Stone Barrington stood in the shooting range in the basement of his New York City home, held the Colt Model 1911 semiautomatic .45-caliber pistol out in front of him with both hands, and squeezed off a round.
The president of the United States, Holly Barker, stood next to him. "Near miss," she said.
"I hit him in the chest," Stone protested. "All right, sort of in the chest."
"You should be able to hit him in the center of the chest or in either eye," Holly said. "I don't know why I can't fix you. If my father, Ham, were here, he'd fix you in a minute. Why can't I do that?"
"It just may have something to do with the quality of your student," Stone said.
"You can shoot the eye out of a gnat with a rifle. Why can't I get you to do that with a .45?"
Stone tried again. "Maybe I'm unfixable. Maybe I've been hit over the head too many times, and my brain is wobbly."
"I could always fix anybody, like Ham does."
"Maybe serving as president has cut into your range time," Stone suggested.
"What range time? The Secret Service gets all wobbly anytime I'm in the same room with an unholstered handgun," she said. "I guess they're afraid I'll shoot myself."
"Then they don't understand whose daughter you are."
"Right about that. They're all so, young. They can't remember as far back as when Ham was national pistol champion two years in a row."
"Maybe Ham has faded a little?"
"Forget about that. He only competed twice. He could win it again today."
"If I ever need somebody shot, I'll get Ham to do it for me," Stone said.
"I'm fatally limited to having no more than one good idea a day, without a healing infusion of Knob Creek," Stone said. "Let's adjourn to my study."
"Okay," Holly said. "Then, after I've loosened you up, I'll take you upstairs and fuck your brains out, if we can get past the Secret Service."
"You must be the only female president to talk that way," Stone said.
"Wrong. Kate Lee served two terms and never stopped talking that way. She still does."
They let themselves out of the shooting range, past a nervous-looking Secret Service agent, and sought solitude in Stone's study. Stone poured.
They took a swig of the bourbon, then Holly sat back on the sofa and gazed at him. "Stone," she said, "there's something I've never been able to figure out about you."
"What's that? I'm an open book."
"Why are bad people always trying to kill you?"
"I've often wondered about that myself," Stone said. "And I can't figure it out, either."
"Why are you such an inviting target?" she asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he replied.
"Dino says it's because you're sloppy. He can't get you to carry all the time, and you're constantly forgetting to set your very expensive alarm system. I mean, Mike Freeman or Bob Cantor is always updating it with the latest feature, yet people keep getting into your house."
"Well, not when you're here," Stone said. "Those Secret Service people are the best alarm system on the planet."
"That's what they think, too. A tip: don't bring up Jack Kennedy or even George Wallace in their presence. They get all defensive."
"Then I'll never bring up those names," Stone promised. He rose and went to get a fresh bottle of Knob Creek from the cabinet next to the bar.
"They'll never need to watch your ass," Holly said. "I'll do that for them."
"That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me in this millennium," Stone said, putting that part of himself back on the sofa.
"Have you loosened up yet?" Holly asked.
"I believe I have," Stone replied.
So, they went upstairs, past two Secret Service agents, and did what Holly had suggested earlier. They did it well, too, being accustomed to each other's bodies.Chapter 2
Stone got Holly into his Bentley, which was nearly as well armored as the car the government supplied for her, and shipped her off to the East Side Heliport. She was wearing a burka that Ralph Lauren's people had made for her, which saved her from recognition by the public. Her helicopter was something smaller than Marine One, and that helped, too. It was normally used by the CIA, but they were happy to loan it to her, especially at budget time.
Stone went back into his study and called Dino Bacchetti.
"'Yo'? Is that the person to whom I am speaking?"
"Yeah, who's this, Lily Tomlin?"
"Dinner at Clarke's, in an hour?"
"You're on." Dino hung up.
They got through a drink at the bar before they were called to their table. There was a very attractive woman seated next to Stone, opposite a handsome young man.
"I need to powder my nose," she said to her companion, and he let her out from behind their table, though not too graciously.
As soon as she had gone, the young man threw some money on the table and got a waiter's attention. "Bring her another drink and tell her I was called away on important business. Keep the change." He departed.
Stone and Dino both took note of his behavior. A few minutes later the woman returned and sat down.
"I'm very much afraid you have been abandoned by the cad you came in with," Stone said.
"Well put," she said, glancing at the empty seat across from her.
"Have you had dinner yet?"
"I had thought I had that in my immediate future," she said, "but it was not to be. Did he say something about important business?"
Stone nodded. "I'm Stone Barrington, and this is my friend, Dino Bacchetti," he said. "If you'd like to join us for dinner, we promise to be harmless."
"How kind of you!" she said brightly, moving toward them, while the waiter made adjustments with the table.
"Are you often abandoned so rudely?" Stone asked.
"Only by that particular gentleman," she replied.
"May I ask your name?"
"I'm Matilda Martin," she said.
"I know you may not believe this," Stone said, "but my mother's name was Matilda."
"Was she from Massachusetts?"
"From Great Barrington."
"Then I believe you. Was she a painter?"
"When I was growing up, wanting to be a painter, she was my role model."
"Did you realize your ambition of painting?"
"Yes, but only on weekends. I'm a personal financial adviser." She took a folded brochure from her purse and handed it to him. "The illustrations are my own, but at least I'm published."
Stone looked at them. "You should paint more and advise less," he said.
"Excuse me," Dino said, leaning in. "Is there an angry ex-husband and/or boyfriend looming over your existence?"
"How well you put it," she replied. "Of course, every girl worth her salt has disappointed a man or two."
"Just checking," Dino said. "I wanted to see how Stone's personal cliché meshed with yours."
"As I mentioned, you should paint more and advise less," Stone said again, ignoring Dino.
"I shall take that as high praise," she said, laughing.
"That was how it was intended."
"Excuse me again," Dino said, "but there's a side of beef waiting out back to be slaughtered and grilled, too rare. Anybody interested?"
"Is the cad who recently abandoned you of any importance in your life?" Stone asked.
"I had hopes for him, but they didn't last long."
"Has he ever behaved violently toward you?"
"No, but he has threatened to, when I used up too much of the conversational air between us."
"Then he is living down to my expectations," Stone said. They finished their dinner and declined dessert. "Matilda, would you like to come back to my house for a nightcap? Dino will offer police protection."
"Dino, are you a policeman?"
"He is the uber policeman, the commissioner."
"Goodness, I've never met a police commissioner."
"I'm pleased to be your first," Dino replied. "I should tell you that Stone only wants to show off his house. You'll be safe enough."
"I'll show you my Matilda Stones," Stone replied.
"In that case, I'd love a nightcap," she beamed.
Stone filled the ride home with stories of being partners with Dino, in their youth.
"Did you and Stone protect each other?"
"Somebody had to keep him alive," Dino explained. Chapter 3
Stone was at his desk the following morning when his secretary, Joan, rapped on his door.
"A walk-in, says Bill Eggers sent him."
Bill Eggers was Stone's managing partner at Woodman & Weld.
"Better send him in," Stone said.
The young man who entered his office was all too familiar from the night before, when he had abandoned Matilda Martin at Clarke's.
"My name is Trench Molder," the man said, not offering a hand but taking a seat, unasked.
"I'm happy to know your name, Mr. Molder. How is it you know Bill Eggers?"
"I don't," Molder replied, "but I thought his name might get me in here."
"And now that you have accomplished that goal, how can I help you?"
"Simple. Just stay away from Matilda Martin, and we will have no further business."
"I'm afraid we already have no further business," Stone said. "But I can tell you that neither do you and Ms. Martin have any further business."
"That's presumptuous of you," Molder said
"Not really, since it reflects the wishes of the young lady."
"I presume she slept here last night," Molder said.
"She did not," Stone said. "Where did you sleep?"
Molder apparently did not wish to say. "Wherever I wanted to," he managed, finally.
"Good. Now, will you kindly leave these premises?"
"That's the last time I'll ask you politely."
"Who gives a shit?"
Stone saw Joan appear behind Molder, her Colt .45 half-concealed in her skirt.
Stone shook his head. "It won't be necessary to shoot him," he said. "He's leaving right now." Stone stood up and walked around his desk. Molder stood, turned, and stalked out.
"Aw, shucks," Joan said. "I was looking forward to it."
"Maybe later," Stone said, "if he returns."
"I'll count on it," Joan replied, then went back to her desk.
Stone's cell rang. Dino. "Hello?"
"I just had a strong feeling that you might need me."
"That's very psychic of you, but fortunately the threat you imagined has vanished."
"Someone about our Matilda?"
"Yes, the cad from last evening. He has suddenly developed a proprietary interest in her."
"Did you tell him that ship has sailed?"
"I didn't bother. I just threw him out."
"I was ready to, but he sensed that and fled."
"Did Joan want to shoot him?"
"Of course, but I stayed her hand. No blood on the carpet, and all that."
"He'll be back," Stone said, "as soon as he finds somebody to do the dirty work for him."
"Well, then Joan will get another crack at him."
"Can I interest you in some tickets to the policeman's ball?" Dino asked.
"You mean they're still using that dodge to raise drinking money?"
"No, it's now a charity."
"Put me down for two," Stone said.
"Good. I'll bill you the thousand dollars."
"You're getting five hundred dollars a ticket? That's a little steep, isn't it?"
"It includes a corned beef and cabbage dinner."
"So, it's the Irish policeman's ball?"
"Right. You want tickets to the Italian one, too?"
"Take the grand and do with it as you will. And before you ask, I am not actually attending either of them."
"Got it." Dino hung up.
Joan buzzed. "Matilda Martin on two."
Stone pressed the button. "Good morning."
"Good morning. I just wanted to thank you for rescuing me last night."
"You're welcome. The young man, Molder, called on me this morning and ordered me not to molest you further."
"Further? You haven't even started!"
"I didn't want to tell him that. He seemed to want it to be true."
"One point: Trench is a coward, but he can still be dangerous."
"I rather thought so. That means he'll hire somebody else to beat me up."
"I wouldn't put it past him."
"I'll try and be ready."
"He'll choose a time when he thinks you're vulnerable and he's not."
"Of course. Dinner tonight, here?"
"Perfect, then you can molest me further."
"I'll look forward to it." Chapter 4
Trench Molder spent the afternoon at his athletic club, toning up. His trainer, Howard Keegan, a retired Marine known as Huff, helped him with the weights, then sat down next to Molder at his invitation. "Something I can do for you, Trench?"
"No, Huff, but there's someone you can do for me."
"It would be my pleasure. How dead do you want him?"
"Not dead, just crippled a bit. I don't want to have skinned knuckles if the police should take an interest."
"Understood. That's my work, not yours."
"That's generous, especially if I enjoy myself."
"You can enjoy yourself as much as you like," Molder said.
"Who is he, and where do I find him?"
"His name is Stone Barrington. He's an uptown lawyer who's messing with a girl of mine. He lives in Turtle Bay."
"I know the area. Security?"
Molder handed him Barrington's business card. "I was there this morning, and if he has security, I couldn't find it. Still, I think it would be best to take him away from home. I asked around and he travels in a green Bentley and has a small man as his driver."
"You want the small one hurt, too?"
"Don't bother. Just put Barrington in a hospital for a few days."
"As you wish. Description?"
"Over six feet, fairly solid build. Seems to think he's bulletproof."
"They're the best kind," Huff said, "the ones who think they can't be hurt."
"Something else. He has a friend who's the police commissioner, so don't get caught doing it. You should wear a mask. I don't want you ID'd by some passerby."
"P. J. Clarke's, Patroon. I don't know if he has a club."
"No matter. I'll do my research. Is he likely to fight back?"
"If he's conscious," Molder said.
Huff laughed. "I'll take him out with the first punch, then work on him at my leisure."
"That sounds like the way to go."
"Is there a message to deliver?"
"You can just say, 'Compliments of a friend,' before you knock him out."
"You want your name mentioned?"
"No, but you can say that your visit is a message from Matilda."
"Is that a real name?"
"It is. A bit old-fashioned, but it suits her."
"Should she be present to witness the beating?"
"Would you like anything done to her?"
"Whatever you feel like," Molder said, grinning.
"She can be the punctuation mark on delivery."
Copyright © 2023 by Stuart Woods. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.