Sample text for The program : a novel / Stephen White.


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Counter ALMOST FAT TUESDAY

1

"Remember this. Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."

The man was a good target.

Tall, six-five. Wavy blond hair that shined almost red in the filtered February sunlight. Ivory skin that refused to tan. Green eyes that danced to the beat of every melody that radiated from every tavern on every street corner in the always-tawdry Quarter. Even during a crowded lunch hour in the most congested part of New Orleans, you could spot him a block away, his head bobbing above the masses. On the eve of Fat Tuesday the Quarter was flush with tourists, and each of them was flush with anticipation of the debauched revelry that would only accelerate as the Monday before stretched into the Tuesday of, as almost-here became Mardi Gras.

The other man, the one with the gun, knew that in a crowd like this one he would have made a rotten target. He was five-eight with his sneakers on. What hair remained on his head was on the dark side of brown. His creeping baldness didn't matter much to him, though, because the Saints cap he was wearing shielded his scalp from the sun as effectively as the distinctive steel-rimmed Ray-Bans shaded his eyes. The khakis and navy-striped sweater he was wearing had been chosen because they comprised the de facto uniform-of-the-day among the male revelers wandering to join the crowds on Bourbon Street.

The late morning had turned mild, and the man's windbreaker was draped over his right hand and arm, totally disguising the barrel of his Ruger Mark II as well as the additional length of the stubby suppressor. His left hand was shoved deep in the pocket of his khakis. He had been briefed on the tall man's destination in advance and kept his distance as he followed him. At the intersection where Bienville crossed Royal the man with the silenced .22 would begin to close the gap on the man without one. That would give the assassin a little over a block to get close enough to do his job.

The tall, blond man had come from his office near City Hall. His wife had wanted to meet him downtown and accompany him to the restaurant. But he'd declined her offer. He'd made prior arrangements to stop on his way to their lunch date at an antique store on Royal to pick up a nineteenth-century cameo he knew his wife had been coveting. The cameo was a surprise for their anniversary.

The errand on Royal hadn't taken the man long, though, and he was turning the corner from Bienville onto Bourbon ten minutes before he was scheduled to rendezvous with his wife. With an athlete's grace and a large man's strides, he dodged slothful tourists with their to-go cup hurricanes and quickly covered the territory to the entrance of Galatoire's. Briefly he scanned the sidewalk and the teeming street in front of the restaurant. His wife wasn't there. He didn't even consider looking for her inside: Kirsten had a thing about sitting alone in restaurants. He hoped she wouldn't be too late; the line for lunch at one of New Orleans legendary eateries was already growing.

They had been in New Orleans for six years and this would mark the sixth time that they had celebrated their anniversary at Galatoire's. He was the one who insisted on returning year after year. She would have preferred going to a restaurant that actually took reservations. But he prevailed. He was the keeper of the traditions in the family. He was the romantic.

The man with the windbreaker on his arm window-shopped two doors down from Galatoire's, using the storefront glass to reflect the position of his prey. He didn't worry about being spotted. There was no reason that anyone would focus on him. He was a middle-aged guy loitering on Bourbon Street just before lunch hour on the eve of Mardi Gras. One, literally, of thousands. Finally, the beeper in his pocket vibrated. With his fingertip he stilled it and began to scan the street for Kirsten's arrival. His partner up the street had paged him from a cell phone. The page was his signal that she was approaching.

She, too, would have been a good target. Like her husband, Kirsten was tall. And she flaunted it. Two-inch heels took her above six feet, and the skirt of her suit was cut narrowly to accentuate her height. The jacket was tailored to pinch her waist and highlight her hips. Her hair was every bit as blond as her husband's although the sunlight reflected no red. Kirsten was golden, from head to toe.

She carried a small gift box, elaborately wrapped. In it was a key to a suite at the nearby Windsor Court Hotel and a scroll with a wonderfully detailed list that spelled out all the erotic things she planned to do to her husband's lean body between check-in that evening and dawn the next day. She'd had the list drawn on parchment by a friend who was a calligrapher.

The man with the windbreaker spotted Kirsten down the block. As he had been told to expect, she was approaching down Bourbon from Canal. A moment later her husband spotted her, too, but he was reluctant to leave his place in line at Galatoire's. He waved. She waved back. Her smile was electric.

The man with the windbreaker on his arm moved closer to the tall blond man, simultaneously lifting his left hand from his pocket and placing it below the jacket. His right hand was now free. He stuffed it into the pocket of his trousers at the same moment he spotted his partner moving into position behind the woman.

Timing was everything. That's what he'd been told. This wasn't just about the hit; it was also about the timing. Timing was everything.

Kirsten Lord was fifty feet away when the man with the windbreaker stepped into position no more than two yards to the left of her husband, Robert. The position the man took was slightly back from Robert's left shoulder. Kirsten dodged tourists and closed the distance between herself and her husband to twenty feet. Impossibly, her smile seemed to grow brighter.

The man raised his left arm, the one shielded by the windbreaker, so that it extended across his chest. Below the jacket, the barrel of the sound suppressor was now pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle toward his right shoulder.




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Gregory, Alan (Fictitious character) Fiction, Clinical psychologists Fiction, Witnesses Protection Fiction, Boulder (Colo, ) Fiction