Cade stepped over the dead witness, annoyed that the guy hadn’t fallen where he’d shot him. Like a wounded bear, John Stanton had growled and staggered out of the bedroom. Cade had to hustle to steer clear of him. The last thing he needed was blood evidence on his designer suit.
Stanton had finally come to the end of himself beside the sofa. The blood trail made the job far too messy, and Cade hated messy murders. He wouldn’t attempt to clean it up, of course. No need. Let the crime scene investigators have their fun. They’d find no evidence to link him to the crime.
Fortunately, the witness’s so-called bodyguard had gone down immediately. He lay in an ever-darkening blotch on the champagne carpet in the bedroom. Nice and tidy. The guard’s name was Ted Wheeler, a young guy, just out of college—a wannabe cop with an attitude. Cade felt a twinge of guilt over that one. The kid never saw it coming.
Cade brushed his irritation and guilt away and set his sights on more important matters. The hotel room bar offered a number of possibilities. He selected a small bottle of Jack Daniels, poured a shot into a clean glass, and then settled onto the bar stool. His watch told him he had a five-minute wait—providing the assistant DA showed up according to schedule. This one he wasn’t looking forward to, but he had contracted for all three men, which seemed like overkill to him. Overkill. He smirked at the pun.
“Since when do you need a drink for courage?” Cade leveled his gaze at his reflection, taken aback by the broad nose and high cheekbones he’d fashioned out of the flexible plastic substance that served as a mask. When he met the concern in his dark brown eyes, he looked away, staring instead into the amber liquid before bringing it to his lips. Disgusted, he tossed back the contents, closing his eyes as the whiskey burned his esophagus on the way down.
He’d had no serious qualms about offing the two stiffs keeping him company, especially Stanton. The guy was a sleazeball. His concern lay in killing Luke Delaney.
Cade wasn’t a religious man; no one would ever accuse him of that. He preferred to call the feeling in his gut intuition, or maybe just plain logic. He supposed he might even call it a conscience, though after all these years as a hired gun, he doubted he had one. Still, even a hit man had his limits.
Several things bothered him about the job. Delaney was a decent sort. He had a law degree from Harvard and had graduated at the top of his class, and he now worked as the assistant district attorney in Lee County. Delaney’s father and best friend were cops, and his little sister, Angel, still in college, was heading in the same direction. Shooting Delaney would probably mean a relentless search for his killer by all three of them. Though Cade prided himself in leaving no evidence, he worried that his precautionary measures wouldn’t be enough. He had already made certain that all traces of the request to kill Stanton and Wheeler had been eliminated. Still, no system was foolproof. He stared at the glass in his hand and took it over to the sink to wash away all traces of DNA, still ruminating over his would-be third victim.
To make matters worse, one of Luke’s three brothers was a minister at St. Matthews Church in Sunset Cove, Oregon. Cade had a thing about taking out religious men and their families. No doubt, his reluctance reached back into his childhood—his father, a priest, had taught him a healthy respect for the church and everything connected with it. And Delaney was connected to the church in a big way. Even now, away from his family and living in Fort Myers, Florida, he went to church every Sunday.
Cade couldn’t forget that two of Delaney’s brothers had money—enough to keep an investigation going for years. And the family was Irish-Italian, like his mother. Cade shook his head. He rarely let sentimentality enter into his work, but this was more than sentimentality. He was getting some definite warnings urging him to take heed.
“On the other hand,” Cade told his image, “Delaney’s death would put another hundred grand in my pocket. Not exactly pocket change.”
At exactly 7:30 a.m. a key card clicked into the slot on the door. Cade stiffened and drew his weapon, a Beretta he’d toss into the swamp along Alligator Alley, where it would never be recovered. The handle turned down, and the door swung open. Cade stepped out of sight and waited. Delaney would have to walk all the way into the room in order to see the dead witness. Sweat beaded his upper lip as he waited. He hated the indecision. With sudden insight, a smile curled his lips. He had the perfect solution.
Luke hesitated outside the door before inserting the key card his boss had given him. A premonition and an urge to run came over him. He wouldn’t follow those urges, however; couldn’t afford to. He’d come here to escort Stanton to the courthouse, where he would testify against the Penghetti brothers, who allegedly ran one of the biggest syndicated crime rings in the country. Drugs, theft, fraud, extortion, murder, you name it.
Alton Delong, his boss and the DA, had been working for years to put the Penghetti brothers behind bars. Now the DA’s office had them, and no amount of money could buy their freedom—at least Luke hoped so. He thought it unfortunate that the bulk of their success in this case lay with one witness. And he didn’t especially like the idea that he’d been asked to fetch the guy.
Luke inserted the key card, and when the light blinked green, he pressed down on the handle and pushed open the door.
“Stanton? Ted?” A stifling heaviness moved into Luke’s chest as he stepped inside the hotel room and let the door close behind him. Standing in the hallway, he glanced at the closet to his left and the bathroom to his right. Beyond him was the suite with its private bedroom and another bath. Luke tried to convince himself that he had nothing to worry about—that his imagination was working overtime. But he couldn’t deny the overwhelming feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. The suite was far too quiet.
Maybe they’d gotten their wires crossed and the witness and bodyguard were already gone. Or maybe they were in the bedroom and hadn’t heard him. Luke moved forward. “You guys ready to go?”
His question was met with dead silence. Luke felt rather than heard a presence off to his left. The heaviness in his chest intensified as his gaze captured the man holding a gun and then flitted to the floor where John Stanton lay. Luke swallowed back his terror and saw his future die as his gaze followed the trail of blood into the bedroom. From where he stood he could see the guard and his blood-soaked uniform. Everything inside Luke told him to run, but logic told him it was too late. The killer would have a bullet in his chest before he could turn around. Better to at least try to get some answers and hope he’d have better odds of surviving if he postponed the inevitable.
“Who are you?” Luke managed to ask.
“Your savior,” the man answered. “And I don’t think your guys here are going anywhere—leastwise not to court.”
“How did you get in here?” Luke sucked in a long, steadying breath and raised his hands. The killer didn’t answer but kept a steady gaze on him, gun trained, ready to shoot. Only he didn’t fire. Why not just get it over with? Within seconds the gun would explode, the bullet would penetrate vital organs, and Luke would take his last breath. And with no witness, the Penghetti brothers would go free.
Luke memorized the man’s features and the raspy quality of his voice. Broad nose, tan skin, blond hair—dark at the roots—coffee-colored eyes, about six-four, around 230 pounds, muscular. The suit was expensive, perfectly cut. He wore latex gloves and had covered his shoes with the kind of booties crime scene investigators wore to keep the crime scene from becoming contaminated. Luke felt certain he’d never seen the guy before, yet there was something oddly familiar about him.
Not that identifying him would serve any purpose. The guy was obviously a professional, which meant he was wearing a disguise. And you won’t live to tell anyone about him. Luke settled his gaze on the floor and prepared himself for the inevitable.
“I don’t usually talk to my victims before I shoot them,” the killer said. “For you I’m making an exception.”
Luke’s head rose as he glared at the man. “I don’t get it.”
The killer sighed and seemed almost friendly. “I don’t get it either, Luke. All I can tell you is that my client wants you dead, but my gut says I shouldn’t kill you.”
“Your client,” Luke spat out the words. “Which one of the Pen-ghetti brothers would that be? Bobby or Rick? Or maybe they’re both in on it.”
“It doesn’t matter.” His lips spread in a calculating smile. “This is how it’s going down. As I said, I’m your savior. You are walking out of here, my friend. You won’t contact anyone. You will disappear without a trace, and I’ll tell my boss I threw your corpse in the swamp along with the gun I used to kill you.”
“Why . . . ?”
“You’ll leave your fancy little Corvette, your apartment, and everything you own.” He waved the gun. “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
Confused, Luke did as he was told. The killer snapped a pair of metal cuffs around his wrists, then patted him down for a weapon. The action seemed automatic, as though he’d been trained in law enforcement.
“I don’t carry a weapon.”
“Just making sure.” He captured Luke’s wallet and put it in his jacket pocket, then took his cell phone and keys, along with the key card Luke had used when he entered the room. He tossed the key on the bar.
Luke gritted his teeth, wanting to argue with him but worried the man might change his mind. I have no intention of disappearing.
The sneer returned. “Don’t be stupid, kid,” the hit man said as if he knew Luke’s thoughts. “I’ll get away with it, and you will disappear—unless you want to go to prison for the murder of your two friends here.”
“There’s no way anyone would believe I killed them.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure. Everyone can be bought, and you’re no exception. Besides, there will be no evidence of my having been here.” The killer pressed a glass into Luke’s hand, then set it back on the bar. “Whereas, the evidence is rather clear that you were here.”
“You’re crazy.” This time his thoughts did escape his lips, and Luke wished he could take them back.
The man ignored his comment. “Certain people want you dead, and your only option, if you want to stay alive, is to disappear. I’m giving it to you straight, kid; you’ll need a new identity. I’m giving you one chance and only one to escape. You surface anywhere, and you’re a dead man.”
“I still don’t—”
“You don’t have to get it. Just take my word for it. Like I said, Luke Delaney is a dead man. He no longer exists, got that?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “The cops will find these guys within the hour, but you’ll be long gone. CSI will have evidence that you were here. There’ll be questions as to your part in all of this. It won’t take much to convince the powers that be that you sold out, killed Stanton and Wheeler, and ran.”
“No one would believe that.” Luke repeated the words again, but this time they hung limp in the air.
“Won’t they? Better men than you have caved to a big payoff. Besides, I need a fall guy. A call to the press implicating Luke Delaney should do it.”
Luke shook his head. The killer was already talking as though he didn’t exist. “This is insane. Why don’t you just kill me?”
“Because it suits my purposes not to. As an added incentive for your cooperation, know this: if Luke Delaney surfaces in any way, shape, or form—if there’s any attempt on Delaney’s part to talk to the cops or anyone else—I start picking off his family. Maybe I’ll start with the youngest.” His lips curled in a sinister smile. “Angel, right? Of course, she’s too pretty to just kill . . .”
Luke strained to pull free of the tight cuffs. “You touch her and—”
“Your disappearance is her life insurance.”
“Why are you doing this?”
The hit man shrugged. “I don’t think it’s wise to kill you just now. On the other hand, I can’t let Luke Delaney slip out of my hands. I have a reputation to preserve and money to collect.”
“What’s the going rate these days for exterminating people?” Luke gritted his teeth.
“Not nearly enough.” The man took a step back and leveled the gun. “Now it’s up to you. You can live as long as you’re someone other than Delaney. Or I can kill you right here and now. Your choice.”
“I’ll go.” Luke would take life, but he vowed to get this guy and put him away if it took a lifetime. There had to be a way to turn the tables on the Penghetti brothers and their hit man.
“Smart move. But remember, if I hear that Luke Delaney has surfaced, I go after his kid sister. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly.” Luke saw no choice but to go along with the man’s wishes—for now. There had to be a way out. Maybe as they left, he could signal one of the hotel security guards.
“Good. You and I are going to walk out of here together. And don’t get any ideas about alerting anyone.” The gunman lifted his jacket, showing Luke a badge identifying him as a law officer for Lee County. He took Luke’s arm and propelled him forward, the gun barrel tucked in against Luke’s ribs.
In the hallway, the man slipped off the gloves and the booties and tucked them into a small pack he wore around his waist. Luke noticed a heavy gold ring on his right ring finger with a garnet center and two small crosses that were carved on each side of the stone. A class ring, maybe? Luke stored it in his memory along with other details he’d give police when he had the opportunity.
They took the stairs down to the third floor, where the killer pulled open the heavy metal door. In the open doorway, he unlocked the handcuffs and shoved Luke into the hotel’s parking garage. Luke fell forward, landing on his hands and knees. The door slammed shut, and when Luke looked back, the man was gone.
Getting to his feet, he tried the door and found it locked. A security pad allowed only guests with passkeys. The killer had taken Luke’s key card and left it on the bar, proving beyond a doubt that Luke had been there this morning. He hit the door with his fist, then turned around and leaned against it, tears clouding his vision. “Dear God, what am I going to do?”