“Jeez .. look at the mess in here! What the hell happened?” Nick exclaimed.
“Last night was New Year’s Eve. Today it is January 1, two thousand, one.”
He glanced round. The ghost with him appeared exactly the same but this was definitely the present, not the past.
“And you are ..?”
“The Shade of Present Times, your second companion this night.”
“You look just like the last one.”
“I’m different,” the Shade replied.
Nick looked back at the club. “Must have been one hell of a party.”
“It was. This club is a phenomenal success.”
There were colored streamers littering the floor together with burst balloons. Overturned chairs and tables. Smashed glass. More than one drying, sticky puddle.
“It’s gonna take a concerted effort to clean this up,” he said flatly. “How am I doing?”
“You’re a valued, trusted employee,” the Shade said. “She says the success of this place is down to her money and your effort. You make a good team. You know the people in this city better than she does. You know how to be bad.”
“Well, if I wanna keep this job, I’d better haul my ass outta bed an’ get down here.”
The scene shifted to the upstairs apartment. Nick Boyle was sprawled face down in his bed, his arm draped across the back of his companion who stirred and twitched his arm away.
“Leaving so soon ..?” he murmured.
She sat up. “Downstairs is a mess. It needs cleaning up. If I have to do it all myself, I’ll be taking it from your pay.”
Nick groaned as he sat up too. “Let me get some black coffee an’ some aspirins inside me. If you take it from my pay, I’m gonna blame you because this was your idea an’ I don’t say no to the boss.”
She was silent for a long moment. “Nick .. I’ve had an offer to sell the club,” she then announced.
“You won’t do it, will you?”
“She won’t sell, will she?” Nick asked the Shade. “C’mon, he’s on his feet at last.”
“I’m considering it,” she replied.
“What’s gonna happen to me?” both Nicks asked with one voice.
“Look, I’ll be honest with you,” she said as she began to dress. “I can’t sell you with the club. I don’t own you. But I have strongly suggested that, if I sell – and I haven’t decided yet – you should be part of the deal. They should keep you on as manager because you know how to run things. You know the regulars. Now, if that happens, there are no guarantees. You may not get on with the new owners. They may decide they don’t like you.”
“So everything I’ve worked so hard for could mean nothing,” he said. “Last night means nothing.”
She started to finger comb her hair. “Nick, I’ve never made it a secret that this place is nothing more than an investment to me. Last night .. we were both a little drunk, both a little wild. It felt right.”
“But it means nothing.”
“Don’t sound so hurt. One night stands are no big deal, not these days. I’m not the marrying kind, Nick. I like you, I like you a lot, but I don’t love you. I don’t love anyone. Last night was just sex, okay? We both felt the need to get down an’ dirty.”
He nodded. “Okay. You’re the boss .. for now, anyway.” He reached for his pants, started to pull them on. “If you do sell, are you going to open another club?”
“What are you really asking?”
“That’s obvious,” Nick said to the Shade. “He wants to stay with her.”
“I wanna work for you. If we have to start over, I wanna be in on it.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because he loves you,” Nick told her, even though she couldn’t hear him.
“Because .. you gave me a chance when I really needed one. Because I’m loyal. And .. I care about you.” He pulled a T-shirt over his head. “You’ve been a good friend to me, Peri. I haven’t had that many in my life.” He paused. “I don’t trust so easy but I trust you.”
She regarded him. “I haven’t decided anything yet, Nick. But I’ll remember what you said. If you do end up back on the streets, call me. I’ll do something. A roof. Money. Something.” She smiled. “You’ve been a good friend to me as well, and I don’t have friends at all.”
“If you wanna go make a start .. I’ll be down in a while.”
She nodded. “Last night .. you were the best I’ve ever had.”
“Thanks,” he responded, his eyes warming. “Same goes for me too.”
She left him alone. Nick and the Shade watched him sit slowly back down on the bed and put his head in his hands. It wasn’t just his New Years hangover. It was everything. Nothing ever stayed the same. He had some savings in the bank now but not enough to fund a new start. His apartment was tied to his job so, if he lost that, he had nowhere to live. Ten years out of the Navy, and he was almost back at square one.
“C’mon, man,” Nick urged. “She hasn’t sold yet. She may not sell at all. You’ve still got a job for now, and a place to live. Don’t blow it.” He swung round to the Shade. “What’s gonna happen to him?”
“Let’s find out.”
The scene shifted. Saint Valentine’s Day. Heart shaped balloons decorated the bar area. She signed on the dotted line. Nick witnessed it. Nick and the Shade witnessed that.
“Congratulations. The agreed sum will be deposited in your account and, in two weeks, ownership transfers to us.”
“He’s a crook,” Nick said in a flat voice, glancing at the Shade. “They all are.”
“Mr Boyle, as agreed, you will stay on as manager.”
“We’re looking forward to working with you.”
“Likewise,” Nick responded, lying thru his teeth.
“He knows they’re crooks. Why isn’t he saying anything?”
“Probably because he’s about to work for them,” the Shade answered.
Nick half turned away in disgust.
“Nick, he has his pride. It’s the same pride which kept him away from Angel Island. In his heart, he knows that this is wrong. In his heart, he wants to go wherever she goes. But his head rules. His head is telling him it’s a job. It’s somewhere to live. Without this, he’s nothing. He’s going with his head.”
Tommy Dunn and Benny Goddard shook hands with everyone and sauntered out. Nick slowly sat down at the table.
“If you’re ever in the area an’ feel like dropping in,” he began, “I’d count you as a regular.”
She smiled quickly. “Thanks. I doubt it’ll happen. I don’t ever look back, Nick. Can’t go over the same stretch of water twice.”
“I’ll miss you. I’ll miss you keeping watch over me. Keeping me on the straight an’ narrow.”
“You did that for yourself. Believe me, if you’d strayed, I would’ve done something.”
“Even when I borrowed fifty bucks from the cash register?”
“Even then. I knew you’d taken it. I knew you’d put it back. A short term loan is borrowing, Nick, not theft.”
He laughed. “I got no secrets from you, do I?”
“Of course you do, but I know what I need to know. Inside, where it counts, you’re an okay guy.” She rose. So did he. “Remember what I said. If you need anything, call me. I’m not into charity but I help my friends when they need it, when they ask. You’re one of an extremely select group – you have my number.”
He nodded. It was memorized. “I’ll remember.”
“And don’t be tempted to go too far past bad. If you do .. we will definitely meet again and not as friends.”
Nick reached to shake her hand. “Thanks for everything. For trusting me. I won’t forget you.”
She shrugged. “You’ve earned what I’ve given you. All I ask is that you don’t throw it away. You’re not dumb, Nick Boyle. You have a mind an’ you can think for yourself. You’ve regained your self-respect. Watch out for those two. You can walk the line, I know you can.”
Nick and the Shade watched her walk out. “Is he ever gonna see her again?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know.”
The scene moved on again. May in San Francisco was hardly any different from February except for the days being longer and the nights shorter. Union Square was busy with people shopping. Nick sat in the park and looked round when Benny Goddard approached.
“Why here?” he asked.
“It’s quiet. People won’t notice us. They’re too busy looking out for other things.”
“Okay. Why me?”
“You work for me, Nick. I’ve checked into your background. You’ve got quite some history.”
This had been bound to come out. Nick shifted slightly. “Florida was a long time ago.”
Benny shrugged slightly, dismissing it. “Everyone’s had some kinda run-in with the law one time or other. I admire your initiative. That was some con you had going.”
“And it’s behind me.”
“Nevertheless, it’s a skill you shouldn’t ever quite forget. What interests me more is what you did before Florida.”
“Flying helicopters?” Nick suggested warily.
“Again, another very useful skill. I doubt there are many bar managers who can offer their employers a talent like that. I mean,” Benny said, “before Los Angeles.”
Nick glanced at the Shade. “What’s he planning?” he demanded.
The other Nick was silent but he was watchful.
“You let yourself go for a while but, after the rigors and demands of military service, maybe I can understand that. You look in pretty good shape now though.”
“What’s your point?” Nick asked.
“You handle just about any kinda firearm?”
“It’s been a very long time since I even picked up a gun.”
“Like riding a bicycle, Nick. Never forget once you’ve gotten the balance.” Benny watched him. “A bar manager with a talent like that to offer his employers is a very, very rare individual. Worth of lot of money, cash in hand, no questions asked.”
“A guy could do a couple of after hours tasks, nothing big, nothing heavy, just .. riding shotgun, and maybe afford to buy his own place, maybe even set up on his own.”
“Is he trying to turn me into a hit man?” Nick demanded.
“Sounds like it,” the Shade agreed.
“We wouldn’t stop you doing that, Nick. Like I say, no questions asked. No .. later demands on your time an’ expertise. Just your talent, your loyalty, your silence now .. while you already work for us. I can see you wanna think it over. Sure. No pressure.” Benny rose. “In case you, er, wanna get a feel for it again, maybe some practice, there’s an untraceable gift for you in your apartment.” He winked and strolled away.
Nick took five steps after Benny then stalked five steps back and leaned in. “Call her! Quit the job, clear out an’ call her! Don’t go down that path!”
“He can’t hear you,” the Shade commented.
“I know that! It’s just … ”
“It’s more than that. He’s tempted. I can see it in his eyes.” Nick sat down on the bench next to himself. “In the Teams, you get conditioned and addicted to danger,” he related in a level voice. “Going into the line of fire .. it’s an everyday thing. Other people train an’ qualify an’ go to the office or the hospital. SEALs go into the line of fire. And, when they leave that work, they get withdrawal. Some become cops. Some, like me, get into another dangerous line of work. Others self-destruct because they can’t handle regular life. And a few go bad. He almost self-destructed. Peri rescued him. I don’t wanna see him go bad. And he is tempted to do that. He liked being in the Teams. He can’t trust them anymore but he loved the work, an’ that’s what he’s remembering now. Can’t you do something?”
“It’s his life. His life without the Legacy.”
“You caused this to happen. You did something. Why won’t you do something now?”
“Because it would affect the outcome. You have wondered – not often but you have done it – how your life would have gone if you hadn’t joined Derek and the others. You’re learning if you chose correctly or if you made a mistake.”
“I know I chose the right thing! I’ve seen myself scrape the bottom of the barrel! A drunk, a homeless bum, a male prostitute, a con artist; I’ve got a failed marriage behind me an’ a son I haven’t seen in years! For God’s sake, why would you think I’d wanna see any more?”
“Then why did you promise you’d never follow in your father’s footsteps only to break that promise?”
Nick was silent for a moment then he sighed. “I guess I grew up. I was a kid and I was hurting when I promised that. I promised myself a lot of other things too. I’d never get married. I’d never let myself get close to anyone because I didn’t wanna get hurt anymore. I’d never trust anyone. I would do everything opposite to what my old man did, including never going into the military. And then he died an’ I grew up. I’ve broken all those promises .. an’ I’m better for doing that.”
He paused, shaking his head and blindly watching the lunchtime crowds. “Y’know what I find so incredible?”
“Tell me,” the Shade invited.
“That joining the Legacy made such a difference. I would’ve thought .. it wouldn’t, that I’d be a regular guy on the street, holding down some boring nine to five job, growing old and regretting that I passed up such a chance. But the Legacy made me better, stronger. It’s kept me sharp an’ legal an’ .. given me so much. I’ve lost friends, been physically hurt, emotionally shattered, an’ look how I would’ve ended up without it … ”
“This isn’t the end, Nick. It isn’t even halfway yet.”
“So I’m gonna have to watch him go bad, step the wrong side of the law, get caught again, an’ grow old in some jail cell doing life for first degree murder.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“He’ll turn ’em down,” Nick said as the other Nick got up and walked away.
“Perhaps he won’t get caught.”
Nick found the pistol after a thorough search of his apartment. He sat and held it for over thirty minutes, just staring at it, feeling the weight of it in his hand. Alien yet almost a part of him. Then, swallowing down a sudden queasy sensation of nerves, he put it back where he’d found it. Then, his heart racing, he took it out again and carefully wiped away all trace of his fingerprints before hiding it for the second time. He tried to forget it was there. He tried to forget the meeting with Benny. He tried to concentrate on managing the club and doing a good job.
Spring edged toward summer. Benny never said anything more about the ‘after hours activities’ but Nick didn’t believe for a second it had gone away. Things like that didn’t.
“What’s he thinking?” Nick asked the Shade. “Do you know?”
“It’s interesting,” she replied. “He’s thinking that, if he could have his time over, he’d do things differently.” She angled her head. “He’d probably exchange places with you in a split second. You have the woman he wants, the job he wishes he’d taken, the Mustang he was forced to sell. You’re able to put people between a rock and a hard place. Right now .. that’s where he is.”
The scene moved on. Nick was waiting for someone because he kept looking at his watch then scanning the faces moving past him.
“Nick! Wow, it’s so great to see you again,” Charlie greeted. “I’m late, I’m sorry. Traffic, y’know.”
“It’s okay. Coffee?”
“Sure, that’d be great. Where’d you get to?” She sat down at the table. “You said you’d call .. an’ you never did.”
“I moved on,” Nick replied. “Florida.”
“Why’d you come back?” Charlie asked, laughing.
“Time was right. Charlie .. this is gonna sound kinda crazy but .. is the offer of a room still open? Or a sofa? I’ve got somewhere at the moment but I don’t know how much longer it’s gonna last, an’ I don’t wanna end up back on the streets.”
“Oh, sure! No problem. My husband – ”
Nick’s plans changed instantly. He might have used Charlie as a shield but he wouldn’t involve anyone else. “You got married again? That’s great!”
She blushed. “Yeah, it is. Wish I’d met him first. But I will explain to him an’ we have a spare room – ”
“It’s short term. Maybe I won’t need it. It’s just .. my job .. I got this feeling it’s going to get complicated. I just need an escape route ready planned.”
“Are you in trouble, Nick?”
“Not yet. Not at all if I can help it.”
“You want talk about it?” Charlie asked, leaning forward.
“Better you don’t know,” Nick replied.
Nick blinked. It was dark and the Shade beside him was all but invisible.
“What’s going on?” he asked in an unnecessary whisper.
He saw himself step from the shadows, look round and nod. Tommy Dunn moved forward. “You wait back there. All goes well, you pocket a grand. If it doesn’t go well .. you get a bonus.”
“I know what I have to do,” Nick breathed.
The Shade saw Nick’s hands curl into fists, his lips clamp together, the muscle along his jaw start to jump.
“It’s his life, Nick,” she said. “You can’t live it for him and you can’t choose for him.”
“Do I have to see this?”
“No, not if you truly don’t want to.”
“I really thought he had more sense … ”
Another shadowy figure emerged from behind some piled up crates. In the distance, a ship’s siren hooted mournfully.
“You brought the goods?” Tommy inquired.
“You brought the cash?”
Tommy lifted an attaché case. So did the other guy.
“Narcotics?” Nick asked in a tightly controlled voice.
The Shade said nothing.
Abruptly, with no warning, two shots rang out. Tommy Dunn crumpled to his knees then sprawled forward. The other guy staggered a couple of steps backward then fell.
“Nice job, Nick,” Benny Goddard congratulated, slapping a hand on his shoulder. “Get outta here.”
“Yes, boss.” Nick melted into the night.
“I don’t believe I just did that,” Nick muttered, staring at Benny who picked up the attaché case with the money and tossed the other case off the pier.
“People will often do many things for money .. and for the excitement,” the Shade responded. “And you didn’t do it. He did.”
“How can you excuse that? Be so calm? It’s murder!”
“In some ways, it is no different to what you do. These men were on the wrong side of a line. Whether that line is good or bad, or evil, or the law, they were beyond what is seen as good or lawful. He executed two criminals. You execute as well; you do it for the Legacy. He did it for money .. and because, to him, it was right.”
“That’s splitting the hair exceedingly fine,” Nick accused.
“Maybe it is. It’s also the truth.”
“Will he get caught?”
“The police will investigate this double homicide but not too deeply. After all, the streets are marginally cleaner and safer now. No one innocent was harmed.”
“This is the thin end of the wedge,” Nick declared. “He’s put himself over the line and it won’t be long before Benny calls on his services again. It won’t always be bad guys at the other end of the barrel.”
“Nick, you don’t trust him, do you? You and he are very similar. How you came to this point along two separate paths is largely immaterial. He has developed a sense of conscience. Once, someone trusted him. Can’t you find it inside you to trust him as well? Take a leap of faith?”
Nick twitched. In the distance, the wail of sirens grew louder. “It depends what happens next and how he reacts to it. That sense of conscience may last only as long as the good times.”
The scene moved on. Nick looked at the envelope stuffed with cash. Hundred dollar bills.
“Blood money,” Nick muttered to the Shade.
“You earned it, Nick, fair an’ square,” Benny said. “Tommy didn’t have vision. He was from the old school, y’know? Prostitution, narcotics, the numbers. This club .. was just a front for him. Me? I’m more legit, y’know? There’s money to be made in places like this. Almost print it yourself. I’m gonna open more clubs. I want you to help me. Manage ’em for me. I want you to help me go completely straight.”
Nick looked up.
“Will you do that for me, Nick? Help me to go straight? Someone gave you a chance an’ you did it. You put the past behind you. Won’t you give me a chance ..?”
“You mean it?”
“He’s lying,” Nick said. “This is just getting the hook in deeper.”
“Sure, I mean it,” Benny replied.
“Call her, Nick. Quit this game he’s playing an’ call her.”
“Okay,” Nick agreed.
The scene moved on again. As the summer months rolled toward fall, the Goddard chain of nightclubs grew from one to three to six. Nick toured them, managing the staff, banking the takings, keeping it running on oiled tracks. Benny paid him well. Well enough for Nick to rent an apartment someplace else. Well enough that he could put a little respectable distance between him and Benny Goddard.
“This is too good to be true,” Nick commented to the Shade. “Something has to go wrong somewhere.”
The Shade said nothing.
“What does that mean?” Nick demanded. “Silence. Does it mean I’m wrong, or does it mean I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop?”
“It means I’m patient, Nick. Your journey is half over. Soon, I will leave you and the third spirit will arrive.”
“The future.” He shook his head. “Right now, I can’t tell if it’s gonna be good or bad.”
“No one can. That’s the challenge of life.”
Nick pushed open the door of The Granite Lady. “I got your message. What’s up?”
“Sit down,” Benny invited. “Beer?”
It was a little early but Nick wasn’t one to turn down a free drink. “Okay,” he accepted.
“You hired all the staff here?”
“Yeah, I did.”
Benny nodded as he put a bottle on the counter. “You trust ’em?”
“As much as I can trust anyone,” Nick replied, drinking. “Why are you asking?”
“You cashed up last night?”
“Yeah, like I do every night. Where’s this going, Benny?”
“How much was it?”
Nick shrugged. “Around nine grand.”
“Where’s the other five?”
“Excuse me? I banked all the cash this morning. All of it.”
“Five grand’s missing.”
Nick stared. “I didn’t take it, Benny.”
“There it is,” Nick said with a fat, cynical smile. “The other shoe just dropped.”
“Nick, I don’t have to tell you how much trouble you could get into with your record for stealing. Not to mention the other matters.”
“Shafted,” Nick commented to the Shade.
“What other matters?”
“Tommy Dunn,” Benny replied softly. “Harry the Horse. Paul Benedict. Joey Sanchez. George Delmer.”
“Who?” Nick frowned. He knew the first two, but the others …
“The owners of the clubs who didn’t wanna agree a fair price,” Benny explained. “Now .. are you gonna give me back what you stole .. or do I make that call to the cops?”
“Bohica,” Nick muttered.
“What?” the Shade asked.
“Stands for ‘bend over, here it comes again’,” he replied.
“I didn’t take it,” Nick repeated. “I swear to you. I didn’t take the money.”
“Nick .. I don’t wanna lose you. But I won’t have my people cheating on me. Now you say you trust the people here. You hired ’em. You were the last one to see the cash. You got a record, pal. I can’t really trust someone with a background like yours.”
“It has to be a glitch in the bank computer or something. I’ve got the books at home. I’ll fetch them. Show you.”
“I got something to hold over you. I’m not afraid to use it.”
Nick nodded. “That was your plan all along, wasn’t it? Set me up as the patsy. Do your dirty work for you so you can keep it all an’ not split it with your partner, then drop me when the time’s right. If I make trouble, you’ll give me to the cops. If I keep quiet, the rest of my life I’ll be watching over my shoulder, waiting for ’em to turn up, never sure if they will or they won’t.”
“No hard feelings, kid,” Benny grinned.
“Why should I? I went into it with my eyes open.” Nick slowly got up. “Guess this is goodbye.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll quit town.”
“Why the hell should he?” Nick demanded. “He isn’t likely to talk.”
The scene shifted again. Benny Goddard, king of his little empire, stood smoking a cigar outside The Granite Lady. A shot rang out. Benny died, never seeing his assassin but having a damned good idea who it was.
Two things were certain – one, no one messes with a former SEAL and, two, Nick hadn’t lost anything as a marksman.
“And that was murder,” Nick commented as people shrieked and screamed, and the howl of sirens grew closer.
“Yes, it was. Benny was still a criminal with no intention of going straight,” the Shade remarked. “That was revenge, pure and simple. It was .. closure. Benny Goddard will never tell the police what he knows.”
“And I'll have to leave town,” Nick sighed. “I can’t stay here.”
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens, won’t we?”
The scene changed from night to day. Nick opened the door to his apartment.
“Detective Ken Brackett. Nicholas Boyle?”
“Uh huh.” Nick ruffled a hand thru his sleep tousled hair. “Have I done something?”
“A little matter of homicide, Mr Boyle.”
Nick’s eyes opened wider. “Who?”
“Benny Goddard. Your employer. We’re talking to all his people.”
“Ex-employer. He fired me yesterday.”
“And that could be a very valid reason for revenge.”
“I can see how you’d think that but .. no. I never really liked working for the guy. He was a crook. I was gonna quit anyway.”
“Why did he fire you?”
“He accused me of stealing from him. He thought that, with my record, he could get away with it. But I didn’t do it. I got the bank books. It’s all there. Wanna see?”
The detective did. He examined all the paperwork relating to the six clubs. It was all strictly legit.
“Turned over a new leaf since Florida.”
“Yeah,” Nick agreed. “Someone gave me a chance. Turned me around.”
“Okay, Mr Boyle. I may have to ask you more questions so don’t leave town, and keep your nose clean.”
“What’s he gonna do now?” Nick asked.
Nick picked up the phone and pressed out a number. It rang for quite some time then he straightened. “Peri. I need your help.”
“Why’d you do it, Nick?”
“Can you help me or not?”
“Tell me why you did it.”
They sat opposite each other in Nick’s sitting room, the low table between them like a wall.
“I .. I wanted to feel the buzz again. It was wrong but they were crooks anyway. So was Benny. You knew it back in February. And then he had something he could use. I couldn’t take the risk.”
She shook her head. “Do you have money?”
“I’ll do what I can. If you don’t hear from me again, wait seven days then get outta the city. I don’t care where you go, just leave.”
“And do what?”
“Something very low profile. Stack shelves in a grocery store. Don’t come back to San Francisco for a very long time, if ever.”
you have any family?”
“Yeah. An aunt an’ a cousin.”
“Can you go stay with them?”
“I guess so.”
“Then go stay with them.” She rose. “And, Nick, you crossed the line. We’re quits. Don’t call me again.”
“Peri – “
“I told you – walk the line, watch yourself. The buzz .. you’d lived without it for such a long time. You could’ve told them no. They might’ve fired you. You could’ve come to me. You didn’t. That was your choice, Nick. You made it, now you gotta live with it.”
He watched her walk out of his life. She didn’t look back.
Nick shook his head and sighed. “You screwed up big time,” he accused. “Your best ally just tossed you to the wolves. Whatever happens next .. you deserve it.” Nick turned away. “I can’t believe I’m wasting my Christmas watching this crap go down. I’m gonna wake up and it’ll be New Years.”
“No,” the Shade replied. “You will celebrate Christmas with your friends as you intended. What’s more, you’ll be wiser and .. maybe a little more tolerant of your faults.”
“This is happening .. like in the book? All on one night?”
The cowled head inclined.
“And what d’you mean – tolerant of my faults?”
“You and he are the same man. You enjoy the buzz every bit as much as he does. He has the same fire in his gut as you do. You share the same passions, Nick. Much of your life has been the same life. He sprang from exactly the same roots as you. The only difference is that you joined the Legacy and he didn’t. You had purpose. He doesn’t. If you cannot find it in yourself to forgive his mistakes, how can you ever find it in you to forgive your own?”
The scene moved. A cold snap was in the air. Leaves were turning to orange as the fall set in. Nick grinned at his cousin Tony.
“When we’re done stacking these shelves, how about we take the rest of the day off?”
“I’m not sure Mom would let us.”
“C’mon, we’re a couple of grown guys. She can’t fire us, we’re family. Place is hardly jumping. We’ll have done all our chores. What’s the big deal? You’re acting like you’re fifteen.”
“I’ll ask her, okay? Where are you thinking of going?”
“San Francisco’s closer,” Tony pointed out.
“Bad memories there, man.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“At last .. he’s thinking straight,” Nick commented. “He should have done this at the start. Given up on the city, come straight here once he quit the Teams.”
“What’s in Sacramento?” Tony asked.
“Some life,” Nick replied. “Women. Bars. Other people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful you’re letting me stay here but you have to admit .. this place is like a morgue. I just wanna see a little action.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “That would be a nice change.”
They set off an hour later. Tony’s mother told them to stay over if they planned on drinking so they were looking forward to a good night out on the town. Two hours after hitting the state capitol, Nick was studying the crowd in the bar when a hand fell on his arm.
“My God .. it is you.”
He turned. Nick and the Shade turned as well. Nick groaned. “I don’t believe this … ”
“Franklin ..?” Nick said.
“Ssh. Here, it’s Eddie.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Nick exclaimed, his eyes lighting.
“Same as we did in Florida, man. Rich pickings, y’know? Florida was good. Lotsa old people. This place is almost as good as. Why are you here?” Eddie asked.
“Got a little hot in San Francisco so I moved up the coast a ways, staying with my aunt an’ my cousin. Here for a good night out is all.”
Eddie eased closer. “Wanna hook up again?”
“Don’t do it,” Nick warned. “Can’t you learn anything?”
Nick looked clearly tempted.
“You had all the tricks, man,” Eddie murmured. “Only .. this time .. I’m in charge, you’d be the assistant. Easy Street. C’mon, whadd’ya say? Remember the house you had? All paid for by others.”
“Got a card? I’ll call by tomorrow,” Nick said. “We’ll discuss it some more.”
“Aw, man!” Nick burst out. “He and I may be the same but I don’t have this weakness for breaking the law!”
“The Legacy has friendly detectives who understand that, at times, you have to work outside the legal system,” the Shade responded.
“That’s different!” Nick defended hotly. “I do not con people!”
The scene shifted. Eddie had a very nice office in a block near the civic center. Nick was impressed. The other Nick was disgusted. The Shade merely watched.
“It’s better now, easier,” Eddie said. “The advances in electronic technology means the tricks are much more realistic. We’re not quite holograms like at Disneyland but, I tell you, it ain’t far off.”
“Yeah? Can I see?”
“Sure. Come on thru.” Eddie led the way into the backroom and opened a steel box the size of a large attaché case. “Hit the lights.”
Nick switched them off. A glowing, eerie, spectral light began to form on the other side of the room and this coalesced into the form of a woman.
“Wow,” Nick breathed.
“Go closer,” Eddie invited.
Nick approached it and walked all around it. It didn’t flicker or waver. “How’d you do that?”
“Fiber optic cable. Base projection. Image is scanned into the 3D software.”
“It’s a con,” Nick said.
“No more smoke in the smoke an’ lights show.”
“Very realistic,” the Shade commented.
“Are you on his side?” Nick demanded.
“Someone has to be.”
“All the time he’s staying straight, I’ll support him. When he crosses the line, he’s on his own,” Nick stated, folding his arms. “This is just gonna be trouble all over again.”
Eddie intoned, “Seek the light, restless spirit. Leave the world you knew.”
Then the image wavered, shredding and vanishing.
“Voice activated. Programmed to respond to those exact words,” Eddie explained. “Can’t fail.” He switched the lights on again. “Interested?”
They went back to the office out front. As Eddie poured two cups of coffee, the door opened and two women came in.
“Eddie Salazar? Also known as Franklin Whittard? Also known as .. a whole long list of names?” one of the women began.
Eddie straightened. “Maybe. Depends who wants to know.”
“Fair warning,” she smiled, yet there was a hint of steel behind it. “I’m Alex Moreau with the Luna Foundation. This is my colleague Rachel Corrigan. Your little game is over. We’ve just passed our file on you to the police.”
“Time to shut up shop,” Rachel smiled.
“Or ..?” Eddie challenged. Nick came to stand loyally at his side.
“We’ll be back in force,” Alex warned sweetly.