Nate Ford watched the parking garage from his spot a few blocks away. As far as he could tell in the evening twilight, it was completely deserted. He looked at his watch – five minutes – then back toward the garage. He was really starting to regret agreeing to meet here.
He pulled out his phone and dialed a number.
"Nate?" Maggie answered breathlessly. "Are you done?"
"No, I just got here. I'm getting ready to go in now."
"How long do you think it will take?" Her voice was tinged with anxiety. "When should I start to worry?"
"Hard to tell. But don't do anything until you hear from me or Jim. I've told him to check in if he hasn't heard from me in two hours. But I don't think it'll take that long."
She didn't say anything, but Nate knew what she was thinking.
"I'll be fine, honey," he said. "Don't worry. How's Sammy?"
She sighed, and he realized he'd chosen the wrong subject to ease her fears. "Still lethargic, still feverish. It's been almost two weeks now, Nate. I'm starting to really worry. I think we need to take him to the doctor."
"Yeah, I think you're right." Nate tried to hide the worry from his own voice. "It's probably just the flu or something, Mags. Try not to stress too much. He'll be fine."
"You're probably right," Maggie said, but he could tell she didn't believe him.
"Listen, I have to go in now, but don't worry. I'll be home soon. Kiss Sam goodnight for me, and I'll call you when I'm done."
"Just … be careful, Nate. The last time —"
"The last time I came away without a scratch. It'll be fine."
"Just please be careful."
Nate smiled to keep the concern out of his voice. "I'm always careful. And if I'm right, there's nothing to worry about."
"If you're right."
"I'm also always right."
He could practically hear her eye roll over the phone. "Yes, of course, how could I forget?" The annoyance faded to worry again. "I love you."
"I love you, too, honey. Talk to you soon."
He hung up and looked back at his watch. Three minutes.
With a deep breath, he grabbed the files and envelope from the passenger seat and walked to the parking garage.
Two and a half minutes later he entered the dilapidated building. There were a few lights still working, but it was mostly dark. Trash and cigarette butts littered the ground, and graffiti decorated the walls. Nate walked to the brightest area as his stomach fluttered. He was definitely regretting not suggesting an alternate location.
His watch read eight o'clock exactly. He looked around, but there wasn't much to see outside the little circle of light in which he stood, so he listened instead. Some rodents skittered around, but nothing else.
He waited another few minutes, which seemed to last an eternity. Then he spoke. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it felt like a scream in the silence.
"I know you're here. I came alone, just like I said I would. Are we gonna talk or not?"
He didn't actually know if anyone was there, but he figured there was no harm in saying that he did. If he was wrong, only the rats heard him. If he was right, he sounded much more at ease and confident than he felt.
He heard a small chuckle, and out from behind the pillar right in front of him stepped — no, sauntered — Eliot Spencer.
It was the first time Nate had seen him in a non-chase-related setting. Spencer was striking. He wore combat boots and slightly loose dark blue jeans with a large belt buckle at the waist. A bright red, button-up shirt over a white tank top, with sleeves rolled up halfway, accentuated his toned upper body and muscular arms. His dark brown hair was long, almost shoulder-length, and his blue eyes blazed in the dim light. He wore a slight smirk that Nate knew had caused more than a few women to swoon, including his own wife.
"No work at the dinner table, Daddy!" Maggie sing-songed. "Right, Sammy?"
"No work at the dinner table, Daddy!" Sam repeated.
"No, never." Nate smiled as he took the four-year-old from his wife.
"Is that him?" she asked, looking over his shoulder at the folder on the table.
"Wow …" A smile spread across her face.
"What do you mean, 'Wow'?"
"I mean, look at him. He's handsome."
"He's a killer and a thief, Maggie."
"I know, but that doesn't mean he's not nice to look at … Wow." She was still smiling as she walked back into the kitchen.
Spencer leaned against the pillar, crossing one ankle in front of the other and folding his arms across his chest. He appeared completely relaxed, but Nate knew he was anything but.
Their eyes met for a few seconds, and then Spencer casually glanced around the garage. His smirk grew even wider, and he raised his eyebrows and said, "Nice place."
He spoke with a slight Southern drawl. Yet another thing that probably makes women swoon, Nate thought, inwardly rolling his eyes.
"You chose it," Nate said. He was pleased to find that the casual tone in his voice matched Spencer's.
Spencer grinned. "And I can't believe you agreed to meet me here. This place is disgusting."
Nate fumed. He was the one who had asked for this meeting – he should have set the place. It made him look amateurish, and in front of a professional thief, that was … less than ideal.
But he couldn't let Spencer see that, so he shrugged, hoping to wipe the smirk off the other man's face. "I kind of like it. Back alley deal, dark parking garage. Sets the tone."
It didn't work. Spencer just laughed out loud and said, "So which one of us is Deep Throat?" He shook his head. "You watch too many movies." The retrieval specialist was still leaning lazily against the pillar. In a tone that sounded almost disinterested, he added, "You armed?"
"No," Nate answered honestly, even though they both knew that Spencer was only asking to see how Nate would respond. He was good enough to tell just by looking that Nate had no weapon. "You?"
The small smile that Spencer gave in response was more frightening than any verbal answer would have been.
They looked at each other for a while, and Nate could tell the man was trying to understand what Nate was playing at, why he had asked for this meeting, and if he was really so dumb as to come alone and unarmed to a dilapidated parking garage to meet a man capable of killing him with his bare hands.
"No, I'm not stupid. I know you won't hurt me."
It was his turn to smirk at the surprise that briefly flashed across Spencer's face.
"Oh? What makes you so sure?" Spencer hadn't moved, but he looked a fraction less relaxed than he had a second before.
"If you wanted to kill me, you'd have done it in Budapest. Why didn't you, by the way?"
"Why didn't I what?" Spencer's voice had an edge in it now.
Spencer paused, and Nate could tell he was trying to figure out what Nate was after, and how best to respond. The smirk returned, and he shrugged and said, "Client didn't want things messy."
"Right, but you could have incapacitated me any number of ways without killing me. You chose the only one that wouldn't actually hurt or leave a mark." He paused as he saw Spencer tense slightly. "I almost caught you. Didn't that piss you off? Why didn't you hit me over the head, or get a few punches in, instead of just choking me out?"
Spencer's eyes flashed, and suddenly he stood up straight, away from the pillar. He uncrossed his arms and held them at his sides, slightly away from his body. With an effort, Nate resisted the temptation to take a few steps back.
"Is this why you asked me here? To chat about what happened in Budapest? Because I thought you were going to offer me a job." The muscles in Spencer's forearms flexed as he clenched and unclenched his fists. "If not, I've got better things to do than play spy movie with you in this dump."
Nate smiled. Bingo. Jim was going to owe him a very large, very old bottle of scotch when this was over. Maybe even two.
Eliot Spencer was perfect for this job.
"You're right," he said. "I did ask you here to offer you a job." He tossed the thinner of the two files at Spencer. It landed right at the man's feet.
Spencer barely glanced at the folder, but relaxed a fraction – Nate wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't been looking for it – and re-crossed his arms as he asked, "What's the job?"
"It's all right there in the file."
"I'll read it later. I'd like to hear what the job is."
Interesting. Nate wasn't sure why Spencer wanted to hear it from him, but he obliged.
"I need you to retrieve something." He paused, but Spencer didn't say anything. "It was stolen six months ago. I know who has it, but I can't get to it. The policy is large, and IYS doesn't want to have to pay it."
"I'm shocked," Spencer deadpanned. "How big's the policy?"
Nate hesitated, but he wasn't sure why. He'd just tossed the file at Spencer, and it wasn't like it was a big secret. "Fifty million dollars, U.S."
"The Yuki No Hana Diamond."
Of course he knew. Everyone knew. It was all over the news. One of the largest privately-owned diamonds in the world: stolen. IYS was demanding it be recovered, and Nate was leading the team to find it. And they had found it. The problem was …
"Where is it?"
Spencer raised his eyebrows. "You're sure?"
Nate's stomach sank like a rock, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from letting loose on Spencer all the stress of the past six months. Of course he was sure. He was the best in the business for a reason. The day after the diamond had been stolen, Ian Blackpoole, the CEO of IYS, had called Nate into his office.
"Get it back, Nate. I don't care how you do it, but I am not paying out on a fifty million dollar policy."
So Nate had put together a team, which included his friend and rival Jim Sterling, and they'd spent countless hours poring over clues from the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, doing research, and tracking the moves of every fence they knew. He'd spent every hour of every day for the past six months thinking about how to get that damned diamond back, to the detriment of his family. Maggie worked full-time, too, and daycare had been having more and more trouble with Sam over the past several months: behavioral changes, mood swings, and now he'd been running a fever for nearly two weeks. But everything depended on the outcome of this case, so Nate had kept pushing.
Of course he was sure it was in Turkey.
Spencer didn't know any of that — could never know any of that. But Nate wanted so badly to wipe the smirk off Spencer's face – to show the smug bastard that this was his meeting, that he knew exactly what he was doing, and that he was not an amateur.
So he smirked, cocked an eyebrow and responded, "Am I sure? I'm the best in the business. I can assure you: I know how to track stolen merchandise and chase thieves."
Spencer started to roll his eyes, but before he could let loose a snarky retort, Nate couldn't resist adding, "I was right about you in Budapest, wasn't I?"
As the man's jaw tightened and his eyes flashed, Nate was reminded why it really wasn't smart to taunt someone like Eliot Spencer. He had to force himself to keep his face neutral and stand his ground, even as Spencer took a step toward him.
"If you're so great," Spencer hissed, fists clenched, "then why don't you have it yet? Why do you need me?"
Nate cursed himself. He'd walked right into that. And that was the worst part of the whole situation. That was why he was here. That was what he was unsure about. If he wasn't right …
He schooled his face into a relaxed smile and said in an exasperated tone, "Because our friends in the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Homeland Security don't give a damn about a stolen diamond, even if it is one of the largest in the world."
Spencer crossed his arms again. His interest was definitely piqued.
"Who exactly has it?" he asked darkly.
Nate took a deep breath. This was what he was unsure about. If he didn't sell it right, Spencer wouldn't agree to do it, and he needed Spencer to agree to do this. Nate's job, his career, his family were on the line.
"I'd like you to hear my offer first. We're willing to pay —"
"Who is it?" Spencer asked again, an impatient edge in his voice.
Nate paused. "Silas Craver."
Spencer's eyes widened, and his jaw tensed. He snatched up the folder at his feet and opened it. After glancing at it for a second, he closed the folder, tossed it back to the floor, and said, "No thanks," as he turned to leave.
"Wait!" Nate said. It sounded like a desperate shout in the dark garage, and it made Spencer pause. "I really think you should listen to my offer first."
Spencer turned. "There's nothing you can offer me to make me take this job."
"Why not?" Nate asked. If he could just buy some time … "You've worked with him in the past, haven't you?"
"You've done the research, you tell me."
Spencer had dropped all pretense now. Craver's name had hit a nerve, as Nate had known it would. The thief was spooked – one false move and he was gone.
Nate couldn't let that happen – not this time.
"You're right. I have done my research. And I know you haven't just worked with him. You've worked for him. Only a few jobs, several years ago. Then you stopped. What changed?"
If possible, Spencer tensed even more. "I didn't like the terms."
"And what terms were those, exactly?"
"We're done." Spencer turned to leave again.
This was Nate's last chance. It was now or never.
The words tumbled out of his mouth in desperation: "The diamond is worth more than fifty million dollars on the black market. How much damage could Craver do with that kind of cash?"
Spencer froze mid-stride, his back to Nate. His body tensed to the point that it seemed to vibrate.
"I've done my research, Spencer. He funds terrorism, and they target schools, and hospitals, and churches, and community gathering places. Those were the terms you didn't like, weren't they?"
Nate's heart pounded like a drumbeat in the silence. Spencer didn't move his body, but he turned his head to the right just enough so that Nate was in his sightline.
"Give me five minutes. Listen to my offer, and if you don't like it, you can walk away. I won't stop you." Like I could if I tried.
Spencer snorted, as if at Nate's thought. He turned around slowly, crossed his arms, and fixed the insurance investigator with a stare Nate knew had made stronger men than he run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
Spencer's voice was low and dark. "You have one minute."
Nate didn't waste a second of it. "We are prepared to pay you one million dollars U.S. to retrieve the diamond: 250,000 now, the rest when you deliver it." This time Nate tossed a smallish yellow envelope at Spencer, who caught it with barely a glance. "All the information I have is in that file." He nodded at the folder Spencer had discarded. "It's not much — even my contacts at the CIA were hesitant to discuss information at such a high clearance level — but it's everything we have. Six months' worth of investigation."
Spencer blinked. "That's it? That's your big offer? Do you know how much someone in my line of work can get on the black market for retrieving a diamond worth over fifty million dollars? Ten percent. Now, I'm no genius, but ten percent of fifty million is five million dollars. What's to keep me from just taking your 250,000, retrieving the diamond, and keeping it for myself?"
Nate bit back a smirk. He'd expected this and had prepared accordingly, but he didn't want to piss Spencer off any more than he already had – the retrieval specialist was on the hook.
"You're right. So I talked to my bosses, and I have something else to persuade you."
He tossed the second and final file to Spencer like a frisbee; it was over an inch thick.
Without taking his eyes off Nate, Spencer bent down and caught the file just before it hit the ground. Nate's eyes widened slightly at the man's lightning fast reflexes.
Spencer opened the file, but frowned at its contents. "This is —"
"IYS's complete file on Eliot Spencer. It's pretty thick. You've cost us millions of dollars in payouts over the past several years. Only Sophie Devereaux and Parker have cost us more." He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. Both women also eluded his grasp on multiple occasions. He felt a pang of guilt as his heart beat a little bit faster at the thought of Devereaux.
Spencer raised his eyes from the papers and cocked an eyebrow. "Third? Clearly I need to step up my game."
Nate smiled. "We'd rather you didn't. We're prepared to make that entire file go away if you get us the diamond."
Spencer smirked as he closed the file. "You are aware you're not an actual cop, right? You can't just make charges disappear."
"Well … yes and no," Nate said. He had him. "IYS has dozens of open investigations in which you're the prime suspect. If we close those investigations, or decide to no longer pursue them, neither will the police. Or the FBI. They have bigger fish to fry."
Spencer opened the yellow envelope and thumbed through the cash. "How will I know if the file's gone? Won't you just keep a copy?"
"Oh, we'll definitely keep a copy. We'll just close the cases."
Spencer's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think that your offer is worth more to me than whatever I can get if I fence the diamond myself?"
"The Yuki No Hana Diamond is out in the wind. People will kill to get it. They already have. And when that much money changes hands, it can cause a lot of damage."
Spencer continued to touch the cash absentmindedly as he clearly considered the offer.
Come on, Spencer. Schools and hospitals.
After what seemed like an eternity, Spencer met Nate's gaze, and Nate had to bite back a grin.
"How do I get in touch with you when it's done?"
"My number's in the file. Call me and we'll meet. When I have the diamond, the remainder of the money will be wired to an account of your choosing."
Spencer nodded. "Fine. See you in two weeks." Then he turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Nate finally allowed himself a grin. Eliot Spencer was perfect for this job.
Eliot almost groaned as he got out of the taxi. He wasn't looking forward to walking the ten blocks to the parking garage where he'd meet Ford, but there was no way he'd actually have the taxi drop him off there.
Twenty minutes later his head and shoulder were throbbing, and his broken ribs forced him to take shallow breaths as he descended into the dark parking garage. He hadn't slept in over 24 hours – if he fell asleep now, he wouldn't wake up for a few days.
It had been a long two weeks.
He'd gotten in without any issues, but getting in was never the problem; getting out was where things always seemed to go to hell. He'd grabbed the diamond before anyone sounded the alarm, but by the time he reached Craver's room in the mansion, he had more than twenty guards on his tail. The bullet that hit him in the shoulder had been fired by one of them, and he'd jumped out of the third-story window to avoid any more. The bushes below had broken his fall; the tree limb on the way down had broken his ribs. The black eye, split lip, and other bruises had been delivered by the three guards at the gate.
He cursed Nate Ford and his damned greedy insurance company as he stood waiting behind the same pillar as last time. His shallow breathing must have given him away, because Ford didn't wait forever like he had the previous time.
"So which of us is Deep Throat today?"
He heard the smile in Ford's voice and bit back a growl just before it escaped his lips. The sooner this was over, the sooner he could hunker down and heal for the next few weeks.
He stepped out from behind the pillar, once again glad for the dim light. Last time it had added to his aura of mystery, and he had used it to make Ford as nervous as possible. This time it helped him to hide the injuries that would never escape Ford's notice in full daylight.
He forced his lazy smile and leaned against the pillar, like he had before. It hurt to cross his arms across his ribs, so he just held them relaxed at his side.
"You know movies aren't real, right?" he asked in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone. He rolled his eyes dramatically to hammer the point home.
But Ford simply shrugged – apparently that smug smile wasn't going anywhere.
Eliot pulled a tiny velvet bag with a drawstring from his pocket and tossed it to Ford with his left hand. He kept his right arm in as neutral a position as possible to try to keep his shoulder from throbbing. It didn't work.
Ford opened the bag and pulled out the diamond. Eliot didn't care much for gems, but even he had to admit that the Yuki No Hana was beautiful. A little smaller than a quarter, it was a 30 carat, colorless diamond. In Japanese, yuki no hana meant "snow flower," and the diamond more than lived up to its name. But it wasn't only the cut that made it look so much like a snowflake. Though the Yuki No Hana was colorless, it didn't seem to rank very high in clarity. Eliot knew enough about diamonds to understand that this was usually a bad thing, but in this case the diamond's translucence seemed to make it even more beautiful, and it sparkled like the microscopic photos of snowflakes found in books.
Ford held it up to the light and inspected it. Eliot knew this was just for show; there was no way Ford could tell in the dim light whether it was fake or not.
"You want me to wait here while you pop off to the lab to get it tested?" Eliot was in a lot of pain, and not in the mood to stroke Ford's ego.
Ford smirked as he put the diamond back in the bag and stuck in inside his jacket. "You don't have to wait, but I'll let you know if it doesn't pass inspection."
"And my money?"
Ford pulled out his phone and dialed a number.
How in the hell is there any reception in this dump? Eliot thought.
"Yeah," said Ford. "I've got it. Wire the money. And you owe me a big bottle of MacAllen, thirty year." Ford hung up. "Jim Sterling and I had a bet going about whether or not you'd come back."
"Pop Sterling one in the mouth for me," Eliot growled. "I still owe him for what happened in Berlin."
Ford laughed. "I asked him if he wanted to come, but he told me where I could stick that suggestion." He paused. "So, how'd it go? Not too much trouble, I hope?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle."
Ford put his hands in his pockets, looking thoughtful. "Crazy, isn't it, what happened to Craver? An attack on his compound, nothing reported stolen, and the next morning he's found dead of a heart attack? What are the odds?" Ford's eyes glinted with something Eliot couldn't recognize.
"Yeah, crazy." Eliot's heart sped up, and his shoulder throbbed painfully.
"And his deputies were all killed in the attack. Seems there's no one left to take over the local business. Shame." Ford shook his head.
"Yeah, damned shame." His heart pounded even faster. He didn't like where this was going.
"Something else interesting: the town closest to Craver's compound, you know, the one where the school was blown up a few months ago? Seems that an anonymous donor gave them 250,000 dollars to rebuild. They're hoping to reopen in the fall."
"Fascinating." He really wished the call would hurry up and come through. Once he had his money, he was out of here.
Finally, Ford's phone rang. He answered. "Yeah? Great. Oh, and Spencer says hi." He smiled as he pulled the phone several inches away from his ear; Eliot could hear a tinny voice shouting. Ford smiled. "Sterling says hi to you, too." He resumed speaking into the phone, "Okay, yeah, see you tomorrow. Remember, thirty-year MacAllen. Don't skimp." He hung up. "The money should be in the account. And all cases concerning items you've … allegedly stolen are now closed."
"Great. See ya around, Ford."
"If I ever find myself in need of a retrieval specialist in the future, can I count on you?"
Eliot blinked. Was Ford admitting that he might need help again? "If you can pay me well enough," he said with a smirk. He pushed himself away from the pillar, but he couldn't stop the groan that escaped his lips. He cursed silently.
"You should get that shoulder looked at," Ford said. "Wouldn't want it to get infected."
"Don't know what you're talking about," he grumbled as he started to leave.
Damn, he hated Nate Ford, the only man who'd ever chased him that seemed to always know what he was thinking. That was why he'd had to engage the man in Budapest.
But Ford didn't move. "Why didn't you hurt me?"
Eliot froze. It was as if the bastard could read his thoughts. And why in the hell did he keep harping on that? Eliot didn't always hurt people …
Even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew it wasn't true. There was a reason he hadn't hurt Ford in Budapest. It was the same reason he'd taken this job. Maybe it was the reason Ford had offered him the job in the first place.
He turned back to Ford and their eyes met. "Your son. How old is he?"
Ford's eyes flashed with surprise and anger, but after a moment his face filled with understanding. "Four," he rasped. "His name is Sam."
Eliot nodded. Ford responded with a quick nod of his own.
As Eliot turned back around, his phone beeped. A message said: Transfer complete. Account balance: $1,500,000.00.
He frowned and turned back to Ford. "Wait. Why is there a million-five in my account? We agreed on a million total, and I already have the first two-fifty."
Ford raised his eyebrows. "Did we? Huh … I must have mis-remembered. Oops." Then he turned and left the parking garage.
Eliot stood frozen in place. He chuckled to himself, but immediately stopped at the pain in his abdomen. Maybe Nate Ford wasn't so bad after all. He was definitely an arrogant asshole, but he was a good man. An honest man. And his heart was in the right place, which was something Eliot couldn't always say for himself. He'd definitely pick up the phone if Ford called again.
Nate was smiling as he walked back to his car. The Yuki No Hana was heavy inside his jacket pocket, but his heart was light. This damned case was finally finished; he'd been right and Sterling was wrong, always a plus; and he learned a little something about people. Sometimes bad guys weren't always so bad; sometimes there was honor among thieves. And even though the doctors weren't sure what was wrong with Sam, his gamble had paid off. Spencer had come through for him, and he would be given a huge promotion. The benefits at IYS were good, so they could handle whatever came next. Right now he was thinking about the children in a small town in Turkey who were going to be able to attend school without living in fear. Indirectly, he'd been responsible for that.
He smiled as he thought of the look on Sterling's face tomorrow when he came through on their bet. He got into the car and called Maggie.
"Hey, honey, it's done. I'm headed home, but do me a favor. Give Sammy a kiss and a hug from me, will you?"