Dale peered through the windshield. “Are you sure this is the place?”
With her finger poised beneath the address provided by the surveillance packet resting on her crossed knee, Jodie eyed the columned mansion on the approaching block. “142 Sycamore.”
The street name matched the sign they’d passed at the last intersection in the gated community and the digits glittered in silver on the perimeter wall. An arcing driveway cut between twin posts, around a manicured lawn, and by the marble steps leading up to a front door of stained glass and lacquered wood.
Stone and ivy made up the rest of the three-story manse. Windows peeked out between leaves and inky shutters, each doused despite the coming dusk, and a pair of chimneys sprouted from either end of the roof waiting for colder weather to set in.
Pulling alongside the scrubbed sidewalk, Dale stopped beneath the shade of a broad maple in burning autumn hues. “Want me to come with you?”
Jodie slipped the intelligence Max had harvested into the briefcase nestled at her heels. “Do I ever?”
“This is the biggest we’ve tried. It might be difficult.”
“Last night doesn’t change anything.”
“Maybe not for you.”
She stiffened and glowered at him from the passenger seat. “You think I’ve lost my touch?”
“Your touch is just fine.” Dale smirked but seriousness waded in his dark eyes. Around the steering wheel, his knuckles grew taut. “You don’t get this kind of money by being nice.”
Jodie glanced at the mansion. “None of them are nice, Dale.”
“Vern shows off what he’s got. He pays for this place’s security. Maybe cameras too. Or Dogs. The whole detail.”
“And that means he’s willing to put out when he thinks it matters.” Squaring her shoulders beneath her trim blazer, Jodie set her fingertips on the door’s handle. “Same plan as always?”
Dale had his phone out before she realized one of his hands had left the wheel. “Your backup will be here.”
He settled into the driver’s seat, his gaze following her even as she exited into the chilly afternoon.
Winds whipped around her pantyhose and up her knee-high skirt, ruffling the hem and working along the v-neck of her silken blouse. Jodie didn’t bother buttoning up her blazer to ward off the cold. Instead, she squeezed the briefcase’s handle and passed through the driveway’s pillars.
Her heels made a disconcerting pop on the asphalt. When she mounted the stairs, topiaries shaped like golf balls loomed on either side. Shrugging off their floral gaze, Jodie planted herself on the bristled welcome mat. While threads crunched and snapped under her shifting soles, she peered past her diamond face and no-nonsense pixie cut reflected in the glass, her blue eyes aimed on the foyer.
An Oriental vase topped a small table opposite a bench she suspected was meant for putting on shoes although no abandoned footwear appeared in sight. A mirror hung on the adjacent wall, the door’s glass creating a refracted version of her tan and sage attire.
Scoping to either side, she noted the three-car garage remained closed. Although the tracks had vanished, she guessed the mammoth engine of the SUV they’d followed from the nearby country club to the entry gate the day before, cooled inside as Vern kept to his tee times. She hoped the driver and her passenger hadn’t spotted them through the suburban labyrinth.
“Dale knows what he’s doing,” she whispered.
With a reminder she did too, Jodie lifted her chin and depressed the doorbell’s button.
A singsong chime echoed, the notes bouncing off the glass, marble, mirror, and down hallways she couldn’t see. As she counted to thirty, Jodie flexed her hand, avoiding another press.
At twenty-five nearing footsteps shuffled and she assumed a prudent but amicable smile.
The door opened, her reflection replaced by the mansion’s spindly resident.
Vern seemed shorter than when he’d left the club. With the cleats of his golf shoes removed, he’d lost half an inch at least. The plaster of hair from a recent shower and too-fluffy bathrobe loosely cinched around his reedy frame added to his shrinkage.
With a subtle bend of a knee, Jodie placed herself at eye level with his silver frames and his pitted eyes blinking behind the lenses.
He rested a hand on his robe’s belt, his fingernails scraping the jamb. “Maybe.”
With an internal roll of her eyes, Jodie fetched the ID Max had concocted from within her blazer. She let the bottom half fall open, showing her with the longer hair she’d had last week and the Revenue Department’s emblem.
Vern squinted and then gaped. “Oh shit.”
He fumbled with the door, trying to shut it. Pressing her ID-wielding hand onto the glass, Jodie kept it wide.
“That’s not going to work, Mr. Vern.”
He staggered back and plopped onto the foyer’s bench.
“You see,” said Jodie, tucking her ID away, “my colleagues are waiting right outside.” She began to enter then paused. “May I come in?”
Sweat beaded down Vern’s forehead. One drop dripped into his eye jolting him from a stare into nothingness. He swept his gaze from her shoes to her face and then tugged his flopping bathrobe closed. “Sure. I mean what?”
Jodie stepped onto the marble but left the door ajar as she noted the security panel at her right and the black dots in the molding telling of cameras on watch.
“We don’t have to make a scene Mr. Vern. I mean for us to have a pleasant talk and work things out.”
Vern stuttered. “Aren’t you going to arrest me?”
Jodie set her hand on her hip, the gun at the small of her back within reach, although the twitchy rich man seemed hardly worth the bullet. A punch, toss, or swift kick might do. She waited as he registered her briefcase, her wide stance, his circumstances, and laced her voice with ice.
“Do I have to?”
“No, no.” He held up both water-pruned hands. “I definitely don’t want to go to jail.”
“Then I think we can figure out some kind of alternative.”
“Yeah, sure, an alternative.” The vicious bob of his head jostled his glasses. Vern ripped them off and mopped his brow and the receding widow’s peak of sun-bleached blonde turning to gray with his terrycloth sleeve.
Jodie allowed him a moment to steady, to place his glasses on the bridge of a pert nose, to lick away the sweat dotting his upper lip, and to scramble toward the opening she’d left gaping.
“What kind of deal are you talking about?”
Striding to the foyer’s table, Jodie opened her briefcase and gathered a pen and folder of official forms. She cradled them in one hand and paced back and forth, from the mirror to the threshold, barely skimming over the pages she’d already memorized.
With every click of the pen, clacking step, turn of her heel, well-timed hum at an insignificant detail, and flick of one sheet after the next, Vern inched closer to the edge of the bench. His beads of sweat returned, desperation entering his stare.
“Ms. Please. The deal?”
Jodie closed the folder and swiveled, towering over Vern with ease. “The deal is you repay the twenty million dollars you owe in taxes.”
Vern dropped his gaze to the marble between his fuzzy slippers. “My accountant was supposed to take care of that.”
“Verses and Maier.”
“You should be in better contact with them,” said Jodie, “or at least have chosen a little more wisely. They’re under indictment for offshore laundering.”
He lifted his gaze from the tiles, an unflattering line crisscrossing his dome. “Indictment?”
“How do you think we found about you?”
“They said it was legal.”
“Making underhanded international trades? Receiving dividends from stock options you don’t own? Acquiring and selling property you never purchased? Profiteering from the dispersal of natural resources on the black market? You believe that was legal?” Jodie clucked her tongue. “Your accountants might have been doing some business on your behalf Mr. Vern but they’re not the only ones with dirty money on their hands.”
He slumped against the paisley wallpaper, his eyes flicking around the foyer as if seeking another escape.
Jodie adjusted her stance, the snap of her heels drawing him back. “You had to know you wouldn’t get away with this forever, Mr. Vern. The time has come for you to pay your dues.”
“You’re right of course.” His apologetic grin smeared the air and she hugged the folder while he spread his soft hands wide. “It started off so easily you see.”
“It usually does.”
“And then one thing led to another opportunity, and then another, and then you find yourself ready to call it quits, to find a home, maybe some young—” his gaze flicked across her curves and he licked his lips, “lady and settled down to enjoy the fruits of your hard work.”
Jodie hardened her glare. “Illegal work.”
“It was still hard.”
Jodie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Listen Mr. Vern, I appreciate your sob story but I’ve heard enough. If you can’t come up with a way to pay back the twenty million—”
“You think I have twenty million dollars lying around?”
She motioned at the crystal hanging above their heads and the rest of the mansion with a single swoop. “Your lifestyle seems to suggest otherwise.”
“This house isn’t worth half what I paid for it. Neither is the car. Or driver. Or that damn butler who demanded a day off. I had enough to live off for the next thirty years or so, but now with Verse and Maier out, who knows? I could be broke. Bankrupt!”
He belted a manic, high-pitched laugh. Boosting from the bench and he started pacing along the route she had taken.
Pivoting serenely at the table, Jodie retrieved the phone from her pocket. “Then I can see only one alternative.” She started dialing.
Vern clutched the phone, his robe parting with his frantic wheeze. Jodie avoided the hairy curls on his chest as well as a backhanded slap, one that would have freed her from his grasp.
“Wait for what, Mr. Vern? If you can’t pay, and have no ability to make any kind of amends, you’ll be remanded into custody until we can determine what to make out of whatever assets we can find.”
“But I do have assets, you see.” His gaze flicked to the phone and back. “You want to know about them right?”
“I do.” Jodie tensed her wrist and kept her mouth from curving into a pleased grin.
Vern released her and shuffled back, adjusting his bathrobe along the way. “I kept a little aside you see, like a safety net. It’s not much, you know, but maybe it’s enough.”
“Enough to pay off your debt?”
“Good God no, it’s not that much, but maybe it could smooth things over.” He dithered from side to side, eyebrows wiggling with unspoken insinuation.
Jodie glanced at the security panel aglow beside the door and lingered on the controls. “Are you trying to bribe a governmental official, Mr. Vern?”
“No, no I would never do something like that.”
Taking the hint, Vern scurried to the panel, pressed a few buttons, and caused the control’s lights to dim. The hum of hidden cameras quieted and Jodie sensed all observers of their exchange suddenly blind.
“But if you were willing to give a little,” said Vern, “and I gave a little. What’s the harm in that?”
Jodie stared at the black screen of her phone until she couldn’t stand the soft rustle of Vern’s robe. When she shifted her focus back to him, he ceased his nervous tottering.
“What kind of assets do you have Mr. Vern?”
He bounced on his toes. “Do we have a deal?”
“Answer the question.”
Speculation circled behind his lenses, but his gaze darted between the phone and the hallway, the phone and her face, the phone and the front door, the phone and finally settled on the folder she held. His shoulders sagged and his voice came out already broken.
“Somewhere around 5.2 million divided between three Swiss bank accounts.”
The amount seemed too good to be true. Even after subtracting the cost of their rental car, the plane tickets, hotel rooms—well room, subsequent travel costs, fake IDs, disguises, and the eventual three way split, Jodie’s heart began racing. She swallowed, slowly, forcing her body to quiet, her pulse to calm, her expression to remain neutral despite the urge to whoop.
Words, however, meant little without the solid numbers behind them.
With barely a hush from her pantyhose or skirt, she drifted to the bench, sat on the edge, and crossed her legs. Lowering the folder and phone to her lap, she bit the end of her pen and scrunched her face, letting the appearance of debate wash over her features.
“You can have it,” said Vern in a hurried gush, “all of it.”
He neared, and she let him slip the folder from her lap, the pen from her fingers. Returning to the table, he started scribbling. The vase teetered with each new line, each set of numbers, each bank name and password.
“It’ll be fine, great. We all walk away, smelling clean, smelling like roses.” He raised the folder, tromboned it before his glasses and, reaching the right distance, read over the numbers, his lips mouthing every one. Satisfied, he stuffed them away and offered her the briefcase, the leather flap hushing in his shaky grasp.
“I…” Jodie deepened her frown. “I’m not sure about this.”
“Then think about it.” Vern set the briefcase beside her. “You go on and sleep on it. You decide no, come back tomorrow. You decide yes, and this never happened.”
Jodie retained her uncertain expression even as he grasped her elbow and helped her rise. She fumbled for her briefcase and with it in tow allowed him to guide her to the door and out onto the mat.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.” Vern grinned around his artificially distinct words spoken loud enough for the topiaries to hear. “So many Vern’s out there you know?”
Jodie nodded as if in a dazed and slipped her phone away.
“Better luck next time, Ms.”
Turning from a waving Vern, Jodie trundled along the driveway. The front door never closed behind her, and, sensing Vern intent on her exit, she added a stumble to her stride. Passing between the driveway’s posts, she pressed a hand to her temple and kept it in place as she dipped back into the car.
Before she could tuck her briefcase away, Dale had them half a block from 142 and turning down Oak. “Well?”
“He melted like puddy.” Jodie fished out the folder and her phone, “but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lying through his teeth.”
“In theory, 5.2 total.”
She could almost hear the same calculations going on in Dale’s mind as she dialed up Max. Dale’s whistle filled the cabin by the time the signal bounced around the world and found the hacker’s covert homestead.
“Been busy?” asked Max.
“Very,” said Jodie, “but I’m not sure it’s going to pay out.”
“Lay them on me.”
Dale signaled them out of the complex of acre lots, passed the guarded gates, and started for the airport while Jodie read off the numbers printed in Vern’s surprisingly tidy handwriting.
On the other end of the line Max said, “Oh.”
Jodie gripped the phone and stared at Dale’s rigid profile. “Is that a good Oh or a bad Oh?”
Max snickered. “It’s the Oh that means you’re buying champagne.”