25. Parley

Finch decided that Carl’s apartment was too dangerous for Reese to attempt breaking into, since it would no doubt be wired with alarms and other surveillance equipment, so instead he directed him to a restaurant that Carl frequented for lunch under most if not all of his many aliases, as evidenced by the GPS tracks left by his multiple cell phones.

“You should get there a good thirty minutes before he usually arrives,” Finch said, double-checking the times.

“Which should give me enough time to stake out a table with a good vantage point,” Reese finished, knowing exactly what his partner was thinking. He eased the car into the fast lane of the highway before adding, “I’m sorry you can’t join me for lunch, Harold.”

“As am I, Mr. Reese,” Finch answered, trying to keep things somewhat professional. “The crab cakes there are purported to be excellent.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Meanwhile, Harold, don’t think you can skip lunch just because I’m not there – I’m hoping to take care of this business quickly, and as soon as I’m done, I’m coming straight back for you! I don’t want you fainting from hunger, as interesting a proposition as that may be…”

It took Finch a moment to recollect his thoughts and say, in a monotone, “Your concern is touching, Mr. Reese, but I’m quite capable of taking care of my own nutritional needs. You should focus on the task at hand before making any plans for celebrating afterwards.”

“Of course, Mr. Finch. But you know what they say… ‘All work and no play.'”

Finch snorted. “I hardly think we need to worry about that, Mr. Reese!”

Reese smirked to himself as he pulled off the highway, then parked around the corner from the restaurant. Since the greeter was away from her post, seating someone else, he took the opportunity to scan the dining area’s layout. There was an ideal table in a back corner, shaded by some greenery and an oriental screen.

“I’m sorry for the wait,” the greeter said as she came back.

“That’s all right. I was wondering if you could put me at the table in the back, there.” Reese indicated his cell phone with an apologetic shrug. “I’m expecting a call.”

The girl complied and Reese sat with his back to the entrance to hide his face, able to see any newcomers in the reflection of the window. He glanced at a photo of Carl on his cell to refresh his memory, and had just switched to the texting function (thinking to send Harold some risqué messages) when a blonde matron in a crisp, form-fitting suit approached him.

“Welcome to Melda’s,” she said warmly, although Reese noticed that her green eyes remained cold, calculating. “Is this your first time visiting us?”

“Yes, it is,” Reese replied with a perfunctory smile, placing his cell on the table. “But a friend of mine recommended your crab cakes when I told him I’d be in the neighborhood.”

“How kind of him,” she said, and sat down across from Reese without waiting for an invitation. “We pride ourselves in having the best food this side of Manhattan. I pride myself in remembering all of our customers – especially a handsome man like yourself. You’re not dining alone today?”

“Actually, I am… that is, unless you would care to join me,” Reese offered, turning on the charm. He knew that he would be less conspicuous with someone else at his table.

“I’d be delighted,” the woman purred. “I’m Melda. Imelda Herrmann.”

“Ah! So this is your place,” Reese said, taking the well-manicured hand she offered and shaking it. “I should have known right away. It’s a perfect reflection of you – classy and elegant.”

“Oh! You flatter me, Mr.—?”

“Chesterton. But please, call me John,” he told her with another winsome smile.

“All right, John,” she said, her green eyes glittering. “And is there a… Mrs. Chesterton?”

“No, but… only because Harold refuses to walk down the aisle with me,” Reese confessed, deciding that the woman was too forward for his liking, even to string along for the short duration of lunch. The astonishment in her eyes was genuine, though, so Reese tried to soften the blow by joking, “Of course, if one of us were to take the title ‘Missus,’ it would probably be me – and I would look horrible in a wedding dress.”

Before she had fully recovered, a waiter came by with menus and slipped her something underneath her menu. Reese guessed that it was a Derringer – a pocket pistol, effective enough at close range – just as Finch murmured in his ear, “Imelda Herrmann is Carl Herschel’s aunt, and I think you’d look lovely in a wedding dress,” in as dry a tone as ever.

“So, what would you recommend for an entrée?” Reese asked smoothly.

“Everything,” she answered with a smile that showed off her perfect teeth – shark-like, Reese thought. “It all depends on your mood. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could try the Cajun salmon.”

“I have to admit, I’m not much of a risk-taker when it comes to food,” he responded. “And I do prefer not to have my lunch peppered with bullets.”

She stared at him, full-on, for a long moment.

“Who do you work for?” she demanded at last. “FBI?”

“Of course not – the Bureau has no finesse. They would have barged in here, guns blazing, with an army of SWAT guys. I’m a… private contractor.” Reese smiled amiably. “The Senator just wants to know that his family is safe.”

“Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll double it,” Melda stated without batting her eyelashes.

“You’re planning to shake that much out of him?” Reese asked, as nonchalantly as if they were discussing the weather. The tapping of Finch’s keyboard in his earpiece had grown louder and faster.

“Not him – you blew Carl’s cover quite thoroughly with his idiot son-in-law. But if you’re willing to work with us, there are… other projects. Much more profitable ones.” She leaned back in her seat, looking relaxed, but still aiming the Derringer at him under the table. “I saw how you swept their house, and how quickly you found the devices. I could use a man like you. Carl has improved over the years, but he’s still… green. Imprecise. I would never have hired him if he weren’t my own nephew. You, on the other hand, have obviously been well trained. You’re… methodical. Thorough. You could train Carl to be better, too.”

“That’s certainly an interesting… proposition,” Reese replied, smirking at the innuendo and cocking one eyebrow as though seriously considering it. “How much would a man with my training be worth to you?”

“A great deal,” she smiled. “If you’re in it for the long haul, who knows? We could do anything – absolutely anything. The sky’s the limit.”

“All this and job security, too? That’s pretty hard to beat,” Reese said mildly.

Finch whispered in his ear, “Carl just pulled into the parking lot.”

“In this economy, I should think so. But people with skills – real talent – will always be in demand,” Melda was saying. “The important thing is to find the right talent for the right job. And in order to survive, sometimes you have to be willing to… get your hands dirty. I consider myself a survivor, Mr. Chesterton – how about you?”

“I’d like to think so, too, Ms. Herrmann.”

“Please, call me Melda.”

“Melda,” Reese smiled. “I’ve been in more… sticky situations, shall we call them? – than I care to count, and yet here I am, still defying the odds. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in stacking the odds in one’s favor.”

“I like that,” she remarked, just as Reese caught the reflection of a man approaching their table.

“Aunt Melda,” the man cried with unfeigned warmth as he leaned in to embrace her. “Sorry I’m late – you haven’t replaced me with another dinner companion, have you?”

“Of course not, dear – it’s just your friend, John Chesterton,” she said with a warning look, as Carl turned to see Reese and froze in shock. “I’ve asked him to join us.”

“Hello, Carl,” Reese greeted with yet another disarming smile. “I’m sorry I had to hang up on you so abruptly the other day, but I was in the middle of something.”

“You! How’d you find…” he gaped, unable to finish the thought.

“It was easy enough, Carl,” Reese calmly informed him. “I just tracked all of your cell phones and picked out the hot-spots. I figured you’d come here sooner or later.”

“I’ve accessed the restaurant’s security system,” Finch breathed into Reese’s ear. “I can trip the fire alarm any time you need me to.”

“Sit down, Carl,” Melda told her nephew. “We were just discussing business. I’m sure a man with John’s skill set would be… invaluable to us.”

He looked at her incredulously but, seeing the hard glint in her eyes, thought better of disagreeing. Once he was settled in a chair, Melda gave him her menu (which she had not needed, of course), her pistol trained on Reese the whole time.

“So if I’m not in a Cajun mood, should I try the Spinach and Orange Roughy Pie?” Reese asked with aplomb.

“Excellent choice,” she purred. “I might have that myself.”

The waiter came to take their order and left, plunging them into an awkward silence.

“So,” Carl blurted out, “what happened to being my Worst Nightmare?”

“Shush, Carl! Don’t be rude,” Melda scolded, but Reese only grinned.

“I still can be, Carl – in more ways than you know. But your aunt has just made me a… very attractive offer.”

Carl stared at him balefully before asking, “What are you? Some sort of… ex-spy?”

“Something like that,” Reese answered. “I do contract work, since I like the variety. Lately, though, I’ve been working a lot of kidnappings.”

“So you’re in the same line of business,” Carl said, eyes narrowed.

“Not exactly. I’m the one they call when they’re told not to contact the police,” Reese clarified. “I make sure that the money gets to the right people and that the abductee is brought home safe and sound. For a modest fee, of course.” He let his mouth curve up in a sly smile.

“It sounds like we could work very well together,” Melda put in, matching Reese’s expression. “But how do you gain your clients’ trust?”

“Ah! That’s a trade secret, don’t you think?” Reese chuckled. “I think we each have our own tricks and… methods of persuasion. But a big part of it (for me, anyway) is referrals. If Senator Russwood ever has a friend with a particular type of problem, I’m confident that he would recommend me. You see, I believe in doing good work, because it always leads to more work.”

“A man with a solid work ethic,” Melda murmured. “How refreshing!”

“So if we set up a similar operation with someone close to the Senator, you can swoop in like a hero and collect your cut,” Carl summarized bluntly.

“And ensure that you’re not exposed,” Reese pointed out. “You’ve been a little sloppy, Carl – otherwise I wouldn’t have found you so easily. I can help you in that area.”

The waiter returned with their drinks and crab cakes, interrupting the conversation. Reese noted that Melda hadn’t ordered an appetizer, meaning she could still keep one hand on her gun.

Cautious, he thought, saying aloud only, “These crab cakes are fantastic! I’m glad my friend told me about them.”

“And I’m glad we were able to make your acquaintance, John,” Melda responded, raising her glass of Chablis. “Here’s to new friends and… mutually profitable business cooperation.”

Reese raised his own glass with a smile. “To new friends, and good business.”

At a nudge from Melda, Carl raised his with a surly grimace. “To good business.”

After clinking their glasses together, Melda continued to observe Reese over the rim of hers as the waiter brought out their entrees.

“I’m curious, John. Just how are you planning to satisfy the Senator?” she finally asked. “Surely he must want some sort of proof that… the threat to his family has been… neutralized.”

“That should be easy enough,” Reese answered. “I can fabricate another identity for Carl – find some homeless bum that looks enough like him with a bad driver’s license photo – and set him up for a similar crime in another state. Then, step back, hang him out to dry, and voila! I can show the Senator that he never has to worry about his family again.”

“You can do that?” Carl demanded, showing real interest for the first time as new possibilities began occurring to him.

“As your lovely aunt has noticed, Carl, I have skills,” Reese said smugly. “Now, if you were to attempt something similar, you would be playing with fire, I’m afraid. You should leave this sort of thing to—”

Right on cue, Finch triggered the restaurant’s fire alarm, and all three of them started. The next moment the water sprinklers turned on, dousing everybody and everything (including Melda’s Derringer) in a heavy spray of water.


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