It didn’t take FBI agent Cleo Barrett long to find Prez’s office. She just followed the thin strains of old funk music back through the warehouse.
Prez turned out to be a thin, middle-aged black guy in a sharp suit. He leaned over a granite counter in a little kitchenette, assembling a salad, his back to her. The stainless steel door of an expensive-looking refrigerator stood open next to him.
The rest of his office looked like a luxury apartment with all of the interior walls removed. A wide walnut desk with a leather wing chair sat off to one side.
At the far end, near a garage door, an old car sat under a gray cover, the fabric slightly wrinkled as if it had been disturbed. A well-used billiards table sat in the middle, the balls scattered across the lush green felt.
In a dark corner to her left, a caged-off area held printing equipment.
Could this be the source of the million dollars in counterfeit cash?
She kept one eye on Prez and crept over to the equipment. The smells of ink and chemicals filled her nostrils. She drank in the sight of the ink-smudged printing press and the light table littered with scraps of black film.
A piece of paper sat forgotten on the floor, near the back of the cage. Cleo edged over to it and bent down, stretching her fingers between the metal fence and the dusty concrete floor.
She was just able to touch the paper. Carefully, she pulled it out.
“Ladies’ room is down the hall,” a scratchy voice called out to her.
Cleo straightened up, folding the paper between her fingers. Without looking at it, it felt something like a dollar bill.
Across the room, Prez stood near his desk, holding his plate of salad in one hand. He chewed slowly and pointed with his fork. “Down the hall. To the left.”
She crossed the room toward him. “I’m a friend of Ash’s. I’m trying to find him.”
Prez took a loud bite of lettuce and alfalfa sprouts, chewing for several seconds before he answered. “I don’t believe I can help you with that.”
She came closer and held up the folded paper. “This is nice. Where do I go to get the hundred put on it?”
Prez paused his chewing for a second, then set the plate down on his desk. He wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. “You must be Cleo.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Based on his description. ‘Course, the boy got a talent for understatement.”
“Where is he?”
“Imagine he’s off chasing after a briefcase full of cash.”
“He’s not going to find it.”
“I gathered that. By the fact you’re here. Where he is now, I can’t say.”
“Can’t?” She ran her fingers along the fold in the paper, creasing it. She held his gaze. “Or won’t? There are a lot of people who will want to know where this paper came from.”
“Office Depot.” A smirk lightened his face, and he settled back against the edge of his desk. “You think I’m protecting Ash, don’t you? Huh. That is funny. You want to know the truth about your boy? You gonna have to give up pretending you’re chasing this counterfeiting thing.”
“Interesting choice of words. I never said ‘counterfeiting.'”
“You can’t work me, girl. Mostly ’cause you don’t take me seriously. I can see it in your eyes.”
“I’m led to believe that counterfeiting is taken very seriously by the Secret Service.”
“But they don’t know who I am. Drives them a little crazy.”
She’d thought that mentioning the Secret Service would scare him a little. But it had the opposite effect. She could hear the pride in his voice.
Time to change tactics.
Cleo sat down in one of the leather chairs facing his desk. She didn’t say anything at first, letting the moment stretch out, watching him wait for her to make the next move.
She cocked her head. “The design on that hundred-dollar bill is almost twenty years old. I looked it up. You’ve been at this for a while.”
He kept quiet. He tried to stifle a smile, but it lit up the thin lines of his face.
“Got to hand it to you, Prez,” she said, not knowing where she was going with this. She decided to improvise. “To last this long and still be a free man, you’ve got to be one of the best. That much is obvious. Quality, that’s your thing, isn’t it?”
Right in front of her eyes, Prez puffed up. Ate up every word. She tried to see it through his eyes.
The guy might have spent years, maybe decades, perfecting his work. Such as it was. And had nobody to talk to about it until now.
She gave him her best sympathetic look. Not too much. He didn’t need more than a nudge.
“That briefcase caused quite a stir, I’m told,” she said. “The moment the Secret Service caught wind of it, they hopped on a plane to come see it. How long have you had the best agents in the world chasing their tails?”
Prez gazed off into the distance. “Not all that hard.”
“Most people couldn’t do that in their lifetimes, if they tried. That can’t be easy.”
“Nothing good ever is.”
“But that equipment back there, it’s not dusty. It hasn’t been here all that long. So you used to do this a long time ago and got out. Just recently, you bought some new equipment and started up again. Why, business been slow?”
He looked down at her, but his gaze went right through her. “I know you didn’t come here on official business. You don’t care about the cash or how I made it, so drop the act, baby. You just after your boy, Ash. Tryin’ to save him.”
She kept her body perfectly still. “And if I am?”
“Huh.” He nodded slowly, a little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. His voice dropped low. “Let me tell you something. Gets to a point, when you the best there is, ain’t nothin’ left to conquer. Once you beat the game, you got to stop. You keep playing and eventually you just gonna lose. So you got to quit and walk away.” He circled around his desk and sat down, putting the wide slab of expensive wood between them. “Less some sucker from south the border come in here, threaten to expose your past.”
Her pulse quickened. “Andres.”
Prez inclined his head in agreement.
It clicked. “I got a phone call last week, somebody giving me this address. It was Andres who called, wasn’t it? Why would he do that?”
“To threaten me. And mess with you at the same time,” he said. “You got a beef with him? Personal?”
She was about to deny it, but Prez looked deep into her eyes and gave her a knowing smile.
“There you go, then,” he said. “Seems to me, most likely he called you in particular ’cause he thought it was funny.”
“You think he was just, what, yanking my chain?”
“Precisely. That’s the type of man we talkin’ about. Kind likes to play power games. You think a man of his resources couldn’t come up with a million of his own dollars, just like that?” Prez snapped his fingers. “Sure he could. But to him, it’s a game this way, make me jump. Lead you around in circles at the same time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Andres puts me in a position where I got no choice except to print up a million for him in hinky cash. Then he intends to set it up, catch your boy with it. Ash goes down, I go down, and you, well, you get your heart broke putting him away.” Prez frowned. “Man like Andres, it’s all about the power. What he can do to people. Ain’t pretty, is it?”
Cleo thought that over. Andres was orchestrating all of this. He knew that she was after him, and he wanted to turn her own anger back on herself. The thought made her shiver.
Prez shrugged. “Course, Ash ain’t as dumb as he looks, neither. His dog sniffed out the hinky cash, and he calls me up, says somethin’ is wrong with the money.”
“That must have been . . . awkward.”
“I told him, bring me the money back, I’ll buy it off of you. Guess he forgot about that part.”
She played with the paper in her hands. “So now what?”
Prez shook his head, just once, more of a dismissal than anything else. “Them presses back there been scrubbed clean, so there’s nothin’ to connect me to that briefcase. I’m out of the game. If you’re half as smart as you look, girl, you’ll bail, too. This whole deal’s gone sour, and ain’t nobody coming out of it in one piece. Not even you.”
Prez gave her a sharp look. “Ash told me about the curse.”
The way he said it, dead serious, put her on edge. “What curse?”
“Curse of the spider. Boy told me he was doing this to save your life.”
She struggled to find some hidden meaning in him taking this curse seriously. “Save my life. From what?”
“Never did say, exactly. But I got to make one thing clear to you, girl. Ash is a hustler. Spends more time figuring out his angle than he does doing the work. So for him to take on Andres for you, and give up a million on top of that?” Prez shook his head. “This man is the real deal. He’d give his life for you. Best keep that in mind before you cuff him.”
His words stung Cleo in a way she didn’t expect. How could he know this much about her? What exactly had Ash told him?
“What in God’s name is Ash up to?”
Prez settled back in his chair, all pretense gone, looking solemn. “If you can figure that out, sugar, then just maybe you got a chance to save him.”
Find out what happens next in The Spider Thief: Omnibus…