Home Chapter 23
And right there for a minute
I knew you so well
And right there for a minute
You were my enemy
“In the Springtime of his Voodoo – Rookery Ending,”Tori Amos
Elliot was on his first drink, so that meant things were wrapping up for the day.
That’s what the famous Elliot Burch of Burch Properties International did, everywhere, in every time-zone. Cleon Manning learned this detail and a hundred others since his company had been plucked out of respected—if not paying the bills—obscurity to be Burch’s security-slash-private-investigators. The boss set up shop surrounded by a silent defense, settled into his routines, got the work done. Cleon was just checking in. Elliot raised his glass in salute, then grabbed a pencil to write more notes on a drawing. Cleon eased out and into one of the waiting room chairs.
Magnanimous Elliot had sent Ms. Fredrickson, the secretary, home at six, even if he’d be checking details and contracts until after eight. Cleon and the secretary weren’t on a first-name basis, maybe never would be—and he could live with that forever. You kept your distance from white ladies at your job—a lesson so essential and universal, he couldn’t have told where he learned it from.
Ms. Fredrickson was gone, so Cleon should have gotten the buzz that someone was in the building. They had 24-hour security on all entrances despite Burch Properties taking up only the top three floors. That was why Cleon and four members of his agency were making overtime. He should have had a heads up.
The elevator bell tolled and Cleon Manning’s hand went to his holster.
One eye stayed on the sliding metal, the other on Burch through the office door.
Elliot heard the ring too and stood ready. He was rich, but the man had seen enough, been a part of enough, not to be a fool.
Cleon drew the .38 out of his vest.
First to step out was a young white woman, home-cut brown hair, with ragged clothes and searching eyes. Her stance said on point, on watch.
The second to disembark, ushered by the guarding girl, carried a baby and a bag. He knew her.
Her arrival wrapped one of his most important work priorities.
Catherine Chandler was found.
“Who is it, Cleon?” Elliot called, and Cleon took back the not a fool comment. They were going to have to discuss giving away your location during an insecure situation.
“Someone you’ll want to see, Mr. Burch.”
The Chandler woman approached. The first time they’d met she’d exuded high-class, high-powered, professional, despite working for the Man in the D.A.’s office. What happened in between then and now he didn’t know, but he could smell her desperation.
“I need to talk to Elliot, alone,” she stated, more like a demand.
Cleon studied the sweating and tense woman for a moment. Another lesson, this time from experience—desperate people could do crazy things.
“Cleon?” Burch questioned again.
Cleon shifted out of the doorway and signaled for Chandler and her associate to enter, adding as he reholstered his snub-nose, “I think I’ll stay.”
She nodded as she passed. She was ether too weary or respected him and his gun too much to protest.
“Cathy?” Elliot strode towards the woman, but his planned hug got brought up short when he spied the baby. Elliot didn’t hide the look of betrayal on his face.
Cleon had seen this scene before—woman shows up, out of the blue with a kid and a lot of debts.
“Cathy,” Elliot said, back peddling. “You surprised me.”
After the late nights and long days of searching the city, her office, her apartment (illegally), reading about her, talking to her friends, Cleon could say with confidence, she did that to a lot of people.
The baby wasn’t Burch’s. That was for damn sure.
The woman dropped her bag, stitched together from scraps like some Hobo sack. Her circumstances certainly had changed since the last time, but that wasn’t surprising given who she’d run afoul of.
“You’ve a…” Burch retreated more. “You’ve been busy since the last time we talked.”
“Elliot—” she began. “I need your help.” That was obvious, but if Cleon was a gambling man, he’d bet she’d get nothing.
Bringing the baby was a mistake.
She wanted to appeal to Burch’s heart, but she underestimated the rich man’s pride. You never get in the way of a self-made man’s ambition and she’d been his ambition. Elliott Burch may be generous when it suited him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t ruthless.
He had loved this pale woman. That was easy to see. But a man can lock away that kind of emotion if betrayed, especially when the evidence lay sleeping in his lady’s arms.
She was going to ask anyway.
“I need you,” she repeated. “The case I was working on … I was kidnapped because of it.”
“We figured that out even before we read it in the papers,” Burch said, crossing his arms and propping against the desk. “You weren’t gone a week, and I had a dozen men trying to find you.”
A dozen guys and the only thing they’d gotten for their troubles? A lot of high-level threats, some very expensive “accidents”, and Greg Butler and Anthony Ricco dead for investigating Gabriel’s Worth Street address.
And then she walks in like she hasn’t been gone for almost a year, unannounced, with a baby.
Clearly, she had someone else, and that left little room for the man standing in front of her.
Burch motioned to the sleeping kid. “I knew you had some secrets in your life, Cathy, but that’s a pretty big one.”
“I know, Elliot,” she said, dropping her gaze. “I had to keep him safe.”
She slid carefully into the chair facing Burch.
“I have to keep him safe. That why I have to ask.” She raised her eyes from the sleeping baby. “I need you to say you’re his father.”
“What?” Burch launched forward. “You’re not serious.”
“You owe me.” Her voice wavered, but in it, the arrogance, the entitlement.
“‘Owe you?” Elliot echoed. “Well, I think I paid my debt when we rescued an old man from inside a wall—which you never told me what the hell that was about—” Burch bellowed. “And then I helped your case against the worst mob boss ever known!”
She flinched as if he’d hit her.
That hurt. Why?
A few breaths and she was back at it.
“Please, Elliot. The federal agents won’t leave me alone. They keep asking the same questions, and I need to give them an answer.”
“But what about me, Cathy?” he asked, disbelieving.
She huffed, dismissing him. “A baby out-of-wedlock won’t damage the social capital of the famous Elliot Burch. It may even raise it.”
They were skirting dangerous ground here. Chandler didn’t seem like a woman who asked twice, and Burch, in Cleon’s experience, never did anything he didn’t want to—a rock sparking against the hard place.
Burch wandered behind the desk, bracing his palms against the surface.
“And what about the actual father, Cathy?”
Her gaze darted away.
“He’s not a part of this,” she muttered.
“He left you?” he asked, astonished, and Cleon winced at the hope in Elliot’s voice.
The man had it bad.
“No.” The woman looked down at her baby. “I left him.”
The girl Chandler brought whipped around at that. Chandler couldn’t have thrown him over too long ago, judging her reaction.
“Catherine—” the girl began.
“Then you could stay—” Elliot argued over her.
The woman stopped them both, hand up and staring straight into Elliot’s eyes.
She told Elliot Burch, “No.” She must have a reason, and that reason seemed more and more certain to put his boss in danger.
A pleading look took the place of the harsh one. “Just say you’re the father, Elliot,” she begged again.
Cleon couldn’t hold tight any longer, watching this little soap-opera unfold.
“Mr. Burch, she got out of Gabriel’s Midtown building, but it wasn’t without casualties. Men died, and if you say yes, you might be implicated.”
“No, Elliot!” Chandler protested, standing up fast, causing her child to yelp out of sleep. “That’s not true. I won’t compromise you. I never did!” she seethed. “I never told them where the book was. I never told Gabriel’s men or the F.B.I. I wouldn’t put you in that danger.”
Ah, that’s where the hurt came from. She wasn’t disloyal, at least not in that way. She kept Burch as safe as she could … but that still didn’t mean she wasn’t a threat.
Cleon nodded in her direction. “She brought you into the case in the first place.”
“Shut up!” Chandler’s companion yelled. “You have no idea! She’s been through hell! And her husband went through hell trying to get her back!”
“Jamie—” the woman reached out.
“Husband?” Elliot demanded.
“Yeah! That’s right.” The girl evaded the woman, advancing on Burch, but Cleon caught her shoulder so she couldn’t get into range.
“He’s my friend!” With her free arm she pointed at Elliot. “And you sure don’t want to see him when he’s angry!”
“Don’t want to see him when he’s angry’?” Burch barked a sarcastic laugh and turned to the woman. “Who’d you marry, Cathy? The Incredible Hulk?”
That brought up a good point.
“You killed Gabriel?” Cleon asked Chandler.
His friends on the Force said so, proud that the evidence pointed to one of their own. But by her size and knowing the vast empire wrapped around Gabriel, Cleon still couldn’t believe it.
“Yes, I did,” she answered, icy as a January wind off the Hudson.
Let’s push it.
“Are you sure you didn’t have help? Are you sure it wasn’t Vincent who killed him?”
It was the name the old man had used[i] and the one found scattered around her apartment. Cleon kept it to himself so far, wanting more evidence, but was Vincent why she’d throw Burch to the Feds? Was he the baby’s daddy?
Chandler went deadly still.
She glared at Cleon, and for the span of a heartbeat, he glimpsed the monster that surfaced when someone threatened her or her people.
Don’t you think I’m capable of killing? her eyes declared without saying a word.
As quickly as it came, the killer’s face disappeared. It was the needy mother who mutely swung back to Elliot to ask again.
Burch turned away.
She had her answer.
The woman stood shocked for a minute. No one spoke, and she curled around her baby. Then she shuffled to the large window on the far side of the room, looking out, looking lost.
Chandler’s companion seemed to hold her breath, waiting for what everyone would do next. Cleon understood that feeling.
The baby, now fully awake, started to whimper and twist in Chandler’s arms, shaking his mama from her thinking. She strode back, handed the boy to her companion, reached for a pen and pad and began writing.
Cleon read as the words formed in her quick, block letters.
White man, late 30s to mid 40s, pale complexion, short, bleached blonde hair, large eyes, last seen wearing all black and driving a motorcycle.
Looking forlorn and not really seeing what she was up to, Elliot whispered, “Cathy, what do you want from me?”
“I don’t know, Elliot.” She ripped the sheet from the pad. “What you won’t give me, I guess.”
She passed the note and pen to Cleon. “Mr. Manning, this is a description of an assassin who shot at me in front of D.A. Maxwell’s building.”
“Someone shot at you?” sputtered Elliot, finally breaking away from his little pity party.
“Please be on the lookout for him,” she said before glancing at the boss. “I don’t want anyone else hurt.”
She did care about Burch, that was clear. But she was bad for him, that was also clear.
“Can I have your word you’ll get that information to D.A. Maxwell and Agent Morrissey at the F.B.I.?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cleon wrote the names and put the folded paper in his pocket. If there was a hitman on her they’d need every available resource to protect Burch. No wonder she didn’t come through the front.
He had to give her people credit for keeping her alive this long.
Chandler gestured to her security that they were leaving, snatched up her bag, and stomped to the door.
Elliot rushed to block her way.
“I want to help, Cathy.”
“Mr. Burch,” Cleon started, “I would not advise you—”
“You have to trust me!” Elliot grabbed her arm. “We’ve been through too much together—”
What Cleon could only describe as a—What’d you just say to me—expression crossed her face. She yanked her wrist out of his grasp.
“Elliot, you’ve proven why I can’t trust you.”
“Cathy, you can’t just walk out on us! We shared too much! Life and death—”
“You’re not the first, Elliot,” she interrupted, her cool voice sounding like a warning.
She took the now crying child back from her girl.
“You aren’t the first man I shared life and death with,” she reiterated while bouncing to soothe the boy. “And you certainly aren’t the only one to disappoint me. Get out of my way.”
“You are being totally unfair! You drop this…” He gestured. “… this kid on me, after months of no word.”
She twirled the baby onto her other hip and began counting on her fingers. “I was kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and had a baby in secret to protect him. Since I’ve come back, I’ve been held hostage by the F.B.I. and hunted by an assassin. But it’s my fault I didn’t keep you in the loop?”
“You didn’t trust me! You’ve never trusted me with the truth!”
“I gave you as much as I could…” she said, her voice returning to a hostile calm. “But I realize now I was wrong. You’re the same man I first met, blind to everything except what he wants. I was stupid to think you’d changed.”
She heaved on the door, but Elliot shot out a hand to slam it shut.
“I need time to plan! You can’t just ask me to up-end my life—”
“I’m only asking what’s been asked of me! No more second chances, Elliot! Say yes now or don’t. I don’t have time for you to grope for your moral compass.”
After a moment of looking helpless, he let go.
“Then stay out of my business and don’t contact me again,” she seethed.
“Cathy, you can’t mean that. How about we go away? It was the right thing to do after my father. We can get out of New York—”
She shook her head.
“Cathy, please, give me a day to think!” he cried before finding a more composed tone. “How can I reach you? In a hurry?”
She wavered at that, her gaze drifting from the pleading man to her companion. The guard was bouncing foot-to-foot she was so ready to escape.
“We really should get outta here, Catherine,” the girl warned. “It isn’t safe,”
For some reason, the girl’s words made the woman’s decision.
Chandler marched back to the desk, wrote an address and phone number, tore it off the pad, and handed it to Elliot.
He studied the paper and said, “Stay there, ok?” half-command, half-question.
“I can’t promise anything,” Chandler told him, her jaw clenched and hand on the doorknob. “Too many people’s lives hang in the balance.”
With that last volley, she departed, flanked by her protector whose expression dared them to follow. The door slammed behind them.
In the half-minute after, Elliot swayed across the room, seeming adrift, turning towards the door every few seconds. Cleon geared up to catch him, but instead, Burch seized the heavy tumbler he’d been drinking from earlier and pitched it.
The half-filled glass hit the side of some metal shelves, splitting into two large pieces and a few shards.
“Goddamn…” Elliot breathed.
Cleon shook his head and went to pick up the fragments.
“Stop it, Cleon,” Burch ordered when he realized what Cleon was doing. Then he flopped back into his chair the way Cleon Manning, the employee, the worker, forever on guard, never would. Burch ran his hand through his hair and grunted, “That’s not your job.”
“I’m head of your security, Mr. Burch,” Cleon argued, hitching up his pants and plucking the pieces off the rug. “You might cut yourself on the glass.”
Elliot swiveled back and forth a few times before groaning and covering his face with his hands.
“Cleon, what should I do?”
Cleon dropped remnants of the crystal in the trash
“I’m not your Uncle Conscience, Elliot.”
Elliot peered over, and Cleon wiped his hands on a monogrammed bar towel that probably cost more than his shoes.
“This all is way above my paygrade,” Cleon continued. Taking the chair opposite, he pointed at the man who could buy and sell him a hundred times over but was so blind in love he couldn’t see the nose on his face. “I will tell you this, though, that woman is trouble. She’s got too many secrets and too many commitments to people who aren’t you. If you took my advice, you’d listen to her—you’d stay out of her business and never see her again.”
Elliot cupped his jaw and his eyes slid away in thought.
In less than a minute, Burch sat forward and smiled like it would light up Manhattan.
“You’re not going to take my advice, are you, Mr. Burch?”
“Cleon,” Elliot reassured, all the confidence back, “you know I take your judgment very seriously.”
Yeah, and you pay a pretty penny for it too. Please don’t kill my cash cow—or me—in some vain attempt to woo a woman who doesn’t love you.
“We’ve got a long night ahead,” Elliot stated.
Yeah, I don’t doubt that.
“You and I have calls to make.” Elliot motioned to Cleon’s breast pocket with Chandler’s description and names. “And after that, we’ll sit here and share a drink,” he announced before locking on to Cleon with the intensity that made Elliot Burch feared and respected all over the world.
“And then you’re going to tell me everything you know about Cathy and ‘Vincent’.”
[i] Ceremony of Innocence.