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Authors: Sam Stewart

Payback

BOOK: Payback
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Someone's poisoning an artificial sweetener and people across the country are dying at random. It's part of a plot to get back at Bob Mitchell, the company's president, a decorated war hero trailed by a past whose secrets, if exposed, could blow up his future. The police have nothing, the body count's nine, and Mitchell's got four days to track down the killer or the man kills and again explodes Mitchell's life.

From Hollywood, where death is just the hook for a movie, to Switzerland, where sex is just a numbered account, Mitchell's hunt leads him to a shattering discovery, a long lost lover, and a battle as ferocious as any in the war.

PRAISE FOR
PAYBACK


Zings with cinematic excitement. The plot is full of satisfying twists, the ending is suspenseful and rousing and the good, the evil and the merely sleazy all get their just deserts
.” —Publishers Weekly


A unique blend of hard-boiled style and a funny/cynical outlook. Reminds me of a cross between Elmore Leonard and Ross Thomas.
” —Eric Van Lustbader


At last, another deftly ironic and twisty thriller from Sam Stewart [whose] muscular prose and dialogue recall Elmore Leonard
…” —The Long Island News


Steamrolls to a highly satisfying finale
.” —NY Newsday


A ferocious read. Like riding a train full throttle. Scary and, at the same time, mordantly funny.
” —Eric Van Lustbader

Payback

A Novel

Sam Stewart

Author's Foreword

This novel was written in 1987 but only in that sense is it a period piece. The characters, attitudes, and morals (or lack of them) remain ever-present and the dialogue and humor and the various ironies are up to the minute. In 1987, the war in Vietnam had only been over for 14 years and the men who'd fought in it were still in their thirties, its memories indelibly etched in their heads and in the conscience of the country. War itself doesn't ever get dated. War is war. Combat is combat–repetitive and fatal. In 1987 an apartment in Manhattan was considered exorbitant at $1500, Times Square was porn alley, and everybody smoked almost anywhere at all without causing mass hysteria or even double takes. The price of a good whiskey at a bar was $4, a pack of cigarettes went for seventy-five cents and a paperback book (this one, for instance) was $3.95.

Only a few minor and unimportant references may sail over younger heads. If you're idly curious about such trivia as Who was Joan Collins or Robert Vesco, you can check out the glossary at the end of the book.

OPENERS

Mitchell had a small beach house in Baja, not far from La Paz, on the Gulf of California. He'd bought it fifteen years ago under the false name of Julian Sorel and he'd paid for it in cash—two hundred and fifty thousand pesos, or just about twenty thousand dollars, U.S.

Under the floorboards, nailed down neatly—in high school he'd always had a talent for shop—was a Mosler strongbox with ten thousand dollars, most of it in well-worn twenties and tens. He could have made it livelier than ten thousand dollars but his own inescapable sense of morality had kept it as it was. His planning had been vague. If he ever had to take it and run like a fugitive, the money, he figured, was a running start but he'd have to come up with the finale on his own. He considered that fair and, with sensible precautions, went on about his life.

His thought about disaster: If it happens, it happens. You could live with your weather eye cocked to the horizon, you could look for indications of disaster in the air, but the chances were the fucker had a mean sense of humor and would just come winging out of ordinary blue.

When Mitchell got awakened that Saturday morning—he would always remember it—the sky had been blue.

***

They sat at the counter of a Greek coffee shop on West 57th. They were waiting out the rain. They were both in their twenties, the girl in a khaki duffle coat opened to a fisherman's sweater. She was blond, like the man. They were sitting very close in a kind of conspiracy of youth and good looks.

The girl said, “I think we ought to go for the last one.”

The man cocked his head. He had very blue eyes. He said, “Are you
kidding?
It was seventeen hundred.”

“But consider the view.”

He laughed. The apartment had been next to a garage. He nodded. “The only apartment in Manhattan with a living room directly overlooking Detroit.—
Je
sus.” The waiter had delivered the coffee. The man said, “You're absolutely certain it's decaf?”

The waiter said, “Certain.”

The man pushed his rimless glasses down his nose. “Well … okay. But if
isn't
,” he threatened, “I'll call you up at four in the morning and complain.”

The waiter said, “Funny,” though it actually was. He moved down the counter and lit a cigarette.

The girl said, “… sugar bowl.”

The guy said something inaudible; smiled.

The girl leaned over and suddenly kissed him on the tip of his ear, then whispered, “I love you.”

“Love in the eighties.” He shook his head sadly. “All you need is eighty million dollars for a pad.”

“We'll manage.”

“I know.—Drink up,” he said quickly. “And I'd like you to seriously think about the Bronx.”

It was Saturday morning and a lull in the rush. The waiter had stood around leaning on the counter. The waiter had overheard everything they said and would subsequently tell it to the
Post
and the
News
and to several squadrons of Manhattan detectives.

But none of that would happen till Tuesday afternoon and by then he'd forgotten almost anything important. He could only remember that the victim was “cute,” and the guy she'd been sitting with was scared about the coffee. He added: “I guess he didn't sleep much anyway. I mean, that night.”

***

The actress was stricken with the full-blown fury of a clothes tantrum. She stood in her bedroom at seven in the morning surrounded by every single article she owned, or every single article remotely appropriate for nine o'clock breakfast at the Beverly Hills. On the floor, on the bed, hurled and crumpled in utter frustration, were fourteen blouses and thirteen skirts, seven pairs of shoes, and a riotous selection of jewelry and belts.

The actress was standing there glaring at the mess, hating her wardrobe, hating her body, hating herself.

She could see it in the mirror. She could see something else: She was not beautiful when she was angry. This would not work out. The first thing she had to do was relax.

Breathe, she told herself. Deep.… Slow.… When you met a producer, you had to be calm. She had to, she told herself sternly, be calm. She had to come on “like a young Joan Collins,” it said in the script—brimming with confidence and acting like she didn't give a shit about the job.

She stood there for a moment absorbing her thought and then suddenly, dazzlingly, smiled in relief. That was the answer then, wasn't it, she thought. Acting. She would simply sit there and act. She would
act
like an actress who was bursting with confidence and didn't give a shit. That, she could do.

She moved down the hall. In the kitchen she fixed herself a small pot of coffee and a thin slice of toast. She would sit there quietly. She'd have a little coffee, she'd have a little toast … and how about possibly the yellow Armani with the blue silk sweater and forget about the belt.

Setting the coffee on the living room table, she went to the handbag she'd used last night, took out the sweetener she'd stolen from the restaurant, and settled on the couch. She ate a little toast; she drank a little coffee.

***

The producer waited for exactly an hour in the Loggia Restaurant. Nobody showed. Then he thought, maybe she's
too
Joan Collins, and waggled for the check.

***

Mitchell had breakfast in the dusty little city of Consuela, Guatemala. It had taken him three hours to get there over terrible roads. He didn't want to be there but he couldn't insult an entire little city. On the other hand, he wasn't about to wear a suit. He'd arrived in Consuela in a sleeveless T-shirt, a faded pair of jeans. The weather was stunning. Eleven in the morning, the humidity and temperature were locked into a race—trying to beat each other to 100 and giving it their best. They arrived, dead heat, at a quarter after twelve while Mitchell was standing in the local
zocalo
—the public square. The town of Consuela was giving him a medal. The town had to deal with this elation outdoors because the only suitable municipal buildings had been razed by an earthquake—everything fell and everything else had been pounded by a flood, and Mitchell had responded with a hundred thousand dollars' worth of antibiotics. Mitchell was receiving a small silver medal. He figured he ought to get a large silver medal for the stamina and fortitude of standing there receiving the small silver medal.

A local photographer wanted his picture but Mitchell made a gesture at his clothes and said no.

***

The woman said softly, “I don't understand you.”

The man made a face. He said, “Understanding is overrated,” and motioned for the waiter. “You want some dessert?”

“Just coffee.”

“Two coffees,” he said to the waiter, who nodded.

“Was it all satisfactory, sir?”

“Except the conversation.”

The waiter looked embarrassed. He managed a gentlemanly shrug and went off.

“Nice touch,” the woman said.

He looked at her. “I'm just getting tired of explaining—”

“—the gypsy in your soul?”

“My decision,” he said.

“Oh for God's sake, Harry. It's male menopause. You woke up, forty, and discovered you'd never won the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Peace Prize or—”

“A fight with my wife …?”

She laughed at that one. “Well … like the saying: lose a few, lose a few.” She glanced through the window. “I just don't understand why you want to leave Manhattan when—”

“Look. I want to live in Hawaii, that's all.”

“Oh no. You want to
think
you want to live in Hawaii. You don't even think it, Harry. You just want to. I mean, face it. You are urban.”

He sighed.

The waiter came back with the coffee.

The woman said, “Why don't you take a leave of absence. You want to, we can rent a little villa on the beach, but for God's sakes, darling, don't quit your job.”

He stared at the coffee. “You mean that? You'd try it for a couple of months?”

“Absolutely,” she said, figuring he'd possibly last about a week, or until he got seven mosquito bites. “Skoal,” she said, lifting her cup to him.

“Prosit.”

***

The man arrived at County General Emergency in general acute tetanic convulsion. The intern, an overworked kid named Pakula, was surprised at the total far-outness of the fit, which appeared to be a testament to living rigor mortis. The stiff, he reported, was amazingly, almost catatonically stiff. The only time he'd ever seen a body like that—or at any rate a body that wasn't in a morgue—it was needle-head junkie; a bozo with the needle still frozen in his fist. He even remembered what the poison was, too. A designer concoction. Synthetic smack. Except this would be different. Figure: To begin with, the victim was old—a neat, very clean, kind of chubby old man—like the guy that played Santa Claus: Edmund Gwenn. He didn't have arms like the Southern Pacific and besides, he'd been stricken in a Taco Charlie's on the Hollywood Strip. So Pakula said nothing, or at least he said nothing for the hospital record, and by that time the body had relaxed into death. On the other hand, he almost got chatty with the cop. A wiry-haired fellow from Hollywood Metro. But then, on the other hand, Pakula was hungry. He hadn't had breakfast and he hadn't had lunch and if he didn't take a break now, he wouldn't have coffee and he'd crumble on his feet. So the cop said, “Amigo. You got any theories?” and Pakula shook his head.

***

Mitchell went over to meet Leo's plane at L'Aurora Airport on the steamy outskirts of Guatemala City. He got there at three.

Mitchell had a couple of salty margaritas at the airport bar while Leo sat stoically and smoked a cigar. Leo was firm—refusing to eat, drink, or be merry with absolutely anything south of the border. Leo had arrived with a smoked turkey sandwich from the Beverly Wilshire, a can of pâté, a box of Granola, and a bag of Famous Amos.

Mitchell took Leo over to the factory he'd built at Las Flores and took him on a tour, pointing at the vats that would hold the penicillin, the machinery for spitting out the painkillers, heart drugs, and anti-infectives.

Leo walked around eating Amos's cookies.

BOOK: Payback
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