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Cover Of Night (Chapter 5)

Yuell called in his two best men, Hugh Toxtel and Kennon Goss, because he didn't want any mistakes on this job. He also sent another man. Armstrong, to Layton's house in the suburbs to look for information such as credit card bills that might have arrived since Layton had bolted. Hell, Layton might even have left stuff like that lying around. People did stupid shit every day, and Layton had already demonstrated he wasn't the most logical person in the galaxy.

While Yuell was waiting for the men to arrive, he ran several search programs on his computer, digging up every bit of information on Jeffrey Layton that he could find, which was a lot.

Most people would have a stroke if they knew how much of their personal information was out in cyberspace. From public records he got the dates of Layton's marriage and subsequent divorce, and he noted down the ex – Mrs. Layton's name for further investigation. If she hadn't remarried, it was possible Layton would run to her for help. Yuell also noted how much Layton's property taxes were, and some other details that were probably useless but which he wrote down anyway. You could never tell when something that looked trivial on the surface would turn out to be crucial.

Some of the programs he used weren't exactly legal, but he'd paid through the nose for them because they worked, allowing him to get into databases that were otherwise closed to him. Insurance companies, banks, Federal programs – if you could make the computers think you were a legitimate user, you could go anywhere in their systems. By logically starting with Illinois's largest health insurer, he discovered that Layton had high blood pressure for which he took medication, and that he also had a two-year-old prescription for Viagra – which he'd never had refilled or renewed, which meant he wasn't getting laid very often, if at all. Nor had he had the foresight to refill his hypertension medication before absconding with Bandini's files. Running for your life was bound to be stressful; the fucker could stroke out if he wasn't careful.

Exiting from the insurer's system, Yuell logged in to the state system and soon netted Layton's driver's license number. Going into the social security system took a bit more finesse, because he had to piggyback on another, legitimate user, but he persisted until he had it because the payoff was worth the risk. The social was the magic key to a person's life and information; with it, Layton's entire life was his.

Armstrong called on his cell from Layton's house. That was one of the first things Yuell told his guys: Never use the phone in someone else's place. That way no cop could hit "redial" and find out the last number called. That way no information connecting you to the place turned up in the phone company's records. Yuell's rule was ironclad: Use your own cell. As an extra precaution, they all used disposable cells. If for any reason they thought the number had been compromised, they simply bought another phone.

"Jackpot," Armstrong said. "This fucker kept everything."

Yuell had hoped that Layton, being an accountant, would. "What do you have?"

"Practically his whole life. He kept the important shit, like his notarized birth certificate, his social security card, his credit card accounts, in a wall safe."

That was why he'd sent Armstrong, on the chance Layton might be cautious enough to have some kind of safe; the small, commercial safes were child's play to Armstrong, and most custom jobs merely slowed him down. "I already have the social. Give me his credit card numbers, then put everything back and leave it the way you found it."

Armstrong began reading off the various credit cards, their numbers and security codes. Layton had a ton of cards, the hallmark of someone who was likely to spend more than he could afford. Maybe that was why he was taking the desperate chance of blackmailing Bandini, but Yuell didn't really care why. The dumb fuck had sucked him into Bandini's orbit, and now Yuell had to do the job or go into hiding himself.

For a minute he thought of doing just that; telling his men to scatter, taking his money, and disappearing, maybe in the Far East, for a few years. But Bandini's arms were long and his well-earned reputation was brutal. Yuell knew he'd spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for the shot into the back of his head or the knife slicing into his kidney, and Layton's life wasn't worth it to him. Layton was a dead man, one way or the other. If Yuell didn't do the job, someone else would.

He set to work with the list of card numbers. Layton had two American Express cards, three Visas, a Discover, and two MasterCards. Yuell began methodically piggybacking into the credit card databases so he wouldn't set off any alarms, looking for any new charges. On the second Visa account he found a hit: a charge at a bed-and-breakfast in Trail Stop, Idaho, for the day before.

Bingo.

Just how stupid was this guy? He should have paid cash, stayed under the radar and given himself some time to hide his tracks. The only reason to use a credit card was if he was running critically low on cash, which again was stupid because who the hell would start something like this without a sizable roll of cash at hand?

Yuell sat back, thinking hard. Maybe the credit card charge was a feint. Maybe Layton had booked the room, then neither called to cancel nor showed up to claim his reservation; most places charged a night's stay for holding the room, whether you showed up or not. Maybe Layton was acting stupid but thinking smart.

He noted the name of the bed-and-breakfast, and pulled up the telephone number. Checking whether or not Layton had showed up was easy enough. He picked up his own cell phone.

A woman answered on the third ring. "Nightingale's Bed and Breakfast," she said pleasantly. Yuell liked her voice, which was melodic and cheerful.

He thought fast; she might not give out information on a guest to just anyone. "This is National Car Rental," he said. "A customer hasn't returned his car on schedule, and he left this as a contact number. His name is Jeffrey Layton. Is he there?"

"I'm afraid not," she said in a regretful tone.

"Has he been there?"

"Yes, he was, but – I'm sorry, but I think something may have happened to him."

Yuell blinked. That wasn't what he'd expected to hear. "What do you mean, something happened to him?"

"I'm not certain. He left yesterday, and never returned. All his things are still here, but – I've called the sheriff's department and reported him missing. I'm afraid he might have had an accident."

"I hope not," Yuell said, though it would be very convenient for Yuell if the man had driven off a mountain and killed himself, taking the flash drive with him. That would greatly simplify matters: he'd get paid and Layton would be gone. "Did he tell you where he was going?"

"No, I didn't get to speak to him."

"Well, this is bad news. I hope he's okay, but – I'll have to notify our insurance company."

"Yes, of course," she said.

"What will you do with his things? Has the sheriff's department notified his next of kin?"

"Mr. Layton isn't officially missing yet. If he doesn't turn up soon, I assume someone will find his family and I'll send his things to them. Until then, I suppose I'll just keep them." She didn't sound happy about the prospect.

"Maybe someone will take them off your hands. Thank you for your help." Yuell hung up, smiling; he couldn't have been happier to find that Layton had left his luggage behind, and that the woman still had everything. His mind was racing. Would Layton carry the flash drive around with him? The thing could be anywhere. Some people put them on their key chains, so the little gadgets wouldn't get lost. Or Layton could have stashed it somewhere, maybe in a safe-deposit box in his bank, in which case it would be out of Yuell's hands. On the other hand, maybe he'd simply put it in his suitcase.

If he was lucky, Yuell thought, the flash drive was at the B and B, just waiting for his men to go through Layton's things and find it. Whether it was there or not, he felt good. Layton was probably dead, in circumstances that were legitimately accidental. So long as he found the flash drive, he'd get paid. It didn't matter if Layton was dead or alive.

Hugh Toxtel was the first to arrive. He was in his early forties, seasoned and patient, methodical. He would go anywhere the job took him, without comment or fuss. Like Yuell, he was of average height and had dark hair, but his features were sharper. He was, in fact, the first man Yuell had hired, a decision that neither man had ever regretted.

"I'm pulling you off the Silvers job, and sending you and Goss to Idaho."

"What's in Idaho?" Hugh asked, taking a seat and hitching up his sharply creased trouser legs. He usually dressed as if he held an executive position in a Fortune 500 company, and occupied a corner office, which was maybe his dream but was a far cry from reality.

"Salazar Bandini's runaway accountant," Yuell replied.

Hugh winced. "Stupid fucker. Took the money and ran, huh?"

"Not exactly. He copied all the financial files – the real ones – onto a flash drive and he's trying to blackmail Bandini. Bandini traced him to Idaho, lost track of him there, then called me."

"Why Idaho?" Hugh asked. "If I was dumb enough to try blackmailing Bandini, I'd at least leave the country. On the other hand, if you're dumb enough to screw Bandini, you're too fucking dumb to leave the country, right?"

"Or you're smart enough to lay a false trail." Or you were desperate, Yuell suddenly thought. Layton was a CPA, for God's sake. He might be inexperienced, even naive, but he wasn't stupid. It wouldn't do to underestimate him. He could have bought a change of clothes and an extra bag and left it at the bed-and-breakfast as a diversion, while he hightailed it somewhere else. Even knowing that the things Layton had left behind could be just time-killing bait, Yuell would still have to send his men to check them out and search for the flash drive.

"You think that's what he's done?" Hugh asked.

Yuell shrugged. "I don't know. It's possible. I want you to be on your toes tomorrow; if even one tiny thing looks unusual, I want to know about it. The clothes that were left behind, see if they're new. Ditto the bag." He handed over the file of information he'd spent the last couple of hours compiling. "This is everything I've got on the guy."

Hugh spent a long time looking at the photo Bandini had provided, committing Layton's face to memory. Then he read over Layton's background, education, everything Yuell had been able to find above and beyond the dryness of numbers. Watching his face, Yuell saw Hugh come to the same conclusion he himself had reached. "In over his head," Hugh finally said, "but not stupid."

"That's what I think. He charged a room at a bed-and-breakfast in Trail Slop, Idaho; now, you have to figure he knows he can be traced by anything he charges on a credit card, light? So why did he do it?"

Before Hugh could answer, Kennon Goss arrived. There was a cold, unemotional, completely ruthless streak in Goss, though he usually hid it well; he was like a bulldog in accomplishing his assignment. Yuell used Goss when he needed someone to get close to a woman; he was blond and handsome, and something about him caused women to blindly respond to him. Because his looks also made him memorable, Goss had to be doubly alert, doubly agile in eluding suspicion. He made no bones, though, about preferring to have all modern conveniences available for his use. To him, a hotel was a dump if it didn't have Ethernet connections, twenty-four-hour room service, and a chocolate on his pillow every night.

Yuell brought Goss up to speed on Jeffrey Layton. Goss bent forward and buried his head in his hands. "Podunk, Idaho," he groaned. "It'll take us two days to get there. We'll have to take a wagon train from Seattle."

Yuell fought a grin. He'd love to be along tor this one. just to watch Goss handle Mother Nature. "You can get closer than Seattle. There are airstrips all over Idaho. You'll have to take a prop job from Boise, probably, but the drive once you're on the ground shouldn't be too bad. I'll arrange something with four-wheel drive for you."

There was a muffled groan, and Goss pleaded, "Not a pickup truck. I beg you."

"I'll see what I can do."

While he listened to Yuell delineate the situation and possibilities, Kennon Goss felt satisfaction begin to well as other possibilities occurred to him.

He hated Yuell Faulkner with every cell in his body, yet for more than ten years he had worked with and for the man, pushing his hatred aside so he could function while he looked and waited for the perfect opportunity. While he waited, he had in many ways become like the man he so hated, an irony that hadn't escaped him. Over the years his own emotions had withered, and now he was just as cold and unfeeling, capable of snuffing out a human life with no more thought than he would give to stepping on a cockroach.

He'd known it would be like this, known the price he would pay, but his hatred was so strong he'd considered the cost well worth the result. Nothing had mattered except getting close to Yuell, and biding his time.

Sixteen years ago, Yuell Faulkner had killed Goss's father. Goss was under no illusions now about the type of man his father had been; he'd been a hired killer, just like Faulkner, just like Goss himself. But there had been something electric about him, something bigger than life. A complicated man, his father; on the one hand he had been a loving husband, a stern but just parent – while on the other, he killed people. In some way his father had separated that in his mind and life, a way that Goss himself hadn't been able to manage.

His father had worked for Faulkner for a little over three years. All Goss had been able to find out, and that only after he himself had connected with Faulkner and joined his stable of killers, was that Faulkner had decided Goss's father was a weak link, somehow – so he had executed him. What had triggered the action was something Faulkner kept to himself.

To Yuell Faulkner, it had been a business decision. To Goss, it had been the destruction of his life. His mother had been devastated by her husband's murder; on the day Goss returned to his college classes, a week after the funeral, she swallowed a bottle of pills. Goss had found her body when he got home that afternoon.

Something in him, something human, had died when he stood in the kitchen doorway and saw his mother's body on the floor. Coming so brutally close on the heels of his father's murder, losing her, too, had pushed him to the wall.

He'd been nineteen, too old to go into the foster system. He dropped out of college, walked away from the suburban house that he never wanted to reenter, and wandered. He supposed the house had long since been sold for back taxes. He didn't care, had never gone back, had never driven by out of curiosity to see if someone else lived there now or if it had been torn down to make room for a service station or something.

After about a year, the idea of revenge, which had bubbled on the edge of his consciousness since his father's murder, began to firm and take shape. Until then he'd been too numb to plan, to have a direction, but now his life once again had a purpose – and that purpose was death. Yuell Faulkner's death, to be precise – though for a long time he hadn't had a name for his father's killer – and if it meant his own death, too, Goss didn't worry about that.

First, though, he'd had to reinvent himself. The boy he'd been, Ryan Ferris, had to die. Figuring out how to accomplish that was easy. He looked for a street kid, an addict, roughly his height and age, and stalked him; when he saw his chance, he jumped the guy from behind and knocked him out, then beat the hell out of his face before killing him. He put his own identification on the body, dumped it in a neighborhood where the corpse wasn't likely to be robbed, and took off for another part of the country.

He knew, with that first killing, that he'd crossed a line he would never be able to step back over. He was on his way to becoming what he hated.

Send a thief to catch a thief. To deal with death, he had to become death himself.

Building his new identity took time and money. He didn't immediately return to Chicago and try to find his father's killer. He established the new self, Kennon Goss, with multiple layers of certification. He ruthlessly pushed aside his own identity and became Kennon Goss, not only to others but to himself.

By the time he returned to Chicago, not even the FBI could have proven he was anyone other than who he said he was.

Finding out who had been behind a murder over five years old hadn't been easy. No one had fingered Yuell. Finding out his father had been a hired killer had been yet another shock to a psyche already battered beyond recovery, but it gave him a direction. From there, he was able to find out that his father had worked for a man named Faulkner, and it had seemed to Goss that maybe the best way to find out what his father had been involved in would be from the inside of Faulkner's organization.

He'd managed to bring himself to Faulkner's attention, because he was too streetwise to just walk in and ask for a job. Let Faulkner approach him.

Once on the inside, Goss had done his job and taken care not to screw up. Over time he had earned trust, not just from Faulkner but from the other men who worked for him. It was Hugh Toxtel, who had worked for Faulkner the longest, who had given him the piece of information he wanted. It had been more in the way of some friendly advice: Don't let a target get to you. Get in, do the job, get out. Don't listen to some sob story. One guy, Ferris, had let someone soft-soap him and hadn't done the job, and Faulkner took him out because he'd let his emotions get the best of him and, by letting the target live, established a trail that led. back to Faulkner's company. Not only that, not doing the job was bad for business.

So Ferris had been disposed of, and Faulkner himself had finished the job Ferris had muffed.

Yuell Faulkner had killed Goss's father. He could even see that it had been a good business decision, which in no way changed Goss's mind about anything.

Faulkner was going to die, but Goss was looking for the perfect opportunity. He could have walked into the office and fired a nine millimeter into Faulkner's brain a hundred times, but he didn't want it to be that clean, that fast. He wanted it messy, wanted Faulkner to suffer, wanted him to squirm.

This situation with Salazar Bandini might be just what he'd waited for all these years. Bandini's viciousness was exceeded only by his vindictiveness. If Goss could somehow turn Bandini on Faulkner…

He'd have to think about the possibilities, how he could manage it without getting caught in the riptide of Bandini's vengeance. Maybe something would occur to him during this trip to Nowhere, Idaho, looking for a runaway accountant who might or might not already be dead.

"Do we leave today?" Goss asked.

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