“She told you …”
“Everything.” Merci nodded to the other Entrepreneurs, reciting the names I had given her. “Mr. Kamp, Mr. Whelpley, Mr. Mellgren. Where oh where is Geno Belloti this evening? Still in St. Petersburg? No, he must be in Canada by now.”
“What are you talking about?” Mellgren demanded to know. He moved toward Merci. Casselman grabbed his arm, restraining him. Merci didn’t budge an inch. She was playing her part extremely well. I was proud of her.
“Temper, temper, Mr. Mellgren. There’s no need for that. I’d be delighted to tell you what I know. Only it’ll cost you. ’Course, you’re not my only source of income. I understand the ATF and FBI offer rewards for information about people like you.”
All four men stood perfectly still. I think they were in shock.
“Gentlemen, do I hear an offer?”
Mellgren made another move for her. Again Casselman held him back.
“It’s a party,” he said.
“And a very swank do, it is.” Merci was grinning, having just a wonderful time.
“Only not conducive for conducting business,” Casselman said. “Perhaps we can discuss this matter later? Where can we find you?”
“I’ll find you.” Merci tilted her head graciously—“Gentlemen”—and slipped back into the river of people. Mellgren wanted to follow her, but once again Casselman held his arm.
“Now what?” Merci asked when I rejoined her on the second floor.
“Now we wait.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“It’s very simple,” I told her. “They killed Jamie because they were afraid she told me something. They tried to kill me for the same reason. And now …”
“They’ll come for me.”
“That’s right. But this time I’ll be waiting.”
“We’ll see.” So much violence in the past ten days and here I was, inviting more.
Merci shook her head just as she had done earlier that evening when I explained my intentions. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”
“It has the virtue of simplicity,” I assured her—and myself.
“Just so you know. I won’t die the way Jamie died.”
“Amen to that.”
I took Merci Cole’s hand and led her toward the stairway. Neither of us felt like remaining for the rest of the festivities. The way my back ached I could barely stand as it was. Only at the top of the staircase I was stopped by a female voice calling my name. I recognized it immediately.
Nina Truhler was smiling at me. She wore a long, sleek, searing red tank-dress with tiny beads all over that glittered in the light when she moved, and for a few moments I forgot my pain, forgot where I was and what I was doing.
The words came out in a rush. “You are absolutely stunning.”
Nina bowed her head. “Thank you, sir. And may I say that your appearance has improved greatly since last we met.”
“It’s a new diet.”
I released Merci’s hand and moved toward Nina, halting a few paces short when a tall man standing behind Nina set a hand on her shoulder. Nina didn’t seem to mind the familiarity. She tilted her head up and he spoke into her ear.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Nina told him.
The man was at least ten years Nina’s junior—which also meant he was ten years younger than me. When he moved away I said, “Your date?”
Nina smiled brightly. “Jealous?”
“I have no right to be, but, yeah. I’m jealous. Isn’t that amazing?”
“I like it.”
Nina leaned close to my ear. “He’s just a friend, I promise. I came here tonight with two vans full of friends. Besides, he has the emotional maturity of asphalt.”
“Some women like that.”
“You do look wonderful.” I had been smiling constantly since I first saw her and my mouth was beginning to hurt.
“Thank you again.” She took my arm. “I’m surprised to see you here. For some reason I didn’t think it was your kind of scene.”
“When do you get off?”
I snickered at that. Suddenly my back didn’t seem so sore.
“Are you alone?”
“No.” I turned to introduce Merci. “I’m here with …” Only Merci Cole had vanished.
I called her name.
“What is it?”
“Dammit, dammit, dammit.”
“What’s wrong, McKenzie?”
“The woman who was with me. She was wearing a raspberry-colored dress.” I stood on my tiptoes, trying to see above the heads of all the other guests. An impossible task. “Do you see her?”
“I saw a woman with blond hair …”
Nina seemed to catch some of the fear in my voice. She pointed at the staircase. I went quickly toward it. The tide of people slammed me right and left, up and down, like flotsam caught in surf. I finally reached the railing and looked down. The top of Merci’s blond head was bobbing away from me. She was between two men. Whelpley and Kamp. They were holding her arms tightly, pulling her along. Her face was pale against the color of her dress.