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17

For Assistant Commissioner Roger Smalley, it had been a day dominated by telephones. First, the wake-up call from Jack Fawcett had promised to ruin the day entirely, and then the second interruption from Fran Traynor, had sent his ulcers into angry, growling protest.

The telephone had even conspired to vex him in its silence, refusing to connect him with Benny Copa when he needed the goddamned hoodlum most.

Only the last call, again from Jack Fawcett, had promised relief from a day fraught with potential disasters. Maybe, just maybe, the pieces were starting to fall into place.

Smalley could proceed with his plan now, full speed ahead. And the added embellishment promised by Fawcett would tie the whole thing up into one bright, shiny package.

An early Christmas present, sure. Why not?

But the damned telephone was ringing again!

Smalley punched a button to answer the ulterior office line, and his secretary's sultry voice issued from the speaker at his elbow.

"I'm sorry, Commissioner, but there's a Mr. La Mancha on line one, calling from the Justice Department."

La Mancha.

Smalley went cold for an instant, his hands clenched into fists on the desk top. Then he forced himself to relax, inch by inch.

"Thank you, Vicky," he said, pleased to find his voice in perfect control. "Put him on, please."

There was a click, and a moment of dead air followed by a humming sound, then Smalley sensed another presence on the line.

"Assistant Commissioner Smalley here," he said jovially. "Can I help you?"

"I wouldn't be surprised."

It was a deep voice, firm and strong. Knowing, somehow. You could read a million things into that suggestive intonation. Smalley fought to keep his imagination from running away with him. How much could the damned guy know, after all?

"Is there something St. Paul can do for the department?" Smalley asked.

La Mancha's answering tone was curt.

"Forget the department, guy. I just had a chat with Thomas Gilman about his family problem."

Smalley stiffened in his chair, fighting the involuntary tremor in his limbs. He forced his voice to remain strong and even.

"What? I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."

"I'm talking about Thomas Gilman. I believe you know him — and his son — very well."

Smalley felt as if his world was about to collapse around his ringing ears. He gulped a deep breath and held it for an instant, letting it out slowly as he fought to marshal his thoughts, to control the painful rumbling in his gut.

"I'd like to know who I'm talking to," he said at last. "If you're not with Justice..."

La Mancha cut him off again.

"Spell it with a small J. And the who doesn't matter, compared to the what."

Smalley was growing more and more confused.

"Well, then..."

"We're talking about murder, Commissioner, times five. And the one who got away."

Smalley tried to put the man off, stalling for time.

"It sounds like you want our homicide division, Mr. La Mancha. I could give you the number."

"I've already spoken to homicide," the caller told him simply. "My next call goes to the media."

"What?"

It was as if an invisible fist was clenched around Smalley's vocal cords, and he cursed his own lack of control.

The stranger's answer chilled him to the bone.

"I have a tape here with me that the city editors should be interested in," he said.

Smalley's mind was filled with a crush of conflicting, near-hysterical thoughts and fears. A tape? From Gilman? Had the yellow son of a bitch broken down and spilled his guts to a G-man, for God's sake?

No, La Mancha had already indicated he wasn't with the department. Okay. A blackmailer could be handled, paid off in more ways than one.

"Perhaps, uh, if you filled me in on the details..."

Before Smalley could finish the sentence, he heard the hissing sound of a tape in motion, and over all the sound of two familiar voices.

One voice belonged to his caller, the man named La Mancha.

The other belonged to Thomas Gilman.

". . . broke down under questioning and... he confessed... to rape and murder."

"You got a phone call."

Silence. Smalley could picture Gilman's head bobbing in assent.

"From a lieutenant named Fawcett?" "Who? No, I don't recognize the name. I was called by Assistant Commiss..."

Mercifully, the tape ended, cut off in mid-syllable.

Roger Smalley sat dumbly in his chair, feeling numb, shaken to the very fiber of his being. For an instant he almost panicked at the thought of those recorded words coming over an open line, but he calmed himself. No one could tap his phone without his learning about it in short order. He was the Assistant Police Commissioner, for Christ's sake!

The voice of the man called La Mancha was back on the line, demanding Smalley's attention, calling him out of himself.

"Heard enough, Commissioner?"

There was, surprisingly, no mocking tone in the words. The man seemed almost... well, almost sad, somehow.

Smalley's answering voice was low, taut.

"What is it that you want?"

La Mancha's answer came back at him without hesitation.

"Toni Blancanales, safe and sound."

And that was all.

Smalley risked everything on another stall.

"What makes you think..."

He never got it out. La Mancha's voice was a razor slicing across his words, terminating them in mid-sentence.

"I also had a talk with Benny Copa. He was cooperative to the last." Smalley's mind flashed back to his unanswered phone call of some time earlier. He guessed that Benny C. wouldn't be answering any more calls for a while — if ever.

"I see." It was all the commissioner could manage at the moment.

"Here's the deal," La Mancha said briskly, not waiting for any questions. "Deliver the lady in good working order, and I'll give you an hour's head start before I start making calls."

Smalley saw red for an instant, his hands clenched into tight fists before him. He imagined the smell of something burning in his nostrils.

"You can't be serious!" he snapped, when he recovered himself enough to speak.

"Is that your answer?" La Mancha asked.

"What?"

Smalley was suddenly confused, his anger blunted, thrown off stride by the simple question.

La Mancha's voice came back at him, this time with a note of resignation in it.

"Goodbye, Commissioner."

Suddenly desperate, Smalley clutched at the desktop speaker with palsied hands, as if to forcibly stop the other man from hanging up.

"Wait, dammit!" he blurted. Then he felt, tickling the back of his mind, the germ of an idea. "All right," he said reluctantly, "you've got a deal."

"Where and when?"

And suddenly Smalley knew the answer. Hell, he knew allthe answers.

"You know Phalen Park?" he asked slowly, fighting to keep the new excitement out of his voice.

"I'll find it," La Mancha told him.

"Okay. Meet me on West Shore Drive, let's say in an hour."

There was no immediate answer, and Smalley assumed the guy was thinking it over.

"Safe and sound, Commissioner," La Mancha said at last. "Otherwise, all bets are off."

"How do I know I can trust you?" Smalley countered.

"What choice do you have?" the stranger asked simply.

Roger Smalley had no ready answer for that one, but it didn't matter, because the line was already dead, an obnoxious dial tone filling the room until he hit the speaker switch and silenced it.

The assistant commissioner sat quietly, thinking and cursing to himself, laying the last of his battle plans that warm morning. This La Mancha, whoever the hell he was, appeared to have him by the balls, and it wasn't a comfortable feeling.

Well, let the bastard think that way. Just let him.

Roger Smalley wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot. And Mr. Smart-ass La Mancha would wind up wearing his own balls for a bow tie before the afternoon was out.

You could take that to the bank.

La Mancha had gained the early advantage in their conversation via the element of surprise, but the shoe was on the other foot now. When the guy kept their appointment in the park, he would meet with asurprise arranged by Assistant Police Commissioner Roger Smalley, no less. A fatal surprise.

Smalley lifted the telephone receiver, thought better of it, then cradled it again.

No, it wasn't likely that his phones were tapped, or his office bugged, but he hadn't survived this long on the force with the wise guys on one side and the headhunters from Internal Affairs on the other by being careless.

It might be a sign of paranoia, but what the hell. These were paranoid times he lived in, after all. A grin crossed Smalley's face as he thought of a psychedelic poster that had seen brief popularity in the head shops a number of years earlier: "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!"

And amen to that.

Well, "they" could be surprised right alongside Mr. La Mancha.

Smalley rose from his desk and made ready to leave the office. He had plans to finalize and a surprise party to orchestrate. When it was over, he just might come back and take his attractive secretary out to lunch.

In an hour he would be home free. Free and clear.


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