The mere brute pleasure of reading - the sort of pleasure a cow must have in grazing.

Lord Chesterfield

Tác giả: Sidney Sheldon
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Book II - Chapter 12
ew Orleans
Lester Torrance, a teller at the First Merchants Bank of New Orleans, prided himself on two things: his sexual prowess with the ladies and his ability to size up his customers. Lester was in his late forties, a lanky, sallow-faced man with a Tom Selleck mustache and long sideburns. He had been passed over for promotion twice, and in retaliation, Lester used the bank as a personal dating service. He could spot hookers a mile away, and he enjoyed trying to persuade them to give him their favors for nothing. Lonely widows were an especially easy prey. They came in all shapes, ages, and states of desperation, and sooner or later they would appear in front of Lester's cage. If they were temporarily overdrawn, Lester would lend a sympathetic ear and delay bouncing their checks. In return, perhaps they could have a quiet little dinner together? Many of his female customers sought his help and confided delicious secrets to him: They needed a loan without their husbands' knowledge.... They wanted to keep confidential certain checks they had written.... They were contemplating a divorce, and could Lester help them close out their joint account right away? Lester was only too eager to please. And to be pleased.
On this particular Friday morning, Lester knew he had hit the jackpot. He saw the woman the moment she walked in the door of the bank. She was an absolute stunner. She had sleek black hair falling to her shoulders, and she wore a tight skirt And sweater that outlined a figure a Las Vegas chorine would have envied.
There were four other tellers in the bank, and the young woman's eyes went from one cage to the other, as though seeking help. When she glanced at Lester, he nodded eagerly and gave her an encouraging smile. She walked over to his cage, just as Lester had known she would.
"Good morning," Lester said warmly. "What may I do for you?" He could see her nipples pushing against her cashmere sweater, and he thought, Baby, what I'd like to do for you!
"I'm afraid I have a problem," the woman said softly. She had the most delightful southern accent Lester had ever heard.
"That's what I'm here for," he said heartily, "to solve problems."
"Oh, I do hope so. I'm afraid I've done somethin' just terrible."
Lester gave her his best paternal, you-can-lean-on-me smile. "I can't believe a lovely lady like you could do anything terrible."
"Oh, but I have." Her soft brown eyes were wide with panic. "I'm Joseph Romano's secretary, and he told me to order new blank checks for his checking account a week ago, and I simply forgot all about it, and now we've just about run out, and when he finds out, I don't know what he'll do to me." It came out in a soft, velvety rush.
Lester was only too familiar with the name of Joseph Romano. He was a prized customer of the bank's, even though he kept relatively small amounts in his account. Everyone knew that his real money was laundered elsewhere.
He sure has great taste in secretaries, Lester thought. He smiled again. "Well, now, that's not too serious, Mrs.---?"
"Miss. Hartford. Lureen Hartford."
Miss. This was his lucky day. Lester sensed that this was going to work out splendidly. "I'll just order those new checks for you right now. You should have them in two or three weeks and---"
She gave a little moan, a sound that seemed to Lester to hold infinite promise. "Oh, that's too late, and Mr. Romano's already so upset with me. I just can't seem to keep my mind on my work, you know?" She leaned forward so that her breasts were touching the front of the cage. She said breathlessly, "If you could just rush those checks out, I'd be happy to pay extra."
Lester said ruefully, "Gee, I'm sorry, Lureen, it would be impossible to---" He saw that she was near to tears.
"To tell you the truth, this might cost me my job. Please... I'll do anything."
The words fell like music on Lester's ears.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," Lester declared. "I'll phone in a special rush on them, and you'll have them Monday. How's that?"
"Oh, you're just wonderful!" Her voice was filled with gratitude.
"I'll send them to the office and---"
"It would be better if I picked them up myself. I don't want Mr. Romano to know how stupid I was."
Lester smiled indulgently. "Not stupid, Lureen. We all get a little forgetful sometimes."
She said softly, "I'll never forget you. See you Monday."
"I'll be here." It would take a broken back to keep him home.
She gave him a dazzling smile and walked slowly out of the bank, and her walk was a sight to behold. Lester was grinning as he went over to a file cabinet, got the number of Joseph Romano's account, and phoned in a rush order for the new checks.
o O o
The hotel on Carmen Street was indistinguishable from a hundred other hotels in New Orleans, which was why Tracy had chosen it. She had been in the small, cheaply furnished room for a week. Compared to her cell, it was a palace.
When Tracy returned from her encounter with Lester, she took off the black wig, ran her fingers through her own luxuriant hair, removed the soft contact lenses, and creamed off her dark makeup. She sat down on the single straight chair in the room and breathed deeply. It was going well. It had been easy to learn where Joe Romano kept his bank account. Tracy had looked up the canceled check from her mother's estate, issued by Romano. "Joe Romano? You can't touch him," Ernestine had said.
Ernestine was wrong and Joe Romano was just the first. The others would follow. Every one of them.
She closed her eyes and relived the miracle that had brought her there....
o O o
She felt the cold, dark waters closing over her head. She was drowning, and she was filled with terror. She dived down, and her hands found the child and grabbed her and pulled her to the surface. Amy struggled in blind panic to break free, dragging them both under again, her arms and legs flailing wildly. Tracy's lungs were bursting. She fought her way out of the watery grave, hanging on to the little girl in a death grip, and she felt her strength ebbing. We're not going to make it, she thought. We're dying. Voices were calling out, and she felt Amy's body torn from her arms and she screamed, "Oh, God, no!" Strong hands were around Tracy's waist and a voice said, "Everything's fine now. Take it easy. It's over."
Tracy looked around frantically for Amy and saw that she was safe in a man's arms. Moments later they were both hauled up from the deep, cruel water....
The incident would have been worth no more than a paragraph on the inside page of the morning newspapers, except for the fact that a prisoner who could not swim had risked her life to save the child of the warden. Overnight the newspapers and television commentators turned Tracy into a heroine. Governor Haber himself visited the prison hospital with Warden Brannigan to see Tracy.
"That was a very brave thing you did," the warden said. "Mrs. Brannigan and I want you to know how grateful we are." His voice was choked with emotion.
Tracy was still weak and shaken from her experience. "How is Amy?"
"She's going to be fine."
Tracy closed her eyes. I couldn't have borne it if anything had happened to her, she thought. She remembered her coldness, when all the child had wanted was love, and Tracy felt bitterly ashamed. The incident had cost her her chance to escape, but she knew that if she had it to do over again, she would do the same thing.
There was a brief inquiry into the accident.
"It was my fault," Amy told her father. "We were playing ball, and Tracy ran after the ball and told me to wait, but I climbed up on the wall so I could see her better and I fell in the water. But Tracy saved me, Daddy."
They kept Tracy in the hospital that night for observation, and the next morning she was taken to Warden Brannigan's office. The media was waiting for her. They knew a human-interest story when they saw one, and stringers from UPI and the Associated Press were present; the local television station had sent a news team.
That evening the report of Tracy's heroism unfolded, and the account of the rescue went on national television and began to snowball. Time, Newsweek, People, and hundreds of newspapers all over the country carried the story. As the press coverage continued, letters.and telegrams poured into the penitentiary, demanding that Tracy Whitney be pardoned.
Governor Haber discussed it with Warden Brannigan.
"Tracy Whitney is in here for some serious crimes," Warden Brannigan observed.
The governor was thoughtful. "But she has no previous record, right, George?"
"That's right, sir."
"I don't mind telling you, I'm getting a hell of a lot of pressure to do something about her."
"So am I, Governor."
"Of course, we can't let the public tell us how to run our prisons, can we?"
"Certainly not."
"On the other hand," the governor said judiciously, "the Whitney girl has certainly demonstrated a remarkable amount of courage. She's become quite a heroine."
"No question about it," Warden Brannigan agreed.
The governor paused to light a cigar. "What's your opinion, George?"
George Brannigan chose his words carefully. "You're aware, of course, Governor, that I have a very personal interest in this. It was my child she saved. But, putting that aside, I don't think Tracy Whitney is the criminal type, and I can't believe she would be a danger to society if she were out in the world. My strong recommendation is that you give her a pardon."
The governor, who was about to announce his candidacy for a new term, recognized a good idea when he heard it. "Let's play this close to the chest for a bit." In politics, timing was everything.
o O o
After discussing it with her husband, Sue Ellen said to Tracy, "Warden Brannigan and I would like it very much if you moved into the cottage. We have a spare bedroom in back. You could take care of Amy full-time."
"Thank you," Tracy said gratefully. "I would like that."
o O o
It worked out perfectly. Not only did Tracy not have to spend each night locked away in a cell, but her relationship with Amy changed completely. Amy adored Tracy, and Tracy responded. She enjoyed being with this bright, loving little girl. They played their old games and watched Disney movies on television and read together. It was almost like being part of a family.
But whenever Tracy had an errand that took her into the cell blocks, she invariably ran into Big Bertha.
"You're a lucky bitch," Big Bertha growled. "But you'll be back here with the common folks one day soon. I'm workin' on it, littbarn."
o O o
Three weeks after Amy's rescue Tracy and Amy were playing tag in the yard when Sue Ellen Brannigan hurried out of the house. She stood there a moment watching them. "Tracy, the warden just telephoned. He would like to see you in his office right away."
Tracy was filled with a sudden fear. Did it mean that she was going to be transferred back to the prison? Had Big Bertha used her influence to arrange it. Or had Mrs. Brannigan decided that Amy and Tracy were getting too close?
"Yes, Mrs. Brannigan."
The warden was standing in the doorway of his office when Tracy was escorted in. "You'd better sit down," he said.
Tracy tried to read the answer to her fate from the tone of his voice.
"I have some news for you." He paused, filled with some emotion that Tracy did not understand. "I have just received an order from the governor of Louisiana," Warden Brannigan went on, "giving you a full pardon, effective immediately."
Dear God, did he say what I think he said? She was afraid to speak.
"I want you to know," the warden continued, "that this is not being done because it was my child you saved. You acted instinctively in the way any decent citizen would have acted. By no stretch of the imagination could I ever believe that you would be a threat to society." He smiled and added, "Amy is going to miss you. So are we."
Tracy had no words. If the warden only knew the truth: that if the accident had not happeped, the warden's men would have been out hunting her as a fugitive.
"You'll be released the day after tomorrow."
Her "getup." And still Tracy could not absorb it. "I--- I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything. Everyone here is very proud of you. Mrs. Brannigan and I expect you to do great things on the outside."
So it was true: She was free. Tracy felt so weak that she had to steady herself against the arm of the chair. When she finally spoke, her voice was firm. "There's a lot I want to do, Warden Brannigan."
o O o
On Tracy's last day in prison an inmate from Tracy's old cell block walked up to her. "So you're getting out."
"That's right."
The woman, Betty Franciscus, was in her early forties, still attractive, with an air of pride about her.
"If you need any help on the outside, there's a man you should see in New York. His name is Conrad Morgan." She slipped Tracy a piece of paper. "He's into criminal reform. He likes to give a hand to people who've been in prison."
"Thank you, but I don't think I'll need---"
"You never know. Keep his address."
Two hours later, Tracy was walking through the penitentiary gates, moving past the television cameras. She would not speak to the reporters, but when Amy broke away from her mother and threw herself into Tracy's arms, the cameras whirred. That was the picture that came out over the evening news.
Freedom to Tracy was no longer simply an abstract word. It was something tangible, physical, a condition to be enjoyed and savored. Freedom meant breathing fresh air, privacy, not standing in lines for meals, not listening for bells. It meant hot baths and good-smelling soaps, soft lingerie, pretty dresses, and high-heeled shoes. It meant having a name instead of a number. Freedom meant escape from Big Bertha and fear of gang rapes and the deadly monotony of prison routine.
Tracy's newfound freedom took getting used to. Walking along a street, she was careful not to jostle anyone. In the penitentiary bumping into another prisoner could be the spark that set off a conflagration. It was the absence of constant menace that Tracy found most difficult to adjust to. No one was threatening her.
She was free to carry out her plans.
o O o
In Philadelphia, Charles Stanhope III saw Tracy on television, leaving the prison. She's still beautiful, he thought. Watching her, it seemed impossible that she had committed any of the crimes for which she had been convicted. He looked at his exemplary wife, placidly seated across the room, knitting. I wonder if I made a mistake.
o O o
Daniel Cooper watched Tracy on the television news in his apartment in New York. He was totally indifferent to the fact that she had been released from prison. He clicked off the television set and returned to the file he was working on.
o O o
When Joe Romano saw the television news, he laughed aloud. The Whitney girl was a lucky bitch. I'll bet prison was good for her. She must be really horny by now. Maybe one day we'll meet again.
Romano was pleased with himself. He had already passed the Renoir to a fence, and it had been purchased by a private collector in Zurich. Five hundred grand from the insurance company, and another two hundred thousand from the fence. Naturally, Romano had split the money with Anthony Orsatti. Romano was very meticulous in his dealings with him, for he had seen examples of what happened to people who were not correct in their transactions with Orsatti.
o O o
At noon on Monday Tracy, in her Lureen Hartford persona, returned to the First Merchants Bank of New Orleans. At that hour it was crowded with customers. There were several people in front of Lester Torrance's window. Tracy joined the line, and when Lester saw her, he beamed and nodded. She was even more goddamned beautiful than he had remembered.
When Tracy finally reached his window, Lester crowed, "Well, it wasn't easy, but I did it for you, Lureen."
A warm, appreciative smile lit Lureen's face. "You're just too wonderful."
"Yes, sir, got 'em right here." Lester opened a drawer, found the box of checks he had carefully put away, and handed it to her. "There you are. Four hundred blank checks. Will that be enough?"
"Oh, more than enough, unless Mr. Romano goes on a check-writing spree." She looked into Lester's eyes and sighed, "You saved my life."
Lester felt a pleasurable stirring in his groin. "I believe people have to be nice to people, don't you, Lureen?"
"You're so right, Lester."
"You know, you should open your own account here. I'd take real good care of you. Real good."
"I just know you would," Tracy said softly.
"Why don't you and me talk about it over a nice quiet dinner somewhere?"
"I'd surely love that."
"Where can I call you, Lureen?"
"Oh, I'll call you, Lester." She moved away.
"Wait a min---" The next customer stepped up and handed the frustrated Lester a sackful of coins.
In the center of the bank were four tables that held containers of blank deposit and withdrawal slips, and the tables were crowded with people busily filling out forms. Tracy moved away from Lester's view. As a customer made room at a table, Tracy took her place. The box that Lester had given her contained eight packets of blank checks. But it was not the checks Tracy was interested in: It was the deposit slips at the back of the packets.
She carefully separated the deposit slips from the checks and, in fewer than three minutes, she was holding eighty deposit slips in her hand. Making sure she was unobserved, Tracy put twenty of the slips in the metal container.
She moved on to the next table, where she placed twenty more deposit slips. Within a few minutes, all of them had been left on the various tables. The deposit slips were blank, but each one contained a magnetized code at the bottom, which the computer used to credit the various accounts. No matter who deposited money, because of the magnetic code, the computer would automatically credit Joe Romano's account with each deposit. From her experience working in a bank, Tracy knew that within two days all the magnetized deposit slips would be used up and that it would take at least five days before the mix-up was noticed. That would give her more than enough time for what she planned to do.
On the way back to her hotel, Tracy threw the blank checks into a trash basket. Mr. Joe Romano would not be needing them.
Tracy's next stop was at the New Orleans Holiday Travel Agency. The young woman behind the.desk asked, "May I help you?"
"I'm Joseph Romano's secretary. Mr. Romano would like to make a reservation for Rio de Janeiro. He wants to leave this Friday."
"Will that be one ticket?"
"Yes. First class. An aisle seat. Smoking, please."
"Round trip?"
"One way."
The travel agent turned to her desk computer. In a few seconds, she said, "We're all set. One first-class seat on Pan American's Flight seven twenty-eight, leaving at six-thirty-five P.M. on Friday, with a short stopover in Miami."
"He'll be very pleased," Tracy assured the woman.
"That will be nineteen hundred twenty-nine dollars. Will that be cash or charge?"
"Mr. Romano always pays cash. COD. Could you have the ticket delivered to his office on Thursday, please?"
"We could have it delivered tomorrow, if you like."
"No. Mr. Romano won't be there tomorrow. Would you make it Thursday at eleven A.M.?"
"Yes. That will be fine. And the address?"
"Mr. Joseph Romano, Two-seventeen Poydras Street, Suite four-zero-eight."
The woman made a note of it. "Very well. I'll see that it's delivered Thursday morning."
"Eleven sharp," Tracy said. "Thank you."
Half a block down the street was the Acme Luggage Store. Tracy studied the display in the window before she walked inside.
A clerk approached her. "Good morning. And what can I do for you this morning?"
"I want to buy some luggage for my husband."
"You've come to the right place. We're having a sale. We have some nice, inexpensive---"
"No," Tracy said. "Nothing inexpensive."
She stepped over to a display of Vuitton suitcases stacked against a wall. ""That's more what I'm looking for. We're going away on a trip."
"Well, I'm sure he'll be pleased with one of these. We have three different sizes. Which one would---?"
"I'll take one of each."
"Oh. Fine. Will that be charge or cash?"
"COD. The name is Joseph Romano. Could you have them delivered to my husband's office on Thursday morning?"
"Why, certainly, Mrs. Romano."
"At eleven o'clock?"
"I'll see to it personally."
As an afterthought, Tracy added, "Oh... would you put his initials on them--- in gold? That's J.R."
"Of course. It will be our pleasure, Mrs. Romano."
Tracy smiled and gave him the office address.
At a nearby Western Union office, Tracy sent a paid cable to the Rio Othon Palace on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. It read: REQUEST YOUR BEST SUITE COMMENCING THIS FRIDAY FOR TWO MONTHS. PLEASE CONFIRM BY COLLECT CABLE. JOSEPH ROMANO, 217 POYDRAS STREET, SUITE 408, NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, USA.
Three days later Tracy telephoned the bank and asked to speak to Lester Torrance. When she heard his voice, she said softly, "You probably don't remember me, Lester, but this is Lureen Hartford, Mr. Romano's secretary, and---"
Not remember her! His voice was eager. "Of course I remember you, Lureen. I---"
"You do? Why, I'm flattered. You must meet so many people."
"Not like you," Lester assured her. "You haven't forgotten about our dinner date, have you?"
"You don't know how much I'm lookin' forward to it. Would next Tuesday suit you, Lester?"
"Then it's a date. Oh. I'm such an idiot! You got me so excited talkin' to you I almost forgot why I called. Mr. Romano asked me to check on his bank balance. Would you give me that figure?"
"You bet. No trouble at all."
Ordinarily, Lester Torrance would have asked for a birth date or some form of identification from the caller, but in this case it was certainly not necessary. No, Sir. "Hang on, Lureen," he said.
He walked over to the file, pulled out Joseph's Romano's sheet, and studied it in surprise. There had been an extraordinary number of deposits made to Romano's account in the past several days. Romano had never kept so much money in his account before. Lester Torrance wondered what was going on. Some big deal, obviously. When he had dinner with Lureen Hartford, he intended to pump her. A little inside information never hurt. He returned to the phone.
"Your boss has been keeping us busy," he told Tracy. "He has just over three hundred thousand dollars in his checking account."
"Oh, good. That's the figure I have."
"Would he like us to transfer it to a money market account? It's not drawing any interest sitting here, and I could---"
"No. He wants it right where it is," Tracy assured him.
"Thank you so much, Lester. You're a darlin'."
"Wait a minute! Should I call you at the office about the arrangements for Tuesday?"
"I'll call you, honey," Tracy told him.
And the connection was broken.
o O o
The modern high-rise office building owned by Anthony Orsatti stood on Poydras Street between the riverfront and the gigantic Louisiana Superdome, and the offices of the Pacific Import-Export Company occupied the entire fourth floor of the building. At one end of the suite were Orsatti's offices, and at the other end, Joe Romano's rooms. The space in between was occupied by four young receptionists who were available evenings to entertain Anthony Orsatti's friends and business acquaintances. In front of Orsatti's suite sat two very large men whose lives were devoted to guarding their boss. They also served as chauffeurs, masseurs, and errand boys for the capo.
On this Thursday morning Orsatti was in his office checking out the previous day's receipts from running numbers, bookmaking, prostitution, and a dozen other lucrative activities that the Pacific Import-Export Company controlled.
Anthony Orsatti was in his late sixties. He was a strangely built man, with a large, heavy torso and short, bony legs that seemed to have been designed for a smaller man. Standing up he looked like a seated frog. He had a face crisscrossed with an erratic web of scars that could have been woven by a drunken spider, an oversized mouth, and black, bulbous eyes. He had been totally bald from the age of fifteen after an attack of alopecia, and had worn a black wig ever since. It fitted him badly, but in all the years no one had dared mention it to his face. Orsatti's cold eyes were gambler's eyes, giving away nothing, and his face, except when he was with his five daughters, whom he adored, was expressionless. The only clue to Orsatti's emotions was his voice. He had a hoarse, raspy voice, the result of a wire having been tightened around his throat on his twenty-first birthday, when he had been left for dead. The two men who had made that mistake had turned up in the morgue the following week. When Orsatti got really upset, his voice lowered to a strangled whisper that could barely be heard.
Anthony Orsatti was a king who ran his fiefdom with bribes, guns, and blackmail. He ruled New Orleans, and it paid him obeisance in the form of untold riches. The capos of the other Families across the country respected him and constantly sought his advice.
At the moment, Anthony Orsatti was in a benevolent mood. He had had breakfast with his mistress, whom he kept in an apartment building he owned in Lake Vista. He visited her three times a week, and this morning's visit had been particularly satisfactory. She did things to him in bed that other women never dreamed of, and Orsatti sincerely believed it was because she loved him so much. His organization was running smoothly. There were no problems, because Anthony Orsatti knew how to solve difficulties before they became problems. He had once explained his philosophy to Joe Romano: "Never let a little problem become a big problem, Joe, or it grows like a fuckin' snowball. You got a precinct captain who thinks he oughta get a bigger cut--- you melt him, see? No more snowball. You get some hotshot from Chicago who asks permission to open up his own little operation here in New Orleans? You know that pretty soon that 'little' operation is gonna turn into a big operation and start cuttin' into your profits. So you say yes, and then when he gets here, you melt the son of a bitch. No more snowball. Get the picture?"
Joe Romano got the picture.
Anthony Orsatti loved Romano. He was like a son to him. Orsatti had picked him up when Romano was a punk kid rolling drunks in alleys. He himself had trained Romano, and now the kid could tap-dance his way around with the best of them. He was fast, he was smart, and he was honest. In ten years Romano had risen to the rank of Anthony Orsatti's chief lieutenant. He supervised all the Family's operations and reported only to Orsatti.
Lucy, Orsatti's private secretary, knocked and came into the office. She was twenty-four years old, a college graduate, with a face and figure that had won several local beauty contests. Orsatti enjoyed having beautiful young women around him.
He looked at the clock on his desk. It was 10:45. He had told Lucy he did not want any interruptions before noon. He scowled at her. "What?"
"I'm sorry to bother you, Mr. Orsatti. There's a Miss Gigi Dupres on the phone. She sounds hysterical, but she won't tell me what she wants. She insists on speaking with you personally. I thought it might be important."
Orsatti sat there, running the name through the computer in his brain. Gigi Dupres? One of the broads he had up in his suite his last time in Vegas? Gigi Dupres? Not that he could remember, and he prided himself on a mind that forgot nothing. Out of curiosity, Orsatti picked up the phone and waved a dismissal at Lucy.
"Yeah? Who's this?"
"Is thees Mr. Anthony Orsatti?" She had a French accent.
"Oh, thank God I get hold of you, Meester Orsatti!"
Lucy was right. The dame was hysterical. Anthony Orsatti was not interested. He started to hang up, when her voice went on.
"You must stop him, please!"
"Lady, I don't know who you're talkin' about, and I'm a busy---"
"My Joe. Joe Romano. He promised to take me with him, comprenez-vous?"
"Hey, you got a beef with Joe, take it up with him. I ain't his nursemaid."
"He lie to me! I just found out he is leave for Brazil without me. Half of that three hundred thousand dollars is mine."
Anthony Orsatti suddenly found he was interested, after all. "What three hundred thousand you talkin' about?"
"The money Joe is hiding in his checking account. The money he--- how you say?--- skimmed."
Anthony Orsatti was very interested.
"Please tell Joe he must take me to Brazil with him. Please! Weel you do thees?"
"Yeah;" Anthony Orsatti promised. "I'll take care of it."
o O o
Joe Romano's office was modern, all white and chrome, done by one of New Orleans's most fashionable decorators. The only touches of color were the three expensive French Impressionist paintings on the walls. Romano prided himself on his good taste. He had fought his way up from the slums of New Orleans, and on the way he had educated himself. He had an eye for paintings and an ear for music. When he dined out, he had long, knowledgeable discussions with the sommelier about wines. Yes, Joe Romano had every reason to be proud. While his contemporaries had survived by using their fists, he had succeeded by using his brains. If it was true that Anthony Orsatti owned New Orleans, it was also true that it was Joe Romano who ran it for him.
His secretary walked into his office. "Mr. Romano, there's a messenger here with an airplane ticket for Rio de Janeiro. Shall I write out a check? It's COD."
"Rio de Janeiro?" Romano shook his head. "Tell him there's some mistake."
The uniformed messenger was in the doorway. "I was told to deliver this to Joseph Romano at this address."
"Well, you were told wrong. What is this, some kind of a new airline promotion gimmick?"
"No, sir. I---"
"Let me see that." Romano took the ticket from the messenger's hand and looked at it. "Friday. Why would I be going to Rio on Friday?"
"That's a good question," Anthony Orsatti said. He was standing behind the messenger. "Why would you, Joe?"
"It's some kind of dumb mistake, Tony." Romano handed the ticket back to the messenger. "Take this back where it came from and---"
"Not so fast." Anthony Orsatti took the ticket and examined it. "It says here one first-class ticket, aisle seat, smoking, to Rio de Janeiro for Friday. One way."
Joe Romano laughed. "Someone made a mistake." He turned to his secretary. "Madge, call the travel agency and tell them they goofed. Some poor slob is going to be missing his plane ticket."
Joleen, the assistant secretary, walked in. "Excuse me, Mr. Romano. The luggage has arrived. Do you want me to sign for it?"
Joe Romano stared at her. "What luggage? I didn't order any luggage."
"Have them bring it in," Anthony Orsatti commanded.
"Jesus!" Joe Romano said. "Has everyone gone nuts?"
A messenger walked in carrying three Vuitton suitcases.
"What's all this? I never ordered those."
The messenger checked his delivery slip. "It says Mr. Joseph Romano, Two-seventeen Poydras Street, Suite four-zero-eight?"
Joe Romano was losing his temper. "I don't care what the fuck it says. I didn't order them. Now get them out of here."
Orsatti was examining the luggage. "They have your initials on them, Joe."
"What? Oh. Wait a minute! It's probably some kind of present.
"Is it your birthday?"
"No. But you know how broads are, Tony. They're always givin' you gifts."
"Have you got somethin' going in Brazil?" Anthony Orsatti inquired.
"Brazil?" Joe Romano laughed. "This must be someone's idea of a joke, Tony."
Orsatti smiled gently, then turned to the secretaries and the two messengers. "Out."
When the door was closed behind them, Anthony Orsatti spoke. "How much money you got in your bank account, Joe?"
Joe Romano looked at him, puzzled. "I don't know. Fifteen hundred, I guess, maybe a couple of grand. Why?"
"Just for fun, why don't you call your bank and check it out?"
"What for? I---"
"Check it out, Joe."
"Sure. If it'll make you happy." He buzzed his secretary. "Get me the head bookkeeper over at First Merchants."
A minute later she was on the line.
"Hello, honey. Joseph Romano. Would you give me the current balance in my checking account? My birth date is October fourteenth."
Anthony Orsatti picked up the extension phone. A few moments later the bookkeeper was back on the line.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Romano. As of this morning, your checking account balance is three hundred ten thousand nine hundred five dollars and thirty-five cents."
Romano could feel the blood draining from his face. "It's what?"
"Three hundred ten thousand nine hundred five---"
"You stupid bitch!" he yelled. "I don't have that kind of money in my account. You made a mistake. Let me talk to the---"
He felt the telephone being taken out of his hand, as Anthony Orsatti replaced the receiver. "Where'd that money come from, Joe?"
Joe Romano's face was pale. "I swear to God, Tony, I don't know anything about that money."
"Hey, you've got to believe me! You know what's happening? Someone is setting me up."
"It must be someone who likes you a lot. He gave you a going-away present of three hundred ten thousand dollars." Orsatti sat down heavily on the Scalamander silk-covered armchair and looked at Joe Romano for a long moment, then spoke very quietly. "Everything was all set, huh? A one-way ticket to Rio, new luggage... Like you was planning a whole new life."
"No!" There was panic in Joe Romano's voice. "Jesus, you know me better than that, Tony. I've always been on the level with you. You're like a father to me."
He was sweating now. There was a knock at the door, and Madge poked her head in. She held an envelope.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Mr. Romano. There's a cable for you, but you have to sign for it yourself."
With the instincts of a trapped animal, Joe Romano said, "Not now. I'm busy."
"I'll take it," Anthony Orsatti said, and he was out of the chair before the woman could close the door. He took his time reading the cable, then he focused his eyes on Joe Romano.
In a voice so low that Romano could barely hear him, Anthony Orsatti said, "I'll read it to you, Joe. 'Pleased to confirm your reservation for our Princess Suite for two months this Friday, September first.' It's signed, 'S. Montalband, manager, Rio Othon Palace, Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro.' It's your reservation, Joe. You won't be needin' it, will you?"
If Tomorrow Comes If Tomorrow Comes - Sidney Sheldon If Tomorrow Comes