini to look him over and get to the point.

No one looking at Yuell would have taken him for the janitor he was. He cleaned up messes, left things looking pristine. And he was very, very good at his job.

He was aided by his looks. He was very average: average height, average weight, unremarkable face, brown hair, brown eyes, indeterminate age. No one noticed him as he came and went, and even if someone did notice him, he or she would be hard put to give more than a vague description that would match millions of other men. Nothing about his appearance was threatening, so it was easy for him to get close to someone without ever being tagged.

He was, ostensibly, a private investigator – a very expensive one. The know-how came in handy when he was tracking someone. He even took regular PI jobs, which usually consisted of getting the goods on a cheating spouse, and which made him good with the IRS. He reported every penny of income that was paid by check. Luckily for him, the majority of the jobs he took were ones no one wanted a paper trail on, so he received cash. It took a bit of fancy laundry work to make the income usable, but the majority of it was stashed offshore in a healthy retirement account.

Yuell had five carefully chosen men working for him. Each one could think on his feet, wasn't given to mistakes, and wasn't hotheaded. He didn't want any cowboys fucking up the operation he'd spent years building. He'd hired the wrong type once, and had been forced to bury his mistake. Only a fool made the same mistake twice.

"I have need of your services." Bandini finally said, opening a desk drawer again and extracting a snapshot, which he slid across the glossy expanse toward Yuell.

Yuell looked at the photograph without picking it up. The subject was dark-haired, eye color not discernible, possibly late-thirties. He was dressed in a conservative gray suit, getting into a gray late-model Camay. A briefcase was in his hand. The background was suburban: brick house, lawn, trees.

"He took something from me. I want it back."

Yuell pulled at his ear and glanced at the window. Bandini grinned, showing eye teeth as sharp as a wolf's. "We're safe. The windows are acoustic. No sound gets in or out. Walls are the same."

Come to think of it, there was no street noise. The only sound was that of their voices. No air-conditioning hum, no water rushing through pipes – nothing penetrated. Yuell relaxed, or at least stopped worrying about the FBI. He wasn't stupid enough to relax around Bandini.

"What's his name?"

"Jeffrey Layton. He's a CPA. My CPA."

Ah, the book-cooker. "Embezzlement?"

"Worse. He took my records. Then the little fucker called me and said he'd give them back when I deposited twenty million in his numbered account in Switzerland."

Yuell whistled between his teeth. Jeffrey Layton, certified public accountant, had either balls the size of Texas or brains the size of a pea. He voted for the pea.

"And if you don't give him the money?"

"He downloaded them on his flash drive. He said he'd turn it over to the FBI if the money isn't in his account in fourteen days. Nice of him to give me time to get that much together, right?" Bandini paused. "Two of those fourteen days are already gone."

Bandini was right; this was way worse than just taking money. Money could be replaced, and getting Layton would be a matter of saving face, no more. But the downloaded files – and Bandini had to be talking about his true financial records, not the second set of books kept for the IRS – would not only give the FBI indisputable evidence on tax evasion, but would also give them a wealth of information on the people Bandini did business with. Not only would the IRS be on Bandini's ass, so would the people who would blame him for the whole mess.

Layton was a dead man. He might not have reached room temperature yet, but it was just a matter of time.

"Why did you wait two days?" Yuell asked.

"My people tried to find him. They failed." His flat tone didn't bode well for the continued good health of the failures. "Layton had already skipped town before he called. He made it to Boise, rented a car, and disappeared."

"Idaho? He from there, or something?"

"No. Why Idaho? Who the hell knows. Maybe he likes potatoes. When my guys hit a dead end, I decided I needed a specialist. I asked around, and your name surfaced. Word is you're good."

This was one time Yuell wished he hadn't so assiduously built his reputation. He could happily have spent the rest of his life not having a face-to-face with Salazar Bandini.

The way Yuell saw it, this was a lose-lose proposition. If he turned down the job, his body would turn up either in little pieces or not at all. But if he took it, Bandini would have to figure he downloaded the flash drive onto his own computer before turning it in; knowledge was power, no matter which world you lived in. Bandini wouldn't hesitate to backstab anyone, so he expected it from everyone. What to do in such a case? Kill the messenger. You can't blackmail someone if you're dead.

The thing was, Yuell hadn't built his rep by being stupid – or by being a coward. He met Bandini's cold, empty gaze. "You'd have to figure anyone who found the flash drive would copy the files before giving it back to you, so it follows you'll kill whoever finds it. That being the case, why would I take the job?"

Bandini began his grating, humorless laugh. "I really do like you, Faulkner. You think. Most assholes don't know how. I'm not worried about anyone copying the file. It's coded to wipe clean if anyone tries to access the file without the password. Layton had the password." He leaned back in his chair. "Any future files will have to be coded not to allow downloading, but you learn from experience, right? "

Yuell thought about that. Bandini might be telling the truth. He might not. Yuell would have to do some research on computer files to find out if it was possible to write a program that would erase itself from the drive if anyone tried to access it without the password. Maybe. Probably. Damn hackers and geeks could probably make a program sit up and bark if they wanted.

Or maybe the file would be emptied, but the info would still be on the drive somewhere. He'd been thinking about recruiting a computer forensics expert, and now he wished he'd already taken on the expense. Too late now; he'd have to go with what he could find out on his own, and he wouldn't have enough time for a thorough investigation.

"Get that flash drive," Bandini said, "take care of Layton, and the twenty million is yours."

Holy shit. Fuck. Yuell managed not to show any reaction, but he was as alarmed as he was enticed. Bandini could have offered half that – hell, one-tenth that – and he would have felt overpaid. For Bandini to offer twenty million, the flash drive had to hold some explosive stuff – probably more than just his financial records. And whatever it was, Yuell didn't want to know.

Or Bandini planned to kill him anyway, so it didn't matter how much he offered.

The thought niggled at him. He couldn't ignore it, but from a business standpoint it didn't make sense. If Bandini got the reputation for reneging on deals, he was gone. Fear could take you so far. but it didn't trump the bottom line. You start pissing on people's money, and they'll find a way to piss back.

But he was in it now, and he'd do the job.

"You got Layton's social security number?" he asked. "Save me a little time if you do."

Bandini smiled.

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