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"That's it." Griff Burkett tossed a small duffel bag onto the backseat of the car, then got into the front passenger seat. "I didn't bring much with me. I'm sure as hell not taking souvenirs." He wanted no memorabilia from his stint in BIG -- official code name for the Federal Correctional Institute in Big Spring, Texas.
He made himself comfortable on the plush leather, adjusted the air-conditioning vent to blow straight at him, then, realizing they weren't moving, looked over at the driver.
"Oh. Right." Griff stretched the belt across his chest and latched it. Tongue in cheek, he said, "Wouldn't want to break the law."
As lawyers went, Wyatt Turner was okay. But if he possessed a sense of humor, he kept it under lock and key. He didn't crack a smile at Griff's wry remark.
"Come on, Turner, lighten up," Griff said. "This is a special day."
"Unfortunately, we're not the only ones commemorating it."
Turner drew Griff's attention to an ugly, olive green car parked in a handicapped space. Illegally it seemed, since there was no tag hanging from the rearview mirror. Griff didn't recognize the make or model of the car because it was younger than five years old. Nothing distinguished the no-frills sedan except the man sitting behind the wheel.
Griff cursed under his breath. "What's he doing here?"
"It's been all over the news that you were being released today, but I don't think he brought champagne."
"So why'd he come all this way to see little ol' me?"
"I assume he wants to pick up where the two of you left off."
The object of their conversation, Stanley Rodarte, had parked where he couldn't be missed. He had wanted Griff to see him. And Griff would have recognized him anywhere, because Stanley Rodarte was one ugly son of a bitch. His face looked like it had been hacked out of oak with a chain saw, by a carver too impatient to smooth out the rough edges. Cheekbones as sharp as knife blades cast shadows across his ruddy, pockmarked skin. His hair was the color and texture of dirty straw. Behind the lenses of his opaque sunglasses, his eyes -- yellowish, as Griff recalled -- were no doubt trained on Griff with an enmity that even five years hadn't blunted.
Griff shrugged with more indifference than he felt. "It's his time he's wasting."
Sounding like the voice of doom, Turner said, "Obviously he doesn't think so."
As they pulled closer to the other car, Griff flashed Rodarte a big grin, then raised his middle finger at him.
"Jesus, Griff." Turner accelerated toward the prison gate. "What's the matter with you?"
"He doesn't scare me."
"Well, he should. If you had a lick of sense, he would scare you shitless. Apparently he hasn't forgotten about Bandy. Steer clear of him. I mean it. Are you listening? Do not cross him."
"Am I gonna get billed for that unsolicited advice?"
"No, that advice is on the house. It's for my protection as well as yours."
Despite the blasting air conditioner, Griff lowered his window as Turner drove through the gates of the federal prison camp that had been his home for the past five years. The area in which he'd been incarcerated was classified minimum security, but it was still prison.
"No offense to the folks in Big Spring, but I don't care to ever enter the city limits again," he remarked as they left the West Texas town and headed east on Interstate 20.
The air was hot, dry, and gritty, perfumed by diesel and gasoline exhaust from the well-traveled highway, but it was free air, the first Griff had tasted in one thousand, eight hundred, and twenty-five days. He gulped it.
"Feel good to be out?" his lawyer asked.
"You have no idea."
After a moment, Turner said, "I meant what I said about Rodarte."
The sand-bearing wind scoured Griff's face and flattened his hair against his head. "Relax, Turner," he said, speaking above the noise of a foul-smelling cattle truck roaring past. "I won't wave red flags at Rodarte. Or at anybody else. That's in my past. Ancient history. I took my punishment and paid my debt to society. You're looking at a rehabilitated, reformed man."
"Glad to hear it," the lawyer said, heavy on the skepticism.
Griff had been watching Rodarte in the car's side-view mirror. He'd followed them out of Big Spring and now was matching their speed, keeping at least three vehicles between them. If Wyatt Turner realized that Rodarte was on their tail, he didn't mention it. Griff started to say something about it, then figured there were things his lawyer didn't need to know. Things that would only worry him.
Three hundred miles later, Griff stood in the center of the apartment's living area, which was a laughable misnomer. A person might exist here, but you couldn't call it living. The room was so dim it bordered on gloomy, but the poor lighting actually worked in its favor. A crack as wide as his index finger ran up one wall from floor to ceiling like a jagged lightning bolt. The carpet was gummy. The air conditioner wheezed, and the air it pumped was damp and smelled like day-old carryout Chinese.
"It's not much," Turner said.
"But there's no lease. The rent's paid month to month. Consider this only a stopover until you can find something better."
"At least Big Spring was clean."
"You want to go back?"
Maybe Turner had a sense of humor after all.
Griff tossed his duffel bag onto the sofa. Not only did it look uncomfortable but the upholstery was stained with God-knew-what. He remembered fondly the high-rise condo he used to live in, in the ritzy Turtle Creek area of Dallas. Suffused with natural light during the day, a spectacular view of the skyline at night. Outfitted with countless amenities. Half of the gadgets and gewgaws he hadn't even known what they were for or how to work them. But the important thing was that he'd had them.
"When you sold my place, weren't you able to keep any of my stuff?"
"Clothes. Personal items. Pictures. Like that. It's all in a storage unit. But the rest..." Turner shook his head and nervously jiggled his keys as though anxious to get back in his car, although the drive had taken them nearly five hours with only one stop. "I liquidated everything in the Toy Box first."
That had been Griff's pet name for the extra garage he'd leased in which to store his grown-up toys -- snow skis, scuba equipment, an Indian motorcycle, a bass fishing boat that had been in the water exactly once. Stuff he had bought mostly because he could.
"The Escalade and Porsche went next. I held off selling the Lexus until I had no choice. Then I began emptying the apartment. I had to sell it all, Griff. To pay off your fine. Consulting fees."
Turner stopped his bit with the keys. Under other circumstances, the combative stance he took would have been humorous. Griff was more than half a foot taller, and he hadn't slacked on workouts during his incarceration. If anything, he was harder now than when he went in.
Wyatt Turner had the pallor of a man who worked indoors twelve hours a day. A workout for him amounted to eighteen holes of golf, riding in a cart, followed by two cocktails in the clubhouse. In his mid-forties, he had already developed a soft paunch in front and sagging ass in back.
"Yes, Griff, my fee," he said defensively. "I get paid to do my job. Just like you do."
Griff looked at him for a moment, then said softly, "Did. Just like I did."
Turner backed down and, looking slightly embarrassed by his momentary testiness, turned away and laid another set of keys on the stick-furniture coffee table. "Our extra car. It's parked outside. Can't miss it. Faded red, two-door Honda. Not worth anything as a trade-in, so when Susan got her Range Rover, we kept it for emergencies. It runs okay. I had the oil changed and the tires checked. Use it for as long as you need it."
"Will the daily rental fee be added to my bill?"
Again, Turner took umbrage. "Why are you being such a prick about everything? I'm trying to help."
"I needed your help five years ago to keep me out of fucking prison."
"I did everything I could for you," Turner fired back. "They had you. You do the crime, you do the time."
"Gee, I need to write that down." Griff patted his pockets as though looking for a pen.
"I'm outta here."
Turner moved toward the door, but Griff headed him off. "Okay, okay, you're a prince among lawyers and I'm an unappreciative prick. What else?" He allowed Turner a few moments to fume in righteous indignation, then repeated in a more conciliatory tone, "What else have you done for me?"
"I put some of your clothes in the closet in the bedroom." He gestured toward an open doorway across the room. "Jeans and polos haven't gone out of style. I picked up some sheets and towels at Target. You got toiletries?"
"In my duffel."
"Bottled water, milk, eggs are in the fridge. Bread's in there, too. I thought there might be roaches in the pantry."
"Look, Griff, I know it's no palace, but -- "
"Palace?" he repeated, laughing. "I don't think anyone would mistake this dump for a palace." Then, to keep from appearing ungrateful, he added, "But as you said, it's only a stopgap. Do I have a phone?"
"In the bedroom. I put down the deposit for you. It's in my name. We can have it disconnected when you get your own."
"Thanks. What's the number?"
Turner told him. "Don't you need to write it down?"
"I used to carry a couple hundred plays inside my head. I can remember ten digits."
"Hmm. Right. Don't forget to check in with your probation officer. He'll need to know how to contact you."
"First item on my list. Call Jerry Arnold." Griff drew a check mark in the air.
Turner handed him a bank envelope. "Here's some walking-around money until you can get a credit card. And your driver's license is in there, too. Address is wrong, of course, but it doesn't expire until your next birthday, and by then you'll have a new place."
"Thanks." Griff tossed the bank envelope onto the table beside the keys to the borrowed car. Taking handouts from his lawyer was almost as humiliating as the first day of prison, when he'd been told the rules as well as the punishments for breaking them.
"Well, then, I guess you're good to go." The lawyer clapped him on the shoulder, which seemed an unnatural and awkward gesture for him. He turned away quickly, but at the door he paused and looked back. "Griff...uh...folks are still pissed at you. To a lot of people, you committed a cardinal sin. If someone gives you flak, don't let it bother you too much. Turn the other cheek, okay?"
Griff remained silent. He wouldn't make a promise he couldn't keep.
Turner hesitated, looking worried. "Getting out...It's a tough transition."
"Beats staying in."
"Those classes they have for inmates about to be released..."
"The Release Preparation Program."
"Right. Were the sessions helpful?"
"Oh, yeah. I learned how to fill out a job application. Was urged not to scratch my ass or pick my nose during an interview."
Looking chagrined, Turner asked, "Do you have any idea what you're going to do?"
"Get a job."
"For sure. What I mean is, do you have any prospects lined up?"
"Do you know an NFL team looking for a starting quarterback?" Turner's face went so flaccid, Griff laughed. "That was a joke."
The estate was enclosed by an ivy-covered, twelve-foot-high brick wall.
"Holy shit." Griff pulled the red Honda up to the call box at the gate. He'd known by the address that this was an affluent part of Dallas, but he hadn't expected it to be this affluent.
Instructions on how to contact the house were printed on the box. He punched in a sequence of numbers on the keypad, which he supposed rang a telephone inside. In a moment, a voice came through the speaker.
"Griff Burkett to see Mr. Speakman."
Nothing else was said. But the iron picket gate opened and he drove through. The brick lane was bordered by cultivated beds of low shrubbery and flowers. Beyond them the tree-shaded lawn looked like a carpet of green velvet.
The mansion itself was as impressive as the landscaping. Older than Griff by several decades, it was constructed of gray stone. Some of its walls were ivy covered like the estate wall. He followed the curving driveway and parked directly in front of the entrance, then got out of the borrowed Honda and approached the front door. It was flanked by urns containing evergreen trees. Idly Griff wondered how in hell they got a tree to grow in the shape of a corkscrew.
No cobwebs clinging to the eaves. Nary a stray leaf anywhere. Not a smear on any of the windows. The house, the grounds, the whole place was freaking perfect.
When he'd told Wyatt Turner he didn't have any prospects, he'd lied. Not that job offers were pouring in. Right now, Griff Burkett was arguably the most detested man in Dallas, if not the entire Lone Star State. No, that was still limiting: He was despised in the whole football-loving country. People sneered his name, or spat after saying it as though to ward off an evil spirit. Nobody in their right mind would want him on their payroll.
But he did have this one prospect, however slim.
A few days before his release, he had received an invitation to be in this spot, on this date, at this time. The stiff card had been engraved: Foster Speakman. The name was vaguely familiar, although Griff couldn't remember why it would be.
As he depressed the doorbell, he couldn't imagine what a guy who lived in a place like this could possibly want with him. He had assumed the appointment portended a job offer. Now, seeing this spread, he thought maybe not. Maybe this Speakman had been a die-hard Cowboys fan who only wanted his own pound of Griff Burkett's flesh.
The door was opened almost immediately. He was greeted by a waft of refrigerated air, the faint scent of oranges, and a guy who looked like he should be wearing a breechcloth and carrying a spear.
Griff had expected a maid or butler -- someone in a white apron, with a soft speaking voice and polite but aloof mannerisms. This guy didn't come close. He was dressed in a tight black T-shirt and black slacks. He had the wide, flat features of Mayan royalty. His skin was smooth and beardless. Straight hair black as ink.
"Uh, Mr. Speakman?"
He shook his head and smiled. Rather, he revealed his teeth. You couldn't really call it a smile because no other feature of his face changed, even moderately. He stood aside and motioned Griff in.
A vaulted ceiling loomed three stories above. Oriental rugs formed islands of subtle color on the marble floor. Griff's image was caught in the enormous mirror that hung above the long console table. The curving staircase was an architectural marvel, especially considering when the house had been built. The space was vast, and as hushed as a cathedral.
The speechless man motioned with his head for Griff to follow. Again it occurred to Griff that Foster Speakman might be lying in wait. Did he keep thumbscrews and whips in the dungeon?
When they reached a set of double doors, the butler -- for lack of a better word -- pushed both open, then stood aside. Griff stepped into the room, obviously a library, the walls on three sides consisting of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The fourth wall was almost entirely windows, affording a view of the sweeping lawn and flower gardens.
Griff turned at the unexpected voice and got his second surprise. The man smiling up at him was in a wheelchair.
"How physically imposing you would be in person." He sized Griff up. "You're as tall as I expected, but not as...bulky. Of course, I've only seen you from the distance of a stadium box, and on TV."
"TV adds ten pounds."
The man laughed. "To say nothing of shoulder pads." He extended his right hand. "Foster Speakman. Thank you for coming." They shook hands. Not surprisingly, his hand was smaller than Griff's by far, but his palm was dry and his handshake firm. He pushed a button on his fancy wheelchair and backed away. "Come in and have a seat."
He motioned Griff toward a grouping of comfortably arranged pieces with appropriate tables and lamps. Griff chose one of the chairs. As he sank into it, he experienced a pang of homesickness for the furnishings of similar quality he used to own. Now he had to keep his bread in a fridge with an irritating hum.
Taking another glance around the room and the acreage beyond the windows, he questioned again just what the hell he was doing here, in an ivy-covered mansion, with a crippled man.
Foster Speakman probably had five years on him, which put him around forty. He was nice looking. Hard to tell how tall he would be standing, but Griff guessed just shy of six feet. He was wearing preppy clothes -- navy blue golf shirt and khaki slacks, brown leather belt, matching loafers, tan socks.
The legs of his trousers looked like deflated balloons, not much flesh to fill them out.
"Something to drink?" Speakman asked pleasantly.
Caught staring and speculating, Griff shifted his attention back to his host's face. "A Coke?"
Speakman looked over at the man who'd answered the door. "Manuelo, two Cokes, por favor."
Manuelo was as square and solid as a sack of cement but moved soundlessly. Speakman noticed Griff watching the servant as he went to the bar and began pouring their drinks. "He's from El Salvador."
"He literally walked to the United States."
"He tends to me."
Griff could think of nothing to say to that, although he wanted to ask if Manuelo, despite his smile, kept a collection of shrunken heads under his bed.
"Did you drive from Big Spring today?" Speakman asked.
"My lawyer picked me up this morning."
"I didn't mind it."
Speakman grinned. "I guess not. After being cooped up for so long." He waited until Griff had taken his drink from the small tray Manuelo extended to him, then took his own cut-crystal glass and raised it. "To your release."
"I'll drink to that."
Manuelo left through the double doors, pulling them closed behind him. Griff took another sip of Coke, becoming uncomfortable under Speakman's blatantly curious stare.
What was this? Invite a con for drinks week?
The whole scene was beginning to make him uneasy. Deciding to cut to the chase, he set his drink on the end table at his elbow. "Did you ask me here to get an up close and personal look at a has-been football player? Or a convicted felon?"
Speakman seemed unfazed by his rudeness. "I thought you might be in the market for a job."
Not wanting to look desperate or needy, Griff gave a noncommittal shrug.
"Any offers yet?" Speakman asked.
"None that have interested me."
"The Cowboys aren't -- "
"No. Nor is any other team. I've been banned from the league. I doubt I could buy a ticket to an NFL game."
Speakman nodded as though he had already determined that was the way things were with Griff Burkett. "If you can't do something related to football, what did you plan to do?"
"I planned to serve my sentence and get out."
"Nothing beyond that?"
Griff sat back, again shrugged as though he didn't give a shit, reached for his Coke, and took another sip. "I've toyed with some ideas but haven't settled on anything yet."
"I own an airline. SunSouth."
Griff kept his features schooled, trying not to show that he was either surprised or impressed, when actually he was both. "I fly it. Or rather, I used to fly SunSouth often."
Speakman flashed an unself-conscious smile. "So do a lot of people, I'm pleased to say."
Griff looked around the beautiful room, his gaze stopping on some of its treasures, then came back to Speakman. "I bet you are."
Despite his drollness, Speakman's smile remained in place. "I invited you here to offer you a job."
Griff's heart did a little jig of gladness. A man like Foster Speakman could do him a lot of good. Now he remembered why the name had sounded familiar. Speakman was an influential force in Dallas, owning and operating one of the region's most successful enterprises. An endorsement from him, even a minor nod of pardon, would go a long way toward winning back some of the favor Griff had lost five years ago.
But he tamped down his bubbling optimism. For all he knew, the guy wanted him to strain the shit out of the sewage tanks on his airplanes. "I'm listening."
"The job I'm offering would give you immediate financial relief. I understand that your assets were liquidated to pay the fine the court imposed on you."
Hedging the truth, Griff said, "Most of them, yeah."
"Those proceeds were also used to cover substantial debts. Is that correct?"
"Look, Speakman, since you seem to know anyway, stop fishing. I lost everything and then some. Is that what you wanted to hear? I don't have a pot to piss in."
"Then I suppose a hundred thousand would come in handy."
Taken aback by the amount, Griff felt his irritation turn to suspicion. He'd learned the hard way to be wary of anything that seemed too easily come by. If it seemed too good to be true, it probably was. "A hundred thousand a year?"
"No, Mr. Burkett," Speakman said, smiling, enjoying himself. "A hundred thousand to seal our deal. Using a term you're familiar with, it would be like a signing bonus."
Griff stared at him for a count of ten. "A hundred grand. U.S. dollars."
"Legal tender. It's yours if you say yes to what I propose."
Griff carefully removed his ankle from his opposite knee and set both feet on the floor, buying time while his mind spun around the amount of money and how badly he needed it. "Are you thinking about using me to advertise your airline? Billboards, commercials, ads? That kind of thing? I wouldn't cotton to posing naked, but it could be negotiated."
Speakman smiled and shook his head. "I realize that endorsements were a significant part of your income when you were the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. That Number Ten jersey sold a lot of whatever it was advertising. But now I'm afraid an endorsement from you would repel customers, not attract them."
Even knowing that was true, Griff was pissed off to hear it. "Then what did you have in mind? Who do I have to kill?"
Speakman actually laughed out loud. "It's nothing that drastic."
"I don't know anything about airplanes."
"This isn't airline related."
"You need a new yardman?"
"Then I'm fresh out of guesses. What do I do to earn my hundred thousand dollars?"
"Make my wife pregnant."
Copyright (c) 2007 by Sandra Brown Management Ltd.