“For a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.”
2 Peter 2:19b
Stedman Reeves leaned against a massive oak tree on a hazy hillside, and looked out across Stanton Valley, painfully aware that if he went through with Grant Wolski’s deal, he would end up in hell. And if he didn’t, his life would seem like hell. What kind of choice was that?
He heard a twig crack behind him and let out a sigh of self-loathing.
Grant came and stood next to him. “Not having second thoughts, are you?”
“Look, if you’d just be patient, I could get the money—“
“I need it now.”
“I can’t just scrape up that kind of cash overnight.”
“Then you shouldn’t play poker with the big boys.” Grant locked gazes with him. “I’m offering you a gift, man. If I were you I’d take it.”
Grant held a gun in each of his gloved hands. “Pick one. You said you know how to shoot.”
“Yeah, targets and wild game.” Stedman studied the guns, both Smith and Wessons, but couldn’t bring himself to take either. “I’ve never shot a person before.”
“Pretend you’re playing one of your video games. If you can hit a bull’s-eye, you can put a bullet through a guy’s head. Here, hold these.”
Grant handed him the guns, then reached into his back pocket and took out a photograph. There’s your target.”
Stedman looked into the eyes of a husky young man with sandy blond hair. “Who is he?”
“Name and address is on the back. Make it quick and clean.”
“What’d he do, stiff you for money?” His legs suddenly felt shaky. What made him think he could trust Grant to keep his word?
“It’s none of your business.”
“It might make it easier if I knew what he did.”
Grant flicked the picture with his finger. “Never mind what he did. You’re the one who owes me. Just make sure he’s dead before you walk away. Which gun do you want to use? They’re both stolen. The cops can never link either of them to you or me.”
“Guess it doesn’t matter.” He handed one of them back to Grant. “This one’s fine.”
“When you’re done, wipe it clean and throw it in the pond at the park. Make sure no one sees you.”
“That’s all there is to it?”
“If I do this, how can I be sure we’re even?”
“I’ll give you a notarized receipt for the sixty grand. Look, you owe me big time. Either pay me the money or do me the favor.”
Some favor. He rolled his head to one side and then the other, his heart racing like a runaway train. How could he refuse? Sixty-thousand dollars might as well be a million.
“Unless you make this right,” Grant said, “I’ll make sure you never get a seat at a high stakes poker table again. You’re finished.”
“Can’t you cut me some slack—just this once? You know I’m good for the money. I need a little time, that’s all.”
Grant gave his shoulder a shove. “You’re on a losing streak, and I don’t have forever. I told you what you could do to satisfy the debt. Take it or leave it.”
Stedman exhaled the words, “I’ll take it.” The voice was his but seemed to come from someone else. Was he really willing to shoot a man dead, just so he could keep on gambling?
An image of his grandmother’s scowling countenance was branded into his conscience. No way could he go to her and beg for another loan. Not after he stole from her. Not after he promised to stop gambling. He had to handle this on his own. Once his luck returned, he would never get into this kind of trouble again. He’d make sure of that.
“Are you just going to stand there?” Grant said.
No, I’m going.” Stedman clutched the gun tightly and it shook in his hand.
“Good. You’ve got till midnight. If you involve me in any way I will come after you.”
“Don’t threaten me, Grant. I’m not the enemy.”
“Let’s make sure we keep it that way. Call me when it’s done. Just say ‘I ordered the pizza,’ and hang up. Don’t say anything else, and we’re never to speak of this to anyone under any circumstances. Walk away and forget it.”
So that was it? Just kill the guy, pitch the gun, and get back to playing cards?
He studied Grant’s cold gray eyes and stony expression. How many times had he sat across the poker table from this guy, searching his face for any hint of the cards he held, yet missed the evil motives crouching in his heart?
“What’re you staring at?” Grant said.
He turned to go and Grant grabbed his shoulder. “Listen to me. If it makes any difference, there’s a greater good at stake here.”
“Like the person who’ll be hurt the most deserves it—and more. You’ll be doing a lot of people a huge favor.”
“What about the poor sucker I’m about to put a bullet in?”
“Do it right, and he won’t know what hit him. For once, his old man will be powerless. Be sure to follow the story on the news. It’s going to be sweet.”
I’m going to kill somebody’s kid?
Stedman turned his back on Grant and trudged down the hill toward his pickup, his boots feeling as if they were made of lead. Had he actually agreed to do the unthinkable—just so he could stay in the game?
Father David’s words came rushing back to him. Your gambling’s an addiction, son. Get help before they own you.
He kicked a rock and sent it sailing. Too late for that.
Drew Langley jumped at the loud thud upstairs and resisted the temptation to bang on the wall and dispel the roaring laughter that followed. Was he the only student in the apartment building still studying for finals?
A warm breezed rattled the blinds, and he closed his eyes, inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of magnolia blossoms wafting from the south campus of Stanton College. It took every ounce of discipline he could muster not to close his books and give in to the lure of spring.
He heard rubber soles on the hardwood floor and lifted his gaze as his roommate came to a quick stop in front of the mirror over the worn living room sofa.
Tal Davison wet his fingers and smoothed his hair. “I see you’re still studying. I guess that means you’re not coming.”
“To what? I thought you had a date.”
“Why do you make me tell you everything twice? You’re worse than my grandmother.”
Drew put down his pencil. “Sorry, I’ve been focused on other things. Tell me again. I’m listening.”
Tal came and stood in the doorway of Drew’s bedroom, his arms folded across his chest. “I’m going over to Henry’s for a junk food buffet and beer. You’re invited.”
“Thanks. But I really need to study for my English Lit final. It’s next week, and I’ve got chapters of catching up to do.”
“Suit yourself. I’m brain-dead. I couldn’t learn another thing if you paid me.” Tal started to go and then stopped. “Listen, thanks again for letting me move in here for the last few weeks. It’s nice sharing an apartment that doesn’t reek of marijuana. I hope I haven’t been as big a pain as your other roommate.” He shot Drew a half-smile.
Drew leaned back and folded his arms. “Hey, not at all, man. I hope you don’t think I’ve been ignoring you. It’s just that I have to keep up the grades. No 4.0? No scholarship. There’s no way I can afford to attend Stanton without it.” I don’t have a rich father footing the bill.
“Doesn’t it cramp your style to go to college in Sophie Trace? Your parents are pretty close by, aren’t they?
“Thanks to the scholarship I can live off campus. That’s all the independence I need. It’s nice going home whenever I want. My parents really help me stay on track.” Drew studied Tal’s expression. “I take it you wish your dad wasn’t so close?”
Tal got quiet for a moment and seemed to be somewhere else. “He’s much too busy to breathe down my neck. And he doesn’t care about my grades as long as I pass and he can tell his cronies that his namesake’s attending his alma mater and is going to work for him after I graduate.”
“Is that so bad?”
“I just wish he cared more about me and less about his image. I’m not sure I can ever measure up to his expectations.”
“Come on, man. You’ve got it made in the shade. All you have to do is get through one more year, and he’ll hand you the job of lifetime. I thought you were pumped about it.”
Tal flashed a crooked smile.”I’m trying to be. It’s my big chance to make Dad proud of me. It’s all he’s talked about for years. But there’s a lot of pressure, learning to run a big corporation. The closer I get, the more intimidated I feel.”
“He must think you can do it, Tal. There’s a lot at stake for him too.” Even if he is handing it to you on a silver platter.
“Maybe I’ll buy a little time after I graduate—tell Dad I’m burned out and need to backpack across Europe for a while before I jump into the corporate world.”
A grin tugged at Drew’s cheeks. “Then you’d need someone to babysit your Hummer. Can I apply for the job? Man, I wish I’d been there when your dad had it delivered to your birthday party.”
“It was an awesome way to turn twenty-one, all right. But I’d trade it in a heartbeat for a relationship with my dad like you have with yours.”
“I guess I take it for granted.”
“Well, don’t,” Tal said. “I can’t remember the last time I sat down and had a real conversation with mine. He’s either working himself to death or hiding out at the lake house with wife number four–the fashion model who’s got silicone for brains.”
“I didn’t realize she was his fourth wife.”
“And she’s pregnant with daughter number seven. Maybe he’s going for the record.”
“Yeah, but you’re still his only son. And you and your mother are close.”
“Not in proximity. She’s spending a lot of time in New York with her boyfriend. He deals in fine art, and she likes to go to the auctions with him. I doubt I’ll see her anytime soon.”
Drew shifted his weight. Why hadn’t he mentioned his mother was seeing someone before?
“Actually, I’m happy for her,” Tal said. “And I don’t mind sharing her Nashville house with the maid, the cook, and the butler. I’ll lie around the pool and read Sci-fi novels and give my brain a rest. I’m so burned out I can’t stand to think about another year of studying.”
“You’ll be ready to hit it again in the fall. Just think how good you’ll feel when you get your degree.”
Tal smiled wryly. “Would you believe my dad’s executive bonus last year was ten million? I must be nuts not to be more excited about the job.”
No kidding. “So why aren’t you?”
“I don’t know … my dad’s ruthless. And the company takes precedence over everyone and everything. I want more out of life than that.”
“I hear you. But if it were me, I’d at least try it long enough to earn a couple million and then go do whatever I wanted.“
“I’ve thought of that.” Tal stood up straight, the result of his beer drinking and binging hanging over his belt. “But I have a feeling that once Dad has me under his thumb, I’ll never get out from under. What I really want to do is go to the police academy.”
“Have you told him how you feel?”
“I tried. But Dad doesn’t really care how I feel. It’s my duty as his only son to keep the family business going. If I turn my back on that, he’ll basically disown me. Not that we’re close now, but it’s hard to think of having no dad. Hey, enough serious talk. It’s party time. Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Yeah, I’ve got to hit the books. Who’s your designated driver?”
“Don’t need one. I’m walking.”
“You think that’s smart? Henry’s neighborhood isn’t exactly the safest part of town.”
“I’ll be fine. But I’ll tell you what…” Tal laughed and tossed his keys to Drew, “if I don’t make it back alive, the Hummer’s all yours.”