CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Nothing went as planned, either by the FBI or by the mob. Lansing's phone call to his daughter forced them all to devise a different strategy.

       Agent O'Reilly had called Marshall Nunnally before they left Santa Rosa. "We need you to divert Lansing to Burbank Airport. From there we'll send him to his next destination. We can safely assume that one of Berkowitz's boys will be waiting at LAX or at the Marriott. But under no circumstances is Lansing to see his daughter."

       "I should send someone with you." Nunnally told Philip as he escorted him to the airport from Santa Rosa. "But we're short of men. We've alerted two Marshalls to meet your plane at the Burbank Airport. They'll accompany you to your next destination. "He paused and stared straight into Philip's eyes. "Lansing, you're on your own, but I'm warning you to not make any calls and to talk to no one but our men. It's important that you lay low. Understand?"

       Philip nodded. This change of destinations had messed up his plan to meet Jenny at the hotel. He thoughtfully walked down the ramp into the jet airliner. He found his assigned seat and pulled a magazine from the rack. As he waited for the plane to take off, he thumbed through the magazine. He read nothing. He focused on how he could alert Jenny to his whereabouts. The Marshalls would thwart his efforts but he must find a way to page her at LAX or at the Marriott if she'd already landed.

       His plane arrived early at the Burbank Airport and when he disembarked, he nodded at two men who approached him.

       "Let me make a quick phone call before I leave, eh fellas?"

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       "There's no time for phone calls. O'Reilly wants us out of here fast. We may be followed." The older, heavyset man grabbed his arm and prodded him in a run toward the escalator.

       Philip stopped. "Hey, you guys, I must pick up my luggage and my laptop."

       "No time," the older man said abruptly, "what you're carrying will do."

       The older man tightened his grip on his arm and moved him forward. "We'll send someone to get them later. Keep moving."

       They led him into the late January afternoon and into a window-tinted black Lincoln. Philip settled between the two men and looked from one man to the other. "Do you guys have names?"

       The older, broad-shouldered man smiled warmly. Almost too warmly. "I'm agent Hart. Fred Hart. This young gentleman is Agent Daniels. We call him Curly." Philip glanced at the young man who seemed no more than seventeen. His dark blonde hair was tight with ringlets and ponytail hung down his back.

        Philip half-smiled. "I thought most of you guys kept your heads clean cut."

       "This getup is perfect for my undercover work." Curly said.

       "You can say that again," Curly laughed.

       "Where are we headed?" Philip asked. "When can we return for my luggage?"

       The older man ignored him and leaned forward. He called to the driver. "Hey, Rex, get us out of here... fast."

       "Lots of traffic, boss."

       "Then cut in, get moving." Freddy leaned back with a sigh. "L.A. traffic drives me nuts."

       The driver rocketed in front of several cars into heavy traffic and suddenly braked. The back seat passengers were jolted forward, jostling each other.

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       When they settled back, Philip turned to Freddy. "I don't wish to seem persistent, but I'd like to know. Where are we headed? And when can I return for my luggage and my computer?"

       "Don't ask stupid questions, Lansing."

       "Okay, then," Philip half-laughed. "I'll accept a stupid answer. Where are you taking me?"

       "How about we surprise you?"

       Philip sighed. Now he regretted his earlier decision to pack his laptop rather than carry it on the plane. He tried again, "Am I staying in L.A. for a while or going on to the next destination?"

       Freddy looked over at his partner. "Hey Curly, we got a fancy talker here. He wants to know if he's staying in L.A. a while or going on to his next destination."

       "Uh..." Philip looked from Freddy to Curly, wondering why some agents could be so hospitable, while others were so curt. "Didn't O'Reilly give you instructions?"

       Freddy ignored him. He was nervously watching Rex merge into freeway traffic."This traffic is murder. We'll be lucky to get there before dark. And I'm starving."

       "We could stop for a burger," Curly offered.

       "Are you nuts or what?" Freddy shouted. "With this here baggage? Rex," He called to the driver, "how much farther?"

       Philip took a deep breath. There was his answer. Thank God, he thought. They planned to stay in L.A. for a while. Somehow, he'd find a way to call the Marriott and alert Jenny. He leaned his head back and allowed his thoughts to drift to his daughter. Never once had he imagined he couldn't pull off this meeting. It had seemed so simple. They'd meet at the Marriott, she'd hand him the envelope, and somehow he'd elude his watchdogs and take off for Switzerland. Thankfully, his passport was in his briefcase. He'd have to insist on someone returning for his things immediately. He opened his mouth to speak, but Freddy and

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Curly were yelling at the driver who insisted he couldn't drive faster. The three-way shouting match increased Philip's anxiety.

       A sudden thought struck him.  Something was wrong! These men didn't look like U.S. Marshalls. They didn't talk like Marshalls. And why had his questions seemed deliberately avoided? His scalp crawled sweat. These men didn't look like Marshalls or act like Marshalls because they weren't Marshalls. His worse nightmare had become reality. These men were part of the Berkowitz gang and had been ordered to intercept him at the airport. Where were they taking him? Was he to meet his end in this alien, ugly town by these thugs? Would they take him to a barren desert, casually shoot him and drop his cemented body into the Pacific?

       He took a deep breath to calm his strident breathing. "What's happening?" he turned to Curly who somehow seemed a shade less threatening.

       Freddy answered, his voice low and threatening. "You thought you were so clever, didn't you, Lansing?"

       "Who are you?" Philip stared at him, his hoarse tone strained with fever.

       "Who do you think we are?" The older man leaned into Philip's face and sneered. "Stealing from Gavota was stupid, just plain stupid."

       Philip pressed both hands on his knees to quiet the vibration in his legs. "I'm under the Witness Protection Program, you know. The FBI has men looking for me."

       "They'll look forever and not find you where you're going." Freddy smirked. "We had our man follow the Marshalls. Lucky for us, your plane was early and they got hung up in traffic. Take a look at this traffic. You know what they say, don't you? Once you move here, you never move again." He chuckled at the oft repeated joke.

       "Where is my daughter?" Philip asked in a strangled voice.

       "We'll get to her later. Right now, she's of no consequence. Our man found her briefcase. He's bringing it to us. What we're looking for had better be in that case. When Sammy shows up in the morning, he'll decide what to do with you."

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       "Sammy?" a tingling shiver ran up Philip's arm. "Sammy Gavota?"

       "You got it. Sammy, the boss."

       Philip had known all along that Benny Berkowitz wasn't the top man. The name of Sammy Gavota struck horror into his chest. Who in the Chicago area hadn't heard of Gavota, tough mob boss, ruler of the mafia world. Philip froze with fear. He was a dead man. All his careful plans had failed, his scheme to maneuver cash to Zurich, a failure. It wasn't fair, he thought; they, not him, were the original thieves. He'd never taken so much as a stick of gum in his life. And he never would have except for these extenuating circumstances.

       His horror grew with his thoughts. If they had the briefcase they had it all, the envelope, the key, his assumed name and enough information to withdraw funds from the Swiss bank. He had driven into a dead-end street with no exit and no place to turn around. A clear vision of his helplessness turned him ice cold with dread.

       Freddy pulled a map out of his pocket and shouted directions to the driver. He didn't ease back in his seat until the Lincoln sped off the Topanga Canyon exit and headed north.

       It seemed hours before the driver crested the hills of an affluent section in the hills of Chatsworth and tooled through a guarded gate. On either side of the private road, rolling landscapes and winding drive-ways led onto elongated brick driveways of elegant estates. Breathtaking gardens blooming in the January afternoon seemed incongruous to his terror. This, he thought, was his last ride, his last view of the spectacular world in which he had lived for more than fifty years. Oh, God, he whispered inwardly, I brought this on myself, but if You're there, get me out of this mess and protect Jenny. I'll give it all up, the money, everything for her safety.

       But why should God listen to him? Had he ever given him out one bit of attention? Well, yes, twice a year on Easter and Christmas when he accompanied Althea to church. Sitting in their pew, he found himself staring at the Man hanging on the wooden cross lifted high above the platform.

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       He'd tried to puzzle out the engraved words under the cross. "And I, if I be lifted up, shall draw all men unto Me." He'd file those incomprehensible words away to reflect upon later. But eventually he'd dismissed them from his memory. Until this terror-filled day.

       The chauffeur pulled into a tree-shaded circular drive and stopped before a white Tara-like estate set far back on a manicured lawn. Vast acreage disappeared behind an endless wall of lofty sentinel-like Palm trees.

       Dusk was settling on the city, deepening Philip's eerie sensation of walking through a dark hostile valley. he'd been playing hide and seek with a dangerous mob and now with his dream only days away he'd been cornered like a scurrying mouse. Well, he wouldn't squeal for help. he'd retain his mental toughness and perhaps by a miracle he'd find a way to escape.

       Full-length Corinthian pillars stood guard on either side of the estate's entry, leading to solid mammoth oak doors inlaid with gold. Italian marble covered the foyer floor and an exquisite crystal chandelier hung low from the cathedral ceiling. Original oil paintings covered the muted papered walls up the circular staircase curving to the second floor.

       The men led Philip into the extravagant living room. Freddy pointed to a chair. "Sit there, Lansing," he ordered. "Curly, stay with him. I'm hungry."

       He lumbered away. Philip found himself looking squarely into the face of a boy who looked barely out of his teens. How had such a youngster become involved with these mobsters? Curly pulled a Dodger's baseball cap from his back pocket and shoved it low over his blonde hair. His eyes were a clear blue. Perhaps, Philip thought, he could appeal to him for help, but he quickly decided against it when the boy opened his jacket and touched a black-handled revolver.

       "What do you intend to do to me?" Philip asked.

       Curly grinned. His eyes were suddenly not so clear. "We do what Sammy tells us to do. He gets to be the decider and we get to be the do-ers."

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       "How did you get involved in this? You're so young?"

       "I ain't so young," Curly reached for a cigarette. His hands were unsteady as he blew a smoke ring in a feeble attempt to emulate Humphrey Bogart in an old flick. He leaned back and squinted at Philip through the haze of smoke. "My Pa was Sammy's right-hand man and I promised him on his deathbed that I'd take his place."

       "Some place," Philip muttered.

       An alarming cold anger flashed across Curly's face. "Yeah? You gotta better place? Eh? Look around, buddy, you can think of something better than this? Not me, not after the rathole I was raised in until my old man got wise and joined up with the Gavota's."

       After Curly's volcanic eruption, Philip kept silent. He looked around the magnificent living room. There must be a woman in this house, Philip thought. A Steinway grand piano stood in the corner, carefully draped with a lace coverlet. An enormous vase filled with brilliant flowers bloomed with radiance on their bright green stems. The lavishly decorated room with fresh flowers and fine porcelain china on the marble-topped credenza reflected a feminine touch.

       Freddy sauntered back into the room holding a half-eaten sandwich and a brown sack. "You can go now, Curly. There's stuff in the fridge. I'll find a place for this wise guy."

       Philip averted his gaze and stared out the wide sunburst window. The expansive velvet green landscape stretched into a grove on a summit of a hill. With a fleeting notion of escape, he wondered how many people were in the house. With guns in their jackets, block walls around the estate, and the sound of distant barking dogs, it didn't matter. It would be suicide to try.

       He could feel, rather than see Freddy restlessly pacing the floor, a burning cigarette between his fingers. Suddenly he stopped and stared at him. "I got it. Lucas will be here any minute with your briefcase and Sammy will be here tomorrow. Until then, I know just the place for you."

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       Philip felt a wave of dizziness as he followed Freddy up and around and up again to the top level of the estate. Freddy opened the door and pushed Philip into a narrow cupola. A small barred window offered the only light.

       Freddy threw a brown sack at Philip. "Sorry I didn't ask your request for your last meal and since I ain't no cook and the lady of the house is out, this will do." He opened the door and half-turned toward Philip. "I got no key to lock the door, so don't worry no monkey stuff. Anyway, there's no place to go. We got dogs everywhere." He grinned and slammed the black lacquered door.

       Philip could hear the echo of Freddy's laughter as he retreated down the circular staircase. Sinking onto the bench he pressed his fingers against his throbbing temples. He spoke aloud, his voice echoing in the small room. I must think fast when I talk to Sammy or I won't live beyond tomorrow.

       His throat was raw with fear. What disgrace and ruin he had brought down on his family. His sweet Althea was gone forever. He paused. Or was she? She'd often insisted that this life didn't end at the grave. He loved to watch her face as she talked about the beautiful place God was preparing for His children. Was she up there somewhere, his lovely girl? Would he join her when his time came? And since his time to go seemed imminent, he'd have to think fast how to get passage to be with her.

       I musn't think of that now, Philip thought, I'm hungry and my head is bursting. He opened the brown sack and absently bit into the sandwich.

       His heart raced at the sound of a car stopping in the driveway of the estate. A door slammed and thundering footsteps pounding up the steps to the porch. He shuddered when he heard sharp rap and loud voices. In the morning, Sammy Gavota would arrive and decide his fate. Would they come for him tonight or wait until morning? Would they torture him before they kill him? Would they dump his body in a prepared grave in the desert or in the Pacific? Too many movies, Lansing told himself, your dramatic flare for writing is terrorizing you. Keep

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calm, prepare a speech for Sammy, tell him how you'd been blackmailed and threatened. Philip grimaced. As if he'd care. He was the one who set the operation in order.

       Philip whispered aloud. I don't want to die here, not in this tiny attic, in this strange house, in this distant city. His thoughts played over and over like a dominant chord.

       Nothing could help him now.

       No one. It had to be someone bigger than Sammy Gavota or Freddy or Curly.

       Someone he had long ignored.

       Philip closed his eyes and in his mind's eye he saw the faintest flicker of light. God help me, he whispered, and recited aloud as much as he could remember of The Lord's Prayer. Would God hear him and deliver him from this evil?

        He opened his eyes and looked up at the sunburst window. A sparrow was perched on the edge of the roof., his beak facing him. The bird was a replica of the sparrow he'd encased on the door of his bookstore. For one uplifting moment, Philip thought the bird had recognized his desperate situation. I'm going crazy, Philip thought, how can a tiny bird rescue me? But it seemed an omen, a promise. Could it be the sparrow was an affirmation that God had heard his prayer? Now he remembered the ending of the prayer. For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, Amen.

       Power and glory. That was my ambition, my dream. And it ended in failure. I failed Althea, I failed Jenny, and I failed myself.

       In the stillness of the room, his past floated before his eyes. He clearly recognized his indifference to God, and his unspoken disdain of Althea's faith. For the first time in his life he searched his soul. What he saw made him cringe. He'd lived a carefree, self-centered life grasping for fame, and wealth, and power. And for what?

        Philip wept. Guilt hung heavy over his head. He had sacrificed his honor, his family, and himself for a stash of money. He had sentenced

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himself to a life of loneliness and shame and death. If only he could buy back the past. If only he could relive the night Berkowitz had stepped into his office. If only he had not buckled under their threats, if only he knew how to atone for the wrong he had done. If only...

       Regret brought a fresh flood of tears. In the tiny cupola, Philip Lansing cried out to God for mercy. He asked for forgiveness for self-indulgences, greed and deceitful coverup.

       As for any one who sincerely repents and seeks forgiveness, Philip confronted the amazing grace of God. An inexplicable peace descended on him like a soft gentle rain.

       Placing his jacket at the foot of the bench, Philip closed his eyes and welcomed the sweetness of a deep, untroubled sleep.

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