"What is it? What's wrong?" Lieutenant Kahn asked sotto voce. We were walking, being carried along by far too many people, I thought, to be out and about at 9:00 am. We were trying to get to the gate for my flight to Denver, connecting through Chicago. At the moment, though, I was grateful for the crowd, even though their chatter was exploding in my skull like bombs going off in a cave. I shouldn't have had that farewell night with Danny last night. I should have told him that what he got on Kahn's desktop was all he was going to get. But I'm weak that way. And, truth be known, if Danny tracked me down after he and Sharenda got hitched, I knew I'd still give him what he wanted--no matter how many times I said no. I had already checked on the air flights to L.A. Back to L.A., I should say. I was raised there--in the Hollywood environment. But I had avoided the place once I'd escaped it. All it took, though, was the feel of Danny to get me to consider going back.

"At our gate coming up," I whispered to the lieutenant. "Isn't that Giacomo Arcardi, surrounded by a phalanx of goons? I'm sure it is. Don't look hard enough that they'll look at you. Let me slip in on the other side of you."


"I've said that already. What were the chances I'd be on the same flights as him? Could it be that he's going to Denver too? If so, is he staking Jenks out. If he's headed to the ranch, we can't let him see that I've come from New York too. He might get suspicious. I'm vetted as coming from Chicago."


"You're full of help, Burton. Keep walking--down to gate 26. There's a crowd down there waiting to board a flight. We've got to figure this out."

By the time we got down there, I had a plan, and, thankfully, Kahn caught on to it immediately and was able to get it done.

"Also, while you're at it," I said as he was getting up to execute the plan, "have your guy in airport security check the seating. If I'm not way in the back and Arcardi is way in the front, do what you can to get the seating juggled."

Twenty minutes flat--well, more like twenty-two, which I would forgive Kahn because of his age and the trotting distance back to the main terminal hall, Burton was back.

"It's all arranged. This here is Hal; he'll take you down to the tarmac and back up to the onramp into the plane so you can be in and seated before anyone else is loaded onto the plane. Just remember, if he's going through to Denver, to hang back on the Chicago arrival and then make like you are boarding for the first time in Chicago. You were seated way in the back anyway, and Arcardi and friends are up in first class."

"No problem with identifying me to the flight crew as an undercover air marshal?" I said.

"Nope. It was a piece of cake as long as we promised you weren't carrying. You aren't, are you?"

"Of course not. Would we have gotten through security if I had been?"

"Maybe," Burton said. And then he laughed. "This is LaGuardia, you know."

"Yeah, you're right," I answered with an accompanying snort.

Hal frowned in disapproval, and Kahn, knowing who was doing who a favor, apologized.

"So it's all set," Burton then said. "Go, go, go. They'll start to board soon. Problem solved."

"I hope," I answered.

"What? What's not taken into account?"

"We gotta hope the plane isn't hijacked between here and Chicago," I responded with a laugh. "Then I'd be expected to do heroics--without anything to do it with."

"You could use the in-flight magazine," Burton answered. "I've gotten paper cuts from those before."

"Yeah, right. Thanks boss. Keep in touch."

And, with that, I followed Hal toward a hidden door in the wall at gate 26 with a staircase on the other side going down to the tarmac.

* * * *

"You see that gentleman over there? He wonders if you'd like to catch a drink with him before we board. It's a long, dry ride to Denver."

I looked up in a shock I didn't need to feign at the big bruiser who was standing over me where I sat at the gate in Chicago waiting for the flight on to Denver. I didn't even have to look where he was pointing to know that Giacomo Arcardi was over there giving me the eye. It had been a real wrinkle in the plan to see he was headed to Denver as well. I was going because we were afraid his family would track Jenks down; no one planned for him to be out there ahead of Jenks, though. He'd watched me approach from down the corridor where I'd sprinted when I came off the flight from New York so that I could wander back pretending I was just now boarding in Chicago.

"Ummm, thanks, but flying and alcohol don't mix well with me. Tell him thanks for me, please." I had told Kahn that I shouldn't be dressing like a male escort for this trip, but he'd said it was never too early to get into character. Bad idea, though, I thought. This was getting to be like a premature ejaculation. Arcardi was the suspect--the guy we presumed I'd be trying to protect Jason Jenks from. I could probably do it OK from in his bed, but at least we could wait until we got to the ranch. Of course he had no idea we'd be meeting at the ranch--I hoped. But he already was a couple of steps ahead of us, so who knows?

Our informant hadn't told us until this morning as we were leaving for the airport that Arcardi was on the move too, but we didn't figure that he might be going to the ranch too. Even if he'd thought that was possible, we didn't have time to figure all of the possible angles on why Jenks and Arcardi were headed for the same place when the game plan was to keep them as far apart as possible. With luck, it was a coincidence, and Arcardi was headed elsewhere.

"Well, when we get to Denver, then. You need a ride somewhere from the airport? The gentleman would be quite happy."

"Well, ummm. I think I'm being met. I--"

"He really wants to meet you. He's willing to pay you--generously--for your time. Or am I wrong that--?"

"Mr. Folsom? Mr. Clint Folsom? Is that you, sir?"

I could have kissed the agent--except that she was a woman, and I'd sworn off them years ago. Still, she was a welcome woman. She was all decked out in the airline's uniform, so both I and the bruiser instantaneously knew that this was a business call.

"Yes, that's me?" I stood in the presence of the voice of airline authority and gave both the bruiser and, turning, the "gentleman" across the waiting lounge, an apologetic "if only" look and then turned my full attention to the young lady.

"Excuse me, Mr. Folsom, can I ask you to come back to the ticketing desk for a moment. There's something security wants to check in your bag."

Sure, I said. It obviously was going to be the two handguns I was carrying, but, as I had permits to transport those, I wasn't too worried. That wasn't it, though. When we got to the ticketing desk, the young woman looked perplexed.

"He was here just a few minutes ago. I'm sorry; could you wait here just--?"

"That's OK, Maryanne. I'll take it from here," another, older, and obviously more authoritative airline uniform said from across the counter--a man this time.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Folsom, there's been a slight mistake. You're all clear. If you can just wait here a few minutes, we'll see that you get on your flight."

And he did just that--seeing that I got back to the gate just in time for the tourist class boarding. It was all done very professionally--but it left me wondering who was looking out for me here in Chicago. I obviously had been saved from an encounter with Giacomo Arcardi, which prematurely could have gone too many unwanted ways. I looked around to see who my shadow might be. As I entered the gangway, I saw him and he gave a wink at me, acknowledging that he had been made--a well-built guy with a bullet-shaped bald head and a handlebar mustache--so conspicuous he was almost unnoticeable--maybe early forties, and U.S. Marines written all over him, although he was decked out like a cowboy now, with plaid silver-studded chambray shirt over faded blue jeans, serious ranch boots, and a Stetson in his hand.

We had to pass Arcardi and his thugs as we moved down the aisle to the back of the plane. I couldn't help but make eye contact with him as I passed, and I answered his smile with one of my own--I didn't want to alienate the man; I just didn't want him to fire off prematurely. The Marine cowboy, pushing me along from behind, though, helped me get past the gauntlet until I was safely beyond the curtain line separating first class from cattle car.

I found my seat, and the big angel with the Stetson kept moving back to an aisle seat two rows behind me, where he'd be able to see the back of my head.

I spent the first half of the flight lamenting that I had a middle seat wedged between a woman with a screaming infant and an overweight businessman with something going wrong with his sweat glands. But I spent the second half of the flight blessing their presence, as Arcardi had taken a circuit of the aisle from the front of the plane to the back, obviously looking for me, because he hesitated in the aisle as he approached my seat and saw me. He obviously was disappointed to find there was no open seat next to me and no opportunity even to speak to me of what he wanted. From the looks he'd given me back in the Chicago airport, there was no mystery about what he wanted from me.

* * * *

The next hurdle came when we landed at Denver International Airport. I'll have to hand it to Arcardi; he wasn't anything if not persistent. But at this point, I was logging into a system--and one with rules and leverage.

It was almost comical--me trouping down to the baggage claim area and one of Arcardi's goons trouping along behind me--followed by bullet head with the handlebar mustache and the Stetson. And who knows who else might have been following along in the tail end.

At the curb, a little guy--kind of cute, with his hair in a pony tail, a small but nicely built sandy-haired lad--was holding a sign that said "Big O Ranch" on it and was leaning against a black stretch limousine. Behind this was parked an even stretchier Lincoln Navigator limo, looking like it was about to swallow the ranch's limo. And standing at the door of this one was the bruiser who had tried to hook me up with Arcardi back in Chicago. A back window of the Navigator was rolled down a third of the way, and I could see that Arcardi was already in there. So much for the mystery of where Arcardi was headed.

I walked up to the Big O Ranch limousine and started to say something to Little Sandy, but another, big-muscled guy standing next to him interjected himself and said, "You Folsom?"

I looked at him and determined right away that he was the authority figure of this outing. He was a no-nonsense type of guy. Crew cut, yet another tattooed retired Marine clone, and wearing ranch work clothes. He had been handsome once, but he'd been in probably three too many equal-strength fights.

At my nod, he said, "I'm Butch," to which I thought, "I'm sure you are."

He added, "I'm the foreman of the Big O. Get on in the car. Sit on a jump seat. We're waiting for a couple of paying customers before we can pull out."

Before I could do as he said--being quite willing to do so, Arcardi's bruiser walked over and said, "He connected to the ranch, Butch?"

"Yep. A new hand; gonna be a 'T' wrangler if he vets out," Butch answered. I was impressed that the bruiser was on first-name basis with the Big O's foreman. When I thought about it I wasn't all that surprised, though. I'd been told that Arcardi was a regular at the ranch, which is why our guys had tried so hard to dissuade Jason Jenks from going there. And at the time, I'd thought it was an unfortunate coincidence if Jenks was going to hide out in the very den of the man he should be avoiding--which was how it was panning out. But then Kahn had reminded me that Jenks wouldn't admit he was in any trouble at all and that it stood to reason he'd come in contact with Arcardi before if he'd put an Arcardi character in one of his books.

"Mr. Arcardi would like Folsom to ride to the ranch with him, please," the bruiser said.

I didn't have a chance to say how much I didn't like that idea. Butch stood his ground while pushing at my shoulder. I got the hint and folded myself down and entered the back of the limo and listened to the rest of the short exchange from the relative safety of the jump seat.

"That's against the ranch rules, Tony. I'm sorry. But this guy ain't been signed in yet at the ranch. Mr. Arcardi and you guys can get a crack at him once vetting is done and contracts have been signed and all. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. The way you do it, you'll be glad the liability is all worked out beforehand."

"I'll ride in the other car," I heard a squeaky voice say, and I looked out onto the pavement to be sure that it had been Little Sandy who said it. "You said we'd maybe be crowded in this car if all the customers showed up you were expecting."

"I don't know if that's a good idea, Jess. You maybe don't know how--" Butch started to say. But then the bruiser had a say of his own.

"Mr. Arcardi's gonna be disappointed and keyed up, I think. It might be best if I ask him what he wants."

"Well, OK, Tony. But make it snappy. I see what looks like the others I expect on this run claiming their baggage and headed this way. We'll see you out at the ranch. We have a stop to make a pickup at the Denver Swim Club of another new hand."

Ten minutes later, Little Sandy--who apparently I should now be calling Jess--was gone to the other limo, and three men in suits--two upper middle age and one not so old, all looking quite prosperous--and all giving me the eye--were stretched along the back wall of the limo on the comfortable seat and facing me in one of the jump seats. That left the jump seat next to me open, but I'd heard Butch say we'd be picking another guy up at a swim club. I had to munch on that for a couple of minutes, because it seemed a rather odd rendezvous spot. But, whatever, I was glad to be in this car and not in the Navigator. I didn't particularly like the worried expression on Butch's face when Jesse skipped off toward Arcardi's limo.

During the ride out to Interstate 40 from the terminal and then west on East Colefax, the three guys took turns leering at me and asking me pretty personal questions and vying with each other for Mr. Desirable. I understood the role I was supposed to play, so I teased and flirted back. Two of the guys--the older ones--were regular customers at the ranch--men I recognized from public life but would certainly not let on that I did under these circumstances. This was the first time for the younger guy, he said. That was a pity, as the two older ones were ahead of the younger one on what to say and what might happen out at the ranch. They were far ahead of me on that score too, so I mostly just smiled and said I was new and would have to learn the ropes. Both of the experienced guys offered to show me the ropes--and I said we'd have to see what I was supposed to do when we got there. They introduced themselves to me as Ted, Jim, and Cliff. Jim, the younger guy, was naïve enough to have given me what I thought was a real name. Of course the other two didn't.

When we stopped at the Denver Swim Club, I got the idea right off the bat. It was an adobe-looking low building with a walled enclosure off to the side. The way it was hiding itself from scrutiny from the street told me the score. No windows and a neon sign over the top of the building told me what it was. One door and I could see a booth at the side right at the entrance inside. It screamed of gay bath and nightclub. Duh.

"Wait in the car," Butch said, as he climbed out of the limo at the door. "I'll go in and get him."

While he was gone, a big black Navigator limo pulled up behind us and went on idle. Arcardi was still lurking around, I could see.

Butch came out a few minutes later with an irritated expression on his face and steam coming out of his ears. "The guy's not here yet," he said. I could see he was fighting himself for control, and I guessed he was only doing so because there were three customers in the back.

"Would you gentleman like to spend a hour or two here?" he asked. "The ranch is sorry for the inconvenience, but you might like to get a taste of what Colorado has to offer before we get out to the ranch. At the ranch's invitation, of course."

"I don't know. We--" the uninitiated Jim started to say. But both of the experienced guys shot forth with a "Yes, that would be fine." Obviously they already knew what Colorado had on offer--and they didn't mind imbibing in it.

As we all started to climb out of the car, Butch put a hand on my sternum and muttered, "Not you, Folsom. Wait in the car for us." But then he tensed as he looked around, and he changed his tune. "OK, yes, you come in. But you stay back with me at a table. Nothin' happens till you're at the ranch and have signed the contract. Understand?"

"Fine with me," I answered. It was, indeed, fine with me, because as the three customers were on their way to the door of the swim club, the doors of the Navigator limo were opening too and Arcardi and his two goons were slowly disembarking.

I thought Butch was a pretty quick thinker. If Arcardi wanted me, it would have been a snap to do it while Butch and the ranch's customers were in the club and I was out here by my lonesome. I didn't see Arcardi as one to be overly controllable by ranch rules--or to be quickly punished for not adhering to them off the ranch property.

I was a little worried at Butch's concern, though. Guys must be fucking all around him at the ranch. I could only assume that he knew that it wouldn't be a simple fuck with Arcardi--so maybe Arcardi was living up to why we were pussyfooting around him and thinking he might be a serial snuff killer.

The Denver Swim Club was pretty much what I expected--but probably a little better. It did, indeed have a very nice outdoor club area--in the walled enclosure I'd seen when we drove up--and the pool was filled with some pretty interesting men. So was the main club area.

Butch had me tag along until he got the three customers paired up satisfactorily and then he took me to a table in the corner, with wall on two sides, and sat me back in the corner, with him sitting point. Arcardi and his goons took a table nearby, but Arcardi was quickly distracted by a flouncy little thing with black hair and blue eyes, and he disappeared toward the pool. The goons relaxed then and just sort of turned off, no doubt grateful for the down time.

I sat and watched our young customer, Jim, being fucked by a younger, thinner guy on a sling over by a red-painted wall. Jim was doing most of the movement, leveraging the soles of his bare feet off the wall--and he was doing a good enough job of it for me to reassess how naïve he was. In the limo, I'd found myself wanting to be more friendly with Jim at the ranch--but now I saw that we probably wouldn't be matching up. Certainly not when he realized he wanted what I wanted too.

After about a half an hour, a guy sauntered into the room who had a young Robert Redford looks and a chip-on-his-shoulder attitude. He talked to the guy at the entry booth for a moment, who gestured over to our table, and then the guy meandered--not fast enough to indicate he cared that he was late--over to our table and held out his hand to Butch and said, "Hi, I'm Chuck. You're supposed to take me out to the Big O ranch, I've been told." He looked good from my angle, but he also looked spoiled and "I'm so fine, and I know it." Butch ignored the proffered hand and stood and said he'd like to talk to Chuck over in the locker room.

They were only gone for five minutes or so, but when they came back Chuck had a bloody nose and didn't look quite so "I'm so fine."

"OK, fifteen more minutes, and you two go out to the limo while I round up the customers," Butch growled. And then he turned to a chastened Chuck and added, "And the entry fees for tonight come out of your first paycheck, hot shot."

When we left the swim club, the Navigator was still sitting at the curb, still on idle, and still polluting the atmosphere. But by the time we were climbing up to the summit of the ridge of the Rockies near the Coors beer plant at Golden on Route 58, the Navigator was roaring past us on all gazillion cylinders and leaving us in its dust. We didn't see it again until we'd taken 40 west off 58 and were passing the small commuter airport at Granby. A sleek corporate jet seemingly too big to be landing there had just landed and was taxiing toward the postage stamp-sized operations building. Two camouflaged Hummers, idling, with their lights on, were sitting out on the tarmac by the building. The Navigator was off on the side of the road, still idling, and Arcardi and one of his goons were standing, leaning up against the limo on the fence side and watching the plane taxi. I only got a brief glimpse in passing, but I could have sworn Arcardi wasn't wearing any trousers. For that matter, neither was his bodyguard.

The Navigator swept past us again as we were turning into the ranch and passing under the arch with "Big O" in flashing neon lights over the entrance. About as subtle as the sign over the Denver Swim Club, I thought. But this was the West. They also led with their chins and their wallets out here--or so I'd heard. I didn't usually go farther west than Philadelphia. I'd had to do a lot of studying about Chicago as I was packing to come out here, though--seeing as how that was where I was from.

Arcardi and his goons were already out of the Navigator when our limo pulled up to the main building at the ranch. Arcardi, who definitely was missing his trousers and his briefs too for that matter--but who had an admirable staff and set hanging between his legs--was ranting about something.

The name Rapino hit and sizzled on my brain, and I was all ears now.

"That bastard, Mario Rapino, flying right on up here. Gettin' in my face with that. Well, I--"

I didn't catch any more because the gaggle of Arcardi and goons was heading for the porch of the main house now, one of the guys trying to hand Arcardi his trousers and skivvies. I didn't need to catch any more, though. The plot was thickening here. That must have been who was in that corporate jet the Navigator had pulled over to watch--Mario Rapino, Lorenzo's little brother. Arcardi must have recognized the plane as belonging to the Rapino clan.

Great. Now I had a range war on my hands in addition to trying to keep Jenks alive to testify at a trail--if, of course, any of the accused were still alive to get to trial. But, on second thought, maybe this wouldn't be so bad. If I could just keep Jenks and me out of the line of fire, who cared if the Rapinos and Arcardis shot each other to oblivion? Better they do it here out in the wide-open spaces than on the street in my city.

I couldn't luxuriate in that thought any more, though, because Butch had shown the three customers from the limo where they were supposed to go to check in and, for punishment, had snapped his fingers at Chuck and told him he could get the customers' luggage inside all by his lonesome. Then Butch was back by my side--attracted by the same sound that now was arresting my attention.

The sound of weak moaning.

We both headed for the Navigator, the back doors of which were still yawning open.

The moaning sound was actually the best sign we could have hoped for. A naked and crumpled Little Sandy--Jess--was strung out on the back floor of the Navigator. Both an arm and a leg were bent at impossible angles, and, as far as I could see, so was his neck. Only the moaning was a signal that the lad was still alive.

"Christ almighty, Jess," Butch exclaimed. "This was why I didn't want you in the Navigator. Hey, help over here guys," he called out to a couple of guys in low-slung jeans and cowboy boots and not much of anything else who had been sitting on the railing on the porch and watching us arrive. "Get a stretcher--and fast--and someone roust out Doc."



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