Runner-up 1

"Why the hell did you bring three bags? I told you we'd only be gone five days," Charlie Bonner said to his sulking wife. She had not uttered a single word since they'd left the house, and now they were approaching the airport.

"You won't even tell me where we're going -- how was I supposed to know what to pack?" she offered now. Giving him 14-year-old sullen.

Bonner said nothing. He steered the big Mercedes into the lane marked "Departures," slowing behind a long queue of motorists who, he supposed, were looking forward to taking off from LAX bound for adventures of one kind or another.

He was not looking forward to this trip. Cabo San Lucas, playpen of the rich and famous. He was rich and he was famous, but he was not going there to be pampered. He was going there to be not dead.

The person most likely to get him dead was Falco, with his small brain and his big mouth. U.S. Congressman Eugene Falco was a senior member of the California Coastal Commission, the most powerful land-use authority in the country. And U.S. Congressman Gino Falco was in Charlie Bonner's pocket.

The coastal land under its jurisdiction that concerned Bonner was a 32-acre parcel that fronted on Malibu Beach, upon which Bonner and his Croesus-wealthy silent partner were bent on building a complex of mixed-use high-rises that would house offices, condominiums, hotel suites, restaurants and retail outlets.

Falco had come through. He'd actually persuaded his colleagues on the commission that Malibu needed the six-tower complex -- it would bring tax revenue into the coffers not only of Malibu, but of cities all along the coast from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. That meant better schools, better hospitals, better roads, better everything.

The congressman had also made key members aware that there would be a substantial something in it for each of them. As there would be, of course, a very substantial something in it for Falco, amounting to six figures upon groundbreaking. And everybody on board that little venture was happy.

Until last night.

Until Bonner had dipped into his virtual candy jar and pulled out last night's prize for Falco in the person of Carmen and her irresistible bag of tricks. Irresistible to Gino Falco, at least, who took her and her said bag in his gold Lexus to a penthouse suite on top of Shutters on the Beach and did whatever he did, followed by a presumed drunken session of pillow talk.

Only Carmen wasn't the one who was drunk. She was the one who made mental notes, and spilled most of the talk to a reporter friend of hers this morning. On the record. His show was not above traditional checkbook journalism, she knew. And everybody involved in that little exchange was happy.

Until today.

Now Carmen was about to get dead.

Worse, Charlie Bonner was about to get dead himself, his silent partner being the kind of guy who allowed nothing to get between himself and his next billion or two.

Unless Bonner could pull it out of the fire in Cabo.

He pulled up in front of Aeromexico, jumped out of the Benz and popped the trunk. Waving a $20 bill, he signaled a sky-cap, who pounced upon the reality show queen's bulky luggage and his own small overnight bag.

His cellphone jangled.

Bonner looked at the screen readout, and his blood froze.

Kelly Lange, a former television news reporter and anchor, now remodels houses and writes.

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