For now, Genie's in the driver's seat

Genie flopped into the passenger seat, breathing hard from her sprint through the alley in a vain search for Carmen. She shot Ernesto a warning, "Keep your mouth shut and drive."


"I don't care. Anywhere. I need to think." She closed her eyes, tried to block out the visual of that blond-haired goon leaking blood onto Carmen's threadbare carpet, a pottery shard rising from his neck like a miniature tombstone.

If she had been smart, she realized, she would've flown to Cabo, ditched Charlie, then found some handsome cabana boy to ply her with margaritas and suntan oil. She rubbed her temples. But if she'd let Charlie handle this thing on his own, he'd have ended up squashed inside an oil drum or buried in a pit, munching gravel alongside Jimmy Hoffa.

She didn't love Charlie, didn't even like him much, but she needed him alive.

Ernesto cleared his throat. "Charlie's gonna get panicky if I don't call soon."

Genie glared at the man's pockmarked face. How much could she trust him? "What are you going to tell him?"

His eyes shifted to her, then back to the road. "What he wants to hear."

"Which is?"

"That I persuaded Carmen life would be nicer in Vegas."

Genie turned away from the smirk that twisted Ernesto's lips, not wanting to think about how often or how intensely he used his powers of persuasion. She glanced at her purse resting on the floor at her feet, wishing she'd kept it in her lap -- not only to protect the flash drive inside, but to have ready access to her Beretta. Forcing a nonchalant shrug, she said, "So call."

She gazed out the window, hoping Charlie was out there somewhere breathing in the relentless smog along with 10 million other Angelenos, far from Cabo's clear blue skies. Ernesto's words replayed in her head, "Mr. Palmieri's gonna be sore . . ." Surely, her husband hadn't boarded that plane, she thought. Panic nipped at her stomach.

Ernesto's cellphone began emitting a tinny version of "La Cucaracha." He winked at Genie, making her feel as if those cockroaches were scuttling up her arms.

" 'lo," he grunted.

Genie heard Charlie's voice, but his words were only vague mutterings punctuated by the beat of "Copacabana" playing in the background.

"It's done. No problems." Ernesto flashed her a cheesy grin. He listened a moment. "OK, I'll get back to you." He snapped the phone shut.

"What did he say?" Genie asked.

"Not much. Cabo's cool, everything's on track. He's chillin' in his room, waiting for Palmieri's call."

"You mean to tell me he hasn't noticed the drive's missing yet? He hasn't found my note?"

Ernesto shrugged. "Guess not. Or if he has, he ain't telling me."

Was Ernesto lying? Or had Charlie actually told him he was in Cabo? Genie wasn't sure. But there was one thing she was damn sure of -- Charlie detested Barry Manilow. No way would he be sitting alone listening to that whiny croon. She remembered when she'd last heard that awful wailing; it was right before they'd left for the airport, on the answering machine -- when Falco called.

Genie picked up her purse, felt Ernesto's eyes on her. She pulled out a brush, casually ran it through her hair. "Turn around. We're going to Beverly Hills."

Ernesto snickered. "Nah. I got other plans."

She returned the brush to her purse and clamped her hand around the gun. She raised it slowly, pointing it directly at Ernesto's right ear. Softly, she said, "Change them."

Now that she's out of the irrigation supply business, Renee Holland Davidson "longs for the day when she can call herself a writer without feeling like a fraud."

Chapter 8

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