CHAPTER THREE

Philip's mind swam with the memory of that fateful evening when his life changed forever. Jenny had left the bookstore early and he'd closed the shop to work on his latest novel. He was polishing the dialogue when loud knocks interrupted his concentration. He waited, hoping the knocking would stop, but the pounding increased and persisted. Reluctantly, he walked to the front door, peered through the window and pointed to the closed sign. He frowned at the two men standing at the entry.

        "We have something important to discuss with you, Lansing," they shouted.

       Philip shook his head.

       "You got a daughter named Jenny?" one of the men yelled.

       Philip immediately unlocked the door. "What about my daughter?" Nettled at their impertinence, he stared hard at the men.

       His first stir of suspicion came when they didn't answer his question but pushed past him into the store.

       "What is this?" Philip scowled. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

       "We need to talk, Lansing. You got an office?"

       "We can talk right here."

       The heavyset man shook his head. "Not here. In your office."

       Philip led them to his back office and sat at his desk. He poised his hand on the top drawer where he kept his weapon. He motioned to two straight chairs opposite his desk.

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       "I'm Benny Berkowitz." The heavyset man leaned back and lit a cigar. He had a powerful resilient look about him with thickly muscled arms, and broad shoulders. His blue-black hair was slicked back, his eyes dark and brooding. Though he was below average in height, he wore the appearance of strength, a man whose body was a testimony to his position of authority. His sweet cologne drifted toward Philip, sickening him.

       Berkowitz puffed on his evil smelling stogie, and blew smoke in Philip's direction. "Oh, forgive me, Lansing," he grinned. "I almost forgot my manners. This here's my partner, Abel Cushman."

       Cushman,  a frail balding man, nodded, his bird-like gaze moving around Philip's office. "Yeah, Benny," he said with a surly grunt, "this will do."

       "What's this all about?" Philip asked.

       "We've been watching you, Lansing. You're perfect for our operation."

       "Your what?"

       "Our work, Lansing. We need your business as our process center."

       "Process center? For what?" Infuriated by the audacity of these men, Philip glared at Benny Berkowitz who calmly flicked his ashes into the abandoned half-full cup of cold, black coffee he'd left on his desk earlier that day.

       Benny smiled at his obvious annoyance, though to Philip his smile seemed more like a sneer. "You're straight as an arrow, Lansing. Your reputation as a writer is solid. Believe it or not I've read some of you books." He laughed and ran his tongue over his crooked, upper teeth. "Gave me some ideas, especially the one where the drug dealers foiled the FBI."

       Philip stiffened. He turned his head to avoid looking into Benny's flinty, black eyes. His emotions spiraled between dread and curiosity. Should he pull out his gun and order them to leave? His thoughts whirled. These men weren't amateurs. They probably had guns of their own. It would be wiser, he thought, to hear them out and call the police later.

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       He folded his trembling hands on his desk. "What is it you want from me?"

       Benny leaned forward and tapped Philip's hand with a muscular finger. "Details will come later. For now, we'll send our men here on Friday nights. They'll bring a bag with cash. You'll lock it in your wall safe. Where is it?" Benny's jacket fell open revealing a black revolver.

       "Behind that wall." Philip nodded toward the cedar wall and cleared his throat to conceal his fear.

       The men stared hard at the wall and turned back with raised eye brows. "Don't see it."

       It's next to the angel painting, undetectable to anyone except my wife, my daughter and me. We alone know the combination and hiding place."

       Benny grinned. "Now we'll know. Open it."

       "Now?"

       "Right now." Benny removed his jacket to give Philip a closer look at the revolver.

       Philip remained seated. "I don't want to be part of your operation."

       "You don't?" Benny grinned and touched the revolver. "We're not playing games, Lansing. We came here on friendly terms. Now you'll be friendly and we'll get a long fine."

       "I won't be involved with drug dealers."

       Benny snorted, and looked over at his partner. "Hear that, Abel? He won't be involved with drug dealers, like we're giving him a choice." He mimicked Philip's tone before his voice became threatening. "Okay, Lansing, that's enough. Open the safe."

      "And if I don't?"

       "You're a gutsy guy, and that's exactly why we selected you. Don't you think we know about your wife? Your daughter? Gorgeous little thing. Name's Jenny, right? You don't want anything bad to happen to her, do you?"

       "You're threatening me?"

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       "Open the safe, Lansing." Berkowitz's voice was low and deadly. His keen eyes fiercely stabbed Philip like weapons.

       Philip stood and walked to the safe, the two men close behind him. He opened it, then stepped aside. How dare they come into his place of business and threaten his family? His thoughts raced. As soon as they left, he'd call the police.

       The men peered into the huge safe Philip had installed to hold his original manuscripts and a few rare editions.

       "Remove all your stuff. We need the room." Benny turned to his partner. "He's our man, eh, Abel? Am I always right or what?"

       Cushman nodded, and Philip's chest tightened.

       Benny squinted at Philip, twisting his cigar in his puffy lips. "We've investigated you thoroughly, Lansing. You got an accounting background and you're a computer wiz. Computers ain't exactly our line of work. That's why we handpicked you. We need you to keep accurate records of our, uh, earnings." He laughed and looked over at his partner who joined him in his small joke.

       "What if I call the police?" Philip asked in a low strained voice.

       Benny leaned so close to Philip, their noses almost touched. "You'll do exactly as we say. We're telling you to open your door to our man on Friday nights. We're not telling you to deal or sell drugs. That's our business. I don't want to hear you mention the police again. Now we're leaving."

       Philip's jaw muscles tensed as he followed the men. At the door, Benny offered him a cigar with a broad smile. When Philip shook his head, Benny shrugged, and placed his blunt-fingered hands on his shoulder.

       "Congratulations, Lansing, you've been handpicked to become a member of the Sammy Gavota family." He peered into Philip's eyes. "You've heard of Sammy Gavota, haven't you?"

       Philip's pulse raced. Who in the Chicago area hadn't heard of the mobster who had so far eluded drug dealing convictions.

       "I see you've heard of him." Benny pinched Philip's cheek and leaned closer. "Now, no more talk of police. Our man will be here Friday night.

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Your job is to keep records of incoming cash. Oh, and by the way," he nudged Philip in the chest, "don't mess around with the books, don't try and outsmart us, and don't call for help. In other words, don't do anything stupid or your gorgeous daughter won't make it into work one morning. We'll keep our eye on her and on you at the same time. Understand?"

       A slow, moist, heavy coldness sank into Philip's body as he watched them leave. He quickly dead bolted the door, his emotions shifting from anger to humiliation, then to fear.

       He sat heavily at his desk, his hand on the telephone. He lifted the receiver to call the police and quickly slammed it down. His temples thumped. His perceived horrors were magnified by his writer's inventive imagination. They could easily grab Jenny and spirit her away or they could force their way into his home and frighten Althea or much worse. Each "what if" sent horror crawling all over him.

       Now, as Philip drove out of the Sonoma Valley, he resurrected the memory of that ghastly confrontation. After they left the bookstore he'd decided to take a cab home and leave his car in the parking lot.

       He'd wave away the dinner Althea had been warming in the oven.

       "But Philip," she called after him as he climbed the stairs to his room. "You must be hungry. I've prepared your favorite....lasagna."

       "Not tonight, Althea." At the top of the stairs he turned and blew her a kiss. "I had a late business lunch. Save it for tomorrow night. Call and ask Jenny to join us for dinner."

       That memory of Althea looking up at him, a puzzled look in her eyes, continued to haunt him. Many times during the years, he wished he'd immediately confided in her and called the police.

       From the moment Berkowitz and Cushman entered his office, Philip's life became a nightmare of lies and deceit and sleepless nights. He lived one life at home with Althea, and for an hour or two he could almost forget the dangerous web he was weaving around them. Most evenings, he pretended interest in sports on television, but he actually retreated into deathly fear.

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       One night Althea snuggled close to him in bed and whispered. "What is it, Philip? You've lost all interest in me." A soft sob sounded in her throat. "Is there someone else?"

       He turned and pulled her close. "Oh sweetheart. Never. You are my one and only angel. I've been having a persistent headache. I didn't want to worry you."

       Althea quickly sat up and stared at him. "Then I'll make a doctor's appointment for you. Tomorrow."

       Philip smiled and pulled her close. "No, you mustn't worry. I'm sure it's because I'm under pressure at work and I have a deadline on my book."

       He lived quite another life at the bookstore. After hours, he stayed and tried to concentrate on the book he was writing, a historical novel set during the American Revolution.

       He was living on the edge, like a character in a thriller. After Jenny and Carole left on Friday evenings, he tensely waited for the inevitable rap at the door. Berkowitz never showed up again. Two of his men hustled in the door, carrying cash in paper bags. Each time they left with a chilling warning. He recorded their take on his computer and placed mountains of cash, neatly bundled, in his well-hidden safe.

       After six months of watching the money pile high in his safe, Philip was puzzled. He'd been tracking their deposits and keeping careful records on the computer, but why hadn't they asked to check his accounts? Why weren't they keeping their own records? Or were they? The ways of drug dealers were an enigma to him, and he figured the less he knew the better.

       He never intended to do anything more than keep records, but as the cash flowed in, Philip experienced a bizarre excitement, surprised at how easily the sight of piles of money seduced him.

       As he clicked the mouse on his computer, he fantasized a foolproof way to pilfer a small amount for himself. At first he shook off the notion. It was a ludicrous idea, a silly fantasy. For all he knew, Berkowitz

-18-

was keeping his own records and was testing him. Since he didn't know for sure, he did a little creative accounting and made a deadly decision.

       With a wildly beating heart, he called two banks in Zurich and opened separate accounts. His initial plan to wire modest sums grew along with his confidence. Soon, his risk-taking took on a life of its own and he wired larger sums. Placing the key and code number to his Swiss accounts in a manila envelope, he locked it in his strongbox at home.

       Anxiety gnawed at his insides. Fearful of discovery, he consoled himself that he'd been threatened and forced into the world of the mafioso. Setting cash aside was a temporary necessity to untangle himself from the mob. He mapped out his plan to escape with his wife and Jenny to an obscure town in Switzerland far from this web of deception.

       Of course, with Althea's religious convictions, she'd find it hard to forgive his overt sin. Yes, that's what she'd call it. But how could she know the fear of being forced to deal with a band of thugs who were threatening harm to his family?

       Within a year by sheer cunning, Philip had accumulated a vast amount and this, after all seemed a pittance compared to the millions overflowing in his safe. he discovered that money in the drug culture had no limitations. Therefore, he would never call it swindling. Anyway, he reasoned, how can you swindle swindlers? By wielding his superior intelligence and instilling their trust in his integrity, he had, after all outwitted them. At that thought he'd shivered, remembering the adage about honor among thieves.

       Genuine wealth had been Philip's dream, his goal, his purpose in life, from the day he met socialite Althea Crawford. The bookstore he'd inherited from his father provided a comfortable income. His three published novels were modest successes, but he yearned for real wealth. Not for himself, but for Althea. He had solemnly promised himself that he'd find a way to grant her entrance back into her once aristocratic world. And now his dream had come true.

       Until it had all gone terribly wrong.

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