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Authors: David Rich

Middle Man

BOOK: Middle Man
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Caravan of Thieves

DUTTON

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Copyright © 2013 by David Rich

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Rich, David Neal.

Middle man : a Lieutenant Rollie Waters novel / David Rich.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-698-13815-5

1. Suspense fiction. I. Title.

PS3618.I3327M53 2013

813'.6—dc23 2013000697

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Contents

Also by David Rich

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

For Harriet and Bernie

God bless the King—I mean the faith's defender!

God bless—no harm in blessing—the Pretender!

But who Pretender is, or who is King,—

God Bless us all! That's quite another thing.

John Byrom

1

S
nowfla
kes appeared in Havre, Montana, then disappeared when they hit the ground. The headstone had been pulled out of the ground and laid faceup. It said:
ETHAN
WILLIAMS
1979–2004
. He had been a father, a husband, a son, but none of that was mentioned even though the Army would have paid for the listing. The headstone was probably going to become obsolete as soon as we opened the coffin, but the family might not get a chance at a replacement: My job was to find the money, not the bodies.

A police cruiser pulled up to the curb near the cemetery entrance. The cop did not get out. Our car was parked on the opposite side of the small cemetery, near the exit.

Sergeant Will Panos shrugged. “Had to notify them.” He shifted his gaze across the grave. “Who's the smoker?”

The family was clumped together, with one exception. “Must be the father. Met all the others.”

“They all keep looking at you.”

“It's the uniform.” We wore our service uniforms; this wasn't an occasion for dress blues, according to Sergeant Panos.

“Got my eye on the widow. Does that make me a bad guy?”

“That isn't what makes you a bad guy, Will.” We had been working together for weeks, traveling around the country and to Iraq, and I had not discovered too much about him that was bad. He was the only one who thought he was a bad guy. I figured he was the expert. Sergeant Will Panos had a fleshy face and saggy eyes. His skin was pockmarked, dark and rough. His nose was crooked from fighting. It was the face of a tough guy, a slob, a bruiser. His face lied: Will Panos was a refined, meticulous, careful man who navigated Marine regulations so precisely that I wondered if he had written them himself.

The widow, Kristen, was a pretty woman, wary, about thirty, short, with her dark roots pushing the blond hair away. Her parents and a sister and the sister's husband huddled together in their winter coats near the foot of the grave. I had met them last night at Kristen's house. She had papers to sign. We had waited thirty minutes for Ethan Williams's father, but he never showed up, and no one found that noteworthy.

The smoker stood alone, smoked his cigarette to the stub, tossed it down and lit another. I walked over and introduced myself. Up close, he looked ragged. Random patches of his beard had evaded the razor. He was too young to look like that. “Marine Lieutenant Rollie Waters, sir.” He didn't reply, so I said, “Are you Specialist Williams's father?”

His eyes narrowed and he seemed to hiss. “You don't fool me,” he said.

“I'm sorry we have to do this.” I just wanted to get away from him. The smell of liquor cut through the tobacco on his breath. Watery film covered his eyes and he could not hold my gaze.

“You've never been sorry for nothing,” he said.

Kristen stepped in close to intervene. “I realize I didn't introduce you two. Lieutenant Waters, this is Ethan's father, Jim.”

The father pointed at me and said, “That oughta be you in that grave and we both know it.” His right hand turned up and I saw something black in it, and a second later the blade popped out the side.

Kristen said, “Jim! I'm over here.” He looked at her. “Put the knife away, Jim. There's no danger.” She moved closer to him.

“Mrs. Williams . . .”

She was half his size and the blade looked like it would go all the way through her even with the puffy down coat she wore. Jim noticed me again and his eyes narrowed as if they were going to take over the hissing, but they wavered. He was afraid. Kristen put up one hand to stop me from making a move, and put the other on Jim's shoulder. I stood still.

“Jim, give me the knife. This'll be over soon.” Her voice was soft and understanding, as if they had been partners in some harrowing experience. She put out her hand. He retracted the blade and put the knife in his pocket. He was back in this world. Kristen checked with me and I nodded that I was okay with that.

Jim spat on the ground next to me, then shuffled a few feet away. Kristen waited for my reaction.

“Usually people wait until they get to know me before they do that.”

“He's just . . . it's been hard,” she said. She stood silently beside me for a while. “How many of these have you done so far, Lieutenant?”

“I've lost count.” I glanced toward Will. He was watching us jealously.

“Lots of tears? Fainting?”

“Some.”

“The sergeant is acting as if I'm going fall to pieces.”

“He's seen what happens. . . . He's a good man.” I waited too long to give the recommendation and it sounded forced to me, but she ignored it.

“This one will be different,” she said in a way that made me believe her.

I wanted to believe her. This job, my first for SHADE, had cloaked me in respectability. The families treated me like a black-swaddled Keeper of Some Holy Secrets; they feared and resented me. Being mistaken for someone I'm not has always been a private pleasure and I always enjoyed feeding the misconceptions about me. But this identity, Exhumationist, a joke at first, became an open wound. I started thinking that one day I would unzip a body bag and find myself inside.

Kristen rejoined her family. They were not crying either, yet. A preacher had tagged along, ignored by all, stationed on the opposite side of the grave from Jim. I glanced at the man working with a rake about one hundred yards to my right, on a small rise. He was Mack Rios, a Marine sniper I brought along as a precaution: Millions in cash is a temptation for everyone, even the bereaved. The small white tent where we would open the coffin stood between us. Exhumation is a private business. This one, even without tears, felt no different from the others.

I wished it did.

The first time we dug up a grave and unzipped the body bag and found money, I got that thrill that comes from being right. Hard work rewarded. We had to count the money even though the game was still going on and counting brought questions, which deflated the good feeling. We expected to find twenty-five million dollars in each grave: The first had one million; the second had a million and a half. Something was wrong. We did not understand what it was.

The snow stopped. The winch operator signaled to Will that he was ready. Will nodded. The winch spun. Everyone stared dutifully at the hole in the ground as if they did not know what was going to emerge. But the grave seemed to be two miles deep. The creaky chains rolled up slowly. Maybe the winch man was holding out for overtime. I snuck in behind Jim Williams and grabbed his right arm into a quick hammerlock and slipped my hand into his pocket and extracted the knife. He hissed once more.

At last the casket floated up from the grave and hovered like an alien drone that we had foolishly unearthed and activated. It swung hypnotically and Kristen flinched. It almost hit the preacher, whose eyes were closed, but no one interrupted his reverie. Each exhumation was like a combat patrol. This was my third exhumation, so I felt like a veteran: weary but addicted. I tried to watch the family without staring. I wanted to know what they were hoping for. If I was wrong, if the body was in the grave, then hope was crushed forever. If I was right and the grave contained a body bag filled with money, then hope, which I knew I had revived when I contacted them, would rise up and slam them to the ground and stomp on them, probably as long as they lived. I wanted to watch them to see which choice they thought they preferred. But this was only the third grave and it would take thousands to make a good sample.

The explosion was small, a flash and a pop, but so was the tent. Dirt pelted us, speeding through the strips and bits of white canvas swirling around us. Beyond the tent, Mack Rios went down with the first shot. The second shot hit Will Panos, who had jumped in front of Kristen to shield her. He yelled, “Damn, damn, damn,” and tottered and brought her down when he fell. A hand pushed me in the back and I bent forward to maintain my balance. Jim Williams said something like “You, damn you . . .” The rest was drowned out by the third shot, which went through his neck.

For a moment I thought the silence was complete, but the creaking of the chains holding the coffin kept a steady beat as I ran up the hill to Mack. He was dead, shot in the face, lying on his back with his rifle just inches from his left hand.

I stood up and looked back toward the grave. At first, the area was diorama still. Then the spell expired and figures began to move as if wound up by the slow ticktock of the gently swinging coffin. The shots had come from the big, peaceful field of headstones lined up like seats in an auditorium beyond the grave site. A shooter could have hidden behind any one of them, but no one was out there now.

The sirens were close by the time I got back to the graveside and Will Panos. His wound cut across the front of his right thigh. He was trying to stand. I pulled him down and kneeled next to him. “How is it?”

“Not bad,” he said while wincing, because the only bullets that don't hurt are the fatal ones.

Kristen had crawled out from under him and gone over to her parents. The flashing lights from the cop cars coated the scene in glimpses of red, so it took me a moment to realize the back of her jacket was smeared with Will's blood.

“Get the attention of the first cops. Howl if you have to,” I said. “I'm going to try to get out of here with the money.”

I left Will and went to the winch operator and pulled him up. “Lower the coffin to the ground. Right where it is. Now,” I said. He was staring at Will, still on the ground. “Just do it. Do it now. Where's the crank?” He pointed to a tool chest next to the winch. I pushed him toward the controls and he went to work. I meant for him to drop the thing, but he lowered it as if the world's last bottle of bourbon were inside. As soon as the casket was on the ground, I put in the crank to pop the lock, then wedged the crowbar in the middle to lift the top. The winch operator sat there as if waiting for further instructions.

The cops were getting out of their cars. An ambulance was pulling up. I was not sure how I was going to get out of there with the money, but I knew I did not want the local police claiming it. I lifted the top of the casket and reached inside and unzipped the body bag and I flinched. The skin was thin as fancy stationery and the hair was sparse and the remains of a man wore a Marine uniform. From behind me Kristen said, “Who the hell is that?” I stared at her and might have kept staring at her while I tried to comprehend the situation, but I saw cops coming toward us. I zipped up the bag and closed the lid.

BOOK: Middle Man
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