Excerpt from Downfall

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Wednesday, November 3, afternoon

San Francisco, California

The simplest beginnings can unravel a life. A family. A world.

In this case, chewing gum.

Diana Keene reached into her mom’s ugly new purse in the middle of their argument to snatch a slice of spearmint. She saw three cell phones hidden at the bottom of the purse.

One pink, one blue, one green. Cheap models she’d never seen before, not like the smartphone Mom kept glued to her side at all times, befitting a public relations executive.

“And since you’ll be running the company while I’m gone,” Mom was saying, her back to her daughter while she stuffed a sweater into her luggage, “no sauntering into the office at nine, Diana. Be there by seven thirty. Give yourself time to scan the news feeds from the East Coast.”

Diana grabbed the gum, stepped away from the purse, and considered whether or not to confront her mother in her little white lie. She decided to dance around the edges.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to go without a cell phone for two weeks.” Diana crossed her arms, staring at her mother’s back. She unwrapped the gum, slid the stick into her mouth. “What if I need you?”

“You’ll survive.” Her mother Janice zipped up her small suitcase, turned to face her daughter with a smile.

“What if a client throws a fit? Or I do something wrong?”

“Deal with it. You’ll survive.” Janice straightened up and smiled at her daughter.

“Mom—what if I need—” and then Diana broke off, ashamed. She stared past her mother’s shoulder, out at the stunning view of San Francisco Bay, the hump of Alcatraz, the distant stretch of the Golden Gate.

It was a cloudless day, the early haze burned away, the blue of the sky bright. Need what? Need you to keep running my life for me?

“Need money?” Mom, as she often did, finished the sentence for her but misinterpreted what she meant. “Diana, you’re a grown woman with a good job. You can survive for two weeks without any”—and here Mom did her air quotes, bending her fingers—“emergency loans.”

“You’re right.” Why are you lying to me, Mom? she thought. “Where is this no-contact retreat again?”

“New Mexico.”

“And I have no way to contact you—none at all?” Like on these three cheap phones?

“Cell phones are forbidden. You could call the lodge and leave a message, I suppose,” Janice said, but in a tone that made it clear that she didn’t want her Bikram yoga or her bird-watching or her organic lunch interrupted. “The whole point is to get away from the world, sweetheart.”

Mom stuck with the lie, and Diana felt her stomach twist. “This just isn’t like you, withdrawing so completely from the world. And from your work. And from me.”

“Yes, I’m a workaholic, sweetheart, and it’s made me tired and sick. I’m ready for a break, and I’m ready for you to be fine with it.”

Diana thought, Confront her with the lie. And then she knows you snooped in her purse like a kid would, and you’re twenty-three, not thirteen, and…maybe Mom has a good reason. She thought of the hours her mother had worked, everything she’d done for Diana. In the car. She’d ask her about the phones in the car.

“I’m ready.”

Diana jingled her keys. “Fine, let’s go.”

Mom’s town house was the entire top floor of the building. They took the elevator down and walked across the building’s small lawn (a rarity in San Francisco), through the heavy metal gate to Green Street. Diana put her mother’s bag in the back of the Jaguar that Janice had bought her for her last birthday. Diana drove out of the lovely neighborhood of Russian Hill. Janice talked about what needed to be done at work while she was gone: account reviews, pitching stories on clients to the leading business publications, preparing for client product launches in January. Diana kept waiting for her mom to stop lying.
They were ten minutes from the airport and Diana said, “Why are you taking three, yes three, cell phones to a place that forbids them?”

Her mother looked straight ahead and said, “So when they confiscate one, I’ll have extras hidden away.”

Diana laughed. “You troublemaker. Give me the numbers and I’ll call you or text you.”

“No. Don’t call me.” She looked out the window. “Just let me go do what I need to do and don’t call me.”

Her tone was far too serious. “Mom…”

“Do not call me, Diana, and frankly, I don’t appreciate you rooting around in my purse. Stay out of my business.”

The words were like knives, sharp, and to Diana’s ears not like Mom.

The drive turned into a painful silence as Diana took the exit for the airport.

“I don’t want this to be our good-bye, honey,” Janice said.

“Are you really going on this retreat?” Diana pulled up to the curbside drop-off.

“Of course I am.” Steel returned to Mom’s voice. “I’ll see you in two weeks. Maybe sooner if I get bored.” Janice leaned over and gave Diana a kiss on the cheek, a awkward sideways hug.

You’re still lying to me, Diana thought. I don’t believe you.

“Love you, honey,” Mom said. “More than you can know.”

“Love you, too, Mom. I hope you have a great time at your retreat.”

Mom glanced at her. “Two weeks will let you make a splash at the office while I’m gone. Be smart, show everyone you deserve to be my successor. You’ll be running it when I’m dead and gone.” Janice’s voice nearly broke on the last words, like she needed to clear her throat. She squeezed Diana’s hand.

Diana didn’t care for talk like that—for any suggestion of a Mom-free world. “I’ll keep everything running smoothly.”

Then Mom stepped out of the car, grabbed her small suitcase, and walked toward the terminal entrance.

Diana thought of jumping out of the car, running to her for one more hug, and thought, No, I won’t, because you’re clearly lying to me and I want to know why.

Her mother had never lied to her. The reason had to be big. Two weeks where Mom didn’t want anyone to know where she was. She headed back toward the city. But not to her own apartment. Back to Russian Hill, back to Mom’s.

Diana felt a cold tapping of terror down her spine, her imagination dancing with the possibilities behind her mother’s lie.

Janice Keene watched her daughter, the only true good thing she had done in her life, drive away until Diana was gone from sight in the eddying swarm of cars, cabs, and limos.

Inside her purse the pink phone rang. She answered it.

A voice of a man, with a soft mixed accent of an American who’d spent much time in London, said, “You’ll be traveling under the name Marian Atkins. Inside the lining of your purse is an appropriate ID. There’ll be a package for you at your hotel when you arrive with what you need. Call me on this phone when the first job is done, and then destroy the phone. I’ll call you then on the green phone. The blue phone for the last job.”

“I understand.”

“Remember you’re doing it all for your daughter, Janice. And then you can rest easy.”

“I know.”

The man hung up. Janice Keene went to the ladies’ room and tore open the lining of the purse and yes, there was a California driver’s license and a credit card in the name of Marian Atkins. Attached was a sticky note with an airline and a confirmation number and a hotel name with another confirmation number. The purse had been delivered to her house yesterday via an overnight courier, from an address in New York.
Janice walked to one of the airline’s self-service kiosks and tapped in the first number. The screen brought up an itinerary that informed her she was booked on a flight to Portland, Oregon. It spat out a boarding pass for Marian Atkins.

She collected the pass and walked with resolve toward the security lines.

Janice Keene was going to do what she must to ensure the world—that uncertain, awful, wonderful place—could never hurt her Diana. To be sure her daughter had a perfect life, just as perfect as the last seven years had been for her mother.

No matter who had to die.



Wednesday, November 3, afternoon

Sam! I want to get married here!”

“Of course you do, darling,” I said. I smiled at the venue’s event planner as we walked through the large marble atrium of the Conover House, one of the grander spots to host a wedding or conference in San Francisco. The romantic grin on my face was the kind I’d worn when I got married for the first time. Mila’s hand was clenched in mine, and her smile was dazzling. Pure bridal joy.

“Well, let me give you a tour,” the planner said. She was a tall woman, fortyish, in a smart gray suit. She’d sized us up the moment we arrived—sans appointment with that hurried disregard of the truly moneyed—and we were dressed to kill. No pun intended.

“One thing first,” I said.

“She will show us a cost estimate later, darling,” Mila said, ever the impatient bride. She leaned in close to me, her hair smelling of lavender, her eyes dancing with mischief. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be worth it.”

“My question isn’t cost. It’s security,” I said. “You have security here, yes, during events?”

“Yes, of course, if that is a concern.”

“It is.” I didn’t elaborate on a reason. I just kept my fake smile in place.

“We have a contract with a topflight security firm here. And a system of monitors and cameras throughout the building.” She gestured up at a small camera in the top corner of the atrium. I flexed the smile for the camera’s benefit.

“He is such the worrywart.” Mila looked stunning in her dark, snug dress, every inch the giddy bride. She wore a ring on her hand, a lovely diamond, that sparkled grandly on her finger. “Now the building.”

“One more question,” I said. “You have cameras monitored, yes?”

“Yes. Our on-site team can respond. Or they’re happy to work with your own security team, if you should have one.”

“That’s very reassuring,” I said, and off we went on the tour of the beautiful old building, which had once been a very grand bank, the planner pointing out the venue’s features and facilities.

“I am thinking,” Mila exclaimed as we walked along the marble floors, “of a 1920s theme for the wedding. Sam, is that not brilliant?”

“Brilliant,” I said. The architecture and decor certainly fit her idea. We were on the second floor by now, and I spotted a men’s room as we headed toward a grand staircase leading to the third floor. “I’m feeling a bit unwell, please excuse me. You all go on, I’ll catch up.”

“He is so nervous to marry me,” Mila said to the planner as I went through the men’s room doors. “We have been through so much together, you see.”

That was true. The door shut behind me. No cameras in here. I went into a stall, counted to sixty, and then I walked out and headed downstairs. The planner had already told us that most of the food service and administrative offices were on the first floor.

I assumed security was there as well. There might be a guard on duty, but there were no events being hosted right now, one conference having ended at noon. I tested the door marked security, lockpick at the ready.

But the door was unlocked.

I stepped inside. A small chamber, because they needed the real estate for food and rentals. Nine monitors set up to show various rooms and entrances of the Conover House. But no guard. Bathroom break?
One monitor was tuned to a cable news channel. The vice president of the United States had died last week from a sudden stroke, and conjecture about who the president would appoint as his successor was rampant. To me it sounded like a festival of endless talking heads. On the security monitors I saw Mila and the planner strolling on the third floor, and Mila pantomimed excitement to keep the planner focused on her, not on wondering where I was at or why I was taking so long in the bathroom.

A stack of DVDs stood on the rack, each in a jewel box, with a date and time range written on it, tied to a particular camera. The dates went back for a week. Liability issues, I thought. The venue wanted to protect itself. Because even among a well-heeled crowd, fights break out, people get drunk, tumbles happen down the stairs.

Or someone tries to commit a murder and fails.

I pulled one disc out of its jewel box for an evening three nights ago, from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., for the main ballroom. I replaced it with a similar disc. The discs got reused, I figured, at the end of the week. I slid the jewel box home and slipped the original video disc into the small of my back, against my belt. My jacket hid it.

On the screen, Mila bounced on the tiptoes of her elegantly shod feet, enraptured with the thoughts of the perfect wedding reception.

The door opened. A guard, midtwenties, about my age, stepped in. He looked annoyed but not angry to see me. “Sir, you’re not supposed to be in here.”

“Sorry. I was getting a tour with my fiancée”—I point toward Mila on the screen—“and I had a security question that I didn’t wish to ask in front of her while we’re getting the tour for our wedding reception. The door was unlocked.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Are your people armed?”

The guard blinked. “No. We’ve never needed to be.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t explain my question. I knew my intrusion would be mentioned to the planner, and they’d wonder why I was so obsessed with security. I didn’t need to give an answer since Mila and I wouldn’t return here. I nodded and I walked past him, and I was entirely sure that as I went up the two flights of stairs he watched me on the screen. I rejoined Mila and the planner and made sure to give Mila a convincing kiss for the benefit of the security guard. Her mouth was tight under mine, firm and warm.

We finished the tour, discussed possible booking dates eight months from now, and promised to call back soon.

Then we headed out into the busy Financial District, walked to the car, and drove back toward my bar in the Haight. I told Mila what I’d found, handed her the stolen disc.

“You asked if their guards were armed? I suspect every date I mention to the planner now, the venue will be booked,” Mila said. “I am so disappointed.”

“I could kill you,” I said.

“What, the wedding is off?” she said in mock surprise.

“I got caught. I had to talk my way out.”

“You have gotten lazy and sloppy,” she said. She slipped off the diamond engagement ring—I had no idea where she’d gotten it—and put it in her pocket.

“I told you I didn’t want to do… this anymore.”

“Do what?”

“Be your spy, your thief, your hired gun.” I kept my hands steady on the wheel. “I have a son now.”

“And the reason you have him back is me,” she said. “I’ve given you much and asked for little.”

“Mila. ..”

“Fine. Let’s go see your son. And”—she held up the disc I’d stolen—“let’s see who our would-be killer is.”

My bar in San Francisco—one of thirty plus I own around the world—was called The Select and it wasn’t open yet; I’d decided while my son Daniel was here not to open until five in the afternoon. It gave me more time with him. I parked behind the bar in a shared lot and opened the door with a key. The bar itself was silent. Upstairs, I could hear laughter and music and my heart melted a bit. Call me sentimental. I’d fought far too hard to get my son back to ever feel embarrassed by emotion.

Upstairs, in the office/apartment above The Select, my son Daniel, ten months old, was on a blanket, crawling and laughing, while Leonie played with him. I’d been lucky. Leonie hadn’t enrolled yet in art school, so she had the time to travel with me, bring Daniel along as I went to several of my bars over the past two weeks: New York, Austin, Las Vegas. We’d flown down from my bar in Vancouver yesterday, at Mila’s insistence, because there was a problem.

Mila knelt to tickle Daniel’s nose, earned a giggle from him, and then she completely ignored Leonie. Leonie ignored her back. They don’t like each other and I’m not entirely sure why. Leonie is not Daniel’s mother; she is, well, a nanny of sorts, an art student-turned-forger. She’d lost a lot in her life, and I’d saved Leonie from a criminal syndicate called the Nine Suns. The same syndicate that kidnapped Daniel and his mother, even before he was born, and destroyed my CIA career. Leonie had been good to Daniel and taken care of him when no one else would. She was deeply attached to my son, and so I’d asked her to stay in his life. We’d had a brief fling—under highly stressful circumstances—and were back to being just friends. Leonie had been nothing but perfect with Daniel, but I knew Mila thought I’d made a mistake, asking a former criminal to watch over my son.

I hoped Mila was wrong.

Mila slid the disc into a laptop on the desk.

“Here he is.” She pointed. “Dalton Monroe.” She clicked with the mouse and a red dot appeared on Monroe, a tall, rangy man in his sixties. He wore a suit and seemed determined to meet and greet everyone in the room, which was at least two hundred people.

In his right hand was a glass of bourbon.

“It’s no easy thing to poison a man in front of two hundred witnesses,” Mila said. “I admire the nerve.”

I picked up Daniel and sat next to her. He squirmed a little on my lap, eager to watch the red dot, like it was a game. Leonie stretched out on Daniel’s blanket and began to sketch in a pad aimlessly.

“Two hundred people, but it gets pared down pretty fast,” I said. “Look. He has a bodyguard near him. Maybe five admirers in a knot around him. Beyond that, a few people watching him directly,
angling for their chance to talk to him. Maybe fifteen, at any given second, looking at him. And looking at that same moment at the poisoner.”

She accelerated the feed; forty minutes into the video, Dalton Monroe stumbled badly, clearly ill. He dropped the bourbon glass. The bodyguard hurried him out, Monroe smiling, waving off concerns from the other guests. He had then been taken to a private medical clinic, where it was diagnosed that he’d ingested a nonfatal dose of digitalis. The press were told he’d simply become ill at the party and had to leave. Dalton Monroe was worth a billion dollars and did not care to have it known that someone tried to poison him at a reception celebrating his latest business acquisition, a local software company he’d bought to fold into his empire.

“He’s Round Table, right?” I asked Mila. The Round Table. My secret benefactors. A network of resource-rich and powerful people who want to be a force for good in the world, behind the scenes. They have Mila as their face to me; they gave me the bars to run, a web of safe houses around the world.

They helped me get back my son. I know little about them, except that they started off as a CIA experiment that finally broke free to pursue their own agenda.

“Yes,” Mila said. “Someone tried to kill a Round Table member. I want you to find out who.”

“I said I’d run the bars for you all. Nothing more.” I settled Daniel on my knee.

“Sam, perhaps Leonie wouldn’t mind taking Daniel for a walk,” Mila said. “The day is so lovely.”

“I don’t mind.” Leonie was normally chatty with me, but always quiet around Mila.

“No, would you leave him, please?” I got down on the blanket with him, wriggled fingers at him. I felt like I never got to see him enough, even when he was traveling with me.

“Fine,” Leonie said. “I’ll go get an iced coffee.” I thought she already had the ice in her voice. She left. Mila stood at the window while I played and made bubbling noises at Daniel, and I figured she waited until she saw Leonie on the street below.

“You need to be nicer to her,” I said. “You can trust her to keep her mouth shut about the Round Table.” And I knew we could—we’d given Leonie a far safer, brighter new life.

“I will never trust her.”

“I do, end of discussion.”

“I understand you want to be with your son,” Mila said. “I do. But the bars, a very good livelihood for you, were not free. There was a price attached.”

“I’m not ungrateful. But I’m also not a police detective.”

“The Round Table never wants the police involved. If this poisoning attempt on Monroe was because he is a member of the Table, then we must know without involving the police. Felix will help you.” Felix was the manager of The Select. Each senior manager of my bars know about the Round Table and were recruited to help with their work.

“What about you?”

Daniel grabbed my wiggling fingers and laughed. Sweetest sound ever.

“I have to return to Los Angeles tonight on other pressing business. I’m sure you can handle this.”

“And what do I do when I find out who tried to poison Monroe?”

“Give me their name. Then the Round Table will decide how to proceed.” She got up from the laptop, gave me a smile dimmer than her fake bridal one. “Don’t pretend you’re not itching for some action. A man like you doesn’t like to sit and play with a baby on a blanket for long.”

“Actually, I like nothing better.” I made a face at Daniel. “Don’t we? Don’t we like playing on the blanket.” Daniel concurred with laughter but then gave me a rather serious frown, as though a more detailed answer required thought.

Mila didn’t smile. “I know you love Daniel. But I also know you, Sam. You cannot sit at a desk; you cannot play on a floor. You need something more.”

I looked up at her. “No, I don’t.”

“Sam. Send Leonie and Daniel home to New Orleans tonight.

They’ve been traveling with you for two weeks; a baby needs routine and order, not bars and airplanes. I’ll even give Leonie and Daniel a ride to the airport, get them their tickets. Then you go home when you’ve cleared up this little case for me, yes?”

I was a former undercover CIA agent, not a detective, but I nodded. Anything to get her to go. If I found Monroe’s poisoner, fine. If I didn’t, then maybe I could make a new deal with the Round Table. One that kept me out of trouble. One that let me play on blankets. Then I could go home to New Orleans for a while. I had to find a way to make this balance work.

“That planner will be so disappointed that we’re not getting married there,” I said. I don’t even know why I mentioned it. The words felt odd in my mouth, and I was glad Leonie wasn’t there, even though we were just friends now.

Mila crooked a smile at me. “Maybe if you find our poisoner,” she said, “I’ll throw you a big party.”

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