“…Bass is an author of thrillers with a God-given talent to shock readers when they least expect it.” — Frank Frission Review of Article 15
“An entertaining character study and effective thriller…the story twists and turns with ease.” —Kirkus Reviews
“An awesome story, extremely well written with fantastic language. There is absolutely no dead meat, as the pace is very high, and the characters are truly great.” —NetGalley, 5 of 5 Stars Review
“She was one in a million…and the day I met her I should have bought a lottery ticket instead.”
Griffith Crowe, the “fixer” for a Chicago law firm, falls for his current assignment, Helena Nicholson, the beautiful heir of a Tech Sector venture capitalist who perished in a helicopter crash leaving her half a billion dollars, a Learjet 31, and unsavory suspicions about her father’s death. As he investigates, the ex-Navy SEAL crosses swords with Helena’s step-brother, the Pentagon’s Highlands Forum, and an All-Star bad guy somebody has hired to stop him. When Griff finds himself on the wrong side of an arrest warrant he wonders: Is he a player or being played?
Lawyers and Lovers and Guns…Oh, my!
by M.T. Bass
Chapter 1 — The War Room
The conference room was small—smaller, at least by “Big Firm” standards, than the huge public conference room up front used to intimidate clients, adversaries, witnesses and opposing counsel by swallowing them up whole like Jonahs lost in the belly of a legal whale. Tucked away in a back corner among the partner offices, it was extremely well appointed, though darkly so, in oak furniture and paneling. The quiet confines served as a war room of sorts, a place where grand strategies and hair-brained schemes were incubated, hatched and sometimes celebrated, sometimes autopsied. He knew, because Griffith Crowe was sometimes part of them.
There were no windows, which was fine with him. He didn’t need to be seen and, besides, he was just there to get paid and be quickly on his way. Even in the dim, indirect lighting, he found a shadow where he sat and sipped coffee from a massive, dark mug with Stein, Baylor & Stein gilded on the side, patiently waiting for Lance Baylor to come back with his check.
Lance was a master of entering and exiting rooms. So when he burst into the room like a starlight artillery shell, wearing his white phosphorous rain-maker smile, followed by two junior associates and a young, very attractive Asian waitress pushing a cart with no doubt a sumptuous lunch, he knew his escape would be neither clean nor quick.
“Miss me?” teased Lance baring his canines. “I couldn’t send you back to…to…where was it you were you off to, Griff?”
“Right, send you home hungry after a job well done. Pull up a chair and we’ll feast before you depart.”
Lance naturally took the head of the table with Griff to his right. The two junior associates, veritable bookends with their young, already balding pates, red ties, pin-striped suits, expanding waistlines and leather portfolios, sat on the opposite side of the table.
They all politely smiled at one another as the waitress set their places and served what turned out to be Beef Wellington. After pouring drinks—Cabernet for Lance, ice teas for the empty bookends and black coffee for Griff—she quietly left them and closed the door.
Like an orchestra conductor, with cutlery for a baton, Lance silently cued the quartet to begin eating.
Lance smiled broadly and looked to his right. “Good. No?”
“Excellent. My compliments to Cookie.”
“You know, our friend here was busy freeing Iraq before there actually was an Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Lance said, turning to the two associate attorneys, who frowned at the apparent contradiction. As if to explain, he continued, “Special Forces, of course. What was it you did there in the desert?”
Griff watched Lance watch himself surgically cut his Wellington.
“Nothing really so special,” Griff said, turning his attention to his own lunch plate. “I suspect much the same sort of things as you may have done here to get your name on the marquee. You know, all’s fair in love and war.”
Lance pointed his knife at Griff’s heart and laughed in a friendly, but dignified manner.
The two empty bookends quietly absorbed the banter, knowing that Lance, though extremely talented as both a lawyer and a rainmaker, who would have risen to the top with any firm there in Chicago or any other big city, had married into the Stein family business.
“Yes, fathers love their daughters,” mused Lance, then with a sideways glance, “And sheiks love their sons.”
“Touché,” said Griff.
“How did you two meet?” asked the empty bookend seated furthest from Lance.
At the same time, Lance said “college” while Griff said “frat house.”
The two pointed their knives at each other and chuckled.
“You know, I think I may have been somewhat thoughtless in not introducing you properly.” But Lance never did anything without thinking things through before hand. “Griffith Crowe, this here is Roger Wilkinson and Wes Eply. They are two of our rising young stars in corporate. You know, contracts, mergers, acquisitions and the like.”
“Yeah, I know, corporate stuff,” Griff said to Lance. Then to Wilkinson and Eply, “I think we may have met at the Christmas Party.”
Both empty bookends agreed amiably as they stopped eating to shake hands across the conference table, while Lanced watched, knowing full well that, though personally invited, Griff never came to any of the firm’s social functions.
“You’re like, really, the last of the last Mohicans, right?” Lance asked.
“Arapaho, actually. On my mother’s side.”
“Which is why you are such a sneaky shit, able to bushwack people in the forest so easily.”
“Not that many trees out on the Great Plains—or the Iraqi desert. Definitely not enough for any forests. My tribe roamed around Colorado hunting buffalo in the good old days.”
Lance smiled. “You know what I mean. You are a bad ass.”
“We kicked Comanche butt the hell out of our territory…not to mention Custer’s ass, too, if that’s what you mean.”
“Yeah. Sure. What ever you say Chief.”
“I’m not management.”
“Sure thing. What ever you say, el Jefe.”
Griff abandoned himself to circumstances and easily joined the luncheon conversation about the Bears, the Cubs, the Bulls, and golf, demonstrating a good knowledge of sports, though, in truth, he was quite apathetic to subject.
Chapter 2 — Chicago Executive Airport
“Damn that Daley, closing down Meigs. I loved that place,” Lance griped as his Cadillac Escalade lurched along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, northbound on the Kennedy Expressway. “Made it so easy to jump out of the city. Takes me longer to drive to the damn airport than it does for the Citation to actually get me where I need to go.”
“Yeah, that guy had some set of balls on him, flipping off God and the FAA and all.” Griff gazed out the side window, silently agreeing with Lance and thinking how he’d already be in the air westward bound with Chicago at his six o’clock if the mayor hadn’t plowed up the runways at the lakefront airport. He could not get out of the city fast enough.
“Ran in the family. Gotta admire those guys—especially the old man.”
“You know, you could have had one of your minions take me to the airport.”
“Now, Griff, and miss out on our quality time together?”
“Eh…” Griff shrugged a shoulder. “So, you getting any stick time?”
“Not in the Citiation—NetJets frowns upon it. But we still have the King Air. Reminds me of the good old days, ferrying Generals around.” Lance sighed, recalling his Army Aviation days. “Winning the war on terror one cocktail party at a time. So, what are you driving these days? Still got the Aeronca?”
“For fun. The Cirrus gets me where I need to go, fast.”
“Nice. You must be doing well, huh. Sounds like you’ve got more than just Stein & Baylor paying your way.”
“Now, Lance, you of all people should respect attorney-client privilege.”
“Come on, don’t yank me. You don’t practice any more.”
“Never did. I still have my soul.”
Lance chuckled. “Yeah. Right. Keep telling yourself that and maybe one day it will be true.”
“So…why didn’t you have Wilkinson or Eply drive me to the airport?” Griff asked.
“A sensitive matter for your ears only.” Lance merged northbound onto to the Eden’s Expressway. “We have this client with a…special request.”
Griff shook his head. “It always starts this way, doesn’t it.”
Lance flashed his pearly whites. “Come on, buddy. I’m making rain for you, too. You could be crossing the great plains at ninety knots in that old rag wing. Take a long, long time to get home, instead of, what, a couple of hours in the Cirrus?”
“Am I going to regret this—again?”
“Not so much. He’s playing hide-and-seek with his ex. Really, really wants back a piece of art that he was supposed to get in the settlement, but…”
“Let me guess: sentimental value.”
“You could say that. But, honestly, who are we to judge which of the one point eight million reasons it really is for him to want his precious Pollack hanging over the mantle in his Idaho vacation home, again.”
Lance nodded his head.
“Send me the gory details.”
“Thanks, Griff. I owe you.”
Lance pulled up to the security gate by Atlantic Aviation at the approach end of runway one-six. He rolled down his window and punched the security code into the key pad. When the chain link gate opened, he pulled onto the tarmac and parked next to Griff’s Cirrus S-22. “I had them pull it out of the hangar. All gassed up and ready to go. Thank you very much.”
They got out of the Escalade. Griff loaded his duffel bag into the plane and started his pre-flight inspection.
Lance checked Flightaware on his iPhone, then scanned the approach to runway one-six. Soon landing lights glared down the glide path. A Learjet 31 quickly crossed the threshold and touched down with tiny puffs of blue-gray smoke off the mains. Lance watched it roll out, then taxi their way. He smiled.
Griff came around the left wing and stood next to Lance. They watched the Learjet turn onto the apron in front of the Atlantic Aviation hangars and get marshaled to a stop by a baton waving line boy. Another stood by with a rolled up red carpet, which he placed by the cabin door as soon as the engines spooled down.
“I love the smell of kerosene on the tarmac,” Lance said.
Griff looked at Lance staring at the Learjet.
“Wait for it…”
The cabin door opened like a clamshell. The co-pilot scurried down the stairs and stood ready to assist the deplaning passenger.
A slender blonde in Ray Ban Jackie-Ohh sunglasses, a skin-tight red dress frosted at the shoulders with a sheer white shawl, and stiletto heels, took the co-pilot’s hand and stepped down onto the tarmac into the hungry stares of the line boys. Griff pulled off his sunglasses to watch her sashay across the apron, chased by the co-pilot, who held the door to Atlantic Aviation open, then followed her in.
“Don’t tell me. The stubborn possessor of a priceless Jackson Pollack,” Griff said, looking at Lance.
“Now, who owes who?”
Griff put on his sun glasses again, then headed towards the fixed base operator’s lobby. “Guess I better go pay my fuel tab.”
“But I took care of that,” Lance called after him. Then said to himself, “Oh, you dog, you.”
Chapter 3 — Helena
Griff entered the Atlantic Aviation offices on high alert as if it were a Ramadi residence in the middle of the night, scanning and clearing the lobby corners quickly. No Jackie Ohhs.
The Learjet 31 co-pilot leaned casually on the counter, talking up the young receptionist, Tiffani, as if he might be overnighting in Chicago. Her eyes were drawn to Griff like iron filings to a neodymium magnet. The co-pilot noticed. His banter trailed off and he looked over his shoulder. As if suddenly confronted by the alpha male of the pack, he stood up straight, reflexively took a step back, and lowered his eyes to his shoe tops.
Griff returned Tiffani’s smile. He knew her more or less intimately from his own previous layovers. But his current mission involved another target and he deemed it tactically unsound to confront a woman emerging from the Ladies Room, so he turned down the hall on his right to lay his ambush in the pilot’s lounge.
“That didn’t take long. I didn’t think it would.”
The low, almost husky yet honey smooth female voice poured seductively over Griff and blanked his mind as he turned into the pilot’s lounge. Though dimly lit, as they all were to facilitate napping, her red dress glowed like a hearth, yet she still wore her sunglasses as she studied her iPhone’s screen, slouching and sitting askew in one of the EZ-Boy recliners with her legs crossed. Griff’s eye was drawn to the slow but rhythmic bounce of her stiletto heel. Predator had become prey.
She took off her Jackie Ohhs, looked Griff up and down, then took a deep breath. “Mmmm…tall, dark and dangerous…just the way I like them.”
Griff locked onto her blue-gray eyes and surrendered. He leaned against the door jam. His inside voice taunted, No plan survives contact with the enemy.
“I couldn’t help but notice Lance’s Escalade on the ramp. He is a conniving bastard, isn’t he? Of course, he is a lawyer, but he does excel at it. Not to mention the unseemly delight he takes in it.”
“Always has,” Griff said. “As long as I’ve known him.”
“Then, you really shouldn’t be surprised.”
Griff smiled, realizing it wasn’t Mayor Daley’s fault that he was still on the ground in Chicago. “Name’s Griff.”
“Yes. I know.”
He waited, his face an implacable facade, one molded and hammered into place on the Coronado Beach while enduring BUD/S training. “You got a name? Or will you answer to minx or vixen?”
“Hmmm…you like the ‘X’ words. I prefer Helena.”
“So…how long will we be playing Three Card Monte with modern art…Helena?
“Oh, that. The Pollack is already crated up at a friend’s gallery in LA waiting to be shipped off.”
“Now, Griff. Have we come to an understanding yet?”
As a Navy SEAL, he had been well-trained never to sigh out loud. “I’ve found understandings to be vastly overrated and all too often unreliable.”
“Hmmm. So, it often is.” She sat up straight, arching her back. She ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “Lance speaks highly of your…work.”
“I’ve solved a problem or two for him—or should I say his clients. What is it you need?”
“Trust me, there is precious little that I need.” Helena smiled coyly.
“Well, then, what is it that Helena wants?”
“You’re kind of a no-nonsense guy. Don’t you believe in foreplay?”
Griff laughed. “Why, yes. Yes, I do. But you and I are a bit too vertical right at the moment. So, it’s more like teasing.”
“Huh. Men. Why must you all be so literal?”
“Because literal is where we live and work and play.”
“Well, Mr. Griffith Crowe, this has been a fascinating conversation, but I must be going. I have an engagement to get to and my limo is surely out front by now.” Helena stood up and walked up to Griff. She put her index finger on his chin.
“So, did I pass the audition?”
She pushed his head to the left, then back to the right. “Eh, you’ll do.”
Griff broke protocol and sighed heavily.
“I’ll be in touch,” Helena said as she slipped by brushing his arm with her body.
Griff watched her leave, contemplating the possibility of foreplay—predator, again.
Chapter 5 — Wyoming
“Rat bastard,” Griff said to himself when he stepped back out on the tarmac and saw Lance’s Escalade was no longer parked by his plane.
He climbed up into the Cirrus, started the engine and called for his clearance to Minneapolis. There was only a short delay after the run-up for his release from ATC until he was rolling down runway one-six. Tower handed him off to Departure Control who handed him off to Chicago Center. Thirty minutes later, Griff canceled his IFR flight plan.
“Squawk twelve hundred. Frequency change approved. Good day,” said the voice from Chicago Center over the radio.
With the blessing of Air Traffic Control, Griff turned west towards Laramie, Wyoming. He settled at twenty-five hundred feet and let the North American continent rise up slowly, until the Cirrus was clipping along at 175 knots, three hundred feet over western Nebraska prairies.
Griff could not shake the image of Helena’s passively aggressive visage—practiced, no doubt, but still stunningly effective over laid on her Cosmo magazine cover beauty—as well as the firmly feminine curves of a body barely contained or concealed by the second skin of that red dress. Or…the brief, deliberate brush of her breasts against his arms and teasing hint of Ralph Lauren Perfume Notorious as she breezed by on her way to the limo.
God damn it.
Just over the Wyoming border, a herd of prong horn antelope to the south caught Griff’s eye. He banked hard left and dove on the herd, sending them loping off in an amorphous brown flock. Chandelling back to the north, he circled to watch them pinball across the plains, then turned back to the west.…and involuntarily back to thoughts of Helena.
A half-hour later, Griff called Cowboy Aviation at Laramie Regional Airport on unicom to have his Aeronca Chief pulled out of the hangar. After landing, he parked next to it, tossed in his duffel bag and instructed the line boy to top off the fuel tanks in the Cirrus before putting it in the hangar. Ten minutes later, he was on his way to the ranch, north of I80 and not quite halfway to Rawlins.
The day was fading, but he made it home while it was still light, touching down on his grass strip just before sunset with enough time to hangar the Chief and get out on his back deck to watch the daylight die behind the Medicine Bow Mountains with a single malt scotch in his hand. He replayed his skirmish with Helena in the pilot lounge at Chicago Exec yet again.
The family ranch and adjacent Bureau of Land Management leases near Rock Creek once grazed several thousand head of cattle. When he inherited the land, Griff sold down the herd to five hundred or so, but kept the leases as well as the small crew of Cheyenne and Arapaho ranch hands, basically three families who had worked with the Crowes seemingly since the end of the Great Indian Wars, preferring to cowboy rather than sit idly on the reservation. During down time, between “missions” for Lance and his ilk, Griff rode and worked with his crew as much as he could, whenever tending to the business demands of running a ranching operation would allow.
It was three days later, when Griff got a call from “Bones,” the Laramie Airport Manager. “Hey, Griff, you got a package delivered here.”
“I didn’t order anything. Sure it’s for me?”
“That’s what the waybill says.”
“Can you have FedEx bring it up to the ranch for me? Might be a week before I’m back that way.”
Griff waited. When he got no answer, he asked, “Problem?”
“It’s kind of big. Too big for UPS or regular FedEx. A freight company delivered it.”
“What the hell?”
“I’d kind of like to get it out of the offices, here. It takes up a lot of room.”
“Can you put it in the hangar? I’ll be down tomorrow in the Chief.”
The next day, Griff taxied up to his hangar in the tiny tail dragger. Inside, a wooden crate six feet wide by four feet tall by two feet deep stood in the spot where the Chief usually parked. The paperwork said it was shipped from the Pacifica Art Gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It was now the most expensive item in the hangar.
Just then, Griff’s cell phone rang. “Yeah.”
“Who is this Bones guy? And why is he signing for my painting?”
“Hello, Helena. How are you?”
“How did you get my cell phone number—don’t tell me. Lance. But my hangar address?”
“Silly man, I just had my fly boys look up the N-number of your cute little plane in the FAA database.”
“So…does this mean we have an understanding?”
“No. But maybe we should discuss it some more. I’ll text you details.”
Griff’s phone went dead.
A moment later, it dinged with a text message: “KSKX. For dinner this Saturday.”He wanted to ask, Why Taos, New Mexico? But he decided not to tempt fate. He texted back, “Your treat?”
A smirking yellow emoji face appeared on his phone with a ding.
Griff called Lance’s direct dial line at the firm.
“Well, hello there, stranger,” Hannah, Lance’s Administrative Assistant, answered cheerfully with just a hint of southern drawl. “I missed you last week. Why didn’t you come calling?”
He often wondered why Lance tempted himself with the gorgeous brunette parked so close at hand, but his friend claimed she was great at her job and melted the hearts and wallets of clients with her Alabama charm. Griff counted himself lucky that he wasn’t married to the boss’s daughter. “Just a quick visit. Passing through. Next time?”
“You better…” Hannah let out a huff of faux indignation. “Lance has a client in his office right now, can he get back to you?”
“Just a message. Could you please tell him that I found that old drop cloth he was looking for?”
“Now, Griff, not a fan of Mr. Pollack’s work?”
“It would clash with my decor.”
“Well, I will certainly let him know.”
“And I’ll need a shipping address for Sun Valley.”
“Of course. I will get that for you.”
“And, Griff, if you let me know the next time y’all will be in town, I’ll bake you a pecan pie.”
“I’d like that.”
“I know you will. You surely seemed to last time.”
Chapter 6 — Angel Fire
By Saturday, the Jackson Pollack painting had been picked up from Griff’s hangar and delivered to an address in Sun Valley, Idaho; an invoice had been sent to Stein, Baylor & Stein for services rendered; and the Cirrus was crossing North La Veta pass into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado with sixty nautical miles left to go to Taos, New Mexico.
Twenty minutes later, with the wind calm, Griff entered downwind for Runway 22 and landed. He noticed a familiar Learjet 31 parked on the ramp. A set of car keys awaited him at the front desk of Taos Aviation with an address near the Angel Fire ski resort on the other side of the Carson National Forest. He smiled reflexively when the key fob lit up the parking lights on a black Mustang convertible outside. Griff tossed his go-bag into the back seat, fired up the engine, put down the top, and loaded the Angel Fire address into Apple Maps. He pressed “Go” and did.
Exceeding the posted speed limits all along U.S. 64, he made the trip in far less than the predicted one hour and sixteen minutes with Brad Paisley competing against the ridiculous 5.0 L Coyote 435 hp V8 to fill the valley with the most noise the whole way. Once to Angel Fire, Siri’s directions led him up into the mountains to a mansion masquerading as a cabin in the woods. A Post-It note on the door instructed Griff to “come in.” As he dropped his go-bag in the front entryway, the aroma of sautéed onions and garlic triggered a growl in his stomach…
To Be Continued…
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