Ivory Express Laurie Carter
Little White Publishing
Prologue A rhythmic squeak signalled the hurried fall of rubber-soled shoes on the glistening marble floor. "Such a fuss," groused the shapely young woman in the starched white maid’s uniform. She dropped a bulky wad of keys on the mirror-bright table by the door sending a jangling echo around the vaulted foyer. "Don’t care he messes my routine," she muttered, retreating to the staircase that curved up the opposite wall. “No wonder he forgets. A man his age with a different bimbo every night." Unconsciously she touched the delicate golden crucifix at her throat. Widower or not, Mr. Lang must be over sixty. It was a miracle he only forgot his keys. Rita paused, her foot suspended above the first step, and peered over the art deco handrail. Barely discernible, a door blended almost perfectly into the panelling below. Habitually locked, she had never seen anyone but Mr. Lang open it and then only once, on a rare evening when he was home alone and thought everyone else was asleep. Slowly she lowered her foot, eyes drawn back to the keys like twin magnets. Farley had been sent to retrieve them, but even he couldn't squeeze the Lexus through morning traffic in less than half-an-hour—and cook was already at the market. On a rare impulse Rita snatched up the keys and hustled toward the concealed door. With no idea which of the dozen or more would turn the lock, she opted for trial and error. Half way through the bunch, an ordinary silver Yale set the tumblers in motion. For a moment she forgot to breathe as the door swung silently inward. Beyond, the space was completely dark except for the irregular splashes of light spilling past her from the foyer. Instinctively her right hand groped the wall and found a switch. A mellow glow instantly tinted the interior, punctuated by light shafts beaming from strategically cited spots. The room was like none other in the artfully modern house. Far smaller than any of the main reception areas, Rita realised it must have been created by shaving space from the butler's pantry and kitchen. A plain rosewood desk and inviting leather chair were the sole furnishings. Placed so the chair's occupant could lean back and admire the delicate oriental scene that dominated the far wall, or swivel right and gaze at one of the gilt-framed oils hanging there. Rita stepped gingerly across the threshold, staring for a long moment at the beatific smiles of a faded Madonna and Child. Though scarred by a spider's web of tiny cracks, their serenity reached out to her. Tip-toeing across the deeply carpeted floor, she stopped before a pottery vase. Displayed on the glass shelf of a rosewood case, the vessel was perfectly plain apart from the parade of stylised soldiers marching around its portly girth. Surprised by the chord of familiarity they struck, Rita dredged her memory. The corner of her mouth twitched upward as the image surfaced. Cleopatra. Columns of rigid guards rendered nearly invisible by the glory
of Liz Taylor in passage. And there was more movie memorabilia. Instantly recognisable from one of her all-time favourites, Nicholas and Alexandra, was a jewel-encrusted cross, notable for its peculiar extra bar. A rearing bronze stallion attracted her attention though it conjured no particular movie reference, Rita didn't much like westerns. But the statue was nice, its burnished flank smooth and cool to her tentative touch. Emboldened, she reached for the delicate white carving beside it. "What you got there, little Rita?" The taunt exploded in the silent room, assaulting Rita's undefended back. She whirled as if jabbed by a cattle prod. "Diyos ko,â€? she breathed, her native Tagalog surfacing unnoticed in the moment of crisis. The intruder smirked, advancing into the room. Cornering her. "Mister Justin," she stammered in a quavering whisper. Stretching a clammy hand forward, she laid the carving on the desk with all the care of a new mother tending her firstborn. "I do no harm. Just look." Cringing back, she sought a glimmer of compassion in the drink and drug-swollen eyes of her employer's son. There was none, only a blank, wide-pupiled stare. With nauseating deliberation, he traced the thin line of his pinched lips with the moistened tip of his tongue. "Oh so wrong, little Rita," he leered. "Baby, you're up to your pretty little ass in alligators. You are so done." "No," she cried, tears springing to the corners of her wide dark eyes. "I am a good worker. I never make trouble. Please don't tell Mr. Lang," she begged, furiously twisting the silver band her mother had slipped on her finger at the airport in Manila. "Don't make me lose my job." "Take it easy, little Rita," Justin soothed, backing her further into the corner. "I'm sure we can reach some kind of arrangement." He dropped his hand onto her shoulder, relishing the sharp intake of breath that shot her heavy breasts hard against the restraining uniform. Slowly he let it fall, a stubby finger tracing the dusky outline of skin against the starched white V, fall until his palm was full to overflowing. His contented moan, at the same time infantile and animalistic, abruptly choked into a petulant grunt as Rita squirmed to escape. With a burst of strength, remarkable for a man his size, Justin trapped her arms and spun her around, pinning her to the desk like a mounted butterfly. "No," she shrieked. But a powerful knee-thrust splayed her legs and he ground against his target with another hideous moan. Wet lips muffled her screams. Bile filled her throat. She gagged and wretched as his tongue, foul with stale smoke and vodka, invaded her mouth.
Savaging the front of her uniform, he burrowed his face between her heaving breasts, his steamy breath rasping her skin in ragged bursts. With a frantic jerk she broke one hand free, pummelling his back with a tiny fist. It was like flogging a bull with a rose. At will he tore her panties aside. Cursing as he wrestled one-handed with his fly. Exhausted, Rita sensed defeat. Let it materialise as resignation. Her arm fell limp across the desk. "Sancta Maria," she cried. Miraculously the white statue stood within reach. Frantically she grasped the unlikely weapon and lashed out with the fury of desperation. The force of the blow jarred her arm clear to the shoulder, but it made him lie still, crushing her with his disgusting weight. And after a moment, she even remembered to breathe. Then, like a villainous resurrection in the dying moments of a late-night horror, Justin Lang slowly raised his head. Paralysed, Rita lay trapped in bug-eyed terror. "What the fuck," he stammered. As his eyes refocused, comprehension slowly hardened their gaze. "What the fuck did you do? ... Bitch," he suddenly raged, wrenching the statue from her hand. It smashed into her face with bone-shattering force. "Bitch," he screamed again, blood and brain spewing across the desk. "Bitch ... "Bitch ... "Bitch..." "Justin," cried a chalk-faced Farley from the door. "Oh, my God Justin. What have you done!"
Chapter One Reporters expect to generate adrenaline. It's an occupational hazard. But I was on hyperdrive. I blew through the office at warp-factor five, ignoring the trail of curious heads bobbing up from computer screens in my wake. I burst through the door marked, editor, into Ben Palasco's fishbowl office and dropped panting into one of his worn leather chairs. "Tomorrow," I managed, gasping for air. "Sarah Trents on the move again." Blithely ignoring my bombshell, Ben looked me square in the eye, "Taylor,” he said; with that maddeningly deliberate way of his. “You're always in such a panic. Take a minute and calm yourself, then you can tell me about Sarah." The man could make me crazy, but given no choice, I took a couple of deep breaths and had to admit that I was relieved the paramedics wouldn't be needed to administer oxygen. Soon I was able to continue almost normally. "She's going tomorrow." "Where?" he demanded, his Churchillian jowls drawn into a mask of concentration. "Taiwan," I said, shrugging out of my heavy trench coat. "There's no doubt, Ben. The ivory statues are definitely being smuggled out of Taiwan." "I agree it looks that way." He folded his arms, heavy grey brows drawn into a frown. "Still, it strikes me as odd that she’s the courier? It can't be more than a month since her last run." He had a point. Sarah usually only made the trip once a quarter, accompanying her husband on buying expeditions for his import company. "It is a break in the pattern," I admitted. "But there you have it. And I don’t really give a damn who’s making the pickup, I’ve totally had it with waiting. This background stuff is fine," I said, pulling a face to express just how fine I thought it was. "But I want to get at the story." "What a surprise." Ben shook his head slowly, setting those jowls in motion. "I guess we better get down to details then." He tore the top sheet off the yellow pad he'd been working on and sat poised with pen in hand. "What time's the flight?" I fished in my coat pocket for a worn blue notebook and flipped to the last page. "Tenthirty tomorrow morning, Cathay Pacific flight 618, via Hong Kong." "Into Chiang Kaishek?"
"Yup." "We'll get you booked," he said, reaching for the desk phone. "No need. I set it up when I checked to see what flight options the Trents would have." "This the only one?" "It is." "That was lucky." "No kidding." "Arrival time?" "Five thirty," I replied automatically, then wondered why it mattered. I asked. "So someone can meet your plane." Wait a minute. "I don't need anyone to meet my plane," I snapped, having a pretty good idea what was coming. Ben ignored my objection and pressed on. "Passport, visa?" "Of course." I let my tone remind him I didn't need a baby sitter. "I arranged for the visa weeks ago, as soon as it started looking like Taiwan." Ben nodded. "Okay," he said less brusquely. "We'll get you a cash advance. You can exchange it at the airport in the morning." He consulted his list. "How do you want to handle hotel reservations?" "I know it's risky, but I want to stay wherever the Trents are, so I'll wait to see where they go." I could see he wasn't thrilled with the arrangement, but he must have seen the logic because he let it pass. "Then all you need is the cash." I nodded. While Ben got on the phone to accounting, I grabbed the opportunity to shift into low gear for a short, much needed rest. I swivelled around to treat myself to a few moments of communion with Ben's mind-bending view. The Vancouver Globe occupies a space-age building nestled into the hillside descending to Coal Harbour. The entire north face is a wall of glass relieved only by irregular ivyshrouded terraces that give it the look of a living part of the landscape. It was a typical
January grey-day. The broad expanse of Burrard Inlet reflected the steely overcast and gunmetal mist obscuring the mountains behind North Vancouver. Even the massive fir trees in Stanley Park stood grey-blue in the haze. Still, it was a sight few cities could match and I was glad it was my adopted home. Mesmerized by the scene, I didn't notice when Ben hung up the phone and leaned back in his huge swivel chair, eyeing me speculatively. It was a surprise when he spoke. "I have to hand it to you Ms. Kerrick. When you got this crazy notion to flush out a smuggling ring, I thought you were headed on a wild goose chase." "I could have been," I admitted. "I've been awfully lucky." "More like methodical and persistent," he countered. "Staking out that art dealer's place every night for a month, I think you made your own luck." I thanked him for the kudos, though I knew a one-woman surveillance wouldn't have gone far if I hadn't been tracking somebody like Howard Leighton. The guy was practically a recluse. Once I knew the drops weren't happening at his gallery, it was a simple matter of keeping an eye on his house. "Remember Ben, in that whole time Leighton never once went out at night and only three people came to see him." I shrugged. "It didn't take V.I. Warshawski to follow them and figure out who they were. After that I just had to keep tabs to see which courier would make the next run." "And itâ€™s turned out to be Sarah Trent." "Yeah. Unexpected maybe. But there you go.â€? "You've done a hell of a job, Taylor. Again," he added. Ben's approval felt good. But I realized he was looking at me with a worried expression. "What's up?" I prompted. He hesitated for a beat, then took a deep breath and waded in. "No matter how capable you may be, Taylor, this assignment is potentially dangerous and now the playing field is shifting to unknown territory. I can't let you go off to a place like Taiwan without backup." This was just what I'd been afraid of. "What are you talking about, Ben?" I exploded. "I work alone." "Not this time," he countered with deadly calm. I took my own deep breath, striving for the right tone. I wanted to come across as firm, not shrill or strident. "Ben, how can I do my job if I'm tripping over some tour guide?"
"Frankly, Taylor, I don't see how you can do your job without one. Stop and think a minute," he said, making the big chair groan as he leaned forward and planted his elbows on the desk. "When was the last time you were in Taiwan?" "I've never been to Taiwan." "Exactly." "Exactly what? I'd never been in the bush before either. That didn't stop me from doing a bang up story on the logging industry. Remember?" I demanded, pointing at the framed feature story prominently displayed on Ben's bragging wall. I knew full well he considered it one of the most balanced pieces of reporting the paper had ever printed. "This isn't the same and you know it," he shot back. "How's your Mandarin?" "My what?" "Your Mandarin. You know, the dialect they speak in Taiwan. What did you expect to do, stop by Berlitz on your way home tonight and take a crash course?" "Very funny," I shot back. "But you can spare me the sarcasm. I thought most people over there speak at least a little English. I mean, Hong Kong was a British colony and this is the age of the Internet." "That's true, but Taiwan never was a colony. The only concentrated exposure they ever had to the English language was during the Viet Nam war when the island was used as an R&R centre for American GI's. Nothing since. So, sure, people may be learning English, but what are you going to do when you have to read a street sign?" Damn. It burned me to have to admit that Ben had a point. I bit the bullet. "What did you have in mind?" He let me down easy. "With you making such fast progress I had to consider this possibility, so I contacted an old associate in Taipei, the capital. I met Nancy Lee years ago at a conference in San Francisco. She was a student at Berkeley. Now she's editor of The China Post. Nancy was a great help. In fact, our timing is perfect." I couldn't wait to hear how perfect. "Apparently the government is trying to raise public awareness to support new environmental protection legislation. Theyâ€™ve contracted a photojournalist to do a piece on the country's pollution problems and since he's an American, Nancy's acting as liaison. She talked to him and he's willing to be your guide and interpreter."
My heart sank. Ben's "backup" just had to be some hyper-jock journalist. I knew what would happen. In no time he'd be trying to elbow into my story. I didn't like it, not one bit. But I could see from the look on Ben's face that the point was not negotiable. I decided to concede for the moment. I figured I could always ditch the guy once I was safely over there. "What's his name?" "Matthew Anderson," said Ben with evident relief. "Sounds familiar, should I know him?" "By reputation at least." He swivelled around to the credenza behind his desk and retrieved two magazines. "Here are a couple of samples," he said as he pushed them across the desk to me. Yellow stickies protruded from each, presumably marking the contributions of my soon-to-be-ignored minder. "Pretty sure of yourself," I commented. "No choice," he replied. "I wasn't going to let you go without backup. Editors have some rights, you know." He glanced at his watch then thumbed an app on his cell. "2 p.m. Vancouver time," he ran his sausage of a finger down the screen. "Six o'clock tomorrow morning in Taiwan. Too early to call, I'll email Nancy the details. Meanwhile, I need to organize a couple of things." Ben heaved his bulk from the chair and headed out to talk with his assistant. Seizing the opportunity to learn something about my unwanted partner, I picked up the first magazine. It was dated February 2010 and the marked photo essay was titled simply, Kandahar. The layout was striking. Full colour images bordered with a thin red line set on a black field. On the first spread two school-age girls clung to each other, their faces obscured by encircling white headscarves that hid all but eyes filled with naked grief. Turning the pages I encountered soldiers in the heat of battle, tattered civilians fleeing the site of a market day car bombing, on and on to one final layout, an image that had become all too familiar in the last few years. Eight soldiers in dress uniform, faces set in grim determination to quell emotion, marching shoulder to shoulder beneath the burden of a maple leaf flag-draped casket. Saluting officers at rigid attention, a clutch of black-clad civilians. It took a minute to pull myself together. When I picked up the other magazine, the contrast was startlingâ€”a three-month-old copy of Audubon, the naturalist magazine. There again was the artistic eye, the use of perspective for emphasis and although the subject matter could not have been more different, there was an unmistakable similarity of theme. These pictures told the story of embattled old growth forests in Eastern North Americaâ€”from thousand-year-old white cypress trees in South Carolina to an otherwise ordinary looking cedar, defying gravity
and growing at nearly right angles from the sheer rock face of the Niagara Escarpment in Southern Ontario. After my piece on the logging industry, I was caught completely by surprise. I knew a lot about the plight of west coast forests, yet here were Matthew Anderson's serene images arguing eloquently for their eastern cousins, an issue I knew nothing about. What a talent. I envied his ability to portray and evoke raw emotion with his lens. I began to wonder what he would be like, this genius who could capture the spirit of frightened children and threatened trees with equal intensity. Obviously focused, definitely sensitive, technically skilledâ€”the image of a geek in a safari vest, hung all over with camera gear began to take shape in my mind. This guy wouldn't be such a problem after all. "Quite something, aren't they?" Ben asked as he came back into the office. I nodded. "What's he like?" "Bit eccentric I'm told, don't really know. Iâ€™ve never met the man. But if Nancy vouches for him, I'm sure you'll be safe enough." A twinkle fired the corner of his eye. "Now if there's nothing else you need from me, I suggest you trot on home and pack. I'll send over your cash advance and call when I've made contact with Taiwan." On the way home, I ran a few errands including a detour to my favourite bookshop on the off chance they'd have something about Taiwan. I was both surprised and relieved to find a comprehensive guidebook. I wasn't about to give Matthew Anderson any more of an advantage than necessary. By the time I reached my condo in The Lord Nelson, a sort of Baroque-RenaissanceRevival west-end low-rise at the corner of Nicola and Beach, the adrenalin was pumping again. Only a third of the way through my mental list of things to do before morning, preoccupation nearly got me through the lobby without noticing the mailbox. Nearly. It caught my attention just as I turned from the glass door to the stairway. I hesitated as the familiar fist grabbed my gut. Then forced the thought away. "I'll check it later," I said aloud to steady myself. Upstairs, I opened the door to my one-bedroom refuge, a truly pleasant space as reminiscent of the century-house of my youth as I could find. Which was a good thing, since buying it gobbled a big bite of what I got from selling that Ontario farm. And reassuring too. My schizoid conservative-bohemian personalities coexist much better when assured of a roof over their heads. Ten-foot ceilings, a separate dining room, casement windows and a gas fireplace add up to home in my headspace.
You wouldn't say it's decorated, just filled up is more like it—with comfy furniture, some nice prints and a pretty eclectic assortment of handcrafts that struck my fancy at one time or another. The mid-tone hardwood floors and furniture make a neutral backdrop for my wilder-side touches. I regard the rainbow quilt (artfully slewed across my bed) as a particular treasure and the Mexican serapes draped over the sofa-back just make me happy. I’ve picked up three really excellent Inuit carvings that I think look excellent on my glass-topped tables and great-grandpa's walnut rocker fills one corner. Along with Mom's spinet piano, it was the only piece of furniture that migrated west with me. "Dudley, I'm home," I called as I dropped my packages on the pine table in the tiny foyer. My roommate answered from the bedroom in his peculiar way with a response that was more chirp than meow. Like his namesake, the terminally inept Dudley Do-Right of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, my red-coated tabby is entirely sincere, but not entirely competent. "Enjoying your post-lunch, pre-dinner nap," I asked on my way down the short hallway. Dudley rose from his nest among my pillows, curving himself into as much of a Halloween-cat stretch as his beach ball figure would allow. He jumped to the floor with a thud worthy of a full-grown hippo and presented himself for attention. Scratching his belly produced a V-8 purr; his one fully developed feline skill. "I have to leave you alone for a few days," I told him. "We'll get Jessie to look after you, OK?" Dudley looked up with his green eyes all big and round like those sappy-art soulful kitten prints. Since the purring continued, I assumed he was satisfied. "She probably won’t be home yet, so we'll just leave her a voicemail." I hoped she wouldn't be out on a case all night. Her hours as a police detective were anything but regular. Still, I knew she’d take great care of my little man. Jessie loves him. She swears that after two husbands, Dudley is the only male she'll ever get involved with again. I rooted around in the walk-in closet until I found my lightweight roller bag. Everything had to fit into one carry-on. I didn't want to get hung up at the baggage carousel and lose the Trents in an unfamiliar airport. Unzipping it on the bed, I stared at the empty black interior. Some investigative reporter, I thought. I don't even know how to pack for January in Taiwan. I could easily look up what I needed on the net, but it occurred to me that it was time for a bit of an unwind. I retrieved my new guidebook and headed for the bathroom, but the Dudster was way ahead of me. Having read my mind, he was already spread on the mat to keep me company while I soaked. Hmm, one more feline skill to his credit. An hour later I emerged pruned, relaxed and a good deal more prepared. Apparently Taiwan has a sub-tropical climate so I began packing for Florida-like weather. I was still rummaging in the back of my closet for lightweight cottons and no-iron knits when the security buzzer sounded—the courier with my cash advance.
I’d barely closed the door behind him when my Mozart ringtone sounded. Ben's big voice boomed through the speaker. "Everything's set, Anderson will meet you at the airport." He sounded pleased with himself. "Thanks Ben. That'll be fine," I said, wondering if it would, knowing that I had no choice. He wasn't going to let me go without this chaperone. It was infuriating. Ben may be the best boss in the world and he was responsible for getting me into journalism in the first place. I'll even admit that he's my role model and mentor, but sometimes he just takes this courtesy uncle thing a step too far. When he continued I felt like a mind reader. "About this trip, Taylor," he spoke slowly, choosing his words with care, "you've already brought this story a long way. You know how Leighton's getting the statues into the country. You've done all the background work on the illegal ivory trade..." I knew where this was going and I didn't like it. "What good is that?" I demanded, hoping to cut him off right there. Ben persisted. "Sometimes it's enough just to let the public know. You could write a general exposé. Explain that the ban on ivory trade isn't doing the whole job, that elephants are still dying for their tusks. You could get away without naming names here in Vancouver." Not name names? Ignore the local angle? What was he thinking? “I can't believe those words came out of your mouth, Ben. I could have sworn that you’re the guy who's always told me a journalist has a responsibility—a responsibility to dig under the surface facts, to uncover the whole story, the whole truth." He made no reply and it didn't matter. I was on a roll. "Aren't you the guy who stood up to my Dad and told him I have a God-given talent that shouldn't be wasted? What do you suggest I do with that talent? Take it back to Podunk Corners and bury it in a farm kitchen? That might have made Dad happy, but you and I both know it's not what I'm cut out to do. I'm a journalist Ben, and a damn good one. You of all people know that when I latch onto a story, I investigate the whole story, that I write the whole story, not some half-assed précis." I could feel my heart pounding, folks on the next block could probably hear me bellow and I had plenty more to say. But Ben cut me off. "All right," he said, suddenly sounding worn out. "All right. But you have to promise to be careful. This story isn't like the others, Taylor. Sure you've handled controversial stuff. But logging old-growth forests and covering farmland with houses aren’t issues that get people killed. The ivory trade is. You’ve told me yourself that a hundred rangers die in Africa every year trying to protect the elephants.” "OK, but..."
"Let me finish," he snapped. "You've had your say, now I'm going to have mine. You're on the trail of some bad people here. This end of the trade may not be bloody, but it is criminal and that means these people are treacherous. Frankly, Taylor, I'm worried." "Yes, but..." "I said let me finish. I'm going along with this because you're a reporter on a story and it would be unprofessional of me to do anything less. But I'm insisting on the local backup and I want regular updates. If there's so much as a sniff of trouble, I want your ass on the first plane out of there. Do you understand me?" This wasn't the first tongue-lashing I'd had from Ben Palasco, though it was quite possibly the most sincere. I had the sense to recognize his concern, even appreciate it. I just didn't want to be smothered by it. "Yes, Ben. I understand. I promise to be careful and I'll keep you posted as much as possible." He mumbled something unintelligible then I was listening to dead air. Good thing he doesn't know about the letters, I thought. I got up and crossed the living room to my antique secretary desk. When I pulled open one of the small drawers and withdrew the two sheets of paper it contained, a faint whiff of Ariadne drifted into the air. I hate that perfume. It was introduced a few months ago in a huge of media flurry that must have included every glossy on the market. For a while, it was impossible to open a magazine without being bowled over by that sick-sweet smell. Then it appeared in my mailbox. The first letter arrived two weeks after I started watching Howard Leighton. I looked down at the scented sheet and studied the uninspired message yet again. Laser printed on plain, white bond paper in standard Times Roman font, thirty-six point type. Mozart sounded. I jumped. When my heart settled back into my chest I answered. Jessie Winters' voice was reassuring at that moment. "Got your message, what you doing for dinner?" she asked. "Eating leftovers. I want to clear out the fridge before I go. Come join me and I'll fill you in." "I'll be up in two minutes." I dropped the phone into my pocket then looked at the letters on the desk. Should I confide in Jessie? I allowed as how a police detective's opinion could be useful. But what if she warned me off the story, or worse yet, told Ben. It was too big a chance. I slipped the sheets back into the shallow drawer and closed the front of the desk.
A moment later Jessie's no-nonsense cop-knock announced her arrival. As I went to let her in, Dudley raced between my feet and took up station at the door. "You crazy cat," I scolded. "One of these days I'm going to trip over you and break my neck—then yours," I added, sending him a menacing look that he ignored. "I swear he knows your knock," I said, as I swung the door open. "Of course you do Little Man,” Jessie crooned in semi-baby talk, reaching down to rub the white spotted tummy he offered. I did a mental headshake. Jessie Winters is a rugged fireplug. She’s only about five-five, but big-boned and she probably weighs in at a very well muscled one-thirty. I'd lay odds on her dropping all comers best two out of three falls any day. She’s tough. It was neither accident nor tokenism that got her promoted to detective. As far as I know, Jess has only one weakness, and that's my portly excuse for a cat. She straightened up and held out the heel of a bottle of Canadian Club. A six-pack of Kokanee Light dangled from the fingers of her other hand. "Bring on the food, Baby. I've got the cheer." "Follow me," I said, leading the way into the kitchen. A metallic click and hiss told me she wasn't waiting for the food. But not one for drinking alone, she stretched to reach a crystal highball and splashed me a hefty measure of CC. "So where're you off to," she asked, handing me the glass. "Taiwan." "Ah-ha. Then here’s to luck on the ivory trail." She raised the Kokanee in salute and took a hefty swig. Perched on a stool at the island, she rested her elbows on the counter. Dudley chirped his displeasure at being ignored and stretched himself up her leg. Before he turned her into a human scratching post, Jessie made a lap and he hopped up— remarkably agile when it suited him. "So what’s the latest," she asked as he settled in. I opened the fridge and bent to investigate the crisper. Other than a fuzzy cucumber, the contents were in pretty good shape. Armed with a head of romaine, a tomato and the makings for my world famous Caesar dressing, I got to work, assembling the salad while I filled her in. She listened like a detective. Her concentration so intense it wouldn't have surprised me to catch her taking notes. "What's Ben think of all this?" she finally demanded. "Oh, he's very excited," I hedged, cursing her insight. Straight for the jugular. "I bet he's excited,” she said, lifting an eyebrow and cocking her head to one side. The sarcasm in her voice was overkill. “And worried sick. I can't believe he's letting you go."
"Why wouldn't he?" "Like I need to spell it out? This is dangerous, Taylor. It was bad enough when you were prowling around your home turf with pals like me to bail you out if things got too hot..." "Hold it right there, Detective Winters." Planting my fists on my hips, I used my considerable height advantage to glower down at her. I was hot and I wanted it to show. "When the hell did I ever ask you, or anyone else, to bail me out—of anything?" "Cool your jets, lady,” she shot back. “Don't bother puffing yourself up to impress me." "I'm not trying to impress anybody," I barked, nearly yanking the fridge door off its hinges. Apparently nobody thought I could take care of myself. I slammed and banged around making no effort to hide my exasperation while I tried to remember what the heck I was looking for. When it finally came to me, I emerged with two chicken breasts and a lemon and dumped them on the counter in front of her. "I'm a reporter, Jessie. Reporters follow stories. And since this story is headed for Taiwan, so am I. Besides," I said, pointing the boning knife at her accusingly, "who got me started on it anyway?" "Hey, be fair," she said, popping the tab on another Kokanee. "I told you about a case just like I've done a dozen times before. How was I supposed to know you’d go all bananas over the murder weapon." "You have to admit it wasn't your run-of-the-mill knife or gun," I countered. "True, we don't come up against ivory statues every day." "And you definitely don't come up against ones carved since ivory trading was banned." "Yeah, yeah. So your tender conservationist sensibilities got all offended and you had to make something of it. What's with you anyway? You miss the cows so much you've got to transfer your affections to elephants?" "Maybe that's it," I said. And maybe it was. Growing up around animals had made me respect them. And call me whatever you like, the idea of poachers slaughtering freeroaming elephants so they could cut out their tusks with a chainsaw and leave the carcass to rot in the sun offends me. It offends me a lot. So if the ivory trade had moved to my backyard, I was interested. "Look," said Jessie, cutting into my thoughts, "I don't mean to sound hard-hearted, but this whole deal makes me nervous. This isn't just any story, you're dealing with smugglers here." She was beginning to sound too much like Ben. It was time to wrap this up. "Try to understand something, Jessie. I'm not dealing with smugglers, I'm following them. All I
want to do is find their source so I can give my readers a complete story." She didn't need to know I planned on tracking the shipment all the way back to Howard Leighton. I wanted to nail him. It was pretty obvious Jessie still had doubts. Mercifully, she kept them to herself while we ate our dinner. Around eight-thirty she rose to leave. "Don't worry about the Dudster," she said on her way to the door, "I'll keep him in line." "Who'll keep who in line?" I asked, taking the purring fur-ball from her outstretched arms. Jessie laughed. "Say, I better collect your mail while you're gone. Let me have the key?" The fist grabbed my gut again. I didn't like thinking about the mail these days. She noticed my hesitation. "Don't worry, I won't peek at the packages in plain brown wrappers." "Some chance," I said, trying to laugh it off. "It's just that I didn't check when I came in this afternoon. I better make sure there aren't any bills. How be I leave the key on the kitchen counter?" "Fine." She stopped in the doorway. "Take care of yourself. That's an order." I made a face and saluted. When she was gone, I stood in the foyer, stroking Dudley's silky coat and staring at my purse on the little pine table. The mail key was in it. "This is ridiculous," I scolded myself, suddenly impatient with my fears. I set Dudley down and reached for the key. But by the time I made it to the first floor my hands were ice and they shook slightly as I fit the key in the lock. I swung the little door open. Blood pounded in my ears and my stomach lurched. The scent of Ariadne filled the air.