The car tumbled off the cliff, hurtling toward the distant blue shimmer of the water.
The first, instinctive reaction is to draw in, brace yourself for the impact. Brace for, never mind survive, the impact.
Next was the peculiar itch in my daredevil’s brain, figuring gravity’s pull at 9.8 meters per second squared, thinking, We have five seconds before we hit.
In the second of those seconds I felt the gun’s cool barrel press harder against my temple, realized my passenger was aiming right at my head in case the crash or the water didn’t end me.
That is attention to detail. That is commitment.
Three: The water rushed toward us. I moved forward, reaching, the cool steel barrel staying on me, my fingers along the floorboard groping for my one chance.
The sky, the water, my last breath, everything blue.
Four: The gun fired.
Four Weeks Earlier
“You’re something, aren’t you, Sam?”
“I’m just a guy who owns a bar.” Someone had left an abandoned checkers board on the bar and I moved the fresh glass of beer I’d just poured for Steve around the game. The guys who’d left it might be back the next day to finish it. Stormy’s was that kind of place.
“But you used to be something,” Steve said. A little insistent.
“A bar owner is being something.” Why is there no one-word term in American English for being a bar owner? “Publican” sounds too English and formal. “Barkeep” isn’t enough. I glanced through the windows. A young couple still sat on the outside couch, a dog at their feet, and I could tell from the angle of their beer bottles as they sipped that they were nearly done. The covered patio of the bar was otherwise deserted, a slow Sunday night headed toward empty. I had to close at midnight and that was twenty minutes away.
“But you used to be something.” And I couldn’t miss the prying hint in Steve’s voice.
“We all used to be something,” I said. “You too, Steve.”
Steve smiled. “The way you move. The way you eyed that jerk who bothered that young woman in here last night. You didn’t even have to raise a fist, threaten to call the cops. Or even boot him. Just the look you gave him stopped him cold.”
I shrugged. “Looks are cheap.”
“The way you study every person who comes in here, Sam. One glance of assessment. That’s from a habit of being in tough situations.”
“I just don’t want trouble and it’s better to see it coming than be surprised.”
“So the something you were,” he said. “I think if you were ex-military or an ex-cop, you’d claim it right away. But you don’t.”
I shrugged again. Bartenders are supposed to listen more than they talk anyway. I wiped the bar. Every night was too slow. My other bars around the world were mostly high-end joints but Stormy’s wasn’t, it was a certified dive. It had been open for years, sliding through an assortment of owners until it came into my possession. The other nearby bars in Coconut Grove were a bit higher-end than Stormy’s. Scarred bar, couches under a crooked TV, games such as checkers and Connect Four on the little tables. No fancy drinks: beer, wine, and your basic hard liquor. If I told people I owned a bar in Miami they’d automatically assume I lorded over some über-trendy nightclub in South Beach, women pouring out of limos in tiny skirts and huge heels. Many of my customers walked to Stormy’s from the surrounding neighborhoods in Coconut Grove. We were not a tourist draw.
And Stormy’s wasn’t exactly drawing the locals that night. It was just me and the couple on the patio and Steve and two older guys watching a West Coast basketball game on the corner TV; they’d already finished a pitcher. Miami wasn’t playing, so there wasn’t a crowd.
“So. Since you won’t claim what you used to be, maybe you can’t.” Steve kept playing Sherlock. He could play all day. I don’t talk about my past, not my real past, and for sure not to a guy who drinks too much. Even if he was my best friend in Miami.
“You mean like I was in jail?” I said. I didn’t smile. I had been in a prison once, but not the kind he thought. A CIA prison is a different proposition.
Steve laughed. “No. Maybe you were working in something you can’t talk about.”
“Maybe you’re just underestimating the skills involved in running a bar.” I didn’t have a manager in place at Stormy’s, which was why I’d spent two weeks in Miami. Maybe I could offer Steve a job. But that would mean being honest with him about the quiet work I was doing now, what I’d done in my previous life, and asking him to stay silent. I wasn’t sure he could keep my secrets.
I would wonder, later, if it would have all been different if I had trusted him. He might not have taken the job that changed everything for us both.
“I know what I see,” Steve said, suddenly serious. “You know how to handle yourself, Sam. I could use some help.”
“Well, you know I work in freelance security.” I’d first met Steve when I was fifteen years old. He’d worked a security detail attached to my parents’ team of relief workers in central Africa. He’d saved my family’s lives during a chaotic evacuation from a war-torn nation, pulling my parents and my brother and me from a wrecked vehicle. He’d gotten us to an airport to board the final military evacuation flight before the rebels bombed the runways. I could remember his face, looking at me through the broken window of the car, saying, Come on, Sam, you’re okay, let’s go. He’d stayed in steady touch with my parents over the years: sending us Christmas cards from Africa and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, a pen and pencil set for my high school graduation, flowers and a thoughtful note when my brother, Danny, a relief worker in Afghanistan, was kidnapped and executed.
But that had been contact with my parents, not me. I’d barely known him, and when his cards arrived I’d think, Oh, yeah, Steve. The guy who saved us, how is he? He was a wanderer in his work and so I hadn’t seen him since that violent night in Africa. When I’d come to Miami two weeks ago to address the nagging problems of this bar, he’d showed up and claimed a barstool the next day. I first assumed my parents had sent him to watch over me; after years of estrangement they’d decided to take an interest in my life. He didn’t say. But he’d inherited his parents’ house in Coconut Grove and was already a semi-regular at Stormy’s. He said he hadn’t done security work overseas in a while. He seemed happy to guard the bar against any potential danger by occupying a seat and helping me fill the bar’s nearly empty cash register.
But he was seeing something of himself in me just then: the guy who went into dangerous situations. It was unnerving that he could read my past in my movements, my attitude, like there was a sign on my skin. I thought I had mellowed more.
Part of me just wanted to tell him to forget it, that he was entirely wrong, and hope he’d let it drop. But spies, by nature, are curious people. We want to know things. Even when we’re no longer spies in the conventional sense. I was twenty-six and had spent three years with a secret division in the CIA. I guess it showed. Or Steve knew more about me than he was willing to admit.
“You’re wrong about me, but what is the job?”
He smiled as though he could recognize my little white lie. “I could use an inside man.” I shrugged like I didn’t know what the term meant and went to the guys watching the basketball game to see if they wanted a last beer, which was an unusual level of service at Stormy’s. But I wanted Steve to change the subject. Inside man, I thought. To be a spy again. The basketball fans wanted nothing more, so I returned to the bar and resumed tidying.
Steve lowered his voice. “So. I’m meeting a friend here tonight. A woman.”
I frowned. If I were trying to impress a woman Stormy’s was not my choice of venue, and I owned the place. “Uh, you know I’m closing in a few minutes?”
“I just need to talk to her for a bit. You don’t have to serve us. It’d be a big favor. You’ll be here anyway.” That was true. I lived in an apartment above the bar; every one of my bars around the world, they all had living quarters above them. There was a reason for that, and it was the reason I didn’t think I could offer my talkative friend a job. But Steve was there every night when I shut down the bar, and we’d hung out and chatted after I turned off the neon Open sign.
“I should charge you rent,” I said, joking. The couple on the patio left; the two guys watching basketball departed. I left Steve for a moment to collect their tips and their empties. I dumped the glasses and slid the money into the cash register.
“I could pay you, Sam.”
“What, your tab? I thought you had a friend coming…”
“No, dummy. To help me with this security job I got.”
“Thanks for the offer,” I said. “But like I said, I’m not anything. Just a bartender.”
Steve studied me. He was in his mid-forties, burr haircut going silver, a man who had once been handsome and still could be but there had been too much beer and too many fights. He looked worn and beaten down. “You sure? I still think I’m right about you.”
“My brother always told me to stay on my guard. I think that’s what you see.”
“You know how sorry I am about Danny.”
The thing was—I don’t think I’d talked to another guy as much as I had to Steve since Danny died. Most hours that the bar was open, I was there, and Steve was there, drinking sodas during the day, tapping at his laptop, or reading or watching the TV. My closest friend from my days in the hidden Special Projects branch at the CIA was a guy named August Holdwine, and August and I no longer talked much. And as far as my friends from my Harvard days went, to them I was a mystery. I graduated, went to work for a London consulting firm that was secretly a CIA front, and had ended up owning bars. I had fallen out of the drawn lines for what was acceptable success. And I wasn’t on social media, posting pictures of my child, recording what I’d eaten for lunch, or talking about my favorite football team.
But every day for the two weeks I’d struggled with getting the bar on its feet again, Steve had been there. So we’d spent those past fourteen days and nights talking for hours, everything from basketball to women to books to movies. I hadn’t had a friend in a while. I hadn’t had the time for one. And he was someone who had once helped my family during a dark hour. I owed him. Maybe I should listen to his offer, help him. I felt torn.
“When’s your friend coming?”
He glanced at his watch. “Any minute now.”
Then the woman walked in. Even in the dim light you could see she was striking. Long dark hair, a curvy figure.
She glanced around the room and I saw it in her eyes: she was scared to death.
I knew fear. I’d seen it in the stares of people facing CIA interrogation in Europe, in the eyes of a woman who thought she was going to lose the child she loved as her own, in my own face when I’d lost my family. This woman quenched the fear when her gaze met mine. She was trying to be brave.
She was my age, mid-twenties, and I thought, She’s not really Steve’s friend. This is about his problematic job.
She smiled when she saw Steve and her expression shifted to a look of polite surprise. Like she couldn’t believe she was there. It was close to midnight and we were in a cheap bar. Who meets at a bar so close to closing?
“Hello,” she said, shaking his hand. “Let’s sit over on the couches, where we can talk.” Her voice shook a little at first, but she steadied it.
She clearly wanted privacy. But Steve, ever gregarious, said, “This is my good buddy Sam. He owns this dump. I just keep it in business.”
The woman offered her hand and I shook it. She had a confident grip. She didn’t tell me her name, though, and I couldn’t tell if she simply forgot to or she didn’t want me to know. Steve didn’t introduce her.
“Hello,” I said. “What may I get you to drink? We’re about to close but you’re welcome to stay and talk.”
“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Sam lives above the bar; he can’t be inconvenienced,” Steve said. “This is a very private place. Like you asked for.”
She glanced at Steve’s empty beer. “All right. That’s kind of you, Sam.” And her lovely eyes met mine. “May I please have a club soda? With lime?” And her voice was low, and slightly loping in how she spoke, and heating you while you stood there.
“Of course. I’ll bring it to you.” I muted the post-basketball game analysis that was playing so they could hear each other more easily.
The woman gave me a grateful smile. “Thank you, Sam; you’re kind.” That molten voice, like warmed honey.
They headed for the couches and I got her a club soda. I wished our bar glasses were better crystal. I saw her glance at the vintage Miami Dolphins posters, worn signs from local breweries, a framed photo of the bar’s original owner—a famously irascible woman named Stormy who had died a few years back—and Ernest Hemingway from the 1950s. A message blackboard where anyone could write a morsel of wisdom. This evening it announced, in blue chalk: tonight’s special: buy two drinks, pay for them both. I hoped she was thinking the bar was retro cool instead of outdated lame.
I brought her the club soda, with the nicest-looking lime slice in the whole bar. Steve shut up—nothing could get Steve to hush normally—when I set down the drinks. I wondered what kind of job he’d needed help with—he hadn’t seemed at all busy the past two weeks. I left them and they resumed talking in low voices, too low for me to hear.
She was afraid. Why?
I turned off the Open sign, locked the door, retreated back to the bar. I wiped the already-spotless counter, working around the checkerboard, and did a quick inventory. Steve’s problems were Steve’s: I loved owning these bars and if I wanted to keep on owning them I’d have to make each one profitable, including this loser. I was short on wine and beer. I’d have to reorder, eating up the scant profits. Beer is the least profitable alcohol you sell in a bar but is the most popular choice. Maybe Stormy’s needed some signature drinks, hard-liquor treats that would generate a much higher profit margin, bring in some new business. I could add food; the Stormy’s kitchen was unused. I’d have to invest in new equipment, hire a staff.
Yet I dragged my feet on these decisions. And then I’d have to decide if I was going to go home next weekend, to New Orleans, and see my son, Daniel. The weekend would be the busiest time, and the bar couldn’t easily afford me gone. And given that the bar had its own secrets in the apartment above it, I needed a manager I could trust entirely. I could maybe recruit one of the managers from my other bars: Gigi from Las Vegas, Kenneth from London, Ariane from Brussels…The Europeans might particularly enjoy a stay in Miami. I wondered what paperwork I’d have to fill out to get them a work visa.
I saw Steve lean back suddenly away from his friend. They’d become huddled, her talking so softly that I couldn’t even hear the murmur of that honey river of a voice of hers.
I glanced at the clock. Ten past midnight.
“No one can know,” she said. “No one.”
I heard him say, “They already do. I got a surprise in the mail.” And then I didn’t hear the next few words as he brought his beer glass close to his mouth. Then I heard him say: “How did anyone know you hired me?”
She said, clearly, “Maybe someone’s following me? Ever since the ten million…” Then she glanced at me, as if realizing that she might have spoken too loud.
And then Steve’s voice dropped back down again.
Ten million? Not my business; I’d said no. I opened up a laptop I kept under the bar for the extra-slow times like this. Keyed it on. Typed in a website and then there was a video feed of my son, Daniel, asleep in his crib. His sleep was so deep that for a moment I got worried, and nearly called Leonie, his nanny (of sorts—she used to be a forger and I saved her from her life of crime, long story). She’d set up the feed for me, the traveling dad who had to be away too often.
Then he stirred, that magical breath of life, and I watched my baby sleep.
This is why I can’t help you with your security job, whatever it is, Steve, I thought. I need to stay out of that world.
“I’ll check it now,” I heard Steve say. “Sam?” I closed the laptop.
“You all want something else?” I asked. The woman still sat on the couch.
“I’m going to go get her car and bring it around, then I’m going to follow her home on my motorcycle.” Steve only lived a few blocks away, in a nice lush corner of Coconut Grove, near the landmark Plymouth Congregational Church. When he didn’t walk to Stormy’s, he rode his motorcycle. “Will you stay in here with her, please?”
“Sure. Is everything okay?”
He watched out the windows for a moment, staring out at the dark, rainy night. “Just keep an eye on her.” He turned to go.
“Steve? Seriously, is there a problem?” I raised my voice.
He cracked a smile. “Just keeping her safe. You sure you didn’t used to be somebody?”
“Just a bartender,” I said automatically. Three words to haunt me in the days to come.
He paused, as though wishing I’d finally given him another answer. He headed out the door. Most of the parking for the bars in this part of Coconut Grove is either valet (with several restaurants sharing the service) or individual paid lots of banks or other early closing businesses scattered through the neighborhood. The closest parking for Stormy’s was a paid lot three blocks away.
I walked over to her table. “What’s the problem?”
“Steve said you wouldn’t be nosy.”
“You’re afraid and now he’s worried.”
She glanced up at me. “You’re a lot younger than Steve is.”
“I don’t think you can help me.” She got up and looked out the window, but didn’t stand close to it.
“Are you his client who needs an inside man?”
She didn’t answer me. “It’s not what you’d call a nice bar, but I like it,” she said. “I like that you have left that checkers game untouched. That’s some customer service, there.” She tried out a smile. It was lovely.
I shrugged. “Every game should be finished until there’s a winner.”
“I agree completely.” She watched for him at the window. Steve’s motorcycle was parked out front, under the awning, and he’d left his jacket and his helmet on the barstool. I moved them down to his table and I could hear his bike’s keys jingle in the jacket pocket.
I joined her at the window. A block down was another bar, with no one sitting outside. A moderate rain had started, chasing the Sunday-night drinkers inside. Traffic had thinned, a light mist coming with midnight. The street was empty. “I’ll be fine waiting for him.”
“He asked me to stay with you,” I said.
“That’s my car,” she said. I wondered why on earth he would have insisted that he bring her car around rather than just walk her to it if he were concerned for her safety. Steve was Steve. It was an older Jaguar, in mint condition. I saw Steve at the wheel, turning onto the street from the prepaid lot, three blocks from us.
He pulled up in front of Stormy’s. He stepped out onto the brick sidewalk. He started to walk along the car, checking the fenders and the wheel wells, I realized, for a tracking device.
Then from the opposite direction, from the road Steve took to his house, a heavy SUV roared down the street, slowed when it reached Steve. He turned to look at them.
I heard a single shot, muffled.
Steve fell. The SUV roared past us.
The woman screamed.
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