For some reason, this time, when Max told the story, it seemed less funny. Maybe it was the fault of this particular audience.
Which was certainly a possibility. For this go-round of the retailing of the story of his theft of the burglar’s ring, Max had an audience of just one: Earl Radburn, chief of security of TUI, the man whose job it was to see to it that nobody stole anything anywhere within the sovereign domain of TUI, within the Max Fairbanks fiefdom. Telling his anecdote once more, this time under the ice-blue gaze of Earl Radburn, Max couldn’t help but feel that somehow the man disapproved of him.
Well, so be it. Who was boss here, anyway? If Earl Radburn can’t see the humor, that’s Earl Radburn’s loss.
Anyway, Earl was not a man noted for much sense of humor. A compact, hard-muscled ex-marine probably in his fifties, he had a pouter pigeon’s chest and walk—or strut—a sand-colored nailbrush mustache, and stiff orangey hair cropped so close to his tan scalp he looked like a drought. His clothing was usually tan and always clean, creased, starched, and worn like a layer of aluminum siding. If he had a home life nobody knew it, and if he had a sorrow in his existence it was probably that this job didn’t come with a license to kill.
Max, having left DC immediately after a quite successful congressional hearing—what a nerve the government has, taxing decent citizens—had had himself driven over highways put down some time ago by the government up to his corporate headquarters here in Wilmington, Delaware, choosing this place because everybody knew he never came here, had never been here before, and was in fact pleasantly surprised when he first laid eyes on the industrial park encircling TUI’s glass-sheathed, modern-architected, low, broad-based main building. While driving up, he’d phoned Earl Radburn in Earl’s security office in New York, and Earl had driven down to meet him.
Now they were alone together in a bright and airy conference room, with greensward as neat as a golf course outside the large windows, their sofas comfy, their soda water bubbly, and Earl as much fun to tell an anecdote to as an Easter Island head. Nevertheless, this is the fellow to whom he must once again recount the lark of stealing a burglar’s ring.
“In any event,” he said, when he had finished and Earl had made absolutely no response at all, “there you have it. That’s what happened.”
Earl said, “Sir,” which was his way of saying he’d stored the information he’d been given so far and was ready to receive more. Get on with it, in other words.
So Max got on with it. “Before the local police managed to bring the man to their station, he escaped.”
Earl’s lip curled slightly.
“He went back to the house,” Max said. “Fortunately, we’d, I’d, left by then. He ransacked the place.”
“I’ve read that report,” Earl said.
“I thought that was the end of it.”
“But now,” Earl suggested, “you think he’s the one broke into your place in New York.”
“I know it,” Max said.
Earl’s expression didn’t change, but his skepticism was palpable. “Sir,” he said, “you can’t know it. You can suspect it, but—”
Max held up his right hand, palm toward himself, displaying the ring. “He wants this ring. He wants it back. He’s going to come after me again, I know he is.”
Earl looked at the hand. “You wear the ring, sir?”
“Absolutely! It’s mine. I stole it fair and square, and I’m going to keep it. Don’t you see my corporate symbol on it, right there?”
“A coincidence,” Earl assured him.
“Of course it’s a coincidence! A wonderful coincidence! That’s why I’m going to keep this ring.”
“There could be more than one coincidence in the world, sir,” Earl pointed out. “The robbery in New York could have been done by anybody.”
“It was him, I tell you,” Max insisted, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge to Earl that the reason he knew with such assurance was that the I Ching had told him, through the hexagram for the Marrying Maiden. He said, “I can feel him out there, I know he’s there. That’s why I’ve insisted on a complete blackout of my movements from now on.”
“Which complicates all our jobs, sir,” Earl said.
“It’s temporary, and it’s necessary. I have a plan, Earl.”
Earl waited, a rough-hewn statue awaiting a pedestal.
Max said, “The only place I’m going that I haven’t made a secret, the only place in this country, is Las Vegas, because that was set up and the news distributed some time ago. I’ll be there a week from now, next Monday and Tuesday, and I’m sticking to it. So that’s the only place he can try for me again. With your help, Earl, we’ll set a little trap for this burglar.”
“You’ll be the bait, you mean.”
“Use as many people as you need,” Max told him. “Think of me as being under your command.”
Earl’s eyebrow flickered minimally.
Max said, “In this situation only, of course.”
“He’ll know I’m going to be in Las Vegas. He’ll know when, and he’ll know where. And it’s the only time and place he’ll be sure of knowing where I am. He won’t be able to resist it.”
“If he’s pursuing you, sir,” Earl said, as the phone on the conference table rang, “then you’re undoubtedly right.”
The phone rang again. Max said, “You take that, Earl. I’m not here.”
Earl rose from his sofa, crossed to the conference table, picked up the phone, spoke into it: “Radburn.” Listened; spoke: “What time did you leave the message?” Listened; spoke: “What time did you go there?” Listened; spoke: “Did you mention your name in the message?” Listened; spoke: “Mr. Fairbanks will make arrangements for a second package.” Listened; spoke: “Well, it’s too late, then.” Listened; spoke: “Someone will call you.” Hung up; turned and spoke to Fairbanks: “Sir, you’re right.”
What now, Max thought. He said, “Something happened?”
“He was in the Watergate apartment,” Earl said. “Your burglar. He got away.”
“I knew it! That’s why I didn’t go there! What, did he steal the ashtrays?”
“A bit more than that, sir. There were some Pac contributions—”
“No! That was fifty thousand dollars!”
“Yes, sir. Your man Saunders phoned there this morning, not wanting to disturb you, but wanting to pick up the contributions, and left a message on the answering machine. When he arrived later, the package was gone and a note addressed to him by name and signed by you said your secretary had taken care of the contributions.”
“Saunders wouldn’t fall for a thing like that.”
“Well, he did, sir,” Earl said. “A short time ago, however, a woman from IMPAC phoned Saunders asking after the donation. He checked around to your secretary and some of the other recipients, discovered the truth, and called my office. They put him through to me here.”
“That son of a bitch,” Max said. “Fifty thousand dollars.”
“One of the committees,” Earl went on, “refused to accept Saunders’s explanation and apology, insisting the delay was another expression of corporate arrogance and a power play. BACPAC , I believe he said it was. Saunders said they told him you can no longer count on their senator.”
Hell. Hell and damnation. Max did count on that goddam senator. There were a couple of banking bills . . . What a mess that could turn out to be.
And all because of one stupid seedy small-time burglar.
“Las Vegas,” Max growled. He could not remember ever having been this angry, not even during his first marriage. “We’ll get that son of a bitch in Las Vegas,” he snarled, “and personally I will tear him limb from limb.”
“Yes, sir,” Earl said. “My people and I will be happy to deliver him to you.”