CHAPTER ELEVEN

The dining room hostess, Rosie Martinez, intently watched the trio who sat in the center of the hotel's dining room. A few months before she'd taken the evening hostess position, keeping her days free to work out scenarios to type into her computer. As a hopeful screenwriter, she created her characters from studying the patrons in the dining room. Tonight, right there at table seven, was a young couple obviously in love. She could tell by the way the beautiful, raven-haired girl leaned close to the handsome man with the incredible Mel Gibson eyes. The older husky man who pulled a chair from table eight was speaking in soft, confidential tones and the lovers seemed intently focused on him. Who was he to them, Rosie wondered? A real estate agent? A minister about to perform their wedding ceremony?

       Edging closer to the table,  Rosie heard the husky man addressing the girl. "I'm sorry your father couldn't make it."

       Rosie picked up a steaming pot of hot coffee and moved toward their table. She took no more than three steps when an elderly couple walked in and signaled for her. She turned, replaced the coffee pot and walked to the dining room's doorway.

       "Good evening," she smiled, "dinner for two?"

       "Yes, please," the man answered.

       "Follow me, please," Rosie turned, and walked past tables seven and eight to the far corner of the room. She seated the couple and glanced over their shoulders. How strange! The young couple were practically running down the corridor, past the registration desk, and into the

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lobby. Their husky friend took a few steps toward them and turned with a half-smile.

       Well, she thought, not having her father attend her wedding must have been more than the young bride-to-be could bear. "Hey," the bus boy called to Rosie. "There's a briefcase under this table."

       Rosie frowned. "Oh, dear. It belongs to the people who just left. Give it to me. I'll keep it for them."

       As she often did with lost articles, Rosie slid the case under her stand. If they didn't return for it, she'd send it to Lost and Found, but with such an expensive briefcase, one of them would surely return soon to reclaim it.

       And when they did, she could easily retrieve it.

*        *       *        *       *      

       Lucas Darke smirked as he watched Alex and Jenny walk swiftly down the corridor. He didn't follow them. He didn't have to. He'd noticed what they'd missed. They had been in such a hurry to get away from him, she'd left her briefcase under the table. On the flight he'd watched her hug it close and figured it carried the information he was after.

       He quickly backtracked to the dining room and approached the hostess with a quick boyish grin.

       "Hey there Rosie, " he cooed, glancing at her name tag. "Did you find our briefcase under the table?"

       "Why, yes, I did." Rosie returned the inviting smile of the husky dark-haired man, reached under the counter and handed him the leather case. "I'm glad you came back for it. Here you are and have a nice day."

       He winked as he backed away. "You're a doll. I think I will have a very nice day."

       As he walked away, he almost laughed aloud. Luck was with him, and it was about time. For most of his life, good fortune had shunned Lucas

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Darke. His no-good father had skipped out on his family and they'd never seen him again. His once pretty mother had faded into a thin middle-aged woman with hollow cheeks, all luster and resilience gone in her effort to raise three kids. Each year, she depended more on the bottle. As the older son, Lucas had peddled papers, swept restaurants, mowed lawns and handed his checks to her until the bottle had won the victory over the war within her liver. His younger brothers were sent to foster homes, but Lucas, at fifteen, ran away. He'd set pins for a bowling alley in exchange for a back room, meals and below minimum wage pay.

        At the bowling alley, he met Sammy Gavota, Jr., son of the infamous mobster, Sammy Gavota. Sammy, Jr., five years' Lucas' senior, befriended him.

       "I want you to meet my oldman," Sammy said one night over a burger. "Come to our house for dinner tomorrow night. You like Italian food? Good. You'll love Mama's spaghetti."

       Lucas soon learned why he'd been recruited. Belonging to the Gavota family meant thievery, illicit deliveries and conning school kids into buying illegal drugs. Sammy Sr. put him in their guests' bungalow with two other members of their extended family, and methodically taught their boys the art of intimidation and harassment. Young Sammy gave them their first hit of cocaine and with it the addiction that would plague them for life.

       When the elder Gavotas were murdered by a rival gang member, Sammy, Jr. became the sole heir to the Gavota fortune. He swore he'd enlarge his father's empire and control the Chicago underworld. A born leader and a skilled manipulator, Sammy sent scouts to the streets to find homeless and abused kids. Sammy promised them the world, more cash than they'd ever seen and a ready supply of drugs.

       "We're like family," Sammy told his recruits. "I'm your father. Do what I say and don't ask any questions. Keep the rules of the house and I'll make you rich, just like me."

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       When Sammy discovered Benny Berkowitz, the progeny of a long line of mobsters, he crowned him second in command of his Chicago office.

       The night Sammy held a "coronation" party for Benny, Lucas felt cheated. Why Benny? Wasn't he almost a part of the family? Hadn't he practically lived in the Gavota home?

       Lucas approached Sammy. "How come I'm not promoted? How come Benny's your right-hand man?"

       Benny slung an arm around Lucas. "Hey, you're just like my brother, Luc, and I got a special place for you, but Benny's experienced, you know? And I want to keep you out of danger."

       "It's not fair," Luc whined.

       When he saw Sammy's eyes, flat and unsmiling, Lucas knew he could push no further. But each time Benny shouted menial orders at him, he boiled with resentment.

       Lucas bitterly recalled their monthly business meetings. Sammy sat like royalty at the head of the conference table, surrounded by his boys. He leaned back, and demanded testimonials of the previous month's activities. At the end of the meeting, he'd motion for Lucas to hand out paychecks.

       "We gotta have a west coast office," Sammy announced one day in the early nineties. "My cousin Freddy lives out in L.A. so I sent him the dough to buy one of those estates in a secluded mountainous area. We'll set up our operations there." He waved his cigar. "We're growing, boys."

       "Yeah," Benny crowed. "Today Chicago, tomorrow Los Angeles, and as L.A. goes, so goes the nation."

       Everyone laughed and clapped wildly.

       "Sammy?" Rudy, a new member, politely asked, "any chance maybe a couple of us can help your cousin on the west coast?"

       "Naw," Sammy shook his head. "Freddy's got his own men and I need you guys here with me. I got something big in the works. Big shipments are due in from Columbia. This means piles of dough. We need a place

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to stash it. Benny's, you're in charge. Find a respectable business to hide the dough. Make sure the owner has a family. A family he don't want harm to come to. Just make sure the place is respectable."

       But that was long ago, Lucas grinned now. Benny had made a wrong move when he found Philip Lansing's bookstore. He'd trusted that swindler too much. Sammy had gone crazy when lansing ratted on his boys raving wildly when he was placed under the Witness Protection Program.

       "Protection?" Sammy roared. "There's no protection for that rat. We'll get him. He stole our money. Luc," he leaned closer, "you're an expert at picking locks. I want you to wire the Lansing dame's phone at her apartment and at her old man's bookstore. If I know the Program, they'll have him calling her at a special time and location. But one day, he'll get lonesome for his baby girl and call her at home. That'll be our victory day!"

       It had been easy. Lucas jimmied the locks to Jenny's apartment and the bookstore. He wired phones at both places. He never told Sammy, but he'd searched around in the bookstore for a hidden safe. He would have found it too except he spotted the outline of a police officer at the front door and hightailed it out of the back.

       He loved tailing Jenny Lansing. She was a real looker. But her father! What a no-good snitching rat he turned out to be, looking all normal and pious on the outside while inside stinking with selfish greed. What a world, Lucas sighed, nobody could be trusted.

       Finally that very morning Sammy received the news. Philip had called his daughter. Sammy quickly called Lucas, waking him out of a deep sleep.

       In his excitement, his voice rose two octaves. "Lansing called his daughter. She's taking a flight out of O'Hare this morning. They're meeting at the Marriott in Woodland Hills. That's in the San Fernando Valley. I'll have a ticket waiting for you at O'Hare. Use your credit card. I'll reimburse you later. Follow that dame, stick to her like glue.

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Watch her every move. Whatever it takes, let her lead you to her dad. Got that bro?"

       Lucas shivered with excitement. Benny had been the one with all the glory, but Benny was in jail, and now he, Lucas Darke, was in on the good stuff.

       He applauded himself. He'd done his job well. He'd followed Jenny to L.A., had been smart enough to get the briefcase, and soon he'd solve the riddle of the missing money. He couldn't wait to tell Sammy.

       He shoved the leather case under his overcoat and rushed from the hotel. Signaling a parked cab, Lucas settled in with a smile.

       "Chatsworth," he called to the cabby. Glancing nervously out the back window, he didn't release his breath until the driver turned north toward the Gavota's west coast estate in the rocky peaks of Chatsworth.

       His massive hand stroked the leather briefcase. He'd bet his life that the answer to the millions Lansing had snatched from their hard-earned work was in this case.

       He pressed down on the lock of the briefcase. He could easily jimmy it, but if Sammy found out, he'd literally kill him. No, he could wait.

       Lucas laughed aloud as he thought of that superior-acting FBI agent and snooty Lansing girl returning for the briefcase. Not to worry, he snorted, a great-looking guy like Kendall and a beauty like Jenny Lansing would be thinking of something more than a leather briefcase for a while. And by that time, he'd be home free. 

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