True blue, p.27
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       True Blue, p.27

           David Baldacci
 

  another option?”

  “What?”

  “The really manly way to settle disputes.”

  “Knives? You ain’t that dumb. I’ll cut your mayo ass up.”

  “I said really manly.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “Meaning basketball. One-on-one. There’s a court and a ball right over there.”

  Mace turned her head to stare at the single netless hoop and the old ball resting next to the support pole.

  “Basketball!” roared Psycho. “Just ’cause I’m black you think I play ball?”

  Roy glanced down. “No. But you’re wearing the same shoes that the UNC team wears on the court. And they’re not just for show. They’ve got black scuffs all over the bottoms and the sides. That only comes from playing ball on the asphalt. In fact, I can tell from the scuff patterns that you’re a drive-to-the-hoop and not a pull-up jumper kind of guy.”

  “So you know your basketball?”

  “I’m a fan. Is it a deal?”

  “Sure, man, no problem.”

  Roy tightened his grip on the man’s neck. “Don’t bullshit me.”

  “I ain’t bullshitting you.”

  Mace said, “That’s a good thing. Because if you say you’ll do it and you don’t, then you just lost the respect of your entire crew. They may not show it today, or tomorrow, but one day they will. Their boss, who wouldn’t take a white boy on in hoops? Rather shoot his ass? Yeah, that’s real easy. See, you already let him get the jump on you. And you may try to sound all cool and everything, but you’re the one on your knees with another man making the decision whether you live or die. He could kill you right now. But he didn’t. What he’s offered you is respect. A way to settle this, man to man.”

  Psycho’s superior manner slowly faded as he eyed his troops one by one. None of them would fully meet his gaze.

  “So what’s it gonna be?” said Mace.

  “Play to eleven, a point a hoop and win by two,” snarled Psycho. “Meaning I win by two. Now you let go of my neck so I can kick your ass.”

  Roy slowly released the man and Psycho stood, carefully wiping off the knees of his jeans. He looked Roy up and down. “Do you even know how to play ball?”

  “A little.”

  “A little don’t cut it, around here.”

  “We can flip a coin to see who gets the ball first.”

  “Oh, you can have it first. Be the only time you get the damn ball. Oh, and here’s one more thing to keep in mind. You win, you both walk. I win, you’re both dead.”

  CHAPTER 61

  PSYCHO STOLE the ball from Roy by burying a shoulder in his gut and knocking him down before dunking and scoring the first point. He walked back over to Roy, who was slowly getting to his feet. Psycho kicked him hard in the shin.

  “That’s one.”

  “That was also a foul,” said Roy.

  “Ain’t no fouls on this court. Just man to man.”

  “Your ball.”

  Roy had played against every competition imaginable both on the college basketball court and on the streets. Most guys had one signature move, the best two, the very best three. He let Psycho drive past him and score, taking an elbow shot to the thigh.

  That was one move, Roy thought to himself.

  Psycho scored again, using a different move.

  That was two moves.

  He glanced over at Mace, who was staring at him anxiously. He gave her a quick wink and then went back on defense, setting his butt low, his feet and hands spread wide.

  Psycho drove again and scored using his first move. Or he would have if Roy hadn’t stuffed the ball so hard it knocked Psycho flat on his back on the asphalt.

  “My ball,” said Roy as he snagged it and dribbled it back and forth between his legs without even looking down.

  As Psycho started to guard him, Roy backed up and banked a twenty-footer.

  “That’s one,” said Roy.

  A minute later a reverse dunk and then a twenty-foot fader by Roy tied it.

  “Three-three.”

  Five minutes later, and despite Psycho fouling him brutally at every opportunity, Roy was up by six and his opponent was bent over clutching a stitch in his side while Roy wasn’t even sweating.

  With a perfectly executed crossover dribble that had Psycho frantically backpedaling and then falling on his ass, Roy drove past him and slammed the shot home.

  “That’s ten,” announced Roy. “One more to go.”

  He took the ball and bounced it back and forth between his legs while he studied his staggered opponent. Psycho was humiliated, tired, and pissed. Roy could at least let the guy make it respectable.

  Screw that.

  He dribbled backward and stopped, set up, and nailed a twenty-five-footer. The ball didn’t even touch the metal rim as it dropped through.

  The ball bounced on the asphalt and came to a stop against the post.

  “That’s eleven. You lose. We walk.” He headed over to Mace.

  Psycho lunged forward and grabbed a gun from one of his men. Breathing hard, he pointed it at Roy’s back.

  Roy turned around. “Is there an issue?”

  Wiping the sweat from his eyes Psycho said, “Where’d you learn to play ball like that?”

  “On a court just like this.”

  “You lied to me. You said you knew how to play just a little.”

  “Everything’s relative. You might not be as good as you think you are.”

  Psycho cocked the pistol’s hammer back.

  Mace pulled free from the two men holding her and moved between Roy and the gun. “Everybody here heard you set the rules. He wins, we walk. Your words.”

  Psycho eyed his crew and then looked back at Mace. The gun came down one inch at a time.

  “Get your asses outta here. Now!”

  “Just so we’re clear, this is not a cop thing. We’re with Social. We just came here to help Alisha get a better life, for her and her son. Don’t make her a part of this, because she’s not.”

  Psycho said nothing. He strode off. His crew followed quickly.

  When they were alone Mace turned to Roy. “That was unbelievably kickass.”

  “Would it be really unmanly if I wet my pants right now?”

  “I wouldn’t think any less of you.”

  “So what about Alisha and Tyler? Do you think he’ll leave them alone?”

  “Call me stupid, but I don’t trust anyone whose name is Psycho. I’m going to have Beth get her and the kid out of here.”

  “And her brother?”

  “Yeah, I guess so.”

  “I suppose we can do some more interviews today,” he said doubtfully.

  “I think they can wait. Let’s go back to Abe’s.”

  “Is he home?”

  Mace used her sleeve to wipe the blood off Roy’s face. “I don’t care if he is or not. I need to get my little hero cleaned up.”

  She took his hand and led him back to the Honda.

  No one bothered them on the way out.

  CHAPTER 62

  MACE PUT the pack of ice over Roy’s nose as he sat in the spa in Altman’s guesthouse. “How’s it feel?”

  “Broken. But then so does my leg, my ankle, and my ribs.”

  “At least the swelling around your eye’s gone down. You want to go to the hospital?”

  “No, I’ll be okay so long as I stop interacting with guys named Psycho.”

  “I was going to order out for Chinese, but when I called the main house to see if they had a take-out menu, Herbert seemed indignant. So he’s preparing a Chinese dinner just for us.”

  “Very nice of Herbert. Where’s Altman?”

  “The Bentley’s gone, so maybe he ran out to do something.”

  Roy sat up straighter, positioning the ice pack under his eye. “Did you get through to your sister?”

  “She had Alisha and Tyler picked up and brought to Social Services.”

  “And her brother?”

 
“He wasn’t there. That guy worries me.”

  “That he’ll go after Psycho, you mean?”

  “Yep. And that means he’ll be dead.”

  She sat on the edge of the spa. “You know why I brought you along with me today?”

  “For the comedic potential?”

  “No, to keep an eye on you.”

  He took off the ice pack and swiveled around to look at her. “To protect me?”

  “After those guys came after me I knew they’d run your license plate and find out who you were. I was worried. But the only thing I did was set you up in a death match with an asshole named Psycho. What a genius I am.”

  He gripped her hand. “Hey, you had no idea that was going to happen. And we did okay. Right?”

  “You did great, not just okay.”

  “You must be rubbing off on me.”

  They stared at each other. She stroked his hair and he rubbed her arm.

  “You up for getting wet, Mace?” he said quietly, his gaze melding into hers.

  They heard a sound from downstairs. Mace jumped to her feet. “That must be Herbert. Do you want me to bring the food up here or do you want to eat outside overlooking the stunning gardens?”

  He let go of her hand. “Stunning gardens sound good.”

  “Take your time, I’ll keep the food warm.”

  As she fled down the stairs Roy slowly sank back into the water.

  Beth had just come back to her office after attending a meeting in Four D when her phone rang. She picked it up. “Chief,” she said.

  “Please hold for Interim U.S. Attorney Mona Danforth,” a woman’s voice said in an overly formal manner.

  Beth tapped her fingers on her desk as she waited for Mona to pick up. This was a stunt the lady pulled all the time. She’d probably been standing there watching her secretary make the call and then sauntered back to her office, just to make Beth wait.

  Thirty seconds passed and Beth was just about to slam the phone down when the woman’s voice came on the line. “Mona Danforth.”

  “Yeah, that part I got since you called me. What’s up?”

  “Something strange on the Meldon case.”

  “You have specifics?”

  “The CIA is disavowing any knowledge of the matter.”

  “And you’re surprised why?”

  “Hey, you asked me to make some calls and get back to you.”

  Beth stared down at her desk as she tried to compartmentalize the one million things she still had to do today after already changing gears a dozen times. But mostly she was thinking of Mona’s little plan to ruin both her and Mace. “Go ahead.”

  “I checked Jamie’s caseload. He was not working on anything that would’ve caused anyone to kill him and throw him in a Dumpster.”

  “But he was a defense lawyer in NYC, right?”

  “More specifically he was a mob lawyer. But the people he represented are either dead, in prison, or no longer in the business. The one guy who might’ve had a grudge against him is in Witness Protection. And U.S. Marshals don’t ordinarily let their protectees run off to commit murders.”

  “So the CIA claims they’re not behind the investigation into Jamie’s murder. Let’s say they’re telling the truth for once. Who else could it be? I heard the order to stand down might’ve come from the White House. But then I talked to someone I trust who told me that probably wasn’t true.”

  “Who’d you talk to?”

  “Sorry, Mona, I start giving away my sources, I won’t have any left.”

  “Fine!”

  “Look, the mayor was the one to actually call me off, but when I asked him where the order had come from he clammed up.”

  “You think the Bureau is playing straight with us on this?”

  “I know the director and his top guys, just like you do. They’ve usually played straight in the past. Why do you ask?”

  “Because I got a message from a Fibbie asking to meet with me to go over the Meldon case.”

  “Why you?”

  “I am the interim U.S. attorney, Beth. Jamie worked for me.”

  “But the last time I checked, a homicide committed in D.C. fell within my purview. I have to catch the damn bandits before you can prosecute them, Mona.”

  “Well, if you want to meet with him, feel free. I’m swamped as it is. And when I put it up as an option, he said he had no problem with that. In fact, I think he was planning on talking to you anyway.”

  Beth pulled a piece of scratch paper toward her. “Fine, what’s his name.”

  “Special Agent Karl Reiger.”

  CHAPTER 63

  THE SUN was setting as they finished their meal. Herbert had served the dinner in a Roman ruin–style pavilion next to an elaborate water garden with a pond, waterfall, and hundreds of thirsty flowers.

  “I wonder if Herbert rents out for parties,” said Roy, as he used chopsticks to push a last bit of spicy pork into his mouth.

  “If you had a full-time gig here would you ever want to leave?” said Mace as she sipped on a glass of Chinese beer.

  Roy glanced at her. “So about me asking you to join me in the hot tub—”

  “What about it?” Mace cut in.

 
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